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The Truth About My Son—Anthony Franciosa

Behind the big, low coffee table, in a corner of the huge couch in her son’s elegant apartment on Central Park West, Anthony Franciosa’s mother sat stiffly, her hands clasped tightly. This was the first interview she had given, and although she was somewhat nervous, it was clear that she felt this was something she had to do.

“Last night, my phone rang,” she said. “It was someone I didn’t know, a perfect stranger, asking me, ‘Is it true, what I’ve read about your son, that he was so poor he had nothing but rags to wear and went out and stole things from stores to have something for Christmas?’ ” Her voice trembled. “It was such a terrible thing for me, such a shock. . . . It’s not true! Why do they tell these lies? ‘Why do they make up these things?”

It was,Tony’s bride, Shelley Winters, who in her time has suffered her own full share of distortions, half-truths and out-and-out lies about her private life, who tried to comfort her.

“Shelley told me the best thing to do is just ignore these things, that you just can’t let them bother you and get you down. But it’s so hard . . .” Hard indeed, for a mother whose son, through many long difficult years, has been the center of her whole existence and whose current fame has brought so many problems.

Tony’s youthful, very attractive aunt, Elsie Franciosa, nodded sympathetically. “There just isn’t any truth in these stories,” she said vehemently. “We weren’t rich people, of course, but all of us lived well. We always had good clothes to wear, and plenty of good food to eat, and a nice apartment to live in, even when times weren’t so good.”

“That’s right,” Tony’s mother said. “Oh, there were times when I did without things. But it was always so that Tony wouldn’t have to go without anything.”

Seeing these two trim, vigorous women, it would have been difficult to picture the Franciosa clan as anything but energetic and successful. Far from the popular conception of Tony’s folks as unlettered Italian immigrants, they are second generation Americans who speak English well and without a trace of accent. There is also about them an air of solid respectability and independence, strength and pride—pride that has been wounded by the unfavorable publicity Tony has received, but remains unbowed.

“I know a lot of these stories started because of the trouble Tony got into,” his mother went on. “Oh, all of this has been such a strain, such a shock.”

She paused as the painful memories came back—memories of Tony’s trial on an assault charge brought by a news photographer. But that wasn’t the thing that hurt most. Like many of Tony’s friends—and many who have no personal interest in him at all—his family staunchly feels that he was right in defending his future wife. Many Hollywoodites, too, share the opinion that the whole affair was blown up out of all proportion—that had Tony and Shelley not been movie stars, and their antagonist a news photographer, it would have passed unnoticed.

What hurt the family was Tony’s previous arrest that came to light at the trial, for taking a sewing machine to hock because he was hungry. “Tony never told me about that—he never told any of us,” his mother said. “The first I knew about it was when I saw it in the newspapers. You can imagine how I felt! I didn’t go out of the house for a week.”

“Yes, it was very hard on Jean.” Aunt Elsie looked at her sister sympathetically. “She has high blood pressure, too.” Then, indignantly, she added, “Tony never meant to steal that sewing machine. We knew that! He just couldn’t have done anything like that. He borrowed it to hock because he was desperate, but he always intended to return it as soon as he had the money.”

“But people don’t understand that,” said Tony’s mother. “Oh, why didn’t he come to us for help? We would have done anything, given him anything. We were well off—it was no question of money. Why didn’t he tell us?”

There must have been a reason . . .

“Tony is a good boy,” his mother continued. “He always was. These stories about him running wild in the streets and getting into fights—nothing like that ever happened!”

She paused again as memories came flooding back—memories upon which no one had the right to intrude. Before Tony was born, she had lost another child, a little girl who died of pneumonia at the age of seven. A year after Tony was born, his father, Anthony Papaleo, left them, never to return . . .

“I had to go to work when Tony was a little boy,” she explained, “but my parents lived with us, and it was real comfort to me to know that his grandmother was taking care of him. I don’t think I could have stood it, to leave him with a stranger. But nobody could have looked after him as well as his grandma, and I never had a minute’s worry.

“I was pretty strict with him, too. I never let him run around the street in the evenings after supper until he was about ten years old, and I saw to it that he got all his homework done. And every Sunday, no matter what, he had to go to nine o’clock mass.”

The block of New York’s East 116th Street where Tony spent his childhood is certainly not a slum. 116th Street is one of those roomy crosstown paths you find every ten blocks or so, cutting across the width of Manhattan. Tony’s block has full share of shops, restaurants, and people—mostly of Italian heritage. Although the Franciosas feel that the neighborhood “was better in the old days,” it is still, both physically and economically, very far removed from the Lower East Side.

