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Warren Tribune Chronicle (30 January 2003)

"One Actor, Two Counties"

By Andy Gray

Actors regularly take speaking engagements.

The money is good, the work is easy and little is expected of them beyond telling a few anecdotes and signing a few autographs.

Leave it to a former history major at Harvard to do something more.

James MacArthur starred in the 1958 film version of The Light in the Forest, the Conrad Richter novel that was chosen for the reading program One Book, Two Counties. Residents in Trumbull and Ashtabula counties are encouraged to read the novel, which chronicles tensions between white settlers and Native Americans in the 18th Century on the land that became Ohio, and participate in various programs planned through March 21.

MacArthur can share stories of working with Fess Parker, Jessica Tandy and Carol Lynley on the movie, but he's also read Richter's novel and Richter's biography and was doing some research on the real-life events that inspired the tale in preparation for two lectures next week.

"I've been doing my homework," MacArthur said during a telephone interview from his California home. "I'm looking forward to it, I must say. Once I get my teeth into something ... I'm not going to sound like some Harvard professor, but I did go to Harvard and I was a history major. I interrupted my education to do The Light in the Forest.

MacArthur, the adopted son of stage and screen actress Helen Hayes and playwright Charles MacArthur, appeared in several films (Swiss Family Robinson, Kidnapped, Battle of the Bulge) and numerous television series, but he is best-remembered for his 11-year run as Dan Williams on the CBS television series Hawaii Five-O.

Light in the Forest was the second film role for MacArthur, 65. He played Johnny Butler, who was captured by Delaware Indians at age 4 and raised as the chiefás child, True Son. He is returned to his original family 11 years later as part of a treaty agreement, but True Son/Johnny has no memory of his original family and has difficulty adjusting to the white man's ways.

MacArthur made his film debut in The Young Stranger shortly before being cast in the Walt Disney production.

"Walt had this in his back pocket for several years, but it hadn't gone into production," MacArthur said. "Apparently, when he saw The Young Stranger, he thought his True Son had been found."

Like most movies adapted from books, Forest strays from the original text, but the movie is surprisingly progressive for its time when audiences remember how Native Americans traditionally were portrayed in American culture in the 1950s.

"When Walt Disney bought Richter's story, he wanted to buy the bare bones but not the whole concept," MacArthur said. "Walt Disney was not in the business of selling sadness. Mr. Richter, I think his heart was more with those Native Americans, although he explores both sides beautifully."

MacArthur said he wished the movie could have been more true to the ending of the book (and readers who don't want to know anything about the ending should skip the next paragraph).

"The element of the book that is missing is that True Son truly was suspended between two worlds. And in Richter's book, he truly couldn't join either one. But that wasn't going to be the ending of a Walt Disney movie. That kind of movie couldn't be made in those days, and maybe it's more satisfying cinematically the way it is."

While the movie strayed from the source in some ways, the filmmakers strove for authenticity in others.

"Walt was very interested in everything being authentic," he said.

"The language and the costumes were historically researched. Our stripes and war paint were not going to be wrong."

The Native American dancing MacArthur did in one scene also was based on authentic rituals.

MacArthur has a movie poster from The Light in the Forest in his home, and he said looking at it reminds him of the days spent shooting the film in Tennessee and working with Rafael Campos, who played True Son's best friend Half Arrow, and Carol Lynley, who made her film debut in Forest.

MacArthur said he watches the movie occasionally, revisiting the buff, younger version of himself with a wide mohawk haircut.

"I play it about once every 10 years," he said. "My 17-year-old son watches it with me, and he'll say, 'Dad, you know you used to look good.'"

James MacArthur

James MacArthur, Fess Parker

Raphael Campos, James MacArthur

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