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.

Last week, the character actor Jason Wingreen discussed his role as a founder of New York’s legendary off-Broadway theater, the Circle in the Square; his early film and live television roles; and his appearances on Playhouse 90, The Twilight Zone, and Wanted: Dead or Alive.  As our interview continues, Wingreen recalls his work from the sixties onward.

What are some of the other TV parts you remember?  You had recurring roles on a number of series.

I played in The Untouchables.  I played Captain Dorset of the Chicago Police and I did seven episodes.  What I remember mainly, and this is not entirely true but it seemed to be for the bulk of these seven shows, there’s a murder, and Captain Dorset arrives to investigate and look around for clues, and along comes Eliot Ness and his boys, and we greet each other and I say, “Well, Eliot, this looks like a case for you and your boys!”  And with that, off I go.

Then there was The Rounders, with Chill Wills.  I played the town drunk in about six episodes of that.  I grew up next to a saloon, and I’ve had my fill of drunks.  Then there was 12 O’Clock High, of which I did four episodes as Major Rosen, the weather officer.  I was the one who’d tell the general, played by a very good actor [Robert Lansing], that we couldn’t fly, but at eight A.M. tomorrow morning I believe we will be able to get our planes in the air. 

Then there was The Long Hot Summer.  I played Dr. Clark, the family doctor.  This was based on the feature movie, which was done with Orson Welles playing the lead.  Ed O’Brien played it on the TV series for a while.  I did nine episodes, and the funny part was, when I got my first script, I looked at my role, and my character’s name was Dr. Arrod Clark.  That seemed strange to me, because my dog’s vet was Arrod Clark.  So I went to Frank Glicksman, who was the producer of the series, and I said, “Frank, my name here, guess what, that’s the name of my vet!”  And Frank says, “I know, I know.  The author of this script promised his vet that he was going to get his name on the show.”

There were a few episodes of that that are worth mentioning.  One had to deal with the mother of the children of the family, who had split with the old man years ago and gone off elsewhere, but was not part of the series until this episode.  They got Uta Hagen to play the role of the mother.  A big star, big name.  We’re in rehearsal, we’re going to shoot this particular scene of her arrival that afternoon – the introduction by the old man of her to the children.  I was not in the scene, but I was certainly there to see this.  I wanted to watch Uta Hagen working. 

They start the rehearsal.  Uta Hagen enters, and the father says, “Children, this is your mother.”  And a young actor named Paul Geary says, and this was not in the script, “Mother . . . Mother . . . .”  Goes up to Uta Hagen, puts his hands on her throat, and starts choking her.  He had to be dragged off by the grips!  He flipped out.  They dragged him off and stopped shooting.  They got this guy off somewhere, they sent him home.  He never acted again.  They had to redo it again with somebody else, I guess, but I wasn’t there.  This was an actor who was high on something.  They told me he was a young surfer, and wanted to be an actor, and became one.  But he was on something, and “Mother, mother” is what hit him, and he went right at her. 

And the funny thing about it was that when one of the producers who was on the set at the time came up to Uta Hagen to apologize for what had happened, she said, “Oh, that’s nothing.  Happens to me all the time!”

The other thing about The Long Hot Summer was Eddie O’Brien, who played the role [of the patriarch] to start with, for the first seven or eight episodes.  I was talking to him one day on the set.  We shot it at MGM.  There was a lot of stuff left over from old movies, and we were right near the entrance to the Grand Hotel from the movie Grand Hotel.  So we were standing out there in the sun, just chatting, and Eddie was not happy.  Not happy at all.  He said to me, “They made me a lot of promises.  I was going to be very big on the series.  They made me promises, and it’s not working out.  They’re giving all the stuff to the kids.  The kids are getting all the episodes.” 

I said, “Well, that’s what it is.  What can you do?” 

He said, “I don’t know.  I don’t know, but I’m not happy.” 

Anyway, one afternoon, we were shooting a scene.  A man named Marc Daniels was directing.  A family scene, sitting around a table, with Eddie O’Brien.  They had to work on the lights before they could start to shoot.  Marc Daniels says, “Let’s run the lines a little bit while we’re waiting.” 

So they started, and Eddie O’Brien is mumbling, just mumbling the lines.  Marc Daniels says, “Come on, Eddie, let’s make a scene out of this, you know?  We’re rehearsing.” 

Eddie says, “Oh, well, forget it.  Let’s take a break.  We’ll come back.” 

