Half an Interview With Gail Kobe
September 6, 2013
Gail Kobe, who died on August 1, was one of the busiest television actresses of the late fifties and sixties. Falling somewhere in between ingenue and character actress, she was in constant demand as a guest star. Although she had a wide range, I thought Kobe did her best work in heavy roles that required a certain quality of hysteria, like the high-strung young mother she played on Peyton Place during the height of its popularity. Shortly before her fortieth birthday, Kobe made a dramatic decision to leave acting and work behind the camera. Eventually she became a powerful executive producer in daytime dramas, exercising a major creative influence over Texas, The Guiding Light, and The Bold and the Beautiful during the eighties.
Last year, I learned that Kobe was a resident of the Motion Picture and Television Home and contacted her to ask for a phone interview. She agreed, but with a certain reluctance. Although Kobe seemed eager to reminisce – she’d recently donated her extensive papers to a museum in her home town of Hamtramck, Michigan, and was preoccupied with the question of her legacy – she wasn’t terribly receptive to fielding questions. Kobe was smart, introspective, and sharp-tongued. I got the impression that that she was used to steering the conversation rather than being steered – which meant that we didn’t get around to many of the topics I’d hoped to cover. A couple of times, when I posed a follow-up question that was uninspired, or failed to fully grasp her point, she pounced. “Are you having trouble hearing me?” she asked sarcastically, and later: “I thought I made that clear.”
On top of that, Kobe suffered from COPD, a lung disease that can impede mental acuity as well as the ability to speak at length. We had to postpone a few times until Kobe had a good day, and she apologized often for failing to remember names – even though her memory struck me as better than average for someone her age, and I tried to reassure her of that. After our initial conversation, I lobbied to schedule a follow-up session, but I had a gut feeling that between her ambivalence and her health, it probably wouldn’t happen. And, indeed, we weren’t able to connect a second time. As a result, my interview with Kobe ignores some of the key phases of her career – namely, the television series on which she had regular or recurring roles (Trackdown, Peyton Place, Bright Promise) and the soap operas that she produced. Now that the opportunity to complete the interview is gone, I’m publishing what I was able to record here for the sake of posterity.
Tell me about your background.
I was born in 1932, in Hamtramck, to a largely Polish and French family. At that time Hamtramck was sort of a village, a Polish village. You could walk fifty blocks and never hear English spoken. It was a very old-fashioned, terrific place to grow up. But it did seem as though we were both European and behind the zootsers and all of that stuff that was sort of prevalent around that time.
My mother was very active in promoting both the history of Poland and, at the time, during the war, of being very supportive of the people who were under the nazis. There were a lot of Polish artists who were able to escape, because artists were not treated well, nor was anybody else, by the nazis. But they came to Hamtramck and they formed a group called the Polish Artists. And they would do – there was a Polish radio station, WJBK, and they would do shows on that, that were serialized. Interesting that I went into the serial form later, when I became a producer. They were serials on the radio, and then they would conclude the story by doing the whole thing as a play for Friday, Saturday matinee, Saturday evening, Sunday matinee, and Sunday evening. They would conclude the play and then finish on the air the following Monday. But that was my first theater involvement. I was a dancer, and I danced in those, and pretty soon I was given small speaking roles, in Polish. And I did the Polish radio shows.
They were the most interesting people I’d ever met. They were just fabulous. They had scars and smoked cigarettes and they were flamboyant and beautiful and they wore makeup. What a group! It was called the Young Theater (Młody Teatr). There we learned the Polish folk dances. We learned a lot of the poetry, a lot of the literature. We met at the junior high school. We used one of their auditoriums to meet and to rehearse. It was a way to keep the culture going.
Did you speak English or Polish at home?
We spoke both languages. And would you believe it, Polish is the language that I remember as opposed to French, which would have gotten me a heck of a lot more [work]. My mother made me really, really, really speak English, and pronounce correctly. I said, “Don’t you think I would have been more interesting if I’d had a lovely accent?” And I think so. But, anyway, I learned to speak without an accent. And I had the best of any possibility that you could have. I was raised as a European in America. How lucky can anybody be?
