January 30, 2012
Name: Peter Gerety.
The Rundown: A stage actor since the sixties, Gerety became prominent in movies and on television only in middle age. Now he’s one of the best specialists around playing flawed or flamboyant authority figures; if John Heard isn’t available, Gerety is your man.
The Catalyst: On The Wire, he was the egomaniacal judge who in the pilot gave iconoclast cop Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West) a mandate to investigate the Baltimore drug trade, thus setting the whole series in motion. In a crowning scene for Gerety, Judge Phelan flip-flops and runs for political cover, leaving Jimmy hanging in the wind.
A New Lease: His movie career goes back to the early eighties, with bit parts in Woody Allen and Spike Lee movies and a regular role on Homicide: Life on the Street; but after The Wire, like many of his castmates, Gerety has been happily ubiquitous.
A Busy Man: Since The Wire ended in 2007, Gerety has had recurring roles on Brotherhood, Brothers & Sisters, Blue Bloods, The Good Wife, Rubicon, Prime Suspect, and . . . .
Mediocre Show Worth Watching Just For Him: Mercy. This distaff ER wannabe cast Gerety as the rowdy, hard-drinking father of the main nurse (Taylor Schilling); when he’s diagnosed with early Alzheimer’s, Gerety dodges the cliches and plays the character’s fear (and his foggy moments) with sublime tenderness.
Mediocre Show Not Quite Worth Watching Just For Him: Life on Mars. Gerety’s FBI agent turns out to be the guardian of all the show’s secrets. Think Leo McKern turning up in the last episode of The Prisoner, except everything is very literal and really lame.
January 17, 2012
Name: Cristine Rose.
Usually Plays: Formidable matriarchs, unflappable corporate execs, and other powerful women.
Relatively Insignificant Early Role That I Recall Fondly Due to My David E. Kelley Fetish: As the ex-wife of beleaguered lawman Jimmy Brock (Tom Skerritt) on Picket Fences, still the record-holder for the all-time greatest TV ensemble.
Her Magnum Opus: As the mother of two of the superpowered protagonists (Adrian Pasdar and Milo Ventimiglia) on Heroes. I suspect that Angela Petrelli was initially an insignificant or short-term part, or else they would have cast a name actress in it. But Rose, with her clenched jaw and enigmatic glare, turned Angela into one of the show’s most prominent villains, held her own against star-turn baddies Malcolm McDowell and Robert Forster, scored main-title billing, and survived till the very end of the show. Bravo.
See, I Told You About Picket Fences: Q: “You’ve appeared in many great TV shows. If you could pick any one to return to, which would it be, and why?” A: “Angela Petrelli aside, the one that comes immediately to mind is Lydia Brock, on Picket Fences. When I came out here [to Los Angeles], I had a lot of fun doing sitcoms. I came out here from New York in 1986, and I did several sitcom pilots, and in the early nineties I really wanted to dso hour-long shows. I love humor, and theatricality – humor and drama together are the perfect blend. I think you get to a person’s heart through humor, and then you get into the heart and you wrench it. It’s a very powerful way to make a point. And Lydia Brock was one of those people . . . . Kathy Baker and I used to have great scenes together. Beautifully written. A beautifully defined character.” (From a long video interview with Rose here.)
Fanboy Cred: Hey, she was even a Klingon, too!
December 3, 2011
Name: Titus Welliver.
First Noticed As: The most psychopathic, and least dull-witted, of Al Swearingen’s rogues’ gallery of henchmen in Deadwood.
(Maybe) Most Famous As: The Man in Black, the human incarnation of the island’s great unexplained evil, on Lost. Welliver was an inspired choice, because his somber mien added shades of wisdom and regret to the, y’know, evil. When the show’s labored metaphysics required one of the regulars (the equally great Terry O’Quinn) to take over for Welliver, it was a loss.
The Tilt: Every good character actor needs a reliable mannerism or two. Welliver’s is the meaningful head-tilt (see above); the more extreme the angle, the more serious the moment.
Sam Elliott Called and Wants His Voice Back: Welliver’s great asset is is unexpectedly deep, rangy, moody voice, which can make even the dumbest line sound like a quote from Steinbeck or Twain. Some producers like to cast him as furriners, and Welliver does the accents competently – as an Irish gun peddler on Sons of Anarchy, for instance – but I think he’s less interesting when he’s suppressing that grand American baritone.
Lately Seen In: The Town, in the classic #2-cop-who-follows-around-the-big-deal-detective-looking-impressed role, and The Good Wife, as scumbag state’s attorney Glenn Childs. The latter is almost a stock villain, and I hope Welliver doesn’t settle in as TV’s go-to bad guy. He has more soul than that.
August 26, 2011
One of the the twentieth century’s great faces, Gerald S. O’Loughlin traversed the usual postwar character actor’s path: study under legendary acting teachers, Broadway and live television experience, middle-aged pilgrimage toward movies and filmed television on the West Coast. If you don’t know him from his regular roles in The Rookies or Our House, then you’ll remember him from guest-leads in a few hundred television episodes or supporting parts in films like In Cold Blood, Ice Station Zebra, and The Organization.
Short, stocky, balding, and with an unmistakably Noo Yawk-tinged voice, O’Loughlin (pronounced O-LOCK-lin) was a casting director’s blue-collar dream. His curriculum vitae is full of cops, hoodlums, jailbirds, GIs. Though many of these characters were tough guys – O’Loughlin himself was a marine lieutenant during the war and then the occupation of Japan, and not shy about pointing that out – some had a more sensitive mien, luckless little guys pushed around by life or fate or bad women. O’Loughlin, Strasberg-trained and shrewd, found the humanity in these stock roles, always playing the unexpected side of the material. He had his roster of Method tics – could how many times, in how many different roles, he folds his arms across his chest. His voice was lugubrious, almost a drawl, but O’Loughlin enunciated his words in an almost singsong way; that habit, coupled with his instinct for underplaying, made O’Loughlin one of the most touchingly straightforward personae on television. On The Rookies, the Aaron Spelling-generated cop drama that made O’Loughlin a quasi-star, the producers seemed to think they were getting a screamer, a dull clone of the square-jawed police boss that Tige Andrews played on Spelling’s similar Mod Squad. O’Loughlin, though you could see why the young cops quaked in his presence, threw them his usual curve. His Lieutenant Ryker was a voice of reason, a veteran who had seen everything and gave out his orders in affirming tones of calm, patience, and resignation.
Active in the Los Angeles branch of the Actors Studio until just a few years ago, O’Loughlin now resides in the Motion Picture Country Home in Woodland Hills. Scheduling did not permit a visit, but over the course of several phone conversations this spring O’Loughlin shared some favorite stories from his life and work. Just as many of his working-class characters seemed to be closet intellectuals, O’Loughlin was full of surprises, beginning with the fact that he enjoyed a more privileged upbringing than any of the mopes he played on screen. He spoke with a disarming frankness not only about his adventures on the stage and in front of the camera, but of his struggle with alcoholism and his long-term relationship with a movie star nearly twenty years his junior.
Tell me a bit about your background and your childhood.
My father was a lawyer and a Phi Beta Kappa at Columbia. Just a brilliant, wonderful guy. Everybody was crazy about him. He had some papers to look up in Cuba, and it was in the middle of the winter. He went down to Cuba, which was tropical, and he contracted diarrhea and amoebic dysentery together. He came back to New York and it went into what is called a dormant period, the dysentery. The following summer, it recurred, and they simply did not know what he had until the autopsy. I think I was four and a half when he passed away.
I was raised by my mother. Her mother was in the house, and an old maiden aunt was there. I was surrounded by a lot of women. A cook, a [housekeeper], a nurse. My father left us well taken care of. My mother never had to go to work. She took care of me and the two old ladies.
I grew up in a house on 145th Street and St. Nicholas Avenue. It wasn’t a brownstone, it was a graystone. They’re a little fancier, a little more luxurious. My grandfather, my mother’s father, was a prominent civil engineer, Charles Dodd Ward. He came from an old Jersey City family. When the Army Corps of Engineers was laying their plans for the Panama Canal, my grandfather was, just from a scholarly standpoint, very interested in looking over their shoulders. He looked at the Army Corps of Engineers’ plan, and he recommended that one change be made. The French De Lesseps plan had a thing called the Gatun Dam, and he recommended that they extract the Gatun Dam out of the DeLesseps Plan and insert it into the American one. And that would save the government, in those days, forty million dollars. He delivered this hypothetical paper before the American Society of Civil Engineers, and those hypothetical talks were always put into print and available to everybody. And the Army Corps of Engineers said, “Shit, he’s right. Put it in.” So they did. He got credit for it in many books, but they couldn’t get him a job because Teddy Roosevelt was one political party and my grandfather was the opposing one.
Did you know during the war that you wanted to be an actor when you came back?
Yes, I knew then. I had to gratify my family first by getting a degree, and the easiest thing for me to get a degree in was mechanical engineering. So I spent a couple of years doing that. But once I finished college, I went to an acting school in New York called the Neighborhood Playhouse, also on the G.I. Bill, for another two years.
The Neighborhood Playhouse was dominated by the legendary Sanford Meisner. Tell me what you learned from him.
