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Last time we talked about your favorite television episodes.  What about the opposite?  What were the worst sets you worked on?

The worst sets were the ones where I almost got killed.  I did a [show] where they set me on fire.  I was supposed to be a cameraman, holding a camera on the upper right shoulder, and I said, “Look, there’s going to be an explosion in a car trunk,” and I said, “Look, are you sure this is safe?  I get very unhappy and noticeably angry if I get hurt.”

They said, “Oh, absolutely, no problem whatsoever.”

And I put this camera on my shoulder and got close to the car.  The trunk blew, and it blew straight up in the air and landed on me, filled with gel, whatever it was, the flammable material.  I was set on fire.  I think I had presence of mind enough to dive to the ground and start to roll around and try to put it out.  They kept rolling the cameras.  Finally an extra ran over and smothered the fire, jumped on me.  They finally said cut.  Somebody came over, and I was so angry I swung at them, because obviously they had taken a chance and put too much flammable material in the car.  And I swung at the guy, and they said, “Don’t swing at him, he’s the medic!”  You know – “You don’t want to hurt him!”

So they took me to the hospital, to UCLA.  They wanted to fly me there by helicopter, and I said, “I don’t trust this set.  I don’t trust this organization.”  So they drove me.  They were shooting on a freeway somewhere that had been emptied of traffic, or it may have been a new extension of the freeway.  The assistant director accompanied me to the hospital, and he sat there, and as soon as they found out that I would be in no shape to go back and shoot – I think I had second degree burns – he left.  They sent me a terrarium, and fired me, because I obviously couldn’t do the last two days of the show.

I was so furious.  I found out that they had had a meeting where the stunt people had said, “Look, this is very dangerous.”  That they were setting too much explosive in the trunk of the car.  And the production staff pooh-poohed it, said “No, no, it’s going to be fine.”  And I went to the [Screen Actors] Guild and said, “Look, this is terrible, what they did.”  The Guild sort of didn’t want to get into it.  Could you prove anything, and could you do this and that?  So they didn’t back me.  And I think I may have hired an attorney, but because it couldn’t be proven that they had direct responsibility, because of the Workman’s Comp laws, they were cleared of any culpability or responsibility.  You had to go against the manufacturer of the material.  Finally it just died.  So I got my terrarium, and fired, and they only paid me for the two days I worked, up until I caught fire.

So you’re actually in the finished episode?  They didn’t reshoot it?

Oh, yes!  They rewrote it so they could retain the character – they didn’t want to retain the character; the character wasn’t that interesting to begin with – but they wanted to retain me being set on fire.  And they hired a stunt person in an asbestos suit so they could do a closer angle of someone being on fire.

How badly hurt were you?

I had noticeable burns.  They went away after a week or two.  You survive.  But that was another set I was on where they, again, took a risk.  [Note: Osmond identified this incident as occurring on the set of Emergency!, on which he had two small roles.  However, a reader points out that Osmond's description of the show more closely matches his episode of CHiPs; see comments.]

There was a Universal show where they screwed up and timed the rolling of a log down a hill where we were running away from the log.  They timed it improperly.  The special effects people set the log rolling too soon.  We were not far enough down the hill, and that almost rolled over [me].  I jumped into a ditch, thank God, and the other actor was hit, and I think he had a broken arm.

There was one I did – I think it was Bruce Boxleitner that did a western.  It was just run haphazardly.  He was young.  I think he was hung-over – we had to do a standoff with a gun, and shoot like this [near] my ear and created, I think, some permanent damage at the time.  That should have never been allowed.  And then one time during a Cornel Wilde film I was almost drowned.  Again, what it is, is producers taking a risk with actors.  Not ensuring that there was sufficient safety.

So the worst sets are the most dangerous sets, where they take risks, where they’re so worried about the bottom line.  And then generally they’re run improperly not just in that particular instance, but that carries over to the general attitude toward the whole show and the way they’re handling things.

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Osmond (right) as the man who choked on the pull tab of his beer can in a less dangerous episode of Emergency! (“Election,” 1975).

Let’s talk about Billy Wilder.  I’ve been saving him for the end, in a way.  You appeared in four of his films – small roles in Irma La Douce (1963) and The Front Page (1974), and meatier ones in Kiss Me, Stupid (1964), as the aspiring songwriter Barney Millsap, and The Fortune Cookie (1966), as Purkey, the private eye with the Hitler mustache.  How did you find each other?

My agent got a call from Lynn Stalmaster, a big casting agent at the time, to go in and see Billy Wilder on a film, a possibility of a role in Irma La Douce.  So I went over to the Goldwyn Studios, where Billy was ensconced, had his office, and went up to see him.  He was very courtly, very gentlemanly, very elegant, and invited me into the office.  We sat and chatted.  He asked me about what I had been doing.  I mentioned some TV shows, and he asked me about where did I pick up acting, and I told him in college.  He asked me what college.  I told him Dartmouth.  We chatted for about ten minutes, fifteen minutes.  There was nothing to read.  I think he mentioned what the role was.  It was a four-line role.  Two scenes.  That was it.  There was no auditioning.  And I got the role.  And went on the set, and did it.

Once scene, I think, was with Shirley MacLaine and Jack Lemmon, and one scene standing at a bar where I take off my hat and some pimps come up and put money in the hat.  Buying off a cop.  And that was the end of that.  When I finished, he was very kind.  He called Jack Lemmon over: “Jack, Cliff’s leaving.  Say good-bye.”  And then Shirley MacLaine.  He said, “Shirley, Cliff’s leaving.  Say good-bye.”  And I thought, that’s very nice and very sweet of Billy.  And he said to me, Billy Wilder said to me, “Thank you very much.  We will see you again.”  And that was it.  And I obviously saw the film, was delighted to be in a film with stars of that magnitude.

Then about a year later, nine months later, I get a call from my agent that Billy Wilder wants to see me.  I go to the office, of course, and he welcomes me.  He looks me in the eye and says, “You thought I was bullshitting you, right?”  I knew what he was referring to – the fact that I would see him again.  He said, “I’ve got a little script here that we’ve been working on, Izzy and I” – I. A. L. Diamond.  “It’s Dean Martin, Peter Sellers, you, and a couple of broads.”  He said, “We haven’t fully cast it yet.”  And handed me the script – it was called Kiss Me, Stupid – and there was my name printed already.  He obviously had written that with me in mind.  Any struggling actors contemplating whether to do four lines or less, I would encourage them to do them.

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And the whole time he was writing the script, he never told you that he was creating a part for you?

Never told me.  Never told me!  His ad for Kiss Me, Stupid in Variety, said: “Some Like It HotThe ApartmentIrma La Douce.  Yeah, but what have you done for me lately?”  I mean, he was very big at the time.  Who was going to turn him down?  Certainly I wasn’t.  But he never told me.  He certainly had a number two, number three, number four, number five on a list somewhere, in case I got hit by a car.

And The Fortune Cookie, was that written for you as well?

What happened was, it had been going so well with Peter Sellers – Peter Sellers was the original songwriting partner in Kiss Me, Stupid – Billy had told some people he was sure that I was going to get an Academy Award nomination for the work with Sellers.  Somewhere in the archives at UA there is footage, I’m sure, of all that work I did with Peter.  We had worked for months.  So they came to me during the production, while we were still shooting Kiss Me, Stupid – I think it was before Peter had his heart attack; it may have been afterwards, but I think it was earlier – and wanted to sign me up for another film.  I didn’t know Billy had said that about an Academy Award nomination.  But the Mirisch Company came to my agent and said, “We want to sign Cliff on for another film.”  And I said, obviously, “Of course.”  And they negotiated and they guaranteed me a certain amount of money – I think it was a bump of twenty percent or thirty percent for another film.

I found some clippings from the trades announcing a five-picture deal you made with the Mirisch Company around this time.

No, it was only a one-picture deal, not five.  So The Fortune Cookie, he also wrote with me in mind, obviously, for contractual reasons.  I did physical business well.  He fell in love with the idea of my having shaken Walter Matthau’s hand in Fortune Cookie, and looking to make sure he didn’t steal a finger.  Those kind of physical bits.

Yes, I was going to ask if Wilder ever told you what it was about you that inspired him during that run of films.