O’Brien gets up and he walks to his trailer, which was right there on the set, climbs into his trailer and closes the door.  We’re just hanging around, we’re waiting, we’re waiting.  Then it’s, “We’re ready, let’s shoot the scene now.”  So Daniels says to the second assistant, “Will you get Mr. O’Brien please?  Tell him we’re ready.” 

The guy starts over towards O’Brien’s trailer.  The door opens.  O’Brien walks out.  He’s wearing his overcoat.  Turns around, turns to the left, and walks to the stage door and walks out.  Right in the middle of a rehearsal.  That was his exit from the show!  They tried to get him at home that night.  He was married to Olga San Juan.  She answered the phone, supposedly:  “Eddie doesn’t want to talk to anybody.”  He just plain quit. 

We had to stop shooting, and I got called up several weeks later.  They said they’re going to reshoot it, so I came back and they did it.  Dan O’Herlihy was playing the father now.  That’s how it is in the show business.  He played it until it went off the air.

Then there were series on which you appeared many times, but never in the same role.

I did six episodes of The Fugitive, playing different characters each time.  I did six Ironsides, and I did three Kojaks, directed by my friend Charlie Dubin.  We met in college in 1938, and I just attended his ninety-first birthday party.  I did three Bonanzas, different roles, two of them on a horse.  A horse and I are not very friendly.  I’m not a good man on a horse.

So westerns were not your favorite genre in which to work?

Westerns on a horse were not my favorite shows.  Westerns off a horse were okay.  I could play storekeepers and things like that in a western.  Or a hanger-out at the saloon.  I could play that very nicely.  That was okay.

On series like those, would you get called back repeatedly because a casting director knew you and liked your work?

Exactly.  The part would come up.  They knew by this time, I had the reputation of being able to play different characters with different accents, different situations.  I’m not blowing my own horn, but I was a talented actor.  And easygoing.  Very easy to work with.  I gave nobody any trouble at all.  I did what I was told, or asked to do, with a smile and a shoeshine.  To quote Willy Loman.

I’d be called in for one day’s work, in one scene, and have no idea of what came before or after.  And it didn’t interest me, particularly.  I just concentrated on the character, and on the particular situation that that character was involved with.  Small or large, or whatever it was.  A line or two, or a speech or seven.

Would directors give you much attention, or leave you alone to do your thing?

They practically left me on my own.  They knew who they had, the quality of my work and of my reputation, I suppose.

It’s hard to know what to ask you about all those roles where you only had a few lines.

Oh, I loved ’em.  I loved being there.  I enjoyed it all.  I don’t mind two or three lines in just an ordinary television show.  I liked to be on the set.

How would you approach a really small part, where your function was basically to deliver a piece of exposition?

I’d play the character.  I’d play the character, always.  I’m not worried about the plot.  Plot means nothing to me in a play, because I’m not concerned with the plot, I’m concerned with the character.  The character and situation will give me the clue as to how to play the part.  And also, am I playing a Noo Yawk guy, you know, and I’ve got to do the accent?  Or am I playing a doctor, or a professor perhaps?  Or am I playing [he does the accent] a Russian?  I played a Russian on Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea.  With Ed Asner – Ed Asner and I and another actor, we’re Khrushchev and two of his associates, we’ve escaped from a firing squad.  It wasn’t Khrushchev, but it was [based on him].  Ed Asner played the head of the Politburo, but he’s being overthrown by other members and his associates.  And we end up in a riceboat.  I used to kid around about us: Three Jews in a boat.  And I died in the arms of Richard Basehart.  [In a thick accent:] “Admiral, admiral!” 

That’s not bad.  Were you good at accents?

I was good at that one!  Yeah, I could do an Englishman if I worked at it.  Or I could play an Irishman, y’know.  In Howard Beach, I lived next door to an Irish saloon.  I played ball with the Irish and the Italian kids.  I was the token Jew on the team.  They liked me because I could play a good second base.

Did you have a good agent, who kept you working so much?  You must have kept him (or her) busy.

I think I’ve probably buried all my agents, I mean literally, through the years.  One was a very short young man, and he was living with an actor who played the role of Mr. Lucky on a series, John Vivyan.  The second agent was a man named Leon Lantz.  Leon Lantz, who was originally, I believe, from Hungary or Romania, was brought over to this country by Rudolf Schildkraut, the famous European actor who was the father of Joseph Schildkraut, the actor that became a very successful character actor here in Hollywood.  Leon was recommended to me by someone.  I went to meet him and he spoke with a very thick accent, and had a strange vocabulary.  He said to me, “My name is Leon O. Lantz.  ‘O’ for honest.”  And he never got my name right.

