Thursday, September 20, 2018

An Interview with Sam Bobrick - Part One

Kliph Nesteroff: You wrote an album that I have owned for years called Mad Twists Rock n' Roll.

Sam Bobrick: Oh, Mad, yeah. We did two of them. Mad Twists Rock n' Roll and Fink Along with Mad. I made zero dollars on both. I was a young man then. It was the late 1950s and it was fun. We thought it was going to take off, but it was with a very crooked record company. Big Top Records. And the tent came down...

Kliph Nesteroff: Most record companies seemed to be crooked back then, but what was it about Big Top Records that was specifically crooked?

Sam Bobrick: They didn't pay you. That's crooked enough.

Kliph Nesteroff: The song Nose Job had staying power. It's sort of a novelty classic and it was even covered by a couple of different bands.

Sam Bobrick: Yes, and on the second album we had a thing called It's a Gas. Howard Stern still plays it. It's just music punctuated with a belch. I left the music business because nobody would pay me. I had one hit for Elvis Presley called The Girl of My Best Friend and that was it. I had an agent, George Shaprio, who became the manager of Jerry Seinfeld. He came to New York, he took me to California, and I started writing half-hours. I never went back into the music business. He hired me for my first job in New York as an office boy for the scarecrow - Ray Bolger. He had a show on NBC called Washington Square.

My first job in the business was in the mail room of ABC. There was a guy who had the job before me at the Ray Bolger show. After a few weeks he felt he wasn't going anywhere - because you don't go anywhere. I hated the mail room so much. I applied for this job and George Shapiro hired me. I wrote a lot on spec, sketches and things like that. He always liked my writing and at that time most of the television was moving to the Coast.  I don't know why, but I didn't like New York. It was just okay. George brought me out to Los Angeles in 1962. I left my apartment and everything in New York. I wasn't going back. I just loved it here! But I did have to go back and live in New York for a year because I was doing the Kraft Music Hall.

Kliph Nesteroff: Where else did you submit material prior to the Ray Bolger show?

Sam Bobrick: There were some radio programs. The Robert Q. Lewis radio show, which was the last network show on the air. After my job as an office boy on Ray Bolger, I got another job as an office boy on Make Me Laugh. It lasted thirteen weeks. Robert Q. Lewis was the host. They got a bunch of comics, put a person in a chair and tried to make them laugh. You don't know how hard that is because the comics weren't funny. It was a disastrous show. 

They were paying me a hundred dollars a week to write jokes for the comics, but they would never use them. These were old time comics who never trusted new material. They only trusted the old material, which they had stolen. When the show closed, I was very funny at the closing night party and Robert Q. Lewis hired me for his radio show. That kind of started me in the New York area writing. I wrote Captain Kangaroo

I wrote a bunch of game shows. One was called Music Bingo. I would write the interviews and you would work wherever you could. I started writing, but there was no business left in New York at the time. George said, "You've got to come out here to California and you'll work."

Kliph Nesteroff: Robert Q. Lewis obviously liked you a lot, but a lot of people behind the scenes did not like Robert Q. Lewis.

Sam Bobrick: Well, he wasn't likable! He was convinced that he was destined to replace Jack Paar. It never happened and suddenly his fortunes faded. The show went off the air and I think he moved out here. I saw him once, but he didn't remember who I was.

Kliph Nesteroff: By the late sixties he was mostly doing cigarette commercials.

Sam Bobrick: And on Make Me Laugh, the sponsor was L&M Cigarettes. There was a comic by the name of Lenny Kent on the show and there was a brand at the time called Kent Cigarettes which was a competitor. We got a note, one of those stupid notes that I wish I had kept. It said, "When you introduce Lenny Kent - say the word Kent very fast."

Kliph Nesteroff: I've seen one episode of the Robert Q. Lewis Make Me Laugh where Ernie Kovacs does a walk-on to promote some show.

Sam Bobrick: I don't remember. Those days were fun... maybe. When you're struggling, it's never really fun until you look back at it. I had an apartment in Brooklyn Heights, forty dollars a month and my unemployment check was forty dollars a week. So I lived pretty good struggling. You can't do that anymore. I look back on New York more fondly than I thought I would.

