An Interview With Jason Wingreen: Part One
May 13, 2010
Jason Wingreen wants me to know two things before we begin. First: He was born on October 9, 1920, and not in 1919, as the references books would have it. This makes him only 89, one year younger than I and anyone else who ever looked it up has always believed. These matters are important to an actor. Second: I must promise never to divulge his phone number, which is unlisted and, indeed, immune to all my usual tricks for digging up unlisted phone numbers on the internet. If it gets out, the “Star Wars people” will drive him crazy. More on them in a minute.
Why do I, and why should you, care about Jason Wingreen? Perhaps because, as the saying goes, there are no small parts, only small actors. Wingreen is not a small actor. He is, to trot out another much-abused cliché, one of those actors whose name you may not know but whose face you will recognize. Even if you do happen to know his name, perhaps you sometimes mangle it. One movie buff I know persists in calling him Jason Wintergreen.
In the face of your indifference and imprecision, Wingreen has played at least 350 roles on television and in the movies since the early fifties. The actual total may be well over 500. A handful of those roles have been meaty, like the guest shot as the would-be rapist who gets his ass kicked by Steve McQueen on Wanted: Dead or Alive. A few have been semi-prominent, like the recurring part he played (that of Harry the bartender) on All in the Family and its successor Archie Bunker’s Place for seven seasons. Many have been minor, but in shows that have been repeated a million times, like The Twilight Zone or Star Trek. One of them was literally invisible: in The Empire Strikes Back, the second film in the Star Wars saga, Wingreen provided the voice of Boba Fett, the bounty hunter who captures Han Solo. The weird cult that now surrounds the character of Boba Fett was not foreseen, and Wingreen received no screen credit. His place in the history of Star Wars did not emerge until 2000, and when it finally happened, it changed his life.
Most of Wingreen’s roles have been what are rather harshly called “bits”: characters who walk on and off, say a line or two, function as deliverers of exposition or background color. With rare exceptions, small-part actors like Wingreen have been neglected by historians. It’s easy enough to ask actors like Collin Wilcox or Tim O’Connor, the first two subjects of my occasional series of interviews with important early television performers, about their best roles. They spent weeks or months creating those characters, and received a lot of attention for the results. But how to interview an actor who toiled in anonymity, spending a day or less on most jobs? Years ago, I looked up a handful of iconic bit players – Tyler McVey, Norman Leavitt, David Fresco – and quizzed them over the phone, with disappointing results. Neither they, nor I, could remember enough detail about any one project to generate a substantive conversation.
But when I spoke with Jason Wingreen, he unspooled anecdote after anecdote in his polished, slightly metallic voice. It was as if this actor who never played a leading role had saved up all the dialogue that his hundreds of characters didn’t get to say on screen and, now, was loosing it for the first time. Wingreen’s recollections were often funny, occasionally startling, and always precise and detailed. They were so detailed, in fact, that for the first time on this blog I will present an interview in two parts. In the first, Wingreen discusses his formative years as an actor, his involvement with one of the 20th century’s most important theaters, and some of his first television roles.
Tell me a bit about your background and your childhood.
I was born in Brooklyn. My parents moved from Brooklyn to a town called Howard Beach, in the borough of Queens, and that’s where I grew up. I went to John Adams High School in Ozone Park, Queens, and graduated from there and then went to Brooklyn College. In order for me to get from Howard Beach to Brooklyn College, I would have to take a bus, the Fulton Street El, and the Brighton Line, and then walk about half a mile to the college. Which took about an hour and a half, approximately. Each way, going and coming. Three hours of travel for four years, for my college education. We didn’t have an automobile.
What did you study?
I majored in English and Speech. What I wanted to be when I grew up was a sportswriter, a sports reporter. I was very much interested in sports, from an academic standpoint, although I did play baseball. I was a skinny little kid. In those days, kids could get skipped in the lower classes, and I was skipped twice, which was a big mistake. For me. I was advanced, twice, into a class with boys who were not only older than me but bigger and stronger than me. The fact that I could play baseball saved me from a lot of bullying from the older boys.