What did he call you?

He called me “Greenspring.”  It almost cost me a job once.  My wife and I were living in a kind of an English castle up in the Valley, an apartment where you had to enter by walking up a staircase on the outside to get into the apartment.  We had a dog, and my wife was out walking the dog.  She must have been at least a good block away when the phone rang, and it was a former agent of mine.  This lady called and said, “Dick Stockton at Fox called us.  He thought you were still with us.  He’s got a job for you in a TV show.” 

I thanked her very much for the tip and I called Leon right away.  I hear him call Fox on his other phone and he says, “Let me talk to Stockton.”  He gets Stockton and he says, “Stockton, this is Lantz.  Listen, I understand you’re looking for Greenspring.”  I heard that and I started screaming into the phone.  I said, “Leon, it’s Wingreen!  It’s Wingreen!”  And I hear him saying, “Greenspring, Greenspring.”  Later my wife said she was a half a mile away and she heard me screaming. 

Anyway, finally I got through to him and he made the deal.  It was for a TV show.  I went up to his office and I said, “For chrissake, when are you going to get my name right?”  He says, “What are you complaining, you got the job, didn’t you?” 

You also did some writing for television in the early sixties.

I’d always wanted to write, of course.  I wanted to be a sportswriter.  There was a time there when the acting tapered off.  Just a short period, but I felt I had something in me that would help me when the times are bad for acting.  So I rented a room in the Writers and Artists Building on Little Santa Monica.  It was a small building, and underneath it was the restaurant called the Players, which had been owned at one time by Preston Sturges.  Upstairs were these rooms and a couple of studios for artists.  Jack Nicholson had a room there.  That was way back before Jack Nicholson became the Jack Nicholson.  Dan Petrie and his wife had an office there, and Mann Rubin, a lovely writer.  And I set myself up there in this little office to write.

I had an idea for a thriller piece, and there was a series at Universal at the time called Thriller.  Boris Karloff was the narrator who introduced each one of them.  I had an idea for one of those, and I wrote out a synopsis for the whole thing, with some suggested lines of dialogue.  And then I called a man at Universal that I had worked for as an actor, Doug Benton.  He said, “Well, leave it with me.” 

And I said, “Can I read it to you?”  I didn’t want to leave it with him.  I said, “I want to read it to you,” because I thought I could pep up some of those lines of dialogue, you know.  Anyway, I read the whole right thing through to him.  He was not the number one producer, he was the associate producer, and he said, “Well, leave it with me, and I’ll show it to Bill Frye, and I’ll get back to you.” 

So the next day I had an appointment at my dentist’s.  I’m in the dentist’s chair and the dentist’s nurse comes in and says, “There’s a telephone call for Mr. Wingreen.”  So they bring the phone to me, and it was Doug Benton.  He said, “Well, the father should be the first to know.  We’re going to do it, and Bill said you’ll write the first draft.”  So, the first draft became the last draft, because I wrote it and they shot it.  And another writer was born. 

John Newland directed it.  John Newland was an actor I knew in New York in the early days.  He knocked around quite a bit in New York playing very tiny roles.  In fact, he was almost like an extra.  He came out to Hollywood and became a very successful director, and had a show of his own, actually, One Step Beyond.  He hired me once to do an acting job on one of those.  Anyway, he was the director of this episode of Thriller, and I asked if I could attend.  He said, “Yeah.  We’ll run though it, we’ll rehease it, and then we’ll shoot it.” 

Actually, what I wanted to do was get a part in it as well, but the man who was actually producing it [William Frye] said, “No, we’ve got somebody else lined up.”  So I sat through their reading, and they started getting ready to shoot and John Newland said, “Well, now the writer has to leave.” 

I said, “I have to leave?” 

He said, “Oh, yes.  We don’t want the writers to hang around and tell us to change a line or rewrite something.  So you have to go now.”  So that was the closest I came to seeing that in actuality until it came on the air.

I did a couple of things with other writers.  I wrote an episode of The Wild Wild West, in partnership.  The title of the episode was “The Night of the Torture Chamber,” and I wrote it with Phil Saltzman, who also had a room up in the Writers and Artists Building.  Phil Saltzman became a pretty successful producer.  Then I wrote, with another writer [Neil Nephew], who was married to Ellen Burstyn at the time, the Greatest Show on Earth episode called “The Last of the Strongmen.”  The producer of that was Bob Rafelson.  Then I wrote, on my own, 77 Sunset Strip and The Gallant Men at Warner Bros. 

