As a boy in the 1950s, I thrilled to the action-adventure period films of Tyrone Power that played regularly on television and in repertory theaters. 20th Century Fox’s answer to Errol Flynn made such enjoyable costume pictures as The Mark of Zorro, The Black Swan, Captain from Castile, Jesse James, Prince of Foxes, The Black Rose, Pony Soldier, Brigham Young, King of the Khyber Rifles, The Long Grey Line, and, the one I saw most of all, Son of Fury.
In my teens, I also came to appreciate Power’s adult dramas that confirmed what I already knew as kid: that he was a fine actor. I reveled in the swashbucklers that “serious” critics didn’t take seriously, in The Razor’s Edge, Johnny Apollo, Abandon Ship, Witness for the Prosecution, Diplomatic Courier, Blood and Sand, The Rains Came, The Sun Also Rises, The Eddy Duchin Story, and his personal favorite and mine, Nightmare Alley—Power’s rare box-office failure that has since earned cult status.
Power was only 44 when he was the cruel victim of a fatal heart attack while shooting Solomon and Sheba in Spain in 1958, yet he had already made more than 40 classics and given all us fans so many indelible movie memories. That’s why I was delighted to recently meet his actor son, Tyrone Power Jr. (who was born to Power’s third wife Deborah Ann Minardos in 1959), when he came to the East End in late May.
The seventh in his acting family to be named Tyrone Power, he was here on behalf of the aptly titled Movie Memories, a foundation created by Maria Ciaccia and Brian Sweeney that is committed to keeping classic film alive by building a new audience through programs in schools, retrospectives across the country and festivals around the world. He has said, “We want to meet and talk with people who love classic film and want to be a part of something exciting. Classic film is so much more than old movies—they touch the heart.”
Always eager to promote classic films, my wife Suzanne Rafer and I lunched with Power Jr. and Sweeney at the Publick House in Southampton.
Danny Peary: Ty, do you have a connection to Long Island?
Tyrone Power Jr: As a kid, my family had a house in Glen Cove and we came out to the East End a lot, but mostly to the North Shore. My grandfather had a boat and we’d all climb aboard and go up to Greenport and eat in a restaurant there. For an eight-year-old, it was a great adventure. As an adult I lived for 10 years in Manhattan, but don’t think I’ve been on Long Island in 30 years.
DP: Why are you two out here on the East End?
Brian Sweeney: We’re here for a little relaxation and to attend a few parties that Maria Ciaccia set up for Movie Memories. We’re trying to drum up interest in our organization and get people behind us and involved in our efforts to show classic films.
TPJ: In fact, this afternoon we’re going to a barbecue because there are several people there we want to talk to. The right people are out there, we just have to comb the sand to find them.
DP: Are you fundraising or finding venues to show films?
BS: We’re interested in financing and building interest. There’s no time to do a venue here in the amount of time we’re visiting, but if someone says, “Next summer, can we do something with you in East Hampton?” we’re not going to say no. We go all over the country and do retrospectives a few times a year.
DP: I know you’ve also shown old movies in classrooms.
BS: Maria put some school programs together with films that tie into history, such as Marie Antoinette, with Tyrone Power, and A Tale of Two Cities, with Ronald Colman. We want to make it interesting for the kids. We don’t want to lose these films. Maria and I are targeting certain areas, but at some point it should be mandatory that there is Film 101 on the high school curriculum and kids are taught about the great films, actors, directors and writers.
That’s the best way for kids to learn about old films that they wouldn’t otherwise see. Think of all the things you learned in school that you wouldn’t have learned elsewhere. I went to parochial school and when they showed a movie clip for any reason I enjoyed that, so to see whole movies would be great.
DP: Do you feel you’ve had success or has there been frustration?
BS: There has been a little bit of both. It’s a slow uphill battle getting teachers involved. Once we get through to people, it’s great, but there’s a lot of knocking on doors and telling people what we’re trying to do. Some people get it right away and others ask, “So you want to show movies?”
DP: When you do your pitch, do you say that you’d like to show Casablanca or The Mark of Zorro, or two Tyrone Power movies, or what?
BS: We bring up the classics like Casablanca or The Mark of Zorro or, as I said, something tied into history. Sometimes we have to screen the movie for the people we want to interest, and when the lights come on they say, “Oh, yeah, now I get it.” Once people get what we’re trying to do it’s much easier.
TPJ: When you’re enthusiastic about something you want other people to feel the same way. And our job is to create that enthusiasm and get them to be as excited as we are. Those films are there forever, just waiting to be rediscovered. The challenge is to bridge the generation gap because the experience of a kid in high school now is vastly different from what it was back when we were their age.
