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 Face to Face

by David Westheimer

 

When I was television editor of the Houston Post back in the Fifties, I did many long distance phone interviews with stars, some of which I have written about. But I did just as many interviews face to face when celebrities visited Houston or when I was in New York or Los Angeles. My favorite interview was with Sid Caesar, also my favorite performer.

I arrived at his New York offices late one afternoon right after rehearsals for his show. Carl Reiner and Howie Morris were still there, as if waiting for me. Reiner said, worried and warning, You know, he doesnt do good interviews. Hes shy. Morris looked at his watch and said, I have to get home for dinner. My wife is making pot roast. Was he trying to tell me something, too?

I went into Caesars office, where he was waiting. He got up from his seat behind a big desk and shook my hand, a little stiff. In his last show thered been some unusual background music, unusual because it was classical, something very familiar. I cant remember, exactly. Beethovens Fifth, Tschaikovskys Pathetique?Anyhow, I asked him how hed picked that? He brightened immediately.

Oh, you noticed.

After that the interview went like a charm.

I mentioned how much everyone liked his foreign movie parodies, when he and his cast spoke pseudo-Italian or French. Caesar said hed just seen his first Japanese movie, The Gate of Hell (Jigokumon), the first Japanese film widely released in the U.S., and they were rehearsing their first Japanese movie parody. Would I like to hear some of it?

Would I!

So he got to his feet and roaming his office did all the roles for me, an audience of one. Hilarious. I was a great audience. When he finished he sat down behind his desk and we talked of more personal things. He like to lift weights and to shoot a .22 rifle at cans of water. He took out a huge cigar and lit up. He must have noticed me slavering a little because he asked me if I smoked cigars. I said I sure did so he gave me one. Then he got up amd went to a long cabinet and slid the door open. It was stacked with boxes of cigars. He gave me a box of cigars. The cigars were so large the box held only ten.

When I finally emerged, grinning, Reiner and Morris were still there, anxious and hovering.

How did it go? Morris asked.

Best interview I ever had, I said.

They exchanged glances. As if they didnt believe me. I held up the box of cigars.

He gave me these, I said.

They believed me.

Then there was Zsa Zsa Gabor. I interviewed her along with four or five other reporters from Houstons three newspapers. She was dazzling--beautiful, quick-witted. And the only thing I can remember her saying was, Sixteen carats. Anyway, some big number. We had been questioning her for 15 minutes or so, during which I couldnt stop looking at her, when the female TV editor of another paper asked, Miss Gabor, how big is that diamond? Zsa Zsa held up her hand looked at her ring as if she hadnt been aware she was wearing one, and said, Sixteen carats.

You know, I had been staring at her for more than 15 minutes and hadnt even noticed she was wearing a ring. Great dress, though.

Remember Clint Walker, that big guy who starred in the Cheyenne TV series? I interviewed him in his suite at the Shamrock Hotel in Houston. He had the widest shoulders and narrowest hips and biggest feet. I noticed his feet becaause he had his cowboy boots propped on a hassock in front of his armchair.

What size are your boots? I asked him.

He gazed at them a moment and said, My size, I gues.

(He wasnt playing dumb cowboy. He really didnt know. They were custom-made.)

Many of my out-of-town interviews were on TV junkets arranged by networks or ad agencies, which paid the major expenses. On some of them, to places like Los Angeles and San Francisco, I took Dody along, paying her expenses. It was a good deal. The tour sponsor paid for a single room. When I took Dody I took a double room and only had to pay the junket sponsor (or the Post if it was a newspaper trip) the difference between single and double room rates. I often took her on interviews with me. Interviewees seemed more responsive when she was with me. And she never spoke unless spoken to.

Anyway.

One memorable interview was at lunch with Dinah Shore, her press agent, Charles Pomerantz (who also represented Lucille Ball and Gale Storm); Dinahs long-time piano accompanist, Ticker Freeman, and a network PR person, at Hollywoods Brown Derby. (Pomerantz told me a Brown Derby-related anecdote I cherish to this day. He said Ed Wynn was having lunch with his agent at the Derby when the agent pointed out a very homely man at a nearby table and said, Do you know who that is? Wynn shook his head.

After decades as a venerated comedian, Wynn at an advanced age had made his dramatic debut in Requiem For a Heavyweight on TV and gotten rave reviews everywhere. Except from a reviewer for one of Hollywoods trade newspapers, who savaged him and his performance. Thats the man who gave you that bad review. Wyann regarded the mans extraordinarily ugly face for a long moment, then said, Im glad.)

Back to our lunch. When we finished, Dinah asked for dessert menus. She told everyone to order a different dessert. We did. As we sat there, all six of us with a dessert before us, she said, Now well have a circle. What we did was, everybody took a bite of the dessert in front of him and passed the dish to his left. Which we kept doing until the desserts were finished.

On a trip to Las Vegas, I was interviewing Joey Bishop pool-side at one of the big Strip hotels. He was in a lounge chair in swim trunks next to an attractive lady in a relatively modest swim suit in another chair. Bishop had us all laughing. Dody, who ordinarily didnt ask questions at an interview, said to the young woman, Is he this funny at home?

She said, I wouldnt know. Im not his wife.

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