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A Youthful Industry Tosses Talent Aside

July 07, 1988|JOSEPH N. BELL

My friend Arthur Wilde celebrated his 70th birthday a few weeks ago, and I got invited to his party. Arthur has been a premier Hollywood press agent since the early 1940s, patching up the debris of oversized egos and excessive behavior of movie stars with one hand while doing a remarkably imaginative job of promoting his studio's product with the other.

Like so many of us overage overachievers, he's an outsider now in the industry he served so well and so long--a vital and creative man taking jobs beneath his skills while he tries to put together a production deal for a script he's written.

The cast at his party was full of similar types. With one exception--a childhood friend from San Francisco--I was the only guest who didn't come out of the motion picture industry. The other dozen people around the table were all directors, writers and publicists in their 70s--as was the radiant hostess, Arthur's wife, Meta, who has written a book about her two-decade love affair with author William Faulkner and is an active Hollywood script supervisor. The creative energy in that room could still illuminate screens across the nation--and, in a few instances, is.

For once, I didn't try to elbow my way into the conversation. I listened a lot. The talk was delicious and delightful--gossip, reminiscence, insights--all delivered with the kind of graphic detail and total irreverence that is possible only when we are among good friends and too old to be careful.

There was a run of Reagan stories. Each of these people, it seemed, had dealt with our President in an earlier incarnation. Most of the stories were not flattering. One publicist, for example, described how as a young actor at Warner Brothers, Reagan was an inveterate speechmaker on the set, cornering whatever audience he could find to espouse his cause of the moment. He recalled the crusty old character actor Alan Hale watching this operation one day and commenting sourly, "If that s.o.b. keeps making speeches, he'll be President some day."

Egos were compared, almost with awe. One of the guests had accompanied a well-known comedian on a recent promotion trip in which he was given an honorary degree at a state university. The comic was left alone with the governor of the state for about 20 minutes while they waited for the ceremony to start. He was furious when the man telling the story--who had been called to the phone--returned. The comedian complained that he'd had to run through his whole repertoire with the governor while they were alone. "It never occurred to him," said the storyteller, still in some wonder, "to ask the governor a question."

A producer who was a press agent when "The Caine Mutiny" was filmed remembered a day of shooting at sea when Van Johnson--playing one of the Caine's junior officers--was required to go overboard to free a towline Commander Queeg had fouled up. It was a slow day because the shot was done over and over and nothing noteworthy happened for the publicity people to hype. So the press agent made up a story about a rifleman being stationed on the stern of the ship to protect Van Johnson from sharks. He liked that so well that he had the rifleman shoot a shark just as it was about to attack Johnson. The story made newspapers all over the world.

"Twenty years later," said the ex-publicist, now a producer, "I ran into Van Johnson in a hotel lobby. And the first thing he said to me was, 'Remember how that shark almost got me in the Caine Mutiny?' "

Another producer was recently a character in a film biography of a writer-actor whom he had known rather well. He heard about it in a roundabout way and didn't want to be portrayed in the film. So he called the movie company in England, got the producer on the phone, and said, "Why didn't you ask my permission?" "Oh," said the producer, "we would have, but we thought you were dead."

He isn't--nor were the rest of these birthday guests. These weren't addled old people trying to recapture a few moments of glory. They were active, vital men and women using the perspective of years to laugh at themselves and their industry from a base of love and respect for what they did. No burned-out cases here, just a lot of dynamite creative energy being under-used.

I thought about that the other day when I read two interviews with playwrights. Robert Anderson--who wrote "Tea and Sympathy" and "I Never Sang for My Father" among a number of other impressive plays--writes daily at the age of 70 in his New York apartment but finds it almost impossible to get producers to read his plays.

And 75-year-old Garson Kanin, who was interviewed by The Times on the occasion of a Pasadena Playhouse revival of his "Only Yesterday," is working on a new play and told the interviewer: "I can't help it. I know it doesn't make sense for me to write plays. I have two unproduced plays, and here I am writing another one. . . . I can't explain it. But that's what I do. I'm a playwright. I write plays."

To which the guests at Arthur Wilde's birthday party--including this guest--would say, "Amen."

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