Strange, Wonderful World of
Modern Screen - August 1963
by Beverly Linet
"'If there is a motto by which I live,' says Robert Walker, 'it is that I've
never regretted anything I've done. Only the things I have not done.' Well,
there sure doesn't seem to be much scope for Bob's regrets, because in his
23 years he's covered more acreage, more action, more books and a lot more
adventures than most guys twice his age. Robert has a publicity man whose
purpose it is to get names in columns and interviews in newspapers and magazines,
yet Bob tries his darndest to keep his name out of print. MODERN SCREEN
is the first and only magazine to whom he has given an extensive interview. According
to this young man, his vast experiences in life and his exciting moments are
'all pieces of mosaic that form an overll pattern.' The first pieces,
of course, began to fall in place when Bob was a child. But, a child's memory
is as fragile and elusive as a dragonfly's wing. A day is lived, enjoyed
and buried in a private corner of the mind.
What are Bob's memories of those tender years?
When you ask him about his childhood, show him a photo taken many years ago, tell him about an incident that you may have read in a story about his family, he just shakes his head:
'No, I don't recall that,' he says. And he's not being evasive.
But there must be things that he does remember. Things that were once important to him?
He smiles ruefully.
'If an experience is a painful one, why relive it by talking about it? And if it is a happy, personal one, then you don't want to share it with strangers.' Bob is painfully realistic!
So, to learn about his early, important years, you turn to aging magazine and newspaper clippings. You discover things he doesn't remember, can't remember -- or is reluctant to share!
Robert Walker was born in Jamaica, New York at 5:10 A.M. on a very stormy morning of April 15, 1940.
His very first home was a beat-up shack in Long Beach where his parents moved because the landlord gave them two months' free rent and because their Greenwich Village flat was too small, too damp, too leaky for a new baby.
But a year later, when he was taking his first steps and saying his first words, his nursery was in a much nicer house in Garden City, and he was joined by a baby brother, Michael.
By the time he was two, his parents were doing so well in radio that he was scampering around four beautiful green acres in Sands Point and splashing around in the wading pool at the exclusive Sands Point Country Club with a nurse in attendance to watch over him and Mike.
He wasn't quite three when his mother brought him to Hollywood where she was working on 'Song of Bernadette,' so it is only natural that he doesn't remember that Christmas of 1942 when his father joined them, and the charming Colonial house in Bel-Air was decorated with a tree and filled with toys and all the things he loved back East.
It was the last Christmas the four Walkers spent together, for the following November Bob Walker and Jennifer Jones separated.
The boys remained with their mother, but their father visited frequently.
Little Bob may have seen 'See Here, Private Hargrove' during its many re-runs on television. He may not recall seeing it when he was four and Michael, three.
But according to an interview Jennifer Jones gave at the time, 'The boys were crazy about the picture. All they wanted to do for months afterward was to play soldier.'
And although their front yard had been turned into a playground with swings and slides; and although they owned a terrific electric train, complete with blocks of tracks, tunnels and bridges, they ignored all of that, and their other toys as well, to 'camp out in miniature pup tents, and march around in soldier caps toting toy guns with bayonets.'
And their mother recalled one day when they invaded enemy territory -- the living room -- and hid the guns and bayonets under the sofa pillows, and some dignified company spent a most uncomfortable evening twisting and wondering about the quality of the upholstery!
They were little devils, Bob and his brother, Mike, and their mother told a writer how she 'had to keep a close eye on them or else they'd kill each other.' But they were devoted to one another then, and still are.
The Walkers were divorced on April 21, 1945, six days after Bob's fifth birthday.
The boys spent Sundays with their father, going to the zoo, stopping off at the Beverly Hills fire department, where they were permitted to slide down the poles; visiting friends, and getting into a hundred and one different kinds of mischief.
By now they had forgotten about soldiering and had decided to 'become pilots and fly a plane like the one Van Johnson flew when he got his leg cut off.' (30 Seconds Over Tokyo.)
One afternoon when the boys were visiting with friends, the adults wandered into the garden to find a half-dozen youngsters hopping around on one leg, the other neatly trussed behind!
'Look at us,' shouted Bobby, the ringleader. 'We're playing Van Johnson.'
It was all part of a child's world of imaginary adventures, and an indication of the adventurous spirit that was to shape the man.
Just as the more quiet moments of childhood were to shape the man.
