August 26, 2011
One of the the twentieth century’s great faces, Gerald S. O’Loughlin traversed the usual postwar character actor’s path: study under legendary acting teachers, Broadway and live television experience, middle-aged pilgrimage toward movies and filmed television on the West Coast. If you don’t know him from his regular roles in The Rookies or Our House, then you’ll remember him from guest-leads in a few hundred television episodes or supporting parts in films like In Cold Blood, Ice Station Zebra, and The Organization.
Short, stocky, balding, and with an unmistakably Noo Yawk-tinged voice, O’Loughlin (pronounced O-LOCK-lin) was a casting director’s blue-collar dream. His curriculum vitae is full of cops, hoodlums, jailbirds, GIs. Though many of these characters were tough guys – O’Loughlin himself was a marine lieutenant during the war and then the occupation of Japan, and not shy about pointing that out – some had a more sensitive mien, luckless little guys pushed around by life or fate or bad women. O’Loughlin, Strasberg-trained and shrewd, found the humanity in these stock roles, always playing the unexpected side of the material. He had his roster of Method tics – count how many times, in how many different roles, he folds his arms across his chest. His voice was lugubrious, almost a drawl, but O’Loughlin enunciated his words in an almost singsong way; that habit, coupled with his instinct for underplaying, made O’Loughlin one of the most touchingly straightforward personae on television. On The Rookies, the Aaron Spelling-generated cop drama that made O’Loughlin a quasi-star, the producers seemed to think they were getting a screamer, a dull clone of the square-jawed police boss that Tige Andrews played on Spelling’s similar Mod Squad. Though you could see why the young cops quaked in his presence, O’Loughlin threw in his usual curve. His Lieutenant Ryker was a voice of reason, a veteran who had seen everything and gave out his orders in affirming tones of calm, patience, and resignation.
Active in the Los Angeles branch of the Actors Studio until just a few years ago, O’Loughlin now resides in the Motion Picture Country Home in Woodland Hills. Scheduling did not permit a visit, but over the course of several phone conversations this spring O’Loughlin shared some favorite stories from his life and work. Just as many of his working-class characters seemed to be closet intellectuals, O’Loughlin was full of surprises, beginning with the fact that he enjoyed a more privileged upbringing than any of the mopes he played on screen. He spoke with a disarming frankness not only about his adventures on the stage and in front of the camera, but of his struggle with alcoholism and his long-term relationship with a movie star nearly twenty years his junior.
Tell me a bit about your background and your childhood.
My father was a lawyer and a Phi Beta Kappa at Columbia. Just a brilliant, wonderful guy. Everybody was crazy about him. He had some papers to look up in Cuba, and it was in the middle of the winter. He went down to Cuba, which was tropical, and he contracted diarrhea and amoebic dysentery together. He came back to New York and it went into what is called a dormant period, the dysentery. The following summer, it recurred, and they simply did not know what he had until the autopsy. I think I was four and a half when he passed away.
I was raised by my mother. Her mother was in the house, and an old maiden aunt was there. I was surrounded by a lot of women. A cook, a [housekeeper], a nurse. My father left us well taken care of. My mother never had to go to work. She took care of me and the two old ladies.
I grew up in a house on 145th Street and St. Nicholas Avenue. It wasn’t a brownstone, it was a graystone. They’re a little fancier, a little more luxurious. My grandfather, my mother’s father, was a prominent civil engineer, Charles Dodd Ward. He came from an old Jersey City family. When the Army Corps of Engineers was laying their plans for the Panama Canal, my grandfather was, just from a scholarly standpoint, very interested in looking over their shoulders. He looked at the Army Corps of Engineers’ plan, and he recommended that one change be made. The French De Lesseps plan had a thing called the Gatun Dam, and he recommended that they extract the Gatun Dam out of the DeLesseps Plan and insert it into the American one. And that would save the government, in those days, forty million dollars. He delivered this hypothetical paper before the American Society of Civil Engineers, and those hypothetical talks were always put into print and available to everybody. And the Army Corps of Engineers said, “Shit, he’s right. Put it in.” So they did. He got credit for it in many books, but they couldn’t get him a job because Teddy Roosevelt was one political party and my grandfather was the opposing one.
Did you know during the war that you wanted to be an actor when you came back?
Yes, I knew then. I had to gratify my family first by getting a degree, and the easiest thing for me to get a degree in was mechanical engineering. So I spent a couple of years doing that. But once I finished college, I went to an acting school in New York called the Neighborhood Playhouse, also on the G.I. Bill, for another two years.
The Neighborhood Playhouse was dominated by the legendary Sanford Meisner. Tell me what you learned from him.
