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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How badly hurt were you?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who was the actor who complained about the lights?

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

With whom?  Do you know?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How did that turn out?

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

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

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

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

He meant that Wilder coveted her sexually?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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With Noam Pitlik in The Fortune Cookie (1966).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You also made a film with Stanley Kramer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

What do you remember about him?

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

What do you mean by over his head?

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

Yes, he died in 2001.

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

Are there other feature films that you consider memorable?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Really?  It got worse, instead of better?

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

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

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

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

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

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

And you did some writing as well.

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

You mean Daniel Knauf, who created Carnivale.

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

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

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

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

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

Were there any roles that you regret having turned down?

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

Did you audition for it?

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

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

OsmondTZ

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

Although it’s been three months since his death, it’s the season of Sidney this summer in New York.   On June 27, which would have been Lumet’s eighty-seventh birthday, a celebrity-packed memorial service at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall featured eulogies by Lauren Bacall, Gene Saks, Walter Bernstein, Marcia Jean Kurtz, Phyllis Newman, Christopher Walken, James Gandolfini, David Mamet, and others.

Starting tomorrow, the Film Society of Lincoln Center begins a week-long tribute to Lumet, with screenings of sixteen of his films.  Among those being shown are his debut, the live television adaptation 12 Angry Men (1957), and Fail-Safe (1964), followed by a question-and-answer session with screenwriter Walter Bernstein.  At ninety-one, Bernstein is perhaps the oldest living television dramatist of consequence, and of course he also scripted (anonymously, because he was blacklisted at the time) many live episodes of Danger and You Are There that Lumet directed during the early fifties.

After I wrote about Lumet’s directorial style in some of his live shows in April, I decided that it might be worthwhile to approach Lumet from another angle.  Since then, I’ve been speaking and corresponding with some of the actors and craftspeople who worked with Lumet in the early years of his career.  What follows, then, is a sort of oral history of Lumet as a live television director.  Each of the speakers is identified below by their credits that were directed by Lumet, and their remarks are ordered in a loose chronology based on the sequence of their initial collaborations with him.

 

Rita Gam
Actress, Danger (1951)
Married to Sidney Lumet, 1949-1955

His was a quintessentially American story.  He was the ultimate self-made man.  Sidney was always going forward.  He had a tremendous positiveness about him, and a practicality.  He was the most immediate person that ever lived.  Everything had to be solved, could be solved, would be solved.

Sidney and I met when we were eighteen.  He was a friend of my brother’s, and I was just starting out as an actress.  Actually, we met in a play called A Flag Is Born, and I replaced my brother as Young King David.  That was his last acting part.  He replaced Marlon Brando.

He lived with his sister at the time.  He had moved out of his house when he was about twelve, with his sister Fay.  Fay brought him up.  Sidney was not close to his father [Baruch Lumet].  But I liked his father.  He was sweet, or seemed sweet, but tough.  A 2nd Avenue Jewish actor, who lived in California by this time.  He lived in a motel, and he always kept his door open so he would always have visitors come in whenever they wanted.

Sidney and I got an apartment together on Fifteenth Street.  We still weren’t married.  My parents were in shock, for this expensively educated girl to go off and live with an actor!  I modeled, and that paid the rent.  Sidney took job as a teacher at the High School For Performing arts for $65 a week, and he adored it.

At about the same time, we had a workshop, an actors’ workshop.  I said, “Sidney, there isn’t anyone to direct.  Why don’t you be a director, too?  I mean, you’re so good.  You can do everything.”  So he became a director.  And we just had a jolly good time.  We just loved theater, and never thought of the big picture.  Making it wasn’t in our mind; in our mind was, what wonderful work can we do?

Sidney was kicked out of the Actors Studio, in the first round of dropouts, because they didn’t think he was going to be anything special.  This was Bobby Lewis, who had been his mentor when he was a cute little child.  Bobby, who was this nasty old queen, was disappointed that he grew up to be heterosexual and not beautiful.

His real break came once I was doing a commercial for Colgate Toothpaste.  Our best friend at the time was another unemployed actor named Yul Brynner, who used to play guitar at parties.  I was doing this commercial at CBS Studio, and suddenly Yul comes down on a break and sees me.  He said, “Hey, Rita, how are you doing?  How’s Sidney?”  And, “How would he like to come in and be a director of television?”  I said, “What a great idea.  Call him tonight and ask him.”  I went home and I said, “Yul’s going to call and ask you to come in as a director at CBS.  It’s a new medium.”  He said, “I’m not interested.  I really like being a teacher.”  I said, “I don’t think you’re right, Sidney.  I think this is an opportunity.”

