One on One with Bill Wellman, Jr. (Part II)
Tony: How long were they married?
Bill: Two months.
Tony: What a story! I’m surprised he didn’t make a movie about it.
Bill: Well, if you think about it, “Lafayette Escadrille” (1958) was his last released film, and the film that caused him to quit the business because he was so upset at the way Warner Bros. treated and changed it. The leading lady’s name is Renée, played by Etchika Choureau, and a lot of what happened in that story was about my father, and I’m playing my father in the movie. My father gave the name Thad Walker, played by Tab Hunter, to the leading character. I think he is as much my father as anyone else, although he’s also a combination of my father’s friends who he was over there with. My father made her a prostitute, and his Renée was not a prostitute.
Tony: Why would he do that?
Bill: I think it was in his story-telling. He thought it was a more interesting story that this young American flyer falls in love with a prostitute, and then she changes and becomes a conductress in Paris. At the end of the movie, she jumps into the Seine, and commits suicide. Then Thad goes off to war, and is shot down and killed, and the movie ends. Warner Bros. changed that because they didn’t want to kill Tab Hunter, who they thought was their young Tom Cruise, because they thought his fans wouldn’t accept it, so they thought they had to put a happy ending on it.
Tony: Didn’t he have final cut?
Bill: No. He didn’t want to make any changes but Warner Bros. said, “If you don’t make them, we’ll bring someone in who will.” The studio system was changing, falling apart, and he didn’t want anything to do with it any more.
Tony: How did he write his stories?
Bill: He would tell his stories into a tape recorder. Then he would listen to them, and if liked it well enough, he’d write it. He would say to me, “Do you like this story better, or this one?” And I was never any help because I liked them all. I have over 20 hours of those audio tapes. I’m trying very hard to piece together a factual, chronological life story.
I did write a screenplay of my father’s life, and sold it to Sean Penn. He took it to the producing company he was with at the time but somewhere along the line Sean’s projects were released, and he didn’t want to keep it up, so it ended.
Tony: Let’s talk about the collection of your father’s friends that Warner Bros. Home Video just released.
Bill: Well, I love this collection. It’s called “Forbidden Hollywood” and contains six films that my father made in the 1930’s at Warner Bros., pre-code films. Warner Bros. was making films out of the day’s headlines, and these movies are hard-hitting, fast-paced films. I just love them. One of them, “Wild Boys of the Road” (1933), which happens to star my mother, is one of my favorite films of the 76 my father made. And the fact that my documentary, “Wild Bill Hollywood Maverick,” is part of the collection is terrific.
Tony: Did your parents meet on that set?
Bill: My father left Paramount and went to Warner Bros., signed a seven year contract, starting in 1930. In 1932, my mother was a Busby Berkley chorus girl, a dancer. She was doing “Gold Diggers of 1933.” My father was preparing “Heroes for Sale” (1933), a movie about drug addiction, which is in the collection. He saw my mother, doing a roller skating number. She was roller skating to the ladies’ room on the studio street. My father was running after her. She knew who he was, and she skated into the ladies room and he came right in after her. He said, “Look, I just want to ask you for a date.” She said, “I’m not going to talk to you in here. You go outside, and wait out there.”
He had a reputation as “Wild Bill” but he did it. He went outside, and waited. She came out, and he said, “Are you afraid of me?” She says, “No, Mr. Wellman” but she said it in a way that she was a little afraid of him. She knew he had been married many times. She said, “You’re married.” He said, “Well, I’m not anymore.” She asked, “Is your divorce final?” He said, “No, I have to wait a year for that to be final. And my year’s almost up.” She said, “Well, when you show me your divorce papers, then I’ll have a date with you.” He waited, showed her papers and they started dating.
After he did “Heroes for Sale,” he was doing “Wild Boys of the Road,” and there’s a part of a young gal who dresses as a boy, pretending to be a boy. The story is about the disillusionment of youth during the depression, at a time when teenagers’ parents left home because their parents couldn’t feed them, and they were hopping freight trains, thinking if they went to a big city they might be able to get work. They lived in camps, and she had run away. My mother played that role, and after the picture they got married. My mother didn’t want to be an actress. She loved dancing but had no desire to be an actress. When they got married, she was happy to give it up, and be a wife and mother. They had seven kids. The trades made jokes about the marriage because he had been married four times and the chances of “Wild” Bill Wellman finally settling down to an 18-year old Busby Berkley chorus girl… that didn’t look like a good bet.
Tony: How old was he?
Bill: 37. But they were devoted to each other. My brothers and sisters, we knew he had all these marriages but all we saw was this perfect parental togetherness that you could imagine. My father was very much a family person; when he wasn’t making a movie, he was with the family.
Tony: Did he ever have any contact with any of his previous wives?
Bill: Never saw them. I don’t know if any of them were alive when I was born in 1937. He talked about them a little bit. He took responsibility for messing up some of those marriages. He writes about them.
Tony: You live with your mother now?
Bill: When my father passed away, my mother was all alone in a big house, and I was living two streets away do my children were in the school district. I tried to get my mother to sell the big house, and come over to mine. I had just made my garage into what was going to be a studio den. I had put plumbing and electrical in there and paneling. I told her it could be her bedroom. She didn’t want to leave the house but she was having a lot of trouble making the transition of losing my father after 42 years. So we thought we’d go over there for awhile. So I put my house up for rent, moved over there with my four kids and my wife, and in six months we were planning to go back but Mother didn’t want us to go back. I used to sit down with my kids, and we’d take a vote on things. I did it again. I asked, “How many want to stay here, and how many want to go back to our house?” Everybody voted to stay there. It was kind of neat because my two boys were in the same room that my brother and I were in. My two daughters were in the same room that my two sisters were in. Mom really liked it. She’s 95 now.
Tony: I understand you grew up with Robert Redford.
Bill: Yes, we were pals since kindergarten. We played on baseball teams together.
Tony: How good a baseball player was he?
Bill: He was a terrific baseball player. Back then, 1945, there was no Little League. If you wanted to play baseball, you played in the Cub Scouts. They had things all organized with teams and uniforms. Redford was the best player on our team. He was a pitcher and first baseman on our team. If you watch “The Natural,” which is my favorite baseball movie, you can tell that Redford knows what he’s doing when he’s standing at the plate.
Tony: Yes but he is a very good actor.
Bill: I know it but if you’re an athlete, you can tell. Charlton Heston played a quarterback, and I love the quote from the guy who was the football advisor during the filming; he was asked how good a quarterback Charlton Heston would have been, and he said, “He couldn’t throw a cat out of the house.” Redford in “The Natural” is there. He’s at the plate taking a swing at the ball. You can watch it and make your own decision as to how good an athlete you think he is.
Tony: How good do you think this collection of your father’s films is?
Bill: You know, I just love this collection. Warner Bros. is really a studio that is head and shoulders above all the others in bringing back the old films.
Tony: Why is that?
Bill: Well, George Feltonstein, the head of Warner Home Video, is one of the reasons because he’s a great historian, and he loves the old films; he fights for them.
Tony: Do you think this is better than the first two (this is collection 3)?
Bill: My father has films in the first two but I think as a group this is better. Of course I’m prejudiced because my documentary is in there, along with one Richard Schickel did, but my documentary is filled with icons, people who worked for my father (like Gregory Peck, Sidney Poitier, Robert Mitchum, Robert Redford and Clint Eastwood); people like this talking about my father. Schickel’s documentary is my father talking about himself. So they really blend together nicely.