For after dinner each Sunday, they would settle, a cozy trio, in Bob Sr.'s big chair for 'story time.'
On the particular Sunday that the boys had played Van Johnson, the book in question was 'The Little Prince' by Antoine de St. Exupery.
Much of the text was way over the heads of the youngsters, but in a story by one of the timeless tellers of tales there was a music and rhythm that penetrates the spirit and although the meaning of the words may have escaped the young minds, their father was convinced that 'the melody entered and remained.' So, whenever they were together he would read some honest work of literature to the boys.
When you meet Robert today, talk to him for a while, you believe that the melody did remain, even if he doesn't remember those evenings of 'The Little Prince.'
The years pass swiftly, and the child grows.
He is six...seven...eight.
The adventurous spirit keeps growing and growing.
You ask the man if he has any phobia and he quickly answers:
'Spiders. I detest spiders. I always have.'
And then from that private corner of his mind comes an incident that occurred when he was eight.
'I hated spiders even then,' he remembers. 'Then one day I saw a black widow (a really venomous spider) crawling on the floor. I got a bottle and tried to capture it and when that failed, I got a stick, maneuvered the spider onto the stick and placed it in the bottle. Then all the blood drained from my face and I passed out cold.' He smiles.
Then he recalls a different kind of trouble which he got into the same year.
'We were living at the beach then and I was sitting on the patio experimenting with smoking a cigarette. Halfway through a cigarette I was called in to dinner. Just to show you how naive I was then, I tucked the cigarette into the folds of the patio couch so it would be waiting for me when I finished dinner. What was waiting was a billow of smoke as the entire couch went up in flames!'
The fire, however, was put out before it spread to the entire house, but as Bob remembers, the punishment fit the crime.
Then a curtain falls over the past again. And you return to the yellowing clippings to find out what happened next.
He's nine. Ten. Eleven.
He's attending Military Academy. A real soldier now.
His mother is now married to David Selznick, and they are living on Tower Road, high above Benedict Canyon in Beverly Hills.
He and Mike spend three months out of the year with their father on the ranch next door to the Will Rogers estate which Walker bought so that the boys could have their own horses.
And many a summer night was spent sitting together, as inseparable as stringbeans, on the curb of Sunset Boulevard watching cars whizz toward the beach, and many a summer afternoon was passed going on rabbit hunts from which they came home with lots of imaginary adventures and no rabbits!
A friend, Jim Henegan, remembers that summer of 1951, the last the two boys spent with their father.
'I lived at the beach in Malibu,' Jim recalls, 'and for most of the summer, Bob and the boys came to our home every day he wasn't working and camped on a stretch of white sand right beneath my porch. We played everlasting games. I have movie pictures of all of us, romping and clowning on the beach.'
But when you ask Bob today if he has seen those pictures or remembers when they were taken, he shakes his head and quietly says, 'No.'
The boys were in the east when their father tragically passed away. They didn't attend the funeral in Utah since their mother wanted it that way so 'they would remember their father as he was.'
Then came and went the early teen years and a montage of places and schools as he went from Hollywood to New York to Switzerland to Spain.
And finally through 1955 and 1956, Lawrenceville Prep in New Jersey.
'My school career was less than a success,' he admits. 'I got up to high school. I went to 14 or 15 different schools and didn't like any of them. I didn't do any acting in school, I wasn't the least interested in it.'
But he was interested in a hundred different other subjects: photography, writing, bongo drums.
At 18 he was playing the bongos in a Hollywood night spot. At 18, too, 'I went off and worked on a ranch in Arizona.' 19: 'I went on a walking trip throughout Italy.' 20: 'I was managing a nightclub.'
'Some day,' he laughs, 'I'm going to write a book about all my experiences.'
But you can't pin him down for a preview of a single chapter of that book, nor will he elaborate upon any experiences which may have occurred during those action-packed years.
'I don't think youngsters should live vicariously through the experiences of others,' he says seriously. 'They shouldn't daydream about the things they want to do. They should do them.'
He was 20 when he finally decided that the thing he wanted to do most was write.
'So I enrolled as a student under drama coach Lee Strasberg. If I were to write for actors I wanted to know something about acting,' he explains. 'Then I joined a summer theater (Cecilwood Playhouse in Fishkill, N.Y.) where I became an apprentice and worked as stage manager, set builder and lighting technician among other things. I even did some acting. 'It didn't take me very long to realize I wanted very much to become a very good actor.'
