Double Exposure by Jane Kessner circa 1964
1951- a ten-year-old kid named Bob Walker and his brother Mike, a year younger, joined their dad on location at Canyon City, Colorado, for a picture called "Vengeance Valley." Their dad was one of the top stars in the business, a sensitive guy who'd be plagued with unhappiness "since the day I was born," who'd let depression almost get him down for the count. But he was now on the comeback trail, feeling great and looking great; "Vengeance Valley" was a Western and Bobby and Mike had the time of their lives. They rode all day, when their dad had time off; they rode high up on the mountain ledges to watch the shooting, or went fishing, the three of them. Six months later they had another thrill - their dad came to Black Foxe Military Academy on location for "My Son John." After classes, they watched the shooting. When he had time off, their dad watched the cadet drills. He was a man they remember, and full of zest and exuberance, his sense of humor was irresistible. They really loved him and he adored them. According to many of his friends, he lived for them. They spent weekends with him, they spent summers. That summer was the best of all. And then, late one afternoon when they'd gone to a barbecue at a friend's house, their dad became ill. Bob and Mike didn't know until later that night. By then he was dead. A doctor had been summoned, a sedative had been administered. Within minutes Bob Walker breathed his last breath. It was the end of a world. The boys love their mother and they love her husband, David Selznick, but a childhood world ended with the sudden death of their dad. Bob says, "Adults don't realize how much children understand, how much they feel. To a child of ten, growing up, death is so much more distressing than it is to someone twenty-five. My mother and stepfather, en route to Italy, came back at once and took us with them; but from this time on, I've really been on my own. I sort of drifted from school to school, drifted around Europe. I had to be involved with life on my own terms and it has been great for me.
"I never thought of acting until a year ago and now here I am"
The slender fellow with the narrow, haunting face went through his screen test for "The Hook" He wasn't nervous. There was nothing to be nervous about. Acting isn't the be-all and end-all. As a matter of fact, he likes photography better and hopes someday to wind up a cameraman - or writing, directing and lensing a picture, not acting in it. Hollywood isn't the end-all either. He can't imagine settling anywhere permanently. He just doesn't dig the word permanently, and there are dozens of jobs by which he can support his pretty young wife and their eleven-month old baby girl.
But with his interest in script writing and camerawork, he decided a couple of years ago to take some courses at the New School for Social Research and, incidentally, to take a course in acting with Lee Strasberg. "If I was going to write for actors, it occurred to me that I ought to study acting and get to know actors. I wanted to know them, understand their problems. I went into summer stock to get experience." And in no time at all he was at M-G-M testing for a major picture. Actually it was his second test - he'd been turned down once.
After the test, Academy Award cinematographer Joe Ruttenberg came over and shook the kid's hand. "You know, Bob" he said "nineteen years ago I shot the test of another talented guy, looked a lot like you, your dad, Bob Walker."
Young Bob did a good test, good enough to snag the part of Dennison, the sensitive G.I. who has to stand up to Kirk Douglas' brutal Sgt. Briscoe through the tense Navy mission that forms the plot of "The Hook." A professional actor for exactly six months, Bob found himself surrounded by professional friends, who had known his dad and were now definitely on his side. Famous parents can be a disadvantage. "Everybody's always asking if you are you affected by it - that's kind of a drag," Bob says with the little wistful, side smile that captured the public years ago for another Bob. "But there are advantages. Everyone at M-G-M is a friend, the crew is just the greatest." Bill Perlberg and George Seaton, who produce the picture, are the gentlemen who introduced a young film actress in "The Song of Bernadette," which won that actress an Oscar. She was, of course, Bob's mother, Jennifer Jones. And whenever he needed good professional advice, he could always get it from a man he admires and respects tremendously, his stepfather David. ("David's a marvelous man, I love him. He's always been kind, generous and thoughtful of us. There's a lot of love in him.)
But make no mistake about it. Advice is helpful and friendship is welcome. But twenty-three-year old Walker has asked no favors, and received none. He's been on his own since he was a kid. He's been drifting along, skimming through fourteen different schools here and in Europe, dreaming of becoming a concert pianist, studying music history and composition, dreaming of being a boxer, writing, designing, finding out who he is and trying his hand at such odd jobs as playing the bongo drums. "I was sixteen when I got my first job, I worked as a drummer out here in a club now under a different name. It was a real swinging place then and they didn't know my age." After that he tried a walking tour of Italy, using the same drum as a suitcase, stuffing his few belongings inside and carrying it on his shoulder. Whenever he got hungry, he found some little bistros and banged his drum for a free meal.
He understands Italian, speaks German and French. He picked up a number of jobs interpreting for American tourists in Switzerland.
"I've had an awful lot of jobs. Once I worked as announcer in a boxing ring. That was great. It was before the Olympics and when the boxing team from Ghana came to Switzerland to train, I went with them as interpreter, a very interesting experience. I'd never me a real African before. No, I don't think my folks knew about the jobs. They gave me a pretty free rein and let me grow up.
