A Different Story
by Ronald Sklar
“I did a [Family Channel] movie with Sean Young called The Cowboy and the Movie Star,” underrated actor Perry King tells me recently. “I was playing a guy who has a cattle ranch who is getting divorced and about to lose the property. And just after that movie, the same thing happened to me. I became that character.”
Even though this story, both in real life and in the film, has a happy ending, the irony of the tale is not lost on Perry King fans. The fifty-seven-year-old actor, with a thirty-five-year (and still going strong) resume of wildly diverse credits, is a study in bigger-than-life circumstance and amazing survival.
The Yale-trained King has worked with everyone from Shirley MacLaine, Sylvester Stallone and Andy Warhol; he was thisclose to playing Hans Solo in Star Wars, and has appeared everywhere on the entertainment map, from major theatrical releases like The Day After Tomorrow to the most lathered up of the network miniseries like I’ll Take Manhattan and The Last Convertible. On series television, he alternated smoothly between good guys and bad guys on Hawaii Five-O, Spin City, Melrose Place and Will and Grace.
However, his vast list of credits does not deter him from speaking frankly about the nature of the difficult business he chose.
“The long resume doesn’t mean a thing,” he says. “In fact, often it’s a detriment. Casting people and producers and directors don’t really care how much work you’ve done. They care about whether you’re hot, because that will bring in an audience. If you’re not hot, it doesn’t matter if you’ve been doing it for thirty-five years. My biggest problem is getting in the door of offices. They may say, ‘yeah, we know his work. We don’t need to see him.’ They think they know me.”
However, most of them would be surprised to know the real King, and where he comes from. His family tree reaches back to King Edward II of England (he descends from one of the bastard sons), and to Roger Sherman and John Morton, two of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. Relatively more recently, his grandfather, the legendary literary editor Maxwell Perkins, personally checked the work of Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
“I’m very proud of the people I’ve descended from, but it doesn’t mean anything other than being interesting,” he says. “It has nothing to do with me. I think it’s neat that they did what they did, but I don’t have any respect for people who think they are somehow better in any way because they have a certain ancestry.”
He can also add two more branches: Priscilla Mullins and John Alden, who arrived in America on the Mayflower in 1620. He recalls, “One time I said to my mother, isn’t that neat they we’re descended from them, and she said, ‘Perry, lots of people are. They had ten children! Hundreds of thousands of people are descended from them!’”
Meanwhile, back at the ranch: the 500-acre spread that King owns in the Sierra Nevadas is now permanent home to his thirteen-year-old daughter, Hannah, while King and his ex-wife take turns (every two weeks) staying there with her.
“I didn’t want Hannah to do the ‘divorced kid’s shuffle’,” King says of this unusual arrangement. “She was having a hard time and not doing well after our divorce. After the dust settled a little bit, I suggested we consider that ranch Hannah’s home. I own it, I pay the bills on it, but it’s Hannah’s house. She lives there full-time, and her mother and I take turns moving in and out. This is so that we do the shuffle instead of the kid, because we’re the ones who got divorced. Our daughter didn’t do anything wrong. We’re the ones who screwed up. It all works for Hannah, that’s all we care about.”
Although the 400-mile commute from LA to Northern California every two weeks could put a little wear and tear into King’s acting career, he has a strong sense of his priorities.
“Kids don’t need quality time – what they need is quantity time,” he says. “Ten good minutes giggling at night just doesn’t cut it. You have to be there all the time.”
That’s why the made-for-cable TV movie genre, of which King is king, is the perfect match for him at this period of his life. He says, “A full shoot on a TV movie for Lifetime is very quick nowadays — perhaps fourteen days. But you have a nice story with a beginning, a middle and an end. There will be very long days, but they will only last for a few weeks or so. What I like about it is that I can fit that into my life now.”
King’s life itself sounds vaguely like the plot of a TV movie. Among the first of the baby boomers, he was born the fourth of five children in the sleepy town of Alliance, Ohio. His father was a physician; his mother a former Manhattan socialite (“actually, there was nothing really social about her. She was a quiet, shy lady who was a Phi Beta Kappa at Radcliffe in her sophomore year. Then she quit to become a seamstress.”).
