February 11, 2015 – In my debut novel, City of Whores, Dexter Gaines is reflecting on the two tumultuous years of his youth in Hollywood when he aspired to be a movie star in the early 1950s. His friend and mentor, Milford (“Milly”) Langen (Darryl F. Zanuck’s right arm at 20th Century Fox and husband of movie star Lillian Sinclair), has pulled the necessary strings to secure Dexter his first film role (albeit a tiny one). Trouble is, Dexter has a nervous condition that causes his hands to tremble, and the only thing that helps is marijuana. This scene was especially challenging when I narrated the audiobook! To hear a five minute sampling of the most challenging scene in which I play Noel Coward, Truman Capote, Kitty Carlisle, Margaret Truman, and Tennessee Williams, please click here.
From Chapter 6
The first time I walked onto a real movie set as a working actor was on Stage 4 of the 20th Century Fox lot. A small army of grips and gaffers and production assistants was swarming over an enormous set four stories high, the middle section of a massive ocean liner, complete with a funnel that reached nearly to the catwalks high above. I was already in makeup and wardrobe, in my case the tailored uniform of a deck steward. As I stood there, taking in the lights, cameras, and the cluster of costumed extras smoking cigarettes and eating doughnuts at the craft service table, I felt a hand on my shoulder.
“Well you certainly look the part,” Milly said, giving my arm a squeeze.
“Yeah, I’m drawing on my vast life experience as a waiter,” I tried to smile, but the truth was, I was nervous, and more than a little bitter.
“You know your lines?”
“Line,” I corrected, then, in my best British accent, “Would you like some bouillon, Madame?”
“Hey, kiddo,” Milly said, grinning, “you gotta start somewhere.”
“I’m not complaining,” was all I could muster, lying through my teeth.
The assistant director, Henry Weinberger, called for first team to take their places.
“That’s you,” Milly said with a gentle nudge. “I’ll tag along and introduce you to everyone.”
We headed over to the set and a production assistant improbably named Pook showed us around back where the clever illusion abruptly ended. The ship was just a façade, of course, its back a mishmash of wooden beams and a narrow staircase.
“Welcome aboard,” Pook said, then gestured toward the steps. “Bon voyage.”
I emerged onto the partial deck of the steamship where the extras were already in place, bundled up in steamer rugs and gloves despite the excruciating heat of the lights overhead. Behind us, a huge rear projection screen flickered to life with a black and white film loop of the ocean rolling by, and a giant wind machine began to spin, gently ruffling our hair. If you squinted, you’d almost believe you were in the middle of the Atlantic—on an impossibly hot day. Milly approached an utterly regal woman, already seated in a deck chair with a blanket over her legs.
“Milly,” she exclaimed, delighted to see him, “what on earth are you doing here? Don’t tell me you’ve taken over the picture?”
“Just visiting, Babs,” he said, leaning down to kiss her elegant cheek. “I’m grooming a young actor,” he turned to me now, “Dexter Gaines, allow me to introduce Barbara Stanwyck.”
I’ll admit it, as much as I felt like the world owed me, and that I was going to be a huge movie star, there was still enough of the kid from Tyler in me that I was completely star-struck. She extended a hand which I took in mine.
“I’m thrilled to meet you, Miss Stanwyck,” I croaked. “The Lady Eve is one of my favorite pictures.”
“You’re very kind,” she smiled, and I immediately felt at ease around her. She was genuine, unlike so many other people I’d met in the months since I’d been living in Milly and Lilly’s cabana. “And here I am on the set of another luxury liner. Too bad this one has to sink in the end.”
She was referring, of course, to the Titanic, on whose faux decks we now stood, awaiting our cue to shoot the one scene Milly had managed to secure for me. It was early November, 1952, and Milly had been successful in his campaign to ditch the working title Nearer My God to Thee and go with the more recognizable name of the actual doomed liner—an idea I had suggested to him poolside one Saturday afternoon, by the way. I had been in Hollywood for almost a year before he’d pulled enough strings to get me in front of the cameras. If you’ve seen the movie, you’ll remember Robert Wagner out on deck when he spots Barbara Stanwyck, who plays the mother of Wagner’s love interest. He chats with her, and she reads a poem to him. What you won’t remember is the very beginning of the scene where Stanwyck is seated alone with her book, and a handsome young deck steward approaches and offers her morning bouillon.
“Well look what the cat dragged in,” said Robert Wagner, approaching and chucking Milly affably on the shoulder. Milly beamed when he saw the young actor.
“R.J., a little respect.”
“For you? Please,” Wagner said, all in fun. Milly stared at him for a moment before remembering his manners.
“R.J., this is Dexter Gaines,” Milly said, pivoting to include me in the conversation.
“How are you, Dex?” Wagner said, shaking my hand so firmly I almost flinched. “Nice to meet you.”
“You, too” was all I managed in return.
“Places everyone!” called an authoritative voice with the slightest trace of an eastern-European accent. “And will someone please help this poor lost producer off my set?” It was the director, Jean Negulesco, a kind man in his early fifties, his eyes twinkling as he came rising over the deck railing, riding alongside the cameraman on a huge crane. He gestured toward Milly. Immediately, everyone snapped to attention.
“Johnny, you shouldn’t work so hard,” Milly said to the director. “You need to rest up for croquet at Darryl’s this weekend.”
“Pfffft,” was his only response to that. “Good morning, Barbara. Lovely day to hit an iceberg,” he quipped.
Miss Stanwyck frowned. “I don’t think we should joke, considering the true story.”
“I meant no disrespect,” the director said in reply.
