Virginia Davis: Disney’s First Star

By MARGARET KERRY

— Autograph February 2009

Signed photo of Davis as “Alice” in Disney’s Alice Comedies (1923-25)

Many disney fans are unaware that before the mouse, there was 4-year-old Alice. Virginia Davis is the Disney legend who starred as Alice in the young director’s first live-action animated short film, Alice’s Wonderland, which led to a series of 14 Alice Comedies. As two of Walt Disney’s earliest actors, Virginia and I always have much to talk about. I attended her interview with a biographer for an upcoming book and we got to catch up on old times.

Sitting in the small library in her retirement home, Virginia was stylishly dressed as always, this time in beige slacks with an elegant fitted jacket. Her signature cap was perched over her blonde curls.

“Virginia, you’re as bright as a new penny and as lively as the day Walt Disney spotted you in 1923,” I said.

“That was before there was any thought of a mouse,” Virginia replied emphatically.

It’s hard to believe that this beguiling little lady celebrated her 90th birthday on December 31.

Margaret Kerry: So, tell me, how did Walt Disney find you?

Davis holding the poster for Alice’s Day at Sea

Virginia Davis: He found me on the screen when he went to see a silent movie in Kansas City, Mo. When I was 4 years old, I was picked to be the model for a Warneke Bread advertisement that popped up on the screen between films. I was posed reaching for a slice of the bread and my mouth seemed to say ‘Yum Yum’. Walt was barely out of his teens and he was really struggling to make a go of his Laugh-O-Gram cartoon company. He got an idea for a series of six- or seven-minute live-action animated movie theater shorts titled Alice Comedies and starring a 4-year-old girl.

When he cast you as Alice, you became the little girl who started the Disney dynasty, right?

Davis-signed photo of an Alice the Peacemaker poster

Yes, Alice’s Wonderland, the first Alice Comedies short I did was actually filmed in our family’s house with Walt directing and [his brother] Roy Disney behind the camera. One scene called for my movie mother to tuck me in my bed. Walt asked my own mother, Margaret, to do the scene but she was shy, so my Aunt Louise tucked me in instead.

Did you film all 14 Alice Comedies you starred in while you were living in the Los Angeles?

Alice’s Wonderland was really the pilot, the one filmed in my house. Walt relocated to L.A. and finally got a distributor for the shorts. The contract called for me to be the star. My folks thought the world of Walt so we moved to Los Angeles. During the time I was being filmed playing Alice, I went to school and dancing classes. Good thing, too. You can’t stay a 4-year-old forever.

Signed photo of Davis as one of the 12 “Harvey Girls.” Davis is behind Judy Garland (front center) to the left

As an adult, I danced in many films in the glory days of musicals. I quit the business after making The Harvey Girls with Judy Garland at MGM. I married a wonderful man, Bob McGhee, and settled down to raise two daughters, Laurieanne and Margaret.

And now, I’m back and appearing at autograph shows around the country. Fans are so surprised when they learn of Walt’s earliest days and see the photos that I sign. It’s a great experience.

What are the top three memories of your career?

I loved working with so many top choreographers, dancers, famous directors and actors. I’m particularly pleased at having quite a large part in a movie called Three on a Match, in which I played Joan Blondell as a 12-year-old.

Davis signing a photo with her poodle, Buster

And I know just how special it is that I am one of the very few people who was actually directed by Walt Disney and filmed by Roy. You know, when Walt was directing me he’d say “Let’s pretend,” then he’d tell me the story of the scene. We had to get it right on the first take because Walt and Roy couldn’t afford to buy film for “take two.”

I guess the third highlight would be the time I was given a Disney Legend Award at the Disney Studio. That represented many things to me. But in particular I like to think that those who said over and over ‘It all started with a mouse…’ became aware that Walt Disney’s career really started with a little 4-year-old girl—Me!

Sirens: May Britt

By JEFF BENZIGER
Featured in Autograph January 2009

Signed 8x10 by May Britt.

Those who know how to reach May Britt for an autograph have one up on their fellow collectors. Having given up acting for the art canvas decades ago, the former sex-pot actress leads a low-key life today and her address has eluded us. In other words, collectors will need to turn to autograph dealers for anything signed by her.

Britt’s autograph is inexpensive, but the pickings seem slim, indicating that demand is less than exceptional. A 1974 May Britt contract to play the role of “Ingrid” in the film, Haunts (aka The Veil), appeared on eBay recently for $125. For one of the few contracts from a short film career, it sat there a while.

