Friday, January 6, 2012
During my senior year at Hollywood High School in 1964, my family lived in an apartment complex called The Franklin Villa. It was ordinary in every way, squeezed between other similar buildings on busy Franklin Avenue, just two blocks from Hollywood Boulevard. There was a swimming pool with cracked concrete in the middle of sixteen units occupied by singles, marrieds and families. The tenants were mostly down-and-outers, trying for Hollywood careers. In a way I was one of them, beginning my writing life within those faded green stucco walls.
At age 18, I was a part-time employee of Samuel Goldwyn Productions, hired to turn people’s brief story ideas into teleplay format. I had learned the ropes from my dad, a local disc jockey with his own dreams of a bigger stage. It didn’t occur to me at the time that whoever was running the Goldwyn operation was exploiting the hopes of naïve folks, promising that a script in hand would bring them success in Hollywood. Lesson learned: My first company was named “Don’t Tell Me the Odds Productions.” I had witnessed—up close—the showbiz struggles in our building, not knowing that three of the Villa’s occupants were actual stars-in-the-making.
My favorite Hollywood hopeful at The Franklin Villa – and the person I found most inspiring for my own future performing and writing – was Virginia Capers, a single mother with a gorgeous voice, Juilliard-trained, who generously coached me when I won the lead role of “Fiona” in Hollywood High’s production of the musical Brigadoon. For one semester I was lost in the magic of the mythical Scottish village rising out of the Highland mist once every hundred years, so that love might bloom for a lucky few. Learning to sing, to write… those were months of heady creativity for me, and Capers’ guidance made all the difference. Ten years after I knew her, she won the Tony for Best Actress in a Musical for Raisin and founded a noted company of African American actors. From then on, Capers worked constantly on TV and in movies, until her death at age 78. Virginia is someone who made it.
“Plastics, son. Plastics.” Walter Brooke memorably uttered those words to Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate. That was in 1967. In 1964 character actor Brooke lived downstairs, spending most of his days poolside with his curvy girlfriend. My sister Ruth and I giggled and averted our eyes (sort of) from Brooke’s Speedo. He had a habit of resting one hand nonchalantly on the bulging front. The girlfriend was always in the briefest bikini, and the two seemed to enjoy their cigarettes and each other. I knew Brooke had hit the big time when he landed a TV lead on The Green Hornet and dozens of guest starring gigs. He died at age 71, and Ruth and I went to his funeral.
When young actor Brandon De Wilde moved in below us with his bride, I was overcome by adolescent envy (of her) and desire (for him). Those blue eyes. The shy “hello”s. He was my teenage dream – blond, a little sad, the kind of boy you want to love and protect. De Wilde grabbed Hollywood’s attention in roles as the kid in Shane and Hud. My God, he had an Oscar nomination by age twelve. And who could forget him as the boy who got the girl in trouble in Blue Denim? In fact, Mrs. De Wilde was pregnant at The Villa. That meant they had done it—fuel for my imagination, as I wondered where in the first floor apartment their bed was located. I learned much later that he and wife Susan were divorced after their son was born and that De Wilde was killed in 1972 in a car accident, married only months to his second wife. Gone. On the cusp of a big career. He was thirty years old.
My son is that age. And I live less than a mile from the Franklin Villa in a home which has been declared a historic-cultural monument. I always considered my Hollywood story with its cast of characters to be one of a kind. But I’ve changed my mind. Now I imagine nondescript apartment buildings all over Los Angeles, Chicago, cities large and small – where there are ambitious strivers sharing their lives and dreams. I am lucky to be able to say about a few, “I knew them when.”