I was lucky enough to get to know the author Budd Schulberg. His book, The Disenchanted, which I read at age fourteen, had a giant influence on me. He was also the screenwriter of On the Waterfront. When I entertained in Westhampton Beach, he lived in neighboring Quiogue, and he came in for dinner and sat by the piano and asked me for tunes from Paramount pictures of the 1930’s. His father ran that studio, so he knew them all. The Richard Whiting tunes (My Ideal, Good Ship Lollipop, Hooray for Hollywood) the Sam Coslow tunes (My Old Flame, Mr. Paganini) the Gordon-Revel tunes (Love Thy Neighbor, Stay as Sweet as You Are). We developed quite a bond over this music, and from time to time we found ourselves sharing the jitney ride out to the Hamptons. He knew I was interested in the musical theater. And he loved to tell stories, as writers do. “You know, I was an assistant to John O’Hara on Pal Joey.” “Really? I didn’t know that.” The musical was based on O’Hara’s stories. “Yeah, I was just a kid, maybe twenty-two, and I was there as a sort of gopher for John. But my real job, it developed, was trying to keep Larry Hart in line.” “Oh, Lord.’ Larry (Lorenz) Hart was famous for slipping out of rehearsals and getting lost for three days. “Yeah. And Dick Rodgers would say to me, “’Budd, you search every bar in this town and don’t you come home until you find him.’” And I’d go, with the stage manager, on a hunt through New Haven, hitting every bar where Larry liked to hang out, until I found him. And he wouldn’t come home. He’d actually clamp his hands around the bar stool to prevent my moving him. Eventually, I had to pick him up and literally carry him into the taxi. He was only five feet, you know, not very heavy, and I was a big guy.”
I went to hear Moss Hart speak at NYU. His thrilling memoir, ACT ONE had just come out, and neither Treva, my writing collaborator, nor I, could wait to hear him. Not only had he directed My Fair Lady, he’d written the screenplay for A Star Is Born, the comedy The Man Who Came to Dinner and Lady In the Dark, a daring musical which portrayed psycho-analysis onstage for the first time. We all jammed into some hall down on the campus, and he spoke of his hair-raising experience getting his first show on with the help of George S. Kaufman. Afterwards, he opened the floor to questions; most of the people asked pretty dumb things, like, Which comes first, the music or the lyrics? really pedestrian stuff. I decided to ask a smart question, one which had been concerning me: ‘Mr. Hart,’ I called out, “could you tell us the difference between writing a comedy, as opposed to writing a musical?’ “Oh my,” he replied, “that’s a complicated issue -I’ll be glad to answer you, but it’ll take longer than we have right now; why don’t you see me afterwards?” I squeezed Treva’s hand. Wow. I was going to get some personal face-time. But afterwards, he was besieged by fans who wanted him to sign copies of his book. I found myself up on the stage, frantically waving above the heads of the autograph seekers. Suddenly Kitty Carlisle, his wife, was by my side. “You’re the fellow who asked that question, aren’t you?” I acknowledged that I was. “Why don’t you call us at home,” she continued, to my astonishment, “we’re in the book.” Outside, Treva was amazed: “My God!” she said, “call him at home! I don’t believe it.” I was so excited. My mind built a fantasy scenario: on the phone, Mr. Hart would issue an invitation. Why don’t you come for dinner? he’d say, and we’ll talk, and when I did he’d recognize what a special talent I was, and make me his protege, introduce me to his favorite producer and get my show, Jubilee Jim, on Broadway.
In those days (1962) I was charging $25.00 to play auditions for performers, and I had one scheduled the next evening for a singer named Michael. His audition was scheduled for six thirty, and at six o’clock I placed a call from the wall phone of the rehearsal hall to Hart’s residence (1185 Park Ave). In my mind, this was a preliminary call, merely a formality to allow Mr. Hart to proffer that dinner invitation I was sure would be forthcoming. Kitty answered the phone herself. “Yes, John, of course. Let me get my husband.” A momentary pause, as Michael caught my eye. “This’ll only take a minute,” I assured him. Hart got on the phone. “Yes, John, your question requires a three-part answer: The first thing you have to realize, is that, in a comedy–” Michael was at my elbow. “John, somebody didn’t show; they can take us early.” I covered the mouthpiece. “Just a minute–” I whispered to him. “But John–” I made a grimace of impatience: “I’ll be there in a minute,”I repeated, trying to listen to Hart, who was finishing his point. “–because if you don’t, you won’t have established your characterization. Secondly, before your first act curtain, you must make absolutely sure–” Michael had returned and was now pulling my sleeve. “John, they’re ready for us.” “Dammit, Michael,” I hissed at him, “I said I’ll be there! Just give me thirty seconds!” I returned to the receiver. “–when they leave for the intermission. Now, when your second act begins, it’s a good idea to–” I saw the Stage Manager peering from the doorway, and Michael,talking to him in an attitude of explanation. The two of them began coming towards me. “Mr Hart,” I said, “you’ll have to excuse me, but I need to go now.” “Well, said Hart, “I hope I’ve been of some help.”
