Page 1 of 4

Q & A with James Bigwood about Alan Napier's Autobiography

Posted: December 1st, 2015, 7:32 pm
by moira finnie
Image

"All through my life people have tried to foist the role of leader on me; a role that I can play on stage but have no will to assume in life." ~ Alan Napier

The Silver Screen Oasis is pleased to announce an online visit with James Bigwood, the editor and annotator of actor Alan Napier's autobiography, Not Just Batman’s Butler: The Autobiography of Alan Napier (McFarland) on Sat., Dec. 5th and Sun., Dec. 6th with questions and answers to be posted in this thread.

Almost 30 years after Napier’s death, writer and producer James Bigwood, who first read the versatile actor's manuscript in 1975 when interviewing him for a Films in Review profile, was allowed by the actor’s daughter to arrange for its publication. A bit facetiously but honestly at the time, Napier described to Mr. Bigwood how, despite the fact that the actor had "written an autobiographical work full of fascinating stories"..."unfortunately, since I've never committed a major crime and I'm not known to have slept with any famous actresses, it's very difficult to get it published." That gentle, amused perspective on life and his career ups and downs comes across vividly in this charming book, allowing the reader to travel with him from an Edwardian boyhood to the height of the studio system through the dismantling of Hollywood in the '60s.

Supporting player Alan Napier (1903-1988) became a household name late in life thanks to the runaway success of the television series Batman (1966-1968), which spoofed comic books, pop art and the American penchant for heroics. It also allowed the severely myopic Napier to wear his own (much needed) spectacles, and to receive some of the attention he deserved for the droll elegance he brought to each of his scenes.

Long before this hit show the actor who became identified with the role of Alfred, the butler to Bruce Wayne/Batman had worked for decades with great actors and directors on stage and screen. Among those long remembered and sometimes sadly forgotten who shared the stage and screen with him during his forty+ years career were Gerald du Maurier, Marlon Brando, Ingrid Bergman, John Wayne, Laurence Olivier, George Bernard Shaw, Paul Muni, Sean Connery, Alfred Hitchcock, James Whale, Douglas Sirk, Fritz Lang, Edmund Goulding, Otto Preminger, Val Lewton and Edgar Ulmer, among others!

Image
Above: Three Faces from Alan Napier--Left: in Orson Welles' version of MacBeth (1948), Middle: in Hangover Square (1945), & The Invisible Man Returns (1940).

Fortunately for those of us who cherish the warmth, style and authority of a skilled, expressive character actor such as Napier in classic films, we will have a chance to explore the life and times of an actor who was a valuable ensemble player--not a star--for much of his career. This new memoir presented by James Bigwood in this lively, touching and informative first person account with his annotations, is just one of the many projects that our guest has been involved in during his career. Mr. Bigwood has written articles for Films in Review, American Film, American Cinematographer, and Film Fan Monthly on topics as diverse as Salvador Dali's films and character actress Norma Varden. Our guest previously published The Films of Peter Lorre (Citadel) with Stephen D. Youngkin & Raymond Cabana (prior to Mr. Youngkin's publication of his seminal Lorre biography, The Lost One: A Life of Peter Lorre). The list of Mr. Bigwood's work as a film and television producer and production manager include films and series such as Bob Roberts (1992), A Bright Shining Lie (1998), Iron Jawed Angels (2004), Ugly Betty (2006), The Red Road (2014), & Being Mary Jane (2015).

In what is clearly a labor of love, our guest has also compiled several video clips of interviews with Alan Napier and posted them online. The actor discusses his first steps in Hollywood in We Are Not Alone (1939), The Invisible Man Returns (1940), House of Seven Gables (1940), and the superb The Uninvited (1944), as well as a few comments on becoming Alfred. Each of these brief clips can be seen on James Bigwood's Youtube Channel, found here:
https://www.youtube.com/user/TheLorrephile

Re: Q & A with James Bigwood about Alan Napier's Autobiography

Posted: December 5th, 2015, 8:44 am
by moira finnie
Thanks so much for joining us this weekend, Jim (who will be posting as BiggieB here)!

I must admit that I was surprised and delighted to see a book by a character actor in classic films being published today. Could you please tell us about your connection to Alan Napier and why you were compelled to research, annotate and edit the picaresque story of this individual's personal and professional adventures?

