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Talkback with Kathy Davis (31 January 2003)

Broadcast 31 January 2003 on WFUN, AM 97, in Ashtabula, Ohio.

Transcript of segment:

Kathy Davis: Mr. MacArthur, thank you for joining us this morning. James MacArthur, he actually starred in the 1958 Disney film version of the book which, of course, is the focus of the One Book, Two Counties production put together here by our area libraries. It’s called The Light in the Forest. And, of course, he is going to come to town and visit and discuss how that book turned into a movie as well as many other things. Good morning, Mr. MacArthur. We actually are so glad that you are able to join us via the telephone lines here this morning.

James MacArthur: Well, thank you, Kathy. I’m delighted to be with you.

KD: It’s nice and warm where you are.

JM: Well, actually, our temperature yesterday, I think, was about 79 or something.

KD: Awwww, rub it in, why don’t you?


JM: Well, listen, look at your map. You’ll see I’m in a cozy little corner.

KD: All right, first begin by telling us, because your career has spanned, what, some forty years?

JM: Actually, I think the first thing I did professionally was about 54 years ago.

KD: Wow, unbelievable. And you have enjoyed your career, obviously, had a lot of success. Tell us about how you, yourself, decided that it was acting and theatre that you wanted to get involved in.

JM: Well, I grew up in an interesting family. My mother was an actress named Helen Hayes, and my father was a writer named Charles MacArthur, and they were both quite successful in the theatre and movies, and I grew up in that household. I guess, never knowing exactly what you’re going to do, but I certainly was steeped in it, and although I appeared in the professional theatre when I was a child, it was just a summer business, so it didn’t really take away from schooling and what have you. But, you grew up around it, and I guess one thing leads to another, and one day you get out and I got a break in 1955 on a television program, and the movies bought it the next year, and made it a movie, and one thing led to another.

KD: So, obviously, if you hadn’t been ... if your parents wouldn’t have been so involved in theatre and in acting, do you think that you would have moved on and been a performer?

JM: You know, that’s the question you can’t answer, isn’t it? If you were on another corner, would your wife have a different name, you know? I mean, how do you know? If you weren’t at a certain place, you didn’t meet her, you wouldn’t be married to her, would you?

KD: That’s true, but I’m just saying ... I guess, did you have a lot of varied interests as a kid growing up?

JM: Well, yes. Yeah, I did. I mean, I was a kid sort of wide-eyed and looking around and I went to school and then, actually I went off to Harvard University. I was studying archeology, I was sort of regular liberal arts and so on, and not knowing exactly what I wanted to do. Then, you know, you fall into something and one thing leads to another, and there you go.

KD: A lot of people obviously remember you from Hawaii Five-O.

JM: Yes.

Kathy: One of your most famous roles a lot of people still see on Nick at Nite and different shows like that. Tell us about that role ... or would you call that your most famous role?

JM: Well, you know, it’s interesting. I did a bunch of movies like Swiss Family Robinson which ... that was 40 years ago. Now, I have a whole new generation of young folks who write me letters saying, ‘Gee, Mr. MacArthur, could I have your autograph or a picture?’ Well, I can’t send a picture; they’d think I was from the Battle of Valley Forge, some guy from there! But, that’s a big picture. The Battle of the Bulge. A lot of these movies come around, and they’re still playing all over the place. I mean, on television you see them being rerun and what have you, and then, of course, Five-O was 265 hours of television doing that show and it was the #1 hit show around the world. We were #1 in Germany, and Japan, and Spain, and Switzerland ... you name it.

KD: Around the world.

JM: Around the world.

KD: Are you sick and tired of people saying, ‘Book ‘em, Danno’?

JM: Nope, because I get a dollar for every time it’s been said.


KD: Oh, no! I have to send you a dollar!


KD: So tell me how you got specifically involved in this ... or maybe tell us about your background in reading. Did you as a child, growing up, did you like to read? Are you still an avid reader?

JM: Reading was, I think, the one thing that changed my early life. I was read to as a child by my mother, who ... I like to say I never knew what a bad reading was until somebody else read to me, because she was such a wonderful reader. Then, my mother did a lot of radio in the 30s as well, and she had the most wonderful voice. But then, gosh, I started reading everything I could get my hands on. I had a collection of comic books, for instance, that would knock your socks off. When I went away to school, and I came home one vacation, and my mother had thrown them away.

KD: Oh, no!

JM: I know, and if I had them, I’d be flying to Ohio in my private jet, you know?

KD: Oh, my goodness!


KD: So, tell me about your love of reading and is that what prompted you to become involved in this project, the One Book, Two Counties?

JM: Well ...

KD: Or is it simply because you played the role in the Disney movie?

JM: No, that’s really how it happened. I think, you know, first of all a lot of the people who were involved in the making of the movie are no longer with us, and the other side of the coin is, of course, somebody onscreen is interesting in different ways than people who are behind the screen, and also as it happens, I am, as you say ... well, put it this way: My idea of going to hell is being somewhere where there are no books.

KD: What is one of your latest reads?

