That Beautiful Hunk Of Man -- At 55

By Aljean Harmetz

Thank you so much to Aljean Harmetz for her kind permission to reprint the wonderful interview that she did with Victor! :) She said that she had a great deal of fun interviewing him and that Victor was a smart and witty man.

VICVictor Mature sat naked in the steam room of the Beverly Hills Club, spraying his face with water from a garden hose. At $100 per year for membership in the club, the steam bath was costing him $600.

He was back in Hollywood for the first time in six years, back in Hollywood movies for the first time in 11. An emotional, impulsive man, Mature retired from movies in 1960--at age of 44--basically on a whim. "I thought it would be a good idea to sort of enjoy what I had worked so hard for and see how the other half of the world lived."

He retreated south along the California coast to Rancho Santa Fe with his fourth wife and a bag of golf clubs, surfacing only once--to go to Italy in 1966 to play the aging movie star in Vittorio De Sica's "After The Fox." He has no regrets over the seven hours a day spent on the golf course across from his house during these last 11 years. "I loaf very gracefully. There's a lot to be said about loafing if you know how to do it gracefully."

At 55, Mature has returned to Hollywood to co-star with Lynn Redgrave in Cy Howard's "Every Little Crook and Nanny." He overwhelms a fragile chair in a hotel room and talks about the strangeness of not knowing a single person at the health club from which he has just returned. He shakes his head at the stupidity of having agreed to play a Mafia chieftain in the MGM film. "It just so happened that they caught me when I felt like saying 'Yeah.' If they'd only got me two weeks later, I'd have said 'No.'"

His huge feet dwarf the legs of the chair. He is wearing an electric blue golf shirt open at his size 17 1/2 neck, and the impression is of gargantuan size. His hands are foothills to the mountain of his chest. His flashing white teeth span the crags and gullies of his face like polished boulders on the edge of a cliff.

He pours himself a Scotch and guesses that "Every Little Crook and Nanny" is his seventieth movie--or his fiftieth--or somewhere in between. The images from all those movies precede him and get in the way of the present as palpably as a force field: Tumak grunting his way through "One Million B.C." in 1941; Samson pulling the temple down upon himself in DeMille's "Samson and Delilah" in 1950; Demetrius, his face occupying 100 feet of space in the first CinemaScope closeup in "The Robe" in 1953. And endlessly, in endless pictures, the too brash wise guy from a small town, the slightly crooked promoter from the big city--hooded eyes in a crude, indelicate face and too much brilliantine on his impossibly thick and curly black hair.

The thick black hair is thinner now. And longer. And curls against the collar of his shirt.

For 18 years at 20th Century-Fox there were few good pictures and fewer good reviews: "My Darling Clementine," "Kiss of Death," one or two others. He never seemed to care. When he wasn't asked to put his footprints in cement at Grauman's Chinese Theater, he lowered his rear end into wet concrete in front of his Fox dressing room. He called himself Victor Manure and The Beautiful Hunk of Junk. When he wanted to join the Los Angeles Country Club and was told by a board member that they didn't accept actors, his response was, "Hell, I'm no actor and I've got 28 pictures and a scrapbook of reviews to prove it."

"I took acting five times as seriously as anyone else," he says. "I just couldn't show it. Some kind of complex, I guess. In the car, driving to a premiere, I used to be scared to death. Then the door opened and I would leap out, going like apedung."

He is scared now, although he only shows it in the way he paces the gilded hotel suite agonizing over the predicament into which his impulsiveness has thrust him. "Fresh out of Rancho Santa Fe and my first scene is the last scene in the film. God, having to shoot the last scene first, Hell, I don't know what kind of character I'm going to be by the end of the picture."

He feels rusty. His life has been sun and old friends and golf and football. He flies to Kansas City to watch the San Diego Chargers play football but he doubts that he has seen more than three movies during the last five years. His valet tells him the plots of the new pictures and occasionally he sees one on television that "six years ago I thought about going out to see. Like 'The Sand Pebbles.' I saw that on television last month." The gold Virgin of Guadalupe Medal that he bought for his mother dangles from his neck. He took it back after her death 12 years ago. He is not really a practicing Catholic any more, but he still says his prayers.

He has brought another talisman with him--Yvonne Huston, fragile as a china bird. She is "the key to my happiness," he says.

