On the Screen and On The Air

That year my beard and I were “beat” background in a Greenwich Village bookshop (back to the scene of my triumphant walk-by in Acres and Pains) in Diary of a Bachelor.

Diary of a Bachelor

Most of the time during the shooting I sat there actually reading a book, Joseph Heller’s Catch 22.

Somewhere in there I was also an extra in the short-lived TV series Mr. Broadway, starring Craig Stevens, the former Mr. Lucky.

Later that year I joined an all-star cast in a TV screenplay by Rod Serling, Carol for Another Christmas, directed by Joseph Mankiewicz. This anti-war re-working of the Dickens story had an underpinning trying to promote the United Nations. Among the stars were two actors who’d already worked together in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, Sterling Hayden and Peter Sellers. Eve Marie Saint, Ben Gazzara, Robert Shaw, and Pat Hingle were there, too.

Who did I play? No one special. Just the ghost of a soldier killed in World War I, standing in a long line of similar ghosts on a ship deck. No dialogue. This was all filmed on sets in a Roosevelt Field former airplane hanger at Michael Myerberg Studios.

carol for another Christmas

Oddly, I find my name listed in the Internet Movie Data Base (imdb) as a character. 

And now, having searched for a photo on line, I see that my name was in TV Guide. That is so odd. On the other hand, it just occurred to me that my name couldn’t be entirely unknown; I’d been a New York radio program host for a short while.

The effects people filled the set with fog, spraying water on massive hunks of dry ice. The soggy air was permeated by the soft smell of the dissolving carbon dioxide. In my long, heavy wool coat I felt damp and chilled, as if truly on board a looming troop ship outward bound, as in the play of that name. To this day, encountering that smell again, it’s as if I never left the deck.

For two days, all of us ghosts did was hover in the gloom while Hayden and Steve Lawrence as the Ghost of Christmas Past, talking about war, walked the line of us ghosts. I never saw the other stars. And they never saw me. How could they with all that fog?

There’s no denying that my facial hair was some kind of asset. In early 1965 I was actually cast in a speaking role in a movie Tracks In the Sand. My role: a saxophone-playing leader of a jazz quartet.

Tracks in the Sand

Not that I could play the sax, but that wasn’t considered important. I had the look. A struggling musician played by Marco St. John was auditioning to join the quartet. In two pages of dialogue my part called for me to tell the kid that he didn’t have what it takes.

I tried playing the saxophonist as cool and understated. You know, laid back. The director wanted me to play the scene angrily. But I didn’t think a jazz musician would talk that way. Like cool, a common stereotype, forgetting such fiery guys as Charles Mingus. I never gave the director what he wanted. As if he didn’t have the right. Jesus Christ! What a smart way to foster a film career.

I’ve never found anything online about the movie; I don’t know how it turned out, nor remember who was the director, or the names of the characters.

I’ve just discovered, during an on-line search, that there’s a CD of jazz from a movie of that name from 1962 with Yusef Lateef, Jimmy Knepper, Richard Williams, Tommy Flanagan, and Max Roach. Maybe that’s the same film but the date doesn’t match. I was not bearded in 1962; I was in 1965.

A movie from that year which is still around and in which I appeared is Across the River, starring famed Broadway character actor Lou Gilbert. He played a goat-owning rag picker, Obadiah, who sells goat milk to prosperous people. He turns up at a lavish party given by one of his clients who, at one point, tells him “that guy over there is a famous beat poet.” He motions towards me. Aha! The beard again.

Also as an extra, I was visible as a juror in Peter Falk’s pre-Colombo, short-lived TV series The Trials of O’Brien.

At last, though, I had a chance to play a speaking role in a radio drama, my long-deferred dream. Not that there were many opportunities left. Radio drama had pretty much faded into silence, resonating mostly in people’s memories. But the ABC radio network came up with a fresh series of concise radio plays, broadcasting five days a week at 5 p.m. Eastern Time, hence called Theater 5.

Current info online reports that these were scripts designed to take up about 21 minutes within half-hour blocks, also containing ABC news and commercials. Evidently there were 260 of them running from August 3rd, 1964, to July 30th, 1965.  http://www.archive.org/details/OTRR_Theater_Five_Singles/ 

Having sent an audition tape, I was called in to perform in what I was told by director Ted Bell would be one of the last shows. It was the only role I had in the series. I played an emotionally upset man trying to get help from a doctor. In the first read-through Bell said, “Break him up, Gordon.” Even though the phrase was new, I realized that he meant not to read the lines straight, i.e., not “Doctor, I’m really feeling terrible.” But rather, “uh…Doctor…I…I’m really feeling terrible.”

We had just one read-through before taping. After all, we were professionals. And besides, it was on tape. Re-takes were possible. So was editing.

