Astaire was their first interview; other Hollywood icons followed
When Tom Johnson and David Fantle were 18 years old, they flew from the Twin Cities to Los Angeles. The recent high school graduates were headed to Hollywood to interview Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly, two of the biggest stars of the film industry’s Golden Age.
It was the summer of 1978, and the trip was the culmination of a lengthy effort to get the legendary actors to agree to be interviewed — by two teens from Minnesota.
“We got their addresses, and we started a two-year snail mail campaign of sending letters and asking for a visit when we could, whenever they had any free time. And magically, in the summer of 1978 ... we got yeses,” Johnson said in a recent phone interview.
Fast-forward 40 years, and the pair has interviewed dozens of Hollywood icons, from Astaire and Kelly, to Lucille Ball, Charlton Heston and Gregory Peck. They’ve compiled those interviews into a new book, “Hollywood Heyday: 75 Interviews with Golden Age Legends.”
The book is an entertaining collection of vignettes, a mixture of stories from the stars and the authors’ own observations. Despite the authors clearly being enamored with their celebrity subjects, they present those stories with a certain irreverent honesty.
“As Fred (Astaire) settled into a nearby chair, we noticed his ankles swelled out of his shoes like a couple of globular ball bearings,” they wrote. “The effect seemed odd until we comprehended that after the better part of a century stomping the hell out of rehearsal hall floorboards, any such ankles — bulbous or not — would be fortunate if they were still attached to legs, let alone be proportionately as slender as the rest of Astaire’s lithe frame.”
Johnson and Fantle are co-authors and collaborators, but they’re also friends. They met in middle school, and each had the experience of being taken by their parents to see “That’s Entertainment!,” a 1974 compilation of excerpts of MetroGoldwyn-Mayer’s biggest hits.
“We wanted to see these films in their entirety, so we basically started renting films to show in a retirement home,” Johnson said. “After a while, we had seen all these films, and we thought, you know, we’d love to meet any of the stars around who were in these movies.”
“It’s hard for people to believe today that you can actually write these legendary artists letters with a self-addressed stamped envelope,” added Fantle. “But lo and behold, they replied.”
Their first interviews with Astaire and Kelly were, as Johnson puts it, “the Willy Wonka golden ticket,” opening up a world of other interview opportunities. James Cagney told them, “If Freddy (Astaire) will see ya, then I’ll see ya.”
Today, Fantle works as an adjunct professor of digital media and performing arts, and Johnson was a senior editor at Netflix, as well as a film critic.
Over the course of their career as interviewers, the two developed close relationships with several of the stars, particularly Ed Asner.
“He’s just a great guy, and one of the most accessible stars in Hollywood, he’s so approachable,” said Johnson. “Two or three years will pass by, and we’ll see him in a restaurant and he’ll say, ‘Oh no, here comes trouble, it’s these guys again.’ He’s very funny.”
The two also exchanged Christmas cards with Kelly until his death in 1996. And actor Robert Wagner wrote the forward to the book.
The pair aren’t sure the feat is replicable, however, especially in today’s world of 24/7 online gossip and protective publicists. Many celebrities would be leery of what Fantle and Johnson did, especially when stars can control their own messages on social media.
“A lot of these stars were semi-retired or fully retired, in their 70s and 80s, and they had come up through the studio system in the 30s, 40s and 50s, so they saw interviews and publicity as really part of their job,” said Johnson. “So it was deceptively easier to get to them than some of the younger stars where you just have to go through a phalanx of publicists and gatekeepers.”
If one does manage to get a moment with a celebrity today, though, Fantle and Johnson have some advice: Be as prepared as possible, and shut up and listen.
“We had a ton of questions written down, which gave us confidence in case the conversation lagged,” said Fantle. “But what we learned is to let the stars talk. We listened to them and often times what they were talking about took us completely off of our question sheet into a whole ’nother area that we hadn’t even thought of, but was really fascinating.”
Authors Tom Johnson, left, and David Fantle interviewed George Burns and many other Hollywood icons.
Authors David Fantle, left, and Tom Johnson (not pictured) interviewed Fred Astaire in the summer of 1978, when they were 18.
David Fantle speaks with Charlton Heston, one of 75 stars in “Hollywood Heyday” interviews.