JOHN VERNON HOLLYWOOD CAME TO HIM

HAL TENNANT January 1 1968

JOHN VERNON HOLLYWOOD CAME TO HIM

HAL TENNANT January 1 1968

JOHN VERNON HOLLYWOOD CAME TO HIM

HAL TENNANT

The most incredible thing about the above scenario, of course, is that it really has happened, all of it, to the former Raymondus Adolphus Vernon Agopsowicz, now John Vernon, better known as Steve Wojeck, originally of Zehner, Sask., currently of Toronto, and imminently (he has every reason to expect) of Hollywood.

"It's almost like a fairy tale,” agrees Vernon. Which is not, however, the same as saying he has found the magic secret for living happily ever after. He has new problems now — problems almost any actor would like to have.

To begin with, there’s the glamour of suddenly becoming a Hollywood celebrity. Vernon got his first real taste of that last fall, when Point Blank, the movie he made with Lee Marvin, was finished, and the studio flew him and his wife Nancy out to San Francisco for the premiere. “It was the whole red-carpet treatment,” he reports with some awe. He still talks about the trip as a milestone in his life — especially the chauffeurdriven limousine the studio put at his disposal. “I'd never ridden in a big black car before,” he confesses. “It takes a while to get used to it.” Nobody has had to tell John Vernon that you don't build a solid career out of

puffed-up ego. “You’ve got to be very strong,” he says, “to get over the glitter.”

Then there’s the problem of those tantalizing TV offers. Like any “hot property” in the business, Vernon is suddenly given the chance to pick and choose between leading roles in pilot scripts thrust upon him by producers anxious to sign him to a weekly series. On his agent’s advice, he’s turning them all down. Even ones like the Screen Gems pilot that his postman dropped off at the Vernon front door one recent Saturday. It was for a proposed comedy series called Just Good Friends. Vernon, no stranger to comedy, read it and nearly rolled off his chair. “It's great!” he announced. “But I won't do it!”

It wasn’t easy to say no. A TV series that clicks can pay its star as much as a million dollars for a couple of seasons’ work. And it wasn't personal pride — or even the notorious grind of weekly TV — that caused him to turn it down. In Hollywood, only the stars who unquestionably have it made — the Frank Sinatras, the Dean Martins, the Lucille Balls — can swing back and forth between movies and television pretty well as they please. For anybody else, a move from movies to TV is a step dowm.

A “hot property” who chickens out that way can cool off, overnight, into a has-been, or, more accurately, a never-was. Vernon’s agent, an old Hollywood hand named Wilt Melnick, has warned him, in effect: "Take a TV role now and you may never make a second movie.”

Vernon and Melnick also agreed that if he was really going to give the movie thing a serious try, he might as well go for broke. And so they persuaded the producer of Point Blank, Judd Bernard, to tear up the contract under which Vernon would have made seven movies at a predetermined scale of fees. (Vernon won't say how much.) This left Vernon free to consider any offer that came along — and dicker, through Melnick, for any price he could get.

The arrangement has presented him with the most nerve-racking problem of all: trying to play the waiting game and not lose his cool. And with his 10 new Wojeck episodes finished (the series is back on the air January 2), Vernon had time to reflect on one neat irony: precisely because he’s now more successful than ever before in his 15-year career, he was now obliged to sit idle for the first time.

This gave him more time — and more reason

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IF YOU STRIP the whole story down to a bare movie synopsis, you can see how incredible the whole plot really is:

A STAR IS BORN

As story opens, CBC brass, in private huddle, are agreeing dramatic TV serials they’ve been making for years have been mostly low-mediocre (Tugboat Annie, Cannonball, Forest Rangers), sometimes disastrous (Radisson). Cut to writer Phil Hersch at typewriter, mulling over idea for new series (“something really different’’) about a fighting coroner. CBC brass go for it. Dissolve to hero, backstage on Broadway. He’s Canadian actor, mid-30s, animal-masculine, hence sexy but no pretty-boy, with sad — almost mean — blue eyes, pock-marked cheeks, unruly hair. Is currently playing supporting role in successful Broadway play, has had maybe 200 roles in Canadian TV (bit parts, supporting roles, leads), several seasons at Stratford, yet is still “unknown.” Hero gets a call from “fighting coroner” producer, Ron Weyman, offering title role. Hero reads pilot script, quits Broadway, comes back to Canada. They shoot 10 episodes. From snatches of TV-play dialogue we realize each episode has something forceful to say about a social problem (abortion, discrimination against Indians, loneliness of old age, etc.) but isn't preachy or pat or self-consciously Canadian. Series (by now bearing enigmatic title, Wojeck) has tremendous impact. Nation is electrified. (Here, montage of reaction scenes: tavern waiter shushing customer as

