Category Archives: Jeff Corey

John Gavin Primes Himself For “Psycho”

In 1958, Universal Studios hired my father, Jeff Corey, to work with John Gavin on his leading role in A Time To Love and a Time to Die, a film about a German soldier on the Russian front during WWII. Gavin was one of those up and coming stars who was tall, dark, and sexy in that 1950s stilted sort of way and not a particularly good actor. Universal was hoping Gavin would be the next Rock Hudson. Hedda Hopper, the red baiting gossip columnist, found him charming and predicted he would be the “new white hope” of Hollywood (words that further pushed Hopper into the arena of racism and bigotry that defined her columns).

The reviews for A Time To Love and a Time to Die were weak. While it was generally agreed the acting wasn’t bad the script was deemed “abysmal” and Bosley Crowther, the New York Times reviewer wrote the film had, “an air of studied contrivance and artificiality.” In spite of the negative reviews, Universal remained loyal to Gavin and sent him once again to work with my father, this time on his role as Sam Loomis in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.

A bit straight-laced himself, Gavin told my father he was disturbed by the sex and violence of the film. Dad tried to help him find ways to reconcile his private beliefs with what was called for in his public role. Without making accusations or judging Gavin’s morality, my father showed him that even the most prim and proper characters have a bit of the devil and destruction lurking somewhere inside of them. The trick, he said, was to play the “rich, multi-layers” that are always available to an actor.

One afternoon, out of the blue, Gavin said to my father, “Jeff, I appreciate and respect the way you work with me but I’d be less than candid if I did not tell you that I deeply disapprove of your intransigence in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee.“ Dad looked at Gavin for a moment and said, very simply, “You’re entitled to your opinion” and left it at that. The two men never spoke about politics again.

When Psycho was done filming Gavin asked dad if he could join one of his weekly classes. Dad said yes, demonstrating clearly that admission to class only had to do with an actor’s enthusiasm and interest in learning and nothing to do with celebrity, personality, or political leanings.

Note: John Gavin died this week at the age of 86.

Getting Ice-T’s Autograph

When my father, Jeff Corey, was filming Surviving the Game with rapper turned actor, Ice-T, the two men spent hours on the set talking about art, politics, and history. These diverse personalities easily found common ground and thoroughly enjoyed each other’s company. Dad found Ice-T to be a lovely man with deep sensitivities and concerns for the future of African-Americans. My father told Ice-T that his music reminded him of the Theatre of Action in the 1930s, when performers took to the streets of New York and performed agit-prop plays for free. I believe Ice-T found dad to be a wise elder and certainly had great respect for my father’s resistance to the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in the 1950s.

One day at lunch on the set, Ice-T pulled his shirt and showed dad his scars from the streets. He told my father about his buddies who were either dead or in prison and that the memory of these “lost souls” kept him determined to do good work in the world. My father told him about political writers from the 1930s and 40s who had worked to make the world a better place­­–Langston Hughes, Muriel Rukeyser, Alfred Hayes, and Richard Wright who had their works performed by a narrator and were often backed up by a mass chorus. As dad and Ice-T talked, my father continued to frame Ice-T’s art and social justice into a political outcry that reached back to my father’s early days as an actor in New York during the Depression. Dad told me he thought Ice-T rather liked the idea of having his work linked to the history of social and political resistance. 

In all the years of working with hundreds of celebrities my father never asked any of his students for an autograph—not James Dean, not Kirk Douglas, not Sandy Koufax or Mark Spitz, even after he won seven Gold Medals at the Munich Olympics. It wasn’t indifference to their achievements. Regardless of their standing in Hollywood, my father respected everyone he worked with as a fellow artist. I believe that’s why so many celebrities enjoyed working with him. He gave them space to just be themselves. Asking for an autograph would have shifted that balance.

The only time my father broke his autograph rule was when he was working on Surviving the Game. At the wrap party, he asked Ice-T to sign the Call Sheets for the last day of shooting–one for my son, Ryland and one for my son, Jed. While I know my father thought his grandsons would enjoy having an autograph from the illustrious rapper (which they did), his asking Ice-T to inscribe his name to paper was truly a sign of the high regard he had for the man and the work he was doing in the world.

It had everything to do with respect and nothing at all to do with celebrity.

 

 

Thank You, Leonard Maltin

A huge thank you to film critic, Leonard Maltin, for including “Improvising Out Loud: My Life Teaching Hollywood How To Act” by Jeff Corey with Emily Corey and Foreword by Leonard Nimoy in his “New and Notable Film Books” list. As Maltin says, “So many books, so little time! I haven’t had a chance to fully read each of these books, which have piled up in recent months, but they are all worthy of your attention, which is why I’m happy to spread the word.”

