James MacArthur Official Website: Welcome To My Digital Scrapbook!
James MacArthur Official Website Other Goodies Articles, Photos & Video Email Credits, Biography & Info News and Updates James MacArthur Official Website Logo

Motion Picture (July 1957)

"The Making of MacArthur"

By Howard Eisenberg

The inner problems of a teen-ager

In going from adolescence to adulthood, we are all tightrope walkers.

“I don’t know where I heard that line,” James MacArthur said, “but I think there’s a lot of truth in it.” He could have added, “And no one knows that better than me,” but he didn't.

When he was 16, his father told him, “Some kids are lucky. All they have to do is grow up. You’re different. While you’re getting to be a man, you’re going to have to master the world’s toughest trick -- walking in the footsteps of famous parents. Don’t trip, boy.”

Others have found it impossible not to. Edward G. Robinson, Jr. rebelled in armed robbery. Lana Turner’s daughter by running away from school. Diana Barrymore by drowning herself in bourbon and benzedrine.

But the son of actress Helen Hayes and playwright Charles MacArthur managed to keep his balance. It wasn’t -- and isn’t -- always easy.

During the filming of The Young Stranger, the movie which catapulted Jim to stardom, he overheard a conversation between two young actors.

“The kid’s not half bad,” one admitted grudgingly, after watching Jim do a gruelling emotional scene.

“Sure,” said the other, “but where would he be if his mother hadn’t gotten him the part in the first place?”

A less mature young man might have exploded, but Jim kept his peace. It was not the first time he had come up against this sort of thing; he knew it would not be the last. He had never traded in on the fame of his parents. He never would. If people wanted to be malicious, they would have to live with it -- not he.

Don McCook, athletic director at Solebury Prep School, had this to say of Jim: “The first few years he was here, I didn’t even know what his parents did. I remember his father showed me some kind of railroad pass once. Said nothing about the plays and movies he’d written, or the fact he’d won a Pulitzer prize. I had the vague impression that Charles MacArthur was an engineer of some kind. And his mother -- I didn’t find out her name was Helen Hayes until she came up to school to do a benefit show.”

Although Jim avoided the celebrity stigma at Solebury, his life there was not without complications. In fact, he was within an inch of being expelled.

Headmaster William Orrick describes Jim’s trouble as revolt against authority -- a revolt which occurred in the ninth grade.

“A little rebellion,” Orrick says, “is not entirely out of place. The students who amount to something in later life are often those who don’t completely conform. Jim’s offenses were things like smoking (strictly against the school rules), getting himself tossed out of class for spirited high-jinks, being chronically late for meals. Not serious offenses, really. But his name did start to come up at faculty meetings rather regularly.

“One of the causes of Jim’s trace-kicking was his being a ninth grade newcomer in a class that had been a unit since the seventh grade. I guess he had things to prove before he felt he would be accepted by his classmates. But more important than anything else, he was suffering a delayed reaction to the shock of his sister Mary’s death from polio.”

By the end of the year, the faculty sheet listing Jim’s various offenses -- and the penalties imposed -- was so long that things reached the Final Warning stage -- the last moment before expulsion. His parents were duly notified.

They played no Big Scene. Rather, wisely, they underplayed. The talk of Jim’s “apparent insecurity” naturally disturbed them. (“A mother feels badly when she hears things like that about a guy she’s brought up.”) But the MacArthurs had always let Jim make up his own mind.

With the imminent danger of expulsion from Solebury, a place he was truly fond of, Jim declared a truce with himself. As quickly as it had started, MacArthur’s mischievous rebellion ended.

He now began to pour his energies into constructive channels.

In football, he lined up against opposing guards who shook the scales at 220. Jim, a tough 135 pounds, was soon known as the Little Gibraltar of the Solebury line.

In baseball, he was known as a clutch hitter -- the right guy to have at bat when men were on bases.

In basketball, his ball-stealing and his steady shooting eye earned him the team captaincy.

Sports director Don McCook recalls, “Jim never set any great scoring records, but that’s unimportant. What really counts in the formative years is the proper blending of the three he’s -- what he thinks he is, what others think he is and what he really is. It seems to me that the ‘he’ Jim turned out to be is the kind of young man any parent would be proud of.”

