Sunday, November 20, 2011
INTERVIEW: Barry Livingston chats with Ray Shasho about ‘The Importance of Being Ernie’
By Ray Shasho
Another CLASSIC ROCK MEETS CLASSIC TV Segment.
Actor Barry Livingston has played numerous roles during his resilient acting career. He’s currently filming in an upcoming movie entitled Argo and most recently completed roles in Hostel: Part III, Horrible Bosses and the TV series Castle and The Event. Livingston has appeared on Grey’s Anatomy, Desperate Housewives, Monk, NCIS, Everybody Hates Chris and Two and a Half Men. He’s even appeared in the movie The Social Network.
The irrepressible trouper amassed an impressive resume of characters throughout his acting career but none as memorable as the charming and witty nerdy kid with huge specs named Ernie Douglas from the TV sitcom My Three Sons. The ‘Ernie’ character may even be considered a pioneer for nerdism. In 1993 the ‘Ernie’ persona was rediscovered for the movie The Sandlot when child actor Chauncey Leopardi played Michael ‘Squints’ Palledorous. Leopardi’s portrayal was uncanny.
Livingston’s Mom was a fan dancer like the legendary Gypsy Rose Lee. Barry’s Dad inherited a Gaiety Theater on the infamous Block in Baltimore. After the invention of Television the business crumbled so the couple headed west for Hollywood to a new beginning.
Barry Livingston and older brother Stanley were born in Hollywood. The brothers grew up in a poor working class neighborhood. Barry found ways of entertaining himself including imitating the sinister big- eyed actor Peter Lorre and compulsively watching television within a few feet of the screen, an unhealthy habit that may have been partially responsible for his astigmatism.
Barry’s Mother was a spirited networker who never accepted the word ‘no’ as a final answer. Brother Stanley got his first break as an actor while attending swim school. The swimming pool/social club was shared by aspiring young actors and located on Hollywood Boulevard. One day a reporter asked a few young swimmers to ride their tricycles underwater across the bottom of the pool. The reporter wanted to shoot their photo through an underground window that peeked into the pool’s deep end. When the photos were published in the newspaper it caught the eye of the producer for the TV series Lassie. Stanley resembled the character Timmy on the show and became the perfect stunt double.
When their mom took Stanley to sign up at the Screen Actors Guild she discovered that anyone could walk in and join the Guild, even if you’ve had no previous acting experiences. She had an “Ah-ha” moment and decided that two working actors may help the family escape their impoverished lifestyle. Thus the Livingston Brothers acting careers were set in motion.
Author Barry Livingston’s impressive new memoir reveals the truths of becoming a child actor in Hollywood. The book is titled ‘The Importance of Being Ernie’ and was officially released on October 25th. It’s a great story and a must read. The book is penned by Barry himself without any outside help and is extremely well-written. I had the opportunity of speaking with Barry recently about his amazing life story.
Here’s my interview with Actor/Author/ TV Icon/ the incomparable ‘Ernie’ Barry Livingston.
Thanks Barry for being on the call today. I really enjoyed your book, it’s well written, it flows well and extremely entertaining. What compelled you into writing the story?
“You know probably a lot of things. On one level my dad always wanted to be a writer and never really finished anything. I think I’ve kind of had some sense of try to do for him what he couldn’t do. I also knew I had a lot of great stories about people that I’ve worked with over the years Jerry Lewis and Debbie Reynolds and my meeting with Elvis Presley and of course all the stuff on My Three Sons. It was just the right time and the Fiftieth Anniversary of The Sons was looming when I was writing it. Better now than never.”
Your Grandfather owned a Gaiety Theater on the infamous block in Baltimore?
“Yea I think his was called the Globe? He had more than one but yea that was part of the early days of the Livingston’s. My mother’s first career and probably only career that I knew of was as a fan dancer in the theater that my dad owned. It was the Gypsy Rose Lee era and that was pretty salacious right on the edge of boarder line striptease fan dancing back in those days but by today’s standards that was pretty tame.”
So was sitting only a few feet from your television set to blame for your poor vision?
“That’s what your mother always wants you to believe but it was probably going to happen regardless of TV or not but in those days you’d want to crawl inside the set. She’d say it’ll blind you you’re too close and of course she was right I developed an astigmatism but that was going to happen regardless.”
