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.”
July 12, 2012
One of television’s busiest everyman actors for nearly fifty years, Robert Pine began his career as an early contract player for Universal’s sixties-era television factory. The same talent scouts who discovered him would go on, for better or worse, to give the world James Brolin, Susan Clark, Don Stroud, Ben Murphy, Susan Saint James, Lee Majors, Tisha Sterling, Cliff Potts, Christine Belford, and David Hartman. By that time, though, Pine had moved on to freelance success as a guest star, specializing in callow youths and finding favor in the seventies with, among others, producer Quinn Martin.
Pine landed his first regular role on a short-lived QM series, Bert D’Angelo/Superstar, which turned into one of his worst professional experiences. Fortunately, a year later, he was cast against type in CHiPs, the show that would make him a semi-celebrity. Pine played Sergeant Getraer, the fearsome, no-nonsense sergeant who often had young cops Ponch and Jon (Erik Estrada and Larry Wilcox) quaking in their shiny CHP boots. You’d expect to see a loud, scowling actor – someone like Jack Warden or TV’s original highway patrolman, Broderick Crawford – cast as Sgt. Getraer, but Pine, probably a more realistic choice in age and looks anyway, played it with a twinkle in his eye.
Even as his son, Chris Pine, has achieved overnight stardom as the present Captain Kirk, the elder Pine continues to work prodigiously. Just in the last few years, he has appeared on Desperate Housewives, C.S.I., Parks and Recreation, The Office (as Jim’s father), The Event, The Mentalist, Castle, Leverage, and House, M.D.; in another twenty years, he could be his generation’s Bill Erwin. Pine attributes his longevity in part to a willingness to accept small roles; I would add to that a chameleonesque quality that has kept him from ever getting typecast, and also an upbeat (and politically savvy) affability that extends to a reluctance to say anything bad about anyone he’s ever worked with. In a phone interview conducted in May, Pine steered artfully around the bad moments (and bad behavior) he observed on sets in order to share some memories about his early days in television – and, of course, about CHiPs.
You were a contract player at Universal during the period when it was the last studio large enough to actually have a pool of actors under contract.
The contract was my first job. I was so green at all this. I had been a pre-med in college, at Ohio Wesleyan, and graduated in ’63. Decided to be an actor in February of ’64, and ended up doing a scene in front of Eleanor Kilgallen, who was the representative for Universal in New York for new talent. She said, in April, would you like to go to California for a screen test? I said, well, I guess so. So I came out and did a screen test, they picked up the option, and my contract started on May 25, 1964. I drove out to California and really started my professional career under contract there.
When I first went to New York after college, Columbia had an extension thing where you could go take some college-level courses taught by their professors and get credit for it, and I did take some chemistry and calculus courses to see if I could improve some grades to get into medical school. Within three weeks I thought, ahhh, I don’t want to do this. I’m doing it for the wrong reasons. I was doing it for my parents, really, not for me. I was in this apartment I shared with my old college roommate, and I said, “Jeff, what the hell am I going to do?” He said, “Why don’t you be an actor? You always enjoyed that.” And, you know, it’s like a light bulb went off in my head. I said, “Holy smoke, yeah, why don’t I do that?”
That previous summer I had been in Nantucket, where my parents had a summer home. There was a summer musical every year, and I did a nice part in it. Robert Anderson, the playwright, was a friend of my mother’s and he happened to be in Nantucket and saw me. He was the first person I called, because he had said, “If you ever want to follow that, let me know.” I had told him, “No, I’m going to be a doctor.” Well, when my friend Jeff said “why don’t you try to be an actor?” I called Bob Anderson. I think Bob probably thought, “Oh, god, why did I open my mouth?” But he said, “Okay, why don’t you come over for dinner.” He lived on Park Avenue with his wife, Teresa Wright, an Oscar winner from the early forties. A lovely lady, and Bob was a lovely person. He then, over dinner, proceeded for the next three hours to tell me what a terrible idea this was, and said, “All my friends who are actors hate it, wish they’d done [something else].” He was talking about guys like John Kerr, Richard Widmark, Karl Malden. They were in their forties, and that’s a big switch for actors, especially for John Kerr, who was a leading man. He’s getting older, he’s not working. Widmark wasn’t working. Karl Malden never stopped working, but I guess he wasn’t getting the parts he wanted and he was miserable. He said, “There’s only one actor that I know that really loves it and never has wavered, and that’s Fredric March.”
This was in November of 1963, and I said, “Well, I have to stay in school until February. I promised my dad I’d finish the semester. He’s paying for it.” Which I did, and then called Bob, and he sent me to every agent – William Morris, Ashley-Steiner, and I went with Ashley-Steiner.
Your real name is actually Granville. How did that become Robert Pine?
Granville Whitelaw Pine, yes. I’d never cared for it. The first day of school, the teachers called the list of names, “Granville Pine,” and immediately heads shot up. I never liked Granville; it was too formal and I felt like an idiot. It was my dad’s name, but I never was close with my dad. Buzz was my nickname all through school, and my oldest and closest friends still call me that.
Then when I went under contract – I guess I was twenty-two, and I looked about seventeen or eighteen – and Monique said, “Would you mind changing your name?” I said, “Fine with me.” “Why don’t you pick something,” and so I picked Robert. Not Bob, but Robert. It’s pure whitebread, but I like it. I liked something that wasn’t quite as oddball as Granville.
