John Derek: “I Have A Terrible Time”
Everybody east of Los Angeles thinks that a movie actor slides through life on a platinum chute. They think he is handed sleek Cadillacs and beautiful blondes—and that the cars never have anything wrong with them and the blondes are never temperamental.
Movie fans seem convinced that their hero moves with the grace of a tiger, and, above all, that he never makes a mistake.
Not me. Wherever I go, my jinx goes right along with me, hand in hand. When I’m appearing at a theatre, my main trouble is getting off the stage. Another trouble I have on stage is that I’m not endowed with the talent to sing or dance or entertain in any way. So I just talk, and pray for a heckler. Because a heckler would give me something else to say. Everybody in show business has hecklers. But not me. My audiences just sit there and wait politely for me to say something amusing, something to take home to the folks.
And it’s worse because I know what people think. Everybody assumes a movie star leads a charmed existence. Maybe some actors really do. But not me. I have my own particular brand of bumbling. Me, I have a terrible time.
I never seem to do the right thing. Once when I was on tour I was set for an interview with a bunch of girls who edited their high-school papers. When I walked into the room I saw about eighty of them sitting very formally around the edges of the room. They looked uncomfortable, and I decided to put them at ease by being informal myself. I strode across the room in what I fondly hoped was a Crosby fashion, grabbed a chair and tossed it in back of me—and sat down squarely on the floor. There was a resounding thump which did decidedly more to put the girls at their ease than it did me.
Even in my own town I have trouble. It used to be when I noticed people smiling at me on the streets I’d smile back. I figured they recognized me, not necessarily as a movie actor, but as someone they’d seen somewhere. It got so I was smiling away at everybody. Pretty soon assorted girls were throwing me looks that killed. So I’ve stopped smiling at strangers, and now people are tagging me a swell-headed snob.
And there are other problems. For instance, we keep a horse and two burros. They always behaved beautifully until the day when visiting friends asked to see our stable. I brought the horse outside the fence and turned around to close the gate. He had always stood there waiting for me. But this day he had to go chasing off over hill and dale. Our friends thought it was pretty comical to watch me chase the horse all over the valley. When I finally caught him and put him back, the minute I opened the gate the two burros bolted and headed in different directions. They had never done it before and haven’t done it since.
I said the burros never made an escape via the gate, but that doesn’t mean they don’t try to get out. I spent days building that fence and an hour after I’d finished, both donkeys got down on their knees and slid under it. The same thing happened with the fence I put up for the dogs. I worked all day at it and when it was finished I went up to the house to call my wife Pati to come see my handiwork. I was pretty smug about it, too. Until we were standing inside the enclosed space and Pati seemed highly amused. “Where are the dogs?” she asked. Then she whistled, and they came bounding over our neighbor’s fence to nuzzle us.
When I was sixteen my father invited some of his friends over to our house to watch me ride. He told them I was big stuff, that I could handle a horse like a cowpuncher. To prove him right I appeared on the scene dressed like a city kid’s dream of a cowboy. I wore the biggest chaps in the history of the West, and my tooled leather boots boasted spurs with rowels as big as sun dials. Then I mounted the horse. He saw my leg coming up over his starboard side, looking like nothing he’d ever seen before, and spurted off before I had a good seat. He dumped me in the middle of Sunset Boulevard. It was Sunday, and the heavy traffic came to a dead stop in order to watch this idiot (me) chase his horse all over the Boulevard. I wasn’t doing a very good job of chasing, either, because I’d never. walked in rowled spurs and they kept tangling with each other and pitching me on my face.
It’s been like that as far back as I can remember. When I was sent to school in rubbers, the sun would shine brightly all day long. I went to other kids’ birthday parties and spilled hot chocolate on their mothers’ lace tablecloths. When I was twelve I went fishing for the first time. I didn’t want to go—I didn’t think I’d like nee and I was right. So of course nobody caught any fish except me. They all sat there on the boat, drooling with envy, while a kept reeling in the fish and wishing I could cut my line or even, as the day wore on, jump overboard.
