August 29, 2013
Marion Dougherty, the legendary casting director at the center of the new documentary Casting By (currently airing on HBO), got her start in the early days of television. She spent nearly a decade on Kraft Television Theatre, earned her first on-screen credit (below) during a brief stint on a live version of Ellery Queen in 1958, and wielded a creative influence over Route 66 and Naked City that would be difficult to underestimate.
In interviews, Dougherty was puckish but also taciturn. “Casting is a game of gut instinct. You feel their talent and potential in the pit of your stomach. It’s about guts and luck,” she said in 1991. The New York Times carped that, because of the instinctive nature of casting, “there’s not really much they can say” when Casting By interviews casting directors.
Fortunately, in Dougherty’s case, there is another way to examine her process in detail. Dougherty left a substantial paper trail – in particular, an index card file that spans nearly forty years and thousands of performers. The earliest surviving cards date from around 1961, when Dougherty became the East Coast “casting executive” for the two Herbert B. Leonard-produced dramas, and the file appears to become a nearly complete record of every actor Dougherty met after 1968, when her feature film career began to gain momentum. The card file comes up in several anecdotes mentioned in Casting By, and at one point Dougherty reads aloud from the card containing her original assessment of Gene Hackman, from 1962: “good type – his reading was nothing but I believe he could be v. good – esp. as gentle, big dumb nice guy.”
(Disclosure: I appear briefly in Casting By, and worked as an archival researcher on the film. Also, while the archival materials discussed below are not presently available to the public, the filmmakers have told me that Dougherty’s estate has donated them to the Margaret Herrick Library of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.)
In Casting By, Jon Voight describes his disastrous television debut on Naked City. Dougherty’s card file reveals that some months before she hired him for that episode, Voight had read unsuccessfully for Route 66 (based on the description, probably for the role played by Lars Passgard in “A Gift For a Warrior”).
In general, Dougherty’s notes on actors were more pragmatic than poetic. “V.G.” (for very good) or “Exc.” (excellent) are abbreviations that appear on hundreds of cards, as is the triumphant “used” (meaning she hired the actor for a part). Disapproval was registered just as bluntly, with notes like “boring” or “square” (a favorite word) or “I thot dull” [sic]. But if Dougherty rarely wrote more than a hundred words on any given actor, her notes in their totality offer an enormous amount of insight into how she thought about the art of acting, as well as a kind of hands-on philosophy of her own craft.
In one sense, casting for Dougherty was a process of taxonomy. In her office, the card file was separated into six drawers organized by gender, age, and ethnicity (much like the Academy Players Directory, which was for many decades the industry’s mug book for working actors). Dougherty jotted down actors’ heights (a consideration in pairing off men and women) as well as their ages and how far she felt they could deviate from it on screen (“40, could go to 60,” she wrote of Dominic Chianese, years before he became one of television’s most famous senior citizens as The Sopranos’ Uncle Junior). She thought in terms of class, with some specificity: “upper middle or upper” and “blue collar” are notations she used. She also noted regional accents, and asked actors whether they could discard them. Going beyond class, Dougherty made notes on types: “rural”; “street”; dangerous.” She often wrote down whether an actor was right for comedy or “serious” material, or both. “Excellent for comedy high or low – imagine she’d be good also for drama as she’s very intelligent, feeling person,” Dougherty observed of Charlotte Rae. In auditions and meetings with actors, she didn’t just evaluate the level of talent on display; she was also thinking ahead to how she might use what she saw.
Dougherty also recorded whether she thought actors were good-looking, or sexy (not the same thing), and whether they were right for “romantic” leads. And she sometimes speculated on whether an effeminate actor was a “fag” or, later, “homosexual” or “gay.” Even in the early cards where the terminology is outdated, though, those notes come across not as homophobic but as an attempt to assess whether actors could “play” straight in an industry in which gender norms were rigid.
If her inclination to pigeonhole actors into basic categories seems antithetical to the idea of casting directors as diviners of the more ephemeral qualities of talent, it’s important to remember that Dougherty retired around the same time as the Internet Movie Database was launched. Her card file was, more than anything else, a mnemonic device, a way of sorting out the blur of hundreds of auditions during a period when there was no Google to summon dozens of images of every small-part player. In Casting By, Dougherty points out a system of remembering actors by associating them with people in her own life: “I would put down anything that hit my mind – I put down ‘has eyes like Aunt Reba’ and I knew what that meant, because Aunt Reba was very elegant and sort of snooty and [had] beautiful eyes.”
The cards reveal how elaborate this associative ritual could become. Dougherty often compared new actors to those she had grown up watching on the screen. Robert Forster (assessed in 1966, prior to his debut in film or television) reminded her of a “more polished” John Garfield. The mature Roy Thinnes struck her in 1991 as “sort of a cross between [Jack] Palance and Steve Forrest.” For character actors, Dougherty would match other character actors: Sully Boyar (from The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3 and, famously, a single scene in The Sopranos as Carmela’s psychiatrist) was “a poor man’s Zero” (Mostel, that is). David Doyle: “like a jokey, younger Orson Welles.” Diane Ladd: “reminds me of Nina Foch or Miriam Hopkins.” With Burt Young, Dougherty got into a debate with herself that underlines how specifically she understood actors’ qualities. “He looks a bit like younger less ugly Ernie Borgnine . . . Great for hoods,” she wrote, then added, “not really, more Borgnine or [Richard] Castellano” – actors, in other words, whose warmth and humor undercut their menacing looks. Dougherty’s other favorite source of metaphor was the animal kingdom. “She looks like a bird,” she wrote of Calista Flockhart. Grace Zabriskie was a “pug” (but “not unpretty,” Dougherty hastened to add), Henry Winkler a “bassett hound.”
Although most of Dougherty’s index cards refer to specific meetings with actors, she would sometimes create a card just to record the name of an actor who had impressed her on the stage or screen. She first observed Robert Redford in a 1960 Playhouse 90, Lawrence Pressman on Broadway in 1968’s The Man in the Glass Booth, and Rue McClanahan and Holland Taylor in the 1969 Off-Broadway production Tonight in Living Color. Dougherty thought Peter Boyle was “damn good” in Joe and noticed Joe Don Baker (“a cross between Ralph Meeker and Marlon Brando”) in a supporting role in another 1970 film, Adam at 6A.M.
But while many cards, especially during Dougherty’s studio years – in the mid-seventies, she moved from New York to Los Angeles to become the head of casting for Paramount and later Warner Bros. – chronicle auditions for specific films, the majority of the insights she recorded were gleaned from conversation. Her notes make it clear that Dougherty was less interested in an actor’s line readings than in the sense she got of the his or her personality during her gentle questioning about their backgrounds, their aims for the future, and their self-assessments of their strengths and preferences as a performer. “When I talked to people, very often I didn’t talk about what they did in movies or plays or anything else,” Dougherty explained to the Casting By filmmakers. “I would ask them about where they learned acting, what they did, and I’d ask them about what their animals were and what their kids were – just anything that would give me an idea of them.”
(That said, Dougherty disdained actors who wouldn’t read for a part, and one suspects those actors were at a serious disadvantage when it came to films that she was casting. “[G]ood actor but won’t read and I don’t dig that,” is her only note on Brock Peters.)
Dougherty’s notes on her conversations with young actors are a touching record of where her passion lay. Even in her private files, only the most abjectly clueless or unprepared auditioners were subjected to Dougherty’s scorn. “Came in totally unprepared to read . . . a real lox,” she wrote of one popular Saturday Night Live star. Her genuine enthusiasm for young actors, for kernels of talent and expressions of conquer-the-world excitement, comes across again and again in her casting cards. She took notes (in 1961) on how Martin Sheen read from the Bible at a talent show and moved from stagehand to actor in his first hit show, The Connection, and (in 1966) how Bo Svenson had done kabuki in Japan, a play in Hong Kong, and “Bergman pix as a child” (!). Actors who struck her as intelligent, and in particular actors who expressed a desire to play against their image, won her admiration. What actor wouldn’t tell a casting director that they wanted to do meaty, serious work and not just get by on their good looks? And yet Dougherty recorded variations of that remark many times, with evident credulity.
“We had a nice talk; I chided him about being late,” is one of her more motherly notes – written in reference to a twenty-two year-old Jude Law. Her protective impulses also extended towards older actors fallen on hard times. Casting By reveals that one small-part actor, Tom Spratley, lived in the boiler room of the 30th Street townhouse that was Dougherty’s headquarters during its heyday (and a nexus for a variety of eccentric, up-and-coming actors and writers). Dougherty helped to discover Rocky actor Burt Young, and he became a sort of mascot around the 30th Street office as she and her assistants helped him through a period of personal tragedy in the seventies. Even when Dougherty perceived a talent as limited, she was looking for ways to use it creatively. “He was hammy, paunchy, and totally wrong for the part,” she wrote of one character actor. “However, he could be used for overbearing, dumb, etc . . . with a firm director he’d be useful.”
Dougherty used the card file to keep tabs on actors who had caught her eye. Although new meetings would occasionally merit a new card, Dougherty’s habit was to add updates to an actor’s original card whenever they caught her attention, either in a film or an audition. In some cases, a single card documents decades of brief encounters. Dougherty created a card for Paul Dooley when he replaced Art Carney in The Odd Couple on Broadway in 1966; she updated it again in 1970 (when she saw him in The White House Murders on stage), in 1973 (a cryptic note: “Cuckoo’s Nest – interested”), in 1976 (“used” in Slap Shot), and in 1979 and 1980 (when she saw him in Breaking Away and Popeye). (Those references to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Slap Shot, both of which were officially cast by Mike Fenton and Jane Feinberg, are among the many intriguing mysteries to be found in the cards. Slap Shot was directed by George Roy Hill, who knew Dougherty from Kraft Theatre and was her companion for many years; it’s likely that she consulted on the casting for all his features, even those that she didn’t work on formally.)
