An Interview With Cliff Osmond (Part One)
January 3, 2013
Jowly, pock-marked, and massive, Cliff Osmond was the kind of actor whose career was defined as much by his physique as by his talent. In his television debut, on The Rifleman, Osmond played a simple-minded musician, and he would reprise the gentle giant archetype in other developmentally disabled roles (on Gunsmoke, for instance). Osmond went on to add the bumbling oaf, the sadistic henchman, and the crooked lawman to his repertoire, all the while seeking (and occasionally finding) meatier roles outside of the physical typecasting. Just as the diminutive Billy Barty was a man who – to paraphrase a memorable LA Weekly profile – never saw the top of a refrigerator, so was Cliff Osmond an actor who played a romantic lead only once during his thirty-five years on the screen.
And yet his work was as diverse as someone with so specific a physique could manage. Ethnically ambiguous, his native origins disguised by a name change, Osmond tried out an array of different accents, playing Germans, Greeks, Italians, Frenchmen, Native Americans, and redneck sheriffs. He also had a sense of humor, a light touch that contrasted with his heavy step and allowed him to criss-cross between dramas and sitcoms. Osmond’s best-remembered projects are a quartet of late, underappreciated films for Billy Wilder: Irma La Douce, Kiss Me, Stupid, The Fortune Cookie, and The Front Page. The acerbic writer-director, who became a friend and mentor to Osmond, saw him not as a straight heavy but as a world-weary, philosophical schemer – a useful type for Wilder’s cynical, sagacious comedies.
Osmond, who worked primarily as an acting coach in recent years, had a voluminous web presence – social media, a website, and not one but two blogs, one for work and one for more personal ruminations (such as a chronicle of his stint as a volunteer for John Edwards’s 2008 presidential campaign). But I noticed over time that Osmond rarely reminisced about his career in any of those spaces, and last year I contacted him to ask if this blog might be a good home for some of those anecdotes. He agreed at once, pointing out that he had rarely given interviews (I could find only one significant one, for Kevin Lally’s 1996 biography Wilder Times) but that he had recently become more interested in looking backward, at his own history.
What I did not know, when Cliff and I recorded this interview over the phone in October, was that he was dying of pancreatic cancer. Diagnosed nearly four years earlier, Cliff had far outlived the disease’s usual life expectancy, exhausted his chemotherapy options and, in September, learned that the cancer had metastasized to his brain. Cliff had also been working on a memoir of sorts for his family and friends, and I now suspect (and Cliff’s widow, Gretchen, agrees) that doing this interview was another gesture toward posterity. He was “obsessed with tying together his life, with making sense of it for himself, for us, during the last year,” as Gretchen told me last week. Cliff Osmond passed away on December 22, 2012.
Tell me about your first time in front of a motion picture camera.
There was a very small thing, How the West Was Won. I’m standing behind Gregory Peck, mugging myself to death, just terrible acting, but trying to be noticed. My agent got me that job in order to get my union card. So that really was the first time in front of a camera.
What was that like?
I was so overwhelmed. At that age you think you belong, you think you’re wonderful, you think you’re at your proper place. I wasn’t nervous. I was behind him [Peck]. I probably felt I should have been in front of him! I always felt, when I was a young man, I belonged. It’s like a young football player, challenging the old-timers. It’s your turn. They should move aside. That’s how silly you are, but that’s how you are when you’re young, and it gives you the impetus and the drive to succeed. And this held on for years, and I worked with some very great actors.
Several directors worked on How the West Was Won. Who directed your scenes?
Henry Hathaway. He was a grumpy, get-it-done kind of man. I don’t remember any direction. I was just supposed to stand there and watch, and deal with the scene as it played out.
Then you went straight into television, and worked steadily.
After that I had my union card, and I went in on an audition. I had the same agent as Chuck Connors, a guy called Meyer Mishkin, who had had Jeff Chandler, Lee Marvin, Jimmy Coburn, Morgan Woodward. Meyer was about five foot five, and he had all these large alpha males as clients. I had an audition to go for The Rifleman, through the good offices of Chuck Connors.