Re: Q & A with James Bigwood about Alan Napier's Autobiography

Posted: December 5th, 2015, 10:00 am
by Professional Tourist
Mr. Bigwood, thank you for your visit with us this weekend. As a child of the sixties I loved the TV series Batman and so have always known the name of Alan Napier, but haven't been aware of much of his other work for the big or small screen. Watching one of your video clips I heard Mr. Napier say that it was sometimes challenging for him to be cast for television work due to his height, that it would be difficult to frame him for the small screen alongside actors of generally much smaller stature.

However, recently I have been binge-watching the fifties TV series Alfred Hitchcock Presents where I have come across Mr. Napier in several episodes, generally ones set in Britain. With his height and slim build he cuts a dashing figure as police inspectors and aristocrats, and seems to fit very well in that medium. But perhaps Mr. Hitchcock knew better how to utilize his presence than other television directors of the day.

My question for you is, do you know of any comments Mr. Napier may have made about working with Alfred Hitchcock? Were these parts just jobs for him, more or less, or did he have a particular liking of working for Hitchcock?

Thank you.

Re: Q & A with James Bigwood about Alan Napier's Autobiography

Posted: December 5th, 2015, 11:49 am
by BiggieB
First let me thank you for inviting me to be a part of this forum. It is flattering to be in the company of so many authors whose work I have read and admired.

I have always been a fan of old movies, although I don't really know how it started. My parents didn't have a television set for much of my childhood and I had to watch at a friend's house down the street (an early favorite that I still enjoy was "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein"). I was an early fan of film-related books as well. My father had a copy of Charlie Chaplin's autobiography which I read before seeing any of his films and I also remember reading Kevin Brownlow's "The Parade's Gone By" long before I saw most of the films he was writing about. They just seemed to work as stories, one of a man; the other of a time. On a distant television station in Agawam, MA (I lived in New Haven, CT) on Saturday nights, there was a snowy broadcast of a Laurel & Hardy short followed by a L&H, Marx Brothers, W.C. Fields or Mae West feature. This was hosted by Hal Stanton who was the Grand Sheik of the local Sons of the Desert tent, through whom I eventually met Leonard Maltin who was my contemporary (which is to say we were both kids!) but who had already created and published a movie fanzine called "Film Fan Monthly". This had produced two paperback collections of articles published under the title "The Real Stars". I approached Leonard and asked him if I could submit an article for the magazine, suggesting a profile of an actress that I had noticed when watching reruns of "Hazel": Norma Varden. She played the helpless scatterbrained rich lady who lived next to the Baxters and I had recently noticed her in the opening scenes of "Casablanca" so I knew that her career went back a long way. I tracked her down and called her to see if she would be willing to let me interview her (she was only 75 then and lived to 90).

AND NOW WE GET TO ALAN

In the course of my researchinto Norma's career I screened the 1944 Robert Wise film "Mademoiselle Fifi", based on two Guy de Maupassant short stories. In the cast, along with Norma, was Alan Napier. I had been a devotee (as had most of the nation, for a while at least) of "Batman" and had noticed Alan in much the same way I had noticed Norma. They just stood out. I had also come across his name when working on publicity for a high school production of Noel Coward's 1929 musical, "Bitter Sweet". He had appeared in the original London production of the play (although I was puzzled to see him playing the role of "a distinguished old man" which is what he had been in "Batman" almost 40 years later). I asked Norma about him (they had actually appeared in seven films together along with an episode of "Batman") and she told me she thought he was still living in the Pacific Palisades (she had by that time retired to Santa Barbara). Armed with my Norma Varden article, I approached Alan to see if he would be willing to give me an interview. He invited me to his house and we talked for much of an afternoon. At that first meeting, he showed me his book, while confessing that, once he had written it, he had lost the impetus to push for its publication. He let me borrow the manuscript to read, which gave me a great excuse to visit again when it came time to return it. I was studying film production at UCLA at the time and presumptuously asked him if he would be willing to read some poetry that I planned to use at the end of my final film project. He kindly agreed (we recorded the piece in his house) and then even more kindly actually made the drive from the Palisades to Westwood to sit through a screening of the piece.

Alan was very complimentary of the article when it was finished, but unfortunately Leonard Maltin chose that moment to stop publication of his magazine. I submitted it to "Films in Review" instead and they accepted it with the caveat that it could be as much as a few years before it could see print, as they had a backlog of articles. This allowed me to keep in touch with Alan (who was a prodigious letter writer) so that I could keep the article up to date.

Once it was finally published in 1979, I tried (unsuccessfully) to put together a documentary about Hollywood character actors for which Leonard Maltin allowed me to use the title of his paperback series (Volume 3 of which now included my Norma Varden article). Alan (along with Norma and Charles lane, who I had also met and interviewed by then) agreed to sit for filmed interviews. All through these years I kept thinking about ALan's manuscript, hoping in the back of my mind that I might see it again in print. When Alan died in 1988, I assumed that it would never happen.

