Richard needs to gather some fine-grain obsidian and knows of a field near the Mount Wilson Observatory where he can find it. (My knowledge of Richard’s day-to-day life seems to wax and wane. I don’t know why—it continues to feel as if he’s more interested in what I know than what he does. I feel him listen with fascination as my mind jumps around.) James Dean filmed Rebel Without a Cause at the observatory the previous year, a few months before he took off in his new Porsche 550 Spyder on his way to Central California’s Cholame Valley and a head-on collision with a Plymouth—and destiny.
I take the groceries home, promise Margaret I’ll be back by six, then drive south and east toward Pasadena.
On Riverside Drive in Studio City (the Hollywood Freeway has not yet been constructed to that point), I burst out of my manacles.
We’ll find the obsidian tomorrow. I’m too excited. I guess it’s okey-doke with Richard; he’s letting me do this. I don’t think this guy has a lot in his life he really cares about.
I turn onto Laurel Canyon and set off south over the Santa Monica Mountains. When I get to Sunset, a few blocks past Hollywood Boulevard on the other side, I take a quick jog to the left and park on the street, east of Schwab’s Pharmacy.
I sit at the counter, order a cup of coffee I don’t want, and eavesdrop on two longtime character actors, Charles Lane and Phil Leeds, talking together at a nearby table. Charlie is in the middle of a decades-long career playing judges, accountants, the IRS man in It’s a Wonderful Life, and various other functionaries. Phil has played a fascinating collection of Peter Lorre kinds of characters, including Dr. Shand in Rosemary’s Baby about thirteen years from now.
Charlie is saying, “If you keep your left arm stiff as a board, I mean you don’t bend it even the tiniest bit, and you keep your right elbow tight into your waist, then you’ll never hook a drive.”
Phil looks at him from under his hooded eyelids and says dryly, “But Charlie, I don’t play golf.”
With his characteristic bark, Charlie says, “There. I rest my case.”
I remember a moment in my past (actually, forty years into the future), realizing—despite the fact that I’d never wanted it in the first place—how much I’d absorbed my mother’s love of show business: Life with the dull parts left out. And for a short time when I was still a kid, I thought I might become one of the lucky few and had the exhilarating sensation of the whole world belonging to me—no, revolving around me.
Sophie apparently thinks I still feel that way.
I once did A Man for All Seasons in Buffalo. The man staying in the room next to me at the Lafayette Hotel was a fat character actor named Ralph Groaman. He played Cardinal Wolsey in the show. I once asked him, “When do you get over being in love with yourself as an actor?” Ralph glowered at me—not meanly—and said, “As soon as you grow up, kiddo.” I cherished him like a grandfather. I hung onto an image I’d conjured of Ralph riding the elevator to the eighth floor late Saturday night after a performance, turning on the radio in his room, undressing, pouring himself a large Scotch, hoisting himself into a hot bath and sitting there listening to Guy Lombardo, his drink held loosely in the fleshy hand that hung over the edge of the tub, a weary nobody to most of the world who an hour earlier had been Cardinal Wolsey.
My dilemma is that if I let go of my character, Jack Cade, even though, in a sense, he is now fictional too, I might slip down into the water and drown.
I go up to the newsstand, buy a copy of Daily Variety, and sit back down to read it.
The King and I is in preproduction. Deborah Kerr is to headline, and “hot young newcomer” Yul Brynner will repeat his Broadway role. The Threepenny Opera, which opened last season Off-Broadway, is planning a second national tour. The Platters have two songs at the top of the charts: “My Prayer” and “The Great Pretender.” Edward R. Murrow is in trouble at CBS once again for expressing his social conscience, but board chairman William J. Paley is standing behind him. Life Begins at Eighty has been picked up for another season. The studios are shuffling executives as always, but not to the same degree they will after Harry Cohn of Columbia dies in 1958.
A stocky young man with crew-cut sandy hair sits down on the stool next to me, asks the waitress for a cup of coffee, and opens a copy of the Hollywood Reporter.
After a minute or so, he looks over and asks, “Did you do a Dragnet a few months ago?”
“No. I’ve never done a Dragnet.”
“I could have sworn we’ve worked together. My name’s Jesse. Jesse Littman. What have you done?”
Like most actors in that circumstance, I don’t miss a beat. “I’m Richard Blake. I haven’t done any film yet. Only stage.” To give myself some credibility, I add, “I understudied Gooper in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof on Broadway last season.”
“Did you get to go on?”
“Yeah, a couple of times. How’s it going for you?” I have a moment of panic trying to remember if Cat on a Hot Tin Roof was on Broadway last season.
“Not bad. I’ve done a Schlitz Playhouse and a December Bride and a couple of industrials this year.” Then he tells one of my favorite actor jokes: “An actor comes home,” he says, “and finds his best friend, Wally—also an actor—in bed with his wife and says, ‘Wally! What are you doing?’ And Wally says, ‘Well, I just finished an Alfred Hitchcock, and next week I’m starting a Gunsmoke.’”
We both laugh and Jesse says, “Are you up for Bus Stop?”