I am deeply grateful this icon of the film world believes my father’s amazing life story, his deep understanding of the art of acting (which he shares freely with his readers), and his resistance to the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) is “worthy of your attention.” I am honored that Jeff Corey’s memoir is part of this prestigious list of books. 

To read Maltin’s entire blog—and see all the notable and wonderful new release about your favorite actors and film personalities (along with Jeff Corey are books about John Wayne, John Ford, Sophia Loren, the Marx Brothers, and more), please visit: http://leonardmaltin.com/new-and-notable-film-books-january-2018/

As The World Crumbles

“Motivation in drama always leans toward the irrational.” This was something my father, Jeff Corey, was fond of saying about acting but I’m beginning to think it applies perfectly to our current political environment. In his recently published memoir, “Improvising Out Loud: My Life Teaching Hollywood How To Act” he writes, “

“The tragic flaw, according to Aristotle, is derived from Hamartia [the error in judgment of an erstwhile heroic character] and from Hubris [arrogant self-assuredness]. In the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides the function of the chorus is to underscore that there is no second chance and no redemption. The ego, to sustain itself, embraces a system of beliefs compatible with itself and validates that system through all manner of experience. We literally see what we have come to believe. In real life that can cause trouble. In theater it begets drama.”

Over the past year, it has often occurred to me that Trump and the GOP would be better off if they had read the Greeks and had an even vague understanding of the power of Hamartia and Hubris. But sadly, America is not theater and the Greeks are long gone. Instead we have our own Attic tragedy playing centerstage in American politics, saturated in arrogant self-assuredness and aligned with so many errors in judgment it is impossible to keep up. 

In 1951 when my father made the decision to resist the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), he did so understanding that eventually these men who postured and positioned themselves as righteous Americans would one day be viewed as dross—garbage floating on a sea of Hubris and Hamartia. It took ten years for the Hollywood blacklist to end but ultimately, my father was the one who was victorious.

Donald Trump, Steve Bannon, Paul Ryan, and Mike Pence, led by the mother of all Hubris, Mitch McConnell, will be judged by history. In the meantime, America has a voice. We are the Greek chorus that alerts the audience that there are no second chances. While I leave redemption to the fates, it is our patriotic duty to make sure anyone who colluded with Russia or laundered money slinks into the dark annals of the history books while we, like my father and his resistance to the Hollywood blacklist, stand strong. It’s the very least this tragedy should do for us.

David Niven, William F. Buckley Jr., and Henri Matisse

When David Niven and my father, Jeff Corey, were working together on the movie “Paper Tiger,” Niven told my father a story that quickly became part of my father’s repertoire. He loved to tell it at dinner parties and honestly, I never tired of hearing it.

Niven, the elegant English actor, owned a house in the South of France in Saint Jean Cap Ferrat. Henri Matisse, the great impressionist painter was often a guest at the nearby Villa Natach, the home of art publisher Alec Tériade. Niven and Matisse hit it off and the two men spent hours talking and enjoying long lunches together at Niven’s elegant table.

One day, William F. Buckley Jr., the conservative author and commentator, came to stay with Niven. Buckley, fairly arrogant in almost all his endeavors, fancied himself an artist and had come to paint the beautiful land and seascapes that surrounded the tiny village. Early in the morning he would load up his paints and canvases and return each night with a series of hastily painted compositions.

On one of these evenings, Matisse was just finishing up an extended visit with Niven when Buckley arrived on the scene. He instantly recognized the great master and without missing a beat, started talking about his own skills as a painter. According to Niven, Buckley fancied himself a “day painter” and went on and on about his talents, never stopping once to acknowledge Matisse’s accomplishments or gifts.

Talking non-stop about himself, Buckley dug into his satchel and asked Matisse, “Would you like to see one of my paintings?” Before the great artist could object, Buckley shoved a small canvas into his hands.

Matisse grew silent and stared at the painting for a very, very long time without saying a word. He studied the canvas diligently, making sure not to miss a stroke. At long last, Matisse looked up from Buckley’s painting and in a sad and sorrowful voice uttered the words, “Poor paint.”

To this day, I can still hear my father’s voice saying the words, “Poor paint” with all the colorful tragedy it deserved.

