I loved Margaret Talbot’s book about her father, actor Lyle Talbot, The Entertainer: Movies, Magic, and My Father’s Twentieth Century. His career spanned the full range of entertainment from the traveling shows of the 1920’s to movies in the golden age of Hollywood co-starring with Bette Davis, Mae West, Carole Lombard, Mary Astor, Ginger Rogers and Shirley Temple. He escorted starlet to glamorous nightclubs and visited William Randolph Hearst’s legendary San Simeon. He helped found the Screen Actor’s Guild, he played Ozzie and Harriet’s neighbor on television, and he appeared in films directed by the notorious Ed Wood.
Here is a trailer for one of his films.
And you can glimpse him at a barbecue with the Nelson family in this Coke commercial.
I’ll be interviewing Ms. Talbot at a screening of her father’s best film, “Three on a Match,” on June 7, so if you are in the Washington, DC area, come join us. And she took time to answer some of my questions about her father and the book.
You had every biographer’s dream — a subject who kept everything in an extensive and detailed series of scrapbooks. What prompted him to keep this record and was it something he shared with the family? Or did you really go through them for the first time when you were working on the book?
Yes, I was so lucky in that respect. Although my Dad was not a writer—so he didn’t leave behind a stash of letters or a wonderfully dishy diary—he did, from the time he was a teenager, keep scrapbooks full of newspaper clippings, theatrical programs, menus, train tickets, snapshots, caricatures and poems by fellow actors. I think that as a small-town boy from Nebraska who left home to join a carnival, became a matinee idol in travelling theater troupes and ended up in Hollywood at the dawn of the talkies, he had a sense that his life was a real adventure, and he wanted to chronicle it. That impulse was so helpful to me in recreating not only the events of his life, but also what I was even more interested in getting at—the texture of the times he lived through. Sometimes I wonder what it will be like for future biographers, writing about people from our own era and beyond, when we are keeping less paper and writing fewer letters. (There will be plenty of tweets and e-mail of course, and they constitute their own kind of record—more granular in a way, but not as deep as the best letters.)
What were some of the other sources you used to research the productions your father was in?
Well, I watched a lot of movies, of course, which was great, and I spent time at libraries and archives, from the Nebraska State Historical Society to The Margaret Herrick Library of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in L.A. The Herrick Library was a favorite of mine, as I’m sure it is of anybody doing research on the history of film. I particularly loved their extensive collection of old fan magazines
Your father was one of the guests at San Simeon, the Hearst Castle, where William Randolph Hearst’s extravagant property included a private zoo. What were those visits like?
Kind of like a fairy tale, it always seemed to me when my father told stories about it. He’d get an invitation—more like a summons, really—to come up the next weekend, say. A limousine would pick him up and take him to the train station to board a train called the Midnight Lark where he’d have his own compartment. A limo would pick him up at the train station in San Luis Obispo. On the drive up to the mansion, he’d see the animals from Heart’s private menagerie. And my father loved that as a guest you were free to wander the grounds and do whatever you wanted; your only obligation was to be present at dinner, and dressed elegantly for it. Very Downton Abbey. Only with more drinking—some of it furtive, since Marion Davies, Hearst’s charming mistress and co-hostess, had a problem with alcohol.
Your father’s career spanned everything from traveling shows to movies, radio, Broadway theater, and television. Which did he like the best?
He loved theater—almost all theater—the best. He was one of those actors who really thrived on the reactions of a live audience.
He worked with Hollywood greats and with Ed Wood, often called the worst director in history. Who did he respect the most, and what did he think of Wood?
He had a great admiration for William Wellman, whom he called by the nickname Wild Bill. The way my father described him, Wellman was a tough and cunning but fundamentally decent guy. He liked to get authentic looking fights and action scenes, and for a movie called “College Coach,” in which my Dad played a football player and the extras were all real football players from USC, Wellman took the college players aside and told them my Dad had played football for Nebraska, so they didn’t have to hold back; they could tackle him for real. My father was nearly knocked out but he told the story with a chuckle: Wellman had chutzpah. As my father always remembered about him, Wellman had been a flyer with the Lafayette Escadrille in World War I, been shot down, and had a metal plate in his head. So you didn’t mess with him.
