The Battle Cry of Aldo Ray

After a successful run as a big star of the macho hunk variety in the '50s and '60s, Aldo Ray took a long, hard fall from Hollywood's grace. But Aldo Ray is nothing if not a fighter, as our writer found when he traveled to Northern California to talk with the actor about fame, love, and the cosmic wringer.



The Veterans Administration Hospital in the Northern California town of Martinez sits on a bald, sun-scalded hillside above the busy traffic flowing past on Highway 4. It's a vast, scary institutional pile of a place--acres of masonry and misery located just a few minutes' drive from Aldo Ray's hometown of Crockett in the East Bay opposite San Francisco.

On a blistering August day, I was wandering half-lost through the hospital's air-conditioned, ice-colored corridors, looking for the wing where the 64-year-old actor was being treated for cancer. He'd been a major Hollywood leading man in the 1950s and '60s, but his subsequent history had been one long bruise, capped off professionally in 1986 by his expulsion from the Screen Actors Guild for the heresy of working in non-union films, and on a personal level, by his diagnosis for a malignant tumor in late 1989. Earlier disasters included three failed marriages, chronic battles with alcohol, and an untold number of appearances in some of the schlockiest movies ever graced by a mainstream star--even an X-rated Western. The once-shining kid with the froggy voice had been through the Hollywood version of the cosmic wringer. I was knotted up with nerves, full of dread at what I might encounter.

Aldo--"Hey, call me Aldo or forget it"--had told me forthrightly about his medical condition during our first phone conversation a month or so earlier. Then, just a couple of days previously, when I'd called again to confirm our appointment to meet over a period of several days, he'd told me that he would be at the V.A. for chemotherapy treatment when I arrived. "But come on up anyway," he'd urged in that trademark raspy growl. "I'll be going home that night and we can bullshit all afternoon. Yeah, hey, it'll help me pass the time, yeah, hey, come on up." He'd assured me that the chemo regimen didn't affect him adversely except for breaking out his face in a splotchy rash.

When I tapped at the open door of his single room--3-B North, No. 364--Ray stood up quickly from his neatly-made bed and took a short step forward. He was wearing a chocolate-brown robe over pajamas and slippers. Instantly recognizable, he was craggier and stockier now, but still baby-faced handsome and spiffily groomed. He stuck out his hand and we shook hard. "Are you still up for this nonsense?" I asked. With an easy smile, he said he was feeling better than he looked, indicating several raw, peeling spots on his face and neck. Clearly, he wanted to put me at ease, but the thought occurred to me that he might be making a brave attempt for my benefit.

Motioning me to a chair facing him, Ray sat down on the bed and started to cross his legs, but his IV cord got in the way. It ran from his left wrist across his lap to a drip bottle hanging from a metal stand. "When it gets empty," he said, "I can go home. I had three of the things going at once the other day, and a chaplain came in and said, 'Aldo, I see you're getting the best of care here. One vodka, one gin, one tequila--'" Ray let out a chuckle that turned into an explosive belly laugh.

He was backlit by the room's single, off-center window, and he seemed, I thought, remarkably cheerful. With a tentative sense of relief, I began to grasp that he might not be as ill as I'd feared. We bantered for a while, sizing each other up. Within a few minutes, I knew some of the essentials about him. He was manly in the old-fashioned sense, and he had nerve and grace in a complicated mixture. Despite his volubility--his Italian blood and all that--he was innately reserved, shy and stoic at the core. I took him to be wounded, vulnerable, still an innocent of sorts, acutely intelligent, and tough as billy hell. He reminded me a little of Jack Kerouac, another bright jock and drinking man who'd been cursed with stardom.

Gradually, our talk concentrated on the movies he'd made over the last 40 years. My chair was squeaky and uncomfortable, but except for shifting my weight from side to side, I didn't move from it again for the next four hours.

"The story of how I got into the movies is very commonly known," Aldo said in a gravelly basso, launching into a rambling reminiscence about returning from Navy service at the end of World War II, marrying a local girl and playing junior-college football, and then getting himself elected constable of Crockett at the age of 22. "Yeah, the guy I ran against was a 16-year incumbent, and I destroyed him with 80 percent of the vote! I was going to work my way up to the U.S. Senate, see, and I would've, too, but then my brother Guido--you'll meet him maybe tomorrow--saw an article in the San Francisco Chronicle and talked me into going with him to a 'cattle call' for extras in Saturday's Hero with John Derek and Donna Reed. We were both gonna be big movie stars, you know? And the director, David Miller--damned good guy--heard about my winning the election and asked me to give a speech. I did, and he signed me up that night to a seven-year contract with Columbia. Out of 400 athletes who showed up, I was the only one they picked for the long haul."

