David Hedison Interview

Tony Williams

David Hedison was born on 20th May 1927 in Providence, Rhode Island. Of Armenian descent, Albert David Hedison, Jr. was named after his father. His grandfather's name was Abraham Heditsian. When he came to America he changed the family name to Hedison. The "tsian" in Heditsian means "son of" – hence the surname "David Hedison. Although Hedison expected to follow his father into the jewelry business this all changed on the day he saw Tyrone Power in the Rouben Mamoulien version of Blood and Sand. After beginning his acting career with the Sock and Buskin Players at Brown University, he moved to New York to study with Sanford Meisner and Martha Graham at the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre and also with Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio leading to his more than 120 appearances in stage, television, and motion pictures. This interview occurred at the Memphis Film Festival on June 13, 2003. I would like to thank Ray Nielsen for making this possible as well as Mr. Hedison for his gracious co-operation.

Q. You've mentioned elsewhere the influence of Tyrone Power in Blood and Sand (1941) stimulating you towards an acting career. What really fascinated you about the film?

A. My cousin took me to the local neighborhood theatre in Providence, The Palace Theatre, to see the film. Somehow, the picture affected me so deeply — the adventure, the bullfighting, Rita Hayworth – all of that sex and drama was so exciting. I watched it and loved it. At the end of the show I grabbed my cousin Harry and asked, "Please! Please! Can we stay on and watch it again?" He agreed reluctantly. So I saw it again and loved it. I remember that experience so well and felt that I wanted to do what Tyrone Power was doing.
In 1957, I heard that producer Henry Ephron planned to remake the film with Sophia Loren in the role played by Rita Hayworth. Hoping that I could finally play Tyrone Power's part, I became very excited and took bullfighting lessons and commissioned photographs of myself in a bullfighter's costume which I sent to Ephron's office for six to seven weeks. Ephron finally replied and informed me that they were interested in testing me for the role. But they then decided to cancel it and do The Sun Also Rises. Robert Evans played the bullfighter in that film.

Q. Your Web site mentions how helpful John Ford was towards you in beginning your career. Did you ever meet him later?

A. I never did. I wrote Ford a letter when I was in the Navy and told him how much I enjoyed his film The Fugitive (1947). I didn't see much action in the Navy because I enlisted in 1945 and the war was over. So I went to a Separation Center in Jacksonville, Florida, where I saw The Fugitive. I wrote him a letter telling him how much I liked it and why I liked it. I also commented that I thought it was a much better film than The Informer for which he had won an Academy Award. I also sent him a small snapshot of myself in uniform with my hat cocked behind my head. He replied to my letter stating that he was very interested in what I said and agreed with me that The Fugitive was the better film. I also mentioned in my letter that I wanted to be in the movies and that if there was anything in his next film to please let me know. Ford also mentioned that he was not doing anything at the moment but if I ever came to Hollywood I should contact Miss Meta Stern "and we'll see what we can do. Sincerely John Ford. P.S. Next time you send me your picture to an ex-Navy, four-striper, please be sure to square your hat, sailor."

Q. Your first drama teachers were Sanford Meisner and Uta Hagen?

A. When I first went to New York to study acting classes were held at a school called The Neighourhood Playhouse. I was lucky to work with the best acting teacher in New York at the time - Sandy Meisner. Martha Graham taught my dance classes. A most incredible group of people taught there at the time during my first two years in New York. When I graduated I studied with Uta Hagen. That was another exciting experience. Eventually, she got me an audition with Michael Redgrave for his stage production of Turgenyev's A Month in the Country. So I appeared in that and it led to my contract with (20th Fox.

Q. Were they any special advantages in being directed by someone who was also a distinguished actor?

A. Yes. He was very sensitive to actors' needs. He was a very sensitive man and I liked him very, very much. A Month in the Country was a good production and gained excellent reviews.

Q. Your first television appearance is listed as "11.0'Clock Flight" in Kraft Television Theatre broadcast on 28 December 1955. Was this a live performance?

A. Yes, it was live and I played opposite Joanne Woodward. This was one of my first leading roles since, before that, I was doing a lot of television playing what we called "Under 5's", namely working almost like an extra and saying one or two lines. I remember the Kraft production very clearly.

Q. What was it like working with Robert Mitchum and Dick Powell in The Enemy Below (1957)?

A. It was very exciting because this was my first film. Dick was a wonderful, patient, terrific director and Robert Mitchum was the best. I really liked him, a real man, and wonderful to work with. The Enemy Below was filmed in Pearl Harbor on an actual ship that had seen action in World War Two.

Q. You've mentioned elsewhere your dissatisfaction with the make-up for The Fly (1958)? What did you feel was more appropriate?