My documentary existed as a very splicey 16mm workprint until about five years ago, when I digitized my original interviews and put together a more polished final version. I tracked down Alan's daughter Jennifer (who I had not met when I knew him) and sent her a copy of "The Real Stars" along with a copy of the "Films in Review" article, neither of which she had ever seen. I asked her whether she still had a copy of the autobiography and she wasn't sure (her husband, actor Bob Nichols, assured her he knew where it was) and asked her if she would be willing to let me see if it might have a market. She agreed.

As to why I chose to take on the updating and finishing of book that isn't going to make anybody rich, I think it comes down to my wanting to repay Alan for his willingness to to take seriously the ambitions of a young kid all those years ago. In talking with those who knew him (I have spoken with descendants of childhood friends as well as professional colleagues), I have come to realize that was just his way, something that I think comes across in the book. There have been many times when I have tracked down an obscure piece of information that ties in to something he told me forty years ago and wished I could discuss it with him. I hope that he would have been happy with the way the book finally turned out.

Re: Q & A with James Bigwood about Alan Napier's Autobiography

Posted: December 5th, 2015, 12:10 pm
by BiggieB
Alan writes about Hitchcock in his book as an acquaintance more than a friend. He knew him from his early days in Hollywood but as Alan said to me, "we never really hit it off". Hitchcock offered Alan a small part in the early forties which Alan turned down (he never said what part it was) and Alan thought it might have had something to do with the distance between them. For Alan, most of his television work was just work. He was happiest on the stage speaking the words of great writers. That being said, Alan appeared in the very first Hitchcock show shot (although it aired 5th) playing opposite Hitchcock's daughter Pat. Hitchcock didn't direct the episode (he didn't personally direct any of the episodes Alan did), but he certainly would have been very much in evidence, making sure that both his show and his daughter were being well served. One of Hitchcock's favorite actors by the fifties and sixties was John WIlliams (who I am sure you have noticed several times in your binge watching). He and Alan were of a similar type and so he got many of the roles that Alan might have gotten if Williams hadn't been around. Williams was directed in three of the Hitchcock shows by Hitchcock himself as well as appearing in "Dial M For Murder" and "To Catch a Thief" on screen. Alan was only directed by Hitchcock personally in "Marnie".

Re: Q & A with James Bigwood about Alan Napier's Autobiography

Posted: December 5th, 2015, 12:17 pm
by BiggieB
As to Alan's height, he felt it was a liability all his life, on stage, screen as well as television. He refers to it in the clip you mentioned as a reason why he wasn't working as much as he would like, but he is being a bit disingenuous. He had appeared in close to 100 episodes of television before he got the role of Alfred in "Batman".

Re: Q & A with James Bigwood about Alan Napier's Autobiography

Posted: December 5th, 2015, 12:54 pm
by moira finnie
Thank you for your detailed responses, Jim. Has the film project you made with Alan Napier's help ever been online or commercially available? Could you please tell how you came to have the interviews with your subject that are now in youtube? They are posted below:

phpBB [video]


phpBB [video]


phpBB [video]


phpBB [video]


phpBB [video]


BiggieB wrote:He was happiest on the stage speaking the words of great writers.

Speaking of his stage work, one of the pleasures of the book are the vivid descriptions of long ago plays, which made me long for a time machine. I was particularly intrigued to read that he appeared in a slightly tongue-in-cheek production of Little Lord Fauntleroy with Elsa Lanchester in the title part!

Naturally, Alan played the aged grandfather, the Earl of Dourincourt, even though he was in his twenties at the time (!). Napier's first stage successes often were often playing old men (particularly notable in Noel Coward's "Bittersweet"). He suggests that his 6'+ height may have helped him be cast in these parts, but wasn't there some combination of the grave, the wistful and playful about him that also contributed to his ability to "play old" while still a youth?

Re: Q & A with James Bigwood about Alan Napier's Autobiography

Posted: December 5th, 2015, 1:44 pm
by BiggieB
The audio in the "Message from Alan Napier" is from the very first interview I did with him in 1975. Practically one of the first things he said to me! You can even hear me saying 'Unhuh" at one point.

