Have vou ever watched a small boy sitting impatiently through a long family dinner? Then you know exactly what Tony Perkins is like. He’s a squirmer. He’s a fidgeter. He’s a restless young man whose moods come upon him swiftly and then, almost before you can grasp their meanings, are gone again. In fact, Tony’s moods pass and shift so suddenly that anyone spending an hour or so with him comes away with a feeling of uncertainty. Is he or isn’t he? Did he or didn’t he? You also may come away feeling faintly foolish, certain that you have been playing “straight man” for some subtle jokes which you have taken seriously. And yet, you can’t be sure.
It’s part of his charm, this mercurial, quixotic, puzzled and puzzling approach of Tony’s to all questions, great and small. And through it all, he’s squirming like the small boy he seems to be beneath the serious, dedicated actor that he is. He twists from side to side during an interview. His fingers travel lightly over the table in front of him, toying with a fork, drumming soundlessly against the cloth, pushing a plate away and then drawing it back again. He ducks his head and peers up at you shyly when he’s asked a question that, for any reason, makes him feel slightly ill at ease or embarrassed.
Later, you do a double-take and realize that he wasn’t ill at ease or embarrassed at all, that Tony Perkins has enough poise and humor and intelligence to feel at ease anywhere, with anyone. You realize that it’s a game he plays, and once you’re on to the game his face breaks up into a sheepish and very boyish grin. Now he’ll tell the truth and play it straight. He promises. And you believe him. But you shouldn’t.
These are the things that make Tony Perkins a fascinating person to be with. You never know where you’re at, but you don’t really care. The important thing, if you’re female, is that you’re with Perkins As elusive as a beam of sunlight though he is, that ingenuous, boyish charm makes him seem not elusive at all. As complicated as the inner workings of an IBM calculating machine though he is, his simple, shy, straightforward way of answering questions makes you sure you know all about him.
It is extremely doubtful that even Tony Perkins knows all about Tony Perkins. The first time I met Tony, he had no trace of a Southern accent. Why should he have? He was born, raised and educated in and around New York and Boston.
The second time I met him, after he had just completed “Fear Strikes Out,” his Southern accent was so pronounced I had to comment on it. I said, “I didn’t know you had a Southern accent, Tony.” Tony’s boyish smile broke across his thin, serious, brown-eyed face. “Ah don’t,” he said.
You see what I mean? So you put down in your book that he doesn’t have a Southern accent and for the next two hours you find yourself fascinated by the Southern accent he doesn’t have. Yet you feel, uncomfortably, that to question him further about it is going to make you sound stupid. You should know why he said he didn’t have when he does have; there is a joke, a special meaning, tucked away in that brief dialogue. You want him to think you got the point of his joke. Later, you think that maybe it wasn’t a joke, after all. You resolve that the next time you see him ‘hings will be different.
They won’t be.
So you begin to find out about the things you can understand—the solid, real things about Tony Perkins which can be discussed without watching them dissolve like bits of gossamer.
With the appearance of his first important picture, “Friendly Persuasion,” Tony made the cover of Life magazine. This is a rare honor for any star and almost unheard-of in the ease of a brand-new male star who had not, after all, been cast in a Technicolor, wide-screen, super-colossal epic. “Persuasion” is a modest film, made by Allied Artists and starring Gary Cooper and Dorothy McGuire. But, except for a smallish role in “The Actress” a couple of years back, it served to bring Tony Perkins to the screen—and to overnight stardom. He was instantly likened to the late James Dean, although he is as unlike Jimmy as it is possible for anyone to be. The “likeness” was based mainly on the fact that Tony, like Jimmy, brings out the mother in every woman, young and old. They yearn to brush back his tumbled hair, to straighten his tie. He has a quality of loneliness, too, such as Jimmy had, but Tony’s isn’t the loneliness of frustration and rejection. It is the loneliness of a man who is searching within himself for all the answers.
