Anthology of John Wilder: Part II In A Series
Welcome to Part II of the Anthology of John Wilder series of interviews. We left off discussing the evolution of media and entertainment over the span of Wilder’s forty-plus years in Hollywood, both in front of and behind the camera. Wilder reflected:
Balcony 7 (B7) John Wilder (JW)
JW: I remember, as a kid, sitting in the Writers’ Room with Jack Benny, and him turning down a suggested joke, saying, “Anybody can get a laugh by dropping their pants. We don’t do that.” I get the feeling television writers today think that’s the only way they can get a laugh. Of course, it could be a case of not having enough popular performers who insist on setting the bar higher. Is it art mirroring life? Or is life mirroring what is being manufactured to exploit the lowest common denominator and being presented as art?”
B7: Unfortunately, the answer is likely the latter and brings to mind the reality that many young people may never know the classic art of entertainment, as it existed in your youth. You had great role models as your career moved forward in step with the evolution of media and entertainment platforms. Share with us your career trajectory.
JW: The radio work led to acting in films, and television. But, more importantly, those early experiences in radio laid what proved to be an invaluable foundation for all the creative work that has followed.
Looking back, which I don’t like to do, because I’m much more interested in what’s coming than what’s already come and gone, I can see how handling the responsibilities of performing live in major productions with top-flight talent before I reached maturity gave me the confidence to tackle some of the major work I’ve taken on.
B7: Well, let’s look back a bit, anyway. Given the importance of radio as the live entertainment media of the moment—free to all who owned one—we assume most of the biggest entertainers of that time did radio. How many names did you work with, and what types of shows fit your adolescent voice?
JW: During a little over a five year span, I had regular and recurring roles on fourteen different programs. In addition to those roles, I worked often on all the major broadcasts out of Hollywood with all the great voice actors of the day, incredibly talented people like Mel Blanc, Clarence Nash, June Foray, Frank Lovejoy, Cathy and Elliott Lewis, Virginia Gregg, Gigi Pearson, Ed Max, Parley Baer, Jim Backus, Stan Freeberg, Daws Butler, Alan Reed, Lou Merrill, Les Tremayne, Hans Conried, Gale Gordon, Bea Benaderet, Sara Berner, Janet Waldo, Willard Waterman, Peggy Webber, Hal Peary, Frank Nelson, Paul Frees, Marvin Miller, Hy Averback, Jerry Hausner, William Conrad, Dick Crenna, John Dehner, Larry Dobkin, Howard Duff, Jack Webb, John McIntyre, Jeanette Nolan, Barbara Fuller, Doris Singleton, Lillian Randolph, Irene Tedrow, Bob Sweeney, Hal March, Mary Jane Croft…and so many more. Those names will all be familiar to radio buffs. And they will always be burned into my brain. Not only were they all brilliant actors, they were all great to a little kid who was privileged to share the stage with them.
I also performed in featured and co-starring roles with many of the major film actors of that time on the anthology shows that were so popular. Among those anthologies, was Lux Radio Theatre. It was considered America’s finest dramatic series. The stories told on Lux were adaptations of popular, award-winning films. Overall, I did nineteen broadcasts in re-enactments of movies like Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Anchors Aweigh, How Green Was My Valley, National Velvet, Miracle on 34th Street, Gentlemen’s Agreement, Anna and the King of Siam, and Down To The Sea in Ships, in which I co-starred with Lionel Barrymore and Richard Widmark. That still blows my mind. Didn’t at the time, but sure does now. Two giants, and a boy standing on a box. Wow.
B7: You had us at Mel Blanc. Which leads us into the importance of content and delivery. He was a genius with delivery, as most of us know through his voiceovers for Hanna-Barbera cartoons. Do you think this radio work, especially for the anthologies with amazing role models, might have etched into your young brain a valuable formula for your future screenwriting success? Namely, the importance of staying true to the original work in your adaptations for such famous American authors such as James Michener, John Jakes and Anne Rice—whose fans would have scrutinized your work—but also in the quality of live-action dialogue, timing and delivery in front of a camera?
JW: All of those adaptations for Lux Radio Theatre were the work of a brilliant writer, Sanford H. “Sandy” Barnett, who went on to become an Academy-Award winner in films himself. Without being aware of it, each time I was a part of one of those broadcasts, I was subliminally getting a sense of structure, a feeling for dialogue. I was learning the art of story telling without knowing it, or having any idea that it would play such an important part in my life years later.
And acting? Comedy timing? Dramatic expression? Are you kidding me? Some of those stars I worked with on the anthologies were Bing Crosby, Cary Grant, Gregory Peck, Gary Cooper, Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, Barbara Stanwyck, Deborah Kerr, Loretta Young, Humphrey Bogart, Hattie McDaniel, Lucille Ball, Walter Brennan, Walter Huston, David Niven, Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney, Elizabeth Taylor, Maureen O’Sullivan, Maureen O’Hara, Edmund Gwenn, Van Johnson, Donna Reed, Clifton Webb, Claudette Colbert, Irene Dunne, Dan Dailey, Dick Powell, June Allison, Dan Dailey, William Boyd, Roy Rogers, Gene Autry…I could name many more, but you get the point. From the time I was nine years old till I was fourteen, I was working regularly with the top acting talent in the film industry.
Role models? Yes, I had hundreds of them. Supreme talents who conducted themselves always as professionals, who were always polite and personable. I don’t recall ever hearing profanity in any radio studio or on any film set when I was underage.
B7: Mannerisms have changed a bit, haven’t they, with the birth of “divas” beyond the confines of the operatic arts? We know you’re always busy with a new screenwriting project, and forever forward thinking, even now coming out with your long-awaited novel, Nobody Dies In Hollywood, but since we’re forcing you to look back on your career for the benefit of new fans reading your upcoming book, don’t you feel lucky for the experiences you’ve had?
JW: I don’t reflect back on those days often, but, whenever I have, I am struck by the fact that I was doing drama and comedy with professional actors, directors, and writers at the top of their game, and learning from all of them.
Can you imagine the training I was getting? More than any drama school could have taught. And at an early age when, they tell us now, we learn best. I didn’t realize it then, of course, but I was getting a Ph.D. in entertainment before my voice changed.
When it did start to deepen, and occasionally crack involuntarily, at about fourteen, the workload stopped and I could concentrate on school and athletics. Probably not in that order.
Those days in radio segued naturally into acting in film.
B7: Thank you, John Wilder. In our next installment of The Anthology of John Wilder series, we’ll delve into his early acting, with the likes of Sandra Dee, Doris Day, Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, many academy-award-winning actors, and even some television credits with famous American family shows, Father Knows Best, Leave It To Beaver, and even with Ozzie and Harriet Nelson, among others. In our next installment, we discuss Wilder’s foray into live action in front of the camera, for both television and film. Stay Tuned.