Homme Noir Discoveries . . . or, How I Got My Big Break
Ever wonder how some of the stars of noir got their big breaks on the big screen? Read on!
When John Dall (Gun Crazy, The Man Who Cheated Himself) was 10 years old, his father’s work took the family to Panama, where the youngster developed a knack for sneaking out of the family home to go to the movies. After several years in Panama, John landed a job as a handyman for a local theater company, memorizing the actors’ lines as he worked. One night, an elderly actor in the company’s play, Yes Means No, became ill shortly before the curtain went up, and the 13-year-old, six-foot-one inch John convinced the director to let him take the actor’s place. It was his “professional” stage debut.
After enrolling in Temple University on a football scholarship, with plans to become a lawyer, Barry Sullivan (Tension, The Gangster) developed an interest in acting. “The drama coach saw me in a football team minstrel show and offered me a part in a school play,” Sullivan recalled in a 1969 interview. “Suddenly, I was an actor.”
Following in the footsteps of his stage actress mother, Elisha Cook, Jr. (The Big Sleep, Phantom Lady) got his first taste of acting during his teen years while selling programs for the play, Lightning, in the lobby of the Blackstone Theater in Chicago. A chance encounter one evening with the play’s star, Frank Bacon, set an irrevocable course for Cook’s future. “I went down to meet him and he said, ‘Would you like to go on the stage?’ I said, ‘Sure, I guess so.’ I did a walk-on in the courtroom scene. I did pretty good, so later he says to me, ‘Want to go to New York?’ He was quite a guy, Mr. Bacon was.”
After working in such varied posts as engineer for a meatpacking firm and floor walker in the lingerie department at Chicago’s Marshall Field’s department store, Burt Lancaster (The Killers, Criss Cross) moved with his wife, Norma, to New York City, where Norma had landed a job as secretary to a radio producer. According to legend, Lancaster was riding in the elevator in the RCA building one day to take his wife to lunch when he discovered that he was being intensely observed by a fellow passenger. The man turned out to be an associate of Broadway producer Irving Jacobs. Impressed by Lancaster’s bearing and good looks, the man suggested that he audition for the role of an American soldier in Jacobs’ upcoming play, A Sound of Hunting. To his surprise, Lancaster won the role – his Broadway debut.
Jack Palance (Sudden Fear, Panic in the Streets) enrolled in Stanford University in 1945 under the G.I. Bill of Rights, majoring in journalism. Later, he took a summer course in radio, participating in writing, announcing, producing, and acting, then landed a role in a local production of My Indian Family. The play’s star, veteran actress Aline MacMahon, encouraged Palance’s theatrical aspirations and a short time later, he borrowed $100 from his roommate and headed for Broadway. In New York, he auditioned for a play being directed by Robert Montgomery, entitled The Big Two. “When I saw all of the other would-be actors in the waiting room, I was about to walk out when Mr. Montgomery stopped me by saying, ‘I want you.’ He had been looking for a Russian type and my cheekbones filled the bill.”
John Ireland’s (Railroaded, Raw Deal) entry into the world of acting came strictly by chance when he went inside the Davenport Free Theater in Manhattan one day, thinking he would take in a free show. Instead, he found that the company offered free acting training, along with room and board, and a dollar per day. Financially strapped and lacking direction for his future, the young man signed up with the theater, where he went on to appear in a variety of productions, including plays by Ibsen, Shaw, and Shakespeare.
A former pro football player and wrestler, Mike Mazurki (Murder, My Sweet, Nightmare Alley) got his big break after a fateful encounter with famed director Josef von Sternberg. While appearing in a wrestling match at the Olympic Theater in Los Angeles, Mazurki was spotted by the director, who was in the process of casting “foreign types” for his upcoming feature, The Shanghai Gesture. After being tapped for the role, however, Mazurki’s resemblance to the film’s star, Victor Mature, almost lost him the part before shooting began. “Walter Huston suggested they shave my head, and I got the part,” Mazurki recalled. “So I owe my career in pictures to Walter Huston.”