William Ramage – The Diary of a 1950’s Male Model – Page 6


Last Update: 1/1/2009
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JO’D:  Didn’t you work with Jack Benny in the late 50s?

Jack BennyDanny ThomasBR:  Yes, I had bit parts in two of his TV specials, taped at CBS Television City. Jack was always very much “the star”…always surrounded by a retinue of “yes” people. He was very personable, though. I remember Danny Thomas was Jack’s guest star on the second show I did. Danny was nice to me, but kind of a difficult man. At one point he was improvising non-stop. Jack Benny yelled, “Did I hire you to do a monologue? Stick to the script!”(laughs) You know, the running gag with Jack was that he was only 39, so Danny Thomas responded by singing “You Make Me Feel So Young” to him. We all got a kick out of that! (laughs)

JO’D: You acted on a CBS soap opera in the early 1960s called The Brighter Day. Was that “live” TV?

BR: Yes, that was in 1962 and it was the best acting job I ever had! The show had been popular on radio for years. We did the TV show “live on tape” (as it was called in those days). We taped it about two weeks in advance. Catherine McLeod and Forrest Compton, two very fine actors, were also in the cast. I played an evil character named “Warren”. During the time I was on the show it seemed I couldn’t go anywhere without being recognized! My character was crippled, and I wound up getting killed when someone threw me and my wheelchair over a cliff. Great stuff, huh? (laughs)

JO’D: In the midst of your very busy modeling and acting career, you attended the University of Southern California and earned a Master’s Degree in English in 1962. What prompted your decision to continue your education during this time?

BR:  Well, remember, back then it was very important for a man to pursue his education. My father had always been aghast at my fascination with acting. In the late 50s, when I came back from doing all that modeling work in The Big Apple, I decided I wanted to work on my Masters. It took several semesters to achieve my goal and to get my thesis written, but I did it. Needless to say, my father was very pleased.

Bill RamageBill RamageJO’D: Your photo shoot for American Tourister Luggage in 1964 was probably your most famous ad. It ran everywhere for years. Please tell us about that job and the effect that it had on your modeling career.

BR: That shot just really caught the public’s eye. When you look at the ad, it almost looks like I’m imitating Gene Kelly. You know, dancing out the door with a big smile on my face and not a care in the world. (laughs) A very good photographer from Tel Aviv named Gideon Lewin shot that at Los Angeles International Airport at the TWA gate. It was a hot, smoggy day and I remember we used a lot of reflectors. By the way, the suitcase I was carrying was loaded with books and magazines! We did shot after shot of me coming out of that door, into that god awful heat. I got big bucks for that shoot and I earned it, too! (laughs)

Believe me when I tell you that businessmen really did dress that formally in 1964. The tailored glen plaid suit, the brushed felt hat I carried, the cashmere coat—all were standard attire for gents in the early 1960s. That ad got me a ton of print work for Sears, Montgomery Ward,  I. Magnin and other big accounts. It was definitely my best known and most successful magazine ad.

Bill Ramage's cover photo for British Vogue magazine

JO’D: One of your most prominent magazine covers was for British Vogue in 1967. Did it bring you a lot of attention over here when it first hit the stands?

BR:  No, it never hit the stands in this country, only in England. It was a special Carnaby Street issue of the magazine and it wound up selling thousands of copies. I was paid in British pounds, which came to about 5,000 U.S. dollars. Catherine Deneuve’s husband, David Bailey, photographed me for that shoot, and he did a brilliant job. I am told that all the young teenage girls in England loved the “mod” clothes I wore. They might not have been so enthralled if they had known that the cool-looking British guy in the photos was actually a “Yank” in his mid 30s! (laughs)

Anne BaxterJO’D: In 1966, you had your first—and only—starring role in an Italian/British spy film titled A Taste of Fear, co-starring Anne Baxter. It is probably one of the more obscure films out there.

