One the third day of the Memphis Film Festival, the panel discussion featured "Planet of the Apes" actors Kim Hunter, Wright King and William Windom. Afterwards John Beifuss, film critic for The Memphis Commercial Appeal said to me "They could have had William Windom up their by himself and it would have been great." It wasn’t that Ms. Hunter and Mr. King weren’t interesting and informative, it’s just that William Windom was so damn funny.
A veteran of stage, screen and TV, William Windom is one of the most recognizable actors in America. Along with Jon Locke and Don Young, I found Mr. Windom to be the most approachable actors at the festival. Not one to take himself to seriously, Mr. Windom showed great patience at the commands of some fans which upset my southern up-bringing.
I laughed to myself as I waited to in line to meet Mr. Windom. A mercenary fellow Memphian had Mr. Windom sign several stills from the Star Trek TV series. Mr. Windom played Commander Decker in the "Doomsday Machine" episode. From the way the curt fan acted, I imagined he had visions of E-Bay dollars dancing in his head.
William Windom: "Do you want me to personalize it?"
Rude Fan: "No, don’t put my name on it!" (A personalized autograph has less resale value.) "Write ‘Commander Decker’ here." (Pointing to the spot on the photograph he wanted the words.) "Write ‘Doomsday Machine’ under that."
William Windom: "Okay."
Rude Fan: "Now put your name on the back" (Mr. Windom had already signed his name on the front.)
William Windom: "Sorry, I already signed the front."
Rude Fan: "Oh well, that will do"
The fan walked away with the still. Absent were the niceties and respect shown by just about every one else present. Mr. Windom took the abuse like a trooper. "You sure take direction well" I said. Mr. Windom laughed, "You have to son, you have to."
I purchased a still from Mr. Windom’s debut movie "To Kill a Mockingbird." He seemed surprised by my choice as most people wanted stills from "Star Trek" or "Murder She Wrote."
Rusty White: "I’m a lawyer today in large part because of that movie," I told him. Mr. Windom proceeded to tell me a few anecdotes about lawyers and "To Kill a Mockingbird."
William Windom: I went to a law school lecture in L.A. given by W.C. Fields Jr.. He was a very serious attorney. The thing was, he looked and sounded just like his father. I swore if I ever got in trouble, I was going to hire him to defend me. (Laughing) No jury in the world would convict you with W.C. Fields as your lawyer!
RW: What was it like working for Alan Pakula and Robert Mulligan on "To Kill a Mockingbird"?
WW:Alan was very involved as the producer. He’s a nice guy. Bob was great.
RW: You played the prosecuting attorney. How does it feel to be the man who railroaded Tom Robinson?
WW:(Laughs) I did not. I simply put on the case and the jury convicted him. (Gregory) Peck cracked me up one day. We were sitting at tables side by side. We were supposed to leave him alone because he couldn’t be distracted. This was a serious scene. Greg would sit at the table like this. (He props his elbows on the edge of the table with his forehead resting on his fists as if in prayer.) Now I have to do something to make the scene interesting because I’m just sitting there. The focus is on Greg. So I drape one leg over the arm of my chair, I pull my tie loose to one side and I chew on a pencil. Well this goes on for several days as we film the scene over and over. Finally Peck says to me out of the side of his mouth, (imitating Mr. Peck) "Hey Bill, do you think this would be to much?" At which point his elbow slips off the table like he has fallen asleep.
At the later panel discussion, Mr. Windom shared the story with the crowd and added that Mr. Peck’s little joke was a nice way of telling him to cut out the show-boating.
WW:The girl who played the little red-neck (the alleged rape victim Mayella Ewell) and I were working together at night in a play in L.A.. We would do the film during the day and the play at night. She would change from a back-woods red-neck to an elegant socialite at night. It was a lot of fun. The actor who played her father in the movie was a real redneck. The guy wasn’t an actor. He went on to make a living playing those parts. I thought he did a great job in the movie. We were filming the scene in which he was testifying. He was my witness. I wanted to something to make my scene special rather than just saying "Tell us what happened on the night in question." My mother was a southerner. In the old days, the farmers would gather around the courthouse on trial days. The farmers would squat down on their heels and chew the fat. So, in the middle of my examination of Mr. Ewell, I squatted down and asked him a question. He started to say his line and then stopped. He yelled out "Bob (director Robert Mulligan) cut the film! Make him stand up! He’s mocking me!" Mulligan came up and put his arm on my shoulder. He said "Bill, I loved what you did, but I’ve got to work with this guys for six more weeks." So I stood up and we did it again.
The next day I was able to spend more time with Mr. Windom. We spoke about some of his other work.
RW: What was it like to work for Frankenhiemer in "The Gypsy Moths"?
WW: He's a guy who frothed at the mouth. Him and the guy from the movie with Jason Robards, Hour of the Gun...
RW: John Sturges.
WW: Yeah, John Sturges. When they got talking foam would form at the corner of their mouths. That’s a sign that someone is a bit deranged.
RW: The foam isn't from chewing Tums but more from rabies.
WW: Something like that. I like a freer hand on the reign. Both men liked to crack the whip. Very serious about everything. No sense of humor. I've had more fun on other sets. I enjoyed Deborah Kerr though. I played her wimpy husband.