"One of my craziest jobs was as a cowboy in New Mexico. I was eighteen then, attending a military school, and one of the fellows at school knew the people who owned this ranch. There were a group of us who wanted to do some recording - one was a songwriter, one a singer, I played the drums, and this other guy had a tape recorder. We decided to spend the summer working on the ranch, and use our spare time to build up a repertoire so we could make recordings. We didn't make any recordings buy we sure worked had riding the range. I still remember that first day on the job. I'd always ridden a great deal with my dad. I used to ride bareback, and I loved to ride, but now I hadn't ridden for about four years and was pretty soft. We had to move a herd of cows across the mountain. I had a terrible horse, it couldn't outrun the cows, which was pretty embarrassing. I'd be sent after a cow and not be able to catch her. The problem was the cows thought we'd left the calves behind, and kept trying to go back. Actually, the calves were on their way by truck because it was too hard to get them over the mountain under their own steam."
"We had to take the cows through a pass where the mountain rose steeply on both sides and the slopes were covered with trees. Someone had given me a rope. I started yelling, swinging that rope around and I split that herd right down the middle. They went right up the mountain on both sides. It took us practically the rest of the day to find them in those trees and get them back on the trail."
He and Mike did a lot of skiing together in Switzerland. They both love skiing although "Mike's better, ¦he's the big fellow with hair on his chest," but for the most part, Bob wandered Europe alone. Once boating on the lake in Zurich, he encountered a memorable storm. It was a very small boat, called "Lightning." There was another boy aboard and two girls, and the four of them were the only people left on the lake. The other boats either capsized or were pulled in, but Bob's crew stayed out, slicing up and down the lake with wind, lightning, and rain, "like you've never seen."
He loved adventure and it didn't matter in the least that he was always broke. (His father's estate was left so that half the principal will be paid to each boy when Mike is twenty-five, the other half when Mike reaches thirty-five.) He could always write home for money, but Bob didn't. He wanted to stay independent as possible - it was terriblyimportant to him to feel independent. He'd get a job or he'd live on bananas. There were times he literally didn't have a penny
Like the time he was living with a bear in Switzerland. No, that's not a typographical error. A bear. That was one of the reasons he was broke, the bear ate so much. It was mid-winter, bitterly cold, and one day in an animal store, Bob saw this little bear. He hesitated for a moment between a monkey and the bear and then settled on the bear. "Jimmy, I called him -when he was good. When he was bad, very bad, his name was Fitzgerald. Don't ask me why. He was a great companion, a marvelous companion, one of my all-time favorites. His only trouble was that he loved water and he'd reach his arm down the drain in the bathtub and pull out all the innards of the thing. I think some plumber had him under contract. When he'd tear out the plumbing I'd jump on him, scold him and spank him. That was always the beginning of a fight, we'd wrestle all over the place."
Bob had a two-room apartment. "Jimmy-Fitzgerald" had one room, he the other. The greedy little bear ate everything in the place. Bob made no attempt to train him, didn't want him tamed, and that led to another difficulty. Since he wouldn't go on a leash, there was no way to take him out. Bob took him out just once. A friend was playing piano in a little nightclub and Bob decided to dash over and show off his latest acquisition. It was a bitterly cold night, the boy was wearing a couple of sweaters and an overcoat. He wrapped "Jimmy" in a towel to keep him warm, tucked him under his sweaters and proceeded to carry him down the street. Everything was just great until the bear got scared. A passing street car applied its brakes and "Jimmy" crawled right up, around and under Bob's clothes, took a firm perch on his back and wouldn't come down. Bob was afraid he'd suffocate. When the bear still wouldn't come down, Bob started ripping off his clothes, first the overcoat then the sweaters. Freezing cold, he startled a stranger hurrying by with, "Excuse me, sir, would you get this bear off my back?"
Again they started off. Bob carrying Fitzgerald, walking up the hill to the club, but suddenly the bear jumped clear and got away. Chasing him in the icy streets, Bob slipped, somersaulted, and went backwards down the hill. It was quite a night and the last time Jimmy ever went visiting. Bob kept him about three months, then gave him to a zoo with a large field where he could run. Without the bear, Bob was more alone than he had ever been in his life.
"It was also one of the happiest times of my life, and maybe I should explain, for me life is one big happy moment. When I was broke and lonely I had some of the happiest moments. I remember the night after I'd given my bear away. I was sitting alone in the kitchen with the windows open and the cold wind coming in. The windows were broken, they couldn't be closed, I'd sent all my clothes to the cleaners because I'd been using everything to keep Jimmy warm. I didn't even have a shirt, but it was just great. I was very hungry but that was great, too. In the ice box I found an old piece of brown bread and I mean old, hard as a rock, and in the cupboard I found some apricot marmalade, equally ancient. I sat in front of the open window eating this and it was one of the happiest times of my life."
That was when he was nineteen. When he was twenty, he found a different kind of happiness. He had come back to New York now and started studying at the New School of Social Research. At a jazz dance class he met Ellie Wood, a talented singer, dancer and comedienne, and a very good actress," says Bob. "She'd come up from Kentucky to New York, had been there about three years when we met. A very self-reliant girl. I loved that. Very independent. And very funny. A marvelous sense of humor. She was very alive, terribly alive, terribly carefree" And he loved her from the start.
