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FREDRIC MARCH GAVE US THE BEST YEARS OF HIS LIFE

Fredric March was no Tom Cruise. Nor was he Brad Pitt or George Clooney or any of the other pretty faces and toned-up bodies vying for box-office dominance these days. March was merely an intelligent, industrious, healthily playful craftsman who carved out a career in the theater and went on to become an independent-spirited superstar in films--two of which ("Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" and "The Best Years of Our Lives") won him Best-Actor Oscars. It was a privilege to sit and chat with him, as I did on assgnment for The New York Times one gloriously long day's journey into night in 1973. --Guy Flatley

"This is 1924; I won't be Bickel any more. Fredric March is now my name. Wishing everyone the same
--Happy New Year!"

"Oh God, how corny!" moans Fredric March, reciting a greeting card he had sent to friends nearly 50 years ago, shortly after director John Cromwell persuaded him to change his name. "Bickel connotes bickering," Cromwell had warned. "Or pickles."

Today, the name Fredric March connotes a towering man of the theater, a two-time Oscar winner, an actor's actor - and, surprisingly, one whose crowning achievements may still lie before him. For just a few weeks ago, at the age of 75, March completed his 69th movie role, that of the tough old Harry Hope in a four-hour, two-intermission, version of Eugene O'Neill's "The Iceman Cometh". Directed by John Frankenheimer and also starring Lee Marvin as Hickey, the project is perhaps the most promising of several stage hits being transferred to the screen by Ely Landau's ambitious new American Film Theater.

"I thought I was through three years ago, after I made 'Tick Tick Tick,'" March says, shaking his head and smiling. He's sitting in the comfortable den of his Connecticut farm house, and beside his chair is the cane he's forced to rely on, due to a recurring "middle ear" difficulty. His hair is white, his skin lined with age, but his eyes are blue and friendly, his manner alert.

"When John Frankenheimer asked me to play Harry Hope, I said, 'No John, I'm really through this time.' But then my wife twisted my arm, and John Cromwell twisted my arm, and Bob Anderson twisted my arm. 'Come on, Freddy,' they said. 'You're just sitting on your can; you'd better get to work.' So I did.

"But, Jesus, my heart bled for poor Frankenheimer. Everything seemed to be going wrong. I went into the hospital for prostate surgery -- it was my second time -- and I told John he should get somebody else for the movie, but he said no. Well we got the movie made, after all. And John said we'd have to get together and do another one. But I don't think I'll be hearing much more of that sort of talk."

"I've seen the rushes on 'Iceman,'" says March's wife Florence Eldridge, who has joined us, "and I'm sure that after the movie opens, everyonewill be calling you. I think there's a certain richness that comes with age, and I believe that this may be the finest acting you've ever done, Freddy."

Which means that it must be very fine, indeed. For March's movie career -- which began in 1929 with "The Dummy" -- has been studded with memorable performances, from the fiendish schizoid of "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" to the sly sophisticate of "Design for Living" to the impetuous Robert Browning of "The Barretts of Wimpole Street" to the alcoholic actor of "A Star Is Born" to the rowdy reporter of "Nothing Sacred" to the weary war veteran of "The Best Years of Our Lives" to the elderly, lovestruck widower of "Middle of the Night" to the ranting William Jennings Bryan of "Inherit the Wind." Not to mention his stage triumphs in "The Skin of Our Teeth," "A Bell for Adano," "Years Ago," "An Enemy of the People" and "The Autumn Garden." And especially O'Neill's "Long Day's Journey Into Night," which March considers to be the high point of his career.

In truth, some of the most electrifying dramas took place backstage, as was the case with "The Skin of Our Teeth," Thornton Wilder's brilliant 1942 comedy which brought the Marches together with Tallulah Bankhead -- in a manner of speaking.

"What was it like to work with Tallulah?" gasps March, his eyes popping, and then narrowing. "It was..."

