January 8, 2013
Last time we talked about your favorite television episodes. What about the opposite? What were the worst sets you worked on?
The worst sets were the ones where I almost got killed. I did a [show] where they set me on fire. I was supposed to be a cameraman, holding a camera on the upper right shoulder, and I said, “Look, there’s going to be an explosion in a car trunk,” and I said, “Look, are you sure this is safe? I get very unhappy and noticeably angry if I get hurt.”
They said, “Oh, absolutely, no problem whatsoever.”
And I put this camera on my shoulder and got close to the car. The trunk blew, and it blew straight up in the air and landed on me, filled with gel, whatever it was, the flammable material. I was set on fire. I think I had presence of mind enough to dive to the ground and start to roll around and try to put it out. They kept rolling the cameras. Finally an extra ran over and smothered the fire, jumped on me. They finally said cut. Somebody came over, and I was so angry I swung at them, because obviously they had taken a chance and put too much flammable material in the car. And I swung at the guy, and they said, “Don’t swing at him, he’s the medic!” You know – “You don’t want to hurt him!”
So they took me to the hospital, to UCLA. They wanted to fly me there by helicopter, and I said, “I don’t trust this set. I don’t trust this organization.” So they drove me. They were shooting on a freeway somewhere that had been emptied of traffic, or it may have been a new extension of the freeway. The assistant director accompanied me to the hospital, and he sat there, and as soon as they found out that I would be in no shape to go back and shoot – I think I had second degree burns – he left. They sent me a terrarium, and fired me, because I obviously couldn’t do the last two days of the show.
I was so furious. I found out that they had had a meeting where the stunt people had said, “Look, this is very dangerous.” That they were setting too much explosive in the trunk of the car. And the production staff pooh-poohed it, said “No, no, it’s going to be fine.” And I went to the [Screen Actors] Guild and said, “Look, this is terrible, what they did.” The Guild sort of didn’t want to get into it. Could you prove anything, and could you do this and that? So they didn’t back me. And I think I may have hired an attorney, but because it couldn’t be proven that they had direct responsibility, because of the Workman’s Comp laws, they were cleared of any culpability or responsibility. You had to go against the manufacturer of the material. Finally it just died. So I got my terrarium, and fired, and they only paid me for the two days I worked, up until I caught fire.
So you’re actually in the finished episode? They didn’t reshoot it?
Oh, yes! They rewrote it so they could retain the character – they didn’t want to retain the character; the character wasn’t that interesting to begin with – but they wanted to retain me being set on fire. And they hired a stunt person in an asbestos suit so they could do a closer angle of someone being on fire.
How badly hurt were you?
I had noticeable burns. They went away after a week or two. You survive. But that was another set I was on where they, again, took a risk. [Note: Osmond identified this incident as occurring on the set of Emergency!, on which he had two small roles. However, a reader points out that Osmond’s description of the show more closely matches his episode of CHiPs; see comments.]
There was a Universal show where they screwed up and timed the rolling of a log down a hill where we were running away from the log. They timed it improperly. The special effects people set the log rolling too soon. We were not far enough down the hill, and that almost rolled over [me]. I jumped into a ditch, thank God, and the other actor was hit, and I think he had a broken arm.
There was one I did – I think it was Bruce Boxleitner that did a western. It was just run haphazardly. He was young. I think he was hung-over – we had to do a standoff with a gun, and shoot like this [near] my ear and created, I think, some permanent damage at the time. That should have never been allowed. And then one time during a Cornel Wilde film I was almost drowned. Again, what it is, is producers taking a risk with actors. Not ensuring that there was sufficient safety.
So the worst sets are the most dangerous sets, where they take risks, where they’re so worried about the bottom line. And then generally they’re run improperly not just in that particular instance, but that carries over to the general attitude toward the whole show and the way they’re handling things.
Osmond (right) as the man who choked on the pull tab of his beer can in a less dangerous episode of Emergency! (“Election,” 1975).
