Chapter 2 – Queers and Dykes in the Dark: Classic, Noir & Horror Cinema’s Coded Gay Characters:

THE LAND OF MORAL AMBIGUITY: HOLLYWOOD & THE HAYS CODE

“Pictures shall not infer that low forms of sex Relationships are the accepted or common thing…”

Prior to the Production Code, LGBT characters were somewhat prevalent, if heavily stereotyped and exploited, in a number of major films. The 1920s especially were a time of shifting societal norms and expanding artistic experimentation. As women rode the first wave of feminism and prohibition was increasingly challenged, filmmakers began to expand their boundaries and feature more controversial plotlines. – Sophie Cleghorn

Pre-Code was a brief period in the American film industry between the dawn of talking pictures in 1929 and the formal enforcement in 1934 of the Motion Picture Production Code (MPPC) familiarly known as the Hays Code. Pre-Code was a glorious time in the history of cinema. It was during the Depression Era, before the cultural politics of Clergy and reformer organizations came in and initiated the need for moral governance over the film industry. Their interference evolved into the Hays Code created to oversee silent and talking pictures.

In the late 1920s before the Hays Code, films began to speak becoming audible and more realistic as Hollywood recognized that many Americans knew all about sex. In the early era of talkies during the gutsy cinema of the Depression era, there was nothing stopping the studios from producing daring films. Hollywood movies weren’t afraid to show gay characters or reference their experiences. Ironically, queers were pretty visible onscreen at this time in American cinema. These characters left an impression on trade papers like Variety that called this phenomenon – “queer flashes.”

Also in the early twenties, there were notorious scandals on and off screen. Hollywood’s moral ambiguity was literally in the clutches of the Hays Code which the MPPDA used to wage a moral battle against Hollywood that they perceived would eventually lead to cultural ruination. The priggish William Hays was a deacon in the Presbyterian church, a former chair of the Republican party, and post master general before he was picked to lead the war on decadence in the movie industry. William Hays was appointed chairman of the Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors Association (MPPDA) from the year it was established in 1922 to 1945, but the Hays Code was not overturned until 1968. Hays and his code regulated film content for nearly forty years. The little worm.

W.C.Fields and Franklin Pangborn- Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941)

The Hays Code became a series of self-imposed, perceived-to-be-moral guidelines that told filmmakers and the major studios what was permissible to do in their movies. The Code was established in 1930, and the MPPC set forth censorship guidelines that weren’t yet strictly enforced. And states had their own censorship boards and so their individual standards varied. Hays tried to contain his guidelines without the intrusion of government censorship, so he created his own Production Code that was for all intents and purposes optional for studios.

They felt that the liberal themes of films in the 1920s were contributing to the supposed debauchery infiltrating society. They championed government censorship as the solution to return society to its traditional moral standards (Mondello).

In June 1927, Hays publicized a list of cautionary rules. A construct of ‘Don’ts and Be Carefuls’. The document and empowering legislation spelled out guidelines for propriety on screen in classic Hollywood that became known as the Production Code. It was co-authored in 1929 by Martin J. Quigley, prominent Catholic layman, editor of the journal Motion Picture Herald and Reverend Daniel A. Lord, a Jesuit Priest. Their collaboration reflected a ‘Victorianism’ that would tint the freedom of Hollywood’s creative license. “The Production Code was a template for a theological takeover of American cinema.” “No picture should lower the moral standards of those who see it.”

“Just Ten of the Thous Shalt Nots”

Homosexuality

While the Code did not explicitly state that depictions of homosexuality were against the Code, the Code barred the depiction of any kind of sexual perversion or deviance, which homosexuality fell under at the time. -Wikipedia

The convict

“The courts of the land should not be presented as unjust…”

Prostitution and fallen women

“Brothels and houses of ill-fame are not proper locations for drama. They suggest to the average person at once sex sin, or they excite an unwholesome and morbid curiosity in the minds of youth…”

Bad girls

“Pictures shall not infer that low forms of sex relationship are the accepted or common thing…”

Musicals

“Dancing costumes cut to permit indecent actions or movements are wrong… Dances suggesting or representing sexual actions or indecent passion are forbidden…”

Adultery and the sanctity of marriage

“Adultery as a subject should be avoided… It is never a fit subject for comedy. Thru comedy of this sort, ridicule is thrown on the essential relationships of home and family and marriage, and illicit relationships are made to seem permissible, and either delightful or daring.”

NOT TO MENTION: GOD COMPLEXES-

Boris Karloff as Dr. Henry Frankenstein’s creation. Make-up by Jack Pierce.

By the time the sequel Bride of Frankenstein was released in 1935, enforcement of the code was in full effect and the Dr. Henry Frankenstein’s overt God complex was forbidden. In the first picture however, when the creature was born, his mad scientist creator was free to proclaim “Now I know what it feels like to be a God.”

‘Don’ts’ included “profanity,” “sex hygiene,” “miscegenation,” and “ridicule of the clergy.” There was a much longer list of ‘Be carefuls’ which indicated it was offensive to “show sympathy for criminals,” “arson,” “surgical operations,” and “excessive or lustful kissing” and of course “HOMOSEXUALITY.”

Hays appointed Colonel Jason S. Joy to be in charge of the supervisory agency, the Studio Relations Committee. Once the first talky The Jazz Singer (1927) starring Al Jolson was released a newly fired up rebel cry was heard from the hoity-toity do-gooders who raised objections against Hollywood’s immorality. What was once suggestive in silent pictures was now committed to sound, with all it’s risque humor and wicked context.

In 1934 censorship was tightening its strangle hold. Under pressure from the Catholic Church and other religious groups the Motion Picture Production Code made it so that any marginal gay characters became masked in innuendo, relying on queer symbolism instead. Several grassroots organizations were founded in order to pressure the film industry, the most influential of all was the Catholic Legion of Decency.

So, between the Code and state censorship boards, one might expect that films produced after 1930 would be exemplars of wholesomeness and purity. In practice, the men who enforced the Code on behalf of the MPPDA (Jason Joy and James Wingate) were wholly ineffectual, primarily due to the very small staffs they were allotted to keep up with the work of reviewing scripts, treatments and finished films while battling studios that weren’t especially thrilled by the bottleneck caused by the whole operation. The combination of bureaucratic sclerosis and the economic, political and cultural crisis brought about by the Great Depression ushered in a vibrant era of filmmaking and the introduction of many stars whose personas would forever be rooted in their pre-Code films.- Mike Mashon

The Code set in place since 1930 was a turning point in the history of self-regulation. With the strict enforcement of the Production Code, they attempted to influence the discourse in American film without coming out and definitively stating which contexts were strictly forbidden. Instead they issued phrases like “should be avoided” and “should not suggest.” Though a variety of controversial topics weren’t vigorously banned by the Production Code, gay characters WERE strictly prohibited. 

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) directed by Alfred Hitchcock- Peter Lorre

When the Hays Code was adopted in 1930, they articulated that, “though regarding motion pictures primarily as entertainment without any explicit purpose of teaching or propaganda, they know that the motion picture within its own field of entertainment may be directly responsible for spiritual or moral progress, for higher types of social life, and for much correct thinking.”

When the MPPDA formally ratified The Code, they demanded that it be followed to the letter but it “lacked an effective enforcement mechanism” – and the studio heads openly defied it’s frame of mind and it’s puritanical spirit.

The movie studios had other pressing issues of concern. It was the Great Depression, and studios were barely making it, on the brink of ruin due to low ticket sales. They were quite ready to fight with states over censorship because sex and violence sells. They wanted to draw in audiences that would be titillated by gangsters, vamps, and racy subject matter. Popular musicals could entertain with disparaging racial clichés and glamorous, intoxicating imagery, with hints of queerness. You could also watch languid prostitutes on screen — everyone seems to long for Shanghai Lil, in the film that has it all, Footlight Parade (1933)

Filmmakers tried to switch around controversial subject matter that would not only push the boundaries but would promote ticket sales, with films that would attract a more sophisticated audience. Breen perceived these films to be less ‘dangerous’ a word he often used. They focused on the ‘gangster’ film with it’s violent content, and when they put their foot on that genre’s neck, Hollywood rolled out the ‘fallen woman‘ films. They tried very hard to get around the scrutiny and so they delved into making horror pictures, and racy comedies. These fare better as they fell under the heading of being ‘unrealistic’ which rendered them as innocuous material to the censors.

During the Great Depression, movies were an escape for audiences in dire need of distraction. The morally-charged stranglehold that was beginning to challenge filmmakers forced them to experiment with movies that were audacious and candid in different ways. Pre-Code actually challenged audiences to watch real life issues on screen. Pre-Code cinema offered some titillating truths coming out of the dream factory. Depression-era cinema exhibited gay characters, but generally in small parts and often used for comic purposes that managed to cue audiences in, with roles that were codified and readable as queer. ‘Queerness’ was railed against because it subverted traditional masculinity which was under attack by the new socioeconomic crisis in the country. Yet somehow, Hollywood found it to be a viable trigger for ideological gossip.

These films illustrated narratives that were thought provoking, worldly, and subversive. Movies dealt frankly or were suggestive of sexual innuendo, sexual relationships between races, mild profanity, drug use, promiscuity, prostitution, infidelity, abortion, intense violence, and of course, homosexuality.

William Wellman’s Safe in Hell (1931) starring Dorothy Mackaill as a call girl in hiding. Prostitution is a no no!

Filmmakers took risks delivering a portrait of America with a punishing realism, and a creative freedom to portray taboo themes like crime (gangs and guns, violence), social dilemma’s (drug abuse, poverty and political unrest). And sexual relationships (adultery, promiscuity, deviance = homosexuality). In the 1930s filmmakers also sought to stir up controversy by screening queer characters, in order to shock audiences and drive up their ticket sales. The result, movies became more lewd, ruthless and vicious between 1930 and 1934. And Hollywood was it’s MOST queer from 1932-1934.

Yet during the silent era to the mid thirties, gay characters were illustrated as stereotypes showcasing the popular tropes established by conventional hetero-normative gender bias. These archetypes were styled to be gender non-conformists. Queer men were fussy, effeminate and flamboyant. With high-pitched voices, the air under their feet and waving hands. Essentially, ‘fairies’ who were deployed as comic relief on the periphery of the drama. Real-life queers of the Depression era and later periods were exposed to cinematic images, the vast majority being caricatures in which gays and lesbians were often presented as targets of ridicule and contempt for their divine decadence. ‘Entertainers play with gender ambiguity in Broadway thru a Keyhole (1933).‘ (Lugowski)

Lesbians were at the other end of the spectrum. They were ‘masculine,’ demonstrating deep voices, cross-dressing in male attire, and were installed in male-dominated professions. They were often invalidated by the straight male characters, and were either played for the uncomfortable humor or shown as baffling to men. The PCA in it’s Hollywood’s Movie Commandments specified that there could be no comic characters “introduced into a screen play pantomiming a pervert.” (Lugowski)

Gender Reversals, Queerness, and a Nation in Crisis.–

In Michael Curtiz’s The Strange Love of Molly Louvain (1932) Suddenly, queer imagery in film, typically in the form of comical representations of gay men, lesbians, and ambiguous sexuality, did not seem so funny any-more, least of all to those charged with applying Hollywood’s Production Code to film content. By “queer” imagery, I am focusing particularly on situations, lines of dialogue, and characters that represent behavior coded, according to widely accepted stereotypes, as cross-gendered in nature. As played by such prominent and well-established supporting comedy character actors as Franklin Pangborn, Edward Everett Horton, Grady Sutton, Erik Rhodes, Eric Blore, and Ernest Truex, queer men tended to appear as one of two types.

The queer in his more subdued form appears as the dithering, asexual “sissy,” sometimes befuddled, incompetent,and, if married, very henpecked (Horton), and sometimes fussy and officious (Pangborn). Pangborn, however, was one of the actors who (along with the unsung likes of Tyrell Davis and Tyler Brooke) also played or suggested the other type, the more outrageous “pansy,” an extremely effeminate boulevardier-type sporting lip-stick, rouge, a trim mustache and hairstyle, and an equally trim suit, incomplete without a boutonniere. Although a number of actors played or were even typecast in such roles, one generally doesn’t find a circle of prominent supporting actresses whose personas seemed designed to connote lesbianism (the closest, perhaps, is Cecil Cunningham) lesbian representation occurs frequently as well, and in perhaps a greater range of gradations. At her most overt, the lesbian was clad in a mannishly tailored suit (often a tuxedo), her hair slicked back or cut in a short bob. She sometimes sported a monocle and cigarette holder (or cigar!) and invariably possessed a deep alto voice and a haughty, aggressive attitude toward men, work, or any business at hand. Objections arose because she seemed to usurp male privilege; perhaps the pansy seemed to give it up. -David M.Lugowski: Queering the (New) Deal-Lesbian and Gay Representation and the Depression-Era Cultural Politics of Hollywood’s Production Code

Filmmakers were encouraged not to promote lifestyles of a ‘morally questionable’ nature, so queers remained as humorous detours away from the central story. It was a subtle defiance that filmmakers were determined to feature queer characters in their films in spite of the ban. Because of the threat of boycotts, this created some maneuvering around the scrutiny. Queer identities were not portrayed with depth or realism, this marginalized group was relegated to one-dimensional stereotypes. They were never shown to be in romantic relationships and filmmakers relied on visual cues to signal the character’s identity.

Censors at the PCA, for example, were very worried about the three female characters in William Dieterle’s Dr. Monica (1934) starring Kay Francis. The film is the story of three women, an alcoholic, a nymphomaniac and a lesbian. In October 1935, Joseph Breen wrote a letter to RKO’s head B.B. Kahane concerned about Follow the Fleet (1936) starring Fred Astaire who gives a dance lesson to all male sailors. “We are assuming of course that you will exercise your usual good taste in this scene of the sailors learning to dance. There will be no attempt to inject any ‘pansy’ humor into the scene.”

Due to a new, stricter Motion Picture Production Code, gays were being swept under the rug in movies. In the late 1930s and 1940s the only way to circumvent the Code was by painting homosexuals as cold-hearted villains (The Celluloid Closet). Now it appeared that gays were committing terrible crimes because of their sexual orientation, implying that homosexuality leads to insanity. In a society where being homosexual was synonymous with being sinful, it is no surprise that Hollywood made the leap to correlating a homosexual orientation with malicious crimes and wicked urges (Weir).

Alfred Hitchcock is a visual magician who rolls out the answers gradually while deconstructing what is explicit to the narrative. He is one of the most measured auteurs, whose eye for detail links each scene together like a skillful puzzle. He has been studied, tributed, and –in my opinion–unsuccessfully imitated. Rigid to conform, he danced around the Hays Code like a cunning acrobat indulging his vision while deflecting the lax regulations. There are arguments that Hitchcock insinuated homophobic messages in some of his films. The queer characters were all deviants and psychopathic predators, who were the ones responsible for some of the most heinous murders on screen. For example, in his film Rope (1948) the two Nietzschian murderers are intellectual companions who get off on trying to perpetrate the perfect murder. They exhibit a romantic friendship with no sexual contact on screen. Yet there are cues that they are sexually aroused by each other’s mutual pleasure at killing a young boy. The Hays Code inhibited the depiction of a queer couple so Hitchcock had to subtly suggest their sexual relationship by dropping metaphors and visual clues. Though, it might be interpreted through a homophobic lens, and their homosexuality might be at the core of their cruel and immoral nature.

According to David Greven, Hitchcock’s homophelia ‘was through a larger conflict that Hitchcock’s cinema that filmmakers conducted their investigation of American masculinity, one that focused on fissures and failures. Homosexuality emerged as representative of these and also as potential new direction for American masculinity to take, not without serious risk but also treated with surprising, fascinated interest… Hitchcock’s radical de-centering of heterosexual male dominance, devising contemporary narratives of heterosexual male ambivalence that allowed for, at times depended on, an investment in same-sex desire as well as an awareness of its dangerous, pernicious seductions. Homophobia in both Hitchcock and the New Hollywood’s informed by an attendant fascination with the homoerotic that emerges from scenes of gender crisis and disorganization that are rife in both the Cold War and New Hollywood eras. 

Any illicit sexual behavior on screen considered as perverse would be demonized and exploited as immoral. Queers were shown as villainous, dangerous deviants who were fated for ruination and/or death.

There were several broad categories the Code was not vague about. Any movies depicting criminality had to essentially illustrate that there would be consequences. The message was clear, any flagrant criminal behavior is abhorrent and audiences should NOT feel sympathy, primarily through the implicit edict of “compensating moral values.”

Authority figures had to be treated with respect, and the clergy could not be portrayed as comic characters or villains. Under some circumstances, politicians, police officers, and judges could be villains, as long as it was clear that those individuals portrayed as villains were the exceptions to the rule.

Clearly there were some productive strategies of circumventing the Motion Picture Production Code. They enabled characters that performed behind the veil, under the radar of social acceptability, while dancing a step closer to the fringe. It allowed for ‘queering the screen’. I find it feasible to consider how Alexander Doty points out that ‘queering’ something implies that you are taking a thing that is straight and doing something to it. Rather it should be considered that it’s less about co-opting or subverting films – making things queer, and more about how something might be understood as queer.

It might be easy to read Zasu Pitt’s and Thelma Todd’s relationship, the brilliantly paired comedy twosome, as lovers. While they perform humorous heterosexual man hunting, they sure seem to be mostly interested in each other and sure look adorable in their pajamas! I wonder, as Big Daddy says, if there’s ‘something missing here’. Below, they are in the film short directed by Hal Roach – On The Loose 1931, with bobbed hair, leaning into each other in bed together, looking awfully intimate.

To be ‘queer’ is also to deconstruct existing norms and ‘destabilize’ them, making it harder to define, so that it is a clear picture of non-normative straight masculinity/femininity.

What was perceptible to those ‘in the life’ were expressions, gestures, of the term often used by the Hays Code, ‘deviancy.’ One of the things that the Code banned was in Clause 6 Section 2 on “Sex” was that “sex perversion or any inference to it is forbidden.”

