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Director John Erman interview
Interviewed About Alexander: The Other Side of Dawn
& Being Gay in Hollywood in the 1950s and 1960s

Director John Erman
Raw Interview text by Jay Blotcher

Alexander: The Other Side of Dawn
Blotcher: Do you recall how [Alexander] was presented to the media. Did you have press [tours}?

Erman: It wasn’t a show that was treated with that sort of importance. It was what it was; it was an audience-getter.

Blotcher: Did The Advocate write about it?

Erman: I don’t remember. They probably did.

Blotcher: But there was nothing like a press junket?

Erman: No, no, no. It was considered like a B-movie. It wasn’t like a classy television movie; it was like a filler.

Blotcher: Do you recall any discussions on the set with [cast or crew] who was not gay and wanted to know, Are all gays like this?

Erman: I’m sure there were because it was a Hollywood crew and that was when the unions were still very, very important. So, there were a lot of very reactionary people. I think that the cinematographer [Gayne Rescher] and I, being as close as we were – he was a very macho, straight guy, whose father had run the union here in New York – so he was a don’t-fuck- with-me kinda guy. Because he and I had such a rapport, and he was so accepting of the situation – he was a very sophisticated man. He had been married to the daughter of a famous actor named Otto Kruger. So, he had been around the movie scene, he had been around the New York theatre scene. He knew a lot of gay people. And a lot of smart, sophisticated, worldly gay people. So that’s what saved us in retrospect; I don’t remember anybody coming up and saying, "You faggot; what the fuck do you think you’re doing here?"

Alexander: The Other Side of DawnBlotcher: Do you think that Alexander helped or hurt your career?

Erman: In some ways probably [it hurt my career]. After I talked to you the other day, I thought: I did three movies about AIDS and Alexander. So, I was perceived as a gay director. And I remember I lost The Thornbirds. I had been asked to do The Thornbirds. And then some studio executive said, "I don’t think it’s a good idea to have a gay star [Richard Chamberlain] directed by a gay man." Now, Richard and I had grown up together; we had gone to school together. It would have been really nice. We ended up working together 25 years later.  

Blotcher: On which film?

Erman: A picture about [heiress] Doris Duke.  But that was the perception: that I was a gay man. And there were very few openly gay directors. Now I remember The Advocate calling me and trying to pin me down and my saying, I don’t want to be labeled as anything; I’m just a human being. I never came out in those days, to my undying shame. I was cowardly. But I was part of that world, the Rock Hudson world. That generation. I had lived with Farley Granger, who was so terrified of people knowing that he was gay – and everybody knew that he was gay!

Farley GrangerBlotcher: You’re not just talking about roommates, right?

Erman: No, no, no. We had lived together. And I remember one time, we were in a restaurant up in Carmel [California] and two people walked in who were – well, [film producer] Ross Hunter and his partner walked in, and they sat down at a table. And Farley said [whispering], "We gotta get out of here." And I said "Why?" [whispering] "Ross Hunter. They’ll know I’m gay."
"Know you’re gay?" I said, "The Pope knows you’re gay!" [laugh]

Blotcher: Was that a matter of friction between you two? Or were you also under the radar?

Erman: I was still under the radar. Pretty much – but not as much as he was. But he was older than I was; he was a lot older than I was. [Ten-year gap.] And he had been a contract player in the ‘40s. Totally unacceptable. He didn’t admit he was gay until a few years ago and he’s now close to 90. [laugh] [Granger died in 2011 at age 85.]

Blotcher: [I explain how Granger was the host for a 1991 salute to Cole Porter to the Theatre de Lys, a fundraiser for SAGE, an organization for LGBTQ seniors.]

Erman: I don’t think until Arthur Laurents wrote that nasty book that he wrote, that it had ever come out about Farley’s sexuality. And when I read the book, I thought, "He must be so unhappy. He must be devastated."

Blotcher: Did you begin in [show] business as an actor?

Erman: I was a kid actor. I wouldn’t say a child actor. But I started acting while I was in my teens.
[Talk about my eating a soup I brought. We move into the kitchen as he heats the soup.]

