Every democracy rests upon a paradox that all too often it must struggle to resolve: How far can a free society go in curtailing the freedom of those who threaten its existence from within or without?

     During the Cold War, the United States wrestled with this conundrum. Although there remained many champions of civil liberties–Justice William O. Douglas comes to mind–this tension produced an occasional malignancy, such as Senator Joseph McCarthy (1908-1957) whose reckless crusade against Communism became known as McCarthyism.

     Novelists and film makers were drawn to the dramatic danger such zealots posed to the Republic. In 1962, Fletcher Knebel and Charles Bailey II, two Washington journalists, published Seven Days in May, a novel about a fictitious coup hatched by a right-wing general named James M. Scott.


     The general supposedly was modeled upon General Douglas MacArthur who had been removed from his command during the Korean War by President Harry Truman for his disagreement over the conduct of the war which he believed lacked "determination." In defending himself before a joint session of Congress, the general had declared "In war... there can be no substitute for victory" and had become a national hero.

     The book's president, Jordan Lyman, is a cerebral politician who spearheads a nuclear disarmament treaty with Russia "because it is the right thing to do." His admirers describe Lyman as another Nehru, a reference to the Indian prime minister who favored a position of non-alignment during the Cold War. This attitude hardly reassured the superpatriots who mistrust Lyman's motives. As one co-conspirator puts it, "We're got a commie right in the White House."

     The novel caught the attention of actor Kirk Douglas who purchased the film rights for his production company. Paramount financed and distributed the movie in which Douglas played Colonel Jiggs Casey, an officer who stumbles upon the plot and alerts the president.

     Douglas recruited Burt Lancaster (1913-1994) to play General Scott. Lancaster had grown up in East Harlem and received a settlement house scholarship to NYU. Although Lancaster had spoken out against the Hollywood blacklist, and publically criticized HUAC's investigation of the movie industry, as an actor he sought a range of roles. In an earlier film, Judgment at Nuremberg (1961), Lancaster had played a German judge who allows himself to be morally corrupted by the Nazi regime. The actor would go "beyond the pale to achieve an honesty," as director Stanley Kramer put it.

     Fredric March was cast as President Jordan Lyman. A one time matinee idol who had appeared opposite Janet Gaynor in A Star is Born (1937), March's cosmopolitan manner suited him well in the role of chief executive.

March and Douglas

     John Frankenheimer (1930-2002) directed. Frankenheimer was from New York and came out of the world of television drama where shows like "Kraft Television Theater" and "Studio One" were shot economically; a few days in rehearsal, then the program was aired live where the director's first take was his last. This training proved useful on Seven Days in May. Ava Gardner agreed to play the role of Scott's former mistress but stipulated that her part would be shot in six days. A legendary Hollywood beauty, Miss Gardner shared the world weariness of her character. Howard Hughes and a Spanish matador were among her lovers. During their stormy marriage, Frank Sinatra dedicated his torch song, "I Have But One Heart," to Ava.

     The Pentagon reportedly was displeased with the project, but President John F. Kennedy gave the film his blessing. Frankenheimer was permitted to shoot an exterior scene outside the White House (of right-wingers picketing), and Pierre Salinger, the White House press secretary, arranged for a tour so the presidential office could be duplicated on the Paramount lot.

     The film cast was rounded out by a strong group of supporting actors. Edmund O'Brien played the syrupy Southern senator who sticks by a Yankee president; George Macready was a cabinet officer who uses his talent as a "mean trial lawyer" to match wits with the conspirators.

     Richard Anderson appeared as Colonel Murdock, an aide to General Scott. Anderson's first job in Hollywood had been in the mail room at MGM. In 1949, he appeared on a local television program and was spotted by actress Betsy Drake whose husband, Cary Grant, called Metro to praise the young actor. Anderson was signed to a contract and soon found himself in Metro's stock company in the waning days of the studio system. He appeared in twenty-four films, including Scaramouche (1952) and Escape from Fort Bravo (1953), the latter directed by John Sturges.

     After Anderson appeared on loan-out to United Artists in Stanley Kubrick's Paths of Glory, a World War I drama, the actor caught the attention of John Frankenheimer who cast him in Seven Days in May.

     The film was a modest success at the box office but was praised by serious critics like Judith Crist and Dwight Macdonald. Over the years the film's appeal has grown as its message remains clear: Freedom is held in trust by those who lead the nation, and no cause is worth betrayal of that trust.

     Here, in an exclusive interview with American Legends co-founder Martin Pitts, conducted over two sessions in Los Angeles, Richard Anderson recalls the making of Seven Days in May.

AL: You worked with Stanley Kubrick in Paths of Glory and John Frankenheimer in Seven Days in May. How would you compare their style of directing?


