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Motion Picture (April 1957)

"Summer Star - Winter Scholar"

By Edward Boyd

“Some day, they will say of Helen Hayes -- she was James MacArthur’s mother,” a Hollywood producer said recently.
Sound unlikely? Not at all, for young Jim is the hottest bet for stardom Hollywood has seen in years -- his famous mother notwithstanding.

Offscreen, it’s hard to think of Jim as an actor, much less as a star.

He’s energetic, but not theatrical, small, but powerful, and packed with enough charm to win over a sorority house singlehanded.

Only 5’7”, he weighs in at 150 pounds and, according to those who’ve faced him over a football line-up, he’s “one of the fastest humans on wheels.”

With short, crinkly, blond hair, wide blue eyes, fair skin and a squared-off prizefighter’s nose, he looks like a lithe, but not pretty, welterweight.

His favorite uniform is a tweed jacket and dark slacks, and he gives the casual attitude of not caring a great deal about clothes.

His manner of speaking is quick, almost nervous, but not brusque.
He could pass for a college freshman anywhere. And, strangely enough, that’s just exactly what he is -- a freshman at Harvard College.

But that’s only part of the story. Jim has one of the most fabulous working arrangements any teenager ever dreamed of. He’s a college student during the winter and a Hollywood star by summer.

The arrangement suits Jim fine. “Best summer job I ever had,” he says, then adds, “much better than parking cars.”

It all started several months ago -- last June, to be exact. Jimmy, at 18, had just finished up four years at Solebury, an exclusive Eastern prep school. He had several things to his credit. A better-than-average student, he’d been popular, but not a glad-hander, bright, but not brilliant, hard-working, but no grind. When commencement day rolled around, Jim received not only his diploma, but a spectacular gift from his mother -- a black Thunderbird with red leather seats. Even more spectacular, however, was the gift from Hollywood -- a chance to star in his very first movie.

Jimmy was more than a little excited. He went to Hollywood where he worked harder than he’d ever worked in his life. In eight weeks, the movie was finished, and he came back East to enter Harvard.

The movie, The Young Stranger, has been released now, and Jim’s Harvard classmates are surprised to find that the pleasant, unassuming freshman in their midst is one of the fastest rising young stars in the movie world.

RKO was so pleased with the result that they pacted Jim to a five-year contract, one picture each summer for the next five years. Winters, he’ll revert to his full-time role as an Ivy Leaguer.

Though thrilled by this sudden success, Jim is being level-headed about it. “I like acting and may stick to it,” he says, “but I’ve got a more important job at the moment, and that’s getting a college degree. After that, there’s a two-year stint in the Army to face. Then I can make up my mind. But right now, the best thing to do is to get an education.”

Pretty sound thinking from a 19-year-old. But then, Jim is a pretty sound young man. Making up his own mind on things has been strongly fostered in Jim by both his parents. His new acting career is a good example. Neither his mother nor his father, the late Charles MacArthur, famous author and playwright, gave any thought to their son becoming an actor. They wanted Jim to do what he wanted to do. And when he decided for himself that he wanted to be at least a part-time actor, they were all for it. And proud, too!

Despite the fact that his mother lost both her daughter and her husband, and Jim is the only close relative left, she steadfastly refuses to become a possessive mother.

This hasn’t always been easy. Last summer, for example, when she left Jim in Hollywood, she just couldn’t resist calling producer Stu Millar to say, “Stu, I don’t know just how to say this, but ... please don’t let him smoke too much!” In general, however, she insists that Jim lead his own life. Needless to say, he adores her.

Because Jim has been meeting celebrities all his life, he’s rather unimpressed by names. He’s more apt to be impressed by craftsmen and technicians, people who can do things with their hands. But this doesn’t mean he has no heroes.

When Jim was feted with a large Hollywood party last summer, he treated the great and the near-great as he might have treated his classmates at Solebury. But when Jimmy Stewart, a person he has always admired, came into the room, Jim became a kid again, a shy one, saying, “No, sir,” and “Yes, sir,” and speaking only when spoken to.

On the other hand, when someone took his picture with Liberace, Jim took charge of the situation and requested that the picture not be released. He is not a Liberace fan.

Though making his first movie, Jim was considered a full-fledged star around the studio. He played every scene with the assurance of a veteran.

“We were a bit nervous before Jim showed up,” said producer Stu Millar. “He’d never made a movie before and here he was playing the title role. But after the first day, no one worried about Jim. He’s a born pro.”

One of the secrets of Jim’s success is the zest with which he approaches life, be it his summer career or his winter schooling. Enthusiasm is a quality which his parents always encouraged in Jim. They never talked down to him, and they rarely did anything to curb his high spirits, save for an occasional spanking.

As a youngster, Jim was a shade more mischievous than most. His famous mother says, “He’s a devil -- but an adorable one, of course.”

On at least one occasion, Mrs. MacArthur reached the end of her rope with her young son. Jim was 8 at the time, and a British youngster of the same age was staying at their Nyack, New York, home. The visitor seemed to bring out the worst in Jimmy.