At Brooklyn College, there was a mandatory speech class in your freshman year. The course that I took was taught by an actor, a Broadway actor who was out of work and got a job teaching in the Speech Department at Brooklyn. His name was Arnold Moss.
Oh, yes, a fine character actor with a deep, Shakespearean voice.
He was a dynamic teacher. So when the term ended, I thought, I’m going to look for something else that this guy teaches. I searched around and found out that he was teaching an acting class. I signed up for it for the following semester, and I got hooked. That was the end of my dream of my becoming a sportswriter.
Was your family affected by the Great Depression?
My father was a tailor. He had a store that was just opposite a Long Island Railroad station in Howard Beach. There were people living in Howard Beach who went into the city to work, [and] Howard Beach had a lot of firemen and policemen living in the town, and they were all customers of my father. They’d bring their uniforms in, the cops and firemen would, and the accountants and the lawyers and so on who would take the Long Island Railroad into town would bring their clothes in to my father to be dry cleaned or pressed. And that way my father was able to get through the Depression. It was tight, it was very close, but he was able to do so.
My father was not an intellectual man, but he loved music. When he’d open the store every morning, he would turn the radio on to WQXR. Classical music, all day long in the store. My sister grew up with that too. My sister, Harriet Wingreen, has been the orchestra pianist of the New York Philharmonic for about thirty-five years. She is five years younger than I am. She really got the music life, and music itself drilled into her. She went to Juilliard, and on from there. I would say she’s the real talent of the family. I’m just an actor.
From where does your family name originate?
It originated from, I think, Hungary, but we’re not Hungarian. My parents both came from Lithuania. We’re Jewish. The name was Vengeren when my father got to Ellis Island, and at Ellis Island they Americanized it and gave him Wingreen. They did that with all immigrants in those days. My father met my mother when they were both in this country. It was an arranged date, by the families. My father came to this country – he was born in 1890 – when he was sixteen years old. Alone. He took a boat here with nothing except the name of a family, who were not relatives but friends, going back to the old country, and an address in Brooklyn. He went to these people and they took him in and helped him to grow up there and to get a job.
So after you started studying acting with Arnold Moss, then what happened?
I joined the undergraduate theater group, called the Masquers. Ultimately, in my senior year, I was president of the Masquers, and played the lead in the school play that the undergraduates put on every year. I graduated in June 1941.
At that time, The New York Times was running an ad campaign, and it was “I Got My Job Through The New York Times.” That was their slogan. Well, I got my job through The New York Times. I answered an ad in the Times one morning, which said, “Wanted: Young man to assist with marionette production. No experience necessary. Must have driver’s license.”
Well, I had a driver’s license. I certainly had no experience being a puppeteer or a marionette, but I was a would-be actor. So I answered the ad, and got a postcard back from the people inviting me to meet with them at their loft studio in Manhattan. So I went, and auditioned for them with my voice. They said they would teach me puppeteering, but they needed someone who could act the roles. It was a company called the Berkeley Marionettes. It was run by a man and his wife, Stepan and Flo, and their daughter. They had two puppet companies which toured the city school system in New York, and in outlying areas too – Connecticut, New Jersey. Stepan was the booker. He would got to the various schools and book the shows, and Flo would preside over the actual puppeteering and write the scripts. They were pretty much all shows based on classic children’s books. The Mark Twain books, The Prince and the Pauper, Tom Sawyer, that kind of material.
There were two companies. I would be in the number two company, which consisted of two men and one woman. The woman in this case was the daughter of the owners, and the other man was the young fellow who had just married her. Now, what’s interesting is that the young fellow who was my cohort was named Paul Bogart. Paul became one of my closest friends, and became a very successful director. He married the daughter of the marionettes, whose name was Alma Jane.
