Bill Shatner’s adventures in Hollywood
started when M-G-M signed him for $2,000 a week and then left him penniless for a month. He's been fitted for a wig and befriended by Yul Brynner but "the Hollywood process” still has him guessing
Last April William Shatner, a twenty-sixyear-old actor from Montreal, flew into Hollywood from New York to do a halfhour TV show. He had come a few days early because he wanted to make a routine exploratory round of “the majors”—the five top film studios. The majors, who regularly scout network TV for possible finds, already had Shatner’s name and face on file; but back in New York his agent had advised. “If they see you in person, it makes a difference.” The next morning his agent's Hollywood representative began by showing Shatner to M-G-M out in Culver City.
They went straight to the office of Mel Balarino. M-G-M's casting director. Balarino looked Shatner over. What he saw was a splendid young bobcat of a male, with a close cap of cinnamon hair, tufted eyebrows and white teeth bared in a grin of undisciplined charm. Back on Canadian television the grin, the charm and the look of rude young vigor had made Shatner one of CBC’s few matinee idols, with his own fan clubs. As an actor in radio, in Montreal and Ottawa repertory and at Stratford the same attributes had consigned him to a succession of romantic roles. He has played the light-tenor range from Prince Charming in broadcast fairy tales to Lucentio, the pawky young lover in The Taming of the Shrew. When he went to Hollywood he had already signed to do I.aertcs. Ophelia’s brother, in this season's Hamlet at the Stratford Festival.
Balarino, the casting director, said. “Come along with me.” They walked out and up a flight of stairs to the office of Pandro Berman, an independent producer who has made a string of box-office successes for M-G-M.
When Berman had surveyed Shatner in turn he said. “I would like him to be in our movie.” “What is it?" Shatner asked politely, but Berman w'ent right on: “Take him to meet Richard,” he said.
So they went out and back dow'n the stairs to the office of Richard Brooks, an independent w'riter-director who also w'orks frequently for M-G-M. Brooks pointed his finger at Shatner as soon as they walked in the door. “That's the one.” he said. “I want him.”
Thus, as it sometimes does happen in real life. Bill Shatner got discovered by Hollywood and won a lead in a big motion picture.
He's playing the part of Alexey, the wholesome one of the three brothers in a magniloquent Pandro Berman - M-G-M production of T he Brothers Karamazov. Brooks, who is directing the picture, freehanded the scenario himself from Fyodor Dostoyevsky's psychological novel. Shatner is what is known as a “featured player,” which means he gets secondary billing, his own dressing room and a junior star's salary. He is keeping the gross a secret but admits that during shooting he earns about five thousand dollars every continued on page 84
Continued from page 31
It was champagne and dreams'^ until his agent warned, “Don't mortgage yours If to Hollywood!"
three weeks. It took him a whole year, including a successful season in New York TV. to earn that much in 1956.
The senior stars in the show are baldpated Yul Brynner, Old Vic actress Claire Bloom and Maria Schell, a winsome and spirited import from German films. The Brothers Karamazov is due for release early in 1958.
In the great Hollywood legend, being “discovered” signifies a consummation and a change of state, rather like “and so they were married” in the fairy tales. Latter-day footnotes insist that neither necessarily leads to living happily ever after, but the legend itself persists. Shatner, because he had read the footnotes, thought he knew exactly what to expect.
He’s had his eye on Hollywood almost sir.ee the moment, six years ago, when he suddenly decided he'd rather act than take over Admiration Clothes, the Montreal garment business his father had built up to bequeath to him. Shatner was a popular young buck on the McGill campus at the time, but as soon as he’d pocketed his degree in economics he started to make his way in Canadian repertory, radio and television. At each of several subsequent crossroads he explored the one that led to the U. S. and the big time. Even two years ago, when he nearly signed an indifferent long-term contract with Twentieth Century-Fox, he thought of Hollywood as “the answer to all my dreams.” Last year when he was co-winner of the Stratford Festival’s Tyrone Guthrie scholarship he didn't use the swag, as others have, to study theatre in England or on the continent. Instead, he grubstaked himself to a try at New York TV and, just as he’d suspecteo it might. New York TV subtended the moment when Richard Brooks, out in Culver City, pointed his finger and said, “That’s the one.”
