The Battle Cry of Aldo Ray
Also Ray was a manly man from Hollywood’s Golden Age. He was recently elected sheriff of his home town before going off to make movies. This interview from the January 1991 issue of Movieline takes place just a few months before Ray succumbed to throat cancer. In the final days of his life, Ray reflected on his Hollywood career and looked forward to a full recovery that was not to be.
After a successful run as a big star of the macho hunk variety in the ’50s and ’60s, Aldo Ray took a long, hard fall from Hollywood’s grace. But Aldo Ray is nothing if not a fighter, as our writer found when he traveled to Northern California to talk with the actor about fame, love, and the cosmic wringer.
1. IN THE CANCER WARD
The Veterans Administration Hospital in the Northern California town of Martinez sits on a bald, sun-scalded hillside above the busy traffic flowing past on Highway 4. It’s a vast, scary institutional pile of a place–acres of masonry and misery located just a few minutes’ drive from Aldo Ray’s hometown of Crockett in the East Bay opposite San Francisco.
On a blistering August day, I was wandering half-lost through the hospital’s air-conditioned, ice-colored corridors, looking for the wing where the 64-year-old actor was being treated for cancer. He’d been a major Hollywood leading man in the 1950s and ’60s, but his subsequent history had been one long bruise, capped off professionally in 1986 by his expulsion from the Screen Actors Guild for the heresy of working in non-union films, and on a personal level, by his diagnosis for a malignant tumor in late 1989. Earlier disasters included three failed marriages, chronic battles with alcohol, and an untold number of appearances in some of the schlockiest movies ever graced by a mainstream star–even an X-rated Western. The once-shining kid with the froggy voice had been through the Hollywood version of the cosmic wringer. I was knotted up with nerves, full of dread at what I might encounter.
Aldo–“Hey, call me Aldo or forget it”–had told me forthrightly about his medical condition during our first phone conversation a month or so earlier. Then, just a couple of days previously, when I’d called again to confirm our appointment to meet over a period of several days, he’d told me that he would be at the V.A. for chemotherapy treatment when I arrived. “But come on up anyway,” he’d urged in that trademark raspy growl. “I’ll be going home that night and we can bullshit all afternoon. Yeah, hey, it’ll help me pass the time, yeah, hey, come on up.” He’d assured me that the chemo regimen didn’t affect him adversely except for breaking out his face in a splotchy rash.
When I tapped at the open door of his single room–3-B North, No. 364–Ray stood up quickly from his neatly-made bed and took a short step forward. He was wearing a chocolate-brown robe over pajamas and slippers. Instantly recognizable, he was craggier and stockier now, but still baby-faced handsome and spiffily groomed. He stuck out his hand and we shook hard. “Are you still up for this nonsense?” I asked. With an easy smile, he said he was feeling better than he looked, indicating several raw, peeling spots on his face and neck. Clearly, he wanted to put me at ease, but the thought occurred to me that he might be making a brave attempt for my benefit.
Motioning me to a chair facing him, Ray sat down on the bed and started to cross his legs, but his IV cord got in the way. It ran from his left wrist across his lap to a drip bottle hanging from a metal stand. “When it gets empty,” he said, “I can go home. I had three of the things going at once the other day, and a chaplain came in and said, ‘Aldo, I see you’re getting the best of care here. One vodka, one gin, one tequila–‘” Ray let out a chuckle that turned into an explosive belly laugh.
He was backlit by the room’s single, off-center window, and he seemed, I thought, remarkably cheerful. With a tentative sense of relief, I began to grasp that he might not be as ill as I’d feared. We bantered for a while, sizing each other up. Within a few minutes, I knew some of the essentials about him. He was manly in the old-fashioned sense, and he had nerve and grace in a complicated mixture. Despite his volubility–his Italian blood and all that–he was innately reserved, shy and stoic at the core. I took him to be wounded, vulnerable, still an innocent of sorts, acutely intelligent, and tough as billy hell. He reminded me a little of Jack Kerouac, another bright jock and drinking man who’d been cursed with stardom.
Gradually, our talk concentrated on the movies he’d made over the last 40 years. My chair was squeaky and uncomfortable, but except for shifting my weight from side to side, I didn’t move from it again for the next four hours.
