More on Murray Hamilton
I still miss Murray. He used to come into the bar where I worked during the lunch hour and sit for two or three hours according to his schedule. It wasn’t busy at the bar because all the luncheon activity happened in the restaurant part of the place. So it was usually him, me and perhaps four other regulars. One occupied his time doing the New York Times crossword puzzle so he didn’t talk much. The others did according to their mood. Murray usually sat at the far end of the bar close to the waiter’s service station so that we could talk while I was getting the waiters their drinks. We talked about all kinds of things from politics to sex. But mostly of course we talked about the movies. That’s because I was always bringing the subject up. The first time I had seen him in a movie was in St. Thomas and I was in high school. Now here I was all these years later serving him drinks and talking to him. Naturally I wanted to know everything about his career, the directors and stars he worked with, what he thought of certain movies he’d been in and on and on. I don’t think he particularly liked talking about himself or his career. That’s the kind of guy he was, low key and happy not to be the subject of attention. But he indulged me and would answer any question I asked simply and with candor.
He was a drinker, so when he came in and I asked; “What’ll it be Murray?” If he answered; “Just give me a club soda.” I knew that he was up for a role and was going in to discuss it with the director or casting person or whoever. And if I asked what film it was he would raise his hand and say; “I don’t want to say anything for fear of jinxing it.”… And when he came in the next day and said; “Put some vodka in a glass with some ice and stir it around.” I pretty much knew that he had gotten the part. Later on he quit drinking altogether because it was ruining his health. So then he either drank coffee or club soda, nothing else.
In the latter part of his career, (this was the time I knew him) I noticed that he often took parts because certain friends were in the film. He would come by the bar and say to me; “I’ll be gone for four weeks. I’m doing a film with thus and such. He’s a lot of fun and a good friend so it should be enjoyable.”
My response would generally be; “What role are you playing in the film?” He would smile and say; “What else, the villain of course.” Or: “Some middle class flunky who doesn’t know anything except getting in the way. But I’m going to try and put some kind of interesting spin on this character. We’ll see.”
Another thing I noticed during the time I knew him is that when he didn’t like a certain star or actor he would refer to them as “Mister”. Paul Newman was one he frequently called Mister. When I asked him about it his response was; “Let’s just say that we’re not in tune with each other. But I respect him as an actor and I think he must respect me because he never cut me from a film we were in and he has cast approval.” They appeared together the first time in The Hustler (1961). On that same film he met and became lifelong friends with George C. Scott although they didn’t appear in too many films together. One night I saw him in a film called Damnation Ally (1977) in which he only had one scene. I wondered about it and asked him why when we met up next. “Well, let’s put it this way, my chemistry and Mr. Peppard’s (George Peppard the star of the film) didn’t mix.” He never elaborated beyond that but I got the point.
One afternoon while sitting around at the bar this African American actor that I knew came in. I introduced him to Murray and he began to tell Murray how much he liked his work and mentioned one performance he particularly enjoyed. It was in a film called Sergeant Ryker (1965). After my friend left Murray told me that he truly appreciated the compliment because in the film he played a rabid bigot and was pleased that my friend understood it was a role he was playing. When I told my friend what he said later his response was; “Of course I knew the difference between acting and real life. Murray is a terrific actor.” I knew it and I told Murray so often, but he wasn’t always sure. He would talk about the things that he didn’t get to do with the role or what was cut out of the film. I once asked him what it was that he thought he learned about the business after all his years of working in films. He looked at me, bowed his head and said; “Two things, I think. One is always get your price (salary) or don’t take the work… The other has to do with when I first started in films. When they called out” Mr. Hamilton we’re ready.” I would come running. Today I just walk, want to know why?” …”Why?”…” Because I know that they will wait.”
In the last 18 months of his life he knew that he had cancer and was dying. He felt abandoned (by his profession) and became despondent. When George C. Scott heard about it he called Murray and begged him as a personal favor to appear in the film The Last Days of Patton (1986). Murray was overjoyed. He made the film and died a few weeks after shooting was completed eternally grateful for the gesture of friendship that Scott had extended.
We weren’t close friends or anything like that. I saw him mostly at the bar and a few other times in coffee shops. I enjoyed his company and found him easy to talk to. He was a wonderful raconteur and I really enjoyed listening to him. Every so often I see him on TV and I think about all those talks we had, I miss him all over again.