About me?  You know, I was thinking about that the other day, knowing that we were going to talk.  He just liked me.  I don’t know why.  Not only putting me in roles, but over the years, whenever I’d call, and we’d chat, and I’d say I was going to be at Universal or I was going to be downtown, he invited me for lunch, or invited me over to the office.  He was always, whether I was going to work for him or not, kind to me, friendly, warm.  And even in some of my darker, later days, where you begin to question your own career and your own abilities, I would always say, “If for some reason Billy Wilder wants to have lunch with you, to sit down and chat, you can’t be that terrible, if a man of that stature and that insight likes you.”

I know one of the things he liked was that I was not a complainer.  When we were doing Irma La Douce, there was a scene where I had to drink Pernod, when I put down the hat and the pimps are going to put money in my hat while I’m looking the other way, pretending that I don’t know what’s going on.  We did the first take, and I had the Pernod, and he said, “Oh, Cliff, I’m sorry, we’re going to have to do that one more time.  There was some problem with the camera.”  We wound up doing seven takes.  Well, by the seventh take, I was blotto.  It was real Pernod.

Why were they using real alcohol?  That’s unusual on a set, for obvious reasons.

I don’t know why.  But probably he was having fun, because after the seventh take, I said, “Billy, this is getting a little bit….”  He laughed; he said, “We had it on the first take.  I just felt like having a little fun.”

And if I made a mistake, dropped a line, flubbed a move, I would just throw up my hands and say I’m sorry.  Just make a gesture, accepting responsibility.  There were some other actors on that show that did not do that.  He took umbrage at people not taking responsibility, pretending the lights were too much in their eyes, or that it was anybody else’s fault that they made a mistake.  And I never did that; that’s not part of my nature.

Who was the actor who complained about the lights?

It was Lou Jacobi in Irma.  Lou had had a reputation for blaming everyone when he went up or made a mistake.  In fact, Billy had considered replacing him.

With whom?  Do you know?

Yeah, I had been told that he was going to replace him with me.  After that first day, I had done that non-dialogue scene, he had contemplated putting me in as the bartender, and replacing Jacobi.  Now, this is information I got second-hand – never from Billy, but from Alex Trauner, who was the production designer.  I think they were in the third day or so, and it would have cost too much to make that replacement.  Plus, he wasn’t sure.  I had done one day, and without lines, although I did it well.  How much of an impact can you have?  Certainly not enough to cost three or four days of shooting, and replacing him with an unknown.  But Alex had told me that Billy had contemplated that very seriously.

Wilder was such a great verbal wit – he must have been great company.

Oh, yes, brilliant company.  He was the wittiest man that I ever met – the most insightful, intelligent man.  I’ve never idolized anyone in my life, other than him.  I mean, he was avaricious about knowledge.  Everything interested him.  You could talk about everything.  Except feeling sorry for yourself – that kind of self-woundedness, self-absorption, he had no tolerance for.

One of his famous lines was about your voice.  Do you remember that?

Oh, yes, of course I remember.  “There’s a wonderful character actor – he has the musical ear of Van Gogh.”  [Laughs]  That happened because I had to sing in Kiss Me, Stupid, and poor Andre Previn had to guide me through the recording session, and I was so insecure about my singing voice – I had failed singing in kindergarten and never recovered – and so I sang there with a kind of falsetto.  I have a deeper voice that I use for singing, but just the idea of singing so panicked me.  But he was very kind through that.  Somebody on the set had laughed at my attempt to sing, and he looked at them sharply and he said, “You know how to pole vault?  Are you good at pole vaulting?  Why don’t you try pole vaulting, then we can stand around and laugh at you.”  He was a kind man, for me.  Others, he could be brutally incisive.  But I always agreed with the targets of his aim.  They were not, for me, the people that I enjoyed or liked.

Tell me what happened to the production of Kiss Me, Stupid when Peter Sellers had his heart attack.

What happened on the set?  Peter was due to show up that day, and the news came.  I think Billy went off the set to get the phone, and the news came that he had had a heart attack the night before, and the press started to descend.  Of course he had been newly married to Britt Ekland, and everybody wanted to know what room the heart attack happened in.  And I think it did happen, if I recall, the buzz, the talk was that it did happen in the bedroom.  And he didn’t show, and then we went on hiatus, a paid hiatus; the insurance company, I think, had to pay out.  And we just waited.  Finally, after they could not wait any longer – the insurance company was giving Billy pressure or whatever – and if I remember right, he tried to get Jack Lemmon to replace [Sellers], he tried Danny Kaye, he tried Dick Van Dyke.  All were tied up in other projects and couldn’t get out, or whatever the reason.  And then he finally settled on Ray Walston.

How did that turn out?

From my point of view, disastrously.  I thought Ray was wrong.  Ray always played devils and Martians well.  He was a very extravagant, outrageous actor, a very good actor, but the humanity of that character was so important.  It demanded humanity.  Because it was a pushing-the-envelope character, in the sense of setting up his own wife with Dean Martin.  It required an innocence.  That was not Ray’s metier.  And he played him a little over the top, dirty-minded.  Just the antithesis of what was required.  And you could sense on the set it wasn’t working.  And I pushed too far to compensate.  I know Dean Martin pushed too far.  With Peter Sellers we had been more at ease, more relaxed.  It was much more real, and innocent, which I think is appropriate for comedy.  Ray threw it out of whack.  And the picture suffered.  Most of Billy Wilder’s stuff is dangerous.  If you don’t get wonderful performances, it creates excesses.  This makes him brilliant, but also, when it doesn’t work, there are problems.

In one of the biographies of Billy Wilder, Ed Sikov’s On Sunset Boulevard, Walston actually blamed you for the film’s shortcomings.  He said, “The fellow who played the big guy – he was a problem . . . In all of Wilder’s pictures he latched on to someone he admired and liked and was quite friendly with.  Well, this guy took advantage of that and got in my way quite a lot.”

[Laughs]  Ray and I did not like each other.  Ray didn’t get along, really, with anybody, so I was [not] in exclusive company.

Ray blames me; I can understand it.  I did push too hard, but mainly was trying to get some reality out of him, I think, as an actor, trying to get him going.  He and I just were a bad mix.  He seduced me into some less than ideal acting efforts, and obviously I did the same for Ray.  It was not good chemistry; like a bad marriage.  From the beginning.  Billy did like me, and Ray, I think, had difficulties with that.  In fact, at one time I remember him saying that the reason he had problems with Billy Wilder was because Billy wanted Kim Novak and she really wanted Ray.  That came out of nowhere.  I mean, that was just nonsense.

He meant that Wilder coveted her sexually?

Right.  I never saw any evidence of that on the set.  Well, first of all, to meet Kim Novak is to covet Kim Novak.  So you’d have to be inhuman not to covet her.  But Billy never exhibited any tendency to want Kim Novak, nor did Kim seem to have any tendency to want Ray.

Ray, as is obvious in this conversation, was not my favorite actor or human being.  Ray and I met [years later] in Park City – he was doing something, I think, for Sun Classics, and I was working for them, and we had dinner with about eight people.  Ray was disparaging Billy Wilder at the table, and I of course defended Billy.  He and I went back and forth with witticisms, but very sharp – it was like a ping pong match.

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It’s ironic – a lot of people who worked with Peter Sellers found him difficult, too.

I found no difficulty.  I found none.  Peter was a strange bird, but that was part of his charm.  But there was a humility, a kind of self-deprecating quality, that was appealing.  He was enthralled with being married to Britt Ekland, and buying her things.  There was a kind of ostentatious consumerism, vis a vis having money and having her around.  He was in love.  But work-wise and personality-wise, very charming, very professional, very brilliant.  And never a problem.  Always had his lines, always willing.  Again, Wilder was very big at the time, and it was an honor for Sellers to work with Wilder.

Kiss Me, Stupid was a big flop on its initial release, and still has not been recognized as one of his best films.

Billy knew when we went to the screening, I think it was the Village or the Fox in Westwood.  There was the red carpet premiere, and we went.  And I remember going into the lobby and Billy had his collar up, and he came over to me and said, “Cliff, don’t buy the new house yet.”

What are your recollections of Dean Martin and of Kim Novak?

