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Compact Digest (October 1957)

"James MacArthur: Is he starting something?"

by Rex Lardner

The son of Helen Hayes is winning his own share of fame just by acting natural

Ever since Marlon Brando mumbled and shuffled his way to fame as the Neanderthal Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire, aspiring actors by the dozen have been imitating his slurred speech and his surly mannerisms. Thus it is pleasant to come upon a young actor who lends more than a kind of hostile withdrawal to a part and who seems to be as genuine and complete a personality as you'd find at a track meet.

His name is James MacArthur, and critics of the "naturalistic" school of acting speak warmly of him. He may be considered to be their champion in the rebellion -- although he's probably not aware that there is a rebellion -- against the stereotype so many actors are patterning themselves after.

Like Brando, MacArthur is a forceful personality; men respect and girls swoon over him. Representing the upbeat as against the downbeat, the open faced as against the shadowy, it is possible that in time he may have as great an effect on modern acting techniques as Brando and the late James Dean did.

The son of Helen Hayes and the late Charles MacArthur, Jim is the star of the movie The Young Stranger, and has just completed shooting [The] Light in the Forest for Walt Disney. He has what is called an open-end multiple picture summers-only contract with RKO -- and you don't hardly ever see them kind any more. He has passed all his freshman subjects at Harvard (although he had to drop off the Freshman swimming team to do it ); he has an imposing record collection; he has a goodly amount of Brooks Brothers suits in his wardrobe; and, as might be expected, he has a deeply ingrained sense of independence.

Picturewise and TV-wise, he is mighty hot property -- this after one movie and one TV show. Of his acting in Stranger, his fellow-player, the sensitive, talented Kim Hunter said, "It's amazing that a youngster with no formal theatre training can have such a superb sense of timing and a sure-footed knowledge of acting."

Jim was eighteen when Stranger was shot in Hollywood and, despite the fact that it's a low-budget movie with no big name star and is being shown for the most part in smaller theatres, the picture has created tremendous impact. In a sense, it is a kind of showpiece for youthful skill, enthusiasm and ingenuity. Robert Dozier, Stuart Millar and John Frankenheimer -- the picture's author, producer and director, respectively -- are all in their mid twenties. Only Millar had had previous motion-picture experience. To MacArthur's and the director's credit, he is widely thought of by critics not as an actor but as justifiably bitter Hal -- a sensitive, nice (if hot-tempered), misunderstood kid.

Basically, MacArthur is something like Ditmar and might react the same way if he were thrown into similar circumstances -- in perpetual conflict with a condescending, mistrusting, pompous father. The reason is that Jim epitomizes the varying moods, the buoyancy, the self-confidence and the occasional self-doubts of the average elder teenager.

Stocky and square-jawed, he is a very physical-minded, down-to-earth, realistic, ingratiating young man. He is a leader and an athlete. At Solesbury [sic] High in Bucks County, he was president of the student council and on the varsity football, baseball and basketball teams; captaining the last in his senior year.

He digs, as they say, archeology and anthropology. He smokes and he drinks beer. In bull sessions, he can hold his own defending Socrates against the Aristotelians or single blessedness against the advantages of marriage. (He has a very cute blond girl friend who is studying dramatics, but he wants to get a great deal done before marrying.) He's the backbone in the corridor broom fights in his dorm -- Matthews Hall -- at Harvard. He reads Mad, Dante, Max Shulman and the Iliad. He's no temperamental, esoteric-thinking actor, and he dislikes what might be called the unnatural "naturalistic" school of acting. He admires Laurence Olivier and Michael Redgrave, refuses comment on James Dean.

Much more than the opinions of the adult world he sets foot into part of the time, MacArthur cares about the opinions of his contemporaries. He wants to be accepted by, and be a part of, a contemporaneous group. He is more concerned with what the Harvard Crimson thinks of his acting than the judgments of theatre critics. It is conceivable he would rather receive an accolade like, “Man, you really laid it on,” from his roommate and broom-war ally, Peter Birrell, than laurels from the Hollywood Academy of Arts and Sciences. Naturally, he likes to have a word of praise from the world’s greatest actress -- his mother.

“Don’t ever be an actor.” That was the advice given to Jim as he grew up in Nyack. It came from time to time from his father, the late Charles MacArthur, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and author.

MacArthur, in his earlier days, used to charter planes and drop bottles on the sumptuous houses of pretentious Hollywood producers. He felt, apparently, that the trials of the actor -- bouts with too much triumph and too much failure alike -- were too stern a test for anyone whom he loved to struggle with.

Jim himself was not overly keen about the performing end of show business until, after a casual meeting with a television producer, he was shown a script for the TV play, Strike a Blow [sic]. (For the movie, the title was changed.) Jim felt immediate empathy for Hal Ditmar in this version of a teenager’s search for understanding and read for the part.