The war then came. I, at that time, stood five feet and ten and a half inches, and I weighed 119 pounds. Can you picture that? And they put me in 1A! 1A. I couldn’t lift a barracks bag! However, I did my time in the army, in the war. I went down to Oklahoma, to Eastern Oklahoma A&M, and studied to be a clerk. Dirty job, but somebody had to do it. I ultimately wound up with a fighter squadron: the 81st Fighter Squadron, 50th Fighter Group, 9th Air Force. I was in a town called Leamington, right on the coast behind the Isle of Wight. The Isle of Wight is where all the boats lined up for the invasion [of France on D-Day]. You could just look out over the water and there they were, ready to go.
I kept records of the flights, and did other things. One of my jobs was to get up very early and go into the office and get the fire started, so when the pilots came in they’d be warm. When there was a flight planned, I would be the guy who would drive the pilots to the planes. Pilots did not drive themselves to their planes in the jeep. It had to be done by an enlisted man. I think the thinking was the pilot could drive himself to the plane, but if he doesn’t come back, who’s going to bring the jeep back? That was my theory. I didn’t express it to anybody, but I think that’s the reason.
What did you do after the war?
I was in Germany when the war ended. Came back on the Queen Mary with about 13,000 other soldiers, back to Howard Beach. I went to the New School on the G.I. Bill, and I studied playwriting with a man named John Glassner, who was a professor, a teacher, a critic. I still wanted to do some writing.
I went back with the puppet company. They had a home in Woodstock, New York, where during the summer off-season when there was no school, no work, they would go up there and prepare for the following season. Paul Bogart would write the scripts, and I would go on up there and stay with them and rehearse, and hang out with the Woodstock crowd.
There I met a few people who were interested in starting a theater group, and I attached myself to them. We became very, very close friends, and then we got together in the city, in New York, and I did as much as I could with them. Rented a loft and started working on a play, Alice in Wonderland. In the summer we were able to rent the Maverick Playhouse in Woodstock, which had been built in 1912. A wooden shack, practically, but a place that in the last row, you could hear somebody whispering on stage. The acoustics were so fantastic. It had been built by an actor named Dudley Digges, an old character actor, and Helen Hayes had played there once, way, way back when. We put on a summer of plays, a Saroyan and an O’Neill play, and several others that I don’t recall. But Alice in Wonderland was our first big production, and I played the Duchess, with a great big head!
When the summer ended, we decided we were going to look for a place to continue our theater group in New York City. We found an abandoned nightclub, the Greenwich Village Inn, which had been closed by the police department for cabaret violations, and we rented it. There was a central group of, at that time, six of us. What I’m trying to get at is that I’m one of the founders of the Circle in the Square. I was a producer, and one of the leading actors in the productions. The others were Jose Quintero; Ted Mann; Eddie Mann, who was also a newspaper cartoonist; Aileen Cramer, who became our publicity lady and also did some acting; and a girl named Emilie Stevens, who was an actress and did costume designs, set designs. That was our nucleus. Eddie Mann and Aileen left after a year or two.
Ted Mann is still running the Circle in the Square, the one uptown, on 50th Street. He still has it, after all these years. He is the lone survivor of all that group. Ted and I never really hit it off, even all the years that I was there. I wasn’t there for that many years, but I was there for, certainly, five of them. We saw a lot of things in different ways. And as a result, when Ted wrote a book on the history of the Circle in the Square, in some cases I was the invisible man. He did not give me credits that I should have had, and I called him on it when the book came out. He said, “Well, I didn’t remember.” I said, “You know, you have my phone number. You could have checked with me.” The truth was that he didn’t want to. He wanted to take all the credit for everything that transpired at the theater for himself.
What do you remember about Jose Quintero? What was he like?
Absolutely brilliant director. Funny kind of a guy. I can’t really describe him too well, except that I admired. We got along very, very well.
Did he direct you in any productions?
