I interviewed James in 2004 and had hoped to have it published in The Pen & Quill, but it never eventuated and while James possessed a copy of this interview, this is the first time it has been published anywhere, but rest assured this piece will appear in my book, "Hollywood Signings & Other Autograph Interviews." planned for 2011.
Many people remember Danno, as in, “Book ‘em, Danno.”
That immortal line comes from the long-running series Hawaii Five-O starring the late Jack Lord and James Macarthur. This 70s hit cop show still plays on cable TV somewhere in the world nearly every day. It made James MacArthur a household name, yet remains only one small part of his life. A life born to acting…
James was chosen, while still a baby, to become part of a legendary acting family. His new father, Charles MacArthur was an adventurer- newspaperman-playwright with an uncanny knack for putting words together with style. Charlie, the son of a Preacher, was happiest when setting off with General “Black-Jack” Pershing chasing after the legendary rebel Pancho Villa or when writing with his good mate, Ben Hecht. In the Roaring 20s when Prohibition ruled Chicago, Charlie was writing articles with headings like “Dentist Fills Wrong Cavity.” (A salty reference to a dentist accused of sexually molesting female patients)
James’ new mother was none other than America’s first woman of stage Helen Hayes. Not only was Helen a star of the stage, but she had also already made the classic film, A Farewell to Arms with Gary Cooper. To this day Miss Hayes remains the only actor to have won an Oscar, a Grammy, an Emmy, and a Tony in open competition; winning eight of these grand awards in all. As his godmother was the equally legendary Lillian Gish, James was no doubt weaned on a healthy diet of Hollywood and Broadway folklore and gossip!!!
Is it any surprise then that James would also become an actor! He was already appearing on stage and TV and as an eleven year old got a bit part in The Corn is Green. His father Charlie's prediction: "The little rascal is ham enough so that if he had only one line he'd throw in three." By the time James turned twenty fine actors like Edward Arnold were singing his praises. And as a young man James was making films like Battle of the Bulge and Swiss Family Robinson. In his many films, James was equally adept at playing good men, good men gone bad or just plain bad men. His early role in Deal a Blow, as well as his role of the sociopath killer, Johnny Lubin in The Death for Sale episode of The Untouchables are proof of his range, and his small but pivotal role in the classic spaghetti western Hang ‘Em High with Clint Eastwood and Eli Wallach would lead directly to the role of his life.
The eleven years James spent playing Detective Danny Williams was a direct result of the few days James spent working on Hang ‘Em High where he first met and worked with writer/produce Leonard Freeman, the creator of Hawaii Five-O. This was a role James would always play with such relish; his character so often becoming the series moral core, against the darkly complex hero, Steve McGarrett; superbly portrayed by Jack Lord.
Today, James still signs numerous photos and many are from this long-running TV series. However, James normally only signs photos in person, but fortunately as he attends lots of shows and conventions his fans are rarely disappointed. James is a prolific collector himself and has preserved much of his families acting and creative legacy, slowly building a marvellous collection of memorabilia relating to both his parents and his own career. One hopes that this collection will become available to the public one day as well as featuring more on his website. The advent of DVDs are making it possible for a whole new audience to discover the work of actors like James Macarthur as the fine films and TV series of the 50s and 60s and 70s are now being re-released for the first time in decades.
In fact, James has built a brilliant website containing loads of information and it’s so easy to use that it gets about 350,000 hits per month. James is still heavily involved in theatre direction and production and can often be seen a shot or two behind his wife and son on the golf course. If you want to keep up with all the news and good stuff then check out:
During 2004, I caught up with James and here are some interesting yarns from his great career and from growing up within such a very creative family.
David: So what did your godmother Lillian Gish really think of you wearing
those Hawaiian shirts?
James: Lillian was a woman of great taste, always well dressed and refined -- subtle. I don’t think she would ever have worn one herself. She saw my shirts, and she did like them, so long as they weren’t too garish.