Thelma Ritter: Wonderful and Humane
Thelma Ritter (1902-1969) was a character actor par excellence whose film career extended from 1947 to 1969 when she died suddenly of a heart attack. During those years she appeared in 31 films and countless TV shows. Due to the general excellence of her acting and her down-to-earth personality she became a reassuring presence in films no matter what role she played. At a certain time her appearances in films was so ubiquitous that we (I know I did) took the excellence of her performances for granted. Sort of the way we accept certain natural phenomena like the sunrise for granted. Fortunately her peers in the industry didn’t because she was nominated a record 6 times for the Academy Award as Best supporting Actress.
Her performances were never showy or ostentatious. Just simple and direct without any show of emotional embroidery. In fact Ms. Ritter was so good that she could’ve easily been called “The Female Spencer Tracy” for the fact that like him, you could never catch her acting. In acting classes students are always urged to be “in the moment” if they want their performances to be somewhat worthwhile. On screen Thelma Ritter was always in the moment and that I think was the reason for her great success. On screen she was a very good listener. That I think was the secret of her success. She listened closely and then as in life reacted to what she heard. That in short is the secret to good acting across the board and she was a master at it.
Many of her roles were what in other hands would be called stereotypical parts. She played a number of servants, mothers and drunks. But she invested those parts with so much genuineness and clarity that they became interesting, individual and most importantly human. And because of this she was always able to transcend the stereotype.
Some of her best known films include: Miracle on 34th Street (1947), A Letter to Three Wives (1949), All about Eve *(1950), With a Song in My Heart *(1952), Pickup on South Street*(1953), Rear Window (1954), Pillow Talk* (1959),The Misfits (1961), How the West Was Won (1962) and Birdman of Alcatraz* (1962). The titles with the * along with The Mating Season (1951) were films for which she was nominated as Best Supporting Actress.
I had the good fortune to meet Ms. Ritter and get to know her briefly. It was in 1955 when she came to St. Thomas, Virgin Islands to shoot a film called The Proud and Profane (1956), a war picture starring William Holden and Deborah Kerr, directed by George Seaton. I interviewed her for the radio station I worked for just as I had done all the other creative personnel on the picture. I was 16 years old at the time and the world of motion pictures and the people who made them seemed like a magical wonderland to me. I badly wanted to become a part of that world, primarily from a writing standpoint. I wanted to become a screenwriter but I had no idea what a screenplay contained or even what one looked like. The interview with Ms. Ritter went so well that afterwards we sat around just talking about things in general. There was something so informal and caring about her manner that I felt as though I had known her all my life. So somewhere in our conversation I mentioned my screen writing ambitions and the fact that I had never seen an actual screenplay.”Oh we can remedy that,” she said and gave me her script for the film to take home and peruse. So I did. Now this was before Xerox and other copy machines for reproduction were available. So I did the next best thing and read the script in one sitting and then began to copy it in longhand exactly as it was structured on the page. I could keep the script for two days I had been told so I did and copied as much as I my free time allowed. I wasn’t able to finish it but I got enough down to tell me all I needed to know at the time. Later on I would go back to it over and over again in order to learn and relearn the format.
In Tennessee William’s A Streetcar Named Desire there is a line about “The kindness of strangers” that has been quoted and requoted multiple times. I think that line aptly describes Ms. Ritter’s kindness to me. I’ll never forget her for it and whenever I see any of the films she appeared in I always think about what a wonderful person she was as well as being a wonderful actress.
Bill Cosby made a Western. It was called Man and Boy. The movie tells the story of an ex-Union soldier (Cosby) who wins a horse for he and his family, but it is accidentally lost by his son, and the two (man and boy) must go on a cross-desert hunt for the horse and its thief.
It isn’t an extraordinary Western but it contains an extraordinary performance. And that is the role of the horse thief, a man named Lee Christmas, played by Douglas Turner Ward. Christmas first takes the horse and then Cosby’s son. He’s the villain of the picture but the most enjoyable villain a Western-lover could ever wish for. Doug Ward creates the ultimate Western rascal, on par with the notorious bandits played by L.Q. Jones and Strother Martin in Peckinpah’s movies. His performance steals the whole damn show.
Unfortunately, little is written about Douglas Turner Ward, the godfather of Black Theater, actor, director and playwright; I couldn’t find a single clear image of him from Man and Boy. I had the fortune to meet Ward and talk to him recently. He’s a character, as alive and vibrant as the one he plays. In a long career of great achievements, he hasn’t appeared on film or TV much. I only wish that he had and still would because there’s something missing in the halls of cinema because of his absence.
