Tuesday, October 15

Did He Quit Us?

Richard Beymer is famous for playing Tony in the 1961  musical, West Side Story.  It may very well be the best American musical ever made, certainly one of the most iconic, and he was the male star.  Quite an accomplishment in his field.  History will not forget him or at least not the role he played.  To this day he has made only 22 theatrical movies (most of them utterly forgettable), a decidedly small effort considering he started his career as a young boy in the early 1950s.
I once had a prurient interest in him... a long ago pasttime that evolved into a simple joy at seeing his work, including a respect I had gathered for his earnestness in portraying characters with an appealing aw-gosh naturalness. And then he was gone.  Not dead.  Like dead.  He came, he saw, he wanted to conquer, he took a powder.

Most of his career operated in a sputtering fashion, never really gathering much momentum, which is a shame considering what his appearance in West Side Story could have done for him.  Did he intentionally sabotage his career?  Could he have just been careless about it?  Was he one of those reviled by Hollywood?  Did he have a temperament problem, hard to get a long with on the set?  Did he have a dark sexual side?  Was he hiding as a closeted gay man.  Did he have serious drug or alcohol problems?  What skeletons did he have?  There must have been something because a man this talented and handsome and already acclaimed because of one performance would have gone up, up, up, not down.

He was born in Iowa in 1939 but moved with his parents to Southern California in the late 1940s.  He appeared on a local L.A. kiddie show when he was 12 and began movie work when he was 14.  He first appeared uncredited in Fourteen Hours, a story of a man who is planning to jump from the ledge of a hotel.  Grace Kelly also made her debut in this film while Jeffrey Hunter and Debra Paget also had brief parts. 

I discovered young Beymer in Indiscretion of an American Wife in 1953, a film a bit too slow and adult for a kid my age, but I was pretty stoked on its stars, Montgomery Clift and Jennifer Jones.  I had no idea who Beymer was but he certainly caught my eye with that earnest, open-faced look.  A year later he would show up in So Big, the second treatment of the Edna Ferber novel about a hard-working, widowed mother and her devoted son.  

He would then work for Disney in the Revolutionary War drama Johnny Tremaine, although he did not have the title role.  He began a lot of work guest starring in various TV series.  He would wind up doing more of this type of work than he would do in films and it could have had something to do with the way his career took hold.  It's certainly no mystery that a serious movie actor will have a difficult time establishing himself in films if he mostly guest stars in television.

In 1959 he made a leap by appearing in the prestigious production of The Diary of Anne Frank, as Peter Van Daan, the son of the other family hiding out with the Franks.  He would make two silly movies with Tuesday Weld, High Time and Bachelor Flat, because teenage boys needed to be in silly teenage movies.  At least he had the good fortune of working with a damned good actress like Weld.  I wonder how that worked out.

In between the two Weld movies came West Side Story.  I wish I knew how he came to get that part.  Why isn't there information out in that vast world of facts and fiction about how he got that role?  He had no musical background that I am aware of nor would he do his own singing as Tony.  Jimmy Bryant would more than ably handle those chores.  Larry Kert, who had done the role on Broadway, was considered too old to now play Tony.  Besides, he was not known in Hollywood.  Much the same could be said about Carol Lawrence, who played Maria on the stage.

We do know that at one time or another such names as Marlon Brando, Bobby Darin, Warren Beatty, Troy Donahue, Tab Hunter, Tony Perkins, Richard Chamberlain, Dennis Hopper, Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood were considered for the coveted role.  So how did the relatively unknown Beymer get the part?

There were, of course, a number of gay actors in the list above.  Larry Kert was also gay.  I have always regarded Tony as being gay but too young to know it when we meet him.  His relationship with Maria has always reminded me of that one boy-girl relationship a budding gay teen becomes involved in.  I always thought Tony and Maria tried too hard, which is another indicator of my premise.  The point of this is I think either a gay actor or a straight actor in touch with his feminine side is the only type to play Tony with any degree of purpose.  While I've always thought Beymer was excellent in the role, I discerned a femininity in some of his movements.  He ran like a girl and was certainly never as butch as some of the Sharks or Jets.

Yes, I quite liked his performance.  His singing of Maria and Tonight and Somewhere particularly raised my blood pressure.  But the irony here is that Beymer hated his performance.  He has said that it embarrassed him.  Really?  During the London presentation of the film, he left halfway through the film and was not presented to the Queen. 

