Alan Hale Interview

He's Still Selling Vacuum Cleaners

The whole thing is so grindingly nonsensical that it's hard to believe that this scene is from something on the set of Gilligan's Island. Gilligan's Island is perhaps the worst-conceived show to ever make it to TV, but this series has found a nitch with a loyal audience. During these days of powerful nuclear weapons and flower children, there seems to be a group of "squares" who seem destined to rule the "boob-tube." The actors, dressed to the teeth (doesn't everyone on a desert island?) sit on a prop log watching a funny fat native king, who is really the veteran comedian Stanley Adams, mumbling funny incantations over Bob Denver. Denver, the star with name of "Gilligan" is definitely the star of the piece, sports a blond wig, clamshell necklace, bright orange skirt and flower hat. Maybe the show would be more appropriately titled "Gilligan's Commune!" Huge fans rustle the frangipani as the greens man, stonily oblivious, waters down the fake palm trees with a hose. This sure makes the foliage look more tropical. Ack-shun! "Ho-hoo-wappo-pooh. Ho-ho-noonah-pooh. Ho-hoo-ninney-pooh!" chants the funny king. Jim Backus, in a powder blue dinner jacket, lets out a Magoo-like bark of amusement. Natalie Schafer, in green ostrich boa and gold-beaded bronze dinner jacket, and the glamorously-sexy Tina Louise, with a skirt aloft up very high on her thigh and unbelievably all the way up to here, laugh hoarsely. The young couple Dawn Wells and handsome Russell Johnson snicker. Over all laughs - booms the laughter and a mighty explosive laughter it is from "The Skipper" Alan Hale. the well-known second-generation Hollywood actor whose enjoyment of life spills out as naturally as a fat man's stomach over his belt buckle. "Ugh! Not making goddesses like they used to," shouts Adams, leaning heavily on the punch line. Denver collapses. "Cut." yells esteemed comedy director Gary Nelson, who used to do this thing on the competition TV series: The Baileys of Balboa. "Print! Back in one hour everybody."

Well, this will finally give me the chance to get to talk to all these veteran actors, although being on this set is itself quite a treat. Denver giggles inanely, adjusts his blond wig. Backus, whose sensibilities are assuaged somewhat by his bankroll, retires glumly to his dressing room where he will drown his sorrows in a ham sandwich. "Well," says Natalie Schafer breathily, "I don't know why they keep saying how bad we are - even if we are." For an awfully bad show, this bad is good. But no such thoughts cross Alan Hale's mind. At 45, he may be the most unflappable man in television. He even has every reason to be bugged and a prima-dona - if he were the type.

His father, the late Alan Hale Sr., known in his later years as a "heavy," dated back to older movies to 1911 and the old Lubin company. By 1914 he was the leading man at Biograph (where D.W. Griffith made his early reputation), from whence he graduated to Hollywood and a long procession of parts ranging from "A Doll's House" with Nazimova to Little John in the classic "Robin Hood" with Errol Flynn and he also did both the silent and talking versions. His mother Greta Ahrbin was the Shirley Temple of Chicago in 1906, later a star of Biograph under the pseudo-name of Gretcher Hartman, and still later a vamp re-christened Sonia Markova and palmed off as a sultry Bolshevik/Russian import. For Alan Hale Sr., pictures were everything - his love and his entire life. However, for his son (the Skipper) Alan Hale Jr., all 240-280 pounds of him, they are a million laughs; and also a great way to make a living. He was never intimidated by his father - friend of Valentino, Flynn, John Ford, William Wellman - his father's reputation, nor the fact that he resembles him. CB DeMille once said, "Buddy has a greater potential than his father." But it was more often said, "Kid, you can act, but your father, he was a great actor. He was great." "Of course," says Hale, "I never met a man who didn't like dad." Buddy got into pictures for an eminently sensible reason - he needed a new bicycle. His father got him a part in a Wellman picture called: "Wild Boys of the Road" circa 1933. (Alan Hale Jr. was then only 13 years old.) The 'part' called for him to jump off and on freight cars, and Wellman decided it was safer for his old friend's son to sit behind the camera. For not appearing in his first movie, Buddy received $6.50 a day.

It was seven years before the really big and most life-orienting question - "Mother, how can I make some money fast?" - came up again. Two days later he was at work in "I Wanted Wings, " again for Wellman. After his first real acting job he came home and told his father, "Gee, dad, I don't understand why you say you get tired all the time." After that, it seemed that Alan Hale was destined to have acting in his blood. But then life had always been a romp. The Hales moved to Hollywood during the days when boarding houses hung out signs saying "NO DOGS OR ACTORS!" Of course, back then, many common people thought that dogs and actors were of 'the same breed.' Understandably, they thought that the best place for actors was, ironically, on the screen. The only thing that bothered them about the "NO DOGS OR ACTORS" signs was the billing.

They lived across the street from the Garden of Allah, then the home of the senior Hale's friend, Nazimova, named after the exotic hostelry made famous by F. Scott Fitzgerald and his old cronies. The Hale house was also directly in back of what is now Schwab's Drugstore, another now-very-famous Hollywood landmark. (It was then Madame Gordon's Elementary School for Girls.)

