Friday, April 11

Tom Tryon

Doing the last piece on Romy Schneider and mentioning her film, The Cardinal, made me think of the actor who played the title role, Tom Tryon.  In fact, I haven't been able to stop thinking about him.  And I was reminded of a time in the 1960s when I also couldn't stop thinking about him.  So I've decided to see what I could come up with.

He was never a top-rung actor.  I don't know that he ever had the drive to become one.  Perhaps the fact that he was gay and first came to films in the late 50s had a lot to do with it.  I can certainly confirm as an avid Tom watcher that he was never much of an actor.  Too wooden.  He made it as far as he did because he was a gorgeous hunk and photographed well.  One day, tired of all the b.s., like some others, he turned his back on Hollywood but in a  different way.  He moved to Manhattan, stayed in the limelight and became a best-selling author, finding far more success in his new line of work than he ever did in acting. 

Leaving the movies and no longer having a need to stay closeted, he allowed the public to know more about his personal life than they ever had.  Hollywood knew his story and likely laughed as loudly at his brief marriage as they did at his buddy, Rock Hudson's.  I think he was happy to leave behind the beefcake photos and get dressed in corduroy jackets with patches on his sleeves and a pipe in his mouth.  He now took photos in his glasses and looked professorial.  But let's go back to the beginning.

Born in 1926 in Connecticut, he was the middle son of a successful clothier.  It would have been great to read about his early life but little is known to me about life at home with his parents except that he loved his family and they all had one another's backs forever.  At 17 he joined the Navy and served in the South Pacific for three years.

After his discharge he joined the Cape Playhouse in Dennis, MA, as the acting bug took a big bite out of him.  He had filled out from being a gangly teenager.  At 6'3" he had especially broad shoulders, a rich, deep voice and a movie star good looks... qualities of which Hollywood would later take note.  He made friends easily and was always regarded as a genuinely nice guy.  Later on that trait might not serve him so well.  When he wasn't acting at the Cape Playhouse, he, like others, engaged in many other behind-the-scenes tasks that got a play before an audience.

In 1952 he debuted on Broadway in the musical Wish You Were Here and did time working behind the scenes on television.  Three years later he decided to see what there was for him in movies.  The first time I saw him on the big screen was in the 1956 western (duh), Three Violent People, in which he was the one-armed brother of Charlton Heston with Anne Baxter caught in the middle.  I was ripe with discovery of who I was and Tom Tryon helped shine a light on that path since he was an early teenage crush.  I had no idea at the time that we walked the same path.

The following year he appeared in a much-hyped flick called The Unholy Wife with British sexpot Diana Dors (hoping, unsuccessfully, to blanket America with her charms) and the usually overripe Rod Steiger as an unhappily married couple.  Dors meets rodeo hunka hunka burnin' love Tryon and convinces him to help make her a widow.

The young actor did a great deal of television and at the same time ventured into that marriage.  It was likely suggested to him that he settle down.  The union lasted three years.  In 1958 he made a horror film for which he will always be remembered by sci-fi fans, I Married a Monster from Outer Space.  Oh Tom, m'dear, what a legacy!

He was oh-so butch in Marines Let's Go (1961), silly as a rubber crutch in Disney's 1962 Moon Pilot (with just-as-gay Tommy Kirk as his younger brother.  I wonder how that worked out for the two under homophobic Uncle Walt's tight rein) and fortunate to be part of the large cast of 62's The Longest Day, still one of the best war films ever made.

By early 1962 (or late 1961perhaps), I was no longer sneaking into 20th Century Fox.  My friend worked there and said we could try to spot Marilyn Monroe who was on the lot making Something's Got to Give.  He topped it off by adding we could have lunch in the commissary.  He had my complete attention.  I was, of course, wild about MM but I also knew that Tom Tryon was in the film playing a man who had spent several years shipwrecked on an island with her. (It was a remake of 1940's My Favorite Wife.)  After checking in at the guard shack, off I went in the direction I was told.  After a couple of turns, I found myself alone on a little street crunched in between two monstrous sound stages and whom did I see coming toward me but Tom Tryon?  Thank God my heart was young because otherwise it could have been over for me.  He nodded and smiled as he walked by.  I've seen a lot of movie stars in my day but TT was IT.  Let me get a cool cloth for my forehead and somehow I will continue.

