Part Three: 1949
1959, Hollywood Studios
Actor Vittorio Gassman and his wife, actress Shelley Winters, with Rick Jason on location in Mexico City for the film Sombrero.
"Well, we have this new Italian guy under contract, Vittorio Gassman. Hes set for the lead opposite Cyd Charisse, but were moving him into the Lamas slot opposite Yvonne de Carlo. Now I have to find an actor to play an authentic Mexican, and he has to be a good leading man."
Harry already knew the cast lineup for the picture, a Technicolor musical, three love stories intertwined among three amigos in a small Mexican town, from a novel by Josefina Nigli. The cast was headed by one of MGMs biggest stars, Ricardo Montalban, opposite another of their stars, Pier Angeli.
"Ive got the answer to your problem," said Harry.
"Kid named Rick Jason. Was under contract to Columbia for a year but never did a picture."
"Bring him in," said Benny.
"Cant," said Harry, "hes in New York, but he did a black and white test for, The Brave Bulls, and, with a Mexican accent!"
"Great," said Benny. He picked up his phone and dialed Max Arnows private number.
"Youve got a test over there on a kid named Rick Jason. Send it over, will you?"
There was a long pause on Maxs end of the line. "Did you hear me, Max?"
"The test is not for release," Max said.
"What the hell are you talking about," said Benny, also a dapper little guy, who could get angrier than his size would suggest, "this is a major studio talking to a major studio. Send the goddam test over and stop this nonsense!"
"I said, its not for release."
"Go to hell," said Benny and slammed the phone down. He turned to Harry who was perched on a corner of his desk. "Fuck him! Well make our own test! Get that kid out here!"
Now we were in Maxs office and Harry told him that we had an offer for a test at MGM. Max said hed be back in five minutes. Harry said, while we were waiting, "Weve got somebody by the short hairs, but, as yet, I dont know who it is."
Max was back, looking as if hed been walked on by an expert. "Harry Cohn said he could test for Salome but that if he comes back to the studio, itll be under the same conditions as his previous contract."
Harry looked at me for a second. "Max," he said as he stood up, "that contract was a piece of shit and you know it," he turned to me, "Cmon, Rick, were going out to talk to MGM. Sorry, Max."
I got up and reached across the desk. Max took my hand, "So am I," he said.
I genuinely liked him. "Thanks for trying, Max. Thanks for everything."
He saw me to the door. "Youre going to be big. Im only sorry Im not the one. If the deal doesnt work out at Metro, bring him back, Harry."
"Thanks, Max, but not on those terms."
Walking into Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer was an experience. The difference in feeling between that studio and Columbia was like the difference between buying a hot dog from a street vendor and having dinner at a three-star French restaurant. The entrance to the executive building had a wide, sweeping marble foyer, a large semi-round marble railing behind which sat a very nice looking young lady who made you feel welcome just with her smile. Harry waved to her and she buzzed us through the door into a long, long and wide, wide hallway, then into a paneled elevator to Benny Thaus offices. He rose as we entered and welcomed me to MGM. And I hadnt done anything yet!
After a few minutes of conversation, a day was set for my test, after wardrobe fittings. Benny asked where I was staying and when I told him, he said to Harry, "Well take care of getting him moved," turned to me and said, "youll be here for a few days, might as well be comfortable."
He handed me a script with a scene marked and I got up, shook his hand, and thanked him.
When I got back to my motel, my bags had already been moved and I was checked into a lovely room at the Beverly Hills Hotel. Next morning, a car picked me up under the porte cochere and whisked me out to the studio. The cop at the gate was told by my driver who I was and what I was there for, and he saluted! The wardrobe department fitted me for the right costume and I was whisked back to the hotel to wait, until the following morning, to make the test. Meanwhile, the Polo Lounge made great martinis, I eyed a lot of important people while I sat at the bar, and the food and wines in the Crystal Room were exceptional.
Ricardo Montalban and Rick Jason in Sombrero. They did two films together (Sombrero and The Saracen Blade). Montalban later guested on Combat! and Rick Jason on Montalban's TV series, Fantasy Island.
The dressing room MGM gave me made the one at Columbia look like an unflushed toilet. The facilities in the wardrobe and makeup departments, and the friendliness of everyone I met, made me begin to realize what the glamour aspect of Hollywood was all about. When I was ready, a very nice young lady retrieved me from the makeup chair and escorted me to a box dressing room on the sound stage. Someone had had a sign made for the door that read, "Mr. Jason." They didnt miss a beat. Of course there was always the possibility that Id be out on my ass the next day, but I savored every moment of this pampering.
At MGM you did a test with the contract actor/actress (read "star") with whom you would work, if you got the part. I was introduced to Cyd Charisse, a most beautiful woman and terrific dancer.
We shot the scene after several rehearsals and Norman Foster (a leading man in the early thirties), who would also direct the picture, asked if I was comfortable with everything. I said yes and we did it in one take. Then he moved the camera in for a medium shot, then a closeup. Id never dreamed they took so much care with a test.
Someone, after the second medium shot, all of which were printed after the first take, said, "Another one-take-Crawford."
