Watching the wonderful Landau Eugene Murphy, Jr. sing “My Way” last night as one of the final four contestants on “America’s Got Talent”, I was transported back to my amazing years with my “godfather” Frank Sinatra. Mr. Murphy is so charming, so humble, and so downright eerie in his ability to sing Sinatra songs in Sinatra’s voice, that I am rooting hard for him to win…..but there was still only one “Chairman of the Board”.
As I wrote in Bringing Back The Old Hollywood,
Sinatra Lifts The Veil
Right around my eighteenth birthday (June 30,1964), I was summoned to Frank’s house, and finally discovered why Frank had been so incredibly kind to me.
Frank flipped me the keys, said “Happy birthday, kid”, and invited me in.
I just stood there staring.
“Uh…are you saying I can drive the car for a while?”
“Drive it for as long as you want. It’s yours.”
“Mine? To keep?”
“Yeah. Now come inside.”
And, with that, I knew that I owned the car. It was also clear that there was to be no more conversation about it with Frank. As I came to learn, when Frank had said or done what he set out to say or do, that was it. Case closed. On to the next.
Following Frank inside, I first met Jilly Rizzo, Frank’s bodyguard, companion, and future restaurateur. Even though I wasn’t totally sure at the time who Damon Runyan was, I remember that Jilly immediately struck me as the quintessential Runyanesque character. He was thickset and seemed more like a human version of Ferdinand the Bull than a real person. His hellos, yeses, and most other responses were accomplished with a unique grunt, one that I would grow to love and anticipate. He also had a wandering eye, so you were never quite sure if he was looking directly at you or not. Depending on how he felt about you that could have been a very good thing. At that time, I had no idea who he was or what he did for Frank. I simply had the instinctive feeling that I should probably always keep on Jilly’s good side, assuming I could figure out what side that was.
We sat down and Frank explained to me that my father, quite simply, had saved his career.
I already knew that Sinatra had been a huge star in the 1930s and 1940s as a singer, a teen idol, and in movies. He told me that he had, however, suffered some health problems and that his film career had “gone into the toilet.” I found out later that he had actually hemorrhaged his vocal chords twice in 1949 and 1950 and that the 1948 movie The Kissing Bandit had been a disaster for him.
In 1951, my Dad, who had been a huge Sinatra fan, had called Frank to his office at Columbia to tell him that the studio had purchased the film rights to From Here To Eternity, a soon-to-be bestselling book. Dad told Sinatra that there was a character in the film named Maggio that would be perfect for Sinatra and promised Sinatra the part.
I later discovered that Columbia had purchased the rights to the book from its author James Jones in March 1951 for eighty-five thousand dollars.
My sister Susie told me that Jones was our constant houseguest during that period of time. She remembers Dad having the manuscript for the book, not the book itself. Susie was twelve at the time and wanted to read the manuscript too and Dad would let her read certain passages but only after he had “crossed out a lot of the bad words.”
Frank told me that he immediately read the book and was fascinated by the character of Maggio. He called my Dad to say he was “in.”
Frank then said that Dad called Sinatra a few days later to say that Harry Cohn had overruled him. My father profusely apologized to Sinatra and told him that he had resigned from the studio in protest.
“Your Dad was a stand-up guy, Stephen. You need to know that. He really put his ass on the line for me.”
Frank did not tell me the details of what happened next, except to say that Harry Cohn changed his mind and that Frank got the role. Red Skelton and Ray Stark would later fill in the missing details for me.
“That part changed everything for me, Stephen,” Frank said. “After Maggio, people took me seriously as an actor. Without your Dad, that might have never happened.”
Frank then explained that my father’s sudden death (May 17, 1951) within a couple of months after the incident with Cohn, and long before production had even begun on the film, had prevented Frank from being able to repay my Dad.
That’s where I came in.”
(to be concluded on Friday)