|And I decided I wanted to be an
actor. At that time our church, where my mother played the organ,
was doing a lot of theatricals, and I was in every single one of
them. Later I went to junior high school in Berkeley and we did a
lot of operettas.
So you always wanted to be an actor.
Of course I did many other kinds of work when the Depression came along, but I never wanted to be anything else. I worked on a sheep and cattle ranch in New Mexico for almost a year when I was 13 and earned 25 cents a day. It didn't cover mending your shoes. And that's cactus country, so it cut into your shoes.
And after that?
Later I was in the forestry service. That was in 1939, 1940. I was in love with a Russian ballerina. She didn't speak much English, and I tried to explain what the forestry service was. And while I was explaining it I suddenly realized, "What the hell has the forestry service to do with the theater?" So I called up and resigned, and I traveled with the ballet.
Weren't you overseas in the navy during World War II?
From '42 to the end of '43. Then I was sick for a long time, but I went back in '44.
Were you sick or were you wounded? I read that you were hit with shrapnel and confined to a wheelchair for a time, not unlike Robert Ironside.
I'm not going to talk about my personal life. There are no big black secrets. I'm just not going to get involved with that. I can tell you that when I came out I was very heavy. I was not leading-man material, but I went into pictures and began doing character parts. I played Zachary Scott's father and he was older than I was.
What picture was that?
I haven't the slightest idea. [It was Ruthless, in 1948.] I don't know the titles of the Perry Mason shows, either. I know Rear Window because people talk about it all the time. I know A Cry in the Night because Natalie Wood and I were supposed to be an item at that time.
"Supposed to be an item?"
She was much younger than I was. The studio and everybody else tried to break it up and they were fairly successful.
You've made over a hundred films. And two of them involved a lizard.
I think Godzilla is a marvelous human creature. None of us paid enough attention to him.
Of course we should. Godzilla came to be because we were using nuclear power badly. I'm sure Godzilla was trying to warn the world, although he was killing a lot of people doing it. Or she was.
Is it a she?
There was a Godzilla baby in one picture.
You know the first Godzilla I was in took me 24 hours. One day's work.
Sounds like a good job. Tell me about another creature you worked with: Alfred Hitchcock.
A marvelous human being.That's not what one reads about him.
That's ridiculous. He was marvelous to work with. He'd be sitting there in a chair looking like Buddha and nobody on the set knew that he had a great sense of humor. But we were good friends.
What did you learn from working with him?
He wanted people to be good at what they were
doing and to do it. He wanted to look through a lens and see that everything in the frame was perfect. If you didn't do your job properly then the whole damn picture was wrong, and that's what used to incense him about certain people.
Actually, that sounds a lot like you.
I like people to know their job and to do it well. And I like people being on time. I think it's wrong to be late for work and that's when I get a little impatient.
How do you express that?
I'm not a person who loses his temper very easily. I usually get quieter.
In a recent Perry Mason movie, the killer talks about an orchid and Mason corrects him. You're and expert on orchids. Was that your own touch?
The man was a stupid hired killer. But the writers were also stupid; they didn't have the right kind of
orchid. That's pretty hard for me to deal with. You think, my God, if they mess up on that, how many other things do you have to check?
Do you check?
You've been quoted as saying you should never have done the original Perry Mason series, that you lost almost a decade of your life.
Perry Mason is different form other shows. We were in the top 10 or top 20 almost every minute of those nine years. The pressure was always on. I could not have been a good father or a successful husband. Very few other people would have set aside their lives for that length of time. They would not have lived in a TV studio.
Sounds like a lot of pressure. On the other hand, you were a notorious prankster.
Only when people deserved it. I would certainly not have a bucket of water fall on you.
Just...the floor will open up, maybe.
What about the Jell-O in Barbara Hale's commode?
There was a reason for that.
What was the reason?
The reason is too long. It's no good to rehash old practical jokes. And it takes years to set up a good practical joke. There's one now that can't go in the article because the joke isn't over with yet. You would kill one of the best practical jokes of all time if you wrote about it.
The public may not think of you as funny because Perry Mason is not a funny guy.
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