But that summer had another even more personal importance to Bob. It was the summer he made Ellie Wood his bride.
The first time she saw him, he didn't see her. It was at Strasberg's. 'I was sitting on the steps watching something and suddenly I felt a presence behind me. I was aware that someone was there, but I didn't turn around. I didn't know, until she told me much later, that it was Ellie.'
The second time she saw him, he saw her and flipped.
It was at a modern dance class, and it took him a while to work up enough nerve to talk to her. When he did, the conversation went somewhat like this:
Bob: 'Do you have a nail file?'
'She handed me the file,' Bob recalls. 'I used it and returned it.'
That was all. He didn't ask her for a cup of coffee. He didn't ask if he could see her again. He can't explain exactly why. Maybe he just knew instinctively he would.
And he did.
'The following Saturday night,' he remembers, 'I was invited to a party, and Ellie was there.'
This time he asked to see her again. And this time they left the party together.
'After that, there was no other girl in my life,' Bob says.
She wasn't his first girl. 'I knew many girls before Ellie,' he emphasizes. 'Many girls. I even proposed a few times. Then got out of it because I knew it wasn't right. But I'm glad. Because of the girls I had gone with in the past, I knew that Ellie was the one I wanted to spend every day of my life with for the rest of my life. I could never leave her. Ellie isn't beautiful in the conventional way, but she is the most beautiful girl in the world to me.'
Then he adds, impishly: 'She reminds me of Don Quixote's horse Rosinante. But I shouldn't have said that. I don't think my mother-in-law would appreciate it!'
How did he propose?
'There was no formal proposal,' Bob says. 'We just knew that someday we would get married.'
'I would say to Ellie, 'How about getting married next Saturday?' and she'd agree. Then Saturday would come along and we would decide to go to a movie or something. And we'd put if off for another day. Then something else would happen. Then one day there was nothing else we had to do -- so we went off and got married.'
'That's not important,' he replies. 'The important thing is that we got married.'
His official biography lists the date as August, 1961. The place remains his secret.
The following fall things began jumping -- career-wise.
He appeared in an off-Broadway children's musical, 'The Emperor's New Clothes'; made his television debut in 'The Portrait of Dorian Gray'; and followed that with a two-line part in 'The Defenders'.
Ellie was pregnant by then and they decided upon a month's holiday in Hollywood. He was there only a few days when his agent suggested he try for the role of the youthful G.I. in 'The Hook.'
His daughter, Michele, named for his brother Michael, was born in May, 1962, a few days after he started his film career.
He remained in Hollywood for TV, lots of TV -- 'Ben Casey,' 'Route 66', 'The Eleventh Hour,' but with the exception of the latter, he's super-critical of all his performances to date.
'My mistake was playing a nutty kid in my first TV show. In 'The Hook' I was a spineless brat. I saw the movie the first time while I was flying over the ocean. And after it was over I snuck to second class. I wasn't very good in it.'
It accomplishes nothing to argue the point, or to try to convince him that audiences found his portrayal not spineless but gentle and quite beautiful.
He won't accept that. Nor will he accept praise for his performance in which he played a boy dying from a tumor on the brain in a 'Ben Casey' episode.
And yet he will admit that it pleases him when he receives a genuine compliment for his work.
What does he consider the highest compliment he's ever received?
'When my stepfather admires something I've done.'
And when he's asked how his mother feels about his being an actor, he replies, 'She never said anything either way. She was just pleased that I was doing what I want.'
It is obvious that he's reluctant to go into detail about his family, but he reveals his feelings in fragmentary snatches of conversation.
Asked about the kind of woman he likes or dislikes, he answers exuberantly, 'I like all types of women. Playwrights with problems of their own have a tendency to make women domineering and aggressive. My mother certainly wasn't domineering.'
And upon being his father's son, and the comparisons that are constantly being made because of the startling resemblance between the two men, does it bother him?
'It's inevitable now,' he says frankly. 'It doesn't upset me. It might ten years from now -- if all people could say about me is how much I resemble my father. For then I would feel that I accomplished nothing in my own right as an actor -- and an individual.'
He needn't worry about his individuality. Apart from the resemblance to his father, he is an entity unto himself; unique without being bizarre, a non-conformist without being a rebel, a free-soul, but by no means a bohemian or beatnik.
