Thursday, March 16, 2017

William Sargent and his LA Story

A studio publicity shot of William Sargent during an episode of 'My Three Sons'.

Since 2010, the time we started this site on the Colortran Mini-Crab Dolly and it's inventor, William Sargent. We were always curious as to what William did during his time before he invented the Mini-Crab Dolly and after he left Colortran. Well, Ladies and Gentlemen, we have a wonderfully written account by William Sargent. Sit back and enjoy William Sargent's fascinating story.

That unknown part of my life in LA... By William Sargent

New York was the end-all for me as a striving actor. Returning from Korea with the G.I. Bill at my disposal, I went for an interview with the great Sanford Meisner and felt lucky to be accepted to the famed Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theater for the two-year course, 1953-55. My school allotment came to all of $110 a month, the course, then, was $100 per month, which left me with $10 for subway fares and cigarettes. I was lucky to still live at home. This was all I had dreamt about through ‘Heartbreak Ridge’ and ‘The Punchbowl’ while serving as a wireman with the Heavy Mortar company of the 14th Regiment, 25th Division, for all of 1952 – and now it was actually happening. I was going to study drama and follow a dream that actually started around age eight when I was taken to see a live play.

During the summer breaks we were not to do any acting work. It was Sandy’s way against your picking up bad habits before he was through with you. You were to read and or see plays. Too late, a friend had already recommended me to the small Windermere Playhouse, a summer stock company at Seal Harbor, Maine, so I drove up there in my 1938 Dodge and spent ten wonderful weeks doing 8 plays. They had hired me to play some small parts but mainly to build sets. However audience reactions ‘promoted’ me to play a few leads - AND also build sets. I loved every minute of it! Pay, was room & board, and endless free spaghetti and Cokes. Best part of that summer was not only the acting experience, but the handsome dachshund puppy I brought back from Maine - we called him George.

I finished the second year at the Playhouse ending with the great privilege of being cast in the final production as ‘Jonah’ in a musical version of ‘Jonah and the Whale’ by James Bridie. My good friend and classmate, Robert Kelljan (who 10 years later became my business partner on the Mini-Crab Dolly) was also in the cast, as were Tammy Grimes and Brianne Murphy – both deceased now. Most notable was the quiet and demure, Brianne Murphy, who after graduation ran off to the Circus, then went into photography and eventually became the first female ASC, Academy Award-winning cinematographer.

In 1950’s New York, the actor’s way of seeking work was very different from an actor trying to get a job in Hollywood. In NYC you made the ‘rounds’ yourself, hounding the casting offices. You rushed to ‘open call’ auditions, scanned Variety & the Reporter magazine daily for shows going into rehearsals. You hoped a friendly casting agent would send you out on those all-important interviews, more than once. All along you kept ‘honing’ your craft by attending this or that dramatic workshop so as ‘not to get rusty’. Sometimes, even using a workshop to present a personal ‘showcase’. This was in the hopes of enticing an agent to attend. Or, even replacing another actor in an off-off Broadway play for a night, just for the ‘credit’. Friends in the profession were all-important to each other’s progress.

Word of mouth by good friends helped often. I worked in off-Broadway plays through directors or actors’ recommendations, and in summers went off to Stock companies - with rarely an audition. And, although off-Broadway Equity minimum was all of $37.50 a week - I was soon to become a proud, card-carrying Equity member. A PROFESSIONAL ACTOR! Of course, I also had to supplement periods of unemployment with the exiting job of driving a cab - a job, Robert Kelljan got for me with the same Yellow Checker Company he drove for, while looking for work and trying his hand at writing...
How or why I wound up in Hollywood in 1960 for that small part in the ‘Young Savages’, a part that obviously ended on the editing room floor, may have been a questionable choice for me, looking back; Sidney Pollack and I came out for the same picture, with one major exception. Sidney came out as dialog coach for the (real) gang members who had never acted before - a delicate job essential to the picture’s raw authenticity, and I was to play Burt Lancaster’s assistant (at least in the script) but instead, I mostly sat at the DA’s table with Telly Savalas. But, I was now suddenly earning $400 a week! From $37.50 to FOUR HUNDRED?! It must have been this sudden ‘wealth’ or was it the sunshine, girls and the beach? I was sure; finding work in at least one of those studios would be a cinch. Yup, I succumbed, and stayed in Hollywood - for the next 27 years...
Studio shots of William Sargent (soft-focus) in the foreground during a rehearsal on the movie 'Savages'. Sitting next to William is Telly Savalas and Burt Lancaster is standing.
In this rehearsal scene we see William Sargent standing with Burt Lancaster. William played the assistant DA in this film.