Over the years Beymer has never been a part of any tribute to the film that I have seen.  This includes a recent 50-year anniversary tribute on The Today Show that did include Russ Tamblyn, Rita Moreno and George Chakiris.  I don't think that Beymer was even mentioned.  Maybe he didn't get along with them, I don't know.  I do know that he and Wood quarrelled through most of the filming.

It's just too bad that he felt the way he did about such a wonderful part in such an iconic film.  Christopher Plummer was quoted often over the years about his contempt for The Sound of Music and yet he has recently begun showing up for those tributes.  Too bad Beymer couln't have done the same.  Let bygones be bygones.  It is still his ticket to ride.

He was part of a marvelous cast which included Rosalind Russell, Maximilian Schell and Jack Hawkins for Five Finger Exercise but it didn't do much business.  The dollars poured in for The Longest Day, the epic, all-star war drama about D-Day, and Beymer was fortunate to have been in the final scene with Richard Burton.

Adventures of a Young Man was meant to be his next big blockbuster film, but hopes were dashed when one saw that the finished product was rather lumbering and confusing.  Beymer starred as Nick Adams, created by Ernest Hemingway in his own image, of course.  I quite liked the film despite my noticing its shortcomings and a cast that included cameos by Paul Newman, Jessica Tandy, Arthur Kennedy, Dan Dailey and the wonderful Juano Hernandez helped.  I will assume it was a bitter disappointment for Beymer.

A rather ghastly film called The Stripper followed.  It was based on a William Inge play called A Loss of Roses which Warren Beatty had done on Broadway.  For the movie version, it was thought a little sensationalizing was necessary and out came the title The Stripper.  In the title role was Joanne Woodward, never the first to come to my mind in this type of part and it undoubtedly contributed to why this film bombed before she got to the end of the runway.

And that just about sums up Beymer's movie career... and at this point it's only 1963.  He would work in more films, of course, none of which are worth mentioning.  He would join the famed Actor's Studio this same year but it got interrupted by his growing passion for Civil Rights.  He became a participant in the struggle to allow blacks to register to vote in Mississippi and he would go on to make a documentary about the event.  (Hey Rich, if you're not busy, maybe you could do some good in North Carolina and Texas today.)

In the midst of his guest-starring TV assignments, in 1974 he would direct his first (and so far only) theatrical film called The Innerview.  No, not Interview, but no matter.  You haven't heard of it, I hadn't heard of it and no one else has either.

He would disappear for another decade and then pop up in the short-lived TV soaper, Paper Dolls.  In the early 1990s he would garner some attention playing the sinister hotel magnate Ben Horne in a TV series that had much attention garnished on it... Twin Peaks.  It was nice to see him again... a little older, just as handsome as ever and in a part he could really sink his teeth into.  And then he vanished again.

In 2007 something very peculiar happened.  Richard Beymer wrote his autobiography.  Or did he?  Well, here's what the book was called... Impostor... or Whatever Happened to Richard Beymer?  Impostor?  Is he hiding something?  Will it be revealed in this book?  At least he appears to have addressed the whatever happened to bit.  Or has he?  Upon closer inspection, one finds that Beymer has called it a fictional autobiography.  Say what?  He says it is about a self-obsessed actor's failed attempt to find out who he is in the midst of madness, murder, mayhem, masturbation and meditation while secretly making home movies of the girl next door with a 1950s windup 16mm camera.  Uh-huh.  Well, okey dokey then. 

I haven't read the book but I suspect it's not anymore illuminating that anything else in this actor's life.  I suspect the mystery of his comings and goings has been part of the proceedings all along.  It's not a by-product... it's the point.  Whatever.  I bit.  I admit it.  I would love all the blanks filled in.  How has he lived all these years?  He's never made enough money in films to live lavishly.  Anyone ever bought any real estate from him? 

Today Richard Beymer again lives in his native Iowa.

Review of The Fifth Estate


  1. Yeah Richard Beymer had a lot of potential. He was phenomenal in West Side Story. He was great in Hemingway's Adventures, which was a very good movie. Then his career came to s screeching halt. What the he'll happened?

  2. I was 14 when the grand movie was released. My Uncle was a budding actor in New York City. My Mother, his Sister, related that despite his looks, he had little talent and got the part because of his sexual orientation- gay. Yes, this it is hearsay but it was pretty much the NY City acting community consensus at the time.

  3. We are of the same mind. So glad you wrote, Rick. Thanks.