Russ Tamblyn at the 2023 TCM Classic Film Festival
May 16, 2023
TCM welcomed legendary actor Russ Tamblyn as a special guest at the 2023 TCM Classic Film Festival. In addition to introducing several of his films, including Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954) and Peyton Place (1957), the actor also took part in an hour-long conversation about his career with TCM host Ben Mankiewicz. Below are some highlights from their lively discussion.
Ben Mankiewicz and Russ Tamblyn at Club TCM at the 2023 TCM Classic Film Festival. (Photo courtesy Warner Media)
That time he went viral on Twitter a few years ago
About five or six years ago, a clip of Tamblyn dancing in The Fastest Gun Alive (1956) went viral. Numerous celebrities commented upon it, including his daughter, Amber Tamblyn. “My dad is badass. Full stop,” she tweeted. (You can watch the scene in question HERE.)
Ironically, star Glenn Ford tried to have that very scene cut. Tamblyn recalls the star complaining: “Suddenly in the middle of my simple little black and white Western this guy comes in dancing all over the bar and flying everywhere!” The studio did, in fact, delete the sequence for the first preview, but since they couldn’t edit the credits and excise the choreographers’ name and mention of the dance number, viewers kept asking to see it. So, it went back. Tamblyn looks at the choreography now and wonders, “How the hell did I do that?!”
On his gymnastics and acrobatic background
Complex dance scenes like the one in The Fastest Gun Alive, West Side Story (1961), and beyond cause fans to think of Tamblyn as a dancer, but that’s not his background. He actually grew up as a gymnast, one who enjoyed street dancing. That said, he never took lessons or any formal dance training.
His acrobatic nature, though, served as a gateway into dance, especially when it came to movie roles. For instance, he wasn’t initially supposed to dance in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. When he visited set one day to watch the dancers rehearse, he was asked if he could do a flip, and he did one on the spot. Naturally, they had to put that in! At first, Tamblyn found himself hesitant to work with world-class dancers like Jacques d’Amboise and Tommy Rall, but he was fortunate to receive on-the-job training from a number of gifted choreographers (in Seven Brides and throughout his career) who helped him learn what he needed to know.
Tamblyn and his first wife Venetia Stevenson during a Life photoshoot in Beverly Hills in the 1950s.
Considering all the daring feats he performed, Mankiewicz asked Tamblyn if he ever fell. Only once—that he could remember. In The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm (1962), the actor was tasked with rolling down a hill and leaping over something at the bottom. To perform the leap, he had to jump over the camera, and when he did that, his foot got caught on the equipment, causing him to fall. The tumble didn’t scare him, though; he got right back up. “I never did anything that I really had fear of,” he told us.
How he was discovered and memories of working with Cecil B. DeMille
When Tamblyn was about 10 years old, he appeared in a play at the Coronet Theater in Los Angeles directed by Lloyd Bridges. A number of scouts and agents attended, and he was definitely noticed. He recalled the play led to his first film role and an audition for Cecil B. DeMille.
The DeMille audition went well—he got the part in Samson and Delilah (1949)—but the director was tough. “DeMille was really a character. He had two people that walked around with him all the time, one had a chair and every time DeMille wanted to sit down, he would just sit and that chair better be there!” Tamblyn remembered. “And then he had another guy that held a microphone so when he talked the guy would hold a microphone in front of his face.”
Tamblyn recalled a scene he had to do in a stadium in front of a lot of extras where he ran up to Samson, grabbed his arm, and told him to get out. After the first take, DeMille walked over to Tamblyn and asked him to point in a different way. Well, Tamblyn did the scene again… and forgot DeMille’s direction. DeMille was not happy. He went up to the young actor, grabbed his hand, and yelled at him. Tamblyn, who was no more than 15 years old, got upset and started to cry; he was embarrassed because everyone heard DeMille yell at him. He was given a few minutes to regroup, and when they filmed the scene again, Tamblyn got it right.
Tamblyn and Dean Stockwell in Human Highway (1982).
His friendship with Dean Stockwell
Tamblyn became lifelong friends with Dean Stockwell on the set of The Boy with Green Hair (1948). Stockwell starred in the film, while Tamblyn appeared uncredited, as this was the beginning of his career. (Fun fact: Stockwell introduced Tamblyn to his future wife Bonnie. His pick-up line was: “How’d you like to learn how to dance?”)
Tamblyn shared two humorous stories about living with Stockwell in Laurel Canyon when they were adults, both of which involved The Boy with Green Hair. Apparently, after filming the scene where Stockwell’s green hair is cut, Tamblyn grabbed some strands, kept them, and years later, he put them in a birthday card for Stockwell! Another Boy with Green Hair incident took place while the two men were driving down Laurel Canyon. While stopped at a red light, they noticed the guy in the car next to them was rocking green hair! Their astonished stares prompted the man to roll down his window and ask, “What’s the matter with you, you’ve never seen green hair before?”
Working with Spencer Tracy and Elizabeth Taylor in Father of the Bride
In Father of the Bride (1950), Spencer Tracy and Joan Bennett played Tamblyn’s parents. (He noted that Constance Bennett appeared as his mother in another movie, prompting him to quip, “In movies, I was my own first cousin!”)
Tamblyn was blown away by Tracy. At first, Tracy’s method worried the teen; he saw the star scratching his head, asking what his line was, and turn down rehearsal time, which made Tamblyn fear they’d be there all day. But when the cameras rolled, Tracy was on; he performed the scene so well and so quick. “He had a great sense of being an actor,” Tamblyn said.