I went in and read for [an episode], and they sent me across the hall. They said, “We’ve got a show coming up even before then. Somebody just had a heart attack.” Someone they were contemplating casting had had a heart attack. I forget the gentleman’s name. And I went in and read and wound up getting the role. So a lead on The Rifleman was the very first thing I did. A nice start.
Osmond’s television debut on The Rifleman (“None So Blind,” 1962)
Were you the villain in that?
The villain-hero. It was a blind troubadour who was coming back to avenge himself on Chuck Connors because he believed that Chuck had destroyed his wife while he had been in prison. But it turned out to be a very sympathetic character. Number one, Chuck had not done this to the wife, and the man had to face that realization. And he also was a troubadour, and if you sing a song you always have a softened character. You can be the worst heavy in the world, but if you’re singing a song, you’re a nice guy.
Do you remember Paul Wendkos?
Yes, Paul directed that episode. He was very bright, very intelligent. Well organized. Very analytic. There were no problems. He was very forthcoming and very illuminating, helpful. I was very pleased, and I hope I gave him what he wanted. I think I did. It was a very nice episode, actually. Other than the fact that I had to sing back to a recording. They had the soundtrack on the set, and I mouthed the words. “Shenandoah” was the song. I couldn’t carry a tune worth a damn, and I obviously wasn’t blind, and I was playing a fifty year-old man and I was twenty-five. They had to dye my hair. Obviously I’d done something in the audition, apart from their desperation, that made them choose me.
What do you remember about Chuck Connors?
On all of those shows, whoever had the lead set the tone. Chuck was a get-it-done kind of guy. He wasn’t an artist in that sense. Chuck could be a tough guy. He had been a ball player. They were doing a show, making a buck, and there was no nonsense. Everybody did their work. And heeded Chuck. Chuck liked to be heeded. He had a professional ball player’s ego. But he was always good to me, and the fact that we had a mutual agent helped.
You did an episode of Arrest and Trial, his next series, the following year.
Yes, and also a Cowboy in Africa with him years later. So I worked, I think, three times with him. Always pleasant. He was a tall man, six foot five, as I am, and that made it a nice situation. We could both look at each other straight on. Since I often played the heavy, or had a fight with the lead, with Chuck and later Jim Arness it was fun to beat up somebody their own size. You didn’t seem like such a bully. So that helped in the casting.
It’s odd to realize that you were only twenty-five at that time. You often played characters much older than yourself.
I was always fifty. I think I was almost born fifty. Well, I was a large man. Six foot five, but I was also three hundred pounds in those days. I looked like I could be older. So I always played older, from the very beginning. I eventually got older.
Did you find that your physique and the way you looked were good for you professionally, or did it limit or typecast you, early on?
No, I don’t think so. I lost some weight as the years went on and that was more limiting, actually. I remember Billy Wilder saying to me one time – he hadn’t seen me in a couple of years – and he said, “You’ve lost weight.” And I knew what he was saying was, it was good for my health, but for my character type there was a certain uniqueness of a six foot five and three quarters, three hundred pounds [frame], and yet had the capability of moving. I had been an athlete as a kid, and had a certain grace. That gave me a certain stamp of uniqueness that I would not have had otherwise, and I’m sure that helped in my getting going.
Even in the comedies – I remember on The Bob Newhart Show, he [did] a group session where everyone was overweight. When I went in for that, the assistant director met me and I met the director – I had known him before, I think – and he said, “My god, where did you go?” I had lost forty or fifty pounds. I had lost enough weight that I wasn’t really right for an overweight group. I said, “I’m sorry I’ve lost all this weight. I knew when you called me in there was going to be a contradiction here.” And they said, “Well, come on and read anyway.” I wound up reading and getting the part. They had to pad me forty or fifty pounds! But fortunately I still had a full face, and that carried itself.
But the weight was definitely a very important thing. That was a time of exotic characters. The heavies began to get blond and blue-eyed and five-foot-ten there in the late sixties and early seventies. But before that period, before I broke in, the heavies were exotic characters. They were larger than life – I don’t know about larger than life, but very large life. And that aided me, very definitely.
And you were ambiguous ethnically as well – another good quality for a villain. You played many a foreigner.