I haven’t been able to find that show among the final downloads going back to early 1965. Four of the still missing ones were in June of ’65; I imagine mine is one of those.

jackson-beck w name 2

Who was in it with me? No idea. But the series regularly featured some of the most famous radio actors whose names I knew as a thrilled, listening kid: Jackson Beck, whose wife, Bea, would eventually become my agent. Leon Janney (Allison’s Janney’s dad), Brett Morrison (The Shadow), Santos Ortega, and George Petrie.

Fred Foy

And there was also Fred Foy.  

Now there’s a legend for you. Starting back when I was in my teens he was the announcer at WXYZ in Detroit saying, “A fiery horse with the speed of light, a cloud of dust, and a hearty, ‘Hi! Yo! Silver!’ The Lone Ranger!”

That silvery voice emanated from a guy who looked like a star. He towered over me, hovering around six feet, three inches. At age 44 his wavy long hair and his classy clothes gave him the glamour of the golden radio days of yesteryear. Those days before the speeding lights of television eclipsed the sounds of drama emanating from little square boxes, and all the scenery and all the action unfolded in our minds’ eyes.

By 1965 Fred was still most often unseen, a seemingly anonymous staff announcer for ABC, on the radio and TV networks, and local New York stations. Where I would join him about a year  later.

I’m a movie co-star.

Ever since those last days at WNCN in 1960, Joe Marzano and I had been friends. We’d hang out together at his home on Long Island. His parents’ home really. His father owned and operated an Italian restaurant in East Rockaway, Cappy’s. Joe had his own room upstairs. Free room and board.

His walls were covered with stills from movies, especially those of Orson Welles, whom he idolized. Many photos were from his own movies, going as far back as when he was in his mid-teens, some 8 mm and some 16 mm…when he could afford them. They were not “home movies” but attempts to create and develop genuine narratives. By the time we’d met, some of his short features had played in New York venues featuring experimental films, although his were not wild and far out. Some were imaginative and skillfully filmed. One had received a lot of praise, a simple little piece called From Inner Space, about wire hangers gone berserk. Joe’s buddy Bob James (not the jazz fusioneer) had the principal human role.

Merle Louise w name

Bob and another buddy, Joe Regina, were married to the Passarelli twin sisters. Bob made decent money as a wedding photographer and gave his clients a special deal. He would also sing at the weddings for a reasonable rate. And he had a good voice. He even got a significant singing role in an off-Broadway production of Bock and Harnick’s She Loves Me in which Merle Louise had a leading role. Louise became much celebrated for her powerfully moving performance as The Beggar Woman in the original Broadway production of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd. Bob often turned up in supporting roles in Joe’s movies.

1965 was the year Joe decided to make his first feature-length movie, starring himself, as usual, but also giving me a major role. It was Man Outside.

You can read about it at the Internet Movie Data Base (imdb). Joe publicly described it as being about three young men “caught in the vortex of this…country of the blind…men outside the world at large, (who) seem to belong nowhere…they reject the life of both square and beat as anti-life…each senses the profound loss of something he has never had…” It sounds like it could have substance, doesn’t it? I haven’t seen it in many years but tend to believe it’s not all that brilliant, despite Joe’s being a close friend.

My role: Troy Dedseed. Marzano always had a flair for coming up with obvious names in his scripts, perhaps designed to be ironic or amusing.

I remember very little, except that Troy gets beaten up and killed by a street gang. During the filming Joe got a bunch of local high school students to play the gang. They weren’t good at faking punches. They actually hit me. Joe had to yell “cut” a few times to tell them not to really punch. At least when he yelled “cut” they knew that they weren’t supposed to pull out and use knives. I wasn’t seriously hurt.

And there was also a scene with Troy making love with Lucy, played by one of Joe’s regulars, Beverly Baum, a generously proportioned woman around our age. Although I actually had lusted for her, I was too inhibited to show that, especially with Vene sometimes on the set.

“Gordon,” Joe said. “Come on. Look like you’re enjoying this! …uh… try thinking of her as one of those great Chinese meals you’re crazy about.” That helped. Of course, it also meant that in the re-takes I could do it all over again, given the legend that Chinese meals never fill you up.

When the film was finished, attending the first screening, I didn’t admire it that much. Nor my own performance.

Joe was always trying to come up with money and ways to make any films he could. You can read much more about him from Ray Young at http://home.comcast.net/~flickhead/Joe-Marzano.html.

Cool It Baby

He refers to Cool It Baby. 

In that instance, Joe convinced the producers of the original film, which was going nowhere, that he could improve it. With clever editing and some new dialogue, Joe turned the original into an off-the-wall send-up of chintzy “exploitation” movies of the ’60s. Those were soft-core porn at a time when hard-core was never shown in public movie theaters. The most such films could be was suggestive while staying devoid of nudity. Legend had it that such features would attract lonely men to the audience while they sat in large raincoats covering their furtive masturbation while being turned on by the screen images.