The video interviews in the other clips are from a videotape interview done in 1986 by Jeffrey Vance, whose mother played bridge with Alan. Jeffrey was a student at UC Santa Cruz and made a documentary about Alan as a class project. At one point in the "Invisible Man Returns" clip, when Alan is off-camera, I switch to an audio snippet from "The Real Stars" (you should be able to detect a shift in his voice as Alan briefly gets seven years younger). Jeffrey's film was called "Through the Mill" and neither it nor "The Real Stars" has had any sort of release. The problem in both cases is that the movie clips illustrating the interviews are all unlicensed and would cost a fortune in clip rights. If either were to be posted online, there could be serious legal ramifications. In addition, in "The Real Stars" the only one of the three interviewees who is perfectly lit is Norma. Charles Lane is adequately lit, but unfortunately Alan is in silhouette most of the time. Jeffrey did a much better job of lighting, but he was working with videotape and had a monitor to judge his work as the interview took place. I was shooting black and white 16mm film and only saw the results when they came back from the lab. If "The Real Stars" had had any interest, I would have reshot (and extended) my interviews in color.

Re: Q & A with James Bigwood about Alan Napier's Autobiography

Posted: December 5th, 2015, 1:49 pm
by Professional Tourist
Mr. Bigwood, thank you for your comments regarding Mr. Napier's association with Alfred Hitchcock. Another one of the theatrical 'greats' with whom Mr. Napier associated over the years was Orson Welles. I've been able to find two radio productions -- an episode of Campbell Playhouse in 1939 (an adaptation of Agatha Christie's "The Murder of Roger Ackroyd") and The Fifth War Bond program broadcast from Texas on 12 June 1944* -- and one motion picture, of course Mr. Welles' MacBeth.

Do you have any notes or comments regarding Mr. Napier's work with Orson Welles that you could share with us?

Thank you.

*This broadcast is mentioned in your book, along with a nice photo, courtesy of the Texarkana Museum System: click for larger image:

Image

Re: Q & A with James Bigwood about Alan Napier's Autobiography

Posted: December 5th, 2015, 1:53 pm
by BiggieB
Alan's stage memories are a pleasure for me as well. He paints a vivid picture of the life of a working actor in 1930s London's West End. He obviously had an affection for the old men that he was so good at impersonating in youth. When he started at the Oxford Players in 1924, they were looking for a character man who could also play his own age if needed, and he claims that he used his memories of some of the eccentric teachers he had had in school to create his early characterizations. Alan referred to it as a "peculiar talent", and it certainly allowed him a career. He had amazing success in the first two years of his professional life when plays he did for a week in Oxford were transferred to London.

Re: Q & A with James Bigwood about Alan Napier's Autobiography

Posted: December 5th, 2015, 2:28 pm
by BiggieB
Alan met Orson Welles through John Houseman, who Alan was at school with (although 15 year old Orson was in London with his father overdosing on theater when "Bitter Sweet" opened, and it would lovely to think that he saw Alan in that play). Alan reunited with Houseman, who was by then working as Welles' producer in the Mercury Theater, when he came to the States. "The Murder of Roger Ackroyd" was Alan's first US job, recorded in New York before he ever even set foot in California, so Orson Welles was certainly an important part of his professional life. In 1975, he said to me, "He's a very great man, Orson, I last saw him in Central Park, looking strangely like Winston Churchill." Alan wrote a heartfelt letter to Welles after hearing him eulogize FDR on the radio, recalling the Bond Drive broadcast in Texarkana, which is reproduced in the book. Perhaps Alan's greatest debt to Welles was his hiring him for "Macbeth". Playing Lady Macduff in the film was an actress known primarily for radio, named Peggy Webber. She knew Alan slightly at the time, but really got to know him on the film. Peggy was (and still is) a true woman of the theater and it is thanks to her that Alan was able to do a significant amount of quality theater in Los Angeles in his old age. While he would grumble that there was never any money to be had working for her, she gave him opportunities to play Shaw, Shakespeare, and Dylan Thomas at a time when he was typecast as a butler and needed to prove (to himself as much as to anybody else) that he was much more.

Re: Q & A with James Bigwood about Alan Napier's Autobiography

Posted: December 5th, 2015, 4:27 pm
by moira finnie
I realize that Alan Napier just liked to be a working actor--and he seemed to work at almost every studio--Universal, MGM, Paramount and more. Did he prefer the atmosphere of one over another? Did he ever have a chance to sign a long term contract at any studio?

When he arrived in Hollywood, he described the social world he entered as divided among the Left, the Right and the Brits. Did he fit into any of these groups or was he really a bit of a loner?

