Paul Picerni. Steps to Stardom: My Story. Albany, Ga.: Bear Manor Media, 2007.
This autography describes actor Paul Picerni’s life and steps towards acting stardom. It also provides lessons to beginning actors with lessons learned in life while acting. The author, born Harold Picerni, would undergo a few name changes until reaching fame as Paul Picerni.
The book tells how, at age 14, Paul Picerni’s school principal told his family that he was a “born actor” after appearing as the lead in his school play. He states he instinctively knew from then on that he was an actor and that a career in acting was his goal.
Paul Picerni, at age 17, first appeared in a play “Me, Him, and I’ at the Annandale Payers in Annandale, N.Y/ He then joined the Wyncote Players in Wyncote, Pa. and, under the stage name Henri Duval, appeared as the male lead in a series of plays.
While in the Army in 1943, Paul Picerni auditioned for and was accepted to the Special Services theatrical group, the Pine Tree Bandstand. He performed a new show every week. Later in the war, he flew in 25 combat missions as a bombardier. He would help destroy the famed bridge over River Kawi. He also describes his shock when he learned after the war that one of his bombs also killed 55 American prisoners of war who were imprisoned near the bridge.
Paul Picerni learned an industry lesson early in life when a friend was fired from NBC. The lesson is to watch out for untalented managers who fire talented people beneath them in an attempt to hide their lack of abilities.
After the war, the author attended Loyola University, performed the leads in college plays, and became their first Drama major.
Paul Picerni became the halftime and pre-game Master of Ceremonies for the Rams football team when they moved to Los Angeles in 1946. He could continue this position for 29 years. Among the innovations he helped create was including baton twirling routines into the shows. These have since become a sport staple nationally.
Advice the author gives is that it helps to know the right people to make connections as well as to be prepared to grab opportunities when they arise. This happened to him when he was offered a movie role if he could obtain a Screen Actors Guild card and it was a priest involved with the film who was able to make that happen.
The author’s works in plays led to movie roles. Having been a bombardier in real life helped him get the role of a bombardier in “Twelve O’Clock High”. That led to a larger role in the movie “Saddle Tramp”. He then received his acting breakthrough in an apt title movie “Breakthrough”. He auditions for a small role, agreed to read for a larger role that had already been cast during subsequent casting, and wound up getting the larger role that had been previously cast. He notes his memorable scene where his character talks about how death is what war is about was cut but the studio head, Jack Warner. The Army had assisted in the making of the movie and Warner feared the Army might think the scene was inappropriate as the nation was then involved in the Korean War.
Fortunately, that role led to Paul Picerni being placed on contract at Warner Brothers. He began work at $250 a year and worked there for seven years with a final year income of $1,500 per week.
The author’s first movie while on contract was “Operation Pacific”. On that picture, he learned to accept the reality of inevitable rewrites as he watched his role downsized to build the role of the star of the movie, John Wayne. He realized this made sense as the viewing public wishes to see the hero be a hero and not the secondary cast. He learned a lesson that he passes on which is to “give the star his due”. Never hold it against an actor when he gets his due.
Contract actors then usually worked 40 weeks a year and were then laid off for three months. Paul Picerni, though, was never laid off during his Warner Brother years.
A tip the author provides is, whenever a group shot is taken, to stand to the right and let others stand to your left. That way, when publications list the names of the people in the photograph, since they usually list the names from left to right, the person on the left of the group shot will be listed first, or will receive “top billing”.
Paul Picerni appeared in “Force of Arms” that used real combat film from World War II. Of course, the actors had to replicate most other war scenes.
One of Paul Picerni’s favorite roles was in the movie “Mara Maru” with Errol Flynn. Paul Picerni writes how Errol Flynn arrived everyday without wearing underwear and socks, would get these items from wardrobe, and then wear them home. Once he ever wore a suit home. Paul Picerni asked him what he did with all that extra clothing. Errol Flynn replied “nothing. It just gives me pleasure to steal from Jack Warner.” During the filming Errol Flynn received a note reading “It’s been brought to my attention that your phone bill has exceeded $5,000. Please take care of this ASAP. Jack Warner.” Errol Flynn wrote back “I’m willing to forget about this is you are.”