Today’s kids are glued to the internet and being bombarded by information, so their attention span is very short. There hasn’t been a car crash in two seconds, hurry up! We can’t approach showing films to high school kids as if they had to take their medicine because that’s a losing proposition. It has to be a fun experience. Kids should find it interesting learning what the time was like when these classic films were made and what thought went into them.
Suzanne Rafer: Ty, do you go into the classrooms yourself?
TPJ: Occasionally. I also do presentations around the country. I was recently in Detroit and did an hour-long presentation with slides and took questions. What’s really nice is that it’s not only one generation watching these films. There’s the generation that came from the same time as my father, and they exposed their kids to his films and their kids grew up and showed them to their kids, the grandchildren.
Teenagers have come up to me and said, “I don’t know if I ever would have seen any of your father’s movies but my parents put them on and I loved them. Now I own them all.” That’s what we’re after with Movie Memories, exposing a whole new generation to classic films.
SR: It’s always upsetting when you mention someone in movies or music who was a huge star and has meant so much to you and you get a blank stare back.
TPJ: Brian told me that he mentioned Paul Newman to someone and that person said, “Oh, you mean the salad dressing guy?” That’s sad. I’ll tell you what thrilled me. It was years ago now at the Egyptian in Hollywood. They showed The Black Swan starring my father and Maureen O’Hara. It was an original 35mm print and they fixed up the lobby so it looked like it was 1942. There was an old popcorn machine and they had candy that existed back then. And they showed a newsreel and a cartoon. So everyone experienced what it was like to have watched the movie when it was new. I loved it. And the younger kids there loved it, too, because it had a Disneyland feel to it.
BS: In 2014, we were showing The Black Swan and another film in Chicago, Massillon and other places. In Massillon, Ohio, there was an old theater and they went out of their way to make it a fun experience. There was a birthday cake and there were old cameras in the lobby, and they did it up for our double feature. There weren’t a whole lot of young people, but there were a couple of marines, one with his father who was a World War II vet. They were excited to be there.
TPJ: Remember that before television, movies were it. Families would save up all week long so they could go to the movies.
BS: Piper Laurie, who was in Mississippi Gambler , said at one of our events, “Tyrone Power was Saturday afternoon at the movies. You’d spend your 15 cents and watch him all day long.”
DP: I read that you did an event in Cincinnati, Tyrone Power’s birthplace. Was that successful?
BS: It went great. People came from all over.
TPJ: The people there would recite a short list of famous people who came from Cincinnati, and my father was on it with Doris Day and Steven Spielberg and others. Everybody knew they were from there and were very proud of the Cincinnati bunch. He may be your father, but he was born here and belongs to us. The school he went to is still there. Purcell Marian High School. My grandmother taught diction and acting there.
BS: Years ago we put on a 60th anniversary tribute to Casablanca in New York City. We got international press and it sold out, and Liz Smith said it was the most fun night of the summer. We were in a car going there with Lauren Bacall and her son Steve Bogart. He had his kids with him, and they were in the 11 to 13 age range and had never seen Casablanca starring their grandfather Humphrey Bogart. And Lauren was yelling at them, “This is your heritage! How could you never have seen it?” So if it falls that close to home, we really have to push this.
DP: At what stage is the foundation internationally?
BS: Actually our big jump now is that we’re trying to garner interest in Europe. Ty’s sister Romina Power is a huge star in Italy, as a singer, actress and author, and we’re talking about doing a noir film festival there and offering a Young Scholarship Award. Tyrone Power is a big name in Italy and Spain because of Sabatini’s Blood and Sand and The Mark of Zorro.
DP: Ty, how did you get involved with Movie Memories?
TPJ: I met Maria Ciaccia about 10 years ago, adjunct to my father’s memorial at Hollywood Forever Cemetery on Santa Monica Boulevard. We just started talking about movies. She’s such an enthusiast and has an encyclopedic knowledge of old movies, like many people in Hollywood. We just hit off and she started telling me about this organization.
SR: So it already existed?
BS: She was putting ideas together, and getting people involved. Ty and I got involved about the same time. I used to work for Sean Ferrer as the advertising director of the Audrey Hepburn Foundation, which was at 12th Street in New York City. (She died in 1993 and the foundation was formed a few years later, but I met her in the 1980s. I went to a black tie event but all I had was a blue blazer and I apologized to her, “I’m so sorry, Miss Hepburn, but I don’t own a tuxedo.” And she said, “Brian, never be sorry about something like that. It’s so much better to be wearing a blue blazer in a room full of tuxedos than a tuxedo in a room full of blue blazers.”)
When I was at that foundation, Maria was doing interviews for an E! network show called Mysteries and Scandals, a news-Hollywood show hosted by A.J. Benza that was being produced in New York. She just showed up at our office one day because she knew the director and that’s how we met.
