Saturday, October 13, 2012

Royal Dano, Aug. 21, 1987

Royal Dano

OGDEN -- There sat Royal Dano, character actor extraordinaire, on the edge of his bed – in his boxer shorts, an ice bag on his knee.

"Sorry I can't get up," he said in that deep, rich voice that's become so familiar to moviegoers over the past four decades. "Got a bum knee."

Dano -- whose credits include "The Red Badge of Courage," "The Trouble with Harry," "Moby Dick," "Something Wicked This Way Comes" and "The Right Stuff" – had recently undergone arthroscopic knee surgery, stemming from an injury sustained during the filming of "The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid" in 1971.

"I finally decided to take advantage of this directors' strike and have it done now," he explained, exposing the scar and explaining the procedure. "An actor's greatest fear is that the best role of his career will come along while he's unable to work. So elective surgery can be a dangerous thing."

Dano, one of the most recognizable character actors in the history of film, was in Ogden recently to attend the National Western Film Festival. Although he's known most for the vast number of westerns he's appeared in, Dano is a versatile actor who's at home in almost any role.

But after seeing him on the big screen and in TV series like "Gunsmoke" and "The Rifleman" all the while I was growing up, it was a little strange to be interviewing the actor as he sat in a hotel room in his underwear. This was Royal Dano as I'd never seen him before -- the human being who spontaneously breaks into song as he tells the tales of his life, and to whom laughter seems as comfortable as a well-worn glove.

Speaking with the man was as pleasant an interview as I've ever had. Dano was in good spirits that day in July, talking about his long history in the picture business, his youth in New York City and his World War II experiences.

Dano's done it all -- twice. Born in 1922 and raised in New York -- on 59th St. and 10th Ave. -- Dano's father worked for the New York Daily News as a typesetter. After graduating from high school, Dano worked there for a time as a copy boy, among other jobs, until he sliced off the tip of a finger in a proof press.

In 1942, before he enlisted in the Army and headed off to India, he took a job at the Empire State Building as an electrician -- even though he knew nothing about the craft.

"I screwed up all the wiring," Dano recalled, laughing, "because nobody ever told me anything about code on wire -- that a red wire goes here and a white wire goes there -- all I realized was that you had to have a circuit. So I didn't give a damn what color wires I put in.

"Hell, when I got done wiring you'd push a switch in this office and a light would go on in an office over there. So, needless to say, I was taken off being an electrician and put on bulbs -- they started me off on the 85th floor with a basket full of bulbs and I had to go down all the floors and replace the bulbs in the escape stairwells, then at the end of the time, I was fired."

But employment was easy to come by then, and Dano worked briefly as a cop and boiler repairman, too.

"They were short on men to hire because everyone was gone to the war. Hell, if you'd have walked in and said you were a brain surgeon somebody would've taken you in and let you operate," the gray-haired actor said. "They wouldn't have fired you until you killed at least a couple people."

Dano was sent to India and Burma as a truck sergeant. But because he could tell a joke better than most guys in his unit, he was ordered to write a show for their entertainment. One thing led to another, and while he was down with malaria in a jungle hospital, a certain major named Melvin Douglas ("Ninotchka," "Hud," "Being There") happened to read one of Dano's "scripts" – which was really just a bunch of jokes and gags written on scraps of paper -- and he took Dano with him to help entertain the troops who were building the Burma Road.

While there, Dano became great friends with people like Andrew Duggan (“The Secret War of Harry Frigg,” “Skin Game”) and gained a wealth of experience as he performed upwards of 1,000 shows on outdoor stages and in field hospital wards.

After the war, Dano headed home to New York and got a job in a Broadway play. But it flopped soon after opening night.

"I had no experience with shows failing, not in the Army," the actor said, pulling on his trousers. "But the next one I got, in 1946, was 'Finian's Rainbow.' It turned out to be a hit and I ran for two years with it, which gave me a chance to learn the things I hadn't learned." Dano, then 23, had been hired to play a 65-year-old man.

After "Finian's Rainbow," though, Dano endured two lean years. Then in February 1949, Life magazine photographer Eugene Smith took a photo of a terrified Dano preparing to audition for the chorus of "South Pacific."

"It was a great photo of this scared-to-death guy, still in his G.I. jacket, auditioning for the chorus against these people who had studied opera," Dano reminisced. "When I did step out, there was Joshua Logan and he asked me, 'Do you sing?' And I said, 'Well, that's what we're here to find out.' And he said, 'Well, thank you very much. We'll talk to you later.'"

Dano was never permitted to sing. Although he didn't work in the Broadway production of "South Pacific," Dano did get a movie role out of the Life photo -- "Under the Gun," with Richard Conte, John McIntire and Sam Jaffe, who later became a mentor, of sorts, to Dano.

After that, there was no looking back, as Dano performed in numerous live television productions -- sometimes rehearsing for two simultaneously. Co-starring roles in major films like "The Red Badge of Courage" and "Moby Dick," both of which were directed by John Huston, followed.

Television was good to the actor during the '50s. After losing the lead role in "Gunsmoke" to James Arness, Dano appeared in about 20 episodes of the series, and his first job on "The Rifleman" was in a half-hour episode that won a special award at the Cannes Film Festival.

In 1955, Dano moved his wife and child to California and became a film actor for good.

"All my friends in New York told me motion pictures were a bastard art," Dano said. "But when I saw that check I was ready for my artistic integrity to go flying out the window."

He recalled that his first auditions for the TV westerns were disastrous: "At first I'd come in and start tawkin' to da guy in my New Yawk accent," Dano said, affecting the speech of his youth. "And they'd say, 'What are you doing here?’ And I'd say, 'I come up ta see about dis cowboy part.'

"So the next time you walk in -- after you lost the first part -- you shuffle a bit and say, ‘Afternoon, ma'am. Ah'm here ta see a Mr. Robinson about this here picture you got.' "

But the '80s are different than the '50s were for the actor, who now finds himself in the peculiar position of performing in motion pictures that he certainly wouldn't have considered doing in the heyday of his popularity. He's the star of "House II," a horror comedy, and "Ghoulies II," a straight horror film, both of which are due for release in the coming weeks.

"Well, like everyone else," he said with a shrug of his shoulders during a news conference at the festival, "I have to eat. And they aren't making many westerns anymore."

Still, there have been good pictures in recent years. "The Right Stuff," made by "The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid" director Philip Kaufman, was one such a film. Dano is the only central character in the film who doesn't speak -- but he does sing.