In Spite Of Myself - Excerpts
Christopher Plummer: scenes from a life, From Saturday's Globe and Mail
Published Friday, Oct. 10, 2008
Christopher Plummer's Quebec boyhood included genteel family get-togethers, pretty debutantes and repeat appearances by at least one inebriated visitor.
Teatime, daily at 5, was a splendid affair – the women bustling, the food plentiful. Hot buttered crumpets by the fire, scones, tomato and cucumber sandwiches, two cakes, one with icing, one without, and always gingerbread.
… There was always a scattering of flappers about and numerous lounge lizards doing very little of anything and, of course the usual “piranha fish” and attendant eccentrics. One such was a very posh-looking colonel, who paid the occasional abortive visit to my grandmother's house – I don't know quite why as he never uttered. One day, he arrived in immaculate blazer and white flannels; he was only in his late 40s but already boasted a “companion,” who took him by the hand and literally pulled him toward the house where we were all waiting to greet him. It took almost five minutes to get him from the car to the front door (a distance of several feet only) as my grandmother advanced and held out her hand for him to shake. The colonel extended his very slowly and then suddenly with a great deal of warmth and vigour shook the doorknob instead! An explosion erupted inside me and got strangled somewhere in my throat as my grandmother wheeled on me and hissed – “Behave yourself at once! Don't you realize that Uncle Fred is blind?!” “Blind? Blind drunk, you mean!” I thought as a waft of dragon breath from Uncle Fred hit my mother and me at one and the same time, which sent us reeling into the next room, where, collapsing on separate sofas, we buried our faces in the cushions to silence our uncontrollable hysteria!
Several years later I had a mad crush on Uncle Fred's 18-year-old daughter. It happened at her “coming out” dance. The average age that evening was from 16 to 19. Suddenly the doors were flung open and Uncle Fred, this time in white tie and tails, was being pulled in by yet another “companion” who led him to the centre of the dance floor, where she promptly deserted him. Very red in the face, he rocked back and forth on his pins and gazed lustfully at the fair young maidens around him with a leer that would have made Humbert Humbert look like a choirboy, and then, without warning, plunged forward onto the dance floor flat on his face! That was the last I ever saw of Uncle Fred. To this day, I don't believe he ever got up! A t a run-through of Tennessee Williams's Sweet Bird of Youth, Geraldine Page wows Helen Hayes, Lillian Hellman and Ruth Gordon – but not the playwright himself.
After we had opened [Archibald MacLeish's play] J.B., [Elia] Kazan began rehearsals for Tennessee Williams's new play Sweet Bird of Youth. Just before their out-of-town opening they held their last full run-through without costumes at the New Amsterdam Roof. Gadge [Kazan's nickname] invited our entire cast. Also in attendance that afternoon were most of theatre's top brass – the usual suspects – Josh Logan, Helen Hayes, the Lunts, Lee Strasberg, Cheryl Crawford, Lillian Hellman, Ruth Gordon, Garson Kanin, etc., etc. Not a large group but mighty potent. Gadge got up and announced that they would have to wait to begin because Tennessee had not yet arrived. “Tennessee, as you know, has his own rhythm,” he quipped, not without edge. Finally it began. The exceptional cast included Paul Newman, Rip Torn, Sidney Blackmer, my Montreal friend Madeleine Sherwood and, of course, Geraldine Page in the leading role of Princess. They were each in his or her own right first class, but that afternoon belonged to Geraldine, for before our lucky eyes we were watching her, for the first time, discover her own performance. Gerry was flying! God knows Tennessee was a marvellous writer and there was fine writing in this, but Gerry lifted the whole thing to another level – she was transcendent! When it was over you could hear a pin drop – we were not just transfixed; we had been seduced.
Gradually we pulled ourselves together and began to shuffle out. No one spoke. Just then from the balcony in that rasping voice of his, Tennessee started shouting. I couldn't quite make out his gist but it seemed to convey that we had all just witnessed the total destruction of Sweet Bird of Youth, and it was all Gerry's fault. Gerry was the sole culprit. “She's ruined mah play! She's ruined mah play,” he kept yelling. He must be drunk, I thought, or ill. No one seemed to take much notice, or pretended not to, and as Gadge passed me in the aisle I tugged at his sleeve.
“What's the matter with Tennessee?” I asked. “My God! It's been such a glorious afternoon.”
“Oh, don't worry,” Gadge replied, “she's just taken his play away from him. It's hers now – it doesn't belong to him any more and he knows it.”
In the early 1960s, Plummer finesses his own British invasion, thanks to Peter O'Toole's Saharan immersion.
I shall always be grateful to Peter O'Toole for ditching the Royal Shakespeare Company in favour of a camel on the Sahara Desert. He was to have played King Henry that year, but now, bless his heart, he was playing Lawrence [of Arabia] and so Henry was mine! The London premiere of Becket at the Aldwych in the Strand proved the success of the season and my Henry is probably one of the best things I've ever done. With the help of Eric Porter, who splendidly partnered me as Becket, Peter Hall's free and sweeping production and a cast that represented the very finest in British acting, my modest invasion of the Sceptred Isle was at last justified. I won London's Evening Standard Award for Best Actor of the Year. (“Big Van” [Vanessa Redgrave] won best actress.) I was in damn good company!
… I loved Becket. It is still one of my favourite plays. Fictitious in most respects, it remains, however, a witty and passionate story of an extraordinary relationship between two demigods who, in their separate ways, ruled a great part of the medieval world. As many scenes take place on horseback, the use of hobbyhorses fully caparisoned, controlled by ourselves the actors wearing built-up boot-like hooves hidden under our robes, was an inspired piece of imagination and served to give the evening much added theatricality and panache. In the film, made some years later in which O'Toole marvellously reclaimed his role of Henry, it was, of course, necessary to use real horses so that much of the story's originality and style went by the wayside.