JM: Well, I just read things. I read Ken Follett, I just read his latest. I have lighter fiction, and The Last Jihad. I’m reading that. Oh, I’m reading a history book of how Spain was betrayed in the 1930s. I mean, there are all these things that keep going, just different interests. I’m talking to you from my little library where ... Interestingly, my mother, 50 years ago, started a signed book collection for me ...

KD: So, she threw out the comic books, but she started a ...

JM: Well, I didn’t know about these books at the beginning, but I have a really interesting collection of people from Agatha Christie to John Steinbeck to Hemingway to political figures and, you know, across the board. Oh, let me tell you a story that’s interesting, talking about reading. I was at school in Pennsylvania, I did four years in Pennsylvania at a boarding school, and we were reading John Steinbeck’s The Pearl and I came home for a weekend, and I opened the door, and who’s sitting there but John Steinbeck, who was a pal of my dad’s. So, I’m thinking to myself, “I have to write an essay, but if I ask him for a little help, I sure couldn’t get ... the teacher sure couldn’t say anything about what I said ...”


JM: ... but I didn’t have the guts to do it!

KD: All right, tell us about your role. Now, you played ... tell us first ... give us a little background on Conrad Richter’s novel The Light in the Forest.

JM: Well, Conrad Richter was a very interesting writer. I think he was born about 1890 and died in 1966. He was from, I think, over in the Pennsylvania area, and he grew up in a family where everybody was a clergyman, but he decided not to be, and he got very interested in the history of Native Americans and our land. I think the book The Light in the Forest came out of his reading of Colonel Henry Bouquet’s expedition through the Ohio Valley in 1763 after Pontiac’s Rebellion. In a nutshell, the thing is that Bouquet went in and there was peace, but there was a great cry from the settlers to get back at the Indians for some raids and things, and he just tried to be a mediator and said, “Look, let’s just see if we can all live in peace.” But one of the conditions of that peace was that all the captives of the Indians had to be returned to the white world, and so you had this number of people that were returned, forcibly, if you will, because many of them did not want to return. They were very happy where they were. They had been taken as captives and they had integrated into the Indian society. So he had the idea ... he said, “Hey, that’s a great dramatic possibility of what happens to someone who is repatriated and goes back into a world they didn’t know,” and I guess that was the germ that started The Light in the Forest. It’s a very interesting book. The book is not the movie. They are two different things.

KD: That’s what I wanted to ask you as well. Talk to me about the differences when it comes to transforming a book into a movie and then a lot of the differences that come to light as a result of when you read the book versus watch the movie.

JM: Well, I think you’ll have to come to the library.


JM: Because that’s what I’m going to talk about. But, I’ve just laid the groundwork of where Mr. Richter came from. But I think Mr. Richter and Mr. Disney came from two different places, but they are both valid.

KD: You wouldn’t say, or would you ... the message doesn’t get lost, though, between the book and the movie. I would say it is still the same, relatively.

JM: Yes, relatively. Exactly. It’s just shaded differently. But, there is a lot of pathos and, of course, how things were viewed in our country 45 years ago as opposed to how they are viewed today is a very, very sharp difference.

KD: So, you played the role of True Son or Johnny in the movie, the Disney movie, of Conrad Richter’s novel The Light in the Forest which, of course, there are going to be some viewings as a part of library discussions as well, as a part of the One Book, Two Counties production that we’ve got going on. Tell us about your ... what did you bring to the role of True Son that maybe someone else couldn’t have done, have brought?

JM: Oh, you know, you’ll have to come to the lecture, Kathy. I can’t give it away on the phone.


KD: You can’t give me anything!


JM: Then I won’t even bother to come to Ohio. I’ll just sit here and watch my grapefruits grow. <laughing>

KD: No, we still want to meet you and see you in person. But, do you think you brought different insights that maybe someone else couldn’t have, and talk to us about the influence of your parents, because when we read this book and we see the influence that True Son’s parents had on him, they influenced ... that parents all over the world have on their children. What do you think ... you know, we kind of talked about this earlier ... what the influence of your parents was on you and maybe what are the gifts and influences that you’ve passed on to your children.

JM: Well, I wish my children read more. I have four children, by the way, and my oldest son is getting married for the first time on the island of Kauai in May, and I have five grandchildren, and I have a 17-year-old son, and a 42-year-old son, and two daughters in their 30s, and they’re all ... well, my girls are happily married, put it that way, and my son’s about to get married, and my young son is a good pitcher, and he was second string all league quarterback.

KD: Wow!

JM: So, how’s that?

KD: Well, is that because Daddy was good at sports, too, or what?

JM: No, Daddy was okay, but my son also ... the last time I took him out to play golf, he shot a 76. His mother was 10 years on the Ladies Tour, so, as my friends are quick to point out, he got nothing from me and everything from her.


KD: But you don’t see any of the acting or theatre influences on your children. Do you see of that, maybe moving that way, or wanting to go that direction?

