Handsome Bob Stack tells why even PTA groups approve of the violence in his sensational cops-and-robber show. He also discloses some of his pet TV hates.
By Pete Martin
Robert Stack is a thinking man’s thinking man – with sex appeal. He can also act. But he doesn’t make with the one-liners, the stand-up comedy bits, the cute anecdotes. He is not a cutup. His thought processes travel through his mind with all the immediacy of a 1920-1930 gangster’s automobile screeching around a Chicago corner on two wheels, just as the ancient crates in his television show, The Untouchables, reel round the corners they turn.
I’d gone to see Stack because The Untouchables is now rated the No. 2 TV show in the country, close on the heels of Gunsmoke. It’s a phenomenal thing for a TV show to become No. 2 during its first year. I Love Lucy did it, but the normal pattern is a build-up of two or three years before a show reaches such heights of popularity.
To anyone interested in peeling back the layers of outer covering to get at the core of what makes a smash TV success, Stack is the right man. As he and I talked, it seemed to me that we came close to doping the answer as to what made The Untouchables the biggest hit among the new TV series of the 1959-60 season. Stack was concerned with the reasons behind the resounding success with which he happened to be connected. “Maybe,” he told me, “if I know the whys, I can help keep them that way.”
The Untouchables and the public met on the evening of August 24, 1959. Originally it was only a two-part gleam in its producer’s eye. That two-parter was based on the career of Eliot Ness, a Prohibition Bureau agent who got tired of the accusation of crookedness which was too often tossed at the prohibition agents of his time. In those days some operatives of the Justice Department’s Prohibition Bureau, as well as cops and other law-enforcement agents, were owned by mobs like the Capone gang. Ness was what we would call today an angry young man who went to the powers that be and said, “Give me a handful of really honest men and let us show you what we can do in the way of busting up crookedness in Chicago.” He got together specialists in various fields, such as safecracking and phone-tapping; also an expert driver and even a Sicilian, who was chosen because he spoke that language. The Ness exploits were supposed to result in “a kind of private-eye spectacular, split into two installments over a two-week stretch.” But no sooner was it viewed on the country’s TV screens than it took on a life of its own, like Ingemar Johansson’s right arm, and became a weekly series show. Billed variously as “The inside story of the Capone empire and the man who smashed it” and “Murder-Mafia-style,” The Untouchables slices across age and sex lines.
Take sex lines first. I know at least one Philadelphia housewife and mother of teenagers is so burned by the fact that the weekly screening of The Untouchables has been occasionally curtailed this summer by local televised baseball that she threatens to write “a strong letter to the network” urging them to clear up such an intolerable solution. Those responsible for The Untouchables like that kind of spirit, but its quiet urgency also appeals to teenagers, who, giving no heed to national corns painfully trod upon, ask each other on Thursday, “Gonna watch wops and robbers tonight?” or “Come over and we’ll catch the Italian hour” or “Anyone for Guinea Smoke?”
Such national slurs are deplored by Stack, No. 1 Untouchable Eliot Ness. He points out, “Since a number of hoods with Irish blood – among them Bugs Moran and Dion O’ Banion – slung guns in Chicago’s streets as contemptuously and as casually as it did Al Capone hirelings, it would be as logical to nickname The Untouchables “The Mick Massacre” or “The Irish Hour.”
I don’t move in teen-age circles, so I’ve heard the title “Wops and Robbers” only second hand, but I am a graduate in good standing of The Untouchables‘ background. The fact that I am old enough to have been there when a porcine man, his face slashed by a streak of gleaming-white scar tissue, ruled Cierco, a Chicago suburb, with a wave of his fleshy, diamond-loaded hand, exercises a powerful nostalgic pull on me. Every time I knocked at a speak-easy door to buy a portion of Scotch-type Scotch “just off the boat,” served to me in a teacup “in case the law raids the joint,” I probably paid tribute to Al Capone.
