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nobody dies in hollywood

(1) Rock Pretty Baby, the first teenage musical: John Wilder (piano), Rod McKuen (bass), Alan Reed, Jr. (saxophone), John Saxon (guitar), Sal Mineo (drums)
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Anthology of John Wilder, Part III: Setting The Stage

Our Anthology of John Wilder series has already explored the beginnings of what would encompass a strong foundation for a career in entertainment. Evolving from early radio, standing on a box to reach the microphone, we now turn to early acting for both television and film, this consistent work playing a major role in the nascent stages of a soon-to-be realized presence behind the camera: writing, directing and producing award-winning productions and adaptations.


Balcony 7 (B7) John Wilder (JW)


B7: From where we left off, you were still in the one-digit age range with a hectic schedule in radio productions. When did you get your first acting role and where did that lead you?

JW: I was nine when I did my first film, Tumbleweed Trail, a western with singing cowboy Eddie Dean and character actor Roscoe Ates. I played a character called “Freckles,” singing alongside Eddie while riding a paint pony. The next year I played the son of Broderick Crawford and Rosemary DeCamp, working with the star who later became Governor of California and President of the United States, Ronald Reagan, in Night Unto Night, a film directed by Don Siegel.

The work kept coming. I played the son of Doris Day and Gordon MacRae in Tea for Two, and also played a character named “Duckface Kelly” in When I Grow Up, a film starring Bobby Driscoll and Robert Preston. That was a great experience, working with the great Sam Spiegel, who also produced On The Waterfront, Bridge On The River Kwai, and Lawrence of Arabia. In When I Grow Up, I was directed by a legend as well, Academy Award-winning screenwriter, Michael Kanin. I also had small roles in Singin’ In The Rain (starring Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds), Room For One More (starring Cary Grant), The First Texan (starring Joel McCrea), and The Pride of St. Louis (with Dan Dailey, Joanne Dru and Richard Crenna).

During that period, I had a regular roles on television in Ozzie and Harriet, as “Will Thornberry, Jr.,” son of the Nelson family’s next door neighbor, and pal of Nelson kids David and Rick, who were lifelong friends in real life, too.

B7: Your teenage years must have flown by with a schedule like that. Yet you still ended up a freshman at USC. Explain the tug of war between education and acting.

JW: The tug of war wasn’t all from acting. I had a grant-in-aid to play baseball for the Trojans and that led me to USC. But when a casting director at Universal Studios, Phil Benjamin, who had known my work as a young teen, called and asked me to come meet Valentine Davies, the writer-director of The Benny Goodman Story (starring Steve Allen and Donna Reed), I decided to take the job, on the side. It was a great opportunity for me, and Mr. Davies’ first directing assignment. They had shot an important scene with a contract player, and he was not at all happy with the performance. He put me in the part, I worked one day and went back to college.

But two weeks later, Mr. Benjamin called again to tell me that a producer on the lot (Ed Chevie) had seen the scene I did, and he wanted me to be in his film, Rock Pretty Baby, with John Saxon and Sal Mineo. It would be the first teenage Rock and Roll film, and I was to be the piano player in the band, “Fingers.” It was five weeks work at a good salary, so I thought I’d drop out of school for a semester and make the money. That work led to five years of steady acting roles in features and television with so many wonderful actors, like Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, Bette Davis, Jean Simmons, Joan Fontaine, Glenn Ford, Esther Williams, Loretta Young, Ward Bond, Jill St. John, and Sandra Dee, among many others. And I worked with wonderful directors like Robert Wise, George Marshall and D.W. Griffith’s protégé, Alan Dwan.

In those five years, I did thirty-some television shows. Among them, a co-starring role with Bette Davis in an episode of Wagon Train, with Ward Bond; a guest lead on an episode of Wanted Dead or Alive, with Steve McQueen; leading and featured roles on prestigious anthologies like The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, GE Theater, Four-Star Playhouse, Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse, Schlitz Playhouse Of Stars, Jane Wyman Presents, The Loretta Young Show, Dick Powell Theater, and popular weekly series like Perry Mason, Zane Gray Theater, The West Point Story, Navy Log, Father Knows Best, Leave It To Beaver, Broken Arrow, and My Three Sons, among others. I did live television too, working on Lux Video Theater, Philco Playhouse, NBC Matinee Theater, and You Are There. There were no second takes in live TV. It was much like stage work, but the pressure was greater in that the plays were mounted with just a few hours rehearsal and staged for multiple cameras.

