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Robert Rockwell: Going the Distance

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Posted: Wednesday, January 8, 2014 7:26 pm

Tall, dark and handsome, Robert Rockwell had the looks of a popular romantic leading man. Early in his professional life, however, he got cast as a hopelessly shy biology teacher in the hit television show, Our Miss Brooks, and for a long time afterwards people could only think of him as that character.

Devoted to the theater, Mr. Rockwell studied at the prestigious Pasadena Playhouse, and subsequently acted on Broadway in the Jose Ferrer production of Cyrano de Bergerac (1947). Many years later, he appeared. on stage with Ginger Rogers, and in Ireland as the lead in I Do, I Do.

In 1959, Bob starred in the TV series, The Man from Blackhawk, playing the part of an insurance investigator. He also is widely remembered as Superman’s father, Jor-El in the first episode of The Adventures of Superman, starring George Reeves. Later, his role as the grandfather in the widely seen Werthers’ candy commercials made his face familiar to a new generation.

"My career has moved at a gradual pace over the years," Rockwell said in 1991 at the Memphis Film Festival in Tennessee. "Fortunately, people still want me for things. And I’m happy to be able to keep at it." And keep at it he did, thanks in part to the simple enjoyment he found working in his profession.

Robert Rockwell grew up in the small resort community of Lake Bluff, Illinois on Lake Michigan, about 35 miles north of Chicago. He was born on Wednesday, October 5, 1921. His mother was an educated woman who was the principal of the local grade school. After she was widowed when Bob was only four years old, she became the sole support of the family.

Following his high school graduation, the young man enrolled at the University of Illinois, in Urbana, with the plan of becoming an economics major and eventually going into the retail business. However, halfway through, he suddenly changed his mind and went in a completely different direction. "As an economics major, I had to take accounting," related Rockwell, "and I was always a little bit off in my answers—I just couldn’t get it. Well, I loved the theater, and had ever since I played the woodchopper in a grammar school play and got to kiss the fairy princess. In high school at Highland Park, I acted in plays. And at the University of Illinois, I acted in plays. So, finally, my third year of college, I wrote to my mother and said, ‘I know you want me to become a businessman, but I’d rather pursue a career in the theater.’ And she responded, ‘Okay’."

Robert contacted the Pasadena Community Playhouse in Pasadena, California, which between 1920 and shortly after World War II was recognized as one of the most acclaimed theatrical arts institutions on the west coast, if not the entire country. More than 1300 plays were produced there, while its acting school helped spawn the careers of Robert Preston, David Niven, Tyrone Power, and Alan Ladd.

"The Pasadena Playhouse wouldn’t give me a scholarship because my grades weren’t good enough," said Rockwell. "I had to borrow $300 from a friend to go. Then, in 1942 during World War II, the Army was going to take me, so I joined the Navy. Spent four years in the Navy—never saw a ship or a gun—spending most of the time in Washington, D.C."

Following his military discharge in 1946, Robert returned to his family in California. Married since 1942, he and his wife, Elizabeth, or "Betts" rented a house in the vicinity of the Pasadena Playhouse, where he again worked and studied. One evening, a talent agent saw the actor in a Playhouse production of The Barretts of Wimpole Street and afterwards asked to represent him. Bob’s career was officially launched. "Just before the war and the time I was in the Navy, Warner Bros. had put me under contract, as they did a lot of other people, for $75 a week," recalled Rockwell. "But I never did anything over there because the war came along. You Gotta Stay Happy (1948), for Universal, was my first picture."

Bob played an injured pilot in You Gotta Stay Happy, a romantic comedy starring James Stewart and Joan Fontaine. Shortly afterwards, he was seen as a Navy flagman on the landing deck of an aircraft carrier in Task Force (WB, 1949). Essentially bit parts, neither assignment left much of an impression on the actor or the audience.

Next, the 27-year-old tested at one of Hollywood’s smaller studios, Republic. Commonly referred to as the "Valley lot" because of its location in the San Fernando Valley, Republic Pictures specialized in low budget action films, such as westerns and crime dramas. Occasionally, though, they tried to achieve more.

In the late ‘40s, Republic’s president and founder, Herbert J. Yates, became galvanized into action by the global struggle heating up between Soviet communism and American democracy. According to the American Film Institute website, Irving Allen and James S. Burkett began working on an anti-communist film project, but Yates became interested and took it on as a Republic feature, The Red Menace (1949). According to Variety, Republic cast unknowns in the film, some making their screen debuts here. Indicative of the tensions of the time, The Motion Picture Herald reported that Red Menace was filmed on a closed set. Soon, however, news was leaked to the press, and the Communist paper "People’s World" printed a scathing attack which alarmingly quoted from the script. A New York Times article from May 15, 1949 quoted the film’s screenwriter Albert DeMond as saying, "There are Communists working at the studio, I know . . . That’s how they got the scenario."