“The story of how I got into the movies is very commonly known,” Aldo said in a gravelly basso, launching into a rambling reminiscence about returning from Navy service at the end of World War II, marrying a local girl and playing junior-college football, and then getting himself elected constable of Crockett at the age of 22. “Yeah, the guy I ran against was a 16-year incumbent, and I destroyed him with 80 percent of the vote! I was going to work my way up to the U.S. Senate, see, and I would’ve, too, but then my brother Guido–you’ll meet him maybe tomorrow–saw an article in the San Francisco Chronicle and talked me into going with him to a ‘cattle call’ for extras in Saturday’s Hero with John Derek and Donna Reed. We were both gonna be big movie stars, you know? And the director, David Miller–damned good guy–heard about my winning the election and asked me to give a speech. I did, and he signed me up that night to a seven-year contract with Columbia. Out of 400 athletes who showed up, I was the only one they picked for the long haul.”
Leaving his foothold in politics had been a difficult choice, Aldo said, but after eight months on the job as constable, he got a call from the well-known director George Cukor, who wanted to test him for what turned out to be the male lead in his production of The Marrying Kind. “By then, Saturday’s Hero was playing and people were asking, ‘Who’s the guy with the voice?’ So Cukor tutored me for four days and said, ‘Resign your job, kid. You can’t wear two hats.’ Two weeks later, I got divorced from my first wife, appointed a new constable, and headed for L.A. at $200 a week, which was pretty good money in ’51.
“Harry Cohn [the head of Columbia Studios] singled me out–Uncle Harry himself. And Max Arnow, who was in charge of talent at Columbia. Max never liked me. Because I wasn’t a ‘person of the theater’ and I didn’t care about acting. But Harry gave me one standing order: ‘No acting lessons, kid, or you’ll ruin whatever it is you’ve got.’ Harry decided that I was going to be in “A” pictures or nothing, and while he was alive, he never let me do a picture that was sub-“A.” After The Marrying Kind, when Cukor wanted to take me with him to MGM for Pat and Mike, Cohn said okay–but I had to get star billing along with Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn. Spencer says, ‘You mean the sheriff of Crockett… we’re giving the sheriff of Crockett star billing?’ ” Aldo boomed out a laugh that bounced from wall to wall.
“But Cukor convinced them, and Tracy told me one day, we were walking along: ‘Kid, I don’t know what it is that you got, and I got, and some of us have, but you can work in this business forever.’ That made me feel good, you know, coming from a guy like him. I never bowed down to anybody at Columbia or anywhere else, but my overall idea was, I’ll do whatever they tell me because it’s their business, not mine, and I’ve got to learn it.
“Because of Harry, all my first pictures were big hits, tremendously popular. Judy Holliday was my co-star in The Marrying Kind–she’d won the Oscar two years before. Then came Pat and Mike. Third picture, the ads read: ‘Jane Wyman, Ray Milland, Aldo Ray in Let’s Do It Again.’ I played with nothing but Oscar winners or top stars–Rita Hayworth and Jose Ferrer in Miss Sadie Thompson. . . Bogart and Usti [Peter Ustinov] in We’re No Angels…
“I liked Rita Hayworth. She was a real down-to-earth human being, a nice lady who’d got caught up in the whirlwind of Hollywood at a very young age. I don’t know what the hell twisted her up with her men. Ferrer and I tried to talk her out of marrying that goofy singer, Dick Haymes. If she’d been closer to my age, I think I would have gone after her myself…
“Before I went to Paramount to make We’re No Angels, some friends at Columbia had warned me: ‘Bogie always picks a patsy on every picture, so don’t let him shit on you. The minute he gets on you, go back at him.’ Sure enough, we’re up to the 17th take on a scene where something mechanical kept going wrong and Bogie yelled at me: ‘WHAT’S THE MATTER WITH YOU, YOU GREEN S.O.B.? WHY DON’T YOU LEARN YOUR CRAFT BEFORE YOU WORK WITH THE PROS?’ The glitch wasn’t my fault, so I walked over to him and said, ‘You talk to me like that again and I’ll drive you through that goddam concrete.’ ‘What?’ ‘You heard me.’ Bogie says, ‘Come with me, pal.’ We went to his dressing room and he poured two tumblers of scotch. Boom, boom, chugalug! And every night from then on, we got half-gassed in his dressing room.”
