Character Actors: Clancy Brown

By SCOTT VOISIN

Featured in Autograph March 2009

A headshot of Clancy Brown

Most of us think of movies and television as entertainment, but the reality is that Hollywood is a business, and everything that gets produced is made for one reason: to make money.

No one understands this better than Clancy Brown. For more than 25 years, he has consistently delivered memorable performances in films (The Shawshank Redemption, Starship Troopers, The Guardian) and TV (ER, Earth 2, The Practice). While he has mastered the artistic part of his profession, Brown has also learned—mostly the hard way—the business aspects of acting. Although the lessons were difficult to accept, they played a major part in making him one of the most savvy, dependable actors working today.

Brown as The Kurgan in Highlander

One of Brown’s earliest roles was portraying the immortal Kurgan in the 1986 cult classic Highlander. Back then, he was a relative newcomer to the film industry, but he got a first-hand look at just how unscrupulous some people in the business can be. “Highlander was not as smooth of a production as any of the ones I had done before, mostly because of the producers getting in the way,” Brown recalls. “They weren’t very experienced or professional, and they barely said, ‘Thank you’ for helping make the movie that is putting their grandchildren through college. In fact, they still owe me money. They were going to put out this Kurgan sword, and they asked me if I’d promote it. So I said, ‘Yeah, if you pay me and you pay my charity.’ They said, ‘Yeah, sure,’ and they paid me and my charity the first installment. They haven’t paid a dime since, and I know the swords have sold out. They made all their money and ripped off my family’s charity. That’s what they do, that’s the kind of people they are. They’re not very honorable, and they don’t care who they’re ripping off.”

Brown as Captin Hadley in The Shawshank Redemption

Years later, Brown landed pivotal roles in two highly-acclaimed cable series, Breaking News and Carnivale. Although the shows were lauded by critics, they were ultimately cancelled due to low ratings. “The days of executives keeping shows on because they like them are over,” he says. “You’ve gotta deliver the numbers. They both fell victim to the thing we’re all victimized by, which is the commercial structure of this business. You might think the people in charge of the networks give a damn about the artistic content of a show, but they really don’t. They all fancy they do, but their jobs are all about making money the easiest way possible. You sort of learn the hard way that somewhere in the middle of all those producer credits, there’s a line that’s drawn between people who are trying to make a better show and people who only give a damn about the return on the investment. I totally get that, and at least the shows got made. The work is out there.”

These days, Brown has enjoyed great success doing voice-over work, most notably as Mr. Krabs in the animated hit, Sponge Bob Square Pants. It’s a different type of acting that challenges Brown without the added pressure that live-action filming brings. “All you have to worry about is getting the words off the page with your voice,” he explains. “You don’t have to dress up, you don’t have to work out and you do it as many times as it takes to do it right. In film and television, it’s a lot of money to do takes, so you’ve got to have your s—t together right at the beginning. When you walk on a set, you’re walking into a situation where millions of dollars have been spent. There’s never that kind of financial pressure with cartoons. It’s a lot lighter, it’s a lot more fun and I just have a great time doing it.”

Clancy Brown's signature

Looking back at the lessons he’s learned, Brown offers a no-nonsense explanation for his success in Hollywood. “I’ve been very lucky, but after the luck, you have to be able to deliver,” he says. “You have to show up on time and know your lines. When you’re a supporting actor, you have to know your place in the narrative and execute that with some proficiency. That’s what they pay you for.”

Clancy Brown does not sign through the mail. However, he does offer autographed photos for sale on his website, and all of the proceeds are donated to charity. For more information, visit www.clancybrown.com.

Character Actors: Bob Gunton

By SCOTT VOISIN

— Autograph February 2009

Bob Gunton signature

Every actor dreams of finding success in Hollywood, but the lucky few who achieve it often discover a few strings attached.

Just ask Bob Gunton. After gaining attention as part of the original 1979 cast of the Broadway musical Evita, Gunton spent the next 15 years playing a variety of characters in films and television. All of that changed in 1994 with his chilling performance as the warden in The Shawshank Redemption. The good news is that since then, Gunton has been in constant demand to play antagonistic authority figures. The downside, though, is that he’s rarely ever considered for the colorful, off-beat characters he yearns to portray.

Onscreen, Gunton can exude pure menace, but he initially planned to become a priest until the acting bug that bit him in high school refused to let go. “I was in the seminary for two-and-a-half years,” he recalls. “We’d have monthly get-togethers, and I’d do imitations and impersonations. After I left the seminary, I was drafted and went to Vietnam. I had always looked at theater and performing as just a fun thing to do, but when I got back from Vietnam, I decided that the message from my creator was, ‘These are the talents I’ve given you. Get serious about them and really pursue them,’ so I did.”