Did you also embrace American culture?
Oh, absolutely. We marched in every parade there was. I loved America. I loved going to camp, which I did every summer. I loved American baseball. My dad loved American baseball. We were very involved with American politics, having both parties represented in our home. I think of them, my mother and my dad, in different parties, but living in the same house in America. It was interesting on several levels, both as a woman who did not follow her husband exactly, and because they were two different approaches to politics. But pride in America was something that I always had. Always, always. My grandparents did not. They worked very hard and they made money for their children, and both families were quite large, Catholic families. They took care of each other very well, and they also had pride in America, but not the same as my mother and dad did. My mother and dad were both activists. In the best way. So I was able to be raised in the center of that. But also, being surrounded by all these artists – if you don’t think that’s high drama at its best, you’re wrong.
Was it the auto industry that the Polish immigrants were moving to Detroit for?
Oh, yeah, absolutely. All the factories were there.
Did your father build cars?
No, my father did not. My father worked in his own garage. He was a pattern maker. In sand, if you can believe it. I have a few things left that he made when he was a younger man. But that’s what he did. He said he was either behind or ahead of the industry – I can’t remember. But he was not in the automobile industry itself.
How did you develop as an actress?
I started as a dancer first. I loved dancing. But as I began to spend more time with the Polish Artists, I realized how much longer the life of an actor was than the life of a dancer. A dancer only lasted as long as their legs lasted. And it was very, very [demanding]. You knew you had to practice two to three hours a day. And I did take two or three dance lessons a week. I studied with a man whose name was Theodore J. Smith. Every time the Ballet Russes, for instance, would come into Detroit, we would have one of the major dancers teach a master class, which we were able to take if we could afford it. Everybody saved their money so I could take those classes, and they were wonderful.
When did you leave Hamtramck?
In 1950. I came to UCLA. I had to do the test to see if I would pass to get into the college level, and I did, very easily. I had wonderful teachers in high school that were very instrumental and helpful. Bea Almstead, who I think always wanted to be an actor and taught English and speech, she was just terrific. During that time I did a dramatic reading – I think it was a scene with Mary Stuart and Elizabeth the Queen, one of those things that you turn your head to the right or the left depending on who you are. I won the speech contest.
She was really terrific, and so was Mr. Alford. I thought he was an old, old man, and he was probably younger than I am now. He taught Latin. He was kind enough to teach me I had Latin by myself, so I could take part in the senior play. I had the lead, of course.
UCLA was one of the few colleges [that offered a pure theater major]. Usually you had to train to be a teacher. Of course my family would have loved that, because I would have had a job to fall back on. But I had wonderful teachers in college, people who had been in the professional theater. Kenneth Macgowan, who produced Lifeboat with Tallulah Bankhead. He was the head of the New Playwrights division, which interested me from the beginning, from the time I was a seventeen year-old freshman, because I knew then that if you didn’t have the words on the page, there was no way that it would ever make any difference on stage. I knew that so early on, and it stayed with me when I worked for Procter & Gamble. I started their Writer Development Program.
Getting back to the good teachers that we had, Ralph Freud had been in Detroit with the Jessie Bonstelle Theater, which was one of the WPA theaters, and he was the head of the Theater Division. There was a Radio Division. I don’t know that there was a television division until the next or the following year. Walter Kingston, who had one of the first classical music radio stations here in California, in Los Angeles, that I became aware of, was on staff too. He taught radio. I still know that I could fix an electric lamp if it was broken, because we had to learn how to do lighting. We had to learn how to sew and make costumes and do that. We had to do props, we had to do makeup, we had to take classes in that. It was like being part of a company of actors, all though college.
What was the first professional work that you did?