Absolutely. I did. Anything in the Middle East. I played Russian, I played Mexican, Eastern European, Hungarian, I played American Indian. So all those physical attributes helped.
Let’s go back to some of your early television work.
The second was a Twilight Zone. The director Paul Mazursky was in it as an actor. It was called “The Gift.” It turned out to be a very nice episode. I went out and auditioned – I forget who the casting director was. Buck Houghton was the producer, out at MGM. That went fine, again. Just did the work.
And then Dr. Kildare. [Guest star] Lee Marvin had been a client of Meyer Mishkin’s, and I’m sure the entree came from that. I don’t know if I read or not. In those early days an agent would submit you for a role and you didn’t have to audition. If they liked you or wanted to inquire further, he’d say, “Look, he just did something for CBS. Go see The Twilight Zone. Call CBS.” Or whatever network it was on, and they would have it shipped over and they’d look at it and say, “Oh, yeah, he’s a good actor.” Or “Yes, he’d be right.”
Do you have any memory of working with Lee Marvin?
Yes. Lee was a great actor. I always wanted to pick anybody’s brain, and I remember looking at his script one day when he had left it on the chair and went off to the bathroom. I was thinking, “What is the magical formula?” He had been reading it and taking notes. And in every scene, he had just written a simple thing: what it was that his character wanted. That’s all. Every scene. What his character wanted. He knew that he was extravagant enough as a personality, and talented enough as a craftsman, that by following that formulation he would be interesting, exciting, and the performance would be fine. So he had reduced it to the essential element.
Was he exciting to play a scene with?
Absolutely. He was very spontaneous. Very natural. A wonderful actor, but heightened by a high proportion of spontaneity. Lee really didn’t give a shit, in that sense. Whatever came, came. Let’s just wing it, let’s just do it. He didn’t have to plan every move. So it was exciting, because you never knew what he was going to do, because Lee didn’t know what he was going to do next.
“The World’s Greatest Robbery” was a segment of the DuPont Show of the Week anthology, with a great all-character actor cast. Franklin Schaffner directed it.
He was very bright, and very – I don’t mean this pejoratively – waspy intelligent. He was a brilliant man, obviously driven if he was in this business and wanted to be a director, but meticulous, well-planned. We did it live [on tape]. I believe we shot it over a weekend, at NBC. There was a group of us – again, Paul Mazursky was in this as an actor, and R. G. Armstrong – who played the core group that were committing this Brinks robbery.
So your career really began in Los Angeles and in film and television, without much of an apprenticeship in the theatre. I should back up and ask how you got there, and connected with Meyer Mishkin and got your start.
I was raised right across the river from New York, in Union City, New Jersey, so the logic would have been probably to stay home and make the rounds in New York and try to get going. My background had all been theater. I had gone to Dartmouth, and so really my affiliation was with the East Coast. But I had hitchhiked to California about two years earlier, and fell in love with it. That was one reason. Two, the lure of film. Three, I had never gotten along with the theater crowd at Dartmouth or in the East. It was something, I don’t know, my own insecurity. They seemed a little too cultured and judgmental for me, and I was more of an outsider in that arena. And I basically just wanted to get away from my mother. Had I stayed in the East, I would have had to live [at] home. So I went west.
In an interview for Kevin Lally’s book on Billy Wilder, you described yourself at the time of Irma La Douce as “fragile, terribly insecure, seven years removed from the inner city ghetto, having made a tremendous leap in social class and artistic work.” Can you expand upon that?
Yeah, that’s valid. I was “upper poor,” that was the class. And an inner city kid. Dartmouth was quite a cultural shock. And then Hollywood. I remember, Kiss Me, Stupid, going to a party at Ira Gershwin’s house. Jack Lemmon was there, and Peter Sellers and Kim Novak and Ira Gershwin and Billy. And thinking: what the hell am I doing here? I graduated in 1960, and this was 1964.