What was the experience of being a contract player in 1964 like?
At that particular time, they didn’t have classes or schools. You were just under contract. It wasn’t like the old days, and I know later on, after I was there, a guy named Vincent Chase had an acting class there. But I did get acting lessons with Jeff Corey, who was a wonderful teacher, who taught Jack Nicholson and other notable people. I took singing lessons. I took horseback riding lessons, because westerns were big, which was one of the better moves that I ever made. Then I would go out, because they didn’t place you – you still had to go out and audition with people on the lot. Then I started getting some work. And it worked for about three years for me, but I wasn’t – the way you add value to the studio is, if you were able to get into a series there, or they loaned you out to other studios who wanted your services, and made money on your contract. They were paying us very little, of course, and would loan you out for more. I just hadn’t done enough to be of any interest to anybody but Universal, so that lasted three years until ’67. Then I was out in the cool world.
Did you have an advantage over freelance actors in terms of getting work at Universal?
Yeah, I think I did. There was a woman there who was Eleanor Kilgallen’s sort of counterpart out here, Monique James. She acted like your agent on the lot. She would work very hard, show film to them if you managed to get any. In those days there weren’t tapes or discs; they would actually get a screening room and screen some film that I’d done in another show or something to interest whatever show you were being pitched to.
Monique James’s name comes up in many, many actors’ tales of how they got started.
She was a wonderful lady, a short little woman, but very formidable, and would take care of her “darlings,” as she would call some of us. Very Hollywood. She was the daughter of an editor of the New York Times. She was a terrific lady and I liked her a lot, as I did Eleanor. And Eleanor is still with us, at age 94, and I still keep in contact with her.
Your television debut was a segment of Kraft Suspense Theatre called “A Lion Amongst Men.”
With Jimmy Whitmore and Tommy Sands, who was a big singer back in the day. I remember getting the script and reading it and thinking, “Gosh, this is a terrible script.” Well, it turned out to be a wonderful show. It was just my inexperience at reading a teleplay. There were a lot of flashbacks, which I didn’t understand, reading it on the page.
I’m not sure any of them count as classics, but the features you made during those three years are pretty diverse: an Audie Murphy western (Gunpoint), a spinoff of The Munsters, a beach party movie (Out of Sight), a war movie based on a Richard Matheson novel (The Young Warriors), and a Civil War movie (Journey to Shiloh) that also starred James Caan, Harrison Ford, Jan-Michael Vincent, and an uncredited John Rubinstein, whose big scene was with you.
Gunpoint was my first feature. We went to St. George, Utah. Morgan Woodward was Drago, the head of our bad guy gang – I loved that name. I ended up doing a number of shows with Morgan, who was a wonderful guy. I did a Gunsmoke of his called “Lyle’s Kid,” in which he played my pa. I was at that age – for about ten years I had a lot of “pas.” I did another Gunsmoke with Jeff Corey, and I think he was my pa. Will Geer, he was my pa in a Bonanza.
Did you get to know Audie Murphy at all?
He was a hard guy to know, because he was very protected. From what I understand he slept with a gun under his pillow. Loved to do practical jokes. He had this long, five-foot pole with a string on it, with a fake spider on the end of it, and he’d go around and very quietly put it on somebody’s shoulder and scare the crap out of them. Not unpleasant in any way, but just sort of kept to himself. Joked around with the stunt guys a lot.
Munster, Go Home was great fun. I went in on an interview for that, and Monique said, “Use an English accent. Go in there as if you’re English.” So I did, and they cast me, thinking I was in English. I loved that. Terry-Thomas was in that, and Hermione Gingold. Most of my stuff was with the young woman, Debbie Watson.
Both of those were directed by Earl Bellamy.
“No Sweat” Bellamy. When you’d blow a line, he’d say “No sweat. No sweat, let’s take it again.” Earl was a good guy. He was a very workmanlike director.
You worked with some interesting directors at Universal. Jack Smight, whose films have a bit of a cult following, directed “A Lion Amongst Us.”
He was telling me on the set that he really liked Rabbit, Run, by John Updike. He said he’d bought the rights, and I immediately ran out and read it, to see if there was anything in it for me [that is, a role that he could play]. I didn’t really understand it all that much; I don’t even know whether I finished it. But I didn’t think there was anything in it for me.
And you did a Run For Your Life with Stuart Rosenberg, just before he made Cool Hand Luke.
“The Cruel Fountain.” I had a southern accent in that. My first big guest-starring role. And he came by and paid me a very nice compliment, saying he thought I was a very good actor. That meant a lot to me. Because at the time I came out here, I was really acting off the seat of my pants. I’d done a few plays in high school and in college I did about three plays, but they were smaller parts. So I really had to figure this out when I was out here. I always felt that pretty soon the Talent Police were going to come by and tap me on the shoulder and say, “What the hell are you doing here? Get out of town.”
Robert Pine at Universal: Kraft Suspense Theatre (“A Lion Amongst Men,” 1964, with Peter Duryea and Michael Bregan); The Virginian (“Dangerous Road,” 1965); Run For Your Life (“The Cruel Fountain,” 1966).
You were a guest star on The Lucy Show.
