Tuesday, June 06, 2017

six degrees of roger smith

Among other things, Hollywood is a workplace crowded with curious connections, past and present, and Roger Smith - who sadly passed this week, at age 84 - experienced a few of his own throughout his career.

First, however, a little about Smith, an affable actor with collegiate good looks who was also a trained singer and dancer. But who would know that, considering how ill-used he was by the studios where he was a contract player?  Hollywood is also often at a loss about nurturing and showcasing certain talents, which is odd considering that "talent" is what drives it.

And exacerbating matters for Smith was a debilitating neuromuscular disease, myasthenia gravis, which prematurely ended his acting career.

He was in his mid-30s when his life changed.

Smith was always prepared for an acting career and made the decision to actively pursue it at the advice of James Cagney, whom he happened to meet while in Hawaii in 1955.  Smith was on a 30-month Naval tour of duty with the reserves there and Cagney was on location, filming "Mister Roberts." ("Mister Roberts" - Keep that title in mind. It's the first of a few connections to be covered here. There will be a Blue Book quiz following.)

Two years later, Smith went to Hollywood and appeared in several TV series before being signed by Columbia Pictures - where he appeared in such titles as "Operation Mad Ball" and "No Time to Be Young" and where he met his first wife, the Australian actress Victoria Shaw.

Unlike Smith, Shaw was groomed for stardom at Columbia.  In 1956, she was given the second female lead in George Sidney's "The Eddy Duchin Story," starring Tyrone Power and Kim Novak, playing Duchin's second wife, Chiquita. (George Sidney - keep that name in mind. A connection.)

The film is divided into two acts, with Novak dominating the first half (as Duchin's ill-fated first wife, the society queen Marjorie Oelrichs ) and Shaw the second half.  (Kim Novak - keep that name in mind, too.) Shaw impressed the critics and was named "Most Promising Actress of 1956" by the editors of Modern Screen.

Smith, meanwhile, ended his lackluster association with Columbia and was eventually put under contract by Warner Bros., which promptly cast him in the TV series "77 Sunset Strip."  There was a double-edge to this. "77 Sunset Strip" was hugely popular and ran for years, making Smith something of a celebrity, but then there was Jack Warner.

In his mind, Warner had only two sets of stars on his lot - movie stars and television stars. They never mixed and there was rarely a crossover. The movie stars at Warners made feature films exclusively; its TV stars made movies only occasionally and usually in small roles in quality films or lead roles in minor films. Smith's one major film role for Warners was 1958's "Auntie Mame," in which he played Mame's nephew Patrick as an adult.

Shaw, meanwhile, languished at Columbia, where she was oddly relegated to B-movies which were half-heartedly released. (Some were pretty good: Sam Fuller's "The Crimson Kimono.")  Finally, the studio announced that Shaw would be the title star of "The Notorious Landlady," a comedy slated for a big summer release in 1962, but by the time that film reached the screen in '62, the lead was ... Kim Novak, Shaw's "Eddy Duchin" co-star.

Roger and Victoria, who had three children together, divorced in 1965. Shaw, who would go on to marry and divorce actor Elliott Alexander, died in her native Sydney, New South Wales, Australia in 1988 of emphysema.

The year of his divorce from Shaw, Smith was cast by Warners in another TV series ... "Mister Roberts."  He played the title role created on stage and film by Henry Fonda.  Yeah, that was the movie James Cagney was making years earlier in Hawaii where he encouraged Smith to try acting.

Smith met and married his second wife, Ann-Margret, in 1967 and they were together exactly 50 years, until his death on June 4. When Smith developed myasthenia gravis and his career ended, he devoted his attention to his talented wife whose career he managed throughout their marriage, giving her the courage to expand her goals and challenge herself, guiding her into such films as "Carnal Knowledge" and "Tommy," both of which brought her Oscar nominations - as well as "Joseph Andrews," directed by Tony Richardson, "The Outside Man" with Jean-Louis Trintignant, Richard Attenborough's "Magic" opposite Anthony Hopkins and the TV version of "Dames at Sea."

Ann-Margret, of course, had two huge back-to-back hits at the start of her career - "Bye Bye Birdie" and "Viva Las Vegas." Both movies were directed by - ta-da! - George Sidney.

That's right - George Sidney, the director who showcased the first Mrs. Roger Smith in "The Eddy Duchin Story." Perfectly circuitous, right?

Note in Passing: One final connection... Roger Smith actually got to appear opposite James Cagney in two films, both for Universal-International: "Man of a Thousand Faces," the Lon Chaney biopic, and "Never Steal Anything Small," a musical with Shirley Jones.

Naturally, Smith was not called upon to either sing or dance in that.