Not that films during the reign of the Code were ripe with queer love stories, of course. There were none to be found beyond the foreign offerings of Oswald’s Different From the Others and Mädchen in Uniform. The most prevalent allusion to being gay was the flamboyant man who was the ambiguous bachelor or fussy asexual husband. If there was anything close to a butch woman, she could be an earthy farmer’s wife, a Marjorie Main or Patsy Kelly type (Both lesbians in real life). A tough as nails prison matron, a tyrannical madame or a risque night club owner. Perhaps shes an embittered heavy drinker or just one of the guys who is a faithful friend to the female lead. Maybe she never gets the guy or hasn’t met the right man. Perhaps she was married to a no good bum and is off men for good!.. And just sometimes, sometimes it’s because… well some of us would know why!

Thelma Todd joined up with Patsy Kelly in comedy series. Here’s a lobby card for their Babes in the Goods. The two became very good friends during their collaboration.

Patsy Kelly had started in Vaudeville and appeared in Wonder Bar 1931 centered around a Parisian club. Kelly played Elektra Pivonaka and sang two lively songs.

She is known for her ballsy, straight-forward, no nonsense persona, be it her tough as nails nurse Mac in Sam Fuller’s The Naked Kiss (1964) or as Laura-Louise, attending to Rosemary (Mia Farrow) in Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968). Kelly played very non-feminine roles, injecting a bit of her ‘in the life’ energy into the characters in every one of her roles. More often that not she had an unglamorous reputation as a funny spunky, brassy, wise cracking gal who played a lot of maids. She was outspoken about being an uncloseted lesbian, which hurt her movie career in the 1940s. But she had been a very successful actress on Broadway, returning to the stage in 1971 winning a Tony Award for No, No Nanette and Irene.

In director/screenwriter Sam Fuller’s sensationalist The Naked Kiss (1964), Patsy Kelly plays Mac the nurse, a hard-edged pussy cat. A no nonsense nurse who lives for helping children with disabilities, but there is no visible sign that she has the slightest interest in men, aside from a smart alecky comment about Grant bringing her back a man from Europe. Kelly might have wanted her role as an independent woman with a more offbeat way of stating that she is a tough dyke and expected Fuller to write her into the script that way. Knowing Kelly that’s a good assumption. The film is audacious in it’s scope for dealing with more than one theme, as taboo as prostitution, abortion and pedophilia.

The Catholic Legion of Decency used their influence to label gays as ‘sexual deviants’, not be depicted on screen. ‘Deviancy’ was used to refer to any behavior deviating from what was perceived to be normal in terms of romance, sex, and gender. Hays even ordered all ‘nance’ characters to be removed from screenplays.

The Federation of Women’s Clubs and the Hays Code tried to make symbolic gestures to maintain decency in films. The Legion of Decency were getting pressure from the Catholic Church. So in 1934 came up with A-acceptable B-Morally Objectionable and C-Condemned. Hollywood promised to observe the rules. Of the various subject matter that was restricted on screen-open mouth kissing, lustful embraces, sex-perversion, seduction, rape, abortion, prostitution, white slavery, nudity, obscenity, profanity.

But all this unsolicited attention caused the studios to be watchful of their off-screen personnel, and they also had to be certain that the Los Angeles Police Department received payoffs to keep their mouths shut. Though lurid and shocking subject matter was no longer tolerated on screen, the studios tried to continue to release their films without the intrusion of the Hays Office, even though from a commercial standpoint, sex sells.

Warner Bros.’ lack of cooperation with the Code until the bitter end and how Paramount, which was cooperative under B. P. Schulberg, decided to be “as daring as possible” under Emmanuel Cohen in 1932 and 1933. At MGM, Irving Thalberg’s resistance only really ended with his heart attack and journey abroad to recover in 1933. As James Wingate, Breen’s SRC predecessor, put things that same year: (Lugowski)

In 1934 Jack Warner ignored Breen’s letter and phone calls about a scene in Wonder Bar (1934) that explicitly demonstrates homoerotic desire. In it, one man cuts in to dance with another man, interrupting a woman who is dancing with her male partner. “May I cut in?”  she responds, “Why certainly,” as the man suitor grabs her chaperone to dance instead. The films stars Al Jolson who exclaims, “Boys will be boys!” Breen would later write, “It is quite evident that the gentleman [Warner] is giving me the runaround. He evidently thinks that this is the smart thing to do.” Wonder Bar  may have added a flash of queer diversion as part of the entertainment, but it is an incredibly offensive and racist film using a cast who are in Black face.

During the ongoing Depression era, sissy and lesbian characters of the period continued to be screened as effeminate and mannish with one change. They became progressively sexualized between 1933-34. As the Depression moved forward, the Code needed to establish a “suitable” masculinity in film that would satisfy the morality police. They wanted this accepted masculinity to mirror the public art imagery that was now being federally funded by the New Deal in the mid-and late 1930s.

Before 1934 the studios were able to ignore the Code’s denouncement and endeavor to censor the movie industry but Hollywood filmmakers could no longer disregard the regulations issued by the Hays Code. The Legion of Decency forced the MPPDA to assert itself with the Production Code and formed a new agency , the Production Code Administration (PCA). The Hays Code was formed in 1930 but it only began to have a profound impact on Hollywood when the Production Code Administration (PCA) began strictly enforcing it in 1934. The crusade to save America’s purity and squash the filth mongers began a cultural war.

It was a system of moral oversight, conservatives lobbied to enforce, using the PCA to compel the industry to drastically adhere to it. PCA is strongest in explaining how the Code tried to at once repress and enable discourse to appeal to the broadest possible spectrum of viewers and to offend the fewest. (Lugowski)

And in 1937, the Production Code Administration (PCA), handed down Hollywood’s Movie Commandments that decried “No hint of sex perversion may be introduced into a screen story. The characterization of a man as effeminate, or a woman as grossly masculine would be absolutely forbidden for screen portrayal.”

The Code was detailed in two parts that reflected the foundation of Catholic principles. The moral vision and “particular applications a precise listing of forbidden material.”

The code was divided into two parts. The first was a set of “general principles” which prohibited a picture from “lowering the moral standards of those who see it”, so as not to wrongly influence a specific audience of views including, women, children, lower-class, and those of “susceptible” minds, called for depictions of the “correct standards of life”, and lastly forbade a picture to show any sort of ridicule towards a law or “creating sympathy for its violation.

The second part of the Code was a set of “particular applications”, which was an exacting list of items that could not be depicted. Some restrictions, such as the ban on homosexuality or on the use of specific curse words, were never directly mentioned, but were assumed to be understood without clear demarcation. Homosexuals were de facto included under the proscription of sex perversion.” — Wikipedia

The second part of the Code was a ban on homosexuality. Though it was not specifically spelled out, queers were the subject under review of ‘sex perversion.’ Though the Hays office would not stand for “more than a dash of lavender” as long as the representation (especially a non desirable depiction of homosexuality) was fleeting and incidental. Thus, “Pansy comedy” was tolerable in Pre-Code Hollywood. “Despite the watchful eyes of the Hays Office, the trade paper Variety remarked that Hollywood continued what were called “queer flashes” and “mauve characters” who sashayed through Cavalcade 1933, Our Betters 1932 and Sailor’s Luck 1932.

The industry moguls and business offices finally had to follow the rules, clean up the ‘sinful’ screen and adopt a symbol of moral righteousness, that came along with a seal. The Code would be certified by a Code Seal printed on the lobby cards of each Hollywood film. And the seal would be an emblem that would appear on the motion pictures themselves. Any film without a Code Seal would be fined $25,000.

After some revisions, they agreed to the stipulations of the Code. … negotiated cuts from films and there were definite—albeit loose—constraints, a significant … against homosexuals, all in clear violation of the Hollywood Production Code.

Any sexual act considered perverted, including any suggestion of same sex relationships, sex, or romance, was ruled out.

Thus, during the Golden Age of Hollywood, the PCA scrutinized and censored, everything coming out of Hollywood and put it’s seal on each movie released. The Hollywood executives preferred to call it “self-regulation” and feared that censorship by the PCA would be even worse if they tampered with the creative ‘source’ of their product. Because of the studios’ defiance, Roman Catholics formed the National Legion of Decency, which became an influential group who would put Hollywood’s transgressions through the ordeal, of boycotts, picketing theaters, urging Catholics not to patronize these immoral movies or fall “under the pain of sin”, being met by hoards of angry protestors at the gates of the studio. Now religious groups and other moral traditionalists began a warlike campaign for the government to regulate what was shown on the screen.

Mae West: She Done Him Wrong 1933

Also government officials were bent on making gay people invisible from cinematic narratives and the United States Supreme Court handed down the ruling that filmmakers were not protected by the First Amendment in the matter of free speech. They considered Hollywood to be a powerful mechanism that to exploit ‘sinful’ behavior on the screen and influence American audiences. This laid the ground work for local governments that could weigh in and ban films from their theaters, if they considered them immoral. Hollywood could not afford to lose money at the box office from governmental authorities, by negative publicity, or from the threatening boycotts by rabid church groups.

Motion pictures could be regulated and run out of town by cities, states, and by ominous extension, the federal government.

“After all, censorship had been a fact of creative and commercial life for motion picture producers from the very birth of the medium, when even the modest osculations of the middle-aged lovebirds in Thomas Edison’s The Kiss (1896) scandalized cadres of (literally) Victorian ministers, matrons, and other variants of a sour-faced species known as the “bluenose.” By common consent, the artistically vital and culturally disruptive spectacle of the motion picture – an entertainment accessible to all levels of society and degrees of moral temperament, including unassimilated immigrants,impressionable juveniles, and other menacing types – required editorial supervision from more mature, pious, and usually Protestant sensibilities” -from Archives Unbound

Hollywood was in the grip of the Code that saw the ‘dream factory’ movie machine as a Hollywood Babylon. While the powers that be were busy policing the murmuration of taboos, Pre-Code was a brief moment in history, a fruitful period between 1929 to 1934. Hays then appointed someone who could intercede between studio moguls and anti-Hollywood groups, Joseph I. Breen. “The vulgar, the cheap, and the tawdry is out!”

The PCA had been known as the Hays Office but to those in Hollywood, once the oversight became an operation with teeth, it became known as the Breen Office. Breen came in to take over the weak Studio Relations Committee (SRC). The Code had consisted of thirty-six rules that informed Hollywood filmmakers to limit representation of, or normalization of subject matter considered by religious groups to be “unsavory or morally corrupt.” The SRC and the PCA were the inner mechanism within the film industry, shaping the content of the film and heading off any ethical problems the film might encounter before they reached the local censors.

Dorothy Mackaill Safe in Hell (1931)

Many scenarios disappeared from the movies by mid 1934: for example, audiences would no longer see women’s navels, couples laying in bed together, murderers going unpunished, any illustration of a bedroom that isn’t merely recognized as a bed chamber. The normalization of drug use, the glamourization of criminal behavior, or not following the law, and of course any overtly revealed gay or lesbian character. After 1934, women would not be sporting short haircuts and tailored suits, confidently smoking cigars. Men toned down the gushy gestures that would be interpreted as flamboyant. Gay men and women were transformed into dowdy spinsters and high-strung bachelors.

What we started to see was an ambiguity, a narrative uncertainty that took the burden of responsibility off of the filmmakers and dropped the perception of the content into the laps of the audience. Since the Code asserted that no picture should lower the moral standards of those who saw it, it was a law that bound Hollywood’s accountability for their plots. Ruth Vasey calls the antithesis of this “the principle of deniability” which refers to the ambiguity of the textual vaguery that shifted the message to the individual spectator. Lugowski cites Lea Jacobs, “under the Code ‘offensive ideas could survive at the price of an instability of meaning… There was constant negotiation about how explicit films could be and by what means (through the image, sound, language) offensive ideas could find representation.” The studios would have to come up with a structure of ‘representational conventions’, that could be understood by a more sophisticated audience yet would fly over the heads of more inexperienced spectatorship. Though producers felt the sharp sting of the Code as a mechanism of restraint, in terms of ‘queerness’ on screen, film studios could use the leverage of deniability to argue about the interpretation of certain scenes.

Once the limits of explicit “sophistication” had been established, the production industry had to find ways of appealing to both “innocent” and “sophisticated” sensibilities in the same object without transgressing the boundaries of public acceptability. This involved devising systems and codes of representation in which “innocence” was inscribed into the text while “sophisticated” viewers were able to “read into” movies whatever meanings they were pleased to find, so long as producers could use the Production Code to deny that they had put them there. Much of the work of self-regulation lay in the maintenance of this system of conventions, and as such, it operated, however perversely, as an enabling mechanism at the same time that it was a repressive one.-(Documents from the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, Inc., 1922 – 1939)

… by assuming that the social crisis over cinematic representation in the early 1930s was caused by the content of motion pictures. The institution of censorship in Hollywood was not primarily about controlling the content of movies at the level of forbidden words or actions or inhibiting the freedom of expression of individual producers. Rather, it was about the cultural function of entertainment and the possession of cultural power. (Tino Balio: Grand Design Hollywood as a Modern Business Enterprise 1930-1939)

Geoff Shurlock was appointed as acting director of the Production Code in the 1940s and as permanent director in 1954. Over the years, Shurlock would straddle the conflict, appeasing both movie producers, and morality mongers trying to persuade the Association Board that introducing more liberal thinking could protect the PCA from fading away. There were attempts to ease up on the Code, in 1954 he introduced an amendment that would eliminate various taboos, for instance, miscegenation, liquor, and some profane words, but producers felt that there weren’t enough considerations to the amendment and the Catholic Legion of Decency felt that even that much went too far. Shurlock had a tough time making everyone happy.

The 1950s witnessed a weakening of the Production Code to restrict specific representations such as adultery, prostitution, and miscegenation. By the beginning of the 1960s, the only specific restriction left was homosexuality = “sex perversion.”

In the 1960s, filmmakers pressured the Production Code Administration. In the fall of 1961, two films went into production that would deal with homosexual subject matter. William Wyler, who had initially directed Miriam Hopkins and Merle Oberon in These Three (1936), revealed that he was working on a more faithful treatment of Lillian Hellman’s play The Children’s Hour; that dealt overtly with the love that dare not speak it’s name. Around the same time director Otto Preminger began to adapt Allen Drury’s political novel Advise and Consent 1962, which delves into the lives of Senatorial candidates that uncovers controversial secret, including Don Murray’s homosexual encounter.

Throughout Preminger’s career he challenged the restrictions of the Code, and eventually influenced their decision to allow homosexuality to be shown on screen. Also fighting to change the stifling rules was Arthur Krim, president of United Artists, who threatened to ignore the Code and release the film without the mandatory “seal of approval” forcing them to amended its ideological strangle hold.

On October 3, 1961, the Production Code Administration backed off: “In keeping with the culture, the mores and values of our time, homosexuality and other sexual aberrations may now be treated with care, discretion and restraint.”

In order to maintain control of the Administration’s power at least in terms of how homosexual’s were portrayed on film, they insisted that the subject be infused with medical overtones, to show it as an ‘illness’. Sympathy or illness in psychological terms, were two key factors. The Code’s changed the use of the word “sex perversion” and replaced it with “homosexuality.”

Don Murray –gay bar scene in Advise and Consent 1962

Another interesting shift was that they owned up to the fact that “mores and values of our time” were changing whether they liked it or not, people were become more in touch with the freedom to express their sexuality, society was becoming more permissive, the love generation was upon them and sexual representation was a fearless exploration reflected by a new generation of film goers.

Otto Preminger was the only major producer able to successfully release films without the Production Code’s Seal of Approval. He defied the Code (Hadleigh) with movies like Advise and Consent (1961) The Man with Golden Arm (1955) Anatomy of a Murder (1959) Wendell Mayes said “Look at the record–you’ll discover that many of the changes in the Code were a result of Otto Preminger breaking the rules”

Though the Code had been revised in 1961 to open up the door for portrayals of gays on screen, the sissy effete and predatory dyke took on a more sinister role. Because they had been hidden in plain sight using symbology that hinted at either failed masculinity or women performing masculinity. When the MPPA ratings system was established in 1968 gays on screen were starting to kick the doors open but what was awaiting them was an even crueler denouement than during the reign of the Code. Queers were now portrayed as suicidal, predatory or homicidal maniacs. And much like the coded gay characters under the Production Code, things moved very slowly in terms of progress for positive representations of being ‘queer.’

DIrk Bogarde and Dennis Price in Basil Dearden’s brave film Victim (1961)

Between January and June 1962, five films were released that dealt with homosexuality, almost as many as in the previous three decades. One did not receive a seal of approval from the Production Code Administration, but was released nonetheless. Even without the seal of approval, British director, Basil Dearden’s Victim (1961) was reviewed in all the publications being considered. The liberal Catholic magazine Commonweal even disagreed with the Production Code Administration’s claim that the film made pleas ‘for social acceptance of the homosexual.’ “63 Still, the consensus among reviewers was that of the Production Code Administration and society at large: films should not and, for the most part, did not condone homosexuality. (Noriega)

This ban applied to all characters attracted to the same gender or characters who differed in their gender presentation or identity. While nudity and violence were quickly reintegrated into film canon following the abandonment of the Production Code, LGBT characters remained taboo. For decades after LGBT characters were allowed to appear in films, their sexuality and gender was shrouded in thinly-veiled innuendos and visual cues. If a character was to be openly same-gender attracted or transgender, they would be gruesomely killed or presented as morally corrupted. (Cleghorn)

Like the Code’s authors, film critics tend to examine the film itself, and not the discursive acts that surround a film and play a sometimes central role shaping its meaning(s). Contemporary gay and lesbian film criticism of Production Code era films operates on the same principle, with the added limitations that historical evidence and homosexual “images” censored. Thus, in order to ensure “the survival of subcultural identity within an oppressive society,” gay and lesbian film critics have employed a wide range of interpretive strategies to recuperate a history of homosexual images from the censored screen. The emphasis, therefore, has been on “subtexting” censored films from a singular presentist perspective. (Sophie Cleghorn)

Sources:

*Mike Mashon & James Bell for Pre-Code Hollywood Before the Censors-BFI  Sight & Sound Magazine (April 2019)

*Archives Unbound (1http://gdc.gale.com/archivesunbound/)

*Sophie Cleghorn: The Hollywood Production Code of 1930 and LGBT Characters.

