Wednesday, August 10, 2011

An Interview with Betsy Palmer

Betsy Palmer: Clifford! Okay, darling.

Kliph Nesteroff: I wanted to talk to you about your television career. I'm a great fan of the TV show I've Got a Secret.

Betsy Palmer: Yes. How young were you [when I've Got a Secret was on the air]?

Kliph Nesteroff: Well, right now I'm thirty years old.

Betsy Palmer: Oh! And right now I am eighty-four. How about that? I feel good and if I may say so myself - I don't look too bad.

Kliph Nesteroff: I should say! I was trying to track you down for a while. I enlisted the help of a friend who then enlisted the help of another friend and it was an elaborate, involved process. Then that friend of the friend said, "Well... have you tried the phone book?"

Betsy Palmer: (laughs) It's true! I've always been in the phone book! It's really true. I've never had an unlisted number.

Kliph Nesteroff: Well, I was surprised. The phone book is the last thing I would think of.

Betsy Palmer: I suppose that's why it works so well (laughs). You're on the West Coast? Vancouver is so beautiful.

Kliph Nesteroff: Yes, well I'm in the process of emigrating to Los Angeles.

Betsy Palmer: Oh, well that's nice. Let's keep our fingers and everything else crossed for you. If it's meant to be yours it will. You have to make peace with that. That is what I have found. What's yours comes to you. Good, bad or indifferent. It always has something to do with personal growth. This is what I have considered as I have moved along. I have no complaints. I have had a wonderful, wonderful career and a wonderful life. A lovely life.

Kliph Nesteroff: Well, the things in our lives that become the most fond or lasting memories are things we don't even realize are special at the time...

Betsy Palmer: During that moment, yes, right. I always say that now stands for No Other Way - N.O.W.  - and that's all we really need to pay attention to. It all falls into the place that it is supposed to be.

Kliph Nesteroff: And since the now is all there is to pay attention to - I want to talk to you today about your past.

Betsy Palmer: (laughs)

Kliph Nesteroff: So, you've been associated with New York for much of your life...

Betsy Palmer: Well... not really. I was born in Indiana in a little town called East Chicago, Indiana. I've been a Midwest girl... well, I'm still a Midwest girl. You never quite lose that and all the conditioning from your family.

Kliph Nesteroff: I read that actor Frank Sutton was responsible for luring you to Manhattan.

Betsy Palmer: Frank was married to my roommate Sasha Igler's sister. How did you know Frank?

Kliph Nesteroff: I didn't - I'm just familiar with him from his work on the sitcom Gomer Pyle.

Betsy Palmer: Oh, that's right, he was on that series. I've never been a big television watcher so things come and go and I haven't seen them. He was a good actor and a nice guy. Very strong and had very strong opinions about things, but he was married to my roommates and they were great people. They showed me a lot about the way of actors in New York. I became part of the theatrical family and they embraced me.

Kliph Nesteroff: When you say he had an opinion - he was a political guy?

Betsy Palmer: Oh, yes. He was very intelligent and politically speaking he was always active. Frank had a hook with things of that nature as far as our union was considered - AFTRA and Equity. We've always had good unions, we performers. Are you a performer?

Kliph Nesteroff: I used to be. I did stand-up for a long time, but I turned hermit and now I just write.

Betsy Palmer: Ah. Well, yours was another adventure of being a performer. I don't know how comics are able to do it. It's ego crushing I would say.

Kliph Nesteroff: Well, when it's good it's amazing and when it's bad...

Betsy Palmer: Oh yes, oh yes. Why was it that you wanted to talk to me?

Kliph Nesteroff: I adore you!

Betsy Palmer: (laughs) Ah, what a sweet thing to say. Thank you.

Kliph Nesteroff: I've been in love with you since I first saw I've Got a Secret...

Betsy Palmer: (laughs) Reruns I suppose...

Kliph Nesteroff: I watch an episode or two every single weekend on my computer. One of my all time comedy heroes is [I've Got a Secret panelist] Henry Morgan.

