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Walter Brennan Biographer Carl Rollyson Visits 11/7 & 11/8

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Walter Brennan Biographer Carl Rollyson Visits 11/7 & 11/8

Postby moira finnie » November 4th, 2015, 1:23 pm

“Go ahead and learn how to act, but don't get caught at it.” ~ Walter Brennan

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The Silver Screen Oasis is pleased to welcome Carl Rollyson, the author of A Real American Character: The Life of Walter Brennan (Univ. Press of Mississippi) for an online Q & A with us on Saturday, November 7th & Sunday, November 8th.

Walter Brennan, a consummate character actor of the studio era who stole scenes from the iconic likes of Gary Cooper, John Wayne, Spencer Tracy, Jimmy Stewart and Humphrey Bogart, was sought out by masterful directors such as Howard Hawks, John Ford, and Fritz Lang for the versatility and credibility he brought to each film. So, as one reviewer of Mr. Rollyson’s book asked, “How could an actor win three Oscars in five years yet be all but forgotten?” The possible answer to this lies in his the actor's career, in our cultural memory, and in the human being examined in the pages of our guest author's book.

In the first, full length biography of this now overlooked character actor, the author drew from archival material and with the full cooperation of the Brennan family to create a portrait of an authoritative actor as he journeyed from a Massachusetts town to the harrowing battlefields of World War One to journeyman actor and ultimately to a remarkable career spanning six decades. Able to play endearing bums, brutal fathers, veteran military men, struggling con artists, gentle musicians or courageous college professors believably, Rollyson presents the reader with Brennan as a human being whose talent, work ethic and foibles make him a worthy subject for this engrossing life story.

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Our guest, who has visited the Oasis previously to discuss one of his many biographies, (the remarkably moving biography Hollywood Enigma: Dana Andrews ) is a noted biographer of everyone from Amy Lowell to Marilyn Monroe, limns Brennan’s development as a consummate actor who often hid his artistry, a fixture in a constantly shifting industry, and, in intriguing sidelights, his conservatism as he grew older and wealthier (the actor reportedly even wondered if John Wayne might be a communist). In reading this biography, the the actor’s skill at playing both sympathetic and negative characters takes on even more compelling complexity in light of his beliefs and long life, while the author avoids drawing easy answers about the mystery of an individual and his lasting impact on his family and film.

Please join us for this opportunity to discuss a giant among character actors this Nov. 7th & 8th!

Carl Rollyson's video about Walter Brennan:
phpBB [video]


“Unsung character actors finally get a long-overdue close-up in A Real American Character, Carl Rollyson’s authoritative portrait of Walter Brennan. A real Hollywood success story, Brennan and his extraordinary career, which included winning three Oscars, are presented with great sympathy, sensitivity, and admiration.”

—Marion Meade, author of The Unruly Life of Woody Allen and Buster Keaton: Cut to the Chase

Reviews:

Turner Classic Movies Book Spotlight

The Wall Street Journal

Classic Movieman

The Author’s Website:
http://www.carlrollyson.com/

The University Press of Mississippi:
http://www.upress.state.ms.us/books/1808

Walter Brennan Films on Youtube
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Re: Walter Brennan Biographer Carl Rollyson Visits 11/7 & 11/8

Postby moira finnie » November 7th, 2015, 7:04 am

Good morning and thank you for visiting with us this weekend, Carl. Here are a few questions to get things rolling.

You have written so many biographies of distinguished writers (such as Amy Lowell, Rebecca West, Sylvia Plath, & Susan Sontag), as well as your books on Dana Andrews, Marilyn Monroe, and now Walter Brennan. How do you decide on your subjects? Do you bring different approaches to writing these seemingly diverse life stories? What drew you to Walter Brennan? Why do you think his contributions to movies have faded from the memory of classic film audiences in recent decades?

Perhaps this next question is based in my perception of Walter as a lively figure in Western movies. Since I lived in Boston for many years, I was surprised to read that Brennan was born and raised in Massachusetts in the Lynn & Swampscott area. I had never read that before--much less knew that he was the child of an Irish immigrant! Were you able to research much about Brennan's early life in primary records and informed descendants on the North Shore (I hope that historical societies there might find your biography a bit of a revelation).

How do you think his early environment helped to shape Walter Brennan? Have you received much response to your vivid descriptions of his New England roots from people in the Bay State? Does the Brennan family have any ties there now?