Whenever Channel 9 showed an old musical on Million Dollar Movie, my actor pal Barry would come up to share it. The show was on at four in the afternoon. Barry would arrive and we’d settle in to enjoy Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette Macdonald (Love Me Tonight) or Alice Faye (Wake Up and Live) or Shirley Temple (Stand Up and Cheer). One day, after the movie finished, I flipped to Channel Thirteen, and there was Mike Wallace interviewing Burt Lancaster on his show, PM. Lancaster had just released Bird Man of Alcatraz (1962). At the time, Mike was noted for asking his guests probing, provocative questions. In actuality, he was simply being as dishy as possible to create interest. “What were your feelings, Burt, when you were called before the House Un-American Activities Committee? Did you feel your career was threatened?” Burt said he told the committee his political affiliations were none of their business. He was not afraid of them.
“And do you think you lost work because of this position? Were you afraid for your family?” There was a certain smarminess to Wallace’s questions. He was pandering, dressing it up in a pretentious formality of expression, and you could see Lancaster growing impatient. He was here to publicize his movie, and the guy should be talking about that. Wallace finally went over the top. “Burt, I have to ask you: there have been rumors, allegations of your possible homosexuality. Not that there would be anything wrong with that, if it were true. But I need to ask you: how do you deal with these insinuations?” Lancaster’s mouth set in a tight line. Carefully he removed his lapel microphone and stood up. Wallace, surprised, raised his eyebrows. “I don’t have to put up with this nonsense,” said the star. “I’m here to publicize a wonderful movie, and you’ve deflected this conversation to what I consider non-essentials. I think you’re unconscionable; I think you’re a panderer, and I think you’re a disgrace to television.” And with that, he walked off the set. The camera followed his retreating back for a moment, then returned to Wallace. Barry and I both started to applaud. “ Wow.” said Barry. “Good for you, baby!” I shouted at the screen. Thirty minutes later, we were in the lobby of the Plaza Hotel. We’d been so energized by the Wallace show that we had to get out and take a walk. The Palm Court was in transition from Afternoon Tea to the Dinner service. Palm Beach matrons and maharanis in elegant saris were leisurely strolling, inspecting the Hermes scarves spread out luxuriantly in the lobby vitrines. It felt like the twilight hour. Suddenly, there was Lancaster, coming toward us. He was walking with another man who could have been his agent. As they approached us I couldn’t help myself; I punched the air and said: “Give ‘em hell, Burt!”
The effect of this little sentence was astounding. The actor took a fast step across the carpet and bent to me, urgently. I’m five-eight. He was over six feet. He put his massive head just inches from my face. “How did it look?” he hissed at me in an intense whisper. “Did I come off okay? Did I look like an overbearing jerk?” “No, no, not at all. You were terrific. He was way outta line. You did exactly the right thing.” “You’re sure? Because it could’ve gone either way. I didn’t want to appear arrogant.” “You didn’t, you didn’t. Hey, it’s time someone spoke up to him. He’s always pulling this kind of thing. And they give him an Emmy for achieving ‘the highest standard in broadcast journalism’. And all the while he’s really Louella Parsons.” The actor pulled back his famous face. “That’s how it felt to me.” He straightened up. “Thank you, men, thank you. I’m so glad I ran into you. You’ve made me feel much better.” He started off. Barry and I remained planted in our shoes, not daring to move, afraid that any motion would dislodge the stardust that had just been sprinkled on us. Finally Barry looked at me. “Actors,” he said. “Y’see? We’re all so insecure.”
Just learned she died, what a shame. Sensational lady, statuesque, sexy, deep contralto, a lotta woman. She read the role of Zazou for me and Bobbie Horowitz when we were preparing a play reading…and she was brilliant. Role was a star of the Paris music hall. It was just a few actors around a table, script in hand, no rehearsal, and she got in so many colors, so much nuance, I said, Wow, you really did some homework on this and she replied, Not really. That was when I saw how fine her instincts were. And how right she was for the imperious grande dame I’d written. When Marshall Barer died no-one really noticed but he was a brilliant lyricist and I decided to give him a memorial and Jane came and recreated her number –Sensitivity– from Marshall’s show, Once upon a Mattress. I video’d the evening and will put it up, look for it here soon. She had humor and vitality, and at one point I fixed her up with a pal of mine, an ex-editor for the NYT Book Review -but she scared him off. Too much presence, too much size for him. Oh, Jane, Jane. You’ll look good in your angel’s toga, I’ll say that.
Helen Mirren in a bikini, pictured on the cover of last week’s Daily News. She is hot. Watched DVD of Prime Suspect last night and recalled meeting her once, in the Beverly Center, a vertical shopping mall in LA. I was w/my pal, director Paul Bartel (Eating Raoul) and she was with her hubby, director Taylor Hackford (Officer & Gentleman). The two guys knew each other and we all stopped to chat in the midst of the swirling shoppers. This was twenty years ago, before she’d become a star, but her quiet, throbbing magnetism was unmistakable, and her heat, and I remember thinking, Hackford, you’re a lucky guy. Then she told a funny story about Noel Coward, prompted by Paul’s imitation (we used to do voices of characters all the time). “I knew him, for an evening, once,” she said, meaning Coward, “when James Mason invited me to his chalet in Switzerland. One night he said to me, ‘I’ve asked a pair of fellows to dinner whom you might enjoy -Charlie and Noel.’ He meant Chaplin and Coward (!). Well, I got so excited, I was anticipating hearing some scintillating, revealing, witty theatrical stories from these two legendary figures. But Noel was in his sixties, and Chaplin was close to eighty, and all through dinner it was, ‘Oh, Charlie, it’s my back, I’m so stiff’, and Chaplin would say, ‘It takes me ten minutes to urinate’ and there I was, with these brilliant men and it was all they talked about all night, how decrepit they were getting. Funny, really.”