David: I only ask that question to introduce the fact the you grew up in a family steeped in the acting tradition and was wondering if you could tell us a story from your childhood that stands out in the memory that described the type of people who moulded your life?
James: Two women who were around a great deal in my early years were Miss Isa Fleming, my Scots nanny, and Priscilla Ives, my mother’s dresser. Miss Astrid was my sister’s Norwegian nanny. There was also Herman Geick, the German butler/chauffer and his wife and our cook; plus Agnes, our laundress and Freddie our Italian gardener. These were all first-generation Americans. They all stayed with us for years and years. We had a Chinese houseboy for a summer. Our house was a miniature UN. For a while, we had a Dutch cook and her daughter who had escaped the Nazis by the skin of their teeth. Then there was Charlie MacNaughton, my English foster brother, my grandmother Brown and my sister. Of course there were all the artists and actors, writers, directors, producers. People like Bea Lillie, Ben and Rose Hecht, Gertrude Lawrence, Edward “Ned” Sheldon (my godfather), Jimmy Durante, Jack Carson, Ruth Gordon, Carson McCullers, Burgess Meredith, Paulette Goddard. There were so many people in and out. The house was always filled with their talk and laughter. Nyack was a hive of “crazy” people and my father always knew these zany people and their goings-on. If there was one common thread amongst all these people, it was their fearlessness and their courage. They were always ready to dive in feet first. They were spontaneous, nutty, warm, and funny. Something was always just around the corner. You never knew what would happen next. Of course, I didn’t know they were all so famous, they were just Mom and Pop’s friends.
David: What is the funniest memory you have from your early days in film or on stage?
James: The first play I ever did was called “The Corn is Green.” My lines were all in Welsh. They were virtually incomprehensible. I had the luxury of being in a position where if I messed up a line, who would know? That was fun, especially for a mischievous 11-year-old. When I was 16, I played John in Life with Father. Everybody had to have red hair. I decided to impress Howard Stickney, the actor playing Father, who was also the director and co-author of the play, so I went out and got my own hair dye, instead of letting the theatre do my hair like everybody else’s. Naturally, I overdid it. I practically glowed in the dark. Mr. Stickney took me aside after that first performance and read me the riot act. He told me that my hair was so red it made everyone else’s look gray in comparison. Needless to say, my hair got a proper dye job the next morning!
David: Do you recall the very first autograph you ever signed and the circumstances? And did you ever sign any photos with your parents or Miss Gish?
James: My first autograph was in response to my first fan letter, which I received after my performance on Climax! Deal a Blow in 1955. I felt almost embarrassed. I didn’t really feel like an actor. I remember almost writing to the fan, “I’m sure you really don’t want this.” Yes, I’m sure there were occasions where I signed autographs with mom and Lillian, though never in a formal setting. I don’t ever recall signing anything with Pop, since he died before I ever really began acting.
David: Over the years how many autographs do you think you have signed and what sort of percentage would be tied to your role as Danno in Hawaii Five-0? Did you sign many photos with Jack Lord or other cast members?
James: Oh, that’s hard to answer. Thousands, I’m sure. I’ve been in the public eye for over 40 years, and it’s never been my habit to turn down an in-person request, unless the circumstances were extraordinary. I do recall one recent stay in a hotel where a very obnoxious housekeeper woke me at an ungodly hour of the morning by laughing and shouting up and down the hallways. She ignored my “Do Not Disturb” sign and tried to enter my room while I was still in bed, but left quickly when I shouted at her to go away. Later, when I was taking my still sleepy self down to breakfast, she stopped me in the hallway and virtually demanded an autograph. Needless to say, she was one of the few I’ve ever turned down. She actually had the nerve to ask again an hour later. I still said no. I don’t think, though, that it would be an exaggeration to say I’ve probably penned 10,000 autographs in my time. At least half were in some way connected to Five O. Certainly there were many occasions where I signed with my Five-O cast-mates on an informal basis. The 1996 Reunion is the only time I can recall where we did it on a planned, formal basis, though.
David: Can you recall one of your strangest or funniest moments working on the set? Or any similar moments in your many films?