I’d been watching Aldo’s hands–blunt, almost square-shaped, but expressive tools of his trade all the same. With a spare gesture or two, he characterized almost everyone he mentioned.
“I was at Columbia from ’50 to ’58, and Harry Cohn… I think he liked me. Because I was a renegade–his kind of guy. And I always liked him, too, because I could tell him off. Oh, we battled. He liked it that I wasn’t afraid of him, but he never paid me anything. He’d loan me out for $10,000 a week–on Battle Cry, say, or The Naked and the Dead–and in my seventh year, I was only making $700 a week. The first two jobs I got after my contract was up–a picture in Australia and a TV show with Lucille Ball–I made more money from them than I’d made the whole eight years before.”
“Didn’t you once get a laughably paltry check from Columbia?” I asked.
“Yeah, yeah, oh Christ.. .They sent me on tour all over the country to promote The Marrying Kind–22-hour days, practically, for a couple of months. And the picture was a smash. So finally I’m back at the studio and I go to the pay window–it’s a Thursday–and they say, ‘Sorry, Aldo, no check this week.’ I asked why not. ‘Well, when you were on tour, you sent a few gifts home and that’s been deducted.’ Second week–same thing, no check. The third week, I got a check–for 24 cents.
“For a laugh, I showed it to everybody around the studio–I was kind of a favorite, the boy sheriff from Crockett–and one of Cohn’s stooges offered me a buck for it. I said, fine, it’s a deal. Then at the end of the day, I was on my way out and a guard said Mr. Cohn wanted to see me. I went upstairs, and Harry was waving the check. ‘You seen this before?’ I said, ‘Yeah, isn’t that a riot, boss?’ ‘IT’S NOT FUNNY, GODDAMMIT! YOU’RE MAKING A FOOL OUT OF ME!’ I said, ‘Well, what the hell–I can’t even buy a hamburger with the damned thing! Twenty-four cents–a hamburger is two bits.’ ‘GET OUT, GODDAMMIT!’
“Next morning, Cohn calls me back to his office, puts his arm around my shoulder, and hands me a check for $10,000. ‘You did a good job on the road and I should’ve done something for you. But, kid, never bite the hand that feeds you.’ I said, ‘Boss, I never heard that one before–it must be Jewish. I ‘BEAT IT–GO BANK THAT CHECK BEFORE I CHANGE MY MIND.’ ” Aldo clapped his hands and cackled.
“Eventually, it worked out that I made some money on the side. An independent outfit called Security Pictures sent me a script called Men in War. I said, ‘I’m not going to do it because you guys and Harry are getting all the money and I don’t get anything.’ They said, ‘Well, we’ll give you ten percent of the profits ultimately, but keep it to yourself–so we made a little side agreement. Then Anthony Mann, the director, offered my agent–this is at MCA–$12,500 for half of my ten percent. The agent pressured me to take it because he had no faith in the picture, and I said, ‘Okay– but I’m sure I’ll regret it.’ The five percent that I kept ended up paying me $70,000.
“Tony Mann was a hell of a director–a great guy and very dynamic. He was always intense, intense! That’s what killed him–too dynamic. He dropped dead at 57, I think. Tony also directed me in God’s Little Acre–I got $25,000 under the table for that one, by the way–and those were two of my best pictures.
“Raoul Walsh directed me in Battle Cry and The Naked and the Dead, my two best roles. Raoul and I got along because we drank together a lot, and he liked my kind of character. Because I was not ‘the actor,’ see. On Battle Cry, he thought Van Heflin was a kind of prima donna, and to Raoul, that wasn’t a man, you know what I mean? He didn’t like actors who weren’t MEN. We made Battle Cry in Puerto Rico, where the rum cost just 70 cents a fifth. Believe me, nobody drank any water the whole 28 days we were there. And when we shot The Naked and the Dead in Panama, it was endless partying with the Marines and the Army generals trying to outdo each other. Christ, I’d come to work in the mornings in a tuxedo … But you know something? We made great films. A lot of the best pictures in those days were made under the aegis (he pantomimed nipping from a bottle) and we turned out great films. It’s a pencil-pusher business now, and almost nobody who’s a movie person has anything to do with making movies anymore. It’s sad–it’s almost a sin.”