She was great. I was about twenty-six, playing seventeen. Lucy took a real liking to me and said, “You know, I’m about to do a movie with Henry Fonda, Yours, Mine, and Ours. I want to take you over to the Paramount lot and see the director of that. I want him to see you to play my oldest son.” So she took me by the hand over there to meet Mel Shavelson. I was too old for it. The guy who ended up playing it was [Tim Matheson]. He was a little bit younger than I was, and was certainly a better fit. But she was very nice to me. I remember on the set, when Desi [Jr.] called up wanting something, and she was saying, “Desi, I want you to be home now. No, no, no. You’re not to go out. You’re home tonight.” I mean, being a real mother, laying the law down.
I also worked with Sammy Davis, Jr., on a couple of shows. I did a Danny Thomas Hour, which was an anthology show, and of all things, a Charlie’s Angels, which we did at his [Davis’s] house. I remember going into his house and there was a couch there, about twelve feet long and then ten feet long in the other direction, all in Gucci leather with little G’s.
Was there a particular role on television that elevated you from supporting parts to leads?
Yeah, that Gunsmoke with Morgan Woodward. The part was first offered to Beau Bridges, but he had just got a movie. He decided he wasn’t doing television any more. So I got his part, and I got some good attention from that.
During the seventies you became one of the rotating clean-cut young men that Quinn Martin favored to guest-star on his series.
The great thing about Quinn Martin, he had a lot of shows on the air and once you’d done something for him, you never had to go in and read. Your agent’d call to say, “They have a part on so-and-so. It’s worth this much. Do you want to do it?” And, you could work every year, not like today, where in a series like House, if you’ve done one House you [can’t] work that show again for the eight years it’s on. Cannon, I’d do every year. You could do one every year.
I did an NCIS the first year – they called and said, “Would you do us a favor? A guy dropped out, it’s a very small part.” I said sure, and because of that I’ve never been able to work that show again, and that’s been on a long time.
Did you get to know Quinn Martin at all?
No. I don’t think I ever even met him, and I did a series for him!
That was Bert D’Angelo/Superstar, which ran for half a season in 1976.
It was a spinoff of Streets of San Francisco, with Paul Sorvino and [Dennis Patrick] as the captain. We did it in San Francisco and I lived up there for six months. It was a tough shoot. What I’d rather you say with this is that the less said about that show the better, and leave it at that.
How did you come to be cast on CHiPs?
Rick Rosner, who created it, had seen a pilot I did called Incident on a Dark Street, which didn’t sell. David Canary and another actor who was new at the time and I would have been the regulars. It was in 1974, I believe, and it was about the attorney general’s office, and 1974 was the year that John Mitchell, the attorney general, was sent to jail or whatever because of Watergate. So they weren’t buying anything about the attorney general’s office. Too bad, because it was a good pilot.
Anyway, he had me in to read for the part, and I told my agent, “This isn’t gonna go. There have been so many cop shows.” And I said that to Rosner when he cast me in it, and he said, “This gonna go. This is gonna go.” “Well, okay, man.” Of course, he was right and it went, much to my surprise, for six years.
Had you played many parts like that before?
No, not really. It was different, because I was only thirty-six when we did it, and very rarely would somebody at that age be [cast as] the head of something like that, or the boss. But, the Highway Patrol being what it is, there are indeed many sergeants who are thirty-six. So it worked out well. I was a little disappointed when we started, because I was hoping for something where I would be more the lead, or one of the central figures in it. Even though I was one of the central figures, I really wasn’t. There were two guys and then you’d go down a little bit and there was me, and then you’d go down some more and [there were] the other guys. But after a year or so, I was fully on board, appreciated it, and realized any job is hard to come by in this business.
Your scenes with Ponch and Jon were often played for comedy. You had a really nice slow burn whenever they tried to explain how they wrecked their bikes or got into some other kind of trouble.
I think it was a nice blend. I did get to have a sense of humor in it, and even though it wasn’t a comedy, there were comic parts in it. You didn’t want somebody who was too hard in it.
I did tell Rosner, I said, “If you could do me just one thing. I understand my position in this show, but when I’m in a scene, I’m in it. I don’t want to be in the background saying yes or no while these two guys do their thing.” He was very good about that, and then Cy Chermak, who really – after the first thirteen episodes, Rick Rosner was gone, and then there was Cy – they took care of me very well.
You’ve said that you liked your scenes with Ponch and Jon, but not the expository scenes at the beginning of each episode.
I didn’t like the expository stuff, because it’s hard. Everything they couldn’t show out on the highway, they’d have me tell at the podium. And it just goes on and on. It’s a challenge to memorize it. But, listen, they paid me well to do it, and here we are thirty-five years later talking about it, so I have little to complain about.
Tell me what happened when Rick Rosner left and Cy Chermak came in.
A somewhat more serious tone came to it. There was less of the comedy for comedy’s sake. But I think the big reason was, we were going over budget. I think this was the first dramatic TV series that Rick had produced. He’d produced game shows and talk shows before that, and he certainly was a good idea man. But Cy Chermak was an old hand; I remember him when I was at Universal.
You had done some of his shows there – Convoy and The Virginian.
He was a very good on-hand producer. We never went over budget after that. Never took more than seven days to do it, never ran over, which is quite a feat. In each episode we had a combination of three big events – either two chases and a crash, or two crashes and a chase, which takes a lot of time to do. Which means when you do get on camera and people are talking, you’ve gotta do a lot of pages. And we did. We had a great crew, who were very fast. And it’s to Cy’s credit that he did that.
