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One on One with Bill Wellman, Jr.

by Tony Medley

I met Bill Wellman, Jr. the son of legendary director William Wellman, at Joni’s Coffee Roaster in Marina del Rey. Wellman was born January 20, 1937. He has appeared as an actor in 69 films and TV shows. He is the author of "The Man and His WINGS: William A. Wellman and the Making of the First Best Picture." He produced “Wild Bill: Hollywood Maverick” (1995), as well. This fascinating documentary is a part of “Forbidden Hollywood” a collection of six of his father’s films from the 1930s that Warner Bros. Home Video recently released. WB went all out, spending more than $700,000 to restore the films just for this collection. This involves highly detailed work, looking at every frame of every film, reworking each frame to make it look like it did when it was originally made.

TONY:       Let’s take the picture now before the interview.

BILL:         OK. I did a lot of print modeling, so I can hold a smile.

TONY:       What do you mean by that?

BILL:         I did everything to try to make sure I made a living and didn’t get shut out from movies and TV, so I did print modeling and commercials and whatever I could. One of the tricks of print modeling is being able to hold a smile for a long period of time. I couldn’t do it. I could smile and then it was gone. I had to practice to smile, so I can give you the one smile I have as long as you want it.

TONY:       How did you practice it?

BILL:         Just in front of the mirror, learning to hold it and hold it and try to make it look natural. I did it and did it and did it until I could do it.

TONY:       How long to you have to hold it for?

BILL:         Some times, depending on the speed of the film they are using, you might have to hold it for 30-60 seconds. Then you might have to continually do it over and over and over again, which is another thing. I could give a few smiles and then they’d look terrible. It’s a strange little thing. In print modeling there are a lot of things you have to learn. People think that there’s nothing to it; they just take pictures of you. Well, there are a lot of little things you have to be able to do.

TONY:       How old were you when you started out?

BILL:         19.

TONY:       What was it like growing up in Hollywood surrounded by all the major stars?

BILL:         We had 35 major film celebrities in our neighborhood. I’m talking about 2 streets to the east, 2 streets to the west and 3-4 blocks north of Sunset, so it’s not a big neighborhood. We had Gary Cooper, Tyrone Power, Lana Turner, John Payne, Deanna Durbin, The Andrews Sisters, Red Skelton, Peter Lawford, Frank Capra, Nelson Eddy, Hopalong Cassidy!

TONY:       William Boyd.

BILL:         William Boyd. As a kid we used to go over to his house. We were afraid to go knock on his door but there was a vacant lot next door and we would hide there just to see him. If we were really lucky, and he was coming home; he drove a Cadillac with these horns, and if we saw him, we were made for a week.

TONY:       What was he like? Did you ever get to speak with him?

BILL:         Never did.

TONY:       Did you have any contact with any of them?

BILL:         Oh, yes. My father was friends with Gary Cooper and Frank Capra and quite a few of them. Carol Lombard’s brother lived on the next street and she used to come over and visit him and she’d come over to our house.

TONY:       But you couldn’t remember that; you were too young (Lombard died in a plane crash in 1944).

BILL:         Oh, yes I do. I was 4. It’s amazing I do remember. She would grab me and put me on her lap and sit in my father’s den. I was fascinated by her blonde hair and her fast talking. I was also excited by the enthusiasm that she and my father had together when they were talking, and some of them swearing back and forth. As a little kid you remember that because those were words you weren’t supposed to say.

TONY:       They did it in front of you?

BILL:         Yes. But people say my father had a foul mouth, but he said things like “SOB,” or “you crazy bastard,” but he never used a lot of the four letter words. “G-dammit” he’d say, and “SOB.” But “SOB” could be good or bad. She talked like that, too.

TONY:       Did Clark Gable come over with her, too?

BILL:         No. I don’t remember meeting Clark Gable until when my father made “Across the Wide Missouri” (1951) and Clark Gable was the star. It was shot in the summer and the whole family went to Colorado on location and I fished with him many days. My father was a great fisherman and he told the production manager, “When you hire your crew, make sure they like to fish.” Every location he had built on a body of water, a river, a lake, a stream. At 5 o’clock, he would wrap and out came the fishing poles and everyone fished until dark.

TONY:       What kind of guy was Clark Gable?

BILL:         Wonderful. He told me one day, “Bill, I’ve got a special place. Nobody’s fished there yet. Just you and I. We’ll go over to this lake. It’s a small lake, very shallow.” And we walked over to this area, had to hike quite a ways. I remember the tree stumps were coming up out of the water. We fished there and they had cutthroat trout in this pond. They are long and thin and they fought like heck. We caught a bunch of them.

TONY:       How old were you?

BILL:         12 or 13.

TONY:       Tell me how you found out about your father’s unknown first wife.