Did you like writing as much as acting?

For 77 Sunset Strip, I got the assignment and the deadline to get the first draft was in a week.  At the very same time, I get an acting job on a Bonanza.  On a horse.  On location.  I got up at six o’clock in the morning.  I drove up.  On these shows, they don’t pick you up, you get there.  I had to drive up to Chatsworth for a seven o’clock call, to get on a horse.  I do the day’s work, get back, grab a bite, out to my office, to the typewriter.  For a week, both places.  When I was finished with those, I was ready for a sanitarium.  That was the toughest eight days I think I ever spent in my life. 

The question was, which did I like better?  At that time, I didn’t like either one of them!  But acting was, for me, much easier.  Writing did not come naturally.  I wanted it to, but it didn’t.  The words didn’t fall out out of me, and the ideas didn’t pour out of me, either.  I struggled to get the ideas and the words.  The acting, at least the words were there for me and I could do anything with them.  Didn’t have to change them, didn’t have to rewrite them, didn’t have to worry about them being accepted or not.

Do you remember appearing in The Name of the Game in 1970, in an episode directed by Steven Spielberg?

Yes.  I got the appointment at the producer’s office and met Spielberg there.  I went there, and there’s this high school kid.  I swear!  I thought he was, like, seventeen years old.  We talked a bit, and he said, okay, fine, we’ll let you know.  And I did get the job.  I think I played a professor who was kidnapped or captured in some way by bad guys.  Spielberg directed it, and I had very little contact with him at all.  No conversation.  Little did I know what and who he’d become!

You also worked on Star Trek around the same time.

That was an episode called “The Empath.”  That was just a job, that’s all.  I knew John Erman, the director, well.  I had worked for John on a western.  I had to fall off a horse for John Erman!

Tell me how you came to play Harry the bartender during seven seasons of All in the Family and then Archie Bunker’s Place.

Paul Bogart was directing All in the Family, and the very last episode of the sixth season had a scene where Edith and Archie had an argument because he wasn’t taking her out any more, and she was going out on her own that night.  So where does she go?  She goes to Kelcy’s, and the story doesn’t work if she’s recognized by Kelcy.  So the actor who was playing Kelcy gets the week off, and they need somebody else.  And Paul was instrumental in recommending me for that role.  It was just a one-shot.  That’s all it was supposed to be, just that one episode.  So I did it.  And it was a good part, too.  There was some good stuff to do in that particular episode, I assume I did it very well, because after the hiatus my agent called and said, “They want you back.” 

I went back, and then I discovered that I was going to be playing that part from then on.  So what happened to Kelcy?  In fact, the actor who was playing Kelcy, his agent kept calling that first season, saying, “When is Bob going to be back on the show?”  And unfortunately, no one in authority there had the guts to tell him that Bob’s not coming back on the show.  And that’s show business.

Do you have any idea why they decided to make the change and bring you back?

Yes.  I think Paul told me this, because Paul was involved in the eventual hiring of me again.  I think, in that conversation about it with Carroll and Norman Lear, Carroll said, “I’m so tired of Bob’s lousy jokes.”  And that was that.  Apparently Bob [Hastings] was a joker at work, always coming up with jokes.  And Carroll O’Connor says, “I’m tired of his lousy jokes.”  And that cost the man a career, and gave me another one.

So the All in the Family role was important in your career?

Tremendous.  In my career and my life, it was seven years.  With increasing money each season.  It allowed me to retire, let me put it that way.

Did you enjoy the show, and the role?

How could I not like it?  I loved it.  It was wonderful.  We worked from Tuesday on to the rest of the week.  Monday, you had [off], to go to the bank and the laundry.  We’d arrive on Tuesday morning, we’d sit around, read the script.  We’d start laughing in the morning and laugh until five o’clock, when we’d quit.  I mean, how could you not like it?  I’m not sure Paul loved it that much, because he had to direct.  The responsibility was on him.  But just as an actor in the proceedings, I had a wonderful time.  With Al Melvin, and Bill Quinn, the old-timer who played the blind man. 

You shared many scenes with those two, who played regular customers in Harry’s bar.  Tell me what you remember about them.

Bill told me a couple of good stories during the time when we were together.  Bill was a child actor, originally.  He had worked with George M. Cohan when he was a child, and he was directed, as a young man, by Jed Harris in a play.  Jed Harris was the man that had five shows on Broadway at one time.  Apparently he was pretty tough, though.  They were in rehearsal of the play, and there was a young ingenue, who was in the movie Stagecoach.  Louise Platt.  At one point during the rehearsal, Louise Platt was puzzled by a move or a line or something, and she said, “Jed – ”  And Jed Harris said, “It’s Jed in bed.  It’s Mr. Harris here.”  They were later married.