Robert was given the starring role as a war vet seduced by revolutionaries. "The Red Menace," he said, "was Yates’ anti-communist film, which I was lucky enough to get the lead in. Later, I got word from my agent that Yates wanted to put me under contract at $125 a week. My wife and I had had our third child by this time, so I was quite agreeable."

Despite all the hoopla over the film, it didn’t do well at the box office after its August 1949 release, but Bob already had signed his term-contract with Republic on June 6. Over the course of the next year, he acted in twelve features at the Valley lot: Alias the Champ (1949), with Barbra Fuller; The Blonde Bandit (1949), with Dorothy Patrick; Unmasked (1950), with Barbra Fuller; Singing Guns (1950), with Vaughn Monroe; Belle of Old Mexico (1950), with Estelita Rodriquez; Federal Agent at Large (1950), with Dorothy Patrick; The Vanishing Westerner, (1950), with Monte Hale; Women from Headquarters (1950), with Virginia Huston; Destination Big House (1950), with Dorothy Patrick; Trial Without Jury (1950), with Barbra Fuller; Lonely Heart Bandits (1950), with Dorothy Patrick; and Prisoners in Petticoats (1950), with Valentine Perkins. He also did an 8-minute short, The Sponge Diver (1949).

"I enjoyed my year at Republic," remarked Rockwell, "but Yates was probably one of the biggest cheapskates who ever lived. I was hired to act in mostly cops-and-robbers films, so a lot of times the studio would ask you to wear your own clothes to cut down on production expenses. And I went along with that. Then, about six months into my contract, Yates said to me, ‘You’re wearing the same suits too often. I’ll have the producer go downtown with you and get a couple more.’ That sounded fine, so we got the suits. Well, lo and behold, I came to find out in my next paycheck that Yates was taking out money toward the cost of those two suits. That really irritated me."

Robert’s contract with Republic expired on June 5, 1950, after which the actor alternated between motion pictures (1951: Call Me Mister, with Betty Grable; The Frogmen, with Richard Widmark; The Prince Who Was a Thief, with Tony Curtis; Weekend With Father, with Van Heflin; 1952: The Turning Point, with William Holden; 1953: The War of the Worlds, with Gene Barry), and television (1950: The Lone Ranger; 1951: The Adventures of Superman; 1952: The Schaefer Century Theatre, Campbell Playhouse, Sky King). He also performed in a couple of plays.

"The movies I made at Republic were learning experiences," points out Rockwell. "I was bad—no question about it. Acting from an acting school and from the theater is so vastly different from acting in pictures and on television. Initially, I seemed to be all over the place. Then the director would say, ‘Calm down. Just be a person.’ And eventually, I got better. A couple of the early television things I did were The Lone Ranger and Adventures of Superman. In fact, I did about eight Lone Rangers, four as good guys and four as bad guys. As you know, the program always ended with somebody asking the question, ‘Who was that masked man?’ and somebody else answering, ‘Why, he’s the Lone Ranger.’ Well, one time, my character had to give that reply, and, as I did, I started to laugh, and I just couldn’t stop. I think it took about eight takes before I finally calmed down enough to say that line.

"Then, for Adventures of Superman, I had the dubious honor of playing the role of Jor-El, Superman’s father. My wife and I send him off to Earth as Krypton falls apart. That’s all I did, perhaps one day’s work. I received $50 for doing that; whereas, 25 years later, Marlon Brando, playing the same character for about ten minutes in the Christopher Reeve feature version, got 35 million. Still, you’d be surprised at how many people still remember me from that."

Our Miss Brooks had been a national hit on radio for four years before coming to television, where it continued to be highly successful. Eve Arden, the star, played high school English teacher Connie Brooks, who tackled her everyday frustrations with humor and wit. Among the supporting cast were: Gale Gordon, as the harried principal; Richard Crenna, a student who gave Miss Brooks a ride to school, and Jane Morgan, Connie’s landlady. Jeff Chandler, yet to distinguish himself as a rugged leading man in films, portrayed Philip Boynton, a bashful biology teacher to whom Miss Brooks was attracted.