Leaving his foothold in politics had been a difficult choice, Aldo said, but after eight months on the job as constable, he got a call from the well-known director George Cukor, who wanted to test him for what turned out to be the male lead in his production of The Marrying Kind. "By then, Saturday's Hero was playing and people were asking, 'Who's the guy with the voice?' So Cukor tutored me for four days and said, 'Resign your job, kid. You can't wear two hats.' Two weeks later, I got divorced from my first wife, appointed a new constable, and headed for L.A. at $200 a week, which was pretty good money in '51.

"Harry Cohn [the head of Columbia Studios] singled me out--Uncle Harry himself. And Max Arnow, who was in charge of talent at Columbia. Max never liked me. Because I wasn't a 'person of the theater' and I didn't care about acting. But Harry gave me one standing order: 'No acting lessons, kid, or you'll ruin whatever it is you've got.' Harry decided that I was going to be in "A" pictures or nothing, and while he was alive, he never let me do a picture that was sub-"A." After The Marrying Kind, when Cukor wanted to take me with him to MGM for Pat and Mike, Cohn said okay--but I had to get star billing along with Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn. Spencer says, 'You mean the sheriff of Crockett... we're giving the sheriff of Crockett star billing?' " Aldo boomed out a laugh that bounced from wall to wall.

"But Cukor convinced them, and Tracy told me one day, we were walking along: 'Kid, I don't know what it is that you got, and I got, and some of us have, but you can work in this business forever.' That made me feel good, you know, coming from a guy like him. I never bowed down to anybody at Columbia or anywhere else, but my overall idea was, I'll do whatever they tell me because it's their business, not mine, and I've got to learn it.

"Because of Harry, all my first pictures were big hits, tremendously popular. Judy Holliday was my co-star in The Marrying Kind--she'd won the Oscar two years before. Then came Pat and Mike. Third picture, the ads read: 'Jane Wyman, Ray Milland, Aldo Ray in Let's Do It Again.' I played with nothing but Oscar winners or top stars--Rita Hayworth and Jose Ferrer in Miss Sadie Thompson. . . Bogart and Usti [Peter Ustinov] in We're No Angels...

"I liked Rita Hayworth. She was a real down-to-earth human being, a nice lady who'd got caught up in the whirlwind of Hollywood at a very young age. I don't know what the hell twisted her up with her men. Ferrer and I tried to talk her out of marrying that goofy singer, Dick Haymes. If she'd been closer to my age, I think I would have gone after her myself...

"Before I went to Paramount to make We're No Angels, some friends at Columbia had warned me: 'Bogie always picks a patsy on every picture, so don't let him shit on you. The minute he gets on you, go back at him.' Sure enough, we're up to the 17th take on a scene where something mechanical kept going wrong and Bogie yelled at me: 'WHAT'S THE MATTER WITH YOU, YOU GREEN S.O.B.? WHY DON'T YOU LEARN YOUR CRAFT BEFORE YOU WORK WITH THE PROS?' The glitch wasn't my fault, so I walked over to him and said, 'You talk to me like that again and I'll drive you through that goddam concrete.' 'What?' 'You heard me.' Bogie says, 'Come with me, pal.' We went to his dressing room and he poured two tumblers of scotch. Boom, boom, chugalug! And every night from then on, we got half-gassed in his dressing room."

I'd been watching Aldo's hands--blunt, almost square-shaped, but expressive tools of his trade all the same. With a spare gesture or two, he characterized almost everyone he mentioned.

"I was at Columbia from '50 to '58, and Harry Cohn... I think he liked me. Because I was a renegade--his kind of guy. And I always liked him, too, because I could tell him off. Oh, we battled. He liked it that I wasn't afraid of him, but he never paid me anything. He'd loan me out for $10,000 a week--on Battle Cry, say, or The Naked and the Dead--and in my seventh year, I was only making $700 a week. The first two jobs I got after my contract was up--a picture in Australia and a TV show with Lucille Ball--I made more money from them than I'd made the whole eight years before."

"Didn't you once get a laughably paltry check from Columbia?" I asked.

"Yeah, yeah, oh Christ.. .They sent me on tour all over the country to promote The Marrying Kind--22-hour days, practically, for a couple of months. And the picture was a smash. So finally I'm back at the studio and I go to the pay window--it's a Thursday--and they say, 'Sorry, Aldo, no check this week.' I asked why not. 'Well, when you were on tour, you sent a few gifts home and that's been deducted.' Second week--same thing, no check. The third week, I got a check--for 24 cents.

"For a laugh, I showed it to everybody around the studio--I was kind of a favorite, the boy sheriff from Crockett--and one of Cohn's stooges offered me a buck for it. I said, fine, it's a deal. Then at the end of the day, I was on my way out and a guard said Mr. Cohn wanted to see me. I went upstairs, and Harry was waving the check. 'You seen this before?' I said, 'Yeah, isn't that a riot, boss?' 'IT'S NOT FUNNY, GODDAMMIT! YOU'RE MAKING A FOOL OUT OF ME!' I said, 'Well, what the hell--I can't even buy a hamburger with the damned thing! Twenty-four cents--a hamburger is two bits.' 'GET OUT, GODDAMMIT!'

