The Tings I’ve Learned
I’m going to write this myself. R.J., my friends are going to say, you’re crazy! So, maybe I’m crazy, but I’m going to write. Sure, I’m only twenty-three, but Mr. Shakespeare, move over!
I guess you could call this “things that haven’t been told yet.” And it’s time they were nosed about. Not that this is a story that’s not fit for the printed page, because it is! I’m going to write about all the inside stuff I learned from the “older men.” (Definition of an older man? Anybody over twenty-three.)
I’m going to tell the “untold story” of one boy-actor (that’s me) who learned about life and how-to-be-happy-though-young from a handful of swell guys—more than he ever could have absorbed from twenty-three straight years of books and theories.
As an author, I’m going to dedicate this little set of notes to the guys who squared me away. They’ll probably be surprised to see their names on the printed page, but I want to make sure they get full and just credit.
What guy wouldn’t be grateful for the chance to shout out loud his thanks for what he’s learned from the highest-paid teachers in the world? And for free, yet! Dan Dailey, Alan Ladd, Dick Widmark, Clifton Webb, Macdonald Carey, John Hodiak, one and all, I thank you!
R.J. (I say to myself), you’re on a bandwagon! You bet I am, R.J. (I reply to myself). Sounds corny, I know, but it’s hard for a guy like me to put into words my gratitude. But, I mean it—I’m grateful, and I’ll tell you why.
I’ve always been nuts about the picture business. I’ve always wanted to be an actor. As a little kid, I used to come home and act out all the scenes from the movie I’d just seen. Imagine me in the middle of the living-room rug with my knickers on playing Humphrey Bogart in “High Sierra.” Brother, with knickers, that’s ambition!
As I grew up, I wanted to act even more. By the time I was seventeen, I was ready to mow-em-down. And I almost did, only not quite in the way I’d planned.
I managed to wangle an appointment with a big studio casting director, Solly Biano of Warners. I slicked down my hair and splashed myself with some of my pop’s best shaving lotion (though I didn’t shave much then). I hopped into my V-8 with great confidence and dragged out to the studio, which I was about to conquer single-handed.
The cop at the gate looked startled when I whizzed into the parking lot, but I just breezed by with a wave of my hand. He didn’t have a chance to do his duty, I was parked and inside looking for the Casting Director’s door.
There it was in big, black letters. Solly Biano, Casting Director. I upped to the door and in I popped. ‘I’m R. J. Wagner, and I want to be in pictures.”
Mr. Biano about fell out of his chair and gave me a double-take, as if to say, “No. Nothing like this can happen to me.” Then he looked me up and down, and for no good reason had a coughing fit. He then said with a very straight face, “Okay, Boy, read this, and we’ll see if you are an actor.” He handed me a script.
It was going better than I’d planned. There I was with a script in my hand. I didn’t dare say, “What do I do now?”
But, oh! Reading from that script. I must have sounded like a 78 rpm record on a 33 rpm turntable. The words came out one after another all right, but there was a full two-minute pause between each word. “Thank you,” said kind Mr. Biano, “we’ll keep your name on file.”
Yeah, file. It’s there yet, I guess. But I learned a lesson.
It was a couple of years later that something really happened. Agent Henry Willson sent over his card during a clowning session with the piano player in the Gourmet Restaurant. I love to sing, and that night I was having a ball just kidding around with the pianist. Henry heard me and invited me (and my parents) to come to his office to talk over a contract.
That was a twist—somebody coming after me for a change!
But that’s how it began. Shortly, I got a ninety-day option contract at Twentieth. I’m proud to say I’m still there.
But my education in the cinema business really began a long time before I signed at Twentieth. At least part of it did, and that’s where Alan Ladd comes in. He encouraged me, even the first time I met him. One of the finest compliments I’ve ever had came from Sue Ladd, Alan’s wonderful wife. Sue said one day that Alan and I looked alike, in fact, looked enough alike to be brothers. That’s encouragement enough to go on for years, because I always thought of Alan as one of the best!
I consider myself a pretty lucky guy for having known Alan as long as I have, and to have learned so much from him. “You can make it on your own, Kid,” he always said and I believed him. What’s more—I have made it on my own.