A. When they handed me the script for The Fly, they had previously offered the role to Rick Jason who was also under contract to Fox. But I think he didn't want to do it because the cloth covered his head for one-third of the film and he had to wear the fly mask for the other third. He decided he did not want to wear it. So I was lucky. When I read the script I felt it was absolutely marvelous. It was written by James Clavell and was really more believable than the average genre film. I had specific ideas about my part and went running to Buddy Adler who was head of production at 20th Century Fox. I felt that when Patricia Owens pulls the cloth off my head, the make-up should be progressive showing parts of a fly and a human being such as my eye showing. It should also reveal the pain my character was going through and that there should be a gradual transformation. But they didn't go for it. The head of the make-up department wanted to put a plaster mold on my head and that's what they wanted. So I was very disappointed that they did not go for my idea to show part of the man and the pain he was experiencing. When I hear so many people say, "Was that you under the mask?" it really infuriates me because I did a lot of really good work under that mask.  
Another problem involved the horrific sequence at the end when the spider was coming towards me as I was trapped in the web. I'm thinking to myself that if it was a man facing this situation then he should be screaming "Help me! Help me!" hoping that somebody would hear him. If in truth, the camera moves closer you would hear my actual voice screaming "Help me! Help me" and the effect would be much better. My voice would be minimized but it would still be my voice. But what the studio did was to use a high-pitched voice for "Help me! Help me!" This decision made no sense to me. The original set-up caused Vincent Price and Herbert Marshall to break out into hysterics as they filmed this part of the sequence when I wasn't there. Otherwise, The Fly was a fine film and made a lot of money for Fox. So, who am I to complain?

Q. The role must have presented quite a challenge to you in the scenes when your features were hidden under the mask.

A. It was very uncomfortable under the mask. They put me in a plaster mold and constructed it so that it would fit my face. I wore it for about four to five days during the 18 day shooting schedule. But I just relaxed. Whenever I wasn't needed on the set, I just sit in a corner and meditate so it was fine. We shot the film Mondays to Fridays. I never met Vincent Price on the set. When he was doing his scenes, I was preparing my own at home. So we worked on different days since we don't appear in a scene together during the entire film. We did finally work together on "The Deadly Dolls" episode during the fourth season of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1967-68). He was wonderful and we got along famously. Richard, Vincent, and I had a great time on that episode.
I remember one occasion on The Fly when I got really angry with Kurt Neuman over a scene which purported to show my hand on a knob in close-up. The call was supposed to be for 8.0. a.m. But they decided to go ahead and shoot it at 7.50 a.m. on the grounds that it was "just a hand shot." So Neuman used his own hand which was more chubbier than mine. That was one occasion when I acted like a primadonna since I felt it was a glaring error.

Q. Did you feel that you could have become stereotyped as a horror film actor after working on The Fly?

A. No. Because it was the first horror film I ever did. So I had no fear of that happening. I thought that if I could just continue making good films I wouldn't go that way. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1932) didn't affect Frederic March at all. That's another thing which brings up my feelings about The Fly. When Dr. Jekyll turned into Mr. Hyde you could still see that he was Frederic March.

Q. How did you end up narrating Leo McCarey's Rally Round the Flag, Boys (1958) rather than appearing in it?

A. I was sitting in the commissary at Fox and I happened to be next to Leo McCarey who was having lunch. He asked me if I'd like to come over and do some looping on this film. I agreed, went over to the soundstage, and he gave me this material to read because eventually it would be done by a professional narrator. I wasn't hired to do the job. I was just doing him a favor. But McCarey thought later that my narration didn't sound bad so he decided to put it in the final film. The studio saved a few dollars, I guess!

Q. You then went to England to star in Son of Robin Hood (1959) and worked with some great character actors such as Marius Goring, David Farrar, and Citizen Kane's George Colouris who played Alan A-Dale.

A. They were all terrific professional actors and I loved working in England. George Sherman, the director, was a lot of fun and June Laverick was a lovely girl and a good actress.

Q. After this film Al Hedison becomes David Hedison. Why did this happen?

A. When NBC signed me up for the series Five Fingers, they did not like the name "Al." Since I was under exclusive contract to 20th Century Fox they dropped the Al and used my middle name instead. I've been David Hedison ever since. But at the time a fan wrote to me, "I think you're better looking but your brother Al is a better actor"!

Q. The series was based on the 1952 film starring James Mason as Cicero. It never appeared on British television but I remember seeing two theatrical versions released in England at the time. Cesare Danova played Cicero in one and Peter Lorre was guest star on the other.

A. I co-starred on Five Fingers with Luciana Paluzzi and Paul Burke. The series was great fun but it appeared during the same time slot for Gunsmoke and Have Gun, Will Travel on another network (CBS). We could not compete with them since they were number 1 and 2 on the NIELSEN ratings, so after a while the whole series was cancelled.