At least there’s Man and Boy and Lee Christmas.
Jack Palance: The Badest of the Bad
As stated before when I was a kid we loved villains. Always identified with them in the movies. Villains were the bad asses of society and we found them exciting.
Now ninety nine percent of the villains were men, but there were a few female villains as well. The only problem is that generally they were led to their villainous ways by some guy and usually had a change of heart close to the end by doing something noble just before she died (of a bullet in the stomach)in the hero’s arms saying: “I’m sorry Steve, I just didn’t ahh..ahh.” We didn’t like that. Didn’t like that at all. We wanted you to be bad all the way through. So that even with your last dying breath you were telling a lie. Then we would leave the theatre saying: “Did you see that? Even while he (she) was dying. Wow!” That was the highest compliment we could give, an astonished “Wow”.
Another thing about villains in those days (the 1950s) is that they looked different. They all had scars and mustaches. Some even had beards, but most had mustaches. Not a romantic, sexy mustache like Clark Gable. No theirs was a Hitler like kind of thing. Or it was thin and wormlike. But the best thing about those villains is that they all had bad skin. Their cheek was pock-marked and cratered so that when the light hit it in certain way you knew that was a face only a mother could love. So that even at the start of the film before his character was established, when he is with the towns people pretending to be a man of distinction, you knew he was up to shit. Why? Because of his bad skin.
Then of course, there was the scar. He would tell everyone that he got it in the war fighting for the North (or the South). But later it would be revealed that he got it from trying to force his sexual attentions on some innocent woman who attempted to defend her virtue by scratching him. He then would get mad and kill her and run off to another town or state. But to his bad luck the dead woman would turn out to be the sister, wife or sometimes the mother of the hero who would then dedicate his life to finding out who did this horrible deed. And God help him if the hero was somebody big and rough like John Wayne. He would punch him, kick him and stomp him before putting him out of his misery with three, maybe four or even five bullets.
Still in spite of that kind of treatment we all wanted to be villains. And our favorite villain in the 1950s was Jack Palance (1919-2006). He was tall and moved with panther like grace. He spoke in a halting kind of whisper, breaking up his sentences in unexpected ways. He was ugly in a kind of way that fascinated us. He seemed to have bad skin not just on his face but all over his body as well. And to top it off he always seemed to be in a bad mood. The kind of guy you would say “Good morning” to and apologize for it right after just in case he heard it wrong. Jack was so bad that he would sometimes beat up the members of his own gang. Some guy would ask a question or challenge his authority and Jack would deal on him with his fists. We loved that. Loved it a lot.
The movie that set him up as a God for us was Shane ((1952). In it he played Wilson the gunfighter the bad guys brought in from out of town. Wilson rode in slow, got off his horse slow, took his drink slow, went back outside slow, taunted the feisty Southerner slow, pulled on his black glove slow and shot the man face down in the mud slow. An incredible piece of movie villainy that has yet to be matched in the annals of great motion picture moments.
Later Wilson meets Shane and shows him respect. Then when their big confrontation came Shane shoots him down between the barrels. They did that because it was a movie and they had to give it a moral. The bad guy can never win. But we kids knew better. We knew that if it was real life Wilson would’ve totally messed up Shane and the conversation would be over. Either Shane would’ve been dead or he would be drinking clear soup through a straw for the rest of his life.
Later on Jack became the hero in his movies and lost us completely. But when he was bad the man had no peer. See Panic in the Streets (1950) for example. The man had no peer at all. He won an Academy Award later in his career for City Slickers (1991) but I always felt he should’ve gotten it for Shane.
My favorite Palance moment comes in the film where he played Attila the Hun (Sign of the Pagan -1954) where without warning he grabs a headstrong princess, pulls her up against him and kisses her roughly on the mouth then pushes her away. When she says: “How dare you!” He tells her in that wonderful delivery of his: “I know you’ve been kissed by kings and courtiers, now you know what it’s like to be kissed by a … barbarian.”
I have been waiting all my life for an opportunity like that to present itself to me. Some haughty member of a royal family will be standing there, I’ll pull her to me, kiss her hard and say those immortal words: “I know you’ve been kissed by kings and courtiers. Now you know what it’s like to be kissed by a… barbarian.” It hasn’t happened yet, but I’m still hopeful.
The badass Jack Palance was my role model. He still is.
When we were kids going to the movies we always identified with the villains. Always favored them. They seemed to live lives that were carefree and wild. They could do anything they liked right up to about ten or five minutes before the end of the film. Then they would be caught, beat up, put in prison or killed. But before that they always had one hell of a time being bad.
