LIONEL STANDER: HE
WASNT AFRAID OF JOHN WAYNE
OR ANYONE ELSE
He may have been a supporting player in
Hollywood movies, but in real life Lionel Stander was THE STAR,
as I found out when I interviewed him for The New York Times in
1971. Stander could be difficult, so I was relieved when I heard
that he was pleased with this article. In fact, several years later,
during a boozy evening at the Plaza Hotel, he asked me to write
his biography. I said I couldnt, because I had just moved
over from The Times to Cosmopolitan magazine and I didnt think
Helen Gurley Brown would be thrilled to have her new managing editor
and movie critic spending his after-office hours writing down the
tall tales of a wild man, however true they might be. But it would
have been a helluva good time for me. --GUY FLATLEY
a 63-year-old actor with a double chin, gray hair, a beer belly
and a droopy left eyelid. Astonishingly, after two decades of being
blacklisted by Hollywood, you've been handed the meaty role of a
Mafia chieftain in MGM's comedy, "The Gang That Couldn't Shoot
Straight." So naturally you do what you're told; you mind your
manners, pick up your paycheck, and don't rock the boat. Maybe you
even eat a little humble pie, or better still, keep your mouth shut
altogether. Maybe, but not if your name is Lionel Stander.
Lionel Stander. Once upon a Hollywood time, he was the highest paid
supporting player under contract to Columbia. Audiences loved his
unlovely mug, his henchman's hulk and, above all, his husky, down-in-the-dungeon
voice. They smiled--or trembled--as he bullied his big-bruiser way
through "The Scoundrel," "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town,"
"Meet Nero Wolfe," "The Last Gangster," "A
Star Is Born" and other memorable flicks of the thirties.
Then, in 1939, there began the long silence, born of the blacklist.
It was not until 27 years later that Stander again made a big noise,
bringing the full force of his personality to Roman Polanski's
made-in-Europe horror comedy, "Cul-de-Sac." His starring
performance as a sadistic thug won a standing ovation at the Berlin
Film Festival--and the belated recognition by many Americans of
a sadly neglected talent. During those years of exile--spent in
New York and Paris and London--Stander was sometimes down but never
out. And he has been far from out in Rome, where he has mushroomed
into a superstar, Italian-American style, by appearing in 14 movies
in the past two and a half years, sometimes adding sinister spice
to spaghetti westerns and sometimes clowning uncontrollably in such
comedies as Italy's current box-office smash, "The Cross-Eyed
Lounging in a Central Park South hotel recently, puffing cigars
and sending a sulky blonde who is said to be his wife scurrying
to the kitchen for more vodka, Stander retraced some of the steps
of his long day's journey into La Dolce Vita.
"I talk with the arrogance of ignorance on many themes,"
he begins, his voice a boom swelling from some bottomless pit. His
shiny red shirt is unzipped, revealing a mound of white-haired blubber.
"I'm a prejudiced man, but I don't hate anybody. I do despise
a lot of people, though."
A sure-fire candidate for Stander's "despised" list is
all-American hero, John Wayne. "I nominate John Wayne for a
special Academy Award for the best non-supporting performance in
World War II," says Stander, who was in the Air Force himself
from 1942 to 1945. "Wayne claims that he tried to serve as
an officer and that when they wouldn't let him, he did not choose
to serve as an enlisted man. Well, he was just an unimportant cowboy
actor at Monogram who happened to hit it lucky when the big stars,
like Robert Montgomery and Jimmy Stewart and Gable, were away at
war. Wayne never served a day, and for him to pose as a super-patriot
and attack the kids who go to Canada is as hypocritical as Ronald
Reagan not paying taxes or the Attorney General allowing his wife
to attack the Supreme Court and the basic law of the land."
"Does John Wayne know where we live in Rome?" The accent,
light and appealing, belongs to Stander's blonde companion, a Dutch
baroness named Stephanie van Hennik. She is wearing hot pants and
leather boots and she seems a trifle tense.