James: We did an episode of Five-O that dealt with an astrologer. We had lines like “Mercury is in Uranus,” and things like that. Those were awfully hard lines to deliver with a straight face. We did a lot of retakes.
I recall an early episode where a girl is struck down in the street by a car. Steve and Danno rush to her prone figure, greatly distraught. For some reason, I was feeling devilish during our first take. As we dropped to our knees beside the poor girl, instead of delivering my scripted line, I blurted out, “Nice shot, Steve!”
David: What was the most difficult moment you ever endured during a play? And how did you resolve the problem, if that was possible?
James: When I was doing Arsenic and Old Lace one night in Chicago, another actor who was wearing an old-fashioned evening formal tuxedo got his long tails stuck in the door as he exited the stage. Those tails stuck out of that door for the rest of the scene. I remember having a terrible time trying not to stare at them or break into giggles and keep going with the scene, but I managed somehow.
David: Many actors are just like fans and collect autographs of people they admire or work with. Do you collect autographs or other movie memorabilia and if so what are some of your favourite pieces?
James: I have a wonderful signed first edition book collection, which was actually started by my mother when I was a young boy. I’ve always been an avid reader and a great fan of many authors. I have works signed by Aldus Huxley, Louis Armstrong, Agatha Christie, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, Richard Nixon, John F. Kennedy, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, and many, many others. They hold pride of place in my library and I’m very proud of them. I also have some terrific sports memorabilia, a collection I share with my son. We recently acquired a football signed by all four of The Purple People Eaters of Minnesota Viking fame. That’s a really treasured piece!
David: Something I always ask my interviewees as a bit of fun is if they could ask anyone in history to sign for them who would they ask and what would they have that person say in their dedication?
James: I’d be delighted with an autographed book by the writer Patrick O’Brien. (Master and Commander) I’ve enjoyed all his work and would truly love to have met and spoken with him (he passed away a few years ago). I wouldn’t ask for a dedication, however. The only dedications that I feel are important are from people whom I know who have written books on their lives and I know something of them and their history. These have meaning for me and for them, but from a perfect stranger, I can’t think of anything.
David: Have you ever seen any forged examples of your signature on a photo? If so were you able to do anything about it?
James: Yes, there have, on occasion, been some forgeries of which I’ve been aware. I was recently told of a dealer on eBay who was attempting to sell a photograph bearing a signature which was clearly not mine. A quick note to him was all that was necessary, however. The item was pulled within an hour or two of my email. There have also been a couple of occasions where people have tried to sell unauthorized candid photos of me on eBay. Again, any time I’ve been made aware of these activities and have contacted the sellers, they have ceased the auctions immediately.
David: What has been the funniest or most interesting moment you've had when signing for a fan at a celebrity show or on the street? And what has been the strangest or most outrageous request?
James: Once when we were shooting an episode of Five-O, and I was there in full makeup and costume with my gun in my holster and badge ready. As the fans were nearby, during the breaks they would come over and we would talk. This fellow came up to me and said, “You’re James MacArthur.” I said, “That’s right.” He looked at me intently, and then said, “You look just like him.” I must say that was one of the few times in my life I was rendered completely speechless. There have also been several times where fans have approached me and, while asking for a signature, regaled me with some tidbit of information about myself as if it had been some long-kept secret known only to that individual -- like the man who breathlessly asked if I knew that Hawaii Five-O had continued for only one more season after I left, or the woman who wanted to know if I realized that my second wife, Melody Patterson, had been a co-star on F-Troop before we married.
David: Do you have any messages or other stories which you would care to share with your many fans around the world?
James: As an actor you put yourself out there and you do your best and try to have fun doing it. You hope you can be part of a good story. You try to use your creative talents in a positive way. I can only tell you the nicest compliment I can receive and, thankfully, have received many times, and that is when someone says, “Hey, you’ve given me a lot of pleasure over the years. Thanks.”
Interview (c) David Priol 2004
Click on the photo below to go to James' wonderful website...