Let’s talk about Billy Wilder. I’ve been saving him for the end, in a way. You appeared in four of his films – small roles in Irma La Douce (1963) and The Front Page (1974), and meatier ones in Kiss Me, Stupid (1964), as the aspiring songwriter Barney Millsap, and The Fortune Cookie (1966), as Purkey, the private eye with the Hitler mustache. How did you find each other?
My agent got a call from Lynn Stalmaster, a big casting agent at the time, to go in and see Billy Wilder on a film, a possibility of a role in Irma La Douce. So I went over to the Goldwyn Studios, where Billy was ensconced, had his office, and went up to see him. He was very courtly, very gentlemanly, very elegant, and invited me into the office. We sat and chatted. He asked me about what I had been doing. I mentioned some TV shows, and he asked me about where did I pick up acting, and I told him in college. He asked me what college. I told him Dartmouth. We chatted for about ten minutes, fifteen minutes. There was nothing to read. I think he mentioned what the role was. It was a four-line role. Two scenes. That was it. There was no auditioning. And I got the role. And went on the set, and did it.
Once scene, I think, was with Shirley MacLaine and Jack Lemmon, and one scene standing at a bar where I take off my hat and some pimps come up and put money in the hat. Buying off a cop. And that was the end of that. When I finished, he was very kind. He called Jack Lemmon over: “Jack, Cliff’s leaving. Say good-bye.” And then Shirley MacLaine. He said, “Shirley, Cliff’s leaving. Say good-bye.” And I thought, that’s very nice and very sweet of Billy. And he said to me, Billy Wilder said to me, “Thank you very much. We will see you again.” And that was it. And I obviously saw the film, was delighted to be in a film with stars of that magnitude.
Then about a year later, nine months later, I get a call from my agent that Billy Wilder wants to see me. I go to the office, of course, and he welcomes me. He looks me in the eye and says, “You thought I was bullshitting you, right?” I knew what he was referring to – the fact that I would see him again. He said, “I’ve got a little script here that we’ve been working on, Izzy and I” – I. A. L. Diamond. “It’s Dean Martin, Peter Sellers, you, and a couple of broads.” He said, “We haven’t fully cast it yet.” And handed me the script – it was called Kiss Me, Stupid – and there was my name printed already. He obviously had written that with me in mind. Any struggling actors contemplating whether to do four lines or less, I would encourage them to do them.
And the whole time he was writing the script, he never told you that he was creating a part for you?
Never told me. Never told me! His ad for Kiss Me, Stupid in Variety, said: “Some Like It Hot. The Apartment. Irma La Douce. Yeah, but what have you done for me lately?” I mean, he was very big at the time. Who was going to turn him down? Certainly I wasn’t. But he never told me. He certainly had a number two, number three, number four, number five on a list somewhere, in case I got hit by a car.
And The Fortune Cookie, was that written for you as well?
What happened was, it had been going so well with Peter Sellers – Peter Sellers was the original songwriting partner in Kiss Me, Stupid – Billy had told some people he was sure that I was going to get an Academy Award nomination for the work with Sellers. Somewhere in the archives at UA there is footage, I’m sure, of all that work I did with Peter. We had worked for months. So they came to me during the production, while we were still shooting Kiss Me, Stupid – I think it was before Peter had his heart attack; it may have been afterwards, but I think it was earlier – and wanted to sign me up for another film. I didn’t know Billy had said that about an Academy Award nomination. But the Mirisch Company came to my agent and said, “We want to sign Cliff on for another film.” And I said, obviously, “Of course.” And they negotiated and they guaranteed me a certain amount of money – I think it was a bump of twenty percent or thirty percent for another film.
I found some clippings from the trades announcing a five-picture deal you made with the Mirisch Company around this time.
No, it was only a one-picture deal, not five. So The Fortune Cookie, he also wrote with me in mind, obviously, for contractual reasons. I did physical business well. He fell in love with the idea of my having shaken Walter Matthau’s hand in Fortune Cookie, and looking to make sure he didn’t steal a finger. Those kind of physical bits.