Kliph Nesteroff: Many of your first credits in Los Angeles were with Bill Idelson.

Sam Bobrick: Those are the half-hours that I did. When I came out here they teamed me up with Bill Idelson. He had an assignment and needed a partner for The Andy Griffith Show. Bill Idelson was also an actor and he worked on The Dick Van Dyke Show. He asked Carl Reiner who he would recommend. 

Well, George Shapiro is Carl Reiner's nephew. You know, it's all luck. There were two writers working for Carl named Sam Denoff and Bill Persky. I was Sam Denoff's roommate when I came out here. They recommended me. Bill Idelson and I did our first assignment and Aaron Reuben liked it. Aaron Reuben was the producer of The Andy Griffith Show. The first episode that we wrote won a Writers Guild award. That helped us even more. So we were a team. But my heart really wasn't into writing half-hours, although I loved The Andy Griffith Show. After Don Knotts left the show, it wasn't so good. It wasn't so much fun. I wanted to get away from it so George got me a job on the Smothers Brothers show.

Kliph Nesteroff: The Andy Griffith Show from what I hear was an abnormally blissful set.

Sam Bobrick: Yes. You couldn't find a better show to be on. There were several shows being made at the time, all on the same lot, all produced by Sheldon Leonard and Danny Thomas. There was a great atmosphere because they appreciated writers and in this town, very few people do.

Kliph Nesteroff: Desilu was a factory.

Sam Bobrick: Yeah, we shot at the Desilu studio but the production company was Leonard-Thomas or Thomas-Leonard. They started with The Danny Thomas Show and then The Dick Van Dyke Show, and I Spy and The Andy Griffith Show. It was a nice atmosphere. Most of Hollywood did not treat writers great. Writers are just unimportant. 

Ron Clark was my next writing partner. We wrote four Broadway plays and they all got killed. East of the Mississippi we were playwrights. West of the Mississippi we were gag writers. Writers became more important around the late eighties when they became show runners and started to get paid a lot of money. Making producers out of writers really started with Sheldon Leonard and Danny Thomas. They really appreciated writers. I think it was because Sheldon Leonard came from the Broadway stage where they do respect writers. Desilu was a great atmosphere and everybody knew everybody else. We worked on several other shows. 

Kliph Nesteroff: Did you write on Joey Bishop's sitcom? That was done at Desilu around the same time.

Sam Bobrick: No, thank God I didn't write on that one. I wrote some Gomer Pyles and whenever Persky and Denoff had a show I would write on those. They didn't last. One was called Good Morning, World. It was a small business. Now it's a huge business with network and cable and the web. It's hard to know everybody, but when I came out here in the early sixties it was not that big of a business.

Kliph Nesteroff: January 1965 - you wrote a special called Allan Sherman's Funnyland.

Sam Bobrick: Oh God, was that a nightmare. Yeah. God, how do you know this? I do not list that on my bio! It was an awful show. Allan was in and out of the hospital and on all kinds of drugs. He was hot after his comedy record. Ronnie Graham and I teamed up to write it. Allan was in the old Cedars-Lebanon Hospital near Los Feliz and he had a suite up there. We wrote this whole show up in his hospital room. But he had doctors giving him pills up the ass. Uppers in the morning and downers at night and he was a total mess. He was all over the place. He was a wreck and thank God we got it over with, but it wasn't fun. 

Kliph Nesteroff: The writers I have listed for that Allan Sherman special are you, Bill Idelson, David Vern and Roger Price.

Sam Bobrick: Oh, yes, you're right. I thought it was Ronnie Graham, but it was actually Roger Price. That's right. I get them mixed up. Roger Price was the guy who did Droodles. Nice guy, very nice guy.

Kliph Nesteroff: The guest stars on that special were Angie Dickinson, Lorne Greene, The Ray Charles Singers and Jack Gilford.

Sam Bobrick: Jack Gilford used to do a lot half-hours too and he was a very nice guy.

Kliph Nesteroff: The special was directed by television veteran Greg Garrison.

