[by Nat Segaloff]
In this excerpt from Screen Saver: Private Stories of Public Hollywood, Nat Segaloff writes about the great character actors Slim Pickens and Jack Elam and the actress Deborah Walley. 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 chapter is a behind-the-scenes observation about three of the fascinating people Nat included in his book.
Take a dollar bill. Look at the serial number. Now imagine that the bill is a poker hand where the twos are deuces, the threes are threes, and so forth, up to the zeros being tens, the ones being aces, and there aren’t any face cards. This is the tool of Liar’s Poker, a game of bluffing that can be played when you’re with a group of folks who have lots of paper money in their pockets and too much time on their hands. Although it’s a barroom game, Liar’s Poker can also be found on film sets where boredom runs rampant between, as they say, moments of stark terror.
No one knows where it started, but here’s how it’s played. The object is to bet according to how many of each digit you think there are, not just on the bill in your hand, but on the bills in the entire game. Your thumb may be caressing four threes, but if you think the total of threes sitting around the table is seven, that’s your bet. If the next person raises it to eight and you think he’s bluffing, you call him on it. Everybody shows his bill to settle it. Whoever comes closest without going bust wins the bills that were in use. Then people whip out fresh singles and the cycle of loss continues.
We were sitting in a bus in Texas Canyon, a six-pack’s drive out of Tucson, Arizona, on a cold spring day in 1976 waiting for the rain to stop so we could resume filming. Joe Camp, whose Mulberry Square Productions had made a fortune with Benji in 1974, had decided to go from canines to camels with a comedy called Hawmps! Based on a true incident in which the U.S. Cavalry experimented with using camels instead of horses to patrol the newly acquired western territories in the late 1850s, it starred a herd of familiar faces such as James Hampton, Christopher Connelly, Herb Vigran, Denver Pyle, Slim Pickens, Lee de Broux, Gino Conforti, and Jack Elam.
Being a star has its glamour, but it’s the character actors who have the most fun because the weight of the film does not rest on their shoulders. If they’re popular as people, they work constantly, moving from one film to another while the star is still waiting for just the right script. James Hampton, then known to millions as the bugler on the TV series F Troop, may have been the co-lead (with Christopher Connelly, formerly of TV’s Peyton Place) in Hawmps!, but he didn’t have a flicker of star temperament. He told of the time when they were shooting F Troop on an unusually crisp morning at the Warner Bros. Ranch. The director had just called for a take when one of the horses decided to poop on the ground.
“In the morning cold,” Hampton recalled, “it sat there, festering and steaming, and had to be removed, so the director called out, ‘Craft Services!’ ”
On a film set, the Craft Services guy handles incidental chores from stocking the snack table to hauling away trash. In this case, he was expected to take care of the road apples.
“So there’s the Craft Services man leaning on his shovel,” Hampton says. “He’s tired, he’s got his pension, and he had to get up early. He looks down at the pile of horseshit and says, ‘While it’s still steaming, it’s Special Effects.’ ”
Slim Pickens was next. A former rodeo cowboy with a Texas drawl you could stretch from Houston to Fort Worth, Pickens built a solid career in westerns until Stanley Kubrick cast him for just that reason in Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. As Major “King” Kong, Pickens rode an H-Bomb rodeo-style to its Russian target, ending both the movie and humanity with one big bang. After that, his career exploded through pictures such as Will Penny, The Ballad of Cable Hogue, and Blazing Saddles. Now he was recalling how Kubrick put him through his paces.
“They had me strapped upside down to the bomb,” he said, drawing it in the air with his hands. “The bomb was hung from the roof o’ the sound stage and I hung below that, and they aimed the camera up and dollied it back while they projected the background behind me to make it look like the bomb was falling.” Cleverly, the bomb itself hid the ceiling wires because the camera was aiming directly up underneath it. Kubrick would use the same trick to make the astronauts float in space four years later in 2001.
“Well,” Pickens continued, “they’d do take after take and I’d be there with the blood rushin’ to my head. They’d do a couple of takes, then I’d get off and throw up, then I’d get back up agin. One time I got bored so I climbed up on top of the bomb and started doin’ a jig. Stanley caught me and wasn’t happy. I said, ‘I did bad, huh, Stanley?’ and he said, ‘Yep, Slim, you did,’ so I got back under the bomb agin and we’d shoot some more and I’d throw up some more, but finally we got it.
“I’ll tell you somethin’ else ya might not know,” he said, leaning in. “Y’know when we’re goin’ through the survival kit and I’m readin’ off the list of the chocolate bars, the nylon stockin’s, the prophylactics, and then say, ‘shoot, a guy could have a pretty good weekend in Vegas with this’? Well, if you look at my mouth, I’m not sayin’ Vegas, I’m sayin’ Dallas. But while they were editing the film, Kennedy was shot, and they changed Dallas to Vegas, so I had to come in and loop the line.”