Solebury’s graduating classes run a yearly prophecy naming certain students as “potential Broadway stars.” Jim’s steady girl, Joyce Bulifant, was so named. But Jim didn’t get a mention, because his interest in dramatics seemed quite limited. He appeared in You Can’t Take It With You. But he is more remembered for the part of Scrooge in A Christmas Carol. Not so much for his performance (“Anyone who remembered his lines,” Jim remembers, “got raves.”) as for an ad lib.

It was the last scene, and Scrooge was to present Mrs. Cratchett with “a large turkey.” But as he made his entrance, Jim suddenly knew he would not say the line as Dickens wrote it. The temptation was too great. “Mrs. Cratchett,” he improvised, “I have a large goose for you!”

Unlike a Tony Perkins, who always wanted to act, or an Eddie Fisher, who always wanted to sing, Jim’s ambitions were less exotic. (“When a fire-truck passed, I wanted to be a fireman. If it was an ice-cream truck -- well, what greater ambition could any little guy have?”)

But his mother saw clues, clues that “his pores were always open for acting.”

“When he was about eight,” she remembers, “he’d come back from school and dramatize the Viking story he had heard in class that morning. We’d sit there holding our breaths, afraid he’d realize how many parts he was acting out, get self-conscious and ring down the curtain. With that adorable little lisp -- it was wonderful!

“A few years later, we were all in England where I was appearing in Glass Menagerie. Jim loved to spend evenings at the theater. He’d go back with the Cockney stagehands, watch them playing ‘Shove Ha penny,’ I think they called it. He was a natural mimic. He’d come back and replay the entire game for us in dialect. He did an entire scene from Glass Menagerie -- the drunk scene -- word for word, movement for movement. I hadn’t even realized he was watching the play.

“Did he tell you about the time in Massachusetts? No? Well, his sister Mary and I were doing a new play in summer stock at Falmouth. He seemed so left out of things that I thought I’d humor him. I’m afraid I was being a bit patronizing, too. I asked him to watch the dress rehearsal the next day and write down any comments he had. When we got back to the cottage that night, he waited patiently until we’d finished dinner and were sitting on the porch. Then he pulled out a sheet of paper almost as big as he, and crammed full of notes. Very good criticisms they were, too. I remember one. He said, ‘When you walked off-stage in the first act, you stopped being an actress and became you again before you were fully out the door. Most of the house won’t see that. But, where I was sitting, on the side, they will.’ He had a list for Mary, too -- real tough, brotherly stuff. When he’d finished, he looked so serious, we couldn’t help it -- we burst out laughing. He felt better when we took some of his direction next day.”

In the years that followed, Jim did a couple of one-line roles in summer stock, spent a summer as electrician and parking lot attendant at a Cape Cod playhouse and did several dozen walk-ons in Europe one summer a few years ago when his mother was touring in Skin of Our Teeth.

He recalls: “I’d hang around backstage. If Allan Schneider, the director, didn’t happen to notice me, I didn’t go on. If he did, he’d say: ‘Hey -- you’re on tonight.’ It was just a walk-on for a crowd scene, but it was something to do to kill the evening.”

So, up to the point at which TV producer Martin Manulis stepped into the picture, Jim’s acting experience consisted principally of -- inexperience. Manulis was producing a TV show, starring Helen Hayes, and Jim dropped in at a rehearsal.

When Manulis was introduced to him, he said, “You’re exactly the type I’m after for a Climax script that’s coming up pretty soon. Done any acting?”

“Some,” said Jim, “I’d like to take a look at the script if I may.” The wheels began to roll.

His bold venture came as something of a shock to his mother. She had a “sinking feeling” when Jim showed her the Climax script he was soon to do before 30 million people. She had heard vague talk about his reading for the part. But having exerted no pressure for or against, she had no idea things had advanced that far.

“When I saw the script,” she recalls, “I wobbled inside. ‘My darling boy,’ I thought, ‘you’re sunk! What will happen when you get to the highly emotional scenes? You’ll never have the courage to let go.’

“Of course, I didn’t say these things. A mother would cut off her tongue first. But I truly lost my courage.”