Anyway, Yul called, and Sidney said, “I’m not interested.”  I stood behind him and I said, “I’m going to leave you if you don’t say yes!”  It was a very funny conversation.  He said, “All right, I’ll come down.”  And he went down to 42nd Street the next day to see what it was all about, and just fell in love with it.  He immediately came in as Yul’s assistant.

The intensity of the control room was just his tempo.  The whole complication of having to direct the cameras and the actors all at the same time just appealed to him.  He was very quick, very bright, very immediate, very tactile.  He loved running between the control room and the floor and the actors.  Within four months, Yul Brynner went off to be the king in The King and I, and Sidney went on to fill in for him as a director.  Within eight months, he was one of the biggest directors at CBS.

I didn’t act much for Sidney, except at the workshop, and then on Danger a couple of times.  One time I played a walk-on, and one time I played the lead.  But I had my own career.  There was a Life magazine article about six of us – the six leading television actresses.  One of them was Grace Kelly, before she was a big star.  I met her on the set of You Are There.  That’s where I was introduced to her, on the floor, by Sidney.  She was playing Dulcinea in Don Quixote.

I was at CBS all the time.  I’d sit in the control room and just make fatuous notes.  Sidney was in such total control of everything.  He had a producer by the name of Charlie Russell.  Charlie was a typical advertising agency, buttoned-up guy who adored Sidney.  Anything Sidney said, went.  We also became very good friends with Marlene Dietrich because Sidney sort of discovered Maria Riva, who was Marlene’s daughter.  Very nice girl, and he would use her a lot.  Marlene would cook us Sunday night supper all the time, and Marlene just adored Sidney.  She thought the world began and ended with him, and she flattered him into thinking he was a great director.

Sidney had a main chance aspect to his personality.  Sidney had the kind of personality that attracted people and then formed a little clique, a little coterie, around him.  He used the same cameramen all the time, and his ADs.  He had that “love me, I’m a talented child actor” [quality].  Sidney was very stubborn.  Sidney always had to win his points.  He never compromised himself, or he never compromised to make the circumstances easier for himself.  He was a tough little fighter.  That’s what was interesting about him – he was a really strong person who was also very anxious to please, and make other people happy.

We decided to get married because we got tired of living in one room with a bathroom in the hall.  We both figured out that my parents, who were good middle-class parents, would furnish an apartment for us.  Maybe we’d lift ourselves up if we had a little bit more security, because we had a decent place to live!  So we got married.  It was a lovely wedding, actually.  It was at my mom and dad’s house.  Yul Brynner was there, and [his wife] Virginia Gilmore, and our other close theater friends.  Sidney finally bought a blue suit for the wedding, a navy blue suit, three-button.  That’s the first suit I think he’d ever owned.  His typical look was a sweater and sneakers and dungarees.

Then we moved up to 110th Street after we got married.  It was only a studio apartment, just a little bandbox apartment, but really it was home.  He was a lousy cook, but I was worse.  Once we got married, I think he gave me The Gourmet Cookbook as a Christmas present.  I started digging in and doing all those those things.  It was a young, fun marriage.  We didn’t break apart until the world became serious, and Hollywood money and all that stuff became involved.

Bob Markell
Production Designer, Danger (1951-1953); You Are There (1953-1955); 12 Angry Men (1957); Studio One: “The Rice Sprout Song” (1957); Play of the Week: “The Iceman Cometh” (1960); Associate Producer, Playhouse 90: “The Hiding Place” (1960)

Sidney and I first met on Danger.  First of all, he was my age.  We were exactly the same age.  He had this amazing background in theatre which I envied, with the Group Theatre.  His father was a great actor in the Jewish theatre, and he [Sidney] was an incredibly fine actor.

On Danger, I was the set designer and he was the assistant director.  The director was Yul Brynner and the producer was Marty Ritt.  And John Frankenheimer was the commercial director!  Sidney was a wonderful assistant director.  He loved Yul, and I think it was reciprocated.  He was right on time.  I think, in his head, he was able to conceive and anticipate –a live television room was the equivalent of everything you do in film post-production.  You were editing, bringing effects in, bringing sound in, bringing music in, all simultaneously.  So the director, literally, had to say “Take one” or “take two” or “take three,” take whichever camera, plus when the effects went in and the sound effects went in.  And the assistant director had to anticipate this, and Sidney was awfully good at it.