At one time Tony, his mother, Aunt Elsie, his grandparents, and Uncle Fred shared a seven-room apartment on the block, with Aunt Sue and her five children across the street, and they have always been a close-knit, devoted group. On the big holidays such as Christmas and Easter, and for special family occasions, the clan, twenty-two strong, would gather for a grand feast of all the wonderful Italian delicacies.

Tony’s mother smiled—a warm smile, very like her son’s. “Junior—that’s what we called him then—was a happy boy, always whistling or singing going up and down the stairs, or around the apartment. Sometimes, he’d be very quiet. He seemed to get lost in thought. I’d watch him and wonder about it. Mostly, though, he was cheerful and good-natured. He never gave me any trouble. He always did what I asked him to, without complaint.”

“Except about the meat,’ reminded Aunt Elsie.

“Oh, that!” exclaimed his mother, and they both laughed. “Yes, that was the one thing he’d argue about. I was working at a 35th Street department store, and there was a butcher shop on Ninth Avenue at 33rd Street where I got choice meat. We had a big freezer, so I’d buy the week’s supply on Friday, and have Tony go down on Saturday morning to get it. ‘Oh, no—not again!’ he’d say. Once, he came back and said, ‘Mama, there are fifty-nine butcher shops in this neighborhood. I can’t see going all the way down there—it’s just not worth it. Not only do we not look better than everybody else—we look worse!’ But he still went.”

The only other time that Jean and Elsie Franciosa can recall Tony’s trying to get around their authority brought more chuckles. “He’d been ordered to stay in three nights to catch up with his studies,” Aunt El said. “Well, by the second night, he’d managed to get word out to his gang, and had them all come around and stand under the window chanting, ‘We want Junior! We want Junior!’ at the top of their lungs, until we couldn’t take any more and let him out!”

Not the slightest hint of a sad, mixed-up childhood here. Instead, there were happy, carefree days, playing basketball with cousin Richard and his pals at nearby Haarlem House, going on picnics and other special events. On weekends there was usually a movie, and sometimes, as a special treat, his mother took him to the Italian vaudeville. Even then, young Anthony had a sharp, critical eye for what looked good on a stage.

“What’s she doing up there—she’s too fat!” he would announce in a sturdy stage whisper. “Shhh—do you want to get us put out?” his embarrassed mother would reply. “Well, that one’s too skinny!” he would continue, undaunted. “WHO is that little boy?” huffed one prima donna, and flounced off the stage.

They were very close, mother and son. One afternoon, when they went to the movies where gifts of dishes and such were being drawn on the stage, Tony’s mother was surprised to see him crossing himself. “What are you doing?” she asked. “I’m praying that you get a prize, Mama,” was the reply.

“But Tony was always thoughtful and considerate,” his mother says. “He would never let my mother carry a thing. Just the other day, I met one of our neighbors on the street, and she said to me, ‘Jean, I can’t get over it. Tony, a famous movie star. Why, it seems like yesterday that he was running up to help me with my bundles!’ ”

The sensivity that is one of his great acting assets was evident, then. One day, he saw a number of white boys mercilessly beating a Negro. “He came into the house, white and shaken,” Aunt El recalls. “ ‘How can people treat another human being like that?’ he wanted to know. He was terribly upset.”

Another time, Aunt Elsie remembers, “The whistling and the singing stopped. That was when the telegram from the War Department came, telling us that my brother Fred was wounded in action. Tony felt it very deeply—he wandered around as if in a fog. He was like that until we got word that Fred was out of danger.”

At the end of his junior year in high school, Tony decided that, as far as education was concerned, he had had it. With a practical eye, he had taken stock of the boys in the neighborhood. Those who had taken up trades were making big money, driving fancy cars. The others were poor and struggling. It didn’t make much sense.

“I never interfered with anything that concerned Tony,” Aunt El said. “I felt that right belonged to his mother. But this time, I couldn’t help it. I told him, ‘If you think you’re going to quit school, you’ll do no such thing. You’re going to keep on and get that high school diploma.’ ”

At the graduation ceremonies, the family turned out, and watched while the principal passed out the awards, scholarships and other honors along with the diplomas. When Tony stepped before him, he twinkled, “And you, Tony, passed by the skin of your teeth!” Nevertheless, he had passed, and the twenty-two members of the Franciosa family happily went home to celebrate with another family feast.

