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Teenage Review (July 1957)

"Actor to Actor: Jim MacArthur Interviews Bob Wagner"

Robert Wagner, a Hollywood star since the age of eighteen, celebrated his twenty-seventh birthday on February 10th, and remains one of the most talked about young stars today. His most recent film for Twentieth Century Fox is The True Story of Jesse James in which he stars with Jeffrey Hunter.

Since I had just made my first film, The Young Stranger, for RKO last summer, your editors asked Bob and me to discuss our films, the theatrical profession, and young ideas so that they might pass our personal opinions on to you. The following is a verbatim report of our conversational interchange. As you will see, Bob is acutely aware of the world around him, and of the situations young people have to face today.

Bob: It’s good to see you again, Jim. I think a talk like this is a good idea. Perhaps our own frank discussion of our careers and our experiences as actors may be of more than usual interest to your readers.

Jim: To start of with, Bob -- well, why not just start at the beginning?

Bob: I guess my career was, in a sense, decided when my parents moved to the West Coast from Detroit. That was when I was six. I was lucky enough to know people in the motion picture industry ever since I was a child. I used to do impersonations at private parties at home. When I was fifteen years old, I just walked into the offices at Warner Brothers. It was a rather direct approach to the situation, and at first it appeared that it might be successful. Warners located three small parts for me. But just about that time all the studios went on strike and nothing came of my initial attempt to break into pictures. After I finished high school in Santa Monica, I went East to work for my Dad in Baltimore in the steel business. During the six months I worked with Dad, my desire to be an actor finally crystallized. I knew I would not be happy until I had at least attempted the theatre as a career.

Jim: Did your Dad give you any encouragement?

Bob: After I had convinced him that the steel business was not for me, Dad did help me to a considerable extent. When I left my job with him to go back West, he called a good friend of his, William Wellman. Bill Wellman gave me a bit part in the Warner Brothers’ production of The Happy Years. I played a baseball catcher and my face was entirely covered up with a catcher’s mask. Mr. Wellman wanted MGM to sign me up but that didn’t come off either. I tried to join all sorts of small theatre groups but nothing came of it.

Jim: When do you feel, Bob, that you finally got your first real break?

Bob: Well, I had been to all the big booking agencies, but couldn’t make any progress. One night, however, when I was visiting a friend who played piano in a small club, I started singing songs. There happened to be an agent there from Famous Artists, and he came up to the piano and asked me if I had thought of the movies as a career. I told him yes, quite definitely, and he asked me to drop in at his offices. I did, and Famous Artists signed me. Twentieth Century took an option on me for 90 days, during which time they had me under consideration for a part in Teresa. At just about that same time MGM was also considering me for a part. Twentieth Century, hearing about this, signed me to a part in The Halls of Montezuma.

Jim: Who finally got the part in Teresa?

Bob: John Erickson was given that part.

Jim: In your opinion, Bob, what are the necessary personal requisites to make a career of being an actor?

Bob: It takes a great deal of faith in oneself and a great deal of determination. Personally, I think it takes a lot of breaks, too. You have to be in the right spot at the right time. The Halls of Montezuma was a good break, for instance, even though I was killed after the third or fourth reel. I was the only guy in the whole film who was clean shaven! That year, I won Photoplay magazine’s annual ‘Choose Your Star’ pool. It proved to be a good assist. With a Song in My Heart was my first really big chance. Broken Lance, however, was the picture I most enjoyed making. Darryl Zanuck felt I had the makings of a potential star and he gave me a series of parts which enabled me to build, through experience, a firm foundation for the future.

Jim: What do you consider your biggest success to date, Bob?

Bob: Beneath the Twelve Mile Reef was one of my biggest personal successes, and it was also a very successful movie at the box office.

Jim: It’s a matter of record, Bob, that you’ve had a most successful career. And I know you will continue to do so. Your career started as a teenager -- when you were eighteen. What do you have to say to young Americans today?

Bob: Teenagers today, Jim, are great. I really mean that. They are very conscious of what is going on, and they have definite ideas of what should and should not be done. Even the music they listen to, is indicative of this to some degree. Certainly the music I listened to as a teenager was not as hep and swinging as popular music today. My day was the day of Benny Goodman and Frank Sinatra. Today it is Elvis Presley, Pat Boone, and that type of vocalist. Personally, I like rock and roll.

Jim: I understand that you are going to make a record, Bob.