I asked Aldo to rank the top directors he’d worked with in his early years. He named Cukor, Mann, Walsh, and Jacques Tourneur, who’d directed him in a little known noir thriller called Nightfall in 1956. “Jacques,” Aldo recalled, “was soft-spoken, heavyset, smoked a pipe. . . He’d apparently had a few little problems with the studio for a while and then they assigned him Nightfall, and we shot it in 18 days up near Reno and everything turned out okay. It was a good little picture, and made a lot of money for its cost.
“Cukor was the most sensitive in actual direction–the little things mattered to him, any little thing. Tony Mann knew what he wanted, too, but the little things didn’t matter that much. You listened to him because he knew EXACTLY where he was going. Walsh directed big action pictures and he listened more than he watched. He’d walk away from a scene and listen. ‘Aldo, did you like it?’ If I said no, he’d say, ‘Okay, do it again.’ They were all top pros, but if I had to choose one director for everything, I’d pick Tony Mann.”
A nurse entered the room to check on Aldo’s medication. He grinned at her and asked: “How much more time to go?” “Oh, a couple of hours, maybe,” she said, “just sit tight.” She held his taped wrist and started taking his pulse.
Aldo turned back to me with a poker face. “That stuff they’re dripping into me is a fluorocarbon or something called Five-FU. Doesn’t sound too good, would you say? Five-FU. When I first started the treatment, I told them, ‘Hey, one FU is enough for me–I don’t know if I can stand five.’ ” He threw back his head and roared.
The texture of light in the room faded as the afternoon began to wane. Sitting partly obscured in shadow now, with one slippered foot drawn up on the coverlet, Aldo snorted and turned almost testy when I mentioned John Wayne, who had directed him in The Green Berets in 1968.
“Ow, John Wayne,” he said with a grimace. “I never considered him much of an actor, much less a director. Wayne was just a personality–I mean, I’m a personality, too, but he was all personality. I refused to call him ‘Duke’ or brown-nose around him like everybody else. One day he was telling me how to do a scene a certain way, and I said, ‘John, maybe that’s the way you’d do it, but it’s not the way I’m gonna do it.’ ‘Hey, I’ve been in this business for 40 years and I was a star for most of that time.’ I said, ‘I don’t care how long you’ve been in the business–you’ve never learned a fucking thing.’ He looked at me and turned around and walked away.”
“Did he freeze you out after that?”
“Not really–in a way…He kind of admired me, and we drank together every night after work. But during work, we avoided each other. That picture shot for a long time–three months.”
Aldo didn’t mention it, but The Green Berets–landmark turkey that it was–marked the end of his starring days in big-budget American films. Afterwards, he’d descended in painful stages to the “B”s, the sub-“B”s, the off-off-“B”s of his career in the ’70s and ’80s. Somewhere along the way, like his friend Rita Hayworth, he’d disappeared into the “whirlwind of Hollywood” himself.
Before flying north, I’d pored for several days over Aldo’s Academy Library press file, reading about his comebacks, his ever-loopier credits, his unhappy personal life. Ray’s third divorce in 1968–from the mother of his two sons–had perhaps broken his spirit, or at least his drive. Then there was his two-fisted drinking habit–Boom, boom, chugalug! As his movies went from bad to worse, his life began to resemble a bad movie, too. From glossy studio “A”s to the trash-film gulag was a long, hard fall.
When Ray appeared in the X-rated Sweet Savage in 1977– playing a heavy in the “plot” sequences, but taking no part in the explicit sex scenes–Variety snidely noted his “crossover” from “straight” films to hardcore porn. Establishment Hollywood was outraged and proceeded to write him off as a washed-up lush.
By the early ’80s, in fact, Ray was living in near-destitution in a seedy walk-up above Hollywood Boulevard, riding city buses to casting calls, and taking virtually any film he was offered. In some of the features I’d seen or heard about, he appeared to be cast for his residual fame alone. I asked him about three of them–Angel Unchained, Straight Jacket, and Biohazard.