Dougherty’s addenda to her cards document a process of constantly upgrading her assessment of an actor’s skills or range. Tim O’Connor, a consummate underplayer, “always bored” her until she saw him in Tonight in Living Color; then she raved that he was “very good . . . attractive and virile, yet funny.” When Dougherty saw Mitchell Ryan on Broadway in Wait Until Dark, she was frustrated: “he is not able to reach the audience – strangely removed – Has now had a lot of classical [experience] but still nothing that reaches out and makes contact – too bad because he’s very good rugged type.” Two years later, she scrawled this note underneath her earlier comments: “Finally hit it in Moon For the Misbegotten.” Overwhelmingly, Dougherty looked for the positive, delighting in finding new wrinkles in what actors could do and new angles on how she could use them. Only occasionally would she watch an actor for a while and conclude there was less than met the eye. “She really can’t hack it,” Dougherty wrote of one underground actress who appeared in many cult movies. “He really is an Ivy League bore,” was her assessment of an actor who eventually became a major TV star playing just such characters.
Some of Dougherty’s cards have “courtesy” written at the top – a code indicating that she met with an actor as a favor to someone, in some cases with a reluctance reflected in the iconoclastic casting director’s notes on the meeting. But Dougherty also took referrals willingly, often seeing actors recommended by directors and other casting directors she trusted, or sounding them out on actors she’d met. It’s fascinating to trace who sent whom to Dougherty’s attention. Naked City director Walter Grauman pointed her towards Richard Benjamin in the early sixties (according to the card, Grauman had used Benjamin in five episodes of The New Breed, although that credit isn’t noted anywhere online). Al Pacino, one of her discoveries, sent her the character actor Richard Lynch, he of the distinctive facial burn scars, in 1972. Spratley “raved about” Ed Begley, Jr. in 1976. Sometimes the intel from Dougherty’s trusted sources was more cautionary. Of the character actor Michael Higgins (Wanda; The Conversation), Sidney Lumet had “seen him be brilliant just a couple of times” – a back-handed compliment if ever there was one, and yet a fair assessment of an actor who worked a lot but tended to recede into the background.
Another invaluable bit of information captured in Dougherty’s card file is an alternate history of what-might-have-been casting – a record of auditioners who came close to getting iconic parts that went to someone else. Lois Smith “gave [a] damn good reading” for the Brenda Vaccaro role in Midnight Cowboy (although she “had no comedy” when she read for Norman Lear’s Cold Turkey). Dougherty “would have used” Ray Liotta for the Sam Bottoms role in Bronco Billy. George Roy Hill thought that Christine Baranski had a “very good face for whore if Swoosie [Kurtz] can’t do it” (but Kurtz did, in The World According to Garp). Tom Skerritt (“think he has a lot of sadness in him”) read well for unspecified roles in A Man Called Horse and Smile. Dougherty liked Susan Tyrrell for Dark Shadows (well before her film debut) and The Day of the Locust. She read Richard Gere for The Day of the Locust, too – possibly for the lead – but she was suspicious of his charm and thought he’d be better suited to play villains (which is how she eventually cast him in Looking For Mr. Goodbar).
Casting By explains that Dougherty’s retirement was not a graceful one. Ousted at Warner Bros. in 1999 (when keeping track of actors using index cards must have struck outsiders as prehistoric) with a classic Hollywood knife in the back, she learned of her firing from an announcement in the trade papers. Although her enthusiasm for actors was never diminished – she noticed Naomi Watts and Paul Rudd in her final years at Warners – Dougherty had soured on television, the medium that launched her. “Sexy lady – has just done a pilot – there goes that!” she groused on Annette Bening’s card in 1987 (although the pilot didn’t sell, and Bening became a film star). “Hope he gets the right part before TV snaps him up – give him a chance to learn more. He then might be a real leading man,” she wrote of Julian McMahon (ten years away from his TV stardom in Nip/Tuck) in 1993. It was a potent irony: television, the medium that launched her, had come to represent for Dougherty a minefield in which actors would learn bad habits and short-circuit promising careers.
Dougherty died in 2011, after suffering dementia for several years. It’s a shame that she didn’t remain active long enough to notice the renaissance in television that began with The Sopranos, and continues. One could easily imagine her in a Manhattan brownstone, scouting for new faces for Orange Is the New Black, going out the same way she came into the business sixty years ago.
Editor’s Note (9/5/13): At the request of the Marion Dougherty Estate, most of the cards originally used to illustrate this piece have been replaced with others.
Photos courtesy HBO.
February 7, 2011
Who was Hilda Brawner?
If you’re a fellow devotee of the New York-based television dramas of the early sixties, I’ll bet you’ve wondered the same thing at some point.
Hilda was a pretty brunette who appeared on Broadway a lot, starting in the late fifties, and then in some of the last gasps of live television. On stage, Elia Kazan directed her in Tennessee Williams’s Sweet Bird of Youth; the stars were Paul Newman, Geraldine Page, and Rip Torn, and Bruce Dern and Diana Hyland toiled alongside Hilda in the supporting cast. For television, she was on The DuPont Show of the Month and on The Guiding Light for a while in 1963. She played small parts on The Nurses and Route 66 (in the Sam Peckinpah-directed episode “Mon Petit Chou,” with Lee Marvin and playing second fiddle to French import Macha Meril, later the star of Godard’s Une Femme Mariée).
If you’re lucky enough to have seen Reginald Rose’s meticulous, devastating indictment of capital punishment, the “Metamorphosis” episode of The Defenders, then you will remember Hilda as the wife of Robert Duvall’s young death row inmate. But it’s most likely that you recall Hilda from Naked City, which seemed to hold a particular affection for her. She appeared on the show three times, first in secondary roles, then finally in a lead in “Alive and Still a Second Lieutenant,” latterly famous as Jon Voight’s television debut. In “Alive,” Hilda played the girlfriend of Robert Sterling’s sweaty, ulcerous business executive (dare I say it? a Roger Sterling type; could the actor be the source of the name?), who spirals out of control following a violent road-rage incident.
Now that you’ve seen the screen grab above, you’ll have some idea of why I became mildly obsessed with Hilda — and with whatever happened to her. Because Hilda’s last credit came in 1964, and there seemed to be no trace of her after that. Did she die young? Marry and raise four kids on Long Island? Hook up with a network executive and ensconce herself on Central Park South?
Well, no, none of that, it seems. Hilda Brawner, pretty ingenue, changed her name and became Hildy Brooks, busy character actress. Hildy played supporting roles in lots of movies (The Anderson Tapes, Islands in the Stream, Playing For Keeps, Eating) and guest-starred in dozens of television episodes during the seventies and eighties. I remember her as one-third of “A Very Strange Triangle,” a bisexual love story that was controversial when it aired on The Bold Ones in 1971. Hildy still works – she’s in one of the last episodes of Nip/Tuck, one that I haven’t seen yet – although I couldn’t locate her for this piece. Are you out there, Hildy?
Incidentally, although I seem to be the first person on the internet to put Hilda & Hildy together, I can’t really take credit for it. Her name change is mentioned in a couple of memoirs, and Jeffrey Sweet’s Something Wonderful Right Away: An Oral History of The Second City & The Compass Players. Plus, there was a big clue that I missed for years: under different names, Hilda and Hildy played the same role in the two recorded versions of O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh, Sidney Lumet’s videotaped videotaped Play of the Week two-parter of 1960 and John Frankenheimer’s film from 1973. Here she is in both.
Hilda Brawner (left) and Julie Bovasso as Margie and Pearl, 1960.
Hildy Brooks (left) and Nancy Juno Dawson as Margie and Pearl, 1973. Below: Hildy Brooks in a 2007 episode of Boston Legal.
May 13, 2010
Jason Wingreen wants me to know two things before we begin. First: He was born on October 9, 1920, and not in 1919, as the references books would have it. This makes him only 89, one year younger than I and anyone else who ever looked it up has always believed. These matters are important to an actor. Second: I must promise never to divulge his phone number, which is unlisted and, indeed, immune to all my usual tricks for digging up unlisted phone numbers on the internet. If it gets out, the “Star Wars people” will drive him crazy. More on them in a minute.
Why do I, and why should you, care about Jason Wingreen? Perhaps because, as the saying goes, there are no small parts, only small actors. Wingreen is not a small actor. He is, to trot out another much-abused cliché, one of those actors whose name you may not know but whose face you will recognize. Even if you do happen to know his name, perhaps you sometimes mangle it. One movie buff I know persists in calling him Jason Wintergreen.
In the face of your indifference and imprecision, Wingreen has played at least 350 roles on television and in the movies since the early fifties. The actual total may be well over 500. A handful of those roles have been meaty, like the guest shot as the would-be rapist who gets his ass kicked by Steve McQueen on Wanted: Dead or Alive. A few have been semi-prominent, like the recurring part he played (that of Harry the bartender) on All in the Family and its successor Archie Bunker’s Place for seven seasons. Many have been minor, but in shows that have been repeated a million times, like The Twilight Zone or Star Trek. One of them was literally invisible: in The Empire Strikes Back, the second film in the Star Wars saga, Wingreen provided the voice of Boba Fett, the bounty hunter who captures Han Solo. The weird cult that now surrounds the character of Boba Fett was not foreseen, and Wingreen received no screen credit. His place in the history of Star Wars did not emerge until 2000, and when it finally happened, it changed his life.
Most of Wingreen’s roles have been what are rather harshly called “bits”: characters who walk on and off, say a line or two, function as deliverers of exposition or background color. With rare exceptions, small-part actors like Wingreen have been neglected by historians. It’s easy enough to ask actors like Collin Wilcox or Tim O’Connor, the first two subjects of my occasional series of interviews with important early television performers, about their best roles. They spent weeks or months creating those characters, and received a lot of attention for the results. But how to interview an actor who toiled in anonymity, spending a day or less on most jobs? Years ago, I looked up a handful of iconic bit players – Tyler McVey, Norman Leavitt, David Fresco – and quizzed them over the phone, with disappointing results. Neither they, nor I, could remember enough detail about any one project to generate a substantive conversation.
But when I spoke with Jason Wingreen, he unspooled anecdote after anecdote in his polished, slightly metallic voice. It was as if this actor who never played a leading role had saved up all the dialogue that his hundreds of characters didn’t get to say on screen and, now, was loosing it for the first time. Wingreen’s recollections were often funny, occasionally startling, and always precise and detailed. They were so detailed, in fact, that for the first time on this blog I will present an interview in two parts. In the first, Wingreen discusses his formative years as an actor, his involvement with one of the 20th century’s most important theaters, and some of his first television roles.