Dartmouth had helped the process of developing a little bit of class. When I went to college, I thought Freud was pronounced Froo-id. I had to learn to speak in college by doing plays of George Bernard Shaw, and trying desperately to change my accent. It was a rigorous going in those four or five years at Dartmouth, to feel I belonged. And even when I went to work for Billy, I didn’t feel I belonged. My wife worked at Union Bank in Beverly Hills, and right across Beverly Drive was a place called Blum’s, which was, for me, upscale. They had a fountain and they had candy and they sold goodies, and I would stop over there for breakfast and I would feel very intimidated that I didn’t belong in this restaurant, sitting at a counter having breakfast waiting for my wife to join me. And I remember when she didn’t join me, I would go down to a Norm’s on La Cienaga, where I felt much more comfortable.
So, quite a culture shock. But I was ambitious, and I was driven, and I had a will, an energy. When I came out to L.A., I had sixteen dollars in my pocket. I lost twenty-five pounds till I found a job writing insurance. It was a climb into feeling secure socioeconomically and culturally. It’s one of the reasons I never stayed in New York. I felt that I could never handle the elegance of the New York theatre world. That culture was something that I would be constantly jarring up against.
But Los Angeles seemed less impenetrable?
The agent was the intermediary. In New York, I knew you had to make your rounds. You had to go out and meet people and sell them. I have never been a great self-marketer. And L.A., I had heard that agents ran everything. The insularity benefitted me, I thought at the time. It was a manifestation of the insecurity.
Tell me more about your family and your background.
My mother was a German, out of Minnesota. She had run away from home when she was fifteen and moved to Detroit during the depression, and worked in the factories. There was a union organizer there, and [she] lived a kind of free and wild life. When she got married and had two kids, eventually three, she wanted more for them. She remembered her middle class roots, and that’s when the disruption between she and my father [occurred]. He and she broke up when I was twelve. My father was a waiter. He worked nights at a local big restaurant in the Transfer Station section of Union City. My father said, “Son, I just never could make money in my life. I was smarter than my friends, but they could make money. I never could make money.”
My mother had some rough times. She went to work for minimum wage, in a sweatshop, there in Union City. A sewing machine operator. And he tried various businesses, failed, did a lot of drinking in those days. My brother and I were amazed that they broke up. We thought we were happy. But I did very well in school. I was happy. We didn’t know we were poor. Everybody around us was struggling with one thing or another.
Your real name is Clifford Ebrahim.
It’s Turkish. My father, when he came over, at Ellis Island, they asked him his name and he said, “Ishmael.” They said, “Ishmael what? What’s your surname?” He didn’t understand. He said, “Ishmael bin Ebrahim” – he’s the son of Ebrahim. So they wrote down that his surname was Ebrahim.
Were you raised as a Muslim, or Christian?
I was raised Catholic. My mother was Roman Catholic, and my father was never very religious. He drank, he smoked, he ate pork. In fact he had a wonderful story – when I asked him when Khomeini took over in Iran, I said, “Well, what do you think, Dad?” He and I had not spoken for twenty years; that’s another long story. But we had a rapprochement and I said, “What do you think of this Khomeini thing?” He said, “What do you mean?” I said, “Well, the Muslim resurgence in the world. Do you connect with it? Is there a little pride, a little connection?” And he said, “Ah, they’re all crazy. Why do you think I left?”
He said, “Let me tell you something, son. Do you remember when we moved into that house and the rain had leaked all the time and we had to put out pots and pans? Remember when you and your brother had to catch mice and rats in the traps and all of that? Even in those days, I was gambling a thousand dollars a day. Where but in America could a man do that? This is the greatest country in the world.”
How did you choose Cliff Osmond?
I had a Jewish agent. The second agent with Meyer Mishkin said I’d have to change my name, that an Arabic-sounding name was not going to do well. I took umbrage, of course, for about a day and a half. But I was as greedy and ambitious as anyone else, and we decided to take “Osman,” my middle name, which again is a Turkish name, and change that to Osmond. It kind of vanillacized the name. “Cliff Osmond,” that seemed properly waspish.
Legally, I have always gone by Ebrahim. I remember thinking at the time I would have a rational schizophrenia. I would have two mindsets. My work would be Cliff Osmond, and then everything legal, the home purchase, and my marriage and my children and all of that would be Clifford Ebrahim. You make these decisions . . . . I thought it was a decision with integrity, that I would on the one hand deny my heritage but on the other hand maintain it. You try to have the best of both worlds, and often when you try to have the best of both worlds, and stand with your feet astride a vacuum underneath, you wind up spreading your legs too much and you wind up falling on your face. In many ways I’ve regretted not having a singular identity. But that’s a choice I made.
