HELLO AMERICA!—Recently, motion picture fans have been paying tribute to actor and my friend James Dean. In my book “Hollywood Through The Back Door.” I relate an experience with Jimmy, which revealed another side of him. Yes, he was unpredictable, but always caring and extremely sensitive to the feelings of others. We had some rather wild and scary times together.
It was during the 50s and within a few months my nightmares about my father began to diminish more and more. I was so caught up in my classes and working in the Ebony Theatre, there was no time to concentrate on things that were unrelated to my future. For the first time in my life, the feeling of being a complete person took hold and I really believed that my hopes and dreams could become a reality.
After doing a few more shows for producer Nick Stewart, I thought I might take on a few singing auditions in one of the local coffee houses. The timing was right because Charles Leslie, after seeing me in a musical production of Carnival Island, encouraged me to break into the business in any way I could. He was a student actor at the Pasadena Playhouse, which was considered a very prestigious place for an actor to study. He was sharing an apartment with Fred Beck, who was from Denmark. Fred also held an important position in CBS radio programming and when there was an opening in the script department, he urged me to interview for it, which I did and was hired immediately for.
Two days later, I was dancing joyously around CBS as script boy to some of the biggest shows on network radio. It was unbelievable. Shows such as “Mayor of the Town,” “Gunsmoke,” “Lux Radio,” “Inner Sanctum Mysteries,” “My Friend Irma,” “Our Miss Brooks,” and “The Jack Benny Show” were the big winners at the time. The one I really identified with was the “Curt Massey Time With Martha Tilton” show that was performed before a live audience. It was all music and light banter. The audience loved it and each day when assigned to their rehearsals, I watched every move they made. To me, this was really big time.
Slowly, I was getting to know the people in town who counted: the doers, not the dreamers. This was why I was anxious to meet the actor Charles described as “totally off the wall, but absolutely brilliant.” His name was James Dean.
“Mike,” he said, “the guy’s like you. He makes his own rules.”
“I don’t know how to take that,” I shot back.
“In a way,” Charles continued, “he’s kinda f*****, but this is why he’s so different. You’ve gotta be here when he comes over for dinner.”
This meant one of Charles’ spaghetti affairs with more sauce than meat. But then again, it was all right. We usually talked and sipped on wine more than we ate. I mustn’t forget the cheese; there was always cheese. The whole atmosphere had a biblical quality about it.
When Charles called, the party was underway. I quickly threw on a pair of faded trousers and a sweater and believed that I looked quite acceptable. It was general knowledge that Jimmy Dean was a rebel, as being totally unpredictable in every way. Several New York actors showed up and a delightful writer from The Betty White Show stopped by, as well.
I was surprised to find how easy and warm Dean was. When he looked at you, it was as though he was looking through you. Amazingly, it didn’t bother me; it somehow forced me to be honest, and upfront about whatever I believed or discussed. After all, I really didn’t know any other way. Instinctively, I knew this would be the only way that this guy Jimmy Dean and I would get to connect on a positive level with each other. I was right.
Dean and I ended up talking about music and the theatre through most of the night. He was not very happy that Lawrence Olivier was my idol. After, he practically worshiped Marlon Brando. When I commented that watching Brando scratching and picking his nose all through a scene was a bit too much, he exploded in laughter. “Hey man,” he insisted, “Brando is being real; he moves right into the soul of a character.”
Ironically, after Brando met Jimmy, he resented the young actor using him as a model for his acting. Anna Kashfi, Brando’s wife at the time, told me that when Jimmy had called the actor at their home, Brando was not very warm or giving. He would quickly hang up the line. There was no doubt that he didn’t want to have anything to do with the young actor who was causing such a cinematic stir.