Thanks in advance for your responses.
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Re: Walter Brennan Biographer Carl Rollyson Visits 11/7 & 11/8

Postby crollyson » November 7th, 2015, 8:17 am

thanks for all the wonderful questions, Moira. To someone looking at my books it may seem puzzling that I would write about Amy Lowell, a poet, on the one hand, and Walter Brennan, a character actor, on the other. But what links all my biographies is my biography. The biographer Paul Murray Kendall once said every biography is an autobiography. But it is difficult to reveal that autobiography because readers want to read about my subjects, not me! I began as an actor, and virtually all my subjects had an obsession with acting, including Amy Lowell. My subjects have theatrical personalities and that is part of why I'm drawn to them. I feel that with my acting background I have something special to contribute to an understanding of my subjects. In Brennan's case, his life centered on acting, although he had a happy family life as well. As to why he has faded from view, in part that may be because he was so eclectic and could almost any role. But he has not been forgotten by fans of the Western, where he did create a memorable persona. And with this first biography of him, I hope to show that, in fact, he has not been forgotten.

Brennan grew up in New England, but early on wanted to move West, sensing there would be opportunities for him there--initially in real estate, although in his heart of hearts he always wanted to be an actor. I did receive excellent information about his upbringing in Lynn and Swampscott from local librarians and the church his family attended. There was also a local historian who had some excellent items to share. I also was able to visit the Swampscott house his family lived in and interivew its current owner. I think Brennan always remained a thrifty New Englander, very much what I call a Calvin Coolidge conservative. He never saw any reason to revise his values. Most of his ties, though, are not in New England anymore, but in Oregon, where he bought a ranch in 1940. Many of his descendents--a son, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren live in Joseph, Oregon.

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Re: Walter Brennan Biographer Carl Rollyson Visits 11/7 & 11/8

Postby CineMaven » November 7th, 2015, 9:31 am

Hi there Mr. Rollyson. Thanx for stopping by. The epitome of a character actor. Supporting the star, but creating a life of his own. Kindly, rum-punched, country corn-pone, cantankerous, confused...he could do it all. I have to admit my favorite role of his is as that mean ol' Pappy Clanton in “My Darling Clementine” because he was sooo darned vicious. Do you have a favorite role of Brennan’s. If so, what is it...and why?

Did you gather if any role was close to his own personality? Did he study acting with anyone? I can't imagine so, but did he?
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Re: Walter Brennan Biographer Carl Rollyson Visits 11/7 & 11/8

Postby crollyson » November 7th, 2015, 9:52 am

Ike Clanton in My Darling Clementine is certainly one of Brennan's greatest roles. And you're right. He is vicious. John Ireland who was in the film was once asked if Brennan was anything like that. And Ireland said yes! Well, I don't think he meant Brennan was vicious, but Brennan could be stern if the occasion warranted. He stood up to John Ford's abuse--unlike John Wayne.

Do I have a favorite Brennan role? It's really tough to pick. His performance in The Westerner is a tour de force, but I'm torn because I think his work in To Have and Have Not is very powerful.

I can't think of a single role that I could point to and say,"Walter Brennan was just like that." He was too good an actor to just put himself in a role. But part of Brennan are distributed throughout his roles. He was a patriarch like Ike Clanton in My Darling Clementine, a businessman like the tycoon his portrayed in his television series, a wonderful grandfather like the one he played in Disney movies. Who Walter Brennan was is also revealed in the roles he refused to play. He turned down a role in Tobacco Road because he thought the character's treatment of his wife was shabby and Brennan would not allow himself to play such a character.

Brennan never studied acting. He got his start in vaudeville, but more importantly he was a student of human nature. One of his most attractive qualities was his interest in people--all kinds of people. He would talk to everyone and hated stars who thought they were above cast and crew. At an early age he was mimicking the way people talked, copying their mannerisms. In short, he was self-taught.

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Re: Walter Brennan Biographer Carl Rollyson Visits 11/7 & 11/8

Postby Professional Tourist » November 7th, 2015, 11:17 am

Mr. Rollyson, I've read rumors that Mr. Brennan was not a supporter of the civil rights movement, and was actually against it and its leaders (such as MLK). Can you set the record straight on that subject?

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Re: Walter Brennan Biographer Carl Rollyson Visits 11/7 & 11/8

Postby moira finnie » November 7th, 2015, 11:25 am

Do you think that Brennan's background affected his evolution as an actor? After reading your descriptions of his somewhat unruly youth, his WW1 experiences and his occasional bouts of nerves later, is it possible that he used that side of himself in his work?

