After the last actor is displaced by a computer, and the history of Hollywood is written, American film will be divided into two epochs: B.C.–before Clift –and then the era that he ushered in: an era that was shaped by the intellectual energy and creative introspection that the actor brought from the New York stage when he made his first film, Red River, in 1948.

     Before Motgomery Clift, film acting was stylized and disciplined. As Robert Wagner puts it in his autobiography, Pieces of My Heart, professionals like Spencer Tracy approached their craft–acting–with a direct focus: “block it, rehearse it, do it, move on.”

     Clift, and then Marlon Brando who became even better known–and imitated–changed everything. Before tackling a part, they analyzed the role, sometimes with their acting coach in tow. To the old guard, Clift and Brando were “dirty shirt-tailed” actors , but soon they, and other members of the Actors Studio who used Stanislavski’s so-called Method to think themselves into a role, had taken over Hollywood.

     The New York invasion which included James Dean and Paul Newman quickly pushed aside a generation of young Hollywood actors who had been groomed to replace aging matinee idols like Tracy and Clark Gable.

     Among the young actors who overnight seemed dated were Robert Wagner and Jeffrey Hunter, both of whom were good looking and clean-cut enough to have stepped off a Midwest campus. Hunter, in fact, had graduated from Northwestern where he was president of his fraternity.

Virginia Leith

     Robert Wagner had grown up in the shadow of the film colony and had caddied at the Bel-Air Country Club where his parents were members. One of those he followed around the links was Clark Gable, and early on, he caught the acting bug.

     Both Gable and another family friend, director William Wellman, tried to help RJ, as he was known, break into the business, but it was the young man’s winning smile that caught the attention of Twentieth Century-Fox’s drama coach, Helen Sorrell. It was indeed a lucky break since Darryl Zanuck, the head of the studio, who was better known for discovering starlets, had seen the same screen test and was ready to turn thumbs down.

      As a contract player at Fox, Wagner started at seventy-five dollars a week. “I wasn’t very good, but I was diligent,” he wrote with un-Hollywood like modesty in his autobiography. Around the studio, he proved himself cooperative and willing to learn, even paying for extra voice coaching out of his own pocket.

     This diligence paid off. In the early 1950s, Wagner was cast in a succession of increasingly bigger parts. He played a young marine in Halls of Montezuma, directed by Lewis Milestone, and a Purdue student trapped on the Titanic, in a 1953 movie of the same name that starred Clifton Webb and Barbara Stanwyck. Although Miss Stanwyck was some fifteen years older than Wagner, she and the young contract player entered into a happy backlot romance that itself seemed right out of a movie.

          In 1954, Wagner was named by Photoplay magazine as “the rising star” of the year, and the movie Prince Valiant, in which he had the title role, was a hit. But something was wrong. Instead of being idolized for playing a shining hero in an age of chivalry, Wagner found himself ridiculed and impersonated by grips around the studio.

     Suddenly, Wagner realized that he was “swimming against the tide” and had modeled himself “after an earlier era” that was being swept away by the revolution ushered in by Clift and Brando.

     Hoping to change his image, Wagner selected as his next project, A Kiss Before Dying, which, he later wrote, “erased a lot of the jokes about Prince Valiant.” Based on the Ira Levin novel, the film deals with a twisted young army veteran named Bud Corliss who is determined to avoid the trap of tract homes with no down payment that sprang up in post-World War II America.

      As the young man vows to his mother in the movie, “I won’t wind up like Dad with holes in my shoes.” “Oh, you won’t,” she assures him. “You’re a genius.”

      And, in a way, he was: a criminal genius. Enrolling in college on the GI Bill, Bud meets Dorrie Kingship, the daughter of a copper baron, who falls hard for her ambitious suitor. When Dorrie becomes pregnant, however, Bud knows that her highly moral father will disinherit her even if they marry.  So he disguises her murder to appear a suicide. Later, Bud pops up in the Southwest to woo the dead girl's beautiful sister. The rest of the movie involves his  efforts to coldly dispatch those who try to unravel his crime. 

  Robert L. Jacks arranged to produce the movie through United Artists, a film company that other studios used for their controversial projects (or to disguise a studio head’s financial interest). In one of her early roles, Joanne Woodward played the hapless heiress. Wagner’s close friend, Jeffrey Hunter, was the student campus cop who pursues the killer. Mary Astor, a former leading lady, played Bud’s worshipful mother, and George Macready (1899-1973), an excellent character actor, was Leo Kingship, Dorrie’s wealthy father. Virginia Leith, whose film career later faltered, appeared as Dorrie’s sister.    

The Young Genius

     Gerd Oswald directed. The cinematographer, Lucien Ballard (1908-1988), had worked as a film editor and then served a long apprenticeship as a cameraman at various studios. In 1945, he married actress Merle Oberon whom he met while shooting The Lodger. Known for his black and white photography, Ballard adeptly filmed the dazzling desert backdrop in A Kiss Before Dying which was released in 1956.

     Wagner’s performance in the movie was cool and understated; as the actor puts it, A Kiss Before Dying has become “a cult film over the years.”

     Although RJ’s friends “disdained” the Method, he was in favor of any technique that helped free an actor up and get him “where he needs to go.” So Wagner visited New York and sat in Actors Studio sessions as an observer, a privilege that Lee Strasberg, the Studio’s autocratic director, sometimes accorded Hollywood celebrities. The experience was disappointing. Wagner caught the Studio members looking at him and “rolling their eyes.” In turn, he realized some of them were snobs who only “loved to talk about acting” and who dismissed him as “the pretty kid who had made Prince Valiant and been laughed at.”