It’s hard to believe that the attractive lingerie-clad blonde who dazzled audiences in The Blue Angel in 1959, will soon be 76. But it’s been more than five decades since the daughter of a Swedish postal inspector was accidentally discovered while working as a photographer’s assistant. When Italian producer Carlo Ponti and director Mario Soldati went to a Stockholm, Sweden, studio to check out photos of beautiful models for their 1952 film, The Daughter of the Black Corsair, they certainly pored over photos of lovely ladies, but they liked the beauty in front of them—Maj-Britt Nilsson. She hopped at the chance to go to Rome where her good looks were put to use in films.

The first English language role for May (pronounced My) came in 1956 with the epic, War and Peace. After signing a film contract by 20th Century Fox, Britt went on to star with Marlon Brando in The Young Lions (1957) and Peter Falk in Murder, Inc. (1960). In 1958 Britt appeared in The Hunters, a homage to the flyers and the fighter aircraft of the Korean War, with Robert Mitchum and Robert Wagner.

Her most famous role was in The Blue Angel, where she played a scandalous nightclub entertainer in a club named the same as the film’s title. A professor (played by Curd JÜrgens) goes to the club with intentions of “catching” some of his male students but is crippled by Lola’s sensuality. He develops an obsession with the gorgeous Swede and engages in a romance that ultimately causes him to lose everything. The role drew an unwanted storm of criticism; some disliked the film being remade from its 1929 original version with Marlene Dietrich in the role of Lola. But it also drew Britt lots of American attention, and on August 17, 1959, Britt made the cover of Life magazine, then an indicator of fame.

Not thrilled by her fame, Britt pulled the plug on her film career in 1960, the year she married entertainer Sammy Davis Jr. The marriage drew lots of public jeers and brow beating—even death threats against Davis. At the time, interracial marriage was illegal in many states until 1967 when the Supreme Court weighed in on the matter. The marriage is portrayed in the 1998 HBO movie, Rat Pack, which centers on the relationship between John F. Kennedy and Sinatra and the legendary Rat Pack. The movie suggests that the interracial marriage hampered Kennedy’s chances of being president because of Davis’ close association with Sinatra. JFK’s father, Joe Kennedy, warns Sinatra that Americans won’t appreciate Davis as Sinatra’s best man since Davis is married to a white woman, and that voters’ outrage will deliver a backlash to JFK at the polls.

The marriage produced a daughter, Tracey, who has since written a book about her famous dad, and two adopted sons. Britt left Davis in 1968 after he had an affair with dancer Lola Falana.

Britt came out of obscurity in 1977 to make the psycho-sexual thriller film, Haunts. She later appeared on TV up until 1988.

Character Actors: Robert Forster

By SCOTT VOISIN
Featured in Autograph January 2009

Signed and inscribed note from Forster to the author.

In Hollywood, changing trends and flavors of the month often dictate the shelf life of many actors, but Robert Forster is a survivor. For nearly 50 years, he has been riding the show biz roller coaster, going from leading man to forgotten has-been to respected supporting player. His story is proof that those interested in acting as a route to fame and fortune are almost always doomed to fail, but serious actors committed to doing their best in any circumstance have a chance of staying in the game.

Forster got his start in acting while pursuing another interest: women. “On the first day of my senior year in college, I followed a girl into the auditorium and was trying to think of something to say to her,” he says. “They were doing an audition for Bye Bye Birdie. I had never seen the play and I hadn’t seen the movie, but I knew it was about a guy in a gold suit doing a parody of Elvis Presley. I thought if I did that, that’s how I could meet the girl. They didn’t give me the part of the guy in the gold suit; they put me in the chorus, which was a big comedown. I almost didn’t do it, but then I thought, Bob, how are you going to meet the girl? So I went back and became part of the chorus of Bye Bye Birdie.”

Forster not only met the girl, he married her, and the couple moved to Los Angeles in 1967. It was then that he got the call to audition for legendary director John Huston for the film, Reflections in a Golden Eye. “I’m introduced to Huston, who’s this tall, old guy, and he says, ‘What have you done?’” Forster recalls. “I said, ‘Look, I haven’t done much. I did one Broadway play, I wasn’t bad and I don’t make myself as an actor. I never did a movie, I don’t know how they’re made and I don’t know what the tricks are, but if you hire me, I will give you your money’s worth.’ Huston said, ‘You’ll be hearing from us.’ I figured that was the kiss-off. When somebody says that, you never hear from them. Two hours after that meeting, they made a deal with my agent. John Huston hired me on the basis of a three-minute meeting.”