His key ingredient for actors was, “What do you want?” What do you want in the scene? What do you want from the person? In other words, in its simplest form it would be, “I want to borrow some money.”
So that would motivate your performance of the material.
Yes. You get to do it in a very easy way by improvising. Then later on when you get the lines down, hopefully there’s still some carryover from what you had in the improvisation.
How many other students were there?
I would say twenty-six, perhaps, in each of the classes. There were two classes, like juniors and seniors. Leslie Nielsen was in the class ahead of me.
After that you joined the Actors Studio?
Not immediately. I did some summer stock, and finally Sandy Meisner wrote a letter to Lee Strasberg. I’d done an audition for one of his people, and they wanted me to do another. But the letter that Sandy Meisner wrote Lee Strasberg clinched it. He said, “You don’t have to do another audition. You come highly recommended.”
What did you learn from Strasberg, and at the Actors Studio in general?
Strasberg took us into what is called sense memory. Sandy Meisner just was strictly an action person: What do you want? He was very cautious about doing the sensory thing. But sooner or later I think most of us fooled around with it. It’s a valuable tool.
At the same time you were doing a lot of live television.
Oh, yes. I did a soap that I’ll never forget. I had a scene with a woman who was older than I was. I think she was my landlady. I had a speech like, “You remind me of my mother. You’re a regular such-and-such.” And I couldn’t remember, when we went on the air, what such-and-such was. So I came up with a Jewish expression, “You’re a nudnik!” I solved the problem that way.
I was in another soap when they first started using tape. Somebody accidentally erased the tape – there were two tapes and they erased them both – and we had to shoot two shows in one day. What a mess. I had an offer to do a movie, but [first] I had to get them to let me go. I said, “Could you let me out of my contract so I can do a movie?” He said, “We’d be happy to.” They were so glad to get rid of me.
Oh, I had difficulty with my lines sometimes.
Were there other things that went wrong when you were on the air live?
I don’t think so. [But] I know I walked onstage once, and I had a glued-on mustache. The downstage side of the mustache was separating from my skin. I heard a woman in the first row say, “Your mustache is coming off!” So I put my finger up on my moustache and pressed it back against the spirit gum.
I had a nightmare on stage with Bonnie Bedelia. I was in a play and we were out of town before coming into New York. It was a terrible play, but anyhow. She was sitting facing the audience, and I was sitting sideways to the audience, and we were talking. I was sitting in a chair, and I had my arms out around the arms of the chair and into my pants pockets. I thought it was a quirky, kind of a creative way to sit in a chair, in a play that could use any kind of a crutch that was available. What I didn’t realize was that the chair had recently been glued by the stagehands. They should’ve put it someplace where it couldn’t be used until it dried out, but somehow I wound up sitting in it. But at the same time I had a hangover, and I started to feel a little vertigo, as if the chair was leaning. I said, “Oh, that’s the hangover.” And I kept on talking, and I kept on leaning, and finally, slowly, this chair was pulled apart like taffy. Went down to the floor and tipped over to the left, to my left side, never taking my hands out of my pockets. And I got up and took the broken chair and put it over by the side of the set. Got a good chair, and brought that back to the set. I sat down, and I looked at Bonnie Bedelia’s eyes. She had her hand covered over her mouth. And I have never seen anybody’s eyes so full of water. I mean, they were flooding over with water, she was laughing so hard, trying not to give into it. I think [the play] was Happily Never After .
Do you remember doing Mister Peepers?
Yes, I did one or two. I was a school bus driver in one of them.
You also did a live show with Ralph Meeker, a Goodyear Playhouse called “The Darkness Below” (1952).
That was really terrific. It was about a mine cave-in. These two guys were prisoners in a mine cave-in, and the idea behind the story was, in ordinary day-to-day life, one was a bum and the other was like an Arrow shirt man. When they get into the mine cave-in, they change roles. There was a flashback, and in the flashback I had to [change wardrobe] – I was in a set of overalls that could be removed, and underneath it was a blue serge suit.
Kim Stanley was in that. We had the dress rehearsal, and the director was giving notes after our last rehearsal, just prior to the actual broadcast. He had a little pad in front of him with different actors and what he wanted to say to them. When he came to me, instead of saying it out loud – he was a bit of a prude – he wrote a little note on a piece of scrap paper to the effect of, “When you kiss Kim, do not stick tongue in her mouth.” Which I was not doing. I was just giving her a gentle, affectionate kiss. But he thought I was up to some mischief. So I said to myself, well, this one moment in this show, apparently I’m in good territory with my acting. I’ll just leave it alone. So I gave her a very nice, chaste, affectionate kiss.
Let me ask about some of your theater work. What was your Broadway debut?
The thing that catapulted me from Off-Broadway was a play by Frank Gilroy called Who’ll Save the Plowboy? He’s a terrific writer. It was kind of a very heavy barrage of dialogue, monologue-type dialogue. It’s like learning a piece of music or something. Once I got it down, you could hear the audience respond. Very effective. It was a beautiful piece of writing and I benefitted from it tremendously, as did the young woman, Rebecca Darke.
It was done Off-Broadway at the Phoenix Theatre. Robert Montgomery was in the audience, and as a result of seeing me in that he put me in a play [Calculated Risk, 1962-1963] on Broadway, which was not successful at all. But at least I got cast by Robert Montgomery in a Broadway play! Why it was sort of a weak play was it had been a British television show about the stock market, about a hostile raider in the stock market. I played the hostile raider. That’s when I came on the stage with my mustache flapping in the breeze.
Do you remember doing Clifford Odets’s Golden Boy (1952)?
Yes. That was an ANTA production. Lee J. Cobb played the father. He was wonderful, just a real force to watch. In the evening after the performance we used to go to the bar and grill, and he was at a table with four or five other people, about ten, fifteen feet away from where I was. I heard the punchline of a joke, and I never found out what the rest of the joke was. But the punchline of the joke, which he told with a thick Jewish accent, was “Fuck around vit Hopalong Cassidy, boy, hah hah hah!” I was so in awe of him, I didn’t have the guts to go up and say, “What’s the rest of that joke?”
Tell me about playing Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire.
It was exciting. I played it under relaxed conditions in summer stock one time, up in Boston. Lee Falk had a theater in Boston. It was a great experience, wonderful. The writing is so brilliant, so foolproof. Later on [in 1956] I did it in a not exactly Off-Broadway but not exactly on Broadway, some kind of a delicate thing Actors Equity worked out, with Tallulah Bankhead. Frances Heflin, Van Heflin’s sister, played Stella.
How was Tallulah in that role?
You’d be surprised. She was able to run a gamut of emotions from excitement to abject pity. She was all right. One time we were in Palm Beach, rehearsing. We were doing a technical run-through for the lights and the sound. So we were doing stop and go, stop and go. We stopped, and she and I were standing nose-to-nose. As we were going through our paces, she impulsively gave me a kiss. Now, close up, she looked like my grandmother. She was well on. But I tried not to wince or anything like that. And she looked me dead in the eye, knowing full well what’s going on in my mind, and said, “Just you remember, young man, I had a one-night stand with Gary Cooper!”
Was Tennessee Williams around for that production?
Yes, he was around. He had a little too much to drink once in a while. I heard one time he went out through the audience in the intermission, saying, “Miss Bankhead is pissin’ on mah play!” But by and large he was well-behaved, and so was she. I was glad when it was over, though.
I don’t know, the pressure. She drew enormous pressure. She also drew the gay claque. They would sit way up in the balcony. There’s a moment where she and Mitch come back from a date, and before they go in the house they’re looking at the constellations, and she’s talking about the Pleiades. She said [the line] “Those old girls aren’t getting any tonight.” As she said that, she’s looking right up at the top balcony where all the wild, mischievous gay people are sitting and raising hell. And they go wild!
Did Williams say anything to you about your performance?
I don’t think so. He was probably disappointed in it. Marlon Brando was marvelous.
Did you come up with your own interpretation of Stanley that was distinct from Brando’s?
Oh, I tried. I tried to do my own colors. It’s beautiful writing. It’s impossible to avoid stopping a show when you play Stanley, when the woman says, “You get up and wash your filthy hands, you greasy Polack!” And he tells them all off: People from Poland are Poles, not Polacks, and what I am is one hundred percent American!” And he swipes the silverware and the plates off the table and says, “My place is clear. You want me to clear your places?” The audience just goes wild. Always stops the show.
You were in the stage version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1963-64), as Cheswick.
Kirk Douglas. I understudied him, and he wanted to look at the play from out front, so I went on for him once. I look back on my experiences doing that play, a mad, chaotic kind of a scramble. It just seemed to take that form.
What was Kirk Douglas like?
Oh, no way to describe him. He was like a shark. Very aggressive. He held it up; he did his part. He did the part well. That was not really a relaxed, pleasant experience. It was just kind of a mad scramble.
Do you remember A Cook For Mr. General (1961), directed by Fielder Cook?
Not much of a play, but I had such a great part. A compulsive liar, would talk to anybody and tell them a huge lie. At the end of the play, he’s a witness in a court-martial. He tells a huge lie, and at the end of his testimony, he says, “Private So-and-So slipped and fell and lost his balance, and his fist accidentally came up as he was trying to catch his balance and accidentally hit Lieutenant So-and-So in the jaw.” And it proceeded with, “And we were having a very intellectual discussion.” The interrogator says, “I see. And what was this very intellectual discussion?” And I used to go blank. Totally blank, every night. He would whisper it under his breath, and I would remember it and say, “Psychoanalysis.” The audience just went insane.
