GL: What brought you to Hollywood, and how did you get the part in How Green Was My Valley?
RM: By being in the right place at the right time. Because of the Blitz, my father felt that his family should go to America and live with my motherís brother. It was a very difficult thing to do then; you had to be sponsored and prove you wouldnít be a blight on the state or whatever. It took him a year to set all of that up. I know, because I still have the correspondence. So finally he went back into the British merchant marine, and my mother, my sister, and I came to America on the last boat out of England in September 1940.
We were to live in White Plains, New York, for the duration of the war. But on the boat, old Mom got us two kids to give a concert, and somehow she got some newspaperman on the boat to be there. She wasnít going to live in White Plains, you see. No dust on her. And within two weeks she had found an agent in New York, who told us that MGM was going to make a film called The Yearling. I was taken to MGM, and they said I wasnít right--after all, I had this terrible English accent--but they suggested Mom take me over to Fox at Fifty-sixth Street, because they were looking for a child for How Green Was My Valley.
I made the test within three days, went to Washington, D.C., to visit with my uncle, and got a telegram telling me to come to California to make another test. Fox put us up at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, and I made the test with William Wyler, who at that time was going to direct the picture. I got the contract--and was asked to leave the Beverly Wilshire at once, because I was no longer on company expenses.
The other contender--and we still laugh about it today--was Joe Hamilton, who used to be married to Carol Burnett. When I got the part, Lew Schreiber, the head of casting at Fox, wasnít pleased. I wasnít his idea of an adorable child star. "The kidís got a cast in his eye," Schreiber said, "and a gap in his teeth, and heís not attractive." In fact I was just very tired, and one eye had become smaller than the other because of exhaustion, but the studio sent me to Norma Shearerís doctor. He said, "Thereís nothing wrong with this kid." But you couldnít tell Schreiber that; heíd made up his mind I had a cast. So the doctor said, "Come to me for a month, and Iíll say Iíve straightened your eye out."
GL: Itís amazing, looking at the photographs of you at that time, to see how much and how soon you got around. You went on promotional tours; you made speeches; stars came to visit you in your dressing room, or vice versa; you were at pool parties with other child stars of the time--Elizabeth Taylor, Peggy Ann Garner, and so on. How old were you then?
RM: About fourteen. But I looked much younger.
GL: In the photographs you look about nine.
RM: But all that was part of the currency of the time. The other night I was talking to Jimmy Stewart about the way we worked in those years, and as he pointed out, it was your job. You went to the studio every day, at eight or nine in the morning, whether or not you were making a film. You might be involved in tests with other people or in publicity, but you were always at work. It was a wonderful feeling, not at all like now, when you make a film--if youíre lucky--and then wait around and hope for something else to happen. These days youíre not really part of the atmosphere and the whole business of it. And it was a business. It was rough, and there were a number of inequities, and the competition was enormous, of course; but if you were inside the system, you had a job to go to every day.
GL: And as a product of the system, you were protected.
RM: Overprotected. And in many instances promoted in a way that was very bad for you--turned into something else or sold as a kind of preconceived package. These things could become very difficult to deal with. But it was better than having nothing to deal with, like so many people today. When I talked to Jimmy Stewart, a figure whoís made an indelible impact on the medium, I was very glad to hear his assessment of the positive aspects of that system. And at the time I loved it, although, of course, I was a child.
GL: Were your contemporaries happy with it? Elizabeth Taylor, for instance?
RM: Iím not sure. Elizabeth has a marvelous capacity to adjust. Sheís also a creature without any malice.
GL: But isnít she also an instinctive rebel?
RM: Sheís certainly got guts, and sheís an original. Whatís remarkable about her is the way she managed, in the blazing high of continual fame, to grow as an actress. She made that change from child to adult actress without any sort of wrench--unlike Natalie Wood, who had a period when she was not highly visible. Then she made Rebel Without a Cause and had some very potent influences--James Dean, Nick Ray--which she absorbed very well. But most child actors have a tremendous problem when they grow up. They suddenly have to learn how to act. As a child, you act out of instinct. As an adult, you may be talented, but you have to learn the craft. And thatís very difficult if youíre already famous. People donít want you to change--itís working the way you are; donít rock the boat. So at seventeen, even at twenty, you can still be acting with a mechanism that produces twelve-year-old emotions.
GL: Dean Stockwell; with whom you later acted in Compulsion on Broadway, was another child actor who had a difficult transition.