And Cy protected your character as much as Rosner had.
He did, and I’d get maybe one or two storylines a year that were more about me. Actually, he’s the one who cast my wife, Gwynne [Gilford], as my pretend wife on CHiPs. There were only six episodes that she was in but when it came to casting her, I said, “I’d really like it if you’d cast Gwynne,” because she was a very accomplished actress at that point. She left the business when she was about thirty-five, but she had two series on the air that had short lives – one with Joe Namath, and then one with Eileen Brennan called A New Kind of Family.
There’s an episode in the year 1980, where she was pregnant with our son Chris, and I said, “You know, you gotta write a storyline about this. This just begs for it.” And of course we’re getting up to the ninth month, and preparing to do this episode, and then there’s a strike and Gwynne has Chris, and we come back and do it later and she’s gotta use a pillow.
So Chris just missed making his television debut on CHiPs. Speaking of children: I have to ask about Erik Estrada and Larry Wilcox, who made headlines for their ongoing feud throughout the run of CHiPs.
I observed some of it. I’m reluctant to really – this is a family. There arguments and stuff in families. That happens. There was some discontent, and it was a shame. But that’s the way it goes. I try not to take sides in it, because that doesn’t get you anywhere. On the whole, we had a wonderful cast, a wonderful crew, and it was fun going to work. Every show, while Cy was there, got done on time, that tells you right there that people came in and did their work. There were days when things got a little messy, but that’ll happen when two young guys are finding their way. They’re stars, and getting adjusted to that, and getting egos adjusted takes time. There’s a maturation period there.
So would you say it got better as it went along?
Uh … I don’t know about that.
Which of the regular CHiPs directors do you remember?
John Florea was a World War II photographer, and actually he helped me a great deal when I directed two episodes. He was a sweetheart. There was an Englishman, Gordon Hessler, who I also worked on Quinn Martin stuff with. He was a good guy, a little bit persnickety. Les Martinson, he was a piece of work; he was a funny guy, but also good. Phil Bondelli. All different guys but, you know, you only worked our show a number of times if we all liked you. The other ones didn’t last, for whatever reason. So all those guys who were mentioned a number of times were all fun guys.
Occasionally your character got to leave the station and join Ponch and Jon on motorcycle patrol.
About every three episodes they screwed up their courage and put me on a bike. Before the pilot, on a Sunday, they took us to the old MGM lot, which is now the Sony lot, and we practiced the bikes, going through the streets of the backlot. I remember going up one street where it came to a T, and you would go either right or left. On most bikes, if you let go, the throttle goes off, just as if you would press a pedal and take your foot off it. Well, on a police bike, if you were going 60 and took your hand off, it stayed at 60. You had to turn it down. So I’m coming to the wall there and had to make a choice, and I panicked and instead of deaccelerating I accelerated, right into the wall. My pride was hurt more than anything else, but people never forgot that.
The only other time I had a thing was, I had to turn onto a dirt road, and the camera was way back and I thought I would goose it a little bit. I goosed it a little bit too hard, and it swerved in the back and it went down, going about thirty miles an hour. But I did a handstand on the handlebars, because I did not want my legs underneath that thing, and the only thing that got hurt was my pinky. They gave me a wide swath when I was coming near the camera.
Do you have any favorite TV roles that we haven’t covered?
The Bob Newhart Show. Parks and Recreation, I enjoyed a lot –
Both comedies, of which you haven’t done that many. You’re a frustrated comedian at heart!
Yeah, I am. Nobody sees me in comedy, and I always thought that that’s probably where I would make my bones. I mean, my dream job would be working at CBS Radford, which is very close to my house, and playing a deaf-mute, a lovable old guy so they can’t fire me, and never have to memorize any lines. And walk to work. That’d be great. I think I deserve it now.
Along with many of the other principal cast members, Robert Pine will be a guest at the CHiPs 35th Anniversary Reunion, on September 15 in Los Angeles. Correction, 7/20/12: Mr. Pine pointed out, via e-mail, that each CHiPs episode was typically filmed in seven days. The original version of this piece gave the number as six days.
March 25, 2009
Even among movie buffs, Collin Wilcox is not as well known as she should be. Maybe it’s because of her gender-neutral name (taken from a Canadian uncle; her parents were confident of a boy), or because from the very beginning of her career she disappeared into her characters with a lack of vanity rare for a young actress.
Collin had one famous film role, as Mayella Ewell, the redneck teenager who falsely accuses a black man of rape, in To Kill a Mockingbird; her stormy witness-stand breakdown provides the movie with its startling, sad climactic twist. But her movie resume includes juicy roles that you’ve probably forgotten, even if you remember the films: two for her friend James Bridges (The Baby Maker and September 30, 1977, both criminally unavailable on DVD); one for Mike Nichols (lost amid the chaos as one of the nurses in Catch-22); the late sixties cult items The Name of the Game Is Kill and The Revolutionary; and finally on the losing side of science as the marine biologist in Jaws 2. (“Sharks don’t take things personally, Mr. Brody.”)
