Thursday, June 25, 2020

An Interview with William Schallert - Part Three

Kliph Nesteroff: You acted with Orson Welles in the Universal-International western Man in the Shadow. It was directed by Jack Arnold. I am slightly obsessed because I live in Jack Arnold's old house.

William Schallert: Jack Arnold, yes. I loved working for Jack. He directed me in a number of things, including a pretty good picture called The Incredible Shrinking Man. It was very good.

Kliph Nesteroff: I understand that you were cut out of Singing In the Rain.

William Schallert: Yeah, well, I didn’t have much to do in the first place. Kathleen Freeman and I were both cast in that film because we were working at the Circle Theater. She had a real part and I had a nothing part. I played an assistant director who said, “Okay, back it up a little bit, will ya? Okay, hold it right there. Okay, that’s fine.” Something like that. They didn’t need it and I was cut out of Singing in the Rain.

Kliph Nesteroff: How about the film Hell’s Horizon with Chet Baker?  

William Schallert: Yeah, well, I loved his music. It was just great. I had the first record he did with Gerry Mulligan. That’s where he did his famous version of My Funny Valentine. Near the end of the song he cracks on a note, but they kept it on the recording because it was such a wonderful version. 

I found Chet Baker to be an interesting guy. He was very low key. I don’t know if he was already into the drug scene when I knew him, but he certainly fell into that later on. He went to Europe and worked a lot there. But the guy who directed us was a fellow named Tom Gries. And Tom was a very talented writer, director, and friend. We got to know each other because he was married to an actress who was at the Circle Theater with me named Mary Munday. 

Kliph Nesteroff: And the Circle Theater on El Centro Avenue in Hollywood - it's still there. 

William Schallert: Yes, that old building is still standing. Tom Gries used me in a couple of things including a picture called Will Penny with Charlton Heston. I played a doctor. I had one great line. I was patching up these guys who’d gotten injured in gunfights. My line was, “Dangerous children.” I remember that. 

Kliph Nesteroff: You did a film with John Wayne. The High and the Mighty. 

William Schallert: Yeah.

Kliph Nesteroff: What do you recall about working with John Wayne, Phil Harris, Pedro Gonzales Gonzales...

William Schallert: I never saw any of those people. I worked in one scene with Regis Toomey. He was a very well-known character actor. William Wellman directed it and he was a very well-known director. 

I don’t know how I got cast in it. I think I read for it and Wellman thought I'd be good. When I saw it I thought, "Man I did a pretty good job." And it was a very small part, but it had a little substance to it. I don’t remember why I thought that I did a good job, but I did. It was a big blockbuster, but I didn’t work with any of the major stars. I was just another character actor. 

Kliph Nesteroff: In 1954 you were in two different robot movies. One was called Tobor the Great. The other was called Gog. What do you remember about working with robots?

William Schallert: Yeah, I’m in a four-sheet or a six-sheet, whatever they call it, when they put a big poster in the lobby of a movie theater. There's a sort of famous image where I'm being strangled by a robot. 

And then Tobor the Great... my agent Leon Lance... one of his other clients was Charlie Wagenheim. He had been cast in Tobor the Great, but deliberately told them that he couldn’t make it. He suggested that maybe I would do it since we had the same agent. I played a newsman in that, but had practically nothing to do. Charlie Wagenheim steered that part to me and I’d like to keep his name alive because of that. He was a nice guy. 

Kliph Nesteroff: He was later slain in the horrific All in the Family murders in the late 1970sHow about Black Tuesday with Edward G. Robinson? 

William Schallert: Black Tuesday? I think Edmund O’Brien was associated with that. 

Kliph Nesteroff: No, that's a different movie you did around the same time called Shield for Murder.

William Schallert: Yeah, that’s it. Okay. Well, Black Tuesday I don’t remember. I don't recall working with Edward G. Robinson. 

Kliph Nesteroff: The two films are similar. They’re both bleak “cop on the run” movies. Almost film noir.

William Schallert: Yeah, that was the period when I was going through a bad patch. I was smart enough never to have joined the Communist Party, but when I was at UCLA there was a group called the Young Communist League. I had come from a very conservative, Republican, anti-labor household. My father worked for the Los Angeles Times as an influential columnist. He went to work there the year after the LA Times building was bombed by anarchists from the Workers of the World. The Wobblies. 

I found out later that they’d been railroaded. They had Clarence Darrow as their defender in court. He went to see them in jail and said after a half hour he knew they were guilty. He urged them to plead guilty and throw themselves on the mercy of the court, which is what they did. And then they got executed! I saw Henry Fonda do Darrow on the stage. That's where I learned that information. 

I was doing a play with Jeff Corey at the beginning of 1951 and he was ducking subpoenas at the time and they finally caught him. It was a nasty time. And then, you know, he was an amazing guy because he went to work as a teacher. He taught acting to a large number of people in town and he was an inspiring, gentle, wonderful teacher. And he could have gotten crushed by the blacklist but, in fact, he came out of it okay. He just didn’t have the career he would have had otherwise. He lost ten years of his career.

