"Russ Tamblyn; A Conversation"
transcribed by Kimberly Murphy
Power Star fanzine, Issue 73, April 1994
the conclusion of a panel discussion from Fanex 6
"You said yesterday that your first movie was The Boy With Green Hair, with Dean Stockwell. But how did you get your start?"
Well, I started out the way most young child star wannabees started out and joined the Screen Childrens' Actors Guild. But oddly enough, the Screen Childrens' Actors Guild sent me out for a play called Stone Jungle, when I was about nine. It was the first professional thing I did, at a theater in Hollywood. Lloyd Bridges – the actor – directed it. We did it for three days to try and raise money so we could do it longer. But during that three days, a talent scout saw it and a bunch of other people saw it, including Joseph Lose, who directed The Boy With Green Hair, and I went over to see about that production. Also a talent scout from Paramount came over to see it, and I got an audition with Cecil B. DeMille. And that was the first big audition sort of thing I did.
That was sort of interesting because it was a room kind of like this one, but at the far end there was this big one-way mirror. I did this scene with an actor who was a Paramount contract actor by the name of Richard Webb, who eventually did a thing called Captain Midnight. He played Samson, and the testing was a live test, where you had to go in and memorize a line and do this scene with Samson. We did the scene, and as soon as we finished the scene, the doors opened and in came Cecil B. DeMille and four or five other people, and he said, "Well, my boy, you've got the part. We start in four months."
So I went back to the play Stone Jungle again, because we'd managed to get enough money to continue to do the play, so I went back for another eight weeks or so. This time, around, Lloyd Bridges didn't direct it – Norman Lloyd did, who's also been around a lot and worked with Orson Welles' theatre group. At one point during the later run, Lloyd Bridges came in and just grabbed Norman Lloyd – I guess he was mad that they didn't let him direct the second run. Norman had produced it the whole way and gotten the money together for the second time, so he had decided to direct it himself. As soon as the second run finished, I went to do my first movie, which was The Boy With Green Hair, and I just played one of the background kids. Then I went and did Samson and Delilah, which I was on for about six months or so, and that was quite an experience, because I was only 12 years old.
I remember a great story you might appreciate . . . I lived in North Hollywood and I used to take a street car to Paramount. See, not only was I working on the movie, I was also going to school there; there was a schoolhouse in the back of the lot. I used to take the streetcar down this one boulevard, and where you got off the streetcar there was this cemetery and this long wall, and at the back of the cemetery was the backside of Paramount. But in order to get there, you had to keep walking along the sidewalk about a half a mile to the main gates, which was on another boulevard, then go in and walk all the way back to the back of the lot, which was where the schoolhouse was. And it took about eight or nine months to do the movie, and I wasn't working all the time, so I was going to school almost everyday. But I found out a way to get in without going through all that: I would get off the streetcar, climb up on the wall that ran along this cemetery, then walk on top of it to the back of the Paramount lot, then jump off – well, not really jump, but kind of hang down and drop, since it was about fifteen feet.
(Much laughter from audience) "Brave man."
Yeah, well, anyway, one day I got off the streetcar and walked on top of the wall and headed for the back wall of Paramount, and when I got to the back wall, I saw they were shooting a scene of some kind right there, so I had to crawl along the wall and kind of sneaked along until I could find a place to drop down. And I dropped down right next to some guy sitting in a chair, and I scared the Hell out of him. And I looked up and it was Alan Ladd. He'd been studying his script, and he shouted, "God, don't ever do that again, son! You scared the hell out of me!" So that was my introduction to Alan Ladd. I said, "Are you Alan Ladd?" He said yes, so I stood up and held out my hand and said (looks down slightly), "Glad to meet you." Of course, he was standing up at the time. (laughs)
Anyway, I worked on Samson And Delilah for a while, and it was quite an experience. I used to go and visit other sets a lot. I remember Elizabeth Scott was working on a movie at the time, and I went over to meet her, and I still have autographed pictures of her. She wrote on there, "To my favorite beau," because she thought I was really cute. I had curly hair and all that.