They saw all the theater there was to see-together. They went to movie and art exhibits and photographic exhibits everywhere together. Ellie snared quite a bit of nightclub work. Bob tried summer stock. He painted scenery, built sets and played bits at Fishkill, New York. He also played Sebastian in "Twelfth Nigh," his first acting stint, and loved it. Then he appeared off-Broadway in "The Magic Weave," based on "The Emperor's New Clothes," ("In the fairy tale, remember, the emperor wore no clothes, Off-Broadway he wore long underwear.")
They were in love and they we going to be married. There was no problem. "You find a life-long companion, then you get married," Bob says. Only it had to be Saturday since they were both working, but every Saturday there'd be a movie or a play they wanted to see so they'd say, well, we'll do it next Saturday. Finally, they had a Saturday "without an excuse," took a little trip out of the city and were married. The taxi driver who drove them to the justice of the peace was one of their witnesses, the justice's wife, the other. They had a little apartment in the Village and life was beautiful. Bob phoned and told his mother and David. Ellie phone and told her parents in Kentucky. Now these were two youngsters who'd been on their own. They were still very young in some ways, but they'd faced their responsibilities. Bob was twenty.
Maybe he knew that when his dad was the same age, he married young Phylis Isley, with whom he was then doing a radio show in Tulsa at twenty-five dollars a week for the team. They also went to New York, played the Cherry Lane Theater in the Village for fifty cents a performance, and their first try at Hollywood was a bust. The bride got a lead in one serial, the groom, a thirty-dollar-a-week reader's job. They went back to Broadway in lived in a tenement on Ninth Avenue - that's where young Bob and Mike were born. 1943 was the year for the first Bob Walker, Phylis was selected by Selznick for her role in "Bernadette," Bob was signed for "Bataan."
Today's Bob Walkers had very little more than their predecessors to start, Bob was scheduled for winter stock in North Carolina, but they came out to California for a few weeks vacation first and to see what his opportunities might be in TV. That's when an agent suggested he should do a screen test and try for the idealistic G.I. in "The Hook."
Ellie would like eventually to return to New York. She has more job opportunities there and Bob hasn't the slightest desire for her to give up her career. To the contrary, it's what she enjoys and he wants her to go on. So they haven't bought a home. They're living temporarily in a house in Beverly Hills. They've made friends with Peter Fonda and his wife and Michael Pollard and his. They have Friday night poker games where Ellie fixes sandwiches and drinks and "loses all the money I win." Baby Michael was born last May and her father says, "she's almost a person now. I'm teaching her to say 'daddy.' She says 'da-da-da-da' but I want her to do it with conviction. At first I thought I wanted a boy, but now I'm very happy with my girl.
So is her Uncle Mike, after whom she was named, and who has just sailed off to Europe to attend an acting school in Paris. Mike and Bob are very close, but very different. They have different philosophies, different approaches to life, they argue up a storm, but they're close. For the first eleven years of Bob's life, the first ten of Mike's, they were always together, they went through many things together, above all, their dad's tragic death. It wasn't hard for them to grasp. Says Bob, "I was eleven when my father died. And I understood. By the time a child in nine or ten, he's growing up. Children realize more than adults give them credit for. But you don't say much. If you've had a beautiful relationship with someone you're not going to come out and spill your guts. It's something that belongs to you, you treasure it. There was no one occasion that was just great. My dad was always great fun to be with."
What a boot the first bob Walker would get out of today's Bob! Where the father was a rebel, always trying to escape, the son takes life absolutely in his stride. "Security for the sake of having security is really nothing that important to me. I feel secure just drifting around. I think that if you are a whole person and have something to stand on, if you have a personal relationship, as I have with Ellie, or a basic philosophy, you know you have a reason for being, you know you're part of the whole and that you're important."
"I don't believe in this old business of having to suffer to be great. I don't believe an artist has to be unhappy to paint great pictures. When you have peace of mind, when you're at one with yourself, you create and what you create has substance. If you're unhappy and you're fighting the world and fighting yourself, you can't devote your whole being to a project, you're not free. You may do wonderful things, but think how much more wonderful they'd be if you were free!"
Well, he's free and he's whole. There's never a year that Hollywood doesn't record the arrival of handsome, talented, twenty-one year olds who struggle and strive, or make a quick flash on the screen and then vanish into oblivion. They haven't the equipment to buck a business that is difficult. It can be heart-breaking. It's a business where a truck driver or a high school girl can overnight be treated to publicity so confusing they don't know who they are.
Bob Walker knows who he is. He spent his youth finding out, involving himself independently with life with no interference. And he feels complete with Ellie, with a wife and child. Now he's discovered acting and he loves it. He's going to start serious dramatic training, but if he doesn't turn out to be a great actor, why he'll just try something else.
Maybe Hollywood has a new star on the horizon. He'll look familiar - hauntingly so to all those who remember, to all those who watch old movies on television - but he has more going for him than his dad did. He has all the encouragement and understanding of two old pros in the business, the Selznicks, and he had the heritage and happiness and unhappiness his dad handed down to him.