What happened was this: Yul and Marty had some kind of fight with either the agency or the sponsor, I don’t know which.  I have in my mind an image of a photograph they sent me of both of them throwing the Danger card into a trash can and holding their noses as they both quit.  I’m not sure why.  The position of the director was open.  Sidney did not get it automatically.  It was given to Ted Post and Curt Conway, and they did it for a while.  And Sidney was, I guess, looking for it or trying to get it, although these two guys were relatively well-known directors.  And sooner or later, he got the show, as a director.

Rita Gam and my wife were close, and Sidney would come up to the house.  We would go over my floor plans and he would figure his shots out.  I remember him in my kitchen one day when Curt Conway and Teddy left and he was going to start directing.  He wanted to really be sure he knew what he was doing, and so he came here.  But otherwise we didn’t really socialize.  We just were different people.

I knew, when I did something with Sid, it was experimental.  We did a lot of experimenting in those days.  Generally on Danger, but especially on You Are There, in terms of visual effects.  I had to create with rear screen and other effects all kinds of things that they do with computer generated scenery now.  If the director didn’t use it correctly, it would get all screwed up.  I always knew I could depend on Sidney.  He would keep the perspective correct, he would keep the people in proportion to the picture in back.

Danger was a regular weekly detective show, but You Are There I had to create everything from the Oklahoma land run to Genghis Khan and the burning of Saint Joan.  We did a show called “Mallory on Mount Everest,” and he and I guess Charlie Russell got some stock footage of the real Mallory on Mount Everest.  The rule in those days was you could never use white.  Blue was the equivalent of white on television.  Nobody was ever allowed to wear a white shirt or anything like that.  I had a wonderful lighting director at the time working with us, Bob Barry.  I said to Bob, “You know, we can’t paint the snowflakes blue.  Let’s just see what happens if we put everything white.”  Now, I needed the cooperation of the director and the technical director and everybody else to do that, because they had all the dials and tools at their disposal to change the intensity of the light and stuff like that.    Sidney didn’t fight me.  He said, “Let’s give it a go.  Let’s try the white.”  I mean, another director would say, “You’re not supposed to do that.  It’ll give us a lot of trouble.”  So we did the scene white, literally white.  What happened was because it was so hard for the TV cameras, because it was so bright, it suddenly became the same as the stock footage they had from these old movies.  It integrated beautifully.  And I got my first Emmy in 1954 for “Mount Everest.”

I’d go to a rehearsal with Sidney and the production assistant would have taped out on the floor my entire floor plan.  They would block the show, and Sidney would indeed be the camera.  One time I think it was either Jack Klugman or Jack Warden, where Sidney would go right up to his nose, nose to nose, for the famous close-up.  And I remember Klugman or Warden saying, “Sidney, what lens are you on?”  They were good days.

Frank Leicht
Associate Director, Studio One (1957-1958)

Sidney was wonderful.  He’d get very intense, but never lost his temper.   First of all, he was very good with the way he dealt with people.  But more than that, he was never at a loss.  In live television, there were so many things that always went wrong.  Once I remember him climbing up a ladder to fix something, and the stagehands would let him do that.  He deserved it, and they gave it to him.

But you knew he was an actor’s director.  They all loved working with him.  Because Sid was spontaneous.  Some directors would map it all out at home over a week, and they wouldn’t budge.  That’s the way they were going to do it.  Sid would block well, but he was ready to make a change whenever he had to.  He wasn’t locked into it.

 John Connell (left) and Frank Overton in “The Sentry” (The Alcoa Hour, 1956)

John Connell
Actor, Danger; You Are There; The Alcoa Hour: “The Sentry” (1956); Studio One: “The Deaf Heart” (1957); Fail-Safe (1964); Family Business (1989)

He was a guest in our home, with George C. Scott and his wife [Colleen Dewhurst], and Sidney and his wife, at an event that we had in our Forest Hills home.  We were dear, close friends for many years.

I don’t know how many people did this with him, but I rehearsed two of his scripts in the same week.  One in the afternoon and one in the evening.  You Are There was shown on Sunday, and then Danger, which was the other one, was shown during the week, and the rehearsal periods were the morning for one and the afternoon for the other.  Isn’t that amazing?  I worked with him at least eight times in live television, and another couple of movies, including Fail-Safe, where I played the radio operator in that bomber that bombed Moscow.