Why did you go up on that particular line?
Because he was in the middle of a lie. He would be blank. And the reality of that got hold of me! The fellow that was playing the interrogator was nice enough to throw me the line every night. I should have taken him out to dinner, and I never did. And I got such a laugh on that, that the audience stopped the show. They laughed so hard that they went into a round of applause.
You were one of the leads in Lovers and Lollipops (1956; pictured above), a great, New York-lensed independent film by Morris Engel and Ruth Orkin, who made The Little Fugitive.
That’s the first movie I ever did. I had to pay three hundred dollars to join the Screen Actors Guild. It was sort of fun. They were very loose. It was the second movie they’d made.
Another of your early films was A Hatful of Rain (1957).
We shot the exteriors in New York and the interiors in Hollywood, at Twentieth. I loved Eva Marie Saint. Shelley Winters did [her role in] the play. Harry Guardino was on the stage, but I got Harry’s part in the movie.
What do you remember about Fred Zinnemann, who directed it?
What a lovely, gentle man. A good director in every way. Just a pleasure to be around.
He came out of a Hollywood tradition that was very different from your theatrical training.
He was able to help me with that problem. In other words, there’s a scene in A Hatful of Rain where I’m standing in a doorway, and I spin my head around from right to left. I was snapping it too vigorously, and he commented that that’s okay for the stage, but just turn it in a more slow, normal way. Which I did, and I realized the value of it immediately.
I understand you were close to the actress Sandy Dennis.
Yeah, we lived together for seven years, in New York.
Tell me about her. What was she like?
Extremely gifted, extremely talented, and a lovely, lovely woman.
How did the two of you meet?
We were both understudies in a William Inge play called Dark at the Top of the Stairs. I understudied Pat Hingle, and she understudied two people, Eileen Heckart and somebody else.
She usually played neurotic or high-strung characters. Was she like that off-screen?
No, not really. One time when we lived together – I myself was a dyslexic, and I was going to a psychiatrist, and I was bemoaning my fate – how it was a terrible job to keep a checkbook balanced and accurate, and the psychiatrist said, “Did you ever think of adding a column of figures twice?” And I said no. It was true – I never did. I got through college, I was studying engineering, I took it for granted that I could handle the figures. I never did that. So I started adding them twice, and I was elated at the results. I went out and rented a little electric adding machine, and I loved it! Punch up the combination and then press the button to print, and it would go click-click-click-click-click. It was a ball! I really had a good time. And she came into the room while I was doing it one day, and I looked at her and she looked at me, and she said, “Oh, I hate that look on your face, when you’re like that.”
I said, “Well, that’s because you don’t bother with that. In your life you” – how did I put it? – “you just go running around to department stores, charging things up and then going on the road, and then I have to pay for them.” She had half a glass of water in her hand, and she threw the water out of the glass at me. I jumped up and grabbed her and shoved her back into the shower with her clothes on. It was all good-natured and fun. But not long after that she left me.
Boze Hadleigh’s book Hollywood Lesbians includes an interview with Dennis, in which he suggests that she was bisexual or gay.
I never heard that. I know that she left Gerry O’Loughlin, an Irish alcoholic, for Gerry Mulligan, an Irish . . . he used all kinds of substances. From one to the other. But I don’t know anything specific about her lesbianism.
Were you still a couple when she made Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf in 1966?
We were not still together, but we were friends. I stopped in on the set and said hello to her one time. We’d essentially split up by that time.
Tell me about Elia Kazan, who directed Dark at the Top of the Stairs.
One day he said to me, “You sound too much like I do.” He was telling me I didn’t have a southern accent. My character was from the South. So I worked on it. But Kazan was an interesting person. The first time I met him, I shook hands with him, and he deliberately pulled me over to my right, forced me off balance. An interesting way of forming a relationship with somebody. But he was very gifted, and accomplished a lot.
Why did you move from New York to Los Angeles in the mid-sixties?
I made a lot more money once I moved out here. Living in New York, if you were lucky, you’d get one or maybe two plays a season. Nine times out of ten they’re not successful. Do a little summer stock. So there’s not much money in New York, but the minute I moved out here I was making $40,000 a year. In those days that was good money.
Were there any casting directors who used you a lot, who boosted your career?
Well, I married one. Meryl Abeles was her maiden name. No, actually, her maiden name was Cohen, but she had been married to a guy named Abeles. Then she changed her name to O’Loughlin. She put me in a good part in a two-hour special about the Civil War, called The Blue and the Gray.
What do you remember about Richard Brooks, who directed In Cold Blood?
He’s one of these professional marines, wants to make sure you know he was a marine. Like, I read Truman Capote’s book before I did any work or anything. In the book, the cop that I played, when he got to Las Vegas and arrested the boys, his sinuses kicked up. That’s the reality that took place. So I wanted to play this one scene with a handkerchief in one hand, like I was wiping my nose. Richard Brooks said, “What the fuck is that?” I explained it to him. I think in the end he let it go.
What was the atmosphere like on the set during the hanging scene at the end?
Well, it was just like you would imagine it was. I must say I read the book carefully, and somewhere in the book, during the hanging, it mentions that in a hanging it usually takes nineteen minutes before they can get a reading of no pulse. I didn’t mention that to the director, because I didn’t get along with him too well, but I did mention it to John Forsythe. I told John Forsythe about the nineteen minutes, because we were getting ready for the second hanging and so forth, so he told Richard Brooks, and nineteen minutes was a consideration [in the staging of the scene].
It was a little shocking, going to the actual places where the murder took place in Kansas. It was a little spooky. We actually shot the murders in the actual house where they took place. I was still drinking, so I had hangovers sometimes.
You struggled with alcoholism during your career, didn’t you?
I’m not supposed to broadcast that I went to A.A. But I got sick and tired of being sick and tired, so I found a way to stop drinking.
Was that becoming a problem for you professionally?
Probably. You can’t hide it. I did come to work drunk once. Shortly after that I stopped.
That was during Ice Station Zebra (1968)?
One day they passed out the call sheets for tomorrow morning. I looked at the call sheet and I had nothing to do but stand around. I was nothing more than an extra, literally. I came in with a – not even a hangover, I was still drunk from the night before. They had decided that I was behaving myself so well before that that they were going to do me a little favor, and write a little scene for me, where Rock Hudson had gone up on the ice cap and I took over the submarine. And I just was incapable of even doing a half-assed job of it. It was a terrible feeling. So that really broke the camel’s back. Not long after that I came to A.A.
Patrick McGoohan, who was in Ice Station Zebra with you, was a famous drinker.
He always had a light odor of scotch. Not overpowering. I’ve been up against heavy [drinkers]; he sipped mildly throughout the day. Never caused any trouble; always knew his lines. I was very impressed with him. He was a terrific actor.
What do you remember about Twilight’s Last Gleaming, another movie with an all-star cast and a military setting?
The movie was not that great, but I have a scene in that – the idea is that Charles Durning was the president of the United States, and I was like Alexander Haig had been for Nixon. An old buddy. I have a scene with Charles Durning where I bawl him out – he’s my boss, but we’re old friends. It’s a great scene. I’ll tell you how good it was. They had a little debut in Washington D.C. for that movie, and there was a top brass, an admiral in the navy, and he and his wife and I were introduced to each other at a little cocktail party before going in to see the movie. We were very stiff with each other and not comfortable at all. Then we went in to see the movie, and when the movie was over he threw his arms around me and he said, “You were terrific!”
What do you remember about Robert Aldrich, who directed it?
Terrific! There’s the other director I would nominate as an all-time great. He’s a terrific director, and a very warm guy. I had a special toupee made. There was an assistant director, and he had a crew cut, and I wanted a toupee that looked like that. This guy, a wigmaker in the Valley, he made me just what I wanted. A kind of a half-assed crew cut. Siegfried Kreike, he came from a wigmaker family in Germany. Robert Aldrich came up to me and said, “I’ve got to tell you, ordinarily, I hate toupees. But that one is great.”
How did you get the part on The Rookies?
The casting director was an old friend of mine, Bert Remsen. I knew him back in New York. He just said, “I’m putting you in that part.”
Bert Remsen is better known as a character actor. Tell me about him.
You may have heard how he had his accident that forced him to walk with a cane. He’d been working as an actor on that set the day before, and the day before that, but he was through. But he happened to be in the neighborhood, so he stopped by and walked in to say hello. And he saw this Chapman Crane starting to fall, and he shoved four or five people out of the way and it caught him. He was a real hero. And because he wasn’t working, he could get no medical benefits. Because he wasn’t supposed to be there as part of his job that day. He was in the neighborhood and he stopped by to schmooze.
Who were some of the other actors on The Rookies?
There was Georg Stanford Brown. Sam Melville. Michael Ontkean, who eventually left and was replaced by somebody. Kate Jackson. I think I was sort of a father image, and was a little bit distanced from them, but on good terms.
Do you feel like you were ever typecast in a certain kind of role?