I was still at UCLA when I did The Ten Commandments. Milton Lewis was what they called then a talent scout. He went to everything. Everything! All over Los Angeles – every little theater, every major company that was passing through. Dapper gentleman. He saw me in a play that was written by Oscar Wilde. He called me to come for an interview at Paramount.
When I was there, we went to have lunch, and this gentleman came over from [Cecil B.] DeMille’s table, which sort of looked like the last supper. There he sat in the middle of all of these men who worked for him. All of the departments that worked for him. He wanted to meet me. And that was the beginning of my relationship with him. And I did test for [The Ten Commandments], for the part that eventually went to Yvonne DeCarlo.
What was your impression of Mr. DeMille?
He was wonderful to me. He kept me working. I played a lot of different roles [in The Ten Commandments], and I did all of the looping. I played a slave girl in one of those midriff outfits that you can hardly believe. It was the last of the big, major costume dramas, and it was his last picture. I got to have tea with him. Most afternoons he would ask me to join him. A lot of people were terrified of him, and I just adored him. He was a very handsome man, a very bright man, and he would challenge me on so many little [things], just intellectually. And I, for some reason, just accepted the challenge and loved it.
You played roles in the film other than the slave girl?
Yes I did. It was the scene of the first seder. I was there for a week, week and a half, I don’t know how long – a long time – every time the red light went on I would have to stop and moan and carry on as though my eldest son had been killed. It was wonderful! Then I played a young girl helping one of the older women across – one of the Jews escaping the Egyptians – and we rehearsed and rehearsed and rehearsed, and took her across and made way for her. Well, when it came time to shoot it, suddenly there was this big water buffalo in front of me, and I stuck my hand out and stuck it in the middle of his forehead. I just said, “No, no, no!” DeMille did laugh about that a lot. Other people thought he was going to kill me, because I think it ruined the shot.
Today, you’d never have somebody play different parts in the same movie!
No. But we once had a little contest among really close friends to see if they could find me [in the film], and they couldn’t. And people still can’t, and it’s fine with me. It’s so absurd – I have the dumbest line, something about “a blackbird drops its feather.” I think it’s with Anne Baxter. He fired somebody – he’d already done that scene, and I replaced somebody.
Why do you think DeMille took an interest in you?
I think I challenged him. I disagreed with him often. When he said he was going to hire Yvonne DeCarlo and not me, I said, “Why would you do that?! I would be much better than she is!” And he said, “You’re not the right age. You’re too young.” I said, “I could be older. I would be wonderful!” That’s how I was when I was young. I think about the boldness of some of the things I said. It was fun.
And you were in East of Eden?
Oh, yes. Well, I went to school with Jimmy Dean. I did a play with Jimmy, and we would sit and talk. He was so full of himself, but he was of course talented and wonderful and really cute. But I was not interested in him. I thought he was a terrific actor, and so spoiled. So spoiled. I wanted to leave the play because Jimmy was taking all of the time to discuss his role. And I said, “Wait a second. There are two people in this play, and you’ve got to listen. You cannot be tap dancing around here to your own private music.”
I think I was smarter then than I was later in my life, about relating to actors. A lot of them have to be, in order to get any place in their careers, single-minded. And that doesn’t [make] them good husbands, or even good friends, sometimes.
You sound as if you were pretty single-minded yourself.
Oh, I think I’ve always been single-minded. Yeah. I loved rehearsing, even more than performing. I loved new material. I loved creating. To me that was the creative part of acting that I just adored.
But you didn’t get the opportunity to rehearse much in television, did you?
Well, no, but you could. Nobody stopped you from going into each other’s dressing rooms and running lines and looking for things. And I did a lot of theater, small theater, and I was always in somebody’s class. I joined Theatre West in the first year .