Robert Forster as Miles C. Banyon in the short-lived 1970s TV series, Banyon.

Reflections starred Marlon Brando and Elizabeth Taylor, and although he shared the screen with two Hollywood heavyweights, Forster made a strong impression on critics and casting agents. He soon graduated to leading man status in Haskell Wexler’s 1969 experimental classic, Medium Cool. The spontaneous nature of the film forced the actor to flex creative muscles he never knew he had. “I was playing a news cameraman,” Forster says, “and I had no experience being a news cameraman, but one time after another, I was required to make it up. Haskell is shooting me as I’m interacting with people and interviewing them, and he made it into a different picture than what we had on paper. We shot twice as much than was in the script. I learned that as an actor, you may be required to do material that is not written for you, and you’ve got to be able to be that character in the shot. You’ve got to be able to make something out of whatever it is they give you to do.”

With his star on the rise, Forster entered the 1970s as an actor in demand, headlining two TV series (Banyon and Nakia) and big-budget studio films like Disney’s sci-fi epic, The Black Hole. But as he soon discovered, it takes more than talent to stay at the top of Hollywood’s A-list. “I got lucky at the beginning of my career, and if you don’t get a hit the second time or the third time to keep the ball rolling, you start slipping,” he explains. “Your agents can only put you up for good stuff for so long, and if you’re not in hits and breaking records, then you start sliding. Every time I thought I had a picture that was going to give me a little traction, it didn’t. It’s very hard to get going again when you’ve started slipping.”

By the 1980s and ’90s, Forster had been reduced to taking roles in low-rent, direct-to-video projects such as Satan’s Princess, Body Chemistry III and Scanners IV. “I was doing crappy stuff, really dopey stuff, anything I could find because I had four kids and two ex-wives,” he says. However, in 1996, his roller coaster career took another turn for the unexpected. “There’s a restaurant where I’ve got a little corner spot that I always sit in where I read my paper and read scripts. I’ve been sittin’ in this spot for 18 or 19 years, and one day, in walks Quentin Tarantino.” Tarantino was Hollywood’s hottest filmmaker, and everyone in the industry was waiting to see what he would do as a follow-up to his Oscar-winning crime drama, Pulp Fiction. “I didn’t know Quentin but I had read for him on Reservoir Dogs,” Forster continues. “So I call him over, he sits down and we bull— for awhile. Six months later, I walk into this restaurant and there he is, sitting in my spot. I approached the table, he hands me a script and he said, ‘Read this and see if you like it.’”

 Forster as Max Cherry, his comeback character in the 1997 film, Jackie Brown.

Forster as Max Cherry, his comeback character in the 1997 film, Jackie Brown.

The script was Jackie Brown, an adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s novel, Rum Punch. “I went home and read the script, and I couldn’t believe he was thinking of hiring me for a big picture like this,” Forster says. “We had breakfast together three days later, and I said, ‘This is great and I’d love to do it, but I’m not sure they’re going to let you hire me.’ Quentin said, ‘I hire anybody I want.’ Only at that moment did I start to believe that maybe this thing could actually happen. There were a few more bumps and worries because everybody in town wanted this part. Big actors wanted to do the part of Max Cherry, but Quentin hung in there for me. It was one of the greatest gifts an actor can ever get.”

As it turns out, it was a gift that kept on giving. Jackie Brown was released in 1997 to great acclaim, earning Forster an Academy Award nomination as Best Supporting Actor. His first reaction was shock, but as the day went on and he fielded congratulatory phone calls, another feeling washed over him. “It was a feeling of belonging, a feeling of acceptance. After 20-something years in this business and being long forgotten—after being on the top and going all the way to really, really low-end stuff—it was so generous for the members of the Academy to write my name down. They actually had to write my name, not just check-off a box. It was the most warm, generous feeling I ever had.”

Although he didn’t win the Oscar, Forster happily takes the loss in stride. “The difference between being nominated and winning is like a 10-pound box of chocolates and a 12-pound box of chocolates: they’re both pretty sweet.” Even sweeter was the renewed respect shown to him by Hollywood. Since Jackie Brown, Forster has worked at a feverish pace in projects both big and small, a combination he enjoys. “As an actor, getting a day’s work is one of the great opportunities,” he says. “Somebody calls your name, you step up to the plate and when somebody says, ‘Action!’ you get a chance to hit it out of the park. A low-budget movie requires an awful lot more participation of the actor. He’s required to do more things, to work with less and to get more done. For those reasons, little pictures add something to your day as an actor. However, big pictures can be fun, and you can make a better day’s pay.”

