TW – 4/14/1946
Meet Robert Walker: He’s as Hollywood as klieg lights, and any resemblance to Corporal Hargrove is strictly rehearsed.
Three men from M-G-M had spent three days trying to find Robert Walker for us. We got weary of waiting, so we grabbed the phone and called the Waldorf-Astoria, the cave where Hollywood’s latest version of the typical American boy was holed up.
The boy was answering his phone that day and we told him we wanted to write some words about him.
“Fine,” he said. “Let’s have lunch at ‘Twenty-One’ tomorrow.”
We picked Robert Walker up at the hotel on a bright, Saturday noon. He was wearing heavy-rimmed glasses and looked like a Greenwich Village poet, only his clothes fitted him. Walker weighs 145, which is not a lot of pounds to drape around a body six feet long.
He led us through the maze of lobby out to a long, black limousine, complete with chauffeur, which the studio had given him for his ramblings around New York.
“Every time I get in this thing I feel like Walter Pidgeon,” he said.
This glib quip might lead you to believe that Robert is a gay, whimsical fellow, a mad, happy type, such as he creates on the screen. That’s a bum guess. After a few moments of conversation with Mr. Robert Walker, even a romantic member of the fan clan would quickly see that any resemblance Walker has to Hargrove is strictly rehearsed.
Robert Walker is all-actor, a dyed-in-the-wool Thespian whose world begins and ends with grease paint. He is as Hollywood as klieg lights or a movie magazine. The atom bomb and the UNO are mildly interesting to Walker, but the thing of surpassing importance is acting, the theater, the movies. “The show must go on,” as any old-line performer will tell you, even during an earthquake. And Walker has this same ivory-tower preoccupation with the art, the acting dodge; he will discuss it endlessly with you, as a banker would spiel on the subject of collateral.
If there is an angle on Robert Walker, this is it: “You can be an actor all of the time or an actor some of the time.” And Walker’s all-of-the-time type seems a little antiquated and out-of-date in this atomic age of ours.
Going across town in the studio’s hearse, Walker began to explain that he had been devoting all of his spare time in the past few months to a good-will tour. He said the tour was an informal affair, taking him through some 72 towns in Texas.
We asked him if M-G-M had sent him on the sagebrush trail.
“No,” he said quickly. “It was my own idea.”
He would wheel unobtrusively into Texas hamlets in his big, black Hollywood automobile and talk to theater managers and the townspeople. His favorite talk place, he said, was the local drugstore.
“I’d walk in and buy a soda and pretty soon someone would recognize me. Then a crowd would gather and I would buy them sodas. I’d ask them what they had liked about my performance in ‘Her Highness and the Bellboy’ or ‘What Next, Corporal Hargrove?’ or whichever picture of mine had played the town lately. You’d be amazed how surprised these people were to think that a real movie star would come to their little burg to talk to them.” He smiled. “It was like being the Caliph of Bagdad.”
The stories about the actor in Texas ended when our big, black hack pulled up in front of “21,” which is a high-priced mess hall frequented by movie stars, bank presidents, jockeys and other people with large bankrolls.
There was a group of moppets with autograph books, old timetables, and other stray bits of paper, waiting at the entrance. They immediately descended on Walker, making their peculiar noises and waving their papers and assorted fountain pens and pencils under his nose.
Walker began signing, an amiable, pleasant smile on his face, looking, for the first time, as he does in the movies. In the middle of this confusion the kids overlooked Paulettte Goddard who arrived at the eatery alone and on foot, which is very strange. She is very pretty.
Inside, between the hat-check booth and the table, we lost Walker. He had been sidetracked by a girl named Georgiana, a delicious doll with whom he made a date to go dancing that night. He didn’t know her very well, he told us later. She was somebody’s secretary. Somebody lucky.
All three of us finally got together at one table, no mean feat at “21,” where table-hopping has been developed to a science.
Walker talked about Hollywood, which he likes. And, through his soup, he talked about girls, who he also likes.
“I lived in this town seven years,” he said. “So I come back after being away two years and there’s hardly a girl I know well enough to ask for a date.
Four doubting eyebrows went up. We asked him how come the gossip columnists were continually linking him romantically with one girl and another.
Walker concentrated on a pair of eggs and a slice of ham and thought it over.
“Nothing to it.” He said. “To tell you the truth, I haven’t had much time for girls. That Texas tour, you know.”
“And now I’m doing the same sort of thing
in New Jersey. Over in Jersey,” he went on,
the people are not so impressed by a celebrity. They want to know your angle. They want to know what you’re trying to sell.”
“Actually, I’m not trying to sell anything,” Walker said. “In getting around the way I do, I feel it builds up good will between myself and my audience. I get to know what they like and don’t like about my work.”
“Through the ham and eggs to the demitasse, Walker discussed his work in the theater and cinema. Some of it surprised us. We had always thought of him as a lad who had strolled in from the left field of some corn belt, been grabbed by M-G-M and, after a few quick lessons, pushed in front of a camera. Actually, he’s been working hard at acting since he was 13, when he fell in love with a lady drama teacher at the San Diego Army and Navy Academy.
He came to New York is 1936 and a year later entered the American Academy of Dramatic Arts where, between classes, he met and married Jennifer Jones. That marriage ended in divorce last year. When he left the Academy he bought a pair of thick-soled shoes and started out to prove he was an actor.
For the next seven years, he was one of the thousands of hopeful young actors who, each year, bring eyes full of stars and shoes full of holes to producers’ offices. When he finally clicked, it was not in the theater, but in radio. He did a slew of daytime serial shows, then landed a program of his own, an audience-participation show. That led to a movie test.
“It was a very routine thing.” Walker said. “They pointed a camera at me and asked me questions: ‘What’s your name? Where were you born? How old are you? Do you like movies? Do you like blondes? Have you got a hot tip of the sixth race at Belmont?” Walker smiled. “Then they threw me on a Pullman to Hollywood and gave me a can’t-miss part in ‘Bataan.’”
Walker then switched to talking about his latest picture, “The Sailor Takes a Wife,” which also stars June Allyson. He said the picture was okay, but that he was sick of playing beamish, young boys who are 19 or 20.
“People don’t realize it, but those things are character parts for me. I’m twenty-seven now. In my next picture, which is based on the life of Jerome Kern, I’m finally getting a chance to act my age. I start out as a twenty-one-year-old kid and end up a man of fifty or so.”
In the middle of this gum about becoming a gray old man, Walker’s eyes strayed to a girl a few tables away. He noticed that we noticed. And, for the first time that afternoon he forgot the subject of acting.
“I can’t keep my eyes off girls with glasses like those,” he said. “Girls who wear those big, weird-looking glasses fascinate me.”
We advised Walker that the pretty girl was sharing a table with an oaf who probably outweighed the three of us together. Walker sighed, pulled at his shirt cuff and said that he had to go meet an aunt anyway.