Music runs through this drummer’s veins. He grew up when big bands were big and rock’n’roll was busy being born. His father was big band leader Frankie Kaye, and Michael was a natural born drummer with a gift for the gab, which would see him working as radio DJ on both the East & West Coasts as well a stint in Honolulu for KPOI landed him a title for nonstop drumming in the Guinness Book of World records when he banged that drum slowly (or not) for 92 hours at the 1965, Drum-A-Thon. Michael played with a host of R&B bands back then and is still playing clubs close to his NY nest today.
Acting came to Michael by chance and again because of his musical background. Randolph Westerfield’s short biography on the IMDb relates how Michael arrived in Hollywood at the end of 1969 and met Universal Studios producer Jerrold Freedman at a party and when the conversation turned to jazz music and radio that the two men hit it off. Michael mentioned he had some interest in acting and Freedman, who at this time had been associate producer on Prescription Murder, Istanbul Express and had been working on Trial Run told Michael they would work together. Of course, Michael thinking this was just typical Hollywood Party patter forgot the conversation altogether until three weeks later when he for the telegram to come see Freedman at Universal. Michael landed his first two TV roles. The first one screened was the Bold Ones: The Protectors followed by The Bold Ones: The Senator. The year was 1970 and in the next thirty-five years, Michael C Gwynne’s name would appear on seventy-four different shows and over one hundred TV appearances and movies. (1)
Michael worked with Steven Spielberg early in the year, Duel would launch the young director’s career and in the same year go to work with actors like Angie Dickinson, Richard Crenna, Gene Barry, Edmond O’Brien, Walter Pidgeon and (a pre-whoopee-cushion) Leslie Nielsen. Michael’s credits include some of the most successful TV shows of the last thirty-five years including Cade’s County, Kojak, Harry O, Baretta, CHiPs, Simon & Simon, Cagney & Lacey and the unforgettable Hill Street Blues. Movies include the epic Tai-Pan, The Terminal Man, Payday and one of the late James Coburn’s best films, Harry in Your Pocket.
I caught up with Michael via the joys of cyberspace while he was busily working hard on one of his newest screenplays and I asked him a few questions about his career and life and below is what he had to say along with some great photos he has provided from the 1965 Drum-A-Thon.
David: Your career in the entertainment industry was basically divided into two periods. You started out as a radio DJ and muso in the 60s before a chance meeting with Universal Studio’s director with a penchant for good jazz led to a guest spot in the Bold Ones, and thirty-five years of film work. Do you recall if you signed your first autograph working in radio or playing the drums, or later as an actor? And how did the signing come about?
Must have been radio as a lot of listeners would come to the back door of the studios and ring a bell that lit a green bulb or some other such device for the guys on air after hours. I do remember signing a few after the DRUMATHON but I was barely conscious! LOL.
After I got into movies I would get letters from Europe and other distant lands and that was a nice feeling even though I was probably dubbed in the native tongue they still wanted the autograph.
Wonder if they thought that was really me speaking Italian or French or whatever?
When I was doing TAIPAN in China my driver was my usual every morning guy and locally hired. One morning my translator was with me and sitting next to the driver up front. He began to laugh and my translator said to me, "Michael, your driver is mad at you."
"Why," I asked as he was usually a nice smiling face in the morning but now he was frowning.
"He said he saw you in a movie last night and you were speaking perfect Cantonese so now he thinks you just don't wanna talk with him."
Haaaaaaaaa, I asked him to please explain 'dubbing' to the guy but he didn't get it so you see the problems that could arise.
Very funny. While I was over there I turned on the TV one night and saw Larry Hagman and myself speaking fluent Mandarin in a movie I did with him several years before.
It was very impressive. I really sounded like I knew what I was saying, LOL.
David: In 1965 you broke the world record for drumming, managing a ninety-two hour marathon which entered the Guinness Book of Records. I presume that you had methods to keep yourself going, which probably included playing favorite songs and solos and emulating some of the great drummers like Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich and Sam Woodyard. Thinking back to your radio days, which drummers did you admire most then and has your tastes changed since then? And which tunes made your hit parade the most often?
Wow, those DRUMATHON days are kind of a blur now, even then but I recall my only prep was pretending to jog while on the air and playing a Ray Charles tune called "How Do You Feel" in the weeks before the event when it was being promoted.
Frankly I didn't have a clue how and if I could even do what was planned. It came about when I joined KPOI in Honolulu. They flew me over there after hearing my show in Fresno and Monterey and I was in paradise! Then they told me they were number one station and to introduce me to the town the were going to get me into one of their usual 'Thons' that all the other guys had done.