Yes, he directed Summer and Smoke, the big hit with Geraldine Page in 1952. In that production, I played old Doctor John, the father of the hero of the play. Tennessee Williams watched some of the rehearsal with Jose, and it was decided by both of them that it needed an extra scene. A scene between Miss Alma, played by Geraldine Page, and old Doctor John, played by me. So Tennessee wrote that scene, and we included it in the production. It’s not in the printed version of the play. At any rate, it was a short scene, five to six minutes, just the two of us. I tell you, I could have played that scene with her for ten years, she was so fabulous.
Tennessee became very active in that production, because it had been done on Broadway and failed. What we did, particularly in the early years – this was my idea, and it seemed to work fairly well – we could take plays that we thought were good but didn’t make it on Broadway, and we would do them. We turned failures into successes. It happened on two or three different occasions.
One of those was called Burning Bright, by John Steinbeck. On Broadway, it had Barbara Bel Geddes in it, and Kent Smith, Howard Da Silva, and Martin Brooks. It was a four part play. The lead, the man that Kent Smith and [later, at the Circle in the Square] I played, played three different characters in it: a circus clown, a ship captain, and a farmer. The play was divided into those three elements.
At that time, Life magazine was running a piece called “Life Goes to . . .” Well, we got a call saying Life wants to come down and do a piece called “Life Goes to an Off-Broadway Theater.” So we said, fine, we’ll have a special performance on Monday night, our dark night, with an invited audience. John Steinbeck came, himself, with his agent, and sat next to my mother. My mother said to me, after the play, “You know, I sat next to John Steinbeck. I said to him, ‘You see that man? That’s my son!’”
Steinbeck said to her, “Oh, really? He’s very good.”
We lived there, in the building, above the Circle in the Square. Totally and completely against the law. Like David Belasco had his own room above his theater, I had my room above my theater. We really did have a firetrap, and it was finally closed by the fire marshal, and that was the end of my association with the Circle in the Square, for a year and a half.
Were you also doing live television while you were with the Circle in the Square?
Yes, I was on some of David Susskind’s shows. He had a few series on: Appointment With Adventure, and Justice. I did a Goodyear [Television Playhouse], either a Goodyear or a Kraft [Television Theatre], when I had the opening line of the show. I was in the first shot and had the first line, and the cameraman was mounted on something. The cameras were up a little higher than the ground, and as the scene started, the cameraman started waving bye-bye to me! They were pulling the camera back. Apparently something had fouled up, and they weren’t getting the shot. But the show was going on anyway, so I went on with the lines and apparently the director in the control room picked it up with a different camera. So I wasn’t necessarily seen, but my voice was heard delivering the opening lines of the show.
Oh, I got a job on a TV version of “Arsenic and Old Lace” [for The Best of Broadway, in 1955] with Boris Karloff. Helen Hayes and Billie Burke played the old ladies. Boris Karloff, of course, was the heavy character, and mine was a very, very small role. I played a medical attendant. I was a late hire, so I was only in for about two or three days, and they’d already worked on it for about two or three weeks. Years later, I’m on a Playhouse 90 with Boris Karloff. The first day of rehearsal, I went up to Mr. Karloff to say hello and tell him my name. And I say, “You won’t remember me, but I worked with you in New York.”
He said, “Did you really?” in that wonderful Karloff voice. And he said, “Ohhhh, yes. With that bitch Hayes.”
I was a little shocked to hear that come out of Boris Karloff’s mouth, so I said, “Oh, really?” He said, “Oh, yes. She did everything she could to get Billie Burke off the show.” Billie Burke used to be married to Flo Ziegfeld, way, way back. She really was an elderly lady, and she had some trouble with lines and things like that. Hayes, according to Karloff, tried everything to get rid of her because she wanted to get one of her friends to play the role. But she didn’t succeed.