His father, who did not believe in forcing his children against their will to follow in his physician footsteps, encouraged his son to pursue his passion for acting. Perry graduated Yale in 1970. The Vietnam draft prevented him from going to London to study (although he was dismissed from the war as 4F). However, his chiseled good looks and dedication to the craft allowed him to hit the ground running in Hollywood.
“The first thing I ever did was the best part I ever had.” King admits candidly. He is speaking of the 1971 horror film, The Possession of Joel Delaney, in which he was offered the very rare opportunity of landing the title lead role in his very first project. He says, “At the time, I thought, gee, this is a good way to get started and it’s only going to get better. I never did get a part as good as that again. I was playing the title lead in a feature film opposite Shirley MacLaine, who was just glorious. This is long before she had come to the beliefs that she had, about other lives and various spiritual viewpoints. She was a great rationalist, I think, and not somebody who believed in other lives and spirits and I think that film had a lot to do with her opening her mind up to that. It had something to do with spiritismo, which is Puerto Rican spiritualism.”
Soon after, he landed the starring role in the low-budget nostalgic powerhouse (and now a major cult classic), The Lords of Flatbush. Fresh off the sparks of the success of American Graffiti, Flatbush celebrated fifties rebel culture and introduced us to future superstars Sylvester Stallone and Henry Winkler. Although King is hard on himself in his personal assessment of his role (“I fell so short of the mark on that one.”), this WASPy Yalie playing a Brooklyn Jewish hood (along with Winkler, his pal from Yale) was quite the stretch that may only happen once in a lifetime.
He says of that experience, “Once you become known, you can’t do this, but when you’re unknown, you can audition in character! I went to Brooklyn, I got the leather jacket, and I talked in character. When I showed up to the audition, I brought as much to the character as I could bring to it. I didn’t want them to know who I really was because I figured they wouldn’t want me. Once people know you, you can’t do that anymore.”
Though King had the lead in the film, Sylvester Stallone – practically days away from getting Rocky flying high now – got the most notice. “[Stallone] started out playing what was intended to be a small part,” King says. “We rehearsed for a couple of weeks before that movie was shot, and that was very unusual. Marty Davidson, who was one of the directors, wanted to develop everything in improvs in rehearsal. We’d write it down and we’d shape it into scenes, and we’d do it. Stallone was so brilliant that he just took over more and more of the movie and that’s the way it goes when you’re working with somebody who has that much unique talent. He’s a brilliant guy. Nobody has ever really recognized how exceptional he is.”
From there, it was onto the shocking drive-in classic, Mandingo, in which King plays the heir of a Southern plantation family of sadistic slave owners. He says, “We all thought that we were making quite an intelligent film. When I first read the script, I thought it was salacious junk. Then I did a lot of research and I found out that there was a tremendous amount of truth — that was the way life on a plantation in the pre-Civil War South was. When [actor] James Mason and Richard Fleisher – a very underrated director – made that film, they took it very seriously. There have not been many movies I have been in that I like, but that’s one of them. That’s a good film. It was released by Dino De Laurentiis as a piece of money-making junk. And it did make a lot of money. But it was presented as crap, and it really is a much better film than that. Perhaps more people are starting to notice that it has more substance, more weight.
“James Mason loved that film. He thought it was a good. If I thought it was a good film without him thinking that, I would question my taste. But he really believed in it. Of all the people I’ve had a chance to work with, he was the finest, most wonderful experience I ever had. He was just glorious to work with. What a generous man he was. He taught me so much. He was so open and giving with his knowledge about acting. I’ve got it all engraved in my head. I remember all the things he taught me.”
From the proverbial frying pan into the fire, King went on to Andy Warhol’s Bad, and, as he remembers, “Many of the reviews said, ‘yes, it is!’ In every one of the Warhol films there was an actor named Joe Dallesandro. So, everybody just assumed that I was him. People called me Joe Dallesandro and I gave up arguing with them. That was like a trip to the moon. I did it because I thought that it would be an adventure and it really was an adventure. Only toward the end of the film is when I finally figured out how to work on it. For Andy – and all the people he hung out with – everything was upside down in their world. Ugly was pretty. Slow was fast. Sad was funny. They just flipped everything. When I realized that, it became a lot easier to work with them and to fit myself into that film.