For the first time, Aldo faltered, dropped his gaze. “Yeah, I did a couple of things–I’m not sure about all the titles–for a guy named Fred Olen Ray…He’d give me $1000 in cash, pay my expenses, and I’d do a day’s work. Somebody showed me one of his cassettes–‘starring Aldo Ray’–but it was just a one-day job.”
“Are you bitter about being used that way?”
“Well, I needed money at the time, and Fred knew I needed a buck, so I did it. He exploited me, yeah, but I was ripe for it.”
“Are you bitter at all?”
“Aw, hell no,” he said, laughing huskily. He thought a minute and his expression softened as though a breeze had blown across it. “A lot of the pictures I’ve been in weren’t much fun to do at the time, but I don’t remember the shit, you know? All I remember is the fun stuff.”
As we wound down the list of his credits–some 60-odd pictures in all–Aldo’s girlfriend, Sandra Chessmore, arrived to take him home. They lived together nearby. She was a trim, middle-aged blonde with a fond mother-hennish attitude toward him, and they hugged affectionately. Stiff with weariness by now, I got up to leave.
“So what’s the plan for tomorrow?” Aldo asked. He wanted to stick by our original notion to take a stroll around Crockett.
“Let’s have lunch somewhere,” I suggested, still chary about his condition, “and see what we feel like afterwards.”
“Great,” he said. “You’re at the Concord Hilton? We’ll pick you up at 11. I feel the Great Wall coming on.”
2. NATIVE SON
We arrived in Crockett at 11:15 the next morning and parked outside a handsome old two-story frame house on Sixth Avenue. The hillside neighborhood was quiet and well-kept with a view of the cantilever bridge that spanned the Carquinez Straits to Vallejo. “This is where I was raised,” Aldo said, setting the hand-brake against the steep incline. He stepped briskly out of the car, opened Sandra’s door, and walked around to check the mailbox.
He was wearing blue slacks with a yellow leisure shirt, looking fit enough to buck cargo. Even his rash had faded noticeably overnight. He stood with one leg braced against the sidewalk’s rise, surveying the street.
“This used to be the poor side of town?” I asked. “Doesn’t look it–”
“Well, the Latinos lived around here–the Italian and Portuguese millhands who worked at the C&H refinery. .. ‘Dago Hill,’ you know. I remember my old man chipping in with his cronies and they’d stomp the grapes in their bare feet.”
A dozen or so steps led up through thick camelia bushes to a high porch. Aldo’s mother, Maria Da Re, greeted us in the foyer, embracing Sandra, giving Aldo a playful swat. She was a radiantly vital and alert woman of 84 who spoke in a heavy accent. “So glad you can come,” she said, clasping my hand with a crinkling smile.
It was a homey, comfortably furnished house spiced with the aroma of something simmering in the kitchen. “Come on–” Aldo led the way into the dining room–“I want you to meet that brother who got me into the movie business. Guido, this is…” I stepped forward to shake Guido’s hand because he couldn’t rise. A dark, heavyset man in his sixties, he had both feet propped up on pillows, one of them swollen enormously with gout. He was settled in beside the table with a plate of munchies nearby and a TV set tuned low to a football game. “What’s the score?” Aldo asked.
“Rams, 7-0. They’re playing in Berlin, chrissakes.”
“Don’t ever gamble with this guy,” Aldo told me with a wink.
Guido tittered. “I don’t gamble–I bet. There’s some mail for you, Aldo. And call Paul.”
I moved forward to look at a gallery of family pictures on a sideboard–the six Da Re brothers, one sister, and several generations of their offspring. Aldo named off his siblings and then we stood watching his mother gossiping with Sandra in broken English. She had the same hoarse voice and bullmoose laugh he did. Shaking his head fondly, he showed me photos of his sons, both of whom he’d mentioned with pride earlier. “This is Paul–he’s my oldest, lives near here in Walnut Creek–and he’s got a brand-new bride. They’re meeting us at the cafe, okay?” The other photo was of Eric Da Re, the young TV actor who plays the villainous Leo on Twin Peaks. “He called last night to see how I was feeling–damned good kid.”