For The Love Of A Dog

The revolving door of young men the Hollywood studios sent to our house to study acting with my father, Jeff Corey, moved through our lives like a sweet summer rain. These were the about-to-be-heartthrobs of the teen idol world who were chosen for their looks but were sent to my father on the off-hand chance they might also be able to learn how to act as well.

Gardner McKay was one of these handsome men. Under contact to MGM, Dominick Dunne sent Gardner to work with my father before casting him in the lead role of “Adventures in Paradise. ” The television show was produced by James Michener and ended up running successfully on ABC for three years with Gardner at the helm.

I was eight years old and playing in the front yard the day Gardner came to see my father for the first time. I was unsuccessfully trying to hone my cartwheel skills, which were never any good. I was down on the lawn for the count, splayed out in a rather inelegant position when Gardner drove up to the house in a baby blue Cadillac convertible. The top was down and the white leather seats gleamed in the sunlight. Next to him, on the front seat, was a gray and white English sheepdog.

Gardner jumped out of the car. He was wearing cream-colored slacks, cream-colored bucks, and a baby blue V-neck sweater. He gave the dog a quick pat on the head and then turned to me and said, “I’m looking for Jeff Corey.”

I was having trouble keeping my eyes off the car and the dog but pointed Gardner down the driveway. “Go through the gate and knock on the studio door. My dad’s in there,” I said, automatically reciting the directions I always gave to my father’s students. Gardner bounded down the driveway and I was left staring at the gray and white dog who sat with his eyes locked in the direction that Gardner had gone.

Much as I wanted to I knew I couldn’t go and pet the dog. Instead, I sat on the stoop with my hands on my knees and took it all in. Never mind the grass stains on my pants or the scratches on my arms. Life was good.

A while later Gardner came out. He looked happy so I assumed it had gone well. The dog barked, glad to see him. Gardner gave me a wave and jumped into the front seat. As the key turned and the motor hummed, he carefully steered the car away from the curb. His baby blue sweater melted into the gleaming fins of the Cadillac and the white leather seats sparkled in the afternoon sun. Next to him, the long, silky hair of the English sheepdog waved goodbye to me in the wind as, together, they disappeared into the streets of Hollywood.

To this day, it is still one of the most magnificent sights I have ever seen.

When The FBI Knocks At Your Door

I saw the Hollywood blacklist through a child’s eye and I clearly remember the day the FBI came to our house looking for my father, Jeff Corey. My mother opened our heavy oak front door a crack and then just as quickly shut it, leaving the two men in hats and overcoats standing on the porch. Without saying a word to me she made a beeline toward the backyard where my father was preparing for the acting class he would teach that night. I scurried along behind her. When we got to the backdoor, she looked at me and with an uncharacteristic sternness, said, “Wait here.” This made absolutely no sense to me. I was four and a half and underfoot was where I lived. But at that moment, with two FBI agents standing at our door, nothing about my mother was normal.

I waited in silence until my parents emerged from my father’s studio. I still have a very clear memory of what they looked liked that day, walking toward the house together. It wasn’t until I was much older that I could unpack that image. They had become one: two people perfectly merged together into a single pledge to do whatever it took to weather the potential storm that was brewing on our front porch.

They barely noticed me except for another uncharacteristically odd moment when, as I attempted to follow my father out the front door, I was told once again to stay where I was. My father went out alone and my mother went into the kitchen and banged pots and pans around. I stood sentry. Eventually, I felt bold enough to open the side window to the right of the front door. It was long and narrow and gave me a full view of the front porch. Dad was sitting on one of our wooden porch swings and the two men in hats and coats had settled onto the wide cement wall that edged our front lawn.

I watched them for a while. Their conversation meant nothing to me and finally, with a courage my parents were secretly proud of even though it made me willful at times, I opened the front door, slipped across the porch, and crawled up into my father’s lap. I nestled down as deeply as I could into his arms and didn’t budge. He didn’t tell me to leave. I do not remember what was said. I do not remember their faces. But I do remember how safe I felt in my father’s arms.

Forty years later when, through the Freedom of Information Act, my father received his FBI file, I read about that meeting. The agents described their talk with him as friendly and concluded that in spite of his refusal to cooperate with the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), in spite of his refusal to name names, my father, in fact, was not at all a threat to the United States government.

They did not mention me at all.

 

 

 

Jeff Corey: Improvising Out Loud BY PAUL BUHLE

Thank you to Paul Buhle and the “Hollywood Progressive” for their wonderful article about “Improvising Out Loud.”

