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Your Three Minutes Are Up

by David Westheimer

 


When I was a younger man I wrote for The Houston Post for years, interrupted by World War II and the Korean War. Radio and magazine editor, then TV editor. Columnists in the entertainment field who worked far from Hollywood and New Year interviewed stars by telephone and I did my share. I can still remember some of them.

After a string of dance-musicals beginning with Flying Down To Rio in 1933 and ending in 1939 with The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle, and a long hiatus, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were reunited in 1949 in The Barclays of Broadway. Separately, they did a series of telephone interviews with movie and TY editors all over the country.

I spoke first with Astaire and later with Rogers. When I asked him about those wonderful films he had done with her, Follow the Fleet, The Gay Divorcee , Shall We Dance?, Top Hat, and all, he said, Yes, it was so boring. I told Ginger Rogers that and she laughed, saying, I didnt know Fred felt that way. I had a wonderful time.

I was able to tell her something else she hadnt known. Back when she was winning Charleston contests in Texas before she became a movie star, my brother Joe danced with her. He remembered that all his life. I guess she didnt.

In 1958, Danny Kaye starred in Me and the Colonel, a different sort of role from the light-hearted comedies he usually did, and he did phone interviews to promote it. When I spoke with him, I was still cherishing a patter-song he did in The Court Jester a couple of years earlier. Ill bet you remember it, too. If you heard it you couldnt forget it. You know, the one about the potion with the poison and the flagon with the dragon and the chalice from the palace? I told him Id appreciate it if he would do it for me over the phone.

He couldnt remember the words. So I did it for him.

It was in that same era that Bill Dana, a writer for Steve Allen, introduced his memorable character, Jose Jiminez.

I was enchanted by Jose and phoned a network PR guy I knew to arrange an interview. Dana was delighted. A writer, not a comic, Dana said it was the first time hed ever been interviewed. I asked him the source of Jose Jiminez. He said hed been vacationing in Havana (this was before Castro) and met a man who told him he was the Dutch representative. Dana said he asked him if he was the Dutch Consul or what? The man said, No, no! The Dutch automobile.

He was the Dodge dealer in Havana. And he talked the fractured English that Dana borrowed for Jose Jiminez.

My shortest phone interview was with my favorite actor, Toshiro Mifune. He was in New York on a publicity tour and I happened to be in New York on business, too. They couldnt fit me into his busy schedule but they could set up a phone interview. I was to take the call in a Japanese restaurant they picked because Mifune couldnt speak much English and they needed someone to answer the phone who could speak Japanese. So Mifune called me there and we managed a sort of a conversation for three minutes. He was calling from a pay phone and the operator broke in and asked him to deposit more coins. He didnt know what she was talking about. So she broke the connection.

One of my favorite phone interviews wasnt long distance. I got a tip that an up-and-coming young actress, Gena Rowlands, was in town visiting her family. Her business-executive father had been transferred there from somewhere in the East by his company. Her mother answered the phone. When I told her who I was and what I wanted, there was a pause. Then she said, You know, her husband is with her and hes better known than she is. It might be better if you said you wanted to interview him and interviewed her, too. So I interviewed them both on the phone. Gena Rowlands and John Cassavetes. Years later, after Dody and I moved to Los Angeles, the couple moved here, too, and so did Genas mother, who had been widowed in Houston. We used to go to movies with her, and visited occasionally with her daughter and son-in-law, who had two children by then.

There were other job-connected calls, not interviews. NBC used to do big production shows they called Spectaculars. On one of them I was reviewing, some ballet dancers came out for a short performance. The lead dancer was spectacular. Very big for a ballet dancer and gifted. I called a friend of mine in the publicity department of the network and asked him who the dancer was. It took a while for him to find out.

Jaques DAmboise.

And JP Millers mother would call me when one of her sons scripts was going to be on TV. He was a writer of such dramas as Days of Wine and Roses. He was from Houston and had graduated from Rice Institute, as had Dody and I. We hadnt known him then. When JPs mother told me he was going to have a play on, I would call the network and ask for details. The first time I did, my PR department friend said, How did you know? It hasnt been announced yet. His mama told me, I said.

Later, after JP Miller got famous, I did a long-distance phone interview with him, too.

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