By Any Other Name:
Four months into my first term at the Academy [American Academy of Dramatic Arts], I looked up Herb Klein and called his law office. He was pleased to hear from me. "Dont tell me youre on Broadway already!"
"Not exactly, Herb, but its payback time, at least a little. Whats it cost to change my name?"
"Okay, lets do it," I said.
I went up to his office, signed some papers, and gave him a check for fifty dollars. I didnt even have to appear in court. About a month later, the court papers arrived in the mail. That evening over dinner I told Mom and Dad that Id legally changed my name.
They werent too happy about it. "Dont you think youre rushing things a bit? What if this acting thing doesnt work out?" he asked.
"Its going to work," I said with all the assurance of any twenty-two-year-old. "Besides, it seems to be a family habit. Your father dropped the h from Jacobsohn when he came here from Hungary. I just dropped the c-o-b."
"But my name remained the same with a slight change in spelling."
"And on Moms side of the family, Unk Louis changed his name to Warfield from Wohlfeld."
My mother said, "But he travels a great deal in the Mid-West, where he sells to a lot of customers who arent Jewish." Louis, for all his B.A. from Columbia, had become a traveling salesman in the Depression you made a living first.
I asked her, "Have you ever heard of a leading man on Broadway or in movies who had a Jewish name?" And that ended the subject.
The time I spent at the American Academy was mostly fun and games. There was work to be done and things to learn, but, you know what they say when youre enjoying yourself. After class, I and my fellow students would hang out next door at the Russian Tearoom. It was just an ordinary restaurant then, but has become quite upscale and expensive since.
At the end of the first year at the Academy, instead of final exams we were assigned parts in plays. I must have come across suitably enough playing Death in Death Takes A Holiday. After the final curtain, a man and woman came backstage and offered me the job of resident lead juvenile in a summer stock company (actually a ladys club with a full stage, curtain, and wings) in Stamford, Connecticut. Equity scale pay then was fifty-five dollars a week.
I borrowed eighty-five bucks from Dad and joined Actors Equity Association right after Id signed the season contract. We rehearsed one play in the daytime and did the current one at night, plus two matinees. The program changed weekly. Monday was opening night. My first professional appearance on stage was at Stamford, playing the juvenile lead in, Junior Miss. The leading man was an actor named Francis de Sales, and his leading lady was also his wife. The policy of the company was to hire good solid, supporting Broadway actors and actresses. They had the opportunity to star in a play, and make about two hundred and fifty dollars for the play week, plus one for rehearsal. It didnt make you rich, but none of the actors I met in New York ever thought about that, only about working.
I wanted desperately to be on Broadway, but more than that, I wanted Hollywood: the movies. On that, my heart was set. But I didnt have it in me to start at the bottom and work my way up. Id heard too many stories about bit actors in film who remained bit actors all their careers because nobody thought of them in any other way. The movie business was famous for categorizing and type casting. Some wonderful film actors, such as Kent Taylor and William Bishop, got stuck in cheap B-movies and were never able to move out of them.
My father had always told me that no one would ever think more of me than I did of myself. He may have said it a few times too often, or my brain got a complete misunderstanding of his meaning. I only knew that I had to earn my spurs in theater, but I was damned if I was going to start in movies as a bit player.
It almost became my undoing.
Mom and Dad, who werent exactly happy about my choice of professions, were waiting me out. But that didnt stop them from taking the commuter train to Stamford when I was in a play, which was almost every week. Theyd come on a Saturday evening and wed go out for coffee after final curtain for half an hour or so before they had to catch the train back. As concerned as they were that I was probably throwing my life away, they enjoyed the plays and seeing their son on stage.
My Dad was a very retiring man, who, if hed ever been called upon to get up and make a speech in front of a room full of people, would have frozen in his tracks. I think when he watched his son up on stage, he got a vicarious thrill watching me enjoy doing something he would have been fearful of. Always, while we had coffee afterwards, I could detect a sort of wonderment in his attitude toward me. Not particularly happy about my choice of professions, but still, There goes my son, the actor!