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The Goodies Box

 

While being interviewed by Dick Cavett, Katherine Hepburn said: "You come into town with your box of goodies and that box of goodies is you, and you start to use it and sell it and eventually the box of goodies gets used up and then you must go back to something else to fill up the box with some new goodies."

During the two years that followed my departure from Mission: Impossible I was able to explore new boundaries in my acting which led to some fantastic theatrical experiences. I was also able to explore photography and writing, which have opened my life immeasurably. I was refilling my "box of goodies." I'm convinced that none of this would have happened if I had comfortably gone on "earning a living" in the security of Mission: Impossible.

Most people are so busy doing what they must do that they never have the opportunity to find out what they can do.

For me it was a very exciting time. When I finished working on the Mission series, I simply went home and sat down to contemplate. There was enough money in the bank and enough residual income for the future to take care of my family's needs for some time to come. Certainly, I felt secure for at least a year or two if I didn't earn a dime. This, in spite of the fact that our standard of living had crept up to where we were living a very comfortable life in a very large home.

I simply puttered around the house for three or four weeks. I got out in the backyard and I got my hands into the earth, which was something I hadn't the time to do for the last five years. Somewhere inside me there is a reservoir of ideas and creative energy. The last five years of working on series had depleted that reservoir until I could almost see the gauge sitting close to the big "E" mark for Empty. I sensed that I needed some time to absorb, to get back in touch with myself and my family, and the world. I started listening to more music, going to concerts, and theatre, and in general replenishing myself for what I sensed would be the next major movement in my life and career.

My parents' scrapbooks are filled with 2¼ õ 3¼ black-and-white photographs of my childhood years. These pictures were shot with a Kodak camera which was popular during the 1930s. It was called a Kodak Autographic and was a very simple lightweight bellows camera which was designed to allow an inscription to be written on the back of the film. That camera fascinated me and became an important part of my life. In my pre-adolescent years I discovered that it was possible to buy small quantities of chemical and paper and to lock myself into the family bathroom with some of our old negatives and turn out black and white prints. There was a magic about it which still fascinates me to this day. To take a sensitized piece of paper and place it next to a negative, expose it to some light and immerse that paper into a tray of developer is still one of the most magical experiences that I can think of.



Throughout my childhood I experimented with it and even built a homemade enlarger from a plan which I discovered in Mechanics Illustrated magazine. The bellows camera was the central part of the project and the cost of the additional supplies and equipment must have come to a grand total of around three or four dollars. It included a bread board base, a couple of pieces of lumber for a post, and a metal lunch box for the light housing. When I was around 15 this crude piece of equipment sent me into the business of photographing children in the various neighborhoods around Boston. I would carry the camera, one light and a window blind for a background. I knocked on doors in apartment neighborhoods, offering to photograph children and provide three or four proofs and an 8 x 10 enlargement of their choice for a total of a dollar. After I shot the pictures, I would hurry home to work with my crude equipment in the family bathroom. I really didn't think of it in terms of making money. It was really providing me with an opportunity to use the camera and to spend some time in the magic of that darkroom isolation.

Photography touched my life periodically throughout the years, but in January of 1971 it erupted into a fever. With the encouragement and guidance of Joby Baker, an actor friend of mine and an excellent photographer, I bought my first sophisticated camera. It was a 2¼ format Mamiya 330, a very well-built camera with the advantage of interchangeable lenses. I spent the first few weeks of 1971 shooting everything in sight and rushing into a small room in my house which I had converted into a darkroom to process the product. I was using a very old enlarger that I had bought some years ago at Sears for approximately $30.00 and the results showed it. My work was suffering from bad equipment so I replaced the enlarger with a new piece of equipment. And then I came up against a big question. Why was I shooting pictures?

Since I really didn't have the answer to that question I really didn't know what I wanted to shoot. I knew what I liked when I looked at other photographers' work. I was attracted to nature studies and abstract ideas expressed in black and white photography. The end product intrigued me, but I had no idea what the artist was thinking about in conceiving the images. I felt empty in this area and decided I needed some help.