I'm wondering if his experiences as a Hollywood extra led him to be more flexible in his characterizations? Do you think he wanted to be a lead more often? Do you think directors' tendency to let him do more bits of business led him to create more naturalistic or bombastic characters or did he sometimes feel hemmed in by adherence to scripts?


I realize that Brennan's cozy folksiness and endearingly crotchety roles are fondly remembered, but Cinemaven's mention of My Darling Clementine reminded me of the actor's capacity to portray unhinged characters to the hilt. His depiction of Judge Roy Bean in The Westerner is both amusing and malevolent and, even though it doesn't seem to be critically appreciated, his turn as a truly dictatorial patriarch in The Green Promise made me recoil and appreciate the fear behind these sometimes hateful and pitiable characters. Given the fact that you mention how he carried his roles with him on and off the set when playing a part, do you think he found them particularly difficult to play?

Thanks.
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Re: Walter Brennan Biographer Carl Rollyson Visits 11/7 & 11/8

Postby Sue Sue Applegate » November 7th, 2015, 12:34 pm

Carl, we are so happy that you have chosen this time to visit with us about Walter Brennan and your latest biography.

I was moved by Brennan's performance in To Have and Have Not, and many of his other character roles, but I think the film in which I felt most affectected by one of his performances has to be Paster Pile in Sergeant York. Lillian Gish's performance in Night of the Hunter always reminds me a little of Brennan as Paster Pile because of her ethereal adherence to her moral values, and Brennan obviously infuses his on-screen persona with much realism and understated depth.

When Brennan is discussing how Alvin York should respond to his draft notice, it gives Cooper as York the barometer which gauges the hinge of Cooper's performance as the reluctant, but effective hero.
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In an excerpt from your book, you reveal that preparing for the role of Pastor Pile somewhat unnerved Brennan. Could you share a little of the reasoning behind why he was so unsettled? Also, the real Pastor Pile had to be cajoled to acquiesce to his name and character being featured in Sergeant York. I'd never heard about this, and was intrigued at all your skullduggery in unearthing so many fascinating details. How did you uncover the information concerning Pastor Pile, Brennan's fourth Oscar-nominated role?
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Re: Walter Brennan Biographer Carl Rollyson Visits 11/7 & 11/8

Postby crollyson » November 7th, 2015, 1:22 pm

Professional Tourist wrote:Mr. Rollyson, I've read rumors that Mr. Brennan was not a supporter of the civil rights movement, and was actually against it and its leaders (such as MLK). Can you set the record straight on that subject?


Walter Brennan did not support the civil rights movement and was quite suspicious of African American leaders like MLK. Brennan thought many protest movements in this country were Communist inspired. I have quite a lot of say about his politics in my biography.

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Re: Walter Brennan Biographer Carl Rollyson Visits 11/7 & 11/8

Postby crollyson » November 7th, 2015, 1:28 pm

moira finnie wrote:Do you think that Brennan's background affected his evolution as an actor? After reading your descriptions of his somewhat unruly youth, his WW1 experiences and his occasional bouts of nerves later, is it possible that he used that side of himself in his work?

I'm wondering if his experiences as a Hollywood extra led him to be more flexible in his characterizations? Do you think he wanted to be a lead more often? Do you think directors' tendency to let him do more bits of business led him to create more naturalistic or bombastic characters or did he sometimes feel hemmed in by adherence to scripts?


I realize that Brennan's cozy folksiness and endearingly crotchety roles are fondly remembered, but Cinemaven's mention of My Darling Clementine reminded me of the actor's capacity to portray unhinged characters to the hilt. His depiction of Judge Roy Bean in The Westerner is both amusing and malevolent and, even though it doesn't seem to be critically appreciated, his turn as a truly dictatorial patriarch in The Green Promise made me recoil and appreciate the fear behind these sometimes hateful and pitiable characters. Given the fact that you mention how he carried his roles with him on and off the set when playing a part, do you think he found them particularly difficult to play?

Thanks.



I think Brennan identified with peopl who are eccentric and don't fit into conventional patterns. His mother thought he would be a failure because he would not settle down to a respectable job. So, yes, I do think his early experience led him to identify with characters like the Colonel in Meet John Doe who are very suspicious of institutions and government.

Cecil B. DeMille said extras did some of the best acting in his pictures. I think being an extra and bit player was like serving an apprentics so that Brennan could become a master. Those small roles disciplined him and made him concentrate all the harder on his career.