BR: Obscure? That picture has disappeared off the face of the earth! It isn’t listed in any of Anne Baxter’s credits—or Carlos Thompson’s—or Claude Dauphin’s, for that matter! It was filmed in England and Italy by an Anglo-Italo company called Film-O Productions and later picked up by Columbia Pictures. I had a dual role in the film…and second billing. My scenes were shot in Brighton, England, and in a London film studio. While I was there, I was invited to visit the sets of 2001: A Space Odyssey, which was shooting on the same lot. I knew the film’s star, Gary Lockwood, from Hollywood, and he took me to see a couple of the sets. I’ll never forget them, either. They were incredible! Film sets usually are not all that fascinating or spectacular, but those sets were absolutely majestic.

JO’D: What was the plot of A Taste of Fear?

BR: It was pretty outrageous, actually. Interpol asks an American in The State Department (me) who is the exact double of one of the Dutch smugglers (me again) of some art stolen by the Nazis in WWII to gain the confidence of Anne Baxter’s character and help them find the missing artwork. It was very much like all the other espionage films that were ground out in the 1960s…pretty off-the-wall!

JO’D: You were originally given top billing over Anne Baxter in the film, weren’t you?

BR:  Yes, that’s true. Anne Baxter had been living in Australia and had not made a movie in some time. She seemed nervous about being in front of the cameras again. By the mid 60s, her film career was virtually over and yet she was very upset when she found out that “that television actor” (me) was being billed above her! (laughs) But I didn’t arrange the billing…the William Morris Agency did. In the end, I deferred and let her have top billing. She was, after all, Eve Harrington. Who was I?

After I shot my scenes in England, I joined Anne and the rest of the cast in Trieste, Italy. The film was released in the U.S. on a double bill with a British spy spoof called Where the Bullets Fly, with Vittorio Gassman and Michael Ripper. Neither of the films was all that bad, but I believe there were some problems with money. There was a lien, perhaps, placed on all the prints which kept the movie out of theaters. Anyway…one more opportunity bites the dust. I did get paid, however, so it wasn’t a total loss!

JO’D: One of your best friends in Hollywood was actor Mark Damon (The House of Usher). You also became business partners with him for a time. Please tell us about your friendship and about the nature of your business association.

Bill Ramage (right) with his longtime friend, actor/producer and author Mark DamonBR: I met Mark in 1960, right after he worked with Vincent Price in The House of Usher, and we hit it off right away. Mark had started out as a contract player at Columbia in the mid-1950s, and had achieved some success, but his publicist (and mentor) Helen Ferguson was convinced he could be the next Robert Taylor and got him signed to a contract at 20th Century Fox. He did a few films there (Between Heaven and Hell, Young and Dangerous, etc.) and became something of a teen idol before striking out on his own as a freelance performer in the early 60s. In 1961 Mark moved to Rome and began acting in Italian films. He is an extremely bright and hardworking guy with a Masters Degree in Business from UCLA. We decided to start a semi-production company in the 60s and we named it Ramon Productions. The name, obviously, was a combination of Ramage and Damon. I got top billing because if Mark’s name had come first it would have read Damage Productions, which wouldn’t have worked at all! (laughs)

Mark met his wife, an actress named Margaret Markov, on the set when he produced the Roger Corman film, The Arena. The picture also starred Pam Grier and it grossed millions. As I said, they lived in Rome and I was in L.A., handling the business from my end. Ramon Productions was a “dummy corporation” in the event that we wanted to option anything. We kept it going for a while and then Mark left to form Producers Sales Organization with a man named Jack Hyde. Mark went on to become a fine producer. He moved back to Hollywood in the late 70s and optioned Joseph Wambaugh’s The Choirboys, and then in 1982 he was the executive producer of The Boat (formerly known as Das Boot), which received several major awards. Mark and I remain friends and he’s still going strong. In fact, he released his memoirs in 2008, titled “From Cowboy to Mogul to Monster: The Never-ending Story of Film Pioneer Mark Damon”. Obviously, I can’t wait to read it!

JO’D: In the 1970s, you turned to producing a series of films for Encyclopedia Britannica. Tell us how that opportunity arose.

