That wise, strong, brave, firm face has made him the whole world’s father-figure—but not in his own plush-lined mansion in Beverly Hills
That wise, strong, brave, firm face has made him the whole world’s father-figure—but not in his own plush-lined mansion in Beverly Hills
Click. LORNE GREENE sinks the eight-ball on his vintage 1905 pool table, straightens up to six-foot-one-and-a-half and says, “I remember it well. I spent 12-13 winters in Toronto, each slightly more miserable than the last.” Outside, miniature tangerines arc ripening on Greene’s trees, exotic flowers are opening like umbrellas in Greene’s garden, and the water in Greene’s swimming pool is hotting up toward some fantastic southern California optimum. It is not true that Greene’s pool has a yacht, and on the yacht another pool, and on that pool another ... He racks his cue and we go out on the terrace where Nancy Greene, Mrs. Lorne Greene, is talking to a dog. She is saying, with elaborate lip movements, "Ma-ma, ma-ma, ma-ma, ma-ma,” the way you might talk to a dog that is stone deaf, only this dog, a German Shepherd named Koala, is not only not deaf, it is not dumb. It can say four different things, Nancy Greene says. Sure enough, the dog opens its mouth suddenly, says, “Worp-oorp,” and trots off to sprinkle one of Greene's 4,000 azalea bushes.
Greene’s little spread up Mandeville Canyon, outside Beverly Hills, looks pretty good to anybody down from Canada in February. But to Greene, trampling through the wall-to-wall on a Saturday morning and out the glass doors into the trackless jungle of azaleas, the place has a flaw. "I’d like to have a trout stream,” he says. “I wish I had bought Dick Powell’s old place farther up the canyon.” Still, Greene’s present property is an improvement over his last. It had a big lot but the house filled it so that Greene’s pool was squashed in there right off the patio. “I would go out to sit around the pool and I was on concrete,” he says.
There is no doubt that, if he wanted to. Greene could put a trout stream through his azaleas with sheer money. Years ago Bonanza outdrew all comers to become television's preeminent western, and Greene is the king of the medium. Which is not to say the king of Hollywood, maybe, but still —when Clark Gable was The King he made $5.000 a week. Greene makes $10,000 a week, and that doesn’t include the money he makes from his records and his personal appearances. He has been scrabbling around putting his money into currently unprofitable enterprises as a tax writeoff: land in northern California, a potato warehouse in Oregon, publishing companies, a lot of other things. He is a little vague about it. His business agent and his son-in-law, Bob Bennett, who once worked for a company that manufactures shirts in Toronto—they check out his business ventures. "I am no tycoon,” Greene says. But he doesn't have to worry about Koala going to the bathroom on the odd azalea.
A bunch of us are standing around now on Greene’s terrace: Greene, Nancy Greene, Greene’s son Charles, who is a senior in political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Marie Dyches, who is Greene’s personal press representative, and Gerry Smith, who is an NBC photographer. Smith is waiting to get some shots of Greene. Charles, who looks like a young Lorne Greene with a short neat beard, will not appear in any photographs with his father. He says that what he is going to do when he finishes at MIT is a good question. Greene is wearing grey cuffless pants, pretty tight, grey slip-on shoes, a white shirt and a yellow velveteen cardigan. His hair at the back is combed into what used to be called a ducktail. His sideburns are down to his lobes and they are snow-white. His eyebrows are black.
“I want to put on a blue shirt and a white jacket,” Greene says. “It’ll be good contrast.” He exits. Gerry Smith says, “I never have any trouble with Lorne. He’s a pro. It’s the amateurs that get you. The Monkees are always horsing around. I spent two hours with them yesterday and didn’t get a thing I could use.” Marie Dyches says, “Whenever anybody writes anything nasty about Lorne,
I say, ‘Tell me their measurements.’ They are usually four-foot-1 1 and 110 pounds. They look up at this great enormous guy that dames go for, and hate everything about him. They’re just little guys who’ve had a hard time with the dames.” Greene enters wearing an off-white jacket with pale pinstripes over a blue flannel shirt and white-’ pants. He goes over and stands under a miniature tangerine tree and holds a cluster of tangerines. “They’re great in drinks,” he says, as Smith takes the shot.
