Blaine author Ron Miller once told Cary Grant during an interview, “I always wanted to be Cary Grant.”
Grant responded with a typically witty rejoinder, “I always wanted to be Cary Grant, too!”
After all, Grant, the epitome of suave sophistication in Hollywood, was born Archibald Leach in Great Britain and became an American film icon from the 1930s through the ’60s.
It’s that caliber of insightful comment that fills “Conversations with Classic Film Stars; Interviews from Hollywood’s Golden Era,” the new book co-authored by Miller and another longtime film expert, James Bawden of Toronto.
Most young people will not recognize many of the 34 stars who provide captivating oral histories the two authors mined over the years. Seniors, though, will recall the versatile actors and actresses as many of the most compelling figures who starred in the first four decades of sound films.
Miller, 77, was a highly regarded TV critic for the San Jose Mercury News in 1977 to 1999 and a syndicated columnist during much of his more than four decades in print journalism. He and his wife, former journalist Darla Miller, retired to Whatcom County in 2001. The affable Ron has filled his time writing books and articles, plus teaching local college courses.
Miller, who grew up in the California beach town of Santa Cruz, is the product of a long-gone era of print journalism’s enthusiasm over film and television coverage.
“My first interview with a celebrity was when I was a student at San Jose State and they (college officials) paid my airfare to Southern California in 1959 because I had the chance to interview Alfred Hitchcock,” Miller says. “He spent all of his time with us (young journalists) and gave us a wonderful interview.”
A chat with Miller - which can never be short for any film or TV history buff - reveals a man with vivid memories of interviews with hundreds of stars and character actors. Ask Miller about anyone you might have admired on the screen, and he will either have a story from an interview, or a story from an actor he met about an actor he never talked with.
Take Roy Barcroft, an unforgettable character actor who appeared, almost always as a villain, in hundreds of films and serials of the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s. Miller never met Barcroft, who died in 1969, but he recalls that the “King of the Cowboys” himself, Roy Rogers, lived near Barcroft. Rogers called the screen bad guy “one of the nicest people who ever lived.”
As for Rogers, Miller spent a day with him when the Roy Rogers Museum was in the desert community of Victorville, Calif., not far from where Rogers filmed more than 75 westerns before going on to huge success with his 1950s TV show.
Rogers and his fellow horse opera sensation Gene Autry represent the singing cowboy category in the book, which also includes interviews with stars representing the silent era, leading men, leading ladies (as they were so often called), queens of the Bs, the giant of comedy (Bob Hope), and “four very special stars.” The foursome is Margaret Hamilton, the Wicked Witch in “The Wizard of Oz;” Chinese acting icon Keye Luke; Oscar-winner Harold Russell, who lost both of his hands; and Diane Varsi, the teenage star of the 1957 film version of “Peyton Place.”
The book is filled with 100 photos, including a remarkable shot of Russell using his hand hooks to hold the two Academy Awards he won for “The Best Years of Our Lives,” the 1946 film about World War II veterans adjusting to civilian life.
“He lost his hands in a training accident,” Miller said of Russell, whose emotional acting in the film was a milestone at the time in American cinema. “He was up against terrific competition for Best Supporting Actor, so the Academy made sure to present him with a Special Award (’for bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans’). But he also won Best Supporting Actor.”
Miller visited Bob Hope numerous times and enjoyed their relationship.
“I asked Bob what kind of neighbor he was, and he said, ‘Don’t ask Jonathan Winters (film and TV personality). He doesn’t like all the golf balls I hit over his wall.’”
Miller delights in the frequent “dish” in the book, such as the likes of romantic comedy star Melvyn Douglas talking about a frigid day: “I haven’t been this cold since I kissed Greta Garbo.”