Bill RamageBR:  A friend of mine who produced documentaries told the Film Division at Encyclopedia Brittanica about me, and they asked me if I would produce eight of these educational films for them—four on Dyslexia and four on Down’s Syndrome. Through a professor in the film school at USC I met director George Lucas who was just coming off his huge success with American Graffiti. He suggested I use film students from USC and The AFI in the documentaries, and so I did. I had a very low budget to work with and it wasn’t a profitable venture, but the films were beautifully done for their cost. Some of them, in fact, were eventually shown on PBS. I look at those eight educational films as my finest contribution to the industry. I think they made up for the less lofty work I did as an actor! (laughs)

JO’D: You knew the late film actor John Phillip Law (The Love Machine) for several years. Please tell us a little bit about him and your friendship.

John Phillip LawBill Ramage in a modeling shoot with his friend, billionaire lumber heiress Lucy Haskell Hampton Barringer Yount.BR: John was probably the truest friend I ever had in Hollywood. We knew each other for over twenty-five years and I was deeply saddened when he passed away in May of 2008. His former wife was the best friend of the late Virginia lumber heiress Lucy Haskell Hampton Barringer Yount, a very special person in my life. By the way, she was a real southern belle.

John loved to work and he continued making films right up until he died. Ironically, although he worked all over the world, he lived his entire life in the same house in West Hollywood, just above the Sunset Strip. John was a few years younger than me, but he was the kind of big brother I always wished my own brother had been. I miss him very much.

Robert Osborne

JO’D:  Another longtime friend of yours is veteran film critic Robert Osborne, a popular host on the Turner Classic Movies cable station and a journalist for The Hollywood Reporter.

BR: There is no one in the world like Bob Osborne…his knowledge of Hollywood films is unparalleled! We met in January 1961 during rehearsals for a stage production of The Country Girl, with Vera Miles and Jeff Morrow, and we’ve been best friends ever since. Bob has worked hard and diligently to get to where he is today. He loves his present job at TCM, and I think it shows. He is a good and loyal friend, and he has the world’s best sense of humor. As you can see, I have been fortunate in my life to have always fallen in with a good lot!

JO’D: What was it like working with Bob Osborne, Vera Miles and Jeff Morrow in The Country Girl?

Jeff MorrowVera MilesBR: It was wonderful, but also stressful and confusing at times. Teddy Hart, Lorenz Hart’s brother, and his wife Dorothy Hart (not the actress who worked at Universal in the 1940s) had bought and transformed a terrific little theatre into a luxurious regional Equity house. It had ninety plush red velvet seats and they named it Theatre 90. We rehearsed the play for several weeks before it opened. Vera was married to actor Keith Larsen at the time and she was about seven months pregnant. She had to drive in from the San Fernando Valley, and since I lived only four blocks from the theatre, I would meet her there at 6PM and lace her into a surgical corset so that she wouldn’t “show” too much on stage. Then, Vera would relax a little before the night’s performance.

On the morning of our opening night, Bob Osborne’s father died from a heart attack at age 60. Bob had been hired to do a bit part that same day in a movie for Allied Artists called Twenty Plus Two. The film starred David Janssen and Jeanne Crain and Bob played a sailor on leave in a bar scene with Dina Merrill. Despite his grief, Bob honored his commitment to do the film, but he had to miss our opening night for the play as he flew back to Spokane that evening to be with his family and to attend his father’s funeral. I know that was quite a tough time for him.

The Country Girl opened to good reviews. I played Ralph, the backstage dresser for Jeff Morrow’s character, Frank Elgin. Vera was superb as Georgie Elgin, the part Grace Kelly had played in the 1954 film with Bing Crosby. Of course, both women (Vera Miles and Grace Kelly) were favorites of Alfred Hitchcock’s. When we did the play, Vera had just finished the film Back Street at Universal with Susan Hayward and John Gavin. And about a year before that, she had done Hitchcock’s Psycho. Vera played in our production for two weeks before being replaced by Jeff Morrow’s wife, Anna Karen.