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~top: Roger Smith with Joanna Barnes in a scene from "Auntie Mame"
~photography: Warner Bros. 1958 ©

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~middle: Smith and Victoria Shaw at the Coconut Grove in the 1950s

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~bottom: Smith and Ann-Margret in the 1970s


Y.C.A. said...

Really nice Post…..

Brian Lucas said...

Joe- Regarding the caste system at Warners (and other studios, I assume), I'd like to note that James Garner is the only Warner TV star who went on to have a successful and substantial movie career - but not at Warners,

Tracy said...

I always thought that Roger Smith and Ann-Margret were one of those couples who looked alike. It would have been interesting to see them in a film together.

Lynn said...

I've read several times that George Sidney had a crush on A-M. If so, he gave her personal attention that helped her soar in those two early roles. I believe he was crucial to her success as a young actress.

joe baltake said...

Lynn- Ann-Margret broke into movies just as the studio system was petering out. The studios no longer took young performers under wing and groomed them for stardom. To a degree, Sidney took on that responsibility, getting her off to a very good start.

Kiki said...

Joe, this was a really enjoyable, good storytelling column (I WAS expecting the quiz!). All I knew of Moore was 77 Sunset Strip. Had never heard of Victoria Shaw and the kids he had with her . . . .We all know how A-M got to work with George Sidney (Janet Leigh looked as old as her in Bye Bye Birdie).

joe baltake said...

Kiki- In his entertaining autobiography, Dick Van Dyke details the making of "Bye Bye Birdie" and the close relationship between A-M and Sidney. There's a hilarious bit in the book about Van Dyke and Janet Leigh walking onto a soundstage to fine A-M sitting on Sidney's lap. In unison, they said "Uh-oh!"

Marvin J Halpern said...


You perfectly described Victoria Shaw's time at Columbia: she LANGUISHED there; never really appeared in any financially successful films during her career. Sad. And responding to Mr. Brian Lucas'comments, perhaps Troy Donahue had both a successful television and motion picture career at WARNER BROS. I might be wrong, but didn't he appear in such WARNER BROS. films as ROME ADVENTURE; A DISTANT TRUMPET; A SUMMER PLACE; PALM SPRINGS WEEKEND? (Then again, I might be erroneous on this point.) In any event, Joe, another GREAT post, as you informed us of persons (Roger Smith, Victoria Shaw, George Sidney, even Ann-Margret) whom we don't hear much of these days. Marvin Halpern

joe baltake said...

True, Marvin, Troy Donahue was a Warner TV star who did make several high-profile movies for the studio. However, unlike James Garner, his film work in those days was limited to Warners. Garner had a more substantial and varied movie career. He appeared in Warner's "Sayonara" while doing the Warner TV series "Maverick" and then made a trio of Warner films, playing the lead in each - "Up Periscope," "Darby's Rangers" and "Cash McCall" - before moving on and making films for other studios, starting with "The Children's Hour" (U.A.) and "Boys Night Out" (MGM). Then came "The Great Escape" (U.A.), "The Thrill of It All" (Universal), and "The Wheeler Dealers," "36 Hours" and "The Americanization of Emily" (all MGM) and ... James Garner was officially a movie star. By then, he had his own production company, Cherokee Productions (which was involved with most of these titles). Oh, yes, Garner eventually went back to Warners to do "Skin Game."

M said...

Didn't Victoria Shaw appear in some film about Werner Von Braun called I AIM AT THE STARS? Have always really liked that film. -M.

joe baltake said...

Yes. Good film by J. Lee Thompson, with Curt Jurgens as Von Braun and Shaw as his wife Maria. Herbert Lom, Gia Scala and James Daly also starred. One day, it will be one of my Cinema Obscura candidates.

Charlotte said...

Another Shaw film that I like is "Because They're Young," one of three that Dick Clark made as an actor (the others being "The Young Doctors" and "Killers Three"). I like the other cast members of "Young" - Tuesday Weld, Michael Callan, Roberta Shore and Warren Berlinger.

Near-Genius Nephew said...

Sorry to hear about Mr. Smith--he was always the most enjoyable character in the "kookie" world of 77 SUNSET STRIP. One of the episodes he wrote, "The Silent Caper," actually transcends its gimmickry and holds up quite well.

He was able to transfer a good bit of that laid-back charm into his final role in ROGUES' GALLERY (1968), as a tongue-in-cheek variant of Philip Marlowe in a twisty-if-derivative tale of murders-made-to-look-like-suicide as the distraction technique in what turns out to be a nasty insurance racket. ROGUES' GALLERY was directed by Leonard Horn, who would get a lot arty his next time out with a film that you are (pardon the pun) literally/figuratively "high" on--THE MAGIC GARDEN OF STANLEY SWEETHEART.