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An Actor's Life:
How I turned down an
Acting Contract with Universal Pictures in 1946

Sometime in 1946 an agent called me. He introduced himself, said he represented only picture people, and was with MCA in New York. He’d seen me in the student plays at the Academy and he’d like to take me to see a man at Universal Pictures. I said, okay, and we made an appointment to meet in the building lobby. I can’t remember the agent’s name or even what he looked like, but he was young and obviously trying to make his spurs. He told me that if I got a contract from Universal, I’d be an MCA client, and I said okay to that, too.

We were ushered into the plush sanctum of Leonard Goldstein, a somewhat plump man, in his early fifties with a kind, fatherly smile. He was head of the New York office. His brother, Bob, ran the studio on the coast. Mr. Goldstein was smoking a gigantic cigar, so I lit up a cigarette.

As I look back, the whole thing was like a scene out of a low-budget movie. Mr. Goldstien blew a cloud of smoke in my direction and said, "You’re not a bad looking kid. How would you like to be under contract to Universal?"

I said, "For how much?"

He smiled, blew a slightly heavier cloud of smoke in my direction and looked at the agent, who turned to me and said, "That’s what I’m here for. To negotiate for you."

"Oh," I said, "this is all new to me. Is it a big secret, this, uh, negotiation process?"

Mr. Goldstein laughed, a big fatherly laugh. "No secrets," he said, "we’ll give you a seven-year contract and send you to Hollywood, where you’ll be trained and paid at the same time."

"What kind of training?" I asked.

This sort of pulled him up short. I guess he wasn’t used to being questioned or challenged by young snots. He puffed on his stogie for a minute while he examined the buttons on his vest. Then he looked up and nodded a little. "You got moxie, kid, that may go for something. We’ll give you acting lessons, fencing lessons, horseback riding lessons, the works. And we’ll pay you seventy-five dollars a week, twenty out of twenty-six."

I turned to the agent, "What does twenty out of twenty-six mean?"

"They pay you for twenty out of each twenty-six week period, unless you’re working during any part, or all of those extra weeks, in which case you also get paid for that time you are working."

"I see," I said, "and this goes on for seven years?"

"With built-in raises each year," Mr. Goldstein answered

"And if I don’t work for you during those six weeks, I imagine I can’t work anywhere else," I said.

Goldstein nodded.

"What am I supposed to do, hang by my thumbs?"

The agent stepped in. "The studio has the right to exercise its option every six months."

"For seven years?" I asked.

"That’s right."

"And do I have that right as well?"

"Of course not," said Goldstein, "we’re taking a chance on an unknown. We’re not only going to pay you, but we’ll be spending a lot of money on your training."

We all sat silent for a minute or so.

"Well?" said Mr. Goldstein, "what d’ya say? You want to be with Universal, a major studio?"

"May I speak freely," I asked the man behind the desk.

"Of course," he said, blowing a bunch of smoke right at my face.

"Well, Mr. Goldstein, I would like to be with Universal and I don’t mean to be impudent, but I recently finished a year of acting lessons at the oldest dramatic school in the world, where, as you probably know, I had to audition to get in. At the Academy, I also had a year of intensive fencing lessons. Oh, and I taught horseback riding in the army. I think I’m worth more than seventy-five a week."

I sat back in my comfortable arm chair and blew a smoke ring right at him, which strangely, encircled the bulbous end of his nose as he looked at me like the picsher I was (that’s a Yiddish word that doesn’t translate easily, but means something like little pisser). That ended the interview.

Bernie Schwartz accepted their offer and they changed his name to Tony Curtis. A fine young actress also did, and her name became Piper Laurie. So did Ray Danton and Rock Hudson, and a slew of others, most of whom were never heard of again. It’s a gigantic crap game, but at that age, I didn’t see it that way, thank God. My, my, what gall I had! Problem is, I don’t think I’ve lost any of it.

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