Sunday, January 31, 2010

NOIR CITY 5—Richard Erdman Onstage Interview With Eddie Muller

Richard Erdman buffed up his bald pate before his cheering Castro audience, confirming that he—more than anyone—had a sense of humor about the passage of time. After relishing in his "second banana" performance as blowzy alcoholic Delong in Cry Danger (1951), Muller expressed to Erdman that he felt they should have a drink—and promised that would come later—but settled into his on-stage conversation first.

Muller commented that he had seen Erdman "pop up" in "tiny little bit parts" in a lot of the noir films from the 1940s, including a bellhop in
Nobody Lives Forever (1946). So, despite Erdman's presence throughout these films in the '40s, he was really really young in those roles. "Then, all of a sudden, here's Cry Danger—the kid grows up!" Muller found Erdman's casting as Delong interesting because—as most people know—noir is all about this odd post-WWII malaise and the shift in American manhood, which is often played out quite depressingly in these movies; but, Erdman's character Delong is great in Cry Danger for conveying all that but being funny as hell at the same time. Muller asked how Erdman came to be cast in the film?

Erdman responded that it was a great break for him because he had started out as a kid under contract with Warner Brothers, playing "that goofy kid next door in a whole bunch of movies." It wasn't until he reached 20-21 that he began to get away from that typecasting. The role of Delong in Cry Danger largely came about because of Stanley Kramer, who had been a publicist before he became a producer. Erdman was up for a part in Kramer's first film So This Is New York (1948), which he didn't get—the role went to Leo Gorcey, the "Dead End Kid"—but, he and Kramer had kicked it off and so Kramer cast him in his next film The Men (1950), Marlon Brando's first picture. There was a character Leo in that film—for which Leo Gorcey was again being considered—but his audition wasn't Kramer's cup of tea. The role wasn't quite so funny and there was a little more dimension to it. Kramer gave Erdman the part. "Thank heavens!" exclaimd Erdman, "It was the best part in the movie. Everybody in town saw it because they wanted to see who this new fellow [Brando] was. So I got a lot of exposure." Then he was called in for Cry Danger, which was thoroughly exciting for him; he idolized Dick Powell, who had made one of the really good movies of that time: Murder My Sweet (1944).

Erdman's agent was Ingo Preminger, Otto's brother. He was a Russian-Austrian actor who Erdman described as "a big, tall, rather lonely man, and he had a great smile and a veddy funny accent. If I was up for a part, and I got the part, Ingo called me up and said, 'Hello, Dick. Ingo. Ve are rich.' If I didn't get the part, he would call up and say, 'Hello, Dick. Ingo. They are mules.' " One day Ingo called him up and said he'd been chatting with Dick Powell and a young writer named Robert Parrish who had been hired to direct his first movie. Ingo said, "Let's go and meet somebody." They arrived at a tiny messy little office—a chair, typewriters, paper—made striking by the presence of Dick Powell and Jean Porter.

William Bowers was an enormous fan of Cry Danger. Erdman described him as, "A very funny man. Great style, classic act. He had been in that room for 3½ days with bourbon and nothing else—it's true—and he had rewritten that entire script. He put in all the jokes." Bowers looked at Erdman and said, "Erdman, you can't make all those faces people make when they're drinkers. Drinkers are people whose bodies sort of go a little crazy; but, their minds are like steel traps. Do you understand that?" Erdman responded, "I think drinkers probably think that's the way they feel." Bowers retorted, "What a smartass!", turned to Powell and added, "He's perfect."

Working with Bowers was a great experience for Erdman. There's a scene in the trailer between Powell and Erdman where Delong is making himself a sandwich with a glass of milk. The genius of that scene came about in the middle of the night when Bowers phoned him excitedly to suggest, "How about you do this? Make yourself a sandwich. Pour yourself a glass of milk. Put down the sandwich and the milk and pour yourself a drink?" Delong knew he was a drunk and was trying to stop. Bowers was going through the same thing. He even put himself through shock treatments to try to stop drinking.