On a gray day in November 1923, I stood outside the back door of Dion O’Banion’s Chicago flower shop and watched O’Banion being carried out, on his way to the morgue. What was left of him looked very limp and small under the lumpy bulges of a rubber blanket. That winter a friend pointed out to me a spot on the steps of a Chicago cathedral where another hood was gunned down.
When I first met Stack, my first remark was “You look ten years younger than you do on television. Why is that?”
“We try and get a documentary effect in filming our show,” he explained, “so we use cross lighting.” Cross lighting picks up everything – pucker lines, creases and wrinkles in your skin or on your suit. Actually, it’s newsreel lighting. Gal’s don’t like it, for it ages them ten years too. But the men in our show don’t mind. None of us has to be a letch to be pretty.
“The minute you go for flat lighting and pretty faces,” Stack said, “dramatic values drain out of the camerawork. The mood of our series calls for stark blacks and whites, and no monkey business with backlighting or filters. When we do our night shoots – I’ll tell you later why most of our shooting is done at night –– we use brutes as well as arcs. They give us harsh black and harsh whites wen need.”
I asked him, “Are brutes bigger than arcs?”
Stack told me, “Brutes are really big. We can light whole city blocks with them. Incidentally, our set at the Desilu studio here in Hollywood covers three blocks. That kind of lighting hits you in the face like someone slapping you with an incandescent dishrag. It doesn’t make for handsome men and beautiful dolls, but it sure beefs up the drama. In our case it’s the show the public goes for. We’ve licked the phony belief that in TV you have to have an actress with a glamorous puss in order to draw an audience.”
Stack went on, “Last winter we did a two-parter based on the assassination of Chicago’s Mayor Cermak, who was killed in Florida while seated on the same speaker’s stand with Franklin D. Roosevelt. We duplicated the speaker’s stand in The Untouchables, and we used some of the newsreel clips made at the time of Cermak’s death. Those newsreel clips and our present-day photography matched perfectly that at times you just couldn’t tell where the one left off and other began.
“It was the second time we’d told a story which ran through two one-hour shows. The first time we did it was our kickoff try; you might call it our pilot film. That first two-parter cost the Desilu studio six hundred thousand dollars. The two parts were shot the way a motion picture is usually shot. They took four weeks to film. A lot of doubters said that we couldn’t do it within the limitations of a television series, but we had our own kind of stupid determination, and we said ‘We’re going to try it anyhow.’
“We really reached. One night we even used a hundred and fifty extras. That may not seem like many in Ben-Hur terms, but it’s a lot of extras for a TV budget – twice as many as we normally use – and we ran those hundred and fifty around until their tongues were hanging out, to get our money’s worth. The six hundred grand it cost Desilu wasn’t wasted. In addition to its use on TV, the two-part show has since wrapped into a single theatrical motion picture. It’s being shown in Europe and in England, it’s cleaning up.”
Stack said, “The thing about a show like ours, if we ever lose the enthusiasm and the daring which makes us take chances, we’ve slumped into formula television. Ultimately that’s the kiss of death for any show.”
“How do you mean, formula television?” I asked.
“Let’s apply it to me,” Stack told me.
“Everybody I knew told me a television series would ruin me as an actor, because it’s too easy to get typecasted in a TV series. There is usually what I call a sustaining character. He can be a peace officer or perhaps a new kind of private eye with a gimmick which makes him different from all other peace officers and private eyes.
“I know one actor who played in a Western series, and when the series was washed up, he couldn’t land a job anywhere. I won’t mention his name, let’s just call him Hopalong Jackson – but wherever he tried to get a job, he was given the same answer, ‘Sorry we haven’t got any Hopalong Jackson parts this week.’ He didn’t find any work for two years.