Yes, I was going to ask if Wilder ever told you what it was about you that inspired him during that run of films.
About me? You know, I was thinking about that the other day, knowing that we were going to talk. He just liked me. I don’t know why. Not only putting me in roles, but over the years, whenever I’d call, and we’d chat, and I’d say I was going to be at Universal or I was going to be downtown, he invited me for lunch, or invited me over to the office. He was always, whether I was going to work for him or not, kind to me, friendly, warm. And even in some of my darker, later days, where you begin to question your own career and your own abilities, I would always say, “If for some reason Billy Wilder wants to have lunch with you, to sit down and chat, you can’t be that terrible, if a man of that stature and that insight likes you.”
I know one of the things he liked was that I was not a complainer. When we were doing Irma La Douce, there was a scene where I had to drink Pernod, when I put down the hat and the pimps are going to put money in my hat while I’m looking the other way, pretending that I don’t know what’s going on. We did the first take, and I had the Pernod, and he said, “Oh, Cliff, I’m sorry, we’re going to have to do that one more time. There was some problem with the camera.” We wound up doing seven takes. Well, by the seventh take, I was blotto. It was real Pernod.
Why were they using real alcohol? That’s unusual on a set, for obvious reasons.
I don’t know why. But probably he was having fun, because after the seventh take, I said, “Billy, this is getting a little bit….” He laughed; he said, “We had it on the first take. I just felt like having a little fun.”
And if I made a mistake, dropped a line, flubbed a move, I would just throw up my hands and say I’m sorry. Just make a gesture, accepting responsibility. There were some other actors on that show that did not do that. He took umbrage at people not taking responsibility, pretending the lights were too much in their eyes, or that it was anybody else’s fault that they made a mistake. And I never did that; that’s not part of my nature.
Who was the actor who complained about the lights?
It was Lou Jacobi in Irma. Lou had had a reputation for blaming everyone when he went up or made a mistake. In fact, Billy had considered replacing him.
With whom? Do you know?
Yeah, I had been told that he was going to replace him with me. After that first day, I had done that non-dialogue scene, he had contemplated putting me in as the bartender, and replacing Jacobi. Now, this is information I got second-hand – never from Billy, but from Alex Trauner, who was the production designer. I think they were in the third day or so, and it would have cost too much to make that replacement. Plus, he wasn’t sure. I had done one day, and without lines, although I did it well. How much of an impact can you have? Certainly not enough to cost three or four days of shooting, and replacing him with an unknown. But Alex had told me that Billy had contemplated that very seriously.
Wilder was such a great verbal wit – he must have been great company.
Oh, yes, brilliant company. He was the wittiest man that I ever met – the most insightful, intelligent man. I’ve never idolized anyone in my life, other than him. I mean, he was avaricious about knowledge. Everything interested him. You could talk about everything. Except feeling sorry for yourself – that kind of self-woundedness, self-absorption, he had no tolerance for.
One of his famous lines was about your voice. Do you remember that?
Oh, yes, of course I remember. “There’s a wonderful character actor – he has the musical ear of Van Gogh.” [Laughs] That happened because I had to sing in Kiss Me, Stupid, and poor Andre Previn had to guide me through the recording session, and I was so insecure about my singing voice – I had failed singing in kindergarten and never recovered – and so I sang there with a kind of falsetto. I have a deeper voice that I use for singing, but just the idea of singing so panicked me. But he was very kind through that. Somebody on the set had laughed at my attempt to sing, and he looked at them sharply and he said, “You know how to pole vault? Are you good at pole vaulting? Why don’t you try pole vaulting, then we can stand around and laugh at you.” He was a kind man, for me. Others, he could be brutally incisive. But I always agreed with the targets of his aim. They were not, for me, the people that I enjoyed or liked.