If you planned to stay in LaLa Land you had to have a car, get some 8x10 glossies shot, find an agent, upgrade your summer wardrobe and maybe hang out at Schwab’s Drugstore where you might meet Sidney Skolsky, who would, if you got lucky, do a column on you some day. Dreamer!

A year earlier in NY, a jovial fellow named Lenny Kaplan, looked me up backstage after the show I was in, said he was an agent and could we go for coffee. We talked at length about the play that night, my work - and his. He was barely ‘eeking’ out a living as a photographer and was trying his hand at being a Theatrical agent.

An 8x10 glossy of William Sargent taken early in William's career by photographer, Lenny Kaplan.

Lenny already had two clients, he said, but felt they might venture out west where they should do better. His two unknowns were two talents named Marty Ingels and Frank Gorshin, and did I know them? I confessed I didn’t. Before we parted he gave me the number of a relative in LA, and if I ever got out there they would be able to tell me where to find him.
Now, I was ‘out there’, I bought a used Karmann Ghia, rented a room at the El Marathon Apartments (across from the iconic Paramount Gate), ate my meals at Oblath’s next door, and talked to Paramount patrons about ‘the business’ - who all advised, you can’t get to first base without an agent!

I remembered Lenny Kaplan and called his relative’s number. We met like ‘old friends’ and when we parted I had a portrait photographer and an agent. Lenny had no meaningful connections or experience but he had imagination and moxie. He learned how to sneak past gate guards with me, lie about having some urgent business to attend to - or just sneaked in from some rear entrance with me in tow. He’d knock on doors and usually say, I know you’re busy Mr.X, but just wanted you to meet William Sargent who was brought out from NYC for a picture at Columbia – here’s my card and his photo. Or, similar embarrassing ploys. Usually we’d get rolling eyes or a gruff ‘Not Now!’ please! It finally work one day when we ‘rushed’ a kind James Whitmore, who took the time to talk ‘Theater’ with me - while Lenny checked out other offices down the hall. Mr. Whitmore gave me my first TV break in his show ‘The Law and Mr. Jones’. It was a beginning, and Lenny and I celebrated it with Ingles & Gorshin that evening. And so it went, sometimes weeks between jobs. I found Theater work in a couple of Equity Library Theater productions, and made new friends. I knew how to live on sparse funds but what to do with all that time?

Sidney and I stayed in touch, we had been friends from the Playhouse days, but he soon got busy and was more interested in directing. Burt Lancaster had quietly observed Sidney during the ‘Savages’ shoot, how he worked with the boys, was impressed, and hired him as ‘assistant’ or something, and later on eventually as director. Sidney called me one day not for an acting job but to go flying with him. He was being checked out on a Cessna 182 and would enjoy the company. So I grabbed my 8mm camera and sat in the back seat (filming) while he and the instructor went through the qualification test. When we landed he asked if I’d like to go up and see if I liked it – his treat! Really? Well, why not. He went for coffee and I took his place with the instructor who put me through a trial introduction. I went out on another checkout flight with Sidney a year later on a twin-engine Cessna.
He was totally dedicated and absorbed with flying and I rarely saw him again after that day. He was now traveling in other circles. I did get hooked on flying for a while, and later even bought myself a little 1947 Cessna 120, while at Colortran, flying around for a while. One day, visiting a friend in the Lancaster area I cracked up in a bad landing at Quartz Hill, Ca. I wasn’t hurt though the plane was, and I had second thoughts about my prowess as a pilot.

