The Battle Cry of Aldo Ray
Aldo didn't mention it, but The Green Berets--landmark turkey that it was--marked the end of his starring days in big-budget American films. Afterwards, he'd descended in painful stages to the "B"s, the sub-"B"s, the off-off-"B"s of his career in the '70s and '80s. Somewhere along the way, like his friend Rita Hayworth, he'd disappeared into the "whirlwind of Hollywood" himself.
Before flying north, I'd pored for several days over Aldo's Academy Library press file, reading about his comebacks, his ever-loopier credits, his unhappy personal life. Ray's third divorce in 1968--from the mother of his two sons--had perhaps broken his spirit, or at least his drive. Then there was his two-fisted drinking habit--Boom, boom, chugalug! As his movies went from bad to worse, his life began to resemble a bad movie, too. From glossy studio "A"s to the trash-film gulag was a long, hard fall.
When Ray appeared in the X-rated Sweet Savage in 1977-- playing a heavy in the "plot" sequences, but taking no part in the explicit sex scenes--Variety snidely noted his "crossover" from "straight" films to hardcore porn. Establishment Hollywood was outraged and proceeded to write him off as a washed-up lush.
By the early '80s, in fact, Ray was living in near-destitution in a seedy walk-up above Hollywood Boulevard, riding city buses to casting calls, and taking virtually any film he was offered. In some of the features I'd seen or heard about, he appeared to be cast for his residual fame alone. I asked him about three of them--Angel Unchained, Straight Jacket, and Biohazard.
For the first time, Aldo faltered, dropped his gaze. "Yeah, I did a couple of things--I'm not sure about all the titles--for a guy named Fred Olen Ray...He'd give me $1000 in cash, pay my expenses, and I'd do a day's work. Somebody showed me one of his cassettes--'starring Aldo Ray'--but it was just a one-day job."
"Are you bitter about being used that way?"
"Well, I needed money at the time, and Fred knew I needed a buck, so I did it. He exploited me, yeah, but I was ripe for it."
"Are you bitter at all?"
"Aw, hell no," he said, laughing huskily. He thought a minute and his expression softened as though a breeze had blown across it. "A lot of the pictures I've been in weren't much fun to do at the time, but I don't remember the shit, you know? All I remember is the fun stuff."
As we wound down the list of his credits--some 60-odd pictures in all--Aldo's girlfriend, Sandra Chessmore, arrived to take him home. They lived together nearby. She was a trim, middle-aged blonde with a fond mother-hennish attitude toward him, and they hugged affectionately. Stiff with weariness by now, I got up to leave.
"So what's the plan for tomorrow?" Aldo asked. He wanted to stick by our original notion to take a stroll around Crockett.
"Let's have lunch somewhere," I suggested, still chary about his condition, "and see what we feel like afterwards."
"Great," he said. "You're at the Concord Hilton? We'll pick you up at 11. I feel the Great Wall coming on."
2. NATIVE SON
We arrived in Crockett at 11:15 the next morning and parked outside a handsome old two-story frame house on Sixth Avenue. The hillside neighborhood was quiet and well-kept with a view of the cantilever bridge that spanned the Carquinez Straits to Vallejo. "This is where I was raised," Aldo said, setting the hand-brake against the steep incline. He stepped briskly out of the car, opened Sandra's door, and walked around to check the mailbox.
He was wearing blue slacks with a yellow leisure shirt, looking fit enough to buck cargo. Even his rash had faded noticeably overnight. He stood with one leg braced against the sidewalk's rise, surveying the street.
"This used to be the poor side of town?" I asked. "Doesn't look it--"
"Well, the Latinos lived around here--the Italian and Portuguese millhands who worked at the C&H refinery. .. 'Dago Hill,' you know. I remember my old man chipping in with his cronies and they'd stomp the grapes in their bare feet."
A dozen or so steps led up through thick camelia bushes to a high porch. Aldo's mother, Maria Da Re, greeted us in the foyer, embracing Sandra, giving Aldo a playful swat. She was a radiantly vital and alert woman of 84 who spoke in a heavy accent. "So glad you can come," she said, clasping my hand with a crinkling smile.
It was a homey, comfortably furnished house spiced with the aroma of something simmering in the kitchen. "Come on--" Aldo led the way into the dining room--"I want you to meet that brother who got me into the movie business. Guido, this is..." I stepped forward to shake Guido's hand because he couldn't rise. A dark, heavyset man in his sixties, he had both feet propped up on pillows, one of them swollen enormously with gout. He was settled in beside the table with a plate of munchies nearby and a TV set tuned low to a football game. "What's the score?" Aldo asked.