Erman: I started acting outside of school, in community theatres.

Blotcher: Where were you raised?

Erman: I was raised in Southern California. There was a theater in Santa Monica called the Morgan Playhouse and I got cast in a revival of an old musical called Good News.

Blotcher: Can you do the Varsity Drag for me right now?
[tape glitch; story about mother]

Erman: [Someone – perhaps an agent -- told Erman] "Listen kid, they’re making a picture at MGM about juvenile delinquents and I want you to go in and look tough."

Blotcher: What year was this?

Erman:’54. So, I looked in my closet and I found an alpaca sweater that had a hole in it. That was as tough as I got.

Blackboard Jungle 1955Blotcher: This was for Blackboard Jungle?

Erman: Yeah. I had to go on several auditions. It was a big deal. And eventually I got picked as one of the boys. And the assistant director said, "You guys have been picked. You’re gonna be in the movie. And you’re gonna meet the director, so you just hang out here until he’s ready for you." Finally, I got in to meet Richard Brooks, who was formidable. He talked to me for a minute or two and he indicated that that was as much time as he wanted to give me.

Blotcher: So, you had lines.

Erman: Well, it ended up that I had one line. By the time I got the script -- My agent said, "You’re gonna work for five weeks."  Well, five weeks, my God; I must have a really nice part. Well, I’m reading this script and thumbing the pages and thumbing the pages and finally I find this one line. But as I’m leaving Mr. Brooks’s office, I turned to him and I said, "I guess you don’t want me to shave." And he said, "Why would that be?" And I said, "Well, you want me to look tough." And he said, "Are you kidding? You’re the goody-goody." [laugh] So that was the beginning of a fairly checkered career as an actor, the high point of which was doing a revival of South Pacific with Mary Martin, which was perhaps one of the most thrilling things in my life.

Blotcher: Was that a [road] tour?

Erman: She did it in San Francisco and LA because there was what they called the Civic Light Opera, which was a big deal. And it was their 25th anniversary, so they invited her to come and do that part, which she hadn’t done since she created it. And [her son] Larry Hagman was supposed to play the part that I played, and at the last minute he got a better job. And I had auditioned, and they called up and they said, "You’ve got the job. You start working the day after tomorrow". I was a replacement, but it was amazing. Thrilling experience. As great as it could be.

Blotcher: How long would you say your career as an actor –

Erman: Six or seven years.

Blotcher: And what precipitated the transition?

Erman: Well, one day I went to the unemployment office – which, of course, we all had to do. We got $55 a week in those days. And the lady behind the counter said, "You’ve worked four days in the last six months. Don’t you think it’s time you looked for another profession?" Which set me to thinking. Right about that time, there was a wonderful live television show called Playhouse 90. I used to pay small parts on that. The woman who cast the show – there was the job of a production assistant on every episode, and she said, "Would you like to do this? Would you like to be the PA?" I was completely thrilled; it was a show that George Roy Hill directed—a one-act show – and I became the PA and Max’s [Maximillian Schell] dialogue coach. {“Child of our Time” episode; it aired February 5, 1959)
I guess George must have said something nice to [the casting person] because she called me in and said, "You’ve done a very good job. You’ve been on several of our shows, and you always do a nice job – but you’re going to be very typecast in what you can play." In those days, I wore glasses, so you knew what you were gonna play. And she said, "You seem pretty bright. I think maybe you’d be wasting your life [in acting] – or be disappointed by the results."
I had just had the experience at the unemployment office, so I thought, Well. So, I said, "Yeah, sure, I’ll do something else. What kind of a job do you think I could get?" She said, "Let me get you into casting." And there was a man out in California named Lynn Stalmaster, who was a preeminent independent casting director. And that was a whole new thing that he kind of invented, because up until the 50s, every studio had their own casting director. They had their own stable of actors; and you saw the same actors in every movie. And Lynn was the one who came in and found fresh faces.
Well, by this time, I had spent a lot of time in New York. because I loved the theater and I used to come back and see shows on my Christmas holidays when I was a kid. So, I’d seen all the Broadway shows. And the ‘50s, that was the great time in the Broadway theater.
Hennesy TV Show 1960sLynn said to me, "I don’t really know the Broadway scene, but you seem to, so I think you’ll be a help to me."  So, he gives me the job and I think it paid $75 per week, and the first thing we do is we go to meet the man who produced the series with Jackie Cooper called Hennessy. The man was a very irreverent guy named Don McGuire. And Lynn Stalmaster was very serious. And Lynn Stalmaster said to Don McGuire, This young man just graduated from UCLA, which of course is where I went to, and he used to be an actor and he knows a lot about the Broadway theater, and he’s very serious about what he wants to do.
And Don McGuire looked at me and he said, "Don’t give me that shit. Which one are you: Loeb or Leopold. And why’d you fuck that kid?" [laugh]