Wakeathon, Poolathon etc. So they asked me what I did or what would I like to do. I had always wanted to be a drummer and in fact had taught myself to play, usually air-drums as I never had my own set so I said I played drums.
They went nuts with plans!
"DRUMATHON, he plays his heart out for the Heart Fund."
And it was a go.
I thought I'd just play until I fell asleep. I had no idea or inkling about breaking the Guinness record of 89 hours but I played and next think I know I played drums from Tuesday night at 8:30 PM until Saturday afternoon at 3 PM when an ambulance came through the huge crowd and plucked me to the safety and relative quiet of a hospital bed.
I was back on the air two days later but the Island never forgot me and I got to sit in with a lot of great people after that.
I found some pics you might like. They were sent to me just last year by Tom Moffatt who is and was the King of Entertainment in Hawaii.
This is me in 1965
David: Did you ever work with your father, bandleader Frankie Kaye or have a story you can share with us about his life?
No, I never got to play with the old dude. He was fun but sadly the music world of supper clubs and night clubs was crashing to an end in the mid 50s because of TV and Rock and Roll so he was not crazy about me becoming a musician. My Mom hated the idea but I tell ya, if they knew the huge monies and fame and careers of musical guys in the 60s was coming up they'd have sent me to music school. LOL.
So my Dad ended up teaching driving and selling suits. He seemed resigned to it but it was sad that the last night club he played was arsoned for the insurance and he lost his horns and twenty years of arrangements. He knew it was over then. I was a teenager and interested in radio which made him smile sadly but I jumped in anyway and I caught the tail end of Top-40 radio before it too went automatic.
The movies saved me and now they too are going thru changes. Whew. I seem to get to a 'party' just before it ends.
David: You have appeared in more than a hundred TV episodes and films and I wondered what the strangest or funniest moment you have encountered working on a set?
There are far too many but I suppose the time I was working with Spielberg at the beginning of both our careers at Universal when in the middle of a scene a beer can exploded in Roy Thinnes' hand and I heard Steve laugh and say keep going and we did and I knew then that working with him was fun. I did a few more things with him, and did some voice work on JAWS but alas he was rocketed into outer space with fame and fortune and a lot of his original friends never heard from him again.
That's Hollywood friends!
Another time I was doing an episode of KOJAK and I played a rich criminal driving a Rolls-Royce downtown Los Angeles. My sidekick was a guy dressed in drag who was my assassin.
The scene was a simple one. I would drive us up to a warehouse door, get out of the car leaving my assassin friend inside, walk to the door and that was the shot.
So I heard action on the radio in my car, did the drive-up to the door, got out walked to the door and waited to hear cut and waited...and waited.
Finally I peeked around the corner of the LA Street location...AND THE CAMERA AND CREW WERE GONE!!!
Leaving me in a tough neighborhood IN downtown LA with a Rolls and a guy dressed up like a woman!!!!!
That was fun.
David: One of your earliest moments in TV was making the pilot and closing episodes of The Psychiatrist starring Roy Thinnes of Invaders fame. One episode was directed by a very young Steven Spielberg. You have probably been asked many times before, but I wondered what your impressions were at the time of the budding director only months before he would make his breakthrough with Duel?
Well I just mentioned the story above. I still see Roy from time to time. We have dinner in New York City and hit a few jazz clubs when we can.
He lives near me in Westchester County just above Manhattan and got remarried recently he told me.
Maybe I'll never hear from him again.
By the way, I was supposed to be in DUEL but was busy at the time. Steve called me at the house and said,
"You gotta come out to the desert with us man cuz we're gonna drive a huge semi over the cliff."
That was enough for me but I had already told him I could not play the part he wanted for me cuz I was working on another show. I have forgotten the other show and DUEL became a classic...sigh.
You just never know.
David: Which screen role do you regard as your best work and which performance is your personal favourite?
My best work is yet to come but I enjoyed most of them while shooting. Some fare better over time. PAYDAY is a favorite of most but I have a hard time looking at myself in that role cuz I was so young and it was my first movie.
I made a decision to get a bad haircut for the role as McGINTY was a manager/bureaucrat kinda guy but it was a mistake cuz I look like a dork, which maybe he really was but anyway everybody on that set had a great time in Selma Alabama where we shot it but I did not cuz I was the 'enemy' as it were.
Though Rip Torn and I became friends over the years. He thought I really was that guy McGinty so when we both found out we had mutual friends in NY and LA and that I was really an actor and not a manager with a bad haircut he complimented me on fooling him with my performance
That was a nice compliment.
David: I wondered if you have ever collected any music or movie memorabilia or autographs? If so can you tell us about some of your most treasured items?