What else can I say about live TV? I wasn’t crazy about it. It’s not like theater, where you have time to really rehearse. The rehearsals were very quick. I liked television very much when it was not live. If you flubbed something, you did take two, or take three if you had to. I was in a movie called A Guide For the Married Man. I played the husband of the lady that Walter Matthau was after, played by Sue Ane Langdon. We come in from the party we’d been at, we come back to our apartment, and I immediately go to the refrigerator and start building myself a Dagwood sandwich. Sue Ane goes behind me and puts her hand over my eyes and says, “Who was the prettiest lady at the party?” I’m fixing my sandwich and I say, “You were.” And she says, “What was I wearing?” And I start describing the outfit of another one of the women of the party.
A wonderful scene, right? Anyway, Gene Kelly, had us do that scene, I think, eleven or twelve takes. Around the sixth or seventh, he came up to me and whispered in my ear, “It’s not you. I’m trying to get her to do something, and she doesn’t do it. Or doesn’t want to do it.” And I’m there grappling with all this building a sandwich [business], about eleven times. That’s what I like about TV that’s not live. You could have some fun with it. Live TV was too much pressure. For me, anyway.
Did you ever go back to the Circle in the Square?
After the fire marshals closed us down, we had a little office somewhere for a year and a half, with nothing doing, nothing happening. No place to take ourselves, nothing available for us to start another Circle in the Square. We couldn’t live there any more, so I got an apartment on 28th Street with the lady who became my wife a couple of years later, and who had been an actress in the company. Her name was Gloria Scott Backe; she was called Scotty.
During the period of nothing happening, my wife and I went to a party uptown, where Jose and Ted Mann were also in evidence there. We drove back down to the village in a cab, at which time Ted Mann said to me, “We found out that if we do some structural changes, we can reopen the theater at the original place. You want to come back?” And to tell you the truth, I had had enough of Ted Mann, and I’d also tasted a bit of TV and Broadway, and I decided. Without even questioning my wife about it, I said, “No, I don’t think so.” And as a result of that decision, I would no longer become co-producer of Long Day’s Journey Into Night, or The Iceman Cometh, all the big O’Neill successes that they had. But I don’t care. Because I went to Hollywood, and I did okay here, too.
How did that come about?
I got a Broadway show, called Fragile Fox. It was a play about the war, written by Norman Brooks and directed by a man named Herbert Bayard Swope, Jr. The stars were Dane Clark and Don Taylor, and others in the cast were James Gregory and Andrew Duggan. We toured Cincinnati, Philadelphia, came into New York after six weeks, and it folded. But Herbert Bayard Swope, Jr., got a contract at Fox out here in Hollywood, to come out and produce movies. He sent for me. Literally said, “Come on out here. I can get a part for you on a couple of these movies.”
That was the beginning of the big move for me. I was here for about five months, and it also led to Playhouse 90. I was in the very first Playhouse 90 when that series came on, because Ethel Winant, who was the casting director at CBS, [had been] an agent in New York, and I knew her from New York. So she cast me in a small role as a pilot in the first episode. It was a script written by Rod Serling.
What I did on Playhouse 90, which was awfully good at the time, was to assist with the blocking of the show. The casts were all high-octane stars, name actors. Well, we rehearsed for fourteen days for each episode, and you don’t have these people available for fourteen days. You only bring them in after a show has been blocked for them, and then they take over. So I would assist the director in blocking. I’d have the scripts of the various characters. Whatever had to be done, I would run the lines and the movements while the camera crew is watching, making their notes, and while the director is watching and making corrections and so on. In each case, in addition to that, I would be given a small role to act in that show. So I got double salary. I got paid by the hour for the blocking work, and I got paid by the role in the acting part. It worked out wonderfully for me, because as I can recall, that I did about twelve of them during that period.
Then I got homesick. I wanted to go back and see my wife again. She was doing a play, The Iceman Cometh, at the Circle. My wife was very unhappy that I did not go back as a producer at the theater. She never made a big deal out of it, but she was disappointed that I said no. We never made a big thing out of it, but that was the way she felt.
