Tales of the
Broke and Famous
By Stephen Schochet
"Beverly Hills is a place where you spend a lot of money you don't
have to impress a lot of people you don't like!"- - Anonymous
If the rumors are true that Michael Jackson's lavish life style has
left him broke, he would not be the first famous celebrity in
financial straights. John Wayne found himself in hock after 150
movies. Three wives, seven children, investing his own money in the
box office troubled The Alamo (1960) combined with an exceedingly
generous nature left the Duke completely wiped out. He would often
walk into bars and shout,"Drinks for everybody on me!" He would get
fan letters full of wild pleas for money, from people who had tax
problems to mothers who asked for help to pay for their daughter's
braces. Wayne would agonize over them but send financial aid if he
thought the requester was really needy. One time his second wife
Chata, with whom he was about to divorce hired a private detective to
get the goods on him. Down in Mexico near where Wayne was filming the
western Hondo (1953) the investigator forgot his identification one
day and got locked up in a Chihuahua jail. Not knowing anyone in a
foreign land the desperate P.I. called Wayne himself. The Cowboy Star
arrived with his buddy and frequent co-star, a disbelieving Ward
Bond. "Duke, this guy is trying to ruin you! Let him rot!" Wayne
reached into his pocket and pulled out the necessary coin to pay the
bail. "Ah come on Ward, the poor man was only doing his job."
Stars can find themselves in money trouble before they know it. While
performing in Las Vegas with Dean Martin at the Flamingo hotel in
1953, twenty-seven-year old Jerry Lewis ran up $137,000 dollars in
gambling debts. The mobsters who ran the casino confronted him to ask
how he planned to pay it off. The nervy Lewis told them it was their
fault for letting a kid run up such a large tab. How irresponsible!
The gangsters, a bit bewildered, agreed, then repeated their
question. Realizing that these nice gentlemen could whack him, Jerry
asked them what they suggested. After a hasty conference they told
him he would work it off. The gambling addicted Lewis asked if he
could win it back at the card table instead, he was told a firm no.
The debt took a year and half for the comedian eliminate. He would
have retired it quicker but the card games continued during train
rides with former Blackjack Dealer Martin, who kept putting the
volatile clown further in the red.
Another star who suffered through money trouble in the fifties was
Marilyn Monroe. Tired of playing dumb blondes, she bolted from her
studio Twentieth Century Fox to start Marilyn Monroe Productions.
Actors are often advised not to use their own name in their personal
ventures, it makes other ego-driven stars less willing to work with
them. Marilyn's film output slowed down and by 1959 her husband,
playwright Arthur Miller, was telling her she should accept the dumb
blonde role in Some Like It Hot, they needed the money. "I can't see
through Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis in drag? Oh my God, I've been
dumb before but never that dumb." She went to her well renowned
acting teacher, the revered Lee Strasberg to ask how she could make
the audience believe her character. Strasberg suggested that Marilyn,
always a man's woman, play the part as someone so desperate for
female friendship, she simply didn't pay attention to her co-star's
masculine features. She took his advice and the result was a comedy
A celebrity's money trouble can spill over to others that they work
with. Judy Garland was a popular guest on television talk shows in
the 1960s. The problem with booking her was in cities where she
appeared hotels were reluctant to put her up. She was famous for
abusing the help and skipping out on her bills. One time New York
based Host Merv Griffin called up the Waldorf to see if she could
stay there. Absolutely not, he was told. She owes far too much money.
What if Merv paid her outstanding bills? He was told he could pay
double what she owed and she still wouldn't get a room there.
Comedian Stan Laurel found money so tight he ended up in a sixty
dollar a month apartment in Santa Monica in the early 1960s. He was
listed in the phone book and people would call him up. Are you the
Stan Laurel? Can we come over and meet you? Charlie Chaplin's former
vaudeville understudy would warmly welcome the fans who visited his
residence. But what happened to all his money? Laurel would joke
about his three wives getting it all, then explain that Producer Hal
Roach owned all the Laurel and Hardy films. He and Oliver Hardy, (or
Babe, as his friends called him) had been scared to death when the
silent films had ended in 1928. When Director Leo McCarey came up
with the idea of teaming the skinny English comic with the rotund
Georgia born actor, the two were happy just to keep getting a weekly
check. Who knew that the two reelers that they were only paid once
for would be shown to new generations on television? Stan often told
the story about how he and Babe had gone touring in Europe. While
browsing in an airport gift shop in London they saw some miniature
Laurel and Hardy figurines. To take them back as gifts they had been
forced to pay full price.
Comebacks abound in the movie business. Frank Sinatra, who had not
served in World War II due to a punctured eardrum, was very unpopular
with American fighting men who were jealous of him being back home
crooning to their girlfriends. As our military forces began returning
his popularity began to wane. By 1949 both his film and singing
career had bottomed out to the point he was telling his manager to
pay people to attend his concerts. His voice was in bad shape, his
marriage was ending, his weight had gone down to 118 pounds and there
were reports of suicide attempts. Four years later he was back on
top, winning an Academy Award for his performance in the film From
Here To Eternity (1953). He decided to enjoy his accomplishment by
taking a solitary moonlight walk through the quiet streets of Beverly
Hills, just him and his Oscar. After ten minutes the Chairman Of The
Board was stopped by two police officers who rained on his parade by
not recognizing him, and asking hard questions about where he had
gotten that statue.
Being broke in Hollywood is often a matter of perspective. One time
at a party Martin Scorsese was lamenting to his fellow director
Frances Ford Coppola," Frances I'm broke. They've torn up my credit
cards. I have nothing, do you understand me, nothing!" "Marty, will
you shut up? I owe fifty million dollars."
Want to hear more stories? Stephen Schochet is the author and
narrator of the audiobooks Fascinating Walt Disney and Tales Of
Hollywood. The Saint Louis Post Dispatch says," these two elaborate
productions are exceptionally entertaining." Hear RealAudio samples
of these great, unique gifts at http://www.hollywoodstories.com.
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