And we'd have break time, and somebody told me one time, "You've got to go over to this set, on stage 15, and there's two guys over there who are new and who'll just crack you up." And so I did, and it was Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, who were making My Friend Myrna at the same time. And they were just hysterical. Jerry Lewis just had everybody in hysterics, for the whole time I was there. There was just this loud laughter coming from this set, and between the two of them, it never stopped. In fact, they had a hard time getting them to shoot a scene, you know, because Jerry Lewis would do things like light up a cigarette and not know where to put the ashes, so he'd unzip Dean Martin's fly. It was just constant antics like that, one after the other. No wonder they didn't last – maybe a hot ash one time hit the wrong place or something.
(More audience laughter) "The mystery solved, at last."
Really. Well, anyway, from that movie – Samson and Delilah – I got an agent, and started doing more movies. I probably averaged two movies a year in my late childhood.
"Any stories about the movie Gun Crazy?"
Oh, yeah. I went in and saw Joseph Lewis, and we became pretty good friends. I used to go and have dinner at his house and became very good friends with him. He had a daughter named Sandy, and we used to pal around together – not boyfriend/girlfriend, but we were just friends. Anyway, he had a house in Beverly Hills, and it was right next door to Judy Garland's. I remember one night Sandy and I were punchy, and we were both into Al Jolson, and we used to put this music on and imitate this album. One night we heard this screaming noise, and there was this fight going on over there at Judy Garland's house and it was just unreal. There was one night Sandy told me about, and I wasn't there for it, where Judy apparently lit a fire in the bedroom and the fire department had to come put it out. It was really quite dramatic.
But anyway, when I met him, I did that movie and I just loved it, but I think they eventually changed the title to Deadly Is the Female. Why, I don't know, because I think Gun Crazy is a great title. But I guess the producer didn't think so.
"Who did you play?"
I played John Dahl as a boy, basically as a kid who loved guns. I think it started off where we'd all go out into the woods . . . .
"It was raining, as I recall."
Yeah, that was my first introduction to a set with fake rain. I was standing out there and getting wet and looking at this guy standing in this building and I get to throw a brick through the window at him. Then the next scene was in the woods shooting guns, and then I had a scene in juvenile court, where my defense lawyer is trying to explain that I'm not a bad kid, but I just love guns. It's one of the stories we tell in flashback. But one of the kids tells it, one of my friends, and he says, "I remember him one time when we went into the woods . . ." and we had this mountain thing and the three of us go in and suddenly we see something – a bird, or something like that – and I shoot it, and I feel just awful, and I go up to it, and so my friend says in flashback, "I know he'd never do anything awful, he just loves guns." But they give him ten years anyway or something like that – real sympathetic judge (laughs) – and I go to prison and come out as John Dahl. It was really a wonderfully-done movie.
There was a scene in there that I think was a first: A scene where they rob a bank and the director put the camera in the back of the car. And it was really great, because you could see them talking, and every time the car'd hit a bump, the camera would move, and you really got the feeling you were in this car with them. It was so well done.
There was another scene Joseph told me about at dinner one night . . . he told me about John Dahl and Peggy Cummings and their one really big love scene, this really passionate love scene they had to do. It was really late into the movie, after they'd been together for a long time. She was a circus performer, and he joined her with the guns and things, and finally she talks him into going and robbing banks – that's what happens; he's really a nice guy. Joseph told me this story that when he introduced the two of them, and the first day that they shot, he wanted to shoot this love scene, and they were furious because they'd only just met. And Joseph said, "Yeah, but that's what I want; I want that kind of firstness, like when you've just met." And it was a beautiful love scene; you could almost see the quivering as they went to kiss. It was a good movie, one of the movies that I really loved.