I looked wonderingly out from the set into the semi-darkness toward the voice.
Whoever it was saw the quizzical look on my face and explained, "Joan Crawford is famous for getting it right in the first take. You can go five more with her, but the first one is always the best and thats the one we print."
"Thanks for the compliment," I called back, "but wait until I really screw up." There was general laughter.
I went back to my room at the Beverly Hills Hotel, retrieved a book (I never travel without at least one), and got into some swim trunks. I spent the next two days getting a tan at the swimming pool and ogling more movie stars than Id ever seen in my life.
The Technicolor process at that time was complicated. The camera weighed about 350 pounds and was gigantic. It held three strips of color film, each sensitive to one of the three primary colors. Inside the camera, just behind the lens, was a prism that broke the image up three ways. After the film was developed in the lab, the three strips of negative were joined, one atop the other, and printed onto a single positive. The sprocket holes in the film kept the images aligned and the process took forty-eight hours.
A pool attendant brought me a phone and plugged it in nearby. It was Harry Friedman. "Get dressed, Ill pick you up in twenty-five minutes."
At Benny Thaus office, he talked directly to me instead of Harry. "Rick, you made one helluva test. Were going to stick by our agreement with MCA. No contract. This one picture only, five-week guarantee at a thousand a week, and first feature billing."
"Thank you, Mr. Thau."
"However, wed like you to reconsider. Oh, Harry has told me how bitter you were at Columbia, and I cant say I blame you. But I think you know by now that MGM is not Columbia."
"By a long shot," I agreed.
"So, youve got the part, and now Mr. Schary would like to meet you."
I was flabbergasted. Dore Schary had taken over MGM when Louis B. Mayer was retired in 1948. Harry and I took the elevator to the top floor. Most of it seemed devoted to Scharys reception room, where you could hold a dance for fifty people without crowding, then his inner office. From the door to his desk was almost a mile, or it seemed that way. He got up and met us halfway into the room and walked me to an easy chair facing his desk. After greeting Harry he said, "That was a great test, Rick."
"Mr. Thau told me, sir."
"Ive been told how you feel about exclusive contracts, but we think youve got a great future, and wed like you to have it here at MGM." He went on for about five minutes, smiling and warm as fresh toast and finally said, "Well, what do you think?"
No question, I was wavering. "I think, Mr. Schary, that you could charm the birds out of the trees," I said. He laughed gleefully, then got up and saw us to the door. He was as tall as I and as we walked I could feel the warmth of his personality, and the personal magnetism of the man. As we left his office he called after me, "Youre going to have some weeks to think it over."
From there we walked to Jack Cummings office, or rather, I floated. I sat in a chair in the center of the room while surrounding me sat Jack, Norman, and several other executives at the studio, and heads of departments, all smiling and looking at me as if I were a prize bull thatd just taken the blue ribbon. I cant remember that we said anything, just smiled at each other. We must have said something, but I cant remember, I was too wiped out by what was happening, and happening so fast I couldnt keep up with it.
Four weeks later, Aria and I boarded the 20th Century Limited from New York to Chicago. Wed been given a sitting room in our Pullman car. The next morning in Chicago we boarded the Super Chief, where we also had a sitting room. Before jets cut the travel time from coast-to-coast to five hours, the Hollywood contingent traveled strictly the way we were doing it: a leisurely four days of resting, reading, eating and drinking. The bar was magnificent, the dining car had a menu to die for, wonderful food, and the finest of wines. The service was impeccable, everyone who worked on the train did so with dignity and pride.
The films musical and dance numbers were shot prior to leaving for Mexico. José Greco, the great Flamenco dancer, who played my brother-in-law, did a dance that I was privileged to be on the sound stage to watch. The routine he devised for the film was outstanding. The musical numbers were direced by Stanley Donen, who later became a top director of features, and most recently stopped the Oscar awards cold as he accepted a special statuette. Greco must have done the same dance at least two dozen times over a two-day period. Donen shot it from every conceivable angle.
My first day on my first movie I was shown to my box trailer on the set. Id arrived two hours early, in wardrobe and makeup. I immediately lay on the couch and got about an hour of sleep. My first scene was on top of a mountain, in the rain, where I have climbed to find my wife, Cyd. The scene was a happy ending to our love story.
I had to run into the sloshing rain and pick Cyd up. She threw her arms around me, we embraced and she said, "Oh, Ruben, my husband," or something like that while the camera moved in for a closeup. Fade out.
I did it in one take. It seemed natural and there wasnt anything complicated about it. A good director like Norman Foster, helped, too.
We worked for ten days in Mexico City in the Plaza de Toros. When I first walked into the bull ring, I made it my business to go over to the camera and introduce myself to the operator. I dont know why instinct maybe.
