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Rockland Journal-News (7 November 1993)

"James MacArthur -- the son of Helen Hayes and actor best known for his role on Hawaii Five-O -- is saying goodbye to his old Rockland home"

By Nancy Cacioppo

On a recent morning, James MacArthur is relaxing in the house he grew up in, here on North Broadway in Upper Nyack -- the house that his mother, Helen Hayes, lived in for 60 years and called “Pretty Penny.”

He is watching his 8-year-old son, Jamie, and a coterie of young friends frolic in the same backyard he frolicked in as a youngster.
MacArthur has decided to say goodbye to the house and Rockland, leaving the memories to the heart.

“As much as she loved it,” says MacArthur, “Mother owned the house, the house never owned her. Sure, it’s the old homestead. But time moves on. My home has been in the West for 30 years. And I’ve always believed it’s not the property that’s important, but the person in it. With Mom gone, it’s become a house again.”

The homestead, a 12-room Victorian estate in the “Hudson River bracket” style, was built in 1880. When his parents bought it in 1932, they named it Pretty Penny because they said it had cost them a “pretty penny.”

A month ago, MacArthur put the house on the market. (It is now being offered for $1.9 million by Sotheby’s International Realty.)

Following his mother’s death on March 17, it took MacArthur six months to decide whether to keep the house or not. He and his family also have homes in Hawaii, Colorado, and California.

We know MacArthur best as Detective Danny Williams, a member of the elite police squad for which the program Hawaii Five-O was named. At the end of each program, Steve McGarrett (Jack Lord) would turn to Williams and say, as the cuffs were being slapped on the crook, “Book ‘em, Danno!”

This great American catch phrase endures in light conversation today, even though the show has been off the air for almost 15 years.

The role of Williams was a good one for MacArthur. And he is still searching for “good roles.”

But “good roles are hard to come by these days” says MacArthur, who at 55, looks a decade younger. Patting his curly hair -- more grey now than blond -- he acknowledges a “baby face.”

MacArthur grew up in a theatrical family, but in many ways, he was not a “show biz” kid.

His mother, of course, became known as the First Lady of the American Theater, having spent 70 years on stage and screen, playing everyone from commoners to Mary Queen of Scots and Queen Victoria.

His father was the playwright Charles MacArthur, who died in 1956. He, with neighbor Ben Hecht, collaborated on the screenplays for The Front Page, Twentieth Century, Gunga Din, and Wuthering Heights.

With such celebrity parents, the guest list at Pretty Penny, and the family’s apartment in New York, often read like a who’s who of the rich and famous. But to young MacArthur, it was just everyday life.

In June, at a memorial tribute for his mother at the Shubert Theater on Broadway, MacArthur recalled as a young boy running around the house with his cap pistol, targeting famous guests. “I probably gunned down more actors than Frank Rich,” he said at the time, referring to the drama critic of the New York Times.

Growing up in Nyack, his neighborhood pals were what mattered most. He remembers tobogganing with them down the backyard lawn that slopes to the Hudson River. In summer, those friends frequently enjoyed the family swimming pool. And although he attended public school in Nyack, he recalls the nuns at St. Ann’s School occasionally allowed him to “sit in” at classes.

But at home at Pretty Penny, there was always a steady stream of celebrities -- Ed Sullivan, Jack Carson, Roz Russell, and Beatrice Lillie most easily come to mind -- and Scott Fitzgerald, who left one of his signed books for the family.

MacArthur recalls one incident with a well-known guest. “I’d been reading ‘Cannery Row’ in school,” he says. “And one day, I walked into our New York apartment, and my father said, ‘I’d like you to meet John Steinbeck.’”

Still, his parents went out of their way to insure normal childhoods for their children. Today, MacArthur’s unaffected, down-to-earth pragmatism suggests their success.

They also encouraged travel. And as he grew, MacArthur’s horizons expanded.

At 12, he was sent to stay for three weeks on the ranch of painter Peter Hurd outside Roswell, N.M.

“In 1950, that meant puddle-jumping 15 hours on a DC-3,” he says. “And when you arrived, you were still 100 miles from the ranch.”

MacArthur remembers that when he got off the plane, no on was there to greet him. Calling home, he got his father’s astonished response, ‘Oh my god, I forgot to tell him you were coming!’”

MacArthur has lived all over the world -- Tobago in the British West Indies while making Disney’s The Swiss Family Robinson, England making Kidnapped and The Bedford Incident, and Tahiti, Hawaii and Hong Kong making Hawaii Five-O. He’s also camped on the African desert and sailed down the Amazon in Brazil.