Not really. I sort of enjoyed being a lieutenant on The Rookies. Maybe because I was a lieutenant in the Marine Corps. After The Rookies, they offered me The Love Boat. The part that Gavin MacLeod got.
Why did you turn that down?
Because I was insulted. This is a dilemma that only an actor can get into. I play lieutenants with the police department, I don’t play captains on an excursion cruiser! Playing The Rookies was so embedded in me, I scorned the other one. Today, I wish I had not reacted that way. I’d have a couple of million more dollars. I think they ran for eight years.
Does that mean that Aaron Spelling, the executive producer of both those shows, was a fan of yours?
Not really. He was the one that came to me and tried to get me to do it. It was the network, I think. Aaron Spelling would have been glad to get rid of me, but the network wanted me to do the captain of The Love Boat.
Why would Spelling have been glad to get rid of you?
I don’t know know. I never felt that he liked me that much. Maybe it’s because I didn’t like him that much! Just chemistry.
The Rookies would have run two or three more years, but ABC got a new president, and he came in with a lot of pet projects. So The Rookies just suffered the consequences.
Was Our House as good an experience as The Rookies?
Not quite as good, no. I had more fun on The Rookies. More demanding scenes to play.
Tell me about Wilford Brimley.
He’s a fine actor.
Were the two of you close, as your characters were, during Our House?
You directed episodes of The Rookies and Family, another Aaron Spelling production.
I directed two, but directing turned out to be not so good for me. I’m a dyslexic. I can’t think fast. Being a director is the hardest work in the work in the world. You have to plan the scenes, how you’re going to shoot them, how many cameras. It was really tough work, trying to shoot at least twenty pages a day. I directed two shows and I was happy to leave it up to somebody else. You’ve got to work your ass off the night before, you work all day long, and you go back and start it all over again. Actors are spoiled. When an actor is working, during the day, if he’s not needed for half an hour, he goes to the trailer and gets a little snooze. You can’t do that when you’re directing.
SIDEBAR: FIVE GREAT GERALD S. O’LOUGHLIN PERFORMANCES
The Defenders “Kill or Be Killed” (1963) The famous urban legend about the death row inmate (O’Loughlin, of course) who kills a guard in an escape attempt just as he’s cleared of the original crime. O’Loughlin seizes upon the man’s justifiable paranoia about the legal system in this classic Larry Cohen teleplay.
The F.B.I. “Ordeal” (1966) O’Loughlin drives a truckload of nitro across a treacherous mountain pass, in this near-one-man show, swiped from Clouzot’s classic The Wages of Fear and directed by our friend Ralph Senensky. O’Loughlin “had a terrible time learning how to shift gears in a truck. I never did pick it up.”
Mannix “Comes Up Rose” (1968) O’Loughlin does his take on Elisha Cook, Jr. in this neo-noir, the best of his several variations on hen-pecked nobodies who take up a life of crime to please a femme fatale (in this case, hubba hubba Sheree North).
Hawaii Five-O “The Box” (1969) Playing a hard but smart lifer, O’Loughlin (above) faces off against the man who took his Love Boat role – a giggly Gavin MacLeod – in this tense prison riot story.
The Rookies “Time Is the Fire” (1972) In the first episode to focus on O’Loughlin’s character, Lt. Ryker suspects that a young kidnap victim is the long-lost daughter he gave up for adoption. O’Loughlin’s big scene is a long, Emmy-caliber monologue in which he lays out Ryker’s tragic backstory to nurse Jill (Kate Jackson).
Thanks to Charlie Ziarko and Stuart Galbraith IV for helping to arrange this interview. Correction, 9/6/11: O’Loughlin’s military rank has been corrected in the second paragraph. He was a lieutenant, not a sergeant.
August 8, 2011
Name: Stephen Tobolowsky.
Trademark: A robotic, slowed-down speech pattern that makes his delivery sound as if he’s addressing a small child, but also has a sinister quality that gets him parts as bureaucrats and villains. There’s another contrast that widens Tobolowsky’s range, too: he has milquetoasty features (sorry, Stephen) but his height (he’s 6’3″) allows for physical menace as well.
Most Famous As: Ned Ryerson in Groundhog Day.
On Television: A funny but relatively small role on Glee, as a gay, toked-up, burned-out ex-choir teacher has raised his profile somewhat. But Tobolowsky had a meatier part a few years back on Heroes, as a sociopathic Company functionary; recurring roles on Deadwood, John From Cincinnati, and Californication; and a guest shot on Community as the teacher of a Who’s the Boss? symposium.
Stephen Tobolowsky’s Birthday Party: This is a documentary in which Tobolowsky, more animated and Southern-accented than when he’s in character, relates anecdotes about himself for an hour and a half. It is not terribly flattering or well-made, but the precedent has value: every great character actor should be the subject of his or her own movie.
His Definition of a Character Actor: As expressed in this witty op-ed piece for the New York Times, an actor who plays characters who aren’t given names in the script.
July 15, 2011
Name: Margo Martindale.
Distinguishing Features: A rotund figure and a rich Texas accent that can come out warm or mean.
A Holdout: She eschewed television for stage and film roles until joining the ensemble of Sidney Lumet’s 100 Centre Street in 2000.
On the Big Screen: Supporting roles in Lorenzo’s Oil, The Firm, Robert Benton’s Nobody’s Fool and Twilight, and last year’s Secretariat. Hilary Swank’s mother in Million Dollar Baby, and a lead role in Alexander Payne’s segment of Paris, Je t’aime that he wrote for her.
I Wish I Had Seen: Her Tony-nominated turn as Big Mama in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, opposite Ned Beatty.
A recent patron: Dmitry Lipkin, creator of The Riches and co-creator of Hung, middling shows with good supporting parts for character players. Martindale did her best work in years as a stifled, pill-popping McMansionite with a closeted husband on The Riches, then swung through Hung once as a timid client of the male prostitute protagonist.
The Life of the Working Actor: “I’ve worked ever since I started acting, but I’ve been very poor a major part of my career. And it didn’t discourage me. I just kept going. And today it’s pretty good. Pretty good. I might even could buy a house soon.”
Upcoming: I haven’t seen Justified yet but Martindale just snagged an Emmy nomination for a meaty role as a villain. Reason enough to move that Blu-ray to the top of the stack.
July 5, 2011
Name: Zeljko Ivanek.
Best Known As: The courtly, corrupt, and ultimately tragic high-powered lawyer Ray Fiske on Damages, a very affecting performance despite the shakiness of Ivanek’s Southern accent.
Trademarks: Hiding behind an unpronounceable Slovenian name, this very American stage actor has a dimunitive frame, a prominent forehead, and a crooked, sardonic mouth, all of which tilt his casting toward the debauched or the demonic.
First Glimpsed In: The cult horror film The Sender, with our friend Shirley Knight.
First Big TV Exposure: Part of the Tom Fontana repertory, Ivanek played a prosecutor on Homicide and the governor on Oz.
High Art Moment: Ivanek was part of the amazing ensemble in Dogville, Lars Von Trier’s best film, and its disastrous sequel, Manderlay.
Ivanek the Terrible: Lately he’s been overexposed as TV’s go-to guy for generic villainy: miscast as a rogue military operative in Heroes, miscast as a deranged redneck on Big Love, nothing to do as a vampire judge in True Blood. Somebody should use Ivanek against type as a nice guy, before I get tired of him.
July 1, 2011
Veteran character actress Claudia Bryar died on June 16 at the age of 93. Her death was reported, under her real name of Hortense Barrere, last week in a Los Angeles Times notice.
Bryar appeared in small parts in hundreds of television episodes, from Father Knows Best to Hill Street Blues.
Her usual specialty was the nosy neighbor, the spinster, or the severe professional woman. The image above comes from “The Cure,” a 1960 Wanted: Dead or Alive episode in which Bryar had a larger-than-usual role, a romantic lead opposite actor Harold J. Stone.
Bryar was an actress I had sought to interview in this space, but by the time I contacted her family last year, her health was too poor to permit it. However, our friend Ralph Senensky has written on his blog about Bryar and her husband, Paul Bryar, both of whom were close friends of his as well as charter members of the Senensky Stock Company. Ralph writes about, and shows clips from, Ms. Bryar’s performances for him on Dr. Kildare here and in the telefilm The Family Nobody Wanted here.
June 8, 2011
Name: Michael Paul Chan.
Not Charlie, But …: Chan hit a recent career peak on The Closer, as part of what may be TV’s best-ever character-actor cop ensemble. (Sorry, Hill Street.) He plays the only guy on the squad who understands computers, and he gets endless mileage out of his primary prop, the glasses perched on his shaved head. Chan is one of those actors who can’t play dumb; he exudes intelligence and confidence and he’ll take over a scene anytime the director lets him. He can do Chinese and Chinese-American stereotypes on cue but, like the great James Hong, Chan is adept at undermining them with humor.
First Noticed In: The Wonder Years. Chan cracked me up as the pidgin-English-speaking nightmare boss when Kevin took a crummy Chinese restaurant job.
His Best Patron: Michael Mann. Small roles in Thief and The Insider built to a great supporting role on Mann’s cop opus redux, Robbery Homicide Division. Counterbalanced by the great, hounddog-faced Barry Shabaka Henley, Chan’s fast-talking RHD detective was a first draft of his Closer character.
