Abacus: Small Enough to Jail
A remarkable tale of immigrant success, wrapped around a crime story.
Suite 1705 of the Ambassador East Hotel includes a glass-enclosed luncheon porch overlooking the city. There are windows on three sides. On the fourth, there are steps that lead back into the living room. From there you go out into the hall down the elevator and back to reality.
A lot of big movie stars stay in Suite 1705 when they come to Chicago. You can stand there on the porch, your hands in your pockets, and feel like Howard Hughes or somebody. The city stretches out below you, filled with untold thousands; it's all there like a big Monopoly board without any jail or income tax.
I was standing there on the luncheon porch, feeling like Howard Hughes or somebody, when George Peppard materialized. He was wearing a dressing gown. No shoes. He was yawning because he had just been taking a nap to fortify himself for the world premiere of "P.J.," his new movie.
When you stand up here," I asked George Peppard, "do you ever look out over the city and grin fiendishly and say, 'It's mine! It's mine!' like that Howard Hughes character you played in 'The Carpetbaggers'?"
"No," said Peppard, "but I'll have to try. Never occurred to me. But watch it. The thing about interviews is, the reporter asks you a question and you answer yes or no, and then in the paper it looks like you brought up the subject. Remember, I didn't say anything about standing here like Howard Hughes. All I said was I would have to try."
He yawned and poured a moderate amount of bourbon over the rocks. "Notice my hand," he said. "Steady. That's another thing. Rex Reed of the New York Times interviewed me. He's the guy who does the hatchet jobs. He's all smiles during the interview, and then you read it and you come out looking like a child molester. Well, actually I got off pretty well. He treated me kindly. But I was drinking bourbon during the interview, which I often do to pass the time during interviews, and he made the story read as if I gradually got drunk. Which was untrue. You know, like at the end I was supposedly straddling a chair backward and telling him Deep Truths about myself, and when I poured more bourbon my hand shook. A lie. My hand didn't shake. Like a rock."
Peppard, who is 34, seems to alternate between two different characters in his movie roles. Either he's a self-centered ruthless type, like the tycoon in "The Carpetbaggers" and the flying ace in "The Blue Max," or he's a disarmingly helpless guy who gets trapped in complicated situations, like the hero in "Breakfast at Tiffany's" or the broken-down detective in "P.J." During the interview, he looked more like the helpless guy trapped in the complicated situation, and the situation was the world premiere of "P.J."
Universal flew him in with Gayle Hunnicutt, Brock Peters and Susan Saint James, the other stars of the movie, for three days of hoopla and dawn-to-midnight appearances. And the ordeal was beginning to tell.
"I never learn," he said. "I knew I had to spend all day today pushing the movie, so what did I do last night? I made the mistake of staying up all night and playing poker.
He grinned. "So what?" he asked. "Why come to Chicago if you can't stay up all night playing poker? Makes it worth the time."
Unlike most movie leading men, Peppard has a formal training for the stage. He graduated from Carnegie Tech, spent two seasons at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and studied method acting atthe Actor's Studio in New York. He is analytical about his own roles - "I haven't been in all that many classics" - and once broke with Paramount and was sued for $1,000,000 in a fight for more challenging parts.
"I think I can do better work than I sometimes get a chance to," he said, "but an actor's first responsibility to himself is to work. Unless you establish yourself, you won't get any roles at all, and then where are you?"
The telephone rang, and Peppard walked bare-footed across Suite 1705's deep carpet to answer it.
"Yeah, it's me," he said. "Who? Hamilton? Hi, buddy...How are ya...? I'm dead...Yeah, I never did get to bed...Who...? The cat with the check? What do you think?" He settled next to the telephone and sipped his bourbon. "Where? Sage's what? Let me get this down..." He made a note, said good-by, hung up.
"George Hamilton," he said. "He was in the game all night. Slept all day, lucky S.O.B. I hope I hold together until we get this thing out of the way. I don't know why I kill myself staying up all night. And then I eat and drink while I play poker, and I'm supposed to be on a diet. I can't stay on a diet for the life of me. The doctor gave me some of those diet pills - the safe ones, not the ones that kill you, I hope. The first time I took them, I was in Denver for something. I forget what. Anyway, it was filled with these tiny granules, see? And I could feel the little buggers going off inside.
"It was some kind of black-tie affair, some charity event with free champagne, and the little pills got working with the champagne. Pretty soon, they introduced me and I started clapping. Then I realized it was me. Somehow, I don't know how, I went on and I was funny; I danced and sang, I was the greatest thing since Swiss cheese."
He smiled in memory. "Ah, yes, yes," he said. "Well, this is a crazy business. What did you think of 'P.J.'? I thought it was a pretty good movie. But it's not the first of a series. I wouldn't get trapped into playing the same detective in a series of movies for all the gold in Hollywood. But what this has, I think, is a good understanding of what a detective movie is.
"See, I think there are different kinds of good movies. Like you can have a work of art, or a good kid's movie, or so on. 'P.J.' is a detective movie that knows what detective movies should be. They have a beginning, where the character is introduced and put into a situation. It has a middle consisting of episodes to develop the situation. It has an end, resolving the situation."
He leaned forward. "And it has a great musical score," he said. "Music is very important in developing the feel of a movie like this. Henry Hathaway once ran the same shot of Gary Cooper asleep and played happy music, sad music and tense music. You could swear you could look at Cooper's face and what he was dreaming. "A great score means everything. I always think of the score in 'High Noon,' where you have the outlaws in the shade of the railroad station and the music tells you how menacing they are. Remember?" He hummed, keeping time with his hand: "Da-da-da-da-dum-de-dum-da--da..."
He smiled. "Great. And then when the menace was established, there's the cut to Cooper and the words begin: Tho' you be grievin' I cain't be leavin' Until I shoot Frank Miller daid...Now that's music. Makes the hairs on the back of your head stand up.
"And there are people who can act and achieve the same effect. Marlon Brando. I thought he was finished, and I was wrong. For the last five years I've been going around bad-mouthing Brando, until I saw 'Reflections in a Golden Eye.' What a movie. A great movie. A lot of critics didn't like it, but I think that was because they were embarrassed by its really total honesty and intimacy. It made them uncomfortable, as a great movie should.
"And show me an actor who could play that scene where the horse runs away the way Brando did. The horse throws him, and he's groveling in the mud and crying. By God, you believe that's what happened to that man. No dialog. No other characters on the screen. Only Brando's face."
He leaned back into his armchair and sipped his drink. "But I'm getting carried away," be said. "Tell you what. Forget all that. Just say his hand didn't shake."
This message came to me from a reader named Peter Svensland. He and a fr...
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