The Smiling Cobra

December 10, 2012

One of the most fascinating behind-the-scenes figures in television history is James T. Aubrey, better known behind his back as “The Smiling Cobra.”  At different times in his career Aubrey was perhaps the most hated man in New York (during his tenure as president of CBS in the early sixties) and the most hated man in Los Angeles (during his tenure as president of MGM in the early seventies).

I’ve touched upon Aubrey’s, er, contributions to television and film history in my production history of East Side / West Side and, tangentially, in this piece about the producer Herbert B. Leonard.  While I was researching the latter, I noticed that Aubrey is the beneficiary of a “featured article” on Wikipedia, which I guess means it’s less poorly written and inaccurate than your average Wikipedia article.  It’s actually a pretty interesting read, even though it leaves the most useful tidbit that I didn’t already know – the attribution of the “Smiling Cobra” moniker to John Houseman, who produced The Great Adventure at CBS during Aubrey’s reign – unsourced and therefore still in doubt.

Echoing the legendary stories of Aubrey’s enormous ego, personal coldness, professional ruthlessness, and mafia ties have always been rumors of epic sexual perversity – unusually public accounts, some of which leapt from the Hollywood gossip circuit into the mainstream press.  Wikipedia leaves most of those out, apart from one entry derived from Harlan Ellison’s collection of television columns for the L.A. Free Press.

So here’s a juicy one, from William Froug’s book How I Escaped From Gilligan’s Island and Other Misadventures of a Hollywood Writer-Producer (another blind item from which sparked my investigation of the Laurence Heath story).  Here, Froug is paraphrasing an account told to him by an actress he dated once:

That Jim Aubrey is some kind of head case….

He took me down to Acapulco for a weekend with him and his friend, Greg Martindale, the lawyer.  [Froug does not identify “Martindale” as a pseudonym, but this is probably Greg Bautzer, another infamous Hollywood horndog, who was married to Dana Wynter during the same period that Aubrey was married to Phyllis Thaxter.]  Greg had his own girl.  I thought I knew what I was in for, some drinks, some sex, some laughs, what the hell.  But honestly, there’s no way I could have expected what I got from James T. Aubrey.  We’re in the hotel room and we’re both buck naked.  As we jump in bed, suddenly Aubrey grabs me by the arm.  “You’re going to have to lick my ass,” he says so quietly that I felt a chill go over my entire body.  I was speechless.

“You hear me, don’t you?”  His voice was ice cold and just above a whisper.  “You’re going to have to lick my ass.  Don’t worry, it’s nice and clean.  And get your tongue up in there.”

“I won’t.  No way, no how,” I answered.  I thought, is this really happening?

“It’s the only way I can get off,” he insisted.  “If you don’t, I’ll break your arm.”  His voice was nasty, threatening.  I was getting very frightened.

His grip on my arm tightened and he began to twist it, slowly but firmly.  It was very painful. . . . He was letting me know he had the strength to do it. . . .

I knew there was no point screaming.  We were in a suite with Greg and his girl.  They must have known what was going on; he and Aubrey were buddies.

“Get busy, lady,” Aubrey says.  “I haven’t got all day.”

I swung around and stuck my finger in his eye.  He jerked back.  His grip loosened for a moment and I broke loose, grabbed a big beach towel, and ran out of the room.

I stayed at the poolside bar, wrapped in that towel, until Greg came down much later and told me to get dressed.  We flew home that evening; the weekend was over.

Froug does not name his source but supplies the following description of her: “a beautiful young actress who had played second lead in a CBS hit sitcom of the sixties.”

So, TV experts, who is the mystery woman?  The sitcom in question had to have been on CBS during Aubrey’s years as president, 1959 through 1965.  The most obvious candidate would be Julie Newmar, who was one of Aubrey’s girlfriends during the mid-sixties; it’s been alleged that the series My Living Doll was put together by Aubrey as a gift to her.  Even though everyone’s eyes were on her, Newmar was billed after the show’s putative star, Robert Cummings, so the “second lead” part could apply.  But My Living Doll wasn’t a hit, and Newmar’s relationship with Aubrey probably lasted longer than this unfortunate young lady’s did.