Obligatory Age/Race-Related Stereotype: Turns out Chan is over 60 (past retirement age for cops!), and has been doing bit parts since the days of Police Woman and Baretta. Tell me the man can’t pass for 45.
What Now: He’s plateaued as a team player. Somebody write a leading role for Chan, a meaty, fully-rounded part that digs beneath the surface of his trademark sharp-edged cynicism.
Read More About It: Here’s a brief interview with Chan.
May 31, 2011
Landers is best known for his five-year run on Ben Casey as Dr. Ted Hoffman, sidekick to the brooding brain surgeon of the show’s title. Diminutive and eminently reasonable, Hoffman often acted as a calming influence on the towering volcano that was Dr. Casey. Landers’s other claim to fame, as a coffee pitchman in a series of commercials for Taster’s Choice, also made good use of his mumbly bedroom voice and his air of approachable warmth.
All of that just shows what a good actor Landers could be. In life, Landers was a bantamweight tyro, a heavy drinker who spent more than a few nights in jail. Many of his stories revolve around his sudden flashes of anger, and the consequences of on-set outbursts. He has mellowed somewhat with age, but even in his final year as an octogenarian, Landers seems capable of scary explosions of temper. During the hamburger incident – and in fairness, that patty did appear scorched to excess – I was sure that we narrowly avoided one.
(And yes, Landers is 89, not 90. All the reference books give his date of birth as April 3, 1921, but in fact it is September 3. At some point, someone’s handwritten 9 must have resembled a 4.)
As he talked about working for Hitchcock and DeMille, Landers was expansive, but also genuinely modest. “Why do you want to know all this crap?” he asked more than once. A moment of honesty finally won his respect. “Why did you decide to interview me?” he wanted to know.
There were several possible answers, but I went with the most accurate. “Because you’re the last surviving regular cast member of Ben Casey,” I replied.
“That’s a good reason,” Harry agreed instantly. But when I asked him to comment on some of the widely publicized conflicts among the show’s cast members, he would only go so far. “No, it’s no good,” he said after interrupting himself in the middle of an anecdote and casting a wary eye in my direction. “You’re too smooth!”
Retired now, Landers lives with his son in the San Fernando Valley. He misses his old house in Sherman Oaks and, even more, the vibrant street life of Manhattan. Until recently, he visited New York City several times a year. So many of hangouts closed and so many of his East Coast friends passed away, though, that after a time Landers found himself seeing shows, dining alone, and going back to his hotel to watch television. He stopped going back. But he’s still active, and still pugnacious: his residuals are so “pathetic” that he doesn’t cash some of the checks, “just to drive the accounting offices crazy.”
As we wrapped up, he insisted on picking up the check. “I’m a gentleman of quality,” said Landers. “You can’t bribe me, kid.”
How did you get started as an actor?
I was working at Warner Bros. as a laborer. There was an article in the Warner Bros. newspaper that they distributed throughout the studio, and they mentioned my name. In World War II, I did what I think any other kid my age would have done. I was a little heroic on a ship that was torpedoed, and I saved some lives. It was no big deal.
How did you save them?
Well, this torpedo was hanging by the fantail. Some kid was trying to get out through a porthole. One kid was frozen on the ladder. I just moved ahead with a flashlight, and had people grab hold and go towards the lifeboat. Just a little immediate reaction. I think if you’re a kid, you don’t realize what you do. You just do it.
So anyway, one day I was out in the back of the studio, where the big water tower is, and I’m pounding nails, and a limousine drove up and a man got out. His name was Snuffy Smith. He asked for me, and somebody indicated where I was pounding nails. He said, “Bette Davis wants to see you.”
I said, “What?” I was scroungy, stripped to the waist, matted hair, sweaty, angry.
He said, “Yes, she wants to see you.”
So I grabbed a t-shirt and put it on, and got into the limo. Now I was fear-ridden. On the ship, I wasn’t. How old was I? I was in my early twenties, I guess. I remembered Bette Davis as a kid, watching her movies. To this day, I think she’s still the motion picture actress in American cinema. She’s incredible.
So they asked me onto the stage, to Bette Davis’s dressing room. They were shooting. There was a camera and all the sets. The man went up and said, “Miss Davis, I have the young man.” So she said, “Come in, come in.” I walked in and there she was, seated in front of the mirror. She looked at me and shook my hand. She asked me a few questions. She said, “What can I do for you?”
Maybe when I was a kid in New York City, in Brooklyn, I always realized I’d wind up in Hollywood someday. I never knew why or what, but it was a magnet. Motion pictures is better than sex! And she said, “What can I do for you?”
I used to watch the extras. Beautiful little girls walking around, and they were always rather well-dressed and doing nothing, and I’m sweating and pounding nails. And they were making more money. I think I was making like nine or ten dollars a day. I said, “I’d like to do what they’re doing.”
She said, “You want to be an extra?”
I said, “Yes, ma’am.”
Then she picked up the phone and she spoke to Pat Somerset at the Screen Actors Guild. Put the phone down. A few seconds later the phone rang. She said, “Yes, Pat. Bette here. I have a young man here, and I will pay his initiation.” That was the end of it. She told me where to go. She wrote it down: The Screen Actors Guild union on Hollywood and La Brea. We talked for maybe three more sentences, said goodbye and shook hands.
The next time I ran across Bette Davis was at a party at Greer Garson’s house. By that time many years had passed; in fact, I was in Ben Casey. I was with Sam Jaffe and Bettye Ackerman. They knew Greer – Miss Garson – very well. There was Bette Davis, and she didn’t remember me. I [reminded her and] a little thing flicked in her mind. It was just a very brief kind of a [memory]. That was the last time I ever saw her.
That was before the strict union rules. Now you give an [extra] special business or a line, they automatically have to become a member of the Screen Actors Guild. Every now and then they would say, “Hey, you. Can you say this and this?” They’d give me one or two short lines. So I’d be in a short, fast, little scene. But I always knew this was going to happen. It was just a progression. I met a young man who was going to an acting class, Mark Daly, who’s dead, many years ago. He always had books under his arm. I said, “What are you reading?”
He said, “Plays.”
I never read a play in my life. I said, “Oh.”
Then he said, “Harry, what are you doing tonight?”
I said, “Nothing.”
He said, “I’m going to an acting class. Come on down, you might like it.”
I went down there and I met the person who ran the studio. It was an incredible place, called the Actors Lab.
That was the left-wing theater group, many of whose members got blacklisted during the McCarthy era.
Yes. Most of them did. It was a residual effect out of the Group Theatre. That’s where I met some of the people who became fast friends of mine. The one woman I met was Mary Tarsai, who was sort of the administrator. She wouldn’t say no to me. She was afraid I was going to kill her. I was interviewed to become a member. You had to audition and all that stuff. So it was like, okay, come to class next Thursday. Then I met people like Lloyd Bridges, and an incredible actor and an incredible man who was an associate producer on Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Norman Lloyd. What an amazing man. Beautiful voice.
Stella Adler taught me, and threw me out of her class. She called me a gangster, and she was right.
Why did she call you a gangster?
I don’t know.
Then why do you say she was right?
Well, I was rebellious.
Many of the Actors Lab members were later blacklisted because of their political views. Were you?
No. No, because I was not that prominent. They were after the big names, like J. Edward Bromberg, Morris Carnovsky, who were – I’m not going to go into whether they were communists or not. Hume Cronyn. But it was immaterial to me. See, I knew what they wanted. The desire to overthrow the government was the least motive in their minds. They were political activists who wanted a better life for the people. No discrimination. So I was very sympathetic to what they had to do and say.
Once there were a bunch of us picketing Warner Bros. studio, from the Lab, and we were rounded up and taken over to the Burbank jail. They put like seven, eight of us in a holding cell. The door was unlocked. I walked out. My mother lived in Van Nuys, and I got to my mom’s house in a cab or whatever, had some lunch, spoke to her, and I went back to the jail. Opened the door and went back in. People said, “Hi, Harry.” They never knew I was gone.
The Actors Lab was in Los Angeles, but you went back to New York at some point. Why?
I missed New York. By that time I was out of New York City for quite some time, but I just wanted to go for the adventure. I drove to New York with two guys. One became a very famous actor, Gene Barry. Marvelous man. And a guy named Harry something – Harry Berman, I think. Big, tall, huge heavy guy.
This would have been the late forties, early fifties. Tell me about some of the young actors you got to know in New York during that time.
Ralph Meeker. Good friend. Very tough man. Great fighter, wrestler. Robert Strauss. Harvey Lembeck. I was in a play with Marlon Brando that I walked out of, stupidly. Luther Adler was directing. Adler begged me not to. It was dumb. There was a hotel in New York called the Park Central Hotel, on 55th and Broadway. There was a gym, and I used to worked out there, and Brando used to work out there. We became friendly, and we liked each other immediately. We knew all the same people. Robert Condon, Wally Cox, an incredible man called Red Kullers [whom Cassavetes enthusiasts will remember as the man in Husbands who sings “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?”]. Brando and I got along very well. We double-dated a few times, and I did a movie with him, The Wild One.
