How I switched from Shakespeare to six-guns
"There ought to be a law against TV westerns," this Canadian star of Stratford, Broadway and Hollywood once declared. Now he's headin' 'em off at the pass and claiming Bonanza’s Ben Cartwright isn't so different from Brutus after all
ONCE THERE WAS this gunslinger, John Wesley Hardin, who came riding into Wichita, and after a tiny altercation in which he shot a man named Atwell fairly mortally, his lady-love rushed into his arms, fear clouding her eyes.
"What happened, Wes?” she sniveled, laying her head tremulously on his vast chest. “1 thought I heard sounds of shootin’.”
“I had to drop Atwell, honey,” Hardin smiled wanly. “He was reachin’.”
“Will there be trouble, Wes?”
“None to worry yore purty head about, honey,” Hardin assured her. “Sometimes a man has to gun a man and I just gunned a man, is all.”
This swatch of burlap dialogue unraveled from my television set one evening a couple of years ago, sending me out into the night for a walk around the block.
"Westerns!” I remember snorting. “There ought to be a law.”
Two years later on another evening on another western, a wounded man lying in his bed of pain turns to his son. “Son,” he says, “get me my gun. A man feels more comfortable with a gun in his hand.”
The man on the bed is mighty familiar. It’s that Canadian actor who has played Brutus at the Stratford Shakespearean Festival, Peter the Apostle in a movie, The Silver Chalice, and opposite Katharine Cornell in the Broadway hit, The Prescott Proposals. Me!
Yup, I’m a cowboy. Until a year ago I’d never lifted a Colt .45, much less fired one. hadn’t seen a ten-gallon hat except on Grey Cup day, and the only horses I'd ever been on were long shots that finished out of the money at Woodbine. I’d stopped saying “Reach, stranger” when Tom Mix was still in his prime. CONTINUED ON PAGE 48
CONTINUED ON PAGE 48
How I switched from Shakespeare to six-guns continued from page 21
“Unexpectedly, my horse Dunnie took off. I hung on, really frightened”
But now T shoot guns, ride horses and wear an outsize hat every week in a western called Bonanza, and it looks like we have a winner. Bonanza is carried in color on the NBC television network every Saturday night from 7.30 to 8.30 p.m., EST — prime viewing time. About twenty million people watch the show, which began last September 12 and soon afterwards was acclaimed in the Hollywood Reporter by columnist Hank Grant. “I will know the western era has come to an end,” wrote Grant, “if Bonanza is not renewed.” Long before our thirteen-week option had expired, Bonanza HV/.V renewed for another thirteen, and it continued making mincemeat of the ratings of the Dick Clark Show, a teenage rock-and-roll rival on ABC, and cutting into the audience of the well-established Perry Mason series, its opposite on CBS.
This talk of westerns and ratings may bring hollow laughter from people who know I left Canada in 1953 because L could find nothing very satisfying about delivering commercial pitches on camera. I felt that the whole atmosphere of TV in Canada was listless, and I voiced the conviction then that it would be years before CBC television would become a strong factor in the entertainment business.
Since Bonanza started, a lot of my friends have wondered whatever became of Lome Greene, Serious Actor. They’ve asked me how I can be serious about the role of Ben Cartwright, the principal character of Bonanza—a forty-nine-yearold rancher whose exploits, and those of his three grown sons, Adam, Hoss and Little Joe, make up the weekly scripts of our one-hour show. Some of them even want to know if it really is me firing a gun or galloping into the sunset on Dunnie, my magnificent eight-year-old buckskin horse, which is the color of gold and has a black mane and a black tail.
Well, in most cases, it is. Occasionally, in a fight scene a double fills in, or in a long shot of some trick riding, a stunt man does the job. But most of the time I do ride my horse, and I do rip my own gun out of my own holster. So far, I haven’t fallen off my horse, nor have I been slugged on the chin by a roundhouse right, though the way it looks on film I’ve been knocked down often enough.
Those screen fights are as carefully staged as the wrestling matches at Maple Leaf Gardens. It sometimes takes three or four hours to give the illusion of reality to a three-minute bar-room brawl. The worst thing that’s happened to me was in a fight in which l had a guy lined up against the wall of a saloon. I swung my right in a wide arc. which gives the camera its most effective angle, and the guy ducked when the script said he'd parry. My fist went over his head into the wall and my knuckles were scraped and sore for a week.
As for the Serious Actor angle. I am serious. That sick-bed dialogue I recited earlier is really most unusual on Bonanza, and I honestly feel that Ben Cartwright is as well-rounded a part as any I’ve played.