*Wikipedia-Pre-Code

*David Lugowski-Queering the (New) Deal)

*Chon Noriega

During the period of Pre-Code, queer humor appeared in films such as Just Imagine (1930) and the The Warrior’s Husband (1933). The male characters were feminized because of their affinity for writing poetry. This asserted that they must be queer.

The Warrior’s Husband directed by Walter Lang, is a film primarily cast with women. Yet the air of queerness permeates throughout because the women, featuring a butch Queen, are Amazons. Gender is inverted and several other female rulers cross-dress and exude a lesbian vibe. It is inhabited by independent women and swishy men who camped it up as ‘queens’ amusing themselves by flirting with all the good-looking men.

The Warrior’s Husband image courtesy Peplums Blogspot.com

Like so much self deemed culturally aberrant, the homosexual appears with greater frequency and readier acceptance in Pre-Code Hollywood cinema “The thirties was surprisingly full of fruity character comedians and gravel-voice bulldyke character comediennes” film critic Andrew Sarris observed in his touchstone study The American Cinema “but it was always played so straight that when ((character actors) Franklin Pangborn or Cecil Cunningham went into their routines, it was possible to laugh without being too sophisticated.” Maybe in the later thirties the homosexual was played straight but in the Pre-Code era, he and she was playing queer. No sophistication was needed to read the same sex orientations as gender disorientations.- Pre-Code Hollywood; Sex, Immorality and Insurrection in American Cinema 1930-1934 by Thomas Doherty.

Miriam Hopkins got the part of free-spirited Gilda in Ernst Lubitsch’s Design for Living 1933. This original Noël Coward play actually featured a Ménage à Trois between the three Bohemian lovebirds in Paris of the decadent thirties. The film also starred Gary Cooper as artist George Cooper, and Fredric March as playwright Tom Chambers. The liberated Gilda becomes the girl both men fall in love with. They three make a pact to keep their mutual attractions platonic, but that doesn’t last too long, and they each begin a sexual relationship. When George comes back from a trip to Nice, he finds that Tom has taken up with Gilda. “I can’t believe I loved you both.”

Ben Hecht’s screenplay didn’t have a trace of any Coward’s romantic relationship between George and Tom. Ernst Lubitsch, known for his sophisticated style, directed memorable witty interactions between all four players. Edward Everett Horton as Max Plunkett plays Miriam’s bland suitor. Horton is, as usual, a whimsical idiosyncratic delight to watch. And Franklin Pangborn Mr. Douglas, Theatrical Producer is a perfect theatrical queen who is thoroughly annoyed when Gilda approaches him in the restaurant about Tom’s (Fredric March) play “Good Night Bassington”, as she leaves him with this thought, “There, read it, I’m sure you’ll adore it, it’s a woman’s play…”

Al Jolson “Boys will be boys” Wonder Bar (1934)

Any portrayal of on-screen “sex perversion” or homosexuality, even those connected with various tropes of ‘deviant’ sexual behavior were restricted after the enforcement of the Production Code in 1934.

Lending the Code moral authority even within the limits of pure love, asserted the Code delicately certain facts have been universally regarded by lawmakers as outside the limits of safe presentation Father Lord and Mr. Quigley saw no need to defile the document by typesetting long lists of “pointed profanity” or “vulgar expressions” Likewise, the prohibition against homosexuality dared not speak the name, but it didn’t need to spell it out. “Impure Love” the love which society has always regarded as wrong and which has been named by divine law… must not be presented as attractive or beautiful.”-Pre-Code Hollywood; Sex, Immorality and Insurrection in American Cinema 1930-1934 by Thomas Doherty.

Different From the Others (1919) Conrad Veidt and Fritz Schulz two musicians in love — during the period of Pre-Code.

But, outside of the United States, films were a little more adventurous. Austrian director Richard Oswald’s film bravely shows two men in love. The “third sex” was eventually mocked. One of the earliest films to feature two men in love was the 1919 silent film from Germany,  Different From the Others. Director Richard Oswald’s story of two male musicians in love had a typical unhappy ending, but it depicted gay people in a positive light. The film condemned the German law known as Paragraph 175, which outlawed gay behavior. Different Than the Others was censored soon after it was released. Starring Conrad Veidt it is considered the first pro-gay film.

Joseph Breen viewed any meaningful treatment of queer cinema as perverted. Conrad Veidt also gave an emotionally evocative role in The Man Who Laughs 1928, playing a violinist who falls for his student and is then blackmailed for it. The risking Nazi party in Germany attempted to erase these films from the screen, and this made Oswald to flee to the America.

But, the Hays Code made certain that no films of this type would be seen in the United States. Even books and plays with gay, lesbian or bisexual narratives were reworked and any content related to the subject was erased in order to meet the social code of the time.

Other non-American films included Dreyer’s Michael (1924) and Mädchen in Uniform (1931) directed by Leontine Sagan and again in (1958) with Lilli Palmer as Fräulein Elisabeth von Bernburg and Romy Schneider as Manuela von Meinhardis. And Viktor Und Viktoria (1933) directed by Reinhold Schünzel.

Mädchen in Uniform (1931) was directed by Leotine Sagan, and starred Dorothea Wieck and Hertha Thiele.

William Dieterle’s Pre-Code German film Sex in Chains (1928) stars the director as Franz Sommer a man sent to prison for manslaughter who, though longing for his wife, develops a close relationship with his cell mate. A fellow inmate informs Franz that he’s “lived to see someone unman himself, just so he could finally sleep.”

In 1927, during the Pre-Code period, director William Wellman’s Wings won an Academy Award for Best Picture, and it also depicted the first gay kiss between two men in American cinema.

Wings follows two Air Force pilots in World War I, Jack (Charles ‘Buddy’ Rogers and Dave (Richard Arlen) who at first rivals for the affections of the beautiful Mary (Clara Bow) before they discover the underlying love they begin to feel for each other. During a boxing match at training camp gets to rough and Jack knocks Dave bloody and silly. Dave gazes up at Jack with an epiphany and the two walk off arm and arm as close ‘buddies’. The relationship is referred to as friendship, but the film paints a picture of two men falling in love.

Dave is mortally wounded in combat at the end of the picture, Jack embraces his dying ‘friend’ with a tender yet impassioned kiss while Mary looks on, framed with her on the outside looking in. Wellman humanizes the men’s close relationship in this scene when Jack leans into Dave to embrace him as he dies. He lets him know that nothing has meant more to him than their relationship. The moment feels sympathetic instead of exploitative, yet as he mourns Dave’s death. And though it is tinged with homoerotic elements, the case can always be made that it is a story about war, which brought two men closer together.

The Knocking Knees dance. Horton’s homosexuality – comedic, subtle and acceptable in The Gay Divorcee (1934)

In The Gay Divorcee (1934) crossing the threshold is the archetypal ‘Sissy’, Edward Everett Horton. Marginalized audiences were looking to the movies for any indication of the familiar, any little crumbs left as a trail to be picked up. For instance there is a moment in Johnny Guitar, the fiercely burning with sensual brawn, Joan Crawford. Bigger than life up on that screen, androgynous in her black cowboy shirt, strides down the stairs, gun in her holster waiting to confront coded dyke, Mercedes McCambridge. Many women’s chests, mine included, heaved a little with delight. That flutter of excitement hit us again when Doris Day sings the sentimental “Secret Love” in Calamity Jane (1953).

In Myrt and Marge (1934) Ray Hedges plays the flaming stage hand Clarence Tiffingtuffer he’s told “Here put this in the trunk and don’t wear it” speaking about one of the show girls costumes. In his boldly effete manner “If we got the runs on the show, the way the girls got in their stockings, I could put the 2nd down payment on my Kimono.”

Clara Bow, Willard Robertson and Estelle Taylor in Call Her Savage (1932)

From Call Her Savage 1932 purportedly the first on screen gay bar.

In director William Wyler’s These Three (1936) the relationship between Miriam Hopkin’s Martha and Merle Oberon’s Karen was delicately subtle and though to mainstream audiences might be seemingly obvious to interpret as two women attracted to the male lead, Joel McCrea. It revised Hellman’s play that centered around Martha’s love that dare not speak it’s name, for Karen. Sam Goldwyn bought the rights to Lillian Hellman’s play The Children’s Hour, a story depicting the supposed ‘carryings-on’ of two female teachers at a private school for girls. Though, These Three on it’s face is the story of a love triangle between two women and a man, it could read as Martha being more uncomfortable with the presence of Dr. Cardin (McCrea) because he is intruding on her closed relationship with Karen. The later screenplay adapted to film, The Children’s Hour (1961) directed by William Wyler, was boldly more explicit and revealed the true nature of Martha’s predicament and her struggling with her love for Karen.

These Three (1936) Merle Oberon and Miriam Hopkins

The Children’s Hour (1961) Shirley MacLaine and Audrey Hepburn

Coded characters in film were on the screen relaying messages and signaling to those of us who understand and who are “in the life: that movies can reflect the existence of a queer reality. These representations were not necessarily a positive, but films showed evidence that we exist. You would see it in a revealing gesture, or an air of difference about them, though it would be inconspicuous to audiences that were unaware of the cues.

Continue reading “Chapter 2 – Queers and Dykes in the Dark: Classic, Noir & Horror Cinema’s Coded Gay Characters:”

70s Cinema: Runaway Trains, Racing toward oblivion, psycho-sexual machinations and ‘the self loathing whore’ Part 3

Vanishing Point (1971)

It’s the maximum trip… at maximum speed.

Watch carefully because everything happens fast. The chase. The desert. The shack. The girl. The roadblock. The end.

Director Richard C. Sarafian (prolific television series director, The Twilight Zone ep. Living Doll 1963, Fragment of Fear 1970, The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing 1973). With a screenplay by Guillermo Cabrera Infante, story outlined by Malcolm Hart. Cinematography by John A. Alonzo (Bloody Mama 1970, Harold and Maude 1971, Lady Sings the Blues 1972, Chinatown 1974, Norma Rae 1979). Alonzo offers up a minimalist vision not unlike Steven Spielberg’s first film Duel (1971).

Vanishing Point (1971) conjures an image of Americana with it’s dusty realism yet the landscape seems to exist on a desolate otherworldly planet.

The groovin’ sound track is a collection of various artists who create the perfect fabric of seventies resonance. The singer/songwriter (of Bread fame) plays the piano with the J. Hovah singers during the revival scene in the desert. Other songs include Mississippi Queen sung by Mountain, Welcome to Nevada by Jerry Reed, Nobody Knows sung by Kim Carnes and So Tired sung by Eve. Carnes’ most notable song is the cult hit, Betty Davis Eyes.

DJ Super Soul: “And there goes the Challenger, being chased by the blue, blue meanies on wheels. The vicious traffic squad cars are after our lone driver, the last American hero, the electric centaur, the, the demi-god, the super driver of the golden west! Two nasty Nazi cars are close behind the beautiful lone driver. The police numbers are gettin’ closer, closer, closer to our soul hero, in his soul mobile, yeah baby! They about to strike. They gonna get him. Smash him. Rape… the last beautiful free soul on this planet.”

… speed means freedom of the soul. The question is not when’s he gonna stop, but who is gonna stop him.”

Vanishing Point stars a very gruff and sexy Barry Newman (The Moving Finger 1963, The Salzburg Connection 1972, Fear is the Key 1972, Petrocelli 1974-76) as Kowalski, dynamic Cleavon Little as blind radio DJ Super Soul, Dean Jagger as the prospector, Paul Koslo as Deputy Charlie Scott, Robert Donner as Deputy Collins, Severn Darden, Karl Swenson, Anthony James as 1st gay hitch-hiker, Arthur Malet as 2nd gay hitch-hiker, Gilda Texter as Nude Rider, and although she was deleted from the U.S. version, Charlotte Rampling as hitch-Hiker.

The film has a beautiful bleak vision and atmosphere of “Dead-already-ness” in the narrative that foreshadows Kowalski’s ultimate destiny. The film doesn’t contribute much essential dialogue, in the way The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974) thrives on it’s repartee. Vanishing Point is fueled by it’s visual movement.

Vanishing Point seems to reject the sensibilities of a contrived ‘road movie’ that embodies or symbolizes liberation, but in actuality “the road is not ‘open’ but merely a channel through which the vehicle hurtles.” (John Beck)

Vanishing Point is an inauguration of the New Hollywood road/chase movies of the 1970s and one of the most significant cult road movies of the mythic ‘wandering hero’ archetype and ‘the outsider’ roles of that decade. What makes Vanishing Point stand out from other more mainstream Hollywood rebels and road movies is it’s resistance to embrace the glorification of films boasting the (as writer John Beck puts it) “freedom to drive.”

[Warning: SPOILERS]

Continue reading “70s Cinema: Runaway Trains, Racing toward oblivion, psycho-sexual machinations and ‘the self loathing whore’ Part 3”

The Intriguing Everyman: Cult Star Stuart Whitman

There is a rugged sensuality about Stuart Whitman with his thick black hair and that sexy cleft in his strong chin. I’ve been totally gone gaga over the man for as long as I can remember. Although he doesn’t possess the typical pretty leading man looks like Paul Newman or Marlon Brando, Whitman has an offbeat sex appeal that I’m drawn to more than the obviously handsome guy. Maybe it’s his commanding brows framing his deep drawn blue eyes. Or perhaps it’s his raspy suede voice one octave down from middle C and that outre cool swagger that gets me. I love the self-assured manner that he exudes in every one of his roles. There are over 180 films and television roles to his credit. It seems like he lived a very full life on his terms, and had a great appreciation for the ladies– lucky them! He was also long time friends with many of his working colleagues and that says a lot to me.

Stuart Whitman was born on Feb. 1, 1928, in San Francisco. He appeared in summer stock plays in New York until  the age of 12. After living in New York his family moved to Los Angeles in the mid-1940s. He graduated from Hollywood High School in 1945, then enlisted in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for three years. While in the service he was secretly trained in boxing by his uncle, and won boxing matches as a light-heavy weight. After an honorable discharge he attended acting classes at night with the Michael Chekhov Stage Society and studied for four years.

He joined the Ben Bard Drama School in Hollywood debuting in the school’s production of Here Comes Mr. Jordan, which ran for six months.

20th Century Fox scooped Stuart Whitman up while amassing new talent during the late 1950s.

In 1952, Stuart Whitman continued to appear in small roles in George Archainbard’s Barbed Wire and Tay Garnett’s One Minute to Zero. Universal signed him In December, 1952, which got him a tiny part in Douglas Sirk’s All I Desire with Barbara Stanwyck and The All American.

His most memorable and brave portrayals is of Kim Fuller in The Mark.

In The Mark, Stuart Whitman takes on the compelling, challenging role of Jim Fuller, who after serving three years in prison for the abduction and attempted molestation of a nine year old girl, is let out. Jim Fuller coming to terms with his past has gone through extensive therapy with psychiatrist McNally (Rod Steiger) and is released a reformed man, given a good job, and tries to acclimate himself back into normal society. He starts up a relationship with the company secretary Ruth (Maria Schell) who has a 10 year old little daughter. The ugly monster that is his past creeps up behind him and challenges his chance at a new life. While the film’s subject is still one of revulsion, the character of James Fuller is framed sympathetically, partly because he never went through with committing the crime. The film gives a well explained symptomology through Dr. McNally’s compassionate trained eye for uncovering the truth, and flashbacks aide us in seeing Fuller’s utter agony with what he contemplated doing. He stops himself from going through with the assault and vomits at the thought of it. He drives the little girl back to town where he is met with an angry mob. He asks to be locked up because he is sick.

The Mark explores without reservation the conflicted Jim Fuller, which in the cinema at that time breaks ground.He finds solace in his relationship with a sympathetic psychiatrist Rod Steiger. The Mark costars Maria Schell.

While the film is quite black & white with it’s Freudian brush strokes, the story is still compelling and Guy Green’s direction works well to light the flame under the kettle slowly. The Mark was released in a time in film releases where sexual ‘deviation’ was being experimented with at the cinema. Director Basil Dearden’s taut drama Victim (1961) starring Dirk Bogarde about homosexuality and blackmail, director Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Suddenly, Last Summer (1959) that deals with mental illness, homosexuality and cannibalism, and Lillian Hellman’s story directed by William Wyler The Children’s Hour (1961) that deals with the stigma of lesbianism.

Originally Richard Burton was cast in the part of Jim Fuller and the part of Ruth was to be Jean Simmons. And while Burton is of course one of those incredible actors who is laudable at dancing a waltz with complex and damaged, Whitman is profoundly adept at pouring out multitudinous levels of torturous self loathing and social anxiety in a plot full of minefields the protagonist can step on. The film earned him the Oscar nomination for Best Actor not only for his incredibly nuanced performance but partly for his brave and challenging accomplishment. The Mark features Whitman’s complex portrayal of a sexual deviant and a self reflexive man struggling to come to terms with his predilections while finding his way back into society again. There’s a good reason he was nominated for Best Actor… he deserved the award.

Excerpts from an Interview From Shock Cinema Magazine by Anthony Petkovich

SC: What was the challenge for you in making THE MARK?

STUART WHITMAN: “I was doing a screen test at 20th with Lee Remick for a movie called The Candy Man which Tony Richardson was going to direct. And I got a telephone call from Kurt Frings my agent at the time. And Kurt tells me, “Don’t go back” ‘but I’m shooting right now I said. “Don’t go to the set.” He said “What do you mean?” ‘Don’t go back Just go home, pack a bag and catch the four o’clock to London this afternoon. You’re gonna shoot a movie in Ireland.” I asked “Well, what’s the name of the picture?” “Not to worry. Don’t ask any questions. Just get on the plane and go.” And I remember racing to the airport to catch the plane and running into the actor Dane Clark, “Where you going Stuart?” He asked me “ I’m off to do a thing called THE MARK” I told him, “but I don’t know anything about it.” THE MARK? He said “My God, I really wanted to play that role, Jesus Christ.” So that was the only indication I received that it was something special… Well Richard Burton was originally supposed to do my role in THE MARK but he was starring in Camelot and couldn’t get out of his commitment to do the play. So Kurt–who handled Burton and Maria School, the female lead in THE MARK and wonderful to work with-he squared me into the thing.”