Someone in M-G-M’s casting department had caught a TV drama in which Shatner starred and had suggested he might do for Alexey. When Shatner happened along in person soon afterward everyone could see at once that he had the qualifications. Or, as an M-G-M publicity girl put it recently, “He had the right face for Alexey. Besides, in the film he’s sort of bracketed with Claire Bloom and she being English and Old Vie and Bill being Canadian and having done Shakespeare, it seemed suitable. You know?”
M-G-M conceded him a rare nonexclusive contract whereby the studio has an option on his services for two pictures per year but leaves him free to work elsewhere in between.
The week-end the deal was concluded Shatner, in his own words, “went Hollywood" for two days. After a long-distance cal' to Stratford to say he wouldn't be coming after all, he went out and drank champagne cup, with gardenias floating therein, from a hollowed-out coconut with a two-foot straw. And he almost bought a house with two fireplaces, a pool, a barbecue pit and a glass-enclosed living room. His agent was hysterical. “Don’t mortgage yourself to Hollywood!” he screamed, just in time.
“Don’t have to take roles you don’t want, just to meet the next payment.”
Shatner’s only splurge on the strength of the contract has been an AustinHealey sports car. A newsboy in Beverly Hills uses the same model to deliver the morning paper.
Shatner was told to report in a month, on June 3, for costume fittings. Shooting was due to start on June 10.
He drove the Austin-Healey across the continent at the end of May with his bride of nine months, Gloria Rosenberg Shatner. He first met her in New York when he was acting in Tyrone Guthrie's production of Tamburlaine the Great and she was dancing in the Copacabana line. “The Copacabana,” Gloria explains in her breathless young-girl’s voice, “is the one where they wear clothes.” Gloria, twenty-four, is a beautiful shy Torontoborn girl with wheat-colored hair, high cheekbones, wide eyes and a wide soft mouth. Her stage name is Gloria Rand, but her career has been mostly dramatic academies, lonely rooms in girls’ studio clubs, fruitless knocking on casting directors’ doors and occasional tantalizing breaks that led nowhere. Any reviews she’s had have been good. This season, after four years’ trying, she’d finally got an assignment at Stratford—as the Player Queen in Hamlet—hut had resigned when Shatner did.
No welcome mai for a Brother
On the west coast the Shatners found themselves a furnished bachelor fiat for a hundred and twenty-five dollars a month in Westwood Village, a pleasant community between Bel-Air and Beverly Hills in West Los Angeles. Hollywood itself is to the northeast along Sunset or Wilshire Boulevards; Culver City and M-G-M are to the southeast. The blazing California sun filters into their one large room through matchstick blinds, kept drawn for privacy because the fiat opens onto a sundeck with a communal swimming pool. The Shatners have kept on last season’s Jackson Heights apartment as a New York base.
Shatner duly reported for his costume fittings, reread a paperback edition of The Brothers Karamazov, got his mimeographed copy of Brooks’ scenario and, as he puts it, “had a quick steep in the role." He found his part was a fat one but. in Brooks’ version, so relentlessly fresh-cheeked that he might have been back playing young fairy-tale princes or young friends to the hero. This time he was a young monk, but that was the only difference. He was not greatly surprised.
But a tiny disquietude was borne in on him. M-G-M was putting out no welcome mat for its new young find. No one from M-G-M’s vast publicity department had got in touch with him. There had been only one press release that mentioned his name — a casting announcement for The Brothers Karamazov. It had said that the three brothers would be played by Yul Brynner, Richard Basehart and Richard Shatner.
The Shatners had been braced for the manifold perils of Hollywood process-
ing; they had not been braced for its omission.
Furthermore, no one had arranged for Shatner to meet his fellow cast members, nor had Brooks called. “1 was hurt,” says Shatner good-humoredly. After six years on the legitimate stage he has acquired the actor’s habit of self-examination; he can trace this process from the campus when he was, he says, “an insensitive athletic boy,” through his first season at Stratford when he felt like an outsider and got by on “sort of raw knack,” then through a painful period, "when 1 looked into myself and found myself wanting,” to the point where, because of reading, training and possibly success, "I finally relaxed.”
Three days before shooting was to start Shatner, all tensed up again, called Brooks’ office and asked the director to get in touch with him. “I was completely in a vacuum,” he recalls. “1 had to establish some sort of human contact.” A day later Brooks called back and asked Shatner round for coffee on Sunday morning. A tall tanned man in his forties, with bright blue eyes and a grizzled crew-cut. Brooks met Shatner at the door in faded denims and bare feet. Shatner came back and told Ciloria, “Well, that's all right. He’s a very sensitive man.” He once said, “I always find someone to take the place of my father.”