We left for lunch near noon. In the car, Sandra inclined her head quizzically and said to Aldo, “I don’t understand what they’re doing back there, hon. She makes pasta, gravy–I saw beans cooking.”
“What? Jeez, that’s the worst thing you can eat with gout. Shit, I’ll have to…”
The Yet Wah bar-restaurant was set on a sheer bluff overlooking a magnificent expanse of the half-mile-wide straits. We were seated at a large table with a panoramic view across the water to Mare Island and Benicia. Aldo played mein host, ordering the group course called the Great Wall, which comprised some jillions of Mandarin dishes served in unceasing waves.
Paul, 27, was a pleasant, balding young man who worked for an accounting firm, and looked nothing like his father. As he served his pretty wife Martha some Chinese ravioli, I asked if he’d ever been tempted to act. “Oh, no,” he said, mildly horrified.
“He played in one of mine, though,” Aldo put in. “One summer in Wyoming… what was it called? The thing’s been shown all over the world except here, and I never got paid for that sonofabitch–” “Neither did I,” Paul said, feigning woe, then grinning good-naturedly.
After some talk about Ray’s stay at the hospital–“Yeah, they say I’m doing pretty good”–Sandra gestured toward the water: “He used to swim all the way across there and back. Taught everybody in town how to swim.”
Aldo split open his fortune cookie. “Yeah, I was a pretty fair swimmer as a kid. I’d go in just up from here, then swim across to where that ship is, and try my damndest to make it back. I got carried along halfway to Suisun Bay on the currents one time.” He squinted at the printed slip. “Hmm. . .’A new world of creative power is opening up to you.’ Hey, what about that? Damned things hit just right sometimes, don’t they?” Sandra pretended to wave a magic wand over his head: “Lucky Stardust, honey.”
Back in Aldo’s Dodge, we drove west along the straits through the outlying hamlets and vanished company towns that he’d once patrolled as constable–Tormey, Selby, Hercules, Oleum. Gulls wheeled over the road and flashed out toward the glistening water. “Me and a justice of the peace ran this whole area,” he recalled. “I never made a single arrest… See those fields over there, the houses beyond? Jeez, I hate naked tracts. Used to be nothing out here but rabbits and birds until the goddamned builders and oil companies gobbled everything up. Cross a fence now, and some bastard’s liable to shoot you.”
It was another wilting-hot day, and at the town of Rodeo, we all agreed we were thirsty. “There’s a really neat bar down in Port Costa,” Ray said. “Let’s head back there and get something cold to drink.” He turned onto a parallel road that reversed our route, and in minutes we were cruising under the Carquinez Bridge onto Crockett’s one-time “Whiskey Row.” “There used to be 27 bars along here, both sides of the street, and every single one was packed when the shifts let out. But everything closed up after C&.H automated…” He sped past the huge sugar refinery without deigning to look at it and took the Port Costa turnoff.
The old town down at the water’s edge–once the West’s busiest wheat-shipping port–was all but extinct aside from clusters of hillside homes. We parked on a sandy wash not far from the shore and crossed to the Warehouse Cafe, a funky country tavern with Jerry Lee Lewis raving on the jukebox. In the back, we found a shady table on the patio. The tang of salt floated in the air.
“What do you want to have, babe?” Sandra asked.
“Well, I almost feel like a beer, but. . .” Aldo touched a hand to the tender spots on his face.
“Can you drink at all after your medication?” I asked.
“The doc in charge said whatever I can tolerate, I can have. After the last session–this week was the second of three, see– I drank a little bit of wine. So this time I thought I’d restrict myself–not a drop of anything–and see whether it’s just the medication that breaks me out.”
Sandra flagged a waitress who brought us a round of pop and bottled water.
Aldo stretched and took a long, draining swallow. “We’ll hit the bars in Crockett sometime tomorrow, okay? There’s only two joints left there now, and the bartenders–buddies of mine–get a huge kick out of it when I come in and order coffee or something besides a belt. The bastards really seem to enjoy it, you know.”
Aldo drew Sandra close to him, tousling her hair playfully and offering his peeling profile for inspection: “You think I’m ready for that photographer?”
“Aldo,” she said after a beat, “I think you’re a little crazy, but then I always have.”
