Life With Fletcher
Fletcher Markle made Wonder Boy Welles his idol. By the time Orson hired him he was something of a wonder boy himself
ON THE last day of September, 1946, Fletcher Markle left Toronto for Hollywood. He was on his way to join Orson Welles as a writer actor of Welles’ Mercury Theatre group, and he had in his pocket a motion picture writing and acting contract from Sir Alexander Korda.
He was going to the gold coast of California in his own time, in his own way, and on his own terms. He was going as he had always said he would, “in the front door—by invitation.” Looking back over the past 10 years, the 25-year-old Canadian could list a formidable series of achievements. He had:
Written and narrated one of the finest documentary motion pictures of the war.
Written three and produced two plays from New York for the Columbia Workshop, prestige show of the Columbia Broadcasting System.
Directed a play on Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre broadcast, and starred in it himself.
Acted in a movie, “Journey Together,” with Edward G. Robinson.
Sold a still unfinished novel to TwentiethCentury Fox Film Corporation.
Written, produced and acted in his own series of plays on the CBC.
Written and heard broadcast some 300 plays.
Fletcher Markle got an early start. He had the
good fortune to grow up in the Far West, where, if the commercial opportunities are fewer, so are the inhibitions. From the time he left high school he was able to function as a writer-producer-actor.
Unlike most young Canadian artists he never did time as an office clerk, scribbling manuscripts at lunch hour. He launched out as an independent personality at 18—has made a go of it financially ever since.
His father, who runs an importing firm in Vancouver, was well-to-do, though not rich, and his home was always the basis of operations. When Fletcher went into bankruptcy on some theatrical enterprise, his father helped out—but always on a loan basis.
He became familiar with Hollywood at an early age; made periodic holiday forays to the movie capitol. There he completed his education on money principles. Three years before he was 20, he knew that a $750-a-week writer is like dirt under the feet of a $2,000-a-week man. He determined then never to go into Hollywood except on his own terms—“in the front door, by invitation.”
Early in life, too, Markle realized the value of knowing the right people. As his wife, Blanche, phrases it, “If you know enough people, there isn’t anything you can’t have did.” Today he numbers among his friends such writers and actors as Norman Corwin, William Saroyan, Canada Lee, Marc Blitztein, Monica McCall, one of the top literary agents in America, and a dozen others of the famous.
Vancouver is a long way from the stage and radio centres of the East, but to Markle they were always as near as the nearest telephone. He owes quite a few friendships to his mastery of long-distance. He met Norman Corwin by calling him up, Vancouver to New York, after a Corwin broadcast.
Dislikes “Agency Guys”
IN APPEARANCE Markle is more like a young man of the External Affairs Department than the artist salesman he is. He stands six-foot one, is built like a lean swimmer, has a large head and a shock of dark hair, and never wears a hat.
He manages to be always well-dressed with a limited wardrobe; has only two ties, a maroon knitted and a black knitted which he alternates.
In both New York and Hollywood his RAF type mustache is famous. He likes it because it balances up a chin that tends to disappear into his Adam’s apple and has absolutely no relation to his character.
The Markle manner has been carefully cultivated. In contrast to the whiz-bang American type of theatre personality, it features good manners and intimacy; makes a hit with cabdrivers and waiters as well as with the famous.
At 19 he was a “How to Win Friends and Influence People” type, flashing his perfect teeth at the whole wide world. Today, less extreme, he permits himself an occasional rude remark to “agency guys,” whom he hates collectively.
One of the best uses of the manner is when Fletcher becomes Mr. Markle’s secretary and calls up on behalf of Mr. Markle. Then it gets compartments on trains, suites in hotels and other rarities.
There is considerable poetic justice in Markle’s present connection with Orson Welles. For the American theatre genius has been the dominating influence in his life since his early teens. He has a file of “Wellesiana” clippings five and a half inches thick.
The origin of the attachment is both sad and pleasant. As a youth Markle’s intense theatre ambitions were blocked by a bad stammer. The magnificent Welles voice, flooding in by radio, tormented him with frustration, until he began to try to imitate it. For a year he persisted in the imitation; syllable by syllable, pause by pause, mannerism by mannerism. He cured his stammer and developed a tone and style that could pass for that of his idol.
