TV Guide Interview continued..

Why pick on Basehart?

Out at the 20th Century-Fox studio, before I talked with Basehart about his series, I dropped in on Irwin Allen, Voyage's producer. Why, I asked Allen, did you choose Basehart, the self-professed Shakespearean, to go scuba-diving with your giant jellyfish, to battle with your colossal octopi, and to fight off every other enemy of mankind your writes could dream up? "Because he's the consummate actor," Allen replied without batting an eye. Then he quickly added, "Y'see, we knew that, being such a great actor, he could make all the derring-do believable." On the Voyage set, Basehart and young co-star David Hedison, who plays Cdr. Lee Crane, were wrestling with lines they hadn't had time to learn. Not an unusual situation, for the two men carry the burden of nearly all the hour-long scripts. A 14-hour day is not uncommon for Basehart. The scene wasn't going well, and the actors got their lines reversed. "No, no, Dave," Basehart said. "Me Nelson, you Crane." The cast guffawed, in relief. The director called for a break. Basehart walked over and sat down. He is somewhat shorter than you think-about 5 feet, 9 inches-and has a stocky, rugged appearance. He looks as if he has weathered more storms than the Seaview. His eyes are blue, a warm blue. He is one of those men who posses that elusive but instantly evident appeal to women. He talks softly, confidentially, gesturing firmly with both hands. Now, he stands up to his hips in an elaborate maze of buttons, pipes, panels, wheels and flashing lights. "These submarine sets are certainly fascinating," someone offers. "Yeah, I'll bet they are," Basehart replies in a tone that suggests that his fascination had run out 12 episodes ago. "Oh, there's a lot of challenge in this role. I mean it. Really wild things happen to the admiral. Once I remember the script called for the heavies to do away with the Seaview by giving the commander, me, a fear-producing drug. I spent half the show in a state of euphoria, and the other half in a horrible depression. That's acting, television style."

No time to study

"Well, of course, it isn't exactly Hamlet . . ." a bystander suggested. "Of course not. With Shakespeare, there's more character than an actor can ever plumb. But there's no greater challenge than making something out of nothing. I mean, you take an underdeveloped character and you have to make him alive. You take what's there, and you round him out. You see, the lack of time sharpens an actor's tools to razor-sharp edges. There's no time to study. You're on, and it's up to you to create the man, the mood, instantly." Basehart was silent for a moment. Then, "You didn't see the pilot by any chance? You did? Oh Lord, forget about that. The scripts have improved. We have some very inventive stories-sometimes. There was one recently about a court-martial-awfully good idea. But I don't know. Somehow, that old monster showed up thee, at the end. "Now, don't get me wrong. I like to work and I like to earn money. Nothing irritates me more than . . ." "Awright," boomed the director. Dick, Dave, let's try that scene again." Basehart did not jump up. Politely but firmly he turned. "As I was saying, nothing irritates me more than actors who take all the money and then complain about how terribly limited TV is. That kind of talk only reflects on them." Then he got up and played the scene. The same vignette, the insistence on finishing a conversation, repeated itself a number of times. It was Basehart's small but stubborn tribute to sanity. It was as if, by taking time to complete one serious thought, he had somehow, for the moment, beaten the whole hectic, crazy game. "Sometimes though, I wonder what it's all about," he continued. We knock ourselves out-you know, it's a backbreaking schedule. And besides this, I'm doing some narration for documentaries on Saturdays. But I don't plan to stay in this game forever. A couple of years, a few more dollars, and then I'll go off and do some stage work or something." There was a long pause, and a sigh. Suddenly Basehart looked very somber. I can't help but think about John's death," he said. (John was John Larkin of 12 O'clock High, who died of a heart in January. He was a close friend of Basehart's, and about the same age. Besides working in a strenuous series, he had been performing at night in local repertory productions.) "I had an intensely personal reaction to his death," Basehart went on. "I resented his death. He was just beginning to garner the fruits of his efforts . . . and boom." Basehart's head sank lower as he reflected. He may have been thinking of his early years in Hollywood, of his first wife's death 15 years ago. (Stephanie Klein Basehart died tragically of a brain tumor.) He may have pondered the following years spent in Europe with his second wife, the Italian actress Valentina Cortesa, and the failure of that marriage some years ago. And he may have been thinking of his only child, Jackie, 13, of whom he is inordinately proud and whom he rarely sees. The boy lives in Italy with Miss Cortesa. He shook his head slowly. "You fight for the moments," he said reflectively. "You fight for the seconds to live." "C'mon Dick, we're ready to shoot," the director's voice intruded. "Pick it up at, uh, where you say to Crane, 'This mission won't be aborted if I have to hold this submarine together with spit and glue.' OK?"


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Copyright --October 20, 2000 Stephanie Kellerman and the Basehart Family