His fourth marriage dissolved three years ago. "These gals marry him and think they're going to change his lifestyle, and they don't," says Fox publicist Johnny Campbell who has been his friend for 30 years. "He stays the same and they get disillusioned."

Throughout the long day--a wardrobe fitting for "Every Little Crook and Nanny" at a posh Beverly Hills men's store, lunch at the Brown Derby, the ride in his sleek black Cadillac from the Derby parking lot to the hotel across the street--Yvonne tags along reassuringly. Her Victor Mature brings boxes of bubble gum and Hersheys to her three children on Halloween, "hates discotheques, dancing, dinner parties and meeting new people," and is, in a way, "my fourth child. It would ruin Victor to change him," she insists. "He is so funny, so kind, so good."

Expansive at the wardrobe fitting, Mature worries again afterwards. Within two weeks he will be comfortable enough in Hollywood to hang around on the set when his working day is over and to toy with the idea of doing a television series. But now he says, "I found the wardrobe thing a complete bore. If it's like that, I don't know. But if it's not too much pressure and the picture goes off all right, I may start doing two or three things a year."

He is a rich man and there is no need for him to do anything except play golf and "dabble in real estate developments. But the trouble with those deals is that your partner always wants to build 500 houses and you only want to build five."

Son of a penniless Swiss immigrant who started with a scissors grinder and ended with a massive refrigeration business, Mature left school (Kentucky Military Institute) at 14 and was making $150 a week as a candy salesman before he was 18. He came to Hollywood armed with his father's advice that "As long as people think you're dumber than you are, you'll make money."

For much of his career, he made $5,000 a week 52 weeks a year and "early schooled myself never to look at my check." He opened a television store the year after television began and shocked the English actors in "Samson and Delilah" by selling marked-down sets in his dressing room. Between marriages he lived in his dressing room. When "Every Little Crook and Nanny" is over, he will, as he has always done, put his wardrobe in the back of his Cadillac and drive off. (Mature's close friend, actor Jim Backus, insists that a steward on the Queen Mary once told him that "Mr. Mature, unlike my other Hollywood gentlemen, has a most unusual tailor, Property of 20th Century-Fox.")

The frugality that made him take half a dozen pairs of high-button shoes from "Million Dollar Mermaid" to convert into golf shoes wars with what his friends call "unbelievable generosity." "I could get $5,000 from Vic today if I needed it," says Johnny Campbell. "When I had my heart attack, I hadn't seen Vic for 10 years and he sent to the hospital two of the most elaborate things I've ever seen, champagne and food and flowers. They must have cost him a fortune. When somebody who worked at the studio got into debt--not a close friend of Vic's, just a guy who worked there -- Vic gave him $2,500 and told the guy to pay him back $1 a week." "A fiercely loyal man," Jim Backus says of Mature. "Fiercely loyal." His friends have been his friends for 30 year. Throughout the long day, they call the hotel room to welcome him back.

One of those friends of 33 years, publicist Jules Selzer, calls Mature "a very warm, kind, gentle man despite his reputation of big bluff bravado." That reputation was of a big dumb devil-may-care hunk of beautiful muscle who took nothing seriously. In a long-forgotten interview, Mature once said of himself, "You've got to be one thing or the other in Hollywood. Either people think you're a lousy jerk like me or a great guy like Gable. Not six people know Gable intimately, yet everyone will tell you what a great guy he is."

The arrogance of Mature's screen image was combined with a talent for self-parody and a wicked, although not very subtle, sense of humor to form the legend. "Every so often," he says, remembering the way it was, "it was my day to shake them up at Fox. I had uniforms made that said 'Genius No. 1,' Genius No. 2,' and 'Genius No. 3.' Then two of my friends and I would put them on and file into the commissary and watch the producers puke."

He runs his fingers through his thinning hair and flashes the amazing smile that seems to make a jack-o-lantern of his face. "Hollywood was wonderful in the forties. Fox was like a country club. The days of shaking them up are over. It's like a factory now."