So I went back to New York, and then the next year, which was 1957, I got a call again from Hollywood. Ralph Nelson, who was one of the producers of Playhouse 90, wanted me back to play a small role in a production of “The Andersonville Trial” that he was doing, with Charlton Heston and Everett Sloane. I was to play Everett Sloane’s associate prosecutor on “The Andersonville Trial.” [This was actually “The Trial of Captain Wirtz,” an episode of Climax, a dramatic anthology that was, like Playhouse 90, broadcast from CBS Television City. It was produced by Ralph Nelson and likely directed by Don Medford. – Ed.]
I did the show, and what did I have? One word! Six thousand miles back and forth just to say one word. Charlton Heston makes a great, long-winded speech in this trial, and Everett Sloane turns to me and says – I’m sitting next to him at the table – he says, “What do you think of that, fella?” And I reply with one word. I have to tell you, unfortunately, I don’t remember what the word was. It was not a short word, it was a long word, but I don’t remember what it was. And that is what I was summoned three thousand miles to do.
I guess Ralph Nelson valued your work!
My presence was very important to Ralph Nelson, I suppose. I don’t know why. Maybe the part was longer, and when they finally got to shooting it, they cut a few speeches that I had originally made. I didn’t see the original script. All I got was the one that they were shooting that day. Maybe for time purposes they cut it back, or maybe because Charlton Heston took too long making his speech.
The final move that I made was in 1958, when, again, Herb Swope, the man who got me out there the first time, said there was a part in a movie in Mexico with Gregory Peck, called The Bravados. He said, “Do you ride?”
I said, “You mean a horse?”
So I discussed this whole thing with my wife and she said, “Yes, of course you can ride. We’ll go on up to one of the riding academies here in Manhattan, and you’ll take a lesson or two.”
We went up to an academy that was up on 62nd Street, and I checked in and there was a man that was sort of in charge. He said, “The first thing we have to do is go downstairs and get ready with a saddle to fit you,” and all of that stuff. Anyway, down we go. He gets a bottle and two glasses, pours a big shot of scotch, and he says, “You start with this.”
So without knowing anything more, I took a shot of scotch. Then I went up onto a horse. He’s got a big whip in his hand. He gives the horse a whack, and off we go. I’m hanging on for dear life, going around and around and around. And I think I might have done some screaming, too, while I was at it. My wife is looking at all of this, absolutely appalled. We went around a few times and I got off. He says, “That’s fine, that’s fine. Tomorrow we’re going to go out to Central Park.”
We got home that night and my wife says, “You’re not going back there tomorrow. He’s going to kill you sooner or later!” I said, “No, I don’t want to go back there. We’ll get somebody else.”
So she looked it up in the telephone book and we [found] a place down around 23rd Street, run by an English lady. She had a horse called Pinky. When I went there, she introduced me to the horse. She said, “Pinky, this is Mr. Wingreen. Mr. Wingreen, this is Pinky.” Then she gave me a carrot to give to Pinky. Then I got on that horse and we went slowly, slowly around. We went around a few times and she says, “Mr. Wingreen, smile, you’re on camera now!” And that’s how I learned to ride. Then I could call Herb Swope and say, “Yeah, I’m ready to come. Tell me the date when you want me and I’m off.”
And so I went out to Hollywood, and then off to Morelia, Mexico, for six weeks of this film. Henry King, the famous old director from the silent days, was directing, and we had a cast of Gregory Peck, Stephen Boyd, Albert Salmi, Henry Silva, Joe DeRita, George Voskovec, and Andy Duggan, an old friend of mine, playing the priest.
I was going to play the hotel clerk who got involved in the chase after the bad guys, and that’s why I had to learn to ride, to be in the posse. There was quite a bit of riding, and a Mexican horse was not a Hollywood horse. Hollywood horses know “action” and “cut.” They go and they stop. Mexican horses don’t know those words. They have to be hit to go, and you have to stop ’em! You have to pull on the reigns to stop them, and I wasn’t successful every time we tried it. Going up a cobblestone street, a sharp turn, holding on to a rifle. It’s a wonder I’m still alive.