     In 1957 Wagner married Natalie Wood who had appeared with James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause. Wagner knew that Natalie had had an affair with Nicholas Ray, the film’s director, and remained close to some cast members, like Nick Adams, but she became integrated into her husband’s circle of older actors, and the Rebel crowd disappeared. Natalie and Wagner were later divorced, then remarried, and remained together until her tragic death in a boating accident in 1981.

     By the 1960s, tired of the string of “losers” Fox had put him into, and with the studio floundering under Spyros Skouras, Wagner left for Europe. His career revived, and he appeared in a number of acclaimed movies, including The Pink Panther (1963 ) and The Condemned of Altona (1962 ). The latter was directed by Vittorio De Sica and based upon Jean-Paul Sartre’s play about a German industrialist’s misdeeds during World War II.

     Following his return home, Wagner launched a highly successful television career, as an actor and co-producer of Charlie’s Angels. Among his shows was Hart to Hart, a series in which he appeared with Stephanie Powers.

     The father of three daughters, Wagner today lives in Los Angeles with his wife, actress Jill St. John, the lovely James Bond heroine. Here in an exclusive interview with American Legends conducted over the telephone, Robert Wagner recalls the making of A Kiss Before Dying.


On Location

AL: How did you come to make A Kiss Before Dying?


RW: My sister, Mary Lou, read a condensed version in Redbook. She told me, “This would be a wonderful thing for you to play.” I kind of got it off the ground. Then Bob Jacks, a Fox producer, who worked on Prince Valiant, got a hold of it, and off we went. It was released through United Artists, but most of people, like myself, and Jeff Hunter, were loan outs from Fox.



Lucien Ballard who shot Prince Valiant was the film’s cinematographer. He was highly regarded by Henry Hathaway and other directors.


He was one of the best lighting cameramen in the business. On A Kiss Before Dying, the lighting was difficult. In Arizona, where part of the movie was shot, the light was extraordinary. Since the cameraman has to balance the interiors with exteriors, it means he has to put more light on the interiors. That can cause the actors to squint or the set to become overheated. Lucien developed some interesting gels to put on the windows, things like that. He was very inventive. Women just adored him. When he worked with Merle Oberon, he invented a light that smoothed out some facial scars she had from an automobile accident. It became known as the Obie.


AL: How did Ballard interact with Gerd Oswald, the director, and the cast?
RW: Lucien worked closely with Gerd. They very much respected each other’s talents. Gerd was a man who welcomed any kind of suggestions. Lucien was tremendous with people. He really appreciated actors. He was always very patient.



Film reviewers often overlook the contribution of a cinematographer.



Cameramen can be put in a very difficult situation. They don’t always have the best light or adequate time. They have to get the shot and move on. A great cameraman is someone who can take a set that’s nothing and make it look good.



Gerd Oswald (1916-1989) made only a handful of Hollywood films. One critic, Andrew Sarris, regretted that he was treated with “indifference” by most reviewers. Why didn’t Oswald’s career take off?



I don’t know why Gerd was overlooked. Unfortunately, there are a lot of people who are overlooked. Gerd and I did quite a few things together. He directed me in a television version of The Oxbow Incident, and I thought his work stood up to the (1943) William Wellman film.   


AL: In your book, you paid tribute to his talent.


Gerd loved film. He came from a very distinguished background. His father had been a noted director in Germany. Gerd did a lot of research, and was always looking for ideas.


AL: What was Oswald like on the set of A Kiss Before Dying?



We rehearsed a lot, but when it was set, it was pretty well set. There was not a lot of improvisation. Gerd was very loyal to the story, but was always looking for ways to make it better. He was a very creative man, into texture, backlighting.



Playing a psychopath was a radical departure from the roles Fox was giving you. How did you get a characterization for such a part?



A psycho does not believe he is a psycho. I tried to do it as believable as possible and not tip it off. Jeff Hunter, and Joanne Woodward who had come out of New York, were good to work with. I think we just decided on balance what would be good. We were all into character, revelation. It was a collaborative effort.


AL: When the Method came to Hollywood with Clift and Brando, acting styles changed.



They woke everybody up to a different style of acting, a different style of shooting a film.


AL: You later worked with Nick Ray in The Return of Jesse James (1957). Ray complained that he was not able to establish a rapport with you.


RW: I played Jesse James. Jeff Hunter was Frank James. There wasn’t a whole lot of discipline on the set. Everybody was looking around to see what was happening. As I wrote in my book, Ray liked to have all these acolytes around him. He was a very confused man. He’d stare off into space, then tell you: “Try this. No. Wait. Try that.” Every morning we’d wonder what he would be like that day. Incidentally, the book was written with Scott Eyman whose knowledge of Hollywood is tremendous.


AL: What was Fox’s attitude toward A Kiss Before Dying?


RW: During the filming, the studio left us alone. We were not on the lot. The interiors were shot at the old Selznick studio. We were all young and enthusiastic and excited to be doing something that was not a programed movie. I think the studio thought it was interesting. It opened their eyes a bit. This picture was way ahead of its time.


(Background information was obtained from Robert J.Wagner’s Pieces of My Heart, written with Scott Eyman, HarperCollins, 2008)


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