I ended up working with Alan Ladd again, in a movie called After Midnight, and it was also called Captain Carey U.S.A.; it had two titles.
"Was he still looking up to you?"
Actually, he looked a lot bigger, but then I noticed he was walking around on boxes. Really, he did a lot of scenes where he walks around on boxes. But he also worked with really short women most of the time. He worked with Wanda Hendricks, who was only about that high (measures to chin). He really was a short little guy. But he had that look about him where he was perfectly built, so that when they put him on screen, he looked really big. I remember he worked with Sophia Loren, but he really walked around on boxes the whole time.
"Do you remember anything about Mamie Van Doren [High School Confidential]?"
Now that was a big woman! (laughs) Let's see, what story can I tell about her?
"Wonder why they don't name kids 'Mamie' anymore?"
Yeah, I know. There was Mamie Eisenhower and Mamie Van Doren, but that was it.
"You told us previously about working with Lon Chaney, Jr., in Dracula Versus Frankenstein, and that he was drunk all the time. Do you have any other memories of working with him?"
No, I don't have too many impressions of working with him because I didn't talk to him at all outside of the scene we did together. As I recall, he was underneath the pier and was an axe murderer . . . .
"In Dracula Versus Frankenstein?"
Well, I never saw any of those movies. Where did I work with him?
"I know you were both in the movie together, but I don't think you had any scenes with him. It looks like they took footage from another movie and cut it in."
But wasn't he the monster, though? I remember a scene we shot underneath a pier. It was just one night, and I came down and did my scene. And I'd been in the business a while at that time, and I was professional, and I just wanted to get the thing done, and I remember having all this impatience because he was drunk and they had to sort of hold him up and get him through the scene. I remember thinking at the time how sad it was. I'd always loved him and thought that he'd done some of my favorite movies. But I don't have anything else to say about him.
"Which of the many directors you've worked with do you respect the most – and why?"
Hard question to answer. Probably David Lynch [Twin Peaks, in which Russ played Dr. Jacoby], because he's a real actor's director. He's really patient, he gets in right there with you and makes it make sense. He gives you some freedom. I really liked working with David Lynch a lot.
I didn't really like working with DeMille. I did for a while, but DeMille did something to me that really affected me a lot when I was a kid. We were doing a scene in the temple, and I had to run up to Samson and say, "Samson, it's me, Saul," and Samson's a blind man, and they brought him out into the middle of the temple all tied up, and I ran up to him and said, "I've got my slingshot on my head, and we can fight our way out of this," and he said, "No, Saul, you get as far away from here as possible." And so we were doing this scene in the middle of this special stage they'd built – they took two stages and knocked a wall out between them – and it was just this gigantic stage with thousands of extras, which was the way DeMille loved to work.
Cecil B. DeMille was fascinating; he had two guys who were with him all the time. One guy held a microphone in front of him all the time, and whenever DeMille would speak, this guy would hold up the microphone so DeMille wouldn't have to hold it. The other guy walked behind him with a chair, and he had to stay right behind him because DeMille would just walk around until he couldn't walk anymore and would just sit down, and that chair better be there when he did. I often thought, what if this guy's looking the other way? But it never happened; that chair was always there. I thought that was pretty interesting.
Where was I? Oh, yeah, what he did to me as a kid. Anyway, the cameras were where you are, and the first time we did this, I came running in and I grabbed Samson (demonstrates using Fred Olen Ray, right hand in front of Ray's face) and said, "Samson! I've got my slingshot on my head, and we can fight our way out of here!" And DeMille came over to me and said, "Use your other hand because the camera's over here and you're blocking his face." And I said, "Oh, O.K.", so they had to set it up again and discuss the setup again, and I'm trying to remember my lines, so when they yell "Action" again, I ran in and did the same thing again. DeMille said, "Cut! Cut!" and then came over to me – and remember, he's got this microphone in front of his face – and he grabbed my arm and said, "If you want to you this arm, use it here (puts hand on Ray's shoulder)! Not here (arm in front of Ray's face)! Here! Not here!" And here I am, this twelve-year-old kid, and it scared the hell out of me, plus the fact that he was yelling all this through this loudspeaker so that 2,000 extras could hear it, and then he said, "All right, let's do it again!" And I walked away, humiliated, and fighting back tears. It was a terrible experience, the kind of child abuse a lot of child actors have gone through. A lot of them have gone through a lot worse things. One child actress told me that one time, right before she was going to do a really sad scene, the director told her that her dog had just died. And after the scene was over, he said, "Just kidding!"