They actually thought that you had a seizure on the set while acting in one of your first roles right?
“Well they didn’t know when I first had the problem on Rally ‘Round the Flag Boys my eyes were inexplicably spinning around in my head so they didn’t know they just knew there was something wrong with this kid’s eyes. I was taken from the set and I remember it very clearly I was four years old and they took me to a nearby hospital and ruled out the seizure but then I went to see the eye doctor immediately after that and that’s where I got my glasses right then and there.”
Your mom was responsible for giving you a shot in show business, what were those early auditions like?
“There were no rules at the time it was like a line around the block half the time it was like American Idol tryouts it was just mobbed with kids. Of course one of the problems was that they could only schedule auditions after three o’clock when kids got out of school so they had a real limited window of opportunity to interview kids from probably around three to six so they’d jam every stinking kid in the town going in for three lines on Sea Hunt you’d have a hundred kids that would be piled into some little waiting room.”
“Yea I recall that being a real big pain in the ass. I don’t particularly enjoy this part of it you’d rather be home playing handball with your friends at that point. But my mom twisted our arms to go get it done and luckily we started bagging some jobs. It would be very frustrating if you go through that whole effort and nothing comes of it.”
You began your TV career on the Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet it must have been pretty cool to watch Ricky Nelson’s rock and roll career skyrocket.
“That was because even by that time I really liked Pop music and it was all the rage of Ricky Nelson and Paul Anca… Buddy Holly and Elvis. I actually got to see Ricky do some of his songs at Sock Hops it was always a gas it was always fun than a week later the show would air and the song would go to number one.”
One of the many wonderful moments in your new book is when you were shooting on the set of the Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet and you were suppose to say your line while eating ice cream but you didn’t because you were so fixated on eating the chocolate ice cream.
“Yea that was funny and again I can remember that very clearly but I just got so taken with the taste of that chocolate ice cream I just gobbled it down and when my cue for my line came I was just faced down in the ice cream. Ozzie was as much of an acting teacher then anybody that I ever had kind of laughed because he was that kind of a guy didn’t get all crazy you wasted film. He said you know Barry when people speak you have to look at them listen what they’re saying and when it’s your turn say what you have to say and then you can go back to eating the ice cream. So that’s exactly what I did I was eating the ice cream listening and the second my line came up I looked up said it and went right back to eating my ice cream which is perfect because that’s what a six year old kid would do. He saw that I had talent so I was a natural at that point.”
But you were a really smart kid and extremely adultlike. I thought it was fascinating that Fred De Cordova(directed My Three Sons) included you in his circle as if you were one of the guys, like when he took you to a baseball game at Dodger stadium with Jack Benny.
“Fred and I had a very special relationship I became like his right hand man. He was probably in his mid 50’s and never had kids just recently got married so I became his buddy and it was a great time. He was the funniest man in the world and then he had great funny friends so what more could you ask for.”
Fred De Cordova was a genius and he accomplished so much on The Tonight Show.
“He was a very well connected fellow he just knew all the biggest most powerful people in and out of show business mainly because he was an extremely witty-witty man and he was talented at what he did but he also was just loved by the people around him so he was perfect for Carson at that point in his life. He knew Kings… Movie Stars they all knew him and he knew everybody’s home phone number. So you couldn’t ask for a better guy than Fred to run The Tonight Show at that time.”
I wasn’t aware that Ryan O’ Neal was originally cast in the role of Robbie on My Three Sons?
“Yea he was first cast for the pilot and I guess it was Fred who thought he wasn’t up to their comedy standards and they decided to recast and brought in Don Grady who was a Mousketeer. And Bobby Diamond who was actually on Fury before that was cast and he couldn’t come to terms and I think they wanted him. He was fired he just didn’t like the terms that they offered him then they hired Ryan O’Neil and they eventually wound up with Don.”
Barry, talk about your limo excursion with Elvis Presley.
“Yea it was actually around the Paramount movie lot… it was surreal obviously I was a big fan because I knew Ricky Nelson and that was rock and roll and Elvis was the undisputed king of rock and roll although I didn’t particularly care for what he was doing with music I liked his early stuff and even at that point I wasn’t into Blue Hawaii but still it was Elvis. But it was out of the blue I just happened to see his limo and didn’t know it was his and suddenly he’s standing behind you. Next thing he says do you want to take it for a little test drive you want to hop in and check out the TV. And you didn’t have any great exchange of ideas about the world rather you’re sitting there with the king of rock and roll for five minutes and it was very interesting and very surreal.”
