To You From Tony; SA-WAD-DEE
I’M WRITING THIS from Rome, which is wonderful enough for me, a fellow who’s never ventured out of the United States before I signed on with Columbia to make “The Sea Wall” for Dino De Laurentiis. But the real wonder, which I haven’t recovered from yet, was finding myself a working resident of the “King and I” country—unbelievable Thailand—and its amazing capital city, Bangkok, for seven weeks. Putting Perkins in Bangkok is like topping a strawberry nut sundae with a pickle. But, believe it or not, it worked out fine!
“The Sea Wall” also brought me here to Rome, which I’ll tell you about, but first let me get some of the delightful and strange adventure of Thailand off my chest. I was pretty nervous about venturing into a strange land for the first time, and wanted very much to make a good impression. My friend Bill Holden had told me the kids out there are hungry for bubble gum, which they rarely get, so I took two cases with me. Both of them were gone within two weeks—and, I hope, did a good job for American-Thailand relations!
We really went to extremes in that country, which is very hot, about like New York during a hot spell in August, only there it goes on all the time. Actually, one of the crew kept a record, and he reported that things generally started at 100 degrees in the morning, shot up to about 120 by mid-afternoon and gave us “relief” at night at about ninety. And it is very wet. Bangkok is called “the Venice of the East” because it is crisscrossed by dozens of canals, called “klongs,” on which about half the population lives in boats, or in houses on stilts. But it’s not just the land that’s wet—the air is, too, and everything else.
Half the time we spent in a Las Vegas-type hotel in Bangkok, complete with swimming pool, air conditioning, two restaurants, thick carpets and scorpions in your shoes in the morning. Then, all of a sudden, we found ourselves 175 miles away in a little place where there was not only no swimming pool, but no water. And, needless to say, no air conditioning, no carpets and, worst of all, no milk, not even the evaporated kind. This was a seaside village consisting of a few bleak rows of crazy-built teakwood shanties, with charcoal stoves in front of the doorways, packs of dogs rummaging for food everywhere, and water buffalo wandering up and down the main Street. We lived in what we could, with kindness, call a hotel outside of the village. It had no telephone or telegraph, no English-language newspapers or radio and no mail delivery. The beds were made of solid boarding with nothing but a three-inch-thick cotton mattress to soften the boards. Springs are not to be had, for the very good reason that the humidity soon rusts them through and you’re likely to find yourself on the floor when they snap off.
What saved the day for me in Petchburi, as it is called, was the nice bunch of people I was working with, Jo Van Fleet, Silvana Mangano, Richard Conte and the others. We told jokes and cooked food on hot plates in our rooms, when the electricity was on, which wasn’t very often, and wrote letters. We also played poker. At least, I tried to, but it’s so hard to figure out the Thai money that I spent most of my time trying to decide what I was betting, rather than what cards I was betting on.
The people were wonderful, too. While we were down in Petchburi, which is south of Bangkok, “Friendly Persuasion” was being shown in the city. I was told that Petchburi folks usually wouldn’t think of going all the way up to Bangkok just to see a Hollywood movie, especially since they don’t understand the English dialogue anyway. The trip takes them two days, one day going and one day back. But because they had run across our movie company in their own town, many of the Petchburi people paid me the very nice compliment of making the long bus trip into Bangkok to see me on the screen. And every one of them, when they came back, came around especially to tell me how much they had enjoyed the picture. They did not speak English, of course, and I don’t understand Siamese, but we got on very well. They used sign language and gestures to describe what they saw. “Bang! Bang!” I was the soldier shooting. They seemed to like that part quite a lot.
Naturally, the Siamese working with us spoke only Siamese, the Italians spoke only Italian, we had a Chinese actor who speaks only Chinese and two assistant directors who speak only Spanish. This was somewhat confusing to the Thais, and to me too. I guess the hardest thing we did was shooting some scenes in the streets of Bangkok, which during the day are all as packed as Times Square at a quarter of twelve on New Year’s Eve. And since Siamese movies are rarely shot on the Street and we were the first foreign troupe to work there, we created a stir. Some of the people didn’t seem to have much to do, because they just gathered in groups of about a thousand or more and sort of watched, but they were very friendly. I mean they give you things out of their pockets and stuff like that. You know how a makeup man will come out when you’re working in the sun and pat off the perspiration on your forehead with a piece of tissue? You think nothing of it, of course; it’s his job. But in Bangkok, a couple of times, it was a young Siamese girl who sort of took it upon herself to do it for me. She didn’t think it was strange, she was just being helpful.
The girls there are all very pretty. The girls and young women do a lot of hard work in the fields and factories and, it seems, the more they work and the more strenuous the work the prettier they are. Why that is I don’t know.
I got to learn quite a few words in Thai, at least necessary ones like kai-dao for “fried egg,” nam for “water,” nom for “milk,” ron for “hot,” yen for “cold,” sappa-rote for “pineapple” and so on. Especially important was sa-wad-dee, which is the greeting word, which you use for “How do you do?,” “Good morning,” “Good evening,” and all the other greetings. One word which I remembered pretty easily was the one for “singing”: rong pleng. It stuck in my mind because it sounded like the person was saying, “long playing.”
But even knowing the word for “milk” couldn’t always get it for me in Bangkok, except in canned powdered form. Fresh milk and American ice cream are practically non-existent there, and since I like both, I was in trouble. I bought the canned milk by the armful, anyway, and loved asking for it in Siamese, when I went shopping. To keep cool in the steaming heat I drank a lot of a bottled orange juice called “Green Spot.”
