One of James MacArthur's early movies, and a good one at that. Movie poster courtesy of Amazon.com
Actor James MacArthur died this week at the age of 72. His life was long on success and adventure. But he also lived with a mystery. I'll get to the mystery in a minute: first the success and adventure.
His adoptive mother was Helen Hayes--often called the "First Lady of the Theater." His adoptive father? The writer Charles MacArthur, who, with his pal Ben Hecht, authored a score of terrific plays and movie scripts, including The Front Page (1930) (remade in its best version as His Girl Friday (1939), the Twentieth Century (1934), and Gunga Din and Wuthering Heights, both produced in that magical movie year, 1939.
Both his parents were fixtures among the Algonquin Round Table crowd, the gathering of intellectuals who inhaled alcohol and exhaled witticisms at a special table in New York's Algonquin Hotel. "Let me slip out of these wet clothes and into a dry martini," is attributed to more than one of them. Hayes became part of the circle because she was the toast of Broadway, though she didn't drink and said she was much too dense to trade bon mots them.
"This puzzling acceptance became clear to me later in life," she wrote in her autobiography. "Egocentrics are attracted to the inept. It gives them one more excuse for patting themselves on the back." (From On Reflection, by Helen Hayes, 1968).
Hayes and MacArthur had a daughter together, Mary, and wanted another child. They adopted James, who was born in Los Angeles in 1937.
Few people in the entertainment business begin life with as many advantages as did the young James MacArthur. He was good-looking, bright, and well-connected. And he had talent. A lot of people in Hollywood with those advantages are happy to make a mess of their lives, but MacArthur never did.
His sister died of polio in 1949. His father was brilliant, but an alcoholic. He coped with those sorrows too.
And though he never became a huge star, he did well. He started out in a small part in one of his mother's plays, when he was eight years old. He went on to play handsome young man parts, notably in several Disney films including the Swiss Family Robinson (1960).
His biggest success was as Jack Lord's sidekick in the television series Hawaii Five-0, which ran on CBS from 1968-1980. When the bad guys had been caught and the story wrapped up, Jack Lord would turn to MacArthur, who played state police officer Danny Williams, and say "Book em, Danno," a line that earned a place in American pop culture.
MacArthur was a smart enough businessman to stick with the show and then hang on to his royalties. He spent the last decades of his life enjoying himself, acting occasionally, and playing golf. His third wife, from 1984 until his death, was H.B. Duntz, a pretty, blonde, former LPGA professional.
He was always a smart businessman. In his twenties he started a telephone answering service with a couple of his actor friends, and at one point owned a magazine.
Which leads me to the mystery: he was good-looking, intelligent, and talented and was born in Los Angeles in 1937. He was adopted by very famous people who had very famous Hollywood friends. Who were his real parents? Was his mother--or father--known to the MacArthurs? LA was a small town back then. His parents' close friends ranged from Lillian Gish, to the Marx Brothers, to Hollywood executives, to George Gershwin (who, coincidentally, died in December of 1937).
Sometimes, after a death, these are among the things that are revealed. After Loretta Young died, her daughter, Judy Lewis, revealed that she was indeed the daughter of Young and Clark Gable--something that had long been a rumor. Loretta Young "adopted" the baby the year after a torrid winter she spent stuck with Gable in the snowy North shooting the appropriately named Call of the Wild in 1935. When you see Judy Lewis, the first face that comes to mind is Gable's, she looks so much like him ... anyway ...
Judy Young Lewis, at right, is the biological daughter of Loretta Young and Clark Gable. Young "adopted" her after taking a year off from the movies, suffering, she said, from "exhaustion."
That story is one of the stories that has always made me wonder about James MacArthur. Somewhere, amidst the swirl of Hollywood in 1937, is the rest of the James MacArthur story. I understand it is none of my business. But I'm enough of a reporter, still, to want to know what it is.