Before she ever made a feature, though, Collin was a busy television actress, one of the pool of A-list guest stars who made the rounds of the major TV dramas. Already a success on Broadway, she made her first splash on TV in a live adaptation (directed by Robert Mulligan, who would remember her for Mockingbird) of Carson McCullers’s The Member of the Wedding. Collin played Frankie, the twelve year-old southern tomboy, a role originated by Julie Harris in the stage and film versions of the novel.
Over the next two decades Collin appeared on The Defenders (three times), Dr. Kildare, Ben Casey, Judd For the Defense, The Waltons, Little House on the Prairie, and dozens more. But she may be best known for a pair of genre classics that both aired in early 1964. The first was one The Twilight Zone‘s ironic rants against conformity, “Number 12 Looks Like You,” which presciently envisioned a society where mandatory plastic surgery resculpts everyone to match a generic ideal of beauty. (In case you haven’t been watching reality TV or the CW lately, we more or less have that now.) “Number 12″ put Collin in the unflattering role of the plain girl surrounded by beautiful people (Suzy Parker, Pam Austin, Richard Long), although her own offbeat good looks offered a rebuke to the plasticized prettiness of the others; as one TV fan said to me, “What was wrong with her? I liked her better the way she was!”
Three weeks after “Number 12,” Collin appeared as Pat Buttram’s jailbait, backwoods bride in “The Jar,” an Alfred Hitchcock Hour adaptation of Ray Bradbury so spooky that it still turns up regularly on TV aficionados’ lists of all-time favorite episodes (including mine). Collin has a ball, drawing on all the tools she set aside for “Number 12″‘s Marilyn Cuberle, slinking around in skimpy outfits and suppressing every sign of her own sharp intellect. The result is a frank sensuality that could only slip into sixties TV via performance; had it been scripted, it would have been censored.
Last year, Collin shared some remarkable stories surrounding her work in “The Benefactor,” a milestone Defenders episode about abortion. Since then we’d remained in touch, and Collin has become one of my favorite people – not just for her courage in discussing a painful incident from her past, but also because she uses words like “peachy” and hails from my own home state of North Carolina (where she now lives).
When I decided to inaugurate a series of interviews with some of my favorite classic television actors for this blog, Collin was an obvious choice. We spoke at length about the early years of her career last fall, after a delay necessitated by the presidential election: Collin had turned over her theater space to the local Obama campaign. Only after spending some time celebrating the fact that (for the first time in my lifetime) North Carolina’s electoral votes had gone to a Democratic candidate did we turn our attention to Collin’s life and to some of her many television roles.
Tell me about your television debut.
Brenner was the first thing that I ever did. I was told to go in, and there was a doorman, of course, and he pointed upstairs, to a big, winding staircase. So I bopped into the room that I was told was my dressing room, and I had my little box of stage makeup with me. I started applying my makeup, and I heard a huge commotion several floors down, and there was the producer and the director and the AD and a whole bunch of people. I heard my name several times and I went, “Hey, I’m up here!”
They thought I was late. They were really furious, and the makeup artist came to my rescue. She said, “If you don’t stop yelling at her, she won’t stop crying, and I’ll never get this makeup off and the other makeup on.” So they did. They didn’t know that I didn’t know that I wasn’t going to put on my own makeup. They’d asked for an experienced ingenue. There’s no such thing as an experienced ingenue!
Marty Balsam was playing my father, and we had the scene [with] the two of us on a settee. They said, “Okay, Marty’s closeup next.” They gave me a little box to sit on. They started to shoot, and I went, oh, gosh, I’ve got to get in there, so I just jumped into his one-shot, on the sofa next to him. I thought they’d made a mistake!
Was that the first time you’d ever been in front of a motion picture camera?
Yes, it had to have been, because those two scenes are so engraved in my memory. It was so traumatic.
As mobster’s daughter Elizabeth Joplin on Brenner (“Family Man,” 1959)
Was The Member of the Wedding a breakthrough for you?
Well, it was huge for me, because of course I’d read Carson McCullers and absolutely adored her. It’s any ingenue’s dream part, and I just loved everything about it. And like every other young actress in New York, I was going to have that part.
I cut my hair really, really, really short – this was just for the first audition – and I got those long dish towels and I had my husband bind my breasts, which wasn’t very much to do, but at least then I was totally flat-chested. Then the night before, I took iodine and I made freckles across my nose in different places, knowing it would fade the next morning and really look like freckles. Oh, and I went to the audition barefooted. I did the whole bit.
Robert Mulligan quite liked me, and he had me come back, and then I came back for the third time. And Claudia McNeil did not take to me. I don’t think she took to many people, but she certainly didn’t take to me. I thought, “I’m going to lose this – no, no, I’m not going to lose it!” She was in the room too, with Robert and maybe with someone else. I was doing the “we of me” speech, and I leapt up on Robert’s desk and did it up there, and then I leapt into Claudia’s lap and hugged and kissed her. I got the part.
Was The Member of the Wedding your first live TV role?
I think there was one before that, and I’m damned if I know what it was called [“Barefoot Soldier,” for Kraft Theater]. Sal Mineo was the male lead. He was a union soldier, and I was the southern girl. It was live, a three camera thing.