“So you can see, there’s always the danger of becoming too closely identified with your role. I had a pretty good career in motion pictures. For my role in Written on the Wind, I’d even been nominated as the best supporting actor of 1956, and I was skittish about a television series. I knew one thing. I wasn’t going to have any shtiks. A shtik is a gimmick. When Kookie Byrnes combs his hair, that’s his shtik. Bat Masterson’s cane is a shtik. The extra-long barrel of Wyatt Earp’s pistol is a shtik. Dennis Weaver’s limp is a shtik. In one sense such trade-marks are an advantage. They help give a character immediate recognition, but, by the same token, when a series dies, a sustaining performer who has leaned too heavily on his shtik may die with it. So, since I am not dependent upon a shtik, if The Untouchables ever runs out of gas, I can always do Shakespear or any kind of role which pops up.
“The way I play Eliot Ness, he has no odd-ball characteristic, no offbeat mannerisms, no shtik. He’s merely a decent, honest citizen who also happens to be angry because basically, he hates crumb bums like Al Capone, and he resents the fact that he is bringing home twenty-five hundred bucks a year to support his family and his kids, while thieving coppers are taking thousands a week. As a Treasury Department guy, Ness knows he is one of the most underpaid people in the world.”
“I don’t know much about Ness,” I said.
Stack filled me in. “Picture a guy with enough guts to take a truck and hitch a cowcatcher on its front end and ram it through the wall of one of Capone’s breweries. That’s one of the many things Ness did.”
“Do you look anything like him?” I asked.
“Weirdly enough,” Stack said, “I do, although I didn’t know it when I took the job. He was darker than I am; otherwise, I resemble him amazingly, although I’ve never made any conscious effort to look like him.”
I said, “I didn’t see the first of The Untouchables series. The ones I have seen are laid after Capone was tossed into the Federal pokey in Atlanta on an income-tax rap. Why don’t any of your segments show him as the Little Cease of Chicago? Did Ness arrive on the scene only after Scarface was incarcerated?”
Stack said, “Ness was one of the reasons why Capone went to prison. He helped pin the rap on him. Our original two-parter showed that. But when we disposed of Capone in that first double bill, we figured we’d better leave him in the can so we wouldn’t confuse the viewing audience who’d sat through the first two parts of The Untouchables.”
I said, “Take your two-parter on the shooting of Mayor Cermak. The biggest role in that one was played by the character actor who played the mayor. In other words, Eliot Ness doesn’t have to be the big noise in each segment.”
“That’s right,” Stack agreed. “Our show has no star system. The most important way in which we differe from motion pictures is that we don’t worry about whether or not our names are written in a producer’s little black book under the heading, ‘Big at the box office.’ I heard a story recently about a money man for motion pictures and a movie actor who went into television. That story haunts me. The actor’s TV show didn’t make it, although it wasn’t the actor’s fault. Later on, when that actor’s name came up for another part in a movie, the banker I’ve mentioned was asked to put up the money for the movie.
“He said a stupid thing, but it was also a devastating thing: ‘Why should I risk my money on this guy when people won’t even catch him for free!’ A crack like that can kill you if you’ve laid yourself open for it.”
Stack went on, “Our show is almost a repertory company. We sign guys for special jobs, like Bob Middleton, to play Cermak. He’s played heavies almost all his life, but with a hairpiece on we thought he’d look like Cermak, and we were right.”
“But, I said, “I’ve heard that they had trouble signing you up for The Untouchables‘ first two-parter.”
“I did give it a lot of thought,” he admitted. “As an actor I made the mistake of looking at the Ness part for flashy scenes which weren’t there for me. With one or two exceptions those scenes went to the heavies. So I thought: ‘Why should I do this when possibly I can find something which will let me come on strong as an actor?’ I forgot that coming on strong is not always the answer. There is a thing called audience empathy too. That means that all the audience cares what you do. I finally decided to play Ness anyway. And I soon found that, while there was some wonderful performers in our cast, the audience did care about what Eliot Ness was doing.
“After the first Untouchables show, things began to happen. No sooner was the first hour of the first show off the air, than the two telephones in our homes began to ring. They rang for four hours straight. After the second show, they rang all night.”
“What did the people at the other end say?” I asked.