Froug did alter some details in his memoir to disguise identities (in the Heath case, for instance, he increased the body count), but let’s hypothesize that the teller of this tale is not Catwoman, and that the sitcom second lead part is accurate if imprecise. Any guesses?

13 Responses to “The Smiling Cobra”

  1. Mike Doran Says:

    CBS sitcom hit from mid-60s …

    “Second female lead” …

    Gilligan’s Island had two female leads:
    Dawn Wells was married, Tina Louise wasn’t.
    Also, TL had a reputation as a power player in these precincts.
    And, for a time at least, William Froug was the line producer of Gilligan’s Island

    That’s what I get from your clues.
    What do you all think?

    • Stephen Bowie Says:

      Interesting … could be. The way Froug told it, he went on a date with Aubrey’s would-be conquest some time in the early 70s, but that wouldn’t preclude his having known her earlier.

    • John Hyland Says:

      I thought of Tina Louise as well. There really aren’t that many other candidates based on the description.

  2. AL Says:

    How about Donna Douglas of the Beverly Hillbillies?

  3. James T. Aubrey was a monster, one of the all-time great Philstines. If Dante was right, Aubrey deserves a place in hell among the violent against art. He was one of those men who helped make television into avast wasteland. He a helped cancel such wonderful as East Side/West Side, The Great Adventure, and, of course, Slarttery;s People. Then, he reinvented himself as the man who destroyed MGM…An utterly nauseating human being.

  4. Todd Mason Says:

    What sticks in my mind was why even the most careerist of Newmar or Louise colleagues, if it wasn’t either, would put themselves in that situation with Aubrey, famous enough as an abuser (and if Louise or particularly Newmar ever wanted to get laid, I suspect they could pretty easily w/o going anywhere with Aubrey…).

  5. Todd Mason Says:

    One wonders what Newmar got out of any sustained relation with Aubrey, other than the DOLL gig. Well, perhaps she was, at one level or another, a masochist.

  6. Michael Alden Says:

    How about one of the Bradley sisters from Petticoat Junction? Jeannine Riley kind of fits the bill as the second lead after Bea Benadaret.

  7. There aren’t that many women who would qualify as a “second lead” if that designation is being interpreted in a legitimate co-star sense. From Petticoat Junction: Pat Woodell, Jeanine Riley & Linda Kaye Henning were pretty much equal in billing, while I would think of Edgar Buchanan being the second lead. I sort of view Dawn Wells and Tina Louise in this same way from Gilligan’s Island (Alan Hale, Jim Backus and Natalie Schaeffer had more prominent second-billing status).

    Tuesday Weld had a prominent role in the first season of “The Many Lives of Dobie Gillis”. Dwayne Hickman was the only actor given opening credit billing, but Tuesday Weld was listed as a featured actress in the closing credits. She also was someone who had a propensity to go out with older men which seemed to drive her domineering mother mad. However, Weld left the show after the first season (1959-60 season) and her run was not one that you would associate with being firmly in the 1960s or a long-standing presence in the sitcom.

    Cara Williams was a co-star to Harry Morgan in Pete and Gladys which had a two year run. She later resurfaced with her own sitcom on CBS about the time that Aubrey was being fired. But neither show could really be qualified as a hit sitcom.

    You’ve got Yvonne DeCarlo and Vivian Vance playing second leads in The Munsters and The Lucy Show, respectively, but at that time both of those women would be too old to be the actress referred to.

    Connie Hines is a co-star in Mr. Ed, but she’s in her early 30s by this time and I’m not sure she seems like a likely candidate to me.

    Donna Douglas of The Beverly Hillbillies might be viewed as a second lead in what was a tight ensemble cast. I personally would probably have Irene Ryan as second lead after Buddy Ebsen. However, Douglas was someone when you read about her or when she discusses her career comes off as someone who was morally reserved and devoutly religious. With that context she’s not someone who I feel “fits” the attitude that Froug’s description provides.of the young actress looking for a good time.