He was an actor himself before he started directing, and he brought all that experience to his television work.  It was always personal, always just the two of you.  He would give you a hint of what was in his mind, and see what you did, and adjust that if he felt he had to.

Van Dyke Parks
Actor, The Elgin Hour: “Crime in the Streets” (1955); The Alcoa Hour: “Man on Fire” (1956)

The reason that I ended up in live television was to pay for my board and rooms at the Columbus Boychoir School.  I had no ambition to be an actor.  My parents were quite dubious about it, my father especially.  There was no show biz mom or so forth.  A tutor would go up with me to New York City when I had a show.  But it paid for my tuition.  I was probably getting about $450 a week for participation in a show by the time I met Mr. Lumet.

On the show “Crime in the Streets,” which was directed by Sidney, my elder brother was being played by John Cassavetes, and I said something to him that was confrontational or accusatory.  It was then his job to slap me on the face, and then I was to start crying and say, “But, Frankie, you’re my brother.”  I learned to jerk my head to the left, because of course he would pull his punch and not hit me.  Well, it came to the show, the live show, and he landed one across my nose and I started to bleed.  Cut to commercial.  The blood is gushing from my nose, and I cannot remember the specifics of what was done to staunch that flow, but it did not stop.  And of course when we came back from commercial, [the setting] was the next day!  I was doing everything I could to keep from bleeding.  Cassavetes felt awful, but not as bad as I did.

Sidney was tremendously invitational.  Bob Altman is so famous for his what seems like laissez-faire attitude toward actors.  Sidney Lumet was equally empowering, drawing on his subjects’ invention and contributions.  He was not disciplinary in any way.

Loring Mandel
Writer, Studio One: “The Rice Sprout Song” (1957)

I met Sidney Lumet at the first day of rehearsal for a Studio One play, “The Rice Sprout Song.”  We rehearsed, in those days, in Central Plaza, formerly and later to be reborn as a concert hall on 2nd Avenue in the fabled Lower East Side of Manhattan.  But in 1957, it was – floor by floor – a ladder of rehearsal halls served by a large, creaky elevator.  Food service was from Ratner’s Kosher restaurant on the main floor.  Studio One seemed to have dibs on the 4th.

While a production assistant taped the outlines of the sets on the floor, the cast sat around a large table, Sidney at the head.  He was very energized, and obviously enjoyed the opportunity to engage his actors, almost all of whom were only recently freed from the blacklist.  The first two days of rehearsal never moved from the table to actual blocking of scenes.  Of the leading actors, only John Colicos, a Canadian, was not ethnically at home on 2nd Avenue.  And Sidney, who began as a child actor in the Yiddish Theater, was more at home than any of them.

He took pleasure in telling of his European trips and great meals with his wife, Gloria Vanderbilt, as if to underscore what a great distance this little Jew had traveled.  And yet he reveled in the Lower East Side.  He took us to Moskowitz and Lupowitz, to Sam’s Roumanian Restaurant, a vivid and informative guide.  But most of all, he loved telling stories of the Yiddish theater.

On the third day, he began the more serious business of directing the play.  There were strange overtones: after all, these actors had all suffered for their political leanings toward the Left, and the play itself was a bitter diatribe against the Chinese Communist government.

Plagued by technical problems that in turn disrupted the actors’ performances, “The Rice Sprout Song” became one of the legendarily disastrous live television broadcasts.  Mandel related that story in my video interview with him for the Archive of American Television, and also wrote about the incident for Television Quarterly.

I showed Sidney the article before I sent it in for publication.  I asked him to tell me if he felt anything was unfair or untrue.  He told me he didn’t have exactly the same feelings as I did about the resultant show, but he had no problem with what I’d written.

Sidney negotiated himself the opportunity to direct the film 12 Angry Men.  I heard about this both from my friend Frank Schaffner, who had directed that property for Studio One, and from Jerome Hellman, Frank’s agent and mine.  Frank very much wanted to direct the film, and felt he had some claim to do so.  Sidney (according to Hellman) was reaching the end of his commitment to his agent, and said that if the agent got him the assignment, he would stay with that agency.  And so he got the job, pretty much devastating Frank and, I think, rupturing Frank’s relationship with Reginald Rose.  I have to say, for myself, I think the film was pretty much a duplication of Frank’s direction of the television version.

