Brief Encounters

[by Nat Segaloff]

(In this excerpt from Screen Saver: Private Stories of Public Hollywood, Nat Segaloff recalls short but memorable meetings with Hollywood notables Paul Newman, Jeff Bridges, Ernest Borgnine, Gregory Hines, and John Williams. Nat began as a movie publicist and then became a critic during the mid-1970s when Hollywood was in transition between the old studio days and what became today’s youth-oriented industry. The following tidbits from Nat’s memoir give a flavor of the stories he has been saving up for 40 years.)

The first time I met Paul Newman, one of us was one or two sheets to the wind. I was standing in the back of a too-small theatre supervising a preview screening of The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds, which Newman had directed, and which he had come to town to promote. I was thoroughly engrossed in the picture when somebody tapped me on the shoulder and asked, “How’s it playing?”

I turned around, annoyed at the interruption, and answered, “Pretty well, and the director’s going to be here any—” and then stopped talking because the director had arrived. I’d seen bluer eyes, but these had Paul Newman behind them. Aware that I was a couple inches taller than he, I spread my feet apart so I could be shorter without noticeably stooping. It seemed like the polite thing to do. Then I saw that Newman’s eyes were not only blue, they were also red and white. Newman hoisted a can of Coors beer, took a few sips, and looked past me, saying, “I hope we have focus.” I assumed he meant the picture; he had just wrapped a long day of interviews for it, which starred his wife, Joanne Woodward, and their daughter, Nell Potts (who has since given up acting to run Newman’s Own Organics).

It’s some kind of poetic justice that Newman, who played a womanizer so often in his movies, should become one of the more sensitive directors of women, but Marigolds, Rachel, Rachel, and The Glass Menagerie, all starring his wife, are remarkable works. So was the man himself. An adherent of the Method school of acting taught at the Actors Studio—an institution he quietly supported at a time when its finances were tight—he became adept at insulating himself from the characters he played, and yet integrated his own personality into theirs. A neat trick, and hard-won.

“I have to separate what I find difficult and what the character finds difficult,” he explained between beers. “A lot of times the actor makes the mistake and confuses the two issues. I find that I have a temptation, as a person, to understate things, so graphic language makes me uncomfortable. An actor’s discomfort sometimes works very well for him. It is not beyond the realm of possibility to mistake discomfort for rage, at which time the actor’s way ahead of the game.”

That realization worked to his advantage at the Actor’s Studio. “When I first auditioned for Actor’s Studio in 1950,” he continued, “you had to do two auditions in order to get in.” He performed his audition scene with a female applicant. “This girl had already passed her first audition and I was straight out of Yale University. I think I’d been in New York for about three weeks. Her partner had gone off to summer stock someplace, so it was okay for me to do her second audition with her. Well, when I heard that Elia Kazan and Cheryl Crawford and Frank Corsaro and Karl Malden and Kim Stanley and Geraldine Page—I mean, all those people were sitting out there—I was so terrified that I was visibly shaking. And that’s where the scene was supposed to be. They mistook this terrible case of nerves that I had for unlimited rage, and I got in on one audition, one of the few guys that ever did that.”

An irony of celebrity—particularly commercial celebrity—is that, the better you are, the less they let you do. In Hollywood, casting against type
is a career liability. At this point in his career (before he aged into The Color of Money, Nobody’s Fool or Road to Perdition), Newman felt confined. “I suppose one of my great regrets is that I don’t see variety,” he said, finishing his beer and effortlessly winging the empty can into the trash (this was before recycling) as the end credits and the house lights came up. “I’m very envious of guys like Olivier and Guinness who seem to have an absolutely inexhaustible supply of characters, all different.”

He jogged down the aisle and took his place at the front of the house as a wave of recognition rocked the audience to their feet. He bashfully tried not to acknowledge the applause which, of course, only made it louder. The intensely private Newman was at once a child of the crowd and above it, a uniquely approachable God whom people respected enough to give him space.

Back in 1980, Newman and writer-friend A. E. Hochner gave bottles of their popular recipe for salad dressing to friends at Christmas. They got so many requests for more that, in 1982, they started producing it commercially. A few years later their product line had increased to one hundred varieties and, in 2005, the Newman’s Own Foundation announced that they had given $450 million after-tax profits to charity. If the Nobel Peace Prize is even given to a salad dressing company, it should be Newman’s.

  *   *   *

There are times when a celebrity, even an actor, can get tired talking about himself. Back in 1974, they warned that Jeff Bridges was difficult. Despite his nice-guy image, he brooded and snapped at you, they reported. So when they sent him to town to talk about his quirky Hearts of the West, the studio’s instructions were, “Don’t work him too much! Make it a light schedule!” Mindful of that, he was booked for only three or four brief sit-downs per day. Then the first thing he said when he saw the printed schedule was, “How come you don’t have me doing more?”

Andy Griffith - Jeff Bridges

Andy Griffith and Jeff Bridges in ‘Hearts of the West’ (1975)

“I was told you wanted a light schedule,” I explained.

“Who said that?”

I named the head of publicity.

“Oh, no wonder,” Bridges said, shaking his head. “They had me booked on such a tight schedule in New York that I barely had time to go to the bathroom. They were killing me. So I had to get on their case. Sometimes you have to be like that or they take advantage of you. Now,” he said, smiling and hunkering down, “let’s add a few things and really sell this picture.”

Hearts of the West was a lovely, funny, romantic film that not only showcased Bridges to advantage but also allowed Alan Arkin, Blythe Danner, and Andy Griffith to shine. Despite an earnest publicity push and good reviews, however, nobody wanted to see a western set in the early days of silent movies. It remains a cult favorite. Bridges, of course, kept right on working and finally won his Oscar in 2009 for Crazy Heart, although he deserved it a dozen times earlier for Starman, True Grit, Tucker, The Fisher King, and, God knows, The Big Lebowski.