B7: It would seem your career was cemented in front of the camera at this point. What led you back to college?

JW: I had the leading role in two pilots for weekly series The Baxter Boy and Dial 111. I also tested for the lead role in Dobie Gillis, which my pal Duane Hickman got. Had I gotten that role, or had either one of the pilots become a series, that might have changed the trajectory of my career. As they didn’t, I came to the conclusion that working in front of the camera was not for me.

B7: So, now you’re a full-time UCLA student preparing for a career behind the camera. When did you discover your love of writing and how did you gravitate toward screenplays?

JW: I’m pretty sure that all the dramas and comedies I was part of as a performer contributed strongly to my sense of story and my ear for dialogue. They were written by first-rate storytellers, professionals earning their way in the world through command of a demanding craft. Well-conceived and carefully edited words were run through my own mind and emotions, memorized and explored to deliver them as a performer.

I studied the craft of acting with Richard Boon and Jeff Corey. I was reading Stanislavski and Boleslavsky, was being directed by Robert Wise, Stanley Donen, Don Siegel, Alan Dwan, and equally talented but lesser-known artists all of whom gave me a background in tapping into my own humanity and the wide range of emotions and actions we are all capable of.

While studying literature at UCLA, I began to think that perhaps I could write, but I believed that film would be the literature of the future, so I looked to that medium, one that I had some background in, as a potential career. I was fortunate to have made a good friend in a fellow actor, Chuck Connors, who, had read some of my writing, and when he got his own television series, The Rifleman, asked me to write an episode. I did. It came out pretty well, and the producers bought the script. But one script does not a career make. I needed income, but was determined not to do any more acting. I really felt that was a dead end for me, creatively.

B7: Were you having an epiphany, realizing at a young age that long-term creativity based on looks could be fleeting? Or did you get hooked on the high of having something you wrote become an episode?

JW: It’s difficult to ignore that being in front of the camera, in films, physicality determines so much of what you are able to do. I didn’t want those limitations. I wanted to do something creatively without having to be a certain height, look a certain way. Also, because acting had come so easily to me at that time, as a child, maybe I never felt like it was all that challenging. I say “at that time,” because I recognize now how challenging a craft it is to master, and I have the greatest respect for those who do.

Part of my decision-making process, no doubt, was that I really am more of a private person, and always had to force myself to perform on stage or before a camera. I could feel the inner workings of so many characters I would never be cast to play, and that was a part of it, too. A role I really enjoyed playing on a television show was a character named “Smiley”. He was the leader of a motorcycle gang in a story based on a gang war in L.A. But those roles were not offered to me often. I thought I would much prefer to write for actors, direct them in a manner that would help them get the most out of themselves. I wanted to create films like Robert Bolt wrote and David Lean directed. That would be something, I thought.

(1) Rock Pretty Baby, the first teenage musical: John Wilder (piano), Rod McKuen (bass), Alan Reed, Jr. (saxophone), John Saxon (guitar), Sal Mineo (drums)

(1) Rock Pretty Baby, the first teenage musical: John Wilder (piano), Rod McKuen (bass), Alan Reed, Jr. (saxophone), John Saxon (guitar), Sal Mineo (drums)

 

2_John-Wilder-Sandra-Dee-Until-They-Sail-by-James-Michener-1956-1

(2) Until They Sail by James Michener, John Wilder, Sandra Dee, 1956

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(3) Summer Love, John Wilder, Judy Meredith

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(4) Imitation General, 1958, John Wilder, Glen Ford

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(5) With Chuck Connors and Wilder’s writing partner, Jerry Ziegman, on the set of BRANDED, an NBC series, on which Ziegman and Wilder were story editors. 1965.