Stack grinned. “They said such intelligent things as ‘Oh, boy, wowie!’ and ‘Gee whiz!’ Then I was offered the Eliot Ness part in the whole series. Tom Moore of ABC called me up and said that he wanted me and wanted the show. He said that if he bought it, he’d buy twenty-six weeks outright, but he gave me only twelve hours to make up my mind. Finally, I said “Well, it seemed clear that an amazingly large audience liked it, and Desi assures me that it will be done in the best of taste with no stinting on production values. So if they want me, I’m going to try it.”
“Actually,” Stack went on, shifting the subject a little bit, “the Ness era was so bizarre that we soon saw truth was really stranger than fiction, and our writers have to be careful to hold it down and script it tight and close to their chests. That’s the way those of us who act in the series play it. We avoid heroics. If one of our actors blows the smoke out of his gun barrel or does anything that smacks of theatrics, we pick him up and carry him bodily to the nearest cold water spigot and hold his head under until he cools off.”
He paused long enough for me to drop in a question. It took a little explaining. “Last night,” I said, “my wife and I had a television set moved into our hotel room so we could see your show. But when a busload of Mexican prostitutes were taken out of the bus, lined up along the edge of the road and mowed down by machine-gun fire, thus eliminating them as possible witnesses against white slavers, my wife went into the bathroom and closed the door. She said ‘I can’t stand it. When they’re through shooting those girls, let me know and I’ll come out.’ After a while I knocked on the door and said, “It’s all over now.’ But it was pretty violent. Does it ever occur to you that the violence might breed violence in the minds of your younger viewers?”
“So far as violence is concerned,” Stack said, “we’re in a spot. That scene you mentioned was based on fact. There was an underground railway in those days for the transportation of prostitutes from Mexico to the United States. So what do you want us to do? Change facts and actual occurrences so they’ll be sweeter and prettier? I think this about violence: If it is put in to beef up a bad script or a slow-moving story, then it’s wrong. But there’s a legitimate reason for portraying violence if it’s a natural part of the story you’re telling and of the period you’re showing. In the late 1920’s and early 1930’s mobsters battled each other, using the Chicago streets for their private shooting galleries. So how can we show these crumb bumbs as the psychotics and schizoids, the brutal, evil, violent people they were if we fail to show violence?”
I said, “Some of them took drugs, too.”
“That’s so,” Stack agreed. “There were snowbirds and heroin users among them. They got their jollies that way. If, in showing the violence of these people, we glamorize them, then we’ve made a mistake, because there is no intent on the part of anybody connected with The Untouchables to show those hoods as anything except the miserable scum they were. Years ago, when they made movies like Public Enemies and Scarface, there was a little sneakiness when it came to trying to drum up sympathy for the heavies. In The Untouchables, we couldn’t care less about the sympathy for the heavies. That is beside our point.”
“But I’ll ask once more,” I said. “I wonder if the violence you can’t help showing isn’t going to appeal to some teenage punk who looks, then says to himself ‘You’ve got to be tough if you’re going to be a big shot.'”
Stack took a deep breath. “All I can tell you,” he said, “is that we get grateful letters from P.T.A’s thanking us for making crime look unattractive and repulsive. When we get through with the gangsters of the Capone era, they’re as glamorous as the bottom of a sump pump.
“Talking of letters from PTA’s,” Stack went on, “I’m saving one I got from Walter Winchell. He said that a lot of police departments had told him that they liked what Ness does in our series. Without posing or badge-polishing, he does lots of things cops do normally but get no credit for it. I also have a letter from a sheriff in Utah saying that he liked the show. He said he wished he had a group like The Untouchables to work with.
“As you know, Stack added, “Winchell sets the stage for each of our shows with his machine-gun narration. He is a strong point in our flavor.” (I shot him a glance to see if he was punning, but I couldn’t tell.) His tempo is the same as The Untouchables. He’s a link with a day when the underworld ran cities like Chicago and New York. He reported those years, and he speaks with authority.”
I asked, “What did you do for writers after the TV writers went on strike?”