I remember sitting, when we were all young, sitting with Clint Eastwood and David Janssen, saying, “Ooh, listen, you guys, I’m taking this terrific class, with Curt Conway. Listen, you’ve got to come to this workshop!” They were already stars, for god’s sake. We were all in the commissary together having lunch, I think, when I said to them, “I’ve just been loving this class!” And they said, “Yeah, keep going to class, kid.” I just said, “I have to. That’s what’s interesting to me.” They of course were both stars, and they were interested in other things. They each had their own show, and I had done each of those shows. I really liked them. They were fun, and god knows they were handsome, and I played interesting roles, always, on their [shows]. I rarely played victims. I cried a lot, but I rarely played victims.
Clint Eastwood has really developed, I think, as both a man and certainly a director. I don’t know that directing at that point was [in his plans]. Don Siegel was directing a couple of the Rawhides, and I think that’s how Clint Eastwood became interested in directing.
Don Siegel directed one of your Twilight Zones.
Yes he did! He was a wonderful director.
Did you get the part in East of Eden because of your connection to James Dean?
No, I did not. I went on a call to read for a small role. And he [Kazan] hadn’t made up his mind until that morning who was going to play it, and you were just one of the students. I think the whole scene was cut from the movie.
What was your take on Elia Kazan?
I didn’t have any respect for those men. I, of course, thought they were incredible. But they took advantage, such advantage, of women. He and Arthur Miller, Odets, they were all after whatever body they could get into. It was hateful. They were disgusting, because they used their position in order to fuck everybody alive. Excuse my language. And I knew it then.
So you actually saw Kazan and others taking advantage of actresses?
Did I see it? Was I sitting on everybody? [Sarcastically.] Yeah. It was very clear. Not on the set, I didn’t see it. But then I was so devastated, because it was just this nothing scene. And everybody [else] was excited to be in a Kazan film. But as you observed them, unless you were part of the Actors Studio, and I wasn’t; I tried twice, I think, for the Actors Studio, and then I sat in on a couple of Lee Strasberg’s classes, and I really did not like them. And yet that was the way that I worked, but there was something about those men and the advantage they took of their positions that upset me emotionally very much. It wasn’t even something I could talk about until later. I wasn’t one of the devotees, one of the people who fell over and became a disciple.
Without challenging you on that observation, I am curious as to how you perceived that aspect of sexual inequality if you didn’t actually witness it in action.
I don’t know. You may challenge me all you wish. I don’t know that I can give you a satisfactory answer. I would go with no makeup on – I didn’t get all dolled up and put on the right clothes and put on the right makeup. So it wasn’t that I didn’t have a sense of self. I didn’t have a sense of vanity. But on my thirty-some birthday I sat in the corner of my closet, and I was married at the time, and said, “Who the hell am I? Who are all these people hanging up in here, these clothes? Who are they?” They were all different, one from the other.
I don’t want this to be some kind of psychological study. I’m going there with you, but it’s not something that I want you to use as representing me. Do you understand that? How did I – I don’t know how I was able to pick up on it. I was like that all the time. And yet, I was very attracted to attractive men. But I didn’t like Franciosa or Gazzara. I loved Montgomery Clift. I didn’t like Brando! Now that’s a sin to say that. But I used to say it then, and people would say, “How could you not like the most brilliant…?”
What early roles do you remember doing on television?
The Rebel. I just loved the writing. [“Night on a Rainbow”] was about a woman whose husband came back from the Civil War addicted. It was way, way, way ahead of its time, and the woman’s role was really well-written.
Dragnet was one of the first shows. That was like straight dialogue for like three pages, and he [Jack Webb] was insistent that you know it word for comma.
That’s interesting, because eventually Webb came to be known for his reliance upon TelePrompTers.
Well, because he wanted what he’d written, and there were too many actors who couldn’t do three pages in a row. He was asking for people to use muscles that were not used in pictures or television, up until then.
