Camp David


By • Jul 2nd, 2009 •

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The power of television is staggering and always will be, especially in the world of classic sitcoms. The most revered of them all, I LOVE LUCY, turned a working actress named Lucille Ball and her Cuban bandleader husband, Desi Arnez, into the first family of television stars and anyone who appeared with them was assured some form of immortality. This is how I remember first experiencing the comic talents of actress Natalie Schafer, She was playing the instructor of a Charm School. Lucy and Ethel, once again feeling unappreciated by their hubbies, decide to become more glamorous by enrolling in Natalie’s high-class school of glamour. I was a child of eight, but I knew this woman was on to something as she gave Lucy and Ethel the once-over and then declared that the way to make your husband sit up and take notice was to “let the hips carry the body.” Natalie invested that line with every nuance of snobbery and elan from what I would discover later on to be her vast repertoire of mannerisms, developed from years on Broadway and Hollywood.

After Lucy I would notice Natalie on countless other television shows throughout the late fifties and sixties, not to mention her work in films like THE SNAKE PIT, ANASTASIA and a nifty film noir directed by Fritz Lang, SECRET BEYOND THE DOOR. The first time I would see her in person would be around 1968 when she was part of a national touring company of THE KILLING OF SISTER GEORGE with Claire Trevor; I believe she was playing the role that Patricia Medina played in the film version. I saw this show in San Francisco where the cast played to an appreciative, packed house. My memory of the show is almost non-existent after all this time, but I still remember that just about everything Natalie said onstage that night got a reaction from the audience.

When I finally made the move to Los Angeles in 1975, she was one of the first recognizable faces I spotted walking down Rodeo Drive. Wearing a bright yellow dress with matching hat and gloves, you could not miss her in a crowd. How could I have known that I was about year or so away from knowing her much, much better?

Around the end of 1978 I would actually be on a film set with her when one of my New York contacts, Nicky Courtland, got a small role in John Schlesinger’s production of Nathanial West’s DAY OF THE LOCUST. This was to be the expose to end all exposes on Hollywood in the golden era.

But first a word about Nicky: he was rather short, but blessed with cheekbones, attitude for days, and a hot body. I met him in New York through Bill Como, the editor of AFTER DARK. Bill had a crush on Nicky and very soon Nicky was an AFTER DARK cover boy (nude, of course). I was out and about in those days with another model, Todd DeCrespi, who was blond, hot, and came from money. It was Todd who set the stage for me to get to know Nicky. However Nicky was career-driven in those days in the big apple, and only magazine publishers, agents, directors, and Todd DeCrespi ever really got to know him better.

This time around I had become an agent myself, with an office bearing my last name, and Nicky was much more receptive to my attention this time around. He invited me to come onto the set and see him work his magic on John Schlesinger. His role, as it turned out, was opposite Natalie Schafer, as her boy toy….small world isn’t it? When I stopped laughing, Nicky was already in make-up wearing his white tux with extra-tight pants…our Nicky never missed a trick. We were at a location using an actual house, which was to be Natalie Schafer’s mansion/brothel where blue movies were run for guests as they drank and chose their partners for the evening. During a break, Nicky came over for some advice and I could not resist saying to him, “Now, remember Nicky, let the hips carry the body.”

The next time I would see Natalie would be at Hermione Baddeley’s house during one of the many parties I attended there over the next few years. I was always looking for clients at that time and when I finally had a moment to chat with the divine Schafer I made a point not to mention GILLIGAN’S ISLAND, as it was not a particular passion of mine and I knew she was probably tired of being chatted up about it anyway. My icebreaker was decidedly different. I came up to her with a drink and said, “I have always wanted to chat with someone who survived being directed by Fritz Lang.” The look she gave me was priceless. “Did I hear you correctly, young man?” “Why, yes. I’ve seen SECRET BEYOND THE DOOR many times over the years and I really think you are wonderful in it as Joan Bennett’s best friend.” She took a long pause and then said to me, “Joan Bennett does not have best friends.”

From that moment on I was hers to command. She was simply fantastic company and fun to be around, as any of her countless friends will testify.

I asked her to lunch with my partner Carol Franklin, and she accepted. Two days later we all met at the Old World on Sunset, which is gone today, but in 1977 it was an eatery much-frequented by show-biz folks. The lunch was friendly enough, but my partner really wanted to sign her and that made for a bit of tension during the meal. Natalie was charming but firm about representation. “You two really think you could get me work that did not involve me playing variations on Mrs. Howell?” Carol was adamant that we could but I knew in my heart of hearts that as an agency we were still so new to the scene that it might be harder than Carol realized to make the industry not typecast as they tended to do when an actor achieves the kind of fame Natalie received in GILLIGAN’S ISLAND.

