Encountering Tennessee Williams and Other Celebrities

Posted by on Feb 20, 2021 in News and Views, Other Writings, Theatre | 0 comments

Tennessee Williams

My Brief Encounters column for the Facts & Opinions online journal this week is about Tennessee Williams, and therein lies a tale. This column had its genesis in a conversation I had not too long ago with Susan Toy, a writer friend who generously promotes fellow writers through her blog, Reading Recommendations.

Susan and I were bemoaning the fact that a Russian website was flogging pirated copies of our books online without compensation to us. I mentioned in passing that Tennessee Williams once told me he had been similarly victimized. The Russians ripped him off to the tune of thousands of dollars in unpaid royalties on plays they had translated and staged without his permission.

“You talked to Tennessee Williams?” said Susan, surprised.

Yes, I hadn’t really thought about it before, but indeed I got lucky. A week before I interviewed Williams, for a column that ran in the Southam (now, Postmedia) newspapers across Canada, he had left another reporter in the lurch saying, “I haven’t been paid to pass the time with people who insult me.” I don’t know what the other reporter said to get Williams’s goat, but when I caught up with him in Vancouver – where he was readying his new adaptation of a Chekhov play for its premiere production – the playwright was in better humour and ready to answer any questions about his life and work.

Brennan and Sophia Loren

I did the Williams interview in 1981 and, as I hunted through my archives to find that story, I came across dozens of my other newspaper stories from the 1973-88 period that collectively, I thought, would make for an interesting series of columns if expanded and updated. These were interviews I did with the likes of Kenny Rogers, Richard Harris, Sophia Loren, Leon Uris, Bob Newhart, Cleo Laine and other artists who had been sent on the road to promote new books, record albums, or upcoming performances. In other instances, they came to town to make movies or – in Sophia Loren’s case – to promote someone else’s goods and services.

I was working as a full-time general arts and entertainment writer based at the Calgary Herald, and it was easy for me to establish a rapport with these visiting artists because I had worked in the theatre as an actor and also had made my living as a barroom piano player. Additionally, I had the advantage of being a writer for a Canadian – as opposed to British or American – news organization. Artists who had been victimized by tabloids digging up dirt on their sex lives and drug habits seemed to feel on safer ground when talking to a Canadian reporter. They didn’t think I was out to “get” them. In fact, to my surprise, they often dropped their guard and revealed little-known facts about their lives and careers when talking to me.

Al Martino

Crooner Al Martino, for example, told me he became a social pariah in Hollywood when the producers of the movie The Godfather signed him to play the troubled wedding singer Johnny Fontane – a character loosely based on Frank Sinatra – because the director, Francis Ford Coppola, wanted Sinatra protégé Vic Damone to get the part. “Coppola didn’t think I was an actor,” said Martino. “He said I was just a singer.”

Tammy Wynette

Tammy Wynette was similarly candid when she told me she was finding it difficult to reconcile being a married mother of four with being constantly on the road. Recently married for the fourth time, she admitted that the marriage was already on the rocks. “It’s very hard to travel and live a normal life,” she said wistfully. She divorced soon afterwards.

Glenn Ford

When I looked through those yellowed newspaper clippings, I thought it might be fun for you, the reader, to revisit them with me. I would give you some background, and perhaps tell you things that had to be left out of the original newspaper stories for lack of space or other reasons. For example, I have now revealed for the first time that when I talked to the movie actor Glenn Ford, it was after I had watched him doing take after take for a short one-minute scene in the first Superman movie. It took him that long because he simply couldn’t remember the line.

Kenny Rogers

Most of these columns did not come from in-depth interviews. The sessions necessarily had to be truncated because the press agents had other reporters besides me lined up to ensure maximum media coverage. My interviews, therefore, never lasted for more than 15 or 20 minutes. Yet even though they were short and generally self-promotional in tone, they sometimes yielded nuggets. Richard Harris, for example, was at first more interested in talking to me about how much he missed boozing than how much he enjoyed starring as King Arthur in Camelot. And Kenny Rogers gave me an impromptu a cappella preview of his soon-to-be hit recording of “Lucille” when I asked him where he planned to go next with his music after experimenting with rockabilly, jazz, folk, country and psychedelic rock.