“During the run of Hawaii Five-O, a friend and I decided to travel around Africa. Not only doesn’t the Triple-A have any offices there, but the only thing likely to cross your path when you’re traveling across 6,000 miles of desert in a Land Rover is a camel rider.”

After grade school, MacArthur attended the Solebury School, a private boarding school in Bucks County, Pa. Early on he was interested in archeology but turned to the theater.

His debut came in 1945 <sic> at the age of 8 <sic>. MacArthur acted with Eva Le Gallienne <sic> in a summer stock production of The Corn Is Green, which is set in Wales. He had to recite some of his lines in Welsh, and to this day still remembers them, though the translation has become foggy. “I think it had something to do with putting out the garbage,” he says.

Likewise, his sister, Mary, was on her way to becoming a stage actress at an early age. But tragedy intervened. Mary, only 19, came down with polio and died in 1949.

Despite his early stage roles, MacArthur’s own acting was not a certainty until some years later.

In the late ‘50s, he was enrolled at Harvard University, majoring in history. But by then, film roles were coming his way. “I was making more money than the law school graduates,” he recalls. And so he completed just two years there.

As the movie offers started piling up -- first from Disney, then Warner Brothers and RKO -- MacArthur debuted on Broadway in Invitation to a March. The show had incidental music by an up-and-coming composer named Stephen Sondheim.

With mock exasperation, MacArthur recalls his role playing opposite the show’s young co-star, Jane Fonda: “I had to kiss her seven times a night. It was a tough job, but somebody had to do it.”

Hawaii Five-O, which aired from 1968 to 1979 <sic>, was one of the longest running TV police dramas.

MacArthur says the series’ success lay in its strong story lines, not in its exotic locale. “The show’s creator, Lenny Freeman, wouldn’t even let the writers go to Hawaii. He said, ‘I want the writers to write stories about people, with characters and conflict.’”

He also dispels the notion that the cast only worked for an hour and then went to the beach. “It was a hard-work show,” he says. “It took us eight shooting days to do one episode. And we worked six days a week for 10 months to complete a season.”

Today, Hawaii Five-O continues in syndication around the world (though not now on any Rockland stations) and occasionally runs into cultural barriers.

“I was in Kuwait about eight years ago to shoot a documentary,” MacArthur recalls. “And they show Hawaii Five-O there. But because of the strict Muslim laws, any time an episode showed a girl in a bathing suit, they’d cut that part out -- dialogue and all.” Despite the cuts, MacArthur says, the show was a hit there.

And the show is still a cult classic in this country. “One fan has even done a compilation of every cast and crew, along with the production dates,” says MacArthur, who is slowly collecting all 200 <sic> episodes on tape.

MacArthur has two grown children from his first marriage to actress Joyce Bulifant. Neither have opted for show business careers. Charlie, 33, is a ski instructor and mountain climber in Aspen, Colorado. And Mary, 28, was recently married and runs a store in Aspen.

MacArthur was married for two years <sic> to actress Melody Patterson, whom he describes as “the blonde actress on the old F-Troop series.”

His third wife, H.B., to whom he has been married for nine years, is a golf pro. He met her at the Waialae Country Club, the site of the Hawaiian Open.

“A mutual friend introduced us, and we played a foursome,” says MacArthur, recalling the moment. “On the 17th tee, my friend said, ‘How do you like H.B.?’ And I said, ‘It will be a small wedding.’”

They did not marry right away, however. “She had to catch me first,” he says, eyes twinkling.

Today, MacArthur keeps active with the causes that were close to his mother’s heart -- among them the Helen Hayes Awards (Washington, D.C.’s equivalent of the Tony’s); the Players Club, which recently honored his late godmother Lillian Gish; St. Clare’s Hospital in West Haverstraw; and the Historical Society of Rockland.

He’s also talking about publishing a coffee-table book of photographs and memories about his mother.

But MacArthur has not given up on his acting.

Several years ago, he played for four months in a British comedy in Las Vegas. The 12 shows a week were so grueling, he says, that on his day off, he’d retire to his hotel room with a bucket of chicken and be asleep by 9:30.

More recently, he acted in a national tour of Arsenic and Old Lace with Jean Stapleton.

MacArthur, who says he’s a voracious reader, laments the lack of good acting roles these days but says, “I’m not alone in my expectation of quality.”

Of course, MacArthur’s love of literature was instilled at an early age by his parents. And his mother, one of the great actresses of the American stage, could, as MacArthur often noted, bring a special excitement to stories read to a little boy.

“I can still hear Mom reading to me,” says MacArthur, gazing off down the lawn at Pretty Penny, a tiny smile turning up the corners of his mouth. “She certainly had a way with words.”

Pretty Penny

James MacArthur

Helen Hayes, James MacArthur

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