Sunday, September 4, 2016

This Day in Film History (Thomas Tryon, Actor-Novelist of Secrets, Dies)

Sept. 4, 1991—Back in the city he had seemingly left behind two decades before in a successful mid-career switch, actor-turned-novelist Thomas Tryon died of stomach cancer in Los Angeles at age 65.

I had been mildly interested in Tryon’s life and work until nine years ago, when I spent time in the Hartford area—more specifically, his hometown, Wethersfield, Conn. While there, I discovered that he had been one of the most famous residents of this town dating back to colonial times, and had even set some of his books there.

Whether writing horror fiction or roman a clefs about Hollywood, Tryon created characters who hid behind facades. His seemingly inevitable return to that motif may have had something to do with the false front he adopted as a gay man trying to survive as an actor in Tinseltown for a dozen years in the 1950s and 1960s.

Like other young gay actors groomed as idols in this time—Tab Hunter, Troy Donahue, and Rock Hudson—Tryon took on romantic roles, went out with starlets on dates set up by nervous studios, and entered a marriage before gossip could spread about his unattached state, then got out of it as soon as possible without arousing unseemly talk.

Discomfort marked Tryon’s onscreen appearances as much as his private life, with his performances often described as “wooden.” It wasn’t that he was unintelligent—he had gotten a bachelor’s degree in fine arts from Yale, after all—but somehow this did not translate in front of the camera.

In his thirties, Tryon still managed to work steadily, if not fruitfully, most prominently on Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color as Western hero “Texas John Slaughter.” But three roles in particular crystallized his precarious position in the industry:

* I Married a Monster from Outer Space (1958), in which Tryon’s role,  as the eponymous alien trying to hide his true nature from his beautiful wife, must have resonated all too much for a closeted gay whose conventional heterosexual marriage was collapsing;

* Something's Got to Give (1962), a comedy that would have featured Tryon as a man stranded on a tropical island with Marilyn Monroe—except that the film goddess was fired, she committed suicide shortly thereafter, and the production was overhauled with a different name (Move Over, Darling) and a different cast headed by Doris Day and James Garner—but no part for Tryon this time; and

*The Cardinal (1963), an all-star adaptation of a bestselling novel, with Tryon in a seemingly plumb role, ranging in time from a young man to an old prince of the Church—except that director Otto Preminger humiliated the actor by firing him in front of the entire cast, crew, and even his visiting parents, only to hire him back, satisfied that a lesson had been taught. The experience sapped any lingering joy Tryon may have had in acting, and when good roles dried up after he hit 40 years old, he was ripe for a change.

Tryon’s Eureka moment came after seeing the movie adaptation of Ira Levin’s Satan-in-Manhattan novel Rosemary’s Baby in 1968. He reacted the same way that James Fenimore Cooper did in 1819 when he read a popular British novel: he thought he could write a book just as good, if not better than.

In both popular and critical terms, Tryon did better with his rookie effort, The Other, than Cooper did with his, Precaution. The actor’s timing and instinct for a shift in popular taste was acute: In the immediate aftermath of Rosemary’s Baby, the reading public couldn’t get enough of horror fiction, with The Exorcist, The Possession of Joel Delaney, and The Sentinel all climbing the bestseller lists—and that was before Stephen King even got into the act. The Other not only soon had Hollywood calling, but Tryon was able to adapt his own work to the screen.

This change of career also involved a change in life. Even as he abandoned Hollywood, an industry whose professionals cast off their old identities, Tryon reinvented himself yet again.

It started, subtly, with the first name he adopted: “Thomas,” not what had appeared on marquees, “Tom”—a signal that he desired to be taken seriously. He got as far away from Hollywood as he could without leaving the country, settling in New York, not far from where he grew up. Freed from the need to appear young for flattering closeups, he let his hair go gray and longer. And, instead of pretending to be heterosexual, he made little effort to hide his successive relationships with two longtime male companions.

This more open period coincided with the last years of Joan Crawford. In Joan Crawford: The Essential Biography, Lawrence J. Quirk claims that during this time, the aging actress used Tryon as a “walker,” or escort. But Tryon ignored her come-ons—partly because he was already involved with a gay man, but also because he feared that Crawford would press him into co-writing her memoir. 

At the same time, because of his friendship with Crawford, Tryon became increasingly interested in Old Hollywood, gathering facts and gossip that he spun into Crowned Heads and a collection that came out a decade later with a similar structure and subject matter, All That Glitters. (In the latter, Tryon combined aspects of Crawford with her bete noire, Bette Davis, to create the nasty old-time screen idol "Claire Regrett."
I read Crowned Heads nearly 40 years ago and was particularly impressed with its first story, “Fedora,” about a mysterious foreign star of the silent and early sound era whose career has elements of Marlene Dietrich and, even more powerfully, Greta Garbo. Billy Wilder adapted it in 1979 as his next-to-last film. It did not fare well at the box office, but it deserves a second look as a kind of bookend to his even more corrosive examination of discard and decay in Tinseltown,  Sunset Boulevard. (Fedora even includes in the cast that earlier classic’s male lead, William Holden.)

Not everyone was pleased with Tryon’s achievement as a novelist: Roger Ebert stated bluntly that his 1976 interview with the actor-turned-novelist was “not a success,” as the film critic had been unable to surmount the notion that he had been suckered into “conspiracy is to elevate a non-book…into an artifact worth spending $2.3 million on.” But he and other naysayers could only groan as Tryon earned his fourth straight bestseller.

Ten years later, Tryon returned to this world of faded glamor and living secrets with All That Glitters. Its narrator is, much like Tryon himself, a onetime actor who has found his true calling as a novelist. In this wised-up voice, fury and world-weariness vie for the upper hand in revealing how the movie industry deals with has-beens and misfits, but the dominant impression is of fascination in spite of oneself:

“Who can count those broken hearts of Hollywood? I've heard of a famous star of the forties who, suffering a severely altered lifestyle, actually lives out of her car, a vintage Plymouth; not quite a bag lady, but ‘car lady’ is close. I know of another star who ended up waiting tables at a fancy Beverly Hills soda fountain, once serving coffee to the director who’d made her a star. And there’s a third party I know personally, who’s been hidden away in a rubber room for years; bent her mind over a guy she couldn’t have—a married man; bad business. Sure, you know who I mean. Everybody knows about this one; she was a well-publicized commodity about twenty years ago. Hedda and Louella did their work well. That sad tale made good copy, start to finish. But probably you don’t know the whole story. I knew her back in those days, happier, more innocent days; she was a happy girl, for a while, but the world’s taken a turn or two since, and she’s not so happy anymore.”



Phil Finkel said...

As a teen in the 1970's, and before reading my first Stephen King novel "'Salem's Lot," I checked out Tryon's "Harvest Home" from the Englewood Library. I ate it up, and on sibling drives through autumnal north Jersey, would wonder what really went on behind those old stone walls...

MikeT said...

Thanks for the observation, Phil!