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Broadway and Hollywood Bound

Rehearsing for a Broadway Play

Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep rehearsed for five weeks at the Broadhurst Theater. With one exception, a short scene with Fredric March as he collapses into a seizure, all my scenes were with Florence Eldridge, who played governess to his children. I opened act two, alone on stage, with a short, funny, silent sketch that concluded with a scene with the wonderful comedic actor Henry Lasco, who played the ship’s chef. It was a scene not in the script, but some business that Hume Cronyn had come up with and inserted. He was not only a wonderful actor, but a tremendously inventive director.

I worked very slowly into the part, my voice hardly audible during rehearsals, and I must say he must have known how I was approaching the performance and showed me infinite patience. Eldridge, ever the pro, never complained, at least to me.

Columbia Pictures Offers an Acting Contract

Ten days after we started, when I got home from rehearsal there was a message for me from Max Arnow. He was in New York on other business and wanted to see me. He said to come up to the Columbia offices the next evening.

The office I walked into was far more than that in which I’d met Mr. Snyder. He started off with, "We want you under contract and I brought some forms with me."

"Max," I began, we were still standing and I hadn’t even taken my coat off, "I’m not sure I want to sign with Columbia."

"What d’ya mean?" It was one of the few questions I was ever to hear him ask, but he asked it in the same booming voice.

"Just what I said."

"Why? We’re a major studio."

"But you make an awful lot of B–pictures." Some truly rare and wonderful pictures were made by beginning directors on their climb up the ladder, but they were few and far between. Seldom, no matter how good, did a B actor or actress ever get out of that category into a leading role into a big-budget feature.

Max started pacing around the table. "Okay, tell me what you want."

I stood there and said, "I’ve been thinking about it."


"I want five-hundred a week."

"All right," he said. Five hundred then was like twenty thousand today.

"I want a forty out of fifty-two." I guess I could have insisted on a fifty-two week salary per year, but I wasn’t all that smart.

"All right."

"Only leads with star billing and no secondary parts."

He stopped and looked at me. "Somebody been talking to you?"

"No. Also no B–pictures. Only A–budget films.

"I can’t do that," he said.

"Okay, good night," I started to leave.

He held up both hands. "All right," he said, "we can shake on it." As we shook hands he said warily, "There’s nothing else."

Two days later the contracts arrived by messenger. They had everything in them I’d asked for. I signed and sent them off to California. It wasn’t until much later that I realized I should have had an agent and a good one. Max was prepared for me to show up with one and to give me much more than I was asking. Accepting Aria as a ride back to New York City was a big mistake, and taking her advice about not getting an agent (and a good one!) was worse; she was only thinking of the ten percent commission we’d save.

Developing a Character for the Stage

At rehearsals for the play, I knew I finally had the character by the cojones and toward the end of the fourth week I opened up and let go. I thought, at first, Eldridge was going to fall off her chair, but she grabbed hold and we were off and running. Most of the laughs in these scenes were hers. She did takes, set up by my answers to her questions, like, "In my village we eat sheep. Raw!" And this very proper English governess painfully turns her head away and daintily puts her handkerchief to her mouth as if she’s going to throw up.

At the end of the fifth week, we took the train to London, Ontario, Canada for ten days of tryouts. Why there? Because it’s where Cronyn came from and where he wanted his first Broadway directorial effort to be seen. I was amazed the morning after we opened to read the reviews and find my name mentioned prominently — there were twenty-six actors in the cast. Not only prominently, but almost sharing attention with Fredric March.

March was doing this play as a way to get back in the business. He’d been falsely branded a communist sympathizer by the McCarthy Committee. Film work dried up for him, as it did for many in his predicament. He probably grabbed at the first vehicle that looked good on paper — anything to get back to his pre-eminence in films.

Not only was March’s part ill-conceived (Ludwig Bemelmens wrote his books in caricatures that were extremely difficult to translate to live actors) but he was having a devil of a time trying to get a handle on it. I could see him experimenting during rehearsals, which continued every day on the road as the play was rewritten, scenes cut, some added.

Then, Philadelphia and the Forrest Theater for two weeks. On the train, I was handed a copy of the latest rewrite. I’d been dropped from the third act. I wasn’t happy about it, but realized that rewrites were needed and the show was running too long. We opened to luke-warm reviews in Philadelphia (though I was still strongly mentioned alongside March and Eldridge.

The next day Max Arnow telephoned me as I was about to leave for the theater. Robert Rossen was back in town from Mexico, had seen my test, and wanted to shoot some extensive test scenes with me. I should come right out there.

"I can’t leave, Max" I said, "we’re in Philly. We open in New York in less than four weeks. Besides, I have to give two weeks notice, and I can’t just walk out on the whole company."

"You don’t have a run-of-the-play contract," he said. "You can leave anytime, and Rossen is really interested."

"Well, I’m flattered, but I’m also committed."

Featured Billing on Broadway

Next morning during rehearsal, I was lounging in a theater seat waiting for my first entrance, when George Nichols (who was producing) came down an aisle near me. I got up, tapped him on the shoulder, and said I wanted to speak to him for a few minutes.

I told him that since the reviews have picked me out as an outstanding cast member, I thought it might be advantageous for everyone if I got feature billing.

"It’s a little late for that here," he answered.

"Oh, I don’t mean here. Not even Boston. I mean New York."

He looked at me a long minute. "That important to you?" he asked.


"Okay. I’ll take care of it."

As we progressed through the run at the Forrest, constant rewrites came through. I watched my part get smaller and smaller. Still, when we opened in Boston, I was up there in the reviews.

Aria and I Get Married

I was feeling guilty about leaving Aria to fend for herself in New York. I knew I didn’t love her, I just felt indebted. From the time we moved into the apartment, sex tapered off. But there were other things. She had taken a sort of a command-of-the-ship attitude and it was now a fait accomplis. Lindsey also fell under the same spell.

I asked Aria to marry me. A little voice somewhere deep inside said guilt was not the best reason for marriage, but I wasn’t listening.

Aria came up to Boston and we were wed one afternoon in a civil ceremony. I had gotten a larger room at the hotel for our wedding night, but she curtly announced that she had to take the train back to New York for an important meeting the following day.

"Whaaat?" I asked.

"For a stock company," she said.

"Are you kidding? We’re going to Hollywood. When are you going to have time to run a stock company in the East when we’re in California?"

"You don’t expect me to give up everything and just become a housewife, do you?"

"That was sort of my expectation, and you’ve started writing, which certainly won’t get in the way of any place you live. We’ve agreed that you’ll keep your maiden name, and I understand about your not wanting to lose your identity, but ..."

She took the train back to New York. On our wedding day. I was beginning to rue the marriage already and it wasn’t even two hours old.

As I look back, I can’t believe it was me who put up with all that crap; Lindsey and I still talk about it. We both agree it was part of the maturing process, and obviously we’re both late bloomers.


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