Friday, December 10, 2010

Oh Lord...

Today’s featured performer is a little bit unusual in that he isn’t one of my typical, beautiful, beefcake-y hunks and he isn’t even someone whose acting has inspired me tremendously. (Wow, what a way to start a tribute! Ha!) He’s just one of those reliable actors who, for a time, was a major presence in primetime TV and who had a surprisingly interesting early career in films prior to that. The man of the hour is Jack Lord, the star of Hawaii 5-O, in which he played Detective Steve McGarrett for twelve seasons.

Of Irish-Catholic descent, he was born John Joseph Patrick Ryan in Brooklyn, New York in 1920. His father helped run a steamship company while his mother owned a fruit farm in the Hudson River Valley. His formative years were spent in what is now Richmond Hills, Queens, New York. He developed a skill for horseback riding while spending time on the farm that would come in very handy when he later became an actor in big and small screen westerns. He also spent most of his summer vacations on board his father’s cargo ships and took an interest in painting the jaw-dropping landscapes he encountered in such far-flung locales as Africa, The Mediterranean and China. Painting and other artistic endeavors would remain a passion of his for the rest of his life.

After spending time in a couple of high schools, he attended Fort Trumbull U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in New London, Connecticut, graduating as an Ensign with a Third Mates License. At age nineteen, while working on a cruise ship, he met and married an Argentine girl (the daughter of a diplomat), spending five weeks on an extended honeymoon in the French Riviera. After returning to his ship and she to Argentina, he was told of her pregnancy and immediately found a home for them in Chesapeake Bay only to be informed that she was not going to leave her homeland. He visited her and saw his infant son once before a permanent separation (she reportedly returned all of his letters unopened) and the boy later died in an accident at age thirteen.

A fit and athletic young man, he had won a football scholarship and attended New York University. In a continuing example of his love for action and adventure mixed with admiration of the finer things, his degree was in Fine Arts even though it was football that paid his tuition. In fact, he and his brother opened an arts academy and two of his pieces (linoleum cuts) were purchased by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1941.

He continued his military career, however, as WWII was on the horizon, and found himself building bridges in Persia with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Afterwards, with the U.S. Maritime Service, he became involved in training films and this sparked an interest in acting. He cribbed one reel of film that included him in it and used it to provide an example of his work to agents.

Now free of military and seafaring life, he sought to learn the craft of acting and worked with famed coach Sanford Meisner at The Neighborhood Playhouse. He paid for his studies by selling cars in his free time. In 1949, he married for a second time to a fashion designer and model named Marie de Narde and they would remain together for the rest of his life. He was devoted to her throughout their union and he made sure that she was at his side whenever possible. Still going by his own name Jack Ryan, he landed an early screen role in the anti-Communist flick Project X followed soon after by The Tattooed Stranger and Cry Murder, on which he was an associate producer. Later, Lord would again find himself longing to be involved behind the scenes of his work, mostly in order to obtain creative control.

A fallow period followed until he won a role on Broadway with Kim Stanley in The Traveling Lady. He was given a Theatre World Award for his work in the show. It was here that he switched to the name Jack Lord as there was already a Jack Ryan belonging to Actor’s Equity. Not long after, he became a replacement Brick in the legendary show Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. In 1955, he went to work for tyrannical director Otto Preminger in The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell. The film starred Gary Cooper along with a host of other strong actors such as Charles Bickford, Ralph Bellamy and Rod Steiger. It also featured a slate of performers who would later become household names for their work in television series such as Elizabeth Montgomery, James Daly, Peter Graves and Darrin McGavin. Working with Cooper had a strong effect on Lord and he strove to achieve the same level of professionalism he witnessed in the actor.
He worked in very many TV projects throughout the mid 50s and early 60s, in everything from anthologies like Suspense, Danger and Climax! to westerns like Have Gun – Will Travel, Gunsmoke and Rawhide.

He was way out of his element in his next feature film, The Vagabond King, a colorful, but cardboard, musical featuring Kathryn Grayson and Oreste. He, along with Leslie Nielsen, was saddled with unbecoming costuming in the picture. More up his alley was Tip on a Dead Jockey, a yarn about a disillusioned pilot (Robert Taylor) who attempts to escape his fears in Madrid, Spain before having to prove himself by rescuing fellow pilot Lord who took on a job that was first offered to Taylor.

