One of the great pleasures I experienced during my career in TV news was the opportunity to interview some very interesting people. I've interviewed politicians, actors, sports figures, scientists, and many, many other newsmakers.
The news last week of the death of Olivia de Havilland at age 104 brought back some very fond memories of interviewing her while a guest here in Montgomery.
I'd say, without fear of contradiction, the top of the list for truly pleasurable interviews occurred in December, 1985. I got a call from the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, asking if we would have Olivia de Havilland as the guest on our half-hour news magazine program "Alabama Illustrated." Of course, we said "yes." Miss De Havilland was to be in Montgomery to serve as the hostess for the grand opening of the new Shakespeare Theater complex on the grounds of the Blount Cultural Park. I was already familiar with the project, having spent a great deal of time with the patriarch of the Blount family, Winton Blount preparing a documentary on the history of the Shakespeare Festival and its move to Montgomery.
Having Miss de Havilland — along with her co-host, the brilliant stage and screen actor Tony Randall — to lead the audience through the evening's events at the theater was a real coup for the Alabama Shakespeare Festival. It gave theatrical credibility for the theater, which carried a $21.5 million price tag — all paid for in a donation from Mr. Blount and his wife, Carolyn.
Let's get back to the interview.
I had done more than my usual preparation for the Alabama Illustrated interview with Miss de Havilland. I felt as though I knew more than enough to fill the time of the broadcast, but I put in an extra amount of time preparing my questions regarding her award-winning career.
When she walked into Studio A at WSFA-TV, I felt like I was in the presence of movie royalty. She was kind to me and all the crew in the studio. She was anything but demanding. She was — in a word — glamorous.
When the video tape machines rolled and the interview began, she showed a genuine professionalism. After talking about why she was in Montgomery, it was time to talk about her movies. Of course, the most memorable film of her career was when she played Melanie Wilkes in "Gone With The Wind" in 1939. She earned a well-deserved Academy Award nomination as Best Supporting Actress, but lost to Hattie McDaniel, a castmate and the first African American to win an Academy Award.
During the course of our interview, I told Miss de Havilland how much I appreciated her performance in that classic film. I thoroughly enjoyed her riveting portrayal of a woman's struggle inside an insane asylum. I remember her telling me how difficult it was getting into the role in that 1948 film.
She earned two Academy Awards, both for Best Actress — first in "To Each His Own" in 1946 and in 1949's "The Heiress."
I thought it was ironic that de Havilland came to Montgomery to host the first stage play at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, which was a performance of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. Fifty years earlier, at the age of 19, Miss de Havilland had earned her "big break" reprising that stage play's role in a 1935 film adaptation with Dick Powell and Jimmy Cagney.
Now to another favorite interview ... quite different from Miss de Havilland.
I can hear this actor with a shaved head and his trademark Tootsie Roll Pop in the corner of his mouth saying "Who loves you baby?" It was actor Telly Savalas. I met him during one of CBS's "Star Weekends," where the stars of the networks' fall lineup were flown to a hotel in Atlanta and interviewed by CBS affiliates from around the country.
The old saying, "Never judge a book by its cover" could never have been truer than when I met Telly Savalas. He was known by a one name moniker, Kojak. I had pegged the actor Savalas to be rough and tough just like Kojak on screen ... but found him to be just the opposite. We did the interview on the balcony of our hotel room in Atlanta. Savalas treated me like a long-lost friend. We hit it off really well talking about his career working for, among many employers, the U.S. State Department and ABC Sports, where Savalas was responsible for giving Howard Cosell his first job in TV. He had dozens of roles in TV and film, including a James Bond villain, Ernst Blofeld, in the movie "On Her Majesty's Secret Service" in 1969.
Based on my brief conversation, he was one of those guys that you would like to have as a best friend ... the kind you would go off on a long weekend ... without the wives. But I've been snookered more than once.
But hey, "Who loves you baby?"
Stay well through this pandemic ... and think happy thoughts.