"Freddy!" Miss Eldridge interrupts, in the nick of time. At 71, she is still a handsome woman; now, as always, a pleasing mixture of delicacy and strength. "Tallulah is dead, and I don't think we should go into all that ancient history. Let's just say that we used to stop by the doctor's before each performance for our B-1 shots and so we managed to make it through all right."

The Marches have managed to make it through lots of theatrical trials and tribulations. They have also made it through many years of scandal-free marriage. As a matter of fact, they will celebrate their 46th anniversary next Wednesday. What's their magic formula?

"You know," Miss Eldridge says, looking genuinely puzzled, "I haven't the slightest idea."

"It all depends on the woman," March says emphatically. "And I happened to get a very superior wife. She could have called it a day so many times. But she didn't want to, thank God."

Maybe one of the reasons they have stayed together is that they have so frequently played together. Despite the fact that she is a highly respected performer in her own right, Miss Eldridge has never tolerated long separations. If the March play or movie included a part for her, that was fine, but she never fought for the flashy roles that would carry her down a solo path to superstardom. Fashionable or not, she saw her primary role as that of wife to March and mother to their two adopted children, Penelope and Anthony.

"I made a choice and I believe it was the right one," she says. "It's so untidy if everyone is flying off in all directions. I guess Women's Lib is right about my generation; we were brainwashed."

"Well, Dearie, I think Women's Lib is on the right track," says March, "but they've gotten a little too masculine in some cases. I understand one woman joined because she was tired of dancing backwards."

March, one of handsomest of Hollywood's leading men, made movie love to many a liberated woman in his day, and now, sipping Bourbon in the serenity of his den, he enjoys reminiscing about some of the more delectable ladies of the silver screen. Like Garbo.

"It was fun working with Garbo in 'Anna Karenina,' but I can't say I ever got to know her very well. As Bob Montgomery put it, 'Doing a picture with Garbo does not constitute an introduction.' It was always Miss Garbo and Mister March. But she was so charming with little Freddie Bartholomew; she had such a wonderful way with all children. Once I said to her, "Miss Garbo, why not adopt a child? Miriam Hopkins did, and she's not married.' 'Mr. March,' Garbo answered, 'don't you think it is a little late in the picture for you to make such a proposal to me?'"

Another unforgettable biggie was Joan Crawford, who was billed over March in the 1940 melodrama "Susan and God." "She was a nice person, but a real movie star. She even brought her own music to the set-- a whole entourage, a violinist and a pianist, to play her favorite songs, to get her into the proper mood for the scene."

Didn't that tend to grate on director George Cukor's nerves?

"Cukor never said much about the music-- or anything else--to Joan. She was the star."

There were others, perhaps less star-like but more warmly remembered than Crawford. "Clara Bow was so vital and gay, and Jeanne Eagels was wonderful-- even though 'Jealousy,' the movie I did with her, was a stinker. Carole Lombard was lots of fun, and Janet Gaynor was very nice. And Myrna Loy-- she went to the U.N, you know. I loved Alexis Smith, too. I guess I played with just about all the big female stars, from Clara Bow to Sophia Loren. But somehow I missed Bette Davis."

"You only missed Bette Davis because I got to play Queen Elizabeth in 'Mary of Scotland.' Bette wanted that part very much, and in her memoirs she says she didn't get it because Florence Eldridge was the wife of the star."

"Mary of Scotland," made in 1936, was the only film in which March was directed by John Ford. "I liked working with Jack," he says, grinning. "I still remember asking him how he saw my character of Bothwell. 'He's a comic,' Jack said, 'just a comic.' And before Florence began working on the picture, he took me aside and said, 'Tell your wife not to come in here with preconceived ideas about Elizabeth.' 'Well,' I said, 'how do you see the character of Elizabeth, Jack?' He chewed on that old handkerchief of his for a minute and finally said, 'Elizabeth's a comic.' 'Jesus,' I thought, 'there sure are a lot of comics in this movie.'"