Tell me what happened to the production of Kiss Me, Stupid when Peter Sellers had his heart attack.
What happened on the set? Peter was due to show up that day, and the news came. I think Billy went off the set to get the phone, and the news came that he had had a heart attack the night before, and the press started to descend. Of course he had been newly married to Britt Ekland, and everybody wanted to know what room the heart attack happened in. And I think it did happen, if I recall, the buzz, the talk was that it did happen in the bedroom. And he didn’t show, and then we went on hiatus, a paid hiatus; the insurance company, I think, had to pay out. And we just waited. Finally, after they could not wait any longer – the insurance company was giving Billy pressure or whatever – and if I remember right, he tried to get Jack Lemmon to replace [Sellers], he tried Danny Kaye, he tried Dick Van Dyke. All were tied up in other projects and couldn’t get out, or whatever the reason. And then he finally settled on Ray Walston.
How did that turn out?
From my point of view, disastrously. I thought Ray was wrong. Ray always played devils and Martians well. He was a very extravagant, outrageous actor, a very good actor, but the humanity of that character was so important. It demanded humanity. Because it was a pushing-the-envelope character, in the sense of setting up his own wife with Dean Martin. It required an innocence. That was not Ray’s metier. And he played him a little over the top, dirty-minded. Just the antithesis of what was required. And you could sense on the set it wasn’t working. And I pushed too far to compensate. I know Dean Martin pushed too far. With Peter Sellers we had been more at ease, more relaxed. It was much more real, and innocent, which I think is appropriate for comedy. Ray threw it out of whack. And the picture suffered. Most of Billy Wilder’s stuff is dangerous. If you don’t get wonderful performances, it creates excesses. This makes him brilliant, but also, when it doesn’t work, there are problems.
In one of the biographies of Billy Wilder, Ed Sikov’s On Sunset Boulevard, Walston actually blamed you for the film’s shortcomings. He said, “The fellow who played the big guy – he was a problem . . . In all of Wilder’s pictures he latched on to someone he admired and liked and was quite friendly with. Well, this guy took advantage of that and got in my way quite a lot.”
[Laughs] Ray and I did not like each other. Ray didn’t get along, really, with anybody, so I was [not] in exclusive company.
Ray blames me; I can understand it. I did push too hard, but mainly was trying to get some reality out of him, I think, as an actor, trying to get him going. He and I just were a bad mix. He seduced me into some less than ideal acting efforts, and obviously I did the same for Ray. It was not good chemistry; like a bad marriage. From the beginning. Billy did like me, and Ray, I think, had difficulties with that. In fact, at one time I remember him saying that the reason he had problems with Billy Wilder was because Billy wanted Kim Novak and she really wanted Ray. That came out of nowhere. I mean, that was just nonsense.
He meant that Wilder coveted her sexually?
Right. I never saw any evidence of that on the set. Well, first of all, to meet Kim Novak is to covet Kim Novak. So you’d have to be inhuman not to covet her. But Billy never exhibited any tendency to want Kim Novak, nor did Kim seem to have any tendency to want Ray.
Ray, as is obvious in this conversation, was not my favorite actor or human being. Ray and I met [years later] in Park City – he was doing something, I think, for Sun Classics, and I was working for them, and we had dinner with about eight people. Ray was disparaging Billy Wilder at the table, and I of course defended Billy. He and I went back and forth with witticisms, but very sharp – it was like a ping pong match.
It’s ironic – a lot of people who worked with Peter Sellers found him difficult, too.
I found no difficulty. I found none. Peter was a strange bird, but that was part of his charm. But there was a humility, a kind of self-deprecating quality, that was appealing. He was enthralled with being married to Britt Ekland, and buying her things. There was a kind of ostentatious consumerism, vis a vis having money and having her around. He was in love. But work-wise and personality-wise, very charming, very professional, very brilliant. And never a problem. Always had his lines, always willing. Again, Wilder was very big at the time, and it was an honor for Sellers to work with Wilder.