That explains those rapidly shifting moods. Whereas Jimmy Dean’s moods settled on him like a black cloud, and stayed there, Tony’s are brief, sometimes unconscious moments of absenting himself from the present scene, the present company. Jimmy was often deliberately rude. Tony is often rude, but doesn’t know he’s being rude, and is instantly contrite when made aware of it.
Or so he says, and you believe him, absolutely. How could you not believe him when he looks up at you with those serious, dark eyes, when he speaks to you in that shy, halting, little-boy’s voice that says, “I don’t know where such stories get started—or,” he adds after a minute’s reflection, “yes, I do, too. I know where one of them got started, because I made it my business to track it down. And,” with a rueful shake of the dark head and an expressive gesture made with thin, long-fingered, strong but graceful hands, “I’m surprised, I really am. I mean, how someone I’d thought of as a friend. . .” His voice trails off, the dark eyes are lowered, and his entire posture becomes one of dejection. He has been hurt, deeply hurt, by this betrayal. He has said so. His voice, his eyes, his bodily motions and expressions have all said so. And you feel as outraged as he. It doesn’t occur to you until later to wonder whether there wasn’t a glimmer of humor in those serious eyes, a hint of a smile hovering about the wide, sensitive mouth.
Was he just acting again, watching his audience’s reaction to his different portrayals of Tony Perkins? Because this boy is a superb actor, make no mistake about that. He can be anything to anyone, at a moment’s notice. This is not insincerity. Rather it is the test of a truly great actor, this ability to drop one coat and put on another before the audience is even aware that a change has been called for.
That’s why Tony only smiles when you ask him what he thinks of being called “a young Gary Cooper.” This is sheer nonsense, since Tony’s acting range is enormous, whereas Cooper, fine actor though he is, has always been limited in the characters he could portray.
“I think Gary Cooper is a great actor,” Tony will tell you. “A very great actor. I studied him every minute of the time we were working together on ‘Friendly Persuasion.’ Not just because I wanted to mimic him and to increase the feeling that I was really his son, but because he’s good. He’s a much better actor than most people have any idea of. So if people want to say I’m like him, why, that’s fine.”
He knows, of course, that when audiences see him in “The Lonely Man,” which co-stars Jack Palance, and “Fear Strikes Out,” which is Tony’s picture and his alone, all references to “a young Gary Cooper” will be forgotten.
In addition to the amazing job of mimicking Gary Tony does in “Friendly Persuasion,” the “young Gary Cooper” tag was hung on him because Tony is tall like Gary (six feet, one and a half inches), and thin. When I last met him he was in New York, trying to get back some of the weight he’d lost; when Tony loses weight, he goes down to skin and bones. And even before he worked with Cooper, Tony had the same slow, almost hesitant way of talking. But, whereas Cooper’s slow speech comes from not being sure what he wants to say, Tony’s is a result of ten things tumbling into his head at once, so that he speaks in starts and stops and jerky phrases because he’s excited and sincere about something.
A physical characteristic which added to the “new Jimmy Dean” legend is the fact that Tony, like Jimmy, wears horn-rimmed glasses when he’s away from the camera and the public. He also wears blue jeans and a white T-shirt, and stirred a mild ripple of talk when it was reported that he likes to walk barefoot down Sunset Boulevard.
“People,” he was told, “are saying that you did it for a publicity stunt.”
“They are?” said Tony curiously. “Why, that’s funny. Why on earth would anyone want to walk barefoot for a publicity stunt?”
“Then why do you pad along Sunset Boulevard in your bare feet?”
“Because I like to walk barefoot, that’s all. Why, I walk barefoot around my apartment all the time, but that’s so little—just about this big—” and here he paused to draw a room of tiny dimensions with the tines of a fork on the white table cloth of Sardi’s restaurant, “that I feel like walking a little farther. So when I have to go a few blocks to do my marketing and pick up laundry or something, I walk barefoot. Now what’s wrong with that?”