"Rams, 7-0. They're playing in Berlin, chrissakes."
"Don't ever gamble with this guy," Aldo told me with a wink.
Guido tittered. "I don't gamble--I bet. There's some mail for you, Aldo. And call Paul."
I moved forward to look at a gallery of family pictures on a sideboard--the six Da Re brothers, one sister, and several generations of their offspring. Aldo named off his siblings and then we stood watching his mother gossiping with Sandra in broken English. She had the same hoarse voice and bullmoose laugh he did. Shaking his head fondly, he showed me photos of his sons, both of whom he'd mentioned with pride earlier. "This is Paul--he's my oldest, lives near here in Walnut Creek--and he's got a brand-new bride. They're meeting us at the cafe, okay?" The other photo was of Eric Da Re, the young TV actor who plays the villainous Leo on "Twin Peaks." "He called last night to see how I was feeling--damned good kid."
We left for lunch near noon. In the car, Sandra inclined her head quizzically and said to Aldo, "I don't understand what they're doing back there, hon. She makes pasta, gravy--I saw beans cooking."
"What? Jeez, that's the worst thing you can eat with gout. Shit, I'll have to..."
The Yet Wah bar-restaurant was set on a sheer bluff overlooking a magnificent expanse of the half-mile-wide straits. We were seated at a large table with a panoramic view across the water to Mare Island and Benicia. Aldo played mein host, ordering the group course called the Great Wall, which comprised some jillions of Mandarin dishes served in unceasing waves.
Paul, 27, was a pleasant, balding young man who worked for an accounting firm, and looked nothing like his father. As he served his pretty wife Martha some Chinese ravioli, I asked if he'd ever been tempted to act. "Oh, no," he said, mildly horrified.
"He played in one of mine, though," Aldo put in. "One summer in Wyoming.. .what was it called? The thing's been shown all over the world except here, and I never got paid for that sonofabitch--" "Neither did I," Paul said, feigning woe, then grinning good-naturedly.
After some talk about Ray's stay at the hospital--"Yeah, they say I'm doing pretty good"--Sandra gestured toward the water: "He used to swim all the way across there and back. Taught everybody in town how to swim."
Aldo split open his fortune cookie. "Yeah, I was a pretty fair swimmer as a kid. I'd go in just up from here, then swim across to where that ship is, and try my damndest to make it back. I got carried along halfway to Suisun Bay on the currents one time." He squinted at the printed slip. "Hmm. . .'A new world of creative power is opening up to you.' Hey, what about that? Damned things hit just right sometimes, don't they?" Sandra pretended to wave a magic wand over his head: "Lucky Stardust, honey."
Back in Aldo's Dodge, we drove west along the straits through the outlying hamlets and vanished company towns that he'd once patrolled as constable--Tormey, Selby, Hercules, Oleum. Gulls wheeled over the road and flashed out toward the glistening water. "Me and a justice of the peace ran this whole area," he recalled. "I never made a single arrest... See those fields over there, the houses beyond? Jeez, I hate naked tracts. Used to be nothing out here but rabbits and birds until the goddamned builders and oil companies gobbled everything up. Cross a fence now, and some bastard's liable to shoot you."
It was another wilting-hot day, and at the town of Rodeo, we all agreed we were thirsty. "There's a really neat bar down in Port Costa," Ray said. "Let's head back there and get something cold to drink." He turned onto a parallel road that reversed our route, and in minutes we were cruising under the Carquinez Bridge onto Crockett's one-time "Whiskey Row." "There used to be 27 bars along here, both sides of the street, and every single one was packed when the shifts let out. But everything closed up after C&.H automated..." He sped past the huge sugar refinery without deigning to look at it and took the Port Costa turnoff.
The old town down at the water's edge--once the West's busiest wheat-shipping port--was all but extinct aside from clusters of hillside homes. We parked on a sandy wash not far from the shore and crossed to the Warehouse Cafe, a funky country tavern with Jerry Lee Lewis raving on the jukebox. In the back, we found a shady table on the patio. The tang of salt floated in the air.
"What do you want to have, babe?" Sandra asked.
"Well, I almost feel like a beer, but. . ." Aldo touched a hand to the tender spots on his face.
"Can you drink at all after your medication?" I asked.
"The doc in charge said whatever I can tolerate, I can have. After the last session--this week was the second of three, see-- I drank a little bit of wine. So this time I thought I'd restrict myself--not a drop of anything--and see whether it's just the medication that breaks me out."