“I always thought one of the funnier My Three Sons is that they were trying to find out who would be a great English rock and roll star for an episode. Somebody would come to Bryant Park and I loved The Stones at that time and thought Brian Jones was the coolest. You didn’t really know what his lifestyle was because it was all sanitized in the newspapers so I said you’ve got to get Brian Jones see if you can get him. I think they actually made some effort to contact him or his management and yea I don’t think they even got a reply. But it would have been an amazing inside joke that Brian Jones with all of his drug problems and hedonistic lifestyle suddenly comes to stay with the Douglas family. That would have been unintentionally funny.”
Besides The Rolling Stones who were some of your favorite rock groups while growing up in California?
“The Yardbirds I was learning to play the guitar with Jeff Beck who was a hero… I guess Eric Clapton before that although even with the Yardbirds you didn’t know Eric Clapton as Eric Clapton until he became Eric Clapton but I knew he was the lead guitar player before Jeff Beck in the Yardbirds and Jimmy Page. In America…Lovin’ Spoonful… Simon and Garfunkel of that era those were the people that I thought were the great stars and great artists. Prior to that Buddy Holly and some of the blues guys I like B.B. King and Muddy Waters… Bo Diddley. And I’m a music fan today… I like Arcade Fire… Wilco and my son is a musician so I hear about a lot of new bands and I love a lot of the stuff that’s happening today.”
You’re an actor who loved rock and roll music growing up in California in the 60’s. I guess it was inevitable that you were going to be hanging out with people who did drugs. And you mentioned in your book that you were one of them.
“You know it was a phase honestly there was an era in Hollywood and I probably fell victim to it as many did. If you weren’t a partier if you weren’t part of the new Hollywood that they called it which was the era of Jack Nicholson… Michael Douglas and Spielberg and all these people that were the new wave of Hollywood and part of that really in the 1970’s involved drugs and the studio heads themselves were taking part. You kind of were looked at as like you’re kind of that old school you’re not hip like us so there was some odd pressure I mean you could have said no and I didn’t. You could’ve but I kind of wanted to be part of that new wave and part of that was a permissiveness that perhaps was the old thought ill conceived but that was the era. And being a young man of twenty years old with some money sure that’s all part of it all wrapped up together.”
What did your kids say when they read about your past drug use?
“I didn’t have to write it to tell them about my experiences with things like that and I tried to be honest only because I figured I didn’t want to be in a position where I said no I never did any of that and then somebody comes along somewhere someway and says oh you use to do all these things and I’d come off looking like a big liar to my kids. So you have to make a decision do you soft sell that whole era or do you just be completely honest and say this is what it was and I did it. Honestly I’m not sure if it was a great idea it’s just what happens you go through a phase. So I’d rather try to put it in perspective than say no then have to look like a liar and put it in perspective.”
“The danger is people use that against you and somehow it gets all blown out of proportion today and I hope it doesn’t but in the real perspective of it all that was a very short period of my life but it was a very informative time and instructed me hey here’s the danger what do I do to get out of it and so those are the challenges of life.”
I talked with your Brother Stanley about how the media usually blames Hollywood for corrupting child actors usually leading to grave consequences. I’m one to disagree I think you’re probably going to try drugs regardless of what Hollywood is doing and no one is holding a gun to your head.
“It’s the people in the business that you surround yourself with and it’s your peer group. At that age peer group are much more persuasive than your parents or your friends… those are your friends. In that era my peer group was experimenting with all those kind of things it was part of the Hollywood scene. I jumped in just like about everyone else did and fortunately didn’t wallow in it… in a way it wasn’t repairable and moved on.”
I loved how you described your encounter and infatuation with actress Myrna Loy in your book.
“I grew up watching in LA they use to have a thing called the million dollar movie and they would play old classic films from the forties and thirties and one of those was the Thin Man just a great old movie to me and she was beautiful.”
How old was she when you met her?
“Probably mid to late 50’s but she was a very attractive woman even at that stage of her life and just the whole evening a little bit of wine and my infatuation with her and trying to be debonair and suave.”
You have other siblings that we never hear about, talk about Bill, Michelle and Gene?
