As Ham Burger, he finishes second on Perry Mason each week;
as Bill Talman, he has often ended up much further behind
BY RICHARD GEHMAN
When I wrote William Talman I would be arriving in Hollywood to do an article about him for a family magazine and therefore hoped he would be on his very best behavior, he wrote back:
"Family magazine seems to present no problem. As Past President of the Billy Sunday Fan Club, I feel confident we can find some dynamic angle. We look forward to your arrival in our simple peasant fashion. You will be welcomed and, in a pinch, even fed. Yours, in mild anticipation, Beast."
If you have read Rafael Sabatini, you will recall a swashbuckling character named Scaramouch. It is hard to think of Bill Talman clad in sword-dangling costume of the French Revolution, but he reminds friends of Sabatini's hero, who was described as having been born with the sense that the world was mad.
Talman is that rarity, an actor who uses his head for more than tossing, kissing or butting. This gives him a perspective and a sense of humor about himself possessed by few actors.
It is fortunate that he has, for he has been a loser so many times that, compared with him, Hamilton Burger (the character Talman plays on Perry Mason, who always loses to the legal sleuth) looks like a winner.
Talman's worst trouble in recent years occurred in March 1960, when officers raided a party he was attending and arrested him and other guests. At trial time the judge not only found Talman not guilty of the sensational charges but also reprimanded both the D.A. and the police.
The raid, however, had been on the front pages. It cost Talman his job, temporarily. His exoneration was printed back among the "Army surplus ads," and he was not rehired until Raymond Burr and Gail Patrick Jackson, the executive producer, made a hard pitch to CBS in his behalf.
Then, in January 1961, a Los Angeles judge ruled that Talman had to continue paying his first wife, whom he married in 1942, 24 percent of his income. To that date he had paid her nearly $250,000. At the time he was also paying his second wife $700 a month in alimony and child support.
Talman earns around $65,000 a year. What is left of a modest inheritance is now swelling the accounts of lawyers and ex-wives. In addition, he must pay his agent 10 percent, his business manager 5, and the Government (for income taxes) nearly 40. Also, he is a paid-up member in five unions. He must live on between 11 and 13 percent of his income.
One day as he and I were shaking our heads over the mess he was in, he got up from his chair slowly and stretched his 6'1" body on his living room rug, hiding his face in his crossed arms. "Could you urge your readers to send money?" he asked.
He was laughing--yes, actually--at the sheer ridiculous hopelessness of ever getting ahead of the game. That is why I think of Scaramouche when I think of this innately gentle, noisily unfortunate man with his red face, just stabbed by a picador. The image occurs because Talman and his wife, the former Peggy Flanigan, are avid bullfight fans--and boxing fans, and baseball fans.
Like most couples, the Talmans sometimes stage fights of their own, but never serious one. At last, after two attempts, our trouble-plagued hero is happily, securely married. Part of what holds them together, I think, is that they both have the same lighthearted, bantering outlook.
"I would ask you out, but all the kids are sick with the flu," Talman said to me one day on the telephone. His two children, Barbie (10) and Billy (8), and Peggy's by a former marriage, Steve (14) and Debbie (11), all live with them in a pleasant house in the San Fernando Valley.
"The funny thing is," he continued, "they all want to go to school. I'm having a psychiatrist in tomorrow."
Peggy was on the other extension. I made some inconsequential remark, rather sarcastic, about her ability to play gin (she always beats me; she is very lucky). "I was going to tell you not to come out," she said, "but now I hope you'll come right away before their temperatures go down and all danger of infection is past."
Talman always has been a wit, his friends say, although his younger brother Tom, an instructor at Douglas College (Rutgers), does not remember that he was especially funny as a boy. (No younger brother ever remembers an older one as funny.)
Bill inherited his interest in acting from their father, who manufactured yachts and heat-measuring devices but took time off from that to help found the famous Detroit Players' Club.
Talman was born in Detroit 47 years ago. The father made a good deal of money: "Enough to send me to school in a limousine each day," Bill says. "Public school. That meant I had to fight my way in and out."
This early dubious privilege sent him into fighting in more gentlemanly ways on the parish boxing team of the Episcopal church. More important, it made him a lifelong champion of the underdog. He is always trying to help someone who seems to be oppressed.
Although his father had gone to the University of Michigan and wanted him to go there, Talman headed East to school. choosing Dartmouth. he did well when he troubled to go to classes, but he seldom troubled. In one writing course he got an A on every paper--but flunked because of poor attendance.
"Also, I was not a very good student in things like zoology," he says. "James Thurber once wrote a story about an incident that I actually went through in real life. Making a sketch of a unicelluar creature under a microscope, I drew a picture of my own eye.
"During my sophomore year I was enamored of a girl at Smith and decided one weekend to call on her because a freshman offered to lend me 'his' car. I didn't know he had borrowed it form a girl at Bennington.
"A bus forced us off the road, we hit a tree. Well, a boy who was with us was killed instantly, and we went first to the hospital and then to jail."
The freshman said Talman had stolen the car. Authorities finally found out the truth. The Dartmouth dean did not expel Talman, but asked him to resign--then invited him back the next year but Talman refused.
His next move was most unlikely, considering his high spirits. He became an evangelist. His mother had been interested in Dr. Frank Buchman's Moral Re-Armament movement. Talman had been majoring in public speaking. He thought M.R. was a good cause, joined, and went traveling across Canada and later England.
Presently he realized that he was not as dedicated as he should have been. He quit and passed the following summer teaching tennis at a club near charlevoix, Mich., after which he went to work in the Wayne county district attorney's office. There he decided that the was no more suited to law than to evangelism.
An older friend, Robert Forsyth, believed that Talman had the makings of an actor. Forsyth encouraged him to save up to assault New York. By doing odd jobs, Talman put together $1000 and set out. Once in the metropolis he fell into the life at The Lambs, a well-known theatrical club, Frank Crumit, the old-time radio singer and a friend of his father's, got him a card and put him up for membership.
"A challenging experience," Bill says. "One night in there I heard John Barrymore, drunk, do the soliloquy from 'Richard III.'"
Forsyth had friends in Hollywood. He wangled a screen test. Talman bounced back to New York as though his suspender had been caught in The Lambs' front door. After stints in stock and in the road company of "Of Mice and Men," he was recalled to Hollywood and signed by Howard Hughes.
"Hughes was in one of his blue, or inactive, periods," Talman says. "I sat 13 months before they used me." Eventually he did play in more films than he can remember. He also did some screen writing, and has two feature-picture credits. At the time of his trouble with the raided party, he tried, while on suspension as an actor, to make a living as a TV writer, Network producers were reluctant to use him even in that capacity.
Talman is not bitter about the suspension. Or, if he is, he is keeping it to himself. He says he enjoys playing Burger, and after five years still finds new things to do with the part.
His statements that he is happy in this work are backed up by his enthusiasm over a couple of weekend promotion trips on which he was invited by CBS last summer. Actors, like most of us, are jealous of their free time, but Talman undertook the chores with a zest that was not dulled by the fact that he was kept on the run most of the time.
There is another reason why Talman is not an angry these days. Peggy expects a baby. "I'm old enough to be the child's grandfather, " Bill says, "but nothing could please me more."
It is hard to think of this obstreperous Scaramouch in a settled domestic situation. His friends are delighted. Brother Tom summed up all our attitudes the other day.
"It's about time," Tom said, "that trouble passed Bill by."