TJP: She’s such a tornado of enthusiasm that I was lifted into the sky by her. She had so many ideas that congealed into our current effort, that I just said, “Point me and push me, Maria, tell me where you want me and when.” Because it’s such a great cause. Funding the arts in this country is a hard thing to do. It’s the first thing that goes when the economy takes a downturn. Students learn about painters, sculptors and composers, but why don’t we also teach them about the movies made in Hollywood? They are a great cultural contribution to the world.
DP: My introduction to Charlie Chaplin was on a wall in the basement of an inexpensive restaurant in Columbia, South Carolina. If I loved Chaplin when I was a kid, then there’s no reason kids today wouldn’t love him if they were exposed to his films.
BS: That’s exactly right. We’ve found by showing films like Casablanca and Modern Times in schools that, despite what people say, kids love black and white movies with a strong story. Unfortunately, if it’s not right in front of them on their iPad or phone, there’s not a whole lot of interest.
TPJ: There’s a theater on Fairfax in Hollywood that shows nothing but silent films with a live piano player and it is packed all the time. There’s always a line outside full of young people who think it will be fun. So it can work.
DP: Ty, you were born right after your father’s death. How did you eventually see his movies at the time they were being shown less?
TJP: That was tough. Until videos came along, I couldn’t see most of them because they weren’t shown on TV much anymore. Occasionally, 20th [Century Fox] would give us loaners, 16mm prints to bring home and show in the living room. As a kid I loved The Mark of Zorro and Blood and Sand.
I got in trouble after seeing Zorro because I drew Zs in crayon all over the house. I had to spend an entire weekend cleaning it up. After seeing Blood and Sand I played the matador using a kitchen towel while my brother and my cousin were the bulls. Unfortunately they ran at the towel from opposite ends and knocked each other cold. As I got older I liked some of my father’s more literary films, like The Razor’s Edge and The Sun Also Rises.
DP: I first saw all your father’s films on television in the 1950s. I was young but saw that there was always a maturity in his performances that Errol Flynn lacked until after Flynn’s brash characters learned their lessons.
TPJ: I agree.
BS: He took acting seriously. Even if he was given a trite role, he made it original.
DP: My favorite was Son of Fury, which I watched every time it came on.
TJP: My now ex-wife and I watched a couple of movies one night. One was Son of Fury, and the other might have been Captain from Castile. She hadn’t seen them before and afterward she said, “It’s kind of the same formula, right? His character starts out with an upper-crust, elitist girlfriend who isn’t really right for him; he gets disgraced, he has to go overseas, he has great adventures in some far-off land and he ends up meeting a really nice girl, and he comes home wealthy and famous, his family is released from chains, and he ends up with the right girl. And the other thing is that they always managed to get his shirt off. “You have a head wound, take your shirt off.”
BS: Jane Meadows was in Luck of the Irish. She played the society girl who, like Ty said, wasn’t quite right for him. He had Anne Baxter back in Ireland. Jane told a very funny story about a scene in which she kisses Tyrone Power. She was more the aggressor. And Zanuck looked at the rushes and exclaimed, “Who’s kissing who?!?” Jane explained, “I wasn’t going to let that opportunity go by.” She added, “We didn’t need any sex in the script, we had Tyrone Power.”
TJP: There was a formula to those movies and the studio was not going to mess with success. My father enjoyed making them but coming from an acting family he thought some of the films he made later were more interesting, like Nightmare Alley and Witness for the Prosecution.
DP: You had the unique experience of having your father die before you were born and having to put his entire life’s story together as if it were a puzzle.
TPJ: It’s also odd having a father who never ages. Think about it. He’s the same age when I first saw him until now.
DP: I’m sure you learned about your father from your mother, family and Hollywood friends. Who were his best friends?
TPJ: Henry Fonda, notably. They did Jesse James together in 1939, with Henry playing Frank James, and remained friends until my father’s death. I remember Henry very well.
DP: Was he also friends with John Carradine, who played Robert Ford in Jesse James and was his costar in Son of Fury?
TPJ: Very much so. I think he worked with John Carradine more than anyone else. Of course, other actors could probably say that too because John was in about 150 films. I looked him up. What a voice he had.
BS: In Son of Fury, he played one of his few good guys.
DP: George Sanders was the villain in Son of Fury. He played the father of Frances Farmer—who lost him to island girl, Gene Tierney.
BS: They were in a lot of films together. George Sanders was on the set on Solomon and Sheba when Tyrone Power had his heart attack.
TPJ: My dad was a little miffed when he got back from the service and 20th had given his dressing room to George Sanders. How soon they forget, he joked. But they gave him another great dressing room.
DP: Ty, tell me about your acting career. Of course, your movie debut was in a big hit Cocoon and you were even in an episode of Cheers.