The third major comic of the movie was Katharine Hepburn, who has remained a chum of the Marches over the years. "I dropped Kate a note when Spence died," March says, "and I got the most beautiful reply in which she told me how Spence felt about me. Jesus, all those years, and I never knew that he had the same feeling for me that I had for him."

One might have expected them to be more rivals than friends, since Tracy dared to star in a 1941 version of "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," the vehicle which had won March and Oscar back in 1932. "I remember running into Spence in Hollywood and saying, 'I haven't seen your picture yet, but I hear it's great.' 'Who the hell do you think you're kidding?' he said to me. 'When I did that movie, I did you the biggest favor anybody ever did you.'"

Years later, in 1960, the veteran stars pooled their acting skills in "Inherit the Wind," but only Tracy received an Oscar nomination. "I wrote Spence a note saying, 'I hope you'll be the first guy to get three Academy Awards; I know I'm going to vote for you.' He answered by saying, 'I don't know what the hell happened when those nominations were made; the votes must have been counted in Cook County.'

"The truth is, I enjoyed making 'Inherit the Wind' too much," March says. "I remember the rehearsals; I had already learned the whole script, the way you do in the theater, and Spence was still using the script. One day he called Kate on the phone and said, 'That s.o.b. March knows his whole part already.' 'Of course he does,' Kate said, 'that's his theatuh background.' 'Well thank you, Mrs. Shakespeare!' Spence said and hung up."

Mister Shakespeare is one playwright March has never tackled. "I don't know why I haven't, I really don't. I should have done Romeo, and then Hamlet. And Florence and I should have done 'Macbeth' together."

"It was just that I felt Judith Anderson had already done the definitive Lady Macbeth," says Miss Eldridge. "I think what really happened, Freddy, was Hollywood."

It's true that more than one Hollywood mogul is bored by the bard. Still, March did his best to select literate screenplays and to work with the top directors. "My favorites were Willy Wellman, who directed me in 'A Star is Born' and 'Nothing Sacred,' [that's Wellman sprinkling March and Carole Lombard on the set of "Nothing Sacred"] and Willy Wyler, who directed me in 'The Best Years of Our Lives' and 'The Desperate Hours,' and John Frankenheimer, who directed me in 'Seven Days in May' and 'The Iceman Cometh.' I liked Ernst Lubitsch, too, but he was a different kind of director. He gave you every move you were to make--when to put your hands in your pockets, when to light a cigarette. He was too meticulous in his direction of actors, but I liked the way his movies turned out."

Cecil B. DeMille, who directed March in "The Sign of the Cross" and "The Buccaneer," was also meticulous. "He worked everything out on paper, how many pages you would shoot per day-- and by golly, you shot them. He was a tough son-of-a-gun, firing one assistant director after another. And he always jumped on the little people. He used to carry five $20 gold pieces in his pockets and he jingled them like Captain Queeg."

"He did the most impressive research," says Miss Eldridge, "but, somehow, when it got on the screen, it always came out pure DeMille."

Even though there was much that was run-of-DeMille in March's sojourns in Hollywood, he did make a stab at artistic independence. "People always complain that Freddy is dull copy, that he's just a normal fellow," Miss Eldridge says, with a note of exasperation. "The thing they never talk about-- apparently because it isn't lively enough--is that Freddy was the first actor who, at the peak of his career, refused to sign a studio contract. He wanted to be his own man. Back in the thirties, Zanuck sat up until four one morning trying to talk Freddy into a new contract. 'No actor can choose his own material,' Zanuck said. 'Write that down, put it in a vault, and two years later take it out and you'll see that I'm right.'"

Two years later, March was free-lancing, busily choosing his own movie roles. He also chose to return to Broadway, where he had labored futilely before turning to films. Unfortunately, the Marches' "comeback," in 1937, was made in a dud of a play called "Your Obedient Husband."