He's also a mass of contradictions -- he is a dashing adventurer and a quite student of the arts. He's a realist, yet an incurable romanticist. He is 'not superstitious,' but he 'believes in ghosts.'
He is 'not sentimental' but he carries two gold mementos given him by the co-stars of his first movie. He is not embarrassed by working with a nude girl before the cameras, but painfully shy about complimenting a fellow actor for fear that it 'might embarrass him.'
If his head weren't attached to his shoulders he'd forget it and leave it somewhere, but he's never forgotten a line.
He manages to avoid the limelight, but he was 'rather excited' when he was asked for his first autograph and delighted when 'I saw my name on a marquee for the first time.'
His individuality is evident in everything he does and says. It's evident even in the way he dresses, and the way he lives.
On the day he visited the MODERN SCREEN office, he was impeccably dressed in a well-tailored black and white checked sports jacket, dark trousers and an immaculate white shirt. He carried a dark raincoat. On the surface, there was nothing particularly individual about that.
The unique touches were in the magnificent pair of handmade cowboy boots which he suddenly revealed with a wonderfully boyish exuberance and in the Spanish black leather vest, trimmed with silver buttons, each of which carried a different design!
His moral attitudes also reflect refreshing individuality.
Last winter he was signed for the second male lead in 'The Ceremony,' with Laurence Harvey and Sarah Miles, which was to be filmed in Spain.
There was a scene in which he had to share the same bed with Sarah. It was an integral part of the plot in which she gives herself to Walker in order to secure freedom for the man she loves.
That famous or rather infamous nude scene was not in the script, nor did anyone have an inkling that it would be.
'Then one morning I reported to work, and was informed that the action of the scene called for me to sit there as Sarah disrobed. We weren't even told where in the sequence of events this particular moment occurred.'
The whole thing was tasteless, unnecessary to the story and included only for sensationalism.
As an actor with integrity his disgust with the whole incident was obvious. But as a man, was he shocked or embarrassed by being there as his co-star disrobed to the skin?
'No,' he replies with disarming candor. 'I've seen a woman before.'
He returned from Spain eager for a change of pace in his career and within a few weeks he tested for the title role in Josh Logan's new film, 'Ensign Pulver.' It is a comedy which he was dying to do, but there was a 'problem involved.'
Not enough money?
'On, no, money never entered into it,' he says. 'In fact, I would pay them to let me play the role.'
'There are contractual obligations involved. I had to sign a one picture a year, five year contract with MGM in order to get the role in 'The Hook.'
'I want my freedom to be able to do what I want with my time.'
That's a familiar refrain for young actors, who talk art and think money, but Bob doesn't talk to hear himself talk.
While awaiting the outcome of the 'Pulver' deal, he committed himself for a one-act off-Broadway play to which there was no admission and for which he received absolutely not one red cent. They play was to run for three nights but ran for seven. There was no glory or publicity.
'But the part was unlike anything I have ever played and I wanted to do it. I wanted to work.'
He was involved in the show when he got word that the 'Pulver' role was his on his terms. The picture is being made in Hollywood this summer, but Bob and Ellie will make New York their home.
'We decided against settling permanently in Hollywood,' he says, 'because Ellie prefers the east and I don't particularly care to live in Hollywood. There's such a shocking lack of taste there in dress, movie-making -- everything.'
So home is a five-room apartment in a comparatively ancient but interesting building in the un-chic West 70's near the Hudson River, which they found shortly after they had returned from Spain.
'Our apartment overlooks the railroad tracks,' he explains, 'and I love to listen to the noises of the box-cars switching on the tracks late at night. It lulls me to sleep.'
'It probably is awful for Ellie -- but she hasn't complained about it yet and it doesn't disturb the babies.'
If he has any regrets about the apartment it is that it is still far too small to fit his personal needs and the needs of a growing family. It lacks a den or a workroom to house the equipment that go with his varied interests and hobbies: cameras, bongo drums, typewriter. There isn't even a special closet.
'The whole apartment is a catch-all,' he laughs.
Furnishing their first real home, however, presented no problems. 'We went down to one of those places you hear about and got an entire apartment of furniture for $40 -- Empire or mid-Victorian or something. It's very interesting.'
The major object d'art is a three-foot-long crucifix which he bought in Mexico because he was particularly interested in the way the Christ figure was depicted, bent over in a way he had never seen before.
So you naturally ask if he is Catholic.