BILL:         This is the most amazing story for me about my father. He was not someone who kept secrets. He would talk about almost anything. He talked about his ex-wives. He talked about things that were complimentary, uncomplimentary. But he never spoke about this and no one ever knew.

        In 1973 or 1974, they did a film retrospective in London. Afterwards, my father said he wanted to go to Paris, where he had been in WWI. One day he says to my mother, “You and Flossie go shopping. Bill and I are going somewhere.” So we get in a cab and I said, “Where are we going, Dad?” And he says, “Just get in the cab.” He kept giving directions and we drove all around the outskirts of Paris and finally he said, “Stop here.” Dad gets out of the car and is looking across the street. I get out of the car and I’m looking to see where he’s looking because there’s some rubble across the street. I said, “Dad, what do you see?” Because he was somewhere else. He says, “Bill, you see what’s left of that building right across the street?” I looked and said, “Yeah.” He said, “That’s what’s left of the church that I got married in.” I said, “To whom?”

        Then he told me about this French girl that he had met. She had worked in a little bakery in one of the towns where he did his flight training. She followed him when he was sent into combat. He was sent to Luneville as a member of the N.87, the Black Cat squadron. She came there and worked in a bakery by the Luneville airfield to be with him, and they got married.

        Her sister was giving birth to a child and lived in Paris. My father’s wife, Renée, had gone to be with her sister. Her husband was a French soldier who had been killed at the front. So she was in this little maternity hospital with her sister. The Germans had perfected a long distance cannon. They were shooting it into Paris. They weren’t good shots and couldn’t hit what they wanted to hit. They just wanted to cause a lot of problems. They killed a lot of people and hit a lot of buildings. They hit this maternity hospital and it was totaled, killing Renee.

        When my father arrived there, he had gone just to see her, the gendarmes were pulling out pieces of bodies and babies. It must have been horrible. My father actually found a piece of Renée’s arm and the ring he had given her.

        He never talked about that.

TONY:       How long were they married?

BILL:         Two months.

TONY:       What a story! I’m surprised he didn’t make a movie about it.

BILL:         Well, if you think about it, “Lafayette Escadrille” (1958) was his last released film, and the film that caused him to quit the business because he was so upset at the way Warner Bros. treated it and changed it. The leading lady’s name is Renée, played by Etchika Choureau, and a lot of what happened in that story was about my father, and I’m playing my father in the movie. My father gave the name Thad Walker, played by Tab Hunter, to the leading character. I think he is as much my father as anyone else, although he’s also a combination of my father’s friends who he was over there with. My father made her a prostitute, and his Renée was not a prostitute.

TONY:       Why would he do that?

BILL:         I think it was in his story telling. He thought it was a more interesting story that this young American flyer falls in love with a prostitute and then she changes and becomes a conductress in Paris. At the end of the movie she jumps into the Seine and commits suicide and Thad goes off to war and is shot down and killed and the movie ends. Warner’s changed that because they didn’t want to kill Tab Hunter, who they thought was their young Tom Cruise, because they thought his fans wouldn’t accept it, so they thought they had to put a happy ending on it.

TONY:       Didn’t he have final cut?

BILL:         No. He didn’t want to make any changes but Warners said “if you don’t make them we’ll bring someone in who will.” The studio system was changing, falling apart, and he didn’t want anything to do with it any more.

TONY:       How did he write his stories?

BILL:         He would tell his stories into a tape recorder. Then he would listen to them and if liked it well enough, he’d write it. He would say to me, “Do you like this story better or this one,” and I was never any help because I liked them all. I have over 20 hours of those audio tapes. I’m trying very hard to piece together a factual, chronological life story.

                I did write a screenplay of my father’s life and sold it to Sean Penn. He took it to the producing company he was with at the time. But somewhere along the line Sean’s projects were released and he didn’t want to keep it up, so it ended.

TONY:       Let’s talk about the collection of your father’s friends that Warner Bros. Home Video just released.

BILL:         Well, I love this collection. It’s called “Forbidden Hollywood,” six films that my father made in the 1930s at Warner Bros., pre-code films. Warner Bros. was making films out of the day’s headlines and these movies are hard-hitting, fast-paced films. I just love them. One of them, “Wild Boys of the Road” (1933), which happens to star my mother, is one of my favorite films of the 76 my father made. And the fact that my documentary, “Wild Bill Hollywood Maverick,” is part of the collection is terrific.

TONY:       Did your parents meet on that set?