Buddy was big, and now is too big, ham-handed, gregarious and outgoing, (and still is) the neighborhood cut-up who fell out of trees, tunneled up the backyard, pestered his two sisters, gleefully pilfered his neighbor's oranges, and tested all the cookies in the area. His mother fondly remembers his as "Hollywood's first PR man."

Buddy and his friend, who was a close neighborhood pal, both went to Madame Gordon's, temporarily rendering that prim institutional co-educational, then later to a very popular Hollywood military school called Black Foxe. When acting finally claimed him from the bosom of his "idyllic" childhood, he celebrated by getting homesick on location. However, when he was caught by the acting "bug," nothing could stop him from reaching his destiny. Even the ups-and-downs of the acting game bothered him not at all. He has made countless movies, with some major and with some minor roles, yet (unlike his father) it is hard to recall the names of any of them. He has also starred in two previous TV series whose titles, "Casey Jones" and "Biff Baker, U.S.A.," would be tough for even TV buffs to remember.

[Gilligan's Island Fan Club Editor note: An interesting fact from the 1981 Gilligan's Island personal interview was that Alan Hale's father's real name was: Rufus Edward MacKahan. As his career expanded, he changed his name to Alan Hale. His son's (the Skippers) birth name was Alan Hale, MacKahan. Later, he dropped the 'MacKahan' to become Alan Hale Jr. He didn't mind being A.H. Junior but preferred just Alan Hale.']

In the 1940's, things got slow and he had to take, a job selling vacuum cleaners, a project he attacked with such gusto that it still takes all his self control not to try to sell you one (thus the reason for this interview title). When selling vacuums, he and his partner would descend on an unwary housewife, get a friendly-but- insistent foot in the door and take over. He epitomized the typical vacuum salesman but had more vigor and vim than others. Hale would put on an act making dirt jump out of mattresses and employing every hoary old burlesque device on a door and 'sold' so effectively that the whole affair ended up as a party in his honor, complete with ice cream, cake, cookies and milk followed by dinner, dancing and drinks. He even sold two more vacuum cleaners. One time, he even sold one to a lady with only linoleum and marble floors. I asked him about his vacuum cleaning success. "It's like feeling out an audience," he says. "You gotta make 'em feel it's their machine from the moment you walk in." At the time he tested for Gilligan's Island, he was in St. George, Utah at Zions National Park laughing it up in a Western gilligan's Island Editor note: Actually it wasn't a Western. It was a Civil War movie.J At the time, his career was descending and he was an extra which was one of the few jobs he was able to get at the time. He flew in on a Sunday, tested for his role, and then flew back. Producer Sherwood Schwartz remembers, "I was looking for a Mutt to Denver's Jeff. Bob is so sympathetic that anyone who has to yell at him all the time automatically becomes unsympathetic. I deliberately chose a scene where the Skipper really had to blast him. Everybody else I tested turned out dark and mean. But Alan was lovable." He probably was like a big teddy-bear type as he is today. Hale had little faith in Sherwood's effusions. '"He was at my house on a Friday," recalls an old pal actor-cartoonist Renny (Dixie Dugan) McEvoy. "He was giving up acting and going into real estate! 'Got a wife and kids to raise,' he said. Then boom! The phone rang and Gilligan's Island was extended for a run of 26 weeks." Outside the stage door sits four or five ducks in readiness for Gilligan's magical sequence. Buddy - Alan Hale Jr.- shoots them a big, warm, friendly, outgoing, gregarious smile. Next to all these ducks is an 8-foot-by-8-foot portable dressing room. It is built in a southern-plantation style with a sign which reads: 'The Skipper's Dinghy.' "I don't so much enter it," ho-ho's Hale. "I put it on."

I try to get some inside Gilligan's Island information but he talks about his first wife Bettina. She's his childhood sweetheart and mother of his four children, from whom he was divorced. Then he talks of his second wife, Naomi Ingram, who was once a singer and who is a small woman he calls 'Trinket' and their life together in a house only three blocks away from the old house he grew up in (the one in back of Schwab's Drugstore), of his mother who he calls 'old public energy- number-one' in her late 60's, of his golf game (he says he has a 10 handicap which is growing), and how he gave up his father's membership in the Lakeside Country Club to join the 'Hollywood Hackers,' a showbiz group that plays anywhere fancy dictates. Then, of course, all about dad, the complete actor who was also a sometimes inventor but never became a millionaire from any of his inventions which include a sliding theater seat, a greaseless potato chip, and a self-mowing lawn mower. "I think he also invented a concrete tire," says Buddy who laughs while saying, "Of course, it would only work on rubber roads!" Next to his same 8x8 dressing room that he 'wears' is a somewhat new 1963 Cadillac, newly polished; inside a folding bar, the 'always present' golf clubs, a photograph of a young girl smiling, inscribed, "Dear dad, I hope you like my picture. Love, Lana," a pair of behemoth pale blue underdrawers (he says for another Gilligan's Island episode), the phone number of his banjo teacher and a recipe for Boiled Beef Horseradish Sauce taped on the wall. Outside there's another scene to be shot. Just a lot of horse radish? "Not really," says Buddy. "Just more complete nonsense than in dad's day. I mean, you're in their living room. You better please 'em or forget it." Like selling vacuum cleaners." "The whole point." roars Hale. "I'm still selling them. By the way, do I have a deal for you." More laughter.