To All As To Myself—Dan Dailey
It is not to my credit, religiously, (at least it isn’t a clear credit) that I served as an altar boy at St. Christopher’s in Baldwin, Long Island. Unfortunately, the part of my position I liked the most was the opportunity to appear before an audience. I was more the actor than the acolyte.
When sometimes, as during Holy Week, I was permitted to read to the congregation from the Gospel, I was really in my glory. And I did a good job. Just the same, it ought to be pretty evident that my piety was not all it should have been. It still isn’t. But if there are hurdles I still must take, some thinking about myself I still must do to straighten out my views, I am a man of faith, if not in steady church attendance, at least in my overall view. There is a bond. I seek to be deserving of a stronger one.
As I see it, getting to be the person you should be, religiously, takes in more than just your relationship to your church. What you are to your family, to your neighbors, and to your fellow worker must match. I might add that what you are to yourself must be examined sometimes, and straightened out, if you want to do an honest job. This isn’t always easy. I’ve had my troubles.
You can put yourself into the hands of the experts on this sort of thing, the psychiatrists and psychoanalysts, but even they will tell you that ultimately the cure rests with you; it rests on your ability to adjust to a world that is rarely as you would have it.
I remember talking to the administrative head of the Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kansas. He was posting me on my relationship to the institution as a patient, and one of the things he mentioned was that I should “feel free to express myself.”
“How far can I go along this line, doctor?” I asked. “No restraint at all?”
“Well, let us say you want to express an anger which has gripped you,” he said. “An anger at me, for instance. You are privileged to double up your fist and swing it at me as hard as you can. But the instant you hit my nose you are no longer privileged. The point is that that’s the way of the world. I am your doctor and you are my patient. But I, too, am privileged to express myself. I can be just as angry as anyone else and can retaliate as fast as anyone else because I have my own life to live and to protect. Does that make sense?”
Everybody ticks in his own way. Most of us can do with some regulating of the works. That’s why I had the experts check mine. As a result, I think I’m running a little smoother and my alarm is not so liable to pop off when there is no need for it. Nobody wants to hear it and I want to hear it least of all. The main corrective I required was oil—the oil of understanding; not only of others, but of myself.
What makes a fellow become wound up too tightly is not always easily explained. Very early in boyhood I began holding my fists in front of me and people started to call me cocky. Maybe it was because I was raised in one of the world’s most competitive spots—New York’s west side—where nobody needs any special reason to pop you in the eye, and I got popped. Or it might have been the sum of my particular reaction as a child to the bitter realities of life. You go along with them, but not always as the same kid. I remember, for instance, that it was years before I got over the shock of my grandmother’s funeral. She was a favorite of mine and died when I was only eight. When she was laid in her grave, when I saw the first shovelful of earth thrown on her coffin, I broke down and cried out in resentment. It seemed to me that someone I knew to be a wonderful person was being treated cruelly, while other people, not at all as nice as she, were escaping this punishment.
I’m guessing at the psychological effect on me but it could be that I got badly twisted as a result of this, developing a feeling that not even being good (and to me my grandmother was the epitome of goodness) could save you from being a victim of life. And very probably (but still guessing) I could have felt that a fellow had best protect himself from this fate at all times. At least that’s the way I acted as I grew up—pugnaciously protective about myself.
At home, on the street, in all my contacts with people, I was touchy, very conscious of my rights. When we bought a loaf of bread and it wasn’t fresh, I was the kind of kid who liked to go back to the grocery store with it and plank it down, saying, “This bread is stale!” No, sir, nobody was going to put anything over on me! (Nobody, that is, but myself—by getting a little hipped on the subject!)
I can look back now and put my finger on what was wrong with me—I was afraid of life. A lot of us are. But even worse than fear itself was the fear of having the fear known. This, too, is a common reaction, and among kids that’s exactly the kind of personality you need to get yourself booked for a steady series of scraps.
Of course, I didn’t know it as fear, then. I accepted others’ appraisal of it and they called it temper. When on my grammar school graduation day I took a swing at a lad a lot bigger than I, I analyzed my action afterward as a case of my temper overcoming my brain. Most kid fights are over with quickly. This one turned into one of those long, terrible sessions that seemed to go on forever. Long after my “temper” had cooled off, when I was sick to death of the fight, yet wearily swinging away, I can remember thinking how stupid it all was. But I couldn’t stop. I had to keep punching. To quit, to be thought a quitter—that was worse than anything.
I think that fight did me some good, though, mainly because it was a lesson, but also because I had held my own with a larger fellow and that gave me a measure of confidence in myself. I didn’t walk around with my hands up in front of me so much. Since I really had confidence, it wasn’t so necessary to show it by my demeanor. It was there if I needed it. But it wasn’t all there. yet. I know that when the time came for me to go out with girls, as it must to all boys, scared or not, I played safe. I wasn’t a one-gal man for a long time. I was the kind who comes to the dances to look over the field and then leaves, unattached—the lone stag. I was as unsettled on what I wanted romantically, you might say, as I was in every other way. And when, eventually, I did pick out a girl whom I wanted to know better, she happened to be someone else’s—a football hero’s, no less.
I had no car, no money, yet life was good to me and gave my confidence another boost. I learned that what you are comes through. What I was she liked, and she overlooked what I lacked in position or possessions. Now I know that if a girl doesn’t go out with you (or if you can’t impress a boy) you might as well not try to reach her with outside accoutrements or veneers. If you can’t reach through to each other for what you are, you can’t do it by pretending to be something better.