The physical requirements of a western are the most demanding I've ever undertaken. I get up at 5.30 every morning and we shoot six days a week. We're rarely off the set before six in the eve-
ning. and most of the days are spent strenuously. For example, how many horses have you climbed off and on lately? It isn’t easy. Had it not been for my two years of dancing lessons at the Martha Graham school in New York (I did it to facilitate stage movement) I don’t think I could have handled this role. My stomach muscles would never have taken the strain of hauling my two hundred pounds into a saddle a dozen times a day. day after day. When you’re past forty you’ve given up notions of catching a place on the Olympic Games team.
I’ll never forget the first time I saw my horse, Dunnie. A couple of days before we were to start shooting the pilot film of Bonanza last April I drove forty-five miles north from Los Angeles to Fat Jones’ Stable in the San Fernando Valley where our film company had maybe a dozen horses in a . corral. They'd been picked for their coloring, since Bonanza was to be filmed in color. The horse I’d been assigned was a beautiful animal, as I've said. He was sired by a noted quarterhorse, Danny Waggoner, and he had been broken to cut cattle. Accordingly, he can turn at a ninety-degree angle at a full gallop.
A wrangler led me to Dunnie and showed me how to mount. 1 stood at the horse’s left side and climbed into the saddle by placing my left foot into the left stirrup. I mounted and dismounted for a good half hour and then, unexpectedly, Dunnie just took off. I hung on, really frightened, bouncing like a sack of wheat. Luckily, we were in the corral; the wranglers were able to flag down my horse before he could toss me out of the script.
The wrangler grinned as he eased me to the ground.
“You musta dropped the end of the rein where ol’ Dunnie could see it,” he drawled. “I forgot to tell you, a fella was ridin’ him in a picture last week and he was a little rough on ol’ Dunnie with that rein. Dunnie don’t like it none, seems like.”
I rode Dunnie for a couple of hours a day for three or four days, walking him, jogging him, then galloping him. One day, holding him steadily by the reins, I showed him the end of the rein that had frightened him, talking quietly all the while. He reared a little, but I held him firmly, tried to keep talking soothingly, and then he settled right down. Now we get along fine.
Learning a fast draw with a gun is like learning to shuffle cards: facility comes only with practise. Accurate shooting obviously is not a factor, so a TV cowboy needs only to master the trick of looking fast. In a recent Bonanza, for example, Ben Cartwright was wounded and had his left arm in a sling. But he had to face a gunslinger in a showdown and, playing Cartwright, I leaned against a post in front of a saloon. The gunslinger stood in the middle of the street, his legs apart and his arms slightly bent in the classic pose of a man ready to draw. The camera made this scene from immediately behind me, its lens shooting right across my right hip. My only problem was to make sure the gun didn’t stick in the holster as I drew. When the director called "Roll ’em” I slapped my hand against my gun and drew. It came out cleanly. Then quickly the camera zoomed to a closeup
of the gunslinger falling, and the sound
of my gun firing was dubbed into the sequence. You'll notice in most westerns that street duels are handled from this angle.
Similarly, the camera angle of a man belting another man on the chin, wúth the sound dubbed in of his fist connecting, gives the impression of a solid blow. Actually, with the camera shooting from behind, you can miss a man’s chin by a foot and still appear to have landed one on the button.
As I got into the character of Ben Cartwright I found that doing a believable western script is as gratifying as doing any other believable script. Of course, there are westerns and westerns, just as there are plays and plays. Our stories are not stereotyped horse operas —good guys on white horses and bad guys on black ones. Our writers try to establish people and their motivations rather than emphasize plot. A glance is often more telling than any dialogue, and in most of our shows Cartwright doesn't necessarily have to be a rancher. He could be a boss in industry confronted by the same problems that concern our ranch owner.
Still, my friends wonder how a Shakespearean actor can stomach the swallowed “g's" and double negatives of the western scripts which, though infrequent in our show, do come up now and then. I think the answer lies in the actor’s conception of the character he is trying to depict. In Shakespeare, the rhythm of the language and the scope of the roles demand that the vowels be full and rounded. the consonants sharp and clipped, and all the syllables given their rightful recognition.
In western dialogue, the words are contracted and the language is sparser, right down to Gary Cooper's renowned "yup." Where an actor in Shakespeare would find it normal to say, "Where goest thou?” he finds it equally natural to say, in a western. "Where yuh goin'?” Similarly, "Whence comest thou?” becomes "Where yuh bin?” without loss of dignity. That’s the way people spoke in the west a hundred years ago.