Sandra flagged a waitress who brought us a round of pop and bottled water.
Aldo stretched and took a long, draining swallow. "We'll hit the bars in Crockett sometime tomorrow, okay? There's only two joints left there now, and the bartenders--buddies of mine--get a huge kick out of it when I come in and order coffee or something besides a belt. The bastards really seem to enjoy it, you know."
Aldo drew Sandra close to him, tousling her hair playfully and offering his peeling profile for inspection: "You think I'm ready for that photographer?"
"Aldo," she said after a beat, "I think you're a little crazy, but then I always have."
"Hey, yeah, that's me all right."
One of the qualities that had drawn me to Ray was his unguarded candor, the guileless capacity to speak the buck-naked truth as he saw it and damn the consequences. Whatever was on his mind usually came out in straight talk, regardless of received opinion. Later that afternoon, sitting at another table in my hotel with a pot of room-service coffee between us, we went on talking, and I read aloud a quote of his from 1960, one of my all-time favorite Aldo-isms: "This guy Charlton Heston is a nice fellow, but what a hamola."
"That's how I felt about it, yeah." Ray let out a gusty laugh. "To me, you can tell the guy's acting, and with a good actor who's doing it right.. .It's basically action and re-action, see. If you react normally in a scene, and the other people do, too, then you've got something going. But if you're way out and your response isn't correct, that takes you over into hamola land.. .Chuck's a nice guy, though."
"What was in your mind when you made that X-rated picture?" I asked. "You knew in advance what kind of movie it was, didn't you?"
"Yeah, oh yeah...I wanted, I guess, to see what it was all about--a kind of half-assed adventure, you know? It was also a kind of vacation for me in a bad time--a nice location in Arizona--and I picked up a few thousand bucks. After it came out, a few people wagged their fingers at me--'Oh-ho-ho, you dirty dog'--but I knew I hadn't done anything wrong. They shot all the sex stuff after I'd flown back to L.A. I won the adult film Oscar for that, by the way, but somebody copped it."
"Do you suppose playing in Sweet Savage was the start of your troubles with SAG?"
"Not that I know of...Rory Calhoun called me and said, 'Aldo, somebody's out to get you in the union--I don't know who or why.' The Guild complaint was based on an independent picture I made in Texas called Lethal Injection--a total bomb that's never been shown, never was really even finished, and I never got paid a nickel for it. I worried at first that getting expelled would keep me from working altogether-- people would think, you know, I was barred from acting, period. And I'm. sure I lost a few jobs over it, but I ended up getting my full pension, full medical coverage, everything that was coming to me. So now if I work, say, five weeks a year, that's $25,000 minimum because I don't work for less than $5,000 a week, and added to my pension, I get along okay."
"What's a rough estimate of your career earnings in the movies?"
"About $4.5 million."
"While others got. . ."
"Many, many millions."
"You said one time you'd made three mistakes in life--and you named your three wives. Does that hold?"
"Yeah, it holds. Except, at least, my third wife gave me two beautiful sons. .. But our divorce wiped me out."
"Who, then, were the great loves of your life?"
"My sons, and--well, their mother. Yeah. We had a great five years in the '60s. .. And late in life, Sandra's the best thing that's happened to me in a long time. We've been together not quite two years, and she's a princess."
"Who would you rank as the most important men in your life?"
"Harry Cohn.. .He and I never discussed it personally, but he made me a star and I knew that he watched over my career like an angel those first years... And David Miller, the director who picked me for Saturday's Hero--that was a turning point ... Cukor definitely--George Cukor for the tutelage and teaching me how to act ... Those three guys molded the last 40 years of my life."
"Well... I regret that I don't have more control of my tongue and thoughts--because I speak too frankly and too honestly, and this world is not meant for frank and honest people. They don't mix. Reality is pretty phony."
"What're your chances for a full recovery from the cancer?"
"I'm in great shape--got all my energy and strength back. I had surgery on my neck last March, and after one more session of the chemo--that's 50 more hours--the doctors say I'll have it all beat. . .I'm not scared of dying--it's how I die that matters. I'd rather live one good year than ten crappy years. And I think I've got some good pictures ahead of me if I can find the right roles. There's plenty of good stuff left in me, you know?"
