Interview with Walter Gregg by David Drake

Walter Gregg on the set of Single Room Furnished. Photo compliments of Mr. Drake.

David Drake is a respected playwright, actor, director, and author. He is also one of the biggest Jayne Mansfield fans I know! In celebration of Jayne’s death anniversary yesterday, here’s David’s interview with actor Walter Gregg. Thanks, David!

For Jayne Mansfield fans, the film SINGLE ROOM FURNISHED holds what many consider to be her finest work as a dramatic actress. And you’ll get no argument from this writer! While the script (adapted by the film’s producer Michael Musto from a bill of one-act plays by Gerald Sanford) was written for Jayne to portray three separate characters at different “stages of womanhood,” the film remained incomplete at the time of her death, forcing its creators to salvage what footage they had. What transpired was a jimmy-rigging together of Jayne’s scenes into a kind of single character arc. It don’t really work. No matter, cause connoisseurs have learned to watch SRF by disregarding this patchy linear approach and, instead, savor the movie for the nuggets of Jayne’s performance that are forever imprinted in her (and the script’s) original approach — as three different characters. The overall affect shows definitive evidence of a complex, subtle and wise actress at work. Best of all is Jayne’s performance as Eileen, the lonely lady-of-the-evening in the movie’s final vignette.

In the scene, Eileen returns home from the a night at the bar to her “Single Room Furnished” apartment to discover a young man, whom she vaguely knows, waiting with her — and one who is obsessed with her. Exhausted yet amiable, Eileen lets the young man, whom she calls Billy, into her cold water flat to keep her company while she removes her make-up and prepares for bed. What culminates is a hauntingly sad and unexpected scene. The isolation of each character blurs with projections of who they think — and want — the other to be, tentatively creating a dream-world for each to fantasize about a life together. However, like all one-night-stands, their faux-idyllic intimacy must come to an end. And it’s a psychologically complicated one, as Eileen turns on her enthusiastic yet mentally fragile suitor Billy, humiliating him for his looks with a delirious series of taunts, screaming, “Monkeyyyyyyyyyyy!” An offscreen gunshot ends the scene. But who shot whom remains a mystery.

Much like the rest of the legacy of this film.

With scant historical documentation on the making of SRF, what we do know is that it marked the directorial debut of Jayne’s third husband Matt Cimber. It purportedly had a random filming schedule “over a three year period,” according to one Mansfield biographer (though I find that extended time-time suspect). An independently financed production via the umbrella company Empire Film Studios, SRF was eventually distributed by Crown International Pictures, making its world premiere on August 21, 1968 in Phoenix, Arizona. 

Despite the film’s apparent shoestring budget, the significance of SINGLE ROOM FURNISHED should not be underestimated. Not only is it without doubt an important movie in the Mansfield canon, but SRF also gave the fledgling cinematographer Leslie (Laszlo) Kovacs one of his first feature films. Exemplifying Kovac’s astute eye, SRF was only the beginning of a huge career. Soon afterwards, Kovacs shot the ‘60s rebel classics EASY RIDER and FIVE EASY PIECES, then he became Peter Bogdonovich’s director of photography for such era-defining films as WHAT’S UP DOC? PAPER MOON (and the ill-fated AT LONG LAST LOVE), as well as Martin Scorsese’s electrifying NEW YORK, NEW YORK, Hal Ashby’s sexy SHAMPOO, and was the DP who captured Jessica Lange’s Oscar-nominated performance in Graeme Clifford’s FRANCES, among dozens of others. Sadly, Kovacs died last year at the age 74. Meanwhile, for Mansfield’s fans, what has been so frustrating over the years — and frustrating for anyone interested in understanding the exodus of one-time studio system stars venturing into independent filmmaking as the studio system collapsed in the early to mid-60s — is that none of Mansfield’s biographers have been able to supply the most basic information about the making of SINGLE ROOM FURNISHED beyond the fact that it was unfinished at the time of her death.

To shed some light on this much too-often over-looked movie, I went in search of those who were there for the filming of SINGLE ROOM FURNISHED. And after a lot of sleuthing, I was fortunate to locate Jayne’s co-star Walter Gregg, who played Billy to her Eileen. Although he had already appeared in small roles in half-a-dozen TV westerns, SRF was Walter’s first real break as film actor. Shortly after filming SRF, however, Walter began a career transition behind the camera. A successful cinematographer of features, commercials and documentaries for over 35 years now, I asked Walter as many questions as he could bare about his time as an actor on the set of SRF. Though reticent to speak about the film at first, in the process of negotiating the interview, I found Walter to be an extremely kind and humble man with absolutely no interest in being the spotlight. Indeed, it took a full year of persuasion before I was finally able to secure his answers to my questions. Due to a busy schedule (he often works overseas), we agreed to conduct the interview via email. And so, to hear for the first time he’s ever told it, Walter’s firsthand account of working with Jayne in one of the key scenes of one of the key films of her career — and how, in fact, seeing himself perform that scene on the big screen changed the course of his own life — read on.