"Do you have a David Lynch story to match your Cecil B. DeMille story?"
It'd be hard to match that. Lynch is very different from his movies. His movies are so dark, and he's just so light.
"What was the origin of Jacoby's double-sided glasses [red/blue 3-D glasses]?"
Well, the way that came about was that I live in Santa Monica, California, right near Venice Beach, California, and along the walkway there's like eight billion pairs of sunglasses available for sale. So I wanted to find myself something for Dr. Jacoby, who was kind of far out, so I was looking for some really interesting sunglasses. I went down there and was looking at all the sunglasses – regular sunglasses, ones with Hawaiian rims, colored glasses – and I finally decided I really liked the idea of colored glasses on this guy. I really liked the red, and I really liked the blue. It didn't even dawn on me that was I was looking at the 3-D color scheme – I just came across a red pair and a blue pair and couldn't make up my mind what I wanted. I was looking in the mirror and I'd try on one pair, then try on the other, and I'd say, "Wow, the red's cool," then I'd put on the blue one and say, "The blue's cool," and I kept going back and forth until I finally got this idea to put a red pair against one eye and a blue pair against the other. And I was looking in the mirror . . . God, wonder what the people walking by thought? But I kept looking at one side, then the other, hoping for some kind of quick reaction, hoping something would come to me. And, by God, it did! (laughs) I just stood there and looked at my face straight on and went, "Boing! That's it!" I was so excited that I immediately took the glasses down because I was afraid that somebody would see what I'd discovered and the market would suddenly be flooded with red and blue glasses. But I was absolutely thrilled; I was so thrilled that I went to a place – I wear prescription glasses – and I went to a place and had a prescription pair made up just like that.
And then, oddly enough, my wife Bonnie had an article on the sides of the brain and how colors influence them. And luckily I'd picked the right side to wear the red on – the red's on the right, but the brain is bicameral, so the left side of the brain affects the right side of the body, and red is supposed to have a positive influence over the left brain. So I went in to see David Lynch, because I knew he was just going to love this, and I told him about these glasses. I told him, "Well, David, I've got these glasses that I want to wear because I'm playing a psychiatrist, and I figure that Dr. Jacoby is aware that the brain has two sides. One side is an academic side, that just deals with facts and has no emotions or feelings, and the other side is the creative side that deals with all the emotions. So, the left side of the brain – the academic side – has no emotions, so I would wear this red lens which would add passion to an otherwise dull side of the brain. And the right side of the brain – the emotional side – I'd wear blue on to sort of cool it down a little." I called it "brain balancing". And Lynch said, "I love it – that is absolutely fantastic. That's a swell idea, Russ. The only thing I'm going to do . . . ." And I said, "And we can have somebody ask me about it in an episode and I can explain it, if I can find a shorter way to do it . . . ." He said, "No, I like the long explanation; it's a swell explanation, but I'd rather have you just wear the glasses and not tell anybody why you're wearing them. As long as we know, that's all that matters." (room laughs hysterically) And that's what happened. And I never got to explain it, except that everyone in the world asked me and I said, "Sorry, can't tell you." And I didn't until after the series was over. I always wanted to write David a letter and say, "See? We should have explained the glasses."