Wojeck comes on barroom TV ("Others want to watch”); preachers, doctors, housewives, truck drivers arguing Wojeck issues on morning after, etc. — culminating in conference-room scene where CBC brass learn Wojeck summer reruns have outdrawn Bonanza.) Then comes Cinderella climax: Hollywood bigshots see private screening of Wojeck, hop plane for Toronto, sign hero to juicy role in big-budget movie. Hero makes movie in Hollywood, gets raves. In closing scene is back in Toronto, rejecting lucrative offers in TV, awaiting “just right role” in movie important enough to build career rivaling Brando, Burton . . .

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“Only difference between Toronto and Hollywood: money”

— to ponder the questions every ambitious Canadian actor has to consider. His feelings:

About the talent drain to the U.S.: “Why shouldn’t people leave if they’re offered something better? It’s not as if they're leaving forever ...”

About the CBC: “Many people are selling it short. It’s a fantastic training ground for actors. About 85 percent of what I’ve learned as an actor, I owe to the CBC.”

About U.S. television: “There are things you can’t say on the U.S. networks that we could say in Canada. You can’t say, ‘Don’t look down, Arnie, but your fly’s open.’ ”

About the lure of Hollywood: “To me, it’s not a case of moving up — it’s a change of scene. The only difference between Toronto and Hollywood, really, is the money. I hope to live in Hollywood and Toronto and France — wherever my work takes me.”

About financial security: “All the security I’ve got comes from having been an actor for 20 years — including 15 years as a professional.”

About Hollywood stars: “I have far more respect for them now, since I’ve seen them work. All that pressure — having to get in front of that camera and act. knowing there’s maybe two million dollars riding on your shoulders ...”

Vernon’s enthusiasm for Hollywood grew considerably when he discovered that the film capital’s legendary “sausage-factory syndrome” didn’t exist, at least not for the actors in Point Blank. Whenever he or Lee Marvin didn’t like a scene or a bit of dialogue in the script, director John Boorman would huddle with them for hours until they had reworked it to everybody’s satisfaction. Boorman recalls, “John argued about everything — but always in a way that was very constructive.” He rates Vernon as “enormously competent” and credits him with “the sensitivity of a Finney or a Burton or a Marvin.”

Vernon, of course, didn’t earn such praise merely by playing 10 episodes of Wojeck. Though few Canadians knew his name or his face before he became the “fighting coroner,” Vernon has handled an astonishing variety of roles since he was encouraged, at 15, by a severe case of acne, to plaster on heavy makeup and play Scrooge in a high-school production of A Christmas Carol in Regina. He got his formal training at the Banff School of Fine Arts and the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London (where he changed his name from Vernon Agopsowicz) and settled in Toronto 13 years ago. At the local Crest Theatre, at Stratford. Ont., and on CBC-TV, he prided himself on being able to play a 25-year-old dockhand one week and a 65-year-old nobleman the next. In one TV series, The Last of the Mohicans, he was often cast as an Indian. “Since I was a blue-eyed Indian, the director would say, 'Okay, the next shot’s a closeup — so squint!’ ” In the Tugboat Annie series he played “an ear and a shoulder — that’s about all you ever saw of me.”

With such versatility, Vernon kept

busy at acting, an accomplishment rare in Toronto, and never regretted taking any role, until he tried Broadway. Though the play. Royal Hunt of the Sun, was successful, and Vernon has only praise for its star, Christopher Plummer, he was disappointed by the acting standards on Broadway, unimpressed by the pay (he’d been making

better money in Toronto) and disgusted with New York — “an impossible place to keep a family.” (He and Nancy have four children, including one from her first marriage.)

Such was his mood on Broadway when he got the chance to play Wojeck — a break as unexpected as the one that began last spring when he an-

swered the phone at home in midtown Toronto, and a voice said, “My name is Judd Bernard. I'm a producer for M-G-M, and I'd like to see you.”

As this was written, Vernon was waiting for that phone to ring again as he’d never waited before, and it was hard to think about anything else.

“The important thing about a big break,” he told me. “ is to be ready when it comes.”

And by then, John Vernon was so ready he could taste it. ★