Vincent Price seems to think he needs no introduction. And he seems to be correct.
Rehearsing on the stage of Ford's Theatre, wandering through its hallways, antechambers and offices, striding coatless across chilly 10th Street to brunch at Beeffeeders, he says a great big hello to everybody he sees. And everybody, oddly enough, says a great big hello right back.
"If you are an actor," he explains, "you are really persona grata wherever you go." The principle could stand a little amendment: If you are a 70-year-old, 6-foot-4 actor with a velvety voice and a memorably snooty profile . . . if you have been at it for nearly 50 years . . . if you have appeared in countless plays and TV shows and more than 100 movies ("House of Wax," "Laura," "Dragonwyck," "The Comedy of Terrors," "The Tomb of Ligeia," "The Tingler," "The Bat" and "The Fly," to name a few), as the mad doctor, the slimy other man, the homicidal husband and innumerable other ogres . . . then you are, indeed, persona grata wherever you go.
Price is in Washington for a second go-round of his one-man show, "Diversions and Delights," which opened last night at Ford's Theatre. Compiled by writer John Gay from the life, work and conversation of Oscar Wilde, "Diversions and Delights" first played Ford's in 1977, back when Price had just begun impersonating Wilde. From then to now, he has done the show about 700 times in 210 cities -- not to mention Australia.
But lest anyone think the actor is slowly, inexorably turning into his character, a quick perusal of Price's midday attire sets that idea to rest. He wears a narrow tie, a sports jacket of tame blue and trousers of traditional gray, all somewhat, well, rumpled. Oscar Wilde would not be impressed, and if he could see Price's shoes -- which belong generally to the Hush Puppy family -- he would be appalled.
So Vincent Price is not Oscar Wilde. Nor is he that other tragic romantic, Edgar Allan Poe. The two became entwined through a series of movies based -- "loosely, very loosely," Price is quick to say -- on Poe's work. (The movie "The Raven" suffered from the fact that "there's no plot in the poem," Price explains, while "The Conqueror Worm" "had absolutely nothing to do with Poe" except for its title.) For now, there are no further Poe movies in the works, and Price has firmly quashed the oft-heard idea that he should play Poe in another one-man stage show. "It's impossible for a big man to play a small man," he says conclusively. "I'd have to do it on my knees."
Even without the Poe and Wilde connections, Vincent Price has had an amazing career. The famous names trip over each other in his anecdotes. The anecdotes trip over each other, too.
Mention "The Ten Commandments" and he will tell you about the scene when, standing on a barricade with Cedric Hardwicke and Yul Brynner, he was required to say, "Yonder is the city of the Pharaoh's glory" (or words to that effect) while pointing at blank white nothingness. Price thought he had given a satisfactory reading, but the director thought otherwise. The director was none less than the legendary Cecil B. De Mille, who called a break in shooting so all three actors could inspect the footage to be superimposed on their little colloquy, namely, 13,000 slaves building a magnificent '50s Hollywood version of an ancient Egyptian metropolis. "Now you know what you're talking about!" said De Mille. And knowing what he was talking about, Price gave a rather more rousing reading on the retake.
This gets him onto the subject of Yul ("Y'all") Brynner, whom he has dubbed "Y'all" because of the many and various accounts of Brynner's mysterious ethnicity. A few years back, Price and the musical "Oliver" followed Brynner and "The King and I" into the same St. Louis arena. Welcoming Price with open arms, Brynner bequeathed him a bottle of wine and the use of a special telephone Brynner had installed in the dressing room. But after Brynner's departure, Price found a lock on the phone and "this much wine in the bottle." He holds his fingers a fraction of an inch apart. "It was mostly sediment," he adds.
From Brynner the conversation spins on to less-well-known folks who have played St. Louis' 12,000-seat amphitheater, the Municipal Opera. There was the comic known as "Bring-'em-up-alive" Baxter, for example, who earned her nickname after a June bug flew into her mouth and down her throat in mid-performance. Escorted backstage in much distress, the actress prevailed on her abdominal muscles to expel the beast, which promptly flew away as if nothing unusual had happened. And Bring-'em-up-alive Baxter promptly reappeared on stage as if nothing unusual had happened to her either.
Leaning far back from his plate of scrambled eggs, Price tells these tales with a conspicuous desire to please, and with conspicuous pleasure when the goal is reached. Hollywood may have cast him as vermin, but he has cast himself as a pussycat.
He was born, accordingly, not in England or Transylvania, but in St. Louis. His father was a businessman who sent the boy to Yale and to London University in pursuit of a master's degree in art history. But "I just fell in love with the theater in England," he says, explaining the career switch. "Which is very easy to do," he adds. At first the affair was carried on from the audience. He met John Gielgud, who told him: "Dear boy, as a student of the theater, I think you might enjoy coming to see my Hamlet -- maybe once a week." So Price saw it 14 times from the third balcony.
Then he was cast in the London production of "Victoria Regina," and when producer Gilbert Miller decided to do the play on Broadway with Helen Hayes, he asked Price to repeat his role as Prince Albert. "And he made me pay my own way back to America," says Price. "I said, 'Can you help me get back to America?' And he said, 'Well, you got to England, didn't you?' "
To play Victoria's consort, he translated the part into German, Albert's native tongue, before tackling it in English. "I read somewhere in a book that he never really learned to think in English," says Price. He hasn't always approached his craft so painstakingly. "That's the kind of thing you only do when you're 23," he explains.
In later years, acting has had to compete with other loves, most notably, art collecting. At 12, he bought a Rembrandt etching for $37.50, paying "$5 down and 50 cents a month for the rest of my natural life." Later he bought a Modigliani for $50 and an Andrew Wyeth for $75. He still has "closetsful" of art in his Los Angeles home, but he has given away much of his collection in recent years, as he has gradually moved "from big houses to little houses," he says, and as he has parted with -- he smiles apologetically -- "a couple of wives."
His present wife is the Australian actress Coral Browne, whom he met while filming "Theatre of Blood," the last and most candidly hokey of Price's horror films. He has two children, a son who edits a magazine in Albuquerque and a daughter who is a student (and theater enthusiast) at Williams College.
He and his son have coauthored a book on monsters and demonology (called "The Monsters"), just published by Grosset and Dunlap. On his own, Price has written three books, the subjects ranging from art to cooking to a dog of his who was once accused of knocking a man off a bicycle and breaking his collarbone. (After a 13-day trial, the dog was exonerated, but before each long day in court, "I'd walk him until every drop of liquid was gone," Price recounts.)
He flew into Washington Sunday from Des Moines, Iowa, where he had taped introductions to a PBS-TV series of his movies. Not long ago he was the star attraction at horror/sci-fi film festivals in Paris and Rome.
In short, he remains in high gear and has no plans for downshifting. "My one intolerance is of boredom," he says. "I can't understand how it's possible.