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The Day A Star Was Born—Nick Adams

The day a star was born I had more troubles than a Ubangi with chapped lips. The wolf wasn’t at the door only because a few days prior Dennis Hopper and I had let him in and he starved to death. Dennis was sharing my mountainside home with me when I first heard about “The Last Wagon.” We had to siphon the gas out of our neighbor’s truck in order to have enough for me to get to the interview at the 20th Century-Fox studio. It’s about twenty-five miles from my mountain house in La Crescenta.

Things had been very bad at the studios and, with the exception of a half-day making a razor commercial, I hadn’t worked for four months. This was hard to take. I had just made seven pictures in a row since being discharged from the service in January, 1955. Three of them had been Academy Award nominees (“Mr. Roberts.” “Rebel Without a Cause” and “Picnic” ) and the other four were all done at major studios. I had received good reviews on all of them and had built up a fair reputation as an actor. Yet over a period of four months I had gone on only two interviews concerning a possible role in a picture.

Dennis was on a twelve-week layoff from Warner Brothers where he is under contract, and so there we sat, burning all the wooden clothes hangers to keep warm. Just the other day, when I cleaned out the fireplace, I found over three hundred metal hooks which had not burned with the rest of the hangers.

I don’t want you to think we had been extravagant to be so broke. Sure, we had both worked hard and often; but we were broke when the lull at the studios started because we both send money home to our folks. In my case, I have a brother who is studying to be a doctor in Europe, and I’ve been sending him quite a bit of loot. Dennis had had some tremendous doctor and dentist bills, beside the very high payments on his new Austin Healy sports car. As for me, the house had run into more expense than I’d anticipated, and instead of about a hundred dollars a month for upkeep I was shelling out about two hundred and fifty a month. When I bought the house I hadn’t figured on taxes (both county and state), insurance, electricity, water, repairs, and a seventy-five-dollar phone. bill every month. See, unfortunately both Dennis and I at the time had girls we were sweet on who lived ’way out in Inglewood, which is even farther off than Hollywood. So if we got off the phone in less than an hour when talking to them, it was something to celebrate. The bills were so high I was thinking of having the phones taken out and replaced with tom-toms.

Well, as you can see, something had to happen real soon or rigor mortis was going to set in.

It was a very sunny Tuesday morning. About eleven A.M. to be exact. Dennis had just found a small cigarette butt after scraping through the fireplace on his hands and knees and I was in the kitchen trying to salvage the coffee grounds we had already used about a dozen times so that we could have some coffee.

While I was making the coffee Dennis walked down the road to get the mail; by the time he got back I had breakfast ready. We sat in the front room and opened our mail while we consumed the most important meal of the day, which consisted of the weakest coffee you can imagine, a small dish of peach ice cream (which I had found in the freezer. We had forgotten all about it), a small jar of marinated herring a friend had left a few months before, and some stale potato chips on which Dennis insisted on pouring pancake syrup.

The first letter I opened was from the Southern California gas and electric company; they sent a real cute note saying that unless they received a check for $117.35, which was now the accumulated bill, they would shut off our gas and electricity. The next letter was from the phone company, who also said that unless we paid them $78.22 within five days we might have use for those tom-toms.

Dennis insisted on opening the large brown envelope I had received from the Warner Brothers office in New York. I let him because I already knew what was in it. Warner Brothers, in New York, always sends me the movie magazines that have a story on me, or pictures. All of a sudden Dennis burst out in a laugh that made even the marinated herring jump. He kept laughing and I kept asking, “What’s so funny?” Then, as he fell off the chair from laughing so much, he threw me the magazine. After reading the page that had my picture and a picture of my house I also fell on the floor laughing.

You must admit it is a little funny, when you’re in a predicament like the one we were in, to open a magazine and see your picture and your house and the caption saying: “A shot of handsome Nick Adams, his beautiful mountainside home and beautiful sports car. Nick, the fastest-rising of all the new stars, is no longer the poor boy from Jersey City whose father was a coal miner. Nick now has everything every young man dreams about. Money, a car, a beautiful home, dates the most beautiful girls, eats at the finest restaurants, and wears the best clothes. And his career is zooming. . . . ”

My career was zooming all right—right into the ashcan. That is, if I could have afforded an ashcan. They were right about two things: I did have a car and a home. But as for money, and dating the most beautiful girls, I didn’t have enough money to get gas so I could just go and look at all the beautiful girls. I had been away from the finest restaurants for so long that I had forgotten there were such things as appetizers and desserts and finger bowls. And as for clothes, Dennis and I had a small but complete wardrobe—one suit with ten changes of handkerchiefs.

