Todd Doogan interviews actor James Darren
James Darren is probably one of the coolest guys who ever walked the Earth. I mean that in every possible way of cool there is. Here's a checklist: Hung out with the Rat Pack? Check. Drag-raced on the streets of Philly? Check. Worked with Anthony Quinn, William Shatner and Burl Ives? Check, check and check. This guy even directed episodes of Hunter, T. J. Hooker and the frickin' A-Team. His coolness doesn't slow down there. He's the hipest character in the Star Trek universe, Vic Fontaine, he was animated in The Flintstones and lived with comedy legend Buddy Hackett for 12 years. That one's a big deal for me. Mr. Darren seldomly grants interviews, Sharpline Arts' David Fein vouched for me and got me in good with the legend himself. So slide in to the booth next to ours and listen in as we discuss ego, legend and the true meaning of class.
Todd Doogan (The Digital Bits): I read somewhere that if you never became an actor or a singer you would have been a race car driver. Is that true?
James Darren: I always liked cars, but then again, I don't know if I would have been that. I might have been God knows what in Philadelphia, especially being from my neighborhood. But I always loved cars. We used to race cars when I was a kid. Of course, my parents never knew about it. We'd come home and the car wouldn't go into gear and then they'd realize that something was up when the car would be all fried. I would have loved to have done that, absolutely. I still would, but I'm beyond the age of learning to drive in a competition. I did drive on a track in the UK. You think it looks easy and man - I was all over that course. I spun out a lot of times. I was in a Formula car, and I thought it would be snap, because I figured if I drove that well in drag races, then I could drive a course. And that's not the case. I enjoy speed. I enjoy motorcycles and have a whole bunch of those. Dirt riding is what I like to do.
Todd Doogan: Was the name "Darren" taken from a car? Wasn't there a Darrin model in the 50s?
James Darren: Yes. It was a car designed by a man named Dutch Darrin. I just changed the "I" to an "E".
Todd Doogan: How were you originally discovered?
James Darren: I was in New York studying acting with Stella Adler, who was a wonderful drama coach. I visited some agents, and they said I needed some pictures if I wanted to get jobs. So I went down Broadway and that's when I found a photographer's studio, Maurice Seymour. And I went in, made an appointment, had photos taken and then, when I went in to view the proofs, the secretary there asked me if I was interested in getting into film. I said that I didn't have these taken to become a plumber... of course I was. She set up a meeting with Joyce Selznick and myself. When I went to meet Joyce, it was in her office in the Brill Building and when I boarded the elevator, Joyce was in the elevator but I didn't know who she was. I never met her before. But she kept staring at me and staring at me. I was getting self-conscience like something was on my face, my nose was running or there was a leaf of spinach in-between my teeth - anything. We both got off on the same floor, and that's when she realized that I was the kid coming to meet her.
Todd Doogan: You became an actor in that moment - but did you mean to become a huge recording star too?
James Darren: I started out of Philadelphia as a singer. I would sing in bars or wherever I could sing - started at about 12 years old. My dad would take me around and I would get up and sing a couple songs with the accompaniment that was there, whether it was a piano or a band sometimes. When I got my contract at Columbia Pictures and became an actor, I always wanted to be a singer. That's when Gidget came along, which required the lead to sing so I had an opportunity to do that. Things happen in strange ways.
Todd Doogan: You're leading a very charmed life.
James Darren: Absolutely.
Todd Doogan: Explain to me a little bit about the allusion in Memories of Navarone to the fact that you were perceived as a risk to play Spyros in Guns of Navarone.
James Darren: I had just come off of the Gidget films and I was perceived by some people as a singer and by others as an actor. Actually, I had come off a film, which is quite a good film called Let No Man Write My Epitaph with Shelley Winters and Burl Ives, and I thought my performance in that was very good. I assume that J. Lee Thompson hadn't seen that, but I know that Carl Foreman, because of my success with Gidget and because of the recording success (much like performers today), wanted me in the film because I would draw in a certain age group. I guess because Lee didn't know of me or know my work that well, he might have seen me as a singer and therefore something of a risk. Actually, I'm just thrilled that I got to work with him. I love Lee - he's a great guy, a wonderful director, and we just had a ball on that film.
Todd Doogan: You guys are still friends now - he talked quite fondly of you in his interview.
James Darren: I love him. He's so funny, but he has no idea how funny he is. Being a Brit, he's special. He's got so much dignity and class. He doesn't even have to try - it's just there. His humor is so dry. And he's very honest. It's hard not to love him.
Todd Doogan: Did the success of Guns help catapult you more?