I have to think for a second. 1956. They’re shooting Bus Stop, with Marilyn Monroe. I didn’t see anything about it in Variety.
“Who’s directing?” I say, although I’m pretty sure I know.
“Oh, yeah? No, I’m not up for it. There’s nothing in it for me.”
“Yes, there is. There’s a role that wasn’t in the play. They wrote in a scene between Cherie and an East Coast urban guy to provide some conflict before she ends up with the cowboy. It’s the role of Lawrence. You should get your agent to send you up for it.”
“I haven’t got an agent … yet.”
“That’s too bad. You’re perfect.” He looks me over appraisingly. “‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,’ huh?” His thoughtful frown reconfigures itself into the beginnings of a smile. “You know, when I first came out here, somebody gave me a tip that ended up getting me a job.” He taps three fingers on the countertop. “You reap what you plant, right?” He gets up from his seat. “Hmmm. ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.’ Tell you what. Hang on a couple minutes.”
Less than five minutes later he returns, sits down again, writes out a name and address on a piece of paper, and hands it to me. “Here. Jerry Kennents. He’s my agent. He’s down on Doheny. I told him about you. I told him you were perfect for Lawrence in Bus Stop.”
“How am I perfect?” I can’t imagine why I would ask such a dumb question.
“You give off the feeling of being kind of urban, a little wry, but … pleasant, sincere … straightforward. You’re the right age. Right look.” He shrugs. “Fuck it, you seem like this guy ought to be.”
My eyebrows are locked in the up position. “That’s really … really nice of you.”
“Don’t mention it. What goes around comes around. I told him you’d be right over.”
“I don’t have any pictures and résumés with me.”
“Well, shit. You should always keep some in your car. Where do you live?”
“In the Valley.”
“Well, shit. I told him you’d be right over.” Jesse deliberates for a couple of seconds. “Listen, go give it a shot anyway. You can get him your stuff tomorrow if he’s interested.”
I grin at him. “Listen, I …” I reach into my pocket for change. “How much is the coffee?” As I ask, I realize I already know.
Jesse looks at me oddly. “A dime.”
I turn away and look at the coins in my hand. I have two dimes, three quarters, a nickel, and a few pennies. I check the dates, thinking I don’t want to leave any coins from the nineties. But of course, Richard’s coins are all from 1956 or before.
I put the nickel and one of the quarters on the counter to cover our coffees, plus a ten-cent tip. Jesse wishes me luck, tells me he’s usually in Schwab’s on weekday mornings, and that I should stop in and tell him how it went.
I would have liked to stay longer. I would have liked to speak to some of the actors here in their younger years, but I don’t want to hurt Jesse Littman’s feelings.
I know there’s no such character as Lawrence in the movie of Bus Stop. When I was twenty-two, I tried out for the role of the cowboy, Bo, for a summer stock production. I didn’t get cast, but I worked hard on the audition and got to know the play pretty well. I remember the movie. There is no Lawrence to “provide conflict” before Cherie (Marilyn Monroe) ends up with Bo (Don Murray). But if there had been, Richard would have been perfect. Jesse said so. Damn it!
I get into the Olds, look up at the Chateau Marmont hotel and wonder if Harriet Brown is staying there now, then give some thought to how much fun it might have been if Jesse Littman had been able to give me a real lead.
I drive west on Sunset Boulevard. It doesn’t look a whole lot different. Some of the names have changed—the Saint James Club is back to being the Sunset Towers Apartments, the Comedy Store is Ciro’s again, the Rainbow Bar and Grill is the Villa Nova once more. A few of the high-rise office buildings are yet to be built, but to Jack’s eye, things look very much the same. I pass the Garden of Allah, due to close its doors for the last time in August 1959, Scandia, and the Cock and Bull, which will survive until the late eighties, and the Roxy will still be there on the day I meet Dr. Partridge. But the Trocadero, Mocambo, and the Sunset Strip of the rowdy early Hollywood days are all long gone in 1956.
As I pass the Cock and Bull, I pull convulsively into the left lane and, fighting a fit of giggles, turn onto Doheny and roll down to the address Jesse Littman gave me.
Jerry Kennents’ office is on the second floor of a modest white adobe house. The office door is on the side at the top of a flight of white wooden stairs that could use a paint job. A mousy-haired young woman with braces and wire-frame glasses sits at a dull yellow Formica-topped table that serves as a reception desk just inside the screen door. She is reading a copy of Photoplay. Mitzi Gaynor smiles out from the cover.
I rap on the door. “Hey. How are ya? I’m Richard Blake.”
She thwacks her Photoplay down on the desk and smiles nervously up at me. “Hi there.” Then, recovering, “Do you have an appointment?”
“Jesse Littman told Mr. Kennents about me. I’m expected.”
“Oh. Okay then.” She picks up the phone and after a moment, says, “Mr. Kennents? Richard Blake’s here to see you … All right.” She hangs up, giving me a friendly smile along with a tiny shrug that says she isn’t really part of this world, just an unintentional witness to it. “You can go right in.”
