Though it happened about a decade ago, it couldn't be clearer in my mind if it was yesterday.
It was about 11:45 in the morning, and I was heading out to lunch with a couple of colleagues when I was called to the phone."Chris, this is Joel McCrea."
My first reaction was toward the friends who were waiting for me: "OK, which one of you set this up?"
They knew I had been trying to put together a series of "Where are they now?" articles and had naively sent off letters some six to eight months earlier asking McCrea, Jean Arthur, Irene Dunne and other great movie stars who had been retired for some time to reply by mail or phone (collect, of course).
Since no replies had been forthcoming I had more or less given up on the idea. These people obviously wanted to remain retired, and I'd respect their privacy.
But lo and behold, this was the real McCrea, apologizing, of all things, for taking so long to call me. He said his secretary had let his mail pile up, and he was unaware of my letter until he opened it that moment and just dialed the phone.
We spoke for about 45 minutes, talking over his lengthy career, in particular some favorite films - "The Most Dangerous Game," "These Three," "Dead End," "Union Pacific," "Foreign Correspondent," "Sullvan's Travels," "The Palm Beach Story," "The More the Merrier" and his many later Westerns, capped by one of the greatest of them all, "Ride the High Country."
We discussed Cecil B. DeMille, Laraine Day, Jean Arthur, Preston Sturges, Sam Peckinpah and many other of his famous colleagues - including his wife, Frances Dee. And we talked about why McCrea never seemed to become quite as famous as many of his peers. It didn't seem to bother him at all.
He also took the opportunity to sound off a bit with regard to the direction taken by modern movies, which he felt had improved technically but faltered somewhat in terms of story and character.
Overall - and this will come as no revelation to anyone who has read anything about McCrea or just noticed his strong, positive screen image in film after film - he just seemed like a very nice fellow.
That may seem a mild compliment, but in the world of Hollywood stars, would-be stars and former stars, it's a rare achievement.
McCrea was a solid leading man, one of the "everyman" mold that is all too rare these days.
His death last week at age 84 brought all of this flooding to mind and prompted me to look up some of his movies that I have on tape at home. They still look good.
And so does McCrea.
- QUOTE OF THE WEEK I: Whoopi Goldberg, co-starring in the monster hit "Ghost," responding to a query from the Museum of Broadcasting in New York about what TV entertainers and programs helped shape her vision of comedy:
"The television series that influenced my comedy include `The Abbott & Costello Show,' `The Ernie Kovacs Show' and `The Twilight Zone.' "
- QUOTE OF THE WEEK II: Director Mike Nichols, doing interviews for his latest film, "Postcards from the Edge," asked by Philip Wuntch (Dallas Morning News) about Nichols' 1967 hit "The Graduate," which made a star of Dustin Hoffman and won Oscar nominations for Nichols, Hoffman and Anne Bancroft:
"I saw hundreds of actors for Benjamin, but the only one I really offered it to was Dustin. I very seriously considered (Robert) Redford, though. I had directed him onstage in `Barefoot in the Park.' But he has the look of a winner, which is the wrong look for Benjamin. He said he has the same insecurities everyone has - and he does! - but he finally agreed he looked wrong for the role."
Nichols added that he offered Bancroft's Mrs. Robinson role to Doris Day! "She was the ideal suburban wife at the time and Mrs. Robinson was very much trapped in suburbia. And I went to see Ava Gardner for the part. She would have been very physically right for it. But in the end, we couldn't have done better than Anne Bancroft."