Sam Bobrick: Greg Garrison, yes. I knew Greg. He was a nice guy. He was the director of that Ray Bolger show I worked on. He was a ladies man. Great looking. He had the Dean Martin show too. Our paths crossed a little bit and I always found him nice although I never knew him in depth.

Kliph Nesterff: How about the experience of writing a couple episodes of the Flintstones?

Sam Bobrick: Oh, that was fun. Joe Barbera was a great guy. It was the old Jackie Gleason show, basically. Joe called me up one time when I was writing on my own. It was very early in my career. He said, "Let's have lunch." I thought, "Great! My first Hollywood lunch!" When it was time for lunch he called in his secretary and gave her some change. He said, "Get sandwiches." There was a machine that dispensed sandwiches! So disappointing! But he was a nice guy and I wrote a few of them, but I preferred live-action.

Kliph Nesteroff: Same process writing for a cartoon sitcom...

Sam Bobrick: Yeah, actually it is the same process. As a writer you might think a little differently when it's animated. In the old days they would do eighty or ninety percent of what you wrote. That's just the way it was. Now, working on these half hour shows - if ten percent of your script remains, you're very lucky. They tear them apart. Sometimes they make them better. Sometimes they make them worse.

Kliph Nesteroff: You wrote for the Sandy Baron sitcom Hey, Landlord...

Sam Bobrick: That was a Sheldon Leonard show. Garry Marshall was a producer on it and he was fun. He has a theater out here and I wrote a couple plays he put on. Just four years ago one of them won the Edgar Award. Garry has managed to stay on top forever and he loves the business. 

Kliph Nesteroff: He's very funny guy. He has the energy of a stand-up comedian.

Sam Bobrick: There's an old comic named Phil Foster and Garry talks a lot like him. If you were in a room and they were talking you wouldn't know who was who.

Kliph Nesteroff: I still can't believe he isn't Jewish. He has that same cadence and that rhythm.

Sam Bobrick: I know! He broke a lot of hearts by not being Jewish! He's from Brooklyn. I didn't know very much about Sandy Baron, but I know it didn't end well for him. Will Hutchins was on Hey Landlord, but I don't remember what I wrote. I don't even remember the Andy Griffiths I wrote.

Kliph Nesteroff: You wrote for Get Smart...

Sam Bobrick: I wrote a couple, but they would change it so much. I remember hating their rewrites so much. I remember one of my Get Smart scripts won the Writers Guild award - but it was totally different from the actual show they shot! I didn't know Don Adams because most of the time you wouldn't go on the set if you were a writer. 

Kliph Nesteroff: How did you get hired for The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour? Everyone talks about its controversial third season, but you were there from the very beginning for season one.

Sam Bobrick: Actually, Ron Clark and I got hired for the second season and we didn't stay for the third. George Shapiro handled the show for the Morris office. Saul Illson and Ernie Chambers were the producers. The third season was when Tommy Smothers took over the show and Illson and Chambers left. Tommy was a terrific talent, but I don't think he was a great producer. We didn't trust him. When the job for the Kraft Music Hall came along for us in New York we took that instead. 

Kliph Nesteroff: Two writers on your season of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour were Hal Goodman and Al Gordon.

Sam Bobrick: My favorite comic in the whole world was Jack Benny. Hal and Al were one of his writing teams. They were just great. Al Gordon was the best joke man I ever met. He would come up with it in a second and Hal was the constructionist. He saw how to make a sketch work. They were a very unusual team. Two totally different guys. Al was very, very nervous. I used to wonder if he was on something. Hal was the calmest man in the word. 

They were great guys and terrific writers. I really, really respected them and they wrote great stuff for the Smothers Brothers. You know when Pat Paulsen would have his monologues? They wrote Pat Paulsen's monologues. I only ever wrote one of them. I stayed friends with Pat Paulsen. I directed him in a couple plays out in Michigan. We had a good time on The Smothers Comedy Hour. It was just fun!

Kliph Nesteroff: How about Gene Farmer?