And perhaps the proudest of all was a little lady scarcely five feet tall, Tony’s grandmother, Palma Franciosa. Only a short time before, she had faced formidable forces to protect her boy. As Tony’s mother tells it, “There was a race riot outside the school, and the principal had ordered the students to stay in their seats until the danger was over. Well, somehow, word of the riot got back to Tony’s grandma, and she decided to take things into her own hands. How she ever got through the rioters and the police lines and into the principal’s office, nobody will ever know, but she did. ‘I’ve come to look after my boy, Tony,’ she told him. He told her everything was all right, and had her escorted back through the police lines, but of course, word of it leaked out. The boys yelled, ‘Tony, yer grandmother’s here for ya!’ Poor Tony! He could have died!

“When he came home he walked over to his grandmother and kissed her. He said, ‘Grandma, I love you for what you did, But please, don’t ever do it again!”

Wonderful memories, warm and tender . . . memories of a happy, lovable boy, growing up in the ideal atmosphere of a big, wonderful family . . .

But the time had come to leave them, to go out into the world to seek his place in it. Tony was sure he didn’t want college, but on the other hand, he wasn’t sure just what he did want.

The story of his being roped into taking a part in a play at the YMCA—where he had gone to learn the mambo with the idea of becoming a dancer—is now well known. The story behind it is not.

In that one experience, all of the elements in the character of Anthony Franciosa became fused into one great purpose. All the warmth, the depth of feeling and perception, the intense awareness of life. Here, in portraying a character on a stage, was not only an outlet for the full expression of them that he had never found before, but a supreme satisfaction that he could never find anywhere else—that of artistic creation.

For Tony, the door to a new world had been opened—a world in which he recognized instinctively that he belonged . . .

An actor! His mother was aghast. “I just couldn’t understand it,” she says now, simply.

How could she understand it, this gallant woman who, for years, had toiled so faithfully and industriously in New York’s garment center to make a living for herself and her son? It was a good living, and she could well be proud of her accomplishments. Hard work, the stability and security of a good job—she knew so well how important they were, how much they contributed to a person’s happiness.

An actor! The prospect filled her heart with pain. She knew what an actor’s life was like, well enough. The disappointments, the frustrations, the long, bitter periods of living on hopes and dreams and little else. Dreams that for the vast majority were never realized. No, she could not stand idly by, and watch that—to her son, the person she loved est.

“Tony,” she pleaded. “There are thousands of people who fritter their lives away, wanting to be actors. They never make it. Why could you be any different?”

“I don’t know, Mama,” he answered, his eyes full of misery. “I only know that this is something I have to do.”

At the time, Tony was working as a messenger boy at RKO Pictures. He was doing well. But the dull nine-to-five routine was more than he could bear. He told his mother that he wanted to quit, to take a full-time stab at acting.

“We bickered about it for a year,” she says. “I tried to point out to him all the advantages of a steady job. I tried so hard—I didn’t want to see him get hurt.” But the more they argued, the more determined he became.

He was studying with Joseph Geiger then, a man who made him aware of the immense complexities of the acting art, and instilled in him a reverence for it. He would go home bursting to tell his mother of the sheer joy of creating a part, of the thrill he felt at the challenge he faced—that of equipping himself to work in an art form where the work is never really finished. But how could she comprehend it, this dedication that comes only to a chosen few?

He who had been so open and good-natured now shut himself in his room for hours on end, studying and rehearsing roles. He devoured every book on the theater he could lay his hands on . . .

One night, when he came home from work, he could stand it no longer. “I just can’t be chained to an eight-hour-a-day job—I just can’t! I’m going to quit!”

Gently, his mother tried to reason with him once more. “Look, Tony,” she said. “We’re getting along so well now. You’re doing fine. If you stick to it, in a little while you’ll be making $100 or $125 a week.”

“When?” he flung back. “In twenty or twenty-five years—that’s when!” And he burst into angry tears.

“All those months, the rest of us had kept strictly out of the arguments,” Aunt Elsie says. “But now I felt I just had to say something. When Tony had gone out, I said, ‘I know how you feel, Jean, but you can see how upset he is. You’ve got to give the boy a chance.’ ”

Still, Tony’s mother was torn by doubt, and worry, and misgiving. She could not bring herself to agree. “The next day,” she says, “the phone must have rung about twenty-five times. I wouldn’t answer—I knew it was Tony. That night, he came home and told me he’d quit his job.”