Since 1939, when Fletcher was 18, he has gone a long way toward reliving the Welles legend. In Vancouver in that year he organized the “Phoenix Theatre”; produced a Continued on page 48
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modern dress version of Julius Caesar, and acted in it himself. A co-operative effort between himself and friends, this play was received with enthusiasm, even made its backers some money. He followed that with the production of another Welles classic: Marlowe’s
“Doctor Faustus.” The intended scope of Faustus was too great and it ran into financial difficulties (anticipating some of Welles’ later habits) before the curtain went up. Young Fletcher was left more than $1,000 in debt.
Late in 1939 he went to work in radio, again in the steps of the master. He wrote or adapted a series of hourlength dramas called “Imagine Please,” produced them and starred in them. This went on for 65 consecutive weeks over CKWX, a private station in Vancouver. No one outside of radio can possibly appreciate what a feat of physical endurance this is. An hourlength play represents about two acts of a three-act stage play. For a year and a quarter he did with about four hours sleep a night; did not suffer much. When he wasn’t working he was browsing around the Chinese area of Vancouver or sharing the gossip of the vaudeville set in small hotels. Although this work did nothing to reduce his debts (he paid his actors $2 a performance; often made nothing himself), it developed terrifically his talent for improvising.
The material used in “Imagine Please” ran the gamut from Shakespeare adaptations to Mother Goose. On one desperate occasion the actors all wrote their own lines. On another the characters in well-known books came alive to react to the modern world.
Markle’s emergence as a network personality dates from his first meeting, in Vancouver, with Andrew Allan, drama producer of the CBC. It was nearing Christmas, 1939. Allan had just returned from England; was tired of the traditional forms of theatre he had been working in, and not yet familiar with the experimenting being done on this continent. Markle brought him the new world in a rush of scripts and intense talks.
Their first series together, “Baker’s Dozen,” can properly be called the first original work done in Canadian radio drama. Beginning in August, 1942, it ran for 13 weeks and set a new level of craftsmanship in both writing and production. Played over CBC’s national network, it received from all over Canada what Andrew Allan now calls “staggering acclaim.” Markle for the first time began to fold his money, and actually cleared up all his debts. At that time Vancouver was particularly rich in acting talent, having John Drainie, Bernard Braden, Alan Young and a number of others who have since become well known to audiences here and across the border.
After “Baker’s Dozen” the future seemed loaded with promise. The war cut it short.
Markle enlisted as air crew with the Air Force, only to be posted to Ottawa as a radio writer in the public relations section. He was irritated by the discipline; even more irritated by having to write about war in the air for “Comrades in Arms,” when he had never been closer to it than the city of Montreal. He made life miserable for himself, heckled his colleagues, and finally was banished to England.
There he did his radio writing job in RCAF hours; expanded himself in his spare time. Listeners to BBC became familiar with his voice. The
film industry discovered him, and he was cast in a picture, “Journey Together,” which starred Edward G. Robinson.
When he couldn’t get either to BBC or the film studios in his off hours, Fletcher pecked away at the opening chapters of a novel based on four of the plays from his series, “Baker’s Dozen.” It was the story of a young man of radio—and could have been the story of Markle.
He kept in touch with New York authors’ agent, Monica McCall, from overseas; finally sent her the first few chapters of his book.
Apparently more popular with the British than with the RCAF, Fletcher was borrowed by the British Ministry of Information to make a documentary picture on the damage caused by the robot bombs. He worked almost continuously for a week, day and night, with an old Scottish character as his film cutter.
“V-l” was Markle’s first film, and typically he started in by completely reversing the accepted method of doing a documentary. The normal procedure is to edit all the film together and then write a narration to fit. Markle examined all the film available, made full notes, then sat down and wrote a well-knit unified narration out of that material. Finally he edited the film to
the narration. He spoke the narration himself in a restrained and effective manner.
The results were gratifying. “V-l” was shown in 16,000 theatres in the United States, 4,000 more than presented “Gone With the Wind.” It was acclaimed widely by the American press, and particularly by Walter Winchell, who went overboard for Markle. Finally “V-l” was named for the Academy Award; lost out only to “Fighting Lady,” one of the greatest documentaries of all time.
Fletcher’s final days in England were spent in comparative luxury. In his off-duty hours he worked for the BBC, lived in a swank apartment, ate at the best restaurants, bought literally hundreds of books, and carried on a transatlantic courtship with Blanche Willis, of Winnipeg, former wife (divorced) of Austin Willis, radio actor,who recently starred in the Canadian film, “Bush Pilot.”
He returned to Canada just before Christmas of 1944 and was discharged from the RCAF because the radio section was overcrammed. He and Blanche were married immediately and settled down to life in Toronto.