William Sargent and his Cessna 120 which was tied down at Burbank's Sky Roamers. This airport was just minutes away from Colortran. This was during the time the Mini-Crab Dolly was being manufactured.

What to do with all that spare time between shows? I wasn’t needed at Colortran anymore. I now needed a hobby, something constructive. It came to me while visiting Marina del Rey one day with a lady friend, as I looked out at all those boats. Why not get a boat, a fixer-upper that I could play with when not working or just on weekends, if I did. I looked at boats on nearby lots and found a cute but shabby 16.5 ft, cuddy-cabin fishing boat with a small inboard Hercules for $500 staring at me. So I got it, parked it in my lady friend’s driveway and proceeded to cherry it out. We enjoyed it for a while but I got tired of trailering it back and forth, and decided to trade it for a little larger boat that I could keep there in a slip. I sold the little beauty for $1,500 after a year, threw in another hundred and bought a neglected 24 ft. Plywood Owens with a ‘283’ inboard motor. This was going to be great! Could sleep over on weekends, throw small parties, go to Catalina.

But first the boat had to go into dry-dock, hull cleaned and bottom painted, prop and shaft and through-hull fittings checked. Wait, said the broker, you’ll need a marine survey for insurance purposes – might as well do it while she’s out of the water. Here are a couple of surveyors’ names. I called one, he came down that afternoon and went through her for an hour or so, handed me a sheet with a list of ‘must do’ recommendations and a bill for $35, and said he’d be glad to sign her off when all was completed. I thanked him and proceeded to do some of the work right there at the yard and two days later, called Whitehouse to sign her off and had the boat yard launch her back into the water. The twenty-four foot slip At Delamo Marine was all of .75 cents per foot per month in the late ‘60’s (it’s more like $14-20 per foot nowadays), and I was allowed to stay on board at all times but only for two consecutive nights.

A year later with the Owens ‘Hiatus’ looking like it came off the assembly line, I called, Capt Whitehouse to come by, look at my work and adjust her value for insurance purposes. As I paid him for his time, he shook his head with a big smile and asked, where did you learn all that, they told me at the office you’ actor? I thanked him for the compliment, and the conversation expanded to his services in the Coast Guard and his long-time membership in NAMS (National Association of Marine Surveyors). He was an interesting tiny old man with an impressive history. Two years of fun followed and I had taken the ‘Hiatus’ to Catalina a couple of times and ran her up and down the neighboring coastline, but put-putting around the various marinas in MDR I saw some larger beauties ‘beckoning’ and since I had a few bucks to play with I was itching for something larger - to possibly even live on.

It was now 1972, and one day, looking through a local boating magazine there was a potential vessel that ‘spoke to me’. A cosmetically shot, 36’ Chris Craft F/B Sportfisher cruiser with a ‘lapstrake’ hull. The ad said the engines were in excellent shape. Price was $14,500, AS IS. That was a bit more than I wanted to spend, but my Swedish pal and boat neighbor, Sten, suggested I offer them $5K or six at most. They had probably taken too many trade-ins and were eager to sell. They first laughed at my offer, but Sten was right - I came up to $6,500 ‘final offer’ and started to walk. The salesman, too eager not to lose the deal, agreed. He almost lost his composure when I told him he needed to take my Hiatus in trade and that she had been valued at $4K. He went with me to look at my Owens and right then and there we shook on it and headed back to the office to sign the contract. While walking back, I asked him, who the cute blonde was in the accounting office? Oh, you noticed her, he smirked, that’s our Patti, very special. I’ll introduce you, William. By the way, what do you do, you a carpenter? An actor, I said. As we entered the office he led me over to Patti and said, this Gentleman just bought one of our boats – he’s an actor! Bud Yandell, that salesman, played a most touching role, some months later, in getting Patti and me together, but that’s another and more ‘important’ story in my life.