Kiss Me, Stupid was a big flop on its initial release, and still has not been recognized as one of his best films.
Billy knew when we went to the screening, I think it was the Village or the Fox in Westwood. There was the red carpet premiere, and we went. And I remember going into the lobby and Billy had his collar up, and he came over to me and said, “Cliff, don’t buy the new house yet.”
What are your recollections of Dean Martin and of Kim Novak?
Dean Martin: Probably the most spontaneously funny man I’ve ever met. It may have been all the years in all the nightclubs, and all the boredom, sitting around and just quipping, and just picking up on things [while] saying the same twenty lines. It wasn’t a matter of telling jokes; he was just naturally funny. And again, easy to work with, professional, never blew a line, pleasant to be with, and funny. He would start on a riff of one-liners, that were in context, they weren’t pre-packaged jokes. And Billy would just sit – we’d all just sit and listen. Peter Sellers, Felicia [Farr], Kim. We’d just sit and laugh. He was just a funny man. But a pleasure to work with, as was Kim Novak. Billy had had a sit-down with her before they started, and said, “You have a reputation for being difficult.” “Oh, no, Mr. Wilder, never.” She and I were shooting the second day. That first day, she was getting in wardrobe, in her dressing room. I was on the set, watching. And he said, “Cliff, go run lines with Kim.” So I said, “Sure.” I went into her dressing room. We were running the lines, and she was so nervous. “Oh, what do you think about my costume, what do you think, and Mr. Wilder,” and she was just worried.
I said, “Hey, it’s going to be fine, everything is fine, and we’ll bring it to the set and see what he likes.” And obviously that conversation they had had was somewhat chilling for her. She was worried about being a problem. So we showed up the next day on the set, and Billy had a rose for her, if I remember right. Cleared the set, and said, “Miss Novak, and Cliff, we’re going to rehearse. So everyone just leave for half an hour.” And we just rehearsed the upcoming scene. Well, she was so sweet after that. He had played bad cop and, obviously, [I was the] good cop. She was making martinis when we were shooting 3 A.M. on the Universal lot at night, and cookies. She enchanted me, and I was relaxed, chatting with her, either on set or off set, just standing around. Again, no problem whatsoever.
That was a Billy Wilder set: nobody created problems, because his hammer, in terms of a one-liner, of an insightful, jugular-aimed remark, was always there. So everybody had their A game in terms of personality and being professional and pleasant. Other than Ray, who just – whether it was because he was replacing [Sellers], or he didn’t get along with Billy, or what, but Ray never blended into the group. Ray was a very private person. We’d see rushes, and he’d go out with his assistant by himself.
What were your impressions of Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau on The Fortune Cookie?
Walter is Walter. He was his outrageous self. Walter was a gambler, and just an outrageous guy. He was always one-liners, quips, kind of a sardonic side that he had developed so brilliantly, and became such a brilliant actor and a unique personality. And Jack was a gentleman, a thorough professional. You know Jack went to Harvard? He was bright, and he had worked on everything; by the time he showed up on set, it had been worked out. And [with] Billy we worked nine to five. That was all. Because everything had been worked out in the script, everybody had worked and prepared, and you just showed up, rehearsed, and [shot it]. Billy would cast that watchful eye, and you’d do it several times, until it became just smooth, precise, architected, if you will.
With Noam Pitlik in The Fortune Cookie (1966).
Were there any projects you talked about doing with Wilder that didn’t come to pass?
We had some ideas in those early years, when it looked like Kiss Me, Stupid might be a hit. There were a couple of stories. I remember one about – was it an actor, or a wrestler? – he was starving here in L.A., and all he had was his little dog, and finally, in order to survive, he was pushed to almost to having to eat his dog. It was a wonderful high-low concept.