Now in his fifth decade in show biz, Forster has experienced the euphoric highs and depressing lows of life as an actor. Still, he remains enthusiastic about the possibilities that lie ahead. “I try to keep working, I’m ready to work and we’ll see what comes out of left field. An actor never, ever knows what’s coming next.”

Character Actors: Ronny Cox

By SCOTT VOISIN

—Autograph May 2009

Ronny Cox as Luke in the Car

Ronny Cox might just be the most recognized actor in Hollywood… kind of. “Throughout my career, I’ve almost never been recognized as an actor,” he says. “People just think they know me. Someone will come up to me and say, ‘Aren’t you from Des Moines, Iowa?’ I’ll say, ‘No, I’m an actor,’ and they’ll say, ‘I’ve never seen you in the movies but there’s a guy that looks exactly like you in Des Moines.’ I’ve literally had that conversation a thousand times. It turns out there’s a guy that looks exactly like me in practically every town!”

Cox made his acting debut alongside Burt Reynolds and Jon Voight in the 1972 box-office hit Deliverance. Years of steady work followed, and in 1984, he appeared in his first blockbuster, Beverly Hills Cop, playing a by-the-book California police lieutenant who squares off against Eddie Murphy’s free-wheeling Detroit detective. “What was interesting about Beverly Hills Cop is that the big set-piece for my character at the end of the film was my first day of shooting,” Cox remembers. “As an actor, I had to be fully aware of the relationship Eddie and I had gone through; how we started as adversaries and went through this and this, even though we hadn’t filmed any of it yet. To get ready to do the last scene on my very first day took a tremendous amount of homework.”

After Cop’s huge success, Cox was approached to do the sequel. “I don’t like sequels much to begin with, and I had reservations about it,” he admits. “I ended up doing Cop II because my character was sort of the reason for the story, but I had some problems with it. Cop I was good for me; Cop II was not so good. The stuff they offered me in Cop III was dreadful, so I turned that down.”

Cox signed magazine cover

For 15 years after Deliverance, Cox made a living playing loving husbands and dedicated cops. In 1987, audiences finally got to see his dark side in RoboCop. “In many ways, RoboCop was as big a breakthrough for my career as Deliverance was because, for the first time, I got to play a bad guy,” he says. “I always think the bad guys are far and away the most interesting. Playing a good guy is pretty boring, and every decision he makes is absolutely predictable. I liken it to painting… If you’re the good guy, you get three colors: red, white and blue. But if you’re the bad guy, you get the whole palette. RoboCop was a huge boon to my career because after that, I was offered all kinds of roles.”

He took advantage of the opportunities, appearing in more than 100 movies and TV shows, but for the last several years, Cox has spent less time in front of the cameras and more time in the recording studio, singing, writing and playing a mix of folk, jazz and blues songs. With six CDs under his belt, he enjoys creating music and performing for an audience.

“I love acting, but I don’t love it as much as I love the music,” he explains. “With acting, there’s that imaginary fourth wall between you and the audience. With music, there’s the possibility of a profound, one-on-one sharing that takes place, especially with the kind of music I do. I tell stories… You get the set-up, you get the story and then you get the payoff in the song. Wherever I play, I like to have the house lights up because I want to be able to see the audience and connect with them.”

Cox as Chief Andrew Bogomil in Beverly Hills Cop ll

At this point in his life, Cox is still willing to play the Hollywood game, but only on his terms. “Acting is not the be-all and end-all for me that it is for a lot of other people,” he says. “I’ll go play music at the drop of a hat, but to get me in a movie or television show, it has to be something I really want to do. If I have music dates during the shooting schedule, I tell them to make room for those dates or else I won’t do the movie. That’s a hard concept for them to understand in Hollywood, but that’s how I feel about it.”

 
 
 
 

Autograph dropped a line to Ronny Cox and he responded, “I’m always grateful to the fans and appreciate their enthusiasm. It’s always amazing to me that even though I play villains and bad guys, the fans seem to separate those characters from my music. I have found the Stargate SG 1 fans to be some of the most ardent of my music fans. Go figure!”