I had a very nice scene with Peck, though, when he rides into town [and learns that] his wife has been killed by some men while he was not home, and one with Joan Collins. That was a nice experience. So that sort of settled it for me as far as staying in Hollywood.
I called Scotty and I said, “Get somebody to replace you and come on out here. Take a look and see whether you think this might not be it. I have a feeling this is where we should finally settle in.” So my career out here started. It was slow at the beginning, but I made some good contacts. I was helped by people I knew who had been here already, and they gave me tips on various things. A lot of individual shots, just one day or three days. Then the occasional series started.
Did your wife continue to act after you moved to Los Angeles?
She got one job, on a John Wayne movie directed by Henry Hathaway, who was very tough. There was a scene with a big fair where they had food, and he placed her at a spit where they were roasting a pig or something like that. They were shooting it up at Big Bear Lake, and it was the first scene of that day, the very first shot. They’ve got fifty people out in canoes on the lake, and fifty or seventy-five people at this great big fair, and lights are going to come on very quickly as soon as they start shooting. The first shot is right on my wife as she’s turning the spit. And Hathaway, she said, had such a voice that he didn’t even need anything to holler through. He was just using his own voice to yell “Action,” and they could hear him out there on the lake.
So he screams, “Action,” and the lights come on, and my wife, who was having trouble with her eyesight anyway, flinched and turned her head. So then Hathaway yells “Cut!” and he goes up to her, and he sticks his face right into hers and says, “What’s the matter, honey? Lights get in your eye?”
She says yes, and he screams right at her, “Well, you ruined the fuckin’ take!”
So she said to him, “I guess I’ll never be a movie star.” For the rest of the week he called her Miss Squinty. Then she said, “I’m through. No more movies for me. I want to be a housewife and a mother.”
One of your first roles in Los Angeles was on The Twilight Zone. What do you remember about your three Twilight Zone episodes?
Yes. I played a conductor on a train which had James Daly going home to his house in Connecticut and falling asleep and thinking that he’s stopping at a town called Willoughby. I played the conductor on the real train. Jim Maloney played the short, round conductor on the dream train. I had a couple of nice scenes in that, and at the very end I had the scene where I tell the trainmen that Jim Daly had jumped out. He had hollered “Willoughby” and just jumped off the train and was killed. And then when the hearse arrives, I help the guys pick up the body and put it into the hearse of course, and the door closes and it’s “Willoughby and Sons Funeral Home.” I thought that was a terrific episode.
Serling wrote the script, and I had a feeling that he was getting something off his chest. He was being bedevilled by the CBS brass, the big shots. They wanted something from him that he wasn’t able to or willing to do, so he was kind of getting at them. He made Howard Smith, who played the boss, a really miserable human being. He said, “Push, push, push, Mr. Williams. Push!” Rod Serling was getting even [by caricaturing network executives in this character], I think.
Of the other two, one was an hour show, “The Bard.” I played the director of a TV show. An old Hollywood director, David Butler, directed it. When I went to meet him he said, “Now, when I direct, I sit down. So when you’re directing here, I want you to sit down too.” So I played the role sitting down. The wonderful English character actor John Williams played Shakespeare, and Jack Weston was in it, an old friend of mine. He played the writer who had writer’s block, and he came upon a magic shop that was run by a great character actress named Doro Merande. Burt Reynolds did a Marlon Brando impression on that one, and Joseph Schildkraut’s wife [Leonora Rogers] played the young woman on the show I was “directing.”
The third one was “The Midnight Sun,” with Lois Nettleton. This was the one where they’re losing water on earth, and I played a neighbor and I came by to say goodbye to her because I was taking the family up to my brother in the mountains, where there was still some water. A nice little scene. I’ve only been to one convention, a Twilight Zone convention, and I met an awful lot of fans who told me that two of their favorites were “Willoughby” and “The Midnight Sun.”