Blotcher: Wow. What do you say to that?

Erman: I say, Here I am, and I’ll be helping you for the next few weeks. So that was really a wonderful education for me. Through a series of circumstances, I got asked to cast [TV series] Twilight Zone, which was new. And I left Lynn and went out on my own. After I did Twilight Zone, the guy who had been the executive producer was going over to Fox and he was gonna run Fox Television and he asked me to come over and I ended up running the [casting] department at Fox Television when I was like 22.
So, that takes me to the next chapter of my life –
[food talk and indulging and having addictive personalities and my current dieting]

Erman: So, I had this nice job. And while I was doing the job, I started directing in the small theaters where I had acted. The only thing I got to direct at 20th Century Fox was some screen tests, which was something they used to do in those days when they were looking for talent. That job, I could have had indefinitely. Oh -- just before I had gone into casting, I had studied with Sanford Meisner. And in my class was Jack Lord.  And Jack Lord was going to do a television series called Stoney Burke, which was going to be about rodeo riders. And he suggested to the producers that I should be the casting director because I had gotten him up for a lot of jobs.

Blotcher: What year was this?

Leslie Stevens TV producerErman: This was ’61, I think. So, the guy who was producing this show was a man named Leslie Stevens who had been a Broadway playwright, and this was his maiden venture as a television producer. He formed a company called Daystar and he was hiring a lot of young, bright guys to be junior executives. So, he offered me the job casting the show. And before I met with him, I watched the pilot. He offered me the job and I said, "It’s really nice of you; I’m really flattered. But no."  And he said, "Why?" And I said, "Well, for one thing, I don’t think the series is gonna succeed because I don’t think Jack is credible as a rodeo rider. And for another thing, I have this wonderful job with all these perks at Fox. It’s a major studio, I get health benefits, quarterly raises. It has all kinds of security." And he said, "Is there any way that I could convince you to give that up?" I said, "Well, yeah; if you let me direct."
And he said, "All right; I’ll give you a show." I said, "No, you’ll give me two, because the first one will be lousy." This is what you do when you’re young. What? 22 maybe.

Blotcher: One thing I’m curious about is your sexual identity. Did this ever become an issue along the way –

Erman: No, it never did. I was so in the closet. I didn’t have my first homosexual experience until I was 24. So, you know – I was very fucked up. So, I went to work for Leslie Stevens, casting this series that didn’t succeed. And I directed two episodes. The second one was very good, with Robert Duvall. Then I fell afoul of Jack Lord, who ended up hating everybody. So, I didn’t do any more directing on that. But the next show they were doing was called The Outer Limits, which was a science fiction show. Science fiction was something that really never interested me, but I did one episode and had some very good actors, including an 18-year-old Martin Sheen.
I finished the show and the producer said to me, "I’m not gonna ask you to do any more." And I said, "Why not?" And he said, "Your attention to detail is not very good yet. You’re just too –" I don’t know whether he said [terrified]. But I was; I was terrified. I was terrified because I didn’t really understand what the camera could do in those days. I remember the cinematographer said to me on Stoney Burke on the first day, "Where do you want the camera?" It was a steer-wrestling event. And I said, "As far away as possible." I didn’t know from lenses; I didn’t know from anything. He said, "Maybe someday you’ll be a good director; you’re not a good director yet." That was what caused me to get out of casting and really push myself later. When you start pushing yourself, you find out you can do much more. So, I began to do an episode of The Fugitive and an episode of this – not very successfully. And I went back to school –

Blotcher: Why do you say not very successfully?

