The Byronic Heroine
Q: Where were you born?
Byron: I was born Jean Burkhart in Paducah, Kentucky. I left there when I was fairly young, and I went to Los Angeles when I was 19.
Q: How did you acquire the name Jean Byron? Was
it inspired at all by Lord Byron?
Byron: I was working as a singer with January Savitt’s orchestra, and Jan asked me what name I wanted to use. I said, “Why not my own?” But he said, “You don’t want to do
that.” So, I said, “Well, anything that starts with a ‘B’ then.” The man looked across the office and saw his friend Dave Shelley. That made him think of Lord Byron, so he said,
“How about Jean Byron?”
Q: Why did you decide to keep the name when you
Byron: I used it when I got my Screen Actors Guild card because it was handy. I never intended to keep it, and I always thought I would change it. Much later I changed the spelling of my first name from “Jean” to “Jeane” because of a suggestion by a friend who was deep into numerology. I didn’t believe in it but I like the spelling. It was the same way Jeane Dixon spelled it.
Q: When did that come about?
Byron: Sometime in the early seventies. Most of my film and television credits are as “Jean” Byron.
Q: How did you get started in show business?
Byron: Like so many young girls, I started taking dancing lessons when I was very young. I also fell in love with movies, particularly those starring Astaire and Rogers. So I wanted to become a dancer. I got a bird’s eye view of professional theater when the Schuberts came to town to do some light opera. Freddie De Cordova was part of the staff. They chose me and some other kids from the dancing school for the chorus. I learned the life of a dancer was very hard. I saw it was preferable to be a singer. The principal players, of course, made the best money. John Schubert Jr. told the dance director Carl Randall, “Put her in the middle of the chorus line.” He probably felt sorry for me because Randall was always on my case when the choreography called for ballet, especially point work. I had never been “on toe” before in my life. There was one time where we performed the cakewalk, and Freddie De Cordova said to me, “You were very good.” It thrilled me, and I never forgot it. Years later, Freddie became the producer of The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. That was my start.
Q: When did you first get to Hollywood?
Byron: I almost got a contract when I was thirteen back in 1939. Jesse Lasky came to town with his radio show called Gateway to Hollywood and I won the local show. My mother and I went to California for the semi-finals. I did a scene on the radio with Cary Grant. I was in shock. I just kept thinking how great he was in Gunga Din (1939).
Q: How did he treat you?
Byron: It all went by too quickly. It was very professional. When Grant showed up at the radio show, he came directly from the studio. He was still in make-up. We had some conversation, but I was too much in shock to remember anything. I asked him for his autograph. There was no table, so he asked me to turn around, and he wrote it using my back. He was so charming.
Q: Did you win the contest?
Byron: No, Gale Storm won, but I had made a good impression. There was some interest in me. They gave me a tour of the studios. I met Chester Morris and George Saunders there. I remember Saunders looking down at me with a dour expression. I even saw Lucille Ball at the time, and she looked gorgeous.
Q: Who impressed you most?
Byron: I was on the RKO lot when we ran into this most attractive man. His eyes were just glowing. After he passed, I asked who he was. “That’s Orson Welles,” they told me. “He’s shooting a picture here called Citizen Kane (1941).” He made such an impression on me. Seeing him was the highlight of my trip. Anyway, my mother and I talked it over, and we decided it was best for me to finish my education. Then I could pursue a career.
Q: How did World War Two affect your plans?
Byron: After Pearl Harbor, my father was drafted. He was in his forties. Mother got a job, and I started singing evenings in a nightclub while still going to school by day. It really was a high class bar. There was a platform behind the bar with three musicians and myself. It was good training. When my father got out of the army after the war, we moved to Los Angeles. The Ben Bard Players gave me a scholarship because they were looking for women performers. They had a lot of men studying there because of the G.I. bill. I just absolutely adored it. I couldn’t get enough of it, but I worked like a dog.
Q: How did you get into motion pictures?
Byron: I had a very good part at the “Players Ring” and one of the guys in the show was Larry Stewart. His father was a casting director for Sam Katzman Productions, which was operating out of Columbia Studios. After his father came to the theater to see the play, he sent me a message to come and see him. He was casting a film called Voodoo Tiger and I was offered the female lead. It was one of the Jungle Jim series with Johnny Weissmuller. He was a darling man. The picture was simply hysterical.