… All sorts of celebrated people came backstage to compliment me: the Oliviers, the Nivens, Ralph Richardson, even Donald Wolfit, who had finally got himself a ticket. I now felt most welcome in England. One night a rather posh group had assembled in my dressing room when suddenly O'Toole himself burst in. “What are you doing here?” I asked. “I thought you were in the desert.” “I have a week off from the bloody camels. They made me ride the buggers bareback.” As he said this, he proceeded in front of the speechless, po-faced group, to pull down his pants and show us his ass. It was absolutely raw and riddled with welts. “Look at this,” he screamed. “It's all your fault, you colonial prick. You're playing my part and this is the thanks I get!” The horrified little posse quickly dispersed and Peter and I went to the nearest pub and got pie-eyed.
In the late 1950s, Plummer enjoyed hanging out – and rearranging furniture – with buddies Jason Robards, Jason Robards Sr. (“an old naval salt,” as Plummer remembers him, who got dubbed “the Admiral”) and Max Helpmann.
Running out of things to do in the brief spare time there was, our dreaded little quartet (the Admiral, the Commander, the Captain and me – the ship's doctor) had arrived at a dead impasse. We needed new inspiration; we craved new blood. We found both in a young man called Peter Hale who was playing small parts that season and doubling as an assistant stage manager. We at once detected great promise in the youth. He had a completely natural and unaffected penchant for deviltry, a real down 'n' dirty glint in his eye and a talent for improvising wickedness that was prodigious in the extreme. Because he was ASM on The Winter's Tale we christened him “Winters Hale.” Winters boasted a large two-wheel motorbike which could fit three, so two of the “fraternity” would take turns and jump on behind Winters as he madly drove that devil bike through the black night in search of trouble.
The latest sport we had invented was to visit our actor friends in their rental houses or flats, complain bitterly about the quality of their furniture (“How can you expect decent men to drink amongst all this Swedish G Plan?”) and proceed to throw every chair and table out the window. This would occasion a kind of desperate and hysterical laughter from our hosts, especially when after the last piece had disappeared we followed suit and threw ourselves out. Needless to say, the Admiral did not participate in the acrobatics, he just observed, drink in hand, an expression of total satisfaction painted all over his face.
As we got more confident, these feats became all the more daring, especially when the windows were four storeys high. One of us always had to gather up the poor unfortunate who had landed on his back in a small tree or bush. We got to be quite expert, however, and Winters was clearly the most nimble for he executed it all with the dexterity of a stuntman and his timing was superb. After a while, he didn't even bother with the furniture gag any more. The moment he entered a room he simply threw himself out the window. We gave him a new nickname, “Windows Hale.”
Excerpted from In Spite of Myself: A Memoir, © 2008 by Christopher Plummer. Published by Alfred A. Knopf Canada.
Excerpt from In Spite of Myself
Chapter 25: "S&M"
Watching The Sound of Music is like being beaten to death by a Hallmark card.
—Doug McClure (actor and wit)
The Bristol Hotel, which still stands in the midst of Makartplatz at the center of Mozart's Salzburg, invariably threw open its doors to artists of every shape and species, particularly musicians engaged by the world-renowned festival. The more gregarious of these, famous or infamous, regularly sought shelter within its walls. Upon my arrival at the front desk, back in the early sixties when we were shooting that celebrated film, I was greeted by a grinning desk clerk who informed me that two great nighthawks of the opera world, Giuseppe di Stefano and Ettore Bastianini (apparently steady customers), had just checked in. With the prospect of such easy access to confidential information of this sort, the Bristol promised to be a welcome change from the somewhat austere Osterreichischer Hof down the street where I had begun my Tyrolean sojourn. The instant warmth and relaxed sense of improvisation about my new surroundings made me realize at once that here I could be as free as I chose. What I did not foresee was that in the next few weeks, in spite of my obnoxious shenanigans, I would come to be treated and accepted as a proud member of the family. There is no better way to describe the old place other than to say, quite simply, that I had come home. The reason for this was mostly due to a pint-sized powerhouse of a lady who possessed two entirely contrasting personalities—a fearsome steel-like authority and the softest heart in Christendom. Her name was Gretl Hübner.
The Hübner family had, in the past, successfully owned and operated a chain of first-class hotels throughout eastern Europe. But times had changed, fortunes had been lost and they were now reduced to one, the Bristol, which Gretl, the last of her line, had inherited and was caring for with a devotion that only a mother might have for her ailing offspring. The hotel was, for her, both a toy and a roof over her head, which she shared with her American husband, a comfy old codger, General MacKristol, retired from the U.S. Occupation Forces in Germany after World War II. But the general rarely appeared, spending most of his days fishing at Bad Ischl and anyway, everyone at the hotel, staff and guests alike, were quite convinced that the real general was Gretl. She also ran the place as if it were a ship foundering in heavy waters, heavy waters she herself stirred up, if for no other reason than to keep things from being boring. Certainly during my stay it was far from boring. In fact, at times it rather resembled a reform school presided over by a strict, slightly wacky headmistress! Once inside the Bristol, there was something about the heady, pungent air that made you want to be naughty. Diabolically, Gretl seemed to encourage this just so she could come along later and straighten you out!
The food left a lot to be desired, but that was soon forgotten by the constant gemütlich atmosphere at the bar where schnapps, every known eau de vie, liqueur and some excellent local wines were affectionately administered by faithful old Bruno the bartender. Although the lobby and dining room were fairly shabby, a rundown look of faded red plush, it couldn't have mattered less for it was always kept fastidiously clean. Gretl insisted on dressing her clerks at the front desk, Karl (shy and slim) and Fritz (jolly and stout), in well-tailored cutaways and striped trousers—an obvious attempt to distract from the general dilapidation. But it was the people, the varied personalities and eccentricities of the staff and guests, which made the place jump. Gretl had seen to that. It was her mixture of opera divas, writers, politicians and local impoverished aristocracy that gave it its colour. And always present in the front lobby night and day was the majordomo, the most eccentric of them all, kissing hands, murmuring sweet nothings, welcoming anyone and everyone who passed through those portals. A six foot four slim, elegant gentleman in his early seventies, with a shock of salt and pepper hair, heavy, bushy eyebrows, a chiseled face and aquiline nose, he was known by everyone including the odd busload of day-trippers as the Count. Handsomer than any matinée idol, he looked much too grand to be a mere employee. So, one day, I asked Gretl where on earth she'd found him.