That same year, Lord starred in the film that greets visitors to colonial Williamsburg, Virginia. Called Williamsburg: The Story of a Patriot, the thirty-four minute movie has been shown daily since 1957! It was directed by George Seaton and was a major departure, in budget and scope, from the sort of films usually found in such a venue. Recently given a digital overhaul, it is available on DVD for those inclined to watch it apart from its regular schedule at the Williamsburg Visitors Center.

1958 brought The True Story of Lynn Stuart. Lynn Stuart was the pseudonym of a real life woman (played here by Betsy Palmer) who infiltrated a drug ring and exposed the people involved in it, sending them to prison. Lord was one of the baddies and those who know him only as McGarrett may be surprised to learn that he often played the bad guy in his feature films, and did so quite convincingly.

He continued in this vein with God’s Little Acre, an adaptation of a once-scandalous book by Erskine Caldwell (the film earned its own share of hubbub, being banned in some places for its depiction of men watching seminude females among other things.) The southern-fried tale of family disharmony starred Robert Ryan, Aldo Ray, Vic Morrow and, in her film debut, Tina Louise as Lord’s wife. Lord and Morrow, who played brothers in the movie, allegedly did not get along well and eventually broke into a fistfight! Miss Louise was sporting some major cleavage in her debut.

Lord’s next film was one that really opened my eyes to the fact that there was more to Lord than just “Book ‘em, Danno!” In Man of the West, Gary Cooper played an outlaw turned good who is egged on by his old gang leader Lee J. Cobb to return to his criminal ways. When he refuses, Cobb’s gang takes it out on Coop and his female acquaintance Julie London. Lord holds a knife top Cooper’s throat and makes London strip in front of them (a gripping and uncomfortable scene, especially for its time.)
Later, when Cooper has the chance, he catches up with the despicable Lord and, in a highly memorable sequence, starts whipping the hell out of him, wrestling and punching him, then forcibly yanking his shoes and most of his clothes off in front of his gang as he writhes in utter humiliation. This being 1958, he only gets down to his torn trousers and underwear, but the scene is intense (and obviously a bit homoerotic!)

Re-teamed with Robert Taylor and Tina Louise, he played in The Hangman as a criminal sought by Taylor, but who is so popular and well liked by the people of the town that they won’t lift a finger to aid Taylor in pursuing him. It was yet another bad guy part, but one with some degree of charisma at least. Lord continued to guest star on many TV shows in between films, keeping incredibly busy.

1960 brought the unusual western tale Walk Like a Dragon, written and directed by James Clavell, who often explored Asian-themed stories. This time Lord was the star of the piece. He played a California rancher who comes upon a Chinese girl for sale as a slave at auction. Fearing what might happen to her should she be purchased by the wrong man, he buys her and takes her home to live freely in his home. Once they fall in love, however, his mother Josephine Hutchinson and his Chinese associate James Shigeta disapprove heartily. One of the film’s amusing distinctions is that it features singer-songwriter Mel Torme as a parson-turned-gunslinger!
After more television work, Lord landed the role of Felix Leiter in the very first James Bond film Dr. No. As an American agent working with Britain’s 007 Sean Connery, he was a fairly significant presence in this first installment. The character was to be used again (and was, with a wide variety of actors playing him), but reportedly Lord was not cast a second time because he wanted co-star billing and better pay. Instead, the role was never quite as prominent in the series as this time out. I must say that Lord’s sunglasses are downright preposterous looking, 1962 or not, and that his colorful shirt and Panama-style hat are a foreshadowing of what would become part of his wardrobe later in Hawaii.

