Joel McCrea and Gary Cooper were not only tall and terse in the saddle, shy and "Yes, ma'am," "No ma'am" polite on the ground, but bosom pals. According to McCrea, with whom I talked last August at the Telluride Film Festival, they were striding actoss the studio lot one day when Warner brother Harry looked up at them and advised, "Humphrey Bogart can kick his mother on screen and get away with it. But you two are Kellog's Corn Flakes guys. People buy tickets to see you that way. Don't disappoint them."
"Coop" never did, remaining strong, righteous, and rustic through High Noon (1952) until his death of cancer in 1981. Likewise, Joel McCrea carried forth the legacy, playing a virtuous man of the law in most of the 24 shoot-'em-ups he made between The Virginian (1946) and Ride the High Country (1962), his last major film.
"I don't believe in anti-heroes," he says today. "Duke Wayne played a mean guy but never an anti-hero."
For our interview, a rare one for McCrea, the actor dressed in jeans and a cowboy hat. Though 76, he could never be mistaken for even a closet anti-hero. He walks a little slower now, but he stands straight and tall. "Gary and I switched off hats and shirts, everything but boots," McCrea explained. "He wore size 10, I wore size 12." Courtly, considerate, gentle of manner, McCrea remains smashingly handsome, with a white mane of hair, formidable blue eyes, and one of those Hollywood Faces-immortal, archetypically American-that they just don't make anymore. Cooper with a touch of Joseph Cotton. At his side for his Telluride visit was Mrs. McCrea, ex-Hollywood actress Frances Dee (Little Women, An American Tragedy, I Walked With a Zombie), who frequently interjected details of their half-century together.
"I started in talkies in '28 and '29," McCrea said, reaching into the far past. It was Cecil B. DeMille who gave him his first screen credit. "I used to be your newsboy," McCrea told the VIP director. "You gave me a silver dollar at Christmas because I put your papers on the porch when it rained." With that, DeMille cast McCrea in a bit role for a coal-mine melodrama, Dynamite (1929).
In 1935, the forever-mild McCrea had what he describes as his only major run-in with a director. At Paramount, he was cast opposite Marlene Dietrich in The Devil is a Woman, but his role lasted exactly one day. The ultra-perfectionist martinet director, Josef von Sternberg, insisted on 35 takes of McCrea asking a waiter for a cup of coffee. "That's not the way to ask for coffee," Sternberg kept saying. "You are not getting it over."
Sternberg told his weary actor the morning after that the rushes had been examined and there was nothing usable. "I replied, 'That's fortunate. I don't want to do anything with you.'" McCrea refused to continue, even when Dietrich took him aside and explained that there was nothing personal about being the victim of Sternberg's temperament. "He speaks to me in German and calls me an old cow," Dietrich said. "Ignore him."
Today, McCrea holds no grudge. "The peculiar thing is that I like all of Sternberg's pictures," he said, and laughed at Sternberg's remembrance of the incident in the self-serving 1965 autobiography, Fun in a Chinese Laundry: "[McCrea]...managed to survive meeting me, fled in terror after his first scene with me, and I had to replace him with another 6-footer."
With Alfred Hitchcock on Foreign Correspondent (1940), McCrea got on famously. "He asked me each day to bring some fresh eggs and freshly-churned butter from my ranch. He'd fall asleep at dinner-politely, never snoring-then wake up and say, 'Did I miss anything?'"
McCrea remembered a scene in Foreign Correspondent in which he kept tripping on steps in his size 12 shoes. "Hitchcock said, 'Joel comes down the stairs like an elongated bag.' I told him, 'I do miss my horse.'"
In 1962, McCrea made that great Sam Peckinpah western, Ride the High Country, opposite Randolph Scott. This interviewer reminded him that he says therein perhaps the first ecological line in an American movie, admonishing a young, messy cowpoke, "The river doesn't need your trash."
Quickly after, McCrea left Hollywood behind, and gladly, for a reclusive's life on the range. "After 87 pictures in 47 years," he explained, "I knew when to quit."
(The Boston Herald, March 22, 1983)