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Screen Stories (July 1958)

"James MacArthur: There's Going to Be a Racket"

By Dick Williams

When twenty-year-old James MacArthur learned that Walt Disney wanted him for a role in The Light in the Forest, he blurted, “Walt Disney? What are they going to do, animate me?”

Actually, Walt Disney had been looking for two years to find the right man to play True Son in Conrad Richter’s provocative novel. When he saw Jimmy’s remarkable performance in his first movie -- The Young Stranger -- he decided that Jim was his man.

The first thing the studio did, when Jimmy came to Hollywood, was to shave his thick brown hair -- except for a strip down the middle. The great actress Helen Hayes, Jimmy’s mom -- who’d come to Los Angeles to vacation while watching her son work -- had quite a shock when she saw Jim’s haircut for the first time.

Jimmy told us, “I wore genuine eighteenth century Delaware Indian trappings worth several hundred dollars. My costume consisted of a wampum-bead armband, buckskin breechcloth decorated with beadwork, woven belt, buckskin leggings with Delaware-woven ties at the ankles, and moccasins.” He added that it was the finest game of Indians he ever played!

Jimmy worked in the picture during his summer vacation from Harvard University, where he is a sophomore. Although he eventually plans to devote his full time to acting, he told me, “I intend to finish school. Then somewhere along the line,” he added, smiling, “I have that thing to do for Uncle Sam.” What thing? You know!

This bright young lad has been acting since he was eight. He debuted as a Welsh boy in a summer stock production of The Corn Is Green at Olney, Maryland, and, by the time he was sixteen, had pretty well decided to make a career of acting. During school vacations and whenever else it was convenient, he accepted television roles. In 1955 he played the juvenile lead in Strike a Blow <sic>, a TV drama directed by John Frankenheimer.

“Both John and I thought it would make a good movie at the time,” Jimmy told us. “Later, in 1956, John did go to Hollywood to direct the film version. He sent for me.” Lucky he did, too -- for that movie was titled The Young Stranger. Jimmy’s portrayal of the sensitive adolescent in it won him immediate popularity, rave notices, and the lead role in The Light in the Forest.

James MacArthur -- who prefers to be called Jim or Jimmy -- has a knack for writing, too. He is an associate publisher of Teen-Age Review, a national magazine to which he has contributed fiction, fact articles, and photo features. Jimmy believes that versatility, rather than specialization, marks the successful actor of today. Conscious of the financial responsibilities and problems which go with being a star, he is majoring in business administration in college.

Traveling isn’t anything new for Jim. He’s been all over, and is especially fond of Paris -- where he was a member of the Skin of Our Teeth company which starred his mother Helen Hayes. Jim explained to me, “I was a very important member of the troupe. I was in charge of making the thunder backstage on a pair of kettledrums.”

What is Jimmy like, really? He’s a friendly, lovable guy. But he’s also a tightly wound, intense person, and speaks in terse sentences. His movements are quick, his smile frequent but fleeting. Blue-eyed and curly-haired, his compact build is misleading. Actually he has the muscular body of an athlete. At Solebury School in New Hope, Pennsylvania -- which he attended before entering Harvard -- he played football for three years, and second sack on the baseball team.

Jim drives a rented car in movieville, but he has his own Thunderbird back East -- a high-school graduation gift from his mother. He’s not lazy and doesn’t mind walking -- but he does like to sleep late whenever he gets the chance. “It isn’t often, though,” our boy said, smiling wistfully. “Besides liking sleep, I’m addicted to telephone conversations,” he added.

Among Jim’s likes also rank food -- “Everything except clams. I got a bad one once and that did it for me” -- and music -- “Every kind, from classical to rock ‘n’ roll, Koussevitzky to Fats Domino. I’m not a long-hair or short-hair or any category except music lover.”

When it comes to girls, this handsome lad hasn’t got any preferences, “I haven’t got time to be serious,” he insisted. But he did mention a cute blonde girl friend, who’s studying dramatics. He’s fond of her because she never acts superior, Jim told us. “I dislike a girl who thinks she’s superior. She may be, but she shouldn’t show it.” Girls prefer Jim -- he receives about 500 femme fan letters weekly.

This summer, Disney is planning to send Jim to Switzerland to star in James Ramsey Ullman’s mountaineering tale, Banner in the Sky. And young James MacArthur will be traveling even higher and farther, if Disney’s long-range plans and his dad’s prophesy materialize. When Jim was only fourteen, his late, playwright father Charles MacArthur said, “Jim’s different. He’s heading for someplace. I can’t figure out what particular kind of noise he’s going to make -- but it’s obvious there’s going to be a racket!”

There sure is!

James MacArthur, Helen Hayes

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