Part Three: 1949
1959, Hollywood Studios
In April of 1950, when I reported to Max Arnow at Columbia to start my contract, the part in The Brave Bulls had already gone to Mel Ferrer. Max told me to get settled and relax, there was nothing going on for me at the studio. Aria and I found a nicely furnished apartment in West Hollywood with a pool and daily maid service for a hundred and ten dollars a month.
Everything was working well in my life except my marriage. Physical contact was limited, almost non-existent. And we didnt have much in common outside of show business. I certainly wasnt happy with the situation, but I just didnt know how to change it. Walk out? The thought never entered my mind.
So, instead of dealing with the problem, I bought myself a new Pontiac convertible.
After having a few suits made, I began to get itchy. Each Thursday Id go to the cashiers window and pick up my salary check. Some days wed drive out to the beach in Santa Monica, or up the coast to Malibu. Several months after wed gotten used to everything, I started calling Max to find out when I was going to work. "Take it easy," hed say, "put the top down and drive out to the beach."
"I did that yesterday."
"Then go to the zoo. I hear weve got a great zoo in Griffith Park," and hed be gone.
I got in the habit of going to the studio and walking around. Each time I did, the same cop at the desk asked what I wanted. Id tell him I was under contract. Hed make a call, then sign me in, and Id walk through the door that led out to the main lot. Sometimes Id park myself in Maxs outer office. Another new contract player with a voice like an out-of-order concrete mixer came in one day and Maxs secretary introduced me to Aldo Ray, a very likeable fellow with a constant smile. One day, as I was sitting in the office, a blond, wearing a skirt and angora sweater, came in and slunk into the nearest chair as if she was afraid to be seen. Maxs secretary asked if she was enjoying Hollywood and in a very mousy way, this very pretty thing nodded slightly and said a very quiet, "Yes, Thanks". That was Kim Novak.
About three times a week, I got a call at home from a man whose secretary left the name Sammy Weisbord of the William Morris Agency. And every day, without fail, there was a message for me from a fellow named Lew Wasserman at MCA. In my days back in New York, I was never able to get past a receptionist at either of those offices. Now I had a contract and they were chasing me. Its always been like that and always will be like that. One day I picked up the phone when it rang. Sammy Weisbord was on the line, not his secretary. He wanted to have a meeting.
After some persuasion from him, we made a date to have dinner the following night. Aria went along. Sammy was about five-seven with black rimmed glasses, and looked more like a college instructor than an agent. But he was at the top end of power where hed worked his way up from office boy. He was charm personified and before dessert arrived he had convinced me that getting a contract was just the beginning. To his questions of "Have you been working since you got here?" and, "Are you happy with the situation?" I had to admit, "no" to both.
We eventually struck a deal. William Morris would represent me for the remainder of the years contract for no commission. At the end of the year I was to sign a three-year contract with the agency or, if I decided not to sign, I would be indebted to them for the entire previous years commissions of two thousand dollars. I saw it then as a no lose situation. He was so gung-ho and he insisted, before I sign, that I come around to the agency offices in Beverly Hills and meet some of the people whod be working their little tails off for me. It was a one-story building then on Cañon Drive just North of Wilshire.
Aria, of course, went along. I didnt want her to feel left out. Big mistake. Shed sit quietly and listen and just as I was about to open my mouth, shed come up with a question until people at meetings got in the habit of addressing us and looking to her for questions or answers.
Within a month, Sammy had gotten an offer from Universal to borrow me from Columbia for a lead, at a profit to Columbia over-and-above my salary. Columbia turned the offer down. Sammy tried, but couldnt get a straight answer from Max. A month later, he came up with a picture offer from RKO. Also at a considerable profit to Columbia over and above my salary. Again, the offer was refused. And again, no suitable reason.
During this time, to keep from going crazy from the inactivity, I started visiting the various chess clubs around town. I bought a book on chess openings, then one on "the middle game." As I played more and more chess in the afternoons, and occasional evenings, I came to know some of the members who played on teams for their clubs. My game was developing nicely; I was also learning end games.
I joined the Beverly Hills Chess Club, where we played every Thursday evening. First, a round-robin in which each player had a game with every other player, then games of "rapid transit" in which all moves had to be made within ten seconds. In two months I was invited to join the B team in tournament play. I mastered about fifteen opening gambits and more than forty-five delineations in each of the gambits.
Sammy found out why Columbia had turned down the offers to lend me out to the two studios. Sylvan Simon had the title of Executive Producer, though Harry Cohn, who headed the studio, never gave away the right to the last word on anything. Sylvan Simon and Max Arnow were having a power struggle and I was in the middle. Max had decided that he was going to make a star of me and Simon was going to show him who ran production. Either of the two films at Universal or RKO would have put Max in a position to push me at the studio, and Simon had prevailed with Harry Cohn to nix the loan outs.
By this time, six months of my contract had gone by and I was so fed up all I wanted was out. I asked Sammy to try and get a release. They were paying me five hundred per and getting nothing back for it. Simon made sure I didnt get a release. He was going to let me sit until I was ice cold. He even told the publicity department to stop setting up interviews and photo sessions.
Burt Lancaster, in association with his former agent Harold Hecht, had formed a production company and theyd made a deal to produce some films at Columbia. This was Maxs chance, since Simon had no control over what an independent company on the lot could do about casting their own picture. But we were into almost the eleventh month of my contract and if Columbia didnt notify me about exercising their option on a continuing year within the next several weeks, Id be able to walk.
Max called me and said hed set up a meeting for me with Harold Hecht for a major part in the film he and Lancaster were preparing. Hed shown my test of The Brave Bulls to Hecht and I had an inside track on the part. By this time I was tired of being a political football. Max begged me to settle in.
It was Friday and hed set a meeting for me in Hechts office at ten Monday morning. I made a lot of coffee, set up my chess board, and stayed up for more than forty-eight hours drinking coffee and solving chess problems.
Come Monday, unshaven and casually dressed in a suit with collar open at the neck, eyes bloodshot as hell, I presented myself in Hechts office leaning in the doorway. I must have looked like a junkie on a bender. He took one look at me and declared I wasnt right for the part. I waved casually at him, left the office, went home and went to bed.
Ten days later Sammy called to tell me Id been dropped by the studio. It was the happiest moment I could remember since Id come to Hollywood.