But Marie Dyches has raised a more interesting point. Greene’s portrayal of Pa Cartwright hasn't, to be blunt about it, brought him any artistic stature. Greene once played Brutus at Stratford. Another time he played opposite Katharine Cornell on Broadway. But does anybody remember that except Greene? Hardly anybody. Meanwhile, TV critics and writers of all sorts, some of them taller than four-foot-11, have been writing nasty, snide things about Bonanza and Lome Greene. Hitler has received better reviews for World War II. Newsweek magazine once said that, of the cast, only Pernell Roberts, the oldest Cartwright lad. “bears any resemblance to an actor." Roberts soon walked off the show in a fine jangle of spurs. It was, he said, “just pap—and why would any normal person want to carry on a romance with his father?”
Still, the close father-son relationships are what made Bonanza unbeatable. Most of the critics and the sophisticates can't see it. As they see it, Bonanza is a bad show, but not as bad as Batman. If it were, it would be good. They can see the humor in the situation of this guy with a basic ducktail coming on like John Ford's voice of God and using Freudulent insight to help Hoss overcome some infantile self-doubt. It is pretty funny but it is not funny enoupli, you know? The show's support comes from the enormous strata of viewers who take Ben Cartwright quite seriously, as a totem father. They are the square backlash, and they rule the tube. But where does that leave Lome Greene—apart from on top of the ratings?
Greene and 1 go into his house, an 18-room redwood tri-level with ramps instead of stairs. Gerry Smith comes in. too. and grabs another fab shot, this one of Greene about to plant a log in his marble fireplace. Greene does not have to mess around with kindling. He just turns on the gas. “Better than rubbing two sticks together.” he says. We get to talking about artistic fulfillment. “1 do not consider Bonanza a great dramatic vehicle.” Greene is saying. He says it is an entertainment feature which occasionally engages the mind. “What does it mean to me? Does it fulfill me as an actor? Did Othello fulfill Olivier as an actor?” He goes on to tic Othello and Ben Cartwright together somehow, but not too convincingly, and anyway it is hard to keep from snatching out-ofcontext quotes from his hair-trigger responses. Greene has been interviewed a million times, and you listen to him. sometimes, with a sense of déjà vu.
A few years ago a writer named John Gregory Dunne—“Four-foot-11, 110 pounds.” says Marie Dyches—was trying to get some fresh angle on Bonanza's juggernaut invasion of 50 countries around the world. Finally he despaired at getting a new-minted quote from Greene and wrote, “Ask him a question about something as . . . matter-offact as syndication, and you still get no matter-offact answer. Instead tumblers click, lights flash and a memory drum whirs. ‘We're America’s No. 2 export,' Ben booms jovially, 'just ahead of CocaCola and right behind foreign aid.' Click click click: He said it in the San Francisco Examiner on March 26; click click click, he said it . . . on April 9; click click click, he said it . . . on April 29. Only he knows how many times he has said it.”
Greene is very tolerant about outbursts like that. He is friendly and accessible. Now. after a quick change into his velveteen cardigan outfit, he is standing there sucking in his stomach, grinning, pointing at the belly of a stuffed blue marlin and saying, “I caught it off Montego Bay last year. It’s eight-foot-two-inches. Trouble is, the damn thing doesn't look like a real fish any more.”
One time on the Bonanza set a stunt man filling in for Greene was thrown off an elephant, and Greene got on the elephant himself and finished the scene, and the whole thing was so impressive that it is doubtful if any of the hangers-on around the set could be captious enough to wonder what the hell an elephant was doing in an episode of Bonanza. The series frequently bemuses classicwestern buffs. There was the time a knight in armor came galloping over the clumpy prairie and —stronger than dirt—rammed his lance through a stagecoach door. There was the time Hoss got involved with a lot of Irish leprechauns. This sort of stuff, which throws TV critics into a succession of tiny tantrums, is resolved only if you don't think of Bonanza as a western at all. Topically, the show falls somewhere between Hollywood and the Arabian Nights — and wherever it is. it ain't the Old West. Generically, it is probably closer to My Three Sons than to G unsmoke. It is a familysituation-comedy-action-adventure series in a western setting, drawing viewers who enjoy any of these forms. It is full of the strong preachy moral tone and dime-store psychology of the soap operas, and if it isn't actually a soap opera it is at least a detergent drama.