A lot of other “authors” have written stories saying it was my dad who paved the way for me. Let me be the first to say, tain’t so, McGee! Sure, my dad’s the greatest, but he didn’t hold any magic key that opened the gates. He’s offered me better things than that kind of help, because my dad has been with me one hundred per cent. We’ve had a man-to-man relationship, even during the days when Dad wasn’t sure if I was serious about becoming an actor. He never really opposed my career, just questioned it. I’ve held my own magic key, and I’m proud of it.
But that magic key wouldn’t have opened any gates without a lot of help from a lot of guys. Like Alan. “An actor,” he used to say, “is the guy who carries the ball over the line. But he isn’t any good without the team. The crew is the team and you are the football hero. Remember, you can never do it alone!”
He’s so right. In fact, the crew’s most important to an actor. And I’ve gotten to know the crews—because that’s the way to learn the picture business. The men in the crew know the business. If they didn’t they wouldn’t be there. And most of them, you’ll find, have been around for a good number of years. Any newcomer eager to learn (that’s me), can get plenty from the grips, the soundman, and the electricians.
Take that time I was in my first Western as an example. I had a special piece of business where I raced in, read my lines, jumped on my horse and tore off. Well, we did it a couple of times and each time it seemed to get worse. That horse got to look a mile high and it just seemed I had too much to do in too little time. Everything went wrong.
I was sitting there moaning to myself and worrying about the next take when a grip came up behind me and put his hand on my shoulder.
“R. J.,” he said, “take it easy. That hoss hasn’t bit anyone this year.” (It was January 2nd.) We laughed. I felt better.
Then the soundman came over. “Hey, R. J., I’m only human,” he said, “and I can only mix that stuff with two hands. Take it easy on me, will ya’ ol’ pal.”
Then to top it all the electrician came up. “ ‘Speedy’ Wagner,” he said, “I gotta keep the lights on you. Wouldn’t you like to slow down a bit? Try one thing at a time . . .” We all laughed. I had just been plain too eager in every department.
The next take went okay. It was simple. I just followed the directions the crew had given me. Take it easy, and do one thing at a time. Yes, sir. Those guys are great teachers. That’s why I spend every free moment hanging around the lot.
Now, Dan Dailey’s a different kind of guy, and a different kind of teacher. (“What’s the kid talking about,” he’ll say when he reads this, “I didn’t teach him anything!”)
First time I got to know Dan was when we worked together in “What Price Glory.” I played Dan’s “bat boy.” I carried his pack (plus mine), his rifle (plus mine), his helmet (plus mine), and assorted odds and ends. Then the guy got the prop man to put a little extra weight in the pack. A little extra weight! I was loaded. I spent more time on the floor than on my feet!
I’ll get even some day! And I’ll get even for all the other gags the guy’s pulled on me, too. Like teaching me to water ski. Dan’s a great athlete, and as a water skier he is tops. We spent some time at Lake Arrowhead last year learning the sport. “Swell, Kid,” he’d shout, “you’re doing great.” I thought so. I even got where I could stay on my feet.
I was determined to learn as many tricks on water skis as Dan knew, and came the day when I thought I had him. Out across the lake I chased him, copying everything he did. Then suddenly, as we’d finished all the tricks in the book, Dan spins around and starts doing them backwards!
Dan’s sort of indirectly responsible for helping me to become R. J. Wagner, boy-actor-now-on-own! By that I mean, I’m now my own cook, bottle washer, and housekeeper. I’ve got my own apartment. Mom and Dad planned on moving to La Jolla, so I decided I’d get an apartment in town. A big one, so they could come up whenever they wanted, and share it with me. (Dad’s also going to share the rent when they’re in town, so who could pass up this bargain?) Only catch though, no apartment.
We looked and looked, but you-know-who solved the problem. Dan, natch! He called suddenly one day to announce there was a vacancy in his building. The vacancy now has been filled by one R. J. Wagner, complete with tennis racquets, piano, diving gear, water skis and record collection.
Most of all, I guess I’m grateful to Dan for his advice, “If you are going to work in this business, don’t fool around. Work!”