JM: You know, it hasn’t happened that way. My oldest son is a ski instructor in Aspen, and he just finished the Eco-Challenge, his third Eco-Challenge. There were 81 teams out there in Fiji, and his team came in 7th, so he did fine. But, I don’t know what my younger son’s going to do, I’m not worried about anything but the 11th grade at the moment.


KD: You’ve still got a young one at home, geez!

JM: It’s wonderful because it’s allowed me to be a coach in the desert here in the athletic stuff, in soccer, and baseball and so on. Of all my children, this is really the only one I’ve had to grow up with me full time, because I was working too hard and travelling around the world when my other kids were younger.

KD: Still travelling, just not as much, right?

JM: Well, you know, I have a new addition I put on my house and I have a big room where I have a lot of posters of my movies, and I look at these posters ... Light in the Forest was Tennessee, Swiss Family Robinson was Tobago down in the West Indies for seven months, Battle of the Bulge was Spain for five months, Cry of Battle was the Philippines for three months, and so on, and so on. I joined Walt Disney and saw the world!

KD: Unbelievable. You’ve had quite an experience. Can you tell us ... can we relate ... going back to the story The Light in the Forest, can we relate in the year 2003 to the message of this story, do you think?

JM: Well, you know, the ... I guess deep down what happened is what happens the world over and will be continuing to happen, and that is the cultural clashes that go on, and the only thing that’s changed is change. I mean, change is eternal, and there is no way that the Native American culture could withstand the onslaught of millions of settlers in the new lands and living a different style of life, in little square houses with tilled fields and what have you, and the Indians depended on the wide open lands for their lifestyle. Conrad Richter, by the way, sees very clearly both sides of the question: the Native American side, and the white settlers side. He describes in several of his books ... he takes different sides and views it very well. I think his heart lies in one place, but his ability to draw and be logical on both sides of the question is amazingly good.

KD: And do you think ... well, for individuals who are participating in this program and reading the book and choosing whether or not they’d like to sit down and see the movie as well ... do you think there is a benefit to both? Or even doing both at the same time, and then coming out and hearing you speak as well?

JM: Well, I think it’s interesting because the book is, as I say, different than the movie. The times were such that ... and it was Walt Disney, Walt Disney was not going to make that book the way it was. It was not his stock in trade. I don’t know, if you have an inquisitive mind about these things.

KD: Wow, you’ve done a lot. That’s to say the least.

JM: Well, yes, I’ve had a very interesting life.

KD: What do you see for your future then? Any more acting?

JM: Well, you know, the one thing I’d like to do very much is ... my father and his partner, Ben Hecht, wrote a play called The Front Page, and it’s been made into movies several times, but I still own the rights to it, and when I was young man, I played the young man part, and now I’m older and have white hair, and I could play the old guy. So, I want to do the other side of that, and I’d like to do it somewhere good. It’s a play of about 20 people and it’s not ... in other words, it’s not inexpensive to put on the stage, and so, you have to get the right venue and the right people, like a regional theatre or something that can afford to do it. But I’d like to play Walter Burns.

KD: And in the meanwhile you’re just touring the country doing different talks and whatnot?

JM: Well, I haven’t done much of that, but I’m sort of planning to do a one-man show, maybe in the future, do a little talk and things, put together a composite of slides and things that illustrate an interesting life. Well, for instance, I’m going to London in June, the beginning of June. The National Theatre of England called me up a few months ago and said they want to do a play of my father’s, it was made into a movie called His Girl Friday with Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant in 1939. It’s never been done on the stage, it was only a movie. They’re going to put on a stage production at the Olivier Theatre at the National in London, and I’m going over for the opening of that. So, you never know ... little things keep popping up in your life that keep you hopping and busy and happy.

KD: And take you different ways. Do you see in the future at all an autobiography about yourself?

JM: No, I don’t envision a book, I think. I’d like to have ... I’d rather be on the stage talking to people, I think it would be more fun, and with some good pictures, and I’ve got some wonderful stories and things. You know, I think I could keep an hour very alive <laughing>.

KD: Very good. Tell us, when people stop by on February 3rd, what can they expect? Will they get to shake your hand, can we expect an autographed picture, all that good stuff?

JM: Well, in fact, we talked about this with the library very carefully, and people like that sometimes, and certainly shake hands, and to that end, I’m bringing some pictures, and I’d be delighted to sign them for the folks. Some people like to have pictures, so I’ve got a couple of nice pictures from Light in the Forest, and I’ll have them with me, and I’m more than happy to sign them and hand them out.

KD: As well as enlightening conversation and a great visitor in you.

JM: Well, you know, I think we can have some fun ... at least we’ll all be warm and inside!


KD: That’s for sure. We’ll need it! All right, we thank you so much for joining us this morning. That’s James MacArthur, and he starred in the 1958 Disney film version of The Light in the Forest, and he’s going to actually be visiting our area to be a part of the One Book, Two Counties program that we have going with the area libraries. We thank you so much for joining us this morning.

JM: Thank you, Kathy, very much.

KD: Good luck! We can’t wait to meet you in person!

JM: Thank you.

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