Q. The Lost World (1960) was your first encounter with Irwin Allen. I remember it featured Jill St. John wearing pink tights and red boots without a hair out of place within a supposedly humid Amazon climate accompanied by Frosty, the poodle.

A. Yes, I remember that well! It was so ludicrous for her to be wearing those tights on such an expedition and holding a little poodle. I liked working with the cast on that film. Michael Rennie was a nice guy, very pleasant. In fact they all were. I adored Claude Rains. I used to talk to him about his previous roles such as Mr. Skeffington. I thought he stole the film from Bette Davis and he confirmed that she also thought so too. But I hated working on that film. The London scenes at the beginning of The Lost World were a little more interesting. But the rest of the film... I was miserable making that film. I never watch it if it appears on television. It was such an unhappy experience. The Lost World is not the kind of film I wanted to do.

But Irwin Allen was the most interesting person I've ever met in the industry. He was crazy, but he was also a great salesman. He was nuts. He knew what he wanted and became very, very successful. When the film version of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea came up, Irwin sent the script to me and wanted me for the role of Captain Crane. The original film had a great cast - Walter Pidgeon, Joan Fontaine, and Robert Sterling in the role of Captain Crane. I thought Sterling did a fine job in the film. But the film itself was not very good. So I avoided it. But along came the television series and Irwin contacted me again. I informed him that I didn't want to do that kind of series right preferring a doctor or lawyer series. For some reason, Irwin pursued me wherever I went. I traveled to Egypt for a film festival. Roger Moore was there. I still received phone calls wherever I fled to. I just didn't want to do another Irwin Allen production. But when he phoned me and told me that Richard Basehart was playing the Admiral I then began to have second thoughts. I thought that working with somebody having the stature of Richard Basehart had the possibility for us to both create something marvelous. It didn't really happen because Irwin insisted that the style of the television series follow the film version of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. Despite the fact that Richard Basehart and I wanted to vary our roles, Allen insisted that the individual episodes contain no humor, no human reality, or any form of complex behavior. Instead Allen wanted photo effects and Richard Basehart and I to speak our lines grimly on every occasion. The television series contained no real characters so Richard Basehart and I just played grim versions of ourselves under threatening circumstances. It would have been more interesting if we could have played more realistically. However,  we had little opportunity for flexibility. When Richard fell sick I was given his lines and when I fell sick Richard received mine. There was no logic in this at all.

However, we did have a good rapport and we got on very well together mainly because he was very much of an introvert and I'm more of an extrovert. So we got on famously and helped each other through the show trying desperately to get more characterization going. But Irwin was more interested in special effects and all that stuff. If he had done it the way we wanted the show could have run for seven years. I'm convinced of this. As it was, it ran for four years and ran out of steam towards the end with all those ridiculous monsters thrown in for no apparent reason. The "Jonah and the Whale" episode during the second season (1965-1966) wasn't too bad. But too many monsters made the series look really ridiculous.

Q. I understand Roger Moore persuaded you to take the role of Captain Crane when you appeared in a 1962 Saint episode with him.

A. He did. When we were on the set of The Saint, I said, "Roger. I can't sleep at night. This Irwin Allen keeps phoning me during California time when 3.A.M. over here!" Roger enquired whether I had anything lined up. I replied that the BBC had offered me the lead role in a Tennessee Williams play, Camino Real, and I would be working with those wonderful British actors at the BBC. Roger felt that the play would only be seen once and then it was over. But a television series could run over a longer period of time. He was right. His comment made a lot of sense. So that was another reason why I agreed to do the television series.

Q. During 1961, you appeared in Raoul Walsh's penultimate film Marines, Let's Go.

A. I couldn't wait to work with him because he directed one of my favorite films - White Heat (1949) with Jimmy Cagney – so I was so thrilled and thought that we could maybe make something of this. When I read the script I thought that it was O.K. for a first draft and that they would rework it. But the studio didn't. They left it alone. So the next thing I knew was that I was flying off to Japan to make this not very good film. I think they wanted to get it done quickly because (20th Fox had a lot of frills and money in Japan which they wanted to use. It was unfortunate and I'm sure Raoul was disappointed that he couldn't do more with the script. He was getting on in years and I think he was tired. He and I got on very well. He was a wonderful, sweet guy. And a great story-teller.

Q. In 1965 you also appeared in The Greatest Story Ever Told as Philip with John Wayne and a cast of Hollywood stars.

A. I remember one amusing incident on set when Wayne played the Roman centurion who utters the lines, "Truly, this was the Son of God." George Stevens was unhappy with the take and asked Wayne to "play it with more reverence, with awe." Wayne then began the next take beginning with, "Aw, this man is the son of God."