Heroes were dull to us. Heroes had morals; heroes had to live by the rules. Villains didn’t give a damn about the rules. As far as they were concerned rules could kiss their behinds. Rules were for ordinary people like grocers, postmen, bankers and clerks. Boring people like the people we knew. People like our mothers and fathers, teachers and neighbors. Next to them villains led exciting and thrilling lives. We wanted those kinds of lives and didn’t mind if we had to pay for it at the end. Because after all the end would only last for about ten minutes or so.
One of our favorites was Dan Duryea (1907-1968). He was a quintessential villain in two of my favorite genres, westerns and film noir. He had a narrow face and sharp cunning eyes. Film noir femme fatales always lied and the heroes (saps that they were) always believed them. But Duryea never did. He always knew they were lying through their teeth and would tell them so. More than talk he would sometimes slap them around to let them know they weren’t fooling him. Then he would kiss them and they would more than like it, they would love him for it. That was our kind of villain.
Now there are two kinds of bad guys as far as we were concerned. The ones who did bad things and try to get away with it and the ones who took great glee from doing those bad things. They were doing it not just for the money or power but because they just liked being bad. Because they were the bad asses and anybody who didn’t like it would have to lump it. Duryea was one of them. He would giggle and cackle and taunt and tease when he was doing his bad stuff and seemed to virtually get an orgasm when he was killing some innocent, unarmed dupe. Then when the end came, this was the best part for us, he would lie and cry and snivel and beg the hero to save him. And if the hero knew what he was about he would grab his collar, slap him around for a bit, punch him and kick his ass all over the room while we screamed “Beat him! Beat him!” And Duryea could beg and cower and snivel with the best of them and we loved him for it.
The truth is in real life he was a wonderful actor and a very nice man who was born in White Plains, New York, went to Cornell University and distinguished himself in Broadway classics like Dead End and The Little Foxes before moving to Hollywood and establishing himself as a wonderfully entertaining bad guy in films like Winchester ’73(1950) and my absolute favorite Too Late for Tears (1949). For his villainy on screen he achieved a cult status of sorts which says that we weren’t the only one attracted to his terrific brand of badness mixed with humor.
As an actor he was of course capable of playing other parts and did them well. But it was for his villainy he will always be remembered and revered by those of us who love movies and especially film noir.
Character actors are another of cinemas unheralded heroes. Some acquire a small degree of fame or notoriety. But for the most part they go unrecognized and unremembered for the excellent work they’ve done and all the pleasure they’ve given us over the years.
From time to time we will be highlighting some of these staples of the cinema whom we got to know nearly as well as we know the long time neighbor next door. Yet we don’t remember them until we see them in the next movie playing their next great role.
Murray Hamilton (1924-1986
Everyone knew Murray but no one knew him at all. Say the name Murray Hamilton and you get a blank stare. Say that he played the mayor who doesn’t want to close the beaches in Jaws (1975) or Anne Bancroft’s husband Mr. Robinson in The Graduate (1967) and you get : “Oh him. Sure I know who he is.”
In his career Murray made more than 300 movies, acted in over 1000 TV shows and appeared in 16 Broadway shows. In each he played a prominent featured role. Some other significant films include: Anatomy of a Murder (1959) The Hustler (1961), and Brubaker (1980). He liked to quote one of his favorite directors Stuart Rosenberg (Cool Hand Luke – 1969)who always started every film he directed by saying to the cast and crew that he viewed life as a Department store and that the people who made films were working in the toy department. Murray subscribed to that view of things. He was a genuine Hollywood outsider because in spite of the high number of films he appeared in he never lived in California and was never part of the so called film colony. His best friends were Walter Matthau, Michael Parks, David Soul, Jason Robards, Peter O’Toole and George C. Scott. His favorite director was Steven Spielberg for whom he acted in Jaws (1975) and in 1941 (1979).
Murray studied to be a graphic artist and got into acting by accident. He worked in the play Mister Roberts (1948) and later replaced David Wayne in the role of Ensign Pulver. As an actor Murray said that he always tried to first be “true to the part as it is written”, be “interesting in the role” and “serve the director to the best of my ability”.
He was born in North Carolina and died there 62 years later of cancer. Murray was one of the best of the unheralded character actors and it would be a shame if his contributions to the films in which he appeared were forgotten. He’s not forgotten here. Thank you, Murray, you were wonderful.