In 1957 John Cassavetes came to St. Thomas to make a film based on the moderately bestselling autobiography by novelist and screenwriter Rob White called Our Virgin Island. His co-star in the film was Sidney Poitier. Both had appeared together before in Martin Ritt’s searing drama Edge of the City (1957).
At the time of their arrival both were well known to young movie goers. Poitier because he was the first African American actor to work consistently in movies playing dramatic roles. Cassavetes because he had played a number of disturbed juveniles and thugs on TV and in films. Three of his films The Night Holds Terror (1955), Rumble on the Docks ((1956) and Saddle the Wind (1958) along with Edge of the City were well known to us. Cassavetes was part of a group of young rebels who were invading the screen. The cycle started with Marlon Brando in The Wild Ones (1953) and became very popular with James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause (1955). After that it seem that every studio jumped on the bandwagon producing films with titles like Dino (1957) and The Young Don’t Cry (1957). Sal Mineo, James Darren and Cassavetes were often tapped to act in these films and I liked them a lot. For me he was the quintessential thug-hero. There was something lean, hungry and feral about his looks and his acting that gave the characters he played an authenticity I never got from Dean or Brando. Both were good actors playing their parts, but with Cassavetes I felt I was seeing the real thing. His eyes in close-ups seemed to suggest that he was haunted by hardship and deprivation. He also seemed to be possessed of an inner rage that I found compelling and irresistible.
At the time when he came to the island I was working for our local radio station where one of my jobs was to interview any celebrity who visited the island. This was an agreeable gig and one that I took seriously because of my love for movies and anything having to do with them. My qualifications for this job were nonexistent. I had no experience in reportage or radio work and my accent was so thick that it was unintelligible to all but other islanders. Still I was given this job and was paid a fat fifteen dollars a week for my efforts.
As soon as Cassavetes and Poitier arrived I approached them for interviews. Both said yes right away. When I did my interview with Cassavetes he was intrigued that one so young (I was 16 at the time) had such a job and talked to me at length about it. And of all the movie celebrities I had interviewed he was the one who seemed to be most interested in who I was, what I aspired to and what my life was like living on the island. As we sat and spoke all the violence and rage I had seen in the movies were nowhere in evidence. The man I was eating with and talking to was relaxed and full of jokes and high spirits looking at the beautiful scenery around us and marveling at it. I enjoyed our conversation greatly yet when it came to doing our interview on the air I was inexplicably nervous. So much so that I began to stutter and the paper I was holding with my questions was shaking.
I remember him smiling gently and taking the questions from me as we talked. Then he started asking me the questions I had intended to ask him. And after I answered he would then connect my response to something from his own background. This was the way we did the whole interview and it was great. He had managed to put me at ease and things flowed smoothly after that. At the end he clapped my shoulder and said;”Good job. This was one of the best interviews I’ve ever done.” I walked away from that session with my head in the clouds.
Years later as I watched his career develop as an idiosyncratic actor and filmmaker I wasn’t at all surprised. The quicksilver alertness and generosity of spirit that he became well known for had always been a part of who he was as far back as 1957 when we did that interview together.
It is always being said that because of his grace, gallantry and impeccable dancing skills Fred Astaire always made his partners look good. Well I think that the same could be said about Cassavetes. Of course in a different area of cinema. He has been gone for some time now but his reputation as a filmmaker and as a warm and giving person is still on the rise. Again I’m not surprised. I knew him for only a brief moment but it remains as one of the bright spots in my life.