Murray Hamilton was the most talented. He was an amazing actor. There was never a finer southern gentleman who ever lived. And very liberal politically. Married one of the DeMarco sisters. Murray got married in my old house up in Sherman Oaks. When Murray would come in to L.A. – he hated Los Angeles – he, after working, would go back to New York. We all had to stuff him into a plane. Fear of flying. He would have to be stoned before he would get on the plane.
One day he came up from downstairs and opened the door. He used to call me Hesh, and I used to call him Hambone. He said, “Harry – Hesh – you have to do me a favor.”
I said, “What?”
“You have to keep me off the sauce.” Now, Murray was an alcoholic. I was. Strauss, Lembeck, Meeker, all very heavy drinkers.
I said, “Okay.” He was doing The Graduate. Remember The Graduate? He played that beautiful girl’s father. He said, “Now, the director [Mike Nichols], he said ‘Murray, you have to stop drinking. We can’t see your eyes any more.’”
How did you stop drinking?
I didn’t. I think just, as the years went on, these people went out of my life. I just slowly but surely stopped [carousing].
Tell me about doing live television.
Some were small parts, some I was a star. One with James Dean, I was the lead, opposite Hume Cronyn. Cronyn was my teacher at the Actors Lab, the best teacher I ever had. He was the star, he and Jessica Tandy. I was in love with Jessica.
What did you learn from him?
I learned you cannot get on stage without knowing your lines. There was a time when I was able to do an improvisation on anything, and I thought that I was a very good actor, or a great actor. I hit my marks and people hired me all the time, so I must have been pretty good. I never felt that I had the freedom, the confidence, to really have the opportunities to let go and do it.
What live shows do you remember?
I did so many live TV shows. One of my best moments on live TV was a very famous show called “The Battleship Bismarck,” on Studio One. I played a fanatical nazi on the battleship. There’s the set, the battleship, and I was here saying everything like “Sieg heil!” and “Achtung!” I’m on the set, talking, during a rehearsal break or something, and I looked over and said, “Oh, my god.” I flipped. Over there was Eleanor Roosevelt. I didn’t ask permission, although I’m a very polite man, respectful of my peers, superiors. I just said, “Excuse me,” and walked up to her. I’m not very tall, and she was, and I’m in my nazi uniform. I said, “Mrs. Roosevelt – ” She grabbed my wrist and said, “Dear boy, what are you doing?!” The uniform I had on.
Ernie Borgnine and I were cast in Captain Video. We got paid $25 an episode, and we shot it in New York City. We had to learn a whole script a day, for $25. We did it for two weeks. We would write the cues on our cuffs. It was impossible. We worked so well together. A very sweet guy. The last time I saw him, Ernie knew the dates, and he said, “Who cast us in the show?” I said, “Uh….” and he said, “Elizabeth Mears!”
You were in the classic Playhouse 90, “Requiem For a Heavyweight.”
I replaced Murray Hamilton in that show; I don’t remember why. The only thing I really remember about the show was that [Jack] Palance was not very friendly.
The famous story about that show is that Ed Wynn couldn’t remember his lines, and right up to the last minute they were going to replace him with another actor.
I never knew Ed Wynn prior to that, but his son I’d worked with quite a few times in the movies. Keenan Wynn would beg him: “Come on, Dad, you can do it, come on, you can do it!” And the old man did it, and it was a marvelous performance.
Do you remember any incidents where something went wrong on the air?
I remember I was supposed to be on the set of Tales of Tomorrow, and I was in jail.
What happened? Did you make it on the air?
Yes! Bob Condon, the brother of Richard Condon, who wrote The Manchurian Candidate, bailed me out of jail.
And why were you there in the first place?
I destroyed an apartment house. The night before I had a date with a beautiful girl from Westchester County, the daughter of an actor and a crazy girl, just a nut. I went down to her apartment on 37th Street or 38th Street, and I took Bobby Condon with me. He and I were good friends. I spoke to her – I think her name was Betty – and I said, “I’m bringing a friend. Get a girl. The four of us will go out.”
Well, we went down there and she was pissed at me. I knocked on her apartment door, and she wouldn’t let me in. I said, “Will you open the door?” Blah, blah, blah, blah. “Come on, open the door.” And I became angry and I kicked the door in. Dumb. I was a kid. I kicked the door in, and that was it. But as I walked out of the apartment house, I wrecked the entire apartment house. Like three, four banisters on the stairs, I kicked the spokes out, [pulled down] the chandeliers. Went home. About five o’clock in the morning, six in the morning, the cops grabbed me and threw me in jail, and they threw Bobby Condon in jail. They let him out immediately, but they kept me in just because of my attitude.
So one of the cops called over and said, “Yeah, he’s in jail.” So they had a standby actor walking [in my place] all camera rehearsal. Meanwhile the jailers were cuing me for my cues. They loved it! I had grabbed my script and my glasses [when the police arrived]. But they bailed me out just in time to get me to the set. I got there just in time. I needed a shave. I had scrubby clothes. Gene Raymond was the star of that show. He looked at me like, “Oh, wow, who are you?”
The producer never forgave me, but the show was marvelous! One of my better performances.
Above: Landers and Gene Raymond on Tales of Tomorrow (“Plague From Space,” April 25, 1952)
You were in Rear Window. Tell me about Alfred Hitchcock.
I was prepared to dislike him. I don’t know why; I was a great fan of his. When we got on the stage, he said, “All right, kiddies, show me what you’d like to do.” That was all improvised: we’re in a club, she picks me up in a club coming out of a movie. We get through doing it and he says, “Oh, that’s marvelous.” He says, “Harry, come here. Look through the camera.” I didn’t know what the hell I was looking at. But he was gentle, and sweet, and so nice to work with. Which surprised me.
You were also in The Ten Commandments, Cecil B. DeMille’s last film.
I played three different parts. I was the first guy in America in fifty years who screamed at Cecil B. DeMille on the set, in front of God and everyone. Everybody’s dead silent. DeMille’s blue eyes went [looking around in search of the culprit]. The assistant director goes, “Harry, get back where you belong.” I said to myself, “I’m fired. That’s it.”
Why did you yell at him?
By that time, I’d watched DeMille scream at actors, and he could be very, very cruel. He did not know how to direct actors. He directed donkeys and elephants and mass crowds. With actors, he didn’t know. When I got on the stage first time, one of the actors said, “With Cecil B. DeMille, raise your hands all the time. ‘Yes!’ ‘Yes!’” I said, “Oh, okay.”
Anyway, in the scene, I’m on a parallel. I’m an Egyptian architect, and I’m surveying. I look up this way, and I’ve got a flag, and I look this way, and this way. A good-looking guy, John Derek, played Joshua, and he breaks loose from his Egyptian captors. So I jump off the parallel – the only reason I got the job is because I was always very well-built – and I grab him, hit him, knock him on the floor, and jump on him. Then some other people grab him. DeMille is sitting with his binder. Looking through his viewfinder, he says, “You! Move three inches to your left.” So I knew he meant me. I moved three inches, maybe five, maybe six.
Now when DeMille spoke, he had somebody put a mike in front of him. When he sat, somebody put a stool under his ass. So he’d never look [at anything].
That legend is really true?
Absolutely! I was there. So the mike is in front of him, and he said, “I said three inches, not three feet!”
I went insane. I picked up John Derek, I pushed him like this. I walked up to DeMille, I got very close to him. I cupped my hands. I said [loudly], “Mr. DeMille!” Now this is a huge stage of donkeys and hundreds of people. “Mr. DeMille! Would you like to go over there and measure me?”
He was flabbergasted. Prime ministers would come to see this man. He was Mister Paramount. And, anyway, I thought I was fired. I came back the next day. Next day, nobody spoke to me. Not one actor. Two days later, I’m walking on set. DeMille looked at me and said, “Good morning, young man.” Turned away and walked straight ahead. I’m saying, “Wow, what goes with this?” Nobody knew why I was still on the set, why I was still working.
Now, every actor in Hollywood worked on The Ten Commandments, and a lot of them weren’t even given screen credit. I got paid $200 a day, six days a week, plus we always went overtime – $250 a day. And I worked on it for three months. I was making more money than John Carradine, who was an old friend of mine, more than Vincent Price. I was papering my walls with checks from Paramount. One day, the assistant director, a great guy, says, “Harry, I gotta let you go. The front office is screaming about it.” He’d told me this once before, about a month before. He said, “Harry, we’ve got to let you go.” Because they’d never put me on a weekly [deal]. They said, “Get rid of him, or he’s going to make [a fortune off of us].”
When I was fired by the assistant director, I climbed up to tell DeMille. He was always up on a parallel. By this time I’d grew to love the old man. I really did. I realized how incompetent he was! I walked up and he waited, and then he looked and said, “Yes . . . young man?” He always wanted to call me by name, but he could not remember my name.
I said, “Mr. DeMille, I just wanted to say goodbye and I wanted to thank you very much for just a great time.” And I really meant it, in my heart. I said, “It was a great experience. I appreciate it so much.”
The assistant director was waiting at the bottom of the parallel. He climbs up the ladder. DeMille said, “Where is this young man going?” And the assistant director looked at me, and looked at DeMille, and said, “Nowhere, sir.”
I stayed on the picture for another full month, at $250 a day overtime.