James Darren: The people handling my career at that point didn't really take advantage of it. I did another Gidget film which I hated (Gidget Goes to Rome) and I didn't want to do it. I thought that I'd be doing those for the rest of my life, but I also did a film called Diamond Head in-between those two films, which had some wonderful characters and a great cast. Sure, it did help. Even today, Navarone has helped. I mean, here we are today talking about Navarone. When you're in a classic film like that, it lasts forever.
Todd Doogan: But you've done more in TV then most anyone out there.
James Darren: I did a lot of directing. I directed a lot of shows.
Todd Doogan: I know... I never thought I'd get a chance to talk to someone who actually directed The A-Team.
James Darren: (laughs) I started with T.J. Hooker, and I got that because I was doing the series. My friend Rick Husky was the executive producer, and I wanted to direct the last episode. He said that if he didn't do it, I could do it. I eventually, of course, did direct it. The second show you get is probably harder to get than the first. The first one you get probably was because you had a friend. The second one came when I showed my T.J. Hooker to Stephen Cannell and Frank Lupo, and Frank was doing The A-Team then. I just wanted to do a second show, instead of being a one-time director. So I did The A-Team, and I had cast great people. Jeff Corey - who is a wonderful drama coach (and he was my drama coach, oddly enough), I cast him in a part that was wonderful. The show was really good. I was really happy to do The A-Team, even though I never watched the show. After that I did Stingray and Hunter. Actually I did a lot of Hunter episodes. I did a whole bunch of shows. Some, unfortunately, didn't stay on like Werewolf on Fox.
Todd Doogan: I loved Werewolf. I was thinking about that the other day. How many episodes did you direct?
James Darren: I did every other one just about. David Hemmings and I were the first two directors on that series. Even though it was perceived by some people as not being that great a show, I thought it was really cool. It was just a good show to do and if someone said I had to do 50 of them, I'd say "Great."
Todd Doogan: Is it easier to work in television than it is in film?
James Darren: Doing a TV show, you're on an assembly line and it's as cut and dry as that. There are some shows that are exceptions. There are producers that want really special things. I remember meeting with the producers of The Equalizer. He said he loved my Stingray and asked what else I had done. I hadn't done much at that point. I did T.J. Hooker, Stingray and The A-Team. He said, "You did The A-Team?" I said, "Yeah." And he wouldn't hire me (laughs). It's kind of bizarre. If you love the shows, what difference does it make? They are what they are. But there's a stigma attached to some of them and you have to deal with that no matter if you're doing TV or motion pictures.
Todd Doogan: I wanted to ask some specific questions about Guns. My favorite story in the documentary is all the stuff about chess...
James Darren: Oh, yeah. Tony taught me how to play chess. My wife showed me a little bit about it, but I really wasn't a chess player. Tony taught me the game. In fact, Tony taught quite a few people on the set. We spent most of our time doing that.
Todd Doogan: I love the shot of your face as you tell about when you beat Anthony Quinn.
James Darren: I remember that day very well. Carl Foreman and Stanley Baker were standing right there behind Tony. He made a move and I said, "You don't want to make that move. Take that move back." He took the move back and then he beat me. Carl and Stanley both were razzing him. "Oh, Jesus Christ, the kid beat you." He went ballistic. We almost went to blows.
Todd Doogan: Really? He's a passionate guy about chess?
James Darren: Well, so am I.
Todd Doogan: I guess so.
James Darren: It was long period of time that we didn't speak to each other. Nothing. He was upset. After he took the move back, he then beat me. He would have been dead with his move. Afterwards, he made the Italian gesture of putting his hand over his biceps (up your you know what). I gave it right back to him to say, "Yeah, well screw you too." And then he was going to go to blows. I was ready. I was a young kid and I was full of piss and vinegar. I had the advantage, believe me. I was strong, and I wasn't concerned at that point. Even though I loved him, my temper just went. Carl Foreman and Stanley Baker didn't help. They were following after him going, "What the @#&* - the kid just beat you. You should be embarrassed." We didn't talk for maybe 2 or 3 weeks. It's nothing to be ashamed of, but Tony has a huge ego. When you taught the game to someone who beat you. It happens. It happens to the best chess players in the world. It happens to the best ball players in the world. You teach someone how to pitch and when they pitch to you they strike you out. I walked up to Tony in the restaurant in Rhodes where they would show us Columbia movies once a week. Tony was in the back of the theater and I walked over to him, put my arm around him and said, "C'mon. I love you, are we never going to talk with each other again because of this shit?" We then, of course, smoothed it over and remained friends, thank God.
Todd Doogan: We heard that John Schlesinger filmed the featurettes that were on the disc...