Q: What stands out most in your mind about
Voodoo Tiger (1952)?
Byron: There was this seven year old chimp that I carried around on my hip. The chimp was very gentle and she was called Tamba. I played an English lady with an accent who comes to the jungle in search of stolen art treasures. The Nazis stole some art treasures from France and hid them in the jungle. Some gangsters were also after the treasure, and headhunters were also around. My next film was Magnetic Monster (1953).
Q: That was a most unusual film. It evidently
influenced by Dragnet (1952 – 1970) except with scientists instead of
detectives. You really looked wonderful in that film.
Byron: You know, I made that in one day. I played Richard Carlson’s wife, so you got to see a little of his home life. He kept getting called off to deal with this threat, the element that became the magnetic monster. They used a lot of impressive old footage from a German film.
Q: That was Gold (1934), which starred
Brigitte Helm. The effects were really quite good.
Byron: Well they spliced it together and that became the climax.
Q: Your character was pregnant in the film, and
Richard Carlson kept complaining you were too thin.
Byron: He kept trying to feed be white bread and all these high fat foods. It’s just the opposite of what you should eat. So the scientist pushing this diet seems rather funny today.
Q: What do you recall about Serpent of the
Byron: That was also for Sam Katzman. He used all the old sets from the Rita Hayworth film Salome (1953). Those sets were really beautiful. Rhonda Fleming played Cleopatra and Raymond Burr played Marc Antony. Rhonda was a very nice lady, and the prettiest girl I had ever seen. I played Charmain, her handmaiden. I saw this film about three years ago, and the thing that impressed me most was my belly (laughs). I had a wonderful costume on and they weren’t supposed to photograph my naked belly. You were supposed to wear a belt or something. Leonard Katzman was the assistant director, and he was a very nice man. He was the nephew of Sam Katzman. The director was William Castle.
Q: What do you recall of William Castle?
Byron: He was kind of hard to work with. He was so wired: he worked fast, he talked fast, he moved fast. Of course, I didn’t know anything about high blood pressure then, but there was something about him that made me uneasy. I felt subconsciously that he wasn’t taking good care of himself. I prefer a calmer director like Arthur Hiller.
Q: When did you work with Hiller?
Byron: I was on a very early NBC television series called Matinee Theatre, and it was wonderful. I had such fun doing it. It was at NBC in Burbank and was produced by Al McCleary. They did five of them a week, and they were individual dramas one hour long. Arthur Hiller was calm, quiet and he knew exactly what he wanted. He never told you what to do. He took what you had and very gently focused it. It was such a joy to work with him. I’m sorry I never had a chance to work with him again after that program.
Q: Did you do a lot of television?
Byron: Oh, yes, and many commercials too. I almost died doing one show. It was a quiz show called Can Do from CBS in New York, and the host was Robert Alda. It was a live show for Revlon, and opening night was November 26, 1956. Just before air time, my gown exploded. It was an expensive gown that was imported and not flame retardant. It was a strapless, beaded gown with a tight crepe skirt under a larger tulle skirt that went down to the floor. I am a very, very lucky lady, because I also had long hair. I was in the dressing room for a touch-up on my hair. There was very little space in there. The technical director came to the door and said, “One minute to air time!” One of the account execs was with him. I put down my cigarette and started walking towards them. The technical director was going to usher me toward my marker where I was to open the show saying, “Good evening. I’m Jean Byron. Welcome to Can Do.” The camera’s first position was way back to see the gown. They wanted a shot of me sitting on a bench before they dollied in. Anyway, as I got to the door, the tulle skirt just exploded. I guess it was a spark from the cigarette. They grabbed me to pull it off. They tore this stinking black mess off me, just leaving the slip. Not a word was spoken, not from the hairdresser or the crew. I went over to the bench. The cameraman took one look at me, and dollied in for an above-the-waist shot. Just then the red light went on and I said, “Good evening, I’m Jean Byron…”
Q: You must have been on automatic pilot.