Your move to California – was that an adventure?
I had no money. I didn’t know anybody. On the way out to California, I ran into somebody in a bit of serendipity in Dallas. Somebody that I had met at [my] Dartmouth graduation was going to put me up for a free meal, and while I was there I went to the Dallas Theater Center, and while I was there I ran into someone who five years before had graduated Dartmouth, who was then a student in a repertory company in Dallas. He said, “Oh, why don’t you audition for this?” So I went to the Greyhound terminal for a shave, went over, auditioned, and they offered me a hundred a month to stay there and be part of the repertory company and also take some graduate courses. So I spent a year or so there, acting, at the Dallas Theater Center. At the end of which time, Paul Baker and I had a semi-antagonistic relationship, so my scholarship was rescinded the second year. He gave it to my girlfriend, hoping that she would stay and I would leave. And I did leave. I went to California, not knowing anyone.
And your girlfriend stayed behind?
She stayed, except that I did win eventually. I started working in about four or five months, and she came out, followed me. In fact we’ve been married fifty years. So I triumphed in that regard.
But I came out here, and I had to get a job. I had sixteen bucks. A friend from Dartmouth’s brother was running an apartment complex in Downey, and he let me stay in an unfurnished apartment, sleeping on the floor, for a month or so. I would hitchhike or take the bus up to Los Angeles and try to find a steady gig, a straight job, so I could eat. Finally I got a job at Continental Assurance Company, underwriting group insurance proposals, which I had done in New York the year that I’d left college. So I did that. Didn’t tell anyone I was an actor. And then got affiliated with a group in Hollywood. So during the day, I was a straight group insurance proposal writer, and then at night I would do plays. I wound up in a play at the Troubadour. It must have been on an off night – the Troubadour was a musical venue – and we did a thing by Ionesco called Victims of Duty. A couple of agents saw it, one of which was Meyer Mishkin’s assistant, and she liked me. That was about five months into being in L.A. And in the ensuing two months, I continued to work in insurance, and then when I had an audition I just would call in sick. By January of ’62, I hit the Rifleman situation, and then during that period I talked my future wife into coming out here.
Mishkin represented a number of established, or at least very promising, young leading men, and here you were, an unknown and also not a matinee idol type.
I think like any business, you have your main product, and then you do your research and development. You’re developing new products. Jeff Chandler had died a year or two before. Lee was now hot. Behind him, he had Claude Akins, who would do Movin’ On, the trucker series. He had Claude, and Morgan Woodward, and Jimmy Coburn was coming up. And then he was finding some new people.
Were there other young actors you hung out with, or studied with, during this time?
You know, I was not a group kind of guy. First of all, having my lady coming out, I also had a great domestic yearning, a very bourgeois yearning to have a good life, and get married and have kids. I mostly affiliated with her. I also went to UCLA and was working on my Masters in Business Administration at the very same time, from’62 to’66, the period we’re talking about, when I was getting started, I was getting a Masters at the same time at UCLA in finance.
Was that a way of hedging your bets, in case the acting career didn’t take off?
I think it was. I also found that kind of life very satisfying, and it interested me. I did not spend the amount of time I should have on my career. So it was positive in terms of it made me happy, but a negative effect on the career, certainly. I wasn’t a hanger-outer. I’ve always been a semi-loner, even in college. Group affiliation was not my strong suit. I’ve got friends, obviously, and a social circle, but I did not hang out with actors that much after I started working.
As a drunken Indian chief (very funny opposite a stone-faced Shelley Morrison as his wife) on Laredo (“Yahoo,” 1965)
After The Rifleman, you did more westerns, including Laredo and three episodes of Wagon Train.
That was fun. It was fun to go on location and play seedy and rustic, because I was an urban kid and it played into the fantasy element of acting.
One of your Wagon Trains guest starred Robert Ryan.