James Darren: That's so funny. Those films were from my library. I gave them to Dave. I had them. John Schlesinger was the director of publicity on Guns of Navarone and Peter Yates was our first assistant director. John wanted to shoot this honeymoon thing of my wife and me in Rhodes. I said, "John, I'm not doing it. I'm not going to walk on these damn stones. I'll look like an idiot."
Todd Doogan: And buying bagels for kids.
James Darren: Exactly. Buying bagels for kids - I look like a moron doing this. I told him, "John, you'll never be a director." Then, when I saw him all these years later he asked me, "Do you remember what you said to me?" I said, "Yeah. I do. Unfortunately. But even more unfortunately for me, YOU remember." He was only kidding. He's a marvelous director. He did a great job with Honeymoon in Rhodes. I was just one of those young assholes thinking he was just a PR director - what the hell does he know? Little did I know. I actually had a great time shooting those.
Todd Doogan: Didn't you also play James Darrock on The Flintstones? How'd you like to act against Fred and Barney?
James Darren: It was great. I have that distinction to be immortalized. It was incredible - there's only like 5 people who've done that. Ann Margrock (Ann-Margret), Stony Curtis (Tony Curtis), Cary Grant, someone else and me. How many people can say that they have a Flintstones character named after them? Actually, there was a wonderful artist's sketch of all the characters being auctioned off on eBay by Rosie O'Donnell for the For All Kids Foundation and I'm in there with Fred's arm around me.
Todd Doogan: How did you get the gig on Deep Space Nine? And how did you like it?
James Darren: I loved it. Let me tell you. I was at a function. I was there and so was the executive producer (Ira Steven Behr) of DS9, who was there with a friend of his named Fred. Ira turned to Fred and said, "Jimmy Darren would be perfect for Vic Fontaine. I gotta go talk with him." Fred said, "Don't do that." Ira asked why and his friend told him he'd look like an idiot. Ira said, "I have a card that says I'm the executive producer." Fred said, "I don't care. Don't approach him. Call his agent." So he did. He called my agent, my agent asked me and I said I wasn't interested. It was the part of a singer. It was too on the nose for me. Ira called my agent three times, and finally my agent said, "Give them the courtesy of at least reading the script and then make your decision." I read the script and told my agent I have to do this part. I loved it. The character was great. I went in to meet Ira. It was a strange, strange situation. I was to meet them at 3:00 or somewhere around there, but I got to the studio earlier than I had to. Ira was in a sushi restaurant waiting to get seated. As he's standing there with some other folks from Paramount, and he starts talking about me. How he has a meeting with me at 3 o'clock, blah, blah, blah. He starts rattling off some of my credits and one of the patrons, who overheard the conversation, says to Ira, "I think you're talking about my dad." My son Christian was in the restaurant and overheard the conversation. Ira comes into the studio and as we meet he tells me he has regards for me from my son. I say, "My son?" So he tells me the story and it's very funny. Anyway, when I went in there to meet them, there was 7 or 8 people in there, like it's the Nuremberg trial or something. They always want you to read, and I hate that because I don't think I'm very good in a reading. What I did was, I memorized a lot of Vic's dialogue. We were talking about the old days of Vegas - during the Rat Pack era and during the conversation, I started to throw lines in from the script. Hans Beimler was the first to catch on. He said, "Hey, that's funny. That's in the script, what you just said there." I said, "That's funny." I just went on talking, and threw another line in like Vic Fontaine would say it. I went in there like Vic Fontaine, who I made as a combination of Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin. As it went on, they kept saying that what I was saying was in the script. Finally after the 5th or 6th time, I finally said something. I told them I was doing it purposefully because I didn't want to read, and to show them I can do the lines and be Vic Fontaine. I never had to read for them. I tried to be more clever than them.
Todd Doogan: It's probably not that hard to be more clever than a television executive, huh?
James Darren: Hey - if you don't want to read, you better have a good reason. Or convince them you don't have to.
Todd Doogan: Did you know Frank Sinatra to meld him into Vic?
James Darren: Quite a long time. I've been friends with the family forever. My wife and I are godparents to Nancy Sinatra's first child, Angela. He was the greatest singer ever. I don't even listen to his records when I know I'm going into the studio, because I'd just say to myself, "Why? What are you doing?" Steve Lawrence puts it the best. He said, "He ruined it for all of us." If I listened to him before I went to record, I don't think I'd go in to record. He's just... incredible. No one could sing like that man. Beautiful. I've been to his recording sessions and you just sit there in awe. Back in the Rat Pack days, we'd take Frank's plane and sit dead center, because of Nancy. We'd watch the Rat Pack in the center ring and you couldn't ask for a better thing.
