Blacklisted Actor’s Exile: A Peripatetic Career in Movies

The Good, the Bad and the Dolce Vita , by Mickey Knox. Nation Books, 359 pages, $14.95.

Once, in an idle moment, I formulated the Ten Commandments of serious research. No. 1 was “Never interview a movie star.” There will always be a large object in the foreground blocking the view, if not the sun. This immovable object is called Ego, and it infects everything the actor touches, especially books. No matter how piddling the career, an actor’s memoir will make his achievements seem Himalayan, with perhaps a slight seasoning of faux modesty-yet another variation on Patrick Dennis’ Little Me . Actors aren’t invested in objectivity and analysis, but in emotion and self.

If you want to know the truth about what goes on-and down-in the movie business, better to talk to cameramen, makeup artists, art directors: the blue-collar backbone of the industry, then as now. Anybody except actors.

Mickey Knox’s The Good, the Bad, and the Dolce Vita proves my point. It’s one of those unexpected pleasures-Robert Parrish’s Growing Up in Hollywood and Sam Fuller’s A Third Face come to mind-that occasionally wash up on the publishing beach. It comes complete with a very graceful forward by Norman Mailer, Mr. Knox’s ex-brother-in-law and a friend of 50 years’ standing, which you can’t say about too many ex-brothers-in-law.

You know you’re in safe hands from the opening sentence: “I was born a ‘love child,’ as they sweetly used to describe a bastard.” For the next 350 pages, Mr. Knox lays it out like a grumpy but loving grandfather giving you the deep skinny about the movie stars, the girls, the way things really were.

He has the knack of finding himself in interesting places with interesting people-one of his Army buddies in World War II was Paddy Chayefsky. Mr. Knox also knew the composer Marc Blitzstein, who introduced him to Hal Wallis, who signed him to an acting contract.

After appearances in movies like I Walk Alone , City Across the River and White Heat , Mr. Knox got blacklisted and went to Europe, where he met, among others, Lucky Luciano-and felt an immediate kinship: “He was a mafioso, a killer, exiled to Italy by the U.S. Government. I, a blacklisted actor, in effect, was also exiled; I had come to Italy to keep working, just as Lucky was forced to do.”

In Europe, Mr. Knox became a dialogue director, helping foreign actors cope with English-Anna Magnani in The Golden Coach , Toshirô Mifune for Grand Prix , all manner of interesting actors and interesting pictures. Among the other jobs he cobbled together in his peripatetic career was the English dialogue for Once Upon a Time in the West as well as some of the casting. (There’s a priceless vignette of Sue Mengers trying to convince Sergio Leone to hire Anthony Perkins for the part eventually played by Charles Bronson.)

Film historians will perhaps most hungrily devour the pages devoted to the making of Orson Welles’ Chimes at Midnight . Mr. Knox reveals Welles’ strange psychological tic of shooting all the other actors first, only shooting his own close-ups at the tail end of the schedule, after the other actors had all gone home. Mr. Knox calls this “a reluctance to perform …. [Welles] really didn’t enjoy acting.” He adds, “I must have worked with a hundred directors during my career in the theater and movies over a stretch of more than 60 years. One man stands out: Orson Welles. No one was more inventive, more creative, or paid more attention to the smallest details.”

Welles is a labyrinth, of course, and there are always undiscovered angles in a labyrinth. Mr. Knox reports that Darryl Zanuck once offered Welles completion money for his film of Don Quixote , but the director turned the producer down. Writers, he explained, sometimes abandon a book when it’s not working out, and he thought he had the same right. After all, it was his money. (This may explain Mr. Arkadin , which wasn’t his money.)

Among Mr. Knox’s friends in what seems to have been a pleasurable exile-living well is indeed the best revenge-were James Jones, William Styron and Irwin Shaw, and he tells us: “Actors are often accused of having outsized egos, but they’re pussycats compared to writers, and I mean all writers. They have granite-hard egos. Their vanity might be hurt, but never the ego.”

Mr. Knox has a taste for the wild side, and he supplies plenty of salacious anecdotes, from strip poker with Sid Chaplin (Charlie’s son) and a host of the girls who were always hanging around Sid, to his own sessions in the sack with, among others, Ava Gardner and Gregg Dodge.

The Good, the Bad, and the Dolce Vita is many things, among them a rough travel guide as written by a writer of pulp fiction. (“In the normal course of pursuing pussy, Roman men are relentless.”) Sometimes the chronology is garbled-Mr. Knox has Robert Mitchum getting fired/quitting Otto Preminger’s Rosebud in 1972, when the film was made in 1975, and he seems to be dancing with Marilyn Monroe in 1969, when Yves Montand is shooting On a Clear Day You Can See Forever , which would be a good trick, as by that time Monroe had been dead for seven years.

Mr. Knox’s manuscript appears to have been edited by gerbils. There are run-on sentences and misspellings galore. There’s really no excuse for writing John Gielgud as “Geilgud,” or Darryl Zanuck as “Zannuck,” especially when the names are spelled correctly elsewhere in the book. But if you can endure a little sloppiness, which reflects more on the publisher than on the author, let me encourage you to make the acquaintance of the randy Mickey Knox: He knew a lot of people who knew a lot of people.

Scott Eyman’s Lion of Hollywood: The Life of Louis B. Mayer will be published next year by Simon and Schuster.