"It vas 1958 during ze Communist takeover in Hungary. Vun afternoon zere vas a man at ze door of ze hotel. He vanted to see me. He looked terrible. He vas very tired, filthy and starving. His clothes vere like rags. But zere vas somesing familiar about him. Zen, I remembered—he had stayed vith his family at some of my father's hotels. I couldn't believe it.
"'Festitic? Is it you? Vat is wrong?'
"'I have been on the road for veeks,' he said. 'I have walked the length of Hungary and Austria to get away. All our lands have gone. They have taken everything—there is nothing left. I have no money, nothing anymore. Please, can you give me a job?'
"It was all I could do to meet my payroll as it was—but I could not refuse him. 'Festitic,' I said, 'vat can you do?' He vas silent. 'You've never done anysing. Do you know even how to open a bottle of milk?' He was silent. 'No. But I can speak six languages.' Zen a light vent on in my head. 'Go up ze street to zat tailor shop. Get fitted for a morning coat. Tell zem I vill take care of it. Zen go and get somesing to eat. You have a job, Festitic! You can greet ze guests. You are my new majordomo!' "
The name "Festitic" (pronounced Festitich) in Hungary was synonymous with ancient nobility, wealth and power. Their vast estates and numerous castles made them one of the largest landowners in the country. The Count's mother had been companion and bosom friend to Austria's Empress Elizabeth. Young Festitic had grown up on equal terms with the Hapsburgs. As children, they played together in palaces across Europe and were accustomed to armies of servants. So it was all too evident that opening bottles of milk was a mysterious practice that would never have occurred to any of them.
Of course, that was another world, but here and now, at the moment of his ruin, with food finally inside him and freshly attired in brandnew tailcoat and stripes, Festitic must have looked splendidly to the manner born as he eagerly reported for duty. Excited as a baby, he had joined the workers of the world. In his autumnal years his life had some purpose at last. Gretl had made a man of him and he'd never felt so proud or so grateful. He too had come home.
Once acquainted with the background of the "inmates"—that gallant little staff (Karl, Fritz, Bruno, Festitic), all apparently on the rescue list, it took me no time to realize that I too had joined the pack of Gretl Hübner's lost children. Kind and sympathetic, they allowed me to bore them to tears with my daily trials and tribulations. During the early stages of filming "S & M" (my perverse nickname for that musical epic) I was not a happy camper. It did not promise to be one of "my favourite things." I had absolutely no right to feel that way, of course, surrounded as I was with such talented and respected company. Here was I, working with the distinguished director Robert Wise, formerly a top film editor (Citizen Kane, Magnificent Ambersons), a member of Hollywood's old guard and a gentleman to his fingertips; Eleanor Parker, one of the legendary beauties of the forties (who played the Baroness); the irrepressible Richard Haydn (Uncle), inventor of the comical character Mr. Carp, a "fish expert," who kept us laughing at all costs; the charming Peggy Wood (Mother Superior), who had once been Noël Coward's leading lady on the London stage; a gaggle of very personable youngsters playing the Trapp children, all highly professional; Gil Stewart, my limey drinking pal who played the butler as if he'd really done it; the writer Ernest Lehman, ace photographer Ted McCord, designer Boris Leven, the Baird Puppets, the brilliant arranger Irwin Kostal, the music and lyrics of Rodgers & Hammerstein, and first and foremost in importance Eliza Doolittle and Queen Guinevere wrapped up into one magical rosy-cheeked bundle of British pluck, my friend forever, the once-in-a-Blue-Moon Julie Andrews!
Riches such as these should have added grist to anyone's mill, but during the preproduction days back in Los Angeles things had gone badly for me from the start. Originally, I had accepted Robert Wise's offer simply because I wanted to find out what it was like to be in a musical comedy. I had a secret plan to one day turn Cyrano de Bergerac into a Broadway musical. "S & M" would therefore be a perfect workout in preparation for such an event. I also had never sung before in my life, not even in the shower, and obviously needed the practice. Most likely, however, it was due to the vulgar streak in me that made me fancy myself in a big, splashy Hollywood extravaganza.
Well, my first punishment came when they insisted I immediately record the guide track with Julie before shooting began, some of which would be used in the final picture. I was stricken—absolutely terrified! No way was I ready for that. Hell, I was still struggling with my singing lessons. I appealed and was denied. Twentieth Century-Fox insisted or they would get someone else to record. I saw my career as a second Maurice Chevalier dwindling fast. I threatened to walk off the picture. But my agent, the remarkable Kurt Frings, came to my aid, tap-danced his way into their hearts and saved my bacon. He also saved me from a two-million-dollar lawsuit. With a lot of persuasion from Mr. Wise, it was finally agreed that I could mumble the guide track and record properly after principal photography was complete. I remember Darryl Zanuck's young son, Dick, who had taken over the studio, coming down onto the set accompanied by his partner, David Brown. He shook me by the hand in front of the entire cast and crew and said in soft-spoken tones but tinged with an unmistakable hint of somber warning, "Congratulations, Chris. Welcome back to The Sound of Music."
The next hurdle was my role as the Captain. The part of von Trapp was all right in its way, but certainly far from exciting. The Broadway book had not served him well. Even in the screenplay, he was still very much a cardboard figure, humourless and one-dimensional. Human flesh urgently needed to be grafted onto those bare, brittle bones. Mr. Wise was kindness itself; he thoroughly understood my concerns and at once brought Ernest Lehman and myself together, made a cabana on the lot available for us and told us to stay in there until we made the improvements. Ernie Lehman was not just one of Hollywood's best screenwriters; he was a prince among men. He made me feel that all his invaluable ideas were mine alone; not only was it fun to work with him; it was an honour. Of course, it was impossible to turn von Trapp into Hamlet, but Ernie had made remarkable strides and the result was a far cry from the tepid original. At least now the poor soft-centered Captain had some edge to him.
