Friday, May 21, 2010

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Bigmouth

My latest find is a perfectly preserved copy of the June 7, 1936, issue of newspaper supplement Screen & Radio Weekly. It contains a profile of my father, who at age 28 had recently appeared in his first feature film, "The Scoundrel." Apparently he was the same loud dresser and talker--and spendthrift ("Anyone who lives within his means suffers from a lack of imagination.")--in youth as he was in his later years.

I didn't scan the fuzzy photo that headed the article; the one just below is a 1936 publicity still from "More than a Secretary." However, the cartoon is within the same section of text as the print version.

Who IS That Guy?

The Name Is Lionel Stander and Here Is His Story, Which Should Answer a Lot of Fans’ Questions

By Barbara Barry

“Madam, what you think of my work is exquisitely unimportant.”

His voice has all the romantic timbre of a rip-saw howling its way through a stubborn pine knot. But, since his pioneer screen appearance, as the dogmatic poet in “The Scoundrel,” men, women and children have been nudging one another, pointing (in a manner that would certainly upset Emily Post) and demanding: “Who IS that man?”

Lionel Stander is the name, folks, and it’s almost as surprising as the Broadway hillbilly suit he was wearing the first time we caught up with him on a Columbia studio set.

Briefly, Stander was born on the wrong side of the New York tracks, which doesn’t bother him a bit. His first job was that of office boy in a window shade factory, and bothered him even less.

Without in the least appreciating the honor, he found himself shoved into college plays at the University of North Carolina, where he was striving to polish off the rough edges of a Bronx education. And one sip of the thespic nectar was enough to send him galloping for home, to hang around the casting offices until the breal reak came along.

“I played everything from thunder and lightning, off stage, to dead bodies falling out of secret panels,” he said. “One night, I landed on a carpet tack and they found out I had a voice.”

“Is that what you call it?” we wondered.

“And, in no time all,” he ignored us, “they handed me a part with one whole ‘side’!” Page, to you all.

That was the beginning of a colossal career. He met Ben Hecht, and Ben faithfully promised him a part in his new show, “The Great Magoo.”

But came the opening night, with Stander viewing the remains from a gallery seat. A lone, rugged individualist.

“It was a crushing blow to the Stander stamina,” he assured us. “But, when the show folded, seeral weeks later, I stowed my gloating in an old gloat bag that I usually carry in case of fire (shades of Joe Cook!) borrowed all the high-powered clothes I could find, and went down to sympathize with Ben.

“Ben was in his office, playing tick-tack-toe on the backs of his creditors’ statements, when I sauntered in, looking like a glorified chorus boy in my borrowed finery.”

With an ill-suppressed groan of anguish, Mr. Hecht looked at Mr. Stander. “What are you laid out for?” he asked. “A Mardi Gras? Why, I knew you when you were an unemployed actor, cooling your round heels in the lobby of the Billy Rose office.”

Mr. Stander looked right back at Mr. Hecht. “Yeah?” he said. “And I knew you ‘way back when you wrote ‘Erik Dorn’—and if you can sell out, why can’t I?”

So, on to “The Scoundrel,” and the eventual nudges, and pointing fingers. And Hollywood.

Stander is the wordiest guy we’ve ever met up with. Big words he uses, dragging hard on them and tingeing them with a quantity of smooth sarcasm We let them fall (those we missed, and they were plenty), feeling that the end must be along about here, somewhere. But no. On and on he talked. And when he’d used up every word in the dictionary, he made up more. Hand embroidered. Extravagantly hyperbolical. Whe-e-e!

After his success in “The Scoundrel,” Stander visited an old vaudeville pal who was living in a cheap hotel in one of the less imposing sections of New York.

Coming down in the elevator, well after midnight, he found himself the object of the elevator boy’s furtive scrutiny. It was pretty disconcerting, but Stander’s a big fellow and felt quite able to cope with any situation, either of brain or brawn.

Suddenly, the elevator slowed down between floors. The good looking though slightly dissipated lad turned to him.

“Your hair is like a tortured midnight,” he said earnestly, almost yearningly.

Stander gasped. His eyebrows flew up and disappeared [illlegible] the “tortured midnight.” That pugnacious lower lip slid out another inch.

“But as we slid down the two remaining floors, it suddenly dawned on me that the kid had merely quoted one of my lines in “'The Scoundrel.'”

“As he was on night duty, and I didn’t have anything particular to do, we got to talking. And, do you know, that small-time elevator operator turned out to be one of the most interesting and intelligent people I’ve ever met?”

It’s a small world, I guess. Or, is it?

Remember the rocky-throated menace that scared the daylights out of small children, on Fred Allen’s radio program several years ago? That was Stander.

He had written a script for radio purposes and peddled it practically all over New York before Allen got hold of it and liked it well enough to invite the author in for an interview.

“Mr. Stander?” Fred said politely.

“Right!” rasped Mr. Stander.

Allen blinked and bounced back in his chair. “Whew!” he exclaimed. “Say that again, will you?”

“Right!” grated the obliging Mr. Stander.

“That’s fine,” Allen smiled. “I wasn’t sure. I mean, that really did come out of you, didn’t it?”

So, the Allen Hour acquired a human buzz-saw and Stander liked the idea so well that he stayed with it for over two years.

“Then the cinema got me,” he said archly, “and here I am. Prostraing myself upon the glorified altar of Art and Frenzied Finance!”

We were off again, and it was way past tea time, too.

Stander is absolutely in favor of Hollywood. So much so that he has already built a home for his wife and two-year-old daughter, who, he says, “Seems to be perfectly normal in spite of her father.”

He draws an amazing salary for one who has been milking the Golden Cow for such a short time, and he would spend every bit of it if it weren’t for his manager, who sees to it that the Stander income is wisely invested.

“I’m on the dole,” he grimaced. “The guy knows me better than I know myself, so all I get is a weekly allowance. And, when that’s gone, I either have to hibernate or pan-handle until next week’s check comes around.

“I need a wet nurse,” he went on, “and it’s comforting to know that I won’t be mowing lawns at the poor house a few years from now when Hollywood gets tired of me.”

But Hollywood doesn’t tire easily of such unique personalities. In fact, the entire populace (with the exception of Uncle Herman, who is laid up with laryngitis, right now) is actually howling for “more Stander.” So, you’re safe for a while, methinks.

Who is that man? Ask no more, kiddies.

He’s a double G man (gerund and genitive); a new Gabriel over ennuied Hollywood. Or something.


Katharine Weber said...

Joe Cook! The star of Fine and Dandy!

Bella Stander said...

OMG, so it is! Now I have to look up Joe Cook's gloat bag.