"Hollywood Has Changed Me " by Robert Walker (as told to Lupton A. Wilkinson)
Screenland - May 1946
"When someone writing about a star wants to be complimentary,
the invariable tribute seems to be: 'He' -- or she -- 'is still the same
unspoiled person who came to Hollywood.'
Before we take the Hollywood end of that apart, it's interesting to wonder whether all who act were really such idyllic youngsters as the compliment would seem to imply.
Do you think that Jimmy Durante, that grand entertainer and lovable person, went through his East Side childhood and his Coney Island singing-waiter apprenticeship as a sort of full-beaked Sir Galahad? Do you think Joe Cotton was Virginia's little Peerless Puritan? Joe, in some recent autobiographical articles, tells it quite differently. And Van Johnson? Was he always a studious youngster who spent his spare time reading good books and never looked at a girl? I can hear a million feminine voices exclaiming vociferously, 'Heaven forbid!'
And the distaff side. Do you think Greer Garson never did anything that irritated her family? Lana Turner? Ann Sothern? Joan Fontaine? June Allyson? I offer no speculation concerning the youth of these and other delightful Hollywood ladies. I merely ask, what do you think? -- and add that none of our better actresses has ever laid claim, to my knowledge, to having been a 'perfect' youngster.
I don't know how the legend originated that all actors came to Hollywood 'unspoiled' and virtually wearing wings, and that they have to resist some strange form of corruption in Southern California air, so they can remain 'unspoiled'.
It's true that we have a few young people who pass up great opportunities, but we have many, many more who may have thought of their Hollywood chance, at first, as glitter and glamor, but who 'catch wise' quickly. These latter see that the only answer in movies, as in any other business or profession, is work. (And the top people work the hardest -- who works harder than Bob Hope?) So -- the smart youngster cuts his or her frivolity down to the sensible amount of fun that a young person should have to preserve normality and bounce, and sets out to learn, learn, learn. The opportunities that a Hollywood studio affords, including thousands of dollars' worth of general and specialized training for each novice, constitute one of the world's wonders. Therefore, the changes that come to 90 per cent of Hollywood newcomers spring from this one big change -- their work, as they sense the great opportunity, takes charge of their lives.
Most results of that kind of change pan out for the good; some phases, as we'll see in my own case, at times make a guy feel doubtful. This much seems to me sure: All actors who come to Hollywood after hard work at poor pay have a species of edge in whatever this 'race to fame' really is. The reason: After rough traveling you really appreciate hard work at good pay, and opportunity to grow and improve as much as you can while you're working and being paid. Before I reached Hollywood, I worked for fifty cents a performance at the Cherry Lane Theater, Greenwich Village, New York, and waited too long for my first 'big' money -- twenty dollars for a radio part in 'Yesterday's Children'.
All that -- with my genuine love of acting -- made Hollywood seem a sort of Paradise to me, and as MGM handed me ten leads in three years I began more and more to realize that Hollywood does change everybody, that you can't accept starring responsiblity and nurture an ambition without paying some prices.
The first change was a good one -- a change in stance. My thought in my early Hollywood days was to shoot up quickly. By sheer break, and MGM taking a huge chance, that happened. Soon I began to realize that what I really wanted was to keep on learning. A quick rise out here can mean as quick a drop. Right along with that I began to hate the paradox of my quick 'success'. It looked like I would be typed forever as a more or less juvenile lead. That was, for many months, the fly in my Paradise ointment. I had black and blue moods about it, I can assure you.
Mind you, I never wanted to play Hamlet -- just enough variety of roles to develop as an actor. Meanwhile, I set myself to a simple task. In each picture I would try to do some one thing better than I had done it before. That became a game, a useful one. (The main thing a motion picture actor must be forever learning is what might be called camera technique -- how to handle yourself more and more naturally before that realistic lens. Veterans tell me that they never stop thinking about that, and never grow perfect at it.)
Watching the careers of those who have done best in Hollywood and some of those who slipped, I learned to my relief that while acclaim and hoopla may aid a starting career, they have never yet kept an actor on the screen. They mean less than nothing to me personally, and it's grand to be able to concentrate on what the public really cares about -- screen performance.
There's one phase of Hollywood publicity, though, that no actor dares forget about. I think each learns the lesson with a shock. Your personal life becomes no longer private. I don't just mean that weird versions of your personal affairs are ventilated (even if you don't talk about them, plenty of people will wild-guess ad lib). There's more to it than that. Every time you go out in public you navigate under a spotlight. What you do or say is scrutinized and analyzed. No man likes to seem to take himself too seriously, yet no actor with any sense of responsibility can fail soon to realize anything foolish he may say or do -- any kind of seeming misbehavior -- reflects on the entire profession.