Actor’s Equity had very strict rules back then. I had been an assistant to the producers during the first rehearsals. The actor who had been playing my part up until the time I took over wanted to be paid for his work, but Actor’s Equity refused to pay him as he was not an Equity member. Bob’s replacement while he was gone was also non union (and he was terrible in the part, too)! When Bob returned to the show, however, he was paid since he was union. My part was later combined with the actor’s who played the stage manager in the play. I did not act in the show during the last two weeks but handled the box office instead. As a result, my name was not in the original program. Therefore, there is no printed record of my being in the show. (We didn’t print any new programs when Anna Karen replaced Vera Miles, either). Things like that happened all the time back then—mix-ups, snafus, whatever you want to call them. When they did, I just moved on the best I could.

Pamela MasonI did another play for Theatre 90 when it presented Pal Joey a few months after we did The Country Girl. The lead was played by an actor named Tony Monaco, who had made the film Wait ‘Til The Sun Shines, Nellie at 20th Century Fox in 1952, and then the following year (billed as Tommy Morton) he did another musical called Main Street To Broadway with Mary Murphy. Pamela Mason, who had been hired for the role of Vera Prentiss Simpson in Pal Joey, walked off the stage the night of dress rehearsal in a contract dispute with the producers, and was replaced at the last minute by actress Holly Harris. (Holly had replaced Vivienne Segal in Pal Joey on Broadway in 1952.) My friend Edward Stevenson had just won the Academy Award with Edith Head for doing Lucille Ball’s clothes in The Facts of Life, and he was hired to do my clothes for the play. (By the way, Bob Osborne was supposed to be in The Facts of Life but lost the part to actor Dick Patterson, who was a close friend of Lucille’s).

My clothes in Pal Joey were tailored by Knize, Inc. in New York City. Knize was the best tailor in the world and our contract with them stipulated that my clothes had to be listed prominently in the program. So, my clothes were billed right below the cast! (laughs) Because of that, and Holly Harris replacing Pamela Mason, new programs had to be printed up immediately before the play’s opening. However, they were merely sheets of paper, not the Playbill, the official theatre program of Actor’s Equity. The new programs read: “Starring Holly Harris, Tony Monaco, Pat McNulty (a new starlet at the time), Teddy Hart (the producer/actor) and William Ramage.” And right after that, “Clothes for William Ramage coordinated by Edward Stevenson and tailored by Knize, Inc. of New York City.” How’s that for a neat old showbiz story? (laughs)

JO’D:  Wow, you have such fascinating memories. You mentioned Pamela Mason. I know she was married for many years to James Mason, but I don’t know too much else about her. What was she like?

BR: Very colorful! It was actually through Pamela Mason that I met Zsa Zsa Gabor, who taught me how to cook Hungarian stuffed cabbage (a great recipe, by the way). I sat between Zsa Zsa and Diana Dors one night during dinner at Pamela and James Mason’s house—now that was fun! (laughs) Back then, the Masons lived at 1018 Pamela Drive behind The Beverly Hills Hotel. Pamela bought Buster Keaton’s old white elephant of a mansion on ten acres of prime Beverly Hills real estate. She later subdivided it and made millions of dollars on the deal! She was an heiress, you know, to an English woolens empire. As Pamela Kellino, she made some movies in England before she married James Mason. Her first husband Roy Kellino, a director, later married Barbara Billingsley, who, as everyone probably knows, was June Cleaver on Leave it to Beaver!

I met many celebrities through Pamela. Alas, she and her daughter, Portland (actress Portland Mason Schuyler), who was about 12 or 13 when we met, are both gone. So is James, of course. Portland played “the kid” in Pal Joey, but left the production when Pamela did. Pamela had a valid reason to leave, but it was still horrible of her to leave the night before we were to open! After that, Actor’s Equity never let either Pamela or “Porty” work in a union production again. Portland did open to great reviews in a show in London’s West End years later. Her career as an actress never took off, though. James and Pamela’s son, Morgan Mason, was very active in the Reagan administration and lived with actress Louise Fletcher as her lover for several years. She was over 30 years older than Morgan and Pamela was livid and hated Louise because of it! Louise, an Oscar winner for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, does a lot of B-films now. I know that Bob Osborne sees her sometimes when he is in Hollywood.

Bill RamageJO’D: Again, you have some great, great memories. I wanted to ask you if you ever wished you had done more acting, or are you glad that you concentrated more on your modeling career?

