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carole lombard 02

From the archives: An interview with Edwin Schallert's son

Posted by vp19 on 2009.03.17 at 15:19
Current mood: impressedimpressed
This is sort of the print equivalent of what people in the TV business call a "clip show" -- using samples of past work to fill up space. However, it's highly unlikely any of you have ever read this...unless you resided in central New Jersey circa 2002.

This was an interview I conducted with William Schallert when he appeared in a production at the Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey. We sat down in a converted schoolhouse that serves as the company's home and talked for well over an hour. He was, as you would expect from his TV and film persona, a gentleman -- courteous, knowledgeable, genuine. At the time, I had known that his father Edwin had covered drama for the Los Angeles Times for many years -- but I was unaware he frequently wrote about the movie business as well (so did his wife, for fan magazines), as shown in this column from Dec. 12, 1938:



So you figure his parents knew Carole Lombard, though I'm not certain William ever met her. More's the pity; had Lombard lived, I'm sure she would have respected Schallert's acting skills, professionalism and the work he has done on behalf of those who act for a living.

So, without further ado, may I present...



Schallert: A man with plenty of character



If William Schallert had done nothing else in his career but play the father on “The Patty Duke Show,” he’d still be fondly remembered by millions of Americans. But to know him only as a baby boomer authority icon for portraying editor Martin Lane on “Patty Duke,” teacher Leander Pomfritt on “Dobie Gillis” or the doddering Admiral Harold Harmon Hargrade on “Get Smart” doesn’t do him justice.

Arguably the quintessential character actor, Schallert, who turns 80 on July 6, has been working since the 1940s, appearing in hundreds of movies and television series -- comedies, dramas, Westerns and more. In fact, a partial listing of his film and TV credits in the Internet Movie Database (IMDb) takes 10 pages, and that doesn’t include his prolific array of commercial voiceovers. Among the most respected people in his craft, Schallert was president of the Screen Actors Guild from 1979 to 1981, a position later headed by Patty Duke. “I never had a daughter...we kind of bonded,” said Schallert, who is married to actress Lia Waggner and has four adult sons.

Schallert’s stage career isn’t quite as well known, but is also extensive; he’s appeared in some 50 plays, most notably as the judge in “The Trial Of The Catonsville Nine,” for which he won an OBIE (off-Broadway award) in 1971. He reprised the role for the film version a year later. In 1946, he and Sydney Chaplin helped found the Circle Theatre in Hollywood, a 150-seat theater in the round converted from an old drugstore.

Schallert is making his Garden State stage debut at the Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey in Madison in “The Special Prisoner,” a new play written and directed by James Glossman and adapted from the novel by PBS newsman Jim Lehrer; it will run from Feb. 8 to 24. He portrays retired Methodist bishop John Quincy Watson, who at an airport encounters a man he believes was the Japanese POW commandant who tortured him and killed many others during World War II.

“I read the material and thought it was terrific,” Schallert said. “Later on, I read the book, and his adaptation is very faithful to the book...Good parts don’t come all that often when you get to my age. Also, I had a sense from talking with him (Glossman) that this was a good theater.”

Ironically, he noted, “I think when they did the first tryout for this play, John Astin did the part.” Astin was married to -- you guessed it -- Patty Duke, and Schallert humorously referred to him as “my son-in-law.”

Schallert called “The Special Prisoner” “a powerful piece of material, very relevant to the present day,” he said. “This business of who is the enemy and how you deal with him and can you forgive him...how you think of him during the war and how you think of him after the war.” He said the play’s theme is that “people who actually fight in a war are affected in ways they never get over.”

Some of the moral principles in “The Special Prisoner” aren’t all that different from “The Trial Of The Catonsville Nine,” which dealt with an anti-war group headed by the two Berrigan brother priests who burned draft files. “The judge in that was a guy who was torn,” Schallert said. “They (the defendants) had only done it for one purpose -- they wanted to act out how they felt about the war,” then make their case to the public. “And the judge said no, there’s nothing to be said. You did it, you admitted you did it, you even called news cameras there to show it, so that’s irrelevant why you did it. That’s not at stake here.”

One night the play was performed, famed attorney William Kunstler, who had been the Berrigans’ defense counsel, came to the theater in a benefit, “and he did the summation that night,” Schallert said. “I’ve never gotten over that -- real life intersecting with drama.” As in the real trial, Schallert stopped him, “and I think he forgot that I was going to stop him, and I told him, ‘Counselor, I told you not to go in that direction.’ He was like a deer in the headlights.”

Schallert, a third-generation Angeleno whose grandfather settled in Los Angeles in 1882, was from his youth well acquainted with the entertainment industry. His father was drama critic of the Los Angeles Times from 1919 to 1958, and his mother, who had been a singer, was a film publicist for the likes of theater mogul Sid Grauman and a writer for fan magazines.

“I don’t think it hurt,” he said of his family connections. “Put him in a funny position a couple of times he was reviewing me...but name recognition is a plus for anyone in the business, so the first few jobs I got came from the fact that they said, ‘Hey, that’s Ed Schallert’s son.’ Once you get your foot in the door, that really doesn’t count for much.”

Schallert initially wanted to sing and compose music, and that was his area of interest when he enrolled at UCLA in the early 1940s. “But I found out I couldn’t do it (compose) quick enough to make a living,” he said, though he did later write music for a few stage productions.

In the late 1940s, Schallert began to get some bit parts in films, beginning with the 1947 Rex Harrison costumer “The Foxes Of Harrow.” That was while the Hollywood film studio system was at its peak, before frozen European currencies led to more international production and the Supreme Court forced the studios to divest their theater chains. By the early 1950s, the film industry was in confusion and decline; Schallert said he remembered walking across the entire 20th Century-Fox lot at about this time to meet a friend and seeing only two other people.

