October 18, 2013
The news of Ed Lauter’s death on Wednesday came as a shock, not so much because he was terribly young — Lauter was 74 — but because he’d looked about the same for the whole of his forty-year career, and often (especially in recent years) played characters much younger than his actual age. Tall, sharp-chinned, and prematurely bald, Lauter sketched in a lot of thankless authority figures (as a fire chief, for instance, in several episodes of ER) but acquired a cult following through juicier turns as a gamut of bad guys, from the coolly sinister to the outright terrifying. Lauter died of mesothelioma, a form of cancer, but he remained active until the end, logging a recurring role on Shameless this year and completing several features scheduled for release in 2014. It seemed like we’d have him forever.
I met Lauter in January 2011, when I sat in on part of his interview with director-producer Tom Donahue for the documentary Casting By. Lauter appears in the film just briefly, to relate a memorable anecdote about his first meeting with Marion Dougherty (a story that always gets a big laugh at screenings). But Tom questioned Lauter at length, covering much of his early life and career, and even solicited the skilled mimic’s impressions of James Cagney, Burt Lancaster, and John Wayne. Lauter, it turned out, was an admirer and amateur historian of classical Hollywood acting, as eager to relate a second-hand story about one of his performing heroes as an anecdote from his own experience.
Lauter: One of my favorite actors, Montgomery Clift, does The Search and he turns around and at the end of the movie is looking at this woman who finally found her kid after all these years, and he does three emotions at once, in one look . . . . I heard that Alan Ladd was in the commissary one day and they said, “Alan, how’s it going today?” And he says, “Today I made a great look.” Sometimes a great look sells everything.
Like most of the rest of the internet, it seems, Tom and I are big fans of Lauter’s, both as an actor and an all-around nice guy. We wanted to share some of Lauter’s remarks that landed on the proverbial cutting room floor, and so Tom has graciously allowed me to use his interview for background and to quote from it at length here.
Like Judy Garland, Lauter was born in a trunk: His mother, Sally Lee, spent four years as a Broadway actress. She gave it up to raise Ed and his two sisters (largely as a single parent), but Ed caught the acting bug from her stories of working for or alongside the likes of David Belasco and the Shuberts, Al Jolson and Fred Astaire.
Before he was a movie star Lauter was something of a basketball star, first at his high school in Long Beach, Long Island, and then (from 1957 to 1960) at LIU’s C.W. Post Campus. After graduation, Lauter moved to Manhattan to begin what would be a decade-long struggle to establish himself as a performer. He studied, briefly, with the great character actor William Hickey.
Lauter: A lot of acting teachers can be a little hard on actors and Bill was the complete opposite. He nurtured us. He would always say listen. Listening is very important for an actor. Grant Mitchell was one of the great listeners. He was an old character actor. Spencer Tracy was a young actor and George M. Cohan says, “We’re going to go to a play tonight; we’re going to watch Grant Mitchell.” He says “Grant who?” “Grant Mitchell.” He says, “Why are we going to watch him?” “Because he listens in scenes. Watch him listen in a scene.” If you ever watch an old movie you’ll see Grant Mitchell, he’s great. He’s like George C. Scott does an Anatomy of A Murder, with Jimmy Stewart. A lot of times George has got to listen to Jimmy Stewart and you can hear, you can hear George listening.
In 1964 he married one Future Fulton (real name: Wanda Mae), an actress and singer who was nearly twenty years his senior. Future guided his career during Lauter’s lean days, but died of cancer just as he began to enjoy some success. Lauter chased stage and TV roles during this period and even played some stand-up gigs. He made his earliest appearances on camera in TV commercials, for cigarettes and TWA (two things they don’t make commercials for any more).