BR: Well, I always felt that working was the most important thing. That…and getting paid for the work! I was serious about acting but I didn’t care about billing. I didn’t want to be a contract player, nor did I want a TV series. I just wanted to work. I wanted regular, paying acting jobs. Alas, over time I learned that there were not that many available. So, modeling suited me just fine.

Things were kind of winding down for me in 1967, when I did an episode of the TV show The Iron Horse with Dale Robertson. We shot it in Calabasas in August and it was hot as hell.  I played a railroad worker and I think I made 750 dollars for three days work. By then, I pretty much knew that my acting career wasn’t going to take off, and I was miserable.

Ben GazzaraI remember my very last day as an actor on a Hollywood set. It was in 1968 and I was at Universal doing an episode of TV’s Run For Your Life with Ben Gazzara. There were hot, Santa Ana winds blowing, and with the air conditioning in the building not working properly, the heat inside the sound stage was unbearable. I was playing a realtor in the episode and I remember I wore horn-rimmed glasses. My part was not very large and I was just kind of hanging out on the set one day. I looked around the sound stage, which was empty. Waiting around, in the hot light of the day, I thought, “What the hell am I doing here? I don’t want to do this anymore.” All those trashy extras…all the dust and dirt. I had nearly fifteen years of it, which was enough. I felt the magic was gone, and it was depressing. I remember I told that to Ben Gazzara, who by the way is a very nice guy…very professional. He laughed and said he knew the feeling. It was definitely time for me to go.

JO’D: Any regrets?

BR: Sure, there are some regrets. I never felt I lived up to my potential as an actor, but then again, so few actors do. On the other hand, I feel I accomplished a hell of a lot in the modeling industry. It was good, honest work and I’m proud of it. I made many friends in Hollywood and I learned a lot about life while I was there.

JO’D: You earned a doctorate in Law from Western State School of Law in Fullerton, Ca. in 1982 and passed the California Bar on the first try. Did you practice law?

BR: No, I never really intended to practice law. I went for two reasons…to learn more about the legal system and to exercise and improve my mind. I was almost 50 when I got my law degree. It helped me get a much higher salary during my years in the banking industry.

JO’D: What motivated your interest in banking?

BR: A friend of mine, Lon Harmon, a brilliant kid from Noble, Oklahoma, had started a Savings and Loan in Beverly Hills with twelve backers, who later became The Board of Directors. Lon was very successful and within ten years there were twelve branches of Progressive Savings and Loan over the Los Angeles County area. Lon offered me a job in Financial Services and I eventually became Senior Vice-President at Progressive. As you can imagine, this was a whole different world from show business and the modeling industry, but I loved it. In 1985, the financial association was sold, and the new owner hired all new executives. So, much like what had happened to me at RKO, I was out! Oh well…all good things come to an end.

JO’D: After living there for 30 years, what made you decide to leave Los Angeles in 1985?

Bill Ramage todayBill Ramage todayBR: I would say that having no job and paying almost eighteen hundred dollars a month rent for a high-rise apartment on Wilshire Blvd. made the decision for me! (laughs) I tried getting another job and sent out resumes, but got no responses. I was 51 and learned the hard way that no one wants to hire older people. I guess it has to do with the cost of insuring older workers, you know? I had made some good investments over the years, but I had to find a place to live, preferably a small town where my money would go further (and last longer). So, I traveled for a while, and then I found a beautiful coastal town in the Pacific Northwest. I fell in love with it and have been here ever since. I have a little cottage on the beach by a lighthouse. I always promised myself that as I grew older I would read, listen to music, and relax…and that is exactly what I’m doing! I was in the Hollywood rat race for over 30 years. Trust me, banking in Beverly Hills required as much socializing as filmmaking. I love my solitude now. I have a few friends, and I am in good health. I’m very happy.

JO’D: Do you have a motto that you live by?

BR: Life can be a ball, so make it happen. If one has a dream, it should be pursued. I went after every one of mine, and I am grateful for the many blessings they brought me. God has a plan for all of us, but He also gives us free will. Always follow your heart, and be good to people. I would say that’s my creed. I’ve had a great life…and I have loved it!

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