In my way, I was grateful of course, but still felt uncomfortable generally. I was not very experienced on film as yet—one or two major roles had been thrust upon me much too soon—and yes, all right, I'll admit it, I was also a pampered, arrogant young bastard, spoiled by too many great theatre roles. Ludicrous though it may seem, I still harboured the old-fashioned stage actor's snobbism toward moviemaking. The moment we arrived in Austria to shoot the exteriors I was determined to present myself as a victim of circumstance—that I was doing the picture under duress, that it had been forced upon me and that I certainly deserved better. My behavior was unconscionable.
One morning I woke up late with a raging hangover to discover that the film company had left me no call sheet for the day's work. Had they no respect at all? Paranoid that I had been overlooked, ignored—I went ballistic! I threw my clothes on and ran all over Salzburg trying to find the unit. I finally came upon them filming a scene with Julie and the children on the outskirts of town. They were in the midst of a take, but I didn't care. I walked right into the shot and let forth a stream of abuse at Mr. Wise and everyone present for their lack of manners. My blood was racing, my heart pounding; I was apoplectic! The first assistant director, that good old pro Reggie Callow (he'd been an assistant on Gone With the Wind ) gently led me away toward a nearby park bench in order to calm me down. With the patience of a saint he tried getting it through my thick skull that no call sheet had been sent me simply because I wasn't needed that day. Ashamed and embarrassed to the point of despair, I slunk back to my hotel, my tail between my legs. I was not, to put it mildly, in the greatest of shape.
I began to hit the schnapps with a vengeance and vent my spleen on the poor innocent baby grand in the Bristol bar night after night. There was no one around to take me in hand and snap me out of it. The only ones who would listen to me were that faithful little staff who indulged me most dreadfully. As I moaned on, they sat attentive and quiet, but I knew what they were thinking: "What is this bloody idiot complaining about? He's the male lead in a big Hollywood movie, making terrific money, probably more than we'll ever see and he's young to boot! What the hell is he bitching about?" Very gradually, Fritz, Karl, Bruno, the Count and Gretl herself soothed the savage hyena in me. I slowly began to see the error of my ways. The cure was working; I was off the critical list, and pretty soon primed with beer and schnapps we were falling off our barstools laughing at the utter absurdity of it all.
Part of the problem from the start was that most of us on the film were lodged in separate hotels. The only other cast member at the Bristol was Gil Stewart, usually to be found holding up the British Empire at the end of the bar, happy in his own little world. Every now and then his loud guffaw would resound above the din—the only evidence of his presence. None of us, therefore, could really share our cares and woes so, once on the set, a certain aloofness prevailed. Probably due to an excessive number of nuns in the cast, there was also, at times, an atmosphere of overreverence which irritated me no end. I was determined in my resolve to take the opposite view, to play the cynic, to be Peck's bad boy—anything to prevent my character or indeed the film from becoming dangerously mawkish or ultrasentimental. Although Mr. Wise, true to his name, was tolerance itself, the one person who seemed to understand my motives completely and acted as if there was nothing untoward was Julie, the busiest of us all. I was so grateful to her for that, but I never told her. Away from work we hardly ever saw each other. At the then gloomy Osterreichischer Hof where she was staying, her hands were full tending to her child Emma, then a tiny tot. She was also in the midst of a painfully sad separation from her husband, the well-known stage designer Tony Walton, and of course, as Maria she was never off the screen.
All this combined to make of her life one long list of gargantuan responsibilities; the pressures were tremendous. Yet she never wavered. Her optimism, delicious humour and selfless nature were always on parade. It was as if she'd been hired not just to act, sing and carry the entire film, but to keep everyone's spirits up as well. She did. She held us together and made us a team. Julie was quite transparent. There was no way she could conceal the simple truth that she cared profoundly for her work and for everyone else around her. I think that beneath my partly assumed sarcasm and indifference she saw that I cared too. As two people who barely came to know each other throughout those long months of filming, we had somehow bonded. It was the beginning of a friendship—unspoken, but a friendship nonetheless.
Well it was time we got married—in the script, that is. About 25 kilometers from Salzburg lies an enchanting little town nestled beside a small, very beautiful lake. It is called Mondsee and it boasts a miniature cathedral built in exquisite baroque style right by the water. This is where Maria and the Captain tied the knot in one of the film's most delightful scenes. I fell in love with that little church and with Mondsee. Down the road nearby was an old castello which stood beside the lake. It was owned by Miche Almeida, a colourful, high-spirited Portuguese contessa who had been the mistress of Otto von Habsburg. It was rumoured he had bought the castello for her as a gift. To make ends meet she had turned the ground floor into a restaurant, not just any restaurant, but certainly one of the very best in my memory. It was known as the Castello Bar, but most visitors simply called it "Miche's." The eclectic and exclusive clientele descended upon that little haven like famished wolves. They came from all over Europe and even across the Atlantic—an odd mixture of British and German diplomats, American impresarios and deposed royalty. But no matter who, everyone was required to have some sort of entrée to Miche or they couldn't get in. I got in because of Gretl, and Julie got in because she was Julie.
Some of us would take that drive every other night for dinner; it was well worth the trip. I remember introducing "Jools" ( Julie's nickname) to Miche's ultrahot peppers. Her throat was instantly on fire and she turned a deep scarlet. I explained to her that because she sang so well and I couldn't, this was my revenge. The great filmmaker Michael Powell arrived one day with his designer Hein Heckroth. They wanted me to play Caliban in their projected film production of Shakespeare's Tempest and wished to discuss it. I took them to Miche's, which they so enjoyed, I think they completely forgot why they'd come. The menu was always small and select and everything tasted absolutely home cooked. The fish and the meats were succulent, the wines exceptional, but it was the vegetables and the manner in which they were prepared that was out of this world. It was almost as if they'd been perfumed. I still hold on to an image of Miche, that most entertaining of ladies, who personally served at table with a smile as big as the room, bearing in her arms enormous platters of these superbly cooked vegetables—the very signature of the place. My mouth still waters to think of it.