Could you talk a bit about Napier's sometimes difficult friendship with George Sanders as well as Alan's becoming good friends with Brian Aherne? Were the two of them sometimes aloof due to their different level in the Hollywood pecking order than A.N.?

Thanks in advance for your insights. I am enjoying reading your remarks.

Re: Q & A with James Bigwood about Alan Napier's Autobiography

Posted: December 5th, 2015, 5:19 pm
by Lzcutter
Mr. Bigwood,

Thank you so much for joining us at the SSO this weekend!

Like ProfessionalTourist, I first knew Alan Napier from the 1960s Batman series. I was always struck by his performance as Alfred and as i become a film buff just a few years later, I was pleasantly surprised to find some of his films on the weekend late shows.

How did Mr. Napier come to be cast as Alfred?

Thanks again!

Re: Q & A with James Bigwood about Alan Napier's Autobiography

Posted: December 5th, 2015, 5:47 pm
by BiggieB
Alan was never under contract to a studio and, as far as I am aware, was never offered the opportunity to be. I would venture that, had been offered a contract, he would have taken it. He would have appreciated the security, I think. He never compared the atmospheres of the studios to me, but I think he responded more to individuals who would hire him on picture after picture. Val Lewton, for example, hired him four times over a fourteen film career, both at RKO and Paramount. John Houseman hired him several times at MGM. In fact, he worked most frequently at MGM (19 films) perhaps because they were the most "Anglophile" of the studios and ran through English actors at a great rate. Which leads neatly into your question about the Hollywood social world. Unlike many in the Brit ex-pat community, Alan became an American citizen (in 1952), but, as he often worked in English themed pictures, he was often professionally associated with citizens of the country of his birth. He never lost the taste for cricket and was a part of C. Aubrey Smith's cricketer community and many of his friends were English. Angela Lansbury remembers the Napiers helping her and her family financially when they first came over from England, displaced by the War. Alan gravitated more to the Left than to the Right, although his best friend, Brian Aherne was conservative politically. Indeed, as Alan puts it in the book, he wasn't particularly politically vocal (although he became more so in the sixties), but made the mistake of "talking politics to Adolphe Menjou". They worked together on "Across the Wide Missouri" and, although they bonded over the London Times crossword puzzle, they were not political bedfellows. Alan was not blacklisted (per Menjou, "he's not Red; he's just confused"), but was definitely graylisted and had a dry spell in the early 50's which prompted him to return to the stage in two Broadway plays and one Off-Broadway, despite his dislike of living in New York. (He also had a successful run at this time in the Chicago company of "Dial M For Murder", playing Inspector Hubbard, the role that John Williams created and won a Tony for before recreating it for Hitchcock in the film version.)

As you point out, Alan was friendly with George Sanders (Sanders was also a good friend of Brian Aherne who eventually became his biographer). Alan's wife never warmed to him, but Alan enjoyed his company, and it is fair to say that he benefited from George's stardom, in that Sanders liked having people he knew around him and had the power to make casting suggestions (Alan appeared in nine films with Sanders). Here is how Alan described their relationship: "George liked to be surrounded by uncritical admirers, his henchmen. For a time I was a sort of super-henchman; that is to say he would ask me to do things instead of telling me."

Brian Aherne was Alan's earliest champion in Hollywood, inviting him to parties and introducing him to people who could be of professional assistance, although there was a definite A and B list at Brian's house. Alan was in the "B" group because, as Brian explained and Alan cheerfully agreed, he would not have felt comfortable with the high earning folks in the "A" group. The "B"s got the leftovers on the days after the big "A" parties. Joan Fontaine, who was married to Aherne in the forties (Alan was best man at their wedding) told me with a laugh that Alan was family and "family gets leftovers!"

Re: Q & A with James Bigwood about Alan Napier's Autobiography

Posted: December 5th, 2015, 6:05 pm
by BiggieB
Lzcutter, it is amazing how many people first met Alan on "Batman"! Despite a hundred films and a hundred episodes of television before Alfred. William Dozier, who produced the show, claims that he never considered anybody other than Alan for the role because "Alan Napier, to me, has always been the absolute essence of the perfect English manservant or butler.” Alan said that it was Dozier's assistant, Charles Fitzsimmons, who used to work with Alan's agent, who first suggested him (and, since Alan had never played a butler in his entire career before "Batman", Dozier seems to be working with the benefit of hindsight). At any rate, everybody agrees that Alan was the first cast member to be hired. Alan always told the story of his hiring in the same way, so I will let him tell it:

https://youtu.be/K-ScJWXkIIE