Tell me a bit about your background and your childhood.
I was born in Brooklyn. My parents moved from Brooklyn to a town called Howard Beach, in the borough of Queens, and that’s where I grew up. I went to John Adams High School in Ozone Park, Queens, and graduated from there and then went to Brooklyn College. In order for me to get from Howard Beach to Brooklyn College, I would have to take a bus, the Fulton Street El, and the Brighton Line, and then walk about half a mile to the college. Which took about an hour and a half, approximately. Each way, going and coming. Three hours of travel for four years, for my college education. We didn’t have an automobile.
What did you study?
I majored in English and Speech. What I wanted to be when I grew up was a sportswriter, a sports reporter. I was very much interested in sports, from an academic standpoint, although I did play baseball. I was a skinny little kid. In those days, kids could get skipped in the lower classes, and I was skipped twice, which was a big mistake. For me. I was advanced, twice, into a class with boys who were not only older than me but bigger and stronger than me. The fact that I could play baseball saved me from a lot of bullying from the older boys.
At Brooklyn College, there was a mandatory speech class in your freshman year. The course that I took was taught by an actor, a Broadway actor who was out of work and got a job teaching in the Speech Department at Brooklyn. His name was Arnold Moss.
Oh, yes, a fine character actor with a deep, Shakespearean voice.
He was a dynamic teacher. So when the term ended, I thought, I’m going to look for something else that this guy teaches. I searched around and found out that he was teaching an acting class. I signed up for it for the following semester, and I got hooked. That was the end of my dream of my becoming a sportswriter.
Was your family affected by the Great Depression?
My father was a tailor. He had a store that was just opposite a Long Island Railroad station in Howard Beach. There were people living in Howard Beach who went into the city to work, [and] Howard Beach had a lot of firemen and policemen living in the town, and they were all customers of my father. They’d bring their uniforms in, the cops and firemen would, and the accountants and the lawyers and so on who would take the Long Island Railroad into town would bring their clothes in to my father to be dry cleaned or pressed. And that way my father was able to get through the Depression. It was tight, it was very close, but he was able to do so.
My father was not an intellectual man, but he loved music. When he’d open the store every morning, he would turn the radio on to WQXR. Classical music, all day long in the store. My sister grew up with that too. My sister, Harriet Wingreen, has been the orchestra pianist of the New York Philharmonic for about thirty-five years. She is five years younger than I am. She really got the music life, and music itself drilled into her. She went to Juilliard, and on from there. I would say she’s the real talent of the family. I’m just an actor.
From where does your family name originate?
It originated from, I think, Hungary, but we’re not Hungarian. My parents both came from Lithuania. We’re Jewish. The name was Vengeren when my father got to Ellis Island, and at Ellis Island they Americanized it and gave him Wingreen. They did that with all immigrants in those days. My father met my mother when they were both in this country. It was an arranged date, by the families. My father came to this country – he was born in 1890 – when he was sixteen years old. Alone. He took a boat here with nothing except the name of a family, who were not relatives but friends, going back to the old country, and an address in Brooklyn. He went to these people and they took him in and helped him to grow up there and to get a job.
So after you started studying acting with Arnold Moss, then what happened?
I joined the undergraduate theater group, called the Masquers. Ultimately, in my senior year, I was president of the Masquers, and played the lead in the school play that the undergraduates put on every year. I graduated in June 1941.
At that time, The New York Times was running an ad campaign, and it was “I Got My Job Through The New York Times.” That was their slogan. Well, I got my job through The New York Times. I answered an ad in the Times one morning, which said, “Wanted: Young man to assist with marionette production. No experience necessary. Must have driver’s license.”
Well, I had a driver’s license. I certainly had no experience being a puppeteer or a marionette, but I was a would-be actor. So I answered the ad, and got a postcard back from the people inviting me to meet with them at their loft studio in Manhattan. So I went, and auditioned for them with my voice. They said they would teach me puppeteering, but they needed someone who could act the roles. It was a company called the Berkeley Marionettes. It was run by a man and his wife, Stepan and Flo, and their daughter. They had two puppet companies which toured the city school system in New York, and in outlying areas too – Connecticut, New Jersey. Stepan was the booker. He would got to the various schools and book the shows, and Flo would preside over the actual puppeteering and write the scripts. They were pretty much all shows based on classic children’s books. The Mark Twain books, The Prince and the Pauper, Tom Sawyer, that kind of material.
There were two companies. I would be in the number two company, which consisted of two men and one woman. The woman in this case was the daughter of the owners, and the other man was the young fellow who had just married her. Now, what’s interesting is that the young fellow who was my cohort was named Paul Bogart. Paul became one of my closest friends, and became a very successful director. He married the daughter of the marionettes, whose name was Alma Jane.
The war then came. I, at that time, stood five feet and ten and a half inches, and I weighed 119 pounds. Can you picture that? And they put me in 1A! 1A. I couldn’t lift a barracks bag! However, I did my time in the army, in the war. I went down to Oklahoma, to Eastern Oklahoma A&M, and studied to be a clerk. Dirty job, but somebody had to do it. I ultimately wound up with a fighter squadron: the 81st Fighter Squadron, 50th Fighter Group, 9th Air Force. I was in a town called Leamington, right on the coast behind the Isle of Wight. The Isle of Wight is where all the boats lined up for the invasion [of France on D-Day]. You could just look out over the water and there they were, ready to go.
I kept records of the flights, and did other things. One of my jobs was to get up very early and go into the office and get the fire started, so when the pilots came in they’d be warm. When there was a flight planned, I would be the guy who would drive the pilots to the planes. Pilots did not drive themselves to their planes in the jeep. It had to be done by an enlisted man. I think the thinking was the pilot could drive himself to the plane, but if he doesn’t come back, who’s going to bring the jeep back? That was my theory. I didn’t express it to anybody, but I think that’s the reason.
What did you do after the war?
I was in Germany when the war ended. Came back on the Queen Mary with about 13,000 other soldiers, back to Howard Beach. I went to the New School on the G.I. Bill, and I studied playwriting with a man named John Glassner, who was a professor, a teacher, a critic. I still wanted to do some writing.
I went back with the puppet company. They had a home in Woodstock, New York, where during the summer off-season when there was no school, no work, they would go up there and prepare for the following season. Paul Bogart would write the scripts, and I would go on up there and stay with them and rehearse, and hang out with the Woodstock crowd.
There I met a few people who were interested in starting a theater group, and I attached myself to them. We became very, very close friends, and then we got together in the city, in New York, and I did as much as I could with them. Rented a loft and started working on a play, Alice in Wonderland. In the summer we were able to rent the Maverick Playhouse in Woodstock, which had been built in 1912. A wooden shack, practically, but a place that in the last row, you could hear somebody whispering on stage. The acoustics were so fantastic. It had been built by an actor named Dudley Digges, an old character actor, and Helen Hayes had played there once, way, way back when. We put on a summer of plays, a Saroyan and an O’Neill play, and several others that I don’t recall. But Alice in Wonderland was our first big production, and I played the Duchess, with a great big head!
When the summer ended, we decided we were going to look for a place to continue our theater group in New York City. We found an abandoned nightclub, the Greenwich Village Inn, which had been closed by the police department for cabaret violations, and we rented it. There was a central group of, at that time, six of us. What I’m trying to get at is that I’m one of the founders of the Circle in the Square. I was a producer, and one of the leading actors in the productions. The others were Jose Quintero; Ted Mann; Eddie Mann, who was also a newspaper cartoonist; Aileen Cramer, who became our publicity lady and also did some acting; and a girl named Emilie Stevens, who was an actress and did costume designs, set designs. That was our nucleus. Eddie Mann and Aileen left after a year or two.
Ted Mann is still running the Circle in the Square, the one uptown, on 50th Street. He still has it, after all these years. He is the lone survivor of all that group. Ted and I never really hit it off, even all the years that I was there. I wasn’t there for that many years, but I was there for, certainly, five of them. We saw a lot of things in different ways. And as a result, when Ted wrote a book on the history of the Circle in the Square, in some cases I was the invisible man. He did not give me credits that I should have had, and I called him on it when the book came out. He said, “Well, I didn’t remember.” I said, “You know, you have my phone number. You could have checked with me.” The truth was that he didn’t want to. He wanted to take all the credit for everything that transpired at the theater for himself.
What do you remember about Jose Quintero? What was he like?
Absolutely brilliant director. Funny kind of a guy. I can’t really describe him too well, except that I admired. We got along very, very well.
Did he direct you in any productions?
Yes, he directed Summer and Smoke, the big hit with Geraldine Page in 1952. In that production, I played old Doctor John, the father of the hero of the play. Tennessee Williams watched some of the rehearsal with Jose, and it was decided by both of them that it needed an extra scene. A scene between Miss Alma, played by Geraldine Page, and old Doctor John, played by me. So Tennessee wrote that scene, and we included it in the production. It’s not in the printed version of the play. At any rate, it was a short scene, five to six minutes, just the two of us. I tell you, I could have played that scene with her for ten years, she was so fabulous.
Tennessee became very active in that production, because it had been done on Broadway and failed. What we did, particularly in the early years – this was my idea, and it seemed to work fairly well – we could take plays that we thought were good but didn’t make it on Broadway, and we would do them. We turned failures into successes. It happened on two or three different occasions.
One of those was called Burning Bright, by John Steinbeck. On Broadway, it had Barbara Bel Geddes in it, and Kent Smith, Howard Da Silva, and Martin Brooks. It was a four part play. The lead, the man that Kent Smith and [later, at the Circle in the Square] I played, played three different characters in it: a circus clown, a ship captain, and a farmer. The play was divided into those three elements.
At that time, Life magazine was running a piece called “Life Goes to . . .” Well, we got a call saying Life wants to come down and do a piece called “Life Goes to an Off-Broadway Theater.” So we said, fine, we’ll have a special performance on Monday night, our dark night, with an invited audience. John Steinbeck came, himself, with his agent, and sat next to my mother. My mother said to me, after the play, “You know, I sat next to John Steinbeck. I said to him, ‘You see that man? That’s my son!’”