BILL:         My father left Paramount and went to Warner Bros., signed a seven year contract, starting in 1930. In 1932 my mother was a Busby Berkley chorus girl, a dancer. She was doing “Gold Diggers of 1933.” My father was preparing “Heroes for Sale” (1933), a movie about drug addiction, which is in the collection. He saw my mother, doing a roller skating number. She was roller skating to the ladies’ room on the studio street. My father was running after her. She knew who he was and she skated into the ladies room and he came right in after her. He said, “Look, I just want to ask you for a date.” She said, “I’m not going to talk to you in here. You go outside and wait out there.

                He had a reputation as “Wild Bill,” but he did it. He went outside and waited. She came out and he said, “Are you afraid of me?” She says, “No Mr. Wellman.” But she said it in a way that she was a little afraid of him. She knew he had been married many times. She said, “You’re married.” He said, “Well, I’m not any more.” She asked, “Is your divorce final?” He said, “No, I have to wait a year for that to be final. And my year’s almost up.” She said, “Well, when you show me your divorce papers, then I’ll have a date with you.” He waited, then showed her the papers, and they started dating.

                After he did “Heroes for Sale” he was doing “Wild Boys of the Road” and there’s a part of a young gal who dresses as a boy, pretending to be a boy. The story is about the disillusionment of youth during the depression, at a time when teenagers’ parents left home because their parents couldn’t feed them and they were hopping freight trains, thinking if they went to a big city they might be able to get work. They lived in camps and she had run away. My mother played that role and after the picture they got married. My mother didn’t want to be an actress. She loved dancing, but had no desire to be an actress. When they got married, she was happy to give it up and be a wife and mother. They had seven kids. The trades made jokes about the marriage because he had been married four times and the chances of Wild Bill Wellman finally settling down to an 18-year-old Busby Berkley chorus girl, that didn’t look like a good bet.

TONY:       How old was he?

BILL:         37. But they were devoted to each other. My brothers and sisters, we knew he had all these marriages, but all we saw was this perfect parental togetherness that you could imagine. My father was very much a family person. When he wasn’t making a movie, he was with the family.

TONY:       Did he ever have any contact with any of his previous wives?

BILL:         Never saw them. I don’t know if any of them were alive when I was born in 1937. He talked about them a little bit. He took responsibility for messing up some of those marriages. He writes about them.

TONY:       You live with your mother now?

BILL:         When my father passed away my mother was all alone in a big house and I was living two streets away, so my children were in the school district. I tried to get my mother to sell the big house and come over to mine. I had just made my garage into what was going to be a studio den. I had put plumbing and electrical in there and paneling. I told her it could be her bedroom. She didn’t want to leave the house but she was having a lot of trouble of making the transition of losing my father after 42 years. So we thought we’d go over there for awhile, so I put my house up for rent, moved over there with my four kids and my wife, and in six months we were planning to go back, but Mother didn’t want us to go back. I used to sit down with my kids and we’d take a vote on things. I did it again. I asked, “How many want to stay here and how many want to go back to our house.” Everybody voted to stay there. It was kind of neat because my two boys were in the same room that my bother and I were in. My two daughters were in the same room that my two sisters were in. Mom really liked it. She’s 95 now.

TONY:       I understand you grew up with Robert Redford.

BILL:         Yes, we were pals since kindergarten. We played on baseball teams together.

TONY:       How good a baseball player was he?

BILL:         He was a terrific baseball player. Back then, 1945, there was no Little League. If you wanted to play baseball, you played in the Cub Scouts. They had things all organized with teams and uniforms. Redford was the best player on our team. He was a pitcher and first baseman on our team. If you watch “The Natural,” which is my favorite baseball movie, you can tell that Redford knows what he’s doing when he’s standing at the plate.

TONY:       Yes, but he is a very good actor.

BILL:         I know it, but if you’re an athlete, you can tell. Charlton Heston played a quarterback and I love the quote from the guy who was the football advisor during the filming, and he was asked how good a quarterback Charlton Heston would have been, and he said, “He couldn’t throw a cat out of the house.” Redford in “The Natural” is there. He’s at the plate taking a swing at the ball. You can watch it and make your own decision as to how good an athlete you think he is.

TONY:       How good to you think this collection of your father’s films is?

BILL:         You know, I just love this collection. Warner’s is really a studio that is head and shoulders above all the others in bringing back the old films.

TONY:       Why is that?

BILL:         Well, George Feltonstein, the head of Warner Home Video, is one of the reasons because he’s a great historian and he loves the old films and he fights for them.

TONY:       Do you think this is better than the first two (this is collection 3).

BILL:         My father has films in the first two, but I think as a group this is better. Of course I’m prejudiced because my documentary is in there, along with one Richard Schickel did. But my documentary is filled with icons, people who worked for my father like Gregory Peck, Sidney Poitier, Robert Mitchum, Robert Redford, Clint Eastwood, people like this talking about my father. Schickel’s documentary is my father talking about himself. So they really blend together nicely.