Schallert’s first notable role came in 1951’s “The Man From Planet X.” He later appeared in other science fiction films as “Them!” and “The Incredible Shrinking Man,” usually as a doctor or scientist. He’s a favorite of director Joe Dante, who has hired him for several of his films, including the “film within a film” segment of “Matinee.”

“Star Trek” fans will remember Schallert for the famed “Trouble With Tribbles” episode on the original “Trek” and for a similarly-themed episode on “Deep Space Nine.”

After completing his degree in 1952, Schallert received a Fulbright scholarship and studied repertory theatre in Great Britain. “I had this illusion that maybe if I went to England and they saw what kind of actor I was, I would suddenly be discovered,” he recalled. “It was a pipe dream, of course.”

Yet Schallert nearly ended up working for good in London, thanks to his mellifluous voice. “The BBC offered me a job reading copy for the North American market. I would’ve taken the job, but they offered me seven pounds a week and I said, ‘If you can make it 10, I think we could manage.’ And the guy from the BBC was very proper and said, ’Oh, you would try to live on it?’” At the time, two of Schallert’s four children had been born.

Actually, Schallert added, several American actors, notably Sam Wanamaker, were thriving and popular in Britain; most had been blacklisted in America. But the BBC World Service’s loss was the U.S. television and movie industry’s gain.

Schallert is perhaps the ultimate freelancer; in his 55-year film and TV career, “the only time I was under contract was for the three or four series I did.” He jokingly said “I was perhaps the most promiscuous parent in the history of series television...I had four families, nearly all at the same time.”

For his first few years, he struggled for work. “When I did start to work, boy, I worked a lot, everything under the sun. One year, I had 59 jobs -- they were either movies or TV shows.” Many of the studios had by now added TV production to their film work.

“Up about 1959 or 1960, they had 105 series that were shooting,” Schallert said. “Most of them had 39 episodes, and there a lot of shows like ‘Wanted: Dead Or Alive’ that had one star and 10 to 12 speaking parts. You could work two days on one show, two days on another and one day on a third show -- and they’d all be pretty good parts. It was amazing.”

According to the IMDb, Schallert had 11 TV guest appearances in 1959 and 12 in 1960, on series including “Wagon Train,” “The Twilight Zone” and “The Rifleman.” And that’s not counting “Dobie Gillis,” where Schallert had his first notable semi-regular TV role.

“We used to shoot it in two days,” Schallert said, a tactic its director, Rod Amateau, borrowed from the “Burns & Allen” TV series where Schallert had appeared a few times. “They used two cameras, no audience. Then they showed it to a live audience and they got their laugh track more or less legitimately.”

“The Patty Duke Show,” which ran from 1963 to 1966, was set in Brooklyn Heights and filmed on a Manhattan sound stage, though Schallert said New York exteriors were never used. “We never got out on the street and they tried,” he recalled. “We shot one episode one afternoon in Brooklyn Heights and it was drizzling.”

They tried to shoot a scene of Schallert driving in midtown, near the Empire State Building, at 34th Street and Fifth Avenue. “I went around the block, and I couldn’t make a right turn till I got on 10th Avenue,” he said with a laugh. “It took me 45 minutes to negotiate crosstown traffic going both ways.”

Perhaps Schallert’s favorite recurring TV character was the elderly Admiral on “Get Smart.” It’s also notable as one of the few times Schallert, normally the Everyman type, was heavily made up for a role. “I loved that show. It was fun to work on,” he said. “They said he (the character) was 97, I figured him for about 105,” adding he took some of the character’s quirks from his grandmother’s elderly years.

One idea he created for the Admiral was to give him difficulty not rising from a chair, but sitting into one -- “Could you give me a little shove?” he said in the character’s ancient voice, noting the Admiral always added, “Thank you.”

More recent series Schallert has appeared in include “Quantum Leap,” “Murphy Brown,” “ER,” “Melrose Place,” “Family Law” and “In The Heat Of The Night.” Schallert had appeared in the original “Heat Of The Night” movie in 1967, portraying the southern town’s mayor.

In the early 1990s, Schallert was a regular on the family sitcom “The Torkelsons,” who resided on Martin Lane, an in-joke for TV buffs...especially since Patty Duke then made a guest appearance as his daughter.

Given Schallert’s prolific career and his work with the Screen Actors Guild, more than a few people have suggested he write an autobiography. “You know, my folks were both journalists, you’d think writing would be in my genes somewhere,” he said. “I can write, but I don’t have the necessary drive or energy...I have a son who’s a writer, and my wife is writing. I ought to sit down and do it. But I don’t know where to begin.”

Comments:


(Anonymous) at 2009-03-18 01:03 (UTC) (Link)

William Schallert

Great piece...and as an update, he's closing in 87 and still going strong. He guested on this week's episode of "Desperate Housewives" and last year dropped in on both "My Name Is Earl" and "How I Met Your Mother".
You are aware of all this electronic computerized systems that can take a film clip of someone, even if they are no longer on this earth, and insert it into another work (ever see those commercials with Marilyn Monroe and John Wayne?). I say they should do that with Schallert after he's moved on, just to keep his streak going.


Paul Duca
Toby O'Brien
Toby O'Brien at 2012-07-07 05:36 (UTC) (Link)

William Schallert

Thanks for sending me the link to this interview! It's great that such a font of info about those early days in TV is still around to share the experience!

Toby O'B of Inner Toob
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