Tuesday, February 18

Steve Cochran

He was a B movie star, a reckless adventurer and a sexual athlete who was more famous for his shenanigans off screen than he ever was on screen.  In fact those peccadilloes in real life likely contributed to his being shunned in reel life.  Considering the egos of movie stars, one could argue the point that he wanted to rise in the Hollywood echelon, but I'm not so sure.  Cochran loved to play, loved to tempt the fates, loved to mess with people's heads.  He snickered at being a Hollywood bad boy.

He was born in Northern California in 1917 but raised in outdoorsy Wyoming.  As a youth he relished the life of a cowpoke and a jock (with a particular aptitude for basketball).  He discovered a love of acting when he appeared in high school plays and later joined the drama department at the University of Wyoming.  And already the girls were after him, telling him how handsome he was and how good he was in the sack.  And he couldn't get enough of them.  Everyone told him he had a face for the movies, so he quit college and dashed off to Hollywood to stake his claim in the movie business.

His pride was likely quite wounded when he couldn't even manage a screen test.  It took him seven years to get noticed but during those years he still kept his skills sharpened by working in regional theater and doing what odd jobs he could.  Women flocked to him and he would brag about how he could keep scores of eager lasses all happy at the same time.  Women loved his face and he himself loved the fact that he would one day be an honored member in the Big Boy Brigade that included such famous actors as Forrest Tucker, John Ireland and Milton Berle.  (Can you read code?)

The funny thing is he had to go to New York before the Hollywood types would discover him.  After getting hired for a Broadway play, independent producer Samuel Goldwyn would take a shine to the actor's swarthy, Lothario looks, and sign him to a seven-year contract.  He was on his way... or so it seemed.  He knew one thing for sure... a movie career would have the babes hanging off him.

His fit playing gangsters was so complete that he would forever be typecast in such roles.  Most actors would do all they could to avoid the same roles ad nauseum and perhaps that could be said, too, for Cochran.  The truth is that his life away from the studio was far more interesting to him and warranted most of his attention. 

Before long he could phone in his lines as a thug in corny Danny Kaye-Virginia Mayo comedies (The Wonder Man, The Kid from Brooklyn and A Song Is Born).  He would ultimately work with Mayo in three more films, two of which are certainly A-pictures.  They both had costarring roles in Oscars' 1946 best picture, The Best Years of Our Lives, in which both were unsavory types, played to perfection.  Up next was 1949s White Heat, not only containing one of James Cagney's best and most famous performances, but Cochran and Mayo were electric as his right-hand henchman and moll, who were cheating on Cagney behind his back.  Cochran's death scene is delicious, he plays it with great relish.

In White Heat with frequent costar Virginia Mayo

One of my preferred Cochran roles was in 1953s She's Back on Broadway, although clearly a B effort.  He was a troubled Broadway director being forced to work with his ex-girlfriend (Mayo) in a new play.  Despite 4th billing, he was exciting as the male lead.

And what about that billing?  Well, it has a lot to do with how he was regarded in Hollywood.  He turned in good performances and for more reasons than one, you couldn't take your eyes off him.  Unfortunately he didn't appear to take it all as seriously as the top executives thought he should have and he was certainly stuck in a rut playing rats... although soooo good.  He was perhaps dismissed as a randy playboy, a voracious womanizer and now we could add some lurid headlines that would pop up from time to time. 

He owned a yacht that caused him to behave badly and carelessly and one way or the other (usually accidents) his exploits on board warranted newspaper coverage.   Battery charges were filed against Cochran when he took a baseball bat to one of his guests, an ex-boxer, at a party at the actor's home.  He was arrested for reckless driving and evading arrest.  As a pilot, he was in the news for having gotten the first speeding ticket in a plane, although he claimed all he was doing was dipping his wings over his home.  There would be news of his three brief marriages and numerous accounts of which big-busted aspiring actress he was escorting to this premier or that nightclub.  Shortly before his death he was in the headlines again when singer Ronnie Rae accused him of beating her in his Studio City hilltop home but as was often the case in similar run-ins with the law, he got off.  There were those who thought he took his gangster roles far too seriously.