Bob Gunton in Shawshank Redemption

One of Gunton’s early film roles came in Oliver Stone’s Oscar-winning 1999 film, Born on the Fourth of July, based on the true story of Ron Kovic (played by Tom Cruise), a Vietnam vet who becomes an anti-war activist after coming home paralyzed. Although his screen time was minimal, it was a project that Gunton is particularly proud of. “I was very pleased with Born on the Fourth of July,” he says. “I had a special relationship with Oliver, and still do. We’re both Vietnam veterans, and like all Vietnam veterans, we share a bond that goes beyond the business or anything else.”

A few years later, Gunton’s career changed forever when he was asked to read for a movie based on Stephen King’s story, The Shawshank Redemption. “As soon as I read it, I was blown away by the storytelling and the wit of the writing,” he recalls. “I met with (writer/director) Frank Darabont and the producer, Niki Marvin, and it was one of those times where I knew in my guts just who the warden was. I think they saw that I really understood this guy, but then they had to convince the studio.”

These days, Gunton can be seen in the new season of the Fox hit 24, starring Keifer Sutherland. Unlike his work on other TV shows, Gunton admits the series’ real-time format can be difficult to work within. “I shot three days this week and I’ll shoot one day next week, and all of it basically takes place in the same hour on the show,” he says. “You have to hold in your head what the stakes are and what the emotional intensity is, and there’s no place for the character to kind of sit back and reflect. It’s pretty much moving like a freight train all the time, but that’s the thrill of the show, and it has a style that I think is totally unique.”

Bob Gunton

Almost 30 years have passed since Gunton began his acting career, and while he’s happy to be making a living doing what he loves, there’s still some frustration due to Hollywood’s tendency to typecast. “Shawshank Redemption is the biggest and best-known movie that I’ve ever been associated with, and it’s probably the best role I’ve ever done in a major movie,” he says. “That has made some people reluctant to look at me for a comedic role or as someone who’s soft and cuddly. I’m very grateful for ever having done Shawshank, but in a way it’s sort of a burden to carry around, too.”

Like any good actor, Gunton is always looking to challenge both himself and audience perceptions. “Over the last five years or so, I’ve been doing a lot of independent movies,” he says. “I’ve been playing comic characters, off-beat characters and some very loveable and noble characters, which I rarely get to do. I’m a father who rarely gets to play just a lovable, goofy father in a movie, and I’d love to do that. At this time in life, I feel very vulnerable in a lot of ways and I’d like to explore that in a role. Who I am and what I can do could potentially come together and present me with an interesting challenge.”

Stella Stevens

By JEFF BENZIGER

—Autograph February 2009

Even the most devout Jerry Lewis fan watching the 1963 film The Nutty Professor may be distracted from his antics in a major way because of that beautiful blonde with him. Stella Stevens, Lewis’ love object in the comedy, is without a doubt one of the prettiest women to work in Hollywood.

A signed 8×10 of Stevens

Born Estelle Caro Eggleston on Oct. 1, 1938 in Yazoo City, Miss., Stevens was a divorced mother by the age of 17. She became interested in acting while studying at Memphis State in Tennessee, and while modeling at Goldsmith’s department store in Memphis, she met actress Tina Louise, who dazzled Stevens into taking the plunge. Tina’s press agent from United Artists suggested that Stevens fly to New York to meet executives of 20th Century Fox. She was contracted in 1959 for a small role in Say One for Me with Bing Crosby.

Shortly after, in 1960, she was dumped by the studio and decided to pose nude for Playboy to get another studio’s attention. Playboy paid her only half of the promised amount, saying if she posed as a “hussie,” she’d get the other half. “I told them to shove it,” Stevens said.

She soon went to work for Paramount Studios and became one of the most photographed women in the world. In 1999, Playboy voted Stevens No. 27. on its list of the 100 sexiest stars of the 20th century.

Playing a night club singer in Elvis’ 1962 film, Girls! Girls! Girls! Stevens recalled that Elvis didn’t like her during their six days of working together since she had a negative view of Memphis men due to her bad marriage.

Four years later, she played Dean Martin’s inept partner in the Matt Helm spy spoof, The Silencers.

During the 1970s Stevens landed one of her finest roles: a kind-hearted prostitute in Sam Peckinpah’s The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970) starring Jason Robards. Her biggest role, however, was as a prostitute in Irwin Allen’s star-studded film, The Poseidon Adventure, in 1971. It was a box office smash but was the last huge movie for Stevens.

A signed 8×10 photo of Stevens

Her TV appearances have been extensive, among them being General Hospital, Flamingo Road, Love Boat, Newhart, Fantasy Island, Hart to Hart, Murder She Wrote and Magnum P.I.

Spending less time making movies today means the 70-year-old beauty has more time to sign autographs. Collectors now have access to Stevens through her website, www.stellastevens.biz, where she offers signed photos from various decades of her career. The website also mentions that she’ll sign photos and other items sent to her at $20 a pop (or three items for $50). She will plant a lip print on an item, as well as sign it for $25. That same price goes for signing topless or Playboy poses sent to her, but you won’t find her selling them herself.