Betsy Palmer: Oh, gosh, he was perfection with his wry, quirky way. He liked me. We got along very well together. He always referred to me as "the kid." "Hey, kid." He was a tough guy. He didn't mess around when he was zeroing in on... performing or whatever, I don't know. I don't know how to qualify that remark other than... he was very sincere. Always sincere about his work. He loved me. He was always very nice to me. He'd sort of pick at me - wouldn't let me get away with anything. But he also realized after a while that there was a certain naivete that I had, I guess you could call it. An openness.

I would say things or do things that I did not know how deeply they would get me in shit (laughs). He finally saw that I was for real - not just some ingenue or trying to be an ingenue - then he really became a very, very dear man. And his ladies that he had - they used to come to the house of my husband and I and have dinner. Everybody always thought that if you were on a panel on a game show that everyone always pals around with everybody. But you don't. You say hi when you come in and when you leave you say bye. There was not much socializing. You socialized on the air. That's where the fun was - and the challenge.

Kliph Nesteroff: The chemistry between the panelists on I've Got a Secret is remarkable. It worked so well.

Betsy Palmer: Well, Goodson - Todman, the gentleman who produced the show - they had a nose for it. They really did. They knew what the combinations were. There was Faye Emerson, the first blonde on the show, she went to Italy or something. They brought me on as a one-shot thing while she was out of town. The client liked me. The client, as I recall, was the cigarette company Winston. "Winston tastes good like a cigarette should."

In fact, we used to smoke on the show. Sure. We had our packages of cigarettes there. I remember the man from the tobacco company said to me, "Why are you smoking those?" I was smoking Chesterfields. I said, "Well, I like the packaging." It was white and gold, y'know. He said, "Well, if we give you cigarettes each week, do you suppose you could bring those to the show and smoke ours instead?" I said, "Sure, if you give 'em to me for nothing I'll smoke 'em." Which I did.

Kliph Nesteroff: I saw an episode of I've Got A Secret and, of course as you say, with the smoking. And Garry Moore...

Betsy Palmer: Oh, he smoked like a chimney.

Kliph Nesteroff: This episode - the secret had something to do with a baby. Garry Moore walks out holding a live baby - a cigarette burning away, dangling from Garry's mouth the whole time.

Betsy Palmer: (laughs) Sure! In those days everybody did it. Especially as a woman it was considered a very refined act of sophistication. I remember when I started - I was in my twenties. My father was all upset. He rolled his own.

Kliph Nesteroff: We mentioned Henry Morgan. Bill Cullen never seems to get credit for being a quick wit, but he was.

Betsy Palmer: Oh, he was. He was very, very good. Actually, there was an incident that happened on the show. They were always playing surprises on us. They would go into your home during the day when you weren't there. They'd go into your closet or the pantry and then they would show a clue. I remember there was this one show in which they had gone into our refrigerators and photographed them during the day.

Then on the show they'd show a picture and we'd have to guess [which fridge belonged to whom]. There was one which was empty except for a cocktail glass (laughs). I remember I said... and I was always opening my mouth and saying things that were not meant to sound as bad as they did. I said, "Oh, well, that has got to be Henry's because he's an alcoholic!"

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs) Oh no.

Betsy Palmer: Well, I didn't know that he did have an alcohol problem. He became so upset with me. I started tearing up on the show because he was so [mad]. So after that night they separated us. I used to sit next to him on the panel and then they moved me down to the other end where Bill...

Kliph Nesteroff: Oh, really?

Betsy Palmer: Henry did not speak to me for a long, long time.

Kliph Nesteroff: Oh wow.

Betsy Palmer: He really didn't. Anne and Bill Cullen had an anniversary party. They rented a little yacht that would go around the island [of Manhattan]. I remember I wasn't going to go the party. Anne said, "You must." I said, "Is Henry going to be there?" She said, "Billy says he is, but he is not going to bother you. I'll take care of him." I remember being on the boat and looking south. I was standing on the railing by myself and someone came up next to me and gave me a nudge. I looked and it was Henry. I said, "Oh. Hello, Henry." He said, "Can I... watch... the fireworks with you?" I said, "Yes."