In 1941 he came to Hollywood by streetcar straight from four years at the Pasadena Playhouse. "I was loaded with all that Stanislavski art-for-art's sake. At ten of one every day, while I was making 'One Million B.C.' Hal Roach would turn to his assistant director and say, 'I don't want to miss the second race at Santa Anita. You direct this afternoon.' At Fox, there was no pressure and only one boss -- Darryl F. Zanuck. There was no room for two geniuses there. They turned pictures out like crackerjack. 'Kiss of Death' got made because Fox was one black-and-white picture short on its schedule."

Tyrone Power was king of the Fox lot during the forties. Mature had a neighbor with four children and not enough money who was exactly Power's size. One day Mature took his neighbor's only two suits into the wardrobe department and hung them on Power's rack, taking his neighbor two of Power's newest suits in trade.

"I wasn't pampered the way a Tyrone Power was. Zanuck would say to producers, 'If you're not careful, you son of a bitch, I'll give you Mature for your next picture.'"

The stories come rolling off his tongue, somehow showing the sense of responsibility his friends insist he always had -- his legend notwithstanding. "You did what they told you. I'd never been on a motorcycle in my life when one director insisted I leap onto one and ride it. I kept telling him he wasn't going to get the great action shot he wanted. It must have taken me ten minutes to get on gingerly and get that damn machine started. Then I went over an 85-foot embankment. I wasn't unconscious, so I kept shouting. 'Get that camera down here. Get these pictures.' The director told Zanuck the reason I was hurt was that I was fooling around." That accident was Mature's introduction to golf. He tore most of the ligaments in his leg and spent the next eight months on the golf course to rehabilitate the leg.

"You automatically accepted the pictures they wanted to give you unless you wanted to take a suspension for the length of the picture plus eight weeks. My agent, Myron Selznick, was one of the few who didn't play games with the studio. He actually worked for his clients. 'Look, Vic' he'd say, 'why lose all that money? If the picture's a flop, it doesn't hurt you, it hurts the studio.' That was the great thing about being under contract. In all those years I only took a suspension once. I got a telephone call in my dressing room that 'Mr. Perlberg would like to see you.' It was my first picture at Fox and I said, 'Who is Mr. Perlberg?' An hour later my agent ran in, screaming, 'My God, what did you do to Perlberg?' I said, 'All I did to Perlberg was to ask who he is. The only Perlberg I know is a delicatessen owner in Louisville, Kentucky.'"

"It seems Mr. Perlberg wanted me for his next picture, 'Ten Gentlemen from West Point.' I read the script and said I'd be happy to be the backwoodsman from Kentucky. But Mr. Perlberg said no, he wanted me for the golden-haired, golden-tongued governor's son. When they suspended me, I got on the phone to a friend of a friend at RKO. The next day RKO called Zanuck and told him that Howard Hughes wanted me to come to work in a week. Zanuck wouldn't let me go, but that broke the suspension. If another studio asked for you, the suspension was broken."

Mature shared the Fox lot with Dana Andrews, Gregory Peck, William Eythe. "But Tyrone Power was the king. One director of mine got so nervous when Ty Power came on to the set to watch that he forgot where he told me to walk in a scene. 'You stupid son of a bitch,' he yelled. 'I told you to go to the other side.' I picked him up gently and threw him into a breakaway wall and the wall collapsed. There was dead silence except for one guy on the catwalk who applauded because the director had been picking on me for six weeks."

During those years Mature dated Carole Landis, Lana Turner, Betty Grable. While he was serving in the Coast Guard during World War II, he lost Rita Hayworth to Orson Welles. (Mature's comment on hearing the news was, "Now I know that the way to a woman's heart is sawing her in half.") He married twice in those years. The string of anecdotes stops abruptly when the conversation gets too close to such dangerous memories.

He will do no more than state the facts. "My first marriage was annulled; my second lasted four months; my third lasted six years and should have been over in three months."

His reticence comes because two of Yvonne Huston's children are old enough to read newspapers and will understand what he says to reporters. He will not embarrass them.

For all his roughness, he is a strangely courtly man. For all his lack of introspection, he is a strangely sensitive one. He has survived 20 years of Hollywood stardom and 10 years of self-imposed exile without taking himself either too lightly or too seriously. He is years beyond being "That Beautiful Hunk of Man" -- a title which he also survived. Unlike other movie stars desperately making a comeback, the rest of his life does not depend on his return to the screen.

"If I don't enjoy myself making this picture," he says, "it will be easy to go back to loafing gracefully."

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