As­taire was their first in­ter­view; other Hol­ly­wood icons fol­lowed

The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - Carolina Living - BY ALEX LEWONTIN ale­won­[email protected]­sob­server.com Lewontin: @alex­cle­won­tin

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.”

Con­trib­uted by David Fan­tle

Au­thors Tom John­son, left, and David Fan­tle in­ter­viewed Ge­orge Burns and many other Hol­ly­wood icons.

ALEX LEWONTIN

Au­thors David Fan­tle, left, and Tom John­son (not pic­tured) in­ter­viewed Fred As­taire in the sum­mer of 1978, when they were 18.

Con­trib­uted by David Fan­tle

David Fan­tle speaks with Charl­ton He­ston, one of 75 stars in “Hol­ly­wood Hey­day” in­ter­views.

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