RW: What was it like to work for Clint Eastwood?
WW: A real softy. He's nothing like his on-screen persona in real life. Just a great guy. I've played tennis with him on many occasions. Clint can't play very well, so I like playing against him. He used to have his own tennis tournament. Always like to play against him. He is great to work for. I just did one movie with him (True Crime). Small part, played the bartender.
RW: Do you remember anything about "The Mephisto Waltz"?
WW: Oh yeah, that was with Alan Alda and Jacqueline Bisset. I played the doctor. They were having a baby if I remember right. I had to tell them that the baby had died. It was a real somber scene. We did it over and over. Everyone was tense and we had a hard time getting the scene right. I decided to break them up, shake things loose. I came in with my hands behind my back. Very somber. As I told them "I did everything I could..." I brought an old hand cranked drill out from behind my back. They're standing there in shock trying to keep a straight face. I really don’t remember anything else about the movie.
RW: It was an occult thriller.
WW: Oh yeah, that would explain my morbid humor.
RW: How about "Attack of the 50 Foot Woman."
WW: That was fun. They would put Darryl Hannah up on a Platform 50 feet in the air and film over her shoulder to give her the perspective of height. I was down below so it looked like she was a giant. It wasn't a very good movie, but fun to do.
RW: What was Christopher Guest like to work with.
WW: Did he direct that? Oh my God. I loved "Waiting for Guffman." I was going to send him a fan letter I liked it so much. I can't believe (50 Foot Woman) was his. I forgot. I'll have to rethink the fan letter.
RW: You could tell him how much he has improved as a director.
RW: You've been in quite a few John Hughes movies. How is he to work with.
WW: I like John. He likes to keep the camera rolling after the take is over to see what you will do. Fun sets to work on.
RW: How did the one man show "Ernie Pyle" come about?
WW: I was doing "Thurber" at UCLA. They ( UCLA) said that they had received a lot of money to do some experimental theater. They wanted me to do something new. I had a blank check. I looked around for something to develop. I'm serious about a few things, WWII is one of them. The problem with doing a one man show about WWII was getting the rights to the works of authors like Irwin Shaw or Herman Wouk. I came across Ernie Pyle's work. (note: Ernie Pyle was a newspaper man and WWII correspondent. He died at the hands of a Japanese sniper on Okanawa.) He's dead so I just had to get permission of the newspaper that published him. He was a reporter before the war. It was two parts, his civilian life and the war years. By the time I got it together, UCLA had lost their grant. I was very depressed after all the work. My agent booked me to do the "Thurber" show at the University of Indiana. I came out of a building and looked up. There carved in stone right in front of me were the words "Ernie Pyle School of Journalism." I broke into a wild grin. "Do I have a show for you!" The university agreed. They said come back next year and do Thurber 2 (he did two versions of the "Thurber" play) and Ernie Pyle 2.
RW: Did you write "Ernie Pyle"?
WW: I compiled it. All of the words are Ernie Pyle's own. I just compiled and organized them. I did the same thing with "Thurber."
RW: I saw "Thurber" on TV. Are there any tapes available of "Ernie Pyle."
WW: I don't believe so. I once saw a poor video tape that wasn't worth showing. I'm not sure if there are any copies out there or not.
On the third night of the festival, the rascally Mr. Windom joined Jon Locke in an impromptu duet of Roger Miller’s "Massachusetts Transit Authority" much to the joy of the crowd in the exhibition hall. My wife and kids showed up Friday night. Mr. Windom introduced my three year old daughter Lauren to the game of 3 card Monty. Lauren didn’t have any money so I didn’t worry to much. My wife stated that her parents were fans of "Murder She Wrote" and watched seven days a week.
WW: How sad for them. Tell them to get a life.
His dry humor livened up the entire festival.
WW: I pull a little stunt on every new set. I go by Bill. There are always several crew members named Bill. Every time someone calls for "Bill" I have to look around. Whenever I start a new project I tell them to call me "Break." It only takes a couple of days of people yelling "Break" for the joke to wear thin. You have to have a sense of humor.
He does have a sense of humor. During the above-mentioned "Planet of the Apes" panel discussion, Mr. Windom was asked what it was like to act opposite someone in ape make-up. Unfortunately for the questioner, Mr. Windom had no scenes with anyone in make-up.
WW: I do have an ape story though. I was in a well known watering hole in L.A. waiting for a friend. I wanted to light a smoke, but didn’t have any matches. There was a huge guy next to me who had some matches. He had his back to me. I thought about stealing the matches and then thought better of it. He was big. So, I tapped him on the shoulder and asked for a match. He turned and said sure. I was dumfounded. I’ve never been in awe of show people, but this was different. The guy handing me a match was the original ape man himself, Johnny Weissmuller.
I enjoyed William Windom for many years before I met him. I wish his Made-for-TV film "The House on Greenapple Road" was available on VHS. Another favorite of mine is the Jimmy Stewart depression era comedy "Fool’s Parade." I saw "Fool’s Parade" for the first time in years at the festival. It is still a great movie. A movie made that much better by the presence of a witty, intelligent and classy guy by the name of William Windom.