Well, after our von Trapp wedding was "in the can," I was granted some time off. Several weeks in fact, a sort of lone honeymoon, you might say. God knows where my real-life bride was—somewhere in England, no doubt. Trish and I had begun to lead separate lives, our absences becoming longer and longer. So, deprived of a playmate, I indulgently took advantage of this reprieve and went on a rampage—cultural and otherwise. I headed straight for Lanz, the famous lederhosen shop, and was outfitted in two or three very smart Tyrolean coat and trouser combinations, and one particularly chic dark loden green smoking jacket. I was ready to conquer. Today Lanz, tomorrow ze world!
I border-hopped back and forth between Austria, Bavaria and Hungary. I did Vienna, beloved Vienna; went to the Büch Theatre and the opera; visited Schönbrunn, the Hofburg, the Belvedere and Schwarzenberg palaces; ditto the Spanish Riding School to watch the Lipizzaner horses pirouette to Mozart. I booked myself into the great Sacher Hotel with its quaint sloping floors, its sumptuous Sacher tortes and immovable feasts. I played the piano at the Drei Husaren while that famous restaurant's resident pianist sat nearby, his face a picture of disdainful mockery (shades of The Third Man). On my way to Budapest I gazed fascinated at the legendary storks perched on the steeples and rooftops of all those picturesque border towns. Once inside Hungary, I made a beeline for the Empress Elizabeth's summer palace of Gödöllö, meandered through the Esterhazy estates and strolled beside the waters of Lake Balaton. Passing through Salzburg I let the lush sound of them Vienna Philharmonic envelop me as I sat in on von Karajan's rehearsals. In fabulous old München, I gorged myself on Wiener shnitzel and weisswurst ünd kalbsbraten; in Bavaria I wandered through Mad Lüdwig's castles pretending I was Wagner and got myself in a deal of trouble with a fast young crowd led by that beautiful, decadent adolescent Helmut Berger. This wayward Adonis would later play King Lüdwig most effectively in Visconti's splendidly photographed movie. And oh, those Austrian girls! With their dark hair and deep flashing eyes—when they are gorgeous, they are fairly unsurpassed.
Then the punishment came! I must have been having too good a time, for someone had put a curse on me. In Austria, they call it the Hexenschuss—the witch sinks her claws into your back and leaves them there. In plain English, my sciatic nerve was paralyzed. For days I lay still on my hotel bed without moving. I had no choice—the pain was too excruciating. A local beauty of astonishing looks insisted upon looking after me. She came regularly to my room. This sister of mercy made sure her nursing skills went far beyond the call of duty. As I lay there, a captive corpse, at least one part of me was alive. It was much needed therapy. I was in heavenly bondage, but during a particularly noisy session, a call sheet was slipped discreetly under my door and the honeymoon was over.
I girded my aching loins, bid a sad farewell to my bouncing Rhine maiden and emerged from the dream a little the worse for wear. The smiling faces of Fritz, Karl, Bruno and the Count cheered me up immeasurably. I was further honoured by Gretl, who came down from her rooms and threatened to court martial me for desertion. Gil Stewart, now drenched in whiskey and more pukka sahib than ever, thundered an earsplitting war cry from his accustomed headquarters at the end of the bar. He had remained there for the duration of my absence, having not yet been called to work. "I'm vurried about Stewart," Gretl whispered in my ear; "he's looking so ill. I haf tolt Bruno to vater his drinks, but he steals ven Bruno iss not looking!" It was good to be back with Mutter Courage and her little army again. I had missed them.
Robert Wise took one look at me and turned pale. "Young man, you better go on a diet right away. How are you going to get into your clothes?" He was right—the good life was showing only too obviously. All my costumes had to be let out to their fullest, a couple of them were entirely remade and the makeup man was obliged to use an inordinate amount of dark shading as I was beginning to resemble Orson Welles.
However dissipated I appeared, I was obviously presentable enough for one person who had arrived out of the blue—the real Baroness von Trapp—the actual Maria, a jolly, chortling frau of ample proportions who could not have hidden her oversized shoes under any convent bed in Europe and escape detection. The baroness did not exactly boost my confidence by informing me how much more handsome I was than her husband. My God! What could he have looked like?! But she was very bouncy and bossy, laughed a lot and really was most likable. Incongruously for an ex-nun, she was an expert channel swimmer, a prizewinning world-class champion, in fact. All at once she announced in booming tones that she couldn't stay with us very long and I imagined that yet another channel somewhere was already bracing itself for her plunge. The baroness remained long enough to watch Julie and me shoot our first meeting in that glorious mirrored room, which had been a part of the great Max Reinhardt's old mansion on the outskirts of town. To see this buxom, bovine Maria gazing at the other Maria—her slim, trim alter ego—was quite uncanny.
The second scene on my agenda was with Julie and the children singing "Edelweiss" to the townspeople at Salzburg's Riding School. Back in the forties, Germany and Austria had barely surrendered when the real von Trapp family had given a concert there. They had not been received with the usual enthusiasm they expected. At that moment, they were extremely unpopular, having just returned from America where they had safely lived out the war while their countrymen suffered humiliation and defeat. To drive the stake in deeper, the von Trapps had insisted that the poor audience put on black tie and evening dress! But the fictional scene we were to shoot took place before the family's escape; we were all attired in more modest Tyrolean peasant costumes and the general reception was meant to be one of warmth and emotion, a Teutonic love-in, one might say. The Riding School was in the open and the dark night air combined with Irwin Kostal's lovely arrangement on the guide track gave the proceedings an aura of wistfulness that quite infected us all. "Edelweiss" was also, thank God, the easiest song of the bunch to sing, and my favourite.