Kliph Nesteroff: Ah.

Betsy Palmer: As we were watching I said to him, "I just saw a body fly up into the air!" He said, "No, no, you're imagining." I said, "I did, Henry!" And in the paper the next day it said there had been an explosion on this [other] boat and some man was blown off the boat!

Kliph Nesteroff: Oh my God.

Betsy Palmer: Yeah, oh my God is right! But that evening Henry and I made peace. He said, "I'm sorry, kid. I was heavy on you." But it went on for weeks. But we had those intricacies on the show and all of us had very defined personalities. When I came on I thought I would just be there until the other woman came back, but the client liked me because I wasn't political. Faye was very political.

Kliph Nesteroff: That incident that happened between you and Henry Morgan - did that ever get written up in the press? Did anyone notice you two had been separated or say anything about it?

Betsy Palmer: No, we behaved ourselves on air, but there was just a distance. Henry - when he got angry he could be very stalwart. We ended up being very dear friends. He was always very protective of me.

Kliph Nesteroff: How about Bess Myerson? She's quite charming on the show. She was famous both before and after the show's run for different reasons...

Betsy Palmer: You mean with her having been Miss America? She was a bright, intelligent woman. I got along with her fine. What were you seeking?

Kliph Nesteroff: I'm just curious because in later years she was embroiled in political scandal - so I guess I'm wondering if she was truly as charming as she comes across or was she more of a Machiavellian in nature...

Betsy Palmer: Well, she was a very strong woman and she wasn't miss goody two-shoes like I was. Or like everybody thought I was. I would say these things and they'd say, "She doesn't know what she's saying." I always knew what I was saying. I always knew. But we were different personalities - which was very good for the show. She was a more sophisticated woman than I. I don't ever consider myself as being sophisticated, although I guess I was at a certain time when I was younger. They knew how to cast the show - Goodson and Todman. They knew which personalities would work and each of us would play off of one another. Bill was, you know... people didn't realize how crippled Bill was. Bill walked with a very definitive limp. But when they put him on camera, he only had a couple of steps to where he was sitting. People didn't realize that he did have this limp. I think it was from childhood - like polio or something like that.

Kliph Nesteroff: One of the creative forces behind the show was Allan Sherman. Was he around when you were there?

Betsy Palmer: Alan was the one who brought me on the show for the first time. He was sort of producing it and I don't know why he thought of me or why I came to his mind. I don't remember if I was on The Today Show at that time. I could have been the gal on The Today Show and that's how they brought me in to do the game show the one time. And like I say, the client was just whoop-dee-doo about me (laughs). Thought I was so sweet and attractive and didn't know what I was saying or how funny I was. But I knew.

Kliph Nesteroff: You mentioned that they would often come into your house during the day to pull some kind of prank...

Betsy Palmer: Mmm hmm.

Kliph Nesteroff: Did they ask you to keep your homes unlocked? I don't understand how...

Betsy Palmer: No, no, no. I would work during the daytime and we had a housekeeper, you know. I don't know about everybody's apartment, but it sort of worked. They did so many things. It was all, mostly, done spontaneously. We'd just come in a half hour before airtime and, of course, it was a live show.

We'd just come in and play the game. The irony of it all is I have never been a good game player of any sort. I don't like to play games. I never have. I often thought it was because my brother was such a rotten loser. Whenever he lost there was always a lot of sourness and pouting and all of that. I never considered myself to be a game player.

Kliph Nesteroff: But you did do some game shows prior to I've Got A Secret...

Betsy Palmer: Boy, you are digging a long way back!

Kliph Nesteroff: There was a show in 1952 called Wheel of Fortune.

Betsy Palmer: Yes. I guess that was... Todd Russell was doing it. God, I haven't thought of that name in a long time. I would bring the contestant on and say, "Todd, this is Ms. so and so. She's here to spin the wheel of fortune!" I think that was over at CBS on 1st Avenue. We used to have a studio over there. The thing that was so great about that time as far as my aspect of it was...  I loved to improvise. I loved being scriptless... I was an actress. I wasn't just an announcer or something of that nature. That was another time. A naive time. We were like a bunch of kids.

