YOU CAN'T BE HONEST IN HOLLYWOOD
TV Star Parade / By Roger Ellwood / August 1967
Lee Majors sat across from me at a table in the deserted studio commissary. Our interview came at the end of a long, tough day’s shooting and nearly everyone had taken off and gone home – except Lee.
One of the first things I noticed about him was the contrast he presented in person to the impression built up in magazines and newspapers ever since The Big Valley debuted. If you believe all that has been printed, you would have a mental image of Lee as being gruff, uncooperative and blatantly egotistical.
In fact – far from the truth
“I have always gone out of my way to be nice,” Lee told me. “I tried to be a gentleman at all times, particularly in regard to my relations with members of the press. But there have been a few occasions when the person interviewing me has not shown similar behavior, instead asking deeply personal and frequently embarrassing questions about my love life, my friends and my childhood. It’s virtually impossible to sit through an interview without losing your temper. I certainly have exploded - and these rare instances have been taken out of context and blown to headline proportions, most often by the writer who spoke improperly.”
Lee’s unfortunate encounters alone these lines do not mark him an exception but the rule, for other stars have met with similar affronts to their intelligence and basic human decency. Yet, even though they were not at fault, they are the ones who must suffer the acquisition of an image that can only be termed as “unfavourable” at best.
Lee’s self-admitted desire to win an Academy Award in a few years has been misconstrued as the boast of a supreme egotist. But it isn’t. It’s a natural aim, an understandable goal. Let Lee explain it his way...
“Or course, I plan on winning the Oscar as Best Actor in about seven years,” he said frankly. “Why not? If I were a football player, I’d aspire to play in the Rose Bowl Game. Every profession has a goal. And there certainly isn’t an actor who doesn’t, at least subconsciously, hope to be honoured by the Academy. But the uproar about my statements along these lines just goes to prove a theory of mine – namely that you can’t be honest in Hollywood unless you are a Bette Davis or a Jimmy Stewart or a Barbara Stanwyck.”
“There have been rumors that you and Miss Stanwyck are, shall we say, moral enemies of a sort,” I pointed out. “To these, what would be your reply?”
“Nonsense,” he said, “Oh, a couple of times I had a run-in with her. If you work with people for 30 weeks, under a variety of pressures, confrontations are bound to crop up sooner or later. Miss Stanwyck has forgotten more than I’ll ever know. And as I look back, I realize that I was probably at fault, in the first place. I may not have acted as professionally as I should have – and Miss Stanwyck is a true professional who doesn’t stand for anything less in others, I did what my artistic instincts told me to do and this caused a disagreement. I apologized to her the very next day, however.”
Prior to our conversation, I had prepared myself for the worst. I was proved wrong, though. Lee wasn’t brash or especially conceited. In fact, I found him to be, strange as this may sound, definitely on the shy side. His voice was soft and quite mellow and while he wasn’t nervous, there seemed to be a certain note of caution about him. Yes, that’s what I said – caution. For Lee’s experiences in life haven’t been those that would induce supreme confidence in general. His opinions about some members of the press have already been put forth but what about the other times he’s been burned, and badly so?
There was his discovery of the fact that he was adopted, that his real parents had been killed, individually, in two different accidents, his father before Lee entered the world, and his mother shortly after she gave birth to him. He’d always thought that Mr and Mrs Harvey Yeary were his real folks – until he found out otherwise.
And, of course, there was Lee’s teenage marriage which ended unhappily. Plus his severe football injury incurred during a game at the University of Eastern Kentucky. And his rough, hunger-ridden struggle to survive when he came to Hollywood in 1963.
He wanted to be an actor. That ambition surfaced and drove him onward.
“I got a job as a recreation director for the City of Los Angeles,” he said. “I coached football and worked on a playground with children. In the evenings, I studied with Estelle Harmon, my drama coach.
“But it was a dreary period for me. I was about ready to give up sometimes. I never seemed to be getting anywhere. Then I met Dick Clayton who had served as James Dean’s agent. We got to know one another and Dick did a great deal to get me started. He’s a wonderful man, you know, like a brother or a father. He cares if you have a cold. And he’s the kind of guy you can call if you’re down in the dumps, because he’ll build you up as high as the sky. We’re both thinkers. We work very hard. He helped me overcome many emotional problems and pulled me through that time when my main concern was having something to eat.”
The plush life of a television star?
Laugh when you say that.
While he has it easier now than he ever did, Lee’s world is not entirely a blissful, storybook one. There are pressures facing him each and every day. He must get up very early, at 5:30 in the morning in fact, and be at the studio an hour-and-a-half later. He often doesn’t get back home until quite late. Demands for interviews, autographs, personal appearances and much more crowd his schedule.
Even so, in the kind of existence that has driven others to drink, flight or suicide, Lee has managed to adjust – and well.
“To a degree, I feel that I have fairly steady peace of mind,” he smiled. “Looking back at the past year or so, I know I have been very, very fortunate. I’m pretty well accepted by the cast and crew members and the general public. All this is definitely a step up the career ladder. There’s much more ahead. I’m able now to do and afford things that were totally beyond reach once.”
But it would be inaccurate and faulty to paint too contented a picture of Lee. He is worried – and his fears are intense at times.
“If I were positive that I could live like this for the rest of my life, I don’t think I’d ever be unhappy. Right now, I know that there’s another episode coming up next week. But, someday, the show will fold, the rug pulled out from under me. That’s why I must continue to strive, to reach beyond the series. This doesn’t mean that I’m not grateful; it’s simply that I’m realistic enough to plan my future.