“So they put me up in a hotel in London, and I had three days there before going on location to Ireland. Now when I arrived at the London hotel, all of these British reporters were asking me “What do you think about doing this movie?” ‘I haven’t read it” I told them “ I don’t know. Let me read it , then I will tell ya” So I got rid of all of the reporters because I really didn’t know what the fuck the movie was all about. And in my hotel room, when I finally read the script, I kind of freaked out. So much so that I was thinking to myself “Well, I could get sick and tell them that I can’t do the movie—I had all kinds of excuses that I was going to lay on ‘em so that I didn’t have to tackle this project. Then I thought, “Well, fuck it. If I”m in the right business or the wrong business I”ll know if I can pull this one off. And if I can I”ll be alright, But yeah it was difficult to do. And that’s when I first met Rod Steiger. Since Rod and I had a lot of scenes together, he said “you want to come over to my house and we’ll just run over the lines and get familiar with it?” “Absolutely” I said to him.”

After the dreaded Night of the Lepus, Whitman survived the blip in his momentum and proclaimed his comeback with multiple entertaining films and television roles, many that helped him attain cult status. Including Lawrence Harvey’s excursion into cannibalism Welcome to Arrow Beach, and master of horror Tobe Hooper’s sub-genre of horror films— the hillbilly slasher Eaten Alive starring Neville Brand and Carolyn Jones. My favorite is his performance as the love sick paramour of Piper Laurie’s in Curtis Harrington’s Ruby (1977). The underrated nightmarish ghost story and a great vehicle for Piper Laurie. Whitman brings that wonderful 70s sensibility to the film as he aches for his lover to return his affections.

Meg Foster and Stuart Whitman in Lawrence Harvey’s Welcome to Arrow Beach

Stuart Whitman and Rory Calhoun in Night of the Lepus

Stuart Whitman also stepped into the role of cult leader of People’s Temple Jim Jones with a hyperbolic performance in GUYANA: CULT OF THE DAMNED.

Aside from some his more obvious diversions into the cult market, Stuart Whitman delivered memorable roles in films like director Monte Hellman’s Shatter 1974 where he plays an a cool character, an international hit man who is now himself a target. Whitman can slip into a diverse range of characters from sympathetic child molester, to homicidal cult leader/mass murderer, cut throats and heroes, urbane hitmen or a variety of sheriffs. From the 60s decade through the 70s Stuart Whitman’s roles ran the gamut.

Making his film debut in 1951 science fiction films uncredited in director Rudolph Maté’ and George Pal’s When Worlds Collide credited as Kip Whitman and in director Robert Wise’s The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951). Whitman gained popularity as a cult actor appearing in a variety of films The Girl in the Black Stockings (1957)  co-starring Mamie Van Doren and Anne Bancroft.

The 1960s were a  golden time for Whitman where he found himself to be one of the leading stars in Hollywood. Another outstanding example of his versatile acting ability is showcased in the intense crime drama based on New York gangsters — Murder, Inc. 1960 and the 1964 psychologically disturbing, psychotronic  Shock Treatment 1965. Whitman plays an actor Dale Nelson who is hired to locate $1 million in stolen money, so he gets himself committed to the institution run by Lauren Bacall. But finds himself immersed in the depths of insanity inside the asylum. Then there was the international assembled cast for the aviation extravaganza comedy Those Magnificent Men and their Flying Machines and the fantastic adventure film The Sands of the Kalahari.

Stuart Whitman in The Sands of the Kalahari (1965)

Murder, Inc. Year : 1960 USA Stuart Whitman Director: Burt Balaban.

Stuart Rosenberg’s directorial debut Murder, Inc (1960) co-starred Peter Falk in his explosive role as Abe Reles.

SC: Hey, I don’t want to forget about MURDER, INC.

STUART WHITMAN: “I did that while I was still under contract to 20th They said “you’re going off to New York to do this thing called Murder, Inc. So on the plane I’m reading the script, and I’m thinking “wow! What a role here… Abe Reles… And when I got to New York and they picked me up in a limo at the airport, they asked me “how did you like the script? “Oh God, I just loved it” And they said “we got an interesting young guy, a character actor named Peter Falk who’s gonna plays Abe Reles” “Wait” I said, “I thought that was my role” “No, no You’re going to play the kid in it.. with May Britt.. the love affair part of the story.” And I said “Oh shit, I don’t want to do it. SO I called up (Spyros) Skouras (president of 20th Century Fox from 42 to 62) and said “Now Mrs Skouras that’s not the role I wanted to do” No do it” he said.

Anyhow, Peter Falk and I were getting along, getting some good stuff into the picture but when they fired the director Stuart Rosenberg, we had a sit down strike between us actors. But then a full out strike was coming along, and 20th said “The strike is coming up, so we have to finish this picture right away—before it hits.” Well, the very day we finished the picture, the strike hit. But that’s why there are two directors credited on Murder Inc. Burt Balaban was the producer so when Rosenberg got fired he stepped in.”

Stuart Whitman was very physically fit and started doing a lot of macho-type movies around this time, like westerns Rio Conchos 1964 and The Comancheros 1961. Whitman has top billing in the well-cast western, The Comancheros, and maintains a glorious chemistry with Wayne. He plays a womanizing gambler who kills a nobleman’s son in a dual. He escapes the noose but is hunted down the honest Captain of the Texas Rangers Jake Cutter (John Wayne). It’s directed by Michael Curtiz, and both men exchange quick-witted dialogue. Inevitably the two become friends. Cimarron Strip 1967-68 was Whitman’s short lived highly charged 90 minute TV western which was his show starring as the serious Marshal Jim Crown. Episodes featured other great actors like Richard Boone, Warren Oates, and Robert Duvall. I read that Cimarron Strip was of Whitman’s favorite projects.

Stuart Whitman as Marshal Jim Crown in the television western series Cimarron Strip 1967-68

Stuart Whitman in Rio Conchos (1964)

Stuart Whitman and co-star John Wayne in Michael Curtiz’s The Comancheros (1961)

Stuart Whitman was so versatile he was able to stand astride both television and feature films from dramatic hits to film noir, horror and cult exploitation. Some of his most notable films are Ten North Frederick (1958), director William Wellman’s Darby’s Rangers (1958) co-starring James Garner. Whitman does a superb job piece of work as a ballsy American soldier who joins an elite group who are trained as special forces during WWII. Andrew L. Stone’s The Decks Ran Red (1958) co-starring James Mason and Dorothy Dandridge. 
The Longest Day (1962), The Comancheros (1961) co-starring John Wayne, The Sound and The Fury (1959) co-starring Joanne Woodward, the grand British comedy adventure spectacle Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines (1965), Shock Treatment (1964) co-starring Carol Lynley and Roddy McDowall as a very disturbed gardner, René Clément’s The Day and the Hour (1963) co-starring Simone Signoret. Stuart Whitman plays an American soldier who is shot down behind enemy lines and is aided by the French resistance. Whitman directed one specific scene that Clément agreed to let him shoot. There is an impassioned chemistry between the sublime Signoret (a favorite actress of mine) and Whitman, as the two journey to escape the Nazi’s in occupied France. Clément is at his finest profiling war torn Europe, his focus on the stirring content and eloquent faces that populate his films.
Stuart Whitman in Darby’s Rangers (1958) – directed by William Wellman
Joanne Woodward and Stuart Whitman in The Sound and the Fury (1959)
Stuart Whitman holding Simone Signoret in a scene from the film ‘The Day And The Hour’, 1963. (Photo by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/Getty Images)
Le jour et l’heure (The Day and the Hour) Year: 1963 Director: René Clément -Simone Signoret, Stuart Whitman, Billy Kearns
Le jour et l’heure Year: 1963 Director: René Clément Simone Signoret, Stuart Whitman
Le jour et l’heure Year: 1963 Director: René Clément  Simone Signoret , Stuart Whitman
Whitman plays the compassionate prison guard who believes in rehabilitation not the death penalty in Convicts 4 (1962). His performance adds a real and humanist impact to the tense and confining spaces of the prison. There are also fine appearances by Rod Steiger, Sammy Davis Jr. and Vincent Price. Whitman felt at home in the western, he starred in Rio Conchos (1964), and then the turbulent psycho-drama An American Dream (1966) co-starring Janet Leigh and Eleanor Parker.
Night of the Lepus (1972) co-starring Janet Leigh and Rory Calhoun. Apparently Whitman felt that this low budget horror film was the decline of his career. Stuart Whitman was forced into taking the role in William F. Claxton’s ridiculous horror flick. In it, Whitman and Janet Leigh play zoologists who accidentally unleash giant bunny rabbits. The film is laughable and was partly responsible for the blemish on his career, though the film has attained cult status.
He managed to work with some of the most prominent directors, William Wellman, Frank Borzage, Don Siegel, Richard Fleischer, Michael Curtiz, Douglas Sirk, Jacques Tourneur and  René Clément.
After guest starring in dramatic television programs Lux Video Theatre, Four Star Playhouse, Zane Grey Theater and Dr Christian. He gained recognition in the lead role as Marshal Jim Crown in the successful Western television series Cimarron Strip that ran from 1967-68 on CBS. Other television appearances include Death Valley Days Highway Patrol 1956-57, Have Gun-Will Travel (1958), Bracken’s World (1970), Rod Serling’s Night Gallery episode Lindemann’s Catch and Fright Night.
He was in Circle of Fear (1972) The Streets of San Fransisco (1973), Quincy M.E., Knight Rider, A-Team, S.W.A.T., and Murder, She Wrote. He had a re-occurring role in Knots Landing. In 1988, he was featured in Superboy which lasted until 1992. Whitman played Jonathan Kent Superboy’s adoptive father.
Stuart Whitman and Chloris Leachman in Jonathan Demme’s Crazy Mama (1975)
Stuart Whitman and Eleanor Parker in An American Dream (1966)
Fred Williamson, Jenny Sherman and Stuart Whitman in Mean Johnny Barrows (1976)
1971: (L-R) Bradford Dillman, Carol Eve Rossen, Shelley Winters, Stuart Whitman appearing in the ABC tv movie ‘Revenge!’. (Photo by Walt Disney Television via Getty Images)
Stuart Whitman appeared in various tv movies, City Beneath the Sea (1971), Revenge! (1971) co-starring Shelley Winters, The Woman Hunter (1972), co-starring Barbara Eden.
Donald Randolph, Tony Curtis, Richard Long, Stuart Whitman and Palmer Lee in “The All American” 1953 Universal ** B.D.M.

Under contract to Universal Stuart Whitman was still cast in minimal parts in 1953. The first with director Budd Boetticher’s The Man from the Alamo. Then he worked with Jacques Tourneur his crime thriller Appointment in Honduras. Then followed The Veils of Bagdad and Walking My Baby Back Home.

in 1954, he was still getting cast in small roles Charles’ Vidor’s Rhapsody, loaned out to MGM. Stuart Whitman appeared in Brigadoon. He performed on stage at the Coast Theater in Christopher Fry’s Venus Observed.

1955, Whitman maintained his brief images like the man on the beach in Curtis Bernhardt’s Interrupted Melody. Also that year, Whitman had a minor role in the serial King of the Carnival. In that same vein he appeared in Allan Dwan’s war drama Hold Back the Night.  Then came Budd Boetticher’s western Seven Men from Now in 1956 co-starring Lee Marvin and Randolph Scott.

Finally In 1957, Stuart Whitman’s film presence gained visibility in Gerd Oswald’s noir thriller Crime of Passion, and Reginald Le Borg’s War Drums. He got his first leading role in John H. Auer’s Johnny Trouble. Where Whitman plays Johnny Chandler a belligerent young man whom Ethel Barrymore believes is her grandson. Films that followed were Hell Bound co-starring Broderick Crawford and James Mason and Howard W. Koch’s psycho-sexual shocker The Girl in Black Stockings (1957).

Stuart Whitman as Prentiss in The Girl in the Black Stockings (1957)

Carolyn Jones and Stuart Whitman in Johnny Trouble (1957)

Also in 1957 Whitman had a notable role in the military series, Harbor Command based on the United States Coast Guard.

He had a recurring role as police officer Sgt. Walters on the television series Highway Patrol. Whitman  and his co-star Broderick Crawford hit it off and became friends.

He was cast in bit parts in film and stage productions. Then he finally had his breakthrough with the drama Johnny Trouble in 1957 co-starring Ethel Barrymore in her last role. Then he co-starred with Gary Cooper in Ten North Frederick (1958) Stuart Whitman co-starred with Dorothy Dandrige in the crime drama The Decks Ran Red in 1958 where the two kissed showcasing one of the first interracial kisses in Hollywood at the time.

STUART WHITMAN & DOROTHY DANDRIDGE Film ‘THE DECKS RAN RED’ (1958) Directed By ANDREW L. STONE
10 October 1958 CT2447 Allstar/Cinetext/MGM

Dorothy Dandridge and Stuart Whitman in The Decks Ran Red (1958)

excerpts from an Interview From Shock Cinema Magazine by Anthony Petkovich

SC:You also starred with Broderick Crawford (they worked together in Highway Patrol) in The Decks Ran Red 1958.”

STUART WHITMAN: “Dorothy Dandridge, poor baby… She was previously married to one of the two Nicholas brothers {Harold} and their daughter, who was (brain-damaged), eventually had to be placed in a mental institution. And poor Dorothy was going through all of that turmoil while she was making the movie. A goddess, that’s what she was. “You know how Brod got that picture? Listen to this… Andrew and Virginia Stone both produced it with Andrew directing. And I said to them “who are you going to get to play this role (of Henry Scott)?” And they said, “Oh God, we’d love to have Broderick Crawford but he’s a drunk” And I said “Wait a second, if he tells you he’s not going to drink, then he won’t drink” No, they said. And I said “look. Call him up and talk to him. Tell him that I’m in the picture.” So they called Brod up and hired him. And just as I told them Brod didn’t touch a drop until the last day of shooting-then he let go But that’ show he got that job It was actually a good little movie. James Mason was an interesting guy, and we became fast friends. Oh God, he was a sweetheart. But Brod and he just didn’t get along.”

Came 1958, Charlton Heston left the William Wellman’s film Darby’s Rangers. It’s star James Garner took over the role and Stuart Whitman took Garners original character. Starting in production that year was Richard Fleischer’s western These Thousand Hills, and beginning it’s theatrical run was Ten North Frederick. Whitman remarked “many good things came from that”.

In 1958, Hedda Hopper wrote a piece on Whitman which said he could be the “new Clark Gable” :

This is a fresh personality with tremendous impact. He’s tall and lean with shock of unruly black hair and dark hazel eyes which harden to slate grey when he plays a bad man or turns on the heat in a love scene. When he comes into camera range, the audience sits up and says: “Who dat?”

The Decks Ran Red directed by Andrew L. Stone followed and according to Whitman, he got MGM to hire his friend Broderick Crawford with the condition that he remain sober during the shooting.

In 1959, Stuart Whitman replaced Robert Wagner in The Sound and the Fury co-starring Joanne Woodward and Yul Brynner. Woodward and Whitman would find themselves acting together once again in the taut thriller Signpost to Murder 1964. Also that year he appeared in an episode of the popular television show by writer/produced by Gene Roddenberry Have Gun-Will Travel.

Whitman finally started getting leading man roles in director Don Siegel’s Hound Dog Man. Whitman   played a rogue his “fourth heel in a row… I had a ball because the character was a real louse, everything hanging off him and no inhibitions. I like those kind of guys, I suppose because I can’t be that way myself.”

In 1960, he starred in the Biblical drama The Story of Ruth, replacing Stephen Boyd as Boaz.

Stuart Whitman in “The Story of Ruth” 1960 (Photo by RDB/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

That year he co-starred in the darkly violent crime biopic Murder, Inc. Whitman had originally thought that he was to be cast in the Peter Falk role, but wound up playing the romantic lead instead. The film’s production was problematic from the beginning. Director Stuart Rosenberg was fired for taking too long to set up shots. After the actors’ strike the studio was pressured to finish the film so they hired Burt Balaban to finish production.

Then came 1961 and the role that earned him the Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. Stuart Whitman was frustrated with the kinds of roles he was getting. “I had been knocking around and not getting anything to test my ability” When Richard Burton dropped out of production of Guy Green’s The Mark, to take the part in the stage production of Camelot, Whitman was contacted by his agent, the actor not knowing the controversial content of the film, he flew to Ireland to read the script. Though it was a challenge he felt that he could tackle the role of a child molester, and he was right as he garnered the Oscar nomination for his performance. Whitman acknowledged that it “doubled my rating as an actor” yet  “I had a tough time breaking my image in that movie… it blocked my image as a gutsy outdoorsman.”

Whitman then starred in The Fiercest Heart filmed in South Africa. Then he appeared in Michael Curtiz’s religious biopic Francis of Assisi. Curtiz wanted Whitman, to appear in his next film The Comancheros. John Wayne had to negotiate with the studio to get Whitman released from a prior commitment with the studio. Stuart Whitman plays Paul Regret who escapes from the law but is eventually captured by Texas Ranger Jake Cutter (John Wayne).

1962, Whitman starred in Millard Kaufman’s crime drama Convicts 4 and was cast in the all-star feature The Longest Day (1962) The events of D-Day, told on a grand scale from both the Allied and German points of view. 