The character you play becomes a part of you if you play it any length of time.
I read in the newspapers recently a quote that I can appreciate fully, from James Arness, who plays Matt Dillon in the G unsmoke series. Arness, discussing his home life, observed. “I guess Matt Dillon is a hard man to live with.” The truth is that you do find yourself identifying constantly with your character. Arness has been Dillon for some five years. Even after less than a year as Cartwright I feel this affinity, and so do my three "sons,” Pernell Roberts, who plays Adam; Dan Blocker, who is Hoss, and Michael Landon, who is Little Joe.
When we find script sequences we believe to be out of character with the men we’re playing, we discuss them among ourselves to confirm our impressions and then go to our producer, David Dortort, or one of our directors. Usually these conferences bring rewrites. Once, a director and 1 rewrote a whole scene to eliminate an illogical concept of Ben’s character.
Ben Cartwright began the series as a strong-willed Bible-quoting man of high moral principle who had married three times. Each of his wives had given him a son. which explains why my three boys have divergent personalities and dissimilar physical characteristics. Each wife had died tragically, one in child-birth, one in an Indian raid, and one rather mysteriously. Ben was supposed to love his three sons, but in the early scripts it seemed to me that he was too arch, too severe and too humorless.
I mentioned this to Dortort. protesting that a man with no sense of humor would not likely be attractive to even one woman. much less the three who'd married him. Dortort grinned and agreed. Subsequent scripts have humanized Ben.
These things obviously happened after I became a cowboy. Two words cover how I became one—luck and experience. With scores of Hollywood performers available for every TV or movie role, an actor needs luck even to get a chance at a part and, after that, he needs the experience to handle it. I've wanted to be an actor for twenty years; I didn’t start until six years ago. And the turning point in my development is related directly to a stop watch, of all things.
This was in 1953. 1 was doing well enough in Toronto delivering radio newscasts, reading commentary in television documentaries, doing commercials and playing occasional roles in TV dramas. More rewarding personally, though not financially, than any of these ventures was my school—the Academy of Radio Arts—at which talented persons in the technical, writing, production and performing aspects of entertainment served as instructors for young people hoping to make a place in the industry. The watch I developed was to facilitate timing, which is so essential a part of TV and radio. My stop watch differed from conventional ones by being numbered from 60 to 1, reading clockwise, and I could set it. This eliminated the necessity of subtraction. On an ordinary stop watch, if you know that your show goes off the air at 7.59.20, and if the time right now is 7.47.05, you have one hell of a problem in mental arithmetic before you figure out that you've got 12 minutes and 15 seconds of time remaining on your program.
The stop watch I developed and had made for me in Switzerland solved this subtraction problem. With my watch reading backwards, so to speak, the minute hand and the second hand always showed exactly the amount of time remaining, rather than the amount gone by. Mental computation during the stress of a program was eliminated. There were a few other innovations on my watch but essentially this was it, and in the spring of 1953, upon learning that some New York television people were interested
in it, I flew down to demonstrate it.
Just before noon I was walking into the NBC building in Rockefeller Plaza and ran into Fletcher Markte, the Canadian producer who had been one of the instructors at my academy and who then was producing the top-rated CBS program. Studio One. He invited me to lunch, we talked shop and reminisced, and I flew home in the afternoon. Two days later I got a call from Markte. He asked me if I’d come to New York to do a Studio One lead for him.
1 was flattered because it had long since become apparent to me that 1 was really only getting my feet wet in CBC drama. A role here, a role there, yes. But nothing remotely as exciting as a lead on Studio One.
The play was a sentimental love story called Arietta in which I was cast opposite the Metropolitan Opera soprano, Jarmila Novotna, who had just begun to make her transition from the lyric stage to the dramatic stage. I played an ailing, heart-troubled symphony orchestra conductor. I made some impression, it appeared. for soon afterwards Paul Nickell, who was directing a TV adaptation of George Orwell's 1984. asked for me for the part of Big Brother.
Then 1 got a special-delivery letter from Columbia Pictures in Hollywood asking if I was interested in movies. The letter troubled me. I couldn’t figure out if it was legitimate, or merely a form letter that went to every new face. I figured I'd better ask an agent, and the only agency I'd heard of in New York at that time was Leibling and Wood. I knew they handled Tennessee Williams, for example, and Carson McCullers and Shirley Booth. It was audacious of me. in that company, but I looked up the number and asked for Mr. Leibling. I explained why I was calling and he asked me to read the letter from Columbia. Before I'd finished reading he interrupted.