Collectors may want to start with Stevens’ offering of 17 poses (both B&W and color) from the 1960s, many of them bikini and lingerie shots. A number of attractive photos are available from the 1970s, including from The Ballad of Cable Hogue, as well shots from The Poseidon Adventure. The 1980s section contains the popular “blue corset” poses. Recent “At Home with Stella” portraits of the beautiful actress are also offered in 8×10 format, as well as a boxed set of greeting cards, with one signed per box.

Stevens will personalize the signature with the collector’s name and a special message, if requested. The website doesn’t offer nude photos but Stevens promises to be adding “new photos of special interest to every decade.”

Items may be sent to her at Stella Stevens, Universal Mail Center, 12400 Ventura Blvd. #502, Studio City, CA 91604. Checks and money orders must be made out to StellaStar Corporation.

In the Trenches: Jamie Lee Curtis

By JOSH BOARD

— Autoghraph February 2009

Jamie Lee Curtis signing for a young fan in San Diego, Calif.

One of the best comedies ever is without a doubt A Fish Called Wanda. And getting the DVD signed by its stars slipped through my hands, not once, but twice!

Jamie Lee Curtis attended a fundraiser at a Balboa Park photography museum in San Diego, Calif., for which I could’ve gotten a free press pass. Instead, I gave the DVD sleeve and a copy of Autograph (December 2005) featuring Curtis on the cover to a staff member. But Curtis got into her car before the staff member could ask her to sign them.

I figured I’d eventually get the DVD signed since I had a friend teaching in Santa Barbara who told me he sees Curtis’ costar in the film, John Cleese, around town once in a while. But I never would have guessed the opportunity could come from two students selling magazine subscriptions. I usually say no to those sales pitches, but one of the students said that the newspaper had written a story about her going to school abroad, and she needed to raise money to go there. A nice sales pitch, indeed.

She then asked, “Do you know who John Cleese is?” I said, “Yeah, from Monty Python.” She got so excited, and then she asked if I knew the show Fawlty Towers. I said, “Yeah, it was great.” She explained that as part of her acting class, she would be reenacting a few episodes from the show with Cleese.

I said, “I’d love to help you out, but I already get a few magazines and two newspapers each day. I won’t have the time to read them.” She then said, “You can donate them to the troops.”

I figured I’d do my part for the troops and said, “I have a deal for you. I’ll order two different magazines, if you get my DVD signed by John Cleese.” She got so excited at the proposal. I paid $100, for the two, two-year subscriptions. She told me when she came back in May, she’d show me all the pictures, and get the DVD signed. I haven’t seen her since.

About 10 months later, I found out Jamie Lee Curtis was coming to nearby La Jolla for a book signing. There were 100 people in line to meet her. She showed up walking down the line, saying hello to people. Ironically, of all the book signings I’ve ever been to, the only other person who I saw do this was her dad, Tony Curtis, as he would shake every person’s hand. Jamie hugged the woman in front of me, who she had known from a children’s hospital in L.A.

Before she sat down to sign, Curtis said, “This line isn’t long, let’s start the signing.” Everyone was in a great mood.

This bookstore had been strict in the past about no other items for the author to sign. So, even if I had the Wanda DVD, I wouldn’t have had a chance. But I did bring two back issues of Autograph, with her on the cover. I was going to give her one, and possibly have her sign one for me. At the very least, take a photo of her holding it.

Curtis drew a fish and wrote "Wanda" in her children's book Big Words

She was great with all the kids that came to the table, asking them their favorite color and making conversation.

I remembered an interview I did with a DJ from a radio station in Chicago who told me that as a kid, he sent a letter to Curtis and got her autograph. When he interviewed her a few years ago, he showed the autograph to her and asked, “This is real, right?” She frowned and said, “No, I’m sorry to tell you, it’s not. We had people working for us that would sign those. I apologize.”

When I approached with the children’s book I had just bought for $20, I said, “I’ve read all nine of your previous books.” She had a weird smile as I continued, “And I like A Fish Called Wanda the best.” She laughed.

She opened the book and asked, “Who do I make it out to?” I said, “You can make it out to Josh.” I noticed her looking for the sticker with my name that the bookstore gives to autograph seekers, and then instead of personalizing it, she drew a fish and wrote, “Wanda” in the middle.

I then asked if she would take a picture with the copy of Autograph I brought, but I was interrupted by store security, telling me, “She’s not doing any other memorabilia today.” I said, “I’m not asking her to sign it, just hold it.” She said, “No, I won’t do that.” Security added, “Then everyone else in line will want one.”

I tried to buy a little more time with Jamie Lee by telling her I saw her on The Tonight Show asking the other celebrity guests for their autographs to sell for a charity and was wondering if she was still involved with it.

Now, she looked bothered. She paused and said, “Sometimes.”

I was just about to ask her another question about the celebrities she has encountered when she looked at the kid behind me and started talking to him. Security gently grabbed my arm and escorted me out.

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.