I don't think Brennan found it hard to play villains. He relished those parts. You mention Green Promise. That film is quite a shock if you've been brought up on The Real McCoys. In that film he shows the dark side of characters like Grandpa McCoy. Acting was a job for Brennan in the way the biography is for me. I don't find it hard to write about people I don't agree with or might not have liked in person. They become my"subject" the same way a role became a subject for Walter Brennan.

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Re: Walter Brennan Biographer Carl Rollyson Visits 11/7 & 11/8

Postby crollyson » November 7th, 2015, 1:32 pm

Sue Sue Applegate wrote:Carl, we are so happy that you have chosen this time to visit with us about Walter Brennan and your latest biography.

I was moved by Brennan's performance in To Have and Have Not, and many of his other character roles, but I think the film in which I felt most affectected by one of his performances has to be Paster Pile in Sergeant York. Lillian Gish's performance in Night of the Hunter always reminds me a little of Brennan as Paster Pile because of her ethereal adherence to her moral values, and Brennan obviously infuses his on-screen persona with much realism and understated depth.

When Brennan is discussing how Alvin York should respond to his draft notice, it gives Cooper as York the barometer which gauges the hinge of Cooper's performance as the reluctant, but effective hero.
Image
In an excerpt from your book, you reveal that preparing for the role of Pastor Pile somewhat unnerved Brennan. Could you share a little of the reasoning behind why he was so unsettled? Also, the real Pastor Pile had to be cajoled to acquiesce to his name and character being featured in Sergeant York. I'd never heard about this, and was intrigued at all your skullduggery in unearthing so many fascinating details. How did you uncover the information concerning Pastor Pile, Brennan's fourth Oscar-nominated role?


I did extensive work at the University of Southern California which has a large file on Sergeant York. That's where I learned about Brennan's work on the character. Brennan was worried because Pile was an actual person--not just a character Brennan could invent. There is another factor, though, Brennan was a deeply religious man. He would have been mortified if Pastor Pile had objected to Brennan's characterization. The producer of the film, Jesse Lasky, had been working for 20 years to get the cooperation of York and the other real-life characters, so the project had the benefit of many years of preparation.

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Re: Walter Brennan Biographer Carl Rollyson Visits 11/7 & 11/8

Postby oscotto » November 7th, 2015, 1:59 pm

Welcome Carl. As a kid I never missed watching THE REAL MCCOYS and Brennan was truly the heart and center of this show. Did he see the series as his career "capper"? What roles was he proudest of? Which actors were his personal friends off the set? Thanks! Scott

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Re: Walter Brennan Biographer Carl Rollyson Visits 11/7 & 11/8

Postby Sue Sue Applegate » November 7th, 2015, 2:14 pm

Thank you, Carl. I never realized so much preparation went into the Sergeant York production.

I also greatly appreciate your kind acknowledgement of me in the preface to A Real American Character: The Life of Walter Brennan! I am honored by your kind inclusion. Thank you.

I am feeling quite special today, thanks to you and Mr. Brennan. :D
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Re: Walter Brennan Biographer Carl Rollyson Visits 11/7 & 11/8

Postby crollyson » November 7th, 2015, 3:57 pm

That's good to hear, Sue. I try to acknowledge everyone who has made a contribution. Biographies are just not possible without a lot of encouragement and cooperation.

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Re: Walter Brennan Biographer Carl Rollyson Visits 11/7 & 11/8

Postby crollyson » November 7th, 2015, 4:02 pm

oscotto wrote:Welcome Carl. As a kid I never missed watching THE REAL MCCOYS and Brennan was truly the heart and center of this show. Did he see the series as his career "capper"? What roles was he proudest of? Which actors were his personal friends off the set? Thanks! Scott


Brennan did not think of the McCoys as a career capper, athough he was very proud of his work and of the show. Actually, he had been reluctant to do the series because a previous television pilot had not worked out for him. He was very proud of his work in two pictures, Three Godfathers, which for him was virtually a religious experience, and Goodbye My Lady. And he was watching The Westerner when he died. If he had died in 1940 after shooting that picture, I think the obituaries would have said that film was the capper. Brennan had very few friends in Hollywood. In that regard,he was very much like Dana Andrews. Both actors disliked all the hoopla that went with Hollywood. But Brennan did have friends, especially Gary Cooper, Andy Devine, and Lewis Stone. They were probably the closest to Brennan. He was very well liked in Hollywood. He liked Lauren Bacall a lot, and she had enormous respect for his work.


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