“My Brother Bill is an engineer for an oil company and went to West Point. He was adopted from birth very successful and is in Azerbaijan at the moment. He’s been working for years with BP down in San Pedro which is in the southern part of LA and he’s moved to Azerbaijan for the company.”
“My sister Michelle again she sort of dabbled a little bit in Television I think my mom tried to keep that going for a little bit she was actually in a show called Toma which was a precursor to Baretta. Toma was Tony Musante it was the same show. He was a detective adopted all kinds of bizarre disguises and he didn’t want to do it after awhile. Anyway she played his daughter in the Toma series. She was really young probably 7 or 8 years old. When he left the show that’s when the job went and Robert Blake stepped in and they renamed it Baretta. So she lives in Texas and is very successful in the Real Estate world.”
“My Brother Gene had gotten quite successful in a computer business. He partnered with a buddy in the 80’s and they’ve become one of the first computer companies in LA that had the where with all to setup networks for big companies and some of their early clients were Aaron Spelling…Walt Disney and so they’re still doing that business today.”
How are your kids? I know your Son Spencer plays in a band.
“They are doing quite well the band is called The Alternates. He’s just a really great songwriter and they just recorded an EP and he’s got a solo thing that he’s doing and actually has three shows in New York he’s going to be doing when I’m back in New York for the release of the book. They just played at a club out here called The Satellite and I wouldn’t be surprised if something occurs in his whole ambition he’s very good. He just wrote a song called Occupy Wall Street.”
“My Daughter Hailey is just out of high school about a year out. They’re going through baby steps of who they’re going to become and what they want to be. But they’re great kids.”
I’ve also got to mention Karen your better half.
“Well that’s the key to my life we’ve been together for over 30 years. She gets me and I get her and we still amuse each other. She’s a Physical Therapist.”
Barry I admire the fact that you’ve written your own book. Many celebrities say they’ve written a book but in reality hire a professional Ghost Writer.
“Yea I’ve written a lot personally and some more like screenplays and things so it wasn’t like pulling teeth for me to sit down and do something like that and I’m very pleased with the way it came out. I was very thrilled that when I sent it off to somebody in New York that I heard back two days later and they said they wanted to publish it. I got the right guy. It was the right time the right person. I sent it to an editor through a friend that made a connection for me and he said yea send it to this guy. I had sent out a few query letters and got nowhere. This guy said send it to him a guy named Gary Goldstein from Kensington and he knew everything else about my career too. It was amazingly fast… but he read it and loved it.”
So where can we watch Barry Livingston in motion picture or on television soon?
“I’m starting work on this movie tomorrow called Argo with Ben Affleck directing in it and starring in it a lot of great people Bryan Cranston and Alan Arkin and then I did an episode of Castle I think it’s going to be out on Halloween night. Suburgatory I did an episode of that and the Hallmark Channel I did a movie for them that’s coming out pretty soon called Love’s Christmas Journey. I did a little thing for this TV show called Supah Ninjas for Nickelodeon …and then the book."
Barry, thank you so much it’s been a real pleasure chatting with you today. Good luck with the new book and your acting career.
“Thank you Ray it’s been real fun.”
Order Barry Livingston’s wonderful new bookcalled The Importance of Being Ernie released by Kensington Press (Citadel Publishing) available to purchase at Amazon.com.
The Importance of Being Ernie official website http://theimportanceofbeingernie.com/
Barry Livingston Film and Television credits http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0515225/
My Three Sons http://www.museum.tv/eotvsection.php?entrycode=mythreesons
Spencer Livingston and the Alternates band website http://www.thealternatesband.com/
Order author/columnist Ray Shasho’s great new book called Check the Gs –The True Story of an Eclectic American Family and Their Wacky Family Business today at amazon.com, iuniverse.com, barnesandnoble.com or border.com. Order now for the holidays!
Normalcy is a myth and anyone who tells you differently isn't very normal."Check the Gs" is a memoir from Ray Shasho who tells of his own offbeat upbringing working in the family business art gallery, from a young age. Of Cuban and Syrian descent, he tells a very American story of coming from everything, seeing everything, walking the line of the law and much more. A fun and fast paced memoir, "Check the Gs" is a worthwhile addition to many a memoir collection. ~~ MIDWEST BOOK REVIEW
Contact Ray Shasho at firstname.lastname@example.org