Put that way, it seemed, indeed, like a simple, understandable and altogether unpremeditated act. Again, you find yourself feeling indignant toward the people who accuse Tony of rudeness, of seeking publicity, of being off-beat. He went on to explain in a small, hurt voice that he could not see why he had inspired so much criticism. After all, he pointed out, he has no vices. He doesn’t drink, he doesn’t smoke or go to many parties. He is easygoing, affable. He operates strictly on the principle of live and let live. What’s wrong with any of that?
Well, then, what about those stories that he was beginning to get pretty touchy about his publicity and that, for instance, he was cool, to say the least, on the subject of having anyone do a “home layout” of his apartment?
“Look,” he said, and again he went to work with the tines of Mr. Sardi’s fork. “My apartment is this big. It’s been photographed from this angle—” indicating one corner, “from this angle—” digging in to indicate a farther corner, “and from here. Now,” wearily dropping his fork and leaning back in his chair, “if you’d like to send someone in to photograph it hanging from the ceiling, to get a new angle, you’re sure welcome to do it.”
Since Tony was about to move into a somewhat larger apartment, that drastic expedient wasn’t necessary. The move to the bigger apartment was a decision that he made when he realized that he was going to be in Hollywood for a long time to come. He has a Western coming up, “Lone Star,” which he is to do with Henry Fonda. He will make “Desire Under the Elms.” He will go to Italy to make a picture that, so far, is to co-star Silvano Mangano. He has more picture offers than he can even consider, and he is honestly and unashamedly very happy about it.
“After all,” he said, referring to those actors who make a point of sneering at everything relating to Hollywood—until they get a chance to go there—“making movies is a lot better than selling ties in the basement of a department store over the Christmas holidays while you’re waiting for the ‘right’ part in a play.”
Not that there’s anything wrong with working in the basement of a department store, or that Tony wouldn’t do that or anything else he had to do as part of the wonderful, heartbreaking, lonely, stimulating life of being an actor. But he does get a little fed up with the, “Oh, you’re in Hollywood making movies now, aren’t you?” bit.
“You’re supposed to dig your toe into the ground, hang your head and admit to it as though you’d been caught stealing or something. But I just say, ‘That’s right,’ and when they ask whether I wouldn’t like to do a Broadway play, I tell them I certainly would and I hope I will. I’m darned if I see why anybody should apologize for success. We all work hard for it, and why not be glad about it when you get it?”
Tony is carefully making plans, however, that will keep him from settling down permanently in Hollywood. He has bought land on Cape Cod, where his mother, widow of the late actor, Osgood Perkins, spends every summer. Since Tony has a limited amount of money to spend on real estate (the salaries of young actors aren’t nearly so phenomenal as people seem to think), having spent what he had on Eastern real estate automatically prevents him from buying Western real estate. Like most Creative people, he finds the atmosphere in New York much more stimulating than that in Los Angeles. The theatre, the pace, the constantly shifting scenes on any busy New York Street, even the change of seasons, in contrast to Hollywood’s endless sunshine, are all evocative of moods—which actors feed on.
Some of Tony’s pet dislikes in Hollywood are the ritualistic barbecues, where a whole day is wasted cooking enormous amounts of food that no one really wants and where the talk is nearly always limited to food and cooking. Tony is a man who hates to cook and who is usually too busy or preoccupied to remember to eat. He is on guard, too, against that day which comes to so many actors. once determined to keep one foot in New York, many ex-Broadwayites suddenly find themselves looking about and murmuring, “After all, what’s wrong with just settling down out here in Hollywood? After all, where else could you get all this?”—gesturing to the swimming pool, to the flowers that bloom all year long, to the cloudless blue sky and the lush greenery. “We have everything out here,” they tell themselves comfortingly, “and the most wonderful part of all is that we get paid so much money for enjoying it.”