“Jeff Corey may properly be regarded as personal disproof of the slander, so often heard during the 1950s-60s, that Hollywood film lost nothing important in the blacklist. Film actor Corey’s memoir, “Improvising Out Loud,” completed, edited and prepared for publication by his daughter, Emily Corey, is a tribute to what a left generation accomplished, and not only in front of the camera.

What might seem a most unlikely personality, Leonard Nimoy of Star Trek fame, hails not the actor Corey, but the teacher. In a crisp three-page tribute that recalls the younger actor’s preparation for leading part in Jean Genet’s “Deathwatch,” essentially a career breakthrough, the power and scope of Corey is suggested. If Corey, in a family backyard and a refurbished Los Angeles garage (his own, in fact), trained a generation of screen, television and stage artists, this remarkable saga begins with…the blacklist.

Well, not quite. The larger story is, of course, Method. British theater had been based upon actors as physical automatons who needed to have body and voice move skillfully. “Method,” a theatrical revolution with revolutionary intent (that is, Russian and other European visions of a world transformed) turned the concept of preparation around. The actor would become an intelligent contributor, a shaping influence with the director, by virtue principally of understanding, feeling, the part.  So much fun has been made of the egotistic actor who demands an internal, almost intestinal sensation, that the shaping power of Method has been almost forgotten. Stanislavsky’s command, “talk to the eye, not the ear” of the audience, is the essence of Corey’s own command to the young actor: learn to communicate.

Adolescent Corey had such a boyhood tic that his mother, rising above the Orthodox Judaism of domestic life, took him from Brooklyn to a Manhattan psychoanalyst. Gaining self-confidence, he became a star actor in high school, and on graduation in 1932, threw himself into the theater.  Corey was a real intellectual, unlike so many actors, making it inevitable in the Red Decade that he would find the Left or it would find him.

By 1937, that meant a play about the Abraham Lincoln Brigade then fighting fascists in Spain. Soon, he would be involved in productions with other young radical actors including Martin Ritt and Will Lee, writers, directors and writers Albert Maltz, Phil Stephenson and Ben Bengel among others.  Corey does not say so, but by 1950, all of them were to go on the blacklist. He insists that his own entry into politics was based on family poverty, but his own keen intellectualism, the breadth of his reading, could not have been absent, or missing Marxism entirely.

Who did he meet when he got to Hollywood in 1939? More of same, including Lee J. Cobb (a later sorrowful Friendly Witness), Jules Dassin and Clifford Odets, among many others. He changed his name at this moment, from Arthur Zwerling, and success followed shortly with supporting roles in film after film, often little comedy parts. Meanwhile, he and friends founded Actors Lab, or The Actors’ Laboratory Theater, the leading Method outlet in Tinseltown. A brilliant career as actor and teacher was interrupted by military service in the Navy, Corey personally filming and photographing as he went along, sometimes emceeing shows on the battleship Yorktown.

Success followed success when Corey returned to Hollywood. He makes no point of it, but he must have been proud of the crossover into real drama including Home of the Brave, where as an Army psychologist, he counsels a black serviceman who is under racist attack. His film career ahead looked splendid. Then came the shadow of the Blacklist. The Hollywood Ten, not only the men but their families, were his friends, in the deepest sense, but the shadow did not actually creep over him for a few years. His last film in Hollywood until his return was one that I enjoyed as a kid, and now seems crypto-radical: Superman and the Mole Men (1951) in which Supe defends the little creatures (midgets with rubber baldness) from a redneck mob. He returned with The Balcony (1963), the Genet theatrical whose filmic appearance was itself a phenomenon.

He had, as the blacklist fell, already added radio acting to his repertoire, in the years when radio drama hit a high point, including adaptations of many popular films, but mainly dramatic originals like “Philip Marlowe” and “Suspense.” Corey, with his marvelous radio voice, seemed to get all the jobs he wanted. And then he was “Named.” Not that he remained in the same political space as the Communist Party, long since disillusioned with Russia, but to name his friends and associates would be literally unthinkable. Alternatives? He opened an acting studio of his own, in his Los Angeles backyard.

The rest of the story is, perhaps, a little too straightforward. He is a teacher, he has important students, and then he begins to get film work again, shortly before 1960. He had some lame parts, but he also had an abundance of very good ones, in film and television. After The Balcony, the avant-garde Mickey One, Cincinnati Kid (with other blacklistees), True Grit and a lot of other mainstream work, nearly always as supporting actor.