During WWII, Bowers was stationed at March Field and had to drive back and forth between Los Angeles and Riverside. Driving each way he had to pass a big billboard sign advertising the Forest Lawn Mortuary. Forest Lawn, in those days, was very proud of their sealed caskets and their slogan was: "Don't let seepage spoil your loved ones." This irritated Bowers to no end so one day he phoned Forest Lawn. He said, "I'm Bill Bowers and I'd like to register for a plot." The Forest Lawn representative asked, "How old are you Mr. Bowers?" "I'm 31 years old," he answered. "You're showing a great amount of foresight," the man complimented him and asked what he had in mind? Bowers said, "Well, there's a great big beautiful tree out there in the main part of the cemetery and I'd like to be buried underneath that tree." "That's very expensive there," the man advised. Bowers said, "That's not important. What's important is that I want lots of seepage." There was quite a long pause and the representative of Forest Lawn answered politely, "We pride ourselves on not having any seepage. We can't do that." Bowers said, "Don't worry about it. If that can't be arranged, I'll have myself cremated and arrange to have a plane strew my ashes over that tree." The man said, "You realize that planes cannot fly over Forest Lawn? They disturb the dead." Bowers said, "Don't worry about that. I have a friend who's a glider pilot." The man stated forcefully, "You do that and I'll sue you for every penny you've got." Bowers said, "Don't you think it'd be a little late then?"

Interestingly, William Bowers' son Tony Bowers was in the Castro audience and advised Erdman: "You'll be happy to know that my brother Andy and I put some of my father's ashes at Forest Lawn where they could get plenty of seepage by the tree. It's a famous family story. He took special care to make sure that some of his ashes were saved just to shove them up Forest Lawn's nose."

The only thing that could follow that story, Muller encouraged, would be Erdman's dog story. Erdman obliged that Matt Weinstock, a very successful Los Angeles newspaper columnist, had a dog that he loved very much. He wanted the dog to know that he loved him so every afternoon at four o'clock he would call and let the phone ring 10 times so that the dog would know Weinstock cared. Everyone thought that was very nice, except Bowers, who arranged to be at Weinstock's apartment one afternoon. Sure enough, at 4:00 the phone started ringing. Bowers let it ring a few times and then picked it up and panted.

Muller asked for Erdman's Harry Cohn story. Erdman relayed that Harry Cohn had a brother named Jack and, apparently, Harry and Jack hated each other. Harry purposely got his brother Jack a job in publicity in Colombia's New York office just to keep him away from Hollywood so he wouldn't have to see him. Nonetheless, every year Jack would fly out to Hollywood, finagle his way into Harry's office to foist his opinions about what he thought Colombia had done right or wrong that year, until Harry would have him thrown off the lot. One particular year, Jack made his way into Harry's office and said, "You've done well this year; but, you've got to make a Biblical picture." Harry said, "I hate Biblical pictures." Jack said, "Well, it doesn't matter if you hate Biblical pictures or not, everybody's making Biblical pictures. The King of Kings. The Robe. The Greatest Story Ever Told. Everybody's cleaning up. You've got to make a Biblical picture." Harry said, "Jack, why are you doing this? You're not a religious man. You don't know anything about the Bible. Why are you doing this?" Jack said, "I know a few things." Harry said, "Jack, I'll bet you $200 that you can't even say the first line of the Lord's Prayer." Jack put $200 down on the desk. Harry challenged, "Okay, say it!" Jack recited, "Now I lay me down to sleep…." Harry Cohn threw down $200 and said, "Okay, you win."

Admiring Cry Danger's great cast, Muller wondered if Erdman had any recollections of shooting this film with Dick Powell, Rhonda Fleming and Jean Porter? Erdman definitely remembered Rhonda and her sweaters. "She was a very lovely young lady." Though Jean Porter was also a "nicelooking girl", he didn't have such a great story about her. During the shoot, Porter admitted to him that she was having an affair with Eddie Dmytryk, the director. Eddie was having problems because he was trying to get a divorce from his wife and he was also on his way to jail because he was one of the Hollywood 10. He had a convertible Chevrolet, as did Erdman. Jean called and said that Eddie's wife was trying to take the car before he went to jail and that she needed it. She asked if they could trade cars and Erdman said sure. Nine months later, his agent called and said, "Dick, I think you're enlisted." Erdman said, "What do you mean I'm enlisted?" His agent enquired if Erdman was in any way associated with the Hollywood 10? Erdman admitted he had written a $10 check to the Hollywood 10; but, that was about it. "But somebody said they saw you driving Eddie Dmytryk's car," his agent said. Because of that, Erdman wound up getting enlisted. "Those were stupid times," he muttered in disgust.