Publicity Still from The Longest Day (1962)

Le jour et l’heure Year: 1963 Director: René Clément Stuart Whitman, Marcel Bozzuffi
Le jour et l’heure Year: 1963 Director: René Clément Stuart Whitman, Reggie Nalder

From Wiki: In 1963, instead of choosing any of these roles, Whitman played an American pilot in the French film René Clément‘s The Day and the Hour, shot in Paris and set during World War II. As described by Whitman, he got the part through Alain Delon, who he bumped into in an elevator at The Beverly Hills Hotel. Delon invited him to meet the director, and eventually worked out a way to loan him out from his studio contract. During the production of the film, Whitman disagreed with Clément on the direction of a torture scene. Whitman swore to Clément that he could handle it. After coincidentally sitting in a plane next to Sidney Buchman who co-wrote The Mark, they re-wrote the scene. Whitman directed the torture scene and hasn’t directed since. Whitman described Clément, as one of the finest French directors. He enjoyed the experience, saying, “I busted through at last and can now get an honest emotion, project it and make it real. You become egocentric when you involve yourself to such an extent in your role; your next problem is in learning how to turn it off and come home and live with society. It took a lot of time and energy to break through, so I could honestly feel and I’m reluctant to turn it off. Now I know why so many actors go to psychiatrists.”

In 1963, Stuart Whitman appeared in an episode called  “Killing at Sundial” of the first season of Bob Hope Presents the Chrysler Theatre. Whitman plays a Native American seeking to avenge his father who was hanged years ago.

1964, Whitman was cast in the expository psychological shiver as the unfortunate Dale Nelson who gets cast into the snake pit of Shock Treatment (1964). Then came the western directed by Gordon Douglas- Rio Conchos co-starring two other leading men Richard Boone and Tony Franciosa. Whitman said that he didn’t like the script, but producer Darryl F. Zanuck dangled the carrot of the lead role in Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines in 1965.  After Stuart Whitman met with Richard Boone and director Douglas he agreed to take the part. Director Annakin had wanted Dick Van Dyke for the lead role in this aviation extravaganza but he had to to accept the studio’s choice and wound up being please with Whitman’s wonderful performance.

In 1965 he appeared in the director George Englund’s film noir Signpost to Murder co-starring Joanne Woodward. Signpost to Murder is perhaps one of Stuart Whitman’s most compelling performances. He plays Alex Forrester an escaped patient from an asylum – takes refuge in Molly Thomas’ (Woodward) house who has secrets of her own. This contemplative thriller with twists is an incredibly underrated psychological thriller and deserves more attention paid to it for its narrative precision.  There is an evocative score by master composer Lyn Murray that underlines the moody discord of the plot. Whitman is superb as the desperate man trying to free himself of being labeled insane, culminating in the emotional eruption of violence. “What a terrible way to live out the one life I have. Shut up. Shut off. Forever lost.”

He got the lead in Cy Endfield’s Sands of the Kalahari. Other actors considered for the role were Richard Burton, Robert Mitchum and Marlon Brando. Whitman had a horrendous time during the shoot, due to the extreme heat on location in Africa, and the baboons whom he had to fight with weren’t trained.  And finally the release of director Ken Annakin’s comedy centered around the aviation craze circa 1910 with an ensemble cast. Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines with Whitman featured as the American participating in the race from London to Paris.

In 1966, Whitman starred opposite Eleanor Parker in Robert Gist’s An American Dream aka See You in Hell, Darling based on the novel by Norman Mailer. The film is a self-indulgent cynical journey as Whitman is suspected of killing his wife (Parker) who plays a miserable alcoholic. Whitman then appeared once again on the dramatic television series Bob Hope Presents  in the episode The Highest Fall of All. He played a suicidal stuntman with a death wish who is willing to do dangerous fall.

In 1967, Whitman came into American living rooms for the first time as U.S. Marshal Jim Crown, the lead character in the television western Cimarron Strip.

Stuart Whitman and Margit Saad in The Last Escape (1970)

1970, Whitman appeared in the episode “Murder off-camera” of Bracken’s World. Also that year, Stuart Whitman starred in The Last Escape and The Invincible Six. He was also in an episode of The FBI. 1971, Whitman acted in director Alexander Singer’s Captain Apache co-starring Carroll Baker and Lee Van Cleef.

Whitman plays a psychic who is hired by Carol Rossen to find her missing husband in the Grand Guignol made for television thriller Revenge! starring Shelley Winters as a twisted vengeful mother who is holding Bradford Dillman captive in her cellar. He appeared in another made for television sci-fi adventure The City Beneath the Sea. In 1972, he plays a hardened, solitary sea captain who catches a mermaid in “Lindemann’s Catch”, an episode of Rod Serling’s horror/fantasy series Night Gallery. Serling wrote the episode and Jeff Corey directed.

City Beneath the Sea (1971) made for tv movie

Also in 1972 he appeared in Disney’s Run, Cougar, Run, and an episode of Fantasy Island called “Carnival/The Vaudevillians“. He did another episode of Night Gallery called “Fright Night” where he must take care of a mysterious trunk in an old family estate. Having a proclivity toward starring in horror he appeared in a television episode of Circle of Fear/Ghost Story called “The Concrete Captain co-starring Gena Rowlands. That same year he appeared in another television movie, The Woman Hunter starring Barbara Eden. Came 1972 Whitman appears as a hitman in “The Set Up” episode of The Streets of San Francisco, and the made for television film The Man Who Died Twice. He also appeared in Love, American Style, and an episode of Hec Ramsey called “A Hard Road to Vengeance.” Curtis Harrington’s Made for Television horror The Cat Creature (1973) co-starring Gale Sondergaard.

In 1974 he took to the horror stage again appearing in the outre creepy and violent Welcome to Arrow Beach co-starring Lawrence Harvey and Joanna Pettet about a veteran who craves human flesh. Harvey who directed had asked Whitman to play the lead role, but he told him he didn’t want to play a cannibal but he’d play the deputy because he wanted to work with Lawrence Harvey.

In 1975, he had the lead role in Call Him Mr. Shatter, and an episode of Cannon called “Man in the Middle”. He co-starred with Fred Williamson in Mean Johnny Barrows. That same year he starred in Jonathan Demme’s exploitation film Crazy Mama co-starring Cloris Leachman. Several generations of women go on to be outlaws robbing banks so they can reclaim the farm in Arkansas that was taken away from them by the bank. Whitman plays Jim Bob who is along for the ride with Melba (Cloris Leachman). In Mean Johnny Barrows (1975) Whitman co-stars as a crime boss with Fred Williamson.

In 1976 he starred in the television series S.W.A.T. episode “The Running Man” and then he took to the Italian action genre working with director Alberto De Martino in his giallo feature where Whitman plays Capt. Tony Saitta and co-stars with John Saxon and Martin Landau in the very slick mystery Strange Shadows in an Empty Room. He appeared along side Rod Taylor and Elke Sommer in Treasure Seeker. He acted in television’s Harry O with friend David Janssen and Ellery Queen. He played the sheriff in Tobe Hooper’s nasty horror gorge- Eaten Alive.

In 1977, television called Stuart Whitman once again to appear in Quincy, M.E. in the highly charged episode “Hot Ice Cold Hearts” He appeared in one of my favorite horror films starring the great Piper Laurie. He starred in J. Lee Thompson’s The White Buffalo co-starring Charles Bronson.

In 1978 Whitman appeared in several television miniseries, The Pirate written by Harold Robins and The Seekers. He also starred in Delta Fox.

Around this time, Whitman collaborated twice with director René Cardona Jr.. In 1979 he starred as Jim Jones in the powerfully disturbing, Guyana, Cult of the Damned. The second film was Los Traficantes De Panico, also known as Under Siege.

“A lot of big people told me I was the number one man the networks wanted,” said Whitman. “I always wanted to play a cop with a heart, a guy who would use every possible means not to kill a man,” he said. “TV has needed a superhero… and I think Crown can be the guy.”

The Los Angeles Times did a profile on Whitman around this time, calling him “an actor of growing importance in a business that needs stalwarts to follow in the steps of the Clark Gables, Gary Coopers, and John Waynes… Whitman is like a finely trained athletic champion – a modest but self-assured chap who seems to know where he is going.”

“I’ve done lots of different parts since I left Hollywood High School and City College”, said Whitman in a 1960 interview, “so the sudden switch didn’t bother me too much. I hope 20th Century Fox will keep the roles varied and interesting.”

“I didn’t need to act to make a living, but I had a real passion for it,” he told writer Nick Thomas. “I just loved to act.”

Whitman described himself to Hedda Hopper as “a real American – have a little bit of English, Irish, Scotch and Russian – so I get along with everyone.”

“I went to so many schools—26 in all!—that I was always an outsider,” he later recalled. “It wasn’t until high school that I could really read . . . I always sat in the back of the room.”

Whitman’s early love for acting came through when he did three summer stock plays in New York when he was 12, but “nobody took that seriously,” he said.

“I reached a point where I said, ‘What are you going to do with your life? You got to get something going.'” he said. “I decided I wanted to spend most of my time on me. So I decided to develop me and educate me.”

According to John Gregory Dunne’s “The Studio,” Whitman was suggested for the title role in The Boston Strangler by John Bottomly, the Massachusetts assistant attorney general who prosecuted Albert DeSalvo. Instead, the role went to Tony Curtis.

Whitman had turned down a number of offers to star on television series over the years, including Mannix and Judd for the Defense. “I wanted more diversity in acting,” he said. “I felt I would limit myself.”

Whitman admitted, “I’m the type who must work constantly.” In the early 1970s, he worked increasingly in Europe. “I left Hollywood because it was getting to be a mad mess!” he said. “There are only about two really good scripts going around and they always go to the industry’s two top stars. I thought that in Europe, something better might come my way—and it did! I’ve made mistakes in the past, but I kept bouncing back. I always thought that an actor is destined to act, but I now realize that if you do one role well, you get stuck with it!”

Stuart Whitman retired from film and television after 2000 after his final appearance in The President’s Man.

Awards and honors Included on the Hollywood walk of Fame (1998) Nominated Best Actor Academy Award, The Mark (1961) Winner (cast member) Western Heritage Awards, The Comancheros (1961)

“The Comancheros” John Wayne, Stuart Whitman 1961 20th Century Fox

“I was filming Francis of Assisi 1961 In Italy with director Michael Curtiz IT was wintertime and a hard shoot And near the end of the film, Michael said “Stuart take a look at this script. It’s called The Comancheros” I read it over and said ‘boy, there’s a role in there that I’d love to be in” And he said I’d love to have you in it. I’m directing it. But the studio has got somebody else cast for that particular part. But we don’t start filming for another month, so when you get back to Hollywood see if you can get on the picture. I’d like to have you. “When I got back, I asked the studio and they said No you can’t do it We’ve got it all sewn up. So I called up Kurt Frings and told him what Curtiz said to me “Well he said “go see the Duke at Paramount He’s on Stage 17 Go talk to him.

Anyhow I worked my way into Paramount went to Stage 17 and when I got there (Wayne) was just going off to his dressing room. So I followed him in— “and Michael Curtiz wants me in your next picture. I really want to do it but the studio is putting up some blockage there. So I hung around there with Wayne for part of the day. And at the end of the day he asked me, “you really want to do the picture huh? Okay You’ve to the job. That’s how I got The Comancheros.”-Stuart Whitman

IMDB Trivia:

Alfred Hitchcock considered him, along with Cliff Robertson, Robert Loggia and Tom Tryon, for the role of Sam Loomis in Psycho (1960), but the role went to John Gavin.
Was a light-heavyweight boxer while serving the United States Army. Ironically, it was his role as a prizefighter in the play “Dr. Christian” that brought him his first leading role in a movie, playing Johnny in Johnny Trouble (1957) opposite Ethel Barrymore.
Was close friends with David Janssen.
In 1960, MGM toyed with the idea of doing an all-male remake of The Women (1939) which would’ve been entitled “Gentlemen’s Club.” Stuart Whitman would have been cast as (Oliver, the bartender who spills the beans about the illicit affair).

Another The Decks Ran Red co-star Whitman commented on was Dorothy Dandridge, who was going through a divorce and had to institutionalize her mentally ill daughter. Whitman was impressed with her strength and described her as a goddess.

Whitman told that when he first met Peter Falk on the set of Murder, Inc., they had differences but eventually became friends. Whitman found The Mark director Guy Green difficult to work with, finding him demanding and too strict, but they became good friends afterwards. On the set of Sands of the Kalahari, Whitman said he became best friends with fellow cast members Stanley Baker and Theodore Bikel, while he didn’t click with Jim Brown at first, they too became friends.

S.W.A.T. – Season Two – “The Running Man” 12/2/75 Stuart Whitman
FILM CLIPS HERE:
Cimarron Strip television show
Johnny Trouble 1957 as Johnny
 
Darby’s Rangers 1958 as Sgt. Hank Bishop
Ten North Frederick 1958 as Charley Bongiorno
The Decks Ran Red 1958 as Leroy Martin
The Sound and the Fury 1959 as Charlie Busch
Murder, Inc 1960 as Joey Collins
The Mark 1961 as Jim Fuller
The Comancheros 1961 as Paul Regret
Convicts 4 (1961) as Principal Keeper
The Day and the Hour 1963 as Capt. Allan Morley
Shock Treatment 1964 as Dale Nelson
Signpost to Murder 1964 as Alex Forrester
An American Dream 1966 as Stephen Richard Rojack
The Invincible Six 1970 as Tex
Captain Apache 1971 as Griffin
Revenge! 1971 tv movie as Mark Hembric
Night Gallery 1972 Capt. Hendrick Lindemann (segment “Lindemann’s Catch”)
The Streets of San Fransisco 1973 episode: “The Set-Up”) (1973) as Nick Carl
Shatter 1974 as Shatter
Crazy Mama 1975 as Jim Bob
Mean Johnny Barrows 1976 as Mario Racconi
Strange Shadows in an Empty Room 1976 as Capt. Tony Saitta
Ruby 1977 as Vince Kemper

Filmography

This is your everlovin’ joey sayin’ goodbye Stuart Whitman… we’ll always have your eyebrows and that sexy voice of yours to enjoy!

Postcards from Shadowland Halloween 2019

“Out Loud” Part 2– My Extraordinary Conversation with the Legendary Lee Grant…

See first: “Out Loud” Part 1– A Biography of the Legendary Lee Grant

10th July 1970: Studio portrait of American actor Lee Grant, wearing a flower-patterned dress and  in front of a light backdrop, (Photo by Jack Robinson/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Jo: Hi, Lee? It’s Jo, how’re you doing?

Lee: Hi Jo!

Jo: What’s going on? How’s your day?

Lee: Good so far.

Jo: So hopefully it’ll just even get better now. [laughs]

Lee: Of course!

Jo: Are you ready to talk a little bit?

Lee: Sure!

Jo: Ok, great! Um, God, I don’t even know where to start because I’m just really excited and very grateful that you’re spending time talking to me.

Lee: Sure!

Jo: Um, so, before I start asking you any questions, I mean I guess I could just start asking you some questions. We spoke a little yesterday, and you know how much I love your work. I’ve just followed you for such a long time. And I’m kind of in awe of you, so I’m a little starstruck. [laughs]

Lee: Oh, good! [laughs] You’re so cute and I don’t think there are many people who would say that any more. So it’s yummy.

Jo: No, that’s not true, let me tell you, you’ve got fans! There are so many people who just adore you. You are memorable! You are a beautiful spitfire. You’re complex, you’re powerful, you’re evocative and very memorable. So don’t think I’m the only one. [laughs]

Lee: Ok, I give in!

Jo: Ok, you give in!

Lee: I give in, I am memorable!

Jo: You are memorable, you really really are. I mean, seriously, it’s like every time something would come on TV, a show or a movie, and I would say “oh, Lee Grant is in this!” I would get so excited. No matter what it was, I would watch it. If it was like a television program, even if I wasn’t familiar with the show or the film, I’d be like “well, Lee is in it, I’ve got to see this now!” So I’m going to start asking away and hopefully they’re good questions.

Lee: Where’s Wendy?

Jo: Oh, Wendy’s here, too.

Wendy: I’m actually here, Lee. Hi! I’m the technical person so I’m here to make sure everything goes ok.

Lee: Hi Wendy. Ok!

Wendy: And I do have a question for you at the end, too. I couldn’t resist!

Jo: The sociologist in her!

Lee: You know, I’m just glad to hear from you girls. You were so alive and interested and interesting when we met, and here we are, what is it 3 months later? You meet someone on an airplane and you see somebody and you sit and you talk for 6 hours and then you get off and you never see them again. So this is nice!

Jo: It was really amazing to just walk into this big room with all these people fluttering about, swarming about like a hive. And then to see you standing there [Lee laughs] and you’re like this legend. This utter legend, stuck in the corner of a room!

Lee: Yeah, and you know, I’ve been writing a lot. And that deserves it’s own story.

Jo: It does. It definitely does… To walk over and just talk to you like that—I wanted to grab a big pot of coffee and a couple of chairs and just sit. So now we’re doing it, really.

Lee: We’re doing it! And I have the coffee, too. I’m not sure it counts, though.

Jo: So, I’m going to just start asking questions. And I think I told you yesterday that I do these little setups because it helps me bridge to the question.

Lee: Whatever, just go honey!

Jo: You were in films with diverging mainstream audience appeal… showing the wide range and versatility of your acting such as In the Heat of the Night with Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger which dealt with racism. Valley of the Dolls became a cult pop sensation, and Plaza Suite where you were sublimely hilarious in Neil Simon’s timeless comedy at it’s best. What is it that makes you such a versatile actress?

Lee: Well, I was a very compelled actress. You know I was blacklisted for 12 years, and those were the years from age 24 to age 36. I couldn’t work in film or television because I was married to a writer who was called a communist and therefore I was asked to name my own husband in front of the Unamerican Activities Committee, and my loathing—I was going to say fear and loathing, but there was no fear. My loathing for that kind of activity and McCarthyism. You know, I can feel it in my stomach as I’m talking to you, it’s so great. It’s the feeling I have about Trump and that little lawyer Roy Cohn. You know, I was taken out of the acting system for the most important years of my life, I thought at the time. So when I came back, you know, they hired me for Peyton Place, and let me see, it would’ve been 1952-1964. Peyton Place at that time was the biggest television show in the country.

Jo: Yes, I just finished binge-watching it.