"Next morning, Cohn calls me back to his office, puts his arm around my shoulder, and hands me a check for $10,000. 'You did a good job on the road and I should've done something for you. But, kid, never bite the hand that feeds you.' I said, 'Boss, I never heard that one before--it must be Jewish. I 'BEAT IT--GO BANK THAT CHECK BEFORE I CHANGE MY MIND.' " Aldo clapped his hands and cackled.

"Eventually, it worked out that I made some money on the side. An independent outfit called Security Pictures sent me a script called Men in War. I said, 'I'm not going to do it because you guys and Harry are getting all the money and I don't get anything.' They said, 'Well, we'll give you ten percent of the profits ultimately, but keep it to yourself--so we made a little side agreement. Then Anthony Mann, the director, offered my agent--this is at MCA--$12,500 for half of my ten percent. The agent pressured me to take it because he had no faith in the picture, and I said, 'Okay-- but I'm sure I'll regret it.' The five percent that I kept ended up paying me $70,000.

"Tony Mann was a hell of a director--a great guy and very dynamic. He was always intense, intense! That's what killed him--too dynamic. He dropped dead at 57, I think. Tony also directed me in God's Little Acre--I got $25,000 under the table for that one, by the way--and those were two of my best pictures.

"Raoul Walsh directed me in Battle Cry and The Naked and the Dead, my two best roles. Raoul and I got along because we drank together a lot, and he liked my kind of character. Because I was not 'the actor,' see. On Battle Cry, he thought Van Heflin was a kind of prima donna, and to Raoul, that wasn't a man, you know what I mean? He didn't like actors who weren't MEN. We made Battle Cry in Puerto Rico, where the rum cost just 70 cents a fifth. Believe me, nobody drank any water the whole 28 days we were there. And when we shot The Naked and the Dead in Panama, it was endless partying with the Marines and the Army generals trying to outdo each other. Christ, I'd come to work in the mornings in a tuxedo ... But you know something? We made great films. A lot of the best pictures in those days were made under the aegis"he pantomimed nipping from a bottle"and we turned out great films. It's a pencil-pusher business now, and almost nobody who's a movie person has anything to do with making movies anymore. It's sad--it's almost a sin."

I asked Aldo to rank the top directors he'd worked with in his early years. He named Cukor, Mann, Walsh, and Jacques Tourneur, who'd directed him in a little known noir thriller called Nightfall in 1956. "Jacques," Aldo recalled, "was soft-spoken, heavyset, smoked a pipe. . .He'd apparently had a few little problems with the studio for a while and then they assigned him Nightfall, and we shot it in 18 days up near Reno and everything turned out okay. It was a good little picture, and made a lot of money for its cost.

"Cukor was the most sensitive in actual direction--the little things mattered to him, any little thing. Tony Mann knew what he wanted, too, but the little things didn't matter that much. You listened to him because he knew EXACTLY where he was going. Walsh directed big action pictures and he listened more than he watched. He'd walk away from a scene and listen. 'Aldo, did you like it?' If I said no, he'd say, 'Okay, do it again.' They were all top pros, but if I had to choose one director for everything, I'd pick Tony Mann."

A nurse entered the room to check on Aldo's medication. He grinned at her and asked: "How much more time to go?" "Oh, a couple of hours, maybe," she said, "just sit tight." She held his taped wrist and started taking his pulse.

Aldo turned back to me with a poker face. "That stuff they're dripping into me is a fluorocarbon or something called Five-FU. Doesn't sound too good, would you say? Five-FU. When I first started the treatment, I told them, 'Hey, one FU is enough for me--I don't know if I can stand five.' " He threw back his head and roared.

The texture of light in the room faded as the afternoon began to wane. Sitting partly obscured in shadow now, with one slippered foot drawn up on the coverlet, Aldo snorted and turned almost testy when I mentioned John Wayne, who had directed him in The Green Berets in 1968.

"Ow, John Wayne," he said with a grimace. "I never considered him much of an actor, much less a director. Wayne was just a personality--I mean, I'm a personality, too, but he was all personality. I refused to call him 'Duke' or brown-nose around him like everybody else. One day he was telling me how to do a scene a certain way, and I said, 'John, maybe that's the way you'd do it, but it's not the way I'm gonna do it.' 'Hey, I've been in this business for 40 years and I was a star for most of that time.' I said, 'I don't care how long you've been in the business--you've never learned a fucking thing.' He looked at me and turned around and walked away."

"Did he freeze you out after that?"

"Not really--in a way...He kind of admired me, and we drank together every night after work. But during work, we avoided each other. That picture shot for a long time--three months."

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