Saturday, June 7, 2008

Lon Chaney Jr.'s Fight Scene

This anecdote by actor William Shatner about his time doing live TV in Canada in the 1950s should be taken with a grain of salt. As he admits on page 80 of his autobiography, "I do make things up. It's part of the actor's craft." -- bc

William Shatner with David Fisher, Up Till Now: The Autobiography. NY: St. Martin's Press, 2008, pp. 44-5.

I remember doing a show with Lon Chaney Jr., who had a drinking problem. In the first act we had a big fight scene in which we completely broke up a room. The furniture was all props, breakaway tables and chairs made of balsa, the vase was made of some kind of hard sugar, but because we had such a small budget we couldn't afford to actually rehearse the action. If we broke it we couldn't replace it. So instead we walked through the scene, each of us describing our actions. Chaney had memorized his movements: "Right here I pick up the chair and hit you over the shoulders with it and you roll backward. Then you fall over the table, which will break and I'll pick up the leg and hit you over the head. You go down right on that mark and the cameras'll pick you up." We went through it every day, being very careful not to break any of the breakaway furniture. Chaney was great. He showed up on time, sober, and had his lines down cold.

I guess he began to get nervous during the dress rehearsal in the afternoon. But we went through the scene and everything seemed okay. "...I pick up the chair and hit you over the shoulders..."

At the end of the dress rehearsal the director gathered the cast around him and gave us his final notes. "We're going on in exactly forty-seven minutes. Good luck, everybody, it's been a pleasure working with you. I know we're going to have a wonderful show. Now you have a little time to eat because we're going on in exactly forty-three minutes..."

So we all went back to our dressing areas and I got ready to do the show. Apparently Chaney started getting very nervous and to calm himself down had a few drinks. Forty-two minutes' worth of drinks. He managed to get through the first part of the show until we reached the fight scene. As the scene started he looked at me angrily and said, "Right here I pick up the chair and hit you over the shoulders with it and you roll backward. Then you fall over the table..."

With that the stage manager lifted his head and screamed, "We're on the air, you son of a bitch!"
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[Shatner, who once hosted the TV show Rescue 911, writes (on page 258) that the producers of that show told him about a man dressed in a Batman costume who had knocked himself out while trying to leap on to the bed where his wife was tied up. "I was told by our producers that this was indeed a true story."

He also claims that while driving one night in Kentucky he ran over a skunk. When he approached the animal on foot he got sprayed. Remembering that tomato juice could supposedly neutralize the smell, he walked to a gas station a mile away, bought a few cans of tomato juice, and poured the contents over his head and clothes. As he was returning to his pickup truck, he was stopped by a police car and an ambulance. "Apparently the driver of one of the cars that passed me had stopped down the road to call 911 -- there was a guy on the side of the road bleeding very badly from what appeared to be a head wound, he'd told them."

This anecdote appears on pages 259-60. A much longer version with differing details appears in Get A Life! by William Shatner with Chris Kreski (New York & Toronto: Pocket Books, 1999), pages 219-26.]