Sam Bobrick: You know, they first teamed me up with Gene Farmer. I worked one day with him and I said, "It's oil and water." I could not work with him. He had a different style and I was ready to quit the show after the first day. I saw that we weren't a good team. Then they teamed me up with Ron Clark and from the very first hour we were together, it just clicked. Sometimes people have good chemistry and sometimes they don't, just like marriage. Your sense of comedy should really be just like that of your partner. 

Neither of us had much of an ego. If he didn't like my joke I'd come up with another and we could write quickly together. We're still friends. I see Ron about once a week and we have a lot of laughs. It was fun to write with Ron. We started with a summer replacement and I think Eddy Arnold was the host. There was nothing to write because he sang most of the time so we had all this spare time and we said, "Well, let's write a play." We wrote our first play and it was called Norman, Is That You? It bombed in New York.

Kliph Nesteroff: Before we get into that... Allan Blye joined the writing staff of the Smothers Brothers while you were still there...

Sam Bobrick: Yeah, he wrote mostly their musical routines. Later on Bob Einstein and Allan Blye produced a show in Canada called Bizarre with John Byner. It was one of the first cable shows. 

Steve Martin used to hang around the show before he was hired as a writer and I think we maybe even used him as a guest. We used a lot of comics as guests. I remember we used a guy by the name of Gary Mule Deer around that time. Mason Williams was another writer on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, but I didn't get to know him too well. But I do remember when he called me into the room to hear a song he'd just composed called Classical Gas. He taught himself the guitar. He wrote a book that was just a big fold-out of a bus. That was the whole book. He wrote another song called Saturday Night at the World, which I thought was pretty good. He was a wonderful musician. The fact that he taught himself was amazing. Mason Williams was a real wild thinker. It could been from drugs, I don't know. It was that period in history when psychedelic drugs and stuff like that became common - especially around the Smothers Brothers show. 

Thursday, May 10, 2018

An Interview with William Schallert - Part One

Kliph Nesteroff: I told a friend that I was going to be talking to you today and he mentioned he has a collection of your mother’s radio program - The Elza Schallert Show - episodes from the 1930s in which she interviewed Hollywood stars like Tallulah Bankhead and the Dead End Kids...
William Schallert: Oh my God! Well, I would love... if there’s some way for me to get them... 

One of my brothers used to have them on large sixteen or twenty inch discs, you know, aluminum discs. They were transcribed by the people at one of those radio history things. Anyway, whatever shape they’re in - that would be great. 

Kliph Nesteroff: Yeah, my friend has a CD and could send you...

William Schallert: Oh my God, how simple! That would be great. Oh, thank you so much. My God, I’d really owe you for that...

Kliph Nesteroff: Yeah, no problem.

William Schallert: I’d sort of given up on those. She was on the air from 1937 through 1939, somewhere around that time. And she interviewed everybody including a program she did with Thornton Wilder. The subject was “What is Art?” 

She had a half hour radio show about that. Most of them are just fifteen minutes. She would review a picture and interview everybody. The Dead End Kids. Top of the line people.

Kliph Nesteroff: I read that when you were a child you attended Shirley Temple's birthday party.

William Schallert: My father was the drama editor of the Los Angeles Times for forty years. The Schallert name was an “open sesame” when I was first getting started.  For a couple of years I did go to Shirley Temple’s birthday parties. I was seated well away from Shirley Temple.  It was at Twentieth Century Fox and, you know, it was publicity. 

Kliph Nesteroff: I wanted to ask you a little bit about the Circle Theater. One of my favorite people in the world is character actor Marvin Kaplan.

William Schallert: Oh, yes.

Kliph Nesteroff: You both came out of the Circle Theater on El Centro Avenue, an ancient building that's still there. In Hollywood every old building lays some specious claim to Charlie Chaplin, but his family did own the Circle Theater, right? It's the oldest theater in Hollywood - and still standing today.

William Schallert: Charlie Chaplin took an interest in the theater because his brother Sydney was in it. This was around 1947. Charlie Jr. was in it too, but he didn’t stay very long. Jerry Epstein was the guy who was sort of running the place. Jerry Epstein, Sydney Chaplin and myself were owners of the theater. I put some money up.  

Chaplin used to come to see the plays. The first play we did was Ethan Frome. Well, before that we had been up the street and had done The Adding Machine.  But where we ended up is still there. It was called The Circle Theater and the Players Ring and they renamed it El Centro Theater at some point. 