Here’s the end of the story. Months later I’m walking through Paramount, on an interview for something, and as I’m walking out, walking towards me is Cecil B. DeMille and his film editor and somebody else. He stopped, and he went like this [beckons]. I walked towards him. He extended his hand and said, “Hello. How are you?” And then he looked very deeply into my eyes and said, “Is there anything I can do for you?”
I’m not very smart when it comes to that. I said, “No, sir, but I thank you very much for the offer.” He said okay.
As I walked away, I realized the whole thing. DeMille, in those days, was probably in his sixties. I was in my thirties. I must’ve reminded him of someone he knew as a kid, who was a very good friend of his, or a relative. I took DeMille out of the twentieth century and took him back to when he was a child, or a youngster. We saw each other and he would sense-memory back to somebody in another life. That’s the only reason he tolerated me, I suppose.
What made you think that?
Every time we spoke, he turned to his left, like there was a name on the tip of his tongue. Like he wanted to call me John or Bill or something.
I see – that’s why he was always blocked on your name.
Yeah. And he was always busy, people talking to him, and when I spoke to him, all of a sudden everything evaporated and he just zeroed in on me for a moment. And then he was back to [what he was doing]. So that’s the only logical conclusion I could come to. Or maybe it was because I screamed at him. I felt so secure, I got my own dressing room, and I changed a whole huge scene in the movie by telling the assistant director the dialogue was incorrect grammatically. I brought my little immigrant mother on the stage and introduced my mom to Cecil B. DeMille. “Madame, it’s such a pleasure meeting you.” I felt very confident with the old man.
How did you get the part on Ben Casey?
There was a show called Medic, with Richard Boone. I did one of the episodes. It was a great show. One of my better moments. [A few years later] I was walking down the streets of MGM to go to my barber. I had a barber there who used to cut my hair. As I’m walking down the studio street, my agent walked up. He said, “Hey, Harry, what are you doing?” I told him [nothing]. He said, “Do you know Jim Moser?” I said, “Yes.” He produced and wrote Medic, and he produced Ben Casey and did the pilot.
Anyway, he arranged an interview for me. It was on a Friday. I’ll never forget this. I went there and read for him and Matt Rapf and I forget the studio executive’s name. I did four or five pilots prior to that, and you could almost tell when you had something. When I got home I called my agent and I said, “I think we have a series.”
Monday, he called me and said, “They want you back for another reading.”
So I went back to the studio. There was Vince Edwards, who I knew in New York City. Knew him quite well. They handed us each a script and we started reading. And Jim Moser got out of the chair, he grabbed the scripts, threw them up in the air, and said, “That’s it. You guys are the parts.” That’s how I got it.
Landers and perpetually scowling Vince Edwards (right) on Ben Casey.
What was Vince Edwards like?
Amazing man. One of the smartest, stupidest men I’ve ever known in my life. Complete contradiction. It’s too long to go into. He was abusive to many people. He was petty in many ways. He was far more talented than he gave people a chance to realize.
He had a photographic memory. Every now and then we’d have time to rehearse. We’d sit around the table and read our scenes. Vince would read a script once and he knew every line. Every dot, every comma. He knew everything. Sam Jaffe and I had difficulty, especially with the latin terms. Vince would just glance down and he’d get every paragraph, like that. Jaffe and I used to look at each other and go, “Wow.”
It was also his downfall, because he never bothered to study, to learn his lines. He was a much better actor than he gave himself a chance to be. He had charm. He had a great voice. He sang very well. He had an incredible since of humor. He was quick as a cat. Very witty.
I’ve heard a couple of things about Edwards during the production of Ben Casey. One was that he spent all his time at the racetrack.
Sure. I’m directing one of the episodes, okay? Now, Vince is an old friend of mine. I knew him in New York City. When he first came out here, he stayed at my house. When he had an appendicitis attack, I got him to a doctor. My mother used to feed him chicken soup.
Vince, lunchtime: “I’ll be back.” He didn’t care who [was directing]. He was ruthless. He’d go, and [after] the hour for lunch, “Where’s Vince?” We had to shoot around him. He’d show up around three, four o’clock.
We haven’t gotten in Franchot Tone. What a man, what a man. He was brilliant. Do you know who he is?
He replaced Sam Jaffe as the senior doctor for the last season of the show.
Yeah. Sam Jaffe left for two reasons. It’s a sordid story. But Franchot Tone was amazing. He was the son of a doctor. Very rich. Responsible for the Group Theatre. When they ran out of money, when they were doing Odets plays and all that, he would [write a check].
Now, I’ll tell you a story about him. He would talk to no one. It took months before he would relate to anyone in the cast. On any level. I became his buddy. The reason? Right before we’re shooting, he came out and said, “Harry, I understand you have a dressing room upstairs?” I did. I had three dressing rooms, one upstairs – the editors had their own private dressing room there – one on the stage, and one downstairs with Vince. He said, “Can I have the key?” He looked over, and there was a pretty little extra in the doorway. So I slipped him the key.
After that we became very, very good friends, and he turned out to be a marvelous source of information about all the Group Theatre actors. Tone was a total alcoholic. He was a marvelous, compassionate, bright guy. But when he came to the studio, the minute he passed the guard, the phone on the set would ring: “Watch out, Franchot’s on the way over.” Franchot had a rented Chevrolet. The sides were bent like an accordion. He would hit the sides of the building: boom, boom, boom. He’d get out, staggering. He and his companion, carrying two big paper bags loaded with ice and whatever they were drinking. Scotch. Clink, clink, clink, went the bags. They’d go into the room, and that was it.
One day, when I was directing the show, he looked at me and said, “Harry, you know, you do something that the other directors don’t do.”
I said, “What’s that, Franchot?”
He said, “You always have me seated when we’re in a scene. Why do you do that?”
Well, I didn’t want to tell him that he was swaying in and out of focus all the time. I said, “Well, Franchot, you’re the boss of the hospital and this guy is your subordinate, so it’s just proper etiquette.”
He said, “Oh, yes, dear boy, thank you, I see.” With a little smirk on his face.
Franchot Tone as Dr. Freeland on Ben Casey.
I want to go back to Sam Jaffe. I heard that he left Ben Casey because of conflicts with Vince Edwards. Is that accurate?
Partially. Yeah, I’d say it was accurate. If Vince was in a bad mood – if you’re the star of the show, you’re a total, total dictator. The atmosphere on a set is dictated by the star. Vince was the boss. And Vince usually was in a pretty good mood, but he had an assistant who worked for him, an ex-prizefighter. What I’m going to tell you is too sordid, it’s such a cheap kind of a . . . oh, why not? They would do thievery. Christmastime, they would collect money to buy gifts for everyone. They kept half the money.
But Edwards was making a fortune as the star of the show, right?
Yes. He blew it all. He owned an apartment house with Carol Burnett out in Santa Monica – they were business partners together. Vince sold out his rights to get some more money to go to the track. I’m at Santa Anita one day with Jack Klugman, and I go to the men’s room. I look out and I see Vince walking towards the men’s room. I don’t want to bump into him, so I made a sharp left back into the bathroom, got into a stall, locked the stall. I was waiting for Vince’s feet to go out so I could leave, because he invariably hit you up for money. If you were at the track, and you saw Vince coming towards you, you immediately pulled out like two twenty dollar bills and put it on the table. Because he’d hit you up for money. “See, Vince, that’s it. That’s what’s left of my stake. I came in with three hundred dollars,” and whatever. Some bullshit. And he knew it. He owed me a lot of money. I’m a schmuck.
So he really stole the Christmas gift money from the cast and crew of Ben Casey?
Yeah. They would give people extra business. You know what that is, an actor gets extra business? He gets an increase in his pay. It makes him eligible to become a member of the Guild. So they would create extra business for extras, and if you did extra business you would pick up an extra hundred dollars. So Benny Goldberg, his little thuggy partner, would collect the money. It was petty. I remember once – I don’t know why I’m telling you all this shit. I can’t do it. It’s too demeaning. You’re too smooth. No, it’s no good.
Well, it sounds as if Edwards had a very serious addiction.
Oh, enormous. He had a huge problem gambling.
Do you think he liked doing Ben Casey? Did he like acting, like being a star?
I don’t know. Did he like doing it? Sure. He was making a lot of money. There was an episode where – I’ll tell you this, I don’t care – Jerry Lewis was directing one of the episodes of Ben Casey. He and Vince got into it. Bing Crosby got on the phone – he was the boss, you know that, he owned the show – and Vince disappeared. All of Vince’s lines went to me and Jaffe. And Jerry Lewis directed the show without any problems. We were all pros. But he was a difficult guy in many ways, yes. In many ways, no. Instead of focusing on his acting, his focus was get it done and go to the track.
Did your earlier friendship mean that you were on better terms with Vince than the rest of the cast was?
Yeah. By far. Absolutely. I could get away with murder with Vince. He was afraid of me.
He was bigger than you, though.
Ah, he was full of shit. He was blown up with drugs, but he had the wrists of a fifteen year-old girl.
What kind of drugs was he on?
I don’t know. I think, in those days, enhancement drugs.
Yeah, steroids. Oh, yeah, he was a two hundred-and-ten pound phony baloney. But it was all right. He was very smart. Big ideas. But a dumbbell. Didn’t know how to treat people. He believed that they tolerated and hated him.