After his return to Canada Markle averaged about $1,000 a month from acting and writing. He spent equally Continued on page 50
Continued from page 48 heavily; his phone, book and taxi bills running to a couple of hundred a month.
A good proportion of his income he earned through acting. He is a good radio actor, either as himself, as Orson Welles, or as a series of dialects. On one Stage 46 show he did seven voices, ranging from a stuffy Englishman to a Charles Boyer Frenchman.
Directors like him not only for his ability, but for his immediate response in any emergency. On one Stage 46 show an actor who was to read the opening lines was somewhere else when the second hand swept up to the appointed time. Markle stepped quietly to the microphone and read the lines in the other actor’s voice. The difference was not noticed by the audience
In the spring of 1945 he was notified that the chapters of the novel he had i sent to Monica McCall from England I had won him a fellowship from ! Twentieth-Century Fox Film Corpora -: tion. The arrangement was that they would subsidize him to complete the ! novel, arrange for its publication, and I then pay for picture rights. He settled down to a rewriting of the novel, which has been going on ever since.
The Markle Menage
In Vancouver Fletcher had always been an active young man about town. In Toronto he became a restless young man about home.
The Markies lived in a picturesque ■ spot at 47 South Drive, converted from an old church. Life at South Drive was always uncertain; sometimes zany. The house was filled with books and records. The music varied between boogie, Beethoven and Sam Barber. The King Cole trio rated high. So did Welles’ Shakespeare readings.
The phone rang constantly, from New York, Hollywood and Kalamazoo. At night the Markies called. One night they called a New York night club because someone said the bass player there hummed as he played. The puzzled musician confirmed the phenomenon.
Fletcher worked in a study crammed full of books and piled high with scripts, i on a desk cluttered with dozens of unanswered letters He had no set hours for work; was always willing to break it up when friends came calling.
Visitors were apt to be regaled by readings aloud of writings new and old. To prove that dull material could be made to sound like poetry, Fletcher often read the telephone book.
Early in the summer of 1945 Markle was handed a unique assignment by CBC He was the first person ever commissioned by them to write and produce a series of 13 dramatic broadcasts.
“Radio Folio” was launched successfully but began to founder when Markle collapsed in the studio during a broadcast. The doctor diagnosed his ailment as exhaustion and starvation. Markle had neglected to eat for too many days in a row and worked through too many nights. The doctor ordered him to take a month off immediately and fatten up. Fletcher took a few hours off and caught a plane next morning for New York, I where he had meetings scheduled with I Twentieth - Century Fox executives.
! The following week he wrote and produced another half-hour network show but later in the series was forced to repeat several earlier plays.
In his short life Fletcher Markle has taken a great deal out of his head; balanced this up by putting a lot into it. He buys books, rushes ¡ through them in a couple of eve-
nings, puts them somewhere along the wall and several months later sells them back to the same book dealer. The books might be anything from Plato’s “Dialogues” to “The Hucksters.” Markle feels this essential to a writer’s background; is critical of young writers who insist on relying solely on their own experience.
He also goes to all the movies, good and bad, and listens to a great many radio programs, rejecting as absurd the current affectation among radio people that they “never listen to radio.”
He has a blotter mind, and everything that goes into it stays fairly near the surface, available for use
Since “Radio Folio” he has been making a serious attempt to chánge his writing style, to depend less on his mastery of “effect” and more on the creation of real characters. This process of change had slowed his writing almost to a standstill when a new and important offer came along in the spring of this year.
On the strength of Fletcher’s past performance, and a strong recommendation from Norman Corwin, agent Monica McCall arranged an extraordinary invitation for him to come to New York and write and produce three broadcasts for the choosy Columbia Workshop. It was the first time in CBS history that such an offer had ever been made to an outsider.
This series placed Markle right on the spot. The Workshop had spawned Welles and Corwin, and half a dozen other top-ranking drama producers in America. Failure here would set him back a long way. Typically he took a long chance.
CBS Workshop has become known as the home of experimentation; a
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place where bizarre effects and big production ideas are at a premium. To this show Markle took three quiet little dramas which called for hardly any production, but skilful acting and direction—commodities tending to disappear from American radio today.
The three plays were: “Some-
time Every Summertime,” a simple unaffected story of a summer romance between a young Italian girl and a boy of better background, done originally on Radio Folio; “Three’s Company,” brief episodes about the marital troubles of three couples; and “The Midnight Town Is Full of Boys,”
a moving study of juvenile delinquency in a big city.