Robert-Urich,-John-Wilder-Larry-Bird,-Chuck-Connors---Boston-Garden-1985,-Spenser-For-Hire-1

(6) Two actors that reflect the beginning and the middle of John Wilder’s screenwriting career: from left to right: Robert Urich (Spenser: For Hire, adapted by John Wilder from the best-selling Spenser detective novels by Robert B. Parker); John Wilder; Larry Bird, NBA legend from the Boston Celtics; and Chuck Connors (The Rifleman and former NBA player for the Boston Celtics). Taken in 1985 at Boston Garden during production of Spenser: For Hire.

 

 

 

 

 


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John Wilder, Old Radio Days
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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.

John Wilder, Michael Douglas, Karl Malden, The Streets of San Francisco 1972-75, on set
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Anthology of John Wilder: First In A Series

After more than forty years writing, producing and directing for cable and network television, John Wilder is finally writing for himself. With inspiration drawn from his own life and the world around him, a new character—Michael Drayton—takes center stage in a series of contemporary crime novels: gritty and fast-paced, artfully brought to life with Wilder’s knack for dialogue and descriptive prose.

In his debut work of fiction, Nobody Dies In Hollywood, modern-day diversity amidst the ever-shining glow of Hollywood’s luster offers an appealing angle to John Wilder’s fan base: Baby Boomers, who grew up watching early black and white television shows—and, later, features in full technicolor, to a whole new base of fans—millennials, who may have watched reruns on Netflix or may have entirely missed Wilder’s illustrious past. The Anthology of John Wilder, a new series of interviews, brings a Hollywood legend up front and personal, with inside analysis and memorable stories about project development, casting, filming and any other anecdotal fun we can squeeze out of him.

This introductory interview is broken into three parts and will be followed by introspectives for numerous works, following the chronology of Wilder’s venerable career, which includes: Centennial (NBC mini-series adapted from James Michener’s epic book); Return To Lonesome Dove (CBS mini-series and original teleplay, a sequel to Larry McMurtry’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Lonesome Dove); The Bastard (cable mini-series, adapted from John Jakes’ bestselling book); The Yellow Rose (series created for NBC, starring Sam Elliott and Cybill Shepherd); Spenser: For Hire (series developed for ABC, starring Robert Urich and Avery Brooks, based on the best-selling series by Robert B. Parker); The Streets of San Francisco (ABC series starring Karl Malden and Michael Douglas); and Shuffleton’s Barbershop (Hallmark movie starring Danny Glover).

We will also delve into Wilder’s process of adapting the works of so many great American novelists, including: the adaptation of James Michener’s bestselling novel, Texas, for ABC; adaptation of Anne Rice’s novels The Feast of All Saints (Showtime) and bestselling trilogy The Witching Hour, Lasher, and Taltos (NBC); as well as adaptations of books by Louis L’Amour, Nicholas Evans and, currently, National Book Award winner and journalist, Timothy Egan.


Balcony 7 (B7) John Wilder (JW)


B7: You grew up in Burbank, home to major studios Warner Bros., Disney and Universal. But many don’t realize you actually began your Hollywood career in front of a microphone, then in front of the camera rather than behind it. Tell us about your first gig?

JW: I was born in Tacoma, Washington, and came to California with my sister and parents in 1942. We lived in North Hollywood (where Universal is located), then moved to Burbank in 1944. I grew up just a few blocks from Disney Studios, where I did voices for the Lost Boys in the animated film, Peter Pan, and not far from Warner Brothers where I worked in two films as a child, and later created and produced two television series. It was a great place to grow up.

My first work was actually as a model, in Field & Stream I think, but wouldn’t bet on it. I remember it was a father and son dressed in plaid shirts, boots and pants, featured a shotgun and a hunting dog. I still have the cancelled check. Couldn’t tell you how much it was. Not a lot, $25 maybe, but my first paycheck, probably 1943.