So you can see that both Dennis and I did have something to laugh about. The story had been written about eight months before when things were really going smooth. Times had changed.

I stopped laughing when I looked at my next letter. It said: “Unless your yearly taxes of $124.55 are received at this office within fifteen days your property will be sold to the state. . . .”

Dennis also stopped laughing at that one. The fun was over. Inside I began to feel a little panicky, like the first time, when I was in the Navy, that I saw a MIG flying low over the water, heading right for us with his wing machineguns open full blast. Both times I wanted to run, just run. But back there on the ship in the Pacific there was no place to run to, so you just froze and waited. What you were waiting for you never knew, but only one of two things could happen. Either you lucked out or you didn’t. In my case I’ve been lucky. And my luck didn’t let me down that morning six months ago either.

I let the phone ring only once. The agent on the other end was happy to hear I had given my other agent the gate the day before. This new agent on the phone, by the name of Henry Willson, told me that 20th Century-Fox was going to make a picture in just a few weeks called “The Last Wagon” and that I would be perfect for the second male lead after Richard Widmark. Actually it was the part of the heavy, he said, and they wanted a name for it but then decided to give it to a newcomer if they could get a good enough actor.

He said that if I signed a contract with him he would go out and work real hard to get me a screen test for the role. While fighting Dennis away from the phone I told Mr. Willson okay. Dennis was going out of his mind because he wanted to know what was going on. He hadn’t seen a smile like that on my face for four months—except for a few minutes before when we nearly killed ourselves laughing at our own predicament.

Willson went on to say that the producer and director of the picture already had a considerable amount of interest in me; they had seen “Picnic” and liked me very much. The star of “Wagon,” Richard Widmark, had also seen “Picnic” and thought the funniest scene in the picture was when Bill Holden bounced the basketball off my head. So he also liked me. Later I found out that there is a scene in “The Last Wagon” where Comanche Todd (Widmark) hits Ridge (that’s me) right over the head with a chain. I guess he figured I’d be good for the part because Bill Holden had already toughened my head.

But seriously, I was never so excited in my life. Not only did I need the money to get out of hock, but also this role of Ridge was a starring part. Above all, I was excited about the fact that it was a very dramatic and heavy role. I had been playing these comical young kid parts and none of the studios would consider me for anything dramatic. It seemed like I was destined to play comedy forever.

I told Mr. Willson, “Listen, Daddy-o, you get me a screen test for this part and I guarantee you I’ll get the part. I don’t care if I have to test against Marlon Brando, Laurence Olivier and Gregory Peck combined. I need the money, the part, and I’m going to get it. I’m not going to take no for an answer.”

The agent said, “Okay, keep your shirt on. Stick around the house. I’ll be calling you this afternoon and let you know what happens when I talk to them.”

After hanging up, I turned to Dennis: “Man, if you ever prayed, you better start now. Everything, man, just everything is solved if I get this part. Not only will about ten grand, but I’ll it be worth break out of the kid roles!”

Well, didn’t do anything but stare at the clock, then at each other, back to the clock, back at each other. To be very frank with you, I was getting pretty tired of looking at both Dennis and at that clock.

I couldn’t watch that second hand go around one more time. It was now 3:30 P.M. and Willson hadn’t called yet.

It was just a short ring at first, and we looked at each other and wondered if it would ring again or if it was just our imagination. It seemed like we waited a million years. Then it rang again and I nearly tore the phone out of the wall grabbing it so quickly. It was Willson.

“Get over to 20th right away and see William Hawks, the producer, and Delmer Daves, the director. They’re expecting you.”

I didn’t even answer him. I just dropped the phone and leaped out the door and into my car. I knew as soon as I touched the starter there wasn’t any gas in it. Dennis was just coming out the front door as I jumped out of the car and yelled to him, “Find an empty can someplace, quick.” I knew where the small rubber hose was because just a few days before I had found it in the back yard.

