Howdy! Sam Snead feared three things on a golf course: downhill putts, lightning, and Ben Hogan. I feared three things in college: Western Civilization (nothing to do with cowboys and Indians), Marine Biology (although I did achieve a good tan), and Creative Writing (the Prof said I wrote like Spike Jones playing ‘The Star Spangled Banner’—He wouldn’t stand for it.) Back then a good idea was keeping your grades up, lest you suffer that most dreaded of all diseases, gonnaKorea.
I managed to get a sheepskin and then corporal stripes in the U.S. Signal Corps—I was a cryptographer at SHAPE HQ., just outside Paris. I helped make the world safe for democracy as I sipped Café au lait seated outdoors on the Champs Elysées, keeping a wary eye out for spies. I decoded messages addressed to WWII hero Field Marshal Montgomery, or as he called himself, ‘Montgomery of El Alamein’. I called myself ‘Hutch of Atwater’ in honor of my old nabe. The army and I parted with no hard feelings, and I got a job back home as a mailman.
Neither rain nor sleet nor snow nor dark o’ night could stay us stalwart couriers from our appointed rounds. But I came close—one day I parked double on a hill and delivered a letter to a little old lady. “Thanks, Sonny,” she said, “And your truck is rolling downhill!” Sure enough, there it went, and there I went, jumping aboard and applying the hand-brake just before hitting the busy boulevard below. Shades of Yakima Canutt saving the stagecoach.
I never quite got the hang of double-clutching my Dodge truck clunker, so I shifted gears and became a grad student at the UCLA Motion Picture Department—wonderful teachers—French Cameraman Curt Courant who worked on Chaplin’s “Monsieur Verdoux” and “Limelight”, Kenneth MacGowan, producer of John Ford’s “Young Mr. Lincoln”, great French director Jean Renoir, Arthur Ripley, who directed Bob and Jim Mitchum in “Thunder Road” and who wrote Harry Langdon’s silent masterpiece “The Strong Man”. Ripley’s credo: Don’t Be a Critic!
Editing was my favorite class. I’d place wadded paper on the sill of the editing room to keep the window from closing tight. At night I’d crawl back in to continue work on my project: actor Corey Allen stalks a pretty co-ed all over the UCLA campus. Thanks to the magic of scissors and glue I fixed it so that now the co-ed stalks Corey Allen.
One a-yawn, after an all night session at the movieola, my pal B.J. hauled me off to the NBC Studio on Vine St. in Hollywood. Albert McCleery produced a daily one-hour nationwide anthology TV series, “Matinee Theatre”. No tape, no re-takes—Live! McCleery was looking for local college kids to act in a seamy saga of passion and murder at a frathouse party. The joint was jumpin’. When B.J.’s turn came I rolled under a piano and promptly collected some ZZZZzzzz’s. I was the last guy to try out. I got the lead!
McCleery used me in a few more epics. Whatta thrill emoting with big-screen actors such as Helen Parrish, James “The Leopard Man” Bell, and Ah! as in Audrey Totter. She played my mom. Didn’t think of her as my mom, not for a second. Forgot my lines coast-to-coast. Like all good moms, Audrey Totter pulled me through. In another offering I played Gene Raymond’s son. McCleery decreed that my hair get a bleach job to match Raymond’s corn yeller cabeza. Warner Bros. caught my act and signed me to an eight year contract. I took my new hair with me, and that’s why Sugarfoot wasn’t a dirty blond.
First up, I had the immense pleasure of acting in “Lafayette Escadrille”, director Wild Bill Wellman’s account of his experiences in the famed WWI French Flying Corps. Bill Wellman Jr. portrayed his dad in the movie. How ‘bout that? What fun! A rather large gong on the set signaled the presence of fair damsels. All cussing ceased. You had to watch your back. Goosing was rampant. Wild Bill carried his own private goosing pole. When goosed, the goosee was obliged to shout out the first thing to pop into his mind. Wacko wailings, you bet! In my first scene I was garbed in baggy skivvy shorts and a French pilot’s cap, and that’s all. I weighed 147 lbs, and my skivvies hung low, my not having much in the way of hip bones and all. Quietly, I called Wild Bill to the side, “Mr. Wellman, look at all these body builders here today. They get to wear T-shirts. Please sir, can’t I, too, wear a T-shirt?” “Son, let me tell you a story,” he said, “I’m directing a movie back in the late ‘20s, ‘Wings’. Flyboy picture like this one. Wins an Oscar. Young actor asks for a re-take. Why? Says he picked his nose. Son, I tell him, just keep on picking your nose, and some day you’ll be a big star. Maybe you’ve heard of him—Gary Cooper.” Don’t rightly know what that had to do with me.
At the time I lived over a garage in a $30 a month cubby hole. No kitchen, no shower. Took 20 minutes to fill the bathtub with lukewarm water. I’m luxuriating in the tub one night with my rubber ducky. Wild Bill gives me a call. “Hello, Mophead?” He called me Mophead. Also Shelley. My hair reminded him of Shelley Winters. He tells me how much he likes the job o’ work I’m doing. He tells me he’s going to build up my part and wishes me pleasant dreams. Ol’ Wild Bill Wellman—one of the last of the great pioneer, seat-of-your-pants flick directors. Oh, yeah, real human to boot.
What goes around comes around. My first job in the show biz was at NBC. My last job in the show biz was at NBC, only behind the camera—way behind. For 12 years I worked in the warehouse. One day I hefted a heavy stack of cue cards for Leno’s show. Wrenched my back. Next morning I had to crawl to the bathroom. Thanks to me, we warehouse men were issued lifting belts. One day a big silver dolly fell on my foot, mashing my great toe. Thanks to me, we were all issued steel-tipped work boots. Other mishaps followed involving my electric cart and the forklift, but I take absolutely no responsibility for visits from the bomb squad. Rode my bike to work. Good for the ecosystem. For that I got perks: a camera, a queen-size Eddie Bauer bed, and—Ta-da!—a new bike. Still ride it. NBC treated me jes’ fine. I was proud to be a tailfeather in the NBC Peacock.
Babs and I moved to Long Island in ‘95, but they still send me goodies, mostly clothes with the NBC logo. One Christmas they sent me two great tomes containing every Gary Larson “Far Side” cartoon every published (‘80-‘94). They also make swell coffeetable tops, and they can press your pants right fine. Gee, I miss those ol’ Towsers, my workmates, crazy fellers.
One day my former warehouse boss, Chris, called, advising me to watch Leno’s show that night. Una problema—the footboard of our Bauer bed cuts off the bottom third of the TV screen from our view. My favorite actor Morgan Freeman was a guest, and he fondly recalled watching “Sugarfoot” back in the old daze. Next day I wrote him a short letter and tossed in a Sweet Toes DVD.
Yes, we escaped the Hollywood hurly burly back in ‘95. A sign stuck in the ground near our mail box says it all about our lives nowadaze: “Let me live in a house by the side of the road and be a friend to man.” That’s us: our cats Blondie and Dagwood, ol’ Hutch, and my wife Babs, who happens to be my best friend. We’re a contented crew, and ever so once in awhile I wonder what my life would have been if I’d stuck by my trusty movieola that morning long ago at UCLA and told my pal B.J. to toddle off to NBC to try out for the college show by himself.