“That’s why I held out and didn’t make any movies until Will Penny came along for Paramount. I had to turn down those films that were inferior or those in which my part was thrown in simply to capitalize on my television popularity. I realized that the first film had to be good. If I did a B-Picture, it’d be the same as doing a guest shot on a mediocre television series. It would have done nothing for my career and could, conceivably, have hurt me a great deal.
“Too many actors tackle things that they are not ready for. Talent-wise, they must learn and grow and develop. I personally would rather not work at all until I knew I was certain for a role. Actors have to build creative foundations first – or they can destroy themselves.
“Most series actors, particularly those who start out in television, don’t admit but TV is generally considered minor league stuff. Pictures are practically ever actor’s dream. After three years I will look forward to leaving the show if it’s cancelled then. You become too satiated with one character after doing 90 or more segments as, in my case, Heath Barkley. An actor must do different things, and not work in the same rut year after year.”
That Lee is a sensitive person, with qualities of the poet in him, is sharp and clear if one knows how he reacted to the death of his beloved horse, Red. During an accident a few months ago, it broke its leg and several other bones. Lee had to have it destroyed.
Companionship is that relationship where nothing that improves the intellect is communicated, and where the larger heart contracts itself to the model and dimension of the smaller. This is what existed between Lee and Red. They would spend many hours together on his ranch which was 45 minutes from the rush-rush pace and frenetic living of Hollywood. They would retreat there and as Lee said, “spend the weekend playing around, having fun, enjoying being with one another.”
And then to have give the order that Red must die. There was no way out. He had to look into his trusting eyes and know that a few words from him would betray a friend, a necessary betrayal, perhaps, but a betrayal nevertheless.
“I don’t want to, you know,” he probably told the animal, “I really don’t, you know. But I have to.”
And as Red whinnied in pain, Lee patted him gently on the head for the final time.
“Okay,” he told the man with the rifle held in one hand. “Okay, go ahead.”
Lee turned, trying to shut out the sound of the rifle’s fire out of his mind, trying desperately not to hear it.
But he did.
Red gave one last cry and then there was silence.
“It’s over,” the man with the rifle told him.
“Yes,” Lee answered his voice barely above a faint whisper. “I know...”
There were other animals on the ranch, among them, a baby burro.
“The acquisition came about when I joined a group of wrangler friends who were clearing wild burros from a 2500-acre plot of land that had been donated to the local chapter of the Boy Scouts,” he said. “After capturing it in a wild chase over hill and dale, I had to adopt it. He looked at me, and I just knew I had to take him in.
“Sometimes, after working late and facing an early call in the morning, I think of that 80-mile round trip and feel like checking into a hotel for the night. But then I can’t, can I? There are all those mouths to feed.”
Lee is candid about his career... and the benefits of working with professionals.
“I knew very well that I started out on top,” he admitted. “Every actor would like to get a series. It’s a classroom and you learn a lot. I learned just by watching. Dick Long is always thinking in a scene, trying to do it right in every way. He’s very smooth, professional, what-have-you.
“I find myself quite limited at times. Peter Breck comes on strong all over the set and I feel overshadowed, at a loss, afraid of not doing my best. But then, I realize that there are actors out here in Hollywood who’ve been plugging away for 10 years or more and haven’t achieved the big foothold I have.”
Though he is, by television standards, at veteran at this point, Lee is still “thrilled” by the adulation that comes his way
“One of the wildest kicks is to have teenagers ask for your autograph and pictures,” he laughed. “As I meet more and more of them, I keep wondering where all the so-called “weird” ones are hiding. Those I come in contact with seem altogether normal. And what about the ones who do wear long-hair and dress in an unconventional manner? I personally can’t condemn them. For one thing, I don’t know enough about their reasons. For another, when I was a teenager, I was pretty mixed-up too. My group did certain things and engaged in the newest fads - just as today’s teens are doing. Each generation rebels in a different way but rebels all the same.”
What few outsiders know is that Lee has strong religious convictions and that he is a member of the Church of Christ, Scientist.
“I have much to be grateful for,” he told me toward the conclusion of our interview. “I read religious books and try to absorb everything I possibly can.”
Lee’s attitude about dying reflects the serenity his religious faith has given him in that respect.
“I have a very strange attitude towards death. A lot of people I know would rush out and do crazy things. I wouldn’t. I would try to retrace my life as best I could and search out all those who have influenced me and say, sincerely, “Thank you.” I’d go back to college and see my old professors and make sure that they knew that I still remembered and thought fondly of them. There’s a guy who loaned me $50 once who I would try to find. I never repaid him, you see – and I would hate to die without having made an honest attempt to do so, to cancel the debt and leave this life having taken care of all earthly obligations.”
When men cease to be faithful to their God, he who expects to find them so to each other will be disappointed.
Lee and I shook hands and then he walked off. Night was beginning to fall, the coolness of the evening penetrating what was left of the hot California afternoon. I walked outside the commissary with Eddie Kafaifan, one of Lee’s publicity representatives, who had joined us for the interview. We watched Lee until he disappeared around a corner.
“He’s a really nice guy, you know, “Eddie ventured. “Not everybody understands him but those who do think the world of him. You had a nice interview, didn’t you?”
“A nice interview?” I repeated.
“Didn’t you think so?” Eddie said.
I smiled as we started to walk from the studio to a nearby parking lot, a cool breeze beating gently against our faces.
To that question there was no need for an answer. No need at all.
For Lee’s words carried with them the convincing elements of truth and sincerity and they spoke for themselves – eloquently and well