I remember another faux pas I made. We had a scene – it was a love interest thing, kind of cute – and we had a scene where we were supposed to be sitting around the pond. It a big huge tub with plastic and water in it, and all landscaped around. I was barefoot in a dress hiked up probably much higher than it should have been hiked up, and swishing my feet around in the water, and my toes caught on something. I’m a country girl, so it was natural for me to feel things with my toes, and I started to worry with it. I mean, just play with it and go on with the scene. And behind camera, I felt this frantic movement around me. I looked down and the water was going down at a huge rate. I’d pulled the plug out!
That was the same fall, ’57, as when I had got married, which was a terrible mistake, and lived in New York, which wasn’t a terrible mistake.
The late fall of 1957. I started going on auditions, and in December I got a role in The Day the Money Stopped. Harold Clurman was the director, and Brendan Gill had adapted from it Maxwell Anderson’s book. Richard Basehart was in it, and Kevin McCarthy, and Mildred Natwick. That was a great experience.
It was kind of like its title: The Day the Money Stopped. It was in and it was out. But that year George C. Scott and I won the male and female award – Clarence Derwent, I think it was called – as the best supporting actress and actor on or off Broadway.
Prior to that you had performed in Chicago, right?
Yeah, I went to school at the Goodwin Memorial School of Drama there, and then I went back to Chicago to become a member of Compass, the first improvisational group in this country, maybe anywhere, with Mike Nichols, Elaine May, Shelley Berman, the late Severn Darden, Barbara Harris. Then I played the ingenue in Arthur Miller’s two-act version of A View From the Bridge, that starred Luther Adler.
The marriage that you mentioned, was that to Geoffrey Horne?
No, I’m talking about the first one, Walter Beakel, who is deceased. He was a director. I met him in summer stock in Rhinelander, Wisconsin. One of those things where you do about fourteen plays in one summer. He was down from New York. After that summer was over, he replaced a director at Compass, and Barbara Harris was going to leave in a few months, so he brought me in as Barbara’s replacement. Then it folded, and people went their separate ways.
After the summer stock tour of A View From the Bridge on the straw hat circuit, I rushed home to do The Fourposter with my groom to be, and then went to New York.
Walter and I were getting married here in Highlands, and we were also in rehearsal for the two-character play The Fourposter, that Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy did on Broadway to great success. We were doing it in my parents’ little theater here, the community theater where I started. A reheasal was called, and I got to the theater and the theater doors were locked and there was no one there and I was sitting there fuming and calling everybody totally unprofessional, and my mother drove up and said, “Collin, rehearsal’s at the church, dear.”
I had one thing on my mind – that play. The only reason I married Walter was he said if I didn’t marry him, he’d leave and we wouldn’t do the play. That’s why I married him! I was very mature. We were a couple of weeks away from opening, and he’d been pressing me to marry him, and I said, “Walter, I really respect you, you’re a terrific director and a really good teacher, but I don’t want to marry you. I’m not in love with you.” He said, “That’s okay. Doesn’t matter.” He’d made up his mind he was going to marry me.
Another of your early roles in New York was on Play of the Week, in “The Velvet Glove” with Helen Hayes.
Do you remember a character actor named Larry Gates? He was in it also. Larry Gates had worked down at my parents’ theater in the forties, and so I knew him from being very small. I knew him, and here we are in New York and we’re both in the same TV show with the magnificent Helen Hayes, who had the oddest habit of looking at your forehead when she talked to you. It was because she was so short she was afraid her eyes wouldn’t be seen. It was a little disconcerting but one got around it.
What I remember most from that shoot is that Miss Hayes said something that absolutely tickled Larry so much that he peed in his pants, and he had to take his trenchcoat and tie it around himself and wear it that way for the rest of rehearsals. Isn’t it weird the things you can remember? I don’t remember anything else about that, except that I played some really kind of boring little scullery part. I did it because Miss Helen Hayes was in it.
Even that early in your career, were you choosy about the parts you took?
Yep. I was never interested in being a star.
You were a serious actress, instead?
Well, see, I was of the theatah, dear, and one took one’s acting very seriously. You know, you’d think you were a rocket scientist or something. Particularly back then, doing the work was very, very important, and of course that just got intensified when I became a member of the Actors Studio.
How did you get into the Actors Studio?
Walter was old friends with Geraldine Page, and she became sort of a mentor. I guess she came with Walter to The Day the Money Stopped. She said that I absolutely had to audition for the Actors Studio, and she was sure that I would get in. And I wanted to study with someone, and why not the great Lee Strasberg? Three auditions, and you’re in or not. For life.
What did you learn from Strasberg?
He gave me the voice of my own intuition. He taught you how to be emotionally available to yourself, if you were willing. I already had the technique. I’d been on stage for a long time. It just deepened what I already have, which is basically being an intuitive actor.
Let me ask about some of your better known TV appearances from early on. One was The Twilight Zone.
Oh, The Twilight Zone. My own father was very much like what you hear about her father – the way Marilyn talks about her father. One of his lines, that she quotes, was, “When everyone’s beautiful, no one will be beautiful.” My father was an educated, compassionate man, and I thought about that when I was doing that role. You know, I was totally on the side of Marilyn – thinking, this is awful, this could lead to 1984, with a stretch of the imagination.
What do you remember about the rest of the cast and crew of “Number 12 Looks Just Like You”?