But the irresistible attraction of Bonanza is the way Ben Cartwright, that confirmed old widower and likely to remain so, handles his hoys. The women eat it up. He is the perfect father: rich, firm, good, with a you-mind voice coming out of a rib cage that would frighten an obstreperous gorilla. You mind your father, you little beast. Ben Cartwright is a throwback to the days of Popism — there is a man with some stuffing —and well, you mind. Ben Cartwright could take young Angus to hand — his father can’t do anything with the boy — and so Angus's mother writes to Lome Greene, and Greene or. more accurately, the girl who answers his mail, writes back and says, in effect, see your clergyman. See your physician. Greene gets letters like that by the thousands. He was going to write a column, a sort of Andy Landers column for parents, but he talked himself out of it. “Who am I to tell anybody what to do about their kids?” Greene is saying, w'hile Gerry Smith seizes a chance to catch him with coffee cup aloft. “I don’t have the answers. My scriptwriters have the answers. But only for my boys.”
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After eight years as Ben Cartwright. Greene has a proprietary — no, fatherly — attitude toward the show, toward his “boys” and the actors who play them, toward his scriptwriters, even toward the people who interview him for newspapers and magazines. Or so they feel. “When I interviewed Greene,” says a Los Angeles reporter, “I became aware of some ambivalent feelings — kind of respect and resentment — that I hadn’t felt since my father died. We were talking about bringing up kids and he gave me all this sound stuff about how corporal punishment was wrong under any circumstances, and I agreed with it all but 1 kept arguing hack. He kept putting me down in a very gentle, fatherly way, and after a while I realized with a terrific jolt that I was playing the son. I’m 38. for heaven’s sake.”
Apparently, Greene was born to be a father figure the way some men seem born to be flautists, politicians, pool sharks. In the early 1940s he was chief newscaster for CBC radio, then at its peak of national paternalism, and a predecessor of Earl Cameron, another totem father of note. After the war he founded the Academy of Radio Arts in Toronto, and the broadcasting business in Canada is full of progeny who looked to Greene for inspiration, instruction and pear-shaped tones. His first big U.S. television role was Big Brother in a Studio One production of 1984. In Bonanza the character of Ben Cartwright is a fabrication in more than the usual sense. It is just Lome Greene.
LORNE GREENE continued
“The only way I can work as an actor is
by being me”
“I don’t try to change me,” Greene is saying. “I don't try to become Ben Cartwright. The only way I can work as an actor is by being me. I happen to be Lome Greene. I’m not anybody else. I'm not Ben Cartwright, Joe Blow or anybody else. I can only react to any circumstances as myself. I don’t even have a western accent. I change stuff in a script in order to make it more like me. If Lome Greene off the set is like Lome Greene on the set. bully, that’s what I want, I don't want to be changed.”
Greene, his son Charles, his son-inlaw Bob Bennett, Marie Dyches and I are having lunch in Greene’s house. Nancy Greene and Linda Bennett are both off at UCLA taking courses. We are sitting around a great Spanish slab of a table in English baronial chairs. Greene's chair at the head of the table is the only one with arms. He is wearing grey, cuffless pants, a blue flannel shirt and a navy sweatercoat, doublebreasted with brass buttons. The maid brings in an omelette. Very tasty. Greene takes his coffee with Sweeta. There is a great atmosphere in the room, an atmosphere of meadowgreen broadloom growing ankle-deep every place like some kind of cash crop, while the good California light bounces off the black slick table and, about five miles down the room, bounces off another table made from a slab of Portuguese marble. There are books piled on it. books of the doorstopper kind with titles such as Flight and The Movies and The New Yorker ’55-65 Album. Totem books.
Greene asks his son Charles if he has made an appointment to get a haircut and a beard trim, and from there the conversation gets around to youth. Greene says that the Sunset Strip scene is a kind of anarchy. “The police are picking up heroin, everything down there. What is happening to youth? I suppose it's the Bomb. Youth doesn't understand it. Youth fears it. We all fear it. I get a plink right here when I read about swordrattling somewhere.”
Charles says youth doesn't worry about the Bomb. He and Greene start arguing about the effects of the acceleration of technology and at some point Charles asks if Greene knows what an exponential curve is. Greene says he has never heard of the term and he doesn't see what the hell it has to do with . . . with . . .
“Let me put it in terms you'll understand.” Charles says. “I grew up with the Bomb and a lot of other new things and so 1 take them for granted. The Bomb will affect you more than me.”
”1 don't give a damn,” Greene says, sort of moodily. “The Bomb can go off any second and the knowledge of that is what motivates youth today to do all these crazy things."
But Lome Greene, totem father in 50 lands, isn't going to have the last word about youth in Mandeville Canyon. “Dad.” says Charles Greene, “you don’t know what you're talking about.” ★
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