"That’s signed by Max Arnow, isn't it?”
It was, and he was identified as head of casting.
"Yes.” I said.
“It's legit," said Leibling shortly. "Who’s handling you?”
"I don’t have an agent."
“I'll look after you,” said Leibling. to my vast surprise.
The next day I went out peddling my
stop watches. Just before plane time 1 went over to the Studio One offices to say good-by to the people who had been extremely kind to me. and I was told that a Miriam Howell had been trying to locate me. I was told she was a literary agent who did some theatrical work. So I called her. She asked immediately if I would be interested in appearing in a Broadway show.
“Well, yes, I suppose f am,” Í said. “Who’s producing?”
“Leland Hayward.” He’d merely produced Mr. Roberts and South Pacific.
"Who wrote it?”
“Lindsay and Crouse.” They'd written State of the Union and Life With Father, is all.
"Who’s the star?”
“Katharine Cornell.” Katharine Cornell!
“What’s for me?” By now I was a little breathless.
“Well actually, Mr. Greene, it’s the male lead.”
Miss Howell told me to be at the Alvin Theatre the next day at noon to read. I called my agent, Leibling, whom I shortly
was calling Bill, and he said he’d be there.
I read for the part the next day. working on the bare stage under a single dangling work light. Lindsay and Crouse and Miss Cornell and Hayward sat in seats in the orchestra. When I was finished I joined them and then Hayward asked Leibling. “Bill, be in my office at three o’clock?"
Out in the sunshine I asked Leibling what that was all about.
“It means you’ve got the part,” Bill said. “Since you're an unknown here they’ll offer three hundred a week. I'll
ask for seven-fifty and we’ll settle for five hundred.”
And that’s exactly what happened at three o’clock.
The play, The Prescott Proposals, opened in mid-November and ran 160 performances.
That, and my TV appearances, led from one thing to another. In the next couple of years I played Oliver Cromwell, Sir Walter Raleigh and Beethoven, among scores of television roles. I played in the first English production ever presented on stage by Le Théâtre du Nouveau Monde in Montreal, the part of Doc in Come Back Little Sheba. As I said. I was Brutus in Julius Caesar at Stratford and I played the Prince of Morocco in the Merchant of Venice that summer of 1955 at Stratford, too.
In Hollywood I was Peter the Apostle in The Silver Chalice, which turned out to be a very expensive turkey, and I was the district attorney in Peyton Place, which wasn’t Art but made a ton of money. On four days’ notice I appeared in an NBC Show-of-the-Month spectacular with Rod Steiger and Eva Marie Saint. It was an adaptation of Robert Sherwood’s Yellow Jack, and I played Dr. Walter Reed—a role intended for Broderick Crawford, who developed a bad throat and had to drop out.
Then I went to England and filmed a half-hour TV series called Sailor of Fortune, playing a former intelligence officer in the U. S. Marines. Then back to the States, another play, more TV films and another spectacular, Mayerling, with Mel Ferrer and Audrey Hepburn. In five years I must have played at least a bun died roles.
But I was still a long way from being a box-office “name.” I decided the surest way to build a name for myself would be to land a top role in a TV series. And that's where luck played its part.
One evening, when I was visiting some friends in Hollywood. I was introduced to a man whose name I didn't catch. He remarked that he'd seen—and liked—my work on TV. “Say,” he said on a sudden inspiration, “are you interested in a television series?”
I said I was “if it’s a starring role, a good part and worth money.”
After he left, I asked somebody who he was, and was told, “Jerry Stanley— he does something or other at NBC.”
About three weeks later I got a call from NBC and I drove over to Burbank. There was Stanley. He turned out to be boss of NBC’s west-coast film division. He had discussed me with Fred Hamilton, an NBC vice - president, and David Dortort, who had produced the Restless Gun series.
They told me that they wanted a new series, a one-hour weekly western. They wanted it to have a strong father-and-son relationship because they were concerned that American soldiers' defections in Korea had been traced by some psychologists to Momism, the strong identity of U. S. kids with their mothers. Also, they were sick of American movies and television in which fathers were depicted as bumbling dolts.
After they'd explained all of this to me, Dortort said casually: “We’re calling the series Bonanza, and plan shooting the pilot film in April. We need a father type who relates strongly to three grown sons. We’ve looked up some of the rough cuts of your work. We've decided you're the man.”
And that—plus a holster halfway down my thigh, boots with two-inch heels that are as comfortable as any shoes I’ve ever worn, and my horse of a different color— that is how I became a cowboy. ^