The biggest price a 'serious' -- that is, serious in intent -- actor has to pay is the development of a certain hardening, a certain selfishness, it might be called, in putting his 'learning desire' absolutely first. He soon finds that there are only twenty-four hours a day -- that he needs eight of them for sleep and that, besides his working hours, he needs a good many more to think about his work. That means he can't accept invitations any old time, even from his best friends; that some evenings he can't even encourage them if they phone and suggest dropping over. For anyone who loves people and cherishes friendship, this constitutes the hardest price of stardom. If you ever read of an actor or actress 'going upstage,' you can wager that what's really the matter is a necessity -- time to think -- that saddens the performer who isn't brilliant enough to do his work all off the cuff.
The necessity for relaxation that really rests one, and my growing feeling that story is so important, has brought me one vital new pleasure. Too busy living, I was never, until recently, much of a reader. Now I've learned the excitement of books. I'll never be a highbrow; I frankly read best sellers because I feel that what hundreds of thousands of others like will probably please me, too. It usually does! I experience a thrill when some friend offers to lend me a book because he liked it.
And -- don't mistake me -- I'm no hermit. I manage to make it, with pals, to the Legion fights almost every Friday night; I play tennis whenever I have a day off from the studio; and if I feel I've been thinking too darn much for my medium-watt brain, and am going stale, why I step out and see some bright lights.
What has made me more thoughtful than before is not any pious resolve, but the plain fact that I love acting with all my heart. I couldn't bear to think I might muff the opportunity for growth that working at MGM offered.
Maybe it's just luck, but I like to think that concentration on my job had something to do with the greatest break, by far, of my acting experience. That, of course, is the studio's casting me as the late, beloved composer, Jerome Kern in the Technicolor picture, 'Till The Clouds Roll By'. Audiences will get a shock, because the opening scene shows Kern in his latter days. Near-juvenile Robert will be gone -- I hope. The picture cuts back, though. It's one of those roles that both frighten an actor and make him happy. 'Character' makeup, for different ages, with all the difficulty that implies, presents a real test. This role will mean more than just a career opportunity. After the script was written and production almost ready to start, the world lost -- after a brief illness -- the universally loved composer of 'Who,' 'Why Was I Born,' 'Just The Way You Look Tonight,' 'Old Man River' and scores of other enduring ballads. That makes my responsibility heavier, and I studied and acted the role with humility.
Through all the times when, tired and worried over being 'typed,' I wondered if the prices of stardom were worthwhile, what sustained me was the factor I've mentioned several times -- my intense love for acting. Let's couple that with what I mentioned at the beginning of this article -- the fact that few of us were 'perfect' children. And let's tie up that for a moment with a problem bigger than any Hollywood problem -- the growing concern of the nation over juvenile delinquency.
I wasn't a criminal child but I skirted the edges, getting into most sorts of mischief that a boy can get into without being a criminal. I was always running away from home, running away from school after school. Worst of all, any attempt at discipline, or even good advice, struck my pre-adolescent and adolescent mind as 'persecution'. What puts that slant into a boy's thinking I don't know -- but I'm convinced it's one step only from becoming a punk.
During my high school period I was sent -- in the hope that military training might be remedial -- all the way from my home in Utah to the San Diego Army and Navy Academy at San Diego, Calif. I resented being sent there, resisted the school's fine discipline and ran away at the first opportunity. As I reached the edge of the campus Mrs. Virgina Atkinson, the school's dramatic teacher, sitting on her front porch, observed me and the bundle over my shoulder. Wisely, she called, 'I hope you're not going anywhere that will prevent your returning by Friday. I have a part I want you to do in the next school play, and we start rehearsing then.' The invitation surprised, flattered and intrigued me. Without any mutual explanations, I immediately returned to barracks.
There followed my first appearance before any audience. Awkward and stumbling as I must have been, I knew that this was what I wanted to learn, what I wanted to do. I didn't dream of stardom or of big money -- I just wanted to act, the rest of my life. This finding of an outlet didn't transform me into an angel, but it gave me direction, and there wasn't a chance, from then on, of my becoming a rudderless person. Mrs. Atkinson encouraged and worked with me. I never, from then on, had time for 'serious' mischief.
Why do I tell this? Because I hear so many generalities about the grave problem of juvenile delinquency. The most pat is, 'It's really adult delinquency.' That's just a wisecrack. Many parents who break their hearts trying to help guide their children don't succeed. I agree with Judge Camille Kelley, of Memphis, Tenn., who handled 11,000 cases in juvenile court, with only eleven later reaching prison. She says: 'There is no such thing as an intrinsically bad boy or girl. The problem in each case is to channel that restless energy into the line of effort that will interest that particular child.' It isn't enough to lecture, to correct, to plead. If in your family or in a friend's family there is a so-called problem young person, set yourself to find, by trial and error perhaps, what that youngster really wants to do. Remember, he himself may not even suspect what it is. Remember, too, no boy or girl ever ran away from a loved occupation.
As for me -- I am not happy because I am a star; I am happy because I am allowed to act."