And we talked of different things, but it petered out, except the friendship, and the mentoring. He had read The Penitent, early, early on, I had given it to him, I think during one of the [first] two movies. I had given it to him and he said, “Anything I can do.” He liked it very much, and was very supportive. One time he came to me and said, “How are you, agent-wise?” And I said, “Fine. Why?” He said, “Well, I have a friend” – and again this was those early days of Kiss Me, Stupid – “I have a friend who might be interested in chatting with you, if you’re not happy. But you seem the loyal type, Cliff.” He said, “I’m sure you’re quite content where you are.” I said, “Well, it’s been going well for me.” So I never made that kind of power move that maybe I should have early in my career.
So The Penitent was a script that you had written that early?
Yes, that early. Billy had read it. Oh, he said to me, “Cliff, maybe it’s a trunk script.” I said, “What’s that?” He said, “You put it in a trunk, and years later you pull it out, when the opportunity presents itself.” And that’s what happened.
Let me ask about a few of your other films. Wild and Wonderful (1964)?
I think originally it was called Monsieur Cognac. I had finished shooting Kiss Me, Stupid, and Billy had recommended me to Tony Curtis, who was doing the lead, with Christine Kaufmann, his wife. They called me in to audition for the part that Jacques Aubuchon did, and instead of the Jacques Aubuchon role, they offered me this other role, Hercule. And I took it.
Tony Curtis was interesting, always, and I remember asking him – he had about seven other films already signed, contracted, to do, and I said, “Tony, why?” Seven films, you know. You’re young, you think your career is going to not only last forever, but [abound] in possibilities, and Tony being around a little longer, and much wiser at the time, said, “Cliff, I remember all the times I didn’t work.” He said, “I’ve got ’em lined up now! I’m not going to take a chance on being out of work.” He was a delightful kind of guy. It was a very light, frothy kind of film, and the part I played – it was not one of my happiest experiences, just in terms of personal, creative kind of work. But it was fine.
You also made a film with Stanley Kramer.
Yes, I did. Oklahoma Crude. That had happened – the casting director on it was a man called Steve Stevens, who earlier than that had been a sub-agent with Meyer Mishkin, so I had known him from those days. He had been my agent. Then he was casting for Oklahoma Crude, and I went in and met Stanley Kramer, and he cast me in a small role in a scene with George Scott.
You did a couple of exploitation films: Invasion of the Bee Girls and Sweet Sugar.
We shot that in Costa Rica. That was strictly money; I needed money. They came to me and I said, “Yes, anything, I need to pay the mortgage.” And Costa Rica is a lovely country. I loved the experience; it’s just that the film was ridiculous. At the time, you grab at the money. They said, “It’s only going to play the drive-ins in the South. Nobody is going to see it. Don’t worry about it.” So you do it, figuring okay, I can slip one by, and you get caught by cable! It comes back to haunt you.
And the same with Invasion of the Bee Girls. Although I think the writer of that was Nick Meyer, The Seven Per Cent Solution. He eventually got good. He was not good on that one. We wound up improvising almost all the dialogue. Or I did, anyway, my role. And actually, because of the improvisational nature of the dialogue, it turned out to be one of the smoother performances I had done. It was fine. It paid the bills; I made a few bucks.
Were there any casting directors or producers who used you repeatedly?
Pam Polifroni, with Gunsmoke. And there was a director, Paul Krasny. I did two or three things with him, and then I did Joe Panther with him, and he and I had a falling out on that, because the producer was going to replace him with me as the director, even though I had no union status. I had written the script on that – I got no credit – but I had written the final rewrite that was the shooting script. I got along with the producer very well, a nice Mormon gentleman out of Bountiful, Utah. He increasingly got disenchanted with Paul and increasingly relied on me, to a point where at several points he was contemplating firing Paul and replacing him with me. That never evidenced itself, although I stayed with the film and in fact I ran the post production, at the producer’s behest. The coloring and the final editing and all that. That’s why I got a “creative supervisor” credit on that. Paul obviously knew what was going on, that I was [approached] to replace him, and certainly he was not enchanted when my name came up for various roles afterwards. He would just ignore the mention of my name.