I enrolled in an extension photography course at UCLA for a series of seven weekly meetings on Thursday evenings. The course stressed vision rather than technique. At this point my condition was very similar to when I started to take acting classes after ten years of working in films and television. I was fairly proficient in technique but I was lacking in motivation and concept. Now I had the time, the technique and with the concepts being awakened in my head I tore into the work with a tremendous sense of new-found worlds to conquer. I spent hours during the day shooting and hours during the night in the darkroom learning to become a proficient printer.

There was a phone in my darkroom and the one thing that I resented most was that phone bell ringing while I was in the midst of creating a visual idea. For many years before Star Trek the phone was a central part of our family life. It was the instrument through which I received glad tidings from agents. Now it almost seemed as if an offer of a job would intrude on the most exciting thing that had happened to me in a long time.

The quality of my black-and-white product improved very quickly. I even considered the possibility of finding ways to support a family in this exciting profession. But above all there was a great therapy involved. I was refilling myself and resensitizing myself through a new creative process. And one element stood out first and foremost as being the most important and gratifying of all. I could conceive an idea, shoot it, process it and hold the finished product in my hand. Whatever I did was mine, and I could do it when and how I pleased.

My camera equipment became a part of my baggage wherever I travelled. One day in the darkroom with the red light to work by I fumbled to answer the ringing telephone. There was a print in the developer and my concentration was divided between it and the conversation which followed. The call was from an old friend and motion-picture producer named Euan Lloyd. It was an offer to go to Spain to work in a Western that he was producing starring Yul Brynner and Richard Crenna. We discussed the possibility briefly, during which I remember telling him that I had no commitments for the period of time that he required my services and suggested that he send a script and get in touch with my agent. I hung up the phone and went back to what I considered far more important work which had been interrupted. Somehow it never occured to me that perhaps I should be excited about the fact that I was being offered my first motion-picture role in perhaps eight or ten years.

The picture offered several inducements. It meant an opportunity to work with some good people. The director was Sam Wanamaker, an actor and a director whose work I had always respected in the past. Euan Lloyd and his wife, Patricia, had been good friends of ours for many years and we could spend some time with them in Spain, and my old acting teacher and partner, Jeff Corey, was to appear in the film, which meant that we would have some pleasant times together on the Mediterranean. Also, and this was very important, it meant that I could see some new and exciting photographic opportunities. As carefully as I packed my clothing I put together my camera equipment and some developing supplies so that I could at least process my own film, and together with my family I prepared for the trip.

At this point in time I had grown a fairly well-developed beard. It had started as a kick, but had become acceptable when Sam Wanamaker commented that it would be useful for the role that I was to play in the western. I was due to leave for Spain on April 7th, to be followed by my family approximately a week later.

During the last week in March I made a trip to New York which was eventually to take me to Boston for a visit with my family. The New York trip was a political favor. I was to make an appearance at a fund-raiser for a lady running for Congress. I found myself with some free time one day while staying at the Warwick Hotel in mid-Manhattan.

Eric Schepard, a theatrical agent at International Famous Agency in New York, had been, as a matter of record, my theatrical representative for the past three or four years. We had never actually investigated or concluded any activities since I had been so totally unavailable because of my com­mitments. Now it seemed as though it might make sense to at least have our first face-to-face meeting to talk about possibilities for the future.

I called Eric and told him that I was across the street at the Warwick and had some open time. He invited me to come over and visit, which I did. We talked for a few minutes about various possibilities for the future. Eric is an imaginative agent. I guess it was the beard that got to him that day because he asked if I would be interested in playing Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof. I told him that I certainly would and he made a phone call to Stephen Slane, producer of the North Shore Music Theatre in Beverly, Massachusetts. Slane was, with his director, Ben Shaktman, in the process of casting a production to take place that summer. I met Slane and Shaktman about an hour later and did a very clumsy audition for them—I was totally unprepared and knew only what I had heard in the way of music for the show and had only a slim idea of the story line. I had never seen a production of Fiddler on the Roof. Slane, Shaktman and I spent a couple of hours together exploring the possibilities and discussing my schedule. Fiddler would go into rehearsal almost immediately after I was scheduled to finish my picture work in Spain. Shaktman was hesitant. He felt that to do the job properly the actor playing Tevye should be available in New York before actual rehearsals started to at least discuss and explore other dimensions of the role and to give it proper preparation. We set another meeting for the next morning and that night I went to see Fiddler on the Roof on Broadway.