Lord was the title character of his own TV series in the 1962-63 season. Stoney Burke was a contemporary western that ran for 32 episodes and had him playing a rodeo rider traveling the circuit in a quest to win the champion prize, The Golden Buckle. His sidekick on the show was played by talented character actor Warren Oates and Bruce Dern also appeared on it. Lord made sure that the potentially rugged character was in fact very gentlemanly, allowing Oates to steal scenes with his crafty personality. A show with some degree of veiled mythology and religious overtones to it, it failed to catch on with most viewers, though those who liked it loved it.
Again, after a plethora of guest roles on shows like Wagon Train, Laredo, The Virginian and The Fugitive, Lord appeared in another feature film. Ride to Hangman’s Tree had him top-billed with a supporting cast that included James Farentino, Don Galloway and Richard Anderson. It was an exceptionally minor offering, however, and practically forgotten today. Another obscure film, The Counterfeit Killer, followed, but it has a slightly better reputation. That one costarred Miss Shirley Knight, Jack Weston, Charles Drake and Lord’s Dr. No costar (who played Dr. No!) Joseph Wiseman. It does, however, contain one hooty scene of Lord riding a motorbike with mod, too-small goggles against a chintzy rear-projection. It’s a surprise that the rough ‘n ready (not to mention particular!) actor didn’t coerce the producers into shooting it on location with him.
By this time, however, Lord had begun to lose faith in the business that occupied his time, in terms of providing the sort of acting challenges and variety he craved. While he did get to portray a variety of types on series such as Ironside, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and The High Chaparral, real success in the business had eluded him. He had been approached in 1964 to portray Captain Kirk on Star Trek, but when he made too many demands with regards to salary and co-ownership, Gene Roddenberry balked. He was ready, at forty-eight by 1968, to see some of the fruits of his labor.

It came in the form of pineapple, so to speak. Writer-Producer Leonard Freeman was developing a TV series set in the newest of the fifty United States, Hawaii. Later to be dubbed Hawaii 5-O, he wanted craggy actor Richard Boone, who resided there, to play the lead role of State Police Detective Steve McGarrett. Boone took a pass on the project, so Freeman then (after also approaching Gregory Peck) turned to another actor he knew, one who could easily convey the stern authoritarianism he wanted in the part, Jack Lord.

From the very start, Hawaii 5-O was a dazzlingly different sort of show. With a stunning Morton Stevens theme song playing against an opening credits sequence done by Reza Badiyi that was faster and more rapidly edited than any before it, it captivated audiences in the continental U.S. who could only dream of making it over to the islands. Filmed entirely on location, it utilized the outdoors more than most shows and was a polished, sharp, slickly put together crime drama.

More importantly, in hindsight, it was by far one of the most racially diverse shows to have hit the airwaves. Hawaiians, Japanese, Chinese and other nationalities were represented heavily in the regular and guest cast, even if there was a strong preponderance of Caucasians on screen as well (in a higher percentage than what the island contained in real life at that time.)

There was no mistaking, however, that the primary star of the series was Lord. It was his face that kicked off the names in the credits with the others coming near the end almost as afterthoughts. Every story, for the most part, featured him as the one who knew what to do, figured out what was happening, got the job done and so on. His chief sidekick James MacArthur (as cute, loyal Danny Williams) became a breakout star as well, but Lord was careful to ensure his place at the head of the totem pole.

McGarrett was no-nonsense and tough. He could be polite with the public, especially ladies, but with his staff it was “Head to the dock,” “Go get him” and “Pick him up” and the like, rarely, if ever, with a please or a thank you. He worked his staff like dogs in order to solve crimes swiftly and effectively. This was not tremendously different in real life, for Lord was a doggedly dedicated actor when it came to professionalism and perfection whenever possible. Producer Freeman began to have serious heart trouble in 1970 and turned to Lord as a co-producer (something Lord hadn’t even asked for this time, having lost out on Star Trek over such demands.) When Freeman died of a heart attack in 1974, Lord took up the reins and continued the show under his own leadership.

There were notorious battles with CBS, the network that ran the show, as Lord fought hard to protect the integrity of the show and his image. Years later, several of the cast and crew of the show admitted that his exacting nature and commitment to quality are what led the series to last twelve seasons (a record for a crime show until Law & Order well surpassed that), but at the time it could be difficult to endure. In a nod to his early days as a Ford salesman, every car McGarrett ever drove on the show was a Ford model.