"Who's afraid of John Wayne?" barks Stander. "I took
on the whole House on Un-American Activities Committee. Now I should
be afraid of John Wayne?"
It's true, Stander did appear as a wild and woolly witness before
Committee in 1940. And again in 1953, this time hurling the hearings
into total turmoil with his marathon lecture on the meaning of democracy.
"I was a willing witness. I wanted to name names: the names
of people in Georgia who had burned crosses in front of a Negro's
house, the names of people who had desecrated Jewish cemeteries.
But the Committee wasn't interested in hearing about those un-American
Does Stander bear any grudge against those who named names that
the Committee did want to hear? "No. If I can understand a
Negro who sells out his own race by becoming an FBI man, I can understand
a guy who testifies before a committee in order to keep a $200,000-a-year
job. I understand them both, but I don't respect them."
Stander is on his feet now, pacing the floor, puffing his cigar
breathing heavily. "But I don't understand a guy who names
his own wife on the stand," he says, mentioning the name of
a famous screen and stage actor. "And I don't understand a
director who has dinner with a man one night and then names his
name the very next day," he adds, giving the name of a distinguished
director. "But life has vindicated the right guys. Chaplin.
Trumbo. Waldo Salt. Do you remember when we blacklisted Einstein?
And we kicked Bertrand Russell out of the country?"
The fact that Stander is currently playing one of the juiciest roles
of his career in an expensive MGM movie must mean that it can't
happen here again.
"If you think they won't institute the blacklist again, you
don't know the quality of Agnew and Nixon and the people around
them. Look at Nixon's background. The Alger Hiss case, the pumpkin
papers! And the scurrilous persecution of Helen Gahagan Douglas."
Hollywood's persecution of Lionel Stander began even before his
celebrated jousts with the Committee. "I've always been lefter
than the Left, and I worked very closely with the Communist Party
during the thirties. But I never joined."
Guilt by association, however, was sufficient guilt to hang Stander.
"I remember very clearly that day in August, 1939, when my
agent, Abe Lastfogel, came to me and said, 'Harry Cohn got up at
a meeting of the MPAA last night and said that your contract was
up for renewal but that he didn't want to renew it because you're
a red sonofabitch and that anyone who hires you will have to pay
$1,000 to the MPAA. But don't worry, Lionel, it'll blow over.' Abe
was right; it did blow over. But it took 24 years.
Between 1939 and 1963--when my friend Tony Richardson put me in
'The Loved One'--I didn't work for a major studio, except when somebody
with courage, like Preston Sturges, decided to use me."
Courage was a scarce commodity in those days of the "Red Menace,"
and Stander was forced to take inferior roles in fleabag films for
fly-by-night companies. He also had a fling at Broadway, where many
years earlier--at the age of 19--he had made his acting debut as
the First Fairy in e.e. cummings "him" and where
he had appeared in 26 plays by the time he was 25, most notably
as Yank in Eugene ONeills "Bound East for Cardiff."
But the Broadway pickings proved slim for a Hollywood outcast, and
Stander decided to try his luck outside the theater.
"A writer can write under the table, a director can direct
table," Stander points out, "but an actor cannot act under
the table. There were blacklisted actors who committed suicide;
there were others who became drunkards, or junkies. Some got jobs
as electricians, some as elevator operators. But me, I have always
lived on the champagne level. I figured that I needed $1,250 a week
to break even, so I went to work on Wall Street, where there was
no blacklist. I became a customer's man, and I managed to live in
the style to which Hollywood had accustomed me."
Hollywood had also accustomed Stander to a succession of stunning
women, and, through thick and thin, he was never without a good,
strong woman at his side--good, strong, ready, willing and wealthy.
He even married some of these women: was it five or was it six?
"That's irrelevant," he says, stealing a sidelong glance
at Stephanie. "My motto has always been if at first you don't
succeed, fail, fail again."
Stander is more comfortable counting kids than he is counting wives.
"I have five children; ranging in age from 7 to 36. All daughters;
I refuse to give up any male genes. I need them--for my work."