The Circle Theater as it looks today on El Centro Avenue

Mabel Albertson was the musical director for the Andrew Sisters and Jerry Epstein had been their road manager. They were in cahoots. She had cast me in the first play and people in the group said, “Oh, that’s a piece of fluff.” And it was. So they decided not to do it. And then they did Ethan Frome instead, which is about as far from fluff as you can get.

A grim, grim play. I played Ethan because of Mabel. She liked my work. The next play we did was The Time of Your Life. Chaplin saw us in The Time of Your Life and he liked it. He called William Saroyan and said, “Why don’t you give these kids the next play of yours to do? They've doing a terrific job with this one.” Saroyan didn’t really believe in telephones. When he talked on the phone he TALKED LIKE THIS ALL THE TIME

In any event, Chaplin started coming down to the theater. He was seeing the plays before they opened. He'd come when we were in the last week of rehearsal. He drove this little plain black Ford over from Tower Drive in Beverly Hills. He would show up and he would watch us do the first act of the play and he would say, “Ah! No! Could we just stop here? And go back to the very beginning and run through it one more time?” He wasn't the director, but he would take over. And he would proceed to take it apart and work on it, and he became the director kind of after the fact. He added touches to all the plays we did for about two years. And then we had decided to do a production of Rain. June Havoc had been coming to the theater. Her husband was a radio producer named Bill Spier. He did Sam Spade and Suspense.

                           The Circle Theater as it looks today on El Centro Avenue

They came to the theater. It was a theater in the round and it was very small. The acting area was only about 8x10 and we could seat, if we crowded them, we could maybe fit 140 people. Most of the time it was around 110.

When we did The Time of Your Life we made up the whole theater as if it were a saloon. People would walk in and there would be sawdust on the floor and tables with checkered table cloths. The audience sat around on these bar seats we spread around the theater. Chaplin would come at night and he’d do a good deal of reworking. It’d be getting late and his wife Oona would be saying “Charlie, these kids have got to get up early and they’re going to have to do the show again tomorrow night. We have to get going.” It’d almost be dawn. They’d leave finally and he'd go, “Now remember everything I said!” We did our best but he’d come back the next night and say, “Oh no! Oh no, this is all wrong. And then he’d redo it again (laughs). 

Kliph Nesteroff:  So how frustrating was that for the actors? I mean, it’s the great Charlie Chaplin, but at the same time that’s kind of…

William Schallert: Well… you know, we weren’t going to complain. I mean, he was Chaplin, after all. 

Kliph Nesteroff:  Sure.

William Schallert: He would give us some very good stuff that we could use. So he would show us and we would imitate, which is not the best way to do it, but then sometimes he would talk to people and give them interesting suggestions. 

Kliph Nesteroff: The Circle Theater is completely ignored in Hollywood history, by tourists, by locals, by everybody. Not too many people even know what that brick structure is today, but it was like a character actor factory. All these famous character actors got their start here. You. Strother Martin. Marvin Kaplan. The great Kathleen Freeman who appears in all the Jerry Lewis movies...

William Schallert: Yes, Kathleen Freeman and Strother Martin both started at the theater. Kathleen described what Chaplin had told her about Rain. She played a Native woman who was married to the guy who owned the hotel. Chaplin gave her a different thing to do on each of her entrances. He said, “Now on this one, you know, you want to impress the people with how efficient you are. On this next one here, you want to see if there's something you could do that would make them give you more money...” And just things like that. It wasn’t all just imitating, but he gave motivations. It was the same idea as the Stanislavski method.

Kliph Nesteroff:  Next you did a William Saroyan play called Sam’s Ego House.

William Schallert: Yes.

Kliph Nesteroff:  It was 1947 and you were playing a seventy-five year old man in the play. Sort of interesting in the wake of the famous Get Smart character you did years later.

William Schallert: Well, I loved playing the old guys! I was the character man of the company. When Chaplin decided he was going to direct Rain I played Reverend Davidson. I was twenty-five. It was ridiculous.

Kliph Nesteroff: Yeah.