The way we got along was quite a boost to my ego, but the cure was by no means complete. Many years later I was still fear-bound and swinging out, figuratively, when I should have kept my hands at my side. Even when my big chance came up in Hollywood I nearly scared myself out of it by behaving in a crude manner born of my fear of not making good.
At MGM, I was asked by the dramatic coach, Lillian Burns, whether I wanted to do a light or heavy scene for my first test. I will never forget the look on her face at my reply:
“Why ask me? What do they pay you for?”
I actually cringe at the memory. One of the reasons I even mention it now is as a sort of additional apology to the lady. She came out of this little set-to a much bigger person than I. She came to downtown Los Angeles to see me in the legitimate show, I Married An Angel, and decided I had possibilities despite my rudeness.
She had told Billy Brady, head of the studio’s talent department, that personally I was “. . . a most revolting young man.” Later, she changed her opinion (I hope!) and we became very good friends. But because of fear I had been rude and had darn near frightened myself out of a movie career.
I think that if I had enjoyed a stronger spiritual identification with my faith during my early days as an actor I would have been able to accept my later success without having it affect me temperamentally as much as it did. I was nervous about the kind of roles offered me, the dramatic values involved and the theatrical level of the productions. A man with trust in the ultimate meaning of his life is not inclined to be overwrought about its day-to-day phases. I am still concerned about the way I am represented to the public in my pictures but now I am much more aware of the problems of the directors and writers.
When I was making I Can Get It For You Wholesale, the director and I made a pact to meet each night in my dressing room for a talk, no matter what happened during the day’s shooting. Plenty happened. Some mornings and afternoons we couldn’t lay up a scene because of the arguments we had to go through first. But every evening the director and I got together and worked out our differences with an honest discussion and a handshake that washed out all bitterness. We recognized that no matter what else was involved, we had a common cause—a good picture. People thought the production was going to pieces, but because we trusted each other’s hearts, if not each other’s ideas, we finished up with a good job.
I should have had this sort of tolerance long before I got to Hollywood, but I didn’t. When I was bouncing around on Broadway, trying to get a part in a show, and getting turned down, I used to get pretty bitter. Everyone said I was a good actor, but no one had anything suitable for me. Even when I got going a bit, and won top comment as a good comedian and dancer, I would hit against stone walls of opposition. A good friend of mine was (and is) Jack Nonenbacher, manager of José Greco, leading male exponent of Spanish dancing. Enviously, I had mentioned to him some big names who were in Broadway shows.
“I know I can do better than those fellows,” I said. “Why can’t I get a chance?”
“Look, Dan,” he replied, “you’ll be better off, eventually, if it isn’t too easy to get started. The very thing that holds you back, now, keeps you up there when you make good.”
“But what do I do in the meantime?”
“Have faith,” was the simple answer. “That’s what faith is for.”
That’s what every man needs—a deep trust in himself and in his future. He needs it in everything he tackles, particularly in the job of being a human being. I know faith can move a mountain; I moved one when I was in the Army.
This particular “mountain” was a problem handed to me when I attended Signal Corps Officers School at Fort Monmouth, N. J., in 1942. If I passed, I was to graduate and get my officer’s commission. If I didn’t, back to the ranks. I took one look at the problem and knew I was licked. It consisted of a map of the communications system of Berlin, and I, on the premise that the whole system had been wrecked, was to tell exactly how I would go about restoring it to working order if I were to be the first American Signal Corps officer to enter the city.
I found just a small job in the communications map—a generator to provide power. Then I located a switchboard which could be run from this generator. And from this I progressed via small segments of the problem until the whole thing was done!
I don’t think it matters much that I didn’t turn out to be the first signal officer to enter Berlin. I was sent to Italy and never had a thing to repair. It didn’t matter much to the Army, that is. But it made a lot of difference to me to learn that small gains plus strong faith can add up to big victory.
A great many of the fears I used to have are not with me any more. Over the years, I have learned that when I have stewed and worried it has been for nothing. I am not speaking here of actual danger to life or limb. As a matter of fact, whenever I have actually been on the point of breaking my neck, my mind has always refused to accept the fact and busied itself with an inconsequential aspect of what was happening. A year or so ago, while driving a new car, I was forced off the road and turned over. The thought in my head while I was in mid-air was, “Gee, this is going to scratch up the car!” Only recently, my horse failed on a high jump. Even as I knew I was falling, I was conscious only of the fact that I would probably rip my riding coat and it was the only one I had.
What I have in mind is the sense of peril to your well-being that settles on you like a weight and very often makes you a hard man to live with.
I have no desire to become the biggest star in my profession. There may have been a time when I was dedicated to that proposition. I’m not sure. But I am certain it forms no part of my thinking, now. I am more tolerant of people, now, because I judge them by the basic level of their relationship to me, not by all their outward manifestations. I can forgive a friend any mistake if there is no mistake about his friendship for me.
I am trying to enjoy each day as it comes along, and without causing others any harm. I am remembering, always, that if I want to antagonize someone, it is within my power to do so. And therefore it is within my power to accomplish the reverse—to win them over. This, I have actually demonstrated to my satisfaction a number of times, and I have come to the conclusion that if I can win other people over to me, I can definitely win myself over to a better way of life.
From what I can see, most of us are problems to ourselves. I have had to be honest and admit it to myself. But I’m working on it. That’s the most—and the least—a man can do.
—BY DAN DAILEY
It is a quote. MODERN SCREEN MAGAZINE NOVEMBER 1953