Jimmy and I managed to see each other numerous times after our initial meeting at the party. He never cared what time it was, he would call at one or three in the morning. When I protested that I had an early class at USC, it was as though it didn’t register. He wanted what he wanted. I received one of those calls after I had just completed a performance of Carnival Island at the Ebony Theatre. Seriously tired and needing a good night’s rest, I told Jimmy that I would take a rain check. He insisted. It was life and death for him, he said; he would never forget the favor, but only I could help him. Being a sucker for an emotional cry for help, I gave in, and he was on his way to pick me up.
We headed for San Fernando Valley: Jimmy was strangely silent most of the way. He resembled a small boy whose favorite toy had been taken away and he needed to retrieve it. When inquiring what the problem was, he turned to me with a certain devilish glint in his eye and said, “I have to know something.'” That was the only thing he uttered until we finally turned into this very lonely-looking, ghost-like street was flanked by only a few houses. He pulled over, and turned the lights off.
“Why are we stopping here, Jimmy?” I asked. “I want ya’ to do somethin’ for me, OK,” he mumbled.
“Like what?” I inquired suspiciously.
Jimmy explained that he had a thing for a Los Angeles Philharmonic cello player. Her name was Dorothy, and they had had plans to spend an evening together, but she had called and cancelled. Supposedly, she had rehearsal plans with another musician in the orchestra. The scheduled meeting was at her home. Jimmy, of course, was very suspicious. He suspected that Dorothy’s involvement with this other musician was more than professional. He needed me to check the situation out. At the time, I didn’t realize it, but I was being fitted to wear the hat of a gossip columnist.
Two cars were parked in Dorothy’s driveway; the other musician was still with her. Jimmy wanted me to sneak to the side of the house, peek through the window, and see what was going on. Frankly, I was surprised and even disturbed that he would ask me to do such a thing. He wanted me to be a Peeping Tom!
“Suppose someone sees me, Jimmy!” I questioned.
“Don’t worry. Just stay cool. OK?”
“You know what’ll happen if someone sees a black guy peeking in some window around here?”
“Yeah,” he chuckled. “You can only die once.”
“Thanks a lot, friend.”
Dorothy lived in a typical, San Fernando Valley one-story bungalow. There were huge palm trees shading the few houses that lined both sides of the street. Even though it looked safe, I wished Jimmy had not asked me to come along on this spy trip.
Fortunately, the curtain to Dorothy’s living room window was partially open. It was easy to see into the room. Yes, she was with her musician friend. However, they were not rehearsing in the traditional sense. It looked more like a personal inspection. The guy was all over Dorothy, and she appeared to be enjoying the encounter. As their passion mounted to a high pitch, I decided I had witnessed enough. Voyeurism was not my game.
Returning to the car, I described what I had seen from Dorothy’s window. Jimmy’s face was a mixture of anger and excitement. He made me repeat a few times what I witnessed. He then unzipped his trousers and masturbated right in front of me. Afterwards, without an ounce of embarrassment, Jimmy asked, “You think I’m awful, huh?” My only response was, “Well, you’re a handy little fella, aren’t ya, Jimmy?” He thought this quite funny, started the car and drove me back to the university campus.
Jimmy was infatuated with numerous people, both men and women. With each one he swore that it was the deep love he had been waiting for all his life. There was the young pianist I introduced him to after a concert on the USC campus. Jimmy shut himself up with the boy for three days and then decided never to see the kid again. Pier Angeli the Italian actress, was the love of his life, and when she decided to marry Vic Damone, Jimmy threatened to commit suicide. Somehow, I doubted it. On the surface, I believe Jimmy thought his romantic leanings were real, but in truth, it was all a game to him. I told him this once, and he slammed the phone down on me exclaiming, “F*** you!” Two days later, he was tooting his horn outside of my dorm window, wanting to go to a new coffee house on La Cienega Boulevard.
After Jimmy died so tragically in the head-on car accident, there were all sorts of stories about him. People who had never been his friend tried to explain Jimmy to the world. This was something he could never do himself. For one thing, he never trusted anybody in Hollywood. He told me once that 99 percent of what producers and actors said to you was bullshit, and the other one percent was cow shit. I know now that he was right on target.