William Schallert: Sam Ego's House is not a very good play. I don’t think it has ever been done again. But Saroyan had a very special quality in his writing and we loved doing it.  And that was a great part for me. Toward the end of it I had a long monologue. While I was delivering it, I would start to leave and stop, and then finish the monologue, and then after that I would actually leave. And on my exit I would always get a terrific hand. So every night I got this tremendous hand. Except once. And that was the night Saroyan was there.

Kliph Nesteroff:  Oh no…

William Schallert: What happened was Saroyan thought I was finished and he didn’t think they were going to applaud so he started a hand himself, but it was way too early. 

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

William Schallert: So it killed my big exit. 

Kliph Nesteroff: He wrote the monologue yet didn’t realize it wasn't finished. 

William Schallert: (laughs) No, he didn’t remember. It didn’t matter. He said, “I wanted to make sure that you got a hand because it was wonderful!” So it was the best of intentions, but it was kind of a funny thing. Anyway, Chaplin always liked what I did... At least, he liked some of what I did. He’d seen Sam Ego's House and the next play we did was Goldsworthy, which was very dull. I was playing a butler, a very small part. I started to do something and Chaplin said, “Oh, you don’t want to borrow from that wonderful thing you did in Sam Ego's HouseNo, we want to do something different.” And so, from that, I guessed that he must have liked what I did in Sam Ego's House.

Kliph Nesteroff: Sydney Chaplin was dating Marylin Monroe at the time. 

William Schallert: I never saw her. I didn’t know that Sydney was dating her. She had been raised right across the street from the theater in an orphanage on El Centro Avenue. That’s where she had sort of grown up. It might still be there. I haven’t been in the neighborhood for a while. I’m not sure.

Kliph Nesteroff: I still can't get over the company at The Circle Theater. All the famous character actors - Marvin Kaplan, Strother Martin. Kathleen Freeman, William Schallert... these are the greatest character actors in film and television history.

William Schallert: Yeah, whenever I talk about that theater I always mention them. They were all a significant part of it and it is where they started in the business.

Kliph Nesteroff: Sure.

William Schallert: And, yeah, Strother and I were good friends. He was a wonderful diver. Back in Michigan he'd been in the finals of the diving championship, the NCAA championships. He was fourth out of the country and if there’d been an Olympics that year... that was in 1940... if there’d been an Olympics that year he would have gone. 

Kliph Nesteroff: There was somebody named Danny Arnold in the Circle Theater. 

William Schallert: In Time of Your Life he played Wesley. I don’t know why I remember that. In the scene he's on the phone desperately talking to a girl and when he gets off I say, “How’d you do?” He says, “Uh… not very well. She said she wanted to be of help, but I don’t know what kind of help she could be of.” (laughs) That’s a nice line of Saroyan’s. Anyway, he was a very good actor. He was with us when we first started with the Elmer Rice play The Adding Machine. Joe Mantell was part of our group. He had been with the Actor’s Lab out here. He was in Marty. He was the guy who was always hanging out with Ernest Borgnine saying, “Well, what are you going to do, Marty?” Mantell was a very good character actor. He started with the Actor’s Lab, but he worked with us.

Kliph Nesteroff: What about this play you guys did called Kitty Dune? It sounds sort of like a predecessor to the film Sunset Boulevard. It’s about a washed up Hollywood star. You played the producer.

William Schallert: Yeah, it was written by a guy named Aben Kandel - and that’s exactly what it was. It was about a washed up movie star. I played the head of the studio (laughs). I was usually playing stuff like that. And I’m trying to remember the actor's name.

Kliph Nesteroff: Ellanora Reeves.

William Schallert: Yeah, that’s right. Ellanora Reeves. She was very good. And once in a while we would have outside people - people who were stars elsewhere - who would come to us and want to work with us. She was one. June Havoc was another. She decided she wanted to do Rain out here because she had done a musical version of it in New York and she wanted to establish her acting chops out here in Hollywood. 

So as a result a lot of us got to work on some of the last great radio shows in the late forties. Her husband was Bill Spier who used to produce radio shows, so you'll hear myself and Marvin Kaplan and some of the others on those old radio shows. We also worked with Marie Wilson. I don’t know if you know who she was.