I changed the subject while we were having dessert and asked about Fritz Lang again as my partner gave me the evil eye for taking time away from getting her to sign on the dotted line. Natalie welcomed the moment and told me this about making SECRET BEYOND THE DOOR: “All I have to say about Lang is, he was a sadist…He enjoyed making his cast suffer over and over again with endless takes of the same scene. At one point, I am standing by a walk-in fireplace in the home of Michael Redgrave and his new bride, Joan Bennett. Now remember, Joan had her own production company at the time, and Lang essentially worked for her. Now, the scene where I am standing by this roaring fire listening to Redgrave go on about Bluebeard or some nonsense…The heat was getting so intense that I felt like I was about to pass out. After twenty-four takes I felt my arm burning and I did something I had never done on a film set before: I yelled, ‘CUT!’ I then looked at that sadist and told him no film was worth being burned alive to make, and left the set. Joan went white and then left the set as well. I let her feel my arm and dress where I had been standing by that damn fireplace for the last 45 minutes. She asked if I was alright and then went to Lang’s trailer. After that, nothing was ever mentioned about it and work resumed without incident. I am sure Joan let him have it about that kind of obsessive shooting and the film wrapped and I never worked for him again, thank God.”

About three days later Natalie phoned the office and in the most charming way declined to be represented by DEL VALLE, FRANKLIN AND LEVINE. I must say, I was somewhat relieved as I am sure, looking back now after nearly three decades, that we could not have made her wish come true – to lift the typecasting she was forced to endure as Mrs. Thurston Howell III. As time went by and I saw more of her socially, I realized that there were really two Natalie Schafers. The first one was a fascinating woman of great bearing and charm who held her own in the world of show business and society and had done so for a very long time. Natalie was on Broadway throughout the late thirties and forties in productions both large and small. One of her longest runs was in a play entitled LADY IN THE DARK, which launched Danny Kaye to stardom as perhaps the first openly gay character in a major Broadway show. Natalie recalled, “Danny was simply aglow with talent in those days and very ambitious as well. He made the most of what he had to offer and that was a lot! You could hear the audience roar when he would finish his machine gun recitation of 50 Russian composers, all mentioned at once in a song called TCHAIKOWSKY that lasted about three minutes. That was a remarkable production not just for Danny but as a tour-de-force performance from Gertie Lawrence as well. She was electrifying in the BALLAD OF JENNY number, not to mention she was on stage almost throughout the play. The critics went wild for her. Victor Mature was in the show as well, looking like a stage-door Valentino, but he had style and Hollywood was his oyster once he turned up there to work.”

I really don’t think her television fans ever had a clue about this woman’s range or the life she led in New York. Natalie was married for nine years to actor Louis Calhern, who is primarily remembered for two screen performances: that of CAESAR, the title role in the Marlon Brando version of the Bard’s play, and the crime boss who “keeps” Marilyn Monroe in THE ASPHALT JUNGLE , directed by John Huston. Natalie tolerated Louis Calhern’s drinking as long as she could before she could take no more and left. They stayed in touch until his death and that story she recounted for me one night at her Rodeo Drive address. “Louis had been working on TEAHOUSE OF THE AUGUST MOON and was off the wagon. He went on a bender halfway through production and went into a seizure. The house doctor gave him an injection and it killed him instantly. If only they had taken him to a hospital he might have been saved. After a time I came to realize that sooner or later something else would have taken him since he simply could not stop–the disease was too far along.” After her marriage to Calhern she almost married another actor, Charles Butterworth, but he would die in a car accident just a year into their relationship. The next man to come into Natalie’s life was a surprise, since it would be the celebrated director Ernst Lubitsch, and their relationship was quite serious at the time. It is difficult to imagine just how bright and sophisticated Natalie Schafer really was to capture the imagination of a world-class film director, as she did long before there really was a television industry. Natalie also had a long-term relationship with playwright George S. Kaufman, and this man was known far and wide for not suffering fools gladly.

The Natalie I came to know was more and more Mrs. Thurston Howell III, or “Lovey,” the reason being she could slip into this persona like a glove; and her public seemed to expect it as well. Even as I write this, I can hear her voice and it is the voice of Lovey to be sure. I loved going over to 514 Rodeo Drive to visit, as she always had interesting friends (mostly writers). At the time I knew her best (1983 to 1987) George Eels (the biographer of both Mae West and Cole Porter) was staying with her, at one point living downstairs in the second level of her split-level home, which was modest by Beverly Hills standards, but comfortable. She bought the house for $50,000 during the forties and it was worth at least three million when she died.

Natalie loved her dogs and she had a teacup poodle named–what else?–Lovey. One evening my partner Chris and I were there and Lovey entered the room and scooted all the way across the floor, leaving a rather brown trail in its wake. Natalie looked at Lovey, smiled and said, “Lovey just adores to scoot, and if you think about it, who can blame her?” It was remarks like that, spoken of course as Mrs. Howell, which made such a non-event, well, eventful. She was about to have her portrait done by a mutual friend, Don Bachardy, and this was of course while Christopher Isherwood was still with us. I told her about my time with Don and suggested she get plenty of rest beforehand, as he tended to go for the warts-and-all approach, as his subjects discovered.