Dean Martin: Probably the most spontaneously funny man I’ve ever met.  It may have been all the years in all the nightclubs, and all the boredom, sitting around and just quipping, and just picking up on things [while] saying the same twenty lines.  It wasn’t a matter of telling jokes; he was just naturally funny.  And again, easy to work with, professional, never blew a line, pleasant to be with, and funny.  He would start on a riff of one-liners, that were in context, they weren’t pre-packaged jokes.  And Billy would just sit – we’d all just sit and listen.  Peter Sellers, Felicia [Farr], Kim.  We’d just sit and laugh.  He was just a funny man.  But a pleasure to work with, as was Kim Novak.  Billy had had a sit-down with her before they started, and said, “You have a reputation for being difficult.”  “Oh, no, Mr. Wilder, never.”  She and I were shooting the second day.  That first day, she was getting in wardrobe, in her dressing room.  I was on the set, watching.  And he said, “Cliff, go run lines with Kim.”  So I said, “Sure.”  I went into her dressing room.  We were running the lines, and she was so nervous.  “Oh, what do you think about my costume, what do you think, and Mr. Wilder,” and she was just worried.

I said, “Hey, it’s going to be fine, everything is fine, and we’ll bring it to the set and see what he likes.”  And obviously that conversation they had had was somewhat chilling for her.  She was worried about being a problem.  So we showed up the next day on the set, and Billy had a rose for her, if I remember right.  Cleared the set, and said, “Miss Novak, and Cliff, we’re going to rehearse.  So everyone just leave for half an hour.”  And we just rehearsed the upcoming scene.  Well, she was so sweet after that.  He had played bad cop and, obviously, [I was the] good cop.  She was making martinis when we were shooting 3 A.M. on the Universal lot at night, and cookies.  She enchanted me, and I was relaxed, chatting with her, either on set or off set, just standing around.  Again, no problem whatsoever.

That was a Billy Wilder set: nobody created problems, because his hammer, in terms of a one-liner, of an insightful, jugular-aimed remark, was always there.  So everybody had their A game in terms of personality and being professional and pleasant.  Other than Ray, who just – whether it was because he was replacing [Sellers], or he didn’t get along with Billy, or what, but Ray never blended into the group.  Ray was a very private person.  We’d see rushes, and he’d go out with his assistant by himself.

What were your impressions of Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau on The Fortune Cookie?

Walter is Walter.  He was his outrageous self.  Walter was a gambler, and just an outrageous guy.  He was always one-liners, quips, kind of a sardonic side that he had developed so brilliantly, and became such a brilliant actor and a unique personality.  And Jack was a gentleman, a thorough professional.  You know Jack went to Harvard?  He was bright, and he had worked on everything; by the time he showed up on set, it had been worked out.  And [with] Billy we worked nine to five.  That was all.  Because everything had been worked out in the script, everybody had worked and prepared, and you just showed up, rehearsed, and [shot it].  Billy would cast that watchful eye, and you’d do it several times, until it became just smooth, precise, architected, if you will.

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With Noam Pitlik in The Fortune Cookie (1966).

Were there any projects you talked about doing with Wilder that didn’t come to pass? 

We had some ideas in those early years, when it looked like Kiss Me, Stupid might be a hit.  There were a couple of stories.  I remember one about – was it an actor, or a wrestler? – he was starving here in L.A., and all he had was his little dog, and finally, in order to survive, he was pushed to almost to having to eat his dog.  It was a wonderful high-low concept.

And we talked of different things, but it petered out, except the friendship, and the mentoring.  He had read The Penitent, early, early on, I had given it to him, I think during one of the [first] two movies.  I had given it to him and he said, “Anything I can do.”  He liked it very much, and was very supportive.  One time he came to me and said, “How are you, agent-wise?”  And I said, “Fine.  Why?”  He said, “Well, I have a friend” – and again this was those early days of Kiss Me, Stupid – “I have a friend who might be interested in chatting with you, if you’re not happy.  But you seem the loyal type, Cliff.”  He said, “I’m sure you’re quite content where you are.”  I said, “Well, it’s been going well for me.”  So I never made that kind of power move that maybe I should have early in my career.

So The Penitent was a script that you had written that early?

Yes, that early.  Billy had read it.  Oh, he said to me, “Cliff, maybe it’s a trunk script.”  I said, “What’s that?”  He said, “You put it in a trunk, and years later you pull it out, when the opportunity presents itself.”  And that’s what happened.

Let me ask about a few of your other films.  Wild and Wonderful (1964)?

I think originally it was called Monsieur Cognac.  I had finished shooting Kiss Me, Stupid, and Billy had recommended me to Tony Curtis, who was doing the lead, with Christine Kaufmann, his wife.  They called me in to audition for the part that Jacques Aubuchon did, and instead of the Jacques Aubuchon role, they offered me this other role, Hercule.  And I took it.

Tony Curtis was interesting, always, and I remember asking him – he had about seven other films already signed, contracted, to do, and I said, “Tony, why?”  Seven films, you know.  You’re young, you think your career is going to not only last forever, but [abound] in possibilities, and Tony being around a little longer, and much wiser at the time, said, “Cliff, I remember all the times I didn’t work.”  He said, “I’ve got ’em lined up now!  I’m not going to take a chance on being out of work.”  He was a delightful kind of guy.  It was a very light, frothy kind of film, and the part I played – it was not one of my happiest experiences, just in terms of personal, creative kind of work.  But it was fine.

You also made a film with Stanley Kramer.

Yes, I did.  Oklahoma Crude.  That had happened – the casting director on it was a man called Steve Stevens, who earlier than that had been a sub-agent with Meyer Mishkin, so I had known him from those days.  He had been my agent.  Then he was casting for Oklahoma Crude, and I went in and met Stanley Kramer, and he cast me in a small role in a scene with George Scott.

You did a couple of exploitation films: Invasion of the Bee Girls and Sweet Sugar.

We shot that in Costa Rica.  That was strictly money; I needed money.  They came to me and I said, “Yes, anything, I need to pay the mortgage.”  And Costa Rica is a lovely country.  I loved the experience; it’s just that the film was ridiculous.  At the time, you grab at the money.  They said, “It’s only going to play the drive-ins in the South.  Nobody is going to see it.  Don’t worry about it.”  So you do it, figuring okay, I can slip one by, and you get caught by cable!  It comes back to haunt you.

And the same with Invasion of the Bee Girls.  Although I think the writer of that was Nick Meyer, The Seven Per Cent Solution.  He eventually got good.  He was not good on that one.  We wound up improvising almost all the dialogue.  Or I did, anyway, my role.  And actually, because of the improvisational nature of the dialogue, it turned out to be one of the smoother performances I had done.  It was fine.  It paid the bills; I made a few bucks.

Were there any casting directors or producers who used you repeatedly?

Pam Polifroni, with Gunsmoke.  And there was a director, Paul Krasny.  I did two or three things with him, and then I did Joe Panther with him, and he and I had a falling out on that, because the producer was going to replace him with me as the director, even though I had no union status.  I had written the script on that – I got no credit – but I had written the final rewrite that was the shooting script.  I got along with the producer very well, a nice Mormon gentleman out of Bountiful, Utah.  He increasingly got disenchanted with Paul and increasingly relied on me, to a point where at several points he was contemplating firing Paul and replacing him with me.  That never evidenced itself, although I stayed with the film and in fact I ran the post production, at the producer’s behest.  The coloring and the final editing and all that.  That’s why I got a “creative supervisor” credit on that.  Paul obviously knew what was going on, that I was [approached] to replace him, and certainly he was not enchanted when my name came up for various roles afterwards.  He would just ignore the mention of my name.

What do you remember about him?

He was a very, very competent director.  He was like the old studio directors.  You could rely on him.  Very competent, very brilliant.  He had a group of actors he liked to work with, generally people he got along with, which I had been part of a little bit, earlier, before the experience on Joe Panther.  But Paul was high-strung, let me just put it that way.  Sometimes would get in over his head, and then would – what’s the word – rather than settle down and say, look, I’m in over my head here, how can I solve my way through this, there would be a bit of avoidance of the issue.

What do you mean by over his head?