The fifth year of Our Miss Brooks on radio overlapped with the first year of the TV show, and, in both instances, Boynton was now played by Robert Rockwell, who stayed with the character from then on. Chandler, whose voice seemed perfect for the role—stumbling over words and laughing nervously when backed into certain situations—came across as too macho when photographed. Moreover, Universal Studios, which held his contract, refused to let the actor do television. Bob, on the other hand, was both available and looked the part. "About two years before they decided to do Our Miss Brooks on TV, I was in a play called You Can’t Take It With You," remembered Rockwell. "And the producer of Miss Brooks was married to a woman in the play’s cast. The closing night of the play, that man came up to me and said, ‘I don’t want you to get overly excited, but, when we put Our Miss Brooks, on television, I want you to play Boynton.’ I said, ‘Fine, that’s great.’ Well, time passed. I did another play, and that man’s wife was in that production too. The play eventually closed, and again, he approached me. ‘Don’t forget, Bob, we want you for Mr. Boynton.’ So, finally, I got a call—I was in Denver at the time and had to come back—to audition with Eve Arden. And when I got there, I noticed all of the other guys auditioning were blonde, and Eve Arden was blonde—I was the only dark-haired one. Well, they always like to have the romantic leads contrast each other, so I assumed the producer fixed the audition to give me an edge. And I did get the part.

"Our Miss Brooks was a fun, fun show. I felt kind of out of place for a while—the other cast members had been together so long, and here I was, a greenhorn. I’d start the radio show and I’d be shaking in my boots. For three episodes, I don’t think I ever looked up from my script for fear I’d forget something. But I got used to it. Eve Arden was lovely to work with. A real lady. Smart. Always knew her lines. If you watch any of those old shows, you’ll notice no one ever stood to her left. If they had, she’d have ignored them. Somebody once told her her nose looked funny when the camera captured her right profile, so she avoided being seen that way. And the wardrobe woman used to despair a bit because Eve had this habit of always cinching up her belt very tight right before going on to give the impression she had a small waist, when, in fact, it wasn’t that small. But Eve was a pro.

"Gale Gordon was wonderful. Soft-spoken. Gentle. A lot of fun. Quite unlike the bombastic character he portrayed. And Dick Crenna is a delightful person and a good actor. He’s gone on, and on, and on in his career. I think one of the reasons Miss Brooks ended when it did was that the people behind it felt they couldn’t get along with this kid being 17 years old any longer. You know he always played Walter Denton with this real high voice as a teenager might have. And, by the time the show finally went off the air, Dick was almost thirty."

Bob played Philip Boynton for four years, including when Our Miss Brooks was made into a feature film in 1956. Unfortunately, while the role made the actor a familiar face to millions and something of a celebrity, it also typed him to a certain image, that of a reticent romantic bungler, which most producers and casting agents had a hard time seeing beyond. Aside from a transient spot on CBS’s Telephone Time, in October of 1956, he didn’t work again for more than a year. Luckily, things eventually picked up for Bob, and, during 1957-58 season, he guested on all of the following TV programs: The Millionaire, Private Secretary, Tales of Wells Fargo, Meet McGraw, Oh, Susanna, The Eve Arden Show, Man Without a Gun, Navy Log, and The Loretta Young Show. After playing the husband of Loretta Young several times, he asked her why she didn’t try him in another kind of a role. "Nope," Young replied. "I can find hundreds of actors with whom to be romantic, but I can find very few who are believable as my husband."

In 1959, following appearances on Desilu Playhouse, Gunsmoke, and Perry Mason, Bob played the title role in ABC’s The Man from Blackhawk, a uniquely scripted western about a Chicago-based insurance investigator who traveled from place to place unscrambling mysteries involving his company and possible attempts to defraud it. Rarely carrying a gun, his character, Sam Logan, faced down embezzlers, gambling bosses, weapons dealers and more in his perpetual quest to root out fraud and uncover the truth.

"Screen Gems, a subsidiary of Columbia Pictures, was going to make a TV series based on the 1948 movie, Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, starring Cary Grant, Myrna Loy and Melvyn Douglas," related Rockwell. "And I was one of the many actors called in, or my agent heard about it and had me go in. Anyway, I auditioned and did a test for it. A few weeks later, I received a phone call from my agent telling me that the Blandings series had been cancelled, and, in its place, the studio planned to make The Man from Blackhawk. More importantly, they wanted me for the lead. Well, imagine my surprise. It’s not often that a starring role just drops in your lap. Yet that’s exactly what happened. So I found out some more of the details. For example, they’d already set up the contract and I was to get $125 a week. We got it up a little higher, but not much. And the man producing it was Herb Meadow, co-creator of Have Gun Will Travel, who picked his people very carefully. Stirling Silliphant, who later wrote the screenplays for In the Heat of the Night (1967) and The Towering Inferno (1974), did some of the scripts. And John Peyser (Hawaii Five-O, Mannix, Combat, The Untouchables, etc.) was one of the directors. Consequently, I went into the series feeling quite good about it.