When Mrs. MacArthur discovered the boys hitting Jim’s dog with a stock, she decided to try child psychology. This method had been much recommended by her sister as a means of disciplining children.

“Ah,” cried Mrs. MacArthur, with all the skill of a great actress, “I’m to blame, not you. I’m a bad mother. Strike me, not the dog. Strike me!”

She was lying in a low deck chair, sunning herself in a bathing suit. Baffled by this new approach, Jim stared at her in amazement. “Do you really mean it?” he asked, his eyes wide.

“Of course I mean it,” she wailed. “Strike me. Strike me hard. I’m a bad mother.”

The English child said, “Go ahead, hit her.”

With that, Jimmy brought the stick down smartly across his mother’s bare shins. She was so astonished that for a second, she could do absolutely nothing. But in the next, she was up out of the chair and off after them with the speed of a rabbit. “I had to chase them twice around the house before I caught up with them and knocked their heads together,” she says with a grin. “That, of course, was the end of the child psychology as far as I was concerned.”

Sometimes, though, Jim’s misdemeanors weren’t his own fault. On one occasion, some friends called him at 6 a.m. and asked him to go on a boatride. He woke his father and received permission to go. When Charles MacArthur woke up later, he forgot all about the incident, and when the family couldn’t find Jim later in the day, they became alarmed and called the police.

It was an astonished Jim who, that evening as he was lying on the boat deck, heard a newscaster announce that a county-wide search was underway for him. He jumped up and reported home as soon as his host could put ashore. But by that time, the story had already been given wide coverage in the press.

Shortly after this, Jim’s sister, Mary (who later died of polio), was playing summer stock in Olney, Maryland. She requested that Jim go down and stay with her. This resulted in his very first acting role, a walk-on in The Corn Is Green. He was required to speak several lines of Welsh. “I never did find out what they meant,” he chuckles, “but I shouted them as though I did.”

Later on, he played the same role at the summer theater in Dennis, on Cape Cod. And in his sophomore year at Solebury, while his mother was playing on the Cape, Jim got a job parking cars at the theater. Eventually that summer, he graduated to assistant electrician, and finally to electrician.

Two years ago, when his mother went to Paris to play in The Skin of Our Teeth, Jim went along to create a thunder effect off-stage. As usual, his zest for the job got the better of him. One night, his thunder was so loud that he completely drowned out his mother’s co-star, the venerable Florence Reed. “Boy, was she mad!” he grins. “She sure knows how to swear!”

Despite the kettle drum incident, the summer was a success. Jim drove his mother to Italy in an old French car via the Riviera. “Cannes was kinda’ crummy,” he admits candidly. “But the Italian Riviera was great. All those beautiful girls in bikinis and all.”

By the time he got home, Jim felt pretty grown up. One night, shortly after their return, he stayed out at a party until 5 a.m. When he got home, he found his father waiting up for him. All his parent said was: “Tomorrow night, you’ll be home by eleven.”

“You can bet that I was, too,” declares Jim.

Despite his several minor brushes with the theater, Jim had given no thought to an acting career until a friend of the family, Martin Manulis, a television producer who was putting together a show about a juvenile delinquent, remembered Jim and asked him to read for the part. Jim auditioned in New York and was not very good. However, Manulis thought Jim might be better if he had a little practice. He arranged for him to spend two weeks on the coast, where the TV show was to be filmed and where he would have a chance to work with the director, John Frankenheimer. During those two weeks, Jim studied hard, and at the end of that time, his improvement was so remarkable that he was given the part.

A few weeks later, when the TV program took place, the critics went all out in describing the TV debut. They described Jim’s performance with such adjectives as “amazing,” “perceptive,” “sensitive,” “intelligent,” and “excellent.” And when RKO decided to make the TV show into a movie called The Young Stranger, they insisted on Jim’s playing the same role again.

“I hadn’t thought much about being an actor until I read the notices,” says Jim. “Naturally, I wasn’t scared about playing in the movies because I just didn’t know anything about it. It was a case of ignorance being bliss.”

Before making the movie in Hollywood, however, Jim had another year at Solebury, his last. He made the most of it. He played guard on the football team, captained the basketball team, was elected president of his class as well as of the Student Government, rewrote the school’s constitution, edited the school paper, The Scribe, and played Scrooge in the local presentation of A Christmas Carol. In addition, he kept his position on the honor roll. He also found time to date his pert little blonde girl friend, Joyce Bulifant, the most popular girl at school.

When it came time to go to Hollywood last summer to make the movie, Jim did not go alone. His mother went along, as did his roommate, Ken Cromwell; his life-long friend and neighbor, Phil Glynn; his girl friend Joyce; and a close friend of his mother, Lily Lodge, daughter of the ex-Governor of Connecticut. The party drove out in two cars: the Thunderbird and an old DeSoto that his mother owned. After a leisurely tour, which included visits to Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon, Jim got down to work. Everyone went back home after a week, except Ken, who stayed on for the summer.

