David Bruce: Acting Anecdotes

Sylvia Miles became an actress because she was incompetent at procuring theatrical props. She was working as a set designer at a Long Island theater when the producer sent her out to get some props. She returned after purchasing the props for $90. This shocked the producer, who told her, “You’re not supposed to pay for props. You’re supposed to rent or borrow them and give them billing.” Ms. Miles, of course, wanted her $90, so the producer said, “Tell you what. I’m going to give you a part in the play and I’ll give you $90 to play the part.”

During a rehearsal for a tour of Maxwell Anderson’s Eve of St. Mark, produced by Jules J. Leventhal, Mr. Leventhal tried to listen to a woman in the cast, but said, “I can’t hear her.” The stage manager said, “What do you care? She stinks.” Mr. Leventhal said, “I know, but for my money I like to hear her stink.” Jack Gilford’s future wife, Madeline, was also in the cast that day, and later she taught her acting students the maxim, “Let them hear you stink.”

Actors John Gielgud and Hugh Griffith once attended a party at which Sir John amused everyone by talking of various productions he had seen of Shakespeare’s Tempest. He especially criticized a particular production, saying it had “quite the worst Caliban I have ever seen.” Noticing how quiet Mr. Griffith was, he said, “You’re very silent, Hugh.” Mr. Griffith replied, “Not as a rule. I was just trying to recall my performance and wondering if you could possibly be right.”

Dorothy Lamour had a tough time making the Road movies with Bob Hope and Bing Crosby. Ms. Lamour memorized the script, but Mr. Hope and Mr. Crosby hired writers to come up with extra gags and ad libs for their characters. Once, during a lengthy scene in which Mr. Hope and Mr. Crosby ignored the script, Ms. Lamour finally said, “Hey, boys—will you please let me get my line in?”

Edwin Forrest (1806-1872) was immensely proud of his performances as King Lear. A friend once complimented him: “Mr. Forrest, I never saw you play Lear as well as you did last night.” The compliment, however, mad Mr. Forrest angry. He responded, “Play Lear! What do you mean, sir? I do not play Lear. I play Hamlet, Richard, Shylock, Virginius, but by God, sir, I am Lear!”

Leo McCarey was directing a movie when he ran into trouble with a ham actor. Mr. McCarey told the actor exactly where to stand for a shot, but the actor continued to position himself for better camera exposure. Finally, Mr. McCarey had to tell a member of the crew to nail the actor’s shoes to the floor.

Early in his career, Peter Ustinov appeared in a play with a star who had been chosen to act as himself on stage. When the star asked Mr. Ustinov what he was going to do in the next scene, Mr. Ustinov replied that he was going to do nothing. The star objected, “No! I’m the star. In this scene do nothing.”

Aaron Ruben was the producer of The Andy Griffith Show, which featured Mr. Griffith as Sheriff Andy Taylor and Don Knotts as his incompetent deputy, Barney Fife. Once, someone told Mr. Knotts that Aaron Ruben thought there was a lot of Don Knotts in Barney Fife. Mr. Knotts replied, “Gee, I hope not too much!”

Bob Denver is widely known as Gilligan of Gilligan’s Island, the TV series about a group of people who set out for a three-hour tour, were shipwrecked, and spent three years on an island. Every time Mr. Denver rented a boat, he knew he would  hear the same joke: “Three-hour tour, huh? We’ll never see this boat again, will we?”

Kevin Kline has played Hamlet. Before one rehearsal, he sat before a mirror in his dressing room, brooding. An interviewer asked if he was brooding about the difficulty of playing such a complex character as Hamlet. “No,” replied Mr. Kline, “I can handle that, but there’s nothing I can do about my potato nose and I have no upper lip.”

Overweight actor John Banner played Sergeant Schultz, a German prisoner of war camp guard, in TV’s Hogan’s Heroes. In real life, he was a Jew and during World War II, he had been a sergeant in the United States Army. Back then, he was slim and even served as a model in a series of recruiting posters for the Army.

Dr. Samuel Johnson could be complimentary when he choose. When he received a visit from the actress Mrs. Siddons, one of his servants was slow in bringing her a chair. Referring to her ability to sell out a theater, Dr. Johnson said, “You see, madam, wherever you go, there are no seats to be had.”

Sir Herbert Tree was an actor who suffered from stage fright. Waiting to go on stage as Iago, he turned to Constance Benson, who was playing Desdemona, and asked, “Why do we choose a calling that causes us such utterable agony?”

Before Dick Van Dyke walked into an office to talk over what became The Dick Van Dyke Show with executive producer Sheldon Leonard and producer Carl Reiner, they were wondering how many people he would have in his entourage. They were pleasantly surprised when he came alone.

Ned Harrigan wanted his son William to be a good actor, so for the first six weeks that his son was a member of his acting troupe, he had him play all his scenes with his arms down at his sides so that he would be forced to learn to act with his voice and face.

Erich von Stroheim really got into his acting roles. A scene in the play Arsenic and Old Lace called for Joseph Sweeney to restrain Mr. von Stroheim, who was playing a psychopathic murderer. Mr. Sweeney did so, but in the process he received a hernia.

When comedian Jack Oakie (who played the Mussolini character in Charlie Chaplin’s Great Dictator) was pleased with his acting in a movie scene, he used to say, “That was some pretty good pretendin’.”

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Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

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