Suzy Parker was such a great beauty. I was just enamored of that kind of beauty, and she gave me all kinds of beauty tricks. I mean, she was a model. She said, “Now, keep a little pot of rouge by your bedside, and your brush, and just put some on your cheeks before your husband wakes up.”
The director was Abner Biberman. Between playing the role and being chased around on the set by that man – and I had on some skimpy clothes, particularly that hospital thing. Fortunately he was really heavy, and I could get into small places that he couldn’t!
Biberman was really that obvious about trying to grab you?
Oh, yes. He had directed me in a play previous to casting me in this. Oh, god, it is an awful play, called The Family Way. Jack Kelly was my co-star. That’s where Biberman knew anything about me, really. I thought I was working with a man who was frothing at the mouth all the time – he had quite a temper – but he chewed Tums or something, so this frothy white stuff came out of the sides of his mouth when he was talking.
When you were a young actress, did men often chase you around sets like that?
Yes. And there was no such [term] then as sexual harrassment, and you didn’t talk to anyone about it. Because you probably felt, well, it’s my fault. I must be flirting. I don’t feel like I’m flirting, I don’t want to be flirting, I just want to act! It was . . . annoying, to say the least.
I will not name this actor, but he was a really big star. After Twilight Zone, I flew to Italy to join my fiance, Geoffrey Horne, who was shooting a film in Rome. Then on the flight coming back, the stewardess, as we called them then, came up and said, “So-and-so would like you to come and join him in first class.” I said, “Okay!” and flounced up there and sat down next to him. I had on an angora, like a really nice little fuzzy sweater, and he reached over and cupped my breast and he said, “You don’t mind my doing this, do you?”
And I said, “I really do.”
He said, “Well, I respect you for that,” and went on cupping my breast. And he was on the aisle seat! It was like that then.
How did you get out of that?
I said, “I’ve got to go tinkle.” It really embarrassed me. Of course I never came back, and of course he wasn’t going to chase me all the way down there to second class.
As pushy reporter Lisa Rand on Run For Your Life (“The Treasure Seekers,” 1966)
The way you described yourself in relation to Suzy Parker highlights an interesting aspect of your career, in that even though you were attractive, you often found yourself playing characters like Marilyn Cuberle: the plain, girl-next-door type.
I know it.
How did you feel about that at the time?
Well, somehow I knew, from a very young age, that I was a character actress, and that I was just going to have to go through this ingenue stuff until I got to some juicy character parts. Yeah, there were times when I thought, this is ridiculous. But usually, you see, the parts were better than the bip-boppity-boo little cute sexy ones.
Also, I had a very flexible face. Whatever the character was, I could look that way. I wasn’t really interested in how the character looked. I was interested in the character.
You did play a pretty unforgettable sexpot, albeit a sort of stereotypical backwoods one, in the famous Alfred Hitchcock Hour “The Jar.”
That was a wonderful, wonderful shoot. Norman Lloyd put together this incredible cast. I mean, it was just a wonderful cast of people, and the script was wonderful and just so Ray Bradbury. Hitchcock was crazy about it.
It was [Norman’s] pet project, it really was, and we were all very excited because we had a ten-day shoot, which was such a luxury. Norman kept such a wonderful excitement on the set. I just loved everybody, and we all loved the piece that we were doing. Pat Buttram! Waiting for setups I got to sit and listen to Gene Autry stories. Now where else would I ever have heard Gene Autry stories?
Jim Bridges [who adapted Bradbury’s story] and I became really close friends. I was in a couple of movies that he did, and a play that he wrote, and that’s where we met, on the set of “The Jar.” He was there most of the shooting time.
Your second Hitchcock Hour was a strange, modern-dress version of “The Monkey’s Paw.”
Oh, I hated that. I think I didn’t like my part, and I certainly didn’t like my costumes. And I was terrible! We came across it quite a few years ago, and my husband, who didn’t know anything about theater when we were married almost thirty years ago, but I said, “You have to go into theater, darling, because otherwise you’ll bore me and then I’ll leave you, and I’d much rather stay with you.” He went into theater; he’s a brilliant improvisationalist and now is a great film buff, and has an eye. So we’re watching this, and he turned around and said, “Collin, you are awful in this. What were you doing?” I said, “I know. It’s just terrible!”
You were on Dr. Kildare twice, both times playing unfit mothers.
Oh, and one of those unfit mothers [in “Sister Mike”], Mary Badham played my daughter. Her parents really didn’t want her to go on with acting. They wanted her to have a normal little life. But this role came up and because we’d been in To Kill a Mockingbird together – we didn’t have any scenes together [in Mockingbird], but we saw each other on the set, and I had a nice relationship with the children.
There was a scene that I remember, on the bed. I think I was a prostitute; anyway, I was a derelict mother, that’s for sure. She was watching me put on makeup. You know that old cake mascara? You had a little cardboard box, and a strip of cake mascara and there was a little brush in the box, and you spit on the mascara and rubbed the brush and put it on your eyelashes. In the scene, I got ready to do that, and I spit, and Mary Badham had never seen it, and she just totally broke up, and we just kept it in the scene.
You appeared opposite Robert Culp in a rival medical drama, Ben Casey.
Here’s what I truly remember. It used to be fashionable, if you could get it just right, to just put a little bit of bella donna in your eye and then it’d make your pupils really big. Very dangerous to be doing, of course. I don’t know where I got bella donna – probably from my eye doctor – but I decided before my closeup I’d put some in my eyes.