Kliph Nesteroff: There was another game show called I'll Buy That hosted by Mike Wallace...

Betsy Palmer: Oh, I would never go on that show. No. Michael and I were friends. He tried to get me to come on that show. I said, "Are you kidding? The way you wipe up the floor with these people? You want me to come on this show with clear eyes and a clean mind when all you do is make people look awful?" And I never did his show. He and I were on other shows together on panels. There were interesting people. Who was that lovely writer? With glasses? We sat on a panel together.

Kliph Nesteroff: George S. Kaufman?

Betsy Palmer: Mmm hmm. Yes. We were a different breed. They tried to mix us up so there'd be a little bit for everyone viewing it. Of course, there was this wonderful spontaneity of it all being live - never film or tape. It was all very spontaneous. It was a very experimental time. A lot of things happened. Cameras would fall off pedestals and people would stand up after they were supposed to have been shot dead and lying on the floor and the camera wasn't off of them yet. There was that aspect of it all. It was very, very enjoyable and I loved it.

Kliph Nesteroff: Another show - What's It For - with Ernie Kovacs...

Betsy Palmer: Mmm hmm. Sure. I remember that. There were a lot of shows. It was strange they picked me for game shows. I was so uncomfortable in playing games. I was afraid of looking stupid and so I would try so hard - and that's what they loved about me, evidently. I was led down a path. I was their girl Betsy. "Look what they're doing to our Betsy." Yeah (laughs). It was a sweet time as far as television was concerned - and then I did all the live dramatic shows.

Kliph Nesteroff: You were occasionally made fun of on I've Got a Secret for never guessing the secret.

Betsy Palmer: Oh, yes. And I did try. I tried very hard. I did not want to look stupid - but I know that I did (laughs).

Kliph Nesteroff: You mentioned the dramas - the live dramas...

Besty Palmer: Yes, Studio One and...

Kliph Nesteroff: You did two with James Dean.

Betsy Palmer: Yes, Jimmy and I - we had a little bit of a romance for several months too...

Kliph Nesteroff: Your love affair with James Dean came about from working together in these dramas...

Besty Palmer: Yes. I was a single girl and he was a single guy (laughs) y'know? So we dated and had a thing (laughs). I'll let you figure out what the "thing" is (laughs). We had a romance! I vaguely remember him saying, "Talk dirty to me." And I didn't know what to do. I didn't know what to say - whether I should say "shit" or...

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Betsy Palmer: Or "fuck" or whatever (laughs).

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Betsy Palmer: I was naive at that time. Just a little girl from a small town in Indiana. I'm surprised you're even calling me to talk about this stuff!

Kliph Nesteroff: One of these teleplays was titled Sentence of Death.

Betsy Palmer: The name vaguely rings a bell. I guess it was the first show that we did together and we started dating after that.

Kliph Nesteroff: You're quite good in it. The whole thing is quite good. You play a socialite that goes into a drugstore to kind of slum it - you witness a murder at the cash register.

Betsy Palmer: (laughs) Really? Well, I haven't a clue about that. Of course, they were all live and once you did them they were gone, y'know.

Kliph Nesteroff: Why did you and James Dean break up?

Betsy Palmer: Who knows, darling! Haven't a clue. I don't think we were all that deeply involved with one another. Well, we were for a while. But you know, when you're young and single... but it was a sweet time.

Kliph Nesteroff: You were in the legendary television production of Marty with Rod Steiger as well.

Betsy Palmer: Yes, the original. We did it live. Absolutely. I remember Rod cried his way through the whole show...

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Betsy Palmer: Through the whole show! He was crying in every scene! I was really rather disgusted. I'd come off the set and I'd say to one of the cameramen or someone, "Would you tell him to blow his nose at least?"