So that’s one story.  Another story: Bill Quinn’s daughter, Ginny, married Bob Newhart.  It was a huge Hollywood wedding, in a Catholic church in Los Angeles.  It was packed with top Hollywood names, big names.  During the big moment when Bill Quinn leads his daughter down the aisle to give her away in marriage to Bob Newhart, as they passed a certain part of the house on their way down, there was an outburst of laughter from someone in the audience.  Which certainly was not the customary thing to happen at this solemn occasion. 

So after the wedding was over, there was a big reception.  Everybody milling around.  Bill Quinn’s there, and a friend of his, Joe Flynn, comes dashing up and says, “Oh, Billy, I’m so sorry.  That was me who did that!  I couldn’t help myself.” 

Bill Quinn says, “What the hell!  What happened?” 

Joe Flynn says, “Well, I’ll tell ya.  When you and Ginny started down the aisle and got past the row where we were sitting, this guy next to me said, ‘Look who they got for the father!’”  That’s a wonderful line, isn’t it?  That’s a Hollywood line.  You’d have to be an actor to appreciate that.

I have to ask, was Allan Melvin the same in real life as he was on screen?  I mean, his sort of dense Brooklyn mug persona?

He was more intelligent than that.  Allan wrote little poems, little couplets of sorts, and they were very funny.  Like limericks, but not quite limericks.  Some of them were very intelligent and very, very funny.  Never published.

Allan and I became very close friends.  Allan and his wife and my wife and I would go to dinners and parties together, and we traveled together a couple of times.  But Allan also was, and I hate to say this, somewhat bigoted as well.  Racially.  Based on what, I don’t know.  His upbringing, maybe.  We used to avoid those conversations, but it crept out here and there.  I would say that’s probably one of his unfortunate failings.  But we didn’t dwell on that.

What kind of relationship did you have with Carroll O’Connor?

A very, very close, warm relationship.  And I’m sure he was preeminent in agreeing to keep me on the show.  To get me on the show and stay on the show for all those years, and to have some good scripts written for me, too.

Were there episodes of All in the Family that revolved around your character?

Yes, there were a couple that did.  When I was alone at the bar one night, and a young woman comes in, and she’s going to be meeting a man who never shows up.  And it turns out that we go off together.  And in a later scene, we come down in a bathrobe and pajamas.  At least, I do.  So there was that one, but mainly, of course, I was background.

I’ll tell you where I got my name.  I was Harry from the beginning, but in one script, one of the writers said, “This is something where we need a second name for you.  Have you got one that we could use?”  Well, when I did that Broadway show, playing a soldier in Fragile Fox, I was named Snowden.  And I thought, well, that guy, a typical New York guy, Snowden, after the war would go back to New York and become a bartender.  So I said to the writer, “Yeah, Harry Snowden.”  And then Carroll could make jokes with it.  Call me Snowball.  Or Snowshoes: “Hey, Snowshoes, get over here.”  One of his typical malapropisms.

I was Harry Snowden, Harry the bartender, for seven years.  My son, who is now a full professor at Princeton, was very funny about that.  Many shows I was there with very little to say, and my son once said, when he found out what kind of money I was making: “You can make all that just for saying, ‘But, Arch . . .?’”

Later in the eighties, you appeared frequently on Matlock as a judge.

Actually, like Paul Bogart got me into All in the Family, Charlie Dubin was the one who got me into Matlock.  He recommended me to the producer for the first one.  It was a good one, it had some good stuff in it.  Then I did eleven episodes, playing Judge Arthur Beaumont.  Whenever they needed a judge that said more than “Overruled” or “Sustained,” when they had a judge who had some dialogue to deal with with Andy Griffith or anyone else, they called on me.  They called me their number one judge.  And then Andy took the show down to his home in North Carolina, and I was not asked to go down there.  If they needed judges, they got them down there.

What was Andy Griffith like?

Well, you know how I told you that Al Melvin was somewhat bigoted?  Andy Griffith was greatly bigoted.

Really?