But otherwise, you know, he came back and was very well respected. There were a couple of other guys who got called to testify on the same day and they were crushed. One of them was named Chamberlain. I can’t remember, but he used to work at the Actor’s Lab. Charlie Chaplin had been involved with the Circle Theater where I got my start and he was kind of a red flag in front of a bull. They considered him a Communist sympathizer and he got treated very badly. They revoked his visa.

He went to Europe. His wife Una had to come back here to deal with their property. If she hadn’t been able to do that he would have lost it all.

Kliph Nesteroff: You say this was a dark period for you...

William Schallert: Yeah, because I’d been at the Circle Theater with Chaplin and because of that, in 1952, I got called out to MGM to meet with Leo B. Mayer’s right hand man…

Kliph Nesteroff: Dore Schary. 

William Schallert: No, it was someone in the administrative end...

Kliph Nesteroff: Eddie Mannix. 

William Schallert: No, no, it was this guy L.K. Sidney. He was father to the director George Sidney. And L.K. Sidney was the labor relations guy at the studio. He called me in during the summer of 1952. He said, "Now you know the American Legion has got you on a list." 

The American Legion picked up on some list supplied by some West Coast version of HUAC. The something something committee. I signed a petition protesting it, which everyone was signing. It was published on the back page of the Hollywood Reporter. As a result of that I was listed as a "probable red." Actually, my father was accused of being a Communist sympathizer because in his column he spoke favorably of Judy whatshername. The wonderful, really great comedienne... 

Kliph Nesteroff: Judy Holiday.

William Schallert: Yes, right, Judy Holiday. She had worked in New York with the Revuers and Leonard Bernstein wrote some of their music. I was told, "Well, you know you're listed here." I said, "Well, all I can tell you is I never joined the Communist Party. So, if that's any help..."

He said, "There are a couple of things here. You belonged to the Arts, Sciences, and Professions Council." I said, "Well, yeah, I guess I signed up for that. I just thought it was a noble sounding organization and I was pleased that they wanted me." And there was something else at the Actor’s Lab that I had gotten involved with to help all the small theaters around Hollywood. The small theaters were going to join forces for a common prop store and costume place. When small theaters rented from Western Costume, it could get very expensive. So we were going to establish this inexpensive cooperative.

We called it the California Theater Council. Nothing ever came of it. But I signed my name to it. Anyway, I explained my involvement to this guy and he said, "Well, I guess that will have to do." I said, "At least I didn’t belong to the party." I figured that was the end of it.

I had a Fulbright Fellowship. I went to England and when I got back I wasn't working at all. It was very tough. I ran into a guy, a French literary agent who later helped put together Coming to America with Eddie Murphy. I can’t remember his name right now, but I met him at a party. He said "Well, I understand that you’re a very good actor, so if you ever need any help - give me a call. I’d be happy to do something for you."

The Egyptian was being cast and they were looking for an unknown actor to play the part of Akhenaten, the first monotheistic pharaoh in Egyptian history. I figured I’d win it, but they cast some guy whose name I can’t remember. He was a character actor in the same category that I was. Michael Curtiz was going to direct. I had worked for Mike Curtiz and he liked me. I called this agent and he said, "Well, why don’t you come see me?" He was on Wilshire Boulevard above what used to be the Brown Derby. 

I remember sitting across from him in his office in the early afternoon. He got on the phone and called 20th Century Fox. He said, "I would like to suggest that you consider William Schallert for the part of Akhenaten. He’s a very interesting young actor - undiscovered. It’s exactly what you’re looking for." There was silence for thirty seconds and then he said, "Oh, really? Ah ha. Yes, I see. Okay. Well, all right, yes. Thank you." He hung up the phone and looked at me. He goes, "They say you're unemployable."

Kliph Nesteroff: Wow.

William Schallert: Now I’d never heard it said like that before. I’d heard of grey listing and things like that, but I guess this was because it was a major part. It brought the house tumbling down on me. I thought, "My God, what is going to happen to me?" 

My dad, to his credit, went out to 20th Century Fox. He had a talk with the head of publicity, Harry Brand. As I mentioned before, my father was a pretty influential columnist at the Los Angeles Times. He was quite famous in California. And here he was besmirched. It was tarring him because he’d said something nice about Judy Holiday. And they got to the managing editor or maybe the city editor and they said, "You know people have written in." I saw some of the mail they got. They accused my dad of being a "red" and "a commie" or "a commie sympathizer" and said his son was a "well-known commie." The Times told him, "Well, we know you're not like that, Edwin. We all know that you’re straight, but maybe it would be good not to mention Judy Holiday ever again." That was how the blacklist kept spreading. You know, I mean...and this is inside information - so to speak. 

Kliph Nesteroff: So then - your reputation as the king of the bit parts... perhaps it came about because you were blacklisted from achieving bigger roles... 

William Schallert: I think... well, possibly. I’m not sure. I wouldn’t be surprised if that was it. Because I started in acting the same year as when the blacklist started. 1947 was my first year in film. And those early years were terrible. It was dangerous to have any associations that were considered off the chart in any way. But I survived it, you know. Unlike those who were smashed.