"Then, somewhere around Christmas of 1959, I was sent to New York and Chicago for personal appearances, and, when I came back, I discovered some drastic changes had occurred. First off, Herb Meadow was out and Matthew Rapf was in. This irritated me to death as Herb was always there for me, and we frequently talked back and forth about what he wanted to achieve with each story. Second, the budgets had been slashed in half, which meant we couldn’t shoot outside the studio on location very often—you’d just walk through a doorway, do a scene, then walk out. And lastly, due to a writers’ strike, Screen Gems had to dig out a lot of their old scripts from previously made westerns, alter the titles and reshoot them because there was no one available to create new plots. Hence, the show just lost its punch."

Bob starred in 37 half-hour episodes of The Man from Blackhawk. All shot in black-and-white, they aired on ABC on Friday nights between Walt Disney and 77 Sunset Strip. Although the only regular cast member on the show, Rockwell at various times shared scenes with an interesting array of guest stars, including Harry Dean Stanton, Mara Corday, DeForest Kelley, Jeanne Cooper, Myron Healey, Woody Strode and Barbara Lawrence. The program left the ABC lineup on September 25, 1960.

Continuing to stay busy, Robert made spot appearances on other people’s shows throughout the 1960s: The Roaring Twenties, Death Valley Days, Maverick, Perry Mason, Bronco, Cheyenne, The Lucy Show, Thompson’s Ghost, Lassie, This Is the Life, The Bill Cosby Show, and Petticoat Junction. In the late 1950s and early ‘60s, Westerns dominated the airwaves, and many of them originated at Warner Bros.

"Warners," laughs Rockwell, "had so many series on the air that a lot of us actors made a living going from one to the other. We called it the Warner Bros. circuit. Bronco, Cheyenne, Maverick . . . Once, a year, you’d make the rounds. The only bad thing about it was those shows had a set fee. You got $500 for three days of work and $750 for a week (five days). And that was it. No matter what your agent said, that’s what you always received.

"I didn’t mind doing Westerns, but I always let the director know up front my limitations. I’d say, ‘I’ll get onto the horse over here and ride toward the camera and get off. If you want somebody to ride hell bent for leather up hill and down dale, get yourself a stunt double. Because it’s not worth it to me. Dale Van Sickle doubled for me, and so did Bobby Morgan."

Aside from nightly series work, Bob was seen in commercials for margarine, detergent, candy (Werthers’ Originals), several banks and insurance companies. In 1977-78, he had a running part (Dr. Greg Hartford) in the daytime soap opera, Search for Tomorrow; the storyline had his character suspected of deliberately allowing a woman to drown to avoid marrying out of his class.

Mr. Rockwell remained active into the 1990s. He performed in the Goldie Hawn feature, film Private Benjamin (1980); was seen in the telefilms, Murder in Texas (1981), Golden Gate (1981), Life of the Party: The Story of Beatrice (1982), The Kid with the 2001 I.Q. (1985), and The World According to Garp (1990); and guested on TV’s Different Strokes, Benson, Flamingo Road, Dallas, Dynasty and Beverly Hills 90210. In the ABC sitcom, Growing Pains he was seen from time to time as the grandfather of the kids on the show.

"Things in television have changed a lot over the years," declared Rockwell. "It’s much easier now. In the ‘50s, we used film, which had to be processed and edited in a lengthy fashion. Plus the whole technique of taking the shots was harder than today. Then they used what is called a crab dolly to move the camera around; all four wheels would change directions at once and crab left, right, whatever—and there were three big cameras used in every show. So, in addition to having to move these three big cameras around the set, they also had three times the exposed film they needed. Nowadays, the cameras are smaller and the people use videotape."

While working on Our Miss Brooks, Bob built a home in Pacific Palisades, California, where he lived with his wife, Betts, three sons and two daughters for many years. For awhile, he was the honorary mayor of that community, and among his neighbors were Walter Matthau, Mel Blanc and Ed Prentiss who was Captain Midnight on radio during the 1940s. More recently, Mr. and Mrs. Rockwell resided in Malibu, and, although more or less retired, Bob became a member of Peggy Webber’s CART (Creative Artists and Radio Theatre) company.

On January 25, 2003, Robert Rockwell succumbed to cancer at the age of 82 in his Malibu home. He was survived by his wife, Elizabeth, and their five children, Susan, Alison, Robert Jr., Jeffrey, and Gregory.

During my 1991 interview with him at the Memphis Film Festival, Robert summed up his acting days, saying, "I don’t know that I have had a really satisfying role during my career. Films aren’t very satisfying because they are shot in pieces. And half hour TV shows, while completed in sequence, don’t afford you the time you need to explore a character beyond simply its surface. Theater I dearly love because of the instant reaction. But films and TV are more fun than they are satisfying. And, in that regard, I’ve enjoyed it all."