'No. I was raised a Catholic, but I am not a Catholic now. I have my religion which is a very private and personal thing with me, and which I do not want to discuss. Religion should be a private thing with everyone.'
He changes the subject back to the apartment.
'And we also picked up a great reconditioned vacuum at a wonderful store called Sam's.'
It was obvious that he was excited by his purchases, but ask if he's an old hand at getting such wonderful bargains and he'll laugh.
'Oh, no, that's Mike's department. He can bargain down anyone for almost anything. Recently he picked up a great chess set for half its value. But I can't bargain at all. Not at all. If someone quotes a price and I want the thing badly enough, I'll pay the first price quoted. Even if I know they expect me to bargain for it -- as they usually do in Europe. I suppose I let myself open to being taken. But it is impossible for me to bargain.'
Bob is amused by the rumor that he has an almost bohemian attitude toward money.
'Not al all. I like money and the security it brings to my family. I don't have a bohemian attitude nor am I money mad in any sense.'
Late last year, however, he was in every sense quite poker mad. Up until then he had never cared very much for cards, but he was taught the game by Peter Fonda and developed a passion for it.
He also managed to lose a considerable amount of money.
In order to pay his gambling debts he hocked his cameras because 'I had a brand new business manager and I didn't want to get off on the wrong foot with him by admitting I had run up gambling debts!'
It was a baby-sitter, rather than the business manager who cured him of this particular vice. 'One day I suddenly realized that my losings for the evening were equivalent to the woman's salary for two days!'
A baby-sitter, incidentally, has been all the help the Walkers have had to date.
'Ellie does her own cooking and is learning more every day,' Bob says proudly, but he has no particular food fetishes except for 'artichokes and junket.'
Bob had been hoping to find a baby-sitter who would also help with some light chores in the house, 'but they're not easy to come by,' he adds ruefully.'
Talking about babies, Bob, whose wife recently blessed him with their second child, a baby boy, whom they named David, after David Selznick (Bob's stepfather), says, 'I don't carry pictures in my wallet. I don't want to be that kind of obnoxious father who is always whipping out pictures to show around. Besides I have the picture of my family here...' and he touches his head.
'Anyway, I'm not sentimental.'
Then a few minutes later he takes out a miniature gold director's chair with his name inscribed on the back.
'A gift from Nick Adams, when we completed 'The Hook.'
He digs into his pocket again and out comes the shell of a beautiful gold mezuzah engraved, 'To a great 'goy' from Kirk Douglas.'
So you have to wonder about this business of not being sentimental!
There is something obviously missing from the mezuzah. The tiny scroll upon which is written the Commandments.
'I'll have to replace it. It fell out and I lost it somewhere. I'm a great loser. I wrote an abstract fairy tale and I lost the manuscript. I lose jewelry, even money, particularly when I'm staying at a hotel. The maids who clean up the place after I check out must have a fine time! I even lost my car once. I went to a movie and when I came out, I couldn't find it. It took hours before I did.'
It's obvious that this losing streak doesn't disturb him. For the things he loses are material things that can always be replaced.
It is early evening now and we stop for a cup of coffee downstairs.
There is still some time 'before the baby-sitter is due home,' so you talk some more.
You ask if he sees much of Michael now, and he explains 'that Michael is in Paris studying to become an actor. He was in a kibbutz in Israel for a while but he left because, he said, 'the people there didn't have much of a sense of humor.'
And does he see much of his mother? 'She lives in New York now,' he tells you. Again it is obvious he doesn't want to trade on family glory.
And about Michele again: 'I don't want to sound like one of those obnoxious fathers again, but it is so exciting to watch a child grow, to play 'patty-cake' with her and to realize you are able to communicate with this bit of a thing.'
His ambitions: "To be a good actor, to write, direct and someday produce and to do a musical which I know I can do.'
He takes out a piece of gum and pops it into his mouth. 'I gave up smoking four months ago. I was smoking far too much. I feel much better for it.'
Is he ever tempted to take even one puff?
'No -- if I did, it would be four months wasted.'
You talk about art movies and photography and books, and you wonder where a formal interview leaves off and a stimulating conversation with a bright, fascinating and many-faceted personality begins.
It is time to leave.
You walk across the large dining room floor to the door. Then he stops short with a perplexed look on his face.
'Didn't I have a coat when I came in?'
And he rushes back, you wonder...A born loser?
And answer your own question with: A winner. A winner if ever there was one!"
Copyright Modern Screen