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Part Three: 1949 – 1959, Hollywood Studios
Howard Hawks Audition :
Making an Impression

When I signed with William Morris, Lew Wasserman stopped calling. The day after I was informed by Sammy about my future at Columbia, there was a call from Doug Whitney, an agent at MCA. Could I meet him for lunch? He had something quite important to discuss with me.

Aria was all for coming along, but I was beginning to feel as if the next thing she’d do was try to diaper me, so I said, "I think he wants to talk to me alone."

"But, I’m your wife," she said.

"Look, I’m not going on a date, it’s just lunch. And what could he have for me to sign, even if he drugs the food?"

It stopped the discussion, but she was clearly unhappy. Whitney, over cocktails before we ate, said that Lew Wasserman was still interested in having me for a client. I had seen him once before. Fredric March was one of MCA’s main stars, they’d secured the play for him (probably packaged the whole thing) and Wasserman had been at a performance in Boston. After final curtain, as I was starting up the steel staircase to my dressing room he, along with March and Eldridge passed me. I don’t know why, but as I left the landing and kept going upwards I glanced back. He had stopped and was looking up at me. I watched him for a few moments, possibly because of the expression on his face. At the time, I had no idea who he was.

I’d come to the conclusion that neither Sammy Weisbord nor anyone else at the Morris office was going to do me any good, so I said to Whitney that I might be interested but there was a slight problem. "What is it?" Whitney wanted to know.

"If I leave William Morris without re-signing for three years I have to pay them two thousand dollars in back commissions." Whitney said he’d inform Lew and get back to me and we proceeded with a nice luncheon in which I listened to stories and learned a great deal about the movie business.

Later that afternoon, Whitney telephoned me and said that Lew would be more than happy to pay the Morris office the two thousand and that when I was ready, "Come in and meet with Lew, and get acquainted around the office." I was feeling pretty good. Someone thought enough of me to pay out good money just to represent me. Things had changed in a little over a year-and-a-half from the time Walter had promised me back my old job.

A few days later, I called MCA for an appointment and Aria insisted on going along. During the year that I’d been under contract to Columbia, I’d stopped in at a small gym that specialized in weight training. Until then, it hadn’t been considered of much importance. But Marlon Brando had changed all that when he starred in the movie version of, A Streetcar Named Desire. In a torn t-shirt, his biceps and pectoral muscles had made such an impact that weight training was gaining a big foothold in the movie capital.

image35.jpg (239804 bytes)The owner of the gym, Willis Reed, was built like a tank car. I was six-feet-four, weighed about a hundred and fifty pounds, had a flat chest and an Adam’s apple that stuck out like Ichabod Crane’s. In three months of intensive, three-times-a-week training, I gained twenty-five pounds, added an inch and a half to my collar size, three inches to my chest, and my biceps went from twelve and a half inches to fifteen. I literally rebuilt my body and had to have most of the shoulder padding taken out of my suits.

When I walked into Lew Wasserman’s office with Aria, I could see just a flick in his eyes as he rose to greet us. This wasn’t the skinny kid he’d seen climbing the stairs at the Shubert theater. It also wasn’t usual for a wife to accompany her husband to a business meeting. We had a nice visit in which he predicted that he expected me to become a major star in the picture business. I have no idea how many others he’d said that to, but the more you got to know him, the more you realized that this was a man of singular integrity who didn’t believe in bullshit. All in all, I found him to be very low key, as opposed to the usual concept of a Hollywood agent.

After calling Sammy to thank him for trying, I signed with MCA, they duly delivered a check to William Morris, and I sat at home for a month or so doing chess problems and pumping iron three times a week. One day I got a call from Lew. I didn’t realize at the time that he only called the biggest stars handled by the agency, the twenty-five or so other agents handled the rest of the actors and actresses, many of them also high in the twinkling heavens of the movie business.

He asked if I knew Howard Hawks. For those unacquainted with the name, Hawks was one of the biggest directors Hollywood has ever known, having made everything from zany comedies in the thirties with Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn to westerns with John Wayne and adventure stories with Huphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. He, along with directors such as John Ford, Ernst Lubitsch, Frank Capra, had "invented" the techniques for talking motion pictures in much the same way that later directors such as John Frankenheimer, Sidney Lumet, John Peyser, Buzz Kulick, and their ilk invented the basics for live television drama.

Lew said his secretary would give me instructions to get to Hawks’ home in Bel Air and that he wanted to see me about a leading role with Kirk Douglas in an upcoming western, The Big Sky.

As I entered the property, I saw a corral of four quarter horses and a beautiful ranch home on a good three acres of land.

Hawks answered the door himself wearing a checkered western shirt and a pair of blue jeans, a style that hadn’t yet hit most of Hollywood.

"C’mon in the living room," he said as he walked ahead and motioned me to follow. We sat in a window seat in a huge room, decorated elegantly in French country furniture and several large oval hooked rugs, each about fifteen feet long. He had a gift to put one at ease and told me the entire story of the movie. An hour-and-a-half later, he walked me to my car and carried the script he’d been holding during our conversation.

"Here, I want you to read this," he slid the folded screenplay under my arm and I couldn’t believe my ears. I was not only going to star in my first picture, but with Kirk Douglas, and in a Howard Hawks film!

"Of course," he said, "you realize you’re not going to do the picture."

"I beg your pardon?"

"There’s no way Douglas would let you do this. He’s five nine or so and you’re, what? Six-three? Six-four?"

I took the script from under my arm and asked, "You spend over an hour telling me the story. You lead me to believe I’m going to do the part, walk me out here, hand me a script to read and blithely say, ‘it was nice meeting you. See you around sometime’?"

He just shrugged.

I held my arm out, opened my hand and let the script fall to the ground. Hawks looked down at his script and back up at me.

"Go fuck yourself," I said, turned around, got in my car and drove away. By the time I got home I was so furious I mixed a double martini, just to settle down. About fifteen minutes later the phone rang. It had a long cord and Aria brought it to me, "Lew Wasserman," she said. I took a good swallow and said, "Hello, Lew."

"Did you tell Howard Hawks to go fuck himself?"

"What was the idea of sending me out there?" I wanted to know.

"I wanted him to meet you."

"Well, he met me!"

"Did you really say that?"

"You bet I did!"

"Nobody has ever said that to Howard Hawks."

"I guess there’s a first time for everything."

"Rick, I don’t know whether or not you’ll ever work for him, but you sure made an impression on him." He was chuckling as he hung up.

Aria asked what was going on. I’d been so pissed off when I walked in the apartment, I’d refused to talk, about anything. I told her and she looked so distressed it made me see the humor in it.

An old story, which seemed to parallel that day’s occasion, for some reason popped into my mind, about the great conductor, Arturo Toscanini. He kept picking on a particular musician during rehearsals. One day, he really rode the hell out of him. There was a fifteen-minute rest break and as the musician walked past the Maestro he spat at his feet and continued on. Toscanini never lost a beat. He looked after the poor man as he drew himself to his full five-feet five, and said coldly, "It’s too late to apologize!"

Six months after Columbia Pictures dropped me and with no discernible work in sight, I decided not to hang around Hollywood. I had a living to make. I sold the car and we moved back to New York. Lindsey managed to get us an apartment in a building where she resided on the East side, just off Sutton Place in a huge building that had a waiting list. How she did it I’ll never know. She’s always been one of the great con gals I’ve known and later became a great golf hustler in Florida. Four-feet-ten-and-a-half, and she could drive a ball almost three hundred yards.

Next : Acting in Live Television

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