A portion of an interview with Claudette Colbert, conducted by Professor Alan Greenberg.
Having had the enviable privilege of getting to know some of the biggest stars of classic Hollywood and possessing hundreds of hours of interviews that he conducted with such luminaries as Barbara Stanwyck, Claudette Colbert, Jack Lemmon, Lillian Gish, and Greer Garson, Professor Alan Greenberg is perhaps one of the greatest sources of classic film information around. During his time as leader of a community service program in San Diego focusing on teaching foreign students about American culture, Professor Greenberg was able to conduct lengthy interviews with the legendary stars and directors of classic Hollywood, recording on tape these rare and intimate glimpses into their lives and careers.
Gregory Peck on Alfred Hitchcock.
Professor Greenberg has a very interesting background. Upon a move to La Quinta, CA that would ultimately prove to be quite fortuitous, he found himself living in the same city as the legendary director Frank Capra who had recently published an autobiography. Always interested in the films of the 1930s and 1940s, Greenberg took it upon himself to write Capra a letter to ask if they might be able to meet. He agreed, and this was the beginning of a long friendship that also gave Greenberg the opportunity to meet some of Capra’s friends who, of course, were often giant figures in classic Hollywood. This ultimately led to a huge network of prominent friends who were always glad to help out when Greenberg’s students at Orco Development, the community service program he established in the 1980s, had a research need. In the following Q&A, Greenberg discusses Orco Development more in detail and gives you more information on what it is all about.
I became acquainted with Professor Greenberg a few weeks ago and found his story so fascinating that I asked if he would like to do a Q&A on the blog so that my readers could become introduced to him and his work. I was thrilled when he agreed. So please enjoy this Q&A that I conducted with Professor Alan Greenberg, friend to the stars!
You have had the great privilege to interview some of the most well-known, best-loved, and highly respected people in classic Hollywood. Tell our readers a bit about your background, and how you came to befriend so many of these veritable Hollywood legends.
A couple things in my background prepared me for interviewing and sharing adventures with some of the great legends from the Golden Age of Hollywood. I was always attracted to programs like Edward R. Murrow’s Person To Person and other interview shows where Murrow would talk to Frank Sinatra, Marilyn Monroe, Humphrey Bogart, etc. about their backgrounds and careers while being taken on a tour of their homes. This fascinated me, the ability to go to their house and talk to them about their work and lives. Secondly, I was bullied a great deal in high school due to a bad case of acne. Looking for a solution, I noticed an ad in the paper talking about boxing lessons at a gym in downtown Manhattan. Of all things, the instructor that day was the 5 time former middleweight champion Sugar Ray Robinson. He was having financial difficulties at the time, and wanted to make some money while helping young people. He became a friend and mentor to me over time and this experience taught me how to become comfortable talking to my heroes from an early age. Also, many people I interviewed over the years were fans of boxing including Bob Hope, Frank Sinatra, and the actress/director Ida Lupino. Ms. Lupino was a boxing enthusiast and you can see a picture of her, Sugar Ray Robinson, and myself taken during dinner in the gallery of my website.
I also had become friends with the late director Frank Capra after moving to California in the 1970’s. He was retired at the time and was impressed with my knowledge of his career. At one point he told me “You know more about me than I do”. One day we were having lunch at a restaurant, when a group of Japanese students asked if he was in fact the director Frank Capra. He said yes and we all had a friendly conversation about American film and American history. After the conversation was over, Capra and I realized the student’s knowledge of American film and history was lacking. This bothered Capra in particular because he had directed a series of documentaries called Why We Fight which explained America’s involvement in WWII. He and I eventually came up with the idea of creating a Community Service Program called Orco Development, the purpose of which was educating foreign-born students about American film, politics, and the military. I suggested it would be more engaging for the students if we spoke to the people involved in what we were studying. Capra used his vast connections in Hollywood to get subjects who I would then interview and eventually get to know on a personal level. So it was really Capra’s reputation and mentoring that allowed me to befriend all these Hollywood legends, there was nothing special about me that attracted them to the course, other than the depth of knowledge I had about their work.
Professor Greenberg with his friend, director Frank Capra.
Who was your first interviewee, and how did that experience prepare you for the many dozens more of these interviews you would go on to complete?
Although I met a number of famous people before getting to know Frank Capra, I would say he probably is the first formal interview I did. Fortunately when I contacted him and he wrote me back, he gave me 3 weeks time before we could actually meet. I had a copy of his autobiography The Name Above The Title which I read it in total and made numerous notes on index cards preparing for it. I then sat down and began to memorize my questions. When I arrived at his home in La Quinta I just had one index card with a keyword from each topic. He was so impressed with this breadth of knowledge on his life and career that it initiated this friendship. I think it also flattered him that someone so young would be interested in someone 50 years older.
I learned that one way to impress these people and get to know them personally was to do this kind of thing. Also I learned about eye contact, the worst thing you can do is sit there with your subject and have your eyes dart back and forth between them and your notes, studying the questions. It says you didn’t prepare. This experience taught me to be overly prepared and in some cases it can really impress people. Afterward Capra and I began speaking every weekend for 2 years and he basically schooled me in classic movies. He was one of the top 5 directors of all time and he was my mentor. So that was quite an experience.