Muller then asked for Erdman's Pia Zadora story, which Erdman admitted was funny but cruel. Pia Zadora was a pretty little girl who married a wealthy older man who put up several million dollars to make a movie in which she could star. After it was all over, the movie bombed and Zadora was tagged as a triple threat: "she couldn't sing, she couldn't dance, and she couldn't act." At any rate, Erdman thought she made one other movie and then she went out on the road with a production of The Diary of Anne Frank. She was so bad that—in the third act when the Nazis came looking for Anne Frank—someone in the audience shouted out, "She's in the attic!"

Muller noted that Erdman had worked with some of Hollywood's finest directors, including Fritz Lang and Billy Wilder. He asked what it was like working with Fritz Lang on The Blue Gardenia (1953)? Erdman replied that Lang's reputation preceded him: "A lot of people were afraid of Fritz. I had a wonderful time with him. He had a girlfriend, maybe a wife, who would bring him soup to the set and I would have soup with her every day."

Billy Wilder, on the other hand, was another kind of legend. Being European, his agent Ingo got Erdman a lot of attention with the European directors. He arranged a meeting with Billy Wilder for Stalag 17 (1953), which was enormously successful. Wilder told him in that meeting, "Erdman, you've been very funny in your movies but I don't want any laughs with this part Hoffy; I want no laughs at all in this picture. Everybody else is playing this straight." Erdman said, "Great." He recalled that during the shooting of one of his scenes—about four fifths of the way in—Wilder shouted, "Stop! Shoot it again. Erdman got a titter!" Muller mentioned that, of course, Erdman's agent's brother was in Stalag 17 and that he could only imagine Wilder directing Otto Preminger. Erdman replied that the cast only heard about it since no one incidental was allowed to set foot on the set during Preminger's scenes because no one knew what was going to happen. Preminger and Wilder were friends but Otto had an enormous ego.

Muller asked Erdman which role he was proudest of in his career? Which movie he felt was his best movie? Erdman responded, "Maybe this one" and added that—as an actor—the job market dried up for him as he got along into the '70s and '80s. All he had left were his residuals after 107 feature films and just over 600 television shows. "I have to say," he added, "that your acceptance of me here this evening is the nicest residual of all."

Of those 600 television shows and 100 and some odd features, Muller commented, "you were in a movie called Viagra Falls? I take it this wasn't a method acting experience?"

"If it was," Erdman quipped, "it wouldn't be on the screen."

Muller added he would be remiss not to mention a performance for which he was sure many people in this audience remembered Erdman best, that being an episode of The Twilight Zone called "A Kind of A Stopwatch" (1963). He asked Erdman if he remembered making that?

"Oh yeah, of course, it's
Rod Serling," Erdman answered. Erdman had worked with Serling previously on Saddle the Wind (1958), whose screenplay Serling had written. They got to know each other pretty well on that set and Serling wrote that Twilight Zone script specifically with Erdman in mind. John Rich directed the episode, which he said "was hard because they didn't know what was going on when they shot it. Nobody reacted to me. That was a maniac of a watch; it froze everybody. That episode has gotten a lot of attention and I've received a lot of mail on it."

William Bowers' son Tony then joined Muller and Erdman on stage to add to the tribute to his father William Bowers. "My father used to tell me, 'I grew up on the wrong side of the Bel Air golf course.' " Tony would join his father on his frequent visits to Dick Powell's house. Powell constantly had assignments for his dad; they made six films together. Tony recalled the time when June Allyson—"who was kind of a meticulous neat freak (now she's famous for the Depends diapers commercials)"—had put something in the swimming pool to detect if anyone had urinated in the pool. One of the daughter's friends had decided to urinate in the pool and this cloud—like a shark dying—disseminated in the pool and she was screaming because she thought she had started her period. "Okay, you've opened the door," Eddie interjected, "we can talk about anything now!" Tony Bowers didn't miss a beat and added, "I have wonderful memories of those times."

Admitting his father was an alcoholic, Tony said Bowers had to drink a fifth of scotch in order to shave and had cases of alcohol delivered from the liquor store. But, irregardless, he was a funny guy. He recalled how once his father had cut out eight arrows and taped them to his face, then stumbled to the dinner table complaining about all of his sinus cavities. He remembered his dad driving in his Thunderbird, lighting his cigarette, and throwing the cigarette lighter out the window.

Of related interest:
Noir City Index.

Cross-published on


Anonymous said...

The Zadora story is untrue and only shows that the subject is cruel and one that passes on untrue rumours. Nice guy, that Erdman. Maybe we should make up some story about him.

Michael Guillen said...

Interesting refutation. Thanks for the link.

Anonymous said...

It's too good a story not to tell, even if it's probably about some other actress.