David Bruce: Acting Anecdotes

Russell Johnson, who played the Professor on Gilligan’s Island, had the hardest lines to learn because so much of what he said was explaining how he was able to use science to do such things as recharge batteries with nothing more than seawater and various metals. Bob Denver, who played Gilligan, once asked Mr. Johnson how he was able to learn his lines. The explanation was simple, although the work involved was not. Mr. Joihnson spent hours reading the encyclopedia so he could understood what he was saying. The hours of reading paid off—he seldom blew his lines. (But on the rare occasions he did, his fellow castmembers were ready to tease him by saying such things as “Gee, Russ, can’t you learn the stupid lines!”) 

Early in his acting career, Sheldon Leonard competed for parts with Sam Levene because they played similar characters. In a road production of Three Men on a Horse, Mr. Leonard played a comedic part that Mr. Levene had originated on Broadway. During a dress rehearsal, Mr. Levene stopped by—not to watch Mr. Leonard, but to time his laughs to see if Mr. Leonard was getting bigger laughs than he had gotten. After an especially long laugh, Mr. Levene turned to Mr. Leonard’s wife, who was also standing in the back of the theater, and snarled, “What did he do? Drop his pants?”

Not everyone who studies acting in college goes on to become an actor. In 1973, Miranda Fowler graduated from Yale Drama School and quickly found work playing a maid in Private Lives. Her debut was inauspicious—she missed her entrance six nights in a row. During the second week, the actress playing Amanda became ill and Ms. Fowler, who was her understudy, was asked to go on in her place. It was then she realized that she had memorized not the lines of Amanda, but of Sibyl. At this point, Ms. Fowler decided not to be an actress.

Eve Arden was getting ready to go to stage in Los Angeles in the title role of Auntie Mame, when she realized she couldn’t remember the name of the Connecticut town where Mame’s nephew’s snooty fiance lived. She turned to a cast member who played one of the Connecticut group and asked, “Quick, Frank, where do you live?” Misunderstanding her, he told her the name of his Los Angeles hotel. Fortunately, Ms. Arden remembered the name of the Connecticut town once she was onstage.

An actor once told playwright Sir James Barrie, author of Peter Pan, that without using words he could convey anything to an audience. Sir James replied, “Please express without a word that you have a younger brother, who was born in Devonshire but is now living in Kent, who is coming to London next week on Thursday to call on his sister who has sprained her ankle crossing Piccadilly as she was on her way to a Regent Street dressmaker to be fitted for a pink silk dress.”

Occasionally, actors do miss cues. Hugh Manning once found himself alone on stage after an actor missed his cue. The only available props were a piano, which he didn’t know how to play, and a vase of daffodils. He sat at the piano, ran his fingers along the keys, then smelled the daffodils. Not knowing what else to do to entertain the audience until his fellow actor appeared, he ate a daffodil. The audience laughed, and for the rest of the run of the play, Mr. Manning ate a daffodil on stage each night.

Bob Denver starred in Far Out Space Nuts on Saturday morning TV. The guest star one day was John Carradine, who has a magnificent voice and a magnificent stage presence. Mr. Denver was mesmerized by Mr. Carradine’s acting and failed to respond with his lines when it was his turn to speak. After the director yelled “Cut!” Mr. Carradine merely smiled at Mr. Denver. Apparently, he often had such an effect on his fellow actors.

As an actor who sometimes appeared in plays by Shakespeare, Patrick Macnee, the star of The Avengers, had enormous respect for Laurence Olivier. Therefore, it was a special thrill when Sir Laurence met him and said, “I just wanted to say how very much I’ve enjoyed watching The Avengers.” Unfortunately, Mr. Macnee later learned that Sir Laurence had mistaken him for Patrick Magee, the star of The Prisoner.

Linda Thorson played Tara King in the British tongue-in-cheek TV series The Avengers alongside Patrick Macnee, who played John Steed. Just out of drama school, she had a hard time adjusting to the rigors of the series. She said, “I was too fat for karate, too breathless for the fight scenes, and too busty for the love bits. They had to pour my 39-inch bosom into 36-inch sweaters so Patrick Macnee could get near me.”

Actor Harry Secombe was playing d’Artagnan in the play The Four Musketeers at the Theatre Royal on a hot summer matinee when some members of the audience began to fight despite the frenetic action occurring on stage. Thoroughly annoyed, Mr. Secombe ran to the footlights and screamed at the rowdies: “Do you mind keeping quiet? Some of us are trying to get some sleep up here.”

In the movie Quo Vadis? the character played by former heavyweight champion Buddy Baer killed a bull with his bare hands. The next day, his manager sent him a steak and the note, “From the bull you killed.” Mr. Baer sent back the steak and another note, “I refuse to eat a fellow actor.”

After retiring as an actor, Western star Randolph Scott wanted to join the Los Angeles Country Club—which did not accept actors. According to legend, when he was told that he couldn’t join because he was an actor, Mr. Randolph replied, “Oh, really? Have you seen my work?”

Even professional actors sometimes forget their lines on stage. Whenever this happened to Irene Vanburgh, she used to tap her foot and stare at another actor so the audience would think it was the other actor who had forgotten the lines.

Diana Rigg once played Cordelia to Paul Scofield’s King Lear. After she recited, “Had you not been their father, these white flakes did challenge pity of them,” Mr. Scofield murmured, “Are you suggesting I’ve got dandruff?”

Ralph Richardson once starred in a production of Othello. After a disastrous opening night, he stood in the corridor outside his dressing room, asking passersby, “Has anyone seen my talent?”

“There is no fundamental difference between the man who plays Hamlet and a lion-tamer. They are both acting.”—Tom Arnold, the English producer.


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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