The last time I saw Sidney was at an Motion Picture Academy function in 2002 or 2003.  We had a brief conversation about my HBO film Conspiracy.  He said he had voted for it in every catagory for which it was nominated (for the Emmy).  Which, you will have no problem understanding, thoroughly endeared him to me.  He had become a prodigious worker, a man who sought the substance beneath the surface of each film he led.  I would have preferred that he not write what he directed, when he reached that stage in his life where he wanted to do both.  But my admiration for him is immense.

Bob Markell (continued)
Production Designer, Danger (1951-1953); You Are There (1953-1955); 12 Angry Men (1957); Studio One: “The Rice Sprout Song” (1957); Play of the Week: “The Iceman Cometh” (1960); Associate Producer, Playhouse 90: “The Hiding Place” (1960)

We both learned about film because You Are There went to film for thirteen shows.  We went to the old Edison Studios, in the Bronx, and we shot these final thirteen shows, before it was taken away from us and sent to Hollywood.  The first one we did was the Hindenburg disaster.  Sid had never done a film prior to You Are There, and he was fabulous with the film camera.

12 Angry Men was my first feature, and it was Sid’s first feature.  I went and took pictures of the exterior of the courthouse [as the basis for the backdrop behind the jury room windows].  The drop came in from Hollywood and it was a translucency, not a transparency, so that they could drop it in and the lights could go on and stuff like that.  When it showed up, everybody who was from Hollywood was very upset.  They said, “Gee, that’s not good.  In Hollywood, the lines are sharper, the details are stronger.”  They may well have been correct, but it had to be used anyway, because we had it up.

I was hoping that Sidney would recognize that it was okay, and would back me up more than he did.  Henry Fonda was also the producer, and it was his money, and he was getting antsy once in a while.  Boris Kaufman was a very famous photographer.  He’d just come off of Kazan’s movies.  He even got the [Academy] Award for On the Waterfront.  And so I was left hanging.  I was the guy who was kind of blamed if anything went wrong and they had to go into overtime.  If I put myself in Sid’s position, he couldn’t back me up the way he should have, or that I felt he should have.  And I understood.  But I was hoping for more than that.

In [television] or stage, you’d get together and try to fix it.  I suddenly realized that in film, you looked for a fall guy.  And I was the fall guy.  [Associate producer] George Justin kept saying to me, “Fight back.  Tell him.”  I said, “I can’t.  I don’t know what to say.”

Henry Fonda and the infamous backdrop.

My problem with Sidney actually was that he gave me a second show [Lumet’s next film, Stage Struck, which he filmed in color in 1958] to do after 12 Angry Men, and I started working on it.  Meanwhile, Fonda was giving him a hard time, and blaming me.  I got a call from George Justin, who was also on the show, saying, “You know, of course, that you’re not on that second show, that it’s being taken away from you.”

I said to George, “Who is going to be the designer?  Who is taking my job?”  He said they’d gone to [another designer with experience in live television].  Well, it was his first movie, and I knew that he had trouble with color recognition.  But I found that I couldn’t say to George, “George, he’s the wrong guy,” because it would sound like I was being ugly.

Later, I’m designing “The Rice Sprout Song,” and I’m going in for my first meeting with Sidney.  I hadn’t seen him for a while since he dumped me.  I walk in.  I say, “Hi, Sidney.”  Sidney looks up and he says, “How come you never told me he was colorblind?”  I said, “Oh, Sidney.  I knew you’d get me one way or the other.”  Then he and I laughed.  I said, “I was trying to figure out what you’d end up saying to me when I walked in.”

But that’s show business, and I was really not angry at Sidney at all.  We worked together a lot, even after the movie.  We did a Studio One, a Playhouse 90, and “The Iceman Cometh.”  The sad thing was that we totally lost touch with each other.  He never really went back to his live television people, because he was on a course himself, meeting new people, new wives, new this, new that.

Fred J. Scollay
Actor, Danger; You Are There; Kraft Theatre: “Fifty Grand” (1958); Kraft Theatre: “All the King’s Men” (1958); Playhouse 90: “John Brown’s Body” (1960); A View From the Bridge (1962)

He was a little crazy, but very nice.  He was an ex-actor himself.  He acted when he was younger, and he really had great empathy for actors.  He knew the pressure that we were under.  Everything was live then.  You didn’t get a break.