Chuck Berry

Occasionally, interviews fell into my lap I when I least expected them. I never thought, for example, I would ever get to do an interview with Chuck Berry because the reclusive rock star was said to be miffed at all the bad press he had received over his troubles with the law during the 1960s. Yet he agreed to talk to me before going on stage for a nightclub performance in Calgary. Why? “Because now I’m finally ready to talk,” he said, without elaborating. The legendary fan dancer Sally Rand, was also reluctant to talk to reporters, especially those who came with cameras and lights to film her show. But she happily chatted with this reporter, who came with just notebook and pen, until I asked her why she was still stripping at age 71. “What would I retire to?” she said dismissively.

B.B. King

Later events reminded me of some of these long-ago interviews. When B.B. King played the blues for President Obama at the White House in 2012, I recalled that he once told me he thought the blues was dying. When Randy Bachman reinvented himself as a CBC Radio host, I recalled asking him why he had seemingly committed artistic suicide twice, first by walking away from the Guess Who and then by leaving Bachman-Turner Overdrive. When Johnny Depp played Tonto in the 2013 big-screen remake of The Lone Ranger (a flop, by all critical accounts), I recalled that I had talked to the original Tonto, Jay Silverheels, about the racism he encountered in Hollywood during the 1950s.

Mordecai Richler

I did these interviews long before celebrities connected directly with their fans via websites or social media; when it was still possible for a lucky reporter to learn something about an interviewee that hadn’t been in the news before. So in one respect you might see Brief Encounters as a nostalgic exercise in time-capsule journalism, evoking a particular time and place before the era of Twitter and Facebook. But I think it’s also important to let you know what happened to these people after I talked to them. When I tell you, for example, about the problems Mordecai Richler encountered when he first had his book The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz adapted as a stage musical, I think you might also be interested in knowing the extraordinary lengths to which the producer went afterwards in an attempt to take the show to Broadway.

Judy Collins

Why does the song “Amazing Grace” still occupy a very special place in the repertoire of singer Judy Collins? Why did Robertson Davies abandon what appeared to be a successful career as a playwright in Canada to start writing novels? Why did Sophia Loren go back to Italy to serve a jail term for tax evasion? Why did Tom Lehrer totally disappear from the scene after establishing himself as one of America’s cleverest and wittiest satirical songwriters? Why did Michael Nesmith quit The Monkees to start making music videos? Why did Shari Lewis start conducting symphony orchestras after she had endeared herself to kids all over the world with a comedy ventriloquism routine involving a cute sock puppet named Lamb Chop? Why did Chubby Checker go through 20 pairs of platform boots a year to keep his audiences twisting the night away? Those are some of the questions I’ve tried to answer in these columns while simultaneously looking backward and forward.

I hope you’ll enjoy taking this trip down memory lane with me. During a golden age for newspaper journalism in Canada, I was one of the few full-time entertainment reporters who wasn’t restricted to writing just about theatre people or television people or music people. I got to talk to them all, and will be forever grateful to my editors for giving me the opportunity to do so.

I am also grateful to my editors for loosening the purse strings whenever I wanted to travel to New York, London, Vancouver, Stratford or Edmonton to conduct interviews and write stories. Many of these stories happened only because the Calgary Herald had plenty of money to spend on coverage that attracted big readership in the first instance and big advertising revenue in the second. Those generous travel budgets are now – sad to say – a thing of the past, not least because of the precipitous decline in print advertising revenue following the rise of the Internet in the 1990s.

I covered the Canadian arts and entertainment beat for 15 years. The plus is that I got to meet a great number of charming and gifted individuals. The minus is that I didn’t have enough time to spend with most of them, and so had to do many of these interviews on the run. Thus the resulting columns are by no means definitive; they are more snapshots than full-length portraits. But I hope you’ll take them for what they are, as engaging and stimulating encounters with accomplished individuals I once thought and still think are deserving of our attention.

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