John Gay with Jennifer Gay Summers. Any Way I Can: 50 Years in Show Business. Albany, Ga.: Bear Manor Media, 2009.
The author graduated from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. His first job was an acting role on Broadway. He needed the approval of the star, Ruth Chatterton, to play the part. She looked him over for a moment and then replied “Perfect. He’s perfect.” Chatterton advised him to “be prepared” in acting as it can be tough and critics can be rough. While the show closed after a few performances, Gay always remembered the advice to “be prepared”.
Auditioning for parts led to a role on New York’s Channel 9 WOR. They wanted a 15 minute comedy show five days a week. Even though he had never written before, it fell upon him to write the show. The first review, from the New York Times, was negative. Yet it was an inexpensive show and WOR kept it.
Gay learned how to handle being on live TV. Actors would forget their lines and they would ad lib. Another actor once hit him, as was in the script, but the blow was so hard it almost knocked him out. During another show he cut his hand on some glass and kept his bleeding hand in his pants pocket for the rest of the show. He had to drink Miller High Life, the show’s sponsor, during the commercial portion of the show per the sponsor’s request. Yet drinking beer would cause live belching on the air. The Miller company shifted the commercial to the end of the show. The show lasted from 1950 to 1952.
A columnist wanted actors to be screened to see that no Communist sympathizers worked on TV. Gay says his show never screened actors and only hired according to talent. Gay was upset to learn that people he knew were accused of being Communist sympathizers and their careers were destroyed. One friend committed suicide.
Gay’s writings on the show led him to land his next job as a writer on a Dumont network show. His short TV play then led to him writing a half hour drama.
His next job was writing a daily children’s show, “Atom Squad”. With another writer, one would determine the week’s plot, the other would write the dialogue, and they’d switch roles the following week. He received $350 a week. The show last six months.
The Neighborhood School of the Theater asked Gay, for little pay, to write the dialogue for a musical to be performed by their graduating class. Among those in his play were Robert Duvall, Suzanne Pleshette, and Sydney Pollack. The school liked it so much they had the following year’s graduates perform the same play.
Gay wrote television plays. Writers then were present during rehearsals. He was dubious at first about talents of a new actor, Lee Marvin, who suddenly transformed into the part once he got into costume.
Gay wrote stage plays. He observed a bit of racism when a restaurant in Delaware in 1955 refused to serve an African American actor. He also observed the Red scare where an actor, Phil Leeds, refused to give any names of suspected Reds in the film industry when called to testify before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee. Leeds was unable to find any industry work for a long time afterwards.
Writing plays for live TV had its moments, Gay discovered. A child actor’s mind blanked and he forgot to recite a critical line.
Burt Lancaster, Harold Hecht, and James Hill were impressed by one of Gay’s TV plays. They hired Gay to write a movie for their film company, H.H.K. for $1,000 a week. They didn’t like his treatment for the first project they assigned him. They asked him to work on another movie, “Run Silent, Run Deep”. In the midst of writing, a drunk Burt Lancaster refused to do the movie. Later a sober Lancaster stated he would do the movie. The Navy assisted with the movie as they saw it as promoting their submarine program. Model submarines at one fifth actual scale were used in filming some scenes.
Clark Gable was in the movie “Run Silent, Run Deep”. He had a strong work ethic and arrived prepared, knowing his lines. He expected the same from his costars. An unprepared actor was promptly replaced with Jack Warden. Gable also insisted that shooting stop, at a cost of $50,000 per day, when he insisted there be a rewrite of a mutiny scene. Although the scene was in the book from which the script adapted, Gable, a World War II veteran, did not believe any mutiny occurred during the war and insisted the scene be changed. Gay rewrote the scene so that Gable’s character instead was wounded. Gable accepted the change.
Don Rickles was in the movie. Rickles in real life loved insulting everyone, as in his act. Harld Hecht, though, was offended and avoided Rickles.
“Run Silent, Run Deep” has been show on TV many times. Gay nor any of the actors receive any residuals from those broadcasts.
Gay had an emotional severing with his New York agent, Blanche Gaines. Het he realized film writing jobs were moving to Los Angeles and he needed an agent in Los Angeles. His new agent, H.N. Swanson, had Gay collaborate with Ray Bradbury. Unfortunately, their differing writing styles didn’t mesh and they had a friendly parting. The script they wrote together, White Hunter, Black Heart” was produced 20 years after they wrote it.
“Playhouse 90: wanted an hour long script Gay had written expanded into their 90 minute format. The additional 30 minutes Gay wrote were a battlefield scene which director Ralph Nelson decided to take and interweave into the show’s live presentation. This was the first taped segment used on “Playhouse 90”. Soon afterwards, all the shows would be taped.