Lauter: Future was kind of like my guru. She taught me. She had a five-year scholarship to the Actors Studio, so she gave me all that information that she picked up. I met people like Jason Robards through her. And finally we were about down to fifty dollars and I got a commercial for Bayer Aspirin and, hallelullah, out of that commercial they made four commercials. They made one one minute, two thirty seconds, and one fifteen second [commercial] that they would play. I remember the time the first royalty check came in and I said Future, it wasn’t that much - a couple hundred dollars. She went nuts: “Whoa!” And every few weeks this check would come in, and that was great, and then we’d go to shows.
Lauter’s breakthrough came when he was cast in several small roles in the 1968 Broadway production of The Great White Hope. When he interviewed for the job, Lauter fielded more questions about his athletic background than his acting skills; the director, Ed Sherin, was putting together a baseball team for the Broadway Show League and wanted to win.
Lauter: When I was doing The Great White Hope, I understudied a lot bigger part and I got a chance to play it for three weeks. One night I went out there, my scene was with Jane Alexander and I was out there, just Jane and I alone on the stage, and I did the scene and I came off and I don’t even remember doing it because I was in such a freaking zone, you know? And it’s like magic.
In Casting By, Lauter describes the clever ploy he used to infiltrate the office of Marion Dougherty, then the top casting director in New York. Dressed in his security guard’s costume from The Great White Hope, Lauter impersonated a postman with a special delivery letter for Dougherty; and although the gimmick went awry, the tale was passed down by Dougherty’s assistants and became a minor Hollywood legend. It wasn’t the only trick Lauter used to get casting directors’ attention.
Lauter: Another time I heard that Peter Sellers had impersonated some famous actor’s voice and got a job for himself. I said, that’s a good way to do it. So I picked up the phone one day and I called Buzz Berger, who was one of the casting directors for Trials of O’Brien, the Peter Falk thing. He picks up the phone and I said I was George C. Scott. He says, “Oh, hello, George.” “Buzz, hey Buzz, how are ya? Listen Buzz, I went down to see an actor and that guy’s name is Ed Lauter. I want you to take a look at him. I think he’s going to be good!”
Although Dougherty would eventually use him in the excellent The Last American Hero, it was another important casting director, Lynn Stalmaster, who launched Lauter’s film career. Trading on his connection to Edwin Sherin, Lauter talked his way into a reading for Sherin’s debut feature, Valdez Is Coming, with his eye on the small role of the “bony man.” He didn’t get the part (it went to the forgotten James Lemp), but Lauter made an impression on Stalmaster, who was the film’s casting director.
Lauter: Lynn used to be an actor, so he knows what it’s like. He did a couple of movies. So he has empathy. Some casting directors are a little – they want to be actors, they’re jealous of actors. Lynn really likes actors.
Stalmaster encouraged Lauter to come to Los Angeles and quickly cast him in a cluster of high-profile films, all of them released in 1972: Dirty Little Billy, The New Centurions, Hickey & Boggs, and The Magnificent Seven Ride. Lauter became one of the key faces of the New Hollywood, appearing in a dozen or so of the best American films of the seventies. Alfred Hitchcock saw him in Robert Aldrich’s The Longest Yard and became fixated on Lauter with some of the intensity he usually reserved for icy blondes. Hitch featured him in a key role in Family Plot and penciled Lauter in for the third lead in his next film, The Short Night, opposite Sean Connery and Liv Ullmann. But Hitchcock’s failing health compelled the cancellation of that project, which might have elevated Lauter above the familiar-face plateau where he would remain for the rest of his career.
Lauter: I’ll tell you one thing that Hitchcock said that [I think of] when I’m out of work and I’m walking around and feeling [down]. His secretary, Peggy Robertson, said after we worked [together] that he said to Peggy that I was the best character actor that he ever worked with. I said, “Peggy, run that by me again.” “Best character actor he ever worked with.” Wow, man.
Top: Ed Lauter on Hawaii Five-O (“The Golden Noose,” 1980). Above: An early headshot, probably from the mid-1960s (courtesy Ed Lauter).