One of the scenes that I suggested for Twin Peaks was that crying Andy, the cop, was going to come to see me in my office. And he was always clumsy and klutzy, and he was going to sit on the desk on my glasses and smash them. And I was just going to open my desk drawer to reveal a whole drawer full of them. Would have been a great scene, but it never got in there. Great scenes that never made it . . . there were a lot like that.
"Any more great old Hollywood stories?"
I made a lot of interesting films. I was in Father Of the Bride, where I played the son of Joan Bennett, then I played the son of Constance Bennett in Will You Love Me In December, one of Marilyn Monroe's first movies. I remember seeing her on the set and saying, "Wow – who's that blonde?" She was just a little starlet, playing a small part – a secretary. I think it was called Will You Love Me In December – did it have another name? – but in that movie I played Constance Bennett's son, so I have the distinct honor of being my own first cousin.
When I was fourteen, I was in a movie called The Kid From Cleveland, which was my first title role. It was also the first time I'd ever left California. I was born in California, and the first time I ever left there I flew to Cleveland. It only took ten hours. It was lots of fun. I worked with the Cleveland Indians baseball team. I didn't know who they were at the time, but later on I found out who Bob Feller was, and Satchel Paige, and all the rest.
"Got a Seven Brides For Seven Brothers story?"
Oh, yeah. But before I tell it . . . when I was doing Father Of the Bride and Publisher's Dividend, I went to school there for the whole season. I was in school with Dean Stockwell and Elizabeth Taylor and Claude Jarman, Jr., who was in The Yearling. And Dean and I became real close buddies, real good friends. We're still close friends. We lived together for a while after both of us separated from our wives in the late '70s. But one of the things Dean and I used to do during lunch – I didn't have a locker there, because I was just doing Father Of the Bride, but Dean was under contract, so he had this dressing room which was up above the rehearsal hall – and we used to go up there and wrestle.
And we were wrestling all over, having these fake fights in the room, slamming on the couches, jumping all over the place, and just having a heck of a good time laughing and rolling around on the floor when all of a sudden there was this knock on the door. And Dean says, "Uh-oh," and goes over and opens the door, and it's Gene Kelly. And Kelly, says, "Hi, Dean," because he knew him from some movies they did together, and then says, "Listen, my dressing room's right below you and I've been dancing all morning. Would you guys mind?" And Gene Kelly had just been my absolute hero, and that was my first meeting with Gene Kelly.
So when we were doing Seven Brides For Seven Brothers, we had just finished rehearsing for about five or six days, and Michael Kidd had just finished choreographing the number, and it was finally all set, and he brings Gene Kelly onto the set. And he says, "Guys, I'd like you to meet Gene Kelly. What do you say we do the number for Gene from the top?" Of course, everybody said, "Oh, yeah," and we ran through it from top to bottom. And when we got to the end of it – and they do the soundtrack first, you know, so you do it right to the soundtrack of the music – Gene Kelly clapped and said, "Well, fellows, there's nothing left for you to do except cut yourselves and bleed." I'll never forget that remark. That was a great thrill for me, meeting Gene Kelly.
The only bigger thrill than meeting Gene Kelly was at a special premiere of West Side Story in L.A. at an invitation-only showing. They had this huge audience, but it was invitation only, and they just had everybody who was anybody there at this theater. There were over 300 of Hollywood's most elite there. And when the film finished, the lights came on, and I started up the aisle. And people were saying, "Great job, Russ," and all that sort of stuff. And finally, somebody was tugging on my shoulder, and I turned around – and it was Fred Astaire. Fred Astaire! And I can't tell you what a thrill that was, and he said to me, "Gosh, Russ, I'm such a fan of your dancing! You're such a wonderful dancer!" And he just went on with this flattery about what a great dancer I was and how thrilled he was to watch me dance. That was a great moment, but it was one of those moments where I just stood there and went, "Duh, duh . . . gosh, Fred . . . ." Just a fantastic thrill.