Steinbeck said to her, “Oh, really? He’s very good.”
We lived there, in the building, above the Circle in the Square. Totally and completely against the law. Like David Belasco had his own room above his theater, I had my room above my theater. We really did have a firetrap, and it was finally closed by the fire marshal, and that was the end of my association with the Circle in the Square, for a year and a half.
Were you also doing live television while you were with the Circle in the Square?
Yes, I was on some of David Susskind’s shows. He had a few series on: Appointment With Adventure, and Justice. I did a Goodyear [Television Playhouse], either a Goodyear or a Kraft [Television Theatre], when I had the opening line of the show. I was in the first shot and had the first line, and the cameraman was mounted on something. The cameras were up a little higher than the ground, and as the scene started, the cameraman started waving bye-bye to me! They were pulling the camera back. Apparently something had fouled up, and they weren’t getting the shot. But the show was going on anyway, so I went on with the lines and apparently the director in the control room picked it up with a different camera. So I wasn’t necessarily seen, but my voice was heard delivering the opening lines of the show.
Oh, I got a job on a TV version of “Arsenic and Old Lace” [for The Best of Broadway, in 1955] with Boris Karloff. Helen Hayes and Billie Burke played the old ladies. Boris Karloff, of course, was the heavy character, and mine was a very, very small role. I played a medical attendant. I was a late hire, so I was only in for about two or three days, and they’d already worked on it for about two or three weeks. Years later, I’m on a Playhouse 90 with Boris Karloff. The first day of rehearsal, I went up to Mr. Karloff to say hello and tell him my name. And I say, “You won’t remember me, but I worked with you in New York.”
He said, “Did you really?” in that wonderful Karloff voice. And he said, “Ohhhh, yes. With that bitch Hayes.”
I was a little shocked to hear that come out of Boris Karloff’s mouth, so I said, “Oh, really?” He said, “Oh, yes. She did everything she could to get Billie Burke off the show.” Billie Burke used to be married to Flo Ziegfeld, way, way back. She really was an elderly lady, and she had some trouble with lines and things like that. Hayes, according to Karloff, tried everything to get rid of her because she wanted to get one of her friends to play the role. But she didn’t succeed.
What else can I say about live TV? I wasn’t crazy about it. It’s not like theater, where you have time to really rehearse. The rehearsals were very quick. I liked television very much when it was not live. If you flubbed something, you did take two, or take three if you had to. I was in a movie called A Guide For the Married Man. I played the husband of the lady that Walter Matthau was after, played by Sue Ane Langdon. We come in from the party we’d been at, we come back to our apartment, and I immediately go to the refrigerator and start building myself a Dagwood sandwich. Sue Ane goes behind me and puts her hand over my eyes and says, “Who was the prettiest lady at the party?” I’m fixing my sandwich and I say, “You were.” And she says, “What was I wearing?” And I start describing the outfit of another one of the women of the party.
A wonderful scene, right? Anyway, Gene Kelly, had us do that scene, I think, eleven or twelve takes. Around the sixth or seventh, he came up to me and whispered in my ear, “It’s not you. I’m trying to get her to do something, and she doesn’t do it. Or doesn’t want to do it.” And I’m there grappling with all this building a sandwich [business], about eleven times. That’s what I like about TV that’s not live. You could have some fun with it. Live TV was too much pressure. For me, anyway.
Did you ever go back to the Circle in the Square?
After the fire marshals closed us down, we had a little office somewhere for a year and a half, with nothing doing, nothing happening. No place to take ourselves, nothing available for us to start another Circle in the Square. We couldn’t live there any more, so I got an apartment on 28th Street with the lady who became my wife a couple of years later, and who had been an actress in the company. Her name was Gloria Scott Backe; she was called Scotty.
During the period of nothing happening, my wife and I went to a party uptown, where Jose and Ted Mann were also in evidence there. We drove back down to the village in a cab, at which time Ted Mann said to me, “We found out that if we do some structural changes, we can reopen the theater at the original place. You want to come back?” And to tell you the truth, I had had enough of Ted Mann, and I’d also tasted a bit of TV and Broadway, and I decided. Without even questioning my wife about it, I said, “No, I don’t think so.” And as a result of that decision, I would no longer become co-producer of Long Day’s Journey Into Night, or The Iceman Cometh, all the big O’Neill successes that they had. But I don’t care. Because I went to Hollywood, and I did okay here, too.
How did that come about?
I got a Broadway show, called Fragile Fox. It was a play about the war, written by Norman Brooks and directed by a man named Herbert Bayard Swope, Jr. The stars were Dane Clark and Don Taylor, and others in the cast were James Gregory and Andrew Duggan. We toured Cincinnati, Philadelphia, came into New York after six weeks, and it folded. But Herbert Bayard Swope, Jr., got a contract at Fox out here in Hollywood, to come out and produce movies. He sent for me. Literally said, “Come on out here. I can get a part for you on a couple of these movies.”
That was the beginning of the big move for me. I was here for about five months, and it also led to Playhouse 90. I was in the very first Playhouse 90 when that series came on, because Ethel Winant, who was the casting director at CBS, [had been] an agent in New York, and I knew her from New York. So she cast me in a small role as a pilot in the first episode. It was a script written by Rod Serling.
What I did on Playhouse 90, which was awfully good at the time, was to assist with the blocking of the show. The casts were all high-octane stars, name actors. Well, we rehearsed for fourteen days for each episode, and you don’t have these people available for fourteen days. You only bring them in after a show has been blocked for them, and then they take over. So I would assist the director in blocking. I’d have the scripts of the various characters. Whatever had to be done, I would run the lines and the movements while the camera crew is watching, making their notes, and while the director is watching and making corrections and so on. In each case, in addition to that, I would be given a small role to act in that show. So I got double salary. I got paid by the hour for the blocking work, and I got paid by the role in the acting part. It worked out wonderfully for me, because as I can recall, that I did about twelve of them during that period.
Then I got homesick. I wanted to go back and see my wife again. She was doing a play, The Iceman Cometh, at the Circle. My wife was very unhappy that I did not go back as a producer at the theater. She never made a big deal out of it, but she was disappointed that I said no. We never made a big thing out of it, but that was the way she felt.
So I went back to New York, and then the next year, which was 1957, I got a call again from Hollywood. Ralph Nelson, who was one of the producers of Playhouse 90, wanted me back to play a small role in a production of “The Andersonville Trial” that he was doing, with Charlton Heston and Everett Sloane. I was to play Everett Sloane’s associate prosecutor on “The Andersonville Trial.” [This was actually “The Trial of Captain Wirtz,” an episode of Climax, a dramatic anthology that was, like Playhouse 90, broadcast from CBS Television City. It was produced by Ralph Nelson and likely directed by Don Medford. – Ed.]
I did the show, and what did I have? One word! Six thousand miles back and forth just to say one word. Charlton Heston makes a great, long-winded speech in this trial, and Everett Sloane turns to me and says – I’m sitting next to him at the table – he says, “What do you think of that, fella?” And I reply with one word. I have to tell you, unfortunately, I don’t remember what the word was. It was not a short word, it was a long word, but I don’t remember what it was. And that is what I was summoned three thousand miles to do.
I guess Ralph Nelson valued your work!
My presence was very important to Ralph Nelson, I suppose. I don’t know why. Maybe the part was longer, and when they finally got to shooting it, they cut a few speeches that I had originally made. I didn’t see the original script. All I got was the one that they were shooting that day. Maybe for time purposes they cut it back, or maybe because Charlton Heston took too long making his speech.
The final move that I made was in 1958, when, again, Herb Swope, the man who got me out there the first time, said there was a part in a movie in Mexico with Gregory Peck, called The Bravados. He said, “Do you ride?”
I said, “You mean a horse?”
So I discussed this whole thing with my wife and she said, “Yes, of course you can ride. We’ll go on up to one of the riding academies here in Manhattan, and you’ll take a lesson or two.”
We went up to an academy that was up on 62nd Street, and I checked in and there was a man that was sort of in charge. He said, “The first thing we have to do is go downstairs and get ready with a saddle to fit you,” and all of that stuff. Anyway, down we go. He gets a bottle and two glasses, pours a big shot of scotch, and he says, “You start with this.”
So without knowing anything more, I took a shot of scotch. Then I went up onto a horse. He’s got a big whip in his hand. He gives the horse a whack, and off we go. I’m hanging on for dear life, going around and around and around. And I think I might have done some screaming, too, while I was at it. My wife is looking at all of this, absolutely appalled. We went around a few times and I got off. He says, “That’s fine, that’s fine. Tomorrow we’re going to go out to Central Park.”
We got home that night and my wife says, “You’re not going back there tomorrow. He’s going to kill you sooner or later!” I said, “No, I don’t want to go back there. We’ll get somebody else.”
So she looked it up in the telephone book and we [found] a place down around 23rd Street, run by an English lady. She had a horse called Pinky. When I went there, she introduced me to the horse. She said, “Pinky, this is Mr. Wingreen. Mr. Wingreen, this is Pinky.” Then she gave me a carrot to give to Pinky. Then I got on that horse and we went slowly, slowly around. We went around a few times and she says, “Mr. Wingreen, smile, you’re on camera now!” And that’s how I learned to ride. Then I could call Herb Swope and say, “Yeah, I’m ready to come. Tell me the date when you want me and I’m off.”
And so I went out to Hollywood, and then off to Morelia, Mexico, for six weeks of this film. Henry King, the famous old director from the silent days, was directing, and we had a cast of Gregory Peck, Stephen Boyd, Albert Salmi, Henry Silva, Joe DeRita, George Voskovec, and Andy Duggan, an old friend of mine, playing the priest.
I was going to play the hotel clerk who got involved in the chase after the bad guys, and that’s why I had to learn to ride, to be in the posse. There was quite a bit of riding, and a Mexican horse was not a Hollywood horse. Hollywood horses know “action” and “cut.” They go and they stop. Mexican horses don’t know those words. They have to be hit to go, and you have to stop ’em! You have to pull on the reigns to stop them, and I wasn’t successful every time we tried it. Going up a cobblestone street, a sharp turn, holding on to a rifle. It’s a wonder I’m still alive.