That’s an interesting story, yes. Robert Ryan was, number one, one of the great actors. He was a Dartmouth graduate, and there was a time when I had been put in contact with Robert Ryan by someone at Dartmouth, and had visited him at his palatial home in Beverly Hills. It was on Carroll Drive, I believe. I went out to the house, and he was very gentlemanly and courtly, and we chatted for a bit. He gave me some advice, tips, and so forth, and that was it. Now, several years had passed, and suddenly I was going to be on a show with him. He didn’t remember me. I did not [remind him] that we had gotten together. And now we were just two actors.
By the story we had to be antagonistic, and I think we had a physical fight. I remember very vividly, it was a tough fight. Robert Ryan had been a professional boxer, and physical prowess was something he took pride in. And I was a young guy, and obviously [to] young guys, at least the kind of guy I was, physical prowess was important. So we were going at each other, and it was one of the toughest fights I have ever had in film. Because he was not going to back off, and I was not going to back off. We didn’t speak or say anything, but we went at it. He was tough.
Was it a real fight?
No, it was a staged fight. But normally with a staged fight you’d go to eighty, eighty-five percent. We were hovering in the ninety, ninety-five percent of effort. We were pushing. I mean, there was not so much a personal element, but there was, for me, all right, older actor, I’m going to take you out and show how tough I am. And he’s an older actor saying, hey kid, okay, you want to push it, all right, I’ll push it. You want to see? You want to see what I got left?
I know you’ve written a lot about the craft and the process of acting more recently, but at that time, what kind of approach were you taking? Did you follow a particular technique? Was it all instinct at first?
I had some very intelligent directors, theater people, at Dartmouth. Dartmouth did not have a theater program; in other words, you couldn’t take any courses or anything. It was all extracurricular. But I did sixteen plays there. So there was a lot of actual rehearsal, and it was mostly what they call technical, but I prefer to call mechanical. Speech, movement, and these kinds of things. We did a lot of classics. Yet there was a sense in me that emotional truth had to happen. I never had any formal training in it, but I knew that it was the goal. I did a couple of student plays, Of Mice and Men and A View From the Bridge, directed them myself and did the leads, and constantly trying to move my instrument toward emotional truth. But, again, no formal training.
Then I went to Dallas and did the theater there, and they were very much into rhythm, line, texture, form – again, the technical, mechanical, formal aspects of an actor. And I would be fighting again for this emotional truth. Unfortunately what I saw as emotional truth was auto-stimulated. It was generated by the truth, but also generated by the actor themselves and not by the scene and the interplay between the characters. This meant when I came to Hollywood, this was what I still knew. I was a very clever tactician – by tactician, I mean mechanical, very bright, knew how to do a narrative, tried to reach for the emotional quality of the character but did not really listen well, did not deal with others well in terms of listening and the byplay back and forth. So I missed the key element for me, in reality. I missed that key element. I never had that training. I did some improv for a while with Jeff Corey, for like four months, but never quite caught on its value. So I was relatively untrained in the sense of a method, like Meisner, Strasberg, overall Stanislavski, Uta Hagen, all of that.
It seems that everyone I talk to who was your age or a little older and working as an actor in Los Angeles in the sixties passed through Jeff Corey’s class.
Jeff had been blacklisted, and he had to find a way to earn a living during the blacklist and began, I think, housepainting first, and then teaching. He was a very bright man, and did mostly improv training, to get you into reality. I don’t remember his instructions, but I do remember the place, and how intelligent he was. But there was no formal training. It wasn’t like, you do this, and you do that, and this is why, this is what’s going to occur. It wasn’t properly formula-ized. It was just, you pick it up on your own by doing the improvisation. He was very central to that time in Los Angeles.
Through Jeff I met Lenny Nimoy. When I did The Rifleman, Lenny had been Jeff’s assistant, and I went to him for some help with that first role.
Do you remember anything about that session?
I went over to Leonard’s house. He was there with his wife, and I said, “Lenny, I have this scene in The Rifleman.” I probably had called him before and said, “I need some help. Do you mind working on a couple of scenes, because this is a big shot.” We had been fellow students with Jeff, although hierarchically he was the assistant and I was just a student. And we sat there and did a couple of scenes and talked about them, what was going on in the scene and so forth. He helped me enormously.