Kliph Nesteroff: Sure, Marie Wilson starred in the first movie with Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. 

William Schallert: Yeah!

Kliph Nesteroff: The Circle Theater production with Marie Wilson was School for Scandal.  I've heard that it was kind of controversial because she was more of a voluptuous night club star than an actress. She was sort of a proto-Jayne Mansfield.

William Schallert: Exactly. She had done a show called Ken Murray's Blackouts.

Kliph Nesteroff:  Right, right. It ran for years and years at 1735 Vine Street. Sort of an elaborate burlesque comedy revue. 1735 was the same theater where they later did the Hollywood Palace and the Jerry Lewis talk show and a million other things.

William Schallert: Ken Murray's Blackouts was very successful. Marie Wilson played the dumb blonde in School for Scandal - Lady Teasle. She was married to Sir Peter Teasle and I played Sir Peter Teasle. She was actually wonderful in it. 

She was wonderful to work with. She was delightful, very funny, voluptuous, and knew what it was people wanted to see from her, which was perfect. She was very good in this thing. Chaplin had a woman named Constance Collier, who had been a well known British stage actress back in the time of Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree. Around the turn of the century. Chaplin sort of took care of people like that. She had a stipend from him, fifty dollars a week, which helped her stay alive and in the business. And then she made money as Katharine Hepburn’s coach. It was through Constance Collier and Katharine Hepburn that Marvin Kaplan came to the Circle Theater.

Kliph Nesteroff: Right, he’s told me that story. Was Kitty Dune something that Billy Wilder would have been inspired by? Sunset Boulevard was made just two years later. 

William Schallert: You know, I have no idea. It never occurred to me, but it’s possible. Ellanora Reeves was a good actress. She was married to the original Superman.

Kliph Nesteroff: George Reeves.

William Schallert: Yes. She was a very good actress and it was an interesting story. I don’t remember much of the details about it. I guess it’s possible. It’s an interesting speculation. I’ve never heard it before.

Kliph Nesteroff: So how did you parlay into film acting? Right around the same time you started getting your first bit parts in films. You were in a lot of B movies, but also prestige pictures like The Reckless Moment with James Mason. A Max Ophuls film. 

William Schallert: Yes, I remember Max. We were doing a play of Shaw’s at that time - Major Barbara. Max Ophuls had seen the play and he decided he wanted to use me in this movie called The Reckless Moment. I don’t know that it was even a scripted part, but I played a police lieutenant. He was a marvelous director. He got me to improvise something. When I saw it on the screen I thought, “Wow, I didn’t know I could act that well!” He had a marvelous way of drawing things out of you. Max Ophuls wasn't the only one who saw that play. Norman Lear told me that it was the very first thing he saw when he came to Hollywood. He drove into town, parked on El Centro Avenue, left his family in the car and walked into our production of Major Barbara.

Kliph Nesteroff: Wow.

William Schallert: Yeah, so…

Kliph Nesteroff: You also directed a bit at the Circle Theatre. I have you down as the director for What Every Woman Knows.

William Schallert: Yeah, wonderful play by James Barrie. Well, I did my best trying to put it together as a director, but directing is not something I liked. I tried it a number of times later on and my wife said, “You know, you’re very unhappy when you’re directing.” I said, “I know. I’m not going to do it anymore.” I stopped. I was only interested in being the actor on stage and I wanted to be the center of attention that way. 

They have to be able to enjoy helping other people bring out what’s in the play. Joe Sargent was a friend of ours and he went on and pushed it. He tried to get me to do more, we directed a couple of things together, one act plays, that kind of thing. But I told him, I said, “Joe, you know I don’t really want to direct.” So, I think he was very disappointed in me. 

Kliph Nesteroff: I found a trade ad from 1957 advertising the fact that you were directing two plays at the same time. The Rainmaker at Tuscan Playbox in Tuscan, California and Champagne Complex at the Laguna Summer Playhouse. 