He would just shoot through it or pretend it didn’t exist.  How can I say this . . . . Is Paul dead now?

Yes, he died in 2001.

Paul liked to live high.  There was some mention of possible drugs.  That’s what I meant by avoiding the issue.  Whether it’s drinking, or he just liked a good meal, or whether he was doing a little coke, I don’t know.  I remember he said to me – he was wearing gold chains all the time, he had gold everywhere – he said, “If you’ve got it, flaunt it.”  I remember a very young, pretty wife, and I believe she was Filipina.  And Paul was sort of fine until it wasn’t fine.

Are there other feature films that you consider memorable?

I did the one with Cornel Wilde [Sharks’ Treasure, 1975].  Cornel was a product of the old studio system.  He was bright.  When you went into audition for him, classical music was being played, which is not your typical producer-star-director kind of ambience.  And he was very worried about realism.  He had carved that niche, I think, with The Naked Prey, and probably wanted to go against his own background with the studio days, where it was all formal acting.

Cornel was a martinet.  He controlled everything.  That was important.  When I went in to audition for him, he wanted someone Spanish.  He wanted a true accent.  He was not interested in me, not being Spanish, and I went and worked very hard on an accent appropriate to the script.  And when I went in and read for him, he bought it, even though he had been highly reluctant to cast anyone who was not Spanish.

Then I went on the set with him and Yaphet Kotto, who had been fairly hot coming off Report to the Commissioner.  Yaphet was very extravagant.  He was a games-player.  He loved to play with your head.  He was mischievous, that’s the word.  Whereas Cornel was all business, and getting it done, and staying within budget, and very elegant.  I think Cornel came out of New York originally, but he had adopted a Los Angeles elegance, a movie studio elegance.  But was very controlling.  You did it his way.  Which was all right, because he had taste.  I have very few horror stories in this business, where I just didn’t get along with people.  Whether it’s just that I’m mild-mannered, or they’re all awfully nice.  I doubt that.

You mentioned that Gunsmoke paid well.  Was there a big range in what an actor could expect to get for a guest star role?

No, I remember specifically, for a guest star role at the time – now remember, this was 1968 to ’70, and I had no high visibility or TV quotient to make special deals – I think I got $3500 for an episode.  Then you were automatically going to make an additional $3500 for first rerun, so you were guaranteed $7000.  That’s why, in those days, you could make a nice living being a character actor who guest starred in various shows.  And the other shows maybe topped out at $2500.  I think it was five days [of shooting].

Was there a set number of jobs you felt like you needed to get in a year to get by?

I had bought a home in Pacific Palisades, which is a nice area in Los Angeles, and that money had come from doing the Billy Wilder films, for the down payment and so forth.  So [there was] enough to sustain a decent middle, upper-middle class existence with two children and a stay-at-home wife.  I don’t know what my yearly nut was at the time, but certainly you could work as a reputable character actor and make a nice living.  That diminished over time.

Really?  It got worse, instead of better?

Oh, eventually it became, you either did a series to ensure that kind of income, or you found alternative economic interests.  That’s when I began to teach and develop acting programs.

Is that why you didn’t work as much after the mid-eighties?

I don’t know.  Obviously I wasn’t getting sufficient offers to maintain my lifestyle.  I saw the handwriting on the wall, and began to transition and spend a lot of time traveling the country doing seminars and so forth, in order to maintain my economic existence and my family’s standard of living.

And the parts were not as much fun.  The times had changed.  I had a very exotic kind of [appearance].  I’m six foot five and three quarters, with acne scars on my face from dermatological problems as a kid.  I was, I won’t say larger than life, but very “large life.”  The heavies were dark, swarthy, large people like myself, and they gradually changed to looking blond and blue-eyed and five foot ten.  It was a transition in the whole field.  It moved from passion to neuroses in those kinds of roles.  Now, whether I was as good as I would like to have been, whether I blew it myself, who’s to determine that.  But I saw a certain handwriting on the wall in terms of the economic benefits of working as a character actor.

I think that’s an excellent point.  After Hill Street Blues and St. Elsewhere, television scaled down, became more realist in its approach.  The westerns went away.  The bad guys became lawyers and Wall Street types.

[Laughs]  Yes, those changes.  I couldn’t have been as viable.  The heavies were more commonplace in terms of their aspect.  So that’s when I began to make the transition, in the late seventies, early eighties, to develop acting programs and to teach.  I found a whole new arena of economic possibility.

And you did some writing as well.

Yes.  I did about six or seven [TV] episodes, and wrote a couple of pilots that never got produced, for CBS.  Then I wrote a film in the early eighties, and had written and got an award in Canada for a thing called Power Play, with Peter O’Toole.  Obviously the transition was beginning then, or the possibility of expanding a career.  And I directed a sort of sci-fi paranormal thing called Black Bxx: Haunted just last year, and the fellow who produced it just signed on to NBC to do the new series with Jon[athan Rhys] Meyers, Dracula.

You mean Daniel Knauf, who created Carnivale.

Yeah, Danny.  He was an acting student.  He had taken acting for about a year and a half, at Armand Assante’s suggestion.  He was a writer, but Armand had said that he thought Dan would benefit from taking an acting class, it would help his writing.  So Dan did for about a year and a half, and we’ve remained friends ever since.

Do you have any other acting students who have since become well-known?

Well, Vince Vaughn was a student, way back in the beginnings of his career.  My wife was his early agent, may have been his first.  And Armand I’ve worked with for years, on various projects that he’s had.

He’s in the film you directed, The Penitent (1988).

That’s where we met.  In the twenty-five years since then, we’ve become very dear friends, and also over the years, different projects that he was on, he would call me in and say, “Can we work together for a while?”  And I would do some private coaching with him.

Were there any roles that you regret having turned down?

Well, I got close on some that just haunt me to this day.  Charade, the George Kennedy role, with Stanley Donen.  That got close.

Did you audition for it?

I think I met Donen.  I’m pretty sure; I’m not positive.  But I remember Meyer pushing very hard.  Then, also, what was the Paul Newman film that George Kennedy got the Academy Award for?  Cool Hand Luke.  I was second in the running for that part.  Years later, I met [the agent] Marty Baum at a restaurant on Pico, and he apologized because he had used some muscle to secure the role for George.

Another one I got very close on was The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter.  There, I had met with the director, who originally had done Ulysses.  His name was Joseph Strick.  We met at the Beverly Hillcrest, and I think he had seen Kiss Me, Stupid.  It looked like he wanted me.  Then he ended up not doing the film, and then I think Chuck McCann, an actor who had done commercials, got the role.  I got bumped because [Strick] got bumped.  That would have been very nice.  Those were three almosts.  You could blame the political system of agents, you could blame directors, or you could blame yourself for not being quite the actor you could be, or should have been.  But these were close.  These were game-changers in a career that, for whatever reason, didn’t come my way.

OsmondTZ

With Nico Minardos in The Twilight Zone (“The Gift,” 1962). This interview was conducted by telephone on October 4 and October 20, 2012.  Cliff Osmond died of cancer at his home in Pacific Palisades, California, on December 22, 2012.

Thief

Jowly, pock-marked, and massive, Cliff Osmond was the kind of actor whose career was defined as much by his physique as by his talent.  In his television debut, on The Rifleman, Osmond played a simple-minded musician, and he would reprise the gentle giant archetype in other developmentally disabled roles (on Gunsmoke, for instance).  Osmond went on to add the bumbling oaf, the sadistic henchman, and the crooked lawman to his repertoire, all the while seeking (and occasionally finding) meatier roles outside of the physical typecasting.  Just as the diminutive Billy Barty was a man who – to paraphrase a memorable LA Weekly profile – never saw the top of a refrigerator, so was Cliff Osmond an actor who played a romantic lead only once during his thirty-five years on the screen.

And yet his work was as diverse as someone with so specific a physique could manage.  Ethnically ambiguous, his native origins disguised by a name change, Osmond tried out an array of different accents, playing Germans, Greeks, Italians, Frenchmen, Native Americans, and redneck sheriffs.  He also had a sense of humor, a light touch that contrasted with his heavy step and allowed him to criss-cross between dramas and sitcoms.  Osmond’s best-remembered projects are a quartet of late, underappreciated films for Billy Wilder: Irma La Douce, Kiss Me, Stupid, The Fortune Cookie, and The Front Page.  The acerbic writer-director, who became a friend and mentor to Osmond, saw him not as a straight heavy but as a world-weary, philosophical schemer – a useful type for Wilder’s cynical, sagacious comedies.