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Betsy Palmer: But I couldn't figure it out. I think he thought he was being dramatic. He was, but to just see the guy crying all the time... Marty was a very big success as a film.

Kliph Nesteroff: Were there any elements of the Red Scare that you had to tip toe around? Perhaps not involving you personally but...

Betsy Palmer: Yes, there was that. A lot of politics going on and a lot of performers that felt very strongly. I was never too political about anything. I never felt I was bright enough. That's where all that "She doesn't know what she's saying" came into play.

Kliph Nesteroff: Right.

Betsy Palmer: I remember there was a time on I've Got a Secret when Garry had these two policemen standing behind his chair. I said at one point, "Well, does the secret have anything to do with the policeman's behind?" They were behind his chair, but don't you know the audience just went crazy when I said that.

Kliph Nesteroff: I watched an episode that received a similar response. Dick Van Dyke was the guest and he was miming various scenarios that the panel had to guess - like charades. He did one that was an act-out of going to the doctor. After the secret had been guessed, you interjected and said, "If it was a trip to the doctor - I don't understand - what was that thing he did when he turned his head and coughed?" The place, again, went crazy.

Betsy Palmer: (laughs) I don't remember that, but that was the kind of thing I was known for doing. Doing something that would prompt that kind of reaction. Like I say, and doing it... just walking on eggs enough and acting as if I was not that sophisticated.

Kliph Nesteroff: Just on the point of the Red Scare - there was an actor you worked with on Miss Susan named Will Hare...

Betsy Palmer: Sure. Sure, I remember Will. Miss Susan was my first job. Will was banned after that for a while. It was that time.

Kliph Nesteroff: But I understand Will Hare was blacklisted because they confused him with another actor...

Betsy Palmer: Yes! Will Gere! It was Will Gere who was a cardholding member of the Communist Party. Yeah. We were doing the Miss Susan show together, Will Hare and I. I had been in town only five days. My roommate and I went to this party in a very small apartment and there was this man sitting in a chair in the corner. The man looked at me when I came in and said loud enough for me to hear, "She would be perfect for the role!"

So he motioned me over. I went over. He said, "Are you an actress?" Nobody had ever asked me that before and here I am in New York for not even a week yet. I said, "Well, yes I am." He said, "Well, on Monday I want you to go up to the such-and-such office and see this man and tell him I sent you." Which I did and I got a running part on the Miss Susan show with Susan Peters. A job on a soap opera - which was live, again, no filming or taping or anything like that. All the actors would go to Philadelphia on the train to the studio - WPPZ. God, I can't even believe I remember that. I had my first job. I had hardly taken a breath in New York City.

Kliph Nesteroff: You ended up having some remarkable film roles. Mister Roberts with James Cagney, Henry Fonda, William Powell... being directed by John Ford...

Betsy Palmer: Right. Well, you see Cagney and Powell I never met. We girls were shipped to Hawaii where they were shooting scenes on the ship. When they brought us in - they stopped shooting Cagney and all of them and they let them go. So I never met Cagney or William Powell. But whenever anybody talks about it, they talk about us all being together.

Kliph Nesteroff: What was it like working with Joan Crawford in Queen Bee?

Betsy Palmer: She and I stayed friends until the end of her life! She liked me. I liked her. She loved when we did scenes together. She knew that I was an actress and wasn't just some dilettante playing a panelist in front of the cameras. She was very, very professional. I will always remember when we had, at one point, been given a new wardrobe and had to have it tested before the camera.

When I saw her - when she came and had that outfit on - and the way she walked - she made a big drama out of it all. I knew right then and there that she was as sincere about her approach to acting as I was - and we became friends. I liked her, but she was a tough cookie. There was no messing around when you were doing it, but she saw that I was the same way. It was your neck if you weren't. Oh, I liked Crawford. I really did. I used to call her "Joanne." She loved it.

Kliph Nesteroff: Well, thank you so much, Betsy. I didn't think I would track you down.

Betsy Palmer: And I'm so easy to track down! It has been most enjoyable. We will meet one day.