BY CARY GINELL
Today we continue our recent interview with Shirley Jones. After finishing her initial Broadway run in South Pacific, Shirley was invited by Rodgers and Hammerstein to appear in their next show, understudying for star Elizabeth Bigley in the musical Me & Juliet, one of the team’s few flops. Despite her near-miss seduction at the hands of Richard Rodgers, Shirley still has the utmost respect for him as an artist.
SHIRLEY: The thing that he did that I admired so much was that he was very together about what he wanted from his actors – When I was in South Pacific, once a week, he would come in, get all of the cast and the chorus together, and he would play the piano and play the score and have everybody sing along with him to make sure it was being done the right way. He did that once a week. And he did that for all of his shows.
VCOS: When they signed you to your contract, did you know that they had other plans for you?
SHIRLEY: No. You see, I was never under contract to a studio – ever. And under the contract with them, I did the movie version of Oklahoma! Because they produced it themselves. They didn’t give it to a studio. So I did the two shows, South Pacific and Me & Juliet, and then I did the movie.
VCOS: Why didn’t Me & Juliet work?
SHIRLEY: I don’t know. I don’t think the music was that exciting, to tell you the truth.
VCOS: It was kind of a back stage musical, wasn’t it?
SHIRLEY: That’s exactly what it was.
VCOS: It didn’t have the grandeur of their other shows.
SHIRLEY: No, it didn’t. Carousel was my favorite of all. I just adored Carousel.
VCOS: When you did the film version of Oklahoma! had you thought of switching over from stage to the screen?
SHIRLEY: How it happened was, I was doing Me & Juliet, and Rodgers said, “I want you to come up to the office and meet the producer and director from Hollywood.” This was Fred Zinneman and Arthur Hornblow Jr. He told me, “We’re doing a motion picture version of Oklahoma! and I would like you to audition for them.” So I went up and sang for them, and I read the role, and when I finished doing that, we were going to Chicago on tour with Me & Juliet. After the audition, apparently they didn’t think I was right for it, so they sent me on my way to Chicago. So I was in Chicago for about two months, and while I was there, they screen tested every young woman on both coasts – Jane Powell, Debbie Reynolds – they were all screen tested or auditioned. And while I was in Chicago, Rodgers called me and said, “Listen, we’re going to send you to California to screen test again, with the director and Gordon MacRae,” who was cast as Curley. I said to myself, “Oh, NO!” So I remember taking an airplane, and that’s when they had beds on airplanes, so I was in a bed, going from Chicago to L.A. It took a long time. And I remember getting off the plane and saying to myself, “I’m in HOLLYWOOD!” So I went and did the screen test with Gordon. Gordon was already cast and normally they would have somebody else do the test, but Gordon wanted to do the test and I was thrilled, of course, because he was my favorite singer. Fred Zinneman directed the test himself, which was great. After the test, Fred Zinneman came up to me and he said, “Have you ever acted before a camera before?” I said, “No.” And he said, “Well, don’t change a thing. You’re a natural.” What he said to me, which was interesting, was, “How many stage shows have you done?” I said, “Two.” He said, “That’s why you’re a natural.” Apparently what he felt was that if you became a big Broadway star or had done a lot of Broadway, that sometimes they couldn’t bring you down enough for motion pictures.
VCOS: Because you play to the back row.
SHIRLEY: Exactly right.
VCOS: Did you work well with MacRae?
SHIRLEY: Oh, gosh, yes. We loved each other. I admired him so much and got to know Sheila, his wife. I gave birth to my first child, Shaun, later on, and they were the godparents.
VCOS: Tell me about Charlotte Greenwood.
SHIRLEY: She was like a mother to me. It was my first film and I was a very young girl; I was barely 18. Hammerstein went to Charlotte and said, “Now you’ve got to take care of this little girl. We don’t want her to overeat and get fat while she’s on the set.” They saw the way I ate chocolate candy and stuff like that. So Charlotte was just wonderful with me. She’d have breakfast with me every morning before we went on the set. I had my dog with me. When I left California, a friend of mine gave me a puppy as a going away gift. It was a miniature collie. And my mother said, “Well, what are you going to do with the dog when you’re on the set?” And I said, “I’m taking my puppy with me!” and he was with me the whole time.
Rodgers and Hammerstein were on the set every single day in Nogales, Arizona where we shot the film. They were producing it themselves. And they never left the set. We were there for seven months, shooting fifteen-hour days, seven days a week, before the unions came in and said that you can’t work actors like that.
VCOS: So you didn’t work on a studio set at all?
SHIRLEY. No! Except for one scene. We came back to M-G-M and we did the haystack scene, but that was the only one we did in a studio. Everything else was done in Nogales, Arizona. They planted the corn field, they built the house, they had the smokehouse, everything. It was beautiful. And we lived in these little motels.
VCOS: How was it working with Rod Steiger?
SHIRLEY: Rod was great. He was a little too much Actors Studio for me, which is not my favorite thing, but he was so marvelous in the part. I have to tell you this story. After I did the film, they called me and said they were going to send the production of Oklahoma! to Europe. ANTA [note: American National Theater and Academy] was producing a goodwill tour – they were going to send an opera, a play, and a musical to Europe, and they wanted me to play the lead in Oklahoma! on the stage. That’s how I met my first husband, Jack Cassidy, who was playing Curley. Well, Rod Steiger was cast in the production as Jud Fry. Rouben Mamoulian, who was the original director of Oklahoma! was directing this stage company. I had already done the film and had already been on tour selling the film. We rehearsed it in New York. And we were going to go to Paris, Rome, and Germany. Well, as I said, Rod was an Actors Studio actor and Rouben Mamoulian didn’t understand this way of acting at all. AT ALL. This was his musical. A few times at rehearsal, he’d yell at Rod: SPEAK UP! SPEAK UP, ROD, I CAN’T HEAR YOU! Finally, we were three weeks into rehearsal. It was during the scene in the smokehouse. Rod was doing his big scene with Jack, and he pulled out an apple and started chewing on the apple. Rouben Mamoulian stood up – and he was a big, tall man, he must have been six-four – he threw his arms up and yelled, “GET OUT OF MY SHOW! GET OUT OF MY THEATER! GET OUT OF MY LIFE!” And he fired him. And Rod had already done the film. So they had to find somebody to replace him. There happened to be a company out on the road and they picked the guy who was playing Jud on the road show and put him in the show. Rouben just did not like method acting.
VCOS: What about you? Did you learn anything about acting in that film?
SHIRLEY: I went to the Actors Studio for a little while. I tried it. And you know? I don’t like method acting either. I’m like Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn and those people. As Tracy used to say, “Just hit your mark and speak.”