There is no doubt I missed a lot of career opportunities because of my absorption with the [Screen Actors] Guild.
Would I do it again? Yes -- this has been the best of all possible lives for me and I think you have to do something to pay your way in life.
Most important of all, however, it was because of the guild that I found myself standing before an apartment door in Westwood one evening. When that door opened, I found all the rest of me I needed to find to give me more happiness than any one person could possibly deserve.
One day I received a call from Mervyn Le Roy, the director. A young lady under contract to MGM, Nancy Davis, was very much distressed because her name kept showing up on rosters of communist front organizations. Mervyn guaranteed that she was more than disinterested in leftists causes: she was violently opposed.
I introduced myself to Nancy Davis on the phone, hastily explained that if she didn't mind a short dinner date, i'd be very happy to talk about her problem.
On the drive to La Rue's, we took up the business of her name showing up on those "bleeding hearts" lists. Since she was relatively new in the business, I made the obvious suggestion: "Why not ask the publicity department for a new name?" I figured they'd given her the one that caused the trouble.
Very simply she said, "But Nancy Davis IS my name."
I've since come to know she has simple answers like that for a lot of problems.
This story, I know, will be a disappointment to those who want romance neatly packaged. The truth is, I did everything wrong, dating her off and on, continuing to volunteer for guild chores -- in short, doing everything which could have lost her if Someone up there hadn't been looking after me.
In the months that followed, it didn't even frighten me to discover our friends were taking us for granted, and automatically inviting us out as a twosome.
Gradually I came out of a deep-freeze and discovered a wonderful world of contentment. My friends had been extremely patient, as I discovered one night at a meeting of the Motion Picture Industry Council. Bill Holden and I, as guild representatives, were seated at the table in the meeting room. aSuddenly I picked up a pad, and wrote a note to Bill: "To hell with this, how would you like to be best man when I marry Nancy?"
Right out loud he blurted, "It's about time."
About this time Warner's paged me for the last picture of my deal with them -- the story of baseball's immortal Grover Cleveland Alexander.
Making this picture was as happy a chore as I'd had since playing the "Gipper." Doris Day played Aimee (Mrs. Alexander) and the real Aimee was adviser. From her we learned about the tragic secret so carefully kept from the public during those years of her husband's greatness. There was no secret to Grover's problem with alcohol, but his real cross was epilepsy and in that earlier, unenlightened day he keenly felt the stigma.
Came our wedding day and not one protest from Nancy over the fact that I cheated her out of the ceremony every girl deserves. It is hard for me to realize the extent to which I was ruled then by my obsession about the press and the fuss that would accompany a regular wedding.
We went out in the San Fernando Valley to the Little Brown Church. With Bill and Ardis Holden as matron and best man we were married in a beautiful and simple ceremony.
After our honeymoon in Phoenix, we moved into Nancy's apartment temporarily. Incidentally, her career and what would happen to it had entered my mind once or twice, and while I'd be happier if the career ran second, I knew also I could never say "give it up." She was too good.
My own career was due for some rough sledding. However, I really didn't have my mind on much of anything at the studio because we had found a house out in the Pacific Palisades and Nancy was decorating one room as a nursery.
Since we were in the careful period, but still far from the date the baby was expected, there was no reason we should miss the International Horse Show. But by the end of the show Nancy was squeezing my hand every 18 minutes and I said, "Don't look now, but you are having a baby." She didn't believe me and insisted we go home. We even went to bed -- and then we were back in the car and on the way to the hospital.
It was 2 in the afternoon when I was told that Patti had joined us.
Certainly, with a new baby in the house, it wasn't the time to find my career less than flourishing. It is an unwritten rule of show business that you must never show "need."
For 14 months I turned down such scripts as came my way. At the lowest point of all, a script came from MGM. While it wasn't going to be a multi-million-dollar epic, it was respectable, and I certainly didn't have anything else to do.
With Broadway and a TV series on my "won't do" list, my agents had come up with another source of loot, and the suggestion seemed so outlandish I ran for cover. What they had in mind was Las Vegas and a nightclub act.
Reluctantly, I made a date to discuss the job with my agent. I also consulted a syndicated column on astrology, and my word for the day read: "This is a day to listen to the advice of experts."
The upshot was I took the job, and we had a wonderfully successful two weeks, with a sellout every night and other offers. It was a great experience, but two weeks were enough.
My agent at MCA, Taft Schreiber, dealt me my next hand. General Electric was in the market for a new show, and MCA wanted to approach GE with a package calling for a weekly dramatic program featuring guest stars, with me appearing in no more than a half a dozen of these plays as the star, but introducing all of them. The real extra, however, was MCA's idea to hang the package on some personal appearance tours, in which I'd visit GE plants. I had been tagged because of my guild experience and the speaking I'd done in the industry's behalf.
Thus the "General Electric Theatre" was born.
