Robert Taylor on Being an Actor

The Milwaukee Journal September 10, 1960
Robert Taylor Hits Actors Who Strut, Pose as Artists

By Robert Taylor
North American Newspaper Alliance

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Robert Taylor, ca. 1960.

A frequent source of embarrassment to actors fortunate enough to have achieved that ephemeral state known as stardom is that they are popularly supposed to possess all-inclusive wisdom equipping them to discourse expertly on any subject from aardwolves to zymosis.

Let’s face it, I knew neither the meaning or the existence of those two words until I saw them in my dictionary just a moment ago. Why should I? They’re hardly valuable additions to anyone’s workaday vocabulary.

Using the same line of reason, why should I be regarded as an expert on finance, politics, love or the emotional world of the teenager? Yet scarcely a week goes by that some newspaper or magazine doesn’t invite me to pontificate upon these subjects–sometimes even to give advice which readers may take seriously.

This is the lot of the actor. I appreciate the compliment but must decline with one exception. I don’t claim to be an expert on acting although it’s been my profession for many years. But I do know something about actors. Some of my best friends are actors–but that’s not why they’re my friends. And there are other actors I can do without–the lads who mistake temperament for art.

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Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, Robert Taylor and William Powell, ca. 1936

Of course, there are a few practitioners whose characterizations are really worthy of the word art. But by and large, acting is no more an art than cooking or “pops” singing or gardening.  It is a craft–a challenging one–which requires dedication and practice. But it is rarely art. And I’ve been at it a quarter century.

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“The Detectives,” 1962

Don’t get me wrong–good acting is no cinch. It is not a profession just anyone can handle, a job anyone can successfully carry out. In my TV series The Detectives, we shoot in three days what MGM in days of old took six weeks to film. And the results are just about as good. This demands proficiency, intelligence, organization. But the art, if it’s there–and I think it is from time to time–is in the writing, the direction.

Actors, particularly those with little experience, who regard themselves as artists don’t help their profession. Years ago the hallmark of the glamorous actor was a thing called temperament. He showed up late for work or failed to show at all. He quarreled with his director, disregarded general rules of etiquette and procedure. He has to hog the spotlight.

Today temperament is largely under control. The economics of a business under pressure of competition from bowling and boating does not permit tantrums. In its place we got art!

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“Saddle the Wind,” 1958. Robert Parrish, director; John Cassavetes; Robert Taylor.

The trouble with many actors is that they take themselves too seriously. They feel they are a breed apart. I recall when I first gained recognition actors were regarded as little white gods, and it was the studio which placed them on this pedestal. There’s a longing for group identification among many actors today–so they wear buttonhole badges saying “artist.” I’ve worked with some of these gents who can’t remember a page of dialog or mouth a line so it can be understood.

But they’ll research a role for weeks. They’ll seek the motivation which prompted this cowboy to mount his horse in a certain manner, or that detective to carry a gun strapped to his left kneecap.

True artists never speak of themselves as such. Schweitzer doesn’t, nor does Spencer Tracy. Irving Berlin doesn’t compare himself to Beethoven or affect whatever appearance the artist is supposed to wear–in Hollywood it is frequently goatee for the male and heavy eye make-up for the female!

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“Camille,” 1937. Robert Taylor and Greta Garbo.

These “arty” actors are wont to say they act because it allows them vast emotional release. It permits them to express their inner selves. I say phooey. Busy actors only occasionally get a role permitting them to express their own emotions. The challenge is to express the emotions of the character you play, and to move the emotions of your audience.

This sometimes can veritably be art. More often than not it is an exhibition of considerable skill, the exercise of self-discipline and imagination.

It is a worth while trading serving a worthy purpose and the gratification it offers is that of a job well done. I consider myself a thorough professional, but I do not consider myself an artist in any way, shape or form. The term is one to be reserved for a special few.

Those who appropriate it for themselves do the true artists wrong.