Of course, I discovered him in the 1950s.  He seemed to be in one film after another, generally through Warner Bros, for whom he was now under contract.  As a Vegas hood in The Damned Don't Cry he romanced Joan Crawford on and off the screen and was smarmy as Doris Day's KKK husband while terrorizing her sister Ginger Rogers in Storm Warning.  Cochran claimed it was his favorite film. He had a rare starring role as a good guy, no less, in a terrible kiddie-oriented western called The Lion and the Horse (which I loved as an 8-year old and which I had to turn off seeing it as a 60-year old).  He was also top-billed in Inside Folsom Prison, as an inmate leading a revolt.

He was the "other man" in Back to God's Country, The Desert Song and Carnival Story, all B's and all the cause of some of my best times at long-ago Saturday matinees.  In 1954 he made a quite decent film noir Private Hell 36 in which he and Howard Duff were cops who stole a fortune they discover during a crime.  Duff saw the error of his ways; of course, Cochran did not.  The leading lady was Ida Lupino, whom Cochran was romancing in real life... never mind that she was married to Howard Duff.

Cochran became a producer so that he could secure the leading role in a wonderful little family film called Come Next Spring (1956).  Paired opposite Ann Sheridan, at the end of a long career, they play a farm couple dealing with his return to the homestead after a long absence. Despite my attraction to him as a bad boy, I think this is my favorite Cochran role.  It was also his only producing credit.

His last decent film was 1957's The Weapon (no snickering, Boys).  It costarred Lizabeth Scott, an actress whom I saw as perfect casting alongside Cochran, in a dramatic story about a young boy who accidentally shoots a friend with a gun he finds that was a piece of evidence in a 10-year old murder case.

The offers either dried up or Cochran wasn't pleased with the selection so he did what actors have done for decades.  He fled to Europe.  Fortunately he got the male lead in a love story for director Michaelangelo Antonioni called Il Grido.  There was talk of a resurgence in his career, but nothing came of it.


In fact, things got worse. He was the lead in two films, The Big Operator and The Beat Generation, which had several things in common... they were similar in their C+ approach to film-making with cheesy sets, mind-boggling dialogue, the same director and basically the same actors. One of those was sex kitten Mamie Van Doren who purred off screen with king-of-the-jungle Cochran.

I had more or less given up on him doing worthwhile films and had avoided some, but as part of my newspaper job as a movie reviewer, I was ordered to go see Of Love and Desire that was playing just up the street from my office in Santa Monica. I also didn't want to see it because of its star, Merle Oberon, an actress I have never cared for. But an edict is an edict and off I went and who did I see in the lobby but Steve Cochran signing autographs for a dozen or so girls and women. I watched for awhile, all caught up watching the master work his horny harem.

Of Love and Desire was a trashy little film, shot in Mexico, concerning a nymphomaniac and her relationship with a stud muffin (Cochran, of course) and her way-too-chummy brother (Curt Jurgens). Cochran and his leading lady carried on something shamelessly. Both were typecast.

He wandered into television and was always thinking of ways he could restart his movie career.  Although he worked in a few embarrassing films, he would walk down no more red carpets.  Hollywood had basically taken a pass.

Cochran at the helm of Rogue

As if in a movie about Hollywood, we have a horny, trouble-making actor down on his luck and we need a good ending.  What better in our story than to have the actor die?  That is exactly what happened in real life and yet it was done with a last flourish of Hollywood drama.
His death at age 46 would stun the Hollywood community and his fans but I thought then and I still do that he died the way he lived and perhaps with a smile on his face.  For years he owned a yacht (christened Rogue).  He loved sailing and while he took many friends with him on his excursions, favorite outings involved all-girl crews.  In June, 1965, he was found dead aboard his yacht which was found drifting off the coast of Guatemala.  The Mexican woman and two teenage Mexican girls aboard said he had died 10 days earlier.  They put him in a cabin and stayed in another one themselves, fearful of the elements, but not able to operate the schooner.  Cochran's body was already highly decomposed when found.  The cause of death was listed as acute lung infection. 

I quietly attended his funeral services in Santa Monica. 

Jeffrey Hunter

1 comment:

  1. I knew Steve from 1959-1063. I was there the day he bought the Rogue from the dirty doctor