Scripter Bob Dozier, himself only 26, adds the next chapter. “I read Jim for the first time in New York because Martin had to leave for the Coast. He was not good. My recommendation, I must admit, was that we look for someone else. But there was no rush about casting, so when he asked for another chance to read he got it. I still didn’t feel sure he was right. But he was so physically perfect for the part that John Frankenheimer, who directed, said, ‘Let me work with him.’ He did for a week or so -- and the improvement was remarkable.”

Recollections of the Big Night differ. Taking no changes, Manulis had an understudy primed for a last-minute replacement just in case Jim blacked out his lines. Jim remembers blowing several speeches in dress rehearsal -- and feared he would do the same, or worse, on the air. The moment the show went on, however, he lost his fear. The same can’t quite be said for his parents.

Helen Hayes was appearing on Broadway at the time. Charles MacArthur, unable to control his anxiety over Jim’s performance, refused to stay at home alone with the family TV set. He spent the evening backstage at the theater, and he and his wife watched the first act of Climax on the portable TV in Helen’s dressing room. Called to the stage for her own first act, Miss Hayes steeled herself and headed onstage. As soon as the first curtain came down, she rushed back to catch the closing minutes of Climax.

She found her usually articulate husband slouched in a chair, eyes glued to the TV screen, absolutely speechless. When the show went off the air, they stared at each other, then MacArthur gasped, “My Lord -- the kid's an actor! The family’s gonna eat this winter!”

When the script was bought for the movies, there was no hesitation about offering Jim the chance to repeat his TV success.

Kim Hunter, Jim’s mother in The Young Stranger feels that director John Frankenheimer was wonderful for Jim. “He’s young himself, still in his 20s, so he understands the young. He guarded Jim -- keeping people off the set until he felt at ease with the medium, the cameras and the situation. There was one kind of sticky day toward the end of rehearsals though when a lot of the brass came by to watch, and we all were in the very odd position of feeling we should put on a show. Jim came over to me and said: ‘I’m scared out of my wits.’ Finally, Johnny shooed everyone out -- big and little. After that, we all felt better.”

The studio executives, watching the daily rushes were quickly aware they were seeing an exciting new actor. Before long, they passed the big news to Jim: he was to be starred in this, his first movie. He had expected third or perhaps fourth billing.

Then the waiting game began. Originally, the picture was to have been premiered in November 1956. But RKO, which made The Young Stranger, was in the throes of reorganization and Jim’s picture was caught in the resultant confusion. By the time the reorganization was completed, November had run into April -- of 1957!

Jim nearly went crazy with all the waiting!

But the reviews, when the picture did finally open, were well worth waiting for.

Even more important, the public loved it. Teen-agers came flocking in to movie houses to see the new star.

Typical comments: “James MacArthur is a doll!” “Quite a guy!” “I’m starting a fan club.” Chorus: “We’ll join it!” ...

Will success spoil James Gordon MacArthur?

A college friend, who has known him since childhood, answers this way: "For Jim, an adopted kid, environment has substituted brilliantly for heredity. His personality is a perfect blend of the best of his parents, perhaps even more than might have been the case if he had been born to them. Charm, sense of humor -- all these things are Hayes-MacArthur traits. Jim if not about to be spoiled by anyone or anything.”

The Hayes-MacArthur humor was never more in evidence than two years ago, when a famous New York playhouse was rechristened the Helen Hayes Theater.

Already the shadow of Charlie MacArthur’s final illness was in evidence and, at the last minute, he agreed to forego the lavish theater ceremonies if Jim would go as his mother’s escort.

Helen Hayes entered the handsomely redecorated theater on her son’s arm; he escorted her to the stage, left her there alone, with the spotlight and the applause engulfing her fragile figure. She spoke movingly of her years in the theater, of her husband and her daughter Mary.

Then, Miss Hayes, her eyes glittering with tears and humor, addressed her son, now seated in the theater’s box of honor. Her line was something that could have been written by Charlie in one of his wildly funny days. “Poor Jim,” Helen said to the boy, “you do have a lot to live up to. Imagine having a building for a mother!”

In the past year, since his father’s death, Jim has learned to think for himself -- though he will listen to people he respects. When he decides, his taste is excellent. (“I discovered that, thank the Lord, very recently,” reports his mother. “He has been offered things that made a poor mother’s heart quake. For instance, the studio asked him to do a publicity stunt of the Presley type. He told me, ‘Mom, I’ve been looking back at your career. You never did anything like that. I think I’ll just skip it, too.’”)

