Friday, August 29

A Brief Stay in the Limelight

When I think of the movie world of the sixties, I am reminded of the slew of actors and actresses who had a brief flicker of fame and then they pop up in lesser movie parts, soon to TV and guest-starring roles in Murder, She Wrote.  I think this happened during the 60s more than any other decade preceding it.  Truth be told, talented though they were, most of them never did have it... that special something, that chemistry that zooms you to the top and keeps you there. 

The men discussed here had early careers at 20th Century Fox.  I liked them all and have seen nearly all of their initial work.  All are still alive.  One retired in the mid-90s and the other two are still working, although in projects I have never heard of.  Let's reminisce about the good old days.

Bradford Dillman often had a glorious, open smile that was welcoming and charming that made him ideal in romantic roles but it frequently gave way to a fidgety, brooding, suspicious look that made him look foreboding and dangerous.  He was a good actor and of the three discussed here, he was the least likely to be found in the starring spot.  I'm not sure why.

One of my favorite Dillman roles was in 1958s In Love and War.  He, Jeffrey Hunter and Robert Wagner were three marines dealing with the battlefront and the homefront.  He was the only one involved with two women, snooty Dana Wynter and ethereal France Nuyen.   He was the rich one from San Francisco which was precisely his background.  While attending school in Connecticut, he got bitten by the acting bug.  After a real-life stint in the Marines, he joined the famed Actors Studio.

While trodding the boards on Broadway, Fox took notice, signed him to a contract and put him into a weak film, 1958s A Certain Smile, more famous for Johnny Mathis' warbling of the title song than anything else.  He was properly creepy in his best film, Compulsion (1959), a fictional version of the famous Leopold-Loeb thrill killing, where two rich kids murder a young boy just to see what it felt like.  If acting that part wasn't chilling, he has said that working with Orson Welles was.  Nonetheless he repeated the experience the following year in the fine Crack in the Mirror, costarring Fox head honcho Darryl F. Zanuck's mistress-of-the-moment, Juliette Greco, doing her best work.

In 1960 he appeared as a betrayed secret service agent on a downward spiral due to his superiors in Circle of Deception.  He had the lead role opposite beautiful Suzy Parker who would become his wife in real life.  Sanctuary (1961) was William Faulkner's lusty tale of a southern governor's daughter who is raped by a Cajun.  Lee Remick, Yves Montand and Dillman all seemed miscast to me and the film didn't work.

He famously had the title role in 1961s St. Francis of Assisi with Dolores Hart (in training here, perhaps to later become a nun) and Stuart Whitman.  It really didn't knock anyone's sandals off.  Dillman then drifted mainly into television where he pretty much remained.  A decent role as Suzanne Pleshette's cuckolded husband in A Rage to Live in 1965 and another creepy role in 1971s The Mephisto Waltz did little to change his status.

He and Parker were married until her death in 2003 and lived for years in the Santa Barbara area.  He retired in the mid-90s and in addition to writing his autobiography, he wrote a book on football.

Don Murray had show business in his blood, being the son of a Broadway dance director and a former Ziegfeld girl.  A jock during his high school years, he went on to study acting at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts.  He began appearing on Broadway when two people discovered him.  One was actress Hope Lange, whom he married, and the other was director Joshua Logan who was about to start filming Bus Stop (1956).  Logan hired both of them. 

 He was gonna be a movie star.  Bus Stop is considered his best film and absolutely his most famous one.  He played an innocent, lovesick cowboy out to win over a reluctant Marilyn Monroe while he works the rodeo circuit.  She was looking for a solid role that would take her out of the blonde bimbo roles she had been playing and she nailed it.  While he also nailed his part, he drove me crazy with his loudness, frenetic energy and obnoxiousness.  I was hoping a bull would use him as a hood ornament and MM could come stay with me.

I loved The Bachelor Party, Murray's next film.  Fox was on a high with him and gave him this sometimes-searing look at that questionable little gathering before a man's impending betrothal.  Paddy Chayefsky (ah, Paddy Chayefsky) wrote the dazzling words and it was directed by Delbert Mann, a director I admired and will one day write about.  Eva Marie Saint and Tony Franciosa joined Murray for another harrowing film, A Hatful of Rain, this time about a young married man's addiction to heroin.  All three  of these New York actors brought a certain genius to their roles.