RM: Dean is seven and a half years younger than I am, and he was a wonderful child actor. He became a very good adult actor too, and Compulsion was one of the best experiences of my life, like being in a pressure cooker. Ultimately those two roles added up to one person: if one of the partners didnít commit completely all the time, the whole thing would fall apart. A wonderful experience, but killing. I think I lost thirty pounds during the run. But it was enormously important because it proved that at the age of twenty-nine I had real credentials as an adult actor.
GL: Why didnít you get the role in the movie?
RM: There were two rival productions of Compulsion coming into New York at the same time. The other had Bradford Dillman in my role. Our production of Compulsion got there first, but Bradford Dillman was a rising young actor at Fox, which had bought the rights. Dillman understandably wanted the movie role, and as part of the Fox roster, he got it. But they softened many aspects of the play and cut the number of "splits." I chose to play the part as a split--a multi-split--personality. Out of the research I did, I came to believe the man had about twenty different personalities. I played seven of them. But that would have been too many for a movie.
Two years before Compulsion, I played Ariel in The Tempest. It was wonderful to have the chance to play such wildly different roles. By the time I was eighteen, you see--but looking younger--I felt I was through in the movies. That period--My Friend Flicka, Lassie Come Home, The White Cliffs of Dover--was over. But how can you be through when youíre only eighteen? I wanted to be a character actor; I wanted to be an actor, and the way to try was to go to New York. And I was very fortunate, because when I got there the great era of live TV was starting. It was so new, and everything moved so fast, you werenít criticized the way you were in a movie. You could fall on your ass. You could be in three flops in a row on Broadway and not starve, thanks to TV. I also got to work with three phenomenal teachers--David Craig, Bobby Lewis, and Mira Rostova--and I received tremendous encouragement. Nobody treated me as if I were washed up. I was treated like someone who was making a life for himself. A totally different experience from Hollywood.
GL: And as a child star, you never had time to think about finding yourself.
RM: Yes. People used to ask, "Didnít you miss not having a normal life?" But the only life I knew was the one I led. It had good parts and bad parts--and then suddenly, at eighteen, I was out. I suppose thatís not so different from a child who grows up rich whose family suddenly loses all its money. God knows what would have happened if I hadnít gone to New York and found out I really wanted to be an actor. Iíd never made the choice before. It was something I fell into and loved, and I was also lucky, between the ages of thirteen and eighteen, to meet so many of the people I now keep reading about. I met D. W. Griffith, Mary Pickford, Mack Sennett, Buster Keaton, and Donald Crisp, who was in How Green Was My Valley and was like my grandfather.
When I was making The Pied Piper, Monty Woolley--a very kind, intelligent, well-read man--used to worry because I was always reading books about the history of film. He thought I was going to hell in a wheelbarrow. I got the mumps, and he sent me a whole library of classics, every one of them signed with a wonderful inscription. One of them said, "Thereís practically nothing I can criticize about you except your unending desire to collect undesirable autographs." Later I made Molly and Me with him, and Tallulah Bankhead was on the lot. She also worried I would never have any knowledge of anything except emulsion.
I used to go to the Silent Movie Theater on Fairfax in Hollywood. Nobody cared about silent films then, but my mother and I did, and we saw a film called Barbed Wire with Pola Negri. She was wonderful. Hot stuff. At her best with Lubitsch, of course, but sheís gone down in history for her lifestyle rather than her extraordinary talent. I told Monty during Molly and Me that Iíd seen Pola Negri, and he said, "You must stop this! Please donít worry me with Pola Negri. If you feel this way about her, write to her." But I didnít know how to find her. Reginald Gardiner, who was on the set, told me, "I know where she is. She happens to be in town." She was staying at Falconís Lair, Valentinoís house, as somebodyís houseguest. So I wrote and asked her for a picture. She didnít send it--she arrived at the house with it!
GL: You were a pioneer without knowing it. Times have changed. Now there are many movie buffs whoíd be thrilled to hear that you knew Pola Negri.
RM: Monty Woolley would still be appalled, because movies in that sense didnít mean anything to him. Ethel Barrymore was the same. When somebody asked her if she ever went to see her movies, she said, "I never saw myself on the stage; why should I go and see myself in movies?" She just wasnít interested. But there were a few kindred spirits in the Ď40s. Thank God for Lillian Gish. From the first, she believed in the movies as an art form. When she went into the theater in the late Ď20s, she didnít turn her back on the past. If it hadnít been for Lillian, Mary Pickford would have burnt everything--all her movies--because the silent era had fallen into such ridicule. Now itís a vogue.
GL: How did you meet Griffith?
RM: In 1943 he was asked by some newspaper what he considered to be a good recent film, and he chose My Friend Flicka. It was not really a happy experience, meeting him--he was a poor, sad man by then--but it was still amazing.