His key ingredient for actors was, “What do you want?” What do you want in the scene? What do you want from the person? In other words, in its simplest form it would be, “I want to borrow some money.”
So that would motivate your performance of the material.
Yes. You get to do it in a very easy way by improvising. Then later on when you get the lines down, hopefully there’s still some carryover from what you had in the improvisation.
How many other students were there?
I would say twenty-six, perhaps, in each of the classes. There were two classes, like juniors and seniors. Leslie Nielsen was in the class ahead of me.
After that you joined the Actors Studio?
Not immediately. I did some summer stock, and finally Sandy Meisner wrote a letter to Lee Strasberg. I’d done an audition for one of his people, and they wanted me to do another. But the letter that Sandy Meisner wrote Lee Strasberg clinched it. He said, “You don’t have to do another audition. You come highly recommended.”
What did you learn from Strasberg, and at the Actors Studio in general?
Strasberg took us into what is called sense memory. Sandy Meisner just was strictly an action person: What do you want? He was very cautious about doing the sensory thing. But sooner or later I think most of us fooled around with it. It’s a valuable tool.
At the same time you were doing a lot of live television.
Oh, yes. I did a soap that I’ll never forget. I had a scene with a woman who was older than I was. I think she was my landlady. I had a speech like, “You remind me of my mother. You’re a regular such-and-such.” And I couldn’t remember, when we went on the air, what such-and-such was. So I came up with a Jewish expression, “You’re a nudnik!” I solved the problem that way.
I was in another soap when they first started using tape. Somebody accidentally erased the tape – there were two tapes and they erased them both – and we had to shoot two shows in one day. What a mess. I had an offer to do a movie, but [first] I had to get them to let me go. I said, “Could you let me out of my contract so I can do a movie?” He said, “We’d be happy to.” They were so glad to get rid of me.
Oh, I had difficulty with my lines sometimes.
Were there other things that went wrong when you were on the air live?
I don’t think so. [But] I know I walked onstage once, and I had a glued-on mustache. The downstage side of the mustache was separating from my skin. I heard a woman in the first row say, “Your mustache is coming off!” So I put my finger up on my moustache and pressed it back against the spirit gum.
I had a nightmare on stage with Bonnie Bedelia. I was in a play and we were out of town before coming into New York. It was a terrible play, but anyhow. She was sitting facing the audience, and I was sitting sideways to the audience, and we were talking. I was sitting in a chair, and I had my arms out around the arms of the chair and into my pants pockets. I thought it was a quirky, kind of a creative way to sit in a chair, in a play that could use any kind of a crutch that was available. What I didn’t realize was that the chair had recently been glued by the stagehands. They should’ve put it someplace where it couldn’t be used until it dried out, but somehow I wound up sitting in it. But at the same time I had a hangover, and I started to feel a little vertigo, as if the chair was leaning. I said, “Oh, that’s the hangover.” And I kept on talking, and I kept on leaning, and finally, slowly, this chair was pulled apart like taffy. Went down to the floor and tipped over to the left, to my left side, never taking my hands out of my pockets. And I got up and took the broken chair and put it over by the side of the set. Got a good chair, and brought that back to the set. I sat down, and I looked at Bonnie Bedelia’s eyes. She had her hand covered over her mouth. And I have never seen anybody’s eyes so full of water. I mean, they were flooding over with water, she was laughing so hard, trying not to give into it. I think [the play] was Happily Never After .
Do you remember doing Mister Peepers?
Yes, I did one or two. I was a school bus driver in one of them.
You also did a live show with Ralph Meeker, a Goodyear Playhouse called “The Darkness Below” (1952).
That was really terrific. It was about a mine cave-in. These two guys were prisoners in a mine cave-in, and the idea behind the story was, in ordinary day-to-day life, one was a bum and the other was like an Arrow shirt man. When they get into the mine cave-in, they change roles. There was a flashback, and in the flashback I had to [change wardrobe] – I was in a set of overalls that could be removed, and underneath it was a blue serge suit.
Kim Stanley was in that. We had the dress rehearsal, and the director was giving notes after our last rehearsal, just prior to the actual broadcast. He had a little pad in front of him with different actors and what he wanted to say to them. When he came to me, instead of saying it out loud – he was a bit of a prude – he wrote a little note on a piece of scrap paper to the effect of, “When you kiss Kim, do not stick tongue in her mouth.” Which I was not doing. I was just giving her a gentle, affectionate kiss. But he thought I was up to some mischief. So I said to myself, well, this one moment in this show, apparently I’m in good territory with my acting. I’ll just leave it alone. So I gave her a very nice, chaste, affectionate kiss.
Let me ask about some of your theater work. What was your Broadway debut?