Another of your early television roles, in 1960, was in a Wanted Dead or Alive episode called “Journey for Josh.”
Ah, that’s my big story. I was saving that one for you. It goes back to 1952, to the production of Summer and Smoke at the Circle in the Square. The theater was an arena theater, like a horseshoe, and it led right out onto the sidewalk. It was hard to keep the sound of the street out. McQueen was a young, would-be actor at that time, and he had come for an audition to meet Jose Quintero for a part in one of the plays. He had been rejected. But he was a hanger-out in the Village, and he rode a motorcycle.
When Summer and Smoke became the tremendous hit that it was, every couple of nights Steve McQueen would park his motorcycle right outside the theater, at the curb, and wait for a quiet moment. Then he’d rev the motorcycle. He did that two or three times, with maybe a day in between. During the third time, I was not on stage at the time. I went out to the curb to him, and I said, “I know what you’re doing and I know why you’re doing it. If you don’t cut this out, I’m going to get a cop to come over here and arrest you for disturbing the peace.” So he gave me a last “Fuck you,” revved it one more time, and took off. But never came back, for the rest of the run of the show. That was my first encounter with Steve McQueen.
Now, it’s eight years later, 1960. I’m in Hollywood, and I get a job on Wanted: Dead or Alive. It’s a nice little part. There are just three of us in this episode: McQueen, a young lady who’s living alone somewhere out on the prairie, and me. My character is a kind of a drifter, who comes by and finds this young lady and tries to make a pass at her, and is interrupted by the arrival of Steve McQueen. We have a battle, and he gets me, and that’s the end of my work on the show. A three-day job, directed by a director named Harry Harris.
They hired a stunt man to do the fight scene for me. Any time I had a job where I had to fight, I’d have a stunt guy. In fact, there was one guy that used to do all of my work that way. He didn’t really look that much like me, but he did all the fighting for me. Harry Harris comes up to me and says, “Listen, I know we’ve got this guy to do the fight scene with you and Steve, but I want to use a hand-held camera on this one. That means I have to get up close for some of the fight stuff. We’ll choreograph it. We’ve done that Steve before. We’ll rehearse it a couple of times, and then when we do it it will work out fine.”
So I said, “Okay, fine.”
Now, meanwhile, before that, when I arrived for the first day of shooting, I’m introduced to everybody. You know, “This is Steve McQueen,” and I shake hands with him. I certainly did not say, “I know you from the Village,” and he didn’t indicate to me that he remembered me in any way. He said hello, and a handshake, and then we go to work.
So now we’re in the third day of the shoot, and we come to the fight scene, where we struggle for a gun. We’re on the ground, and he straddles me and picks me up by the collar, pulls me forward and hauls off and whacks me. And of course I duck in the right place as we rehearse it, but I fall back. That’s my last shot; I’m out of the picture.
Once we’re on camera, we go through all the same motions. He pulls his hand back, I duck, and he whacks me right across the jaw. Tremendous smash against my jaw. I wasn’t knocked out, but I was stunned. Of course, turmoil occurs on the set after this. They rush to see how I am. Before you know it, I’m in somebody’s care, being taken to the first aid station. I’m sitting in the nurse’s office. The nurse says, “Oh, that’s Steve, he does that to everybody. There’s a long line of them that come in here.”
So anyway, I get my consciousness back, pretty much. The door opens, and Steve McQueen comes in. He comes towards me, and he says, “I’m sorry about that. But, you know, you didn’t go back like we rehearsed it.” Which was bullshit. It wasn’t true at all.
I said, “Okay, Steve, forget it. Just forget it.”
And he walked to the door, turned around to me, and said, “Say hello to Jose when you see him for me, will you, please?” And out he goes. He waited eight years for his revenge!
Click here for Part Two, in which Jason Wingreen talks about All in the Family, Steven Spielberg, Andy Griffith, Boba Fett and George Lucas, and more.