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Going for the Bronze : An Oscar-Winning Screenwriter Breaks Out of His Mold and Into Sculpting

March 16, 1986|MICHAEL KANIN | Bronzes by screenwriter and dramatist Michael Kanin will be exhibited through March 29 at the Heritage Gallery in Los Angeles

'Art was the only thing I did really well as a child. It was--and still is--my most instinctive talent. I can't recall a time when I didn't want to be an artist. My parents told me that when they gave their little kid a penny to go out and buy candy, I would come back with a crayon or a pencil, lie on the floor and draw.

By my late teens I was in art school in New York and beginning to realize my childhood dream. But the Depression scrambled everything up. I couldn't go off and be an artist; I had to stay and help support the family. The need to make a dollar eventually led my brother, Garson, and me into careers in show business, a world we had been immersed in from our earliest days. (Our parents loved movies and plays and took us with them from the time we were big enough to sit on their laps.) I moved to Hollywood in 1938, got a job as a screenwriter and stored away the urge to paint and sculpt.

I learned to write pretty well, even won an Oscar. But it's always been a cerebral exercise, instead of coming from the gut. Not so with art. When I'm involved in an art project, my instincts take over and I just work. I forget where I am, what time it is. When the phone rings I'll suddenly realize that I have to answer it, and then I have to look around for a few moments because I'm no longer quite sure where the phone is. In almost 50 years, that's never happened to me while writing.

I don't regret my career choices. I obviously had a feel for writing and was able to adapt to it very well. Three years after I had come to Los Angeles, Ring Lardner Jr. and I wrote 'Woman of the Year,' and our screenplay won an Academy Award. That catapulted us into the big money.

My wife, Fay, and I were in the chips. My father, who was a contractor, built us a beautiful house in Westwood, and we were sailing. I was writing pictures of all kinds, and then Fay and I started to collaborate. And we discovered Broadway. So we began to split our time between writing for the screen out here and going back to New York every couple of years with a play. It was a lovely life. How could anyone complain? Yet something inside me remained unfulfilled.

Then, in 1947, I produced a picture called 'A Double Life,' written by Garson and his wife, Ruth Gordon. In the film's opening scene, Ronald Colman, playing a famous actor, lights a cigarette in a theater lobby as he's standing next to a bust of himself. We needed to have a statue made for the movie, so I went in search of someone who could do the job. I found an old German sculptor who worked and taught on the Sunset Strip, and I hired him. After the picture was over, I was intrigued. I went back to his studio to take another look and thought, 'Why not take a few lessons?' So I began working with him, trying to fill a little of the vacuum.

I continued to tickle around with painting and sculpting over the years but didn't get serious about it until about 10 years ago, when I met Henry Moore. Billy Wilder, a mutual friend, had given me a letter of introduction, so in June, 1975, I went to see Moore at his home in Much Hadham, England.

After some general conversation, I confessed that I had originally planned to be a sculptor and that now, after these many years, I regretted that it was too late. Moore was not sympathetic. He pointed out that any number of accomplished sculptors had worked until they were quite old, and that though he was in his late 70s, he was doing some of his best work. 'So,' he concluded, 'you can't use age as an excuse.'

I decided he was right. And because people should do what they know best, I started to sculpt actors in the roles they'd made famous. One of my first sculptures was of Charlie Chaplin, whom I'd met several times. Being introduced to him was like meeting a mythical character--Jack Frost or Santa Claus. I felt the same about Groucho Marx, who became a friend and whom I later sculpted. It seemed unreal to even be in the same room with them. I was determined to capture the essence of the characters they portrayed.

Now, whenever I look at my works, the joy of all the marvelous hours I've spent watching these people work, going to their movies and seeing them on stage floods back. Part of the great satisfaction in making these little sculptures is knowing that, because they're bronze and will last, they'll be around to commemorate these great performers for 5,000 years." PRODUCED BY LINDEN GROSS

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