Bob: That’s right, Jim. I’ve signed with Liberty records to bring out an album. I am very concerned about this project and I have put a great deal of work into it. It’s my conviction that young people today cannot listen to this quick paced music all the time. There has to be a relief from it -- something for relaxation. That is how I conceive my album -- mood music, music just to listen to and relax with. That is how I have tried to lay the album out. We are going to call it Here’s to My Lady. It will contain some of the favorite standards like If You Were the Only Girl in the World. I want it to be as intimate as possible. When I do the record, I’m going to think of my audience as being just one person -- one individual, alone, and not a huge crowd of faceless unknowns. So I’ll be singing only for that one listener, and for those moments of relaxation when one wants to be oneself and just think things over.

Jim: That sounds great, Bob. You seem to feel quite strongly about music in its relationship with teenagers. Do you think that their particular affinity for rock and roll is an expression of some sort of rebelliousness? Or is it merely that young people today, as you and I most certainly are, are striving for recognition, for treatment as adults, since we are saddled with adult problems so quickly?

Bob: I believe your second statement is the answer to an extent, Jim. The way people talk about teenagers all the time -- it’s a wonder that teenagers don’t develop a complex about being teenagers. No one likes to be put in a cage. Teenagers are smart, very smart, and all this fuss about supposed problems is caused by those in our society who are unable, or unwilling, to recognize the simple fact that teenagers as a group, are no more troublesome than any other group -- people in their thirties, or octogenarians, for that matter. Teenagers are seeking an identity, some means of identification. Every mature individual wishes to be identified with something or other. It is just like the chap in O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape.

Jim: I see what you mean, Bob. He wanted to feel that he belonged. We all have the need to feel that we belong to someone or to some group. We all need to share our triumphs and our disappointments. I believe that was the whole point of The Hairy Ape. Isn’t this the important point, Bob, that every movie or play have some point to make or meaning to give?

Bob: You’re right, Jim, and that’s why I did not like Rebel Without a Cause as a motion picture. It seemed pointless and meaningless. This type of picture has not helped the present situation of alleged teenage instability. Blackboard Jungle was the same type of film. Many persons’ approach to teenagers is wrong. It’s not fair to knock them all the time. The vast majority of them are great people. And by the same token, it’s silly and useless to spend time defending them. They shouldn’t need any defense, and quite frankly I don’t think they do. In connection with this problem, I thought the advertising for your film, The Young Stranger, was excellent. In fact, I’d call it refreshing. There certainly wasn’t any element of Actors Studio in that.

Jim: No, I haven’t had any direct association with Actors Studio people.

Bob: I just finished making a film with six of them. It’s kind of peculiar to work with them. They never look at you when they work with you. It is very difficult to get any sort of empathetic reaction. After all, acting is merely reacting, and it only complicates the entire problem when there is little to react with or from or by. I really do not agree with the Actors Studio’s methods. I don’t think it is a good influence at all.

Jim: Well I think we are in substantial agreement there. I think every actor has his own personal individuality, and individuality is what makes a good actor. I don’t think it is a healthy influence on anyone’s acting potential to subjugate himself to a prototype of someone else. For myself, I’d say that I try to put myself into the character that the writer has written, but I also try to bring something of myself with me. Well, it’s hard to explain in words. Anyway, we’ve been talking about some pretty complicated subjects. I think we ought to discuss something more relaxing. So -- what do you do for relaxation, for fun?

Bob: That’s an easy one for me to answer, Jim. I’ve always loved the water -- and the look of it, the feel of it, and all the kinds of sports you can do in and on the water. Maybe that comes from growing up in Southern California. Anyway, if I hadn’t become an actor I might have gone in fairly seriously for diving. I was pretty lucky in competitive diving when I was in school.

Jim: Don’t be so modest, Bob. Tell us how you made out.

Bob: Well, I was All-State Champion for California, and while I was in school, I held the military league championship for the Pacific Coast for two years. But recently, I bought a Chris Craft Cabin Cruiser, so right now, my main idea on how to relax is to fill it full of gas, head out to sea a few miles, and fish. Or maybe not even bother to fish. Just plain relax. As I said, Jim, to me, the water gives a fellow the most wonderful chance to get away from everything -- especially after a hectic schedule -- and to unwind. The greatest way in the world.

Jim: Unwinding -- that’s a big problem and a big necessity for an actor, isn’t it? Particularly after a really demanding scene. Tell me, Bob, what was the toughest scene you’ve ever played ... the one that really took the most out of you?