3. WATER ON THE ROCKS
Sixth Avenue was a principal artery through the ethnic neighborhood called "Valona" by the long-gone Italian elders who'd stomped the grapes in their bare feet. The street was just waking up the next morning when we assembled for a series of photo sessions that ran on until dusk. Aldo, in high spirits, hit it off warmly with the photographer, and the three of us agreed on an itinerary of locations that expanded as inspiration or the right light struck. Sandra fretted a little about Ray's rash, but he soothed her with whispers and pats, and we set off in a convoy of cars on a zigzagging course up and down and around Crockett's hills. The work went smoothly, though it was steamy hot again by ten o'clock.
It was a Sunday, and around the time church services were letting out, Ray parked across from the C&H gates and walked a block to the grounds of the John Swett High School. He slipped through a gap in the link fence with the rest of us following. Striding across the playing fields where he'd once been a schoolboy hero, he looked gallant and one-of-a-kind without trying, his blue eyes vivid against the green, his bearing iron erect. People gathering for the day's softball games recognized and hailed him. Hollywood, where aging actors were treated as broken toys of the culture, seemed far away.
After a quick lunch at the last cafe left open in the old community business sector, we hit the bars--the Club Tac and Ray's Corner Saloon. As Aldo had predicted, the bartenders all but hee-hawed as they served him designer water over the rocks. In both places, he bellied up to the bar, batting the breeze with men he'd known since childhood, the steady file of drinkers coming in who'd ditched their wives after mass. Almost all the patrons greeted him one way or another, and he took a lot of low-down ribbing--"Hey, Aldo, can I stand you another Perry-Yay?" But even the roughest kidders welcomed and admired him, really--the fair-haired Valona boy who'd escaped Dago Hill and hit it big in the movies for a while and was still pretty famous everywhere in the world. In the Club Tac, I asked a gray-haired waitress named Lucille if Aldo had been a good boy in his hard-drinking days. "Honey," she said, "they all mind me." At Ray's Corner, a boozy pal slid onto the stool next to Aldo's. "Christ, Aldo, you bastid, you through with your treatments for now?" "Yeah, I got one more to go." "Good deal, ol' buddy. You take care, hear?"
At mid-afternoon, we returned to the Da Re house for the portrait shots. Sandra took a bowl out to the backyard to gather figs and peaches. While the photographer humped in his equipment, Aldo went to the rear of the house and came back with a newspaper and a bag of garbage. Sitting down at the dining-room table, he spread out the paper and started unloading the sack, item by item.
"Hell's going on?" Guido asked. He was sitting on a couch nearby with his gouty foot propped on a stool.
Aldo put on his reading specs: "I'm looking for an envelope I maybe threw away by mistake."
Maria Da Re walked through, saw the mound of trash on the paper, threw up her hands, and went into the kitchen. Guido beckoned me closer and stage-whispered for Aldo's benefit: "He always looks for his residual checks, see, and throws everything else away."
"Damn right I do," Aldo growled, his voice rising like a baritone horn, "especially if it's that political bullshit. Rotten bastards in Washington--there's not a pair of testicles among them... No, what it was, see, a friend called me last night and said, 'I heard Reagan mailed you a get-well letter on the seventh.' " Aldo pronounced it "Reegen." He spotted a damp envelope in the sack and said, "Jeez, here it is, I guess.. .There's no check in it, so I guess it's for framing, huh?"
"I toss anything with Reagan's name on it myself," the photographer said, laughing.
The letter read:
Nancy and I were sorry to learn of your recent surgery. This is a difficult time for you. However, from personal experience we have found that your burden can become lighter if you trust in the Lord and in those who care about you. Please know that we will be keeping you in our thoughts and prayers. May God bless you and hold you in the palm of His hand.
Sandra came in from the yard, read the signature, and, a little awed, said, "Well, I've never gotten a letter from the President."
"Aw," Aldo said with a shrug, "I taught Ron how to run for office. When he was in the governor's race, we were bullshitting at lunch one time and I told him, 'You've got to level with the people who vote. Don't talk above or below them--just tell 'em what the score is.' I don't know that he listened to me, but then I'd've made a better President than him, chrissakes."
Aldo held the letter between his fingers, a little gingerly, then let it flutter onto the table next to Guido's empty bean bowl. For a minute, he laughed that wild, fractured, totally American laugh, then reined it in and glanced toward the photographer. "Where you want me now?" he asked. "What's next?"
Aldo Ray completed his third chemotherapy treatment and was released from medical care in September, 1990. The address of the Aldo Ray Fan Club is P.O. Box 421, Crockett, CA 94525.
Contributing writer Grover Lewis dedicates this story to John Crowell and other friends at last summer's Rolling Stone reunion in Berkeley.
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