Did you watch him later on Star Trek?
Oh, sure. The perfect show for the perfect man, and an iconic performance.
You were in the cast of an unsold pilot for a series about Alexander the Great, which is now remembered as something of a legendary flop.
That would have made my life had it gone! I don’t remember the origin of the casting. William Shatner, Cassavetes – it had a big cast. It was done by somebody who was an intellectual about Alexander the Great, and he put this thing together. Albert McCleery. It was very expensive. We shot out in the high desert. I remember it costing, at a time, a million dollars or something. That’s why the series really died. ABC was doing it, and the cost was prohibitive per episode, had they gone ahead.
I was only signed for one episode, to play Memnon, and then they previewed. And the knob-turners, the preview audience, every time I came on the interest went up in the show. They had to come back to me and now do a contract for regular status. Because obviously I had an appeal. For whatever reason the audience connected with me and my character, and they came back to me and had to sign a very nice contract. I wish that show had gone. It would have been a lot of money.
Adam West was in that, and you later worked with him on Batman. Why are you laughing?
I’m laughing because … you do it because you do it. I mean, somebody makes you an offer, and you grab the money. There was no joy in terms of creativity or anything else. It’s not my idea of a good time, that kind of spoof. Spoof, for me, is – what should I say – not as satisfying a form of acting.
I thought everyone in Hollywood was clamoring to be a guest star on Batman!
Well, maybe if I was going to do one of the leads and create an exotic character, and have that kind of fun perhaps. But playing another heavy was not that satisfying. If I had to give you my list of twenty shows that I remember, that’s not one of them.
Land of the Giants was in the same vein, except perhaps unintentionally campy.
Yeah, I did a couple of those, didn’t I? Again, it was a job. They came to me. I was big. That was another thing that went on with my career: a lot of short actors wouldn’t work with me. I never did a Robert Conrad show. There are a lot of actors who do not want to be in a scene with somebody that is bigger than them. Heroic characters do not like to look up to other characters. Unless you’re playing a giant, then that’s okay.
I seem to be picking shows to ask about that don’t mean much to you. So which of those guest star roles were satisfying for you? If you do have a mental top-20 list, I’m curious as to which ones are on it.
All in the Family, one. Kojak, two. Bob Newhart, three. Certainly The Rifleman. About four of the Gunsmokes were very satisfying. One of which, the very first one I did, the Gunsmoke people submitted me for an Emmy. And deservedly so, from their point of view, and mine. Those leap out at me, as episodes where I did a nice job. The blueprint that they gave me was wonderful, and it was well-executed.
Was that Gunsmoke episode “The Victim”?
Yes. “The Victim” and “Celia,” those two were particularly pleasurable. In “The Victim,” he was a simple man. It didn’t go as far as Of Mice and Men in terms of the simplicity, but that element of someone just trying to figure out how to get through life, and then life threw its vicissitudes at him, and he had to struggle mightily with a deficient intellect to survive. And of course your success and your survival is limited by who and what you are. That’s what happened to the character at the end. He loses. But he loses with dignity. That was, for me, a nice resolution.
And then “Celia” was a love story. The only love story I ever got to do. It was a prominent role, and I did a good narrative job. I know how to tell a story. “Celia” was told very well. You knew pretty much where the character was at all times in its plotting and its theme.
Was “Celia” a femme fatale kind of story?
Yes, exactly. Somebody tried to use an abuse a blacksmith, tried to get money from him. And fool that he is, he falls in love with her.
Gunsmoke was always a pleasure to be on the set. It was run [with] the highest level of professionalism. Jim Arness demanded that. He obviously had an affinity toward actors and acting. There was just never any problem. Everything was top-notch. Including salary. That was one of the best-paying shows. Even comparable to the last few years. It paid well, everyone was treated with the utmost respect, and the assistant directors didn’t run around and say, “The heavy’s up next!” They always referred to you by name. Without being obsequious. They just were highly professional, and the show was fun.
What do you remember about Bob Newhart (“The Heavyweights,” 1975, above)?