I had a very nice scene with Peck, though, when he rides into town [and learns that] his wife has been killed by some men while he was not home, and one with Joan Collins. That was a nice experience. So that sort of settled it for me as far as staying in Hollywood.
I called Scotty and I said, “Get somebody to replace you and come on out here. Take a look and see whether you think this might not be it. I have a feeling this is where we should finally settle in.” So my career out here started. It was slow at the beginning, but I made some good contacts. I was helped by people I knew who had been here already, and they gave me tips on various things. A lot of individual shots, just one day or three days. Then the occasional series started.
Did your wife continue to act after you moved to Los Angeles?
She got one job, on a John Wayne movie directed by Henry Hathaway, who was very tough. There was a scene with a big fair where they had food, and he placed her at a spit where they were roasting a pig or something like that. They were shooting it up at Big Bear Lake, and it was the first scene of that day, the very first shot. They’ve got fifty people out in canoes on the lake, and fifty or seventy-five people at this great big fair, and lights are going to come on very quickly as soon as they start shooting. The first shot is right on my wife as she’s turning the spit. And Hathaway, she said, had such a voice that he didn’t even need anything to holler through. He was just using his own voice to yell “Action,” and they could hear him out there on the lake.
So he screams, “Action,” and the lights come on, and my wife, who was having trouble with her eyesight anyway, flinched and turned her head. So then Hathaway yells “Cut!” and he goes up to her, and he sticks his face right into hers and says, “What’s the matter, honey? Lights get in your eye?”
She says yes, and he screams right at her, “Well, you ruined the fuckin’ take!”
So she said to him, “I guess I’ll never be a movie star.” For the rest of the week he called her Miss Squinty. Then she said, “I’m through. No more movies for me. I want to be a housewife and a mother.”
One of your first roles in Los Angeles was on The Twilight Zone. What do you remember about your three Twilight Zone episodes?
Yes. I played a conductor on a train which had James Daly going home to his house in Connecticut and falling asleep and thinking that he’s stopping at a town called Willoughby. I played the conductor on the real train. Jim Maloney played the short, round conductor on the dream train. I had a couple of nice scenes in that, and at the very end I had the scene where I tell the trainmen that Jim Daly had jumped out. He had hollered “Willoughby” and just jumped off the train and was killed. And then when the hearse arrives, I help the guys pick up the body and put it into the hearse of course, and the door closes and it’s “Willoughby and Sons Funeral Home.” I thought that was a terrific episode.
Serling wrote the script, and I had a feeling that he was getting something off his chest. He was being bedevilled by the CBS brass, the big shots. They wanted something from him that he wasn’t able to or willing to do, so he was kind of getting at them. He made Howard Smith, who played the boss, a really miserable human being. He said, “Push, push, push, Mr. Williams. Push!” Rod Serling was getting even [by caricaturing network executives in this character], I think.
Of the other two, one was an hour show, “The Bard.” I played the director of a TV show. An old Hollywood director, David Butler, directed it. When I went to meet him he said, “Now, when I direct, I sit down. So when you’re directing here, I want you to sit down too.” So I played the role sitting down. The wonderful English character actor John Williams played Shakespeare, and Jack Weston was in it, an old friend of mine. He played the writer who had writer’s block, and he came upon a magic shop that was run by a great character actress named Doro Merande. Burt Reynolds did a Marlon Brando impression on that one, and Joseph Schildkraut’s wife [Leonora Rogers] played the young woman on the show I was “directing.”
The third one was “The Midnight Sun,” with Lois Nettleton. This was the one where they’re losing water on earth, and I played a neighbor and I came by to say goodbye to her because I was taking the family up to my brother in the mountains, where there was still some water. A nice little scene. I’ve only been to one convention, a Twilight Zone convention, and I met an awful lot of fans who told me that two of their favorites were “Willoughby” and “The Midnight Sun.”
Another of your early television roles, in 1960, was in a Wanted Dead or Alive episode called “Journey for Josh.”
Ah, that’s my big story. I was saving that one for you. It goes back to 1952, to the production of Summer and Smoke at the Circle in the Square. The theater was an arena theater, like a horseshoe, and it led right out onto the sidewalk. It was hard to keep the sound of the street out. McQueen was a young, would-be actor at that time, and he had come for an audition to meet Jose Quintero for a part in one of the plays. He had been rejected. But he was a hanger-out in the Village, and he rode a motorcycle.
When Summer and Smoke became the tremendous hit that it was, every couple of nights Steve McQueen would park his motorcycle right outside the theater, at the curb, and wait for a quiet moment. Then he’d rev the motorcycle. He did that two or three times, with maybe a day in between. During the third time, I was not on stage at the time. I went out to the curb to him, and I said, “I know what you’re doing and I know why you’re doing it. If you don’t cut this out, I’m going to get a cop to come over here and arrest you for disturbing the peace.” So he gave me a last “Fuck you,” revved it one more time, and took off. But never came back, for the rest of the run of the show. That was my first encounter with Steve McQueen.
Now, it’s eight years later, 1960. I’m in Hollywood, and I get a job on Wanted: Dead or Alive. It’s a nice little part. There are just three of us in this episode: McQueen, a young lady who’s living alone somewhere out on the prairie, and me. My character is a kind of a drifter, who comes by and finds this young lady and tries to make a pass at her, and is interrupted by the arrival of Steve McQueen. We have a battle, and he gets me, and that’s the end of my work on the show. A three-day job, directed by a director named Harry Harris.
They hired a stunt man to do the fight scene for me. Any time I had a job where I had to fight, I’d have a stunt guy. In fact, there was one guy that used to do all of my work that way. He didn’t really look that much like me, but he did all the fighting for me. Harry Harris comes up to me and says, “Listen, I know we’ve got this guy to do the fight scene with you and Steve, but I want to use a hand-held camera on this one. That means I have to get up close for some of the fight stuff. We’ll choreograph it. We’ve done that Steve before. We’ll rehearse it a couple of times, and then when we do it it will work out fine.”
So I said, “Okay, fine.”
Now, meanwhile, before that, when I arrived for the first day of shooting, I’m introduced to everybody. You know, “This is Steve McQueen,” and I shake hands with him. I certainly did not say, “I know you from the Village,” and he didn’t indicate to me that he remembered me in any way. He said hello, and a handshake, and then we go to work.
So now we’re in the third day of the shoot, and we come to the fight scene, where we struggle for a gun. We’re on the ground, and he straddles me and picks me up by the collar, pulls me forward and hauls off and whacks me. And of course I duck in the right place as we rehearse it, but I fall back. That’s my last shot; I’m out of the picture.
Once we’re on camera, we go through all the same motions. He pulls his hand back, I duck, and he whacks me right across the jaw. Tremendous smash against my jaw. I wasn’t knocked out, but I was stunned. Of course, turmoil occurs on the set after this. They rush to see how I am. Before you know it, I’m in somebody’s care, being taken to the first aid station. I’m sitting in the nurse’s office. The nurse says, “Oh, that’s Steve, he does that to everybody. There’s a long line of them that come in here.”
So anyway, I get my consciousness back, pretty much. The door opens, and Steve McQueen comes in. He comes towards me, and he says, “I’m sorry about that. But, you know, you didn’t go back like we rehearsed it.” Which was bullshit. It wasn’t true at all.
I said, “Okay, Steve, forget it. Just forget it.”
And he walked to the door, turned around to me, and said, “Say hello to Jose when you see him for me, will you, please?” And out he goes. He waited eight years for his revenge!
Click here for Part Two, in which Jason Wingreen talks about All in the Family, Steven Spielberg, Andy Griffith, Boba Fett and George Lucas, and more.
February 26, 2010
The piercing eyes, the pockmarked cheeks, the steel-gray hair. If you’re a casting director and you see Tim O’Connor’s angular visage glaring at you from the pages of your player’s directory, you’d cast him as a gangster. Or an Air Force colonel who’s about to drop a lot of napalm on somebody. Or a vindictive prosecutor, tearing into witnesses like a hawk rending a mouse.
But if you happened to see O’Connor at work, you might use him differently. His voice has a gravelly edge to match the face, but it is also softer than you expect. Reassuring, even. His smile is welcoming, when he lets it out, and his gait is looser than any predatory lawyer’s or napalming colonel’s would be. He has a wistful quality, and he is more learned in his demeanor than the rough features would suggest. O’Connor is a collection of intriguing contradictions, and he understands that those contradictions are valuable tools for an actor.
O’Connor first began to gain notice in the late fifties, in the New York-based series produced by David Susskind and Herbert Brodkin. For Susskind, O’Connor played secondary roles in a series of videotaped superproductions, supporting an awesome array of marquee actors including Laurence Olivier, Edward G. Robinson, Jack Hawkins, Jessica Tandy, Maximilian Schell, George C. Scott, Vincent Price, and Boris Karloff. For Brodkin, O’Connor usually played heavies. He had a recurring role as a federal prosecutor in those episodes of The Defenders that dealt with military or national security issues, and played a memorably sadistic pimp to Inger Stevens’s “Party Girl” in an episode of The Nurses scripted by Larry Cohen.
So O’Connor played his share of villains, but gradually he broke out of that ghetto, to find his calling out as one of American television’s great everymen. Early on, before he took off in television, O’Connor’s most important stage role had been in The Crucible. He starred as John Proctor, Arthur Miller’s average man who is swept up and ultimately destroyed by the hysteria of history. Variations on John Proctor, ordinary men bound up in ethical or psychological knots, became O’Connor’s specialty. His first showy role in Hollywood was in The Fugitive’s “Taps For a Dead War,” a cliched story of a damaged war veteran, but O’Connor deepened the material by emphasizing the pitiable qualities that lay beneath Joe Gallop’s malevolence.