Your prior knowledge coming into these interviews is vast. I recall one interview in which you provide your subject with the name of Melvyn Douglas’ wife with barely a pause. Were you a classic film fan before your association with these figures?
I would say I was a classic film fan but on a very superficial level. My good friend and fraternity brother Philip Wuntch, who was the former film critic for the Dallas Morning News and author of Marty Jurow Seein’ Stars, had a much deeper appreciation for classic films than I did before I was mentored by Mr. Capra. So I did enjoy the movies before, but it was the interaction with these people, getting to know them, that made me enjoy classic films on a new level.
Of all the Hollywood people you came to know, who left the biggest impression on you, and why?
I think the person who left the biggest impression on me was Burt Lancaster. He was exactly as energetic and charismatic in real life as he was on film. But that’s not what impressed me the most about him. One day he called me up and asked me if I knew anything about Cesar Chavez and the work he was doing with the farm workers. I said I only knew about it from reading stories in the newspaper. He then invited me up for the day to check out Chavez’s operation and see the kind of struggles they were going through. Burt’s personality was as big as they come, but when we went up to see Chavez and the farm workers he was as respectful, polite, and attentive as anyone I’d ever seen. He completely put his ego aside to listen to everyone he came into contact with. Not that Burt had ever been dismissive with people before, but most of the time his personality could really take over the room. Not in this case. That showed me how much he really cared about the issues that were important to him. There were no camera crews, no reporters, just two guys trying to understand the lives of people that were fighting for their rights.
What was the most memorable moment to come out of the interviews you conducted with the Hollywood stars?
When you’ve done literally hundreds of interviews, many moments stay with you over the years. I think one your readers might enjoy hearing is the interview I did with Myrna Loy. For those who don’t know, Myrna Loy was one of the most popular stars of the 1930’s with movies like The Thin Man , Manhattan Melodrama, and The Best Years Of Our Lives which incidentally, Capra once told me was the perfect movie in his opinion. She had starred with just about every leading man in Hollywood, and could do comedy as well as drama. I think on a list of the most popular classic film actresses, she could definitely make the top 10 along with Hepburn, Stanwyck, Davis, etc. With that in mind, she proceeded to tell me that she had made it as an actress, “in a very small way” and when I responded to her that she was in fact one of the most popular screen actresses of all time she said, “Good God I don’t believe that, but then that’s alright. I was just a little punk girl trying to be a movie star, there were a lot of us around”. When I asked her if she got a lot of fan mail she replied, “Oh I got hardly any at all, they didn’t even know who I was”. She absolutely refused to see herself as a big star, and she had this attitude every time we spoke, it wasn’t false modesty. She felt she was a good actress, but when it came to stardom, she not only wouldn’t acknowledge it, she honestly didn’t believe she was popular at all. I was very surprised given all the incredible films I had seen her in.
You have had a truly fascinating career, and possess hundreds of hours of audio recordings from some of the most popular figures in the Golden Age of Hollywood, something unique indeed. Do you have any plans to write a book or put together a project related to your experiences interviewing these stars and directors?
I was very encouraged by the response I’ve been receiving from my website. For example we recently put a portion of my interview with Barbara Stanwyck on YouTube, and I think within a few days we had almost 500 people listen to it and many of them left comments, begging to hear the whole interview.
A portion of an interview that Professor Greenberg conducted with Barbara Stanwyck, in which she discusses her directors and her love of her older sister.
So I’d like to begin some speaking engagements, talking about these unique experiences because there is clearly an interest. Turner Classic Movies has millions of viewers and whenever Robert Osborne gives the background to a picture before they play it, I’ve been told it’s enthusiastically received. One thing that I think sets my interviews apart from the usual Hollywood interviews is these stars were much more candid with me, knowing I had no intention to gossip about them or pass the info on to the media, or take their words out of context. We had an understanding between us and I was sincere in my curiosity about them.
As far as a book is concerned, I’ve been approached by publishers in the past, but to be frank, they asked me if these famous people had revealed any personal sexual details about their lives. I was disheartened by this and the publishers told me the book wouldn’t sell well without these details. That certainly wasn’t the path I wanted to go down so I politely refused and put the idea of a book behind me.
Where can readers learn more about you, and follow any project you may be working on?
People can find out more about me and the program utilizing our website: www.orcodevelopment.org and also keep an eye out for my lectures where I reminisce, tell anecdotes, play interviews and show pictures of my friends Jack Lemmon, Burt Lancaster, Claudette Colbert, Katharine Hepburn, James Cagney, Barbara Stanwyck, Jimmy Stewart and more. You can find most of them in the gallery section of our website with me during the 25 or so years I taught this course. I have some personal and never before heard stories about my friendship with these venerated actors. If any colleges, senior centers, organizations, etc. would like to contact me. They can do so through phone or email and I’ll be happy to reply.
Thank you so much to Professor Greenberg for this marvelous Q&A. See you next time!