My Big Break
Slumped against a tire on my father’s truck, almost enjoying the smog-toothed Santa Anas toasting the Valley, I watched a newish Cadillac maneuver down the alley. The dark-suited man at the wheel eased into a marked space behind the hospital, then eyed me as he strolled toward the staff door.
Then he looked at me again and stopped. A far-away look came into his eyes. “I know who you are,” he said, taking a few steps toward me. “You’re Frank’s son — the scrap-metal guy — right?”
Dad was in the basement, trying to schmooze a hospital janitor into selling him worn-out brass faucets. “Correct,” I replied, looking closely at this man. Tall, burly, balding, with thin lips and a hawk’s nose, he looked to be about fifty and sounded like New York.
“My father's downstairs. Shall I get him for you?”
The man edged closer. “You’ll pardon me saying so, Ted, because I know how old you are, but in the right clothes, you could probably pass for a rugged nine-year-old.”
I was an inch over five feet that day in 1960, and my usual buzz cut was overgrown after weeks of furlough. I swam in my father’s work khakis, sleeves and pant cuffs rolled, shirt bagging over an overlong belt cinching my bunched-up waist. I looked the man in the eye, grinning at his mistake.
“Oh, that’s tremendous!” he said. “How did you lose that tooth? In an accident? It’s appealing, you know, in someone so young.”
I'd been decked by a grenade fragment at Ft. Ord, and my Army-issue temporary denture kept falling out, but all I said was, “In a way."
“Let me tell you what I’m thinking,” said the man, his eyes devouring me. “I’m helping Frank Sinatra produce a film — you know who he is, right?”
He came still closer. From six feet I felt an odd vibe, a weird energy that he projected. It was strange and unsettling. What did he want?
“Sure.” I nodded.
“Well, the film’s called "Ocean’s Eleven," and there’s a part in it for a boy of nine or ten. The undertaker’s son. A small role, but pivotal. Now, when you try to find someone that young to act in a movie — well, it’s difficult. Most kids don’t have the maturity to handle it. At least the ones we’ve tested. They don’t understand what’s expected of them. But you’d be perfect. Has anyone told you that you’re extraordinarily poised?”
“Excuse me, sir,” I said. “Who are you?”
“Sorry,” he said, digging a card from his wallet. “I’m Sheldon Leonard."
The name was familiar. Something to do with the movies.
"I’m a producer," he continued, "but I also do a little PR work for the hospital, consulting — you understand?”
“You're a guy who knows a better way,” I said.
“Oh, that’s great,” he said, flashing a toothy grin. “Well, what do you say, Ted, are you interested in getting into the movies?”
“Maybe,” I said, a little uneasy, wondering what was going on. He was big, but I was the pugil-stick champ of Company D, 8th Infantry. If he makes a move on me, I decided, I'll feed him the truck door, then grab the crowbar from under the seat “What would I have to do?” I asked, squinting in the sun.
“Come down to the studio,” he said. “Read the script, rehearse a bit, and then do a scene with the cameras rolling. So I can tell if you look as good on film as you do in person.”
“As soon as possible,” he said. “We’re shooting next month.”
Suddenly everything was clear. This tidy North Hollywood alley was my Schwab’s Drugstore. Dad’s baggy khakis were my tight sweater. I had been discovered! A Hollywood bigshot wanted to make me a star. I would be famous! I’d have my pick of girls! My pockets would be stuffed with money! I was going to be a movie star!
Reality jumped up and blew reveille. “I need to tell you something, Mr. Leonard,” I said. “Ted is my brother. I’m M___ — and I’m 18, not 14.”
“And I’ve got to report to the Presidio of San Francisco by midnight tomorrow to catch a ship for Korea. I’m in the Army.”
“I see,” he said, obviously pained. “How long will you be there?”
“Can't you postpone? Reschedule?”
My head swam. Who could I call? My former company commander? The replacement depot? The Red Cross? My mother’s illness! But Mom was doing well that month, and hardship discharges took months, when granted at all. What if I did the screen test, reported a few days late? They’d bust me back to PFC, for sure, and maybe fine me. What would I care? Movie stars make lots of money! Or maybe I’d just quit. Change my name. I’d become, oh, Cole Wilcox, so big a star that even the Army couldn’t touch me.
Two seconds later I realized that a squad of MPs would drag me off to a court-martial for desertion. Then prison. And what if my test was a bust?
“Let me work on that,” I said.
“Call me. And if it doesn’t work out, give me a ring when you get back. I have a hunch you’ll test very well.“ I wrung his manicured hand, and he vanished into the hospital.
I sought Dad’s counsel, but all he said was “You're a man now. Listen to your gut, make up your mind.”
That night I did not sleep. Could I go on sick call at Ft. MacArthur and fake illness? What if I was too old when I returned from Korea? How could I pass up a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity?
When I got up in the morning I put on my uniform. My gut said there was something a little odd about this setup, about Leonard. More importantly, I had volunteered to serve, had placed myself under military discipline. Maybe I could have contrived some way to miss my ship, but I knew it wasn't right.
On the 17-day passage to Inchon I read dozens of old magazines from the ships’ library. There were many stories about tragedies that had befallen some of Hollywood's biggest names. Before our anchors rattled into the Yellow Sea, I realized that film fame held no guarantees; the movies might devour me. Nevertheless, I felt cheated. I'd been offered a chance that I couldn't take.
By the time I returned to the States, "Ocean’s Eleven" was no longer in theaters. The screen test offer became family lore; for the rest of her life, my mother bragged that I “gave up a movie career” to be a soldier. I transferred Leonard’s card through decades of wallets. One day I’ll call, I told myself.
When I finally did, in 1974, the number, of course, belonged to someone else. I suppose that I might have found Leonard, but clearly I was no longer a candidate for juvenile roles. I remained curious about who had played the undertaker’s son. Did he go on to become a star?
In the Eighties, when video stores popped up like corn in sizzling oil, I searched in vain for "Ocean’s Eleven." The film ran occasionally on cable, but each time I saw it scheduled, something came up and I missed it.
Sheldon Leonard died in January 1997. I examined the photo that ran with his newspaper obituary, a tall, burly fellow with a bulbous nose and a full head of hair. Not the man I met in the hospital alley. After Sinatra died, I finally found a copy of "Ocean’s Eleven." I watched it twice: There is no child in the cast, no undertaker’s son. Leonard’s name is not among the credits.
So I read And The Show Goes On, Leonard’s 1994 autobiography. In January 1960 he was executive producer of “Make Room For Daddy,” and assembling cast and scripts for “The Andy Griffith Show.” It's hard to believe that he would have also been working as a small-time PR consultant. I’ll probably never know who that man really was, how he got Leonard’s card, or what he wanted, but it seems clear that he had some hidden agenda. The regret that had occasionally gnawed at me at last fell silent. On that warm winter day long ago, I had listened to my gut, and made the right choice.
© 2001 Marvin J. Wolf
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FROM Marvin J. Wolf
On this page are true stories, magazine articles, excerpts from books and unpublished works, short fiction, and photographs, each offering a glimpse of my life, work and times. Your comments welcome. © Marvin J. Wolf. All rights reserved.