In '58 he starred in From Hell to Texas.  It was a decent western and it had a different look because of Murray and his leading lady Diane Varsi.  Neither were fixtures in westerns.  He was a cowpoke who accidentally kills the son of a powerful land baron and then falls for the man's daughter.  Unfortunately, it died out there on the plain.  They tried it again with These Thousand Hills, costarring Lee Remick and Stuart Whitman, which I also liked, but it fared less well. 

He supported bigger stars, James Cagney in Shake Hands with the Devil (1959) and Alan Ladd in One Foot in Hell (1960) and had the lead in The Hoodlum Priest (1961) and I liked all of them, particularly the Cagney film, but box-office returns were tepid.  In 1962 he had a central role in Otto Preminger's Washington D.C. clambake, Advise and Consent.  He was a married, gay man whose extra-curricular activities caused a scandal.  Pretty hot stuff for '62.  Three years later he had a decent role in Baby, the Rain Must Fall, but in support of Lee Remick and Steve McQueen.

His glory days were over.  Already.  Why?  It was lesser movie roles, TV movies and guest-star roles for much of the future.   I could be wrong but he always seemed a bit hot-tempered and if so, that is often the death-knell in Hollywood.  You can't be more hot-tempered than the really big boys, c'mon.  Regardless of what happened, something did.  He had the talent and I quite liked his early work.

Stuart Whitman knew both of the above gentlemen.  He saw them in the Fox commissary and he worked with each of them in a movie.  I give him applause for being the best-looking and for having the sweetest screen personality.  But he couldn't touch either of the other two with the acting chops.  He appeared to like being an actor but did he sometimes not take it all that seriously?  I also often caught him acting which tells me a lot.

He, too, was born in San Francisco, although his spoon probably wasn't as silver as Dillman's.  He apparently had no interest in acting in his youth but after a time in the Army Corps of Engineers (where he won 32 fights as a light heavyweight boxer), his interest perked up while attending college in Los Angeles and later the Los Angeles Academy of Dramatic Art.

To this day I am still astonished to be watching some film from the 50s and there's Whitman in some brief scene.  He made quite a number of films before making a name for himself.  He excelled mainly in westerns but he also frequently played either smarmy or sympathetic, vulnerable men, both likely as a result of his rather tender-sounding voice.  He was appropriately the loser boyfriend in 1958s 10 North Frederick with Gary Cooper and Diane Varsi and 1959s The Sound and the Fury with Yul Brynner and Joanne Woodward.  He did give Dorothy Dandridge the screen's first inter-racial kiss in The Decks Ran Red (1958).

His first lead came in 1960 in Murder, Inc.  It was also Peter Falk's first big role and he was mesmerizing as the main bad guy.  Whitman was a singer whom Falk used to get to an enemy.  The same year he was in the running for the role of Janet Leigh's boyfriend in Psycho, but Hitchcock gave the part to John Gavin. 

In 1961 he gave his most affecting performance in The Mark.  Costarring with the luminous Maria Schell, Whitman played a man who has just gotten out of prison for his intent to molest a child.  He becomes romantically involved with Schell's character, the mother of a young daughter.  It's my favorite Whitman performance, unlike anything he ever did.  The following year he had arguably his most famous part, as Monsooer Paul Regret, opposite John Wayne (who butchered his limited French), in The Comancheros.  It started that period when Wayne's film plots starting repeating themselves, but The Comancheros is a rollicking good time and Whitman shares in the reason why.  Then came another enjoyable western, Rio Conchos (1964), with Richard Boone, Jim Brown and Tony Franciosa.

Three years later he was the star of the mind-numbingly silly Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines.  From there he seemed to fly out of the limelight.  He did tons of television, including his own series, a western called Cimarron Strip.  He still works to this day but in nothing I have ever seen or heard of.  Apparently he is a very wealthy man due to shrewd investments.

Jim and Paula




1 comment:

  1. It is important to recall those actors ( Like the three above) who, for lacking that special IT, didn't make it fully. The best of all , in my opinion, was Dillmann. I personally didn't care much of Murray. As for Whitman, I like the expression you use " the sweetest screen personality". I agree. Anyway thanks for the extraordinary work you do with your blog. Ciao