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.”