TJP: My acting career has kind of been all over the map. I lived in New York for about 10 years and did a lot of theater in the city and on endless tours to everywhere. Every summer I’d go up and down the East Coast—Connecticut, Cape Cod, up to Maine.
DP: What kinds of roles did you go after?
TJP: It wasn’t a matter of my going after them as much as them coming after me. I was taught that you do anything and everything that you’re paid to do. It was never, “I like this one. I don’t like that one.” Coming from an acting family that dates back to the 1830s, we were taught the audience pays for the tickets, so just do your job.
DP: Your dad didn’t want to be typecast, so did you think how pleased he’d be to see you’ve done a variety of things?
TJP: Maybe. but being typecast isn’t really a bad problem to have because that means you’re doing something well enough that they want you to keep doing it. Because they’re making money off of it, you can get the opportunity to also branch out, as with Nightmare Alley.
DP: Of course, that was one of his few films that much of his core audience stayed away from.
TJP: But in retrospect, it has become a cult classic and is regarded as one of his best films. It was hard because he was seen as a matinee idol and audiences don’t always jump to accept you playing something different.
DP: Does it excite you to meet people who have seen all your father’s movies?
TPJ: Sure, but I get more excited when they say, “After seeing your dad’s movies, I watched some Humphrey Bogart movies and now I watch classic movies two or three times a week with my kids.” Then they are enjoying a world I already knew about it. Bless all the people who are already fans of my father’s films, but I want new fans.
Some people come up to me and say apologetically, “I loved your father’s films but so-and-so was my favorite.” And I just beam and say, “I’m thrilled that you have a favorite.” All my father would have asked is for people to watch his movies, not to consider him their favorite.
DP: Did people know he did as much theater as he did?
TJP: People who knew about him did. He tried to do a play every year, somewhere. That was drummed into him by my grandfather who was a very over-the-top personality. When my father was a teenager, his father took him into his acting company. He started out with just a couple of lines and would understudy someone, but he worked his way up to leading roles.
I did a national tour of a play with Christopher Plummer and he told me that he understudied my father in Katharine Cornell’s company. It was The Dark Is Light Enough, which my father did with Kate in 1955. A few years later, Chris is the star and I’m the young actor. So it’s like a full circle.
My grandfather also died from a heart attack when working [in 1931]. He was living at the Hollywood Athletic Club and was doing a play [The Miracle Man]. He actually died in my father’s arms.
DP: Don’t work!
TJP: I guess I’ve gotten it wrong all along, that I shouldn’t have been working!
SR: What is the last thing you did?
TJP: A production in L.A. of a play by the Irish playwright. Martin McDonagh, who wrote the movie script for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. It was The Beauty Queen of Leenane and it was great fun to be in. I had to take my Irish accent out of mothballs.
DP: Did you take acting classes?
TJP: Oh, yeah, all the time.
SR: Did you feel pressure because your father was so famous?
TJP: There was pressure but not from anyone else by myself. There were people coming in and paying good money so I needed to give them a performance that doesn’t cause them to throw tomatoes at me. I always wanted to be at the top of my game.
DP: Do you still hear new stories about your father?
TPJ: Oh sure. There was a postmaster in Massachusetts that I met. He served in the same plane as my father over the Pacific during the war. He was a wonderful guy who was happy to sit down and have a beer with me and tell me endless stories about him that I wouldn’t have known otherwise. Those are stories no one else knows.
SR: Where do you two live?
BS: I’m in South Jersey.
TPJ: I have lived in Palm Springs for six months. It’s an artistic community and as a matter of fact I am working on a little festival out there. There’s a three-screen movie theater that has been run by a European couple—he’s Dutch and she’s French—for about 25 years and they’ve shown only what they’ve wanted to show. And they’re interested in having a festival over a couple of weekends. They’d show my father’s films and a lot of other classics.
DP: In regard to Movie Memories: On weekdays, the theaters in Southampton and East Hampton don’t show films until late afternoon, so I suggest that you try to get them to show classics earlier in the day. Older people would certainly appreciate that. Maybe you can have a festival at Bay Street Theater, which has shown classic film series in the past. There’s also Guild Hall in East Hampton, which books a variety of films. And once the Sag Harbor Cinema returns, it would be wonderful if it made time for old films like the ones you offer. Meanwhile, how can people reach you if they want to get involved or share ideas with you?
Learn more at moviememories.net.
***For Father’s Day or any day, I hope everyone will pick up a copy of my new book with Hana Ali about the origins of her father’s most famous quotes: Ali on Ali: Why He Said What He Said When He Said It. (Workman Publishing).
Danny Peary has published 25 books on film and sports, including Cult Movies and Jackie Robinson in Quotes.