Every now and then when not "on call," I would visit the set and watch Julie do her stuff. "Do-Re-Me," for example, was filmed all over Austria's countryside at various locations ending up in charming Mirabellplatz close by the Bristol Hotel. At the coffee breaks Gretl would appear accompanied by her young waitresses bearing trays of mouth-watering pastries. On the sidelines I would stand, lost in admiration at Julie's inexhaustible energy. With the help of those talented choreographers Mark Breaux and Dee Dee Woods, she made the simple dance numbers appear completely natural and improvised and that big heart of hers burst through everything she did. There was a radiance in her she couldn't suppress even if she'd tried.
In the meantime, Gil Stewart had been taken ill. It was inevitable of course. The bar was like a morgue without him. Poor old Bruno was lost, wandering aimlessly about, wondering what to do. From time to time I would catch sight of Gretl disappearing into the lift carrying bowls of soup up to Gil's room. She looked after him and cared for him so intensely that in a week she had nursed him back to health. It was none too soon for as he left his sick room and gingerly groped his way down to the bar, Fritz and Karl (Tweedledum and Tweedledee) were waving sheets of paper in the air. "Herr Stewart," they shouted. "Congratulations! Vunderbar! You are vorking! Tomorrow!" As the butler, it was to be his one and only day's work in ten weeks. Fritz, Karl, Bruno, the Count and I put our heads together and arranged a surprise celebration that would be waiting for him when he returned. Signs were made with "Welcome Home, Gil," "You Made It" and "Who Needs Hollywood" scribbled all over them. We got at least two hundred balloons to fly above the front entrance and the bar. Gretl had the kitchen prepare huge platters of cold meat and salads and two large jeroboams of champagne were put on ice. It was just going to be us five—the Bristol's skeleton crew as it were.
Wouldn't you know that Gil didn't begin shooting till 9:00 p.m.! We waited for the last customer to vacate the premises and then started to put up balloons and get everything ready. At 1:00 a.m., Gil had still not materialized. As on a ship's watch we took turns napping, Bruno nodding off at the bar, Fritz and Karl sprawled over the front desk, Festitic stretched out on a sofa. I went upstairs to lie down. About four in the morning a very sleepy Count called me in my room. "He's outside now!" "Turn all the lights out," I barked; "it's got to be a surprise." As the unsuspecting Gil walked through the door, all the lights went back on. He just stood there, gaping. Raising our champagne glasses in a toast we sang "For he's a jolly good butler" at the top of our lungs. Gretl appeared in her dressing gown. "Keep your voices down. You vill vake ze guests. Oh vell, never mind, gif me a vhiskey instead," and joining our revels, she stayed to the bitter end. Gil, completely overcome, became more British by the second, salvos of his deep basso profundo ricocheting off the Bristol's walls.
The film company shipped Gil out two days later. He couldn't handle it. As they were loading his bags into the van, he came up to me in the lobby. "I don't want to go back, you know. I've loved it here," he said. I could see that he was shaking and trying to fight back his tears. "I say, old man, do me a good turn, won't you? Tell Gretl thanks for everything and say good-bye for me. I simply couldn't face her. She was the best mother I ever had." He tried to laugh it off but was clearly inconsolable. He hugged Fritz and Karl and Festitic, then Bruno, who said nothing but whose expression spoke volumes. And then he was off for Munich airport. Bruno still stood at the bar stunned. Half an hour went by before Gretl came down in a white rage. "Vere iss Stewart? I can't find him anyvare! I'm taking him to ze airport. Vere is he!!??" she shouted at Fritz and Karl who were trembling behind their desk. Not satisfied, she added a barrage of German invectives and hurled them in everyone's direction. I summoned up my courage. "He's already left, Gretl, I'm afraid; he wanted me to say good-bye for him. You see—" but I didn't finish. She was slamming the car door and taking off in a horrible smell of burning rubber. Gil told me much later: "I was sitting in the airport lounge waiting to board when I saw Gretl, her graying hair wild and unkempt, racing toward me. I stood up. In front of everyone she came up to me—I could see she was crying—and slapped my face so that it stung like hell, looked hard at me for the longest moment, then turned on her heels and left. The last thing I wanted to do was get on that plane. I loved that woman, you know."
Before starting out for work late one morning I went to the bar for a pick-me-up. There was no Bruno. That was most unusual—there was always a Bruno. In fact, the bar was empty except for Festitic in a corner, puffing away on his cigarette holder. Fritz and Karl came over to me and, as always, Fritz spoke for Karl. "Bruno has not come to vork for two, sree days." "And Frau Hübner?" I asked. "She has taken to her bed; ve don't know ven she vill come down." I knew they missed the Englishman, but I had not realized how deeply.
The unit car picked me up and drove me to Bavaria, where we were to shoot the last scene of the picture in which the von Trapp family escapes the Nazis by climbing over the Alps to Switzerland, neutrality and freedom. It was now afternoon, and the sun was casting long shadows across the breathtaking hill they had chosen. A normal camera would have made it all look much too pretty and cute, like a picture postcard. But Ted McCord, our brilliant D.P., had taken care of that by inventing a special lens that gave back to the countryside all its natural beauty, just as one views it with the naked eye. I have always thought that last scene amusingly ironic, for over the brow of that hill supposedly lies sanctuary. In reality, at the top of our particular hill lay the ruins of a terrace, all that remained of Hermann Göring's home, called the "Eagle's Nest." A little way below was an empty plot where Herr Goebbels's house had stood, and farther down the hill the huge empty fish tanks of the Berghof overlooking Berchtesgaden itself—a last reminder of Adolf Hitler's private lair. So it would appear that instead of "freedom" for the von Trapps, they had inadvertently wandered straight into the hornet's nest.
Finally, the moment had come for the unit to move back to the States—time to bid farewell to our beautiful Austria. The film company threw a "wrap" party that was anticlimactic to the point of redundancy as we would all meet soon again in Los Angeles to shoot the remaining interiors. Trish and I had made another attempt at temporary reconciliation, so as I had a fortnight free, I would join her in the south of France for a brief holiday at the luxurious Hotel du Cap, Eden-Roc. I spent the last two days, overcome with nostalgia, wandering through Salzburg whispering secret good-byes to my favourite haunts. Back at the hotel I bumped into a busload of "blue-rinsed" ladies from mid-America. They had just had lunch and were standing in the lobby waiting for their transportation. Fritz and Karl were going quite spare answering a barrage of impossible questions. The noise was deafening. Festitic was hovering in the background being his usual charming self—all the old ladies had instant fantasies about him, I'm quite sure. In the midst of the fracas, I heard one woman, who was standing right next to Festitic, shout out to Fritz and Karl in a particularly harsh twang, "How much do I tip the Count?!"