I never used cue cards when I did a soap, until I got [contact] lenses. You did not stop tape for anything when I was doing Bright Promise. When I got lenses I suddenly saw these things – they used to write them on big pieces of cardboard, and I looked at them and I just stopped dead and was watching, and I said, “What are those?” They were like huge birds. They were the cue cards. Well, I took my lenses out and I never put them back in. Because when I had that haze of nothing, it gave me this wonderful, wonderful privacy. Everything was a private moment. When I put my lenses in, I did say to the guy who I was acting with, “God, you’re good! You are so good!” But all the other distractions were wiped out by not being able to see.
What are some of the other TV guest roles that you remember?
The Outer Limits. Hogan’s Heroes. I played a lot of foreign [characters] – I could do that sort of Middle European accent. I did Combat, I did Daniel Boone, I did a bunch of everything. I was always called back [to do different roles on the same shows], which I think was a really nice – they don’t do that now. Ironside – oh, that was wonderful. I played with Arthur O’Connell. He and I were starring in the Ironside, and he dressed me like a young boy. It was really funny. They took me to the boy’s shop at Bullock’s and I got the suit and the shoes and everything. I’ve never seen it. I never saw a lot of the early television that I was in because we didn’t have VHS or DVD or any of that stuff, and at night I would be rehearsing for a play or a scene that I was doing at Theatre West.
This is kind of a silly question, but how would you know when an episode you’d filmed was going to be broadcast? Would they send you a note or something?
No, you saw it in TV Guide.
So you didn’t get any special treatment – you had to hunt them down for yourself!
Yeah. That’s why I have all those [clippings] that my mother cut out. My mother saved a lot of stuff. And my sister was a librarian, and used to saving things. Between the two of them, they saved things early on, and then I started, knowing, hey, I should save this, because you can’t count on your memory.
How did your career build? Did you have an agent who got you a lot of work?
I did. I was with Meyer Mishkin for a long time. He would set up the interviews, but eventually people started calling for me. I always was prepared. I was always there on time. And directors asked for me, which was really nice. I worked with a lot of wonderful directors.
Which directors do you remember?
Well, I remember Don Siegel. And Perry Laffery, for The Twilight Zone. I worked with him a lot, and then he became an executive with the network. He was the one that said, “You know, if you ever get tired of acting, you could direct.” And I said, “I want to, I want to!” But it was really hard. Ida Lupino was sort of the only woman who was directing.
And I had a hard time when I made the switch over to producing. I had been hired to do a movie – and I will not go into names and specifics on this – but on Friday I had the job and on Monday I didn’t, because the person he wanted became available. I went to bed for three weeks, cried for three weeks, wept, carried on, pounded the pillow, got up and said, “Nobody’s going to have the ability to do that to me again.” I made my decision that I was not going to act.
And I’m really sorry, when I think about it now. I loved acting. I didn’t love producing. What I loved was the ability to be able to hire people who were good young writers, good actors. I was in a position to give people jobs that should have them, not because of the way they looked but because of their ability. Not because of who they knew, but because of their ability. I would say to my whole staff, listen, you do your work, you get it done well, efficiently, and tag after the person whose job you think you’re interested in, if they give you permission to do that. Including me. And if they’d write a script on spec, I’d read it. I’d do all the reading I had to do, which when you’re doing an hour of television a day is a lot of reading. Because we were doing long-term, short-term breakdowns, they called them. Doing notes on the breakdowns, and then we had other writers. For me to agree to read stuff was really a promise that was not easy to keep, when I was producing.
Did you ever consider making a comeback as an actor?
When I stopped being a producer, one of the young gentlemen I knew that was managing actors said please, let me represent you. He talked me into it. [Then he said] “You have to go to read for this.”
I said, “Read for this? It’s three lines!”
He said, “Okay, but will you come and read for it?”
He went with me, and I read for it, and they said thank you very much, we’ll let you know. And it was a pretty good reading – I mean, for three lines. Gee, could you tell a lot? They were just casting whatever. As we were coming out, we were going down the sidewalk, and who was coming toward me but Carroll Baker. She was coming toward me, and she ended up playing those damn three lines!