That’s what I’m doing. I go to every movie I can. (That’s my homework, yet.) I listen, I watch, and I practice. Especially my singing and dancing. I want to be a song and dance man. A fellow’s got to do something on personal appearances. Can’t just stand around with egg on his face.
That’s where Mac Carey comes in. A nicer, more helpful guy you’d never want to meet. We went on a theatre tour recently and what did we do? We put on a thirty-five-minute song and dance skit, called “The 3 B’s” (Bach, Beethoven and Boogie). Yep, I sang and danced.
My friendship with Macdonald Carey goes way back to a first bit I had in “The Lawless.” I was dancing behind Mac throughout the scene. Of course, this made it my scene. A bunch of friends and I went to see the picture when it came out. “Okay,” I whispered when Mac and I were about to come on, “my scene is coming up.” It came and it went! Mac looked great. Me—I had a mighty photogenic shoulder.
Mac and I still get together for laughs or practice. We don’t want to get rusty. That would be fatal for me. I’m going to be a song and dance man if it kills me!
Since I’m giving out big votes of thanks, I couldn’t overlook Dick Widmark, Clifton Webb and John Hodiak for the help they’ve given me. If it weren’t for a piece of advice John gave me early in my career, there might not have been any career.
I was nothing in those days, but I did land a part in a picture. Only catch was—and it was a big one—I had to wear a catcher’s mask over my face. Well, I argued to myself, it mas a part in a picture.
My agent didn’t feel that way. “Oh, no,” he said, “we don’t handle bit actors.”
So there was I, with an agent and a chance for a part. But if I took the part, the agent said he’d leave me flat. Gee, what to do? So I asked Hodiak. “Go into the picture,” was his advice.
I took it and I’ve never regretted it. After the picture was finished, I had no agent, but I had the one hundred and fifty dollars I earned, and I bought a Screen Actors Guild card. Now I was ready!
Then Famous Artists Agency signed me up and things looked pretty bright. Not financially, though. I was in debt to my family for about seven hundred and fifty bucks which they loaned me to become an actor. Christmas was around the corner and I wanted to spring for a couple of presents, so when the ninety-day test option was offered by Twentieth, I signed.
Working at Twentieth with Dick Widmark in “Halls of Montezuma” was another one of my first experiences. And a great one. In one scene, I was supposed to follow him in a running sequence. I gave it everything I had. Too much, I guess, because I just came out a blur.
“Look, Kid,” said Dick, “take it easy. The idea is to be seen. Follow my pace.”
Gee, he didn’t have to tell me that. But if he hadn’t, I might still be a blur on a ninety-day option. Thanks, Dick.
And thanks to Jimmy Cagney, too. Everytime I stop to think of the swell and great actors I’ve worked with, I get weak in the knees. That Cagney cracked me up! He’s so smooth, so great! Just working next to him in “What Price Glory” made me feel like I was all teeth. But watching him work so close up was payment enough. A guy couldn’t get better training anywhere. And although I’ve never worked with Clark Gable, I’ll always remember his advice about the picture business.
As for Clifton Webb, I just say tops! We finished “Stars and Stripes Forever” recently, and I came away feeling I’d gained a bookful of knowledge.
Clifton worked above and beyond the call of duty with me. In reading my lines I sometimes take off like a shot. But Clifton just said, “Easy does it, Robert,” and we purr along like my old V-8.
Speaking of V-8’s, that’s the only way I could top Clifton. We spent time between scenes playing word games (you know Clifton’s got a terrif vocabulary). He’d pull out something like “syzygy” and I had to retreat into my hot-rod lingo to keep even. So “syzygy” he’d say for one point and I’d counter with “twin-pots” for a tally. Then Clifton comes up with “quintessence,” and I’d say “flat-head.” Clifton immediately answered, “Robert J.”
But I really had him on the ropes with the hot rod terms. At the end we compromised. I gave him a glossary of jalopy terms; he gave me a dictionary.
Well, that about winds it up. Since a rock might fail on me before I get a chance to tell you guys how grateful I am for all your encouragement, I wanted to make sure everybody heard about the stuff that up until now has been just between you and me. It’s no longer secret. And that’s the idea.
It is a quote. PHOTOPLAY MAGAZINE FEBRUARY 1953