Byron: I was. I have no idea how I got through it. The adrenaline was so strong, and I didn’t have time for a delayed reaction. You know, the producers never so much as acknowledged what happened. Nowadays, everyone would be thinking lawsuit, but that thought never crossed my mind. It probably was against the law to import the fabric used in the gown. Can Do also turned out to be a bomb, and the program lasted six weeks.
Q: You were also the “Lux” girl in the late
Byron: Yes, I hadn’t had a vacation in a long time, and I was in New York just enjoying myself, going to the theater and seeing the sights. Then I got a call from J.W. Thompson who asked, “Would you be interested in doing some commercials for Lux soap?” So I made an appointment to do a test, and he gave me three scripts. There were a group of observers there, men in black suits to whom I was introduced, and that should have tipped me off that they were having difficulties finding someone. So I chatted with the director and then did two takes of each script, one in color and one in black and white. The director printed six consecutive commercials, each one with the first take. They were very impressed. By the time I got home, the phone was ringing with an offer for me to be the “Lux” spokesperson. This was for The Rosemary Clooney Show (1957-58) on NBC, and I also did The Lux Playhouse (1958-59). Years earlier, I did Lux Video Theater (1950-57). That was in 1952 and 1953. I worked with Thomas Mitchell at that time, who was such an incredibly nice individual. I was having a little bit of trouble with one scene, and he helped me out. He knew just how to handle it.
Q: Did you work with any of the great TV
Byron: In the real early days of television, I worked with Ed Wynn. I remember we did one crazy sketch where I had to stand on my head. Of course, I could do it, but when I straightened up, I acted a little dizzy. “Oh no!” Ed exclaimed. “Don’t do that! When you stand up, don’t do anything!” So I said, “O.K.” He seemed worried about anything that detracted the spotlight from him, but I also learned something about comedy timing from him.
Q: You appeared on a lot of television shows.
Which ones come to mind?
Byron: There were so many I couldn’t keep track of them. There was Cheyenne (1955-63) with Clint Walker. I enjoyed working with him very much. There was Laramie (1959-63) and I was also on Batman (1966-68). I was on a lot of anthology shows such as Studio 57 (1954-55) and Science Fiction Theater (1955-57). Then there was that series with Rod Serling.
Q: The Twilight Zone?
Byron: Yes, and then I was in the original pilot for Columbo with Peter Falk in 1971.
Q: Tell us about your two famous television
series. When did you sign for The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis?
Byron: That was in 1959. I played Ruth Adams, the high school teacher. That show had a really good cast. Dwayne Hickman was wonderful. He was a real peach. The last time I saw him was shortly before I left Los Angeles, when he came to see a play I was doing. His brother Darryl was on the show for awhile, too, and he was a nice guy. The careers of some of the people from the first season really took off. There was Ron Howard, for example. He was just a kid but he was very poised and rather nice. Today he is one of our leading directors. Then there was Tuesday Weld as Thalia Menniger. Do you recall who played the rich kid that competed with Dobie for Thalia? It was Warren Beatty. I could really tell he was going places. He played Milton Armitage. His mother was played by Doris Packer. She was divine and a lot of fun. She did her part very, very well. After Warren left the show, they introduced another rich kid, Chatsworth Osborne Jr. played by Steve Franken. But they kept Doris, however, and changed her from Clarice Armitage to Mrs. Chatsworth Osborne Sr.
Q: Didn’t you play two different characters
Byron: The second season, the boys went to college. The producer Rod Amateau liked me, however, so I became a college teacher in the next season. They used my real name and I became Dr. Burkhart. They kept changing my specialty. One week I was an anthropologist, and the next I was a historian or something else. I worked on the show frequently. They had a great cast and I enjoyed the whole experience very much.
Q: Any recollections of Bob Denver?
Byron: He was quite memorable as Maynard G. Krebbs. He played the beatnik part so well. He was very nice and quite charming, but you know, we didn’t work much together. The paths of our characters just didn’t cross, and I don’t think we ever had a scene with just the two of us. The cast of that show really worked well together. The show ran for four years, and the boys were starting to outgrow their parts.
Q: Your next series followed immediately. How
did you become involved with The Patty Duke Show?