Wendy Hiller was an actor who disliked having a rewriter author, namely Gay, at rehearsals for a movie “Separate Tables”. She wanted lines from the original screenplay kept. Rex Harrison was also known to have done something similar as he kept a copy of the play “Pygmallion” with him to refer to while filming its film version “My Fair Lady”.
David Nelson was Best Actor and Wendy Hiller for Best Supporting Actress for “Separate Tables”. Gay and the original screenwriter were nominated for Best Screenplay but the award went to the writers of “Gigi”.
Gay and Martin Borowsky were assigned by H.H.L. to rewrite a 300 page screenplay written by Clifford Oders. Harold Hecht and Jim Hill disagreed on how the script should appear.
Gay write some of the screenplay to “The Unforgiven”. He was not credited for this work. Gay noted that director John Huston communicated little with actors that he was directing. His only instructions usually were “Do it again”. Huston believed in giving actors with much leeway in the acting interpretations. He also noted Huston often praised one person while criticizing another. Huston also preferred continuous shots over standard cuts. Huston did this to reduce studio interference and to give him more say on final cuts. Gay also noted the Mexican locals used as extras in the film had to bring their own food to the set while American cast and crew separately ate catered food. This struck Gay as ironic as the movie about racism would have its own racial segregation. Jim Hill, though, did see this and then had all eating together.
One extra, a Mexican Indian in his 80s, accepted a role where his character was killed, believing he would actually die. He was relieved to learn his death was not required. He stated he accepted the role, even though he thought he would die, because his family needed the money.
Lillian Gish has very expressive eyes. Burt Lancaster jokingly suggested Gay write a line in an attack scene for someone to say to Gish “close your eyes, mama, you’re giving away our position.” Audie Murphy was unimpressed with Gish’s acting in a scene, to which he commented “I never claimed to be an actor, but if that’s acting, then I’m Laurence Olivier.”
When Uta Hagen acted in a “Playhouse 90” show that Gay had written, she asked him to write a three page biographical background concerning her character’s past. Gay appreciates the dedication that showed.
Gay worked on the script “How the West Was Won” which won a Best Screenplay Award. Unfortunately for Gay, the Screenwriters Guild awarded sole screenwriting credit to Jim Webber.
Gay rewrote a script for director Vincente Minnelli, “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”. Hired to rewrite two scene in two weeks before shooting commenced, Minnelli then asked Gay to rewrite the whole script. Gay spent a lot of time mediating disputes between Minnelli and the producer Julian Blaustein. Minnelli as a director sought to create artistic statements throughout his movies. He liked visual statements of intended moods.
Gay was hired by MGM to write a screenplay adaptation of “The Courtship of Eddie’s Father”. Joe Pasternak produced it. Pasternak’s accent led him to say things like “Give me an outline first so I can maul it over”. Gay notes he has earned more TV royalties from this movie than from any other.
Gay recalls Mark Reed’s recommendation that comedy works better when you play it straight rather than for laughs.
Gay wrote the screenplay “The Last Safari”. Working in Africa, he once had to escape a rhinoceros charging his open jeep.
Gay wrote the screenplay “No Way to Treat a Lady”. Rod Steiger experimented with different ethnic characters during rehearals and sought to use his versatility to find the best character for the role.
Gay wrote the play “Soldier Blue”. It portrayal of the brutality of a massacre won both praise and scorn.
Gay negotiated a job with Universal. He was first offered a portion of profits, which he knew would be nothing as film accountancy saw to it that no movies made any profits according to their financial records. He then offered his price, to which Universal expressed its shock. Gay knew studios did that as a bargaining tool.
From that job, Gay presented an outline to a 600 page book on logging that Paul Newman liked. Gay visited a lumber company to see first hand what it was like. Gray then wrote the screenplay. Paul Newman was actively involved in providing ideas on the script. Later, Gay was surprised when Newman started making substantial criticisms during reading with actors of things he had earlier approved. Gay stayed up all night making changes according to Newman’s new wishes. Newman loved the changes.
Henry Fonda, who emerged from the theater, treated every word in a script as definitive. He suggested no changes.
A woman once approached Paul Newman and Henry Fonda for autographs. Newman declined. Henry Fonda accepted and wrote “Dear Nancy, Paul Newman is a shit. Henry Fonda”.
Gay walked picket lines when the Writers Guild called for a strike for a higher minimum wage and health and retirement benefits.
Gay continues writing. As he puts it, “It’s always the work the counts.”