By the time I got the hose from the | garage Dennis was running toward me with an empty can. My wonderful neighbor (God love him) who lives about a hundred yards from my house didn’t even hear us as we siphoned about two gallons of gas out of his truck and then made the hundred-yard dash uphill to my place in six seconds.

As I was pouring, Dennis asked how I was going to make it all the way to 20th and back on two gallons of gas. I didn’t have much time for talking but he understood when he saw me load into my car’s trunk all the empty Coke, Seven-Up, beer, ginger ale, and rootbeer bottles that had been sitting in the back yard for about six months. I just waved as I took off down the mountain, and in one motion was at the bottom of the hill, cashed the bottles, filled the tank (for the first time in three months) and made it to the Fox lot, got up the stairs to the producers’ office and collapsed in the waiting room. I did all this in forty-five minutes. The normal time would have been an hour and a half. My father always said, “Make the hay while the sun shines, Nick.”

I told the secretary I had an appointment with the producer and director and that I was here and what was she waiting for. I’d been waiting at least five seconds. She told me that they would be with me in just a few minutes. I wanted to sock her but I figured that I would be wrong and that I really had better slow down and net let them think I’m too eager.

I got my second breath by the time they were ready for me. As I entered the office where Mr. Hawks and Mr. Daves were, I commenced to give the greatest performance of my career. Did you ever try to act independently wealthy, secure and very successful while keeping one pants leg down over your sock because there are three holes in it? And did you ever try to be reserved and quiet and poised while the producer and director told you all about the story and how great the part is and do you think you can do it? I wanted to jump to my feet and say, “Are you kidding? This part was made for me. In fact, there is no one else in this town who can play the part better!”

All this was going over and over in my mind as they talked. I wasn’t listening to a word they were saying. I just kept thinking how badly I wanted and needed this part. And how I couldn’t say to them what I was thinking. I had done that at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer when I was up for the Rocky Graziano story and I didn’t get the part—because it looked like I was too desperate for it, and a lot of people think you can’t act when you’re desperate. I’ve got news for them.

At that particular moment, watching those two gentlemen, not hearing a word they were saying, just watching their lips and hands move in describing the part to me—yes, at that moment, I could have made any living actor look like a popcorn thief. I could have conquered the world—because I was desperate, like I’d never been before. Finally I heard what it was that the director, Mr. Delmer Daves, was saying: “We should like to make a test of you for the part of Ridge on Thursday. Here’s the test scene. Be in make-up about 9 A.M. . . .”

My hand took the test scene from the director and my tongue formed the words, “Thank you,” and.my legs moved me to the door, down the steps, and to my car. I was still numb as I pulled into the driveway of my house. Dennis came running out. He had to reach in, shut off the motor and open the door for me. He kept asking me what was wrong, but I just couldn’t say anything. Finally he saw the test scene in my hand and realized they were going to test me. He yelled, “Snap out of it, you jerk, they’re going to test you!” Then he ran inside the house and the next thing I knew I heard “Conquest” blaring over my hi-fi speaker. Dennis had turned it up full blast and my body began to tingle. I began to smile. Next I saw him standing in the doorway with the test scene between his teeth, a cork- screw in one hand and a bottle of champagne in the other. He was opening the bottle and mumbling something about finding more empty bottles in the neighbor’s back yard. That’s how he got the champagne, because he knew I was going to get the test. (My poor neighbor, God love him.) I got out of the car, ran to Dennis, grabbed the champagne from him, took a mouthful, he grabbed it back from me, spilling it all over me, he took a mouthful, I grabbed it back from him and all the time we were laughing.

Both Dennis and I knew that if I was given a chance to make a screen test for the part I wouldn’t goof. We both knew that I had the part and all my problems were solved the moment the director handed me the test scene back at 20th Century-Fox. Because, as I said, watch out for anyone who’s desperate. You get power that you never dreamed you had. I was nearly washed over the side during a rough sea in the North Pacific once. And as I slid along the steel deck on my stomach, being carried by a giant wave closer and closer to the railing, where I could easily slide through into a very big, lonely and rough ocean, my hands and fingers were trying to dig a hole into the steel deck. Later, when they wrapped my hands in bandages, they looked like raw meat. I did something that under other circumstances would have been impossible: I kept from being washed over by clinging to flat, hard, slippery, wet steel. That’s what you can do when you’re desperate.

