For a man with a reputation as an unholy terror on the set - "He made Dean Martin cry," Roddy McDowell once exclaimed in wonder - Henry Hathaway couldn't have been sweeter, or sharper. His Bel Air home was lavish, modern, filled with coffee-table books on art and architecture.
And yet this was the man who had made such premiere action entertainments as "Lives of a Bengal Lancer," "Kiss of Death," "Call Northside 777," "Niagara," "The Sons of Katie Elder" and, most gloriously, "True Grit."Hathaway, interviewed in 1974, and who died in 1985, was bread-and-butter Hollywood, not an artist, but a tough, resolute professional.
"I started out as a kid actor in 1908. I went to work for Universal the day they opened - March 17, 1915. I was a prop man at the time. I gave up acting because actors are broke, always have been. We didn't make that kind of money in those days, anyway. I found that the people who were really secure in the business were behind the camera, so I took it for security and financial reasons. That and the fact that directing is the only job in the world where you're absolutely on your own to do what you want to do, to do what you think is the right thing to do."
Hathaway worked for Darryl Zanuck at Fox for 20 years. "Without a shadow of doubt, Zanuck was the finest filmmaker in the business. In that 20 years, I never turned down one script they handed me. I was making an awful lot of money - here it is all around you. Other guys were fighting over contracts, script, billing, everything. I made pictures. Some dogs, yes. But a lot of good ones, too.
"I'll tell you what kind of a man Zanuck was. I went to the preview of Jack Ford's `The Grapes of Wrath.' Without exaggeration, 50 percent of the audience got up and left the theater. Out of about 200 cards, at least 50 said it was too long, boring, the leading lady had pimples, all sorts of derogatory things.
"So we all came back to the studio and were sitting around. For an hour, Darryl didn't say a word. Finally he got up and said, `If I don't know more about making pictures than any Friday night audience, I shouldn't be making pictures. This is a masterpiece. The audience has to know that before they come into the theater. Don't use any stills in the ads. I want woodcuts, classical in style.' He turned to the head of the cutting department and said, `Don't change a foot of film in that picture.' Now, that took guts."
Hathaway was aware of his reputation for being tough. "You've got to have discipline. It's like a father with a big family. What do you do if a kid gets out of line? You've got to whip one of 'em, or soon all the kids are wild."
About "True Grit"? "I told (producer Hal) Wallis at the beginning, I was going to make it a fairy tale. I literally looked for weeks for that natural arena surrounded by aspen trees for the final shootout. I shot it from way high on purpose, so it'd look like a ring, with knights jousting. It was a fantasy that I couched in realistic terms."