  *   *   *

“Say goodnight to the sofa, honey. Now say goodnight to the chair. That’s right. I love you, too.” The person whispering gently into the phone was
Ernest Borgnine. Borgnine, the bad-ass bully of Bad Day at Black Rock, the rowdy brigand of The Wild Bunch, and Sgt. Fatso Judson who beat Frank Sinatra to death in From Here to Eternity was saying goodnight to Tova, his fifth wife (“It took me this many to get it right”), three thousand miles across the country.

He had come to Boston to promote Robert Aldrich’s brutal and brilliant Emperor of the North Pole, which Fox had just changed to Emperor of the North fearing that people would think it was about Santa Claus. Hardly. Borgnine played a ruthless train conductor during the Great Depression bent on keeping hobos like Lee Marvin and Keith Carradine from riding his rails at any cost.

I knew Borgnine from the movies, including The Dirty Dozen, Flight of the Phoenix, Willard, The Catered Affair and, of course, Marty, which won him an Oscar. When autograph hunters swarmed around him outside of the hotel, however, they knew him as Commander McHale from the McHale’s Navy TV series. Such is fame. Borgnine was joined in Boston by Nico Jacobellis, the Twentieth Century-Fox advertising-publicity representative and a paisan, and the two of them spoke in Italian to each other when not talking to the press or me as their assistant. At one point in the two-day appearance schedule, Nico left us alone, and I asked Ernie (that’s what he said to call him), “Do you know Marjory Adams?”

“Marjory?” he said, “I’ve been wondering where she is.” I told him that she had twisted her ankle and was writing newspaper columns—having been forcibly retired from the Boston Globe—out of her Beacon Hill apartment.

“C’mon,” Borgnine said, “let’s pay her a visit.”

We took the limousine to Marjory’s home on Revere Street, climbed to her floor, and waited while she hobbled to the door. She and Borgnine hugged like the old friends they were. She laid out drinks and peanuts, sat with her foot propped up on an ottoman, and Borgnine sat on the other. The ottomans were two feet square, a deep olive green, and the stocky Borgnine sat perched on his like a St. Bernard waiting for a treat. They had a wonderful visit and you just know that Marjory once again had the best lead of all the interviews Borgnine had done while he was in Boston, for it began, “When Ernest Borgnine rang my doorbell. . .”

Borgnine died in 2012 at the age of 95. He had just finished a picture. He was also still married to Tova. Indeed, he did get it right. When Marjory died she left me the ottomans. Plus the memory of knowing her.

  *   *   *

“One more, please. We have one last person,” the Orion Pictures press agent told Gregory Hines apologetically. Hines had endured some 75 ten-minute taped TV interviews for 1984’s The Cotton Club, a story of mobsters, love, and show business, and had taken off his microphone in anticipation of being able to go home and relax. But now there was one more person to see, one more time to answer the same inane questions, one more need to keep from getting slap-happy at the film company’s efficient publicity machine.

The last person happened to be me.

Scheduling mistakes are inevitable when there are so many people to coordinate, and nobody on the press list understood this better than I did, having worked for film companies. But now I was a critic and interviewer, and that made the Orion people jittery. It shouldn’t have, but it did. Hines knew nothing of this, of course, as he gamely re-attached his microphone and took his still-warm seat yet again.

I wish I could remember what we talked about. Maybe it was the revelation that, despite his being one of the world’s top tap-dancers, he liked to improvise his steps and had difficulty repeating them for audio in postproduction, so director Francis Coppola had the sound man wire Hines’ trousers with wireless mikes that recorded his dancing live. Or we probably talked about his non-dancing role in Mel Brooks’ History of the World: Part I, or his upcoming pas de deux with Mikhail Baryshnikov in White Nights. And I’m glad that the videotape caught it all, because I wasn’t really paying attention, not while I was marveling at the graciousness that this talented man showed to the last reporter who’d been waiting in the hall when all he wanted to do was go home.

*   *   *

John Williams had just been made conductor of the Boston Pops Orchestra and, through my film connections, I wangled one-on-one time with him for CBS radio when he arrived in town. I had visions of asking him about his movie scores and side work such as scoring Robert Altman’s home movies. Instead, we got talking about his plans for the Pops, whose musicians had become flabby under their previous maestro, Arthur Feidler, and how he intended to keep doing movies, using the acoustics of Boston’s famed Symphony Hall to record tracks. That prompted me to compare his two most recent works, Star Wars, for which he won the 1977 Academy Award®, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, for which he was nominated but did not win.

Star Wars is in the best Hollywood tradition,” I began, showing off my knowledge of music, “but I think Close Encounters is more experimental. Its use of tone progressions, dissonance, and interpolation is much more adventurous than Star Wars, don’t you think?”

Nat Segaloff

(The Author, Nat Segaloff – Photo by Liane Brandon)

Williams thought for a moment and made me a fan forever when he gently brushed aside my pretensions by saying, in that soft but authoritative voice, “Well, one is always happy to win an Oscar. . . .”

Screen Saver: Private Stories of Public Hollywood is available in paperback and hardcover from and, and as an audiobook from BearManor. This excerpt ©2016 Nat Segaloff

Nat Segaloff has been a movie publicist and film critic (but not at the same time), teacher, documentary producer, and playwright. His previous books include biographies of Arthur Penn, William Friedkin, and Stirling Silliphant, and he has produced shows tor HBO, A&E, USA, and TLC. He is now finishing the biography of Harlan Ellison.

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