The following year, on Peyton Place, O’Connor created his most complex role. He joined the show during its third month as Elliott Carson, a man unjustly imprisoned for murder and the lynchpin in several intricate, interlocking plotlines. O’Connor’s skill alone won a reprieve for Elliott, who had been marked for death at the end of his initial story arc. The series’ writers hit upon the clever idea of turning the local newspaper over to Elliott, so that he had a pulpit from which to evolve into the town’s conscience. O’Connor played Elliott as a sage, a man with a new lease on life and a reason to exude optimism, but during the show’s long run neither he nor the writers neglected the subterranean well of resentment that Elliott nursed over his lost years in prison. O’Connor’s flawless interweaving of these contradictory strands turned into perhaps the most satisfying exercise in character continuity on television during the sixties.
A subsequent generation of TV fans will remember O’Connor as Dr. Elias Huer in 1979’s short-lived Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, and an even later one may recall him as Doogie Howser, M. D.’s grandpa. He still works today, on occasion. But in this interview, O’Connor takes us back to his early days as an actor in live television and on Peyton Place, and shares his secret for creating multi-faceted characters in a medium that favored simplicity.
What was it that made you first start thinking about acting? Was it movies, plays?
Oh, it was movies. Movies, particularly. I don’t remember seeing any theater at all. I came up on the South Side of Chicago, and I remember in eighth grade we had a drama teacher that was getting us together for a play. She was encouraging me, and she felt good about it, I remember. Then suddenly, we weren’t going to do it. They probably ran out of money, or the production was going to be too expensive. And I had a really good part, in a very talky play!
But at that time, I never dreamt of being an actor. I discovered it in the service as something that I would like to do, but I never dreamed that I ever would. I thought I would become a lawyer. But then I ran into an old schoolmate of mine and he said he was going to a radio school, and I still had some time on my G. I. Bill and it just hit me. I said, Jesus, do it. Go down and try. So I went down to this radio school and signed up and started. This school just taught radio acting, radio engineering, radio announcing. But in three months, I had gone on to the Goodman Theater. I got a scholarship there and finished that up, and then in the third year I started working in local television.
What television shows do you remember doing in Chicago? Were you ever on Studs’ Place?
I did work with Studs Terkel in, oh, three or four different locations. He won an award for this show, on drugs seeping into the communities and kids getting hold of them, and I played a young man hooked on drugs who became a dealer.
Another show he had that ran for a year was improvised. He’d hire a couple of actors – and I was still in drama school doing this, my third year of drama school – and he would just give you a part and give you kind of what the scene was, and then you’d start making up lines about what was supposed to happen with your character. That’s how we made up a script. He jotted down lines, recorded lines, and then he gave the script to us at the end of three or four days, and we memorized it and shot the TV show.
Then there was another show that was very good. It too was improvised. It was an hour show, and it was to do with law and trials. The producer would hire real attorneys and get a real judge, a different one for every week’s show. And then they would cast the rest of us as actors, and give us the premise, a general premise of who everybody was, what they had done, why they were here. Then we would improvise this whole thing.
I remember, I got so very good at this improvisation, that if there was something the show was lacking in, this particular producer-director would signal so that I could back out at a certain time, beyond the camera. Somebody would tell me what I was to do, and then I’d get back on stage again. Once I just had to create a scene, because it was awfully dull, or he needed a little more time or something. So I turned against my attorney when he had me on the stand, and then I jumped off the stand and leapt across the prosecutor’s table and at the prosecuting attorney, and slid across and crashed onto the floor. They tossed me back, and the producer-director was down on the floor behind the cameraman. He looked at me and he went: enough. He had enough time. And I went back to the [script].
What did you do after you left the Goodman Theater?
I did some summer stock in Chicago. I did a film there, and then I went into a stock company that played summers in a community in the north side of Chicago, in Highland Park. It was called the Tenthouse Theatre. And also in Palm Springs, California, in the winter, so I did summer and winter stock for about three years, and then went to New York and began to work there Off-Broadway. I guess it was about 1953.
Then somebody saw me and I picked something up on television, and then I didn’t have any time for the stage any more, except once in a while. One year, the [New York] Journal-American had gone in and done some research to find out who was the most working actor in New York City, and it turned out to be me. I never knew that they were doing this – they came to me and told me, and interviewed me.
Was there any particular show that represented a breakthrough for you?
Yes. There was a fellow there, a big-time producer named David Susskind, who produced his own television series, and it was all classic shows. He usually hired English actors to do the big one or two leads, and would then complement the rest of it with actors in New York.
These were essentially specials, broadcast on the DuPont Show of the Month or Family Classics series.
That was it. These shows were taped, with a very early taping device. They only had one in New York City, so that all these various shows had to take turns. So you’d do a scene, and you’d tape it, and you’d want to redo it if something went wrong, but you had to wait. Some other show was waiting in line, and then they’d get back to you and what you were doing. That was it. There was no editing anything at that time.
Tell me about some of those roles in the Susskind adaptations.
I played Aramis in “The Three Musketeers.” In “Billy Budd,” I played the next character that was just underneath [the villain Claggart], who was a violent person and who hated the captain, and helped Billy. Eventually Billy kind of turned him to his side because Billy was so nice a guy. I had violent, violent scenes that I provoked and carried off. [I had to] swing around and throw myself at people, bring people down. And work with knives. It had all been worked out, and then of course the show begins and the energy is extraordinary. I don’t know how some of us escaped being hurt!
Do you remember Graham Greene’s “The Power and the Glory”?
I remember that very well, yeah. I had a death scene, and I died with Laurence Olivier there, tending me as I die. Do you know that show? It’s about a priest that’s in Mexico, and he’s running because the police are after him. George C. Scott is the head of the police department after [Olivier], and he races and he gets out of the country to the States and escapes. But then this guy, me, I play the Gringo. I’m dying and I’m calling for a priest. He’s just across the border and he hears that, and [despite] his fear of George C. Scott, he comes back anyway to attend my death, and to hear my confession.
I finished up that scene, and we were shooting and we were awfully late. Sir Laurence was planning to be on the Queen Elizabeth on a certain day, two or three days later, and back to England. By this time they had that new tape, so they were able to redo and redo scenes that they thought they could do better. That was my last scene. The stage manager dismissed me and off I went and I changed my clothes, and I was just about ready to leave and I hear this raging down on the stage. I opened up my dressing room door and stepped out, and there was Sir Laurence, and boy, he was really pissed. They had decided to redo my death scene. They thought that there was something else that they thought they could do better, where they had missed a shot on it. They told him that they were going to do it again, and he just raged: “I’m going to be on the Queen Elizabeth Sunday morning, and I don’t give a damn about any of this stuff!” He’d had it. He was probably exhausted, because he was in every scene.
Another of your big videotaped shows was Playhouse 90’s “John Brown’s Raid,” with James Mason in the title role.
We went down to the location, of Harper’s Ferry, and shot it for ten days. Sidney Lumet directed. The last four days, there were some of us who worked day and night without stop. The show got into real trouble, and the company didn’t want to pay us for playing twenty-four hours a day, four days! So there was a big stink about that. We had to go to the union about it and make some arrangement.
The show then turned out so dark, that you could not tell the difference between the people who were white and the guys that were black. It was just so funny. But they broadcast it – they put it on!
Do you remember your first leading role in television?
The first one I got, the first really large part, was an Armstrong Circle Theater, when I played a guy making a breakout of Alcatraz. This was a live show, and I did the lead as this guy who arranged this whole escape. After the show the head of the U.S. penal system was to be interviewed for about two minutes, to speak on the subject about nobody had ever escaped [from Alcatraz]. And what happened was that about two days before the show, somebody did escape, and they found his clothing underneath the San Francisco Bay Bridge. They could not write him off as having been found, or that maybe a shark got him. That’s what they always said, that nobody had ever been able to survive getting across that water to the mainland, but he did. So we did the show, but the gentleman from the penal system did not appear for the interview.
That was late in 1962, and Armstrong was one of the last live shows still on the air. Did you miss live TV, or had you come to prefer working on film?
Most actors, it’s the other way around, but I have always secretly preferred film.
Why is that? Because you had the opportunity to refine your performance, to do it over again until you were satisfied with it?
Yeah, you can do that, you can do them over again. You have an opportunity of seeing downstream and back and forward, of where you’re going, and what you’d like to do in order to get there. Also, I liked doing a job and completing it. No matter how long I had to work, and how many hours – fifteen hours a day – there was an end to it. It wasn’t in a year or so.
I enjoyed the stage very much, but I ended up realizing that I preferred working in film and on television over working in a play, which kept you so busy for such a long period of time. I think the longest run I ever had was nine months, when I did The Crucible Off-Broadway [in 1958-59]. I played the lead in it, John Proctor. I replaced somebody [Michael Higgins] that had played it about six months, and then I left it and another actor came in.
Around that time, you started commuting to Los Angeles to do a lot of television work.
Yes, I was spending a lot of time on airplanes, going back and forth to L.A. What the heck is the name of that hotel, up north of Highland [the Hollywood Tower]? That was the New York actors’ hotel. That was where we all stayed. George C. Scott had a reputation, and I don’t know if it was true or not, that he would go down and rip up the Sunday L. A. Times in the lobby, and throw it down and get back in the elevator and go upstairs.
I suspect that one of the early Hollywood parts that earned you some attention was your role as a disturbed Korean War veteran in your second episode of The Fugitive, “Taps For a Dead War.”
As soon as you mentioned The Fugitive, I thought of David Janssen. We were out on location, it was at night, and we had a scene where he got into a fight with two or three of us. We had marked out the fight, you know, stepped it out, bang, bang. Of course, we were just crashing it up. After the scene was over, he came over and says, trying to apologize, “I’m sorry I hit you so hard in the stomach.” I said that I had not felt it. David was sure that he had actually hit me, though. He was a very nice guy.
Another little story about David. David and I and the director were talking, on another episode of that same series, and I said something, kiddingly, about David, to the director, that implied something derogatory, that he wasn’t terribly good in this particular scene. It was so outrageous that I was obviously kidding. And there was just a very brief pause, and David said to the director, “Who couldn’t we get?” [As in,] I wasn’t selected because they wanted me, but because I was the only one left!
When you got the regular role on Peyton Place, did you decide immediately that you would relocate to Los Angeles?
Yeah, I was making a commitment to stay out there. I was travelling so much, back and forth, that I decided just to go and do it. At that time, I had a house on an island in a lake in New Jersey.