The eight years of "General Electric Theatre" and visits to GE plants have a way of melting into a montage in my memory, but some overall impressions remain. For one thing, it is too bad that a lot of people can't see the miracle of American industry at work.
No barnstorming politician ever met the people on quite such a common footing. Sometimes I had an awesome, shivering feeling that America was making a personal appearance for me, and it made me the biggest fan in the world.
With all that I had heard of the timidity of sponsors, I was somewhat surprised that General Electric delivered me as often as possible on the mashed potato circuit, and never suggested what I should talk about.
Of course, I couldn't impose on an audience to the extent of just singing Hollywood's praises, without tying the whole subject into the listeners and how they might be involved, so I followed my factual data with illustrations of what had happened to Hollywood.
The most dramatic part of my pitch, however, was the account of the attempted takeover of the industry by the communists. It was dumbfounding to discover how completely uninformed the average audience was concerning internal communism and how it operated.
As the years went on, my speeches underwent a kind of evolution, reflecting not only my changing philosophy but also the swiftly rising tide of collectivism that threatens to inundate what remains of our free economy.
My speeches were nonpartisan and I went out of my way to point out that the problems of centralizing power in Washington, with subsequent loss of freedom at the local level, were problems that crossed party lines.
During the first couple of years I wasn't unaware that GE sometimes had to sell a few groups on taking a Hollywood actor as a speaker. By the third year, however, the tours were being scheduled around the speaking engagements and the routine weekly luncheon clubs had given way to the more important annual events: state Chamber of Commerce banquets, national conventions and groups recognized as important political sounding boards.
It would be nice to accept this as a tribute to my oratory, but I think the real reason had to do with a change that was taking place all over America. People wanted to talk about and hear about encroaching government control, and hopefully they wanted suggestions as to what they themselves could to to turn the tide.
Here I'm forced to recap, lest it seem that that was all of life for eight years.
Nancy and I had in 1956 built a home high on a hill overlooking the ocean and city. We moved there with Patti and a collie named Lucky (because that's the way I felt).
There was an extra room in the new house because Nancy had decided Patti should have a brother. Everything was on schedule this time. Nancy's mother, DeeDee, had come out and she and Ursula Taylor -- Robert Taylor's beautiful wife -- accompanied me to the hospital early in the morning.
At 8:04 a.m., a nurse told me Ronald Prescott had arrived.
My old labor union hadn't been completely discarded. I decided shortly after our marriage that it was time to let someone else wield the gavel. Walter Pidgeon had taken over as president, but he headed for Broadway just as the 1959 negotiations were due. Unexpectedly, the nominating committee asked if I would return as president? I didn't want to. Nonetheless, I accepted.
We had lived 10 years with the "stopgap" clause that kept all pictures made after 1948 off television.
There were two big issues in our demands: one, end the stopgap clause and the establishment of the principle of repayment for reuse; two, the setting up of a pension and welfare fund.
Spyros Skouras was spokesman for their side. Mr. Skouras tends to be emotional, and as he really began to roll you could hear the padlocks snapping on the studio gates as they went out of business. He concluded with the flat assertion that his company had to sell the pictures and keep all the money, or go out of business.
I asked, "Mr. Skouras, what if we asked only 1 percent of the TV revenue for all of us -- do you mean Twentieth could stay open with 100 percent but would have to close if you only got 99 percent?"
His answer slammed that door. "We won't discuss it."
The bitter strike lasted six months. A fellow with a small circulation sheet, Jaik Rosenstein, put me on his cover decked out in a Hitler mustache and hairdo over the caption "Heil!"
Not long after it was announced that a former FDR cabinet member, Anna Rosenberg, had been employed as a public relations adviser by the producers.
Nancy and I were invited to a big Hollywood dinner. There beside me as a dinner partner was Anna Rosenberg.
She cleared the air by explaining her new position. Then she edged up to the issue of what it would take to settle the strike. I laid out exactly what the guild would settle for. It was gratifying to see her astonishment.
Very gently I said, "It could always have been settled on these terms."
Forty-eight hours later we got a phone call at the guild. It was Joe Vogel of MGM. Joe said, "Can you deliver your people on such a basis?" We allowed we could.
When the strike ended we had achieved extra payment for reuse on TV, a sound pension and welfare plan, and the sale of all TV rights for the 1948-59 pictures to get the pension plan moving immediately.
A lot of hat-changing has taken place since then. I went back to an old one -- the movie hat I'd doffed when TV entered my life.
Someone once asked, "Would you want your children to be in show business?" My answer: "Why not?" It has brought me everything I love.
The days stretch ahead with promise. I should turn to the sages for some profound utterance to close. More fitting is a remark by Clark Gable: "The most important thing a man can know is that, as he approaches his own door, someone on the other side is listening for the sound of his footsteps."
I have found the rest of me.