The thing that catapulted me from Off-Broadway was a play by Frank Gilroy called Who’ll Save the Plowboy? He’s a terrific writer. It was kind of a very heavy barrage of dialogue, monologue-type dialogue. It’s like learning a piece of music or something. Once I got it down, you could hear the audience respond. Very effective. It was a beautiful piece of writing and I benefitted from it tremendously, as did the young woman, Rebecca Darke.
It was done Off-Broadway at the Phoenix Theatre. Robert Montgomery was in the audience, and as a result of seeing me in that he put me in a play [Calculated Risk, 1962-1963] on Broadway, which was not successful at all. But at least I got cast by Robert Montgomery in a Broadway play! Why it was sort of a weak play was it had been a British television show about the stock market, about a hostile raider in the stock market. I played the hostile raider. That’s when I came on the stage with my mustache flapping in the breeze.
Do you remember doing Clifford Odets’s Golden Boy (1952)?
Yes. That was an ANTA production. Lee J. Cobb played the father. He was wonderful, just a real force to watch. In the evening after the performance we used to go to the bar and grill, and he was at a table with four or five other people, about ten, fifteen feet away from where I was. I heard the punchline of a joke, and I never found out what the rest of the joke was. But the punchline of the joke, which he told with a thick Jewish accent, was “Fuck around vit Hopalong Cassidy, boy, hah hah hah!” I was so in awe of him, I didn’t have the guts to go up and say, “What’s the rest of that joke?”
Tell me about playing Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire.
It was exciting. I played it under relaxed conditions in summer stock one time, up in Boston. Lee Falk had a theater in Boston. It was a great experience, wonderful. The writing is so brilliant, so foolproof. Later on [in 1956] I did it in a not exactly Off-Broadway but not exactly on Broadway, some kind of a delicate thing Actors Equity worked out, with Tallulah Bankhead. Frances Heflin, Van Heflin’s sister, played Stella.
How was Tallulah in that role?
You’d be surprised. She was able to run a gamut of emotions from excitement to abject pity. She was all right. One time we were in Palm Beach, rehearsing. We were doing a technical run-through for the lights and the sound. So we were doing stop and go, stop and go. We stopped, and she and I were standing nose-to-nose. As we were going through our paces, she impulsively gave me a kiss. Now, close up, she looked like my grandmother. She was well on. But I tried not to wince or anything like that. And she looked me dead in the eye, knowing full well what’s going on in my mind, and said, “Just you remember, young man, I had a one-night stand with Gary Cooper!”
Was Tennessee Williams around for that production?
Yes, he was around. He had a little too much to drink once in a while. I heard one time he went out through the audience in the intermission, saying, “Miss Bankhead is pissin’ on mah play!” But by and large he was well-behaved, and so was she. I was glad when it was over, though.
I don’t know, the pressure. She drew enormous pressure. She also drew the gay claque. They would sit way up in the balcony. There’s a moment where she and Mitch come back from a date, and before they go in the house they’re looking at the constellations, and she’s talking about the Pleiades. She said [the line] “Those old girls aren’t getting any tonight.” As she said that, she’s looking right up at the top balcony where all the wild, mischievous gay people are sitting and raising hell. And they go wild!
Did Williams say anything to you about your performance?
I don’t think so. He was probably disappointed in it. Marlon Brando was marvelous.
Did you come up with your own interpretation of Stanley that was distinct from Brando’s?
Oh, I tried. I tried to do my own colors. It’s beautiful writing. It’s impossible to avoid stopping a show when you play Stanley, when the woman says, “You get up and wash your filthy hands, you greasy Polack!” And he tells them all off: People from Poland are Poles, not Polacks, and what I am is one hundred percent American!” And he swipes the silverware and the plates off the table and says, “My place is clear. You want me to clear your places?” The audience just goes wild. Always stops the show.
You were in the stage version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1963-64), as Cheswick.
Kirk Douglas. I understudied him, and he wanted to look at the play from out front, so I went on for him once. I look back on my experiences doing that play, a mad, chaotic kind of a scramble. It just seemed to take that form.
What was Kirk Douglas like?
Oh, no way to describe him. He was like a shark. Very aggressive. He held it up; he did his part. He did the part well. That was not really a relaxed, pleasant experience. It was just kind of a mad scramble.
Do you remember A Cook For Mr. General (1961), directed by Fielder Cook?