There’s very little chance that Tony Perkins will fail prey to that kind of thinking. He demands too much of himself, for one thing, and besides, everything in his background is opposed to it. Tony was born in New York City twenty-four years ago. His father, Osgood Perkins, was a matinee idol of the Twenties. Tony’s mother was a Wellesley College graduate and a socialite. After the death of his father, Tony’s mother moved to Brookline, Massachusetts. He attended Browne and Nichols, a fashionable preparatory school for boys, and was slated to enter Harvard College. These plans were interrupted when it was discovered that Tony could not quality for the entrance examinations. Meanwhile he had already indicated a strong preference for the theatre over work of any other sort, or over study, for that matter. He went back to New York, where he enrolled in Columbia University as a history major. During the summers he worked in summer stock. One of his plays was “The Actress.”
Tony was a junior at Columbia when M-G-M bought the play. Tony applied for the role he had played on the stage and, to his surprise, got it. You may recall that the movie starred Jean Simmons and Spencer Tracy. Tony hopes you do not recall very much more about it. He would prefer that it had never happened.
When Elia Kazan was casting for “East of Eden,” Tony went after that role with all his heart, but that other young actor named Jimmy Dean was chosen for the part. Tony ended up back on Broadway, playing the part of the young boy in “Tea and Sympathy” which his good friend, John Kerr, had played before him and subsequently played in the filmed version.
“I haven’t been out of work more than a week in years,” Tony recalls of his acting career. “When I wasn’t on the stage I was getting some good TV roles. Then, with ‘Friendly Persuasion,’ my movie career really got rolling. I guess you might say I’ve been uncommonly lucky.”
This was not said with false modesty, because Tony pretends no modesty about his career. He’s shy, but he also knows that he’s a good actor even while he drives himself relentlessly to be a much better one. His personal life is singularly free of romantic involvements and possessions. His dates are confined to the young actresses with whom he has made films, namely Elaine Aiken and Norma Moore. He seldom appears at a Hollywood party. When he does, he stays just long enough to make his manners to his host and hostess, then he’s gone. His room in the Chateau Marmont, where he lived until he had completed his third important movie, was bare of all but the absolute necessities of furnishings—a bed, a radio that played constantly, an easy chair, a table. And while he is not a sloppy dresser, he finds that he can get by nicely with one suit, one sport jacket, one pair of slacks, one pair of shoes, a couple of pairs of blue jeans and a few shirts.
The day I lunched with him at Sardi’s he was wearing a brown sport jacket and gray slacks. Few heads turned to stare at him, since “Persuasion,” his first starring movie, still hadn’t been released. But when we got outside half a dozen teenagers came swarming up to ask for his autograph. Tony cheerfully obliged.
“The next time you come to New York,” I predicted, “you’ll be famous. You won’t be able to walk half a dozen steps without autograph hounds on your trail. How will you feel about that?”
He shoved his hands deeply into his trousers pockets, ducked his head and looked up at me in that quizzical, humorous way that, before the year is out, he will have made as famous as Dean made his slouching walk and Brando made his mumbled speech. “Why,” said Tony Perkins, gently, “I don’t know, but the chances are I’ll like it just fine.” We shook hands and I stood there a minute, watching him go. A young man who looks even taller than he is because he’s so thin, who seems to unwind when he stands up, as though he came in sections, and who combines a rare gentleness with an equally rare inner strength. Brown-haired and brown-eyed, with a boyishness that’s clung to him all his life and had everyone, including his schoolteachers, wanting to mother him, Tony Perkins is going to be this year’s romantic blockbuster.
Watch him closely. You haven’t seen his like on the screen in a long time. But you’ll be seeing him, we promise, for a long time to come.
DON’T FAIL TO SEE: Tony Perkins in “Friendly Persuasion” and “The Lonely Man.”
It is a quote. PHOTOPLAY MAGAZINE JANUARY 1957