Byron: Writer Max Schulman created Dobie Gillis and he wrote another pilot and created a role especially for me. I was the second lead. The leading part was played by a beautiful girl named Mary LaRoche. Unfortunately, this pilot did not sell. But United Artists saw the pilot and liked it. They were casting The Patty Duke Show, which was written by Sidney Sheldon. The pilot had Patty playing a dual role as two identical cousins. Well, United Artists called my agent and said, “We want to cast Jean Byron for this pilot.” So I went down to pick up a script and sign a contract. As I was going out the door, Bill Asher said that if the show got picked up, it would be filmed in New York. After a long pause, I said, “Oh?” That was unexpected.
Q: Was the pilot set in New York?
Byron: No, it was set in San Francisco. They did quite a bit of location work with Patty there. Mark Miller played the original father, Martin Lane. Mark later played the lead in Please Don’t Eat the Daisies (1965-67). Later, they couldn’t come to terms with Mark and he was replaced by William Schallert. Ross Lane, the son, was played in the pilot by Charles Herbert. John McGiver was also in the pilot as Martin’s boss, the head of the newspaper where Martin worked. Anyway, I recall watching the Oscar awards, and when they announced “Patty Duke” for an Oscar, I knew I had a job and that the series would be picked up.
Q: What were some of the changes made after the
Byron: The European cousin, Cathy, became more elegant. The family became less affluent and lived in a more middle class home in Brooklyn Heights. They also eliminated the large dog, a sheep dog, and perhaps that was for the best. My only disappointment on the show was that they changed my character somewhat from the pilot, but it still worked out fine.
Q: Was filming in New York a real hardship for
Byron: It was a sacrifice. I missed my family. Eventually they did return to film in Hollywood by the show’s last season.
Q: What do you recall about the program?
Byron: It was a real heavy schedule. It was almost a seven-day-a-week job. My day ran from 7 AM to 7 PM, and I came in even before Patty. It was a very heavy schedule for Patty Duke as well, because she played two roles. Of course, there was a double on the set at all times. Sometimes I felt sorry for her since she really didn’t have that much to do. She was mostly photographed from behind in over-the-shoulder shots talking with Patty. They also relied on split screen effects quite often. Patty was marvelous. She was a real workhorse, like me. She and I would do pick-up shots every Friday. We worked together so well, and we would always get our things done in one take. She was simply marvelous and like quicksilver. She would change her clothes so quickly.
Q: How did you enjoy working with the rest of
Byron: They were all fine. I knew William Schallert for a long time, and I worked with his wife Leah as well. He played Professor Leander Pomfritt on Dobie Gillis so we worked together on both these series. I was very fond of Paul O’Keefe, who played my son Ross Lane. When we took publicity shots, I would always reach down and put my arm on him. But between seasons he grew so quickly. When we started one season, I was surprised when he spoke to me. His voice had gotten so deep, I was startled. One of my all-time favorites was John McGiver. You could just eat him with a spoon he was so sweet and considerate. What a precious darling he was. I felt devastated when he died. He had such a delicious personality, and it came through in the parts he played. You know, we had a large number of guest stars on the show. I met very many interesting people.
Q: There were many popular recording stars.
Byron: Yes, we had a big teenage audience, so a number of the guests reflected that. There was Paul Anka, Frankie Avalon, Bobby Vinton and Sammy Davis Jr. They all were wonderful, with perhaps one exception. There was one big guest star who was so rude that nobody could stand him.
Q: Did you do a third series?
Byron: I was a semi-regular in another show in the seventies with Pat Paulsen. It was Pat Paulsen’s Half a Comedy Hour (1970) and we did a number of skits. I would sometimes play a very grand lady. I would say something, and then you would hear a toilet flush (laughs). It was a lot of fun.
Q: Let’s return to your film career. Did you do
any other films for producer Sam Katzman?
Byron: I did another jungle picture for him called Jungle Moon Men (1955). This was also with Johnny Weissmuller. By this time, Sam Katzman had lost the rights, I think, to the character of Jungle Jim, so Johnny Weissmuller simply used his own name for the new character who was just like Jungle Jim. Tamba the chimp became Kimba. The plot was a variation on H. Rider Haggard, and I played an anthropologist who was threatened by this powerful lost tribe headed by Helene Stanton.