As the series progressed, Lord continued to wear his customary dark suits (at odds with the weather in Hawaii) and sport one of the swoopiest manes of hair ever seen. It seemed to get bigger with each passing year, cascading over his forehead like one of the massive waves seen in the opening credits. In time, he began sporting off-duty clothing in some episodes, much of it unintentionally hilarious. Even though people in the islands can get a pass when it comes to colorful, loud shirts, his stuff seemed particularly garish (even though it was the 1970s!) Many of these concoctions were courtesy of his wife, Marie, who seemed to delight in gussying the two of them up in bright, exotic clothing.

Always one to pay attention to his health and appearance (after all, his first significant film role in 1955 came when he was already thirty-five years old!), Lord was known to wake every day at 4:30am and run for a mile before reporting to the studio. He then went to bed with his wife around 9:00. He claimed to love the Hawaiian sunrises and saw no need to stay awake much longer than after it had set.

The series lasted until 1980 when some major cast changes and a shift in what was now popular signaled the end. McGarrett and his catchphrase “Book ‘em, Danno” (which he didn’t say in every episode, though often there would be a variation of it) had become instantly recognizable icons and part of TV history. More than that, thanks to his investment in the show and its resultant success, Lord became a very wealthy man. He and Marie never stopped living in Hawaii after the cancellation, having moved there permanently two years in, and became heavily integrated into their surroundings. He was deeply touched to be the first Caucasian chosen to be Grand Marshall of the Aloha Parade.
Lord continued to paint, having a special fondness for the colorful and varied flowers of Hawaii, but he also took an interest in helping the people of his new homeland. He established a foundation that would benefit a dozen local charities. Starting with $50,000 the fund eventually grew to three-quarters of a million dollars. That was peanuts, however, to what he left the state in his will. Though Marie was beneficiary until her own death, when she passed away in 2003, twelve Hawaiian charitable organizations were given FORTY MILLION DOLLARS!

Regardless of what some of his detractors might have felt (and there is no question that he was a perfectionist and force to be reckoned with), he clearly had an unwavering affection for the state he made his home and for the people in it. Thanks to the endowments from his will, many people there have had their lives affected in a very positive way.

Jack Lord passed away in 1998 from a heart attack. Despite his Irish heritage, he never drank alcohol and he had quit smoking many years before. He had also suffered from a deterioration that many people speculate was Alzheimer’s (though it is also speculated that he had severe arthritis and that he withdrew from public life over the way it affected him, physically.) Almost before it was too late, he finally won the public affection and stardom that came close to eluding him and, in return, he gave the financial rewards from it back to the place that helped him achieve his dreams.

5 comments:

Topaz said...

As always, I'm amazed by the depth of your research (and your skill in finding shirtless shots).

He was NOT one of my boyhood crushes (something about him always creeped me out -- the hair, maybe?) but the show was a family favorite for years and I saw more episodes than I care to remember. Nice to know he was a solid person.

normadesmond said...

my dear, that pink kerchief!

Topaz said...

I was trying to think what the story with the dead son he never saw reminded me of and finally figured out what it was: Raymond Burr and his false tale of the dead wife and child as a cover for his gayness. Seeing Lord in all his hats and scarves and with the long-term wife yet no other children makes me wonder.

Poseidon3 said...

Oh, Topaz..... You and I think WAY too much alike!!!!!!!! It truly is becoming scary. I was thisclose to putting some remark in there about how JL had this first marriage that produced a now-dead child that could have been solely a publicist's dream and then married a fashion designer who dolled him up in all that wacko gear with no more kids on the horizon, but I decided not to. For one thing, I kept coming across the wife's name and more about the circumstances, so I decided to accept it as fact. But I definitely get ya! ;-)

Vrinda said...

Jack's son was real, unlike Raymond Burr's son. The boy's name was John Joseph Ryan, Jr. and his mother's name was Ann Willard. John, Jr. was born on December 1, 1941 and died in August of 1954, a few months after Jack and Marie were married. Marie was born on August 16, 1905, making her fifteen years older than Jack and, at 48 when they married in January of 1954, too old to have any successful pregnancies. After Jack's son died, Marie tried getting pregnant, but miscarried. This was told to me by a cousin of Jack's. Marie made those brightly-colored shirts for Jack and he wore them to make her happy, not to reinforce some stereotypical notion that he was gay and gay men wear bright colors.