See the source image

DAVID DRAKE: How did you come to be cast as Billy in SINGLE ROOM FURNISHED? Was there an audition process?

WALTER GREGG: Yes, I was sent to an address on Hollywood Boulevard by my agent. In the lobby, or waiting room, were all the usual suspects of the time. Every audition it seems had the same set of characters. I had just sat down on the floor against the wall when the door opened and the director, Matt Cimber, stuck his head in and looked around. I had been the last to arrive, but he looked at me and called me in first.

– How long was it between being cast in the film and the actual shooting of it?

WG: I don’t remember how long after I was cast that we started filming…probably not very long. They were building the sets during the rehearsals.

Was there much rehearsal prior to filming?

WG: As I remember, we had a lot of rehearsals before the filming. Matt asked if I could work with Jayne at the studio and come to their house and rehearse on the weekends. I said I could do that, and I did. Jayne had a lot of lines to memorize and we just went over and over the scene. She was a nice person and very serious about the scene.

– Going into the project, did you have any preconceived ideas about Jayne Mansfield and (perhaps) how those changed — or were confirmed — once you’d met her and began working with her?

WG: I was really young at the time and I didn’t really go to movies, and I didn’t know who she was. There is some memory in my mind of her being this sad lonely lady, and maybe that had to do with the parts she was playing in this movie, and maybe it had to do with the way things were at that time in her life. To me, she just became a friend who kept a distance when other people were around.

Where and when did you shoot your scene in SRF?

WG: I cannot remember exactly when we did this. But to the best of my knowledge, it was 1966.  I got to Hollywood in 1964 and I had to have been there a year before the film. We shot the scene in Empire Studios, where they had built a set. Empire Studios was in Hollywood, either on Sunset Blvd. or Santa Monica Blvd.. I do remember it was on the north side of the street. It wasn’t a large studio, but large enough. There was this guy in a suit and tie, and I think he was the owner, Mr. Musto. I believe he owned Empire. [NOTE: Michael Musto was executive producer and screen writer of SRF.] I did a couple of TV jobs on the stage later on.

– And how long did the actual shooting of your scene take?

WG: I don’t remember how long the actual shooting took. I was very nervous, as I had never done a scene in front of the camera for this long. I was on my own as Matt’s attention, as well it should be, was on Jayne. It was real difficult because I knew I was just horrible and didn’t know what to do about it. I do remember seeing the film on Hollywood Boulevard and knowing as I sat there and watched our scene that I would have to get into another line of work. I was awful…just downright awful on the screen. I didn’t know how to do it. Have always felt I was blessed to have gotten that part because it got me out of the acting business.

– I know SRF was produced on a shoestring, but were there many retakes? And if so, what were those, and (perhaps) is there a story about this?

WG: I doubt there were many retakes, and I have no story about this.

– With Jayne, can you tell us a bit about what is was like to act with her?

WG: I only have good memories of working with Jayne. It was such a long, long time ago and writing this for you, David, there are little flashes of things not seeming to be right in the world on that set, but being too young and too naïve then — and too old and too seasoned now — to even think about what that scenario might have been. I just know that I wasn’t comfortable in it. Jayne did her job and she did it well as far as I was concerned. I had no problem with Jayne. We got along just fine.

– Was there anything about working with Jayne that surprised you about her — particularly in regards to her abilities as an actress?

WG: I had been in live theater for a number of years (back to my college days) and had worked many times with professional actors. Jayne was a professional actress.  She did what she was supposed to do. She followed directions and was not demanding or difficult to work with.

– And how was Matt Cimber to work with?

WG: Matt, to me, was very serious about his work. He was always there with energy and passion for his job. I don’t remember having much to do with him as he spent most of his time working with Jayne.

– Because SRF was a small film, and your scene in particular was very intimate (just 2 actors), I was wondering how big the crew was, and what the tone was like on the set?

WG: I remember the crew being very quiet, and remember being aware of them. I had a friend on the crew and think this must have been one of Leslie [Kovac]’s first American films. [NOTE: Leslie (Laszlo) Kovas was born and raised in Hungary. He entered the U.S. as a political refugee in 1957.]

See the source image

– Also on the set, I was wondering if Jayne had any of her kids or any entourage with her? (Maybe Mariska Hargitay? — who’s become such a fine actress herself.)

WG: I remember a daughter….don’t remember her name…think it started with an M. She was at the house when we rehearsed and she was just a sweet little girl who seemed to love her mother very much. I do remember her, but I don’t remember any entourage at all.

– When filming, did you adhere closely to the script? Or was there a sense of improv with the text?

WG: I believe we followed the script.

– Because of its significance in the script, do you ever get an odd feeling when you hear the word “Monkey”?

WG: The word monkey doesn’t bother me. I do remember that after the filming of SRF every audition I went on was for some weird part, and I didn’t like that. I really, really didn’t like that. Now I understand and it makes sense. I had gotten my career going in Denver playing Jerry in THE ZOO STORY [on stage], so it just went from there with these strange characters.