Well, I knew what I was going to give Fritz, Karl and Bruno as a parting gift—money! Which was easy and which they would surely need. But the Count? What on earth would I give him? "Ach! He doesn't expect anything," said Gretl when I asked her. "But if you must, gif him a cigarette case; he doesn't own one." I went to the best shop in town and had them engrave his initials inside a very smart dark brown leather case. He bowed stiffly when I presented him with it and though he seemed grateful, I had the distinct impression that he would have preferred money.
It was checkout time. To go that short journey to the front desk was like walking the last mile. I cannot describe it. I knew exactly what Gil had gone through on his last day. It was awful. Fritz, Karl and Bruno gave me a big hug. Then I gave Fritz, Karl and Bruno a big hug. Then we did it all over again and started blubbing as if on cue. This could have gone on forever had not Gretl put a stop to it. I had sent my luggage on ahead with the unit van because Gretl had insisted on driving me to the airport. "Come on, hurry up. Ve can't stay here all day." I noticed she didn't look at me and I certainly couldn't look at her. I didn't have the control. She walked out of the hotel and waited for me in her car. Our good-byes spilled over onto the street, Fritz, Karl and Bruno following me out. I suddenly wanted to take them all with me. Festitic was standing straight as a ramrod holding the car door open for me. Elegant as he was in his morning coat and stripes, I noticed his shirt collar and cuffs were slightly frayed. It gave him a look of faded grandeur and he reminded me a little of the White Knight in Alice Through the Looking Glass. I was about to climb in when he grabbed my arm. His eyes were cast down and he said quite solemnly in those deep, soft accents of his: "You have been a good friend." There was a pause and then: "Vere vill you go now?" "To the south of France," I answered. He gave a little sigh. "Ze south of France," he whispered dreamily, "how vunderful." "When were you last there?" I asked. "It was so long ago. I vas a little boy." In his eyes I caught a glimpse of a little boy's longing to escape. "I'm afraid you will find it terribly changed now," I offered. "It's all become so commercial and built up. Where did you stay when you were there?" There was another pause. "Oh, I don't remember qvite," he murmured, "but it vas very beautiful. Ve vere staying vis King Edvard ze Seventh."
It was as if all the clocks had stopped and we were suspended above the pavement. It was the first time that Festitic had ever referred in any way to his former life. He was still gazing down at his shoes. There was something so absolutely fin de siècle about the old man. For a moment, he looked up but his sad eyes were staring past me into some far-distant time which no one, not even he, could possibly resurrect. I held out my hand.
"Plummer! Hurry up. Get in!" cried an impatient Gretl at the wheel, the blast of a car horn renting the air. "You'll miss your plane." And, with a sudden jolt, we were back in the present.
On its final lap at the Fox Studios in L.A., "S & M" sped rapidly towards its completion. It was now all work and not much play except for a few redeeming moments such as filming the Lendler, that graceful dance during which Maria and the Captain first fall in love. It was a welcome interlude in what had become a rather strenuous schedule and, in spite of my two left feet, a breeze, due to my partner's formidable expertise.
Then there was the new song Rodgers and Hammerstein had added to the film score, "Something Good," which Julie and I were to croon in soft, intimate tones as we squared off to face each other in a gazebo. McCord had provided some low filtered lighting for the nonce, which was extremely flattering and bathed us most romantically in semisilhouette. Everything was set up, the mood was established, but just as the cameras began to roll, the thought of us both singing at such close range with our noses touching suddenly struck me as thoroughly bizarre. It must have struck Julie as well, for we both started giggling shamefully. Cut! We tried again—no dice! Each column of the gazebo had been lit for moonlight effects and it all looked suitably romantic. We began singing again and everything for the moment seemed under control when two elusive carbons rubbing accidentally together made a sound as if someone was prodigiously and continuously farting. We collapsed. Cut! Take twelve! By this time we were holding on to each other, clawing away at our clothes, dissolved in raucous laughter.
It was a contagious disease that was spreading fast, for it had infected the entire crew, including Mr. Wise. Our sides hurt—I'm sure thirty takes at least had gone by, none of which were printable, when mercifully we broke for lunch. Coming back to the set one hour later, convinced we'd sufficiently pulled ourselves together, we steeled ourselves for the moment and prayed for control. Jools had even taken a Valium, terrified lest she let her side down. Then the arcs began their revenge, and the farting continued. We buckled over in exhausted and helpless agony. This was getting serious. Bob Wise always had a pocket watch on a chain, which he rubbed like a touchstone. It must have had a soothing effect upon him, like a patience drug. Not today. "Turn off the lights. We'll shoot it in the dark," he shouted. And we proceeded to play in silhouette, hoping no one would see us giggling. How we finally got it in the can I'll never know. I imagine we were just too drained to laugh anymore and had no option but to do it straight. The word "print" is a lovely word and makes a lovely sound at moments like these and our relief was well earned, for in the end result, something not bad at all had come out of "Something Good."
To further shake me up, the final recording session was upon us. Daunting is not a strong enough word to describe it. Julie and I stood side by side in a small glassed-in cubicle facing two microphones. Surrounding our prison cage sat seventy-five musicians like hungry jackals waiting to pounce, led by their keeper, Irwin Kostal. Warbling softly into a mike is far more difficult than
singing full out in a theatre as I was later to discover. One is much more likely to catch and collect "frogs" in the throat, whereas projecting usually gets rid of them. I tried so hard not to look like a complete basket case. Julie, sensing my nerves, took hold of my hand and held it throughout the session. It must have taken her days to recover the use of it afterwards, I had squeezed so hard. No matter how diligently I'd slugged away at my lessons, I was still untrained as a singer. To stay on a long-sustained note was, for me, akin to a drunk trying to walk the straight white line, whereas you can bet the very first cry that Julie let forth as she emerged from her mother's womb was in perfect pitch! Listening to the playback, there was no disputing we were on separate planets. In the end, Robert Wise managed to hire someone to take care of my elongated passages, and the balance was somewhat restored.