    I’m not sure the following person is a likely candidate given her image but given the parameters of Froug’s story, she might be someone to consider as the mystery person. Mary Tyler Moore was a true second lead in The Dick Van Dyke Show. What is interesting about the Dick Van Dyke Show is that is was not an immediate hit. In fact, it was in serious jeopardy of being cancelled after its first season (1961-1962). Interestingly, Mary Tyler Moore was divorced in 1961 and sometime in 1962 she would get remarried, this time to Grant Tinker. So if the event took place in 1961, might Moore be a candidate? The Van Dyke Show was not performing strongly, you might be out of work soon. You are not at this time a “household name”. If the Programming President of CBS asked you out for a weekend in Acapulco and you were just coming off a divorce…might you go? The only angle to this theory that makes me back off a bit is Froug’s mention that he dated the actress in the 1970s. Moore would have still been married to Grant Tinker at that time, so I’m not sure I see that happening as a “romantic date” unless Froug’s date was more of a “business date” where the story got told.

    Anyway, those are some speculations. It sort of reminds me of the play by Tom Stoppard “Arcadia” where you get to see a Byron scholar trying to put pieces of information together to create a unique story about Lord Byron. But that sort of speculation sounds good until one piece of information makes it all fall apart. Then the scholar in Stoppard’s play can only mutter: “F***ed by a Dahlia!”

    • Stephen Bowie Says:

      I wouldn’t take “second lead” quite that literally. My sense is that Froug was using the term to characterize an actress who was an ingenue, not that well-known (so probably not Moore, although it’s an intriguing theory), and not the top-billed star of her show. But I could be wrong, or Froug could have been deliberately disguising her.

      I dare someone to call him and ask.

      • I also don’t know why I’m assuming Froug dated the woman in the 1970s…that part of what I wrote doesn’t seem to have any basis in the above account. I think when a series of clues are presented in a “here’s a mystery to solve” manner, it is human nature to want to solve the “puzzle”, particularly as it relates to TV history. However, I’m also sensitive to the fact that some living actresses might not want to be bandied about in such a speculation. It wouldn’t surprise me that if the person’s identify ever is revealed that it would not be any of the actresses that have been mentioned in the ‘mystery discussion’ so far.

  8. Mullaney Says:

    Newmar? No.

    Since this is a blind date Froug’s gotten and it’s a coarse blonde who is willing to talk sex, we can rule out many previously mentioned, especially Julie Newmar, who was not a blonde when she starred in “My Living Doll” and not a blonde in 1971.

    Tina Louise was also not a blonde when Aubrey pretended she was going to be the star of “Gilligan’s Island.” Neither she nor Julie talk like that, or have that kind of rep for being party girls ready to strip “buck naked” in exchange for a free trip to Acapulco. Both knew Aubrey in New York and if they did have affairs with him, would not have waited for Acapulco and then been surprised by his fetish and poked him in the eye.

    Eva Gabor doesn’t talk like that and her show lasted a long time, so she’s out.

    Mary Tyler Moore, Cara Williams and Judy Carne (“Baileys of Balboa”) were not blondes. We can cross out Donna Douglas who was rather religious, and would’ve crossed paths with Aubrey a lot earlier if he had eyes on her. She was also not known as a party girl. I’d assume Connie Hines was likewise no swinger, or Pat Priest from “The Munsters” who may have also been retired by 1971. I think we can rule out Marjorie Lord of “The Danny Thomas Show” and Tuesday Weld from “Dobie Gillis.”

    Froug didn’t say when in the 60’s the woman was a co-star on a CBS sitcom. It could’ve been after Aubrey was President. That vaguely suggests Goldie Hawn (who was on “Good Morning World” for one season).

    Riley of Petticoat Junction (or one of her blonde replacements) seems most likely. That is, if we’re assuming Froug’s only fakery was on the lawyer’s name, and he’s telling the truth about the woman being a blonde and on a CBS sitcom.

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