– Though little has been reported about the span of time it actually took to shoot SRF, other than filming was sporadic (over a couple of years) and was purportedly “incomplete” at the time of Jayne’s death, do you know where your particular shooting fell into the larger scheme of the making the film?

WG: I don’t remember anything about when our scene was shot in relation to the other scenes.  I remember people talking later about this long, long sequence being shot with Fabian [Dean, who played Charley]. I remember that.

– Likewise, did they give you any idea at the time of when SRF would be completed and released?

WG: As always, as a new young film actor, I stayed after them about when it would be released so I would have something to show casting directors, etc.. Don’t remember what they said about release date. I guess it did take a long time for them to get that film out.

– After shooting, did you remain in any contact with Jayne or Matt? And if so, what was your friendship — or encounters — with them like?

WG: I never saw either of them ever again.

– With Jayne’s sudden death, do you remember where you were and what you felt when you heard the news?

WG: I was working at Smokey Joe’s BBQ on La Cienega and Beverly Boulevard [In Los Angeles], I believe, when she died. It was very emotional for me. I had fond memories of her and had prayed she would have a happy life.

– Though you’ve told me that watching SRF was one of the reasons you got out of the acting biz, can you tell me a bit more about that? And how you shifted into becoming a cinematographer?

WG: After I saw SRF on the big screen, I immediately started making calls to friends for help.  Seeing myself up there on that screen and realizing I didn’t know a doggone thing about acting, and it would be such a gamble staying at it, hoping I would be successful.  I just didn’t think the chances of me making a living doing this were very good at all.  The most I had ever made as an actor in Hollywood was fourteen hundred dollars one year.  I called an old friend from my early acting days, when we toured the country with family dramas, Jim Ellis, who was now in a Hollywood film union and got me a job and opportunity to join the union.  I think it was called Utilities.  My first and only job was on the construction set of SHIP OF FOOLS. They were building this huge ship on a sound stage and my job was to walk around the deck and sweep cigarette butts and pick up coffee cups and empty ashtrays for the construction crew and whoever else was working there. I got to see all sorts of things during the two weeks I did this. I saw [director] Stanley Kramer who would come and sit in a chair and discuss what they were doing and what they were going to do. Around and around all day I would go doing this sweeping and cleaning.  After the first week they gave me a check for I believe, around three hundred dollars. I was in shock. Three hundred dollars for doing this work. I did it for one more week and then told my friend and the union guy that I could no longer continue. It was way too much money for what I was doing, and I was young and stupid and did not feel comfortable taking this money for this simple work. It really bothered me. So I quit.

Then I called another friend who had worked on the crew of SRF. He got me a job as a gopher, it’s production assistant now, at a little boutique television commercial company on Melrose Place, N. Lee Lacy and Associates. It was great. That is where I got the passion to do camera and went after it. I was blessed, in that right after I made this decision, [director] Howard Zieff cast me in a car commercial for Avanti, I believe. I rode a motorcycle up to a red light and looked into a car with a guy and a fishbowl in the front seat and then raced off. That paid really well and I was able to buy a Bolex 16mm movie camera and one lens and that is how I started learning behind the camera. I could afford to shoot 100’ feet of 16mm film a week and during this period I went up to Solvang [California] on a weekend and filmed a bunch of horses and came back and cut that into a three or four minute piece to Dusty Springfield’s “Windmills of Your Mind.” I showed that to Lee and he gave me my first job as a cinematographer. I stayed on with him for a little bit and then was asked to join a commercial company in New York City as a Director/Director of Photography. It paid good money and was a wonderful opportunity for me. I took it and from that opened my own production company in New York City and did that for too many years and this is more than I’ve ever told anyone about me.

– Other than my sleuthing to find you, has anyone ever gone: “Hey, aren’t you the guy in SINGLE ROOM FURNISHED?!”

WG: No, thank goodness, no one has come up to me and said: “Hey, aren’t you the guy in SINGLE ROOM FURNISHED?!” ….but come to think of it, I could handle that now.

– Finally, what are you most proud of in your career as a cinematographer? And what can we look forward to seeing from you in the future?

WG: I’ve done a lot of things in my career as a cinematographer. There are five that I am most proud of, or comfortable with…

“We’ve only just begun…” – a series of commercials for Crocker Bank, San Francisco, in the late ‘60’s.

“Cora’s General Store” – a series of commercials for General Foods Maxwell House coffee, NYC in the ‘70’s.

“Carla, our daughter” – a documentary film for NYT, NYC in the ‘8o’s

“The Cut Runs Deep” – a feature film, NYC in the ‘90’s.

“You can do this…” – a series of PSA’s, Beijing in the 2000’s.

I am working on some projects in the far East right now. I also teach photography at a study abroad program in Beijing and a great deal of what you can look forward to seeing from me in the future and the best work, I think, of my career is at:

http://www.youtube.com/user/waltergregg

– In closing, any thoughts you’d like to impress upon our readers?

WG: I just hope this can be of use to you in sharing with people about Jayne. I wish I could remember more but… it was so way back when.

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