Erman: I was still frightened.

Blotcher: Had a certain style evolved by then?

Erman: No; not at all. It was just ‘get it done.’ The cinematographers, for the most part, on those shows, were old-time Hollywood cameramen who were just on their last legs, and they didn’t want to hear from kids.  They weren’t interested in young people. They kind of pushed you around. And I was eminently pushable. So I went back to USC, and I took some film classes.

Blotcher: When you put the brakes on your career at that point, you had a long-term plan, though: I will go back?

Erman: I did. I had a long-term plan that if I didn’t start really having some measure of success by a certain point, I’d go back to casting. And I knew I could always go back to casting because I had risen so quickly in the casting ranks. And I knew it was something I was very good at. I was having a very, very hard time. And one day, the phone rang, and it was a guy who ran a theater called the Players Ring where I had been actor. He said, "Listen, I know you want to direct and we’re doing the West Coast premiere of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and I would love to have you direct it" And I said, "Yeah, that sounds sort of interesting."
And he said, "Before we go any further, I have to tell you it’s a four-month commitment and all we’re gonna pay you is $200." And I said, "Okay." He said, "You mean okay you’re gonna do it?" "Yeah." And he said, "Why?" And I said, "Because it’ll get me through Thanksgiving and Christmas." Because Thanksgiving and Christmas for me was always a very rough time because I was pretty unhappy as a human being.

Blotcher: Was LA more of a theater town back then?

Erman: No; it was a bad theater town.  The Players Ring and a theater called The Circle were the first two small theaters that got any prominence. And they were in the round. I had done a play at the Players Ring called End as a Man which was later made into a film called The Strange One.

Blotcher: Oh – Ben Gazzara [starred in the film adaptation].

Erman: Yes. And I had created quite a stir in that play because I had played a Bible-thumping, lisping, myopic guy who couldn’t say his Rs. So, I was like a freak, but I had a big part. I was good, I guess.

Blotcher: Was that the part that Arthur Storch played in the film?

Erman: Exactly. So [laughs], my parents were no longer living in Los Angeles; they were living down in Palm Springs and they came up with some of their friends to see the play. There was a line in the play where I said to the Ben Gazzara character, who was at that time Robert Vaughan in our show, "You said my mother was intimate with a monkey and that’s how I was born." And I heard in the audience this person go [Erman gasps dramatically].
Well, my mother came backstage, trailing my father and she said, "You’re leaving this play!" I said, "No, no." She said, "This play is going to make you very, very nervous; it’s going to make you unhappy." And I said, "It’s going to make you very nervous". [laugh]
So, I had this rapport with the guy who ran the theater, and he asked me to do the play [Cuckoo’s Nest] and I agreed to do it. I did some research and found that the reason the play had not originally succeeded in New York was because Kirk Douglas had played the part [R.P. McMurphy] that Jack Nicholson had played in the movie. And Kirk Douglas had played it as such an unlikable character that the audience could never identify with anything in the play. They didn’t care when he got electrocuted [electroshock therapy]. They didn’t care when the nurse – because they hated him.
Warren OatesSo, I thought, "well, I better get someone kind of likable." Well, on Stoney Burke there had been an actor named Warren Oates. And I call up Warren Oates and I say, "I’m doing this play and I want you to be in it." And he says "Cool, send it to me." So, I sent him the play and he called me up and said, "It’s an interesting play. Which part did you want me to play?" I said "You can play McMurphy." And he said, "I’ve never played the lead in anything." I said, "Well, I really believe you can play this part and I want you to play it."
So, he did, and the play got a lot of notoriety because already he was pretty well-established. He had been in The Wild Bunch, and he had done several other things, and he was a respected actor in Hollywood. So, everybody came to see the play.

Blotcher: What year was this?

Erman:’65. So, I got offered My Favorite Martian. I did two episodes –

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