At this same time his real troubles began when he signed on with director Otto Preminger for The Cardinal (1963).  It would become the film for which the actor is best remembered and is the one he most likely wanted most to forget.  An episodic look at the title character from his youth to old age, it had a large cast.  In addition to Romy Schneider, it featured Carol Lynley, Maggie McNamara, John Huston, Raf Vallone, Dorothy Gish, John Saxon, Ossie Davis, Burgess Meredith and Jill Haworth.  I liked it but the truth is it just never quite came together, particularly astonishing when considering its gargantuan length.

Volatile Romy Schneider was an ally on "The Cardinal"

Tryon would forever claim that Preminger ripped from him any enthusiasm about making movies.  The actor claimed he loved the process of making films.  He reveled in finding the rhythms of the character, observing changes, finding or making up a character's past even if not used on the screen.  He claimed he wanted to do all he could to make his cardinal come alive but Preminger insisted on more restraint.  The director, known for his need on every film set to have a target for his venom, ran roughshod over Tryon.  Others have said that the actor acted like a whipped puppy and the more he acted the nice guy, the worse Otto the Terrible got. 

It came to a head the day Preminger was the worst to Tryon, not only in front of the assembled crew but also in front of Tryon's parents who were visiting the set that day.  While his folks watched, the director fired Tryon for, he said, being a crummy actor.  When Preminger took him back several days later, he said he did it to teach him a lesson.  The lesson learned was to quit acting.

He still made a few more films, one of them, astonishingly, again with Preminger, in 1965's In Harm's Way.  The same year he and Harve Presnell were a sight to behold as two bickering cavalry officers in love with the same woman in The Glory Guys.  Long a gifted painter, some of his works were talked about in local exhibits.  But he was at loose ends on his career and it concerned him.

In 1968 he saw Rosemary's Baby and it changed his life.  He was impressed but was known to say to friends, I can do that.  He thought he could write horror stories with the best of them.  There are certainly those who agreed.

Clive Clerk (l), Cal Culver

In the early 70s he said adios to Hollywood and moved to New York.  Out and proud and no longer concerned about his movie career, he became involved in two relationships.  The first and longest was with Clive Clerk, who was one of the original cast members of Broadway's acclaimed A Chorus Line and for his talents as an interior decorator.  While they were together, Clerk would renovate Tryon's 14-room Central Park West apartment which would later be featured in Architectural Digest

 After his relationship with Clerk ended, Tryon became involved in another important love match with gay porn star, Cal Culver.  Also known as Casey Donovan, he was the star of an iconic gay porn film, The Boys in the Sand.  This relationship was quite public and they were often photographed together.  It's been said that Culver helped Tryon in some matters with some of his novels.

Those novels began with The Other, followed by Harvest Home, Lady and five others.  Several were made into successful motion pictures and the actor finally found the respect he had longed sought.

Tom Tryon died at age 65 of stomach cancer.

The King's Quartet


  1. Great blog, look forward to exploring more!

    I loved Mr. Tryon's books and the movies made from them...especially the amazingly scary Harvest Home. I recently posted on the movie Billy Wilder made of Fedora:

    1. I will soon be reading Tom's books since I very recently ordered "The Other" and "Harvest Home". I also ordered the DVD of "The Other". In addition, I just joined your blog angelman66. Just what I need more interests :-)

  2. I really love your blog!!! I wasn't really familiar with Tom Tryon at all until very recently. I have heard of The Other, but I have not read it yet. I actually found Tom Tryon while watching "The Big Valley" a few days ago. He was on an episode named "The Midas Man". I found out who he was by looking the episode up on IMDB. I was quite impressed that he later became an author. It was also very interesting since I love horror books and movies. I have already ordered the books of "The Other" and "Harvest Home" as well as the DVD of "The Other". These will probably be here tomorrow. Obviously, Hollywood treated him very badly as they did many others. Tom, you may be gone, but you definitely have a new fan!!! This blog also has a new fan!!!!

  3. Aren't you nice? Thank you so much.