“Carroll Baker was in it, and Susan Tyrell, a wonderful actress. [Tyrell] was doing so well during the shooting, and Carroll Baker and I were lost, not doing well, totally confused. We went to Susan Tyrell and we asked her what to do. She said, ‘you both made a terrible mistake: you actually read the script! She said, ‘I just go in every day and wing it.’ And she was right. An Andy Warhol movie doesn’t have a logical beginning, middle and end. This was just chaos. The more chaotic, the better.”
From there, his career pretty much shifted into steady gear, especially on the small screen. In the late 70s, when television miniseries came into their own (and before network execs realized that they were too expensive and didn’t make money), King became much sought after. He also evolved into the go-to romantic lead in made-for-TV movies. His big-screen appearances were fewer, and his part in the blockbuster Star Wars – a role that eventually went to Harrison Ford – was not meant to be (“I saw that audition and I thought, no wonder I didn’t get that role. I was terrible. I was stiff as a board!”).
Ironically, however, King was eventually cast as Hans Solo – in the radio version of the Star Wars trilogy for National Public Radio.
“The most enjoyable acting in the world is radio acting,” he says of his experience being one of the raiders of the lost art. “There are no technical requirements. Technical problems on film take up quite a bit of your concentration. Acting on film is not as easy as it looks. You have to hit your marks and you have key lighting and you have to avoid overlapping. It’s not as carefree as it might look. Stage acting has its own set of difficulties: it’s equally difficult – maybe even more difficult – with projection and blocking and how to open up to the audience and things like that. Radio acting has no technique except you have to learn how to turn pages silently. You don’t have to memorize, you don’t have to do anything but entering the world of the character. That’s the fun of it. Playing the game like you are a kid again. That’s the joy of it!”
The force was also with him when he made his mark in series television in the mid-80s, in the NBC series Riptide. He says, “Thom [Bray], Joe [Penny] and I get together periodically. We’re good friends. It was my idea that we could get a two-hour reunion TV movie on. We shopped the idea around a little bit, and we found out that nobody was interested. Well, I guess we’re big stars in our own mind! [The series] probably paid for this ranch. I loved doing it, but it was utterly exhausting. It was sixteen hours a day. Every day, month after month. After a while, you felt like you were hit by a truck. That was the only trouble with that show is that it was so damn tiring, because I was in everything. When you get that tired, you get grumpy. We may not have had as much fun as we might have had because we were so tired, we couldn’t see straight. It was great stuff, though.”
He says, “If I do find [my work] running on television, I turn the TV off. It’s always so disappointing. The film in your head is always so much better than the one that shows up. I learned a long time ago not to watch it. I do the best I can, and I enjoy it enormously, and then I walk away and, if possible, never see it. It sounds as if I don’t care, but the opposite is true. I care too much. It’s always – always – disappointing. Years later, it’s a little less disappointing, because there is a distance from it, but not after the fact. I’ll look at myself and see the same stupid idiot that I’ve been looking at for fifty-seven years. There is no value to my seeing it.”
Is there any one performance of his that he can actually sit through?
“There is one film that I really think I’m good in,” he responds, “but it’s not because of me, it’s because of the director [Paul Aaron]. It was called A Different Story [1978, with Meg Foster. King plays a gay man who marries a lesbian woman in order to prevent his deportation, and they wind up falling in love]. That was the best film I was ever in. That is one that I actually enjoy watching. It’s a sweet, gentle, loving film. The theme of the movie is: be true to yourself. There was a humor-filled approach to that theme. It was so far ahead of its time that it is almost still too soon to release it. When it was first out, it just disappeared. They didn’t know what to do with it. It was way too soon for it – but it’s a good film.”
As modest as he is successful, King downplays his staying power.
“It’s a lot of luck more than anything else,” he says. “What I’ve done is what I wanted from the beginning. What I wanted was longevity. I just wanted to do something that I loved to do for as long as I could. I was able to make a living as an actor for thirty-five years, which is almost an oxymoron.”
For more information on Perry King, go to www.absolutelyperryking.com.
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Copyright ©2005 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: September 24, 2005.