Day 20 of Noirvember: Homme Noir Discoveries, or “How I Got My Big Break”
Today’s celebration of Noirvember takes a look at the paths that three of my favorite noir actors took to reach the land of noir.
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 (I Walk Alone, The Killers) 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 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 (and who wouldn’t be?), the man suggested that he audition for the role of an American soldier in Jacobs’s 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.”
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 begin tapped for the role, however, Mazurki said his 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.”
And the rest is cinematic history!
Join me tomorrow for Day 21 of Noirvember!