One thing actors loved about the guy is he let you do stuff.  He’d see something in what you were doing in a scene and he’d say, “Oh, boy, let’s elaborate on that.”

He was, not loose, completely, but he’d say, “What do you want to do in that scene?”  And then he’d look at it and say, “That’s good.  Let’s use it.”  Or, “Let’s try something else.”  Like in one show, I got some bad news, and I got a little woozy.  He said, “Let’s have you faint.”

So it was creative fun in working with him, because you contributed something.  There were some directors who said, “In the book it says, ‘Turn left,’ so you’d better turn left.”  I don’t mean to denigrate anybody, but some directors had a very standard, by-the-book [approach] – they really didn’t have the creative [impulse].

[On Danger] he hired a young, real fighter, a professional fighter, and Jack Warden played the fighter, and fought with this guy.  Sidney said to Jack, “The kid’s a little nervous, so when we start doing the show, give him a little belt.”  So Jack gave him a little belt and the guy went crazy, almost killed Jack.

He was a lot of fun.  A situation on the set, because of the tension, would make things a little more tense, and he’d throw a donut at you or something like that, or trip you, something to break the tension.  I did A View From the Bridge.  He directed that.  One of the actors was told to go down the street – Sidney said, “Go down there” – and at the end of the scene the guy never came back.  So Sidney would break up.  He’d never get mad at anybody.

He gave me my first big break.  He cast me in something, a leading role before I was getting leading roles, and I really appreciated that.  The name of the show was “Fifty Grand,” with Ralph Meeker.  That was my first big part.  I walked on the set and we started reading the script, and I kept saying, “They made a mistake.  This is one of the lead roles.  When are they going to find out they got the wrong guy?”  I did a lot of extra work.  I was a very busy extra.  And out of the blue he called and said, “I’ve got a part I want you to do.”  No audition or anything.  He said, “I want you to do it.  Now here’s a rehearsal schedule.”

When we did “All the King’s Men,” I had the third part.  He gave a big shot in that.  There was Neville Brand who played the lead, and Maureen Stapleton, and I had the third role.  But in the credits, Bill Prince got third billing and I had fourth or or fifth or something.  So he got a very nice review for me doing my part!  He got my review.  They thought, well, he got the third credit, he must have been the actor that played that part.  That was kind of heartbreaking.

[Technically] he was perfect.  He’d say, “Cut two seconds.”  Or, “We’ve got to cut four seconds out of this scene.”  He had a mind like a clock.

Chiz Schultz
Associate Producer, Kraft Theatre (1958)

David Susskind was in charge of Kraft Theatre.  He was executive producer, and Herridge was producer, under him.  Susskind had his own outfit, and Herridge was like a lone hippie.  Susskind was the suit and the tie and Mister Executive, and Herridge was the creative artist, almost a Greenwich Village type.  The two were just real opposites.  I think Susskind brought him in because he respected the work that Herridge had done, and I don’t think he knew much about him.  Sidney got along well with [both of them].  He knew how to handle people.

Sidney was extremely short, and the first day when the cast was assembled and waiting for him on the floor, Sidney came down and he had taken a newspaper and folded it into a little Napoleon-like hat and put it on his head.  He was wearing this ridiculous little Napoleonic hat, and he put his hand in his shirt like Napoleon, and he walked on and he said, “Okay, I hope you all know who’s boss.”  It was just hysterical.  People just screamed with laughter, and Sidney laughed.  Everyone loved Sidney.

When he was working, he was just the opposite.  He was intense.  He was super-serious.  Technically brilliant.  He would check every shot with the camera person during rehearsal, and in the control room he was like a hawk watching that everything was right.  He knew his lighting, he knew his camera, he knew his lenses, and he certainly knew performance.  I don’t know anyone who could get better performances out of anyone.  Franklin Schaffner was a brilliant director, but very remote from his cast.  He really kept an arm’s length.  But Sidney was a hugger, an embracer.  He kissed everybody.  Sidney combined everything good.

“All the King’s Men” was a very intense shoot, because it was a two-parter.  Neville Brand had done features, and was the second most decorated hero to come out of World War II, and a really rough [type].  I liked Neville a lot.  Sidney had to work with him and really got an extraordinary performance out of him.

