I was about 15 and a half, car crazy and full of raging hormones. I simply couldn't wait to get my driver's license, and be able to go to the beach, or the mountains. Listening to the Beach Boys on the radio. Cruising with my buddies, maybe even dating. Parking out at the beach, watching submarine races. This was the Fifties, and things were simpler then. My Dad was a huge deal at a big-time movie studio in Los Angeles, so I wasn't exactly growing up on the mean streets. Unless there were mean streets in Brentwood. I had just transferred from a private boarding school in Palos Verdes, where I wasn't doing well at all. "There's no question he could handle the work, he's very bright. But he just doesn't seem to apply himself." This from the faculty. Pretty much the same criticism I'd been hearing since the second grade. I hated boarding school.I hated being away from home. I had one or two friends, my acne was in full brutal bloom. But now I was in a public school in West Los Angeles. Kids from much different backgrounds were there. Mexicans, Japanese, Korean--all those blended in. I was learning to adapt. Which wasn't so easy. I wasn't a jock, wasn't a brain, wasn't a particularly tough guy, didn't have a car. But, on the good side, my acne was subsiding. So there was that. Life was getting better.
It was a Saturday morning. I wandered into Dad's bedroom/office. Dad was having breakfast. Shredded wheat pillows with a banana in an English china bowl. It had the Farmer's Prayer written on the side. I had memorized it. It ended "So Jolly Boys now, here's Godspeed to the plow. Long life and success to the farmer."
Dad looked up from his cereal. "Sit down. I had a meeting at the studio you'll be interested in."
I wasn't sure I wanted to hear about his meeting. The real reason I had wandered into his room is that I wanted to talk about getting a car for my sixteenth birthday. So I could be patient. Dad went on to explain that it was this time of year when the executives at the studio went through all the contracts on the various actors under employ. Big studio. Lots of contracts. The producer in charge of the talent contracts had come to my father's office with a list of the talent contracts.
Apparently all was good, until Dad noticed that there were about 8 actresses who had been under contract for a few years, and had yet to appear in a picture. "Why haven't these girls been in any picture?"
"Well, you know how it is. They're studying, learning the craft."
Some of these women have been under contract over five years? How's their studying going?
"Some better than others, not ready yet. But, come on, you know, sometimes the guys from the east come to town, and they want some company. Maybe on some rainy afternoon, you'd enjoy some company too."
I was paying close attention now. Maybe I could get some company too. After all, my birthday was coming up. I was making an effort to keep my hands still. It wasn't good to fidget, I had learned.
"What did you say?" I asked my father.
He said, "What are we running here? A motion picture studio or a whorehouse? Fire them."
I sat still, running this through my head. My father had a firm moral stance.
I could understand that. But all of them? Seemed extreme. Was there a loophole?
I said, "All of them?"
My father laughed at my pluck, and said, "Yes, all of them."
I figured now was not the time for a car talk. So I nodded, and said, "I understand."
Spencer Tracy was my father's favorite actor. He loved Brando, Clift, Bob Ryan and many others, but he had a very special affection for Tracy. They'd met in '28 when Tracy was starring in The Last Mile on Broadway. My Dad was 23, just starting out. He had a bit part, and was an assistant stage manager. Tracy played 'Killer' Mears, and the part rocketed him to Hollywood, to begin his movie career. Some years later, my father won an Oscar for Original Screenplay for a movie starring Tracy. Tracy won the Best Actor award the same year. Years later--after many movies, from screenwriter to producing 'B' pictures to running production at RKO, until Hughes bought that studio, causing him to leave RKO, with the script Battleground in his briefcase--my Dad became head of production at MGM studios, where Tracy was a contract player, among many other big stars. Battleground was produced, in 1949 and was a big success. Things went well at Metro. It's now 1955, and MGM was about to go into production on Bad Day at Black Rock, starring Tracy, Robert Ryan, Ernest Borgnine, Lee Marvin, Anne Francis and an all-around stellar cast. But now, Tracy wanted to have a meeting with my father, who was pretty sure what the meeting was going to be about. Tracy was famous for getting last minute jitters, and hated location work. The exteriors of Bad Day were going to be shot in Lone Pine, CA. In the middle of the Mojave Desert, in the summer.
Tracy entered my Dad's office with a smile. "You know, Dore, when we were doing The Last Mile together, I said, 'See that tall lanky kid over there? Well, sir, he's going to end up running production at Metro Goldwyn Mayer, and I'll be working for him. You'll see.'"
"I'm sure you did, Spence. But that bit of clairvoyance isn't what you wanted to see me about. What's the problem?"
"Well, Dore, I'm thinking about this Bad Day project. I'm not sure I'm right for it."
"Why not? I think it's a great role for you."
"Nah, I'm not sure. Maybe I'm too old?"
"Nope, you're perfect. You'll be terrific."
They talked back and forth for a while, with Tracy sticking to his guns. But my Dad had figured this part out.
Dad said, "Listen, if you don't want to do the picture, I'm not going to make you. I think it's a great part for you, and you'll be terrific in it. John Sturges is going to direct, we've got the whole first team working on it, but if you don't want to do it...well, there's really nothing I can do."
Tracy was suspicious. "Ok, then. You sure you're all right with this?"
"Absolutely. You know, I think Glenn Ford is available..."
"Glenn? Really? Do you think he's right? I mean..."
"Spence, if you don't want to work on the picture, we'll deal with that. I think you're better for this character McCready, but if you don't want to do it..."
"Yeah, ok. Then that's it?"
"Sure, Spence. I'll just have our guys get in touch with your agent, and we'll work this out."
"Work this out? Work what out?"
"Well, you know we've invested money on this project. Wardrobe fittings, make-up tests, and like that. But it shouldn't end up costing you too much."
"Too much?" What's too much?"
"Well, I'm just guessing, but maybe it's like 20, 30 grand. Not that big a deal really."
Tracy exploded. "20, 30 grand!!??!! Are you crazy? This is blackmail! I'll be out in the middle of the desert, sweating my nuts off, and you'll be sitting here in your air-conditioned office, playing with my 30 grand. I mean, Jesus, Dore."
"So that's what this is about? Listen, Spence, if you do this movie, I'll come out to the desert, and sweat along with you. I'll hold your sweaty hand. Come on, it's a couple of weeks. It's going to be a great picture, and you'll be great in it."
Tracy paused, then said, "And you'll tell Glenn Ford to piss off?"
So Tracy agreed to do the picture, and he was brilliant in it.
JEB SCHARY: My father was a writer/producer, my mother a painter. I've spent my life producing commercials for various ad agencies around the country, writing some of them. My sister, my son, and my wife have conspired to make me pick up the writing machine. Something about my brain.