He was a little surprised and introduced me to the assistant cameraman (who pulled focus) and the second assistant who kept the slate, helped load the three reels of film, and measured the distance from the lens to the actor with a tape. A rather regal-looking man with gray hair and a fine mustache with just a bit of a blunt twist at the ends was sitting in a very tall directors chair, which I later found out is called a cinematographers chair. I introduced myelf, he smiled back, and said his name was Ray June. He looked more like a banker than a cinematographer, except for the light meter in his shirt pocket secured by a black cord around his neck. I went about the set to all of the crew members from MGM, all heads of departments. The electricians and grips were all Mexican, as well as a Mexican Assistant Director (A.D.) who translated for the American A.D. The key grip and his assistant (Best Boy) and the gaffer (head electrician) and his assistant (also a Best Boy) were from MGM, as was the dolly grip (also in charge of the crane). These were the people I hung out with behind the camera when I wasnt in a scene. It was the smartest thing I ever did in the picture business.
Ray took me under his wing. Hed been a cameraman since 1918 and was considered the top one at MGM. He taught me how to walk into a set and find my key light: that one main overhead light thats the brightest, and from which you can feel the most heat. After a week, I could walk into any set where I belonged and find my spot without looking down for the tape on the floor where my toes were to be.
I noticed, while standing for a final light setting, after our stand-ins had been dismissed, that Bucky Harris (the key grip) would be moving a flag (a steel framed rectangle covered with black cloth) mounted on a century stand just over or beneath a light. Hed look up at me periodically as he placed it. Id watch him and hed wink at me. They were all protecting me, putting a shadow on my forehead when it was needed, throwing a peanut (a tiny spotlight) at me from just beneath the camera lens to put some sparkle in my eyes. The sound mixer and I got along beautifully. He loved my voice and I told him Id started in radio.
I think I got more attention than any other actor in the picture, but it was all low-key, so nobody would get angry or jealous. When the company moved to Cuernavaca, we had started to become a family. Rays wife, Kitty, and the wife of another head of department crew member drove down the 2,300 miles from Los Angeles, and like Ray, she immediately took me under her wing.
Id studied three years of Spanish in prep school and decided this was my opportunity to learn to speak the language. I had my lunches with the Mexican crew. A station wagon would pull up and wed stand around eating spicy (HOT!) soft tacos out of a huge cardboard carton, with jalapeña peppers and sodas or beer. I could barely feel my lips for an hour or so after lunch each day, but I stuck to Spanish (none of them could speak English) and about ten days later, started to think in the language. From then on, it was just a matter of learning a growing vocabulary and idiomatic sayings.
The actors were an insular lot who stayed among themselves. I joined them once in a while, became friendly with Ricardo, whod been born in Mexico and enjoyed watching me learn about his country and working my way into his native tongue. Vittorio was either having problems or playing the great artiste. He spent most of his time alone, straddling a cane-back chair with his chin resting on his folded arms and brooding. He spoke excellent English (with a decided Italian accent), so it wasnt a language difficulty that prevented his mixing with us. Pier Angeli was a delight, always smiling, always laughing, and she danced from place to place instead of walking. Cyd, when she wasnt required on the set, spent her time alone in her dressing room and came out when she was called to work. She was quite pleasant when we worked together but never had much to say. She was one helluva leading lady for my first picture, though.
In 1952, Cuernavaca was a sleepy town with one motel (Mandels) and two hotels. We literally took over one of the hotels while we worked in two old Aztec towns, each in opposite directions from Cuernavaca by about forty miles. Tepostlan and Tetacala still have the cobblestone streets that were laid down by Cortés and his conquistadores in the sixteenth century. In Tetacala (on the road to Tasco and Acapulco) there was no electricity. For MGM to get permission from the Mayor to shoot in the town, in addition to whatever remuneration was given, the studio brought electricity into each house, consisting of one light bulb fixture in the ceiling of each home and one electric wall plug.
Jack Cummings had flown to Mexico City for a few days when we started filming. After four weeks or so in Cuernavaca, he came down again. Since the Technicolor lab was in Los Angeles, we relied on telegrams from Jack telling Norman, Ray, and the production people how the movie was coming and whether or not any scenes had to be re-shot. I passed Jacks table on my way into dinner with Aria that evening. He was dining with Norman. He looked up as we approached the table and smiled. "Rick," he said, "youre stealing the picture."
I was stunned. "That cant be," I said, "therere some pretty big heavyweights in this show."
"Well, you are," he insisted.
It made me uncomfortable. Id been taught to play as an ensemble actor. Whatever I was doing, I was doing naturally. It felt right, so I did it that way.
I didnt know that Norman and Ricardo were brothers-in-law. Each had married a sister of Loretta Young, one of the powerhouse stars in the Hollywood firmament.
A week after Jack went back to California, Ray walked up to me while I was in position on the set. He held his light meter up to my face, his back to the camera, and said in a low voice, "You know that Norman is only shooting the back of your head in every scene you have with Ricardo."
I didnt know enough about film technique then to know where the camera was at any time, or what lens they were using. "Just hold your course, thingsll straighten out," he said and he was gone, back to the camera.
A lengthy telegram arrived for Norman and Ray. A lot of the footage they were sending back had soft focus. The camera crew was screwing up scenes with me and Ricardo, not that they didnt like him, its just that I was their baby, and they didnt like what Norman was doing. Not only did the scenes have to be re-shot, but Norman was instructed, in no uncertain terms to "fully cover every angle." After that, my face was on lens more often than the nape of my neck.