Osmond, who worked primarily as an acting coach in recent years, had a voluminous web presence – social media, a website, and not one but two blogs, one for work and one for more personal ruminations (such as a chronicle of his stint as a volunteer for John Edwards’s 2008 presidential campaign).  But I noticed over time that Osmond rarely reminisced about his career in any of those spaces, and last year I contacted him to ask if this blog might be a good home for some of those anecdotes.  He agreed at once, pointing out that he had rarely given interviews (I could find only one significant one, for Kevin Lally’s 1996 biography Wilder Times) but that he had recently become more interested in looking backward, at his own history.

What I did not know, when Cliff and I recorded this interview over the phone in October, was that he was dying of pancreatic cancer.  Diagnosed nearly four years earlier, Cliff had far outlived the disease’s usual life expectancy, exhausted his chemotherapy options and, in September, learned that the cancer had metastasized to his brain.  Cliff had also been working on a memoir of sorts for his family and friends, and I now suspect (and Cliff’s widow, Gretchen, agrees) that doing this interview was another gesture toward posterity.  He was “obsessed with tying together his life, with making sense of it for himself, for us, during the last year,” as Gretchen told me last week.  Cliff Osmond passed away on December 22, 2012.

 

Tell me about your first time in front of a motion picture camera.

There was a very small thing, How the West Was Won.  I’m standing behind Gregory Peck, mugging myself to death, just terrible acting, but trying to be noticed.  My agent got me that job in order to get my union card.  So that really was the first time in front of a camera.

What was that like?

I was so overwhelmed.  At that age you think you belong, you think you’re wonderful, you think you’re at your proper place.  I wasn’t nervous.  I was behind him [Peck].  I probably felt I should have been in front of him!  I always felt, when I was a young man, I belonged.  It’s like a young football player, challenging the old-timers.  It’s your turn.  They should move aside.  That’s how silly you are, but that’s how you are when you’re young, and it gives you the impetus and the drive to succeed.  And this held on for years, and I worked with some very great actors.

Several directors worked on How the West Was Won.  Who directed your scenes?

Henry Hathaway.  He was a grumpy, get-it-done kind of man.  I don’t remember any direction.  I was just supposed to stand there and watch, and deal with the scene as it played out.

Then you went straight into television, and worked steadily.

After that I had my union card, and I went in on an audition.  I had the same agent as Chuck Connors, a guy called Meyer Mishkin, who had had Jeff Chandler, Lee Marvin, Jimmy Coburn, Morgan Woodward.  Meyer was about five foot five, and he had all these large alpha males as clients.  I had an audition to go for The Rifleman, through the good offices of Chuck Connors.

I went in and read for [an episode], and they sent me across the hall.  They said, “We’ve got a show coming up even before then.  Somebody just had a heart attack.”  Someone they were contemplating casting had had a heart attack.  I forget the gentleman’s name.  And I went in and read and wound up getting the role.  So a lead on The Rifleman was the very first thing I did.  A nice start.

Rifleman2

Osmond’s television debut on The Rifleman (“None So Blind,” 1962)

Were you the villain in that?

The villain-hero.  It was a blind troubadour who was coming back to avenge himself on Chuck Connors because he believed that Chuck had destroyed his wife while he had been in prison.  But it turned out to be a very sympathetic character.  Number one, Chuck had not done this to the wife, and the man had to face that realization.  And he also was a troubadour, and if you sing a song you always have a softened character.  You can be the worst heavy in the world, but if you’re singing a song, you’re a nice guy.

Do you remember Paul Wendkos?

Yes, Paul directed that episode.  He was very bright, very intelligent.  Well organized.  Very analytic.  There were no problems.  He was very forthcoming and very illuminating, helpful.  I was very pleased, and I hope I gave him what he wanted.  I think I did.  It was a very nice episode, actually.  Other than the fact that I had to sing back to a recording.  They had the soundtrack on the set, and I mouthed the words.  “Shenandoah” was the song.  I couldn’t carry a tune worth a damn, and I obviously wasn’t blind, and I was playing a fifty year-old man and I was twenty-five.  They had to dye my hair.  Obviously I’d done something in the audition, apart from their desperation, that made them choose me.

What do you remember about Chuck Connors?

On all of those shows, whoever had the lead set the tone.  Chuck was a get-it-done kind of guy.  He wasn’t an artist in that sense.  Chuck could be a tough guy.  He had been a ball player.  They were doing a show, making a buck, and there was no nonsense.  Everybody did their work.  And heeded Chuck.  Chuck liked to be heeded.  He had a professional ball player’s ego.  But he was always good to me, and the fact that we had a mutual agent helped.

You did an episode of Arrest and Trial, his next series, the following year.

Yes, and also a Cowboy in Africa with him years later.  So I worked, I think, three times with him.  Always pleasant.  He was a tall man, six foot five, as I am, and that made it a nice situation.  We could both look at each other straight on.  Since I often played the heavy, or had a fight with the lead, with Chuck and later Jim Arness it was fun to beat up somebody their own size.  You didn’t seem like such a bully.  So that helped in the casting.

It’s odd to realize that you were only twenty-five at that time.  You often played characters much older than yourself.

I was always fifty.  I think I was almost born fifty.  Well, I was a large man.  Six foot five, but I was also three hundred pounds in those days.  I looked like I could be older.  So I always played older, from the very beginning.  I eventually got older.

Did you find that your physique and the way you looked were good for you professionally, or did it limit or typecast you, early on?

No, I don’t think so.  I lost some weight as the years went on and that was more limiting, actually.  I remember Billy Wilder saying to me one time – he hadn’t seen me in a couple of years – and he said, “You’ve lost weight.”  And I knew what he was saying was, it was good for my health, but for my character type there was a certain uniqueness of a six foot five and three quarters, three hundred pounds [frame], and yet had the capability of moving.  I had been an athlete as a kid, and had a certain grace.  That gave me a certain stamp of uniqueness that I would not have had otherwise, and I’m sure that helped in my getting going.

Even in the comedies – I remember on The Bob Newhart Show, he [did] a group session where everyone was overweight.  When I went in for that, the assistant director met me and I met the director – I had known him before, I think – and he said, “My god, where did you go?” I had lost forty or fifty pounds.  I had lost enough weight that I wasn’t really right for an overweight group.  I said, “I’m sorry I’ve lost all this weight.  I knew when you called me in there was going to be a contradiction here.” And they said, “Well, come on and read anyway.”  I wound up reading and getting the part.  They had to pad me forty or fifty pounds!  But fortunately I still had a full face, and that carried itself.

But the weight was definitely a very important thing.  That was a time of exotic characters.  The heavies began to get blond and blue-eyed and five-foot-ten there in the late sixties and early seventies.  But before that period, before I broke in, the heavies were exotic characters.  They were larger than life – I don’t know about larger than life, but very large life.  And that aided me, very definitely.

And you were ambiguous ethnically as well – another good quality for a villain.  You played many a foreigner.

Absolutely.  I did.  Anything in the Middle East.  I played Russian, I played Mexican, Eastern European, Hungarian, I played American Indian.  So all those physical attributes helped.

Let’s go back to some of your early television work.

The second was a Twilight Zone.  The director Paul Mazursky was in it as an actor.  It was called “The Gift.”  It turned out to be a very nice episode.  I went out and auditioned – I forget who the casting director was.  Buck Houghton was the producer, out at MGM.  That went fine, again.  Just did the work.

And then Dr. Kildare.  [Guest star] Lee Marvin had been a client of Meyer Mishkin’s, and I’m sure the entree came from that.  I don’t know if I read or not.  In those early days an agent would submit you for a role and you didn’t have to audition.  If they liked you or wanted to inquire further, he’d say, “Look, he just did something for CBS.  Go see The Twilight Zone.  Call CBS.” Or whatever network it was on, and they would have it shipped over and they’d look at it and say, “Oh, yeah, he’s a good actor.”  Or “Yes, he’d be right.”