Television turned out to be a better venue, with several dozen parts, in shows ranging from Barney Miller and Night Court to Picket Fences, as the decades rolled on. Those of us who saw him in many parts were amazed most of all, perhaps, at his adaptability. He was an actor’s actor and for good reason: he had trained himself. Indeed, the book closes with Recommended Reading for his students and any acting students.

He was, despite and because of being a very fine actor, above all a great teacher. When I finally met him, at the memorial service of Abraham Polonsky, I felt honored. We mourned the victimized generation together, but also the wonderful contributions that the blacklistees had made and would make so long as they lived.”

Paul Buhle
www.hollywoodprogressive.com

Improvising Out Loud: My Life Teaching Hollywood How to Act. By Jeff Corey with Emily Corey. Foreword by Leonard Nimoy. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2017, 320pp. $40.00.

 

 

 

 

 

Through The Eyes Of James Wong Howe

When my father, Jeff Corey, was hired for the role of Mr. Ruby in the film, Seconds, he asked me if I wanted to go to the set with him. I immediately said, “Yes.” I was thirteen years old and was just getting used to my father working again as an actor after being blacklisted for twelve years. Going to the set with him helped make up for all the lost time I didn’t get to see him act when I was younger.

Seconds was directed by the darkly artistic John Frankenheimer and starred Rock Hudson. A brooding,  film noir thriller, Seconds was a far cry from the Doris Day Pillow Talk genre Rock was famous for but there he was in all his handsome glory, laughing with the cast and crew and making it all look easy.

That day on the set of Seconds I did not want to get in anyone’s way. As I was trying to make myself as small as possible, James Wong Howe, the film’s cinemaphotographer, appeared out of nowhere and motioned for me to come with him. Although I did not know it at the time, James was one of the most well respected cinematographers in Hollywood and had already won two Academy Awards for his work on The Rose Tattoo and Hud.

I followed James over to his camera at the edge of the set. With his eyes shinning and a huge grin on his face, he pointed to his seat and said, “Sit up there.” He then instructed me to look through the crosshairs of his viewfinder at the scene they were about to shoot.

It was amazing to see the scene through that lens. Without warning, James swung the camera up and over so that I could see what it would look like when he followed the actors as they moved through their dialogue. His camera loader and a host of underlings stood there smiling, thoroughly enjoying my ride. I was so shy back then I’m quite certain I was blushing pale pink if not bright red.

I finally pulled my eye away from the viewfinder and mutter a hushed, and hopefully, audible “Thank you.” James grinned at me one more time and helped me down off my perch. I walked as quietly as I could back to my hiding place behind a wall of the set.

It was thrilling to look through that camera but what I remember most about that day are James’ twinkling eyes and the kind generosity of that master cinematographer who took the time to invite a young, teenage girl to look at the world through his eyes.

“True” Grit

John Wayne and my father, Jeff Corey, hardly lived on the same political spectrum. But they did make two movies together: “Wake of the Red Witch” and then years after the Hollywood blacklist ended for my father, the original “True Grit.” Dad played the villain, Tom Chaney, and the “Duke” delivered his Academy award-winning performance as Rooster Cogburn.

When they arrived on the set of “True Grit” the two men had not spoken in twenty-one years and plenty of water had flowed under their respective bridges. Wayne, a notorious redbaiter, had actively gone after many of Hollywood’s best and brightest when he was president of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, a group founded on hate. My father, a decorated war veteran and a strong believer in the integrity of the First Amendment, had refused to name names when asked to do so by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Wayne went on to become one of Hollywood’s biggest movie stars. My father spent twelve years blacklisted by the Hollywood studios.

When the two men met again on the set of “True Grit” the “Duke,” as if absolutely nothing had ever happened, affectionately put his arm around my father and said, “Jeff, it’s been too fucking long.” No mention was made of politics or red baiting or of the careers lost to the witch-hunts of the 1950s. Instead the two men dug in, as the professionals they both were, and made a brilliant movie. During filming, Henry Hathaway, the director of “True Grit” confided to my father that not since he had made “Trail of the Lonesome Pine” with Henry Fonda and Fred Mac Murray in 1936 had he felt as good about a film as he did about “True Grit.”

I cannot speak to what it took for Wayne to navigate his personal and professional actions to save his career in the 1950s. I certainly cannot speak to why he was comfortable ruining the careers of so many of his colleagues in Hollywood.

What I can speak to is the integrity it took for my father to walk away from a thriving career and to refuse to cooperate with scoundrels when asked to name names to save his career. 

I know for a fact, that act of decency took true grit.