Howdy! Shhhh! Not so loud!! Best direction I ever got performing in front of a camera.
I had been traveling the USA for a circus in the guise of Patches The Clown. When my van and I pulled up in front of the fabled Boston Garden for our next show, my boss told me to fly to San Francisco to play a cop in a Dirty Harry flick. Well, you can take the boy out of the circus, but you can’t take the circus out of the boy—I bled sawdust. “Lights! Action!”, and I was playing to the last row of the tent. The director piped me down pronto you bet.
A lot of todaze movies are too loud—they hit you over the head with a two-by-four, and that’s just to get your attention—Wheee! Then they take you on an E ride, and we’re off the tracks with no seat belts—Whoa Nellie! My wife Babs likens them to C rides: cringe, cower, cover—Smash! Bam! It’s demolition derby time. (The re-sale value of those cars will be practically nil.)
Zot! See entire cities and orphanages disintegrate before your very eyes—Munch! Schlumph! See a cast of thousands serve as hors d’oeuvres for the crazy mixed-up behemoth from beneath Macy’s basement—Aieee! Arghhh! See screaming scantily clad damsels pursued by method monsters crashing through windows across America. (Whatever happened to doors?) Barrrooom! Giant explosions every thirty seconds. (Sounds like a bad night in a burrito factory.) Hot and cold running blood, state-of-the-art sex and violence served up by FX fearmeisters. Where’s the love? Where’s the humanity? Why this obsession with death and destruction, when our most precious possessions are life and time?
I’m glad I never saw Audrey Hepburn garroted—I’m glad I never saw Katharine Hepburn nekkid—Splat! Thud! Where’s the magic? Where’s the mystery? Filmland folks, you’re too graphic. Don’t show us everything—let us work too. Let us use our God given imaginations—part of a shadow, a hint of a dream—that’s all—we’ll do the rest.
Spencer Tracy was a quiet actor. Kent Taylor worked with him, and I worked with Kent Taylor on a ‘Sweet Toes’ show. What a handsome, immaculate fellow—perfect moustache—he looked not unlike a walking Arrow shirt ad, but there was a stylish, funny, theatrical air about him that didn’t show up on screen. He was a closet John Barrymore. When I was a kid I wanted to be Kent Taylor and marry Fay Wray. Taylor told me that once he faced Spencer Tracy across a table for a scene in an MGM movie. The sound man asked Tracy to speak up. “NO!” Tracy said. “Turn up the volume.” Tracy didn’t believe in rehearsals, “Shoot it!” said Spencer. Taylor couldn’t hear Tracy either. He waited until Tracy’s lips stopped moving and then spoke his lines—One take…
Towards the beginning of “Keeper of the Flame” in WWII Washington, D.C., Tracy’s trying to get a waitress’ attention—“Cuppa coffee!” (Second thought) to Rita Johnson: “Y’want coffee? Make that two cups!” Doesn’t read like much, does it? You really had to be there. But it’s my favorite moment in movies—If I knew why, I’d be as good as Tracy—it has something to do with watching a real living person in action. I saw the picture when I was a kid, and I kept that scene to myself. It was my own private cherished feeling.
Years later, Warner Bros. sent me down to the Camp Pendleton Rodeo on a personal appearance. Milburn Stone was there, too, and I bet he got paid. At the after rodeo party a bunch of us gathered ‘round Milburn. He was holding court and a cocktail to boot. He was my favorite TV actor. Someone asked him who his favorite actor was—“Spencer Tracy.” Quaveringly, I asked him to cite his favorite Tracy scene—Milburn recollected the time Spencer ordered coffee in “Keeper of the Flame”! My mouth was agape. My heart sang.Later on, I worked on a “Gunsmoke”. Milburn was only in one shot. We were shooting on the interior western street set, graveyard to a million horse droppings. Milburn didn’t speak. He came out of his office and breathed the night air. He took out his pocket watch and checked the time under the dim street light. He held the watch to his ear and then wound it, checking it again. He put it back into his pocket and moved on. That was all. To me it’s the greatest piece of acting I’ve ever seen on TV. Thrilling, true—quiet… Until that time—Milburn, Spence, Kent—Until that time… Adios!