Lee: I went from near obscurity to being the bad girl—Stella Chernack—on Peyton Place which was seen by America three times a week. And not the same show three times a week. The appetite for it was so great that they did three new shows each week. So all of a sudden I was everybody’s bad girl. You know, and my hunger for work, for acting, for reestablishing myself, for getting back at the bad guy was so intense, that all the film or TV show had to say was “do you want to?” And I said yes. That was the title of my book, I said yes to everything. Yes, yes, yes because the appetite was unfillable, to work, to act. And with each part, you know you talk about my first movie, the movie that Norman Jewison directed, the one with Sidney Poitier and Rod Stieger.

Jo: Of course, In the Heat of the Night…

Lee: You know, when Norman interviewed me, he knew my background. This was a decade of intensely liberal filmmakers in Hollywood. Intensely liberal filmmakers. And the producer of Peyton Place, too. It was like they couldn’t wait to hire me. They couldn’t wait to make up for—and it makes me cry a little bit—all the years I didn’t work. Their generosity, their kindness, their focus, their need to say “you’re ok now, we got you.” And for them to see that as an actor I was ready to take on the kind of roles that they were ready to give me. And I was.

Jo: And with an extra fierceness. You probably had an extra fierceness to show yourself because you had this fuel, this anger. This impetus.

Lee: It wasn’t to sell myself, it was to act. It was to drop into that character and live that new life. After all I’m a method actress. And I was starved to act. So I just couldn’t get enough after wanting to act for all those young years. And I had to lie about my age because I was 36 when I got back in, so I got Mayor Yorty to change my driver’s license. We had no computers then so nobody would know. You know, it was like everything to get back that they took away.

 

Jo: Everything that they stole from you! You mentioned being a method actress…

When you act what are you tapping into, beyond the acting Method you studied, and beyond the imagination of little Lyova Rosenthal. You take words in the script and make them come to life like no other actor. Lee Grant has her own unique way of expressing herself. You bring a unique identity to each role. Did it come from starting out with Meisner, or teaching at Uta Hagen’s studio working with improvisation? Where does your genius come from?

Lee: It absolutely came from Meisner, because I was 17 when I went into the neighborhood playhouse. I was a failing high school student, and all I wanted were boys, boys, boys, and all I did was flirt, flirt, flirt. And when I went into that class and he gave me an objective. Jo, you know what an objective is—it’s to want something.

Jo: Oh yeah, yeah.

Lee: And the situation he set up with another boy in class was to get him out of the room, that he’d been a boyfriend and he wanted to get him out of the room. Well, this, there’s a Jewish word for it—a guerilla, a goomba, whatever it is, came out of me so this boy had no chance. The rage that I never knew—I never knew I had– this impulse, this fierceness, of carrying out that objective to get that poor guy out of the room. With my voice, with my hands, it overwhelmed me. It overwhelmed him. And my strength was born. My strength was born in that first improvisation at 17. And to be given the benefit of saying “I want to do this” and then within safe circumstances, which is the play, you get to carry it out. You may not carry it out in life, but in that room for that moment you can do anything because you have the objective.

Jo: That’s incredible. That’s an incredible background story. And I understand it’s like that moment, that epiphany when there it is, it’s born.

Lee: That was it. And that became my life. I that was it.

Jo: Well thank god for that because we’ve enjoyed the outcome of that.

Lee: Thank god for that is right! I could’ve gone any way, I could’ve been breaking up marriages.

Jo: Well, now I have a fun question—You are our favorite Columbo murderer… you were also in the Balcony with Peter Falk…

This is a 2 part question. You worked with Peter Falk in several roles, from plays like Prisoner of 2nd Ave, to an emotional episode of Ben Casey (you both gave a wonderfully passionate and heart-wrenching performance!), to the very post-modern The Balcony, and then, famously, as our favorite Columbo murderer the lady lawyer Lesley Willams in Ransom for a Deadman. What was it like to work with him? How did you end up working with him so much?

Columbo was one of those shows that was set up in such an interesting way because there were certain murderers who were ‘sympathetic’, and you were one of them. You could tell Columbo had a lot of respect for your character’s savvy. Did you enjoy playing cat and mouse with each other (like when you say to him “it’s always the jugular he’s going for” and then when you take him for that terrifying joy ride in your airplane and he doesn’t want to talk for a while, and you’re enjoying his discomfort)? How much fun were you both having on the set?

Lee: Oh, you’re so funny! [laughs]

Jo: And I promised myself I wouldn’t ask you about Shelley Winters (co-star in The Balcony), but maybe if we have time I’ll ask you about Shelley… [laughs](back to Peter Falk)

Lee: It was a good marriage.

Jo: That’s a good way to put it.

Lee: Yeah, it was a good marriage. All of the parts we played, or were thrown in to play together, since it certainly wasn’t planned. Peter was in it and I was hired, or I was in it and then Peter. And we found ourselves each time within a new situation with a new role to play with each other. Never the same role. And we were not friends.

Jo: You weren’t? Oh, that’s what I was curious about because it almost seemed like you had such a natural flow together.

Lee: I think that’s one of the things that worked for us. That we were familiar as actors and felt each other as actors, but we had no history that would get in the way of whatever that character was. Whoever he was playing went through many versions certainly, and in his big show, I was the enemy. So it was fun to attack him freshly in whatever character he was and whatever character I was at the time—friend, enemy, enemy, friend. And at each time find an actor who could spar with you, you know, fence with you.

Jo: And you did it so well. I mean it’s funny because with Columbo there are several instances in the series where there are sympathetic murderers. And Wendy and I both think that you’re one of them. You, and Joyce Van Patten, I loved her character.

Lee: Oh, Joyce is one of my best friends.

Jo: Ah, love her! And Ruth Gordon, we love the one with Ruth Gordon. If Ruth were here Wendy and I would try to get you three to sit and have lunch with us and celebrate the best Columbo murderers.

Lee: I would do it any time, to have lunch with Ruth Gordon any time. And Joyce is one of my three very very very very best friends.

Jo: We love her. She’s another one, we just light up when we see her. She’s so wonderful. That’s so nice to hear that you are such good friends. Tell her we said hi.

Lee: I knew Joyce Van Patten when I saw her on stage as a child actor. I saw her on stage when she was about 13 or 14.

Jo: Really? Wow, so you have a long history together.

Lee: We have a long history.

Jo: Awwww that’s wonderful. And it’s interesting that you both were that sympathetic murderer, and he really had that kind of respect for you. Because no matter what hell you put him through, like flying in that plane and making him suffer, you can tell he says, “don’t talk to me for a few minutes.”

Lee: Well the thing is also that I’m the worst driver in the world. I have no sense of direction. So getting me to fly a plane like I knew where I was going and I knew what buttons to push was such a kick for me.

Jo: Oh, that’s great! This is an interesting question and something I really wanted to know.…

Do you feel that your roles in non-mainstream films (pause) or television series like Peyton Place Do you feel like they were less constrained for you as an actor?

Lee: Than what?

Jo: Thank doing a major motion picture. The smaller television series.

I wish there were more roles for you like Stella Chernak, or the wandering mother/wife in the Neon Ceiling. Or Mrs Enders, the mother in the Landlord, or Marilyn Kim Novak’s neighbor in Middle of the Night. One of my favorites and you’re going to laugh at this, but sassy Edna from Storm Fear. They were very complex, and reflexive, and quirky, and substantive roles for women?

Lee: Wait, Storm Fear? (wonderful laughing hysterically)

Jo: Storm Fear directed by Cornel Wilde. It was that… ok I’m glad you’re laughing… I’m going to ask you about that now.

Lee: [laughs] Where did you ever get to see it?

Jo: Well I’ve seen most all your work anyway, but because I knew I was going to talk to you I started re-watching a lot of your films again because I just wanted to spend time with Lee Grant.

Lee: Oh honey, that’s funny.

Jo: Ok, I have my question about Storm Fear… this will make you laugh even more…

I get the sense Cornel Wilde didn’t give a lot of direction in Storm Fear. But Edna was a very bright light in an otherwise conventional heist movie. Edna was rough around the edges, likable, and kind. There’s a great scene where she’s walking in the snow, in her fancy boots and snow shoes, swinging her purse. And she says about her mink coat “if it gets left behind, I’m gonna to be in it.” And in the end, they leave Edna dying in the snow with her two broken ankles, a wad of cash, and her mink coat. We were so upset at the end for you! Is Edna still out there in the snow? What was your experience working on that film?

Lee: “I’ll kill ya!” Do you remember his reading of “I’ll kill ya!”? Cornel Wilde would say “ok, cut. Now listen to me Steve (Steven Hill), “I’ll kill you.” “I’ll kill you. Now you try it.” And Steve goes “I’ll kill you.” And Cornel would say “ok, you’ve got it Steve. Alright, and action!” And Steve would say “I’ll kill YA!” “I’ll kill YA!” [laughs]

Jo: [laughs] That’s too hilarious! So I suspected right… that you two did your thing and were the highlight of the film. There’s the great scene—you’ll remember this—where you’re walking in the snow in your fancy shoes. And you’re swinging your purse and you’re wearing the mink coat. And you say “If this gets left behind I’m going to be in it!” And that’s exactly what happens. They leave you dying in the snow with two broken ankles and a wad of cash in your mink coat.

Lee: [laughs] Falling down into the ravine.

Jo: You had fallen into the ravine. And Wendy and I are – I’m the kind of person, I yell at the television set—And Wendy and I were like “where’s Edna?” I’m like “what about Edna?!”

Lee: Thank you! Thank you! I needed that!

Jo: I’m like all upset, what are you leaving her down there in the snow for? Give some closure. Where is she? Rescue her! Dammit! Rescue her! She’s got broken ankles!

Lee: That is so funny.

Edna-“I hate you, you creep! I hate you!!!!”

Jo: But you were great in that. And those are the kind of roles that I really do love.

Lee: Well you know the thing about that is, historically speaking, that was an absolute crossover moment in my life, because I was still blacklisted. Cornel Wilde who was a really, really decent guy hired me as a blacklisted actress in an important part in which he wanted to introduce his wife, the non-actress, as the lead. With Dan Duryea, who is no small pickings. Dan Duryea is one of the great character actors of all time.

Jo: Yes, I love him.

Lee: Now Cornel hired me when I was still deep in the blacklist and nobody else would hire me. And we made enough money to have my daughter. She was conceived in Hollywood at that time because we had enough money to have another baby, and to have my baby, as I had two stepchildren. So you know it was a ridiculous thing, stomping in the snow with this big snowshoes and a black satin dress, and my blistered scalp because they dyed my hair from dark red to platinum blonde. So my head was all blistered. But bless Cornel Wilde. He did a remarkable and wonderful thing, and I had the most important thing in my life. Dina saved me through that whole blacklisted period. Having a little girl to take care of and to be there. And she was the best, the funniest, the sweetest, the most interesting. So she saved my life, and that came out of Storm Fear. I mean, it’s so interesting when you think about it.

Jo: It really is. And your performance is almost bright and glowing. There’s something emanating from Edna. I just love Edna. And maybe that’s what I was picking up on.

Lee: Oh yes, sweetheart. But having daughter Dina was the thing that held me together through the whole thing.

Jo: And she’s a hoot.

Lee: She’s the best. The best. I just came back from being with her.

Jo: I love that she’s in that episode of the Golden Girls when Blanche, Rue MacLanahan, keeps slamming the door in her face. It is just so hilarious. The comedic timing between the two of them is brilliant. I mean, she’s got your… she’s got the gift.

Lee: Yes, she does.

Jo: It’s in her genes. Ok, now we’ll move on and I’ll ask you another question—I’m glad we had a good laugh…

I loved the scene in Hal Ashby’s film the Landlord when you and Pearl Bailey are getting drunk on pot liquor, and you walk out with the ham hock in your bag. Mrs. Enders is such a fabulous character, did you have any particular inspiration for her character? Did you enjoy working with Pearl? And, do you have any great stories from that film? He’s a great director, and Mrs Enders is another fabulous character that you’ve played.

What was the inspiration for her character…?

Lee: Yes! [laughs] Well, my mother and my aunt, yes. And I had just finished doing In the Heat of the Night which was all about losing my first husband who died of a heart attack and Norman Jewison knew that and Hal Ashby was his editor at that time, so they knew that I would come in to do In the Heat of the Night with an experience that they knew I had, and Sidney and I really improvised that scene. But that’s how they knew me. And then as a friend they let me read The Landlord, and I said I can do that part and their whole image of me was of the grieving widow. And I said “let me just do it for you because that’s my mother, that’s my aunt.” And they told me that they had Jessica Tandy attached to it and I found some blonde wig, and I stood under the lights in the hallway so that I looked older. And I did it for them and they got it. And they gave it to me. So you know to go from the first, In the Heat of the Night, to Mrs Enders was just everything I ever wanted. To plumb both of those things. So it was just thrilling for me. First of all, the movie is a masterpiece. And it was Hal’s first directing job.

Jo: So it Was his first movie.

Lee: Yes, then he did the one with Ruth Gordon.

*Hal Ashby on the set of Harold and Maude with Bud Cort and Ruth Gordon.*

Jo: Wendy and I were sold on him after he did Harold and Maude.

Lee: Harold and Maude is one of the great masterpieces ever ever made.

Jo: It absolutely is…

Lee: And I wanted to do Ruth Gordon’s part, too. It shows you how hungry and stupid I was at the same time.

Jo: I wouldn’t say stupid.

Lee: Well, how hungry and ambitious.

Jo: Right.

Lee: Not ambitious, how starved I was. I was so starved that when you showed a piece of marrow bone, like Ruth Gordon’s part, I was like “let me have it, let me have it” but I never saw a piece of work as brilliant as her…

Jo: Oh yes, she is a whole other subject… she’s something else!

Lee: She is. She is to be worshiped.

Jo: I think so. But I mean so are you, really!

Lee: Oh, ok!

Jo: We’re worshiping you today! [laughs]

Lee: Worship away! [laughs]

Jo: Ok I’m going to ask you about Shampoo… I think there should’ve been more of you…

You won an academy award for Shampoo. We’re huge fans of the brilliant filmmaker Hal Ashby. People experience this movie as a 1970s, romanticized, sexual freedom film.

I experience the film as a deification of Warren Beatty’s insatiable sexual prowess running around with his phallic blowdryer. I just think there should have been a lot more of you. Do you think the film would’ve benefited from more development of the women characters and their sexuality? You also mention in your wonderful book that Warren Beatty tried to direct you and you almost quit the film. Do you think the film needed more of your vision and direction to bring the women characters more into focus?

Lee: Well I think there should’ve been more of me!

Jo: I think so!

Lee: I think there should’ve been a lot more of me in everything that I’ve ever been in. But unfortunately, there are other actors and there is a plot and there are other ramifications. So while I always think there should be a lot more of me, practically speaking it’s not the thing to do. I think that the woman I played was sound. I think her needs, her bitterness. The rejection of her within the Hollywood framework of that time. And that glowing gorgeous daughter played by…

Jo: Carrie Fisher.

Lee: She was the most beautifully white-skinned little girl, Carrie Fisher. And for me to be a mother who was hungry and rejected and to have that child right downstairs in the house. My character was just filled with conflict and unfulfillment. And all I seem to care about in that film was my coat and my hair and getting shtupped. And grabbing at whatever I could that would fill this emptiness. I hated Hollywood at that time.

Jo: But you were more interesting and intricate than Warren Beatty’s character. I didn’t find his character as complex as I did yours.

Lee: I don’t think that he intended to be… to be… you know, Warren wrote that with Robert Towne. A great, great, great writer. And the character he wrote was a very simple guy who likes to please. He likes to please everyone. He likes to please the Jack Warden character as much as he does with the women whose hair he does, his customers. He is guaranteed to please. Because certainly he’s not that attracted to me. Right before he goes to bed with me, my daughter seduces him. And you know one of the real arguments that Warren and I had in that film was that right before the scene when I come home and I go to Carrie’s door, and I’m expecting him to be there. I’m expecting him to go upstairs and make love to me. The day before we do that scene he sits me down at the table and he says “you know Lee, Felecia (which is the character I played), Felicia does not know when she opens the door to her daughters room that the daughter and him have…” And I was so enraged that he would tell me what to think before I open that door that I quit the next day.

Jo: I read that in your book!

Lee: Yes, I quit the next day. And of course he apologized and we moved on with the scene but I said “if you ever tell me what I’m supposed to think, I won’t be there.” But the thing was, that I opened the door and of course I knew that they had gone to bed. I mean, I’m no dummy!

Jo: Of course!

Lee: And my own need was so ferocious that it didn’t matter! And that’s the way I played that scene when I went upstairs. I kept on my coat. I kept on my curlers in my hair. I just pulled down my stockings and pulled him over to me. You know, it was my needs.

Jo: Right, yes. And it’s a powerful scene and a powerful role. And that’s why you won the Academy Award for it!

Lee: Well, you know I’d been nominated a lot of times.

Jo: Oh, I know.

Lee: So usually when you’re nominated and you don’t win then you’re just a thing in the way after that. At first it’s like “Lee, Lee, look this way!” And then when you don’t win, they want you out of the way.

Jo: That’s rotten!

Lee: But I knew even when I went up to get the award finally that I was now at the age where they wouldn’t hire me. That I was going into 50, and this was probably the last big big movie.

Jo: But it wasn’t.

Lee: Only one more.

Jo: What was the movie after?

Lee: Oh, the Jewish… the boat…

Jo: Oh, yes, Voyage of the Damned.

Lee: Yes, Voyage of the Damned.

Jo: I watched the scene where you cut your hair. It’s a very difficult movie for me to watch. And, I had a relative on the ship.

Lee: What?

Jo: Yes, she was a child and she survived it. She made her way back.

Lee: Where?

Jo: Eventually she made her way to France and she is now a biochemist and a professor at Harvard. I lost relatives in the Holocaust but she was on the ship and I don’t have her name in front of me. This is terrible. My brother has been doing historical research to find our relatives and where we came from in a small town that is now part of Poland.

Lee: That’s where my father came from.

Jo: Yes, and it was Austria at the time.

Lee: We’re little strong Polish Jews!

Jo: Yes, yes, and we came to New York and it made us even stronger.

Lee: Oh yes.

Jo: We’re tough.

Lee: Something about us makes us tough.

Jo: And my mother was Russian.