Q: Do you have any recollections of Johnny
Byron: It was a western, and it had a great cast with Frank Sinatra, Keenan Wynn, William Conrad, Phyllis Kirk, Wallace Ford and Claude Akins. The director was Don McGuire. He used to be an actor and writer. He was a damned good writer. He wrote the screenplay to Johnny Concho with David Harmon. Years ago, Don McGuire used to take me out. All we did was laugh. He was the funniest man I ever knew. Then we went our own ways. So I guess when he was casting this film, he saw my name as a possibility for a part, and he said, “God, yes, let’s use her!” It was an interesting role. I was the town madame actually, but I didn’t have a very heavy shooting schedule. I really enjoyed working with Don. Wallace Ford was a darling also. He was great to be around. I really got a good impression of Frank Sinatra. He sent flowers to my dressing room on the first morning. With the flowers was a card that said, “Welcome to Johnny Concho and best wishes, Frank.” I thought that was so nice. You know, sometimes you see people briefly over the years, and they would say, “Hi, how are you, darling,” but they don’t really don’t remember your name. Sinatra was different. I ran into him over the years, and he always called me by name every time. He was a very kind man. He was number one in my book. He also did a lot of charity over the years, very quietly. The filming of Johnny Concho was very ordinary, very workaday, but it was a very pleasant set.
Q: You also did There’s Always Tomorrow
(1956) at the same time?
Byron: It was shortly after but it was just a one day role for me. It was a Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray picture. Joan Bennett was in it also. I played a saleslady. Douglas Sirk was the director. Everything went smoothly. The stars like it when there are no delays because they could get on with making the picture.
Q: You had the female lead in Invisible
Byron: It was another quick, low-budget affair. Edward Cahn directed. John Agar, Robert Hutton, and John Carradine rounded out the leads.
Q: Any recollections of Carradine?
Byron: I don’t believe we had any scenes together. Most of his work was voice-overs added later. A lot of the footage in Invisible Invaders was stock footage. Most of my scenes in the film were in this hidden laboratory bunker. John Agar was our military supervisor. Robert Hutton and I played scientists who were working on a counter-weapon to fight the invaders. We were also trying to make them visible. At first, only my father believed they existed. Then they began to take over the bodies of the dead. I forget the name of the actor who played my father, who was the senior scientists.
Q: That was Philip Tonge. In fact he died
shortly after the film. Did he seem unwell on the set?
Byron: Not that I remember. He had no difficulty in shooting his scenes. The picture was filmed rather quickly. I remember the director moving from one set-up to the very next rapidly.
Q: Some of it was shot in Bronson Canyon.
Byron: Yes. That was when we were testing our sonic weapon. I guess you could say I was an action heroine. John Agar was on the roof of our truck, operating this sonic cannon. Robert Hutton was in the back of the truck, operating the equipment for the weapon. My father remained in the lab to contact all the other labs. That left me to operate the truck and drive through the zombies. The terrain was rather rough too.
Q: Invisible Invaders is sometimes cited
as an influential film, prefiguring such pictures as Night of the Living Dead
Byron: Well, I’m sure they wish they had a bigger budget so they could’ve shown some bizarre or weird aliens. But special effects are costly. They spend a fortune today creating these creatures with costly masks and costumes. So it was far less expensive for them to show walking zombies in dress suits instead of strange alien invaders.
Q: Your hair was blonde in that film. Why did
you change it?
Byron: The film was shot while I was still doing Lux commercials. The only change Lux asked me was that I lighten my hair. So I had blonde hair for a time. Did you like it better?
Q: I think you looked more striking with darker
Byron: Yes, that is my natural color. I think it fits my face better.
Q: How did you enjoy working with John Agar?
Byron: John was very sweet. It’s the one quality that makes a man most memorable to me. When I work with rude people, I tend to forget them. John was memorable, professional and kind. He seemed easy-going and worked effortlessly in front of the camera.
Q: Your next film was Wall of Noise
(1962). What do you recall about this film?