What do you remember about him?
He was a very, very competent director. He was like the old studio directors. You could rely on him. Very competent, very brilliant. He had a group of actors he liked to work with, generally people he got along with, which I had been part of a little bit, earlier, before the experience on Joe Panther. But Paul was high-strung, let me just put it that way. Sometimes would get in over his head, and then would – what’s the word – rather than settle down and say, look, I’m in over my head here, how can I solve my way through this, there would be a bit of avoidance of the issue.
What do you mean by over his head?
He would just shoot through it or pretend it didn’t exist. How can I say this . . . . Is Paul dead now?
Yes, he died in 2001.
Paul liked to live high. There was some mention of possible drugs. That’s what I meant by avoiding the issue. Whether it’s drinking, or he just liked a good meal, or whether he was doing a little coke, I don’t know. I remember he said to me – he was wearing gold chains all the time, he had gold everywhere – he said, “If you’ve got it, flaunt it.” I remember a very young, pretty wife, and I believe she was Filipina. And Paul was sort of fine until it wasn’t fine.
Are there other feature films that you consider memorable?
I did the one with Cornel Wilde [Sharks’ Treasure, 1975]. Cornel was a product of the old studio system. He was bright. When you went into audition for him, classical music was being played, which is not your typical producer-star-director kind of ambience. And he was very worried about realism. He had carved that niche, I think, with The Naked Prey, and probably wanted to go against his own background with the studio days, where it was all formal acting.
Cornel was a martinet. He controlled everything. That was important. When I went in to audition for him, he wanted someone Spanish. He wanted a true accent. He was not interested in me, not being Spanish, and I went and worked very hard on an accent appropriate to the script. And when I went in and read for him, he bought it, even though he had been highly reluctant to cast anyone who was not Spanish.
Then I went on the set with him and Yaphet Kotto, who had been fairly hot coming off Report to the Commissioner. Yaphet was very extravagant. He was a games-player. He loved to play with your head. He was mischievous, that’s the word. Whereas Cornel was all business, and getting it done, and staying within budget, and very elegant. I think Cornel came out of New York originally, but he had adopted a Los Angeles elegance, a movie studio elegance. But was very controlling. You did it his way. Which was all right, because he had taste. I have very few horror stories in this business, where I just didn’t get along with people. Whether it’s just that I’m mild-mannered, or they’re all awfully nice. I doubt that.
You mentioned that Gunsmoke paid well. Was there a big range in what an actor could expect to get for a guest star role?
No, I remember specifically, for a guest star role at the time – now remember, this was 1968 to ’70, and I had no high visibility or TV quotient to make special deals – I think I got $3500 for an episode. Then you were automatically going to make an additional $3500 for first rerun, so you were guaranteed $7000. That’s why, in those days, you could make a nice living being a character actor who guest starred in various shows. And the other shows maybe topped out at $2500. I think it was five days [of shooting].
Was there a set number of jobs you felt like you needed to get in a year to get by?
I had bought a home in Pacific Palisades, which is a nice area in Los Angeles, and that money had come from doing the Billy Wilder films, for the down payment and so forth. So [there was] enough to sustain a decent middle, upper-middle class existence with two children and a stay-at-home wife. I don’t know what my yearly nut was at the time, but certainly you could work as a reputable character actor and make a nice living. That diminished over time.
Really? It got worse, instead of better?
Oh, eventually it became, you either did a series to ensure that kind of income, or you found alternative economic interests. That’s when I began to teach and develop acting programs.
Is that why you didn’t work as much after the mid-eighties?
I don’t know. Obviously I wasn’t getting sufficient offers to maintain my lifestyle. I saw the handwriting on the wall, and began to transition and spend a lot of time traveling the country doing seminars and so forth, in order to maintain my economic existence and my family’s standard of living.