Marzano got word that a small movie theater in Queens had booked the movie, so he, Regina, James, their wives, Vene, and I went to see it. It looked as if we nearly outnumbered the rest of the audience, scattered widely from each other in that dreary location, leading Joe to posit that some of them were raincoat-men trying to be as invisible as possible.

We howled at the funny bits, probably more aware of them than anyone else there. But about mid-way during the screening, the screen suddenly went blank; then the house lights came on. While the other patrons quickly scrambled towards the exits, we sat there laughing. Then we found the usher who was assembling his cleaning equipment, a broom and dust pan. “What happened?” producer/director Joe asked the usher.

“Oh, the projectionist had to go home. He got a call from his wife that he said was urgent,” the usher unapologetically explained. “Why don’t you come back tomorrow night? I think we’re showing it then…No. No. Wait a minute. That’s wrong. This was the last night.”

More laughs from us. Joe: “This is so typical of my fate. I’m doomed to be unknown for the rest of my life. Curses.”

Venus in Furs

But he gamely went on. He made another feature, Venus in Furs, whose title and not much else was derived from a novel of that name by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, the source of the word “masochism.”  

I had a supporting role during my acting career days. Not being convinced that this would turn out to be any good, I used a pseudonym: Gresham Law. I’ve since seen this movie. It’s dreadful.

Marzano loved to talk about his ideas for his own movies. But, being family-supported, never having to seriously earn a living, he wanted everything easy. He could never stir himself to actually write the scripts for his movie ideas. One he came up with, though, intrigued me. I proposed to do the actual writing using mutual ideas. We called it The Leather Girls, having seen, a few years before, The Leather Boys, a 1964 British movie about motorcycle-riding gay guys.

Our plot: tough young women form a motorcycle gang and go around robbing easily aroused men such as a movie theater manager and a diner owner (deliberately evoking Hemingway’s The Killers). There was an implication of lesbianism. But the main idea was to portray empowered women exploiting male lust.

Joe and I paid a lawyer to incorporate us as Markon Films (MARzano-KAHN). Then, to secure ownership of the concept and of the treatment synopsis I’d written, we used the “poor man’s copyright.” I mailed myself a copy in an envelope not to be opened unless proof of ownership became an issue.

Until I started writing this memoir, I assumed that the project went no further and threw away the faded, decades-old, soiled envelope. However, researching Joe online, I discovered that he’d made a version of the movie in 1978 without ever telling me during that year, nor while I was still in New York. Nor later. Actually I don’t much care. It certainly never became a hit nor an award-winner. Characteristically, a principal role was named Patty Melt, with Joe still coming up with silly names.

Gresham Law had a comeback, though. I used the name in a later incipient stage production called Byronic Readings. A German man, Peter Grafmann, was convinced that Byron’s work was so powerful that Peter’s selections from that work as staged readings would rock the theatre world. Self-financing, he hired actor Steve Rubin and me as the cast. Steve and I tried to improve it in rehearsals by ad-libbing scenes portraying actors who got angrier and angrier with the director, as if stirred by Byron’s famed furies. Peter, rather than cringing or feeling abused, believed we were making the show better. I think we intimidated him. After a few backers’ auditions and no takers the most Peter could do with his project was to get WBAI to allow him to broadcast it.

Within a few years I’d be heard on WBAI again, not as Gresham Law, but as myself. Hosting my own radio programs.

That was the year that I rang down the curtain on my attempts at a real acting career. In seven years (with a 20-month intermission at WNCN) I’d had 13 stage roles, 10 off-Broadway, three in summer stock; only two of the 13 could be considered big. What else? Actually roles in three movies, all of them obscure. I’d been an extra in five genuine movies and four TV shows, with a tiny role in another. There was one role in a professional radio play.

Why did I not get consistent regular work? The most obvious answer is that that is what happens to most would-bes. There could be further explanations.

For one thing, I had no obvious, distinctive physical presence, despite the beard. And, inside that almost bland surface, I did not brim with memorable personality. I had always gravitated to character roles, where I could take on a specific identity, doing that better than playing someone like myself—whoever that was—because that was not clear to me until a few years later when I started therapy with a psychologist.

Still another factor could be that, coupled with not much self-assurance, I had never learned or seriously tried to aggressively, consistently promote myself as an actor. As if I thought what I had to offer was enough. That resembles, too, how I hid behind a WNCN microphone enjoying my music, sitting there in the isolated privacy of a studio in a darkened building during the New York night. I hadn’t socialized with the staff. Just as I had rarely hung out with other actors making connections to a supportive, valuable network.

Income? Trivial amounts from the above. What had I done to keep me and Vene in pasta sauce, low-budget wine, professionally dry-cleaned clothes, and make it possible to live in a small one-bedroom walk-up apartment? Actually what made that possible was noticeable intermittent earnings working for Nicolo Marionettes for five of those years. I suppose I could have kept on doing those puppet shows. But, having passed age 30, it looked as if I should get more serious.