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About giraffe44

I became a Robert Taylor fan at the age of 15 when his TV show, "The Detectives" premiered. My mother wanted to watch it because she remembered Mr. Taylor from the thirties. I took one look and that was it. I spent the rest of my high school career watching Robert Taylor movies on late night TV, buying photos of him, making scrapbooks and being a typical teenager. College, marriage and career intervened. I remember being sad when Mr. Taylor died. I mailed two huge scrapbooks to Ursula Thiess. I hope she got them. Time passed, retirement, moving to Florida. Then in 2012 my husband Fred pointed that there were two Robert Taylor movies that evening on Turner Classic Movies--"Ivanhoe" and "Quentin Durward." I watched both and it happened all over again. I started this blog both for fans and for people who didn't know about Robert Taylor. As the blog passes 200,000 views I'm delighted that so many people have come by and hope it will help preserve the legacy of this fine actor and equally good man.
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9 Responses to Robert Taylor on Being an Actor

  1. Edie says:

    Love it…RT is the antithesis of Gwyneth Paltrow

  2. SusanaG. says:

    Thank you for posting this Judith. I think I had read part of it somewhere, but never the whole article anyway. Wish I had the time to comment on several paragraphs that caught my eye (maybe later) but I wouldn’t like to let this chance pass and will make a few remarks about your post.
    1) I absolutely love anything written by RT, be it letters, newspaper/magazine articles, whatever. Not only did he write awfully well, but also he always made a point with his bright statements. You may agree with them or not, but he always made a point!
    2) It’s very interesting to see a photo of “Saddle the Wind” attached to your post. Always the gentleman, Bob wouldn’t admit it publicly, but I remember having read that he didn’t get quite along with John Cassavetes, since, as he implies in this note, he wasn’t so keen on Method/Stanislavskian actors. He was just like my other beloved Bob (Mitchum)—they wouldn’t even walk through the Actors Studio’s sidewalk! I guess he felt the same when working with Jack Lord or Shelley Winters.
    3) While his opinion about “art” and “arty actors” may be arguable, I think it all depends on what exactly he understood by “art”… however it is very likely he grasped the right meaning since he appeared to be a dictionary junkie! 🙂
    All in all, what a great reading! Please, keep posting more articles written by RT, if you have. He may not have written his own bio, but fortunately, he made of his old typewriter a wonderful means to spread out his thoughts and let others to know him a little more. Which is heaven for us, his fans.
    By the way, the new photo in the background is one of my all-time favs. It’s so expressive.

  3. giraffe44 says:

    Hi, Su, I do have one another article by RT–I think he wrote it for Variety. I’ll have to find it. The placement of Cassevetes’ picture was very deliberate. C thought RT was “square.” Now we know what RT thought of C. I too love RT’s writing, especially the letter Linda Alexander quotes in her book about how he’s saving money on an ocean voyage for the studio. He had a terrific, understated, sense of humor. There’s also a letter to his lawyer saying he’s no longer responsible for Manuela’s debts. I think I know where it is. It’s not right for the blog but I’ll send it to you. The problem with collecting so much material is keeping it all straight. Wasn’t RT referring to Jack Lord somewhere when he said he didn’t know what to make of actors who had to run around the building three times in order to look winded? They just couldn’t ACT winded.

  4. giraffe44 says:

    I’m glad you like the new background picture. It’s one of my favorites, too.

  5. SusanaG. says:

    Hi Judith, as I understand, and even though I don’t think he named any names, yes, it’s almost sure he was referring to Jack Lord when he said that. He really had an amazing sense of humor, very tongue-in-cheek at times. That letter in Linda’s bio is hilarious! I have some other letters too and have been trying to keep my entire RT collection in just one place. Feel free to use my FB mailbox to share whatever you like—I’ll do the same.

  6. michael james darcy says:

    didn’t think much of Robert taylor ” the actor ” but admire his honesty on his profession

    • giraffe44 says:

      I’m sorry you didn’t think of Mr. Taylor’s acting. Have you seen Bataan, High Wall, The Last Hunt to name a few? Outstanding performances. Thanks for writing.

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