To me it was an overwhelming experience. Not because the production was that good. It wasn't. Fiddler at that point had been running for approximately eight years and I'm sorry to say that what I saw on stage did not reach the full potential of the material. However, I was thrilled with the possibility of playing the role. I completely identified with the characters on stage. Their story was the story of my own family and their experience in an eventual emigration from Russia.

In the morning I felt fully armed and prepared to convince Slane and Shaktman that I now knew exactly what the piece was all about and how I would approach it and what I could bring to it as an actor. At the appointed time of the meeting, 9:15 A.M., the phone in my hotel rang. I assumed that this meant Slane and Shaktman had arrived for our meeting. On the contrary, it was Mr. Slane calling me to tell me that they were not coming because Mr. Shaktman felt that the possibility of doing the job properly was too slim because of my schedule. I could see a great and exciting opportunity slipping away and decided that I had to grasp it before it was gone. I asked Slane if I might contact and talk with Shaktman personally. He assured me that he would be delighted if I would do that. He felt that I could do the role but it was the director, Shaktman, who had reservations. I called Shaktman and poured out my story on the phone. I told him about my own background and the background of my family and my very personal and deep identification with the characters of the play. Somehow I even managed to throw in a reference to Bertolt Brecht's Mother Courage. The concept of the man, the family and the wagon somehow were analogous to Brecht's heroine. It was a lucky stroke. Shaktman had directed a production of Mother Courage in Europe and my comments touched a responsive chord. He asked if we could meet at the musical conductor's apartment within the next hour.

An hour later I walked into the apartment of Herb Gross-man on Park Avenue in New York. Herb was to be the conductor for the tour. I had never met a more gifted, sensitive and giving individual in my theatrical experiences. I found myself in the company of two men whose ideas and energy and attitudes and talent moved me and excited me very deeply. Something in that meeting, the chemistry, the timing, the people, the project involved, brought out the best in me and I gave a very successful audition. Shaktman admitted that he was shaken. I think that he had gone through the motions of the meeting simply as a kindness in response to the onslaught of my enthusiasm. Now he was really in a position where he had to re-evaluate all of his thinking about the casting of the famous milkman, Tevye. A tall, skinny Tevye who was best known for having played a character with pointed ears was not quite what he had in mind when he first started thinking about the role. He told me that he'd give it serious consideration, asked where he could reach me during the next few days and we parted very warmly. At the least, I felt that I had given it my best shot.

I went to Boston and spent a day with my parents and then returned to California to prepare for the trip to Spain.

I was back in Los Angeles on Thursday evening, April 1st, and spent a long three days wondering about Shaktman's thoughts about our working together. The following Wednesday, I was scheduled to leave for Spain. On Monday morning I had run out of patience. I could no longer be cool and wait for a phone call. I called Eric Schepard to tell him that I had to make some decisions. Either I was to leave immediately for New York to spend some time with Shaktman and Grossman, or else the opportunity would be lost and I would be off to Spain without the Fiddler script.

While I had Eric Schepard on the phone and was putting the questions to him, he was receiving a call from Ben Shaktman, who was trying to reach me. Schepard said, "Hang up—Ben Shaktman will be calling you momentarily." I did as I was told, answered the phone when it rang, and heard Ben Shaktman say, "Are you still interested in playing Tevye?" The next morning I was on my way to New York. I spent much of the next 24 hours working with Shaktman and Grossman in a small studio with a piano. On a cassette recorder we taped all of the music that I could work on while I was away. We parted with much excitement and much anticipation. I left for Spain with Fiddler on the Roof, Callow, which was the western I was about to do, and my camera all neatly tucked away in my baggage.

Within 90 days of having completed my work on Mission: Impossible I had stepped onto a platform which would rocket me off in three major areas. A motion picture, a very exciting theatrical tour and a photographic trip.

 

 


Date: 2015-02-28; view: 849


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