Then when we finally finished the whole thing, Herridge invited everyone up to my apartment for a wrap party.  Herridge never wanted anyone to go to his place.  I worked with Herridge for years and I never even knew where he lived.  I had this really seedy apartment four flights up on West 56th Street.  It had a convertible couch with a spring sticking out, and my coffee table was a mirror over four sewer pipes.  Everybody came.  Susskind came.  Sidney brought Gloria Vanderbilt, who was then his wife.  The apartment was just jammed.  People were having a good time.  Music was playing.  Maureen Stapleton passed out onto Gloria Vanderbilt’s lap.  I remember that because Maureen was fairly large at the time, and she was just out.  Vanderbilt was sort of very sweet but also you could see she was like, oh my god, how do I get out of this?

Then a friend of mine whom I had invited, a young actress, Georgine Hall, was dancing with the production designer, and he tripped and she fell backwards onto the coffee table, and he on top of her.  All the shards went up into her back.  We got her up and she went into the bathroom and said, “Let me check how I am.”  I went in to see how she was.  When I opened the door, she was just kind of soaked in blood.  So I gave her some towels and I said, “Wrap up.  I’m going to get you to Roosevelt Hospital right away.”  I came out and I said, “I’ve got to take Georgine to the hospital.  We’ll be back as soon as we can.”  It was about midnight, or maybe eleven o’clock.  I ran out of the apartment with Georgine, got a cab, went to Roosevelt Hospital, and stayed with her until they had stitched her up, and never gave a thought about the party.  All I cared about was Georgine.

Georgine lived in Princeton.  I said, “You’ve got to stay over here.  You can’t go back to Princeton.”  We went up to the apartment and the door was locked, so I opened it.  And everyone was there!  It was three in the morning, and Neville was standing by the door.  He said, “You know what, Chiz?  All these sons of bitches, the minute you left with her, wanted to run.  They were scared.  And I told them they stayed until we found out how she was.”  Neville had stood in front of the door and kept everyone in until three o’clock in the morning.  I’ll never forget that as long as I live.  People were just – I mean, Sidney and you can imagine Gloria Vanderbilt were just so kind of pissed off, but in a way I guess sort of respected what Neville had done, maybe, to say, “We’ve got to make sure that woman’s okay.  Don’t run from this.”  That was his code.  I think it came right out of the war, out of battle.  You don’t leave unless all your buddies are accounted for.  I can’t imagine what went on while we were gone, during those three hours.

Fritz Weaver
Actor, You Are There; The Doctor’s Dilemma (Off-Broadway, 1955); Studio One: “The Deaf Heart” (1957); The DuPont Show of the Week: “Beyond This Place” (1957); Fail-Safe (1964); Power (1986)

There was a play called “The Deaf Heart,” with Piper Laurie, which I did for Studio One.  My son was about to be born at that time.  We reached the dress rehearsal.  My wife had gone to the hospital, and was ready to give birth.  But it was a dress rehearsal, and I didn’t see any easy way out.  Sidney came over to me on the set and said, “What are you doing here?  You belong with your wife.  Get out of here.”  I remember thinking, “Well, yes, of course, that’s exactly how I feel.”  But, you know, the pressures you were under with live television in those days.  It was like going over Niagara Falls in a barrel.  The rules got suspended somehow.  But not him.  He just excused me from the dress rehearsal, had the dress rehearsal with an understudy, and I came in for the live television presentation.  I mean, that was taking a huge chance on his part.  But he was a gambler.

I was always aware, even as a young, inexperienced actor, that he was on my side.  He once said to me, “If I can’t get it with love, I don’t want it.”  I was a complete partisan of Sidney Lumet because I just wasn’t used to that.  I wasn’t used to directors who thought of themselves as cooperating in a creative process with the actor, and loving what he was getting from the actor.  He would say, “Keep that in.”

In Fail-Safe, I finished a take and he said, in a very quiet voice, “I don’t want a better one than that.”  I was walking on air after that one.

We were a company.  We were rehearsing for two weeks in a warehouse on the West Side, and we got to know each other as actors and as people.  We were playing frisbee out on the floor, and everybody became quite friendly, and quite helpful to other actors.  I was still relatively young when I did Fail-Safe, but I can remember the encouragement I got from people like Walter Matthau.