William Schallert: Yeah, I directed both of those. Joe Flynn was in the one at Laguna. And later on I did that play at a small theatre started by some of the people who had been with us who broke away. They started the Player’s Ring and they had three theaters at one point. And I did Champagne Complex with them in 1960. As a result of that I got the one pilot I did for a series that I was going to star in. It was called Philbert.

Kliph Nesteroff: Right. It was part animation - part live-action.

William Schallert: And we thought we had a sale. I got a call from Friz Freleng. He was the cartoonist on that. He was also physically the model for Mister Magoo. He was famous among cartoonists as the guy they based Mister Magoo on, the way he looked.

Kliph Nesteroff: I didn't know that.

William Schallert: Friz told me, “We got an order to develop eight scripts. So I think we’re good. And this was after we made the pilot. And I remember calling my wife and saying, “Honey, I'm going to be a star!” It turned out they couldn’t… Friz told me that they told him it cost too much to make, what with putting an animated character in. In those days they used to do a black and white comedy, a half hour comedy, for fifty thousand dollars.

Kliph Nesteroff: Right, right.

William Schallert: But in that show it would have cost... because there was so much animation... it was going to cost seventy-five thousand an episode. Friz Freleng told me, “They said you weren’t a big enough name for them to justify spending that much.” So… easy come, easy go.  

Kliph Nesteroff: We'll get into your television career later on. I want to finish up with your early career first. You directed a play by William Saroyan called The Cave Dwellers. It was produced by Monte Hellman before he became a director. What do you remember about that? What do you remember about Monte Hellman? He was one of the best filmmakers of the 1970s.

William Schallert: Monte was a very generous guy, really nice guy. He was running a theater on Melrose, I think. Oddly enough, it was another Circle Theater, but it was unrelated to ours. Monte Hellman made a production of Waiting for Godot there with Jack Albertson and his comedy partner Joey Faye. And it was quite wonderful. It really was. Jack was a terrific actor and that was a marvelous production of it. And so Monte did quality work on the stage, but I don’t remember how I met him.

I may have approached him about doing The Cave Dwellers or… I don’t remember how we came together. But in any event, he said, “Yeah, you should direct it, that would be great.” And he wanted me to use his wife and I said, “No, I can’t do that. I don’t think she’s right for it. So then I used my wife in it (laughs).  But I must say, he was very generous about it and at first he said, “Well you were right, she was wonderful in it.” But that was the show that kept me from ever directing anything again. I had miscast a key role in it. The guy was physically right for it, the right type, but he couldn’t act his way out of a paper sack.

Kliph Nesteroff: Right.

William Schallert: So that was when I realized casting is the main thing that a director does. And if he doesn’t do it right then the show will never be good. And so that’s when I learned that lesson. It was after that I decided I wasn’t going to direct anymore. 

Kliph Nesteroff: June 1951 - Tartuffe the Impostor starring Sam Jaffe at the Ivar Theatre. You not only acted in it, but you also did the music. 

William Schallert: Yeah. Well, I’d studied composing with Arnold Schoenberg when I was at UCLA. That is, he had let me join his graduate seminar. He used to hear me playing the piano and he thought I had a particular musical ear. I was playing stuff that was symphonic, but I’d managed to find a way to play it on a piano too. Leonard Stein told me that that was the reason Schoenberg had invited me to be in his graduate seminar. But I’d found out in the graduate seminar that I couldn’t do it fast enough to make a living. That was the key. The other people in the class were much more adept. I couldn’t work away from the piano. And I couldn’t hear it in my head in the way it needed to be. But before that I did some musical tracks for plays I was in. At the Ivar - I think that was The Mad Woman of Chaillot. Was it?

Kliph Nesteroff: I don’t have that one down. I don’t know.

William Schallert: Well, they had some music for it, written by somebody. And I thought it was good but I played it on the piano for a recording and they used it in the show. And you know, every way you could make a buck. I was surviving in those days. 

Kliph Nesteroff: At the start of your career you were cast in the great film The Red Badge of Courage. Working with John Huston...

William Schallert: Wonderful.

Kliph Nesteroff: Even though a lot of these were small parts - you were working with legends. 

William Schallert: No question. Well, I can tell you a story about that. Would you like me to tell you about John Huston?