Well, of course everything got really, really hazy. I could remember my lines and everything, but I couldn’t see that well. And then there was a script change – and I couldn’t read! I faked my way through it. I just had the script girl read it to me several times over, and made some excuse why I couldn’t read it myself. Can you imagine being that ridiculous?
Do you remember your appearances on The Untouchables?
I remember the one with Luther Adler, because my character had to come up to her front door, and then there were people shooting at her. What they did was wire the bannister, and they put too much juice in it, and I lost the hearing in my left ear for, I’d say, at least five months. It came back. Movie sets are dangerous!
On Gunsmoke, I was playing some prairie wife, and the locusts were coming. Now that was bad enough, that you’re sitting in a buckboard, plowing through the fields at a great rate, and all these – I guess they were rubber [bugs] – but masses of them are being blown in your face by a wind machine. But during this particular Gunsmoke, I had gotten a flu of some kind, and my fever was up to about 102. I could not even stand, and the A.D. said, “You’ll understand, Collin, I have to ask you if we can get this one last shot. We’ll lash you to the seat in the buckboard.” I said, “Sure.” They were going to kill me! But I agreed. I said, “Oh, sure.” Always be a trouper.
You were on The Fugitive twice, with David Janssen.
Always with The Fugitive, we shot in the most ungodly, tacky locations, it seemed. This one [“Approach With Care”] was around a rubber tire refuse place. There were towers of ancient rubber tires everywhere. I don’t know how five hundred people always found David Janssen, but they did, and they would arrive at the shoot. He had his great big trailer, and he would never sign autographs. They would even get to the point where they would start shaking the trailer.
During the mid-sixties you made several TV appearances together with your second husband, Geoffrey Horne. One was a Route 66 where Horne has a really showy part, and you make a little cameo as a glamorous girl who jilted him years earlier. Do you remember that?
I do. “Is It True That There Are Poxies at the Bottom of Landfair Lake?”
That’s very good – how did you remember that title?
Because I was on that shoot when President Kennedy was assassinated. I was there as a cameo, because Geoffrey wanted me there and we traveled together, and I didn’t mind doing a cameo. It was in Savannah. The announcement [of the Kennedy shooting] was made on the set, so the set closed down for the rest of the day. When we were in our hotel room that night, there was dancing and cheering like it was a Mardi Gras on the streets.
But worse than that was our experience when we all got back to the shoot the next morning. Everyone was really, really very depressed, and moving slowly. And the A.D. or the assistant A.D., who usually had a golf club with him – you know, taking swings at the [imaginary] turf – he said, and these are the exact words, “All right, everybody, back to work. The assassination was yesterday.”
You must have felt really out of touch, being far from home and in the deep south when that happened.
Yeah, it was absolutely horrible.
You also did an episode of The F.B.I. with Geoffrey and with Colleen Dewhurst.
Oh, I forgot he was in that! Working with Colleen was beautiful – what a great and fine and generous actress she was.
I’ve got the greatest story to tell you about that show. Geoffrey and I adopted three children. The mother had abandoned them and they’d been in McClaren Hall in California, where they put juvenile delinquents in the holding tank for kids whose parents had abandoned them, and then they went to a foster home. They were having to remove them from the foster home because the foster parents had twelve kids in there, and that was too many. So we adopted them, all in one fell swoop. The eldest boy was eight and a half, the girl was four and a half, and the baby was eighteen months.
The social worker brought them to the house. The baby was fine, but the two other kids looked as if they had seen the devil in front of them. I was standing there with my arms open and smiling at them and welcoming them. They had seen that episode, “The Baby Sitter,” and the big scene where Colleen snatches off my wig and I’m all bald and burned underneath! Well, imagine you’re these little orphans coming to your new home, and here’s this [same woman]? It took a little while to get over that. “No, no, no, no, your new mommy was just acting. It’s not me.”
As Verna the waitress (“She makes great pies”) on Longstreet (“Eye of the Storm,” 1972)
Did you like Los Angeles, and acting in Hollywood, after you moved west with Geoffrey?
You know, except for Rome, I really haven’t liked any place but here. The mountains are just so much a part of me. I loved Malibu and on the beach, but the L.A. kind of life, the show biz life, was never anything I wanted to be a part of. I always knew I’d come back here.
When did you move back to North Carolina?
1978. I left L.A. when those drive-by shootings were starting to happen. The women, except for me, were either carrying brass knuckles, or they had a pistol stuck in their pack at their side, or some other form of protection against attacks. And there was the cocaine rage during that time. If you walked into an office, the people in power were practically all doing cocaine. It was like you weren’t one of them if you weren’t doing that.
And then there was the other thing. I was in my mid-forties, and I thought, my god, have they all discovered I really can’t act? There weren’t many parts coming in. Plus, my youngest child, Michael, was still at home, and we’d had an earthquake that just absolutely terrified him. So I said, okay, let’s go home.
I met Scott several months after I’d been home, and we were married in August of ’79. We have five dogs and one cat and two kittens and two horses and a pony. We live in the log cabin I was raised in, and that I inherited. I grew up on the side of a mountain, and Frank Lloyd Wright said that the side of a mountain was the sweetest place to be.
Collin Wilcox passed away on October 14, 2009. More here.