Not much of a play, but I had such a great part. A compulsive liar, would talk to anybody and tell them a huge lie. At the end of the play, he’s a witness in a court-martial. He tells a huge lie, and at the end of his testimony, he says, “Private So-and-So slipped and fell and lost his balance, and his fist accidentally came up as he was trying to catch his balance and accidentally hit Lieutenant So-and-So in the jaw.” And it proceeded with, “And we were having a very intellectual discussion.” The interrogator says, “I see. And what was this very intellectual discussion?” And I used to go blank. Totally blank, every night. He would whisper it under his breath, and I would remember it and say, “Psychoanalysis.” The audience just went insane.
Why did you go up on that particular line?
Because he was in the middle of a lie. He would be blank. And the reality of that got hold of me! The fellow that was playing the interrogator was nice enough to throw me the line every night. I should have taken him out to dinner, and I never did. And I got such a laugh on that, that the audience stopped the show. They laughed so hard that they went into a round of applause.
You were one of the leads in Lovers and Lollipops (1956; pictured above), a great, New York-lensed independent film by Morris Engel and Ruth Orkin, who made The Little Fugitive.
That’s the first movie I ever did. I had to pay three hundred dollars to join the Screen Actors Guild. It was sort of fun. They were very loose. It was the second movie they’d made.
Another of your early films was A Hatful of Rain (1957).
We shot the exteriors in New York and the interiors in Hollywood, at Twentieth. I loved Eva Marie Saint. Shelley Winters did [her role in] the play. Harry Guardino was on the stage, but I got Harry’s part in the movie.
What do you remember about Fred Zinnemann, who directed it?
What a lovely, gentle man. A good director in every way. Just a pleasure to be around.
He came out of a Hollywood tradition that was very different from your theatrical training.
He was able to help me with that problem. In other words, there’s a scene in A Hatful of Rain where I’m standing in a doorway, and I spin my head around from right to left. I was snapping it too vigorously, and he commented that that’s okay for the stage, but just turn it in a more slow, normal way. Which I did, and I realized the value of it immediately.
I understand you were close to the actress Sandy Dennis.
Yeah, we lived together for seven years, in New York.
Tell me about her. What was she like?
Extremely gifted, extremely talented, and a lovely, lovely woman.
How did the two of you meet?
We were both understudies in a William Inge play called Dark at the Top of the Stairs. I understudied Pat Hingle, and she understudied two people, Eileen Heckart and somebody else.
She usually played neurotic or high-strung characters. Was she like that off-screen?
No, not really. One time when we lived together – I myself was a dyslexic, and I was going to a psychiatrist, and I was bemoaning my fate – how it was a terrible job to keep a checkbook balanced and accurate, and the psychiatrist said, “Did you ever think of adding a column of figures twice?” And I said no. It was true – I never did. I got through college, I was studying engineering, I took it for granted that I could handle the figures. I never did that. So I started adding them twice, and I was elated at the results. I went out and rented a little electric adding machine, and I loved it! Punch up the combination and then press the button to print, and it would go click-click-click-click-click. It was a ball! I really had a good time. And she came into the room while I was doing it one day, and I looked at her and she looked at me, and she said, “Oh, I hate that look on your face, when you’re like that.”
I said, “Well, that’s because you don’t bother with that. In your life you” – how did I put it? – “you just go running around to department stores, charging things up and then going on the road, and then I have to pay for them.” She had half a glass of water in her hand, and she threw the water out of the glass at me. I jumped up and grabbed her and shoved her back into the shower with her clothes on. It was all good-natured and fun. But not long after that she left me.
Boze Hadleigh’s book Hollywood Lesbians includes an interview with Dennis, in which he suggests that she was bisexual or gay.
I never heard that. I know that she left Gerry O’Loughlin, an Irish alcoholic, for Gerry Mulligan, an Irish . . . he used all kinds of substances. From one to the other. But I don’t know anything specific about her lesbianism.
Were you still a couple when she made Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf in 1966?
We were not still together, but we were friends. I stopped in on the set and said hello to her one time. We’d essentially split up by that time.
Tell me about Elia Kazan, who directed Dark at the Top of the Stairs.
One day he said to me, “You sound too much like I do.” He was telling me I didn’t have a southern accent. My character was from the South. So I worked on it. But Kazan was an interesting person. The first time I met him, I shook hands with him, and he deliberately pulled me over to my right, forced me off balance. An interesting way of forming a relationship with somebody. But he was very gifted, and accomplished a lot.
Why did you move from New York to Los Angeles in the mid-sixties?
I made a lot more money once I moved out here. Living in New York, if you were lucky, you’d get one or maybe two plays a season. Nine times out of ten they’re not successful. Do a little summer stock. So there’s not much money in New York, but the minute I moved out here I was making $40,000 a year. In those days that was good money.
Were there any casting directors who used you a lot, who boosted your career?