But there was only one Ben Casey, and it was him. Nobody could take that show over. Nobody. He was it.
I think that surly quality of his made the character, and the show, unique. He wasn’t a wimp like Dr. Kildare.
Yeah. I knew actors who were up for the role. Russell Johnson, from Gilligan’s Island, was up for it, and two or three other actors. But Vince got it, and was marvelous in it.
Did Jim Moser have a lot of involvement in Ben Casey?
No, outside of writing. He was the producer, but he was never on the stage. Matt Rapf was one of the producers. They rarely came on the stage. I think it was part of the caste system in Hollywood. When you reach a certain level, you don’t go back.
Tell me about Sam Jaffe and Bettye Ackerman, who played Ben Casey’s leading lady. Were they together before the show began?
Already married. She was his student. After Sam died, she moved to South Carolina. She would come out here and she would call me and I would have lunch with her, maybe once or twice a year. She became a Tennessee Williams type of lady. She developed a slight little Southern accent. She reverted back to her youth. She was a marvelous lady. Her brother was a doctor. She was very well-schooled.
I became Sam Jaffe’s son in some ways. Just chemistry, mutual likes, politics. People we knew. He’d always call me up: “Heshel, how are you?” When he died, the whole town came out.
If people called you Hesh or Heshel, that makes me wonder: Is Harry Landers your real name?
No. Harry Sorokin. Landers is my mother’s maiden name. It’s an old Russian name. Seven children. We all took my mother’s maiden name but one brother and the girls, because my father walked out on seven kids. I, and my brothers, out of outrage and heartbreak about my father deserting us, disassociated ourselves from him. A dreadful man, really, a very bad man. But I loved him, in retrospect.
Let me try this one more time though: You said there were two reasons why Sam Jaffe left Ben Casey. What was the other one?
It was Vince’s gopher, who was a rated prizefighter, one of the top fifteen, twenty, I think a lightweight. Not a very nice man. Jaffe, I realized, had developed an intense dislike for him. And his dislike for Vince, as the years went on, increased, because Vince would do things that were not very nice. Scream at a makeup man, just stuff that no gentleman of quality would do.
I haven’t ask you much about your character on Ben Casey, or what you did with it.
I don’t know, what’s your question? How did I interpret the part? I didn’t. Well, I was the second-in-command. Vince was the chief resident and I was the second in command of whatever the unit was, and I was just playing footsies to Vince. He was the big wheel. That’s all it was.
The classic “best friend” role?
Yes. I was just his best friend on the series, and Jaffe’s good friend, but I didn’t have any – my part was indistinguishable. Anybody could have phoned it in. It was not a challenge.
Were you content to be in that kind of secondary role?
Sure! They paid me very well. I became very well-known, and if you’re rather well-known, you’re treated with a – it’s a great lifestyle.
The show was very popular.
Huge! For two years we were number one, number two. I remember once in Louisiana, visiting my ex-wife in Baton Rouge, walking down the street and people screamed. They would tear the clothes off you. You’d walk into a restaurant here, you couldn’t pay the tab: “Please come back.” You go to a movie, you never wait in line. You’re ushered right in. I was a half-assed movie star for a while. I was halfway up the ladder. I like that title. I’ll write a book: Halfway Up the Ladder.
Do you remember any other Ben Casey episodes that used you prominently?
“Minus That Rusty Old Hacksaw.” Gloria Swanson played my mother. First time I came on the set, I probably had an eight o’clock call, and she was probably there since five in the morning, being made up. When people introduced themselves, she would extend her hand. People would kiss her hand. I never kissed anybody’s hand. So she extended her hand and I took it and said, “How do you do?” I shook it.
Slowly but surely, and I say this without any reservations, she fell madly in love with me. Everybody in the studio thought I was having sex with Gloria Swanson. Totally impossible. She was old enough to be my grandmother. Last time I saw Gloria Swanson, she gave me a big hug and a kiss on the cheek, and she took my hand and squeezed it. I opened it and in it was a piece of paper, and she said, “I suppose you can’t be reached?” And I said no. She said, “Here’s my phone number. Call me. Please call me, Harry.” That was the end of Gloria Swanson. I wasn’t very bright about those things.
In one of the episodes, I’m dying of some sort of unknown disease, and they have a big microscope and they look at my body for what was making me sick, a pinprick or whatever. There were a couple of other episodes [in which Ted Hoffman figured prominently], where Vince was ill or he didn’t show up or whatever. But Vince was very zealous about his position in the show and who he was. There was a while – I don’t mind saying this – where you could not hire an actor as tall as Vince, or taller. They once hired an actor who was taller, and when they were in a scene together, Vince sat or the other actor sat. It was never eyeball to eyeball, because Vince would not put up with any kind of competition.
Gloria Swanson and Harry Landers on Ben Casey (“Minus That Rusty Old Hacksaw,” March 15, 1965).
You and Vince both directed episodes of Ben Casey.
He was a very good director. He was a better director than I was. For one reason: Vince had a photographic mind, as I told you. He was mechanical. All of the actors who I ever directed loved me. I’m the best acting teacher, best acting director in the world, including Elia Kazan. I’m brilliant at it. But I never really mastered the camera. I should have gotten the cameraman aside, but I did not; I winged it with the camera, and it showed. But, you know, they hired me. I did three shows, so they must have saw something they liked. I was adequate. Out of Ben Casey, I got a Death Valley Days to direct.
Did you do any more directing after that?
No. I’m the second laziest man in America, and probably the most undisciplined person that ever lived. If I had disciplined myself, I would have had a very large career.
Here’s a TV Guide profile of you from the Ben Casey era. I’m curious as to how much they got right. Were you in fact an unofficial technical advisor on Action in the North Atlantic (1943)?
And your wife was Miss Louisiana of 1951, 1952, and 1953?
Yes. But I’ve been divorced for years. If I had a brain in my head I would have stayed married. I would’ve been the governor of Louisiana years ago.
Is it true that you got the audition for Ben Casey because you saw Jim Moser stranded on the side of the road after his car broke down, and stopped to help him?
That was made up by the publicity guy.
Do you remember doing Star Trek?
Yeah. I was a guest star, and it was a dreadful experience for me. I had just got out of the hospital. I’d had a lung removed, and I was not steady on my feet. Usually I was one take, two takes, print. I was always great with dialogue. This time I was not good. The producer, who produced Ben Casey, insisted I do the job. He said, “Oh, Harry, you can do it.”
Oh, right, Fred Freiberger produced the final season of Star Trek.
Yeah. What a guy! He was a member of the Actors Lab. But I was not happy with that show. It was not one of my better [performances].
Why did you have a lung removed?
I was on location doing a movie with Elvis Presley. Charro, I think it was. I was working in Death Valley. I was a gym rat, and I came back and I felt a pull in my right lung, and I had it x-rayed and I had a growth. It was not a good moment for the doctors or Harry. They could have treated me medicinally, but in order to play it safe, they decided to remove the upper right lung. This involved a lot of money. Maybe they were right, but I don’t think so. An incredible, painful nuisance. They cracked every rib in my body.
Landers with William Shatner (left) on Star Trek (“Turnabout Intruder,” the final episode, June 3, 1969)
Is that why you didn’t act much in the years immediately following the Star Trek episode? You kind of disappeared for a long time.
I just didn’t want to work. I don’t know why. I had a lot of money. In fact, I even turned down a lead opposite Shelley Winters in some movie she was doing. I always felt that once you reach a certain plateau, which I did, people always want you. What I didn’t realize was: out of sight, out of mind. All of a sudden it was like, who? what? So I just sort of disappeared. It was a period of eight, ten years where I didn’t work. I didn’t care. I don’t think I had an agent. I didn’t bother.
What were you doing during that period?
Collecting art, and selling art, which I do today. I’m a huge art collector.
What kind of art?
All kinds. I’m very good with antique art, old art. I know the Picasso, Chagall, Miro, Calder and all that stuff, but I’m partially colorblind, so I stay away from that. I buy antique art.
You mentioned that Jack Klugman was a friend. Is that why you appeared several times on Quincy?
Yes. I didn’t want to do them. Walking by Universal, going in and out, Jack saw me and he stopped. “Harry, get in here!” He said, “Please do one of the shows.” They were minor parts. I just did them to please him, and I enjoyed every moment of it.
Finally, I guess we should talk about Taster’s Choice.
Out of the blue my agent called me: “They want you to do a commercial.” I said, “Okay, I’ve done a few commercials. Quite a few, in fact. What is it?” One of the sponsors’ wives saw me in one of the episodes of Ben Casey. I did the video version here, on tape: “Hi, my name is Harry Landers, and I drink Taster’s Choice coffee because it gives me diarrhea. Taster’s Choice coffee comes in small packets. It’s instant brewed coffee. It’s fucking delicious!” I do a lot of improvising. So, I did it, and then they flew me to Chicago to do the audio version. It was on the air so often, it got to the point where the disc jockeys would say, “Who the hell is Harry Landers?”
This interview was conducted in Sherman Oaks, California, on April 30, 2010. The image at the top is from The Untouchables (“Portrait of a Thief,” April 7, 1960). I’m not entirely clear on what this is, but it features Harry in a recent acting role.