As for Taylor, Tamblyn knew her from school—and yes, he had a funny story to share about her, too. She graduated school around this time, and at her party, an MGM photographer took a picture of her throwing her books up in the air. Everyone thought it was a cute, celebratory gesture—except the schoolteacher, who came barreling over, insisting the photographers stop. She even grabbed their camera and tore the film out!
Tamblyn and Diane Varsi in Peyton Place.
On trying dramatic roles—which nabbed him an Oscar nomination
Tamblyn always wanted to do more than just dancing; after all, he was an actor, too. When Peyton Place came around, director Mark Robson sent him the script and told him to pick out any part he wanted. He chose the role of Norman because it was the one part that really got to him; it was so unlike his actual personality. And wouldn’t you know, that performance scored him an Oscar nomination! That said, he felt he was too young for the accolade and didn’t appreciate it as much as he may have if it came 10 years later.
How he landed West Side Story, working with Jerome Robbins, and being on set
Tamblyn was on leave from the Army when he first saw West Side Story on Broadway and fell in love with the story. He eyed the part of Tony and auditioned for the role, appearing alongside many actresses vying for Maria. The part eventually went to Richard Beymer, but Tamblyn was offered the role of Riff, which he gladly accepted.
Choreographer Jerome Robbins informed Tamblyn that Riff required straight dancing—no acrobatics. Tamblyn was up for the challenge, but Robbins was tougher than he expected. For instance, there was a big number they all rehearsed when suddenly, Robbins wanted everyone to do it on the other foot, which is a huge deal for dancers. (Tamblyn joked that he could barely do it the first way!) He also recalled getting into a big argument with Robbins regarding his ‘grunt’ during the movie’s opening scenes. Robbins wanted him to do it like it was performed on the stage, but Tamblyn thought that sounded funny and wouldn’t work. Eventually, they shot it both ways. In the end, they used the direction Tamblyn preferred.
Tamblyn also confirmed that MGM hired some gang members to work one block while they shot the movie; apparently, there had been some issues with gang violence on a previous picture filmed nearby. “They were legitimately a gang,” Tamblyn recalled. One gang member even asked them how he could join the Jets!
George Chakiris, Rita Moreno, and Tamblyn at the 50th anniversary of West Side Story in 2011.
How West Side Story changed his life
“It was probably the biggest and most successful movie I did, and it gave me a lot of clout,” Tamblyn said of West Side Story. “I traveled with it around the country, and not only around the country but to England and Belgium and Paris, France.”
In England, he and many other West Side Story cast members attended a Royal Command Performance with Queen Elizabeth, where they sat in the Royal Box. Tamblyn was positioned right behind the Queen, and Peter Sellers was seated next to him. When the curtains opened and the theater got dark, Sellers leaned over to the Queen and asked, “Hey, would you mind taking your crown off?” She didn’t budge—at all! When the performance was over, Tamblyn asked Sellers how he could have said such a thing. Sellers casually replied that he frequently visited the palace for lunches and always made it a point to say something funny to her!
On breaking away from Hollywood and entering the art world
Tamblyn always expressed curiosity in art and the avant garde. He met author Henry Miller (I believe in the 1960s), they became friends, and Miller got him more interested in that world.
At one point, Tamblyn threw a party for Miller and invited many of his Hollywood friends. He hadn’t seen Stockwell in a while, but upon running into him a week before the party, he extended him an invite, too. Stockwell brought a few guests, including artist Wallace Berman and his wife Shirley. Talk about a chance encounter, because Berman went on to become Tamblyn’s artistic mentor! “It was like a whole different scene between the fine arts and the performing arts,” Tamblyn told us. “In the performing arts, you do whatever you can to make the audiences’ head spin. In the fine arts, most of the time, you do whatever you can to make your own head spin.”
Tamblyn in Twin Peaks in the early 1990s.
Meeting David Lynch and working on Twin Peaks
Stockwell appeared in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986) and invited Tamblyn to Lynch’s birthday at Dennis Hopper’s house. Tamblyn told the director that he’d love to work with him, and Lynch replied that he’d keep him in mind for his next project. Tamblyn assumed that was just a typical Hollywood line, but Lynch actually delivered with Twin Peaks!
Tamblyn wanted to “be as crazy as I could possibly be” with his character, Dr. Lawrence Jacoby. One day while strolling the Venice boardwalk, he spotted different color sunglasses. He ran through many options, eventually boiling it down to a pair of red shades and a pair of blue shades. Finally, he held both up and exclaimed, “That’s it! I’ll have one red lens and one blue lens.” He took the idea to Lynch, who approved. “Let’s just not tell anybody why you’re wearing them,” the director said.
That one time he crossed paths with Charles Manson
Tamblyn has spent decades writing his memoir, Dancing on the Edge, which is due out next year. Mankiewicz spoke to his co-author, who was at the Club TCM presentation, beforehand, and she told him that Tamblyn frequently calls her to ask if they included certain stories. Inevitably, she says no and asks him to tell her the story.
Mankiewicz closed the conversation with a question he was a little nervous to ask, because he didn’t know the answer to it. “What’s the Charles Manson story?” he inquired. Tamblyn told him that he was living in Topanga Canyon when he picked up Manson and two of his girls and dropped them off in an area where there were just rocks (that's what Tamblyn said!). One of the girls asked if Tamblyn knew who Manson was. He didn’t. She told Tamblyn that Manson was the new Jesus. “I said, ‘Oh, great,’” Tamblyn recalled. All the girls he knew in the canyon heard about Manson and thought he was nuts. They were obviously right.
Stay tuned for more coverage of the 2023 TCM Classic Film Festival coming soon!
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