It just came up, and my wife and I decided that it sounded like a good idea. We were apartment dwellers and always had been in New York, and this sounded great. It was about an hour out of town, and a long bus ride. I just loved it, the water, the summer and the winters. In the winters we could walk across because it would be frozen. It was our own island, a small island only large enough for one house.
Tell me about your character on Peyton Place, Elliot Carson, and your approach to the role.
Initially, as it came on, he was in prison and he was just being released, but he was not really guilty of what he was charged with. He was a true blue kind of fellow who felt that what he found in terms of Allison and Constance, the love he felt there and that they felt back, and the family feeling that he had, put him in such a positive ground, that he was a force for good. He was there for what he stood for, in the way he wrote his stories and how he ran the newspaper. That was all sort of brought out with his father. His father and he both worked at the newspaper, and had a lot of everyday conversation about what was happening in Peyton Place. So the discussions were a great deal about self-improvement. He was always kind of nagging himself that he could be better.
Elliot had a subtext of anger that was there at the root, and could begin to surface at any time. He really had no in between. His experience of the time he spent in the penitentiary, and his survival in the penitentiary, I think gave him a different sense of being. Although he deeply appreciated where he was and understood what he had, and he did not want to lose it, he wasn’t a person to be bullied. And a couple of shows did come up with that, where that was demonstrated.
You worked more with Dorothy Malone, who played your wife, than with anyone else in the case. What do you remember about her?
I liked her. She was nice, and she was a pro. She’d come from films into this, and I think there was just this little bit of adjustment for her into television. Dorothy had an Academy Award, and she was a very good actress. I seemed to work well with her. We didn’t have a great deal going between each other, but it wasn’t anything that was uncomfortable.
Did you and Dorothy Malone choose to leave the show in 1968?
No, we were written out. They dropped the characters. The problem, as I understood it, was ABC. The cost of the show, after three and a half years or more, was going up and up and up. ABC had a contract they wanted to stay with, and Twentieth [Century-Fox] was beginning to lose money on making the show, as popular as it was. They looked downstream a ways, and just slowly began to release Dorothy and myself and others on the show, and change the format of the show. And within a year it died, it was dead.
When Peyton Place went to three half-hours per week, Fox added a second unit, so that multiple episodes were shooting at the same time. Did that make it more difficult?
We went back and forth, from whatever set to the next, whenever we were needed and whenever we were called. It was really crazy, and very, very difficult to do. We had to be on top of three scripts at a time.
Did you meet with the writers at all, or have any input into how your character was scripted?
No. Maybe the other actors talked with them, but I liked what was done with [my character], and I just kept pushing it. They seemed to write to the person that I thought this guy was. And if I wanted to do something, I just simply did it, and took the dialogue that way, with me.
I remember the first scene that I had on the show. I was in prison and I was talking through the bars. I think it was to my father, [played by] Frank Ferguson. We had this very long scene, which was this character’s introduction, and there were an awful lot of nuances in it. The way it was written was one way. The way I played it [was another]. I can’t remember which director shot it, but he was rather happy with what I did that he hadn’t seen, that element in it that I was introducing. I smiled through it, teased it, and I would indicate just via looks that the character was so strained and had so much internal controversy.
How would you describe the technique you developed as an actor? Were you a Method actor, or in sync with those ideas?
I was probably somewhat in sync with that naturally, just because I never quite thought of myself as working any particular way except to know what I was talking about. To know, thoroughly, the scene. Once I began, I made the lines and the part my own, even though [there were also] ideas and attitudes that were not necessarily my own at all. Which I suppose is part of the Actors Studio kind of thing.
I remember, when I would begin, when I’d start and pick up a script I wouldn’t put it down until I knew it backwards. I’d just work on it and nothing else mattered. Sometimes, particularly with a play, I would walk around the script on the table, around and around it, because once I got involved I knew that I wouldn’t be doing anything else. I would be be on it, and I wouldn’t put it down until I had mastered it. I could remember it on the subway. I mean, on the train, the Illinois Central that I would take from downtown Chicago out to the South Side where I lived, or on the street or walking to the theater, so many times I’d be talking the lines to myself. I’d be on the train, looking out the window, and I’d be talking the lines. Often the conductor would come up and be standing there looking at me, wondering what’s the matter with me.
In Palm Springs, I can remember walking that mile or mile and a quarter out to the theater from town. In the middle, there was a grocery store that was the only thing in that whole mile on both sides of the road going out to the theater. Somebody said, “Stop!” It was a policeman. “Don’t move! Don’t move!” And across the street, in front of that store, was a police officer crouched down with a gun in his hand, aiming directly at me. This is at night, and I’m in the reflection of the grocery store. He came across very carefully, never taking that gun [off me]. “Put your hands where I can see them!” And of course I did.
I knew exactly what I’d done: I had been going through my lines and I must have been talking full blast in the dark, nobody around, and I’d got this cop into thinking I was crazy or something. I told him who I was, and he put me in the car and drove me out to the theater. And he believed me, or he would’ve taken me to the station. But they were looking for somebody that was a little nuts, who had disappeared and had committed some crime. This cop saw me walking down the road talking to myself, and he was sure I was who he was looking for.
Would you say that you were ever typecast, for instance, in authority figure roles – policemen, lawyers, military men?
Well, I never thought of it like that. I just took whatever came along. I never thought in terms of type. I played so many different kinds of guys.
How would you approach an underwritten role, where your character was defined as little more than “the cop” or “the father” in a script?
I usually approached it within the same sort of fashion. I would play it against what was written. That’s in every part I’ve ever played, anyplace. Particularly in episodic television: you get a character and you play against it. That was my motto. Even a strong part. Even the bad guy. It was usually written as a classically bad guy. I would play against that, and be a smiling, charming guy, as much as I could. Bad guys were bad guys unless you gave them a little twist somewhere. Or good guys were good guys unless you gave them some kind of twist. I might even be marked right at the beginning of the show, but they would have doubts. I would try to give them doubts.
January 15, 2009
Two of my favorite actors passed away during the same weekend.
Gilborn plays a math teacher whose tutoring had finally managed to unlock some understanding of and even enthusiasm for algebra in Kevin Arnold, the show’s thirteen year-old protagonist. But then Mr. Collins turns off the font of knowledge, without explanation or apology. “I thought you were my friend,” Kevin tells him. “Not your friend, Mr. Arnold,” he says. “Your teacher.”
Later, almost in an epilogue, Kevin learns that Mr. Collins is dead. He’d been ill – that was why he kicked Kevin to the curb. What Kevin, from his teenaged point of view, mistook for abandonment was actually an insurmountable sense of privacy.
Because “Goodbye” is structured as a sort of emotional mystery, the role of Mr. Collins – the character with the secret – is an enormously challenging one. It’s also not a very rewarding part, in the sense that Mr. Collins has no big final scene, no moment of confession. What the writer, Bob Brush, is interested in is a very specific kind of regret: the guilt someone carries around after it turns out that he’s said or done something horrible to a person he ends up never seeing again. So Mr. Collins has to die off-screen.
A more selfish actor would’ve slipped in a note of bathos somewhere. A furrowed brow, a wince of pain, a hesitation on a line, something to hint at the upcoming revelation that only Fred Savage (as Kevin) and Daniel Stern (as his adult voice) will get to play. But look at what Gilborn does with that moment. He’s a study in restraint – his line readings are totally even, his expression ambiguous, almost a Kuleshovian exercise. There’s a quote, which I’ve seen attributed (appropriately, for this venue) to the live TV director Robert Stevens, to the effect that an actor should be like a duck: still on the surface, but paddling furiously underneath. Gilborn knows that the more he withholds, the more invested the viewer becomes in needing to know what his character is hiding.
I saw “Goodbye” on the night of its original broadcast in 1990. I was thirteen. My mother watched it too. Her taste and mine didn’t overlap much, to say the least, but I remember that both of us had the same reaction: that that was some acting.
I was already a movie buff, so it was natural for me to note Steven Gilborn’s name and to look for it in the credits of other shows. He popped up on Picket Fences, on ER, on Chicago Hope, in the movie Safe. Lots of doctors and other authority figures: type-casting, and nothing as meaty as The Wonder Years. I felt like I was rooting for Gilborn to make a breakthrough into bigger parts. It never happened. At least not that I noticed; I didn’t realize it, because I wasn’t watching many sitcoms in those days, but during this period Gilborn was also busy on a great many television comedies (especially Ellen, on which he recurred as Ellen DeGeneres’ father). It never occurred to me that Gilborn’s unadorned style could be considered deadpan, but it was, and he made an ideal straight man.
I didn’t know Gilborn, but I did have an unexpected connection to him. All of us film school undergraduates at the University of Southern California had to take a class that’s now legendary among alumni: Cinema 290. It’s the introductory film production course, and the only one required for “critical studies” majors like myself. During the semester, every student had to film, shoot, and edit five five-minute movies on Super 8mm film (yes, I am that old, although mine was the last class before they switched to video). The weekly class sessions, which took up a whole afternoon, were given over to screenings and (usually, but not always, civil) verbal and written critiques by the instructors and the other students. Making the films was a grueling, almost impossible, task, but the class meetings turned into a stimulating exercise in instant criticism.
Each 290 section was taught by two instructors, and since it’s entry-level and mandatory, there were a gazillion sections and two gazillion teachers. Because it wasn’t a hard-core technical class, the teachers tended to be a hodge-podge of creative types. A friend of mine had Stuart Hagmann, a wunderkind episodic TV director of the late sixties, as one of his instructors. One of mine was a photographer named Karen Halverson.
The class discussions often drifted into general conversations about film and artistic technique, which I guess was the point, and one day Karen related some anecdote involving her husband, an actor. Another student asked who he was – in other words, had we ever heard of him? – and Karen said he was probably best known as one of the teachers on The Wonder Years. “Which one?” somebody asked, as my mind started running through the age-appropriate possibilities. “The math teacher who died.”