Byron: That was produced at Warners. There were a number of good people in it like Ralph Meeker and Suzanne Pleshette, Ty Hardin, Dorothy Provine and Simon Oakland. The picture was about horse racing, and breeders who loved thoroughbred horses. It was a bit of a soap opera about the people behind the scenes. My part wasn’t very big. I played Mrs. Harrington. I believe the actor who played my husband was Gary Petrie.
Q: You later appeared in Flareup (1969).
Byron: Now that was a day’s work I remember (laughs)! My scene was shot on location in a real smelly bar. There was quite a bit of dialogue involved in the sequence. James Neilson was the director, and he was a darling man. He was having problems with last minute dialogue changes that Raquel Welch wanted to include. So the dialogue was all changed and everything was altered, and that caused a delay. I had no problem with the changes, but there were always additional ones. Anyway, the sequence was finally done late in the day. Now Raquel was polite and friendly. She thanked me as I was leaving. She was nice enough but she made the day so difficult. Then James Neilson took me aside, and thanked me for a tough day’s work. It was unusual for me to remember a one day shoot, but this day I recall most clearly. You know, actor James Stacy was in this film, and it wasn’t long afterwards that he had a horrible accident. He was on a motorcycle on Mulholland Drive, and he was sideswiped by a car. It was terrible, and he lost an arm and a leg. Stacey was a very nice individual. It was such an unfortunate nightmare.
Q: Another of your credits was Where Does It
Hurt? (1972). Here you are billed as “Jeanne” Byron.
Byron: That was a black comedy about the medical profession. I thought my performance was so terrible that I never saw it. It played in Los Angeles, and I wouldn’t go to see it. I played Dr. Kincaid, and my character was altered from a male to a female doctor. That change didn’t really work in the script, and it was awkward at times. The director was Rod Amateau, and we go way back to the Dobie Gillis series. Rod liked my work, but we just didn’t have time to iron out these problems. Two other things stand out in my mind about that film. I simply adored Peter Sellers. I found him to be a most delightful person, even more delightful than he was on the screen. I was thrilled to work with him. Another was the opportunity to perform with Harold Gould, a marvelous actor. We were born on the same day in the same year. Harold’s work was simply wonderful. I especially enjoyed him in The Sting (1973), where he played one of the scammers. He is the one who plays the phony Western Union guy. He was also a frequent guest star on The Golden Girls television series, and he also co-starred in a television film with Katherine Hepburn.
Q: When did you leave Hollywood?
Byron: By the late eighties, I really didn’t get enough work to justify remaining in Los Angeles. I did theater and other things, but I wanted to live in a smaller town. Most of my neighbors are “non-combatants” so they enjoy hearing about my career.
Byron: Well, sometimes the industry seems like the front lines. A lot of people see only the glamour, but there is a lot of hard work in addition to the glamour.
Q: What are you most proud of in your career?
Byron: Just making a living in Hollywood for so long, I guess. What I have enjoyed most about my work was meeting so many interesting people. Some of them were very nice people, too. Now Cecil B. DeMille did not have a very good reputation for sweetness and light, but he was very gracious with me. I auditioned for him for The Greatest Show on Earth (1952). My credits were only television and plays at the time. I mentioned that I hadn’t worked much, and he smiled, put me at my ease, and said, “That’s no problem. I’m Cecil B. DeMille. Just relax and tell me about yourself.” He treated me well, even though I didn’t get the part.
Q: Who did you most enjoy as fellow performers?
Byron: There were a number of them. I already mentioned Thomas Mitchell. There was also Louis Hayward, Ann Sothern and many more. Lucille Ball was also very special. Working with these individuals were probably the best moments of my career.
Q: Do you have any plans to return to acting?
Byron: I have been approached for a project in the near future. CBS is planning a Patty Duke reunion show for autumn 1998 release. It will be done in Vancouver with the entire cast. Patty called me about it last week, and she thinks it will be a real hoot. I am eagerly looking forward to doing it, and seeing everyone after all these years. Of course, I’m happy with my television series Patty Duke and Dobie Gillis and I look forward whenever they are revived. And I am so happy that so many people remember those small genre pictures like Magnetic Monster and Invisible Invaders. It is gratifying to be remembered.