At 7 a.m. on Monday Shatner presented himself at M-G-M, but no one at the Casting entrance had been told to let him in. He tried three other entrances and then went back and convinced Casting of his credentials, in the make-up department he was coated with orange pancake and fitted with a monkish, brown skull cap of hair. A heavy dark-brown-felt monk’s cassock is almost his only costume in the whole film.
Shatner didn't know about the studio limousine service, so he hiked to Studio 28, at the far end of the back lot. Here he knew what to expect: a cavernous gymnasium with a Technicolor set as bright as a ball park under a blaze of klieg lights; stagehands and technicians hustling around the shadowy perimeter like park officials under the grandstand.
No one seemed to notice Shatner. He stood around for a while, then asked someone what he ought to be doing. He gave his name and was taken along to a portable dressing room resembling a midget boxcar. A sign on the door read “William Shatner.” Alongside this dressing room was another, labeled “Yul Brynner.” Bill went into the one marked Shatner and looked around at the studio couch, the dressing table, the mirror and the extra chair; then he came back out again.
Somewhere in the gymnasium someone clapped his hands; a voice called, "On the set!” Shatner hurried to an opening between the flats and saw Brooks, in his denims. Brooks didn’t see him. Brooks called out curtly, “Let’s go. Rehearsals, everyone.” Someone shoved Shatner along behind the flat to a door opening into the set, said “You’re on, Mr. Shatner, " and nudged him through. Summoning his opening lines, Shatner made his entrance.
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Not four feet in front of him was a bear. The bear snarled and lunged at him. There was a rattle of chains. A bottle dropped, spilling Coca-Cola on the floor. A man hit the bear on the snout with a length of lead pipe. Brooks said. “Well, move. Bill!” Shatner said, “May we try it again?”
Shatner says now. “That first day I felt as if I had two left feet.” He subsequently found that the bear was local color for a Russian marketplace set, that the trainer customarily bribed him through his paces with Coke and used
the pipe to disengage him from the bribe this side of satiety.
Just before lunch the first day Brooks came over during a setting-up break and said “Meet your brother." This was Shatner’s introduction to Yul Brynner. Brynner politely invited Shatner into his portable dressing room where they chatted for a few moments about sports cars and Tamburlaine. Brynner sometimes claims to be part Tartar. Shatner met the other stars one by one during the next few days as each turned up for his first scheduled scene.
That first day ai lunch break the set cleared quickly. Brynner went to his permanent dressing room where he has all his meals served. Brooks disappeared somewhere else. Shatner finally found his way to the bright noisy studio commissary and ate alone.
For his first three weeks as M-G-M’s newest discovery Shatner was broke. He found that in Hollywood, where a verbal agreement is binding, there had been no hurry about processing his contract. It was still in the hands of New York lawyers, so no pay was being put through
for him. Normally an actor is paid weekly. Shatner and his wife dined on hamburgers at Smokey Joe's. In the evenings they piled into the Austin-Healey and prowled the spiral wooded streets of Bel-Air, listening to the crickets in the scented night air and peering wistfully in lighted windows.
By mid-July, though, they had money in their pockets and a secondhand Nash station wagon for Gloria to drive when Shatner was at work; they’d sailed to Catalina Island, driven to Tijuana for the bullfights and been to the races.
At the studio, work was going well. Shatner, having combed the script for actors’ chances, had announced triumphantly to Gloria, “I’ve found a couple of places where 1 can show zeal.” Brooks had been heard to say, “Good boy,” after a take. On the set Brooks proved to be a tense excitable director, given to sudden childish outbursts. He had stormed off the set because someone had borrowed the pencil he keeps on the table beside his canvas-back chair.
Production was being pushed along quickly because all Brynner’s scenes had to be shot by September 1: Brynner had a stop-date clause in his contract because he had another film scheduled to start in early fall.
Where will the big break lead?
Shatner often ate lunch in the commissary with a minor player whom Gloria had known in New York. On the set he’d made friends with a stunt man who was teaching him how to fake a punch. Occasionally, in setting-up breaks. Brooks or Brynner would call him over to their group to chat. One day Shatner came back to the flat, stifling a huge grin and sporting a big-bowled pipe. Gloria noticed it immediately. “Yul Brynner gave it to me,” said Shatner off-handedly. “1 was complaining about breaking in mine and he went off to his dressing room and got this for me.” He stroked the bowl. “Must be a twenty-eight-dollar pipe,” he said.
