February 5, 2013 8:22:17 AM
If the name of Lyle Talbot doesn't ring a bell, it's not because he didn't try to get your attention. He was a carnival barker and wandering trouper in the '20s, a relatively famous actor in Hollywood in the '30s, on Broadway in the '40s, on TV sitcoms in the '50s and '60s, and in stage productions in the '80s. He died in 1996 after a long and busy life integrated into what seems like a history of twentieth century American entertainment. This is what makes The Entertainer: Movies, Magic, and My Father's Twentieth Century (Riverhead Books) so valuable. It is written by his daughter, Margaret Talbot, a staff writer for The New Yorker, who says it is not a biography, although it is as close as Lyle Talbot is ever going to get, I suppose. It is an affectionate tribute to her father, incorporating lots of his stories; the author writes, "My father was not a listener. He was a talker. A storyteller." The book has plenty of funny anecdotes, but wonderfully summarizes the changing realms of entertainment into which this hard-working actor injected himself.
Talbot was born in 1902, and was raised by his grandmother, who ran a boarding house in Brainard, Nebraska, "where a boy could gorge himself on gooseberries and blackberries and wild plums." He was not to stay long in the rural environment. He became a carnival barker at age seventeen. "This was where he wanted to be - the world where dressing to look sharp counted as work, where it took no deep thinking to figure out how to make people happy." But he wanted most of all to be on stage himself; the first opportunity came when he answered an ad for a hypnotist's subject, placed by "MacKnight, the Hypnotic Fun Maker." He did have to act, because there was fakery in the performance. His boss tried to get him to do stage magic, but he was not adept at it. The act faded, and he became the stage assistant of the magician Mock Sad Alli. He started acting in plays, in an era in which good looks and personality were becoming more important than elocution or grandiosity, and when young people were a target audience. The author has looked through scrapbooks and newspaper reports to recreate the world of the small-town traveling acts.
Talbot loved the traveling theater, but his company failed in 1930 in Dallas. He had $5 left. "In my life," he recalled, "just when I have been on the verge of giving up, a telegram arrived." This one summoned him to Hollywood for a screen test, because a talent scout had seen his Dallas performances. Movies had all but killed the regional theater and the touring tent theaters where Talbot had learned his craft, but now they were to become his life. When it came to his screen test, it could have been a disaster; he had inadvertently picked a part from a play that satirized Darryl Zanuck, head of production at Warner Brothers. Zanuck, however, was amused by the presumption of the applicant. Director William Wellman liked the idea of bothering Zanuck, so he cast Talbot immediately. It was the making of him. He worked the Warner Brothers schedule for contract players, making movies six days a week, often twelve hours a day, making twelve movies in 1933. He costarred with Spencer Tracy, Shirley Temple, Mae West, Humphrey Bogart, Barbara Stanwyck, and plenty more. He loved the work, but it was excessive; he and a score of other actors formed the Screen Actors Guild, which grew into a powerful Union.
He did not gain the stardom of those other names. Movie magazines of 1933 dubbed him and Katharine Hepburn the "Stars of Tomorrow;" what happened? The author thinks it was just a matter of chance; the odds of becoming a star are tiny even if you have everything going for you. Talbot had good looks, talent, and an eagerness for work. He did have a problem with alcohol. He liked women and married four times before meeting the author's mother. Maybe his dating of Sam Warner's widow did it in for him. Maybe his unionization efforts. Whatever the causes, he was to be a supporting actor, and not a star. "He must have been disappointed, but he wasn't saying so. And maybe his disappointment wasn't deep; what he'd always wanted, after all, was to be a lifelong working actor, and at that he still had a chance."
More than a chance, it turned out. Though he may have stood up for actors' rights, he never turned down a job, ever. If he was given a part, he did it. (The lack of pickiness may have been one reason he didn't go further.) When he had a chance to go to Broadway in 1940, he took it, and toured successfully with the comedy thereafter. When the war came, he signed up for service in the air corps, and when he came back, Hollywood was different. He felt "like nobody knew me. It was like a different town." Always eager to work, he had trouble getting parts. He did find work in serials, as Commissioner Gordon in Batman and Robin and Lex Luthor in Atom Man vs. Superman. His young friend Ed Wood persuaded him to work in Glen or Glenda, and Talbot was also in Wood's infamous Plan 9 From Outer Space. His "a job's a job" attitude paid off, even though he was the oddball on the Wood sets because he was so square. (He did not, for instance, swear: "'A couple was 'having a love affair,' even if the reference was clearly to a one-time sex act, as in 'he opened the door, and there they were having a love affair right there on the floor.'") He had a good, dependable ten-year role as the next-door neighbor in "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet."
Talbot gave credit to his fifth wife, Paula, the author's mother, whom he married in 1948 when she was 20 and he was 46. It was an enormously successful marriage. She was able to get Talbot to see the wisdom of joining Alcoholics Anonymous. He worked steadily and he was an exemplary husband and father. The marriage lasted forty sustaining years, until, strangely, Paula died of a brain aneurism and strokes, leaving the eighty-seven year old a widower. He was bereft, and died himself seven years later in 1996. He sounds like such a lovable character in this account and memoir. He didn't get the sort of stardom a few others achieve in Hollywood. His daughter reflects: "If he had a credo, it was a credo of entertaining. You owed something to the people who came to see you. You did a job for them. You kept working for as long as you could, with as much love as you could muster. That didn't make him the best actor, and it didn't make him a star, but it made him a lifelong working actor." That's not too shabby. And even more that that, he eventually had a long-term marriage with children who loved and appreciated him. Not everyone in Hollywood manages such things. This loving and vivid account ought to get him posthumous stardom at least for that.
3. Works in Wood exhibit opens today in West Point ENTERTAINMENT