"I produced that show with John Cromwell," March says, wincing at the memory. "Monty Clift was the juvenile lead; he must have been 15 or 16 at the time. During our tryout in Indianapolis, Monty's mother called the theater and said that Monty had the measles. So Cromwell's wife, Kay Johnson, had to go on in Monty's place, with John hiding in the fireplace and feeding her Monty's lines. We lasted a week in New York, John and I lost a lot of money, and several members of the cast came down with measles."

Measles notwithstanding, March has fond memories of Montgomery Clift, who went on to play his son in "The Skin of Our Teeth." "Monty had a great talent; he was very much like Alfred Lunt."

Of the current crop of American actors, March favors Alan Arkin, Dustin Hoffman and George C. Scott. And Marlon Brando, who -- like March and Tracy -- belongs to that elite circle of multiple Oscar winners. (March's two wins were for "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" and "The Best Years of Our Lives.") "I think Brando had a perfect right to turn down his Oscar," March says, "but it would have been awfully nice if he'd been there himself to say what he had to say about the Indian situation."

March has yet to view Brando's "Last Tango in Paris." "We haven't seen 'Deep Throat,' either, or any of those porno movies. I do think this business of stripping down will see its day. The pendulum will swing back. Jesus, when you think of the way they used to censor any little utterance in the old days -- remember the great to-do over the end of 'Gone With the Wind,' when Gable said, 'Frankly my dear , I don't give a damn'? And now, even 'The Iceman Cometh' is full of semi-profanities."

March laughs when he recalls how the censors went to work on "The Eagle and the Hawk," an aviation drama he made with Carole Lombard in 1933. "It was one of those 'regiment leaves at dawn' things and naturally, I was supposed to sleep with Carole. So, the next morning, I left a gardenia on her pillow. When the censors got a look at the scene, they said 'You can't do that!' They made us reshoot the scene, with me leaving the gardenia on Carole's bedside table."

"In some ways, these explicit movies are doing a good thing," says Miss Eldridge. "They're shattering what was left of the old puritanism. People seem to have better sexual attitudes than ever before. I mean, look what happened to poor Ingrid Bergman when she fell in love with Rossellini. Now we have Maria Schneider boasting to an interviewer that she's had sexual experiences with 20 people or more, and that makes for better box office .

"Some time ago, Gadge Kazan felt he had to go to work on Freddy and me. 'You two are so uptight about sex,' he said. So he sent us 'Fanny Hill' and 'Memoirs of a Victorian Gentleman.' Later, he asked how we liked them. "They're fascinating -- for the first five chapters,' I told him, 'and then they become repetitious. After all, in the days of 'Fanny Hill,' they didn't have so many positions, so it got to be dull after a while.'"

'That's so true, Dearie," March nods.

Nobody ever accused the Marches of being uptight when it came to politics. March was even admonished by Congressman Martin Dies for lending his name to alleged leftist causes in the forties, and in 1950 --at the peak of the McCarthy hysteria -- the Marches appeared in Arthur Miller's bold adaptation of Ibsen's "An Enemy of the People."

"We took the idea to Arthur Miller in the first place," says Miss Eldridge. "It seemed to us that a lot of people were being tarred and feathered, when the only crime they were guilty of was trying to clean up the sewers. But the play didn't have the effect we thought it would. It was quickly taken up by the people in the audience, both left and right, and on closing night there were police lines out front. Those were very bad days in this country."

Could the Marches be categorized as political crusaders today? "No, I don't think so," March says. "Do you, Dearie?"

"Only in a small way. We send money for an effective congress, and we had meetings for McGovern."

Any comments on the Nixon Administration?

Miss Eldridge hesitates. "Doesn't your paper say it prints everything fit to print?" she asks finally, in a small but firm voice. "Well, I'm afraid my comments on that subject would not be fit to print."

"Exactly," says March, beaming proudly at his wife.