RA: Kubrick worked differently than Frankenheimer. Kubrick liked visual. It had to do with how it looked. His father had given him a camera when he was seven or eight, and he rode the subway snapping pictures, the camera hidden in a paper bag. Later, Stanley worked as a photographer for Look. Frankenheimer was into words. For him, it was the book. He made pictures that were well- written. Rod Serling did the screenplay for Seven Days in May.



Did Kubrick and Frankenheimer go over the script before shooting?



Frankenheimer always had a reading before filming began. He had everyone sit around and go over their lines. Stanley didn't have a reading. His approach was more technical. On Paths of Glory we had a German photographer who had been an air ace. But nothing would stop Stanley from moving the lights. He wanted to achieve a grainy effect to make it seem more like 1918. I never saw a director do that before.


AL: What was your own experience like as an actor with Kubrick and Frankenheimer?

RA: The way Frankenheimer worked, he didn't say a word to me. He just let me know that he liked what I was doing. Later, he put me in Seconds (1966), a sci-fi movie with Rock Hudson. On Paths of Glory, the first day, we rehearsed the courtroom scene I had with Kirk Douglas. He was on one side, I was on the other. The judges were all there. I got up and started to walk. Stanley said, "No, no, no...." I told him, in so many words, "Stanley, calm down. Let me show you something." I started pacing back and forth. Stanley got up right away. He moved the cameras behind the judges to get a better angle. After that first scene, he let me alone.



Frankenheimer and Kubrick came out of New York. Kubrick had made experimental films, Frankenheimer began in television. Did their backgrounds carry over in Hollywood?



Frankenheimer came out of live television where you didn't get a second take or a third or a twelfth. The moguls like Jack Warner hated television. They called it "the idiot box." They were all getting older and didn't want to change. But when they saw the way things were going, how they were losing viewers to this new medium, they brought out directors like Frankenheimer and Sidney Lumet to try to adapt. Stanley Kubrick was a throwback to an earlier era. When I started in the back office at Metro, Albert Lewin was shooting The Picture of Dorian Gray. I went into the army, and when I came out seventeen months later, Lewin was still working on the picture. At Stanley's memorial service, someone asked me if it was true he did seventy-eight takes in Paths of Glory. Yes, it's true. It was the execution scene. It took seventh-eight takes for four guys to get killed. At one o'clock in the morning, James Harris, Stanley's business partner, came out with the production manager and urged Stanley to wrap it up. I never saw Stanley get mad before, but he said: "I am going to stay here as long as I want. Now, please leave."



Both Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster were stars who had their own production companies. How did they interact with each other in Seven Days in May?



On the set, people are always trying to do their best. I am not trying to sound like an ambassador for American film, but when people are trying to do their best, tempers run high. You have a concept that nobody else has. These were guys that say what they think and when they open their mouth, they talk. It's a highly volatile game, and when you get two highly visceral guys like that together, there could be fireworks.


AL: You worked in several scenes with Lancaster. What was he like to work with?


Burt had just come off The Leopard which Luchino Visconti had shot in Italy. He was a bit frayed with the experience over there and was quite tired. He had come to work the next day almost, and the first scene I had with him, he was having trouble getting the words out. He turned to me and said, "Would you like to have lunch?" We had lunch, and he didn't say anything about it. After lunch, everything went fine. You look at these Turner Classic movies. A lot of these actors had been on the stage. Burt was a circus performer. They understood timing.


AL: Fredric March portrayed the milquetoast president who outmaneuvers the conspirators.



He was wonderful. As a kid, I watched him in those Fox movie houses in the thirties. I grew up on him. I told him, "It's such a pleasure to meet you." He said, "Thank you, Mr. Anderson." One day, I watched him work. Right after filming, he turned to the wardrobe man and said, "Bill, don't take the coat and fix it up for tomorrow. Leave it like it is. We're continuing the scene." He wanted the coat to look the same way. How'd you like that for an actor?



John Frankenheimer had made The Manchurian Candidate (1962), another movie about a political conspiracy. Did he talk about Seven Days in May's political implications?



The first thing Frankenheimer said to me was, "Get this book." It was Dwight Eisenhower's book in which he wrote about the warning he had given in his farewell address about the danger of the "military-industrial complex." That's what made this picture important. It highlights what Eisenhower said: Watch out for the military and business. The same thing that is going on today.


(Background material for this interview was found in Kate Buford, Burt Lancaster: An American Life, Alfred Knopf, 2000, Douglas MacArthur, Reminiscences, McGraw-Hill, 1964, and Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II, Seven Days in May, Bantam Books ed., 1967)


Order insightful biographies of American Legends at the

James Dean  | Montgomery Clift  | Jim Morrison  | Jack Webb | 

 | Jack Kerouac  | Ernest Hemingway | 

Bookstore  | Video Store | 

562 Woodland Drive
Sierra Madre, California 91