Gloria, who had met no movie stars since she got to Hollywood, had enrolled in a nearby ballet school and was in constant touch with her Hollywood agent. So far, though she’d read for a couple of parts, nothing had turned up.
They had both begun watching their diets again: steak, fresh fruit, yogurt. While others in their apartment block lounged by the pool with gin drinks and suntan oil, Shatner would withdraw into a corner and skip an imaginary rope. Then he’d dive into the pool and later, when he’d straightarmed himself out, would report to Gloria, “Fifteen lengths that time. Best exercise there is.” He had already ordered a toupee to camouflage a thinning spot in the cinnamon hair.
Nearly every free afternoon he and Gloria practiced their singing and voice projection. They picked passages from Shakespeare and read them aloud in five or six different styles. Sometimes they’d collaborate on a new play they’re writing. One of Shatner’s plays. Dreams, was produced by the CBC in the spring of 1956, before he and Gloria were married. They both had leads in it.
In short, Shatner has found nothing in Hollywood that he can’t relate to his familiar routine as an actor or to the film world he’s read about. He knew it would not be glamorous. He was not really surprised to find that it was nerveracking, occasionally lonely, often uncertain. “This is just the big break, the first plateau,” he says. “From here I could go forward or I could go back.”
But Shatner had, one way or another, expected being discovered by Hollywood
to make at least one difference: organized publicity. He knew all about the press agents, the impertinent questions, the stories planted in L.ouella Parsons’ column, perhaps a false rumor or two.
So far it hasn’t been like that at all, and Shatner is mystified. “You’d think it would be good for the picture,” he says in puzzlement. “I’m playing one of the three brothers and I'm an unknown in movies.”
Midway through the shooting, this summer, the publicity girl that M-G-M’s Publicity Department says is assigned to Shatner didn't even know if he was married.
When she learned he was she seemed disappointed. “It’s easier to do publicity if they’re single,” she said. “Then we could pair him up with one of our starlets and do a layout . . . oh, maybe of them visiting Marineland.”
She paused, obviously pursuing a train of thought. “I wonder what his build’s like in bathing trunks,” she said. A brown-felt monk’s cassock is an unrevealing garment. “I just did a nice beefcake layout at the beach with one of our promising young actors. Beefcake, that’s male cheesecake.”
Why no publicity for Shatner so far? M-G-M feels it has enough on its hands promoting Claire Bloom, who is from England, and Maria Schell, who is from Austria. “It’s a big prestige picture,” said the publicity girl. “We’ve got to build up the stars: nobody knows them here.”
“Besides, it’s better for Bill,” she explained glibly. “We can do a long slow build-up, like we did for Debbie Reynolds, you know? We did a long slow build-up for Debbie and now she’s at the top she’s staying there.”
After a minute she added carelessly, "Besides, we might publicize him now and then not pick up his option. That’d be a waste of time.”
Around the time of these comments Shatner started looking into procedures for hiring a personal press agent. Having got his break he is not one to remain maladjusted for long to any part of the Hollywood picture.
But it’s not easy. On one of the few occasions when they met, Shatner and the M-G-M publicity girl talked about Steve Forrest, actor Dana Andrews’ brother, and Leslie Nielsen, an Edmonton-born actor who’s under contract to M-G-M. Shatner mentioned that he'd seen Nielsen in a science-fiction movie called Forbidden Planet.
“Yes, he’s a good boy,” said the publicity girl. She gave Shatner a sidelong glance. “Steve Forrest turned that part down, you know. He thought he could pick and choose.”
“What happened?” asked Shatner.
“He was under contract, so he was suspended for the duration of the shooting.” She darted another quick glance. “What with one thing and another they stretched it out for a whole nine months.”
She smiled brightly. “But Nielsen took the part and now he’s going right ahead.” Nielsen is currently starring in a picture called Tammy and the Bachelor, with Debbie Reynolds.
Shatner didn’t reply and after a moment he excused himself: he was stripped down to tight black jeans and a short-sleeved singlet and had to climb into his cassock in time for the afternoon’s shooting.
The publicity girl watched him walk away. “He’s a nice boy. He should do well,” she remarked briskly, “if he behaves himself.”
Her eyes narrowed. “I wonder,” she said, “if he’d be willing to do beefcake?” ★