Bob: There’s a very special one that I’ll never forget. It was in Between Heaven and Hell. I played a soldier who’s had an attack of war nerves -- “the shakes.” It’s difficult to play a physical affliction on the screen. Because what happens must come from inside. Just employing the mannerisms or external symptoms isn’t enough to convince an audience. The audience can tell very quickly when you’re actually expressing something that’s really happening to you, and when you’re just kidding. Well, when I finished that scene I mentioned -- and it took eight “takes” to complete -- I found that all the muscles in my stomach ached, and that the inside of my mouth was bleeding. But you know, during the shooting of the scene, I wasn’t at all aware that I was chewing the inside of my mouth, or that my stomach muscles were contracting.

Jim: I bet you could have used some peaceful solitude on the Blue Pacific after that. Well, we’re back on acting again, aren’t we? So I’ll ask you this: with what actress would you most like to co-star?

Bob: Ingrid Bergman. It was wonderful to see her again, in Anastasia. And by the way, Jim, it was wonderful to see your mother, Helen Hayes, in that movie, too.

Jim: Thank you, Bob. Tell me, what type of role do you most enjoy doing?

Bob: I can’t really give you a specific answer to that one. Perhaps I can explain what I mean by saying that at this point in my career, diversification is probably the best teacher. That’s why I’m anxious to try a variety of parts. Of course, I realize that I may be much better suited to one type than another. But I can’t really know which until I’ve given each the best that I have to give. And until I’ve had a chance to look at the results, and to stand back and look at myself objectively. Now, I’d be interested in knowing what your answer would be to the same question. What type of role do you most enjoy doing?

Jim: I think my answer would be a lot like yours, Bob. And I’d add this: I want to play characters who mean something. People who have something to say - whatever that might be. That means the only limitations on choice of parts are the physical limitations: which, for instance, I could not attempt to play Goliath. Although David’s role would be possible for me, it would make a character unbelievable to an audience. But a really great actor can overcome even serious physical limitations.

Now let me ask you a tough one. How do you feel about the problem of censorship in the movies? I know that’s a subject that requires a lot of thinking, but I imagine you’ve given it considerable thought.

Bob: You can’t help thinking about it, Jim, because the movies are, after all, about life -- whether it’s treated as a fantasy, or as history, or in terms of contemporary problems. Well, I feel that censorship is essential in order to maintain those moral standards which are necessary. After all, the motion picture industry is an extremely influential one. I feel that the majority of film companies, even without the restraints imposed by the censorship office, could and would handle a so-called “questionable” subject factually, but also with good taste and sensitivity. However, there always remains that fringe minority group of an irresponsible few who might attempt to capitalize on sensationalism without regard to the possible effect on the general movie-going public. And so it’s my personal opinion that we cannot do without it.

Jim: The problem, of course, for many is to agree on who should be the censor. To find someone or some group who is capable of saying what should and should not be seen. Sometimes it’s hard to know whether this enormous responsibility is in the right hands. As a final question, Bob, what are your ultimate ambitions?

Bob: Well, of course, they involve the theater. And I guess the ultimate goal of most actors is to direct.

Jim: I’ve found that to be true. Why do you suppose it is?

Bob: Because it presents such a great challenge to be concerned with the interpretation of all the parts of a picture, instead of just one. Also, I guess it’s just human nature to want to be the hub of a wheel, instead of just one of the spokes. At least, I think it’d be great!

Jim: Well, Bob, I think an actor who gives as much thought as you have to his responsibilities, and his craft, will eventually be in a position to give direction to other actors! Thanks a lot for joining me. I certainly enjoyed it.

Bob: And I want to have the last word, Jim. Because, you know, I found it a help to myself to discuss these subjects with you. It’s a very good way to clarify one’s own thoughts. In a way, I think you’re very lucky to be combining a theatrical career with a publishing career -- particularly one that deals with the actual living problems of teenagers. I would think it’d be a valuable experience for you in your work as an actor. Anyway, I’ve enjoyed talking to you ... and through you to the readers of Teenage Review.

Jim: And from the mail we get, I can assure you that our readers include many, many Bob Wagner fans! Let’s do this again some time, Bob.

Bob: Right! We’ll have the next session in Hollywood, when you come out for your next film. I can’t provide you with the environment of a magazine office, as you have, but consider yourself invited to an interview on the deck of my Cabin Cruiser!

Robert Wagner, James MacArthur

Robert Wagner, James MacArthur

James MacArthur

Robert Wagner, James MacArthur

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