“There wasn’t anything we could do,” he told me. “When we ran out of scripts, we simply started screening reruns. We’ve had a good show, so instead of trying to create a mockup show out of stale ideas and revamped plots and fake our way through the thirty-two segments we’d planned to do, we sawed it off at twenty-six. To wind up our season with some below-par scripts would have been a big fat mistake.
“And another thing,” he explained, “we’re closer to the tube than any other series – in fact, we’re only three weeks off the tube – because to keep our quality up every week, week after week, we threw away thirteen scripts we didn’t think had what it takes.”
“What do you mean by ‘close to the tube’?” I asked.
“Close to air time,” Stack explained. “Three weeks off the tube means that we finish a show, and three weeks later it’s on the air. Being that close to the tube is a sword hanging over our heads. I’ve been told, ‘You can’t afford to get sick, Stack. If you do, what will happen Thursday night three weeks from now?” And it’s true. I can’t get sick. When I think what it would mean if an epidemic of flu hit our cast, brother!
“Right from the beginning,” Stack continued,” we face the fact that we had to make The Untouchables look real. For one thing we need a flock of 1920 and early-1930 autos. We’ve got about thirty crates like that, which is important because if we try and show a city street in 1928, we can’t do it with three automobiles. Sometimes the scene we shoot take in three or four blocks.
“We’ve only goofed a couple of times. Once we used a shot of a 1941 Ford, and once irritated letters poured in from all over.”
“What about your dialogue?” I asked. “Any boo-boos over there?”
He said, “we deliberately shy away from period dialogue. If we say ‘Twenty-three skiddos’ or ‘That guy’s got plenty of moxie,’ a lot of our listeners won’t understand what we’re talking about. More-over, it would be like waving a stop sign every few feet and reminding people, ‘Hey this happened thirty years ago,’ while we’re beating our brains out trying to make our show feel as if it’s live instead of on film.”
“What about clothing?” I asked.
“Clothing is more difficult,” Stack told me. “Naturally we stick to the period as far as the principals is concerned, but with extras we merely do the best we can to outfit them correctly. Sometimes that’s not good enough.”
I told him, “I read somewhere that they even make you wear long-handled underwear in case the action calls for you to suddenly drop your drawers.”
“I wear it occasionally,” he said, “but not because anybody told me too. One or two nights it was so cold when we went to work that I showed up in red flannels so I wouldn’t get chilblains – although the California Chamber of Commerce would probably sue me for saying this.”
I asked Stack, “Is anyone connected with your show who was an adult in 1930, or even 1935?”
“Yes,” he said, “Harry Freed, our head research man, was, and he knows quite a bit about it.”
“I’m glad,” I said. “In most of the Roaring Twenties and Twirling Thirties period shows I’ve seen, when such things as plus fours and striped blazers and sleeve holders and high-button shoes and coonskin coats and pocket flasks all turn up on the same guy, I’ve resented it. Apparently, all those who weren’t alive then believe those things were worn at one time.”
“Freed watches that kind of thing pretty closely,” Stack told me. “And, of course, we have old news photographs to guide us. We do a careful, honest job of digging into newspapers and magazines of twenty-five or thirty years ago. For example, the name of the psychopathic killer who killed Cermak was Zangara. He was an Italian. Now, there have been some complaints from the Sons of Italy about the fact that some of the people we have shown as members of Capone’s gang are Italian, but even the Sons didn’t suggest we change Zangara’s name to Schultz, McGillicuddy or Epstein. Rather than falsify history, we prefer to bear down on the fact that there were Italians, Irish, Germans or Jews – you name it – on the side of law and order, too. Take a guy like Rossi, who was one of The Untouchables. He was an Italian who was helping fight the Italian gangsters of the Capone mob. On our show, he’s played by an actor named Nick Georgiade.
“Before we quit,” I said, “I’d like a few words about your earlier years.”
“O.K.,” he said. “One important fact is that mother and dad were divorced when I was a baby, although they remarried later.”