Do you have any memory of working with Lee Marvin?

Yes.  Lee was a great actor.  I always wanted to pick anybody’s brain, and I remember looking at his script one day when he had left it on the chair and went off to the bathroom.  I was thinking, “What is the magical formula?”  He had been reading it and taking notes.  And in every scene, he had just written a simple thing: what it was that his character wanted.  That’s all.  Every scene.  What his character wanted.  He knew that he was extravagant enough as a personality, and talented enough as a craftsman, that by following that formulation he would be interesting, exciting, and the performance would be fine.  So he had reduced it to the essential element.

Was he exciting to play a scene with?

Absolutely.  He was very spontaneous.  Very natural.  A wonderful actor, but heightened by a high proportion of spontaneity.  Lee really didn’t give a shit, in that sense.  Whatever came, came.  Let’s just wing it, let’s just do it.  He didn’t have to plan every move.  So it was exciting, because you never knew what he was going to do, because Lee didn’t know what he was going to do next.

The World’s Greatest Robbery” was a segment of the DuPont Show of the Week anthology, with a great all-character actor cast.  Franklin Schaffner directed it.

He was very bright, and very – I don’t mean this pejoratively – waspy intelligent.  He was a brilliant man, obviously driven if he was in this business and wanted to be a director, but meticulous, well-planned.  We did it live [on tape].  I believe we shot it over a weekend, at NBC.  There was a group of us – again, Paul Mazursky was in this as an actor, and R. G. Armstrong – who played the core group that were committing this Brinks robbery.

So your career really began in Los Angeles and in film and television, without much of an apprenticeship in the theatre.  I should back up and ask how you got there, and connected with Meyer Mishkin and got your start.

I was raised right across the river from New York, in Union City, New Jersey, so the logic would have been probably to stay home and make the rounds in New York and try to get going.  My background had all been theater.  I had gone to Dartmouth, and so really my affiliation was with the East Coast.  But I had hitchhiked to California about two years earlier, and fell in love with it.  That was one reason.  Two, the lure of film.  Three, I had never gotten along with the theater crowd at Dartmouth or in the East.  It was something, I don’t know, my own insecurity.  They seemed a little too cultured and judgmental for me, and I was more of an outsider in that arena.  And I basically just wanted to get away from my mother.  Had I stayed in the East, I would have had to live [at] home.  So I went west.

In an interview for Kevin Lally’s book on Billy Wilder, you described yourself at the time of Irma La Douce as “fragile, terribly insecure, seven years removed from the inner city ghetto, having made a tremendous leap in social class and artistic work.”  Can you expand upon that?

Yeah, that’s valid.  I was “upper poor,” that was the class.  And an inner city kid.  Dartmouth was quite a cultural shock.  And then Hollywood.  I remember, Kiss Me, Stupid, going to a party at Ira Gershwin’s house.  Jack Lemmon was there, and Peter Sellers and Kim Novak and Ira Gershwin and Billy.  And thinking: what the hell am I doing here?  I graduated in 1960, and this was 1964.

Dartmouth had helped the process of developing a little bit of class.  When I went to college, I thought Freud was pronounced Froo-id.  I had to learn to speak in college by doing plays of George Bernard Shaw, and trying desperately to change my accent.  It was a rigorous going in those four or five years at Dartmouth, to feel I belonged.  And even when I went to work for Billy, I didn’t feel I belonged.  My wife worked at Union Bank in Beverly Hills, and right across Beverly Drive was a place called Blum’s, which was, for me, upscale.  They had a fountain and they had candy and they sold goodies, and I would stop over there for breakfast and I would feel very intimidated that I didn’t belong in this restaurant, sitting at a counter having breakfast waiting for my wife to join me.  And I remember when she didn’t join me, I would go down to a Norm’s on La Cienaga, where I felt much more comfortable.

So, quite a culture shock.  But I was ambitious, and I was driven, and I had a will, an energy.  When I came out to L.A., I had sixteen dollars in my pocket.  I lost twenty-five pounds till I found a job writing insurance.  It was a climb into feeling secure socioeconomically and culturally.  It’s one of the reasons I never stayed in New York.  I felt that I could never handle the elegance of the New York theatre world.  That culture was something that I would be constantly jarring up against.

But Los Angeles seemed less impenetrable?

The agent was the intermediary.  In New York, I knew you had to make your rounds.  You had to go out and meet people and sell them.  I have never been a great self-marketer.  And L.A., I had heard that agents ran everything.  The insularity benefitted me, I thought at the time.  It was a manifestation of the insecurity.

Tell me more about your family and your background.

My mother was a German, out of Minnesota.  She had run away from home when she was fifteen and moved to Detroit during the depression, and worked in the factories.  There was a union organizer there, and [she] lived a kind of free and wild life.  When she got married and had two kids, eventually three, she wanted more for them.  She remembered her middle class roots, and that’s when the disruption between she and my father [occurred].  He and she broke up when I was twelve.  My father was a waiter.  He worked nights at a local big restaurant in the Transfer Station section of Union City.  My father said, “Son, I just never could make money in my life.  I was smarter than my friends, but they could make money.  I never could make money.”

My mother had some rough times.  She went to work for minimum wage, in a sweatshop, there in Union City.  A sewing machine operator.  And he tried various businesses, failed, did a lot of drinking in those days.  My brother and I were amazed that they broke up.  We thought we were happy.  But I did very well in school.  I was happy. We didn’t know we were poor.  Everybody around us was struggling with one thing or another.

Your real name is Clifford Ebrahim.

It’s Turkish.  My father, when he came over, at Ellis Island, they asked him his name and he said, “Ishmael.”  They said, “Ishmael what?  What’s your surname?”  He didn’t understand.  He said, “Ishmael bin Ebrahim” – he’s the son of Ebrahim.  So they wrote down that his surname was Ebrahim.

Were you raised as a Muslim, or Christian?

I was raised Catholic.  My mother was Roman Catholic, and my father was never very religious.  He drank, he smoked, he ate pork.  In fact he had a wonderful story – when I asked him when Khomeini took over in Iran, I said, “Well, what do you think, Dad?”  He and I had not spoken for twenty years; that’s another long story.  But we had a rapprochement and I said, “What do you think of this Khomeini thing?”  He said, “What do you mean?”  I said, “Well, the Muslim resurgence in the world.  Do you connect with it?  Is there a little pride, a little connection?”  And he said, “Ah, they’re all crazy.  Why do you think I left?”

He said, “Let me tell you something, son.  Do you remember when we moved into that house and the rain had leaked all the time and we had to put out pots and pans?  Remember when you and your brother had to catch mice and rats in the traps and all of that?  Even in those days, I was gambling a thousand dollars a day.  Where but in America could a man do that?  This is the greatest country in the world.”

How did you choose Cliff Osmond?

I had a Jewish agent.  The second agent with Meyer Mishkin said I’d have to change my name, that an Arabic-sounding name was not going to do well.  I took umbrage, of course, for about a day and a half.  But I was as greedy and ambitious as anyone else, and we decided to take “Osman,” my middle name, which again is a Turkish name, and change that to Osmond.  It kind of vanillacized the name.  “Cliff Osmond,” that seemed properly waspish.

Legally, I have always gone by Ebrahim.  I remember thinking at the time I would have a rational schizophrenia.  I would have two mindsets.  My work would be Cliff Osmond, and then everything legal, the home purchase, and my marriage and my children and all of that would be Clifford Ebrahim.  You make these decisions . . . . I thought it was a decision with integrity, that I would on the one hand deny my heritage but on the other hand maintain it.  You try to have the best of both worlds, and often when you try to have the best of both worlds, and stand with your feet astride a vacuum underneath, you wind up spreading your legs too much and you wind up falling on your face.  In many ways I’ve regretted not having a singular identity.  But that’s a choice I made.

Your move to California – was that an adventure?