An acting tip that Paul Picerni passes along is one he learned from observing Karl Malden. Madden arrived on sets ahead of time and reviewed his use of props. Paul Picerni adopted this extra effort of preparation into his acting.
A filming tip that the author provides is to have the crew working in sync. During the taping of a car going off a cliff and then exploding, the usual procedure is the assistant director yells “roll ‘em” followed by the cameramen verifying the cameras are up to speed by yelling “speed” and lastly the directly yelling “action” for the action to begin. The prop people once thought their scene began with “roll ‘em” and the car went over the cliff and exploded without being filmed.
The author filmed “House of Wax” with his head being placed into a working guillotine where it was carefully time to drop just after he removed his head.
Television was forcing movie studios to cut costs, including the expenses of contract actors. He was the next to last contract actor, with Doris Day being the last, to be let go by Warner Brothers. Fortunately, he quickly found work in a series of movies.
Paul Picerni appeared in “To Hell and Back” with Audie Murphy. He notes that Audie Murphy did so many remarkable things as a soldier in World War II that they had to tone down his movie scenes for the viewing public. This movie was Universal’s largest grossing film until “Jaws”.
The author appeared on the TV show “Dragnet”. Jack Webb had a unique manner of handling actors. He didn’t want them to memorize their lines. He wanted them to read their lines from a teleprompter. This created the unique robotic line delivery that became a “Dragnet” trademark.
Paul Picerni did a number of TV shows. Some were shown live, which was a problem when mistakes were made in front of 50 million viewers. He recalls the terror of forgetting his line of a live “Red Skelton Show”. Fortunately, his career survived despite his initial panic that it was over. Thus, he advises actors to never fret mistakes. They happen, and people should learn to move on.
Paul Picerni also advises actors to be both brave, but smart. He had to do a fight scene where the actor attacking him used a real knife. He had to do a scene with a lion and was forewarned the lion would swipe at him if he didn’t keep looking into the lion’s eyes. An actress he was working with accidentally threw a knife into her own toe while filming “Rawhide”. Recalling how some actors have died during shoots, he advises taking sensible risks.
Paul Picerni’s most famous role was starring in the second lead as Lee Hobson on the TV series “The Untouchables”. The show involved 12 to 14 hour working days, six days a week.
The author learned he got the role because various Italian American groups disliked the portrayal of people of Italian descent on the show were portrayed as being violent criminals and they feared stereotyping of all Italians. In addition, some did not like there were no Italian actors playing Italian roles on the show. Pall Mall cigarettes was a sponsor of the show and Italian American leaders of the longshoremen’s union were refusing to let Pall Mall cigarettes pass through the docks. Mobster Johnny Roselli asked Desi Arnaz of Desilu Studios “how ‘bout getting an actor like Paul Picerni”. Thus, instead of getting someone like him, they brought him onto the show on the second season.
An acting hint Paul Picerni mentions is to realize there are many different ways an actor can perform a role. He advises an actor not to impose one’s interpretation of how to do a role onto another actor. That will only upset your fellow actor.
“The Untouchables” was a rating hit but a financial loser. ABC paid the Desilu production company $65,000 an episode yet it was costing $65,000 an episode to make. Desilu intended to make its profits on syndication, yet ABC would not allow any episodes to be syndicated until it was off the air. After four seasons, it was canceled and sent into syndication.
Paul Picerni offered to allow his residuals to be bought out by Paramount, who bought the rights to “The Untouchables” from Desilu. Paul Picerni, in retrospect, is glad they turned down his offer, as the show was so successful in syndication that he eared five times more than what he offered to accept.
After being a series regular, an actor faces the problem of being typecast. Paul Picerni found work on episodes of a few series and then was cast on the soap opera “The Young Marrieds”. The show was live. After each show, the actors received the script to be memorized for the following day. He did around 250 episodes over two years. The author notes the show was cancelled because ABC needed their soundstage for a new show, a Joey Bishop evening talk show. Ironically, after the show was cancelled, ABC decided to shoot the Joey Bishop Show elsewhere.
Paul Picerni notes while filming several episodes of the TV series “O’Hara, U.S. Treasury” that Universal Studios padded the costs they charged producer. One example was a heater than cost around $900 an hour.