I said, “I’ve been told your dad, James Stack, headed up an advertising agency in New York and Chicago which handled the Schlitz beer account. I’ve also been told that your father coined the slogan, ‘The beer that made Milwaukee famous.'”
“I’ve been told the same thing,” Robert Stack told me. “But in any event, I’m afraid it made Milwaukee more famous than my dad. After my father and mother were divorced, mother took me to France and Italy while she took voice lessons. She hoped to become either a concert or operatic singer. My brother, who was two years older than I, stayed home with my family. One result of the sojourn abroad was that I spoke French and Italian before I spoke English, and when I came back to this country – I was about five years old then – I had to have an interpreter before I could even talk to my brother.
“One of the reasons my mother came home was that my dad got very sick, and mother took care of him until he died. They were remarried before his death. I lived at my father’s house a lot of the time anyway.
“I was so young that I had a hard time unscrambling European and American customs in my mind. In Europe kids wore very short pants and were taught to kiss a married lady’s hand, not under any circumstances an unmarried lady’s. I’d ask my mother if a lady was married, and if she said she was, I’d say ‘Enchanté, I’m happy to know you,’ and I’d kiss her hand. The first time my brother saw me bending over in short pants and kissing a lady’s hand while I murmured a word or two of French, his American blood boiled and he clobbered me. Before six months was over, however, I was as big a rowdy as he was.”
“My dad had a fine collection of guns, and my grandfather had also been an excellent shot,” Stack went on. “Mother was smart enough to let them go into the family gun closet, and become familiar with the guns, but first she had a friend drop by and check them to see if there were any shells in them. I began to fool around with them shortly after I was seven years old. Then, when I started really getting the bug, at about thirteen, mother arranged for a fine shot to teach me marksmanship. When I was fifteen or sixteen I’d made the All-American skeet team, and I’d helped that team set a group world’s record. Even so, I didn’t last too long, because when I was seventeen, little girls began to look cute to me. All I wanted to do was go out on Saturday night, and after I was eighteen, my scores began to fall apart.”
“Being able to shoot well must have helped you during the war,” I said.
“It did,” Stack told me. “Some of the actors had a pretty rough time, as you probably know. When the other GI’s found out that you were an actor, it put a kind of stigma on you. You had to start punching first and ask questions afterward.”
“Why?” I asked. “Were actors supposed to be sissies?”
“You heard cracks,” he said. “Some guys says ‘Yeah, yeah, I know OK, actor,’ and you’ve had it before you even begin. Ty Power had to hit a guy in the choppers before the Marine Corps would accept him as a man just like any other man. This is how shooting helped me. From time to time I had to prove I could shoot. I remember being transferred to a certain command and my commanding officer saying, ‘I hear you’re supposed to be a great shot, Stack.’ I said, ‘Sir, I haven’t shot in eight months.’ He said, ‘I’ll tell you what we’re going to do. We’re going out and shoot a little skeet. We went outside. There were twenty officers and fifty men standing about.”
“All of them hoping you’d fall on your face?” I asked.
He nodded, “I got lucky. I broke a hundred straight, and my commanding officer said, ‘I guess you’ll get along. If you get into any trouble, call me.’ And that was that.”
“Where did you go to college?” I asked him.
“U.S.C.,” he said. “I majored in polo and a few other useless things, although we did win the Pacific Coast Intercollegiate Polo Championship. What I mean is, I was really doing nothing. My guardian [Stack’s father had died] wired me, ‘The way you’re headed, I’m not sure what kind of degree you’ll get, and suggest that you either go to work or go to Harvard or Yale law school.” I called him and said, ‘I want to be an actor.’ He was patient and tolerant. He said, ‘O.K., be an actor for a year then go to Harvard law school.’ Once more I got lucky. I was visiting Deanna Durbin on a movie set. Joe Pasternak saw me and offered me the lead in Deanna’s picture.”
“Just like that?” I asked.