What a scene! Dennis and me jumping all over the place drinking and spilling champagne, “Conquest” blasting on the hi-fi set. Then I call up Natalie Wood and tell her the great news, and tell her to cancel everything to come up to my house because we’re celebrating.

Well, after much celebrating it was again quiet on my mountain. Natalie had brought her girlfriend with her and the four of us had built a fire in the fireplace (with wood from my neighbor’s back yard, naturally). Natalie had lent us some money and Dennis and Nat’s girlfriend had gone down to the bottom of the hill and come back with hamburgers, potato chips, Coke and all that sort of jazz. We laughed and sang and made big speeches and Dennis kept eating all the food. I had forgotten that he was a growing boy. Well, as I said, it was again quiet on my mountain, because Nat and her girlfriend had left after Dennis and I fell asleep.

I woke up about five in the morning and found Dennis sleeping in front of the fireplace. I woke him up and asked him if I had been dreaming or if I really had got the test. He grunted “Yes,” and I made my way back to my bedroom and fell asleep, after saying, “Thank you, God.” That was the day a star was born.

The next six days came up with a lot of excitement and experiences, too. Things I’ll never forget, like the night before the test. How Dennis and I sat in the bathroom from about 8 p.m. until 4 a.m. (because the bathroom was the only warm spot in the house, because of the water heater) discussing the part and the test and the way it should be done. How I was real confident the next day during the test and what a really good actress tested with me (an unknown girl by the name of Stephanie Griffin), and how glad I was when I heard she got the part. Then another disappointment—my agent told me that we would have to wait until Monday, to give them time to make up their minds.

What a miserable, dragged-out weekend that was. Monday never seemed to come. Then Monday finally did come. I leaped at the phone when it rang. And they wouldn’t know until Tuesday! That was bad enough, but on Monday I found out that everyone else had been set and signed for their roles. It took me a while to get the message my agent was trying to send me—that the thing that was holding us up was money, and if I didn’t accept their offer, I wouldn’t get the part.

I guess I really blew my top then. I grabbed up the phone and more or less gave them the idea of what I thought about them and their offer. Then I sat there beside that phone that had more or less run my life for me for the last few days. I looked out the window and could. see Dennis sitting out there taking a sunbath, and I knew he was just as nervous and edgy as I was but he was just trying to keep busy doing nothing so he could stay out of the way. This was a decision that I had to make all by myself.

Then the front doorbell rang. It was the man from the telephone company. He looked real sick and real sorry, standing there in the doorway telling us he had to take out the phone. I asked him if I could make just one more call and he said sure. In fact, he looked relieved and a little happy thinking that maybe he could help me. I dialed the number, wondering if it was too late, but luck was on my side.

“You’ve made the right decision, Nick,” my agent told me seriously. “Right now, money isn’t important. Someday, maybe, it will be, but right now, it isn’t. The important thing is that this is a part you can make come to life on the screen. This is a part you can make people believe in. You’re a real lucky guy. Every actor in town was after this part. Good luck, kid.”

I put the phone down slowly. The man from the telephone company didn’t say anything as he went about taking out the phone. He didn’t know whether the news had been good or bad. But I knew. I knew that I was on my way. A combination of luck, timing, talent, opportunity—all the things that are necessary in anybody’s career had all worked for me.

Well, I won’t bore you trying to drag out the ending. There’s that old saying, them that has, gets, and I guess I’m no exception to the rule. I’ve just finished co-starring with John Derek in “Showdown Creek” for United Artists, and I have six starring roles all lined up in a row. And my neighbor (God love him) doesn’t have to worry about his gas, bottles and firewood any more.

Maybe, someday, if I become really famous, I’ll want to forget that day when a star (I hope!) was really born. But right now, I sort of like remembering it, all of it, starting with Dennis searching the fireplace for a cigarette and me in the kitchen looking for used coffee grounds. I like remembering how happy that guy from the phone company looked when he could let me make one more call before he took out the telephone. And I like to think that maybe my neighbor knew all along about the gas and the bottles, and that maybe the one thing that makes me feel so good is the knowledge that people are pretty swell.




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