One on One with Bill Wellman, Jr. (Part I)
I met Bill Wellman, Jr., the son of legendary director William Wellman, at Joni’s Coffee Roaster in Marina del Rey. Wellman was born January 20, 1937. He has appeared as an actor in 69 films and TV shows. He is the author of “The Man and His WINGS: William A. Wellman and the Making of the First Best Picture.” He produced “Wild Bill: Hollywood Maverick” (1995), as well. This fascinating documentary is a part of “Forbidden Hollywood,” a collection of six of his father’s films from the 1930s that Warner Bros. Home Video recently released. WB went all out, spending more than $700,000 to restore the films just for this collection. This involves highly detailed work, looking at every frame of every film, reworking each frame to make it look like it did when it was originally made.
Tony: Let’s take the picture now before the interview.
Bill: OK. I did a lot of print modeling, so I can hold a smile.
Tony: What do you mean by that?
Bill: I did everything to try to make sure I made a living and didn’t get shut out from movies and TV, so I did print modeling and commercials and whatever I could. One of the tricks of print modeling is being able to hold a smile for a long period of time. I couldn’t do it. I could smile and then it was gone. I had to practice to smile, so I can give you the one smile I have as long as you want it.
Tony: How did you practice it?
Bill: Just in front of the mirror, learning to hold it and hold it and try to make it look natural. I did it and did it and did it until I could do it.
Tony: How long do you have to hold it for?
Bill: Some times, depending on the speed of the film they are using, you might have to hold it for 30-60 seconds. Then you might have to continually do it over and over and over again, which is another thing. I could give a few smiles and then they’d look terrible. It’s a strange little thing. In print modeling there are a lot of things you have to learn. People think that there’s nothing to it; they just take pictures of you. Well, there are a lot of little things you have to be able to do.
Tony: How old were you when you started out?
Tony: What was it like growing up in Hollywood surrounded by all the major stars?
Bill: We had 35 major film celebrities in our neighborhood. I’m talking about two streets to the east, two streets to the west and three to four blocks north of Sunset, so it’s not a big neighborhood. We had Gary Cooper, Tyrone Power, Lana Turner, John Payne, Deanna Durbin, The Andrews Sisters, Red Skelton, Peter Lawford, Frank Capra, Nelson Eddy, and Hopalong Cassidy!
Tony: William Boyd.
Bill: William Boyd. As a kid we used to go over to his house. We were afraid to go knock on his door but there was a vacant lot next door and we would hide there just to see him. If we were really lucky, and he was coming home; he drove a Cadillac with these horns, and if we saw him, we were made for a week.
Tony: What was he like? Did you ever get to speak with him?
Bill: Never did.
Tony: Did you have any contact with any of them?
Bill: Oh, yes. My father was friends with Gary Cooper and Frank Capra and quite a few of them. Carol Lombard’s brother lived on the next street and she used to come over and visit him and she’d come over to our house.
Tony: But you couldn’t remember that; you were too young (Lombard died in a plane crash in 1944).
Bill: Oh, yes I do. I was 4. It’s amazing I do remember. She would grab me and put me on her lap and sit in my father’s den. I was fascinated by her blonde hair and her fast talking. I was also excited by the enthusiasm that she and my father had together when they were talking, and some of them swearing back and forth. As a little kid you remember that because those were words you weren’t supposed to say.
Tony: They did it in front of you?
Bill: Yes. People say my father had a foul mouth, but he said things like “SOB,” or “you crazy bastard,” but he never used a lot of the four letter words. “G-dammit” he’d say, and “SOB.” But “SOB” could be good or bad. She talked like that, too.
Tony: Did Clark Gable come over with her, too?
Bill: No. I don’t remember meeting Clark Gable until when my father made “Across the Wide Missouri” (1951) and Clark Gable was the star. It was shot in the summer and the whole family went to Colorado on location and I fished with him many days. My father was a great fisherman and he told the production manager, “When you hire your crew, make sure they like to fish.” Every location he had built on a body of water, a river, a lake, a stream. At 5 o’clock, he would wrap and out came the fishing poles and everyone fished until dark.
Tony: What kind of guy was Clark Gable?
Bill: Wonderful. He told me one day, “Bill, I’ve got a special place. Nobody’s fished there yet. Just you and I. We’ll go over to this lake. It’s a small lake, very shallow.” And we walked over to this area, had to hike quite a ways. I remember the tree stumps were coming up out of the water. We fished there and they had cutthroat trout in this pond. They are long and thin and they fought like heck. We caught a bunch of them.
Tony: How old were you?
Bill: 12 or 13.
Tony: Tell me how you found out about your father’s unknown first wife.
Bill: This is the most amazing story for me about my father. He was not someone who kept secrets. He would talk about almost anything. He talked about his ex-wives. He talked about things that were complimentary, uncomplimentary. But he never spoke about this and no one ever knew.
In 1973 or 1974, they did a film retrospective in London. Afterwards, my father said he wanted to go to Paris, where he had been in WWI. One day he says to my mother, “You and Flossie go shopping. Bill and I are going somewhere.” So we get in a cab and I said, “Where are we going, Dad?” And he says, “Just get in the cab.” He kept giving directions and we drove all around the outskirts of Paris and finally he said, “Stop here.” Dad gets out of the car and is looking across the street. I get out of the car and I’m looking to see where he’s looking because there’s some rubble across the street. I said, “Dad, what do you see?” Because he was somewhere else. He says, “Bill, you see what’s left of that building right across the street?” I looked and said, “Yeah.” He said, “That’s what’s left of the church that I got married in.” I said, “To whom?”
Then he told me about this French girl that he had met. She had worked in a little bakery in one of the towns where he did his flight training. She followed him when he was sent into combat. He was sent to Luneville as a member of the N.87, the Black Cat squadron. She came there and worked in a bakery by the Luneville airfield to be with him, and they got married.
Her sister was giving birth to a child and lived in Paris. My father’s wife, Renée, had gone to be with her sister. Her husband was a French soldier who had been killed at the front. So she was in this little maternity hospital with her sister. The Germans had perfected long distance cannon. They were shooting it into Paris. They weren’t good shots and couldn’t hit what they wanted to hit. They just wanted to cause a lot of problems. They killed a lot of people and hit a lot of buildings. They hit this maternity hospital and it was totaled, killing Renee.
When my father arrived there, he had gone just to see her, the gendarmes were pulling out pieces of bodies and babies. It must have been horrible. My father actually found a piece of Renée’s arm and the ring he had given her.
He never talked about that.