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THE BRIT WHO FOUND OUT HOW TO HAVE FUN IN HOLLYWOOD

"The Seventh Veil," "Odd Man Out," "Caught," "The Reckless Moment," "The Desert Fox," "5 Fingers," "Pandora and the Flying Dutchman," "A Star Is Born," "Bigger Than Life," "North By Northwest," "Lolita," "The Pumpkin Eater," "Georgy Girl," "The Verdict." A quick scan of James Mason's movie titles provides an instant reminder that the charismatic British actor was one of the truly great international stars. Which is why I was delighted to get this 1977 interview with him for The New York Times. --GUY FLATLEY

 

"I have no complaints," brooded James Mason. His voice, as he spoke by phone from Lisbon, was pristinely British and tinged with elegant boredom, a uniquely Masonian blend of warmth and disdain. "I have only happy memories of my years in Hollywood. I had a good time."

Good times march on, even for rakish matinee idols, and so Mr. Mason no longer resides in the city of his past pleasures. Instead, he journeys there on rare occasions, to visit with his son, Morgan – who is said to be contemplating marriage to Louise Fletcher – or to tackle an infrequent movie role, such as that of a bumbling messenger of God in Warren Beatty’s recently completed "Heaven Can Wait."

These days, Mr. Mason and his wife treasure the serenity of their home in Switzerland, though the 66-year-old trouper will travel virtually anywhere, at any time, for a plum part – a fact that accounts for his presence in Portugal, where "The Boys From Brazil" is now shooting. Franklin J. Schaffner’s thriller, based on Ira Levin’s novel about a ring of furtive Nazis who hatch a plot to establish a Fourth Reich, also stars Gregory Peck – as a fiendish geneticist – Laurence Olivier, Lilli Palmer, Uta Hagen, Rosemary Harris, Bruno Ganz and Anne Meara.

"I was alerted just last week, when I was finishing up on Warren’s movie," said Mr. Mason, "so I haven’t read the book yet. I’m just using the script and my discussion with the director as the basis for what I’m aiming at. I’m rather arbitrarily filling in the background of my character. As I understand it, he is sympathetic, compared to the man Gregory Peck plays. I’ll be a man of action, yet one who is given to clinging on to gold, to things that glitter, a man who hangs golden jewelry about his body, which is a symptom I’ve noticed in various successful men of war, like General Montgomery."

Mr. Mason, too, is a man of action, yet he has no desire to call "Action!" on a movie set. He recognizes his own limitations and would not dare to direct a film in which he was also appearing, as Warren Beatty – and Buck Henry, Mr. Beatty’s co-star and co-director – did with "Heaven Can Wait."

"I was not upset by having two directors, but it was different. When Warren was in front of the camera, he decided it would be a nice idea to have somebody with whom he was on good terms behind the camera. That way, the decisions about his own performance were easier to arrive at; he didn’t have to bother keeping an eye on other actors.

"The reason I never became a director," Mr. Mason explained, "is that I have been busy clinging, with all my fingernails, to what I laughingly refer to as a star. It was not always easy going, you know. Remember, I was in Hollywood for 16 years and I had my ups and downs. I suppose that many of my films would be better forgotten. It’s not that I’m trying to put myself down. I made several good films, too – ‘Desert Fox,’ ‘Pandora and the Flying Dutchman' (at left, with Ava Gardner), ‘5 Fingers’ – and then I made ‘20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,’ which made a huge amount of money. So my agent said, ‘Now, just sit back and wait till the scripts come rolling in.’ Well, I sat back, and I waited, and do you know what happened? Not one bloody script rolled in. Not one."