Well, I married one. Meryl Abeles was her maiden name. No, actually, her maiden name was Cohen, but she had been married to a guy named Abeles. Then she changed her name to O’Loughlin. She put me in a good part in a two-hour special about the Civil War, called The Blue and the Gray.
What do you remember about Richard Brooks, who directed In Cold Blood?
He’s one of these professional marines, wants to make sure you know he was a marine. Like, I read Truman Capote’s book before I did any work or anything. In the book, the cop that I played, when he got to Las Vegas and arrested the boys, his sinuses kicked up. That’s the reality that took place. So I wanted to play this one scene with a handkerchief in one hand, like I was wiping my nose. Richard Brooks said, “What the fuck is that?” I explained it to him. I think in the end he let it go.
What was the atmosphere like on the set during the hanging scene at the end?
Well, it was just like you would imagine it was. I must say I read the book carefully, and somewhere in the book, during the hanging, it mentions that in a hanging it usually takes nineteen minutes before they can get a reading of no pulse. I didn’t mention that to the director, because I didn’t get along with him too well, but I did mention it to John Forsythe. I told John Forsythe about the nineteen minutes, because we were getting ready for the second hanging and so forth, so he told Richard Brooks, and nineteen minutes was a consideration [in the staging of the scene].
It was a little shocking, going to the actual places where the murder took place in Kansas. It was a little spooky. We actually shot the murders in the actual house where they took place. I was still drinking, so I had hangovers sometimes.
You struggled with alcoholism during your career, didn’t you?
I’m not supposed to broadcast that I went to A.A. But I got sick and tired of being sick and tired, so I found a way to stop drinking.
Was that becoming a problem for you professionally?
Probably. You can’t hide it. I did come to work drunk once. Shortly after that I stopped.
That was during Ice Station Zebra (1968)?
One day they passed out the call sheets for tomorrow morning. I looked at the call sheet and I had nothing to do but stand around. I was nothing more than an extra, literally. I came in with a – not even a hangover, I was still drunk from the night before. They had decided that I was behaving myself so well before that that they were going to do me a little favor, and write a little scene for me, where Rock Hudson had gone up on the ice cap and I took over the submarine. And I just was incapable of even doing a half-assed job of it. It was a terrible feeling. So that really broke the camel’s back. Not long after that I came to A.A.
Patrick McGoohan, who was in Ice Station Zebra with you, was a famous drinker.
He always had a light odor of scotch. Not overpowering. I’ve been up against heavy [drinkers]; he sipped mildly throughout the day. Never caused any trouble; always knew his lines. I was very impressed with him. He was a terrific actor.
What do you remember about Twilight’s Last Gleaming, another movie with an all-star cast and a military setting?
The movie was not that great, but I have a scene in that – the idea is that Charles Durning was the president of the United States, and I was like Alexander Haig had been for Nixon. An old buddy. I have a scene with Charles Durning where I bawl him out – he’s my boss, but we’re old friends. It’s a great scene. I’ll tell you how good it was. They had a little debut in Washington D.C. for that movie, and there was a top brass, an admiral in the navy, and he and his wife and I were introduced to each other at a little cocktail party before going in to see the movie. We were very stiff with each other and not comfortable at all. Then we went in to see the movie, and when the movie was over he threw his arms around me and he said, “You were terrific!”
What do you remember about Robert Aldrich, who directed it?
Terrific! There’s the other director I would nominate as an all-time great. He’s a terrific director, and a very warm guy. I had a special toupee made. There was an assistant director, and he had a crew cut, and I wanted a toupee that looked like that. This guy, a wigmaker in the Valley, he made me just what I wanted. A kind of a half-assed crew cut. Siegfried Kreike, he came from a wigmaker family in Germany. Robert Aldrich came up to me and said, “I’ve got to tell you, ordinarily, I hate toupees. But that one is great.”
How did you get the part on The Rookies?
The casting director was an old friend of mine, Bert Remsen. I knew him back in New York. He just said, “I’m putting you in that part.”
Bert Remsen is better known as a character actor. Tell me about him.
You may have heard how he had his accident that forced him to walk with a cane. He’d been working as an actor on that set the day before, and the day before that, but he was through. But he happened to be in the neighborhood, so he stopped by and walked in to say hello. And he saw this Chapman Crane starting to fall, and he shoved four or five people out of the way and it caught him. He was a real hero. And because he wasn’t working, he could get no medical benefits. Because he wasn’t supposed to be there as part of his job that day. He was in the neighborhood and he stopped by to schmooze.
Who were some of the other actors on The Rookies?
There was Georg Stanford Brown. Sam Melville. Michael Ontkean, who eventually left and was replaced by somebody. Kate Jackson. I think I was sort of a father image, and was a little bit distanced from them, but on good terms.