Really.  I was present when Andy Griffith was told that there was a scene they were going to do which was originally written out of the script of that episode, [featuring] Matlock’s right-hand man, who was played by a very good young black actor whose name escapes me.  And Andy Griffith was given the information by one of the producer’s assistants there that the scene was going to be not eliminated, it was going to be redone, reshot, and some lines would be given back to the black actor.  Griffith, very loud, not caring who was on the set at the time – they had visitors of all sorts when they were shooting – said, in a good loud voice, “Oh, sure.  Okay.  Go ahead, go ahead.  Give it to the nigger.  It’s okay.  Give it to the nigger.”  Does that tell you something?

That’s disappointing.  I’m a big fan of Griffith’s work.

Well, it had nothing to do with his work.  Do you know what I say?  Do not confuse the actor with the role.  I played Hitler once!

[It should be noted that Andy Griffith publicly supported Barack Obama during the 2008 presidential election. – Ed.]

I can’t close without asking about Star Wars, and the role it has played in your life.

Well, I was sent by my voice agent for a reading for Yoda [in The Empire Strikes Back].  They gave me the lines and I had to improvise an accent and a delivery of the lines, and I did, to the best of my ability.  Of course, I didn’t get the job; Frank Oz got the job.  But, as I learned later, they were very impressed with my reading, and there were these four lines of dialogue for Boba Fett.  And as a reward to me, they offered me the role.  They didn’t know Boba Fett was going to become an icon.

Then I went to record it, on a stage in Hollywood, on one afternoon in 1980.  I met Gary Kurtz, the line producer, and Irvin Kershner, the director of The Empire Strikes Back.  They showed me the scenes where the lines would be delivered, where Jeremy Bullock walked and spoke.  I didn’t have to lip synch because he had a mask on.  You could say them any time, and I fit them in.  I watched it, I got a feeling of what the character was, and then we shot the stuff.  I did the four lines a couple of times.  Kershner came out of the control room once, made one suggestion, and I did it.  And that was the day’s work.  I think the actual work, aside from the hellos and goodbyes and all that, could have been no more than ten minutes.

Now, after saying goodbye, I’m leaving.  Gary Kurtz was with me, walking me out.  Well, sitting in the dark, in the back, in a room right near the exit, is George Lucas, whom I had not met when I came in.  So Gary Kurtz introduces me to Mr. Lucas, and I said to him, “I don’t believe we’ve ever met.” 

He didn’t get up; he remained seated.  And he said to me the words that I still don’t know what he meant.  He said, “No, but I know Boba Fett.”  That was it.  And then I left.

Now, I’m not imitating the sound of his voice, or even the delivery, because it wasn’t anything that I could pinpoint.  It wasn’t like, “I know Boba Fett, and you’re not it.”  Or, “I know Boba Fett, and you did a terrific job with it.”  It wasn’t that at all.  It was just, “No, but I know Boba Fett.”  To this day, I don’t know what he meant.

But I do know it’s my voice on there, and I got paid.  Apparently Lucas has me replaced in this latest thing that he did, in the director’s cut.  Because of the continuity or something.  It doesn’t mean anything to me.  I don’t give a damn about what he does with the role, or doesn’t do with the role.  But the thing about it is, the thing that really bothered me and everybody else who has been involved with him in these productions, is that there are no residuals.  This was done on an English contract, and at that time English studios were not paying residuals.  And as far as ancillary rights, Lucas tied them all up in your contract.  So my voice has been used in action figures, and I have a little helmet that my son and daughter-in-law bought me on eBay and gave me as a birthday present, where if you press a little button my voice says, “Put Captain Solo in the cargo hold.”  That’s my voice, and I don’t get a single penny for that.  So I have no love for George Lucas.

And you also didn’t receive screen credit on The Empire Strikes Back.

No screen credit, right.  So how did it come that people suddenly discovered who I was?  My sister’s grandson was in a chatroom on the internet, and he happened to mention to some friends of his that his grandmother’s brother did the voice of Boba Fett.  The word got around, because then I got a phone call from the editor of the [Star Wars] Insider magazine.  He said, “Is it true that you did the voice of Boba Fett?”  I said, “Yes, I did.  That’s my voice up there.  I have the contract, too.” 

He said, “Can I check with the Lucas people, and then I’d like to have an interview with you for the magazine.”  He did, and that’s what did it.  That would have been in the year 2000.  That’s what started the whole thing that’s given me this cottage industry that I’ve got here.

So these days, do you get an avalanche of Boba Fett fan mail?

An avalanche, and it doesn’t stop.  Almost every day brings something.  The other day, I signed a photo of Boba Fett for a little girl in Poland.  It gives me something to do with my life.  Otherwise I wouldn’t do very much, except existing.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 197 other followers