My acting career began at The Geller Theater Workshop in Los Angeles (now Theater of Arts College), where my parents enrolled me in drama classes and where I was cast by Marlene Dietrich’s daughter, Maria Manton, to play “Bodo” in Lillian Hellman’s, Watch On The Rhine (which Ms. Manton was directing). I was seven, just turning eight years old.

Ms. Manton suggested to my parents that, since I could read at an advanced level, they consider exploring work in radio. I was given a general audition at CBS, and had work the next week. From 1944 into the early 1950’s, I worked steadily, usually standing on a box across the microphone from adult performers, including Jack Benny.

At one point, I played running characters on five weekly shows at the same time, and also played recurring characters on The Jimmy Durante Show, The Alan Young Show, The Bob Burns Show, and The Buster Brown Show, among others. I was billed as the youngest announcer in radio when I was eleven and emceeing The Abbot and Costello Kid Show. I did the title role in Ricky West and His Horse Champion, and did two to three broadcasts a week for over four years as “Little Beaver” on The Red Ryder series.

B7: Those must have been heady times for a young boy like you working with such great names. Was it this recurring radio work that gave you the bug to perform in front of the camera?

JW:[mks_pullquote align=”left” width=”300″ size=”24″ bg_color=”#000000″ txt_color=”#ffffff”]I never really “had the bug” to be a performer. I wanted to play second base for the Yankees.[/mks_pullquote] Acting was something my parents wanted me to do, and I was a pretty obedient kid. I didn’t dislike it. It was just something I did for them, and apparently did it well enough that I worked steadily. Over a seven-year span, I had regular roles on fourteen weekly, national broadcasts. I was the first child actor Jack Benny cast for his weekly Jack Benny Show (along with my lifetime friend, Jerry Farber, now a Professor of English Lit at the University of San Diego).

Jack got huge laughs playing the tight-fisted miser against two kids. And that led to running roles on the show for Jerry and me. He also put me in a musical group he called The Beverly Hills Hillbillies, which he formed to play benefit performances for different causes. That group was comprised of five musicians from the Phil Harris Orchestra, Jack (who played violin), and me as a vocalist. It was a deadpan act where none of us smiled for the length of the skit—a monologue by Jack interspersed with several musical numbers. Audiences loved it and roared with laughter while we worked hard to keep from cracking the slightest smile or showing the least bit of emotion.

We actually did the Hillbillies act for Jack Benny’s initial television broadcast from CBS in 1949. Guess that makes it my first TV appearance, too. Television was still in its infancy but catching on, going from about 6,000 sets across the country in 1946 to over 3 million at the time of that 1949 black-and-white broadcast.

B7: And to think now there are over 115 million television households in America, according to Nielsen. In the forty-plus years of your entertainment career, you’ve seen media platforms evolve into what is now an explosive array of edgy offerings, including on-demand, YouTube and Reality TV. What’s your perspective on the evolution of entertainment and the quality of today versus yesterday?

JW: You’re asking a question that takes me into the subject matter of a piece of non-fiction I’m writing, so I’m not going to be too specific here. I think the quality of what is being produced currently is outstanding. The production, the writing, the directing, the acting, is, on the whole, better than ever. The content is another issue.

Cable changed the nature of home entertainment, there is no doubt about that. We have to remember that “Show Business” is Show Business. The pursuit of profit. To keep their viewers, networks lowered their broadcast standards to compete with X-rated material on cable. The result is a lot of ugliness in what is being produced today, a lot of coarseness.

In drama, it seems to be which anti-hero can out anti-hero the last one. In comedy, almost all the jokes are aimed below-the-belt, much easier to write than the wit of pre-cable shows like I Love Lucy, Sid Caesar’s Show of Shows, The Dick Van Dyke Show, All In The Family.

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?


 

John Wilder, On Set of Spenser For Hire, Boston Garden 1984, sub-zero temps

John Wilder, On Set of Spenser For Hire, Boston Garden 1984, sub-zero temps

 

Find John Wilder’s debut, Nobody Dies In Hollywood, wherever books and eBooks are sold. AMAZON | BARNES & NOBLE