Do you feel like you were ever typecast in a certain kind of role?
Not really. I sort of enjoyed being a lieutenant on The Rookies. Maybe because I was a lieutenant in the Marine Corps. After The Rookies, they offered me The Love Boat. The part that Gavin MacLeod got.
Why did you turn that down?
Because I was insulted. This is a dilemma that only an actor can get into. I play lieutenants with the police department, I don’t play captains on an excursion cruiser! Playing The Rookies was so embedded in me, I scorned the other one. Today, I wish I had not reacted that way. I’d have a couple of million more dollars. I think they ran for eight years.
Does that mean that Aaron Spelling, the executive producer of both those shows, was a fan of yours?
Not really. He was the one that came to me and tried to get me to do it. It was the network, I think. Aaron Spelling would have been glad to get rid of me, but the network wanted me to do the captain of The Love Boat.
Why would Spelling have been glad to get rid of you?
I don’t know know. I never felt that he liked me that much. Maybe it’s because I didn’t like him that much! Just chemistry.
The Rookies would have run two or three more years, but ABC got a new president, and he came in with a lot of pet projects. So The Rookies just suffered the consequences.
Was Our House as good an experience as The Rookies?
Not quite as good, no. I had more fun on The Rookies. More demanding scenes to play.
Tell me about Wilford Brimley.
He’s a fine actor.
Were the two of you close, as your characters were, during Our House?
You directed episodes of The Rookies and Family, another Aaron Spelling production.
I directed two, but directing turned out to be not so good for me. I’m a dyslexic. I can’t think fast. Being a director is the hardest work in the work in the world. You have to plan the scenes, how you’re going to shoot them, how many cameras. It was really tough work, trying to shoot at least twenty pages a day. I directed two shows and I was happy to leave it up to somebody else. You’ve got to work your ass off the night before, you work all day long, and you go back and start it all over again. Actors are spoiled. When an actor is working, during the day, if he’s not needed for half an hour, he goes to the trailer and gets a little snooze. You can’t do that when you’re directing.
SIDEBAR: FIVE GREAT GERALD S. O’LOUGHLIN PERFORMANCES
The Defenders “Kill or Be Killed” (1963) The famous urban legend about the death row inmate (O’Loughlin, of course) who kills a guard in an escape attempt just as he’s cleared of the original crime. O’Loughlin seizes upon the man’s justifiable paranoia about the legal system in this classic Larry Cohen teleplay.
The F.B.I. “Ordeal” (1966) O’Loughlin drives a truckload of nitro across a treacherous mountain pass, in this near-one-man show, swiped from Clouzot’s classic The Wages of Fear and directed by our friend Ralph Senensky. O’Loughlin “had a terrible time learning how to shift gears in a truck. I never did pick it up.”
Mannix “Comes Up Rose” (1968) O’Loughlin does his take on Elisha Cook, Jr. in this neo-noir, the best of his several variations on hen-pecked nobodies who take up a life of crime to please a femme fatale (in this case, hubba hubba Sheree North).
Hawaii Five-O “The Box” (1969) Playing a hard but smart lifer, O’Loughlin (above) faces off against the man who took his Love Boat role – a giggly Gavin MacLeod – in this tense prison riot story.
The Rookies “Time Is the Fire” (1972) In the first episode to focus on O’Loughlin’s character, Lt. Ryker suspects that a young kidnap victim is the long-lost daughter he gave up for adoption. O’Loughlin’s big scene is a long, Emmy-caliber monologue in which he lays out Ryker’s tragic backstory to nurse Jill (Kate Jackson).
Correction, 9/6/11: O’Loughlin’s military rank has been corrected in the second paragraph. He was a lieutenant, not a sergeant. Thanks to Charlie Ziarko and Stuart Galbraith IV for helping to arrange this interview.
December 19, 2007
Lonny Chapman died on October 12. He was a very good character actor with dark hair, beady eyes, and heavy jowls – he looked a lot like Richard Nixon. But because he had a strong Oklahoma drawl, Chapman became typecast not as a shifty politician, but as a curmudgeonly hick. His resume is full of ignorant, overall-clad farmers and crooked cracker sheriffs.
You wouldn’t guess, from the unimaginative way Hollywood used him after he moved to L.A. in 1968, that Chapman had been a stalwart New York theater actor with an astonishing list of credentials. A member of the legendary Actors Studio since its second year, Chapman performed in plays by William Inge, Tennessee Williams, and Horton Foote. Lee Strasberg, Daniel Mann, and Harold Clurman directed him on Broadway. He made two films for Elia Kazan, East of Eden and Baby Doll, the latter in a part tailored specifically for him by Tennessee Williams.