Sidney did an interesting thing.  He offered me several parts in it, and I understand he did it to other actors in the company, too.  He said, “Which one would you like to play?”  He let us have some choice in the matter, which was unusual, to say the least.  And I chose a different part.  I wasn’t particularly close to Colonel Cascio.  Then, after thinking it over, he said, “I’ve decided for the balance of the company that you should play Colonel Cascio.”  And he said it in such a gentle, persuasive way that of course I accepted with enthusiasm.  I wanted to play Walter Matthau’s part.  It was very similar to a part I had just played on Broadway, and I thought, “I know how to do that one.  That’s easy for me.  I know how to have fun with that.”  I was wrong.  If you see the finished film and you see what Walter did with the role, you’ll know that I was too young for that part.

We were having problems with how [Colonel Cascio] breaks down.  The character breaks down at one point and actually attacks his commanding offer, because there was a violent diagreement about the choices that have to be made.  He’s in favor of being tough on the Russians and even dropping the bomb, and when he is overruled, he goes crazy.  Authentically crazy.  And I had trouble with that one.  So Sidney and I got together and we tried several things.  One thing we came up with – and it was kind of a mutual thing, but I suspect that I got most of it from him – was just a violent physical convulsion.  Locking of the jaw, trembling, to the point where I was out of control physically before actually doing the deed.  I don’t know if it worked or not.  But it was a physical solution to a mental problem, and it seemed to work for me.

He directed me on stage, too.  He directed Doctor’s Dilemma, the Bernard Shaw play, at the old Phoenix Theater.  I played a very small part in it; it was my first part with him.  There again, I was in his rooting camp forever from that production, because of the care he took with the young actors.  Because I had done that with him, and I had done some Shakespeare at the Shakespeare Festival, Sidney used to say that Beatrice Straight and I were his “classical actors.”  He had another category called his “New York actors.”  And we tried very hard, Beatrice and I both, to break out of that category!  We wanted to be among these “New York actors” as well, because he was famous for his New York movies, and his understanding of New York.  I would have been thought of [by Lumet] as the senator, or perhaps some extreme right-wing character or someone who had some familiarity with language.  I always wanted to be among the “New York actors” as well, because I thought I could do it.  I couldn’t change his point of view.  But I saw his point.

Lee Grant
Actor, Danger; Kraft Theatre: “Three Plays by Tennessee Williams” (1958)

Sidney was always intense, and charming, and somehow that made for a very good working combination.  I worked with him on a show called Danger, and he had this great brilliance and intensity.  He was all over the place.  He knew everything.  He enjoyed it like a Baryshnikov.  He fiddled.  Physically, he flew, and in his mind flew.  He thought at twice the intensity of anybody else.  Keeping the house in order, and keeping this actor here and that actor there, and enjoying the unexpected that came from his actors.  But always at an intense, high decibel.

I joined a group that he and Ted Post were the head of, when at a certain point Bobby Lewis threw his class out of the Actors Studio.  Eli [Wallach] and a bunch of people went to work in a separate group, and Sidney was the head of it.  We did all kinds of exercises and all kinds of scenes, and he directed me in a lot of them.  It was a very important experience for me, a big growth experience.

He was a Method director, of course.  All of us were part of that – Stella, Lee Strasberg, Sandy Meisner – we all came out of that new acting.  What I remember is you doing it, not that he talked to you beforehand.  The comments he would make would be small pushes in one direction or another, but never anything he sat down and talked to you about.  That’s not the way he worked.

[“Three Plays by Tennessee Williams” was] deep in the blacklist, and I wasn’t working on television at all.  I don’t know how Sidney pulled strings, or David Susskind, the producer, but it was like a miracle that they managed to get me on.  Then I did it, and I didn’t like myself in it at all.  I had done that play on stage, and I’d done it brilliantly.  It had come out of the group that Sidney and I were in, with Sidney directing.  A lot of times when you do something for the second time, you lean on what you’ve done before, and so it wasn’t fresh.

When I went into directing myself, and I hit a problem, we were both doing post work at the same studio, I would run into him there, and anything I had a problem with I knew I could ask him about it.  He was, as he always was, generous, open, interested in any problem.  He was that kind of friend, that’s all.

Looking back, I had no idea how privileged I was to be working with young people who were all so energized and gifted and talented, and who had no barriers in front of them.  Sidney kind of exemplified the “no barriers.”  He exemplified leaping first before anyone, and taking all kinds of chances.  He maintained that all of his life, that almost childhood thing of leap before you look.  There was an excitement and a courage about him that nobody else had.

All of the interviews above were conducted between May and July 2011, by the author and by telephone, except in the cases of Rita Gam (in person, in New York City) and Loring Mandel (by e-mail).

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