Oddly enough, acting does not -- or did not, anyway -- come easily to MacArthur. The reading was unimpressive, and he knew it. However, he was so eager to do the part that Mark Hanna, Miss Hayes’ long-time friend and manager, prevailed on the producer to fly Jim to Hollywood, arrange for a few days’ coaching, and allow him to do a second reading. This time MacArthur introduced a vitality and earnestness to the characterization that markedly enhanced the play. He, and it, got unanimous praise from the TV critics. Charles MacArthur, after seeing the TV version, was never so pleased with anything.

Miss Hayes has never instructed Jim in acting or coached him for a part, but she has always encouraged his fascination with the theatre. When he was nine <sic>, he appeared onstage at a summer theatre in Maryland. Later, in a Massachusetts theatre, his mother arranged for him to appear in a mob scene. At another summer theatre, he was a parking lot attendant and assistant electrician; later, between walk ons, he became chief electrician and played one of Father Day’s red-headed sons in Life With Father. Not one to do things by halves, Jim used a special red dye to color his hair one night; the others were using powder. “My hair came out such a wild glaring red,” he says, “that everybody else’s red hair looked a brownish gray. After the curtain came down, Howard Lindsay talked to me. My ears still burn.”

MacArthur’s other acting experiences have been either sporadic or informal. When his mother was learning a part, he would sometimes help out by reading the other actors’ lines. “Life with mother,” he points out, “is like living with Victoria Regina, Mary of Scotland, Cleopatra and Harriet Beecher Stowe all rolled into one. A sense of the theatre can’t help but rub off on you.”

A sense of irreverent fun must have rubbed off on Jim, too, from his father. As a youngster, Jim’s hobby was pushing grown-ups into his parents’ pool when he was sure there was water in it. Later, in a high-school play, he conspired to switch books on an actor who took advantage of the prop to read from it instead of memorizing his lines. The young actor got beet-red when he noticed he had the wrong book, and he only got through the role because the prompter hollered out his speech for him from the wings, line by line.

During the shooting of Stranger, Jim’s penchant for prankishness paid off. After a lawn-mowing bit, Jim and his movie sidekick were lolling on the lawn. Suddenly Jim leaped to his feet and, shouting loudly, “Have some grass!” dumped an entire boxful on his startled friend. Then, seizing the mower and shouting, “Have a lawn-mower!” he attempted to clip his friend short. As Jim charges and his friend dodged, the director shot the sequence. Neither actor was much good, musclewise, for a few days afterward, but the scene had a natural exuberance that few pictures ever capture.

Jim, who sometimes talks with a rapidity that seems to indicate ideas are coming to him faster than he can express them, is refreshing in that he refuses to alter his young-man’s instincts to conform to the more conservative adult pattern.

His quarters at Harvard, overlooking Harvard Yard, are the picture of informality. Full and empty paper bags clutter the room, and a huge stuffed bird perches on a book-covered table. On the bookshelves, Shakespeare mingles with Henry Fielding, Sartre with Galaxy magazine. An old-fashioned radio with a T-shaped antenna stands near a second-hand icebox. Comfortable, if ancient, chairs are strewn about. On a battered table, next to Roget’s Thesaurus, is a monstrous glass beaker. On the three-speed record-player are albums of Kousevitzky and Fats Domino.

MacArthur happens to have chosen one of the few universities in the country without a dramatic school, although he manages to do a little radio acting on the Harvard University station. (He’s more interested in getting a well rounded education than formal dramatic training.) Compared to his summers, which he spends acting or rehearsing or doing technical theatrical work, his academic life is, for the most part, rather leisurely.

His impression of Hollywood -- handy for anyone’s well-rounded education -- is that it is pretty confusing, especially on the set, and that a certain amount of back-biting goes on there, generally off the set. Jim gets along fine with the stagehands, playing cards with them in between takes. “They’re great guys and very sharp at cards,” he says.

Like his mother, a great Washington Senators fan, he is extremely fond of baseball. He is a pretty fair dancer, likes folk music and drives a Thunderbird, given to him as a high school graduation present.

Miss Hayes and her son sail together, swim together and go partying together. Not long ago they were asked to appear on the Arthur Murray Show and dance together. After exchanging banter with Katherine Murray, they overcame the competition furnished by Don Ameche and partner, and Sam Levenson and partner, winning first prize with a flashy version of the Mexican Hat Dance.

“We practiced quite a bit for the dance, even though we were on and off very quick,” Jim said. Then, in a sort of expression of his philosophy, he added, “Both of us feel that unless you give something your whole attention, you can’t do it right. That’s especially true of acting. You want to feel you did your best to earn your reward.” Jim’s reward? Probably a pleased smile from Helen Hayes.

James MacArthur

James MacArthur

James MacArthur

James Daly, James MacArthur

Helen Hayes, James MacArthur

Joyce Bulifant, James MacArthur and friends

James MacArthur

James MacArthur

James MacArthur, Helen Hayes

James MacArthur, Helen Hayes

Helen Hayes, James MacArthur

James MacArthur

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