During the same time he began appearing on live television, starring in a short-lived series called The Investigator and later becoming a favorite of producer Herbert Brodkin and his staff, who cast Chapman often on The Defenders, The Nurses, and For the People (on which he was a regular, as a detective working for prosecutor William Shatner). He estimated his final tally of television roles at over 300.
I didn’t know Lonny well. But when I realized that he lived in the same Studio City neighborhood where I had an apartment briefly in 1999, I asked him to have lunch with me and brought along a tape recorder. It got off to a bad start, because he thought we were meeting at Art’s Deli and I thought it was Jerry’s, and by the time we ended up at the same place I didn’t have much time to spend with Chapman.
I never published the results of our hurried conversation, partly because Lonny was so taciturn that I didn’t think there was much meat to it. (When I asked about his World War II service, he said just one word, “Guadalcanal,” and changed the subject.) But as I reread it this week, I found more substance there than I had remembered, and I’m doubly glad I had the chance to record some of Chapman’s memories. Here are some of the highlights.
When did you begin acting?
At the University of Oklahoma, I got into drama. That’s where I got the bug. I was going to be in athletics. I was going to be maybe a coach. I was a track man. Then I answered an ad in the Liberal Arts building for some tryouts, auditions, because they didn’t have that many men in the drama department. I went over and auditioned, and they gave me the leading role!
In ’48, I got my first Equity job in Mister Roberts. It was the Chicago company. It had opened on Broadway already, and they formed a Chicago company. I was in that for a year. John Forsythe played Mister Roberts. I was one of the sailors. I was the guy that looks through the glasses [binoculars] and sees the girls and gets into a fight and all that.
Not long after you went to New York, you joined the Actors Studio.
I was in the Actors Studio the year after it was formed. I didn’t get in the first time. Elia Kazan saw the audition and said, “I think you’re a little green.” He said, “I like you. You go down to this other off-Broadway group,” and he gave me their name and I went down and I got into this little off-Broadway group that was full of Actors Studio people. Then I auditioned again, and I got in. That was even before Lee Strasberg was there.
What impact did Strasberg’s teachings have on you?
Well, I think I learned a lot from Strasberg. I didn’t care too much for him on a personal level, but he was very good. Strasberg had a sense of . . . a theory of acting, all of the aspects of relaxing actors and using themselves, from his knowledge of the theatre. He’d rather talk about acting, great acting, and it rubbed off. I learned a lot from him. Because I was there all through the 50s. I was doing scenes, boy, I was up there almost every week doing a scene. In fact, he got tired of seeing me. He said once, “You again?”
Do you consider yourself a “Method” actor?
Well . . . . Not in quotes – the “Method.” I think I was brought up, once I got to New York, in the so-called “Method.” But I do other things. I don’t follow any rules like that.
Yeah, a lot of it. Although I taught acting at my own school for eight years in New York, and it was that way of working. Sense memory – using yourself. But sometimes you have to bring in other things. Whatever works for the actor, that’s what I believe in.
Your first big break on Broadway was in William Inge’s Come Back, Little Sheba, as Turk, in 1950.
Yeah, I knew Bill quite well. We drifted apart once we were out here. I liked him a lot. He was a very closed-in person. Very sad, a very sad person, yet very likeable. But he had a sadness about him.
I played that for almost a year. From then on, I was in twelve more Broadway shows.
Tell me about some of the highlights.
I was in two Broadway shows with Kim Stanley, written by Horton Foote. One was Traveling Lady; I played her drunken husband. The other one was The Chase, which they later made a movie of. A great actress. Being on stage with her was the greatest experience I ever had. She was so giving, so alive, on stage. I don’t know of any other actor in this business I that I enjoyed working with more. Of the moment, everything was of the moment. She didn’t change blocking, but every night the nuances were different from the night before. Not that she was making up different things; it would just come out different, because she was so great.
I was in the first Broadway revival of The Glass Menagerie, with James Daly, Lois Smith, and Helen Hayes. I played the Gentleman Caller. I did the first revival of The Time of Your Life in New York, with Franchot Tone. He gave the prop guy money to give him real champagne. He’d sit there and sip it throughout the show. Never missed a line.
The last Broadway show I did was a flop, General Seeger, by Ira Levin, with George C. Scott. He directed it and played the lead, and I had a fight with him. William Bendix played General Seeger, but he couldn’t get along with George. But George was directing this. The reason I didn’t think he was a good director was because he would act out the parts. He’d get up and act it out and play the whole scene. He never did it to me except once, when I was on the witness stand. It was in this courtroom scene, and I’m on the witness stand, and he got up there and delivered my lines. I walked out and walked to my dressing room. He didn’t see me, and he went through the whole thing, my part. But I wasn’t there to see it! I came walking back in, and he realized I hadn’t seen it, and he looked at me and he says, “You son of a bitch.” And that’s all he ever said about it. But he was one hell of an actor. He fired William Bendix, and took over the part.