Something that annoys my wife is my penchant for flying from one new hobby to another, never quite finishing the first one. There are lamps all over the house that I’ve made, but none of them is completed, and there’s one in particular that I wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole. I’m convinced it will blow up some day, and Pati always gives me a rather grim smile before she turns it off at night.
She says if I learned something while I was digging into these hobbies it wouldn’t be so bad, and I guess she’s right. During the past months I’ve been interested in wrestling, so interested that I’ve been working with professionals. Before I knew anything about wrestling, or how to fall, I never got hurt. But last week I proved Pati’s point for her. A couple of guys and I were fooling around in a gym, and I suggested we try a layout. This is a trick where two men hold each other’s wrists and a third guy comes flying through the air and lands on their locked hands. We thought we had it all figured out, but when the third man landed, our arms were pulled downward by his weight, and the other guy and I were thrown together with such force that you could hear our heads collide a mile away. All next day, on the set of “Mission Over Korea,” I had a splitting headache.
In the days when I was crazy about photography I built my own dark room in the house. When I was developing simple jobs, I always remembered to keep the door shut, but the minute I’d completed a tricky chore I was so proud of myself that I figured I’d done the impossible and nothing more was required. So I’d open the door, full of joy, and let the light flood into the room to ruin everything. Even when I went to South America on tour, I pulled a boner. I flew over the Andes Mountains, for the first and probably last time in my life, and figured I might as well give my friends at home the benefit of my expert photography. So I snapped merrily away, and all the time I had the finder clear, filled with breathtaking scenery, but my lens was not. End result: blank film.
Once I tried skiing. Pati and I went up to Big Bear, and when I got to the top of the tow lift, and looked down I didn’t like what I saw. The ski trail below me was worn to a solid sheet of ice. I was standing there figuring how I could get down gracefully, when a little kid about nine years old shot past me like a bazooka shell. It shamed me into thinking seriously of going downhill without the aid of the police and fire departments, and then I saw that the boy had fallen. One ski was sticking up in the air at an extremely odd angle, and I was sure he had broken a leg. There were some other skiers standing around, but nobody seemed disposed to go down and help the kid. So I took a deep breath and pushed off. By the time I got fairly near him all the heroes from the top of the hill had swooshed by me and were waiting. It was a neat little knot of people, and they were squarely in front of me. I tried to fall down, I tried everything I could think of to stop myself but I kept on going, yelling for everybody to get out of the way. Three yards past the boy, I took a spectacular spill, with an audience, as usual. The boy was fine, just tangled up. But me, I wrenched my ankle. That was the last time I’ve been on skis.
I’d always thought I’d like to try hunting. So one fine day a friend and I went up to Ojai, and, armed with shiny new shotguns, tramped into the wilderness for what I expected to be an exhilarating day. The first thing we saw was a bear, and because I was hunting and had a gun, I shot him. Almost immediately a member of the mounted patrol was at my elbow. “Bears aren’t in season, Bud,” he informed me. “They’re not out of season exactly either, but they’re not the thing to shoot right now. If you take him away, I’ll forget the whole thing.” My friend and I spent the rest of the day removing the three-hundred-pound bear from the premises, a chore which took six hours and all our energy. By the time the mighty hunters had lugged him back to the car there wasn’t enough pelt left to make a cap for my little son Russell, let alone a hearth rug.
A few years ago, I bought a sailboat and a pal and I decided to sail from San Pedro to my house in Malibu. By five o’clock, with little wind, we had got only as far as the point where Sunset Boulevard meets the Coast Highway. So we decided we had better anchor the boat and swim ashore and phone our wives to drive south and pick us up. This was all very well thought out, except for the fact that we had to remove our denim pants in order to swim. At the hour when everybody was leaving for home, we walked out of the surf onto the beach, across the wide parking area, and across the highway to a gas station that had a telephone. For this jaunt we were dressed only in our underwear, and if anybody knows what shorts look like when they’re soaking wet and stretched down to the knees, I don’t have to describe the spectacle any further.