Todd Doogan: You should write a book.
James Darren: I know I could, but I know I wouldn't because I'd have to say things I'd never want to say. It was a great life. So far it's been incredible. I wouldn't trade those early years for anything. People ask me if I'd like to be a teenager today, I'd have to say, "Not really." I'd never have gotten to meet Frank Sinatra. I wouldn't have ever known Quinn, Gregory Peck, David Niven or Lee Thompson or Carl Foreman or Shelley Winters or Burl Ives. I wouldn't have known those people. A lot of people who were the best in their fields. I was fortunate enough to be friends with Sammy Davis, Jr. - I spent a lot of time with Sammy. I was over at his house almost every night. Those people were very special and very special for me. That era was very special, so to be part of it and to have lived it... people look at me and say, "You're the luckiest guy in the world." And I just have to say, "I know."
Todd Doogan: What are you doing with your music and film career now?
James Darren: Actually, the last few months I've been concentrating on nothing but promoting the CD, This One's From the Heart, and singing. I've been doing a few dates - I just did the Iowa Symphony a months ago and I'll be doing a whole slew of symphonies and that appeals to me. I've got Atlantic City in November at Harrah's for a week and hopefully more Harrah's across the country leading to Tahoe and Vegas.
Todd Doogan: Will people be able to keep up with you on your website www.jamesdarren.com?
James Darren: Of course, sure. That's the best source of information.
Todd Doogan: How did you enjoy working with Sharpline Arts?
James Darren: Very much. I usually don't do interviews or those kinds of things. But I had a great time doing it. When I saw the end result, it was a thrill. I was not originally going to do it. Only because of laziness, really. I thought, "Shit. I'd rather put my bike on the truck and take it out to the desert." But I'm so happy I did it. It's interesting... people have asked me to do a lot of those biography type things for Sandra Dee and Rona Barrett - both people I know and have worked with in the past. And I actually turn them down because there is nothing I can say about either person that they would think was interesting - they usually want to hear something not complimentary. They aren't looking to hear that Sandra Dee was an adorable young lady who was just the sweetest thing in the world. They want to hear about drinking problems or how her mother was, and I find that it's not my place to discuss those things since I wasn't privy to them. If I did know of such stories, I wouldn't share them. The only thing I feel badly about the documentary, is that no one really mentioned Carl Foreman... and Carl Foreman was an extremely talented human being and a wonderful, wonderful person. I loved Carl, and I'm sure that we mentioned him, and I'm sure there was some reason it never stayed in the show. But for whatever reason, I just want to let people know that it wasn't because anyone had anything against Carl. Maybe our stories just weren't elaborate enough.
Todd Doogan: You've also worked with Buddy Hackett in the past. He's actually one of my heroes.
James Darren: I worked with him for years. Buddy and I started in 1970 and continued for 12 consecutive years until I started on T.J. Hooker in 1982. I learned so much from that guy. He's just incredible. He's the master.
Todd Doogan: I saw one of his HBO specials when I was a kid, and he was telling a story about when his wife was pregnant she sent him out to get ice cream and we was dressed in nothing but a nightshirt. I was a blue story, but it was hilarious. Can't believe I watched it as young as I was. I think my father had other memories of Buddy and was too taken by the humor to get me out of the room.
James Darren: Buddy's very blue. He's so much better live than in any HBO special - he'll kill you. But, yeah... that ice cream stuff happens all the time. We lived together for a long time. We would live together at the Sahara - we worked the Sahara. Buddy and I would stay in the Sahara house, and we'd come in at different times, but I remember one morning he came home at 6:30 or something, and he knows I love ice cream, so he wakes me up and says, "C'mon. Let's go get some ice cream." I said I had to get dressed, but he insisted I go the way I was. Now, we were both wearing these long T-shirts that go to right above your knees. They had his picture on them. And he and I got in a car - all I have on is this T-shirt and a pair of under shorts. We drove to Baskin-Robins in a mall, got out of the car, and inside the store we see a guy mopping the floor. Buddy bangs on the door, and we look like two Fred Flintstones. The guy looks up, starts laughing and let us in. He saw Buddy... and Buddy looked funnier than me, I think. Everything I ever learned about performing, everything that was truly good, I learned from Buddy. You're right. I really have lived a charmed life. I'm really fortunate.
The staff of The Digital Bits would like to thank James for taking the time to chat with us. Thanks also to Sharpline Arts, Columbia TriStar Home Video and Irene Dean. Be sure to read our full-length review of The Guns of Navarone on DVD, as well as Bill's interview with director J. Lee Thompson and my chat with DVD producer David Fein.
Keep spinning those discs!
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