On the Workshop Markle succeeded both as writer and director. As a director he is quiet, articulate, appreciative, and has a rare ability to transmit subtleties of mood to actors. CBS responded to his performance by offering him a writer-director position comparable only to that of Corwin. He turned it down the following week to accept a long-dreamud-of offer from Orson Welles.
The American theatre genius was in New York at the time of Markle’s Workshop shows. As usual he was fairly busy: playing in his extraordinary stage musical, “Eighty Days Around the World,” producing and starring in a weekly half-hour Mercury Theatre broadcast, writing and delivering a weekly political commentary for ABC and on top of everything losing $30,000.
Markle tried every trick in the book to reach the master. He wangled a room next to the Welles suite in the Algonquin Hotel; met him three times by accident but didn’t dare risk an unsponsored approach. Finally há gained admittance to the CBS studio, where Welles was rehearsing Ills Mercury Theatre. This was a rather singular privilege, as Welles allows no guests in the studio where he is working.
How to Lose Friends
Welles kept staring at' him, finally came over. Markle was presented and his catastrophic opening line to the producer was:
“I wrote you a letter. Either through overwork, preoccupation, or just rudeness, you failed to answer it.”
Welles looked through him for a moment, then turned and walked away. An hour later they were having dinner together, and Markle further infuriated the great man, who is among other things a master magician, by doing a trick with a spoon that he couldn’t duplicate.
After the Welles broadcast Fletcher persuaded the Mercury group to listen to a record he had brought with him from Canada. It was a record of “Life with Adam,” a satire on Orson Welles written by me for CBC’s Stage 46 and starring Fletcher Markle. Welles listened intently, suffered some, enjoyed the readings from Richard III and finally turned and said, “How would you like to do that on my show next week?”
Markle would and did. In the show he used almost a full cast of Canadian actors, including Grace Matthews, John Drainie, Hedley Rainnie and Pat Joudry.
Welles was impressed by the performance, and more impressed by Markle’s ability to deliver in the face of great difficulties. At two o’clock on the afternoon of the show Fletcher had flu so badly that he could hardly speak. With a doctor’s help he got the voice in passable shape for the 10 o’clock dead line. Then, on the show, one of the actresses suffered an attack of nerves and her hand shook till she couldn’t read the script. Markle
reached across the microphone and held her arm. As a clincher the show was a minute and a half behind at the 20-minute mark, due to a production assistant’s error. Markle galloped through the last act at a pace never bettered by Orson in real life and brought the performance out on time.
The Welles show snowballed the publicity. Led off by Walter Winchell, four major Broadway columns jumped aboard. Variety headlined: “Top
Radio Success Story of the Year.” Radio Vision, a listeners’ journal, spread across the top of its pages, “To the Top at Twenty-Five.” Time Magazine came over for an interview and pictures. The Americans did not miss the fact that out of Markle’s four major successes in the United States radio, three were achieved with scripts originally done on the CBC.
Now the front door was opened with a vengeance. Markle’s mail was flooded with offers, and he took particular joy in turning down a thousand dollars a week from an “agency guy.”
After the broadcast Markle spent almost a continuous week with Welles, learned from him tricks of relaxation such as how to walk slowly and how not to answer a telephone. He sat in a corner while Welles and Sir Alexander Korda discussed future plans. Finally he got his offer to go with the Mercury group as a writeractor on Korda-backed productions.
Completely exhausted, he returned to Toronto to await contracts. Again the doctor ordered him away for a month’s rest. This time he spent a week rowing about a small Laurentian mountain lake. When he wasn’t rowing he was standing patiently at a wall phone trying to get a longdistance call through to Welles in Hollywood. Penally Orson turned up bright and cheery in Mexico City, chatted for half an hour, then got away without confirmation of the contract.
This went on for a month with Markle getting more and more frantic, before the contracts finally came through.
His frame of mind is shown by one fantastic incident. In New York he met a publisher; during one evening told him the story of a novel he meant to write
Back in Toronto he got a letter from the publisher: “Enthusiastic
about your novel . . . when can I see first chapters?” Markle couldn’t remember a word he had told the man. He solved the dilemma by writing to the publisher and asking for an outline. He got it.
The novel still isn’t finished. Neither is the one for Twentieth-Century Fox. But nobody cares very much. With every week that passes, Markle’s name on the cover of a book becomes worth another thousand dollars.
At present Fletcher Markle is in sunny California (or is it England . . . or Trans-Jordania?). Anyhow, he’s
with Orson Welles, and he’s working on a screen play and preparing to look Mediterranean in a Bible film that they’re going to do for Korda in the Middle East. if