As for Wood, my Dad hadn’t talked about his experience with him much—it was kind of embarrassing to him, even though he was a never-turn-down-a-job journeyman actor—until the Tim Burton biopic about Wood was in production, and renewed interest in Wood’s weirdness led reporters to my Dad, who had been in “Glen or Glenda” and “Plan Nine from Outer Space.” Then my Dad started talking about “Eddie”—how sweet he was, how sincerely he’d believed in what he was doing. Also how he’d pay my Dad at the end of each day of filming with a wad of crumpled up small bills he took from his pocket; how he never had permits to film anywhere and the crew was forever having to pack up the set and scurry away when the cops or a building owner showed up; and how, once when my Dad allowed a soused Eddie to sleep over, Wood had showed up at the breakfast table wearing my mom’s negligee, which he’d found hanging on the back of the bathroom door.
Which do you think were his best performances and why?
I think he did some excellent theatrical performances late in life, when he really got to inhabit character roles; he did a great run as a wheel-chair bound head of a Klan-like group called “The Knights of the White Magnolia” at the Alley Theater in Houston, for instance. But on screen I like him best in a couple of his early pre-Code movies from Warner Brothers—“Three on a Match,” and the afore-mentioned “College Coach.” He was good at playing weak-willed, vain or hedonistic—but not wholly bad characters. He wasn’t a tough guy but I don’t think he was a really commanding, sweep-you-off-your-feet romantic lead either, like Clark Gable, whom the studio was always trying to make him into the second coming of. He wasn’t that macho; he had a kind of softness.
How did he feel about shifting from leading man to character parts? Why did he pride himself on never turning down a role?
For a moment, when he was first signed by Warner Brothers and brought out to Hollywood in 1932, it looked like he might break through to star status. One of the film magazines I came across had a spread in 1933 on the future stars of tomorrow, one female, one male. The female being touted was Katharine Hepburn and the male was Lyle Talbot. It didn’t work out that way, of course, and I’m sure at some level that was a disappointment. You don’t get that close and not feel some sense of loss when you don’t make it into the stratosphere. On the other hand, he had a very healthy and realistic sense of how hard it is to make it in Hollywood at all, and over the years, he came to see himself as very lucky. Chose to see himself—with my optimistic mother’s help—that way. He loved to act, loved to work and wanted to be working as much as he could. He felt very lucky that he could make a living and a life, support a family, as a working actor and never had to take another kind of job.
What was his role in the founding of the Screen Actors Guild and why was that important to him?
He was one of the 21 original members, a founder of the Guild, and very proud of that all his life. He came from the theater world, where he felt there was more solidarity among performers, and where they had had a union, Actors Equity, much longer. For him, the main issue was the hours that studios demanded at that time, and therefore the control they exerted over your life. It’s interesting to me that Hollywood remains one of the few sectors of American society where unions are still quite strong.
What was the biggest surprise to you in learning about his life before he married your mother?
The whole Midwestern magic and hypnotism circuit that he worked in was a fascinating revelation for me. He had certainly talked about it, and as a kid I loved the story he told of his first job in show business: as a hypnotist’s assistant having rocks broken on his chest while he was supposedly in a deep slumber. But I didn’t know much about that world, the fact, for instance, that there was a hypnotism craze in the first decades of the 20th century. It was sort of the popular counterpart to the discovery of the unconscious at that time, and hypnotists were blamed for all kinds of things—misbehaving teenagers, runaway wives, bad investments. My research into that subculture really plunged me into what the critic Greil Marcus calls “the old weird America.”
Also, while my siblings and I certainly knew my Dad had been married before, we didn’t know how many times! It turned out to be four. My mother was his fifth wife, and though she was 26 years younger, and for that and other reasons, theirs didn’t seem at first like a promising union. In fact, it turned out to be a wonderfully happy one, which produced four children, allowed my father a whole second life, and lasted until my mother’s death. In many ways, this book is their love story.