Do you remember the first live TV show you did?
The first one was a series called Captain Video. That was my very first live TV show, in late 1949. They didn’t even have a regular union at that time – that was before AFTRA took over. Then I was in The Gabby Hayes Show, which was very early TV. Then all the big ones started – Studio One, Philco. I made the rounds – all of them.
Did any of those famous on-air mistakes happen to you?
Oh, yeah. Actors went up on their lines in the middle of a scene. I went up a couple of times. I’ll never forget this time on a show that was in three acts. The second act and the third act started similar. So I started it, and I realized I had started the third act [instead of the second], and if I continued we would skip a whole act. So the other actor looked at me [with wide eyes] and stiffened up, and I realized, so he asked me the question again and I got back on track.
When did you first come to Los Angeles?
For East of Eden. It was my first trip. I knew James Dean quite well. He was a fascinating kid. He was really talented, he had just a knack. He had the best relaxation of any actor I’ve ever seen. You didn’t even know for sure if he knew his lines or not.
Personally, what did you think of him?
I liked him. A lot of people didn’t care for him. I helped him discover Woody Guthrie. I was a big Woody Guthrie fan. He [Dean] never even knew who he was, and I had all his records. I introduced him to who Guthrie was. He wanted to do shoot a film, a movie [about] Woody Guthrie. He said, “I’ll go to Kazan first, and ask him.” I was standing there when he went up and asked him, “Lonny and I got this idea to shoot a movie about Woody Guthrie.” James Dean would have been a very good Woody Guthrie. Kazan was at that time, busy with his [House] Un-American Activities [Committee testimony]. I don’t think he wanted to touch a guy who’d been accused of being a communist, Woody Guthrie, a left-wing kind of guy!
Kazan was a great director. The best one I ever worked with.
Because he was so good with actors. He just had a way with actors. He wanted you to try things. He’d say, “What do you wanna do? Let’s see it. Don’t talk about it, don’t tell me what you’re gonna do, I want to see it. Go ahead.” And we’d rehearse it. If he didn’t like it, he’d say, “Why don’t you try this this time?” He wouldn’t say, “I didn’t like it.”
What about Hitchcock? How long did you work on The Birds?
I was on the film for four weeks. They had several times they went back to that restaurant; it wasn’t just one scene, and they didn’t shoot them all at one time. He’d go back, and then he’d go back there again.
Hitchcock was not an Actors Studio type of director.
Oh, no. He was very precise. He knew exactly what he wanted in every shot. He knew exactly what he wanted you to do, and he’d tell you. He was great – very sharp.
Who was your favorite of the television directors you worked with?
Leo Penn was probably the about best relationship I had, of the TV directors, because I knew him in New York, I knew him when he was an actor. He and I had been friends for years, and he was very easy to work with. Gives you a lot of leeway. I did a couple of Andy Griffith’s series with him, Matlocks, and some other things too. I directed Leo in a show in summer stock, when I had my stock theatre.
Were the parts as good in television?
I got some pretty good parts in television. I did a big guest-star thing on Bonanza one time, playing a drunken poet. I did a couple of Gunsmokes. The Big Valley, I used to do, and that Chuck Connors thing – The Rifleman.
Do you think your accent influenced the way you’ve been cast over the years?
Well, yeah, for a while, because I did some Okie-type parts, talking like Dennis Weaver did in Gunsmoke. That’s why I got cast in those kinds of things. Although, in stock, I played all kinds of stuff – Shakespeare, and everything. But in business . . . I don’t think there was a western, maybe a couple or three, [that I wasn’t in.] I made the rounds of all of them. I always played outlaws, or sometimes a sheriff.
That must have been less interesting than what you were doing in the theatre.
Yeah, it was. Although anything is interesting – I give myself to everything I do, whatever it is, if it’s the worst piece of crap in the world.
When you moved out to Los Angeles for good, did you do so reluctantly?
I was twenty-one years in New York, from the first time I had my first job, Mister Roberts. So, yeah, reluctantly. About 1967, I realized I hadn’t worked in New York, had a New York job, in three years. Every job I had was out here. I was a commuter.
Do you consider yourself fulfilled, or are there things about your career you would change?
Well, in films and television, I never got into that area where you could pick and choose. I never got to that. I would like to have got to that. I don’t mean becoming a big star, not that, but at least having a sort of a clout in the business. I never really got to that. I’m just an actor who worked a lot, in the ’60s and on into the ’70s.