“Hey, yeah, that’s me all right.”
One of the qualities that had drawn me to Ray was his unguarded candor, the guileless capacity to speak the buck-naked truth as he saw it and damn the consequences. Whatever was on his mind usually came out in straight talk, regardless of received opinion. Later that afternoon, sitting at another table in my hotel with a pot of room-service coffee between us, we went on talking, and I read aloud a quote of his from 1960, one of my all-time favorite Aldo-isms: “This guy Charlton Heston is a nice fellow, but what a hamola.”
“That’s how I felt about it, yeah.” Ray let out a gusty laugh. “To me, you can tell the guy’s acting, and with a good actor who’s doing it right.. .It’s basically action and re-action, see. If you react normally in a scene, and the other people do, too, then you’ve got something going. But if you’re way out and your response isn’t correct, that takes you over into hamola land.. .Chuck’s a nice guy, though.”
“What was in your mind when you made that X-rated picture?” I asked. “You knew in advance what kind of movie it was, didn’t you?”
“Yeah, oh yeah…I wanted, I guess, to see what it was all about–a kind of half-assed adventure, you know? It was also a kind of vacation for me in a bad time–a nice location in Arizona–and I picked up a few thousand bucks. After it came out, a few people wagged their fingers at me–‘Oh-ho-ho, you dirty dog’–but I knew I hadn’t done anything wrong. They shot all the sex stuff after I’d flown back to L.A. I won the adult film Oscar for that, by the way, but somebody copped it.”
“Do you suppose playing in Sweet Savage was the start of your troubles with SAG?”
“Not that I know of…Rory Calhoun called me and said, ‘Aldo, somebody’s out to get you in the union–I don’t know who or why.’ The Guild complaint was based on an independent picture I made in Texas called Lethal Injection–a total bomb that’s never been shown, never was really even finished, and I never got paid a nickel for it. I worried at first that getting expelled would keep me from working altogether– people would think, you know, I was barred from acting, period. And I’m. sure I lost a few jobs over it, but I ended up getting my full pension, full medical coverage, everything that was coming to me. So now if I work, say, five weeks a year, that’s $25,000 minimum because I don’t work for less than $5,000 a week, and added to my pension, I get along okay.”
“What’s a rough estimate of your career earnings in the movies?”
“About $4.5 million.”
“While others got. . .”
“Many, many millions.”
“You said one time you’d made three mistakes in life–and you named your three wives. Does that hold?”
“Yeah, it holds. Except, at least, my third wife gave me two beautiful sons. .. But our divorce wiped me out.”
“Who, then, were the great loves of your life?”
“My sons, and–well, their mother. Yeah. We had a great five years in the ’60s. .. And late in life, Sandra’s the best thing that’s happened to me in a long time. We’ve been together not quite two years, and she’s a princess.”
“Who would you rank as the most important men in your life?”
“Harry Cohn… He and I never discussed it personally, but he made me a star and I knew that he watched over my career like an angel those first years… And David Miller, the director who picked me for Saturday’s Hero–that was a turning point … Cukor definitely–George Cukor for the tutelage and teaching me how to act … Those three guys molded the last 40 years of my life.”
“Well… I regret that I don’t have more control of my tongue and thoughts–because I speak too frankly and too honestly, and this world is not meant for frank and honest people. They don’t mix. Reality is pretty phony.”
“What’re your chances for a full recovery from the cancer?”
“I’m in great shape–got all my energy and strength back. I had surgery on my neck last March, and after one more session of the chemo–that’s 50 more hours–the doctors say I’ll have it all beat. . .I’m not scared of dying–it’s how I die that matters. I’d rather live one good year than ten crappy years. And I think I’ve got some good pictures ahead of me if I can find the right roles. There’s plenty of good stuff left in me, you know?”
3. WATER ON THE ROCKS
Sixth Avenue was a principal artery through the ethnic neighborhood called “Valona” by the long-gone Italian elders who’d stomped the grapes in their bare feet. The street was just waking up the next morning when we assembled for a series of photo sessions that ran on until dusk. Aldo, in high spirits, hit it off warmly with the photographer, and the three of us agreed on an itinerary of locations that expanded as inspiration or the right light struck. Sandra fretted a little about Ray’s rash, but he soothed her with whispers and pats, and we set off in a convoy of cars on a zigzagging course up and down and around Crockett’s hills. The work went smoothly, though it was steamy hot again by ten o’clock.