How frequently does he see his 7-year-old daughter? "She's
in Germany right now. I mean Spain. I see her when I can."
"How can you say that?" asks Stephanie. "You never
"I saw her a year and a half ago. Remember? When her mother
had me arrested for kidnapping?"
Well, how long has Stander been married to Stephanie?
A pregnant pause. A cough from Stander, a blush from Stephanie.
"I'm going to marry Stephanie just as soon as my divorce comes
through. This poor girl is madly in love with me and, against all
my advice, shes going to marry me. Right, darling?"
"Yes," she says, folding her arms and frowning.
"Stephanie. Im joking! You don't like me to joke about
these things, do you?"
"Stephanie is sensitive. She takes these things seriously.
Just say that I live with her and that she's rich and aristocratic."
"Write that down," Stephanie commands. "I want you
to write down that he lives off my money."
"Actually, Stephanie is only living with me to save on her
hotel expenses. Our situation is platonic. Plah-tah-eek! Right,
Stephanie? How about bringing me another drink, so I can blame this
interview on being drunk?"
Like a good girl, Stephanie carries out her mission for vodka. "What
do you think of her?" Stander beams. "Isn't she charming?
Notice how jealous she gets when I talk about my wives and girl
friends? I think she's worried that I'm talking too much about Nixon
and Agnew, too. Let me ask you something: do you think I should
talk this way?"
Scarcely waiting for the mumbled reply, Stander jumps right in and
tackles his next subject, the Nostalgia Boom. "People have
gotten so uptight about the present that they are forced to look
back. I never thought I'd see the day when people would look back
with nostalgia to Prohibition. That was a horrible time: gangsters
sitting in front row seats, getting drunk and puking. That was my
generation--we got drunk and made love in automobiles. I don't have
any friends my age; they all turned out to be smug fatheads. The
people of my generation hate their young. They won't let them grow
up and run the country. They'll kill them first. I don't want to
be a prophet of doom, but God help the country that hates its young."
And God help the country that doesn't help its poor. "If the
United States doesn't solve the problem of unemployment, it could
mean the decay of a civilization. The riots in Brownsville may have
been the opening spark. These people tried peaceful demonstrations,
but the President is proud of the fact that he is deaf to the protests
of the people. And when the government can deny peace demonstrators
in Washington their basic rights under the Constitution, when they
intern people to get them out of the way, it's the same thing as
Nazi Germany and Russian totalitarianism. We're a heartbeat away
from American fascism."
Stephanie, back from her errand, suggests that a change of subject
might be a nice idea, since it is a perilous pastime to speak out
against the establishment in this country.
"I don't give a shit," Stander says, chomping his cigar.
"I've always been outrageous. I was one of the first hippies.
They used to think I dressed like a fag, and now I'm in style. I
smoked pot in New York when it was legal. I'm against this idea,
incidentally, that pot makes you go on the needle. I wish I smoked
pot instead of alcohol. I never heard of anyone coming home and
beating his wife and spending his paycheck on pot. Alcohol is a
Sex is no great menace, but it can be tedious when it's somebody
else's sex. "Some of the movies I've seen recently make sex
boring. How anyone satisfies himself sexually is only important
to him. There are very few variations on the one basic theme. I
know--I've tried them all. You could say that I'm a sexual reactionary
in that I've been a confirmed heterosexual for 63 years. It's not
that I'm against Gay Lib--I'm completely for it--it's just that
I'm too old to switch. I really should
feel insulted--no man has gone on the make for me since I was 10.
And he was a Civil War veteran at summer camp."
It's time for the unliberated hippie and the beautiful baroness
to have their picture taken."Oh, when my mother sees me in
"She'll say, 'Holy Jesus Christ, is this any husband for my
Sixty-three years of age and a Jew and ugly."
"Yes, you're so ugly."
"That's why you're with me, right? Because you dig ugly men?"
Stephanie smiles innocentIy and snuggles up in Stander's lap, like
a schoolgirl getting ready to tell Santa what she wants for Christmas.