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Your Face Is in the Script
The idea was to interview someone who had worked with “everybody” – someone who had, through episodic appearances on TV, met up with most of the supporting cast players of his or her era. It was an eye-opener to come up against the reality of just how disjointed it is to work in film and television.
I was able, through a loyal reader of this site, to find Marsha Hunt - a lovely veteran of Hollywood with a notable history that veered in and out of the various traffic lanes of an actor’s career. She was well into her 90s when I interviewed her recently. She is enduringly lucid, intellectual, and fascinating.
We spoke of so much that I decided to break her story into sections. First, I’m aching to talk about what she said about some of the staples of the supporting player community with whom she has worked. (At a later date, I’d like to talk more about her unique personal story - which is one of the black eyes Hollywood gave to itself - then more about some of the actors from her career in “Marsha Hunt: Part 2 - Hollywood’s Ugliest Years”.)
To place Marsha Hunt briefly within context: She was signed by Paramount Studios quickly after her initial arrival in Hollywood and given the female lead in a movie titled The Virginia Judge in 1935. A few dozen lead roles sailed along, one after the other, until she took a moral stance against the damage that the Communist scare was doing to the careers and lives of some members of the Hollywood community in the late 1940s. Refusing to “repent” for her actions, she was blacklisted. That put an end to her big-screen career. Recovery came through work on stage and an almost immediate transition to prolific casting on TV. She is the author of The Way We Wore: Styles of the 1930s and 40s and Our World Since Then and is, today, a celebrated humanitarian, a staple of Hollywood history, and a gracious survivor of Tinsel Town chaos.
I brought up names to Marsha – names of supporting actors who had made guest appearances along with her in the same episodes of various TV series. Names like Charles Lane, Sheppard Strudwick, John Anderson, Lois Nettleton, Paul Richards, Eduard Franz, and the ill-fated Diana Hyland who co-starred with her in a striking Twilight Zone segment. Some she recalled vividly (as you’ll find with the “On Being in The Twilight Zone” story up ahead). Some were vague recollections. Some lit no lightbulb at all.
Elaborating on her comment quoted in the "Winter 2014-2015" entry on the TV Cast Notes page, Marsha described what it’s like working as guest artists on the set of a TV show. “You have about a three day exposure during which you only look at each other when you’re performing. Your face is in the script,” she said, “and you’re getting used to the props you’re going to handle and which door to come in and where to sit and stand. There’s so much to absorb - and do from memory when it’s air time - you don’t really get to look at each other’s faces except in the course of a scene. If I didn’t have scenes with them, we never even met.”
Here - in no particular order - are Marsha Hunt’s first-hand recollections about working alongside some of the people whose faces have very likely given each of us a satisfying feeling of recognition all our lives. She confessed, “You get so much attention as an actor, your ego is fed beyond reason. It’s all quite wonderful,” she said and then settled in adding, “but the balance is, it’s lovely to take your mind off yourself and talk about everybody else.”
On Harold J. Stone
When asked about the widely-recognizable Claude Akins – who shared billing with Marsha in an episode of a little-remembered TV drama series, The Outsider, in 1968 – and the venerable character actor Paul Fix – who appeared in two movies with her in the 1930s - Ms. Hunt’s reaction was pretty much the same; “Oh, these familiar names,” she mused, “but I can’t put a face to that.” To the mention of the name of Karl Swenson, who was cast with her in a 1964 segment of the series Profiles in Courage she declared, “Again it has a familiar ring. But I don’t picture the person.” Then we struck a tiny vein of gold with Harold J. Stone. “Yes, a New Yorker?” she sort of asked. He is, indeed. It’s written all over him. “I do remember that we did at least one thing together.” In fact, they did two together – a 1959 episode of a TV series called The Grand Jury and, more reverberantly, the two played husband and wife in an early dramatic exploration of autism titled And James Was a Very Small Snail that aired in 1963.
On William Schallert
William Schallert passed away recently - well after my interview with Marsha - but he appeared on virtually every TV show ever produced – ever! And that’s only a slight exaggeration. Already in his 90s two years ago, he was in an episode of Two Broke Girls, and he’s pictured here in an uncharacteristically pensive moment in a segment of True Blood where he was a regular from 2008 to 2011. There was no hesitation from Marsha when Schallet’s name came up. They worked together in a 1959 installment of the series Checkmate but it was his father, Edwin Schallert - former drama editor of the Los Angeles Times - whom she spoke of first. “Ed Schallert reviewed a lot of movies I was in in those first days,” she said, “but Bill toured with me in the only play I ever toured in, The Cocktail Party by T. S. Eliot,” in 1951. She goes on to mention two other members of that tour – vintage Hollywood favorite Vincent Price, whom she referred to as “Vinnie,” and lovable TV supporting cast actress Estelle Winwood. “Very colorful lady,” Hunt recounted and then repeated, “very colorful.” Returning to William Schallert, Marsha summarized him in the loveliest way: “He is a fine man and a good actor and I like him.”
On Whit Bissell and John Anderson
The noir film Raw Deal, released in 1948, culled a marvelous collection of actors. Marsha described it as having, “no happy ending for a single member of the cast. Now, that’s as ‘noir’ as you can get.” She made that film just at the pivotal point in her life that led to her blacklisting and ended her film career. So her memories of working with actor Whit Bissell who played “The Murderer” in Raw Deal are blurred by the dark turmoil. Yet, she recalled his being, “a fine actor - very busy, but not famous.”
“A close friend of Whit Bissell’s was John Anderson. Do you place him?” she asks me. When I hear this I tell her that I ADORE John Anderson (and almost every one of his hundreds of screen appearances). “Well, so did I,” she tells me. “I was doing a film at Twentieth. I was in the lunch room with some of the cast at a fairly large table and along came an actor who said, ‘Do you mind if I join you, there isn’t a free seat in the place except at your table.’ We said sure, join us and it was John Anderson. We got to talking, he was speaking about the West 80s in Manhattan which is where I grew up.” As with Harold J. Stone, New York City was a common bond. "We discovered we lived not far from each other,” she went on. “I loved his wife, he loved my husband." Marsha was lovingly married to screenwriter Robert Presnell, Jr. "We became a foursome. And then when my Robert died the Andersons looked after me. They made sure that I still went to movies and didn’t have to go alone. Then when Mrs. Anderson died, John and I became a pair of the best and closest of friends.”
“He would go to see Whit Bissell out at the Motion Picture Country Home and I went with him a couple of times. That was the first time I really got acquainted with Whit Bissell.” (It is notable that despite the fact that Bissell was confined to the Motion Picture Country Home late in his life, he outlived his visitor. Bissell exited in 1996 at age 86, four years after Anderson in 1992 at the much younger age of 69.)
On Charles Lane
Mention of the awesome Charles Lane, who lived to be 102, brightens Hunt’s reminiscing. “Oh, Charles Lane I did know, and remember, and work with a dozen times,” she said. “He worked in everything!” When asked if she recalled anything specific they worked in together she said, “No. It’s one great blend.” (Surprisingly, in spite of the large bodies of work both actors had in television, I could find only two instances of their working together on-screen and both were films - one in 1936 and another in 1940. Marsha did recall being with Lane onstage at the Pasadena Playhouse.)
Next .... pg.2
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