Lee: So was mine! My mishpucha, honey! [laughs]

Jo: My mishpucha, yes! [laughs] That’s why I called you bubbie (short for bubbeleh-friend not grandmother) yesterday and then felt bad. I said “I’ll talk to you later, bubbie!” [laughs] And then I was like “Oy, should I have said that?”

Lee: [laughs] I’ll be your bubbie!

Jo: Oh, good, good! Ok, so now I’m going to ask you about Stella Chernack because we were talking about that bad girl you played. Again, you won a much-deserved Emmy for that. And I did watch the entire show, because of you and I knew you were in it. So I watched Peyton Place… now, Stella is amazing. An amazing character.

Again, you won a much-deserved Emmy for your portrayal of Stella Chernak. Stella leaves her working class background in Peyton Place to become a biochemist, returning when her brother gets into trouble. This is when the writing and the show were the most cohesive and well thought out. It’s one of my favorite roles. Stella is very complex and there are lots of layers to your performance. She is a bit of a Tennessee William’s character, even in the way she struts the dusty streets of the town. Did you channel any of that feeling in her character? It was an intense character study and one hell of a performance. What did Stella mean to you?

Lee: Well, the whole thing was like stepping into heaven. First of all, Stella’s an angry girl.

Jo: Yes

Lee: And I was an angry girl. And Stella was fighting the unfairness of the things around her. And I had been fighting. So this was a funnel through which all of Lee and Stella’s resentment and anger and feeling of unfairness in the world around her could go. It was like made for me.

Jo: It gave you a place to channel that anger.

Lee: It channeled it. It channeled everything. And don’t forget that I went from obscurity into America’s favorite program.

Jo: Right, and one of the greatest characters, I think. Very complex. She was angry but she was also very sympathetic. You understood where she was coming from, you know?

Lee: Yup.

Jo: And that’s what I loved about her. That’s what you brought to the show. The show is really good. After you left, things just kind of went a little crazy but still I watched the whole thing. I love Barbara Parkins, and I love a lot of the actors on the show, too.

Lee: Barbara Parkins was given her first shot in that movie…

Jo: Yes, Valley of the Dolls

Lee: Valley of the Dolls, where I played Stella again as Sharon. You know, and Patty Duke. Those were their first shots after television. And of course it went down like a log.

Jo: The film is such a pop culture icon. I mean, people are fanatical.

Lee: That’s because it’s so bad.

Jo: Did you know that it was going to become a pop religious experience for some people?

Lee: [laughs]

Jo: It is, I’m telling you!

Lee: Because it’s so bad. [laughs]

Jo: But it is and it isn’t. I mean, yes, it is. [laughs] But it’s bad in a good way.

Lee: [laughs] It could be worse, but people embrace those things and raise them up.

Jo: I can see why. You do need that kind of alternative to the heavy stuff that’s out there. You need that counter balance of the delicious–

Lee: It was pop.

Jo: It was pop. And the acting was still good!

The name of your book is “I Said Yes to Everything.” And you did say yes to films like Visiting Hours, The Swarm, and Airport ’77— the last two big budget disaster films. I was sad you ended up floating face down in Airport ’77. Did you at least have fun making these films and working with actors like Olivia de Havilland and Jack Lemmon? Do you have any good stories to tell?

I watched you in Visiting Hours with the parrot.

Lee: Oh no! tisk tisk tisk! Don’t even talk about it!

Jo: Ok, I won’t talk about it. I won’t talk about Visiting Hours. We’ll bury it. Can I talk about the Swarm and Airport ’77 where you played Christopher Lee’s wife whose a lush?

Lee: Ohhh, absolutely! [laughs]

Jo: Ok [laughs]

Lee: Visiting Hours was what made me absolutely shut down as an actor and turn to directing.

Jo: I understand why.

Lee: You know, one of my very best friends, a writer, I took to see it in the movie house. And he wouldn’t talk to me on the way home—“you can’t need money that much.” And I knew that I couldn’t do…

Jo: Look, every actor has done that. Every single actor has done a movie like that.

Lee: Yeah, yeah. Well, Airport ’77– I loved doing Airport ’77.

Jo: Well, that’s what I was going to ask you.

Lee: I loved it. [laughs]

Jo: I mean, you ended up floating face down in the water. And again, Wendy and I were yelling “no!”

Lee: [laughs] Well I have to tell you I had it in my contract that I didn’t have to jump in the water. They had a double. But, when the water scene came up, 60 year old Olivia de Havilland raised her hand and said “let me be the first! Let me!”

Jo: [laughs] oh my god!

Lee: I was so shamed that when it came time for me to do it

Jo: You had to do it!

Lee: They said “well let’s get Lee’s double” and I went “no no no I don’t have a double!” I didn’t want them to know what a coward I was.

Jo: [laughs] So you did it.

Lee: So I just jumped! Because I wanted to be like Olivia, you know. She’s just so amazing.

Jo: Yes, she is.

Lee: What a hero Olivia de Havilland is. I mean, think about it.

Jo: We share the same birthday so every time it’s my birthday I always toast Olivia. Because, wow we have the same birthday and she loves cats.

Lee: I do too.

Jo: Oh, you do? I thought you were a dog person

Lee: Yes, we have 2 cats. But what a woman, what a spirit! Let me be the first, she said, climbing down from the rafters.

Jo: [laughs]

Lee: All through Airport ’77 she sat in the rafters with the lighting guys and chatted with them.

Jo: Do you know Wendy was a lighting designer before she was a sociologist.

Lee: Of course she was! Wendy the lighting designer sociologist, of course!

Jo: Same thing, right?

Lee: Same thing! Shed the light someplace!

Jo: Exactly, beautifully put. See, leave it to you. I have a few more questions, is that ok?

Lee: I’m just lying here on the chaise lounge in my nightgown as comfortable as somebody who just woke up.

Jo: That sounds lovely!

Lee: And having a wonderful time with you.

Jo: Oh good! We’re having a blast, too! There are several performances of yours I’ve never seen and that makes me upset because I’m a completist. I want to see everything you did. And in your book you write about the show The Defenders. I love the show, but that episode is unavailable. The particular episode that you did is not out, or not yet at least.

Like a few others, there are several performances of yours that I haven’t been able to see because they’re unavailable. For example, there’s an episode of The Defenders in which, as I read in your book, director Stuart Rosenberg lit you in a way that was your favorite. There was The Doctors and the Nurses, another incredible dramatic television series. And then there is the the motion picture An Affair of the Skin (1963) where you co-starred with the brilliant Diana Sands, who died tragically at 39. I would love to see your work in that film. Can you tell me about the film and about working with Diana?

Lee: I know, she was in… Raisin in the Sun.

Jo: Raisin in the Sun

Lee: Yes, and the other movie with Pearl Bailey… The Landlord

Jo: Yes! She was in the Landlord, too, that’s right. So you worked with her twice. What did you think of that film Affair of the Skin, because I don’t know much about it.

Lee: I don’t remember it. Vivica Lindfors was in it. And I just don’t remember it. I don’t remember what I did or anything.

Jo: Maybe somebody will find the film.

Lee: I hope not!

Jo: Ok, then maybe they’ll find a way to get it buried so it never comes out. Did you enjoy working with Diana because I love her work and I find it so tragic that she died so young. She was kind of one of the first Black women who had a much different kind of persona. She wasn’t doing the roles—well maybe Ruby Dee did—but she wasn’t playing the maids and she wasn’t playing the nurses.

Lee: Well, also Hal Ashby didn’t get them maids and nurses to play. The Landlord was a brilliant script and it highlighted the difference between the Long Island whites and Harlem. And Bo Bridges, I mean he was astonishing in it. His sweetness, his openness. You know, that was a script for the ages. And I personified again that kind of closed-minded rich stupid mother.

Jo: Well, insulated maybe.

Lee: Yes, totally insulated. You know no idea beyond the house and the garden and the friends what life was about at all. And it’s such an astonishing piece of work.

Jo: Yes, it was. Did you get to work much with Diana in that?

Lee: Yes, well, we hung out. And after the film was over I gave a party at the apartment in New York, as we all stayed in New York, and Diana and I were sitting there waiting for Hal because we both had a crush on him. And his girlfriend, who he later married, at the time she would not let him come.

Jo: Possessive! Oh really [laughs]

Lee: So Diana and I sat and drank wine and talked about how mean she was and how much we loved him. [laughs]

Jo: Did he help you pick out clothes, did I read that right?

Lee: Yes, he did. In the Heat of the Night.

Jo: Yes, in the Heat of the Night he helped you pick out the clothes. He was the editor on the film.

Lee: Yes, yes.

Jo: Ok, you might not want to talk about this movie either, and if you don’t want to you don’t have to. But first, I noticed recently you did an interview for a documentary on Boris Karloff? You worked with him on “Even the Weariest River” on the Alcoha Hour. And I haven’t been able to see it. A lot of the Alcoha Hour and those dramatic television performances from the 50s are hard to get. But Boris Karloff is my idol. I’ve always said I wanted him to be my grandfather, because he’s the most gentle soul. And I met his daughter Sarah and she’s just wonderful.

You worked with Boris Karloff in 1956 on the Alcoa Hour “Even the Weariest River” it hasn’t been released so there’s no way to see it. I have to ask you what was it like to work with him? Do you have any stories about working with him?

Lee: Well, you know, I just remember that when I was blacklisted and he was playing on Broadway, maybe it was St. Joan, I don’t know but there was something so gracious and so magnanimous, and so grandfatherly, and beautiful about him. And he would always sign all my petitions. I was little girl who couldn’t work. And, you know, it was dangerous to sign petitions, you know you couldn’t work either if you did. And Kim Stanley and Maureen Stapleton were ones who were always working on Broadway and also signed my petitions. But you know I hadn’t remembered working with him in this television movie. I know they brought it to me, and the people in it… I was the only girl. And it was during the blacklist so the director had to be a very very brave guy. A very brave guy. Because I was the only woman and he cast me in it.

Jo: So you stood out.

Lee: Yes, it was with Boris Karloff and Christopher Plumber. It’s a terrible movie.

Jo: Oh is it really? [laughs]

Lee: Yes, but very interesting. I mean because it’s all packed. In those days you shot on set. There wasn’t a closeup. You kind of walked into the shot.

Jo: Right, it was live theatre, really, right?

Lee: Yes, it was shooting live theatre. So it had that kind of rushed feeling. But the story was meaningful, and I was just so surprised to see me there. And I’ve just forgotten a lot of what I did.

Jo: Well I didn’t even realize you had done something with Boris Karloff.

Lee: I didn’t, either. [laughs]

Jo: [laughs] Well, you know he’s so iconic, and thinking of you and him together is such an interesting confluence. Ok, so I’m going to ask you about a movie you might not want to talk about…

Lee: Which could that be?

Jo: Ah, The Mafu Cage?

Lee: [laughs] Oh, yes!

Jo: Because you worked with Carol Kane. She’s brilliant, she’s such a noodlehead. She’s just something else.

Lee: Yes, she is.

Jo: I thought that The Mafu Cage, directed by Karen Arthur, is a very primal and dark film. It seemed like a difficult and disturbing narrative for both you and Carol Kane to step into. It’s a psycho-sexual mine-field, almost filmed like a stage play, about captivity and dependency. It must have been a tough movie to film. Was it difficult for you two seasoned actors? Can you tell me what the process was like for you?

Lee: Oh, of course! Oh, I don’t know, there must’ve been some spare time to do it. And it was a woman director, Karen Arthur. And I don’t remember what year it was. But I know I thought, why not? It was Carol Kane, who was a delicious friend. And it was an absurd concept. You know, for her to have this relationship with a…

Jo: An orangutan maybe?

Lee: It was a gorilla, you know, Carol and the gorilla. So I mean it was absurd enough to say why not? It didn’t take very long and so it was like going to a bad nightclub, you know what I’m saying?

Jo: Yes! [laughs]

Lee: Oh, let’s go in there and see what happens.

Jo: Yes, dark and scary and there’s a little journey in there.

Lee: Yes, yeah. It was a why not, you know?

Jo: But the thing is it’s an interesting, disturbing film but there’s a lot in it. And your performances, you made it a good film. I think it’s a really kind of an unsung horror/ psychological thriller. I don’t think it’s a bad film at all, maybe it could’ve been a stage play.

Lee: The thing is that Karen Arthur conceived it and directed it and she got Carol Kane and me, and James Olson, to do it. Wow! I would like to be able to say that I did that. That I pulled it off and made that movie. So it’s really Karen Arthur’s triumph.

Jo: Yes sure.

Lee: And any time a female director—especially at that time—with that concept, to pull it off and make that movie. You know, my hat off to her!

Jo: Yes, absolutely! She did a really amazing job because I walked away from the film kind of speechless. And thinking about things, and when a movie sends you away thinking about something, speechless, you know that there’s something going on there.

Lee: Yes and don’t forget there were no women directors then. There were like 2 in New York and that’s it.

Jo: Right, that’s another reason to applaud the film, the fact that her vision was realized. It’s very good. And then, this is one is probably one of my favorite performances of yours, The Neon Ceiling, where you play the mother who leaves her husband and just drives into the desert. It’s a special film…

In the Neon Ceiling you play a mother who leaves her husband and just drives — winding up in the desert with her teenage daughter. It’s a very unusual and special little film co-starring Gig Young and Denise Nickerson, a talented young actress. Wendy and I were really enchanted by it. I found your performance as Carrie Miller profoundly moving because it was so un-selfconscious and powerful. At the risk of sounding contrived what was your inspiration for bringing that character to life?

Lee: Well first of all, that character was the part of me I never got to play.

Jo: In real life?

Lee: In real life, yeah. The part of me in my first marriage where my husband fault with me, that I wasn’t this enough, or that enough, or, or, I was never enough. And I wasn’t smart enough. And so that whole beginning with the husband that I run away from. Where I can’t do anything right, I can’t even shop for groceries…

Jo: It kind of paralleled…

Lee: Yes, yes, and I had a daughter. I had Dina. So Denise was Dina. And so if I could’ve known how to run away, in my early years I would have. And going into the desert… the desert was a very new experience for me as a person. I’d never been in the desert. And the peace. Sitting on the back porch of this gas station and just looking out at the desert became, it became a totally new experience for me. And something that I needed but didn’t know that I need. And there was an Indian tribe there who would come and ask for the lunch that we had every day. It was like the small remnants of like what 20 people didn’t eat. And a woman in the tribe who was leading the tribe became a mentor. So she was so strong and so calm. And the things that she asked for were so real. That she became somebody I admired and wanted to be like. And she gave me a puppy.

Jo: That’s right, I read about the puppy Nusski given to you by the Sioux.

Lee: Yes!

Jo: Who was with you for many many years.

Lee: Yes, who came with us to New York. And Gig, he was so attractive and so hurt someplace.

Jo: I know, it’s so tragic.

Lee: He needed caring for. You know, and so did Denise in her way. She asked for it, he didn’t. And somehow me, tickled as I was, I felt a soul there that I connected with. And it was so beautiful and the writer created something that nobody else created.

Jo: Was that Carol Sobieski who also wrote for Peyton Place?

Lee: Yes, Carol Sobieski. She was extraordinary.

Jo: Yes, she’s a great writer.

Lee: She’s a great writer and I felt it was a privilege—a privilege of all the things I’ve done—being able to go there.

Jo: Yes, there’s something… I guess that’s what we’re doing, is witnessing a lot of your transformations on screen. We’re seeing, you know, you’re in the desert and you’re having this transcendence. And it’s coming through to your character, Carrie.

Lee: Yes, yes.

Jo: It’s such a beautiful performance. It’s so subtle and so quiet and so beautiful. And so painful.

Lee: Yes.

Jo: You convey all of that and that’s hard to do and you do it. You just pull it off like nobody else could. And that’s the thing I love are these other women that you play, are these roles and these women that deserve to be looked at. And I’ve certainly been having a great time delving into your work.

Lee: And have you! Wow!

Jo: Maybe I’ve been digging too deep!

Lee: You’ve found things I’ve forgotten. That one I knew is just so special. It’s interesting because Frank who directed it—Frank Pierson. A very very close friend, too. He also, much later he did The Life of Roy Cohn.

Jo: Oh, Frank Pierson.

Lee: Yes, Frank Pierson. On HBO, and he called me then and he said “do you want to be Roy Cohn’s mother? Or do you want to be the one who was killed? The spy.” Anyway, he was the writer who became the director, because he had nothing to do with writing that, Carol wrote it. And he came to be the night before and said, “you know, I’d like to do some changes in this. And you know she really isn’t as good as all that.” And I said, “well, hire another actor. Because if you touch this script. (The Neon Ceiling) ” You know why would you do that? Why, why? And he said “oh, I…” and I said “you don’t like women. You don’t like women.” And in that particular incidence, he didn’t. And in everything else—because I worked with him many times—he’s a great writer and a great director—but this was too simple for him.

Jo: I know of his work and have seen a lot of it. So they kept it the same way?

Lee: Absolutely, he took it back. And we left the next day.

Jo: We just have a couple more questions. And Wendy wanted to talk with you. You know, I saw a scene you directed—we’ll get into your directing in a minute—I watched a scene from Tell me a Riddle with Melvin Douglas and Lela Kedrova that you directed. And just the little scene that I saw ripped my guts up. I just—

Lee: Mine too.

Jo: It’s so heartbreaking. I know that you’re a wonderful director and I know it’s probably not hard to direct Melvin Douglas and Lela Kedrova, but you absolutely created this poignant journey. But Wendy here is a sociologist who teaches social movements and she shows documentaries in classes and has used your documentaries in classes. And she wanted to ask you about the documentaries that you did, you know back in the day when they became movies of the week and there was a wide audience for them. And you started asking the socially relevant questions.

Wendy: Hi Lee, I teach sociology classes and I use documentaries all the time. So I’m always looking for ones that are good and well done. And I was really intrigued by the ones you did in the 1980s. The ones that really gave voice to marginalized individuals. So you did the film about poverty—Down and Out in America—which is still unfortunately relevant today.