My sailing days ended when nobody told me that an anchor pin should be soldered. I had already lost two thirty-dollar anchors by tossing them overboard without any pin at all when at long last I tossed one with a pin, but one not welded to the anchor. This time the boat went aground and was broken to pieces.
Maybe it’s because I get absent-minded but mostly it’s because I obey my impulses and jump into things without sufficient thought. When I see something I want very much, I’m afraid if I don’t buy it immediately, somebody else will. Asa result I buy the first car I see and then later stumble on ten or twelve that are much more beautiful . . . and that work.
It was the same way with the house we bought. I took one look at it and decided that was for us. There were three acres and a tremendous swimming pool and a view over the valley that was great.
“Let’s grab it before somebody else does,” I said, and did, even though we had to buy it on a shoestring. Right up to and including moving day, I was painting the place. That morning Pati asked me to be sure to turn on the heat about five so that by the time she brought the baby over at seven o’clock the house would be warm. She and Russell arrived promptly at seven, and the house had all the warmth of Grant’s tomb. Pati assumed the expression of an aggrieved wife. “Why didn’t you turn on the heat?”
“But I did,” I said, and that’s when we found out that the heater didn’t work. I went out and found one for $700 that I bought right away. (I was afraid somebody else might buy it if I didn’t.)
Three days after we moved in, we noticed the water in the pool was about seven inches lower than it had been when the house was up for sale. It turned out that the previous owner had filled it every day with a garden hose while we were negotiating purchase. So we had it sandblasted and relined and when the bill arrived I lost my enthusiasm for the pool.
In the two years we’ve lived here, we’ve had insurance coverage for everything—except the things that have happened, which include wall-splitting earthquakes. I sometimes wish I could get insurance to cover my bad judgment. The premiums would necessarily be high, but they would pay off for things like the time I decided to save money by renting a tractor myself I wanted to scoop off about a foot of dirt and clear a few dead stumps along one side of our property. I was given an estimate of twenty to thirty dollars for the job. It would cost only twelve dollars to rent a tractor, I learned, so I went into town and got myself a tractor. I had assumed there’d be a trailer to haul it, but there wasn’t, so I jogged along Ventura Boulevard at the smart pace of six miles an hour.
This brought me home within two hours, and then I had to take down part of my fence to get the tractor inside. This done, I gave her the gun, intending to finish the job in short order. The stumps wouldn’t budge. It had looked easy when I’d seen it done in the movies, but somehow I wasn’t getting anywhere. Right under my nose was a brass plate which clearly said, “Do Not Run Except On Level Ground.” Our property is as level as the side of a pyramid, so instead of heading west I found myself going north. Within fifteen minutes, I was so far away I couldn’t even see the spot I wanted to start to work.
Four hours after I had set out from the house feeling like a pioneer, I was back asking the man who had rented me the tractor to come and help. He did a beautiful job, but he took off five feet of sod instead of one foot. It cost me sixty dollars, and it took Tim and me two whole days to smooth off the ground.
Tim is the man who helps around our place, and if I’d listen to him, a lot more would get done in a lot less time. One day I decided we should move a long water pipe 300 feet over to the corral, and Tim promptly got a car jack and slowly but surely was moving the pipe in the desired direction. Then I had to put in my two cents. I figured I’d get it done in a lot less time if I used a big piece of timber as a lever. In one minute I moved the pipe twenty feet and was quite proud of myself until the next heave, which broke the pipe in five places.
Of course, I have a lot to be thankful for; my life with my family on that hilltop is a darned sight better than the days I put in as a bachelor or as Private Derek of the U. S. Army. And I don’t claim that with every sunrise I’m faced with a new batch of obstacles. Many of my days are good ones from start to finish. But in this sample collection of my bumbling, I hope I’ve proved that I don’t float through life on a lily pad.
—BY JOHN DEREK
It is a quote. PHOTOPLAY MAGAZINE AUGUST 1953