It’s in the walk.
Picture the following Hollywood stars in your mind’s eye:
Mae West, hands caressing her Rubenesque hips, head tilted, not just sauntering but oozing forward to devour all who cross her path.
Jimmy Cagney, elbows cocked, moving with concentrated energy, he propels himself like a coiled spring.
Joan Crawford, leading with her linebacker shoulders, strides across the screen determined, dangerous, unstoppable.
Years ago, I was writing a film for a well known producer who had been a child star. One day, during a story conference, we noticed a dozen children and their mothers being herded into a casting session.
From the window of our studio office, my producer screamed:
“Criminals. Monsters. They ought to be locked up!”
He was referring to the stage mothers. And there were tears in his eyes.
Every time I see an old film in which my producer has a role, I am unable to concentrate on the story. Instead, I focus on the youthful face and look for signs of his private misery.
But it’s never there. He was a gifted little actor.
My producer survived. He did not become a drunk or a drug addict.
Obviously, this is not the case with far too many Hollywood children.
Todd Bridges, child star of the TV sitcom, Diff’rent Strokes, recently authored, with Sarah Tomlinson, Killing Willis, a memoir that details his childhood career, a rapid descent into crime and drug addiction, and finally, his redemption.
It’s all terribly tragic, and at times, quite shocking—the portrait of crack houses and the desperate women who inhabit them, is harrowing—and yes, by now it’s all too familiar.
But there is one short sequence in the book that made me sit up.
It is 1976, Bridges is 11 years-old. He has already played one episode of Barney Miller, and co-starred in a pilot for a series that was not picked up, The Orphan and the Dude. Bridges also appeared in a TV movie called The Radical with Spissy Spacek and Henry Winkler.
And now, Bridges is cast in a Bicentennial commercial:
The basic setup was that there was a kid playing a drum, a kid playing a flute, and a kid carrying a flag, like that famous image of the fife and drum corps from the Revolutionary War. I can’t remember for sure anymore, but I think I was playing the drum.
The commercial’s star was Henry Fonda, who was a legend. His career had included everything from The Grapes of Wrath, which earned him an Academy Award nomination, to How the West Was Won. He was also Jane and Peter Fonda’s dad.
Well, we shot the commercial up by where the Magic Mountain amusement park used to be, and the hill we were told to walk down was really steep and rough. There were holes everywhere, and cow patties, too. We were doing our best, but we kept stumbling and falling. Henry Fonda was walking behind us, delivering his lines about the Bicentennial. But the director kept making him stop because one of us kids would mess up, or fall down, and we’d have to start all over again.
Finally, Henry Fonda had had enough. He turned around and lost it on us.
“You mother*&!*ng kids,” he said. “Goddamn you, get this s**t right. I don’t want to be here all f*&%#ng day.”
And then he stormed off.
We were little kids, and we were terrified. So we all started to cry. Our parents got really mad when they saw how upset we were, and they told the producers they were going to take us home unless he came back and apologized. The set was really tense while we waited to see what would happen. But, finally he came back out and walked over to where we were waiting with our parents.
“Sorry,” he said. “Sorry.”
Fonda was 71 years-old and let’s face it, at that age, schlepping up and down a hill with a bunch of kids and delivering lines—take after take—is no picnic. Not for the man who collaborated with Hollywood’s best directors, and played opposite most every important leading lady of Hollywood’s Golden Age.
Fonda’s icy temperament has been amply documented by his children, and anyone who has been married five times obviously has some, er, issues.
But for yours truly who loves the movies, who is saturated in iconic images of Fonda as the noble and heroic American figure—Young Mr. Lincoln, The Grapes of Wrath, My Darling Clementine—and even though as a Hollywood screenwriter I’m acutely aware of the yawning divide between the private actor and the public image, this anecdote just left me feeling sad.