New York City 1963…

Posted by on Nov 17, 2017 in Blog | Comments Off on New York City 1963…

New York

When I was laid off the AT&SF Railroad in the big national strike of 1961, I hitchhiked to New York City from San Berardino in California. A psychiatrist and his wife picked me up and took me as far as Philadelphia.
For the first few months in the city I collected unemployment from the Union and it was more than most salaried people were making in the early sixties. The Union’s grip on railroad management was what the strike was about. Too many men on a job with too much pay and no rights for management to fire anyone for any reason. What was the need of four brakemen on a freight train with four on standby in the caboose? When the four got off after their five-hour shift and the ones on standby took over, four more came on. Why was a ditch digger on a signalman crew like me getting $400 a week with room and board and full benefits, with no skills other than using a pick and shovel, and no seniority?
We were installing new signal boxes between Chicago and Los Angeles, living in converted passenger cars from the 1920s coupled to the cook residence and kitchen car, ice boxcar, and dining room. These were towed along the main rails to sidings where we loaded up food, water, and ice, and drive out to the old signal boxes and road gates.
Unemployed, I was picking up half pay from the railroad brotherhood at Penn Station as they looked around for a new position for me. Part of the deal struck between management with the union was for the railroad to pay half salary to those let go until they found other jobs. In return, the union would allow a thirty percent reduction of the work force.
I landed a position at Ronald Press, a publisher of college textbooks and scientific monographs by specialists in various fields. Ronald had the world’s definitive book on the sex life of the mosquito. It was big as an unabridged dictionary.

I was being trained to go on the road in the Midwest to get teachers to choose our books over the competition’s, mainly Prentice Hall. But somehow I didn’t know it. I was hired by a man fascinated by the mythology of the far west who hired me because of my Western-cut suit and stories about being a cowboy in Big Piney in Wyoming, and riding horseback from Sevilla to Madrid in Spain a few years before. I knew nothing about textbooks, publishing, or selling, and by the time they sent me out on the road with a trunk of books I didn’t know much more than I did five months before.
I don’t understand how these things can happen. Anyone should’ve seen that I was a simple person incapable of learning enough English, geology, math, and physics to convince professors who had degrees in their fields to change their Prentice Hall textbooks for ours. Maybe Bob Warner imagined qualities in me just to keep me around in my black Leddy cowboy boots, telling stories about the pueblo Indians and New Mexico ranchers. Or maybe he was too distracted by his Delta Airlines stocks and being on the phone with his broker. He retired two years later a millionaire, and one of the first things he did was fly to Santa Fe to see the places I’d talked about. He looked up my mother and her new husband to brag that I was the worst salesman in the 100-year history of Ronald Press. I wonder how no one picked up on that during my training.

I decided to be an actor. Uta Hagen and Herbert Berghof had an acting school in Greenwich Village. I signed up at HB Studios. Herbert Berghof assigned me a scene with a seasoned actress who in our rehearsals at my apartment taught me to act through her becoming the character. I was a chameleon, so as long as I believed her and felt her emotion, I delivered the goods. She was powerful, so I was powerful, and when we did our scene there was not a sound from the class at the end. The people stared wide-eyed, then exhaled as one. Herbert tapped his pencil and looked at the ceiling, asked where I’d studied.
I hadn’t, I said. At the end of class there was a swarm of women wanting to do scenes with me. I looked at the actress who had been so emotionally wrapped in her character that she gave life to mine, and she smiled as if to say I was in for it now.

Herbert wanted me to read for a supporting part in a play by Horton Foote he was to direct on Broadway. He got Dick Baumann to be my agent and suggested I try out for his wife Uta Hagen’s advanced class, which I got into by doing a scene from The Rose Tattoo. Because there was no one in her class that wasn’t a professional, I was believable. But I was only as good as the other actor I was working with so, when I went out on auditions and was paired with someone without that spark, I was at a loss of how to become real because I had no technique.
If Herbert had done the Foote play and I’d gotten the part it could’ve been another Ronald Press deal. I was at best a collaborator, someone a professional could bounce off, which enlivened me. On stage I had good energy and eye contact, I really listened and looked at people as we do in real life. If the other actor believed, I believed, and once in the groove we sparked.
I went on TV commercial calls and small theater, then got a leading role in ABC-TV’s The Doctors and The Nurses from an audition scene Fred Underhill wrote for me and Judy Adler, Ben’s mother-to-be. The show’s producer, Doris Quinlin, sent me to the director of the television show the next day and he had me read a scene on camera with the woman lead. When I got the part it was only a matter of going in to sign the contract at ABC. Dick Baumann said he’d call my message service when the time came. I left the city with Karen Deming to go to her parents place in Connecticut for the weekend, and the next day kept going into Canada where I got a cross-country ride on a new school bus being delivered to the Northwest Territories. It was loaded with vagabonds and outcasts the driver picked up along the way. Weeks later I called home and heard I’d been replaced when ABC couldn’t get hold of me. I was fine with that. I’d been terrified.

My success and acclaim in theater and on screen was mainly on the streets of New York. One night between Sixth and Seventh on 44th I think it was, walking alone along a street faced by the backs of theaters and passing under a streetlight mid-block, a tour bus passed, slowed, and stopped. A man got off and trotted back, big smile, grabbed my hand and shook it with both of his, babbling on about how he loved my films and television series and how he had a bus load of tourists from Yugoslavia who had recognized me and made him stop. He wondered if it’d be okay for them to come over to take my picture and get autographs.

I couldn’t get a word in: What films, what series? I hadn’t any credits except one off Broadway play.
He was already running back to the bus, yelling excitedly in a Slavic tongue and the tourists were piling out and heading my way, working men in work clothes and women in shawls and bulky dresses clustering around taking pictures, handing me pieces of paper to sign, some of them quite moved. Then the tour guide gave an order and they trotted back to the bus with him, he shouted his thanks, saluted, climbed aboard and off they went.
I stood there a long time before realizing I’d made it in acting. I was a star. They’d show the photos back home and tell of finding me in this canyon of a street, the man they’d seen in so many films:
You know him, he’s the one who was in that film with that blonde girl.
Oh him? You saw him?
No, not just saw, I touched him, this is his picture, he signed his name on this paper.
What does it say?
It says his name, him, you know the one. We were all around him, we were so lucky the tour director saw him, I think he was trying to hide his face when we went by but the tour man saw him and stopped the bus and we got out. He is so handsome, he was so kind, I can’t believe how lucky we were.