The Entertainer: Movies, Magic, and My Father's Twentieth Century and daughter of classic film actor Lyle Talbot. Check out the interview below and if you haven't heard about this amazing book yet make sure you read my review.
Raquel: Why did you decide to write The Entertainer?
Margaret: I’d grown up listening to my Dad’s stories about his show biz career, and like most kids listening to their Dads holding forth at the dinner table or wherever, I tuned in and out of them. But as the years went by, and especially after my father died, in 1996, I thought about those stories more and more—it helped me to feel close to both my parents again, and I missed them a lot. And I realized that when you strung my Dad’s stories together, they told a bigger story about the rise of entertainment in the 20th century. I’ve always loved history, and I thought this would be a way to convey cultural history through an intimate, personal lens.
Raquel: What do you think your dad, actor Lyle Talbot, would think of the book?
Margaret: I think, and my siblings agree with me, that he would be thrilled. He wasn’t a writer at all, but he was a reader and a great story-teller, and would have been pleased as punch to see his story in book form.
Raquel: What’s the one thing you’d like people to get out of reading your book?
Margaret: That it’s possible to make a deeply satisfying working life in a creative profession where there is a star system--and you are not a star-- so long as you have the attitude my Dad had, which was: I am lucky to be able to do the work I love.
Raquel: What was the hardest part of the writing or research process?
Margaret: Honestly? Having to stop researching and writing it. So long as I was working on the book, I was still in communion with, having an on-going conversation with, my parents. When I finished the manuscript I felt like I was saying good-bye to my Dad for a second time.
Raquel: The age gap between you and your dad was pretty big. I am in the same situation with my dad being 53 years older than me. How did that affect your relationship with him?
Margaret: I’m very interested to hear that, because it’s not that common—though it may become more so, as both men and women postpone having kids till they are older.
In general, I thought it was a boon. My Dad was kind of gallant and old-world; I liked the connection to the past he gave me, and especially to old Hollywood glamour, but in a kinder, gentler version. And because he was a worldly person with an active mind, who kept acting and doing public appearances and interviews into his 90s, he didn’t seem all that elderly, even when he was. Possibly all that memorization you have to do as an actor, especially in the theater, which he did a lot of in his later years, helped keep his mind sharp.
Margaret: He wasn’t enough of a star to sustain a straight biography. But that was actually an advantage in doing the kind of book I wanted to do. I didn’t have to cover every movie he made—and he made some really lousy ones!—or try and be comprehensive as you would if you were writing a biography of Katharine Hepburn or Humphrey Bogart.
Also, as I say in the book, he had this Zelig-like life, where he turns up in all these facets of entertainment history: from traveling carnivals and magic shows in the Midwest in the teens, to tent theater and stock companies in cities like Memphis and Dallas in the 20s, to Hollywood, pre-Code movies and the studio system in the 30s, including helping to found the Screen Actors Guild, to the dawn of family sitcoms, with Ozzie and Harriet, the Bob Cummings show, and Leave it to Beaver (actually my brother Steve was the regular on Beaver, but my Dad did guest spots.) So his life really lent itself, I thought, to providing a narrative thread for a larger history.
Raquel: What’s your favorite of your dad’s movies?
Margaret: I’d have to say “Three on a Match,” the ultimate pre-Code potboiler in my opinion, with a great cast: Bette Davis, Joan Blondell, Ann Dvorak, Warren William, and in a memorable small role, as a really vicious young hood, Humphrey Bogart.
Raquel: Which of your dad’s stories is your favorite?
Probably the story of his screen test, which I tell in an excerpt from the book that ran in The New Yorker (but in more detail in the book!) I’m also partial to my parents’ love story.
Raquel: My friend Bob from the blog Allure asks, “What I found interesting about Lyle Talbot, he seemed at ease as a good guy or a bady guy. Did he have a preference?"
Good point. He genuinely liked playing both. But I think as he got older, and a lot of the good-guy parts were police chiefs and commissioners (much staring with grim intensity into the camera while gripping a desk and vowing to get the perp, as in the pretty good nuclear noir “City of Fear” from 1959), he liked the bad—or at least flawed—characters better.
Raquel: Could you tell us a bit more about yourself?
Margaret: I live in Washington, D.C. with my husband, writer Arthur Allen, and our teenagers, Ike and Lucy, who lucky for me, have always had a taste for black-and-white movies. They started with the Marx Brothers, moved on to Hitchcock, and are now watching silent movies even I haven’t seen yet (like the 1921 Swedish horror move “The Phantom Carriage.” It’s apparently really good!) We’re also lucky to live near the AFI Silver in Silver Spring, Md., a fantastic art and revival movie theater, where we go often. (The theater is screening a Lyle Talbot series in December, starting with “Three on a Match,” and showing a number of other films you don’t get to see that often, like William Wellman’s punchy and amusing “College Coach.”)
Staff writer, The New Yorker
author, The Entertainer: Movies, Magic, and My Father's Twentieth Century (November, 2012; Riverhead)
Thank you so much to Margaret Talbot for taking the time out to answer my questions and thank you to Lydia of Riverhead Books for arranging the interview.