I had no money.  I didn’t know anybody.  On the way out to California, I ran into somebody in a bit of serendipity in Dallas.  Somebody that I had met at [my] Dartmouth graduation was going to put me up for a free meal, and while I was there I went to the Dallas Theater Center, and while I was there I ran into someone who five years before had graduated Dartmouth, who was then a student in a repertory company in Dallas.  He said, “Oh, why don’t you audition for this?”  So I went to the Greyhound terminal for a shave, went over, auditioned, and they offered me a hundred a month to stay there and be part of the repertory company and also take some graduate courses.  So I spent a year or so there, acting, at the Dallas Theater Center.  At the end of which time, Paul Baker and I had a semi-antagonistic relationship, so my scholarship was rescinded the second year.  He gave it to my girlfriend, hoping that she would stay and I would leave.  And I did leave.  I went to California, not knowing anyone.  

And your girlfriend stayed behind?

She stayed, except that I did win eventually.  I started working in about four or five months, and she came out, followed me.  In fact we’ve been married fifty years.  So I triumphed in that regard.

But I came out here, and I had to get a job.  I had sixteen bucks.  A friend from Dartmouth’s brother was running an apartment complex in Downey, and he let me stay in an unfurnished apartment, sleeping on the floor, for a month or so.  I would hitchhike or take the bus up to Los Angeles and try to find a steady gig, a straight job, so I could eat.  Finally I got a job at Continental Assurance Company, underwriting group insurance proposals, which I had done in New York the year that I’d left college.  So I did that.  Didn’t tell anyone I was an actor.  And then got affiliated with a group in Hollywood.  So during the day, I was a straight group insurance proposal writer, and then at night I would do plays.  I wound up in a play at the Troubadour.  It must have been on an off night – the Troubadour was a musical venue – and we did a thing by Ionesco called Victims of Duty.  A couple of agents saw it, one of which was Meyer Mishkin’s assistant, and she liked me.  That was about five months into being in L.A.  And in the ensuing two months, I continued to work in insurance, and then when I had an audition I just would call in sick.  By January of ’62, I hit the Rifleman situation, and then during that period I talked my future wife into coming out here.

Mishkin represented a number of established, or at least very promising, young leading men, and here you were, an unknown and also not a matinee idol type.

I think like any business, you have your main product, and then you do your research and development.  You’re developing new products.  Jeff Chandler had died a year or two before.  Lee was now hot.  Behind him, he had Claude Akins, who would do Movin’ On, the trucker series.  He had Claude, and Morgan Woodward, and Jimmy Coburn was coming up.  And then he was finding some new people.

Were there other young actors you hung out with, or studied with, during this time?

You know, I was not a group kind of guy.  First of all, having my lady coming out, I also had a great domestic yearning, a very bourgeois yearning to have a good life, and get married and have kids.  I mostly affiliated with her.  I also went to UCLA and was working on my Masters in Business Administration at the very same time, from’62 to’66, the period we’re talking about, when I was getting started, I was getting a Masters at the same time at UCLA in finance.

Was that a way of hedging your bets, in case the acting career didn’t take off?

I think it was.  I also found that kind of life very satisfying, and it interested me.  I did not spend the amount of time I should have on my career.  So it was positive in terms of it made me happy, but a negative effect on the career, certainly.  I wasn’t a hanger-outer.  I’ve always been a semi-loner, even in college.  Group affiliation was not my strong suit.  I’ve got friends, obviously, and a social circle, but I did not hang out with actors that much after I started working.

Laredo

As a drunken Indian chief (very funny opposite a stone-faced Shelley Morrison as his wife) on Laredo (“Yahoo,” 1965)

After The Rifleman, you did more westerns, including Laredo and three episodes of Wagon Train.

That was fun.  It was fun to go on location and play seedy and rustic, because I was an urban kid and it played into the fantasy element of acting.

One of your Wagon Trains guest starred Robert Ryan.

That’s an interesting story, yes.  Robert Ryan was, number one, one of the great actors.  He was a Dartmouth graduate, and there was a time when I had been put in contact with Robert Ryan by someone at Dartmouth, and had visited him at his palatial home in Beverly Hills.  It was on Carroll Drive, I believe.  I went out to the house, and he was very gentlemanly and courtly, and we chatted for a bit.  He gave me some advice, tips, and so forth, and that was it.  Now, several years had passed, and suddenly I was going to be on a show with him.  He didn’t remember me.  I did not [remind him] that we had gotten together.  And now we were just two actors.

By the story we had to be antagonistic, and I think we had a physical fight.  I remember very vividly, it was a tough fight.  Robert Ryan had been a professional boxer, and physical prowess was something he took pride in.  And I was a young guy, and obviously [to] young guys, at least the kind of guy I was, physical prowess was important.  So we were going at each other, and it was one of the toughest fights I have ever had in film.  Because he was not going to back off, and I was not going to back off.  We didn’t speak or say anything, but we went at it.  He was tough.

Was it a real fight?

No, it was a staged fight.  But normally with a staged fight you’d go to eighty, eighty-five percent.  We were hovering in the ninety, ninety-five percent of effort.  We were pushing.  I mean, there was not so much a personal element, but there was, for me, all right, older actor, I’m going to take you out and show how tough I am.  And he’s an older actor saying, hey kid, okay, you want to push it, all right, I’ll push it.  You want to see?  You want to see what I got left?

I know you’ve written a lot about the craft and the process of acting more recently, but at that time, what kind of approach were you taking?  Did you follow a particular technique?  Was it all instinct at first?

I had some very intelligent directors, theater people, at Dartmouth.  Dartmouth did not have a theater program; in other words, you couldn’t take any courses or anything.  It was all extracurricular.  But I did sixteen plays there.  So there was a lot of actual rehearsal, and it was mostly what they call technical, but I prefer to call mechanical.  Speech, movement, and these kinds of things.  We did a lot of classics.  Yet there was a sense in me that emotional truth had to happen.  I never had any formal training in it, but I knew that it was the goal.  I did a couple of student plays, Of Mice and Men and A View From the Bridge, directed them myself and did the leads, and constantly trying to move my instrument toward emotional truth.  But, again, no formal training.

Then I went to Dallas and did the theater there, and they were very much into rhythm, line, texture, form – again, the technical, mechanical, formal aspects of an actor.  And I would be fighting again for this emotional truth.  Unfortunately what I saw as emotional truth was auto-stimulated.  It was generated by the truth, but also generated by the actor themselves and not by the scene and the interplay between the characters.  This meant when I came to Hollywood, this was what I still knew.  I was a very clever tactician – by tactician, I mean mechanical, very bright, knew how to do a narrative, tried to reach for the emotional quality of the character but did not really listen well, did not deal with others well in terms of listening and the byplay back and forth.  So I missed the key element for me, in reality.  I missed that key element.  I never had that training.  I did some improv for a while with Jeff Corey, for like four months, but never quite caught on its value.  So I was relatively untrained in the sense of a method, like Meisner, Strasberg, overall Stanislavski, Uta Hagen, all of that.

It seems that everyone I talk to who was your age or a little older and working as an actor in Los Angeles in the sixties passed through Jeff Corey’s class.

Jeff had been blacklisted, and he had to find a way to earn a living during the blacklist and began, I think, housepainting first, and then teaching.  He was a very bright man, and did mostly improv training, to get you into reality.  I don’t remember his instructions, but I do remember the place, and how intelligent he was.  But there was no formal training.  It wasn’t like, you do this, and you do that, and this is why, this is what’s going to occur.  It wasn’t properly formula-ized.  It was just, you pick it up on your own by doing the improvisation.  He was very central to that time in Los Angeles.

Through Jeff I met Lenny Nimoy.  When I did The Rifleman, Lenny had been Jeff’s assistant, and I went to him for some help with that first role.

Do you remember anything about that session?

I went over to Leonard’s house.  He was there with his wife, and I said, “Lenny, I have this scene in The Rifleman.”  I probably had called him before and said, “I need some help.  Do you mind working on a couple of scenes, because this is a big shot.”  We had been fellow students with Jeff, although hierarchically he was the assistant and I was just a student.  And we sat there and did a couple of scenes and talked about them, what was going on in the scene and so forth.  He helped me enormously.

Did you watch him later on Star Trek?

Oh, sure.  The perfect show for the perfect man, and an iconic performance.

You were in the cast of an unsold pilot for a series about Alexander the Great, which is now remembered as something of a legendary flop.