Jim was so determined to make good in his new job that he turned down most social invitations to stay home and study his script. Because of his age and honesty, both the writer and the director of the movie found him an unusually good sounding board to bounce things off. If a bit of dialogue or business were wrong, Jim would tie himself in knots trying to do it. He’d finally turn to the director and say: “John, I just can’t do it.” Both the director and writer, Robert Dozier, admitted he was invariably right.

On only one occasion did Jim lose his temper. He was playing a scene in which he was supposed to come through a doorway angrily. He didn’t do it right. The director asked him to do it again and again and again. “But what’s wrong?” he asked the director. The latter gave no explanation, merely saying: “Do it again.” Finally, MacArthur was so mad he burst through the door perfectly. The only trouble was that, in his anger, he forgot his lines.

All this strict attention to business, of course, didn’t prevent Jim from being typically teenage occasionally. During one scene, one of the props was a large bowl of olives. When someone tossed one at the director, it missed him and hit Jim. He promptly picked up the whole bowl and started an olive war with everybody.

On another occasion, a young man rushed up to him and asked for his autograph. Jim gravely signed the book, “With the best wishes of Charles Laughton.”

In the film, he plays a teenager who gets in trouble with the police as a result of putting his feet up on the back of a movie seat.

Consequently, whenever Jim went to the movies with Johanna Mankiewicz, a West Coast date, he would put his foot up on the seat to see if art really imitated nature. Nothing ever happened, and Johanna says that Jim seemed kind of disappointed.

Driving back home from the Coast with Ken, the two boys really cut loose. Uninhibited by female passengers, they drove straight through from Los Angeles to New Orleans in 51 hours, stopping only once for 6 hours of sleep in El Paso.

In New Orleans, they decided to relax for one full night. They toured town with gusto -- Bourbon Street, the stripteasers, Dixieland jazz and all the rest, including a few jiggers of firewater. By 5:30 a.m., they were feeling no pain. They were emancipated. And then suddenly, in the words of Jim, “a man came from out of nowhere and punched Ken. I challenged him, of course, and then four of the man’s friends tumbled out of a car and jumped us. We didn’t have much of a chance. When we finally got back to the hotel, we had no money and Ken had a swollen lip. He looked like a Ubangi. We were both pretty cut up, but we had to laugh. I had to wire Mother for money.”

Despite their physical condition, Jim and Ken drove straight through to New York without a stopover. They took turns at the wheel.

Jim got back just in time to hotfoot it to Harvard. He settled down immediately to the business at hand, taking no courses that had anything to do with theater or acting, but majoring in history. Except for occasional fan letters, there’s little to remind him of his summer way of life.

Life at Harvard is demanding scholastically, especially for a freshman, and Jim has been working hard. This doesn’t mean, however, that he doesn’t have his moments of relaxation. As a matter of fact, it was during one of those breaks that I saw him last. He had invited Joyce up for the week end and they were planning to go to a game and a dance. When I told him I had been asked to write a story about him, he suggested we meet for a long lunch, then go to his dormitory. When he showed up at the hotel for the meal, Joyce was along.

“But won’t you feel inhibited, being interviewed with Joyce along?” I asked.

“Oh, no,” he said. “We’re old friends. She knows all about me.”

As a matter of fact, Jim was anything but inhibited. He might have been working hard, but he wasn’t taking himself over-seriously. He didn’t forget, for example, to tease Joyce occasionally, at which point she’d punch him and then he’d punch her right back. They were as scrappy as a pair of puppies.

Later, in Jim’s dormitory room -- which was just as untidy as every other freshman’s -- they went into an elaborate fencing routine, the result of some lessons Joyce had taken. It was hard to believe that Jim was a Hollywood luminary. At that moment, he was just another college freshman with his best date up for the week end. When I last saw him, he was scooting through Cambridge traffic, determined not to be late for the game.

A few nights later, I stopped backstage to see his mother in New York where she was appearing in a play. She was as pleased as any mother would be of his success, but I think she was equally pleased that he was still a typical, mischievous, far-from-mixed-up teenager.

We chatted about some of his childhood exploits. But when she got to the New Orleans bit about his being fleeced of his money and having to wire home, she said: “You know, I’m determined that he’s going to pay me back that hundred dollars. I’m not going to let him get away with that. No, sir.”

She dabbed cold cream at her make-up, and looked like a most determined mother. And I’m willing to bet anything that Jim pays back every cent of that $100. Maybe with interest. For, whatever the bargain, Jimmy had been taught to stick to it.

At the moment, of course, the big bargain is the one James MacArthur has made with both Hollywood and Harvard. And this bargain is all right with Jimmy.

What is even more to the point, however, is that it seems to be equally all right with millions of American movie-goers.

James MacArthur

James MacArthur

James MacArthur

Jeff Silver, James MacArthur

Helen Hayes, James MacArthur

Helen Hayes, James MacArthur

Helen Hayes, James MacArthur

James MacArthur

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