It was a Sunday, and around the time church services were letting out, Ray parked across from the C&H gates and walked a block to the grounds of the John Swett High School. He slipped through a gap in the link fence with the rest of us following. Striding across the playing fields where he’d once been a schoolboy hero, he looked gallant and one-of-a-kind without trying, his blue eyes vivid against the green, his bearing iron erect. People gathering for the day’s softball games recognized and hailed him. Hollywood, where aging actors were treated as broken toys of the culture, seemed far away.
After a quick lunch at the last cafe left open in the old community business sector, we hit the bars–the Club Tac and Ray’s Corner Saloon. As Aldo had predicted, the bartenders all but hee-hawed as they served him designer water over the rocks. In both places, he bellied up to the bar, batting the breeze with men he’d known since childhood, the steady file of drinkers coming in who’d ditched their wives after mass. Almost all the patrons greeted him one way or another, and he took a lot of low-down ribbing–“Hey, Aldo, can I stand you another Perry-Yay?” But even the roughest kidders welcomed and admired him, really–the fair-haired Valona boy who’d escaped Dago Hill and hit it big in the movies for a while and was still pretty famous everywhere in the world. In the Club Tac, I asked a gray-haired waitress named Lucille if Aldo had been a good boy in his hard-drinking days. “Honey,” she said, “they all mind me.” At Ray’s Corner, a boozy pal slid onto the stool next to Aldo’s. “Christ, Aldo, you bastid, you through with your treatments for now?” “Yeah, I got one more to go.” “Good deal, ol’ buddy. You take care, hear?”
At mid-afternoon, we returned to the Da Re house for the portrait shots. Sandra took a bowl out to the backyard to gather figs and peaches. While the photographer humped in his equipment, Aldo went to the rear of the house and came back with a newspaper and a bag of garbage. Sitting down at the dining-room table, he spread out the paper and started unloading the sack, item by item.
“Hell’s going on?” Guido asked. He was sitting on a couch nearby with his gouty foot propped on a stool.
Aldo put on his reading specs: “I’m looking for an envelope I maybe threw away by mistake.”
Maria Da Re walked through, saw the mound of trash on the paper, threw up her hands, and went into the kitchen. Guido beckoned me closer and stage-whispered for Aldo’s benefit: “He always looks for his residual checks, see, and throws everything else away.”
“Damn right I do,” Aldo growled, his voice rising like a baritone horn, “especially if it’s that political bullshit. Rotten bastards in Washington–there’s not a pair of testicles among them… No, what it was, see, a friend called me last night and said, ‘I heard Reagan mailed you a get-well letter on the seventh.’ ” Aldo pronounced it “Reegen.” He spotted a damp envelope in the sack and said, “Jeez, here it is, I guess… There’s no check in it, so I guess it’s for framing, huh?”
“I toss anything with Reagan’s name on it myself,” the photographer said, laughing.
The letter read:
Nancy and I were sorry to learn of your recent surgery. This is a difficult time for you. However, from personal experience we have found that your burden can become lighter if you trust in the Lord and in those who care about you. Please know that we will be keeping you in our thoughts and prayers. May God bless you and hold you in the palm of His hand.
Sandra came in from the yard, read the signature, and, a little awed, said, “Well, I’ve never gotten a letter from the President.”
“Aw,” Aldo said with a shrug, “I taught Ron how to run for office. When he was in the governor’s race, we were bullshitting at lunch one time and I told him, ‘You’ve got to level with the people who vote. Don’t talk above or below them–just tell ’em what the score is.’ I don’t know that he listened to me, but then I’d’ve made a better President than him, chrissakes.”
Aldo held the letter between his fingers, a little gingerly, then let it flutter onto the table next to Guido’s empty bean bowl. For a minute, he laughed that wild, fractured, totally American laugh, then reined it in and glanced toward the photographer. “Where you want me now?” he asked. “What’s next?”
Aldo Ray completed his third chemotherapy treatment and was released from medical care in September, 1990.