That would have made my life had it gone!  I don’t remember the origin of the casting.  William Shatner, Cassavetes – it had a big cast.  It was done by somebody who was an intellectual about Alexander the Great, and he put this thing together.  Albert McCleery.  It was very expensive.  We shot out in the high desert.  I remember it costing, at a time, a million dollars or something.  That’s why the series really died.  ABC was doing it, and the cost was prohibitive per episode, had they gone ahead.

I was only signed for one episode, to play Memnon, and then they previewed.  And the knob-turners, the preview audience, every time I came on the interest went up in the show.  They had to come back to me and now do a contract for regular status.  Because obviously I had an appeal.  For whatever reason the audience connected with me and my character, and they came back to me and had to sign a very nice contract.  I wish that show had gone.  It would have been a lot of money.

Adam West was in that, and you later worked with him on Batman.  Why are you laughing?

I’m laughing because … you do it because you do it.  I mean, somebody makes you an offer, and you grab the money.  There was no joy in terms of creativity or anything else.  It’s not my idea of a good time, that kind of spoof.  Spoof, for me, is – what should I say – not as satisfying a form of acting.

I thought everyone in Hollywood was clamoring to be a guest star on Batman!

Well, maybe if I was going to do one of the leads and create an exotic character, and have that kind of fun perhaps.  But playing another heavy was not that satisfying.  If I had to give you my list of twenty shows that I remember, that’s not one of them.

Land of the Giants was in the same vein, except perhaps unintentionally campy.

Yeah, I did a couple of those, didn’t I?  Again, it was a job.  They came to me.  I was big.  That was another thing that went on with my career: a lot of short actors wouldn’t work with me.  I never did a Robert Conrad show.  There are a lot of actors who do not want to be in a scene with somebody that is bigger than them.  Heroic characters do not like to look up to other characters.  Unless you’re playing a giant, then that’s okay.

I seem to be picking shows to ask about that don’t mean much to you.  So which of those guest star roles were satisfying for you?  If you do have a mental top-20 list, I’m curious as to which ones are on it.

All in the Family, one.  Kojak, two.  Bob Newhart, three.  Certainly The Rifleman.  About four of the Gunsmokes were very satisfying.  One of which, the very first one I did, the Gunsmoke people submitted me for an Emmy.  And deservedly so, from their point of view, and mine.  Those leap out at me, as episodes where I did a nice job.  The blueprint that they gave me was wonderful, and it was well-executed.

Was that Gunsmoke episode “The Victim”?

Yes.  “The Victim” and “Celia,” those two were particularly pleasurable.  In “The Victim,” he was a simple man.  It didn’t go as far as Of Mice and Men in terms of the simplicity, but that element of someone just trying to figure out how to get through life, and then life threw its vicissitudes at him, and he had to struggle mightily with a deficient intellect to survive.  And of course your success and your survival is limited by who and what you are.  That’s what happened to the character at the end.  He loses.  But he loses with dignity.  That was, for me, a nice resolution.

And then “Celia” was a love story.  The only love story I ever got to do.  It was a prominent role, and I did a good narrative job.  I know how to tell a story.  “Celia” was told very well.  You knew pretty much where the character was at all times in its plotting and its theme.

Was “Celia” a femme fatale kind of story?

Yes, exactly.  Somebody tried to use an abuse a blacksmith, tried to get money from him.  And fool that he is, he falls in love with her.

Gunsmoke was always a pleasure to be on the set.  It was run [with] the highest level of professionalism.  Jim Arness demanded that.  He obviously had an affinity toward actors and acting.  There was just never any problem.  Everything was top-notch.  Including salary.  That was one of the best-paying shows.  Even comparable to the last few years.  It paid well, everyone was treated with the utmost respect, and the assistant directors didn’t run around and say, “The heavy’s up next!”  They always referred to you by name.  Without being obsequious.  They just were highly professional, and the show was fun.

Newhart

What do you remember about Bob Newhart (“The Heavyweights,” 1975, above)?

Just absolutely delightful.  You know, the fish stinks from the head first, and it also smells good from the head first.  He was a relaxed kind of guy.  He reminded me of when I worked with Dean Martin.  They knew what they could do, they did do what they could do well, and they enjoyed being themselves doing what they did well.  So the set was pleasant; it never got out of control.

And All in the Family, it was just an excellent concept, an excellent cast.  All people who were intelligent, hard-working, and they cared about what they were doing.  And they were kind enough to leave you alone, or at least left me alone, to do what I do well.

What are your thoughts about Carroll O’Connor?

He’s buried between Billy Wilder and Jack Lemmon.  I happened to be at the cemetery the other day, and that just popped into my brain.  What do I remember about Carroll?  He was hard-driving, professional.  Get out of his way if you weren’t any good, and if you were good, he’d welcome you and you’d do the work.  There was an element of irascibility, but it was under control.  He was just a tough, good actor, who’d paid his dues and now he was going to shine.

Why is Kojak near the top of your list?

That was an interesting one.  We were doing a kind of a – the old Victor McLaglen thing, where he winds up getting killed by the group because he rats on somebody.  The Informer – they were doing their version of The Informer.  I had the lead in that, and there was a group of good actors, a lot of them out of New York.  Sally Kirkland was in it.

Telly Savalas, by then, was a success, and Savalas was not that enthralled doing the work.  We had worked one day, worked very hard, and we showed up on the second day to start his work.  He hadn’t read the script.  And he had the history of not being off-camera.  If you had a scene with him, once he got done with his side, he’d disappear into the dressing room, and you’d have to work with the script supervisor [reading Savalas’s lines].

I don’t know if it was an overt pact, but at least I made a pact with myself to say, you know, when Telly got into this business as an actor, he must have cared.  He must have cared.  And if we work very hard, and conscientiously, in our scenes, he will be embarrassed not to be off-camera with us.  That old “why I got into this business in the first place” will be triggered.  And darned if that didn’t happen.  He saw us working very hard, and he certainly worked harder off-camera, collaboratively, with everyone than he had before, in terms of at least the reputation.  So it was an enjoyable experience in that regard, and he came out with a fairly nice episode.

What other TV stars didn’t do off-camera?

Very, very few.  I cannot recall many that did not work off-camera.  Occasionally somebody would be sick or somebody would be hung over or something like that.  But no, I would say for the most part, he stands out in that regard.

You did an Ironside.  Was Raymond Burr using his famous teleprompter?

Raymond Burr?  Yeah, he would use the cards.  Certainly he would look here and he would look there.  But he had so integrated it into his persona, his character, that it wasn’t as egregious a cheat as Telly.  He had not integrated it into character.  Because he played a very direct character, and then he’s looking over your shoulder.  Whereas Raymond Burr was always this pensive, thinking, wondering, as he was looking around for his lines.

Oh, so Telly Savalas had his lines somewhere on Kojak?

Oh, yeah, on boards.

Other big stars you worked with: Lucille Ball.

She was wonderful.  I mean, she was a big girl, and I was a big guy, and we did a lot of physical stuff together.  To do comedy with her, it was like a dance.  She was very charming.  She did change, I must admit, when I brought my wife to the set and introduced my wife to her, and she wasn’t quite so accommodating and pleasant.  Now, whether she liked me because I worked hard as an actor or because I seemed like a single man or not, I don’t know.  But there was a change in her demeanor.

And you were on The Red Skelton Show.

Same thing.  I mean, I just had three lines or something in a scene.  But he was funny and charming, and nice.  And he looked off, like he always did, to find his lines, and did his usual giggling.  But it was genuine giggling.  Another physical genius.

Of all your guest spots that I ever least expected to see, it was My Living Doll, which actually came out on DVD this year (“The Pool Shark,” 1965, below).  You played a pool shark, sort of a spoof of Jackie Gleason’s Minnesota Fats character from The Hustler, in one episode.  Do you remember that?

I remember working with Robert Cummings.  I remember one comment.  I must have made some choices in performance that he was not particularly happy with.  He wanted something else.  I was explaining what I was trying for, and he nodded and nodded and he said in this way he had – a bit arch, a bit distant – “That’s very good, that’s very good.  Tell you what, why don’t you do that on the inside, but do it the way I want on the outside.”

LivingDoll1

Next week: Cliff remembers Billy Wilder.

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