Just absolutely delightful. You know, the fish stinks from the head first, and it also smells good from the head first. He was a relaxed kind of guy. He reminded me of when I worked with Dean Martin. They knew what they could do, they did do what they could do well, and they enjoyed being themselves doing what they did well. So the set was pleasant; it never got out of control.
And All in the Family, it was just an excellent concept, an excellent cast. All people who were intelligent, hard-working, and they cared about what they were doing. And they were kind enough to leave you alone, or at least left me alone, to do what I do well.
What are your thoughts about Carroll O’Connor?
He’s buried between Billy Wilder and Jack Lemmon. I happened to be at the cemetery the other day, and that just popped into my brain. What do I remember about Carroll? He was hard-driving, professional. Get out of his way if you weren’t any good, and if you were good, he’d welcome you and you’d do the work. There was an element of irascibility, but it was under control. He was just a tough, good actor, who’d paid his dues and now he was going to shine.
Why is Kojak near the top of your list?
That was an interesting one. We were doing a kind of a – the old Victor McLaglen thing, where he winds up getting killed by the group because he rats on somebody. The Informer – they were doing their version of The Informer. I had the lead in that, and there was a group of good actors, a lot of them out of New York. Sally Kirkland was in it.
Telly Savalas, by then, was a success, and Savalas was not that enthralled doing the work. We had worked one day, worked very hard, and we showed up on the second day to start his work. He hadn’t read the script. And he had the history of not being off-camera. If you had a scene with him, once he got done with his side, he’d disappear into the dressing room, and you’d have to work with the script supervisor [reading Savalas’s lines].
I don’t know if it was an overt pact, but at least I made a pact with myself to say, you know, when Telly got into this business as an actor, he must have cared. He must have cared. And if we work very hard, and conscientiously, in our scenes, he will be embarrassed not to be off-camera with us. That old “why I got into this business in the first place” will be triggered. And darned if that didn’t happen. He saw us working very hard, and he certainly worked harder off-camera, collaboratively, with everyone than he had before, in terms of at least the reputation. So it was an enjoyable experience in that regard, and he came out with a fairly nice episode.
What other TV stars didn’t do off-camera?
Very, very few. I cannot recall many that did not work off-camera. Occasionally somebody would be sick or somebody would be hung over or something like that. But no, I would say for the most part, he stands out in that regard.
You did an Ironside. Was Raymond Burr using his famous teleprompter?
Raymond Burr? Yeah, he would use the cards. Certainly he would look here and he would look there. But he had so integrated it into his persona, his character, that it wasn’t as egregious a cheat as Telly. He had not integrated it into character. Because he played a very direct character, and then he’s looking over your shoulder. Whereas Raymond Burr was always this pensive, thinking, wondering, as he was looking around for his lines.
Oh, so Telly Savalas had his lines somewhere on Kojak?
Oh, yeah, on boards.
Other big stars you worked with: Lucille Ball.
She was wonderful. I mean, she was a big girl, and I was a big guy, and we did a lot of physical stuff together. To do comedy with her, it was like a dance. She was very charming. She did change, I must admit, when I brought my wife to the set and introduced my wife to her, and she wasn’t quite so accommodating and pleasant. Now, whether she liked me because I worked hard as an actor or because I seemed like a single man or not, I don’t know. But there was a change in her demeanor.
And you were on The Red Skelton Show.
Same thing. I mean, I just had three lines or something in a scene. But he was funny and charming, and nice. And he looked off, like he always did, to find his lines, and did his usual giggling. But it was genuine giggling. Another physical genius.
Of all your guest spots that I ever least expected to see, it was My Living Doll, which actually came out on DVD this year (“The Pool Shark,” 1965, below). You played a pool shark, sort of a spoof of Jackie Gleason’s Minnesota Fats character from The Hustler, in one episode. Do you remember that?
I remember working with Robert Cummings. I remember one comment. I must have made some choices in performance that he was not particularly happy with. He wanted something else. I was explaining what I was trying for, and he nodded and nodded and he said in this way he had – a bit arch, a bit distant – “That’s very good, that’s very good. Tell you what, why don’t you do that on the inside, but do it the way I want on the outside.”