Things had begun to markedly change on the "S & M" lot. There was a low buzz that seemed to indicate early hints of success. Reporters began skulking about; celebrities paid visits to the set. I remember a delectable Shirley MacLaine popping in quite frequently (she was on the next stage filming Irma la Douce). Agents and managers in growing numbers appeared more regularly. Well-respected directors would turn up to pay homage to Robert Wise. There was a distinct scent of success in the air. Julie took me aside one day and whispered, "Do you get the feeling we might be famous one day?"
Well, the rest is history of a kind. Here was a forgotten story that had collected dust at the bottom of a studio drawer for eight years, which would one day save that same studio from bankruptcy. Cleopatra had totally wasted the Twentieth lot and The Sound of Music became the Good Samaritan and put it safely back on its feet once more. I have never recovered from my shyness toward the glaring lights of a film premiere. I am a complete hypocrite, of course, torn between the thrill of mob recognition on the one hand and my aversion to the sheer vulgarity of it on the other. I therefore spent most of our premiere with a few chums including Robert Wise in the bar next door. The critics generally pooh-poohed the enterprise and it's always been my opinion they were too ashamed to admit they liked it lest their cynical, hard-boiled comrades of the press might call them sissies and banish them to the nearest convent. However, the film won the Oscar and the public, eager for a "family feature," wasted no time in boarding the speedily revolving roller coaster of praise; by the year's end, most countries had cheerfully risen to its bait. Most, that is, except Austria, which, for some time, had been fairly saturated by an onslaught of Trappamania. A well-made, detailed German documentary on their lives had been shown ad nauseam when "S & M" was a mere embryo; not to mention the family's persistent habit of yodeling themselves sick whenever an alp or two loomed into view. The Austrians too had somewhat understandably objected to the liberties taken by our costume department and regarded our apparel as so much Hollywoodized lederhosen. They also, not quite so understandably, decried the movie as being painfully schlag and sentimental, which, coming from that country, was tantamount to calling the kettle black.
More than frequently, over time, I have found myself returning to that part of the world, almost as a force of habit. I have appeared in other films made there and have visited as an admiring tourist and an avid fan of the festival. With each visit I noticed how much more prosperous everything seemed to appear, Austria having submitted to a major face-lift. No matter how modest, every schlöss had been freshly painted, their window boxes by the thousands overflowing with fresh multicolored flowers. The restaurants had made giant steps towards improvement and were booming. The hills and valleys, more alive than ever, were manicured to the bone—there was nary a blemish on the landscape. In fact it almost cried out for dear Mr. McCord, who had sadly left us to come back from the dead with his filters to make the whole countryside look less like a fairy tale. There was no doubt that "S & M" had helped turn Austria into a far richer country. Almost a billion dollars has poured in due to the avalanche of tourism the film has generated. Over the years, the people's attitude has altered considerably. They have entirely come to terms with it; there are "S & M" tours by the cartloads and Julie, Robert and I have accepted honours from both Salzburg and Vienna for our contributions to the pot. Every time I arrive there I feel rather like a Hapsburg reclaiming the throne. The old charm still exudes everywhere—the one and only disappointment was the little Bristol Hotel.
I snuck in one day to take a look. I was curious to see if any of the old atmosphere still prevailed. How I ever imagined it would beats me; after all, this was all almost forty years ago. Gretl, Bruno, Fritz, Karl and the Count were all long gone and there was little hope that they had left anything of themselves behind. I stood for a moment in the lobby with my eyes closed and tried to conjure up the smallest trace of that past which had found such a permanent place in my heart. I suddenly missed my little family terribly; I had adored my stay there, living in a crazy Ruritanian dream. It was like being part of a play of Ferenc Molnár's with incidental music by Oscar Strauss and Franz Lehar. I opened my eyes. No, there was nothing of that anymore. I didn't recognize this place at all. The Bristol was now just another hotel, any ordinary hotel, cold and heartless. I turned away and walked out into the bustling life of Makartplatz and the air that comes down from the mountains—the familiar, comforting soft air that is still part of my memory and thankfully refuses to change.
About a year or so ago in Connecticut, I went to a children's Easter party. They were going to show "S & M" as an after-lunch treat. Oh, my God, I thought, how am I going to escape? My friends, the hosts, pleaded with me to stay. "It will be such fun for the kids to watch Captain von Trapp watching himself on the screen." Oh, sure, I thought, the monstrous little fiends! Well, I stayed. I had not seen the movie for years and the more I watched, the more I realized what a terrific movie it is. The very best of its genre—warm, touching, joyous and absolutely timeless. I suddenly could see why it had brought such pleasure to so many people. Here was I, cynical old sod that I am, being totally seduced by the damn thing—and what's more, I felt a sudden surge of pride that I'd been a part of it. How beautifully it had been shot, how natural the choreography, how rich the arrangements, how excellent the cast. And Robert Wise, with his innate good taste and judgment, had expertly held in the reins lest it all canter over the cliff's edge down into a sea of treacle.
But the picture belongs to Julie. Of that there is no doubt. It is her movie, her triumph. The familiar saying that the camera never lies is one I will gladly dispute anytime, anyplace. In Julie's case, no camera, true or false, could stem the flow of her particular genius. She thoroughly infused the story with her own spirit, her own enchantment. Of course, that glorious golden sound of hers still echoes in the shell, but her performance was the antithesis of a musical comedy turn. Banishing all artifice, she was real, true, funny and vulnerable. She had lit up the screen and spilt her blood. There was no turning back now; it was far too late, for before anyone could even whisper the name "Maria," a hopelessly infatuated world had already made her its hostage.