Tuesday, December 21, 2021

Tom Nolan: From Sound Stage to Page

 Seeking to expand my knowledge of Billy Wilder’s directing career, I sat down to watch a flick that raised many hackles when first released in 1964. Kiss Me, Stupid, in which Dean Martin canoodles with a presumably happy housewife and Kim Novak plays a lady of (shall we say?) loose morals, was condemned by the Catholic Church and accused by Hedda Hopper of being a stag film. It’s hardly that, but it’s a rather sour farce in which a small-town music teacher (Ray Walston) is so insanely jealous of his pretty wife that he disrupts his household arrangements when a swingin’ Las Vegas star with car trouble rents his spare bedroom for the night. Early in the film, there’s a scene in which a gawky kid bikes over for his piano lesson, only to be accused of having designs on Walston’s spouse. Appearing in that hilarious scene is a fresh-faced 16-year-old named Tommy Nolan. Could it be? Yes, it could.

 The Tom Nolan I know doesn’t have much hair, and he’s much older than 16. He’s had a major career as a journalist and author, earning plaudits especially for a biography of mystery writer Ross Macdonald that was published in 2015. I had no idea that he’d been a showbiz kid until I showed up at a gathering of fans of TV and movie westerns. To my great surprise, Tom was introduced from the stage as the one-time child star of something called Buckskin. This was a 1958 series about a boy and his widowed mom who run a boarding-house in frontier Montana, circa 1880. Though it didn’t last long, the characters were popular enough to launch a comic-book line.

 None of this was what young Bernard Girouard anticipated when he moved from Montreal  to the San Fernando Valley with his family at age 4. He had always liked tap-dancing and playing the piano, and once there was a TV set at home he started to wonder, “Maybe there was a place for me inside that box.” Through a lucky break he was signed by an agent who specialized in kids, and by 5 he was appearing on the Hallmark Hall of Fame in a costume drama, playing the Prince of Wales to Sarah Churchill’s Jane Seymour. For years he never stopped working, first as Butch Bernard and then (for Buckskin) as Tommy Nolan. Later, at UCLA, he tried reverting to his birth name, but it didn’t take, because “I wasn’t that person anymore.”

 Tom played Tom Ewell’s son in the Billy Wilder (and Marilyn Monroe) comedy classic, The Seven Year Itch. Almost a decade later, when Wilder was casting Kiss Me, Stupid, Tom got a second chance to be directed by the master. The role of the music teacher originally went to Peter Sellers, the troubled genius whom Tom describes as “the funniest person I had ever encountered.” By then, he had played opposite such comic stars as Ed Wynn, Jack Benny, and Jerry Lewis. But “Sellers's comic presence was so intense I had to cheat my glance to the side; I couldn't look him straight in the face for fear of breaking up at his merest raised eyebrow or chin-tilt.”  Unfortunately Sellers, enjoying a brand-new young bride and some controlled substances, suffered a massive heart attack mid-production, and was replaced by Walston. Which meant Tom had to shoot his scenes again with a new leading man. Tom remembers Walston as “courteous, well-prepared, professional and capable. But when we did our two scenes together, I had no trouble looking him right in the eye.” 



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