And the parts were not as much fun. The times had changed. I had a very exotic kind of [appearance]. I’m six foot five and three quarters, with acne scars on my face from dermatological problems as a kid. I was, I won’t say larger than life, but very “large life.” The heavies were dark, swarthy, large people like myself, and they gradually changed to looking blond and blue-eyed and five foot ten. It was a transition in the whole field. It moved from passion to neuroses in those kinds of roles. Now, whether I was as good as I would like to have been, whether I blew it myself, who’s to determine that. But I saw a certain handwriting on the wall in terms of the economic benefits of working as a character actor.
I think that’s an excellent point. After Hill Street Blues and St. Elsewhere, television scaled down, became more realist in its approach. The westerns went away. The bad guys became lawyers and Wall Street types.
[Laughs] Yes, those changes. I couldn’t have been as viable. The heavies were more commonplace in terms of their aspect. So that’s when I began to make the transition, in the late seventies, early eighties, to develop acting programs and to teach. I found a whole new arena of economic possibility.
And you did some writing as well.
Yes. I did about six or seven [TV] episodes, and wrote a couple of pilots that never got produced, for CBS. Then I wrote a film in the early eighties, and had written and got an award in Canada for a thing called Power Play, with Peter O’Toole. Obviously the transition was beginning then, or the possibility of expanding a career. And I directed a sort of sci-fi paranormal thing called Black Bxx: Haunted just last year, and the fellow who produced it just signed on to NBC to do the new series with Jon[athan Rhys] Meyers, Dracula.
You mean Daniel Knauf, who created Carnivale.
Yeah, Danny. He was an acting student. He had taken acting for about a year and a half, at Armand Assante’s suggestion. He was a writer, but Armand had said that he thought Dan would benefit from taking an acting class, it would help his writing. So Dan did for about a year and a half, and we’ve remained friends ever since.
Do you have any other acting students who have since become well-known?
Well, Vince Vaughn was a student, way back in the beginnings of his career. My wife was his early agent, may have been his first. And Armand I’ve worked with for years, on various projects that he’s had.
He’s in the film you directed, The Penitent (1988).
That’s where we met. In the twenty-five years since then, we’ve become very dear friends, and also over the years, different projects that he was on, he would call me in and say, “Can we work together for a while?” And I would do some private coaching with him.
Were there any roles that you regret having turned down?
Well, I got close on some that just haunt me to this day. Charade, the George Kennedy role, with Stanley Donen. That got close.
Did you audition for it?
I think I met Donen. I’m pretty sure; I’m not positive. But I remember Meyer pushing very hard. Then, also, what was the Paul Newman film that George Kennedy got the Academy Award for? Cool Hand Luke. I was second in the running for that part. Years later, I met [the agent] Marty Baum at a restaurant on Pico, and he apologized because he had used some muscle to secure the role for George.
Another one I got very close on was The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. There, I had met with the director, who originally had done Ulysses. His name was Joseph Strick. We met at the Beverly Hillcrest, and I think he had seen Kiss Me, Stupid. It looked like he wanted me. Then he ended up not doing the film, and then I think Chuck McCann, an actor who had done commercials, got the role. I got bumped because [Strick] got bumped. That would have been very nice. Those were three almosts. You could blame the political system of agents, you could blame directors, or you could blame yourself for not being quite the actor you could be, or should have been. But these were close. These were game-changers in a career that, for whatever reason, didn’t come my way.
With Nico Minardos in The Twilight Zone (“The Gift,” 1962). This interview was conducted by telephone on October 4 and October 20, 2012. Cliff Osmond died of cancer at his home in Pacific Palisades, California, on December 22, 2012.
Filed in Interviews & Tributes
Tags: Billy Wilder, character actors, Cliff Osmond, Cornel Wilde, Dean Martin, Emergency!, Gunsmoke, Interviews, Irma La Douce, Jack Lemmon, Kim Novak, Kiss Me Stupid, Lou Jacobi, on-set accidents, Paul Krasny, Peter Sellers, Ray Walston, The Fortune Cookie, Walter Matthau