Another seasoned cowboy actor was Denver Pyle whose silver-haired, walrus-mustached presence marked him early-on for westerns, even though his roots were in farming. Best known as Sheriff Hamer, who is taken hostage by Bonnie and Clyde in the 1968 film, Pyle in his long career also appeared in The Alamo, Shenandoah, Home From the Hill (where he met young Joe Camp), and several Disney films. Pyle’s sternly handsome appearance and authoritarian manner were in contradiction to his dry humor. Not so Gino Conforti, a mischievous comic actor who played an Arab camel wrangler named “Hi Jolly” in the film, but whose long stage and TV career included everything from bothersome hotel managers to a denizen of a nudist colony.
“This camel is sick,” he said once during a take. “Notice the swelling on top!”
While these seasoned veterans traded stories, the most seasoned veteran of a ll, Jack Elam, was sizing everybody up. Elam—whose wall-eyed stare made him suitable as either a creepy villain or a comic sidekick—was a former accountant whose doctor told him that he’d go blind if he didn’t give up adding figures. Since he was a film production accountant, he traded columns for dialogue and never looked back. At the right moment, he said, more innocently than it turned out he deserved, “Anybody here interested in a little game of liar’s poker?”
“Sure,” “of course,” “yeah,” “why not?” came the consensus as everyone started reaching for loose singles. Again, Elam didn’t move, only watched. “Okay, then,” he drawled, a smile growing on his face. “I’m game if you are.” And with that he took a wad of bills from his pocket that would have choked a camel, carefully removed the rubber band holding it, and started riffling through it in search of the perfect dollar to open with.
It was a massacre. Having a head for figures and probability put Elam at immediate advantage. Plus his eyes, which were straight out of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart.” Being slaughtered at liar’s poker by Jack Elam is nothing to be ashamed of. After all, you can’t lose a game unless you’re invited to play in the first place.
Hawmps! led me to someone who became not only a friend but a conspirator, though the only thing we ever stole was time. Deborah Walley was an actress who often played the bad girl opposite Hayley Mills’ good girls in various Disney movies of the early 1960s and was, therefore, more interesting. She also played Gidget in Gidget Goes Hawaiian, appeared in beach blanket movies, and co-starred in the aforementioned Benji for Joe Camp. During Hawmps! she was married to Jonathan Reynolds, one of the film’s technicians, and it was through him that I met her when I visited California on some now forgotten press junket.
Deborah was born, not in a trunk, but in a refrigerator; her parents were with the Ice Capades and by age fourteen she was acting in summer stock. One of her first films was The Bubble (1966; a.k.a. Fantastic Invasion of Planet Earth), an early 3-D movie, but it was the other film she made that year, Spinout, from which she drew the most renown. Her co-star was Elvis Presley. But one cannot live on Elvis alone, and so, when the acting work stopped, Deborah relocated to the artist-friendly town of Sedona, Arizona, where she began a children’s theatre. As time went on she developed projects for Sea World, wrote an ambitious animation project based on Aesop’s Fables, published a folksy book called Grandfather’s Good Medicine, and looked for projects that fed her spirit as well as her income.
Once a year she would be lured back to Los Angeles for the annual celebrity show that was held at the Beverly Garland/Howard Johnson’s Conference Center in North Hollywood. It sounds grotesque, but it really wasn’t: the massive ballroom was outfitted with tables and celebrities were flown in to meet and greet fans and sell autographed photos, books, and memorabilia. One could just as easily see a former Mouseketeer as bump into the legendary Mickey Rooney (I did both). Stars of westerns, serials, long-canceled TV series, and pop stars sat with pen in hand ready to exchange a fan’s $10 or $25 ticket (no cash changed hands) for a signed photo or to pose for a snapshot. Some people call such gatherings sad and speak of them in terms of faded glory, but to those who attend them they are a joyous occasion to celebrate memories, thank ones idols for their past work, and reminisce about better (or at least younger) times. True, there are a few whorish brokers who gather multiple autographs hoping to sell them at a posthumous profit, but they are minimal and marginal. Mostly, the pervading emotion is love. Plus, as Deborah said the first time she invited me to one, “Where else can you get an all-expense paid trip to Los Angeles where you can have a reunion with the people you used to make movies with?”
Deborah was one of the “Elvis Girls”—the King’s co-stars from various films—who would hang out, reminisce, and, oh yes, earn pocket money.
After I moved out to California in 1993 I used to spirit Deborah away at lunchtime (that’s the conspiracy part of it) and we would drive to a reserved table at the nearby Eclectic Cafe and Wine Bar on Lankershim and Magnolia where we would talk about everything but Disney and Elvis. The last time I saw her was in 1999. We’d kept in touch at Christmas, of course, but I didn’t get the usual card in 2000. On May 10, 2001 I read that she had died of esophageal cancer. Her sons Tony and Justin survive her, and also some memories I still have of the bad girl who stole my heart when Hayley Mills did not.
Screen Saver: Private Stories of Public Hollywood is available in paperback and hardcover from BearManorMedia.com and Amazon.com, and as an audiobook from BearManor. This excerpt ©2016 Nat Segaloff