Jerry Kennents looks about fifty years old but, because he carries excess weight, could be younger. He looks up from some papers on his desk.
“Whaddayasay, Dick. Jesse tells me you’re a helluvan actor.”
“So let me see your picture and résumé.”
“I’m sorry. I don’t have one.”
“No. I’m sorry. All my things were shipped out from New York, and they haven’t arrived yet.”
“I see. You’re from New York.” That interests him. “Broadway?” he says hopefully.
“I understudied Gooper in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.”
“Did you ever play it?”
“Oh, yeah. Thirty … forty times.”
Kennents’ lips and eyebrows arch up, a sign of grudging respect that makes him look like Mussolini. “Uh-huh. What else? What other shows you done?”
Jack, not to mention Richard, is drawing a blank on pre-1956 plays. “Shakespeare. I’ve done a lot of Shakespeare … Hamlet. I played Hamlet.”
“At the … Hayes Theatre Festival.”
“Yes. It’s in Connecticut—her festival.”
“Never heard of it.”
“It just started up a couple of years ago.”
Kennents narrows his eyes. “How did you come to the business so late? Were you in the service?”
“Yeah.” I nod. “That’s right.”
“Where were you? I was in the Pacific. Navy.”
“I was in Europe. Army. Just after Normandy.”
Kennents looks out the window, remembering. “It was hell, huh?”
“Hell,” I say. I look out the window too.
The agent tells me a few stories about his time in the Pacific. A tear comes to his eye as he remembers friends who were killed at Guadalcanal.
I try to remember any of my father’s stories from the war as they were passed on to me by my mother, but my father had never really gotten close to any action. I say, “I remember crawling toward a German bunker during the Battle of the Bulge. We’d been driven almost back to the Meuse River. It was Christmas Eve, 1944. I couldn’t feel my feet it was so cold. Then the sergeant raised his hand and all that was left of our company began to charge the bunker. I hadn’t taken two steps when I felt something hit me in the gut, and I fell. I remember lying there with my face in the snow and mud, wondering if my mom was thinking about me on Christmas Eve and whether we’d win the war or not.”
“My God,” said Kennents. “What happened?”
I’d done the piece as well as I had for the acting class I’d learned it for in the late eighties. Now, I begin to improvise, encouraged. “I was flown back stateside. By the time I was fully recovered, the war was over.” Concentrating as hard as I can, I manage to come up with an actor’s tear. Or maybe the tear comes from Richard, who’s never heard that story before. “I lost a lot of my buddies too,” I say.
Kennents nods and wipes at his cheek again.
Now I remember the names of a few plays. I tell him I was in Tennessee Williams’ Glass Menagerie and All My Sons by Arthur Miller, and Beyond the Horizon, the first Pulitzer Prize winner by Eugene O’Neill.
Kennents smiles warmly, then seems to take me in all over again. “You know, Jesse’s right. You’re perfect for that role.” He picks up the phone and dials. “Hey, Peggy. Jerry Kennents. Let me talk to Joyce, will ya? Yeah, I’ll hang on.” He covers the mouthpiece. “The secret of Hollywood is not being too proud to wait on the line while somebody plays their furshlugginer power game with you.”
He speaks into the receiver again. “Hi, Joyce. Yeah. I know. I know. Brutal. You’re right … Yeah, vermin, all of them. Listen, I’ve got an actor here with fantastic New York experience who’s right on the money for the role of Lawrence … Dick Blake … Oh Christ, he was in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof on Broadway last season. Incredible reviews … Well, if you’ve got to make a decision today, you’d better see him today …” He grins appealingly. “Perfect … Fan-damn-tabulous. He’s on his way over.”
He hangs up the phone. “You’re going to Twentieth. Do you know how to get there?”
“You’re going directly to the Bus Stop production office. Ask for Joyce Faberman. Don’t waste any time. They’re casting this role today.”
I stare dumbly at him.
He grins at me and winks. “We gotta look out for each other.” He gets up and puts his arm around his potential new client’s shoulder. “I just hope to hell you can act.”
The lot at Twentieth Century Fox is buzzing with activity, the television and movie industries working side by side, although I know movie veterans still view television with no more enthusiasm than reluctant cattlemen beholding the sorry reality of sheep.
The first thing I notice about it on this April 11th is the penetrating, fusty smells of the place, like the ones I remember from when I was a child and first visited movie studios with my mother. (She would say to me “Break a leg, baby” as we entered each one. Rita is more than averagely superstitious and she imagined such things might one day influence the fates into making her little boy a star.) Now I’m reminded of old Hollywood—the way it must have been when it was bristling new, before all the crazy myth-making and the celebrity mania became so totally deranged.
But old Hollywood still does exist in 1956. Bogart is still here, Edward G. Robinson, Gable, Cooper, Rita Hayworth. Paul Newman is just a kid from Broadway. Brad Pitt won’t be born until the mid sixties.
Feeling scared but excited, like a ten-year-old set loose in Disneyland without his mommy, I walk toward the Bus Stop production office.
Click Follow to receive emails when this author adds content on Bublish