In the early 1980s you started directing documentary films, specifically films that give voice to marginalized individuals way before others were doing so Down and Out in America (the poor, transgender individuals WHAT SEX AM I , women in prison who killed their abusive husbands in self-defense , the Willmar 8, etc.). Some of these were released as movies of the week to very large audiences. What led you to start making these kinds of documentaries? Were there social and political triggers?

Lee: Yes, unfortunately it’s still relevant.

Wendy: And it was also, to me, when it came out in the mid-80s, very much a response to Ronald Reagan’s trickledown economics. You can really see it situated in that.

Lee: You put your finger right on it.

Wendy: And I talk about that when I teach inequality so it’s good to give students that context and history. Then there’s the documentary you did in the 1980s on transgender individuals, which no one had really done yet.

Lee: Yes, What Sex Am I?

Wendy: The Women in Prison, the Willmar 8, about women bankers who went on strike and I cannot find that one anywhere but I would love to use it because I teach about activism and social movements so I’m always looking for things about activism and I couldn’t find that one anywhere so I haven’t seen it. I was just curious about what made you switch, to not just directing, but directing these documentaries about marginalized populations. Like what were the social and political triggers of that for you?

Lee: Well, you know during the early years and not being able to say anything. And even when I was in LA, I was careful about what I said about it. You know, I acted in things that said things. And I have a best friend, Marybeth Yarrow, who had been married to Peter Yarrow. And in her small town in Willmar, there were 7 women who went on strike at the bank because bank president there would have them train these boys in the bank, and then have them be the women’s bosses. So these little boys that they would train would suddenly tell them what to do and get a higher salary. So the women went out on strike. And Marybeth read that to me, and I had just been at AFI and had taken a women’s directing workshop. Their first women’s directing workshop. I said let’s go there and make a documentary. And that kicked open the whole tunnel. Her husband, Peter, raised like 30,000 dollars and went to Willmar. It was the middle of the winter. So cold that you couldn’t open your mouth to ask a question.

Jo and Wendy: [laugh]

Lee: I mean your mouth froze. And those 7 women were out there on strike in front of the bank. They could hardly walk it was so cold. And you know it kicked open a door in me that had said, don’t talk, be quiet. You know, save yourself, don’t talk, be quiet. And I thought you know, thank God, I can do this. I can get away with this. I can put it on film. Finally, I’ve found my voice. I have found my voice. And it just meant everything to me. Finally, I’d landed on my feet and there was no fear. So I was just starved for that. And I made one after another after another after another. I loved that I had to go all different places and open all kinds of doors. You know our second film was in the prison system

Wendy: Yes, we saw parts of it.

Lee: You know, what a revelation! I was free! I was free! I was really free of the blacklist finally! And not only that, I had tools that could fight the blacklist. I could show what the truth was.

Wendy: Right, which is why I love showing documentaries because it shows students individuals—gives voice to individuals—who I can’t bring to the classroom.

Lee: Right, exactly.

Wendy: Especially the women in prison film, I don’t think anybody was talking about whether or not women should be in prison for killing an abusive spouse in the 1980s no one was covering that. And Down and Out in America is also unfortunately still relevant but also shows how devastating politics was in the 1980s while we tend to misremember it as being some golden era in America, right? Well compared to what we’re living in now…

Lee: Well, I don’t know whether you were able to get hold of my Texas film?

Wendy: I don’t think so.

Jo: No…

Lee: HBO was sued so it was only shown once.

Jo: Oh, about the children being taken away from their mothers…?

Lee: It was judges in Texas who took children away from the mothers and gave them to the fathers who were suspected of abusing them.

Jo: Oh my God! Wow.

Lee: Yeah.

Jo: You were sued for that?

Lee: HBO got sued, and that show was only on one time.

Wendy: I wonder if it’s in any college libraries someplace still?

Lee: I have it! So at some point I can lend it to you to make a copy of and you can use it.

Wendy: Oh that would be wonderful.

Lee: But also if and when this documentary thing happens in October and my films are shown.

Jo: Yes, the retrospective!

Lee: Yes, I can’t wait for the documentaries to be shown.

Wendy: And I have so many sociologist friends in and around NYC who would totally be there for it. We’re all big fans of well-made interesting documentaries.

Jo: And we’ll be there.

Wendy: Yes, I love to nerd-out on documentaries. Jo watches her classic films and I’m watching like 13th on Netflix…

Jo: Yes, she’s watching her serious and depressing documentaries. I mean, I’m just so dark because of what’s going on in the world in politics, because it’s like a Stanley Kubrick nightmare that you imagine would never happen in real life.

Lee: Yes, it’s so disturbing, this nightmare. It’s like having Roy Cohn as president, you know, because…

Jo: It’s dystopian…

Lee: Yes, and there aren’t words and there’s just no way to describe it… This is a nightmare.

Jo: And there’s a collective depression and angst that people are feeling in their lives.

Lee: And there is. It is.

Jo: And that’s what’s tragic and it’s America’s Id so then you’ve got the people that support him…

Wendy: I like to focus on—because I study social movements and activism—I like to focus on the activism.

Jo: Yes, she’s the glass half full person.

Wendy: Yes, I focus on the people making the change. That’s what my research is about and that’s what I try to teach my students to raise some hell. And voting. Because otherwise I’d just lose my mind.

Lee: Yes, all of us. I mean living within this screenplay, being a character within a screenplay that we loath and detest and want to get out of. And are trapped in.

Jo: Yes, exactly. That’s scary. Thanks for scaring us, Lee! [laughs]

Lee: [laughs] But it really has an effect.

Jo and Wendy: Yes, it does.

Lee: I mean, especially since we had Obama.

Jo: Yes, Well, is there an end in sight? When will we get out of this madness? We need relief.

Lee: Yes, it’s madness.

Jo: We need to be able to breathe again!

Lee: And I’m overwhelmed. It’s overwhelming. Everywhere I look is horror. And it’s not like oh this is something that really has been addressed, it’s not like we need to just shake this or show people… this is horror.

Jo: Yes, it’s organic horror.

Lee: And it’s death. It’s killing people.

Jo: If not only in body but also in spirit.

Wendy: And actually in body.

Lee: Yes, it’s killing people. All over the world. Yesterday I was listening to the television and Saudi Arabia hires African soldiers to kill other Arabs. Instead of doing it themselves they hire African soldiers into that Arab conclave that’s left—Yemen. It was like wow, hired professionals.

Wendy: We would just sleep better if we knew there were people in office trying to make things better instead of worse.

Jo: I just don’t understand it, how we got here.

Lee: We got here in a minute.

Jo: Yes.

Lee: And watch out for this. I feel that the way Bernie Sanders treated Hillary Clinton…

Wendy: Oh yeah don’t even get me started.

Lee: It was the beginning of the end. Kicked open the door for Trump.

Jo: Yes. When I saw his scowling face at the convention, I wanted to smack him.

Lee: Bernie, yes. He was so abusive to her. And of course all my leftie friends are like “but Bernie’s the best, Bernie’s…” But look how he’s treating her. It was like how my communist husband treated me. Like she’s a dummy, she’s Wall Street.

Jo: Yeah, we’re in agreement!

Lee: And I think there was a democratic disaffection—20% of democrats voted for Bernie and that’s what pushed this bully…

Wendy: Yup, and we can thank them for the Supreme Court and a lot of crap.

Lee: That’s right. You’re the only ones who get it!

Wendy: There are others that get it, but it seems like we’re few and far between. There’s a lot of us who are not Bernie fans for good solid reasons. I’m happy Bernie’s light seems to be dimmer this time around and he’s not polling as well as he did before. People don’t seem as excited about him now.

Lee: I’m just worried about it.

Wendy: Yeah, like are we going to get our acts together on the left?

Lee: Yes, are we?

Jo: Oh, but we should not totally veer off into politics. We should close with a good film or acting  question! I wanted to ask you about your performance in Electra. I was reading your book and almost peeing my pants laughing as you’re describing wearing that crimson red velvet gown? And it’s raining and you get drenched in the rain.

I read in your book about how you worked with Joe Papp on Shakespeare in the Park, playing Electra by Sophocles. I can visualize this powerful performance, the method training, that rainy day, you dragging Theoni’s Aldridge’s crimson gown, the heavy fabric soaked through across the stage. And there’s the audience floating away in the deluge as devoted as ever. You said it was the most risky, challenging role. Alfred Ryder a wonderful actor played Hamlet before this and his performance was televised, but it was a disaster, and it nearly ruined his acting career. Do you regret that your performance of Electra was not televised and recorded so that we could see it today? I would’ve loved to see you on stage, even in the flood.

Lee: And the whole audience is drenched!

Jo: And the papers are floating away, and you’re out there shouting. And the show’s ended and they’re still out there clapping in the rain.

Lee: Talk about a switch from bleak and bad, to emboldened and powerful playing Electra!

Jo: Yes, we needed some Electra!

Lee: Jo Papp gave me Electra and saw that I was ready to spew and all lessons he gave me, the teachers who came in to correct my language so that I was ready to take on that role. And to let go of all that rage and fierceness, under the cover of the state at Central Park. It was such a release for me to play that.

Jo: Yeah, you said it was a very risky role for you. Challenging.

Lee: Very. And he handed it to me.

Jo: Wow.

Lee: And what a thing to do.

Jo: A gift.

Lee: Yes, what a gift. What a thing to do. The most powerful theatre man in New York and the most liberal and radical, and gorgeous.

Jo: Gorgeous?

Lee: Gorgeous, gorgeous [laughs]

Jo: He knew you could do it. So in your book you mentioned that Alfred Rider had done Hamlet. And when they televised it and it didn’t go over very well. Electra… It doesn’t exist. Do you regret that there is no visual evidence of that performance?

Lee: No, no.

Jo: I wish I couldn’t seen you on stage. Even in Prisoner on Second Avenue I wash I could’ve seen you on stage. So you’re really not sorry that they didn’t televise it?

Lee: No. No, it’s an experience.

Jo: It’s one of those moments it exists like a firefly.

Lee: It was a live experience. Like a marriage. And you know it lifted me.

Jo: So you’re laying on your chaise, did you finish your coffee?

Lee: Oh, it’s half finished. I’m still in my nightgown. [laughs]

Jo: I could talk with you all day like this!

Lee: I know!

Jo: What is a great way to end this?

Lee: What’s a great way to end this?

Jo: Is there something you want to talk about? That we didn’t cover. You’ve got such an impressive career in theatre, film, and television. On both sides of the camera. You’ve worked with amazing people. You have great friends.

Lee: How about Al—who’s the one was who was thrown out of office? Al Franken? How about Al Franken. He didn’t have a choice to leave but I want him back. And that’s what I want to write about.

Wendy: What are you working on for writing?

Lee: I’ve just been writing in spurts, just things that I have to get out of my system, as you can hear when I talk to you. There are things I have to spew, and get down on paper to get it out of me. And so what’s I’m going to do, I’m going to write about the stupidity and short-sightedness of getting rid of the only one in Congress that I know of who could go up against Trump and just demolish him, with his humor and his knowledge. That was the stupidest action that could be taken.

Jo: I was so mad at him for messing up because we needed him. And so mad at him for stepping down.

Lee: He was pushed out. He was forced out. Did you read that New Yorker article about the woman who came to his defense?

Jo: No, we haven’t seen that one.

Lee: It’s like 2 weeks ago. So you can read it.

Wendy: I’ll look it up. I keep more up on the politics stuff than Jo does. Jo likes to live in her classic film bubble.

Jo: I like to live in my classic film world and if I don’t… I’ll go mad.

Lee: Oh, I understand. And I’m sorry to break through that.

Jo: No, no. It’s fine. And I don’t want to give the impression that I’m not proactive. I do what needs to be done.

Lee: Oh, I’m not accusing you, I’m just opening my arms and pulling you into my world.

Jo: Oh I love your world, and I know that. And it’s Wendy’s world. I hear about it… all about it, and friends who are very active.

Wendy: And we have friends who go to the TCM movie festival and a couple years ago you were there and made a speech, and they were all tweeting and texting about it, saying oh my God, this is so awesome! And I was like, of course, it’s Lee Grant! And that makes her even more amazing that you would give this really political speech!

Lee: It does, girls, it just makes me more amazing! Every single day.

Wendy: Hell yeah! People have to speak out!

Lee: On that note, we will end this.

Jo: Ok.

Lee: But I’ve had such a great time and I love you.

Jo: Oh, we love you too, Lee!

Lee: And I’ve had fun. And so we may not be still doing your thing, but we can still talk and still have a relationship.

Jo: We would love to stay in touch.

Wendy: And if you have copies of any of your documentaries, I would love it. If they would be easy for me to copy, because I would show them in class.

Jo: Maybe some day we could come into the city and have coffee with you.

Lee: Yes, maybe you can do that and take things and make copies, if you know how to do that. Because I don’t know how to do anything.

Wendy: Ok, I’m good with the technical stuff.

Jo: So next time, we’ll come into the city and do it.

Lee: Yes, we’ll do that. You’re both adorable.

Jo: Lee speaks truth to power and wants to be heard.

Wendy: Great, so we’ll be in touch.

Lee: Have a good day, girls!

Jo: Take care, Lee!

This has been YourEverlovin’ Joey saying what more is there to say… but I love you Lee Grant!

“Out Loud” Part 1– A Biography of the Legendary Lee Grant…

Update! The Film Forum in NYC has put together a retrospective of 13 films and documentaries featuring some of Lee’s best work as an actor and director.

 

“The dichotomy of my genius status at home and my slightly below par status in the outside world gave me a sense of instability and unreality throughout all of my life about exactly who I was and what I was capable of. Could that be why I grabbed so ferociously at acting? Grounding myself in a structure that worked for me, the observant child?”
— And excerpt from I Said Yes to Everything -Lee Grant talking about Sandy Meisner and The Neighborhood Playhouse.

How do you start out a biography about someone who is a virtual legend?

Lee Grant 1977 © 1978 Ulvis Alberts

When I attended the Chiller Theatre Expo I had the exciting opportunity to meet one of my favorite actors, Academy Award winner Lee Grant. This meeting turned out to be one of the great highlights of my life. While I’ve followed her work my entire life, after connecting with her, I began my exploration into Lee Grant’s life by immersing myself first in her incredibly honest and potent autobiography. “I Said Yes to Everything”  is an expository journey written long-hand by Lee herself in classic black and white note books. It’s a well-written intimate portrait of a courageous and brilliant actor.

“Lee Grant’s I Said Yes to Everything is heart-stopping. More than just a show-business memoir or chronicle of the Hollywood blacklist era, it is a terrifying account of a gifted artist’s tumultuous journey—both personal and professional. You will feel every jolt of terror that Grant endured, wondering if you would have been as brave. Her triumph becomes our own. Readers of this gripping book will surely reach the final page shouting a victorious “Yes! To everything that is Lee Grant.” -Marlo Thomas

With every role Lee Grant undertakes —from stage to early dramatic teleplays, to television series and onto the big screen— she transports an inner truth and an understanding of the world’s pleasures, and too, it’s miseries. Never afraid to take risks, she turned a career that was at one time silenced, into a great triumph by reclaiming her place in Hollywood. She then forged her own road into directing, where her voice and compassionate vision helped marginalized people have their say as well.

This is the spirit of Lee Grant, a woman who kicked down the door, prevailed the madness of the blacklist and without settling. She become a formidable actress, director, a legend, and friend.

Reading about her incredible life story, I Said Yes to Everything, brought me closer to the actress whom I already admired and loved for so many years. It’s a reflexive reminiscence, at times brutal and at other times it evokes laughter. Lee Grant has a primal and candid sense of humor that is so invigorating to experience. And hearing it from Lee herself is life-altering and beyond meaningful.

Portrait of American actress Lee Grant, New York, New York, July 1970. (Photo by Jack Robinson/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

I also reexamined a lot of her great work so I could surround myself with the essence of her talent. It not only fortified what I had already felt about her capacity to engage each role, I met several characters that I hadn’t seen before. And was completely knocked over by Lee Grant’s awe-inspiring performances. To have the opportunity to talk to someone you’ve known as an acting legend can make you quite star struck as you try to find your own voice without sounding like a fool. But Lee Grant is a real and raw person. She’s one of those people you meet by chance in life, striking up a wonderful connection as if you’ve known them for years. This is just another layer of greatness to an already great actor.

Lee Grant is one of the most expository of actors. She uses her distinctive voice, that moves along the walls of your mind like an elegant cat, with an expressiveness that brings to bear even the most subtle of gestures. She has an attentiveness to detail, and her extraordinary sensuality is deep-rooted with a swift and clever sense of humor.

Lee Grant1965 © 1978 Gene Trindl

As an actor, she brings and intimacy to her roles, complex, passionate sensual dynamic versatile, and authentic. A talent caught up in the net of the HUAC insanity that ruined lives, and literally took her act of belonging away in Hollywood and from an industry where time is essential in order to obtain recognition and primacy.

I suspected that Lee always put a little of her real self in each role. It turns out I was right as you’ll learn from our conversation about her performances. There is no one quite like Lee. Absolutely no other actor like her.

Lee with one of her original oil paintings.

Like David fighting Goliath, she kept her resilience during those dark years of the blacklist. She’s an actor who is truthful enough to bare her vulnerabilities, machinations, fears, fancies, the quirks and chinks in the armor— it’s all out there, and wonderfully bold and ballsy an individualist and unfailingly frank. She is fragile and fierce, honest, courageous and unwilling to be shut off or out.

The insanity of the McCarthy Era and fanatics like Vincent Hartnett tried to steal 12 years from Lee Grant. But she refused to be silenced. To this day she speaks truth to the powers that be. She has earned the right to be seen and heard. She’s a woman who has become a firebrand with her socially conscious lens as a filmmaker, documentarian, director, activist, writer and a mother to yet another gifted soul, Dinah Manoff. Talent and fierceness—it runs in the blood.

Lee Grant to me, is someone I’ll always regard with a sense of awe and respect. I’m incredibly honored that she allowed me a glimpse into her life and shared that sense of humor and her determination to be heard. And what a story she has to tell!

Actress Lee Grant poses for a portrait in circa 1971. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Continue reading ““Out Loud” Part 1– A Biography of the Legendary Lee Grant…”