“Just like that,” Stack said. “In one way it was the worst thing which could have happened to me. I’ve spent nine years trying to live it down. When I’m ninety-five and have a beard down to my knees, some people will still think of me as the guy who gave Deanna Durbin her first screen kiss. To change all that, I began playing psychotics, such as the role I played in Written on the Wind.”
“Did you search out roles like that?” I asked.
“Yes, a little at first,” he said. “Producers have little television screens in their heads. Once they get an image of you on that screen, that’s it. If they see you run into a room on that screen with a tennis racket and ask, ‘Mother, is tea ready?’ you play a tea-drinking tennis player the rest of your life. I thought I’d broken out of that trap when I played a cuckoo drunk in Written on the Wind. I did succeed in accomplishing one thing. All the movie work I’d done for ten or fifteen years was forgotten, but the catch was that from the time on I played crazy drunks. Those were the only parts I was offered.”
I said, “A thing which interests me is how you can take the physical beating that goes with appearing in every segment of a TV series. I’ve interviewed Jim Garner, and he told me the reason the scriptwriters invented a brother, Bart Maverick, for him was that he had to have somebody who could spell him. He said it was physically impossible for one man to do all that much work. Yet you’re all in The Untouchables shows. How do you do it?”
“In the first place,” he said, “I don’t do as much work in any one segment as either Jim Garner or Jack Kelly does in one of their Maverick series. Originally I was to appear in eleven of the first twenty-six Untouchables. I was supposed only to narrate the others. But I never got around to even one narration job. In no time I had contracted a bad case of school spirit as far as The Untouchables was concerned. I protested that I thought it would be a fraud on the public if I did it the way it was planned. I said I thought people would resent it.
“It was then that the decision was made not to have me do any narration, but in a certain number of shows, we would pull Eliot Ness out of the periphery of the plot and show him doing as little as possible. We tried that in our third show, and it didn’t work. The moment the audience forgot Ness, who is the central figure around whom everything focuses, we lost our audience. What happened then was that I became an eager beaver and said, “I want to do them all,” and before I knew it, that’s what I was doing.
“We haven’t a day off in twenty weeks. All that time we’ve been filming segments back to back. It’s the hardest work I’ve ever done. I must be nuts or the show has become a religion for me, or I wouldn’t put out as much as I do. The other guys connected with this show give it the kind of effort you couldn’t buy for money. Sometimes, when they’ve worked until three in the morning, they’re so tired their eyes are like slits. They look like Chinamen. On our show we shoot night for night, whereas most of the shows shoot day for night, with a filter. And they look it. It doesn’t come off right.”
I didn’t get “night for night.” Stack explained, “That means that when we shoot our night scenes, we actually shoot them at night, although that makes them twice as hard to shoot and light. We hadn’t been messing around with The Untouchables very long before we discovered that all of our most suspenseful dramatic scenes were happening at night. I find myself working more at three-thirty in the morning than at three-thirty in the afternoon. One of my children became so confused he began to call me Uncle Daddy. He figured if I were a straight daddy, I’d go to work in the daytime and come home for dinner and spend the night with my family the way other daddies do.
“My beautiful wife, Rosemarie, has discovered through many an endless and frustrating dinner wait that if she wants to dine with me, she’d better pack a box of cold food and a jug of hot coffee, and come to the studio or wherever we’re working on location. We often have our dinners between shots, seated spraddle-legged on the grass. She says that she tries not to be jealous of Eliot Ness, ‘but I do happen to be married to Bob Stack.'”
I said, “You may feel tired, but you don’t look tired.”
Stack said, “The tiredness is there, but you can’t see it because I’m so happy about the way things have worked out. The other guys are happy, too, because the awards our show has won have gone to everybody in the show, including the cinematographer, instead of anyone actor. It may sound corny, but if this particular show does well, it means that everybody in the show has done well. If you can sit down and grin, once in a while, the way I’m doing now, and add up the score and have it come out right, it wipes away most of the tiredness.”
Originally published in the Saturday Evening Post, July 9th, 1960