Not having milk is more of a hardship for the Siamese, I guess, than it was for me. They are a very hardworking, very poor people, yet they were always cheerful. Down in Petchburi the farmers were so poor it was unbelievable, and they worked hard from dawn to dusk. Yet they always had a cheerful wave and a greeting for you as you went by. And the kids were fabulous. Once I got caught on a strange Street just as a movie house let out after the show. Someone recognized me, and before I knew it I was backed up against a wall, signing autographs madly, surrounded by hundreds of squealing youngsters.
Along with the poor people, the royal family and she officials and everyone else we met were just as friendly. I had brought with me a small portable radio, working on a battery, and my heart sank when I was told that I needed a license to bring it into the country. But the customs people were so very nice, they let me keep it anyway. Everyone in Thailand is very polite. It’s impolite to say “No,” so everybody says “Yes.” Which is a little confusing when you order something in a restaurant, fried eggs, for instance. They may be out of fried eggs, but the waiter says “Yes” anyway, and then brings you a plate of roast ham.
With the help of the radio I became familiar with Siamese music, which is a little repetitious but very charming. The orchestra seems very much like one of ours, and they like to tackle Western tunes, too. It’s really wonderful to hear the Thailand version of “The Rains in Spain” or a rock ’n’ roll number, which they call “lock ’n’ loll.”
One of the nicest Thais I met was a publisher friend of Photoplay’s, Udom Yenrudi. We went sightseeing one day and he took a bunch of pictures which I’m bringing back home with me. He told me that I started a fad among the boys in Bangkok that I didn’t even know about. Seems a day or so after I arrived I saw some beautiful hand-dyed batik cloth in a loud Siamese pattern—it’s used a lot over there. I had some shirts made up (for one dollar each), something like a Bing Crosby Hawaiian type. Only thing —my tastes being a little more subdued—I told the man to make the shirts with the pattern on the inside. They turned out very well. I wore them all the time, except when in costume, since they were comfortable and cool and I hadn’t brought much clothing with me. Udom writes me that they’ve made quite a stir, and many of the young fellows in Bangkok are now wearing their shirts with the pattern inside out, too.
Udom’s picture of me out in a boat and gaping at the temples may make me seem like a tourist. Actually, I was anything but. Our seven weeks were crowded with work, and hard work, almost every day. But I did get around to see quite a few of the intriguing sights of that fabulous country. My favorite method of seeing Bangkok and its people was by riding the streetcars, or tramcars, as they are called there. The cars are high, so I got a good view of everything. I was probably the first American the Siamese had ever met riding on their streetcars, and they treated me wonderfully. I didn’t know how much the fare was, so I kept offering a tical—or nickel, worth just about five cents in American money. But none of the conductors would ever take it. I guess they figured that since I was sightseeing I was entitled to free rides, as a matter of national hospitality. A nice custom, that.
The Siamese and the many Chinese who live and work in Thailand take their Buddhist religion very seriously, of course. In fact, we couldn’t quite finish the picture there because of that. We returned to Rome with one more scene to be done, that of a Chinese funeral. The Chinese actors in Thailand felt it was disrespectful to the spirits of their ancestors to stage a mock funeral.
Here in Rome I had more adventures, seeing this wonderful city with its ancient ruins and catacombs. I tossed a coin in the Trevi fountain, where the “Three Coins” picture wound up, and saw the Coliseum and the ruins along the Appian Way. I also filled up on ice cream and fresh milk. But perhaps you’d be more interested in some of the personal things that happened.
For instance, a very curious thing was when Jo Van Fleet and I put on a make believe Oscar ceremony, for the cameras. As you probably remember, Jo won “Best Supporting Actress” honors last year, and so she was scheduled to give out the Oscar to the “Best Supporting Actor” this year. Since I was lucky enough to get a nomination for that award, and we were both in Rome, the Academy people thought it would be smart to make a film of Jo presenting the wonderful little statuette to me—just in case. They figured that if I didn’t win, I’d at least have the film to comfort myself with!
And that reminds me, while I was in Bangkok I heard the wonderful news about my winning the Foreign Press Correspondents award. Since I couldn’t very well commute back to Hollywood to pick it up, much as I’d have liked to, I sent a cable to my friend Vera Miles, asking her to accept it for me—in “Friendly Persuasion” language. “it will pleasure me if thee will accept my award,” I cabled her, and then added, “And send those hamburger buns you promised!” She never did!
Another thing I did in Rome was to have lunch with the writer Ben Hecht. I was anxious to meet him because my dad made his big hit in Mr. Hecht’s famous play “The Front Page.” Dad died when I was only five, and I don’t remember much about him, so I enjoyed listening to Mr. Hecht reminisce. He told me that when producer Jed Harris suggested my dad for the leading role of the editor, he’d objected strongly. He says he was very glad he was overruled! Another thing I discussed with Mr. Hecht is the possibility of my doing his picture “Aphrodite,” along with maybe Ava Gardner and Elsa Martinelli. It would be a challenge.
Another thing I did in Rome was go shopping for clothes. You know how all the girls who arrive here head straight for the renowned fashion shops? Well, I didn’t exactly do that but I did buy a dinner jacket—my first. Up to then I’d been renting them.
It’s been marvelous traveling in strange places, not just as a sightseer, but as a working actor. And it’s been especially nice to be able to write to you Photoplay readers about it. I should have written sooner but I’m a lousy letter writer, I’m afraid. I’ve seen new places, met wonderful people, in Italy and in Thailand and en route in between them and America—and I’ve loved every bit of it. In fact, I told Irwin Franklin that I intend to go back to Bangkok on my honeymoon. And I will too—provided I find the right girl, of course! But for now, I’m kind of looking forward to getting home—and finding an apartment for myself.
LOOK FOR: Tony Perkins in Paramount’s “The Lonely Man” and “The Tin Star” and Columbia’s “The Sea Wall.”
It is a quote. PHOTOPLAY MAGAZINE JUNE 1957