On one occasion I asked Natalie if she and her co-star Jim Backus ever socialized or developed a close friendship during the run of GILLIGAN’S ISLAND, and her reply was not what one expected regarding such a famous team like Thurston and Lovey Howell. “I loved working with Jim and we did have a certain frisson, to be sure, but we were never allowed to develop much in the way of an off-camera relationship because of his wife Henny. You see, Henny Backus could have given insecure lessons to Joan Crawford! Henny was always on set watching her husband and was fiercely over-protective of his every move. They were always a team; you never got one without the other. We were less than a year into the show when Henny confronted me one day about my having designs on her husband. I made it abundantly clear to Henny that I would never make a play for a married man. For one thing, and as much as I enjoyed working with Jim, I simply did not feel that way about him personally. I don’t think she really believed me and as a result of this confrontation I never socialized with him in any way off set.”

Natalie was always amazed at what the fans would buy as souvenirs of the show, and when the Gilligan’s Island Vodka was marketed, Alan Hale Jr. organized a special evening to launch it at his supper club known as Alan Hale’s Lobster Barrel on La Cienega Boulevard in West Hollywood, just down the street from another showbiz landmark, Casa Cugat, Xavier Cugat’s Mexican restaurant and bar (it was not unusual to see Cugat sitting in the back with his beloved Chihuahuas any day of the week). In any case, I was invited to come, and all I can remember after all these years is how much these two were loved by the fans that showed up to celebrate. It was in this atmosphere that one could really see just how much Natalie loved being in the spotlight, and by then had become reconciled with her celebrity as Lovey Howell, even at the cost of losing her former identity as one of the actresses of her day most sought-after by talented men of intelligence and taste.

The conversation turned at one point to Joan Crawford, as we were drinking bottles of Gilligan Island’s Vodka, so naturally I asked about what she was like. Natalie had done two pictures with Crawford, one at MGM just before she was let go by Louis B. Mayer (REUNION IN FRANCE) and one at Universal in the fifties (FEMALE ON THE BEACH). Natalie began to laugh and then recalled, “Joan was a very driven woman and very insecure. While we were working at MGM she was all about being a team and working for the good of the picture. I think she knew it was all coming to an end there, but she never commented on it to me. Now, FEMALE was another story‚ĶBy this time I presumed Joan and I were friends, at least colleagues, so I made a point of stopping by her trailer for cocktails and such. Now the leading man on this film was Jeff Chandler, a terribly nice young man, very good-looking, and he and Joan were in the middle of a very steamy affair. I remember Joan staying on after filming and Jeff remained as well. We were about halfway through the film when Joan invited me to her house for a small dinner party and I really had made very definite plans and had to decline. Well, she seemed alright with it, until the next morning I arrived on the set only to find my trailer had been physically moved almost to the parking lot of Universal…You learn not to say ‘no’ to Miss Joan Crawford unless you wish to suffer the consequences.”

While we were on the subject of Joan Crawford, Natalie asked me to turn the living room light on as we were back in her den area where she had her built-in bar organized. Her living room lights were tall and had living plants around them that she had to water. However, in order to turn them on or off you had to literally slap the plant right on the leaves. I remember Natalie laughing and calling out to me, “Those are my Joan Crawford lamps, darling. They require discipline!”

As the eighties came to an end, I sort of lost track of Natalie, except for the odd phone call or Christmas card. She was always social and kept busy as far as I could tell. There was always something going on regarding GILLIGAN and its fan base. Natalie was by now a television icon, and well deserved it was. She once made some calls as a favor and got my partner Chris a job, which we never forgot, as that was the kind of person she was: thoughtful and caring, a real lady in every way.

In 1990 I got a call from a writer friend of mine telling me that Natalie was in a new movie-of-the-week with Anthony Perkins called I’M DANGEROUS TONIGHT. I made a point of seeing the film the first night it aired and there was Natalie Schafer in a wheelchair, playing a mute grandmother who gets murdered in the third reel. She looked in character, frightened and old. Somehow this depressed me to no end and I tried the next day to reach her; however my call this time was not returned, and the following year we lost Natalie to cancer. She died at home with her GILLIGAN’S ISLAND co-star Dawn Wells in attendance, I understand, and later there was a small gathering at 514 Rodeo Drive to remember that wildly talented lady of the dark, our Lovey, the unmistakable Miss Natalie Schafer.

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2 Responses »

  1. Wonderful memories!! I loved her in the “THRILLER” episode “THE GRIM REAPER”.

  2. sorry to be so late, but at least i finally made it. absolutely terrific piece! the charm school episode of lucy had slipped my mind and you were right to bring it up. that was a good one and natalie was wonderful in it. thanks!

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