Although he could have been spoiled (“I was always eager to buy him the things that he wanted,” says Mrs. MacArthur, “but he wouldn’t always take them.”) he wasn’t. His ‘39 Chevy was his transportation for some time, until a trip home from Cape Cod used up 11 quarts of oil. (The transmission was so badly shot that he’d drive into a station and say, “Check the gas -- fill up the oil!”)

What started as a family joke ended up with Jim behind the wheel of a very fancy sports car. His mother joked about a friend who sold Thunderbirds, asked if he’d like one dozen or two. Every time they talked, Jim needled her good-naturedly: “How’s the Thunderbird coming, Mom?” On graduation day, to his great pleasure, it did come.

As the man in the family, Jim calls his mother frequently from Harvard. His mother smiles as she says, “I always hear the operator’s voice first, with the words that are so right and so normal for a student away from home: ‘There is a collect call for you from a James MacArthur. Will you accept the charges?’”

Mrs. MacArthur is well aware that Jim’s budget wasn’t designed to allow for long-distance calls. “It seemed to me that the weekly allowance he’d figured for himself was pretty small, but I didn’t know how considerate he was being until I got an SOS saying he’d just have to have a cost-of-living hike. He enclosed an itemized list of laundry, toilet articles, everything. I phoned several recent Harvard graduates I knew and discovered that he’d been living on half of what the average freshman spent. He’d done it for almost his entire freshman year.”

The future? It looks good on all fronts for James Gordon MacArthur.

Career-wise, he’s tied loosely to RKO with a five-year contract. But RKO is making only one picture this summer and has no part in it that’s right for him -- and student Jim only works summers.

When the letter from RKO came telling him they had nothing for this year, Jim was let-down. “It’s a manic-depressive business, this show business,” he says. “One week you’re up -- the next you’re down. I guess I’ll be mowing lawns this summer.”

More likely, Jim will do a couple of TV shows and then take a trip to Europe with some of his Harvard buddies. There’s something cooking with Playhouse 90 for early fall to star him with a leading lady named Helen Hayes. They’d both like that -- although Jim, with a straight face, assures his mother he positively will not work with her unless he gets top billing.

With all this temptation before him, will he stick out his remaining three years at Harvard? His mother is a little worried about this. “It will be tough for him,” she says. “If a great script comes along in the middle of a school semester, and he has to turn it down, he may do a lot of second-thought brooding about missed opportunities.”

Jim doesn’t plan to worry about movie scripts, though. Like his mother, he feels four years at Harvard are too important. “The only thing that will get me out of here ahead of time,” he grins, “is flunking out.” And that is not likely to happen.

Not long ago, his mother clipped a magazine article and read it to her son. It was the old story, the untrue story, of how she had gotten him started in show business -- and how, without her, he wouldn’t have gotten his first plum part.

Said Jim, “It’ll be all right.”

“The only way to lick it,” she said, “is to find within yourself the strength to say, ‘I am me. What I do has no relationship to my parents.’ Within yourself you make some kind of secret pact, a pact that says, ‘I am James MacArthur -- not the son of so-and-so and so-and-so. I am me!’”

It’s a pact he has sworn never to break.

James MacArthur

James MacArthur, Joyce Bulifant

Joyce Bulifant, James MacArthur

Joyce Bulifant, James MacArthur

James MacArthur

Helen Hayes, James MacArthur, Joyce Bulifant

>>Back to Top<<

{Home} {Current News} {Latest Site Updates} {Film Credits} {Television Credits} {Stage Credits}
{Other Credits} {Combined Credits} {Biography} {FAQ} {Charles MacArthur Salute}
{Email James MacArthur} {Photo Index} {Articles & Interviews} {Non-English Articles}
{Video Clips} {Contact Site Administrator} {Site Help} {Search Site} {Interactive Games}
{View/Sign Guestmap} {Join Mailing List} {Join Discussion Group} {Send an E-Card} {Free Screensavers}
{Site Visitor Statistics} {Site Awards} {Site Accreditations & Affiliations} {Links} {Privacy} {Copyright}
Site Layout and All Original Site Content © 2001-11 curator@jamesmacarthur.com. All rights reserved.

Site best viewed at 800x600 or higher screen resolution.