Kliph Nesteroff: Philip Loeb from the sitcom The Goldbergs was a famous case. He was blacklisted because he supported the integration of major league baseball in the 1940s. The New York sportswriter at the Daily Worker was Lester Rodney. He started something called the End Jim Crow in Baseball Campaign. Many prominent people who endorsed the integration of the major leagues were later blacklisted. Most historians agree that it was literally the Communist campaign... American Communists... that led to the integration of major league baseball... Of course, the Soviet Communists didn't know anything about American sports so Lester Rodney had an unusual amount of autonomy at the Daily Worker.

William Schallert: Well, yes. That's all true and Phillip Loeb ended up committing suicide in the end. These were all well-known people. The blacklist could really murder a character actor. Some never did recover. Jeff Corey eventually came back. He was in a John Frankenheimer picture called Seconds and that restored his reputation. Actually, several of the actors cast in that film - Will Gere, John Randolph, a whole group of blacklisted people, were rehabilitated by Seconds. Will Gere had been active in the liberal theater out here. 

Kliph Nesteroff: Betsy Palmer told me that when they blacklisted Will Gere, they weren't sure which actor was which and so they blacklisted a whole group of actors with names like Will Hare or Bill Gear... people with no political affiliations. They just had a similar name...

William Schallert: Well, yes, that’s exactly the kind of nonsense that would happen. To end my hair-raising experience with this my father went to Harry Brand and said, "I don't think this is right." It took a lot of courage on my father's part. I’d always appreciated the fact that he’d done it. Plus - he was a big conservative and he was from the South. But he was being tarred with this brush.

Kliph Nesteroff: 7165 Beverly Boulevard. You did a handful of things at this theater in the 1950s including a play called Quadrivium. I am interested in its history. It was the original Slapsy Maxie's. A real dump, hole in the wall nightclub. Then it turned into a proto-comedy club around 1945 called Cully Richards' Blackhawk. During your era it was called the Globe Theater and then the Hollywood Repertory Theatre. Then it turned into a movie house called the Capri, an art house called the Europa, and then a porn theater called Eros. Today it is the New Beverley Cinema - perhaps the best rep cinema in the world.

William Schallert: That was a place where I directed some shows. Dennis Weaver was running it and he ran a class. The Hollywood Repertory Theatre, yeah. I think Dennis had been at the Actor’s Studio and now he was trying to do his own little thing, sort of his own version of the Actor's Studio.

My wife was in that class. They were going to put together an evening of one-act plays. I had run across a play by T.S. Elliot called Sweeney Agonistes. I had suggested that I direct it and I did. 7165 Beverly Boulevard, yeah. That was one of the very good, small little theaters here in town. 

Kliph Nesteroff: I read a blurb that said you were offered the chance to direct a film for Burt Lancaster’s  company to be called Diary of a Madman.

William Schallert: I don’t remember it. I must have turned it down. When I was president of the Screen Actor's Guild, I had the occasion to meet Burt Lancaster. But that was long after. 

Kliph Nesteroff: I heard that you appeared on Johnny Carson’s first CBS television show.

William Schallert: I did. They were doing a send up of What’s My Line? and I bore some vague resemblance to John Charles Daly who was the host of that show. I don’t remember much about it beyond that. We had jokes, but I don’t recall the details. I got cast because they knew I could be funny and had a passing resemblance to John Daly.

I had one other experience with Johnny Carson. I got elected to the Motion Picture Academy’s Board of Governors quite unexpectedly. It’s a very small cadre of people who elect those people. You have to be nominated first. And there’s a huge pool of actors, a few thousand anyway. And so somebody has to pick you out from among thousands and nominate you. And then after that you have to be sure you can get enough votes. 

To this day I don't know, but it must have been some friends at the Guild. I was kind of "electable" in the mid-1970s. Somebody must have... I always imagine it must have been Kathleen Nolan. She must have got some people together and had them do it. She thought I should be president of the Screen Actor's Guild. That it would be good for the union if I were. I mean, I don’t actually know if that’s what happened, but that’s how it worked out. I think I beat Richard Dreyfuss. 

Anyway, because of that we always attended the Academy Awards. One time we were sitting down in the orchestra seats and Johnny Carson had some time to kill onstage. He saw me and said, "Hey, Bill!" He recognized me. He obviously knew who I was. Anyway, it was nice to have him point me out on an Oscar telecast.

Kliph Nesteroff: In 1954 you tested for a Marlon Brando film called Désirée.

William Schallert: I met Marlon Brando at a party. Sydney Chaplin was going out with somebody. I can't remember who it was now. They had kind of a hot fling going. And he was the one who told me about this party. I had just started doing a little folk singing. I thought, "Oh, I'll play some guitar at the party." But I wasn't very good. Ha.

For some reason I thought I could sing. Anyway, we went to the party and at one point I left the room to go find the guitar and when I came back upstairs, Brando was there. Brando made a request, asked if I could sing some sort of a children’s folk song. I didn't know it. We didn't become friends. George Englund was there with his wife Cloris Leachman. Sydney Chaplin encouraged me to go ahead and sing. And at the time I really thought I was good. In retrospect, I was completely delusional. Oh, God. 

No comments: