Lionel Stander — Meet The Stander-Outer (1936) 🇺🇸
A throw of the dice made Lionel Stander a stage personality — and ability has kept him at the top.
by James Reid
Lionel Stander is the newest reason for going to the movies. He’s the only one of his kind. And if he doesn’t have his way, they’ll soon be starring him.
“And then where will I be?” he asks you, plaintively — as plaintively as that the spot,” he tells you, with emphasis. Stander-ish emphasis.
It tortures his sensitive soul that the Fates may already be plotting to shorten his stay in pictures — simply by making a star of him.
“My favorite hobby is collecting paychecks,” he explains, while his expressive lips curl upward at both corners. “A hobby I’d sorta like to keep.”
It’s a fairly new hobby of his, he might add. Moreover, he does add it — in his own way:
“If it hadn’t been for Fred Allen, I’d still be starving. He made an excited Russian out of me — a stooge, a heckler. I garbled — in fact, I gargled — the English language. I waxed indignant at being misunderstood... but the funniest part of the act was that I got paid for it every week.”
A Hollywood talent scout visited Town Hall during a broadcast, and saw Stander. Then something even funnier happened: “The movies signed me — to be a dialect comedian. They didn’t know I could speak English.”
Most people, looking at Lionel, think of him as a genial roughneck, who probably got that way from a boyhood in the Ghetto. In reality, he is an incorrigible intellectual, born and raised in the upper Bronx in New York City. The upper Bronx is the next thing to rural regions — a sleeper-jump from the heart of town. And a double sleeper-jump from the Lower East Side, the Ghetto.
Looking at Lionel, few people can guess his age. Ten years, twenty years from now, it will be the same. His hair is too thick for time to do much thinning; his face is too mobile for time to do much lining. For the records, therefore, let it be known that he first opened his eyes upon the vast reaches of the upper Bronx on January 10, 1908.
He was the first-born of Louis E. Stander, late of Latvia, and the former Belle Cantor, native of New York. He was christened Lionel Jay Stander.
If you are a friend of his today, you can get away with calling him “Jay.” When he was wearing short pants, he let loose with uppercuts on less provocation. Jess Willard was heavyweight boxing champion at the time; Lionel re-christened himself “Jess” — to terrify any possible knaves in the neighborhood.
His father was a certified public accountant. “And that’s what I would be today,” Lionel expostulates, with a cheerful grin, “if he had succeeded in his dire designs.”
No normal parent, however, could cope with the imagination that was Lionel’s. Told not to do something, he could — with originality that should have forewarned everyone that here was a genius — find something infinitely worse to do. Nothing malicious, you understand; just boisterous. Tormentingly boisterous.
His parents never had him psycho-analyzed. They had no inkling, no presentiment, that here was a comedian in the budding.
In school, he never had to study. He knew his lessons after one reading. (He learns his screen lines in the same way today.) But instead of being the delight of his teachers, he was their despair. He used his spare time to sow the seeds of mirth among his classmates, to distract attention from the guardians of the young idea. (Just a scene-stealer in embryo.)
Teachers, in mirthless lack of appreciation of his early talents, ushered him unceremoniously (usually by a large and inviting ear) toward the principal’s office. Day after day, the principal would look upon his pugnaciously cherubic face, until he wished never to look upon him more — and arranged his “ transfer to some other school.
Finally, all of the public schools within commuting distance of the Stander residence had been exhausted in their patience, their efforts to induce him to be less ingenious in his hellishness. Papa Stander, perhaps shaking his head a bit, reached into his purse — and sent Lionel to military academies, prep schools, and, finally, colleges. Yes, despite the stubbornness of his teachers, Lionel eventually arrived in college. First, he tried New York University — or, if you prefer, N. Y. U. tried Lionel; then came Duke University; finally, the University of North Carolina (which he left at nineteen). To one of them, he went on a scholarship. A football scholarship.
“I played guard,” he says, with a painful expression at recollection of a painful experience. “I was one of those roving guards that step into the backfield and handle the ball... I hated it.”
When he was 14, he decided to live his own life, far from the interference of teachers who had no sense of humor. Without advising his parents of his decision, he set out to get a job in Manhattan — so near, and yet so far from, the upper Bronx. He became an office boy for a shade manufacturer and lasted until he lost $147,000 worth of negotiable securities while riding a streetcar in order to use for other, more interesting purposes, the taxi money that had been given to him. The bonds were found three days later, but the job was lost permanently. Temporarily deciding that teachers were preferable to employers, he temporarily returned to school...
At various times in his life, and for consistently brief intervals, Lionel has been a factory worker, a ditch-digger, a waiter, a life-guard, a promoter, a bank clerk, a cab-driver, a newspaper reporter, a writer of hair-raising pulp fiction. And other things that he can’t (or won’t) remember.
How did he happen to become an actor —?
He looks uncomfortable, but grins. “I’m beginning to get sick of hearing myself tell it... You tell him,” he suggests to the Columbia representative sharing the avocado salad at the luncheon in his Hollywood hillside home.
It seems that, soon after leaving college, he was out of a job when an actor-friend told him that there was a spot for an “extra” in a crap-shooting scene in a play then in rehearsal. An “expert” crap-shooter was wanted. Having been to college, Lionel felt that he could qualify. He tried out for the “bit” with such gusto that he stole the scene. He was hired. And when the show opened, he was playing six minor parts...
This was in the Provincetown Playhouse in Greenwich Village, in the days when that experimental theatre was discovering Eugene O’Neill and giving that playwright his start by producing his one-act plays. One of Lionel’s first roles was that of Yank in S. S. Glencairn. And then what did he appear in —?
“Twenty-eight flops in a row,” he says, with a smile — and with the accent on “flops.” Then he adds, “And I was a dramatic actor in every one of them. Not a comedian.”
Could that, possibly, explain the floppishness of the shows?
He shrugs, non-committally — but confesses that he has no particular yen to go dramatic on the screen. Comedy pays too well. And it’s more fun. “As long as I’m not a star,” he adds, pointedly.
In “The Milky Way”, he was Harold Lloyd’s disgusted trainer — and garnered some of the biggest laughs of the picture. In Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, he is the insistent, but constantly frustrated guardian of “pixilated” Gary Cooper — and his reactions to Gary’s action give the Capra picture half of its humor. But his biggest part to date is the role of assistant sleuth to Edward Arnold in the mystery-comedy, “Fer-de-Lance” — in which, for the first time, romance is mixed with his clowning. Several times he is on the verge of marrying the girl (Dennie Moore, promising newcomer, who once played with Lionel in the New York Theatre Guild) — when Arnold gets another clue, and the sleuth in Stander supersedes the suitor again. He thinks moviegoers will relish the character. They will.
He is never more realistic on the screen than when he is registering indignation. In person, he is too easygoing to be bothered by resenting anything.... On the screen, he gives devastating delineations of dull-wittedness; between scenes, he tells devastating jokes that require super-speed on the uptake.... But his screen voice is his off-screen voice.
Is there a story behind the acquisition of that voice?
“I’ve always had it,” he claims. “And I didn’t know there was anything unusual about it until Hollywood told me.” He sounds as if he hasn’t accepted Hollywood’s opinion even yet.
His salary is now in the four-figure bracket (per week) — and his contract gives him the right to decide whether or not he will accept a role. He will play in nothing but A pictures; B and C pictures don’t interest him — at any salary.
“If I can keep playing in good pictures, and fans get the idea of associating my name with good pictures — well, then my name ought to be worth something to producers. Even if I play minor roles, it will mean more than if I starred in second-rate pictures.”
There’s something of the debit-and-credit expert in Lionel despite his rebellion against accounting.... “Though I don’t know why I worry about my screen appearances,” he adds, ironically. “There’s nothing so dead as last year’s picture — or even last week’s. Particularly when you walk down the street and see a big sign over a theatre, ‘Bank Night Tonight’ or ‘Screeno’ — and, underneath, in small type, the sign, ‘Mr. Deeds Goes to Town.’ “
In his first Hollywood pictures, he was a dialect comedian, as on the radio with Allen, Cantor and Jolson. If you have a good memory for faces, not to mention voices, perhaps you recall him in We’re in the Money, Hooray for Love, Page Miss Glory and The Gay Deception. In the last-named picture, he was one of a brace of allegedly comic thugs who seemed intent on some evil purpose. Most audiences never did puzzle out what the boys were plotting. “Neither did I,” says Lionel.
His contract lapsed. And, about that time, came the release of The Scoundrel — made before he had left the East — in which he gave a memorable performance of a hoarse, haranguing Communist poet. Columbia made the discovery that he could “talk American” and signed him.
He waited for his first option to be picked up — and then bought a house. Though not more than a half-mile above Hollywood Boulevard, it once was a farmhouse. From the exterior, it still looks like an old house. Inside, it is super-modernistic. A huge living room, many-angled, occupies the center of the house — whose east side is one expanse of window, shaded with Venetian blinds. The living room upholstery is in mustard-yellow, above natural-colored wood. Off in one corner stands a grand piano. Lionel doesn’t play; he keeps it for the use of friends who do. A wall of transparent glass separates the living room from the dining room.... Upstairs, his den occupies two levels, with a desk and wall-lining bookshelves on the upper level. Also upstairs is a luxurious and black-trimmed pool room. Pool is his favorite — and, he says, only — form of exercise.
He reads late into the night — and complains bitterly that reading is impossible on a movie set. “You’re constantly interrupted, and you lay your book down to make a scene, and you can’t find it when you come back. Somebody has put it in the prop box.” His bookshelves bear, most prominently, provocative biographies, “heavy” novels, books on political economy. It amuses him that the Communists, allegedly radical, were the first to propose unemployment relief. He will talk politics by the hour, telling why he thinks a strong third party is coming.
He stands six-feet-one in his stocking feet — and wears no garters. (One manifestation of the collegian that still lingers.) One of his eyes is brown; the other, green; they photograph the same. He has a handsome stand-in and is constantly boosting him.
Though Lionel looks like a hearty eater, he eats little. His nerves won’t let him relax to enjoy a meal. This “patchwork business” of making a movie gives him the jitters. He is convinced that he works hard.
He has a cook and a houseboy, but does his own chauffeuring — with all the careless finesse of an ex-taxicab driver. He doesn’t enjoy driving in Hollywood, Los Angeles or vicinity. Not being psychic, he complains that he has no way of telling what the crazy drivers will do next. He hopes to stay in Hollywood for a long time, even though he misses New York. He feels that he is infected with the incredible sunshine now.
When you can go around in a mental fog — without caring,” he explains, “you’re acclimated. And I’m acclimated.”
Don’t vou believe him!
Lionel Stander and Gary Cooper in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town
Source: Movie Classic, July 1936