I got a live-aboard slip from them, too, and since they had a great boat yard I had the vessel hauled right there for Marine Survey. The day before, I had gone through her entire inner hull, but by her looks just below her encrusted bootstripe I had a fair idea I was in for a total bottom overhaul before relaunching and moving her to her new slip. Of course, I called Capt Whitehouse to do the survey and we arrived at the yard together the following morning. ‘Had a fair sea-trial?’ he grumbled. I said, no, just got the engines started okay but it was an ‘As is’ deal!

The boat was out of the water in slings ready to block when we arrived. What we beheld was a very heavy load of tube-worms and 2 feet of seaweed hanging down – she’d probably not even been run for a couple of years. Capt Hal suggested to have her bottom scraped, and then power-washed or lightly sandblasted to reveal the wood planking before anything else was done. I agreed, and the order was put in at the service office. The next day Capt Whitehouse was back to do his thing. I watched him from a distance so as not to break his concentration; he made it clear he preferred it that way. I found out that Marine Surveyors can get sued for missing or omitting serious problems. It took the Captain 4 long hours. He appeared very tired after crawling down the ladder. I waited silently while he went over his notes, then handed me the list of recommendations. He said he had to go home and would have the document typed – and the valuations, ‘Market and Replacement’ for me by tomorrow...

The ‘Sweet Hiatus’ took almost a year to look presentable, and Capt Hal stopped by whenever he was in the vicinity to see how and what I was doing. Bill, he said one day, ‘why don’t you come work for me and give up that kid’s stuff you do on the Tube?’ I wanted to laugh - but I let him continue. ‘I’m too tired & too old to go on’, he said, ‘I could use someone like you – teach you all the legalities. You can start with me at 50 cents on the dollar...and in a year or so you’ll be established and the business will be yours!’ Think about it, he said, and left.

Something hit deep. What?! Give up acting after all those years. True, I wasn’t a big hit on the Tube, and I frequently resented being called away for an audition or another unimportant, uninspiring, supporting role. What about the $750-1,200 I was now getting for 2-3 days on a show. Yes, but that wasn’t really happening too often. Patti and I had started to date recently.
What if things got serious between us, how would I support my end of the relationship? And, wouldn’t you know it, just about that time, I got a call to do a ‘Streets of San Francisco’ episode with a decent part. I decided to make that my farewell to the Tube. Took Patti with me to SF for the three day shoot – and we had a ball. When we returned, I told Patti I was through. I would do Theater Plays but I was tired waiting for those studio calls! I was going to work as a Marine Surveyor!

The end of the story? I started working for ‘Whitehouse Marine Surveyors’ the following week. Hal took me around with him, introducing me to every broker, every insurance group and shipyard foreman. He took on all the work thrown at us – but I wound up doing most of the work. He started getting sick and weak, over the following months. I had to occasionally even take him to the hospital. His dear wife was the secretary and had to stay in the office to take calls. They had a mobile-home at Lake Mead and wanted to retire there. But, Hal didn’t make it and passed away.

I was now on my own, with Hal’s wife wanting to shut the (home) office. We parted friends – and I was on my own. Since everyone had gotten to know me, thanks to Hal, I had no problem working everywhere on the coast, not only in MDR with its 6500 slips but in yards from San Pedro to Oxnard. I opened a small office in Marina del Rey, hired a Loyola U. student as a secretary, renamed the company to ‘William Sargent Marine Surveyors’, even pasted the logo on my jeep – and the transition went without a ripple. I continued as a surveyor for thirteen years - occasionally doing a play, but no TV if I could help it. I still have the Logbook - and peruse it occasionally. I marvel at the number & type of boats I worked on. In those thirteen years I surveyed more than 1800 vessels... There you have it! My career in LA.