When Tony became a struggling young actor in Cherry Lane Theater in Greenwich Village, she tried to make the best of it, though she was still torn by doubt. When he won a scholarship to the Dramatic Workshop, it was heartening. There were more parts in off-Broadway shows, and then Tony had an offer to work at a summer theater in Lake Tahoe, Nevada.

But when he got to Lake Tahoe, there was no theater. He was to build it from the ground up. Undeterred, he pitched in, and carried on through the season. When it was over, he decided to stay in the West, and try his luck. A succession of odd jobs led to his signing on as a steward on the S.S. President Cleveland, which sailed all over the Orient.

When the ship returned to San Francisco, Tony ran into a buddy from Lake Tahoe. The friend was down on his luck—would Tony lend him something to tide him over? “Sure,” said Tony, pulling out a wad of bills which added up to about $600, and peeling off a hundred. The pal then suggested that they share a room. “Fine,” said Tony. The next morning he awoke in solitude. No friend and no money. “I reached in my pocket,” he told his mother later, “and all I felt was loose change.”

Then began the period of disillusion and despair, of two bouts with pneumonia from which he emerged weak and penniless, of hunger that led to taking the sewing machine, of bitter loneliness.

A wire, a collect phone call to the apartment at 116th Street—it would have been so easy. He knew that from his mother and the family, there would be no reproaches, nor any “I-told-you-so’s”—only warm, welcoming faces and hands eager to give him help. But how could he go to them, when he had turned against his mother’s wishes? No, he couldn’t do it. Somehow, he had to stick it out.

Pride, not poverty, made him choose to fight his own battles as best he could; strength, not weakness, got him into trouble . . .

At last, he made his way back to New York. There, still supporting himself in whatever way he could, he passed auditions at the famed Actors Studio.

One of the Studio projects on which he worked was the idea later expanded by Michael Gazzo into the play “A Hatful of Rain.” Meanwhile, Tony had appeared in the off-Broadway production of “End as a Man,” a hit that moved to Broadway, and also appeared in “Wedding Breakfast.” When this play was done in stock, Tony stayed with it, and played opposite a different leading lady—Shelley Winters.

When the completed script of “Hatful” was offered to Tony, Shelley read it, liked it, and accepted the part of the wife.

All concerned were covered with glory when the play opened on Broadway. For Tony, it brought not only lavish praise and awards, but so many offers from film companies that he eventually wound up with his contract split four ways. This has happened very rarely.

For Elia Kazan, he made “A Face in the Crowd,” filmed in New York and Arkansas. Out to Hollywood to do “This Could Be the Night” for M-G-M. Back to New York to film the 20th Century-Fox version of “A Hatful of Rain.” Then a return trip to Hollywood to make “Wild Is the Wind,” opposite the great Anna Magnani, for Hal Wallis. He was a very busy man.

A brilliant beginning . . . a career of unlimited possibilities, that can’t be hurt by headlines . . . for the only thing that can hurt a good actor is a bad performance . . . nothing else matters . . .

How have the huzzahs and headlines affected Tony?

“He’s changed very much during the last two years,” his mother says.

“He’s not as lighthearted as he used to be,” Aunt Elsie says. “He’s more preoccupied. He doesn’t talk much, but you can see that he feels the pressure, and those false stories hurt. Once I suggested, “Why don’t you turn to the church, Tony?” He just looked at me calmly and said, ‘You think I’ve lost my religion, don’t you? But I haven’t. I carry it here.’ And he indicated that he meant he carried it in his heart, and said no more.”

And how does his mother feel as she watches her son on the screen?

“When I sit in the audience, I can’t explain it—a little chill grips me all over, and I think, ‘It can’t be—it’s too wonderful.’ ” Then she adds, wistfully, “But when I see the pressure he’s under, the things he has to endure, I still wonder . . .”

No, this consuming drive of the artist to fulfill the demands of his art at any cost—this is something that a mother’s heart, desiring only happiness for her child, can never understand . . .

There was one person who did understand. Tony was a poor, struggling unknown, many years away from fame, when his grandmother became ill. Every morning, Tony went in to say goodbye before leaving for work, but on one morning, he was unaccountably moved. Tears coursed down his face as he stood at the bedside, clasping the withered hand. Slowly, her eyes opened. He saw his grandmother’s lips move, and bent to catch the words. “Tony,” she whispered. “Tony . . . some day your name will be in lights.” These were her last words. Shortly after Tony left, Palma Franciosa went into a coma. Late that day she died.




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