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.