“I was just leaving,” Milly chimed in, good-naturedly. Then, as he passed me, “Okay, kiddo, break a leg.” Which was more or less exactly what I was afraid of.
“Any questions, anyone?”
“Let’s shoot,” Wagner said, hopping over a railing with the ease of an acrobat and trotting down the ship’s stairs to assume his place on the deck just below. I admired his self-assured athleticism, but the fact that he had the role that should have been mine filled me with resentment from the moment he confidently shook my trembling hand.
My first screen test at Fox had been the very scene Wagner was about to play with Miss Stanwyck. After months of gentle badgering from Lillian, Milly had finally acquiesced. I tested opposite a woman I didn’t recognize playing Barbara Stanwyck’s part, and while the bulk of the experience has been blocked from memory, I do remember Milly telling me how well I’d done afterwards over drinks at Ciro’s, one of his favorite haunts. I didn’t bother to tell him I’d been so high I could barely remember the dialog. In the end, Wagner got the part, and I got a walk on as a consolation prize, so here I was.
As we were getting ready to roll camera, the prop master, a diminutive man in his forties, brought over the silver tray of china cups and saucers, steaming with hot bouillon. “Here you go,” he said, thrusting the tray with its dangerous contents into my hands. Immediately, I heard the delicate and foreboding rattle, but the prop master had already moved off, checking to make sure that Miss Stanwyck had her small book of poetry for the scene.
“On a bell!” the first A.D. boomed, startling me and bringing another wave of clattering from the tray as a loud buzzer sounded. I stared at the roiling sea of broth, as agitated as the fake ocean projected behind me.
“Rolling!” “Camera!” “Speed!”
“Titanic! Scene thirty-five! Take one!” the camera loader barked, then snapped the clapper board, startling me and triggering a renewed round of tinkling bone china.
There was a long pause as I stood out of frame, desperately clinging to the tray, kicking myself for not having the sense to toke up prior to leaving my tiny dressing trailer outside.
“Aaaaaand…Action!” Negulesco shouted.
I turned toward Miss Stanwyck, who sat serenely reading her little book, the fake breeze gently ruffling her scarf. I approached.
“Good morning, Madame, lovely day.” I said crisply, so far so good, “Would you like some bouillon?”
I turned, annoyed. I wasn’t done, yet.
“Something technical?” Miss Stanwyck asked.
“No, Babs. Uh…” Negulesco looked at me, “I’m sorry, what’s your name again?”
I bristled, tried to hide it. “Da-Dexter.”
“Well, Da-Dexter, please stick to the script,” he said, good-naturedly enough. “You will not want to meet the angry writers.”
“I just thought it would be more courteous if I—”
“Just stick to the script,” he said firm but not unkind, then nodded to the first A.D.
“Back to one! Two is up!” the A.D. shouted. “We’re on a bell!”
In retrospect, I probably shouldn’t have taken it all so personally, but that was always my knee-jerk reaction. My cheeks were warm with humiliation as I caught a sympathetic look from Miss Stanwyck. “You’re doing fine,” she said, and I mustered a smile as I carefully carried my tray back to my starting mark.
“Rolling!” “Camera!” “Speed!” “Thirty-five, take two!” “Aaaaaand…Action!” The ritual was repeated. I turned again and approached Miss Stanwyck, exactly as I had done before. She looked up, marking her page with her finger, and smiled.
“Would you like some—?” was all that came out of my mouth before my shivering hands jerked uncontrollably and the entire tray of delicate china and steaming bouillon landed all over Barbara Stanwyck’s lap in a horrible cascade of clattering metal and shattering crockery.
With a yelp, she threw off the blanket which had fortunately spared her from being scalded. “Oh my god!”
“Cut! Cut it! Barbara, are you okay?”
“I’m fine. But my dress is another story…”
In the ensuing pandemonium of wardrobe, makeup, and hair people swarming their star, I remained frozen in abject horror, ignored. Finally, Miss Stanwyck caught my eye. “Dexter? Are you all right?”
The only words of kindness spoken to me.
“I’m so…sorry, Miss Stanwyck…I don’t know what happened…”
“It’s all right, really.”
“Everybody take ten!” the assistant director shouted, and I quickly spun around and made my way down the hidden stairs, blowing past a frowning Milford Langen standing near the director.
“Dex!” he shouted after me, but I kept going. I couldn’t face the man I knew I had so bitterly disappointed.
Outside the soundstage, I hurried into the empty trailer I shared with the other bit part actors—stinking bit part actor, that’s what I was. I found my stash and was well into my third significant hit when the door swung open and Milly came in. I braced myself for the worst.
“Are you okay?” he asked, surprising me with the genuine concern in his voice.
“I’m sorry, Mill. I know you stuck your neck out to get me this part, but…it’s my goddamned hands.”
He came in and closed the door, sat down opposite me.
“Let me see,” he said, and I held them up. They were still trembling even though the marijuana was slowly working its magic. I saw his expression as I put away the now cold joint.
“It’s the only thing that makes it better,” I said.
Milly nodded. “I spoke to Johnny. You’ll get through it. Just relax.”
“I’m so sorry, Mill.”
“Dex,” Milly said, reassuringly, “stop saying you’re sorry. You can do this. I know you can. I believe in you.”
No one had ever said those words to me in my entire life. I nodded and looked away, grateful for his kindness, but still not wanting to let him see me cry. Of course, everyone was bending over backwards to be nice to me later when I returned to the set. No harm done, they all said. The prop master wisely changed the contents of my tray, but even my amended line of dialog, “Would you like a fresh scone, Madame?” was cut from the final picture.