Q. What was the most rewarding episode of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea that you worked on?

A. "Mutiny" was a very popular episode during the first season (1964-65). I also liked "Return of the Phantom" during the second season (1965-66) where Alfred Ryder took over my body and Richard had to shoot me but didn't do it. But Richard and I had the most fun when they would write parts for us both so that we would be the "guest stars" in a particular episode. I also had fun when they turned me into a monster on the "Man Beast" episode during the fourth season (1967-68). We had a lot of fun doing these crazy things. But I really enjoyed "Return of the Phantom" when Alfred Ryder's German U-Boat captain takes over my body. When I read the script I thought that I've really got to work on this role and particularly on a German accent. So I listened to Alfred constantly while he was working and finally got a good copy of his particular voice pattern. I thought that episode worked very well.

Q. What guests did you most enjoy working with during the series?

A. Vincent Price, of course. I also enjoyed working with Robert Duvall and George Sanders in the first season. I felt that George Sanders was such a wonderful actor and a very sweet man. I'd never met him before. Ina Balin appeared in the "Time Bomb" episode screened during the second season (1965-66). I knew her before so it was fun working with her. But I've worked with so many guest stars during that series and it's hard to remember everything.

Q. During 1975, you worked with Joan Fontaine in "The Star" episode of Cannon.

A. She was a lovely, delightful person. We used to play ginrummy between takes and she would beat me every time. Joan is a very smart, bright, intelligent, and beautiful woman.

Q. Roger Moore has been a very good friend of yours over the years. Did he recommend you for the role of Felix Leiter in Live and Let Die (1973)?

A. No. That happened when I moved to London with my wife and little baby girl shortly after Voyage finished. I thought I'd like to live there for a couple of years which I did. One evening we had Tom Mankiewicz over to dinner. He wrote Live and Let Die and thought that I'd be good for the role of Felix Leiter. I thought that might be fun. They were originally going to do it with Sean Connery so I thought that would be a good combination. But the next thing I knew was that Sean didn't want to do it anymore. Somebody mentioned that Roger might take on the role, and I thought that would be terrific. But others didn't want to use him and preferred to look for another actor. But Roger got the part and he was wonderful. They cut his hair to get away from his Saint persona and he looked great in the part.

Q. What circumstances led you to repeat the role of Felix Leiter in License to Kill (1988), since he has been played by different actors in the series?

A. That's a very good "trivia" question since I am the only actor who has played Leiter twice in the series. I was going out to have dinner with my wife before I went on tour with Elizabeth Ashley in a play. We went to the Bistro Gardens and Cubby Broccoli was there with his wife Dana. He waved to us as we entered. Before he left, he came over to say hello. I think that's when I got the part because he felt that I might be right for it since it was a fairly heavy role in License to Kill. Broccoli told the director about the choice. But John Glen insisted on seeing me personally because some time had gone by since Live and Let Die and he didn't know what I looked like now. So they flew me from Fort Lauderdale, Miami, on my day off from the play and I met John Glen the following day in Hollywood. I was well-tanned from the Miami sun and the meeting was positive. The part was great, but they cut an awful amount of material out such as most of the wedding scenes and the sequences leading up to the chase in the beginning of the film. But it was wonderful fun doing it. I liked working with Timothy who I think is a very fine actor.

Q. You then played the American ambassador in the Warsaw scenes of Ringo Lam's Undeclared War (1990)? What was it like being directed by the "dark side of John Woo"?

A. It was an absolute madhouse. Ringo couldn't speak English very well and they got a Polish actress to play my wife who didn't know a word of English! She had to be angry in one particular scene but because she was so beautiful she didn't want to look like she was angry. She was always playing the wrong thing so it was a disaster. I saw the film later and thought it had some great action scenes. Ringo tried very hard to make himself understood, but he was a nice man, nevertheless.

Q. In your most recent film Megiddo: The Omega Code 2 (2001) you don't play "Father of the Bride" but Father of the Christ and Anti-Christ. Did you have any scenes with Lee Ermey who plays the President before Michael Bien occupies the Oval Office to become both Savior and President?

A. No. i didn't have any scenes with him. I talked with him on the set but really didn't get to know him. I got to know Michael York but I only worked with him on one scene when I was supposed to be 80. In my first scene in the film, I was aged 40 so they blackened my hair and beard. I was supposed to be 60 in the middle of the film so they adjusted my color accordingly. I got the job after auditioning for it by appearing on tape. The next thing I knew was that I'd got the part. It was wonderful filming in an old castle in Bracciano, Italy.

Q. Finally, do you have any plans for the future and what else would you like to achieve?

A. I've recently finished a part in Death By Committee, shot in New York, which I worked on for ten days. They should finish production by the end of June. But I'd love to do more stage work, return to New York, and do a decent play. That's my dream.