I collect old pulp magazines like WEIRD TALES and the works of H. P. Lovecraft and others but mostly when I was a kid. I still have them. I am a jazz nut so I have some great records but I suppose two of my 'treasures' if you will were found in Hollywood.
One is an autographed photo of Lon Chaney Sr that looks like a marred autograph but it was a joke he played on the Gittleson Brothers who sold tickets in LA back in the silent days. It may be the only 'joke' Lon ever played as he was known as a stern man. So I have the only Lon Chaney Sr joke ever played...I think.
The other is a book by Houdini called, A MAGICIAN AMONG THE SPIRITS signed by Houdini this way:
"To my good friend Will Rogers."
He signed it Houdini of course but this had been signed previously I think so he wrote to his friend beside his name, "Houdini himself."
Only a magician and escape artist could pull that off, using the word 'himself' as he was writing his own name.
David: If any person in history could sign their photo for you, which person would you ask and what would you have liked them to have said in their dedication?
Wow, that's interesting. Most of the people I find interesting are mythic creatures or men and women who lived before photography and we have no idea what they looked like. But, If I entertain a possibility I suppose teenage Mozart would be fun or perhaps the elusive comic book artist Graham Ingels, better known as Ghastly who was a favorite of mine when I was an EC comic book fan...Hell, I still am...who signed nothing and disappeared in mid 50s.
David: Which particular film, book and song remain your all time favourites?
That's just too broad. I have too many favorite films depending on my mood and songs galore course through my brain at any given time and psychologists tell us that if we find ourselves humming or singing a song without knowing we are to stop and try to recall the title and it will give you a clue as to where your subconscious is at that moment.
David: I believe you still perform regularly at the Showman's Club in Harlem, but outside of your music, what are some of your hobbies
I still play drums from time to time but not so much lately tho I do frequent a great club called The Lenox Lounge in Harlem. Every Wednesday night there is a fine set and some of the greats come to sit in. If ya like jazz ya gotta spend time in New York and uptown in Harlem.
I love my computer's access to the outside world and I suppose that has become a hobby as well as a work tool for me. Writing screenplays in my newest 'hobby' now all I have to do is get some literary agent to read them and handle this third act of my career.
David: Did you ever knock back a movie that you later wished you had made or made a film you really wished you hadn't?
I try not to think like that. Woulda, coulda and shoulda are the enemies of the present and the present is all we have, over and over again, right now!
I think O'Neill said that.
David: Have you ever attended any movie or autograph conventions and if so, which ones are your favourites?
I used to go to the Old Timers Conventions in Hollywood years ago when you could see a lot of the faces you used to see in that Saturday afternoon matinees but they are mostly gone now and my friend Ben Chapman who played THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON died a few months back, so now I have really no reason to go anymore.
David: And do you have any stories regarding autograph fans or unusual autograph requests?
I was on a train from LA to Chicago to play a detective role in a true crime drama called THE CHARLES STUART STORY which was changed to GOODNIGHT SWEET WIFE. I had time so I didn't want to fly. I love trains so I had the production department book me a bedroom on the train and it was a great idea.
My Red Cap was a guy named Norman and he was very excited he said to me to have such a movie star guy as myself along and would I sign an autograph for him at the end of the journey in Chicago.
I said absolutely and he treated me like a King all through the three days and nights it took. Finally at Union Station Chicago he had all my stuff off first and was waiting there with pen and pad in hand. I slipped him a fat tip and was about to sign when he said aloud,
"Wow, wait till I tell my friends that I was taking care of Howard Hesseman."
Now that handed me a laff cuz I know Howard and we have some physical similarities so I signed the autograph with his name.
Later he told me he had done the same thing for me once, so those autograph hunters can be a dizzying lot.
Jack Nicholson's idea is interesting.
While they are grinning and smiling as he signs they don't read it till he walks away and as far as I know to this day he signs all autographs,
"Wise up. Jack Nicholson"
Robert Mitchum, an old friend and sadly no longer with us had some hilarious auto- hunting tales to tell. Some of them quite obscene, LOL
David: In closing, is there a story from your life, which tells us something different about Michael C Gwynne the person, beyond the acting persona that you can share with us today?
First of all thanks for your time and energy into this interview David.
I am a blessed and happy man. I have friends who love me and I them and a son who is a gem and I love what I do from day to day and am happy to say that at sixty-six years of age I have never been seriously or even painfully ill, never broke any bones, never been in a hospital except to play doctors, and yet very friendly people still come up to me from time to time and say they have enjoyed my work on the screen.
I have been paid for this and what more can a man ask.
Thanks again David.
See ya in the movies pal.
Signed Michael C. Gwynne
Michael plays on this album Not Insane (Released by Columbia in 1972)
© David Priol 2008 Article
© Michael C Gwynne Photos