At that point I sat up straight and exclaimed, “Karen, you’re married to Steven Gilborn?” She had not yet mentioned his name. I’ll never forget the look on her face. Her jaw dropped, literally. I’m certain that no stranger had ever recognized her husband by name before. The other students, all fourteen of them, also gaped at me like I was some kind of freak. So I felt compelled to explain how I happened to have followed Steve Gilborn’s career (as a sort of special subcategory of a generally obsessive attention to actors and directors and writers) for nearly ten years, and what that one performance on The Wonder Years had meant to me.
I think Karen, in addition to being amazed, was flattered and a little touched, and she may have said that her husband would’ve been, too. I asked a few questions about Gilborn – someone I’d wondered about all that time, in those days when there was barely an internet – and she told me about his unusual background. He’d been a successful academic, a humanities professor at top universities, and acting professionally was a second career for him, begun during middle age. Maybe that was one reason why he’d caught my attention, why his approach seemed distinct from most other actors.
For a few minutes Karen and I ignored everybody else and talked back and forth about her husband, both exclaiming over how small a world we’d found ourselves in that day.
Finally, the poor girl whose film had been the subject of discussion wailed, “Can we go back to talking about my movie now, please?”
On the other hand, I did know Pat Hingle, slightly. If a phone interview counts as knowing someone. (If it does, then Tony Randall, George C. Scott, and Robert Altman also numbered among my close pals.) Hingle died one day after Steven Gilborn.
My mania for Hingle also began when I was a teenager, with Splendor in the Grass. My mother had something to do with that, too. Splendor is one of her favorites, mainly because of Hingle’s electrifying performance as Ace Stamper, the father of Warren Beatty’s character.
Mom’s taste in movies generally ran to Troy Donahue-Suzanne Pleshette romances, so I was not predisposed to embrace anything she recommended. But when I finally gave in and watched Splendor, I had to agree: that was some acting.
Hingle logged in an enormous number of television appearances, in live television and as a guest star on filmed shows from the sixties through the nineties. That’s supposed to be my specialty, but I just don’t feel like enumerating a list of Hingle performances. These posthumous reminiscences are piling up like kudzu on this blog, more than a dozen of them in just over a year, and I don’t know how many more I can write.
I will say that as I look over the list, one Hingle guest shot catches my eye. In the Fugitive episode “Nicest Fella You’d Ever Want to Meet,” Hingle stars as an Arizona sheriff named Joe Bob Sims, whose genial demeanor conceals a homicidal streak. This was the Bull Connor area, and sixties TV is rife with psychotic lawmen: Mickey Rooney on Kraft Suspense Theatre, Bert Freed on Run For Your Life, Clifton James in just about every series he appeared on. It’s a stock character – Joe Bob, even! – but watching Hingle riff on the stereotype is as much fun as watching a kitten play with string.
Hingle’s first scene shows him leading a meeting of “Apache scouts,” dishing out tall tales about his Apache background to a group of little angel-faced boys. One of them says (I’m paraphrasing here) that his father thinks Joe Bob is full of shit. Hingle says, sweetly, “Well, Johnny, ol’ buddy, I’m gonna have to have a talk with your daddy, ’bout minding his own business.” But his face flickers, turns dark, for a split second, giving us just a hint of what a raving lunatic Sheriff Joe Bob will turn out to be.
Later the sheriff hustles Richard Kimble out of town. He knows Kimble is a wanted man, but Kimble is also a witness to one of Joe Bob’s murders, so the sheriff is willing to live and let live. Of course Kimble sneaks back into town to set things right. Joe Bob swoops down on him, and when they come face to face, his line is, “You just made a baaaad mistake, boy.” Hingle’s delivery, and the deer-in-the-headlights on David Janssen’s face, are beautiful.
I’m from North Carolina, and of course I loved the fact that Hingle had settled there during his twilight years. And of course, I’d often thought of paying him a visit in Carolina Beach to do a real interview. This week I listened to the tape of my short interview with Hingle. I was asking about a particular TV appearance, and he had to leave, so we only talked for about fifteen minutes. But there were hints at great stories, and names dropped of people I never would’ve guessed Hingle had known. He spoke about hanging around on the set of The Birds, for instance, where he visited his friend Lonny Chapman. He didn’t elaborate, but Hingle didn’t think it would be much fun to work as an actor for Hitchcock.
If you read this blog regularly, you know the refrain: I was too busy, and we never got together. A case of wanting to do something right, and then never getting it done. There have been too many of those.
August 13, 2008
George Furth died on August 11 at the age of 75. Furth will be best remembered as a playwright, in particular as the author of the book for three Stephen Sondheim collaborations, including Company. But before and even during his success as an author, Furth was a busy actor, always in medium-sized character parts and mainly in episodic television. He bore a resemblance to Paul Lynde, and also to Charles Grodin, and like both of them he specialized in playing nervous, excitable types, developing a schtick that was sort of a much milder version of Lynde’s. Here he is in a 1967 segment of Ironside (the mustache is a fake).
Furth was gay, and like Roddy McDowall, he became such a treasure trove of Hollywood gossip over the years that he declared a moratorium on dishing it to inquiring reporters and historians. When I contacted Furth in 1996, he told me that he did not give interviews, and then in the process of explaining why he answered all my questions anyway, in hilarious detail. I was only asking about a couple of television episodes in which Furth guest-starred, but his remarks gave me good leads that I was able to follow up with people who would speak on the record. You can bet that had Furth been willing to submit to true interviews, I would have been at the head of that line.
May 14, 2008
The veteran stage and TV actor C. M. Gampel died last week. Gampel had at least eight Broadway credits between 1950-1969 and played small roles in movies including Death Wish, Annie Hall, and Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man. And, like almost every young actor living in New York at the time, he was a fixture in live television during the fifties. A check of the reference books and databases puts Gampel in all the big ones: Philco Television Playhouse, Studio One, U. S. Steel Hour, Playwrights 56, Armstrong Circle Theatre, Hallmark Hall of Fame. And since Gampel was a small-part actor, the few credits you’ll find sprinkled around on-line probably just scratch the surface; I’ll bet he was in dozens more live TV segments where he didn’t even make it into the end credit roll, much less the limited range of data that’s been scooped up by the internet.
But I think of Gampel in a slightly different context, as one of the pool of small-part actors that was a key ingredient in the rich stew of dramas filmed in (or cast out of) New York a little later: Decoy, Brenner, The Defenders, The Nurses, Naked City, Route 66, Hawk. Gampel (who was credited with about equal frequency as both “C. M. Gampel” and “Chris Gampel”) appeared in episodes of all those series. He’s in “Prime of Life,” a grim Naked City about capital punishment, as the warden of the prison where an execution is to take place. On Brenner he was a police lieutenant, on The Defenders a divorce lawyer. For a Route 66 episode filmed in Florida, Gampel – a slim, bald man with a rich baritone and a resemblance to Werner “Colonel Klink” Klemperer – played against type as a southern sheriff, and managed a creditable accent. On Hawk, he was a mob lawyer who, along with a thug played by a young Ron Leibman, blackmails a sweaty Lonny Chapman into signing a false charge against the police. I’m a big fan of Leibman and of Lonny, but Gampel underplays the scene and steals it from them both.
Among the reporters to whom Gampel spells out the prison rules in his big scene in that Naked City are Barnard Hughes and Gene Hackman, both then as unknown as Gampel was – and remained. One of the joys of watching the New York-lensed TV shows of the sixties (which also includes a few sitcoms, like The Patty Duke Show, on which Gampel was a guest star, and Car 54, Where Are You?) is the exposure one gets to that group of underexposed Gotham actors. In his book Making Movies, the director Sidney Lumet rhapsodizes about shooting on location in New York because of the quality of the extras. Lumet felt that they had more authentic faces than their counterparts in Los Angeles, who had learned to mug for the camera and were, in their way, just as polished and unreal as the stars and starlets they surrounded. The same thing can be said of the actors one finds in these New York TV shows, too: they’re used to the stage and less comfortable with the camera, less photogenic and more ethnically diverse than their west coast counterparts.
I can run down a list of the actors I’m thinking of, but I guarantee you’ll recognize few if any of their names; that’s the point. There were Cliff Pellow, Peter Turgeon, Bibi Osterwald, the pock-marked Fred J. Scollay, and the pop-eyed, very Italian Louis Guss. Or Tom Pedi, Salem Ludwig, Frank Campanella (forever typecast as a tough cop), William Duell (one of the oddballs in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest), and Allan Rich (latterly memorable as NBC president Robert Kintner in Quiz Show). Or Albert Henderson, Doris Belack, Richard Ward, Florence Anglin, Robert Dryden, Jane Rose, Louis Criscuolo, Maxwell Glanville, Joe Silver, Charles Randall, Joseph Julian, Lester Rawlins, Sudie Bond, Lou Gilbert, and John McGovern (a great New England type). Or the tiny, sickly-looking Leonardo Cimino, perfect as a junkie or a hood – and just the kind of actor, so strange in appearance and so scary in affect, who doesn’t get imported for long-term duty in Hollywood.
A few of the performers in that group, like Dolph Sweet or Doris Roberts or Sorrell Booke (The Dukes of Hazzard‘s Boss Hogg), moved to L.A. late in their lives and became familiar faces in the movies. But most of them remained on the East Coast for their entire careers, and even for those film buffs who double as connoisseurs of character actors – those of us who can pick, say, Don Keefer or Katherine Squire or Sandy Kenyon out of a Twilight Zone or Perry Mason still – they’re largely an unknown quantity, unless you happen to have programmed an East Side / West Side or NYPD marathon for yourself lately. There just weren’t as many opportunities to appear in front of the camera for actors who chose not to follow the general shift of the TV industry toward the West Coast. One assumes that a love of either the theatre or a distaste for Los Angeles led them to forego the opportunity for greater fame. Instead they spent the bulk of their careers doing off-Broadway and local theatre, logging a smattering of recorded appearances in-between: an arc traversing live dramatic anthologies in the early fifties through Law & Order episodes in the nineties or 2000s, with running jobs on soap operas or bit parts in a Woody Allen film or two in between.
C. M. Gampel’s career followed that path, concluding, in fact, with a Law & Order: Criminal Intent in 2003. The New York Times death notice included a handful of other details about his life: he was Canadian, and his real name was Morison Gampel (and he worked under that moniker as well). Here’s a shot of him from Naked City (“Prime of Life,” 1963).