Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Garner and Belafone Look Back

When I noticed not long ago that James Garner was “trending” on Yahoo, I assumed he had died. After all, he’s 83 and has been inactive for the past few years, unusually so for a guy who juggled movies, TV, and commercials throughout his long career and even joined the cast of 8 Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter, a sitcom, after its star, John Ritter, died suddenly in 2002. I recall reading that Garner has suffered a stroke, but that came from a fan’s post on the IMDb message boards. Garner, it turns out, was “trending” because his memoir, The Garner Files, had just been published, and as I did with Harry Belafonte’s much heftier book of remembrances, I checked it out of a public library but didn’t start on page one and read through to the conclusion. I’ve been jumping around, reading a bit here and a bit there. I’m more interested in the man’s career than his childhood, although Garner had a difficult one thanks to an abusive stepmother who made him wear a dress and tell everyone to call him “Louise.”

“I tell you, it got to me. I became introverted, and it took a long time before I came out of my shell. I hated being ridiculed and never wanted to feel that way again. I think the experience shaped my acting style: I’ve always kept my tongue in my cheek and a twinkle in my eye because I want people to laugh with me, not at me. I don’t want them to think I take this play-acting too seriously. I think it also gave me sympathy for the underdog. I can’t stand to see big people picking on little people. If a director starts abusing someone in the crew, I’ll butt in.”

Garner doesn’t dish much dirt, but he has his say on some of his co-stars.

“Someone once asked me if Steve (McQueen) was ‘trouble.’ Steve was trouble if you invited him for breakfast. He didn’t like anything. Like Brando, he could be a pain in the ass on the set. Unlike Brando, he wasn’t an actor. He was a movie star, a poser who cultivated the image of a macho man. Steve wasn’t a bad guy; I think he was just insecure.”

Then there was Charles Bronson who, like McQueen, appeared with Garner in 1963's The Great Escape. “Charlie Bronson was a pain in the ass, too. He used and abused people . . . a bitter, belligerent SOB. I don’t know why he had a chip on his shoulder. He wasn’t a barrel of laughs on the set, I can tell you.”

Garner never worked with Charlton Heston, but both participated in the March on Washington in 1963. “I was not a fan of Heston’s, either as an actor - he was stiff as a board - or as a defender of civil rights.” Garner points to Heston’s later support of the NRA as proof that he was never a liberal which Garner says he is proud to be.

In his memoir, My Song, Harry Belafonte remembers Heston being invited to the march because Martin Luther King, Jr wanted him there. Though pleased that “a lot of friends of liberal causes from the Hollywood community had agreed to participate, King asked Belafonte if he had “reached out to anyone across the divide?” Belafonte knew Heston and also knew he was a conservative, but hadn’t spoken to him about the march. “I think it would be in our interest,” King said, “to have such a presence.”

Marlon Brando groaned when Belafonte suggested that Heston co-chair the delegation with him. “Charlton Heston marching with us would be a powerful image for mainstream America,” Belafonte writes, and Heston agreed to join the march and co-chair the delegation with Brando. Belafonte believes that Heston came around because he “yearned for the approval of his peers. Co-chairing a delegation with Marlon was exactly the blessing he needed.”

Belafonte’s book (like Garner’s, it was co-written by someone who probably did the actual writing) is a hefty 469 pages compared to Garner’s 273. Published by Alfred A. Knopf, it even has “A Note on the Type” (“The text of this book was set in a typeface called Aldus, designed by the celebrated typographer Hermann Zapf in 1952-53"), a sure sign of its “literary” aspirations.

Belafonte was signed to RCA Victor in 1952. After several failed singles, his second album, Belafonte, would reach number two on the Billboard chart, and had healthy sales for months to come.

“Just as Belafonte hit record stores,” he recalls, “so did the debut album by some kid from Memphis named Elvis Presley . . . Different as our sounds were, I could see that in one way, at least, we were on parallel tracks. Elvis was interpreting one kind of black music - rhythm and blues - while I found my inspiration in black folk songs, spirituals, and calypso, and also in African music, which would one day be put under the heading of world music.”

The two label-mates had yet to meet when they were recording at the same Manhattan studios, but “we’d had a bit of a run-in” after Belafonte’s sound engineer noticed they were picking up a “leak” from an adjoining studio where Presley and his band were “playing louder than the studio designers had ever imagined anyone would play.” Belafonte complained to RCA’s CEO. “Back came the word from Presley’s famous manager, ‘Colonel’ Tom Parker: Either I could become his new client or he would destroy me. There was also a nicely wrapped box of chocolates with a note that said ‘From your friend the Colonel.’”

Once RCA executives “managed to sooth all the ruffled egos” both albums were completed, and would compete with each other on the charts. “All though the last half of 1956, Elvis and I traded top places with each other on that Billboard chart,” but Belafonte notes, at the end of that year in which rock ‘n’ roll began to overwhelm the charts, “the best-selling album wasn’t Elvis Presley or Elvis. It was Calypso.”

The two singers would finally meet when Belafonte played the Riviera in Las Vegas. “One night Elvis caught the show with Ann-Margret as his date, and came backstage to say hello. Elvis couldn’t have been more decorous; he insisted on calling me ‘Mr. Belafonte.’ Maybe it was just everything I was felling at the time, or maybe our year of chasing each other on the charts had made me competitive, but his manner seemed country-boy slick, and his music seemed derivative. Only later would I learn that Elvis had hung out for years with a lot of black musicians and come by his style legitimately. But he did perform with such put-on flash that over the next years, I noticed, he inspired a whole generation of rhythm-and-blues players who thought they could put that flash on and be Elvis, too.”

Thought not a rock ‘n’ roller himself, Belafonte can claim at least a footnote in rock ‘n’ roll history. For his Midnight Special album, he had wanted Sonny Terry to play harmonica, but the “world’s greatest blues harp player” was sick in bed. Belafonte’s guitarist recommended “a skinny, scraggly-haired kid no more than twenty years old” who arrived with four or five harmonicas in a brown paper bag. After Belafonte and the band agreed to run through the album’s title song for him, Bob Dylan asked for a glass of water. He didn’t want a drink, but rather dipped a harmonica into the water, shook it off, played on the track, then “tossed the harmonica he’d just played into the trash” on his way out. Belafonte took that as a bit of an insult, and assumed Dylan didn’t like him, just as he took it for granted that Dylan’s mentor and sometime vocal partner, Joan Baez, didn’t like him since someone called him “Belaphony” in Time’s Baez cover story.

For years, Belafonte “nursed a wounded ego” over these imagined slights, but eventually realized he was wrong. Dylan threw the harmonica away because it was cheap, an advantage for achieving the crude sound he was seeking, and once it was dipped in water, it was useless. In his 2004 memoir, Chronicles, Dylan praised Belafonte to the heavens (“Everything about him was gigantic”), and recalled his Midnight Special session as “the only one memorable recording date that would stand out in my mind for years to come.”

© 2012 Brian W. Fairbanks


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