David Bruce: Acting Anecdotes

English actor Stanley Holloway, who created the role of Eliza Doolittle’s father in My Fair Lady on Broadway, almost didn’t. He felt ignored during rehearsals, although he later realized that that was a compliment. The director and everyone else were concentrating on Rex Harrison, who was unknown—at that time—as a musical comedy star. Knowing that Mr. Holloway was an extremely competent actor, they left him to his own devices. Mr. Holloway called the play’s producer, Herman Levin, and asked to be released from his contract because no one was even saying hello when he arrived at the theater. Mr. Levin talked him out of immediately quitting and the next morning when Mr. Holloway arrived at the theater, everyone crowded around him to say hello. Even though Mr. Holloway knew that it was a put-up job, he felt better.

Hollywood actor Jimmy Stewart was made a Brigadier General in the Air Force Reserve, something which angered former Senator Margaret Chase Smith, who felt Mr. Stewart was unqualified. Discussing the promotion with such people as the then Secretary of the Air Force and the Air Force Chief of Staff, she asked why he should be made Brigadier General and was told he deserved it because of his performance in the movie Strategic Air Command. Senator Smith was aghast and said, “Then why you don’t make June Allyson a Brigadier General for playing the female lead in Strategic Air Command?”

Actor Robert Morley enjoyed changing the dialogue of the plays he appeared in. Once he appeared in Peter Ustinov’s Halfway Up the Tree. When Mr. Ustinov saw the play, he told Mr. Morley that it was “very funny.” Mr. Morley said, “That’s a relief, Peter. By this time I’m usually not talking to the author.” Mr. Ustinov replied, “What? Not even talking to yourself?” When Mr. Morley left the play and was replaced by actor Jimmy Edwards, Mr. Ustinov said, “I think Jimmy Edwards will be great. My only concern is what he will do to Bob Morley’s script.”

Jack Gilford worried about his children because none of their grandparents lived nearby, and he didn’t want them to be deprived of the experience of having loving grandparents. Being an actor, he readily solved the problem by becoming Grampa Max. Occasionally, he would turn into Grampa Max and tell his son, “C’mon, you vant to go to de park today? I’ll buy you a malted.” His son loved it, and years later, his senior project at film school was a 17-minute short titled Max, starring Jack Gilford as Grampa Max.

H. Chance Newton used to tell a story about a cousin of his who was suddenly called on to play the part of Osric in Hamlet. Being unfamiliar with the part, he put a copy of the play in Osric’s hat, planning to look up his dialogue as needed. Unfortunately, he came across a word he was unfamiliar with and hesitated during a speech. An audience member in the balcony, who had been observing the actor reading the copy of the play hidden in his hat, called out, “Spell it, old pal! We’ll tell you what it is!”

African-American diva Shirley Verrett learned a lot from performing various roles in opera. She debuted in opera in 1957 playing the title role in The Rape of Lucretia by Benjamin Britten, and in 1958 she played Irina in Lost in the Stars by Kurt Weill. She once said, “That showed me how I could change characters, being a virgin one night and two nights later a dance hall girl coming down the stairs with a split in my skirt. Everything I had learned in church went right down the drain!”

Professional actors tend not to think highly of amateur actors. An old professional tragedian and an old professional streetwalker were sitting side by side on a park bench. The tragedian turned to the streetwalker and said, “Ah, madame, what irony! The two oldest professions in the world—ruined by amateurs!”

Sir Peregrine Plinge once gave a bad performance as Macbeth, so he told a fellow actor, “Give me £5.” When the actor asked why, Sir Peregrine threatened, “Because if you don’t, I shall tell everybody that you played Macduff to my Macbeth.” (Sir Peregrine even went to the box office and said that the play was so bad he wanted his money back.)

There’s a story of an old actor who always talked about his days with the famous English actor and troupe-leader Sir Frank Benson. Once the old actor was asked if he had actually acted with Sir Frank. The old actor replied, “Not exactly—but I auditioned for him four times.”

Robert Montgomery once appeared in a radio program whose script called for him to go out into a blinding snowstorm. When the proper moment arrived, Mr. Montgomery threw some confetti into the air, creating his own snowstorm.

On the Japanese stage, men used to perform the roles of females. Onoe Baiko once told American dance pioneer Ted Shawn that his favorite roles on the stage were “ghosts, demons, and hysterical females.”

When George Gershwin died, he stipulated that his opera Porgy and Bess could not be performed by any but a black cast. This stipulation is usually observed in America, but it is not always observed in Europe.

Comedian Jack Oakie felt that there were three stages to the career of an actor in motion pictures: 1) “Who’s he?” 2) “There he is!” and 3) “Is he still around?”

George Bernard Shaw once complimented Sir Cedric Hardwicke by telling him, “You are my fifth favorite actor, the first four being the Marx Brothers.”

Actor Sir John Gielgud could cry on cue. When caricaturist Sam Norkin asked him how he did it, Sir John replied, “I think of something, but I won’t say what it is.”

Ralph Richardson once told Harry Andrews that just before acting on stage, he would walk around the set and touch things to help get in contact with the reality which he would very soon enact.

“The art of acting consists of keeping people from coughing.”—Sir Ralph Richardson.


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


David Bruce’s Smashwords Bookstore: Retellings of Classic Literature, Anecdote Collections, Discussion Guides for Teachers of Literature, Collections of Good Deed Accounts, etc.



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