She juggled two careers
in films and on records
By JIM BAWDEN
Whenever I think of Julie London, I think of smoke. Lots and lots of snoke. As in the Toronto dinner club where I first saw her huskily singing, all the while smoking up a storm. And on records where her smoky voice seems husky and sexy at the same time.
Julie London's career took enormous twists and turns. In the early 1940s, she made her movie debut as a teenager, playing a child raised by a gorilla in a poverty row jungle picture called "Nabonga." She became a popular "pinup girl" for GI's in the waning days of World War II and went on to play sexy roles in a number of mostly forgettable movies.
In 1947, she married a young radio actor named Jack Webb, who would become a nationwide sensation when his show "Dragnet" moved to TV and became a 1950s phenomenon. Then, although she had never sung on screen before, she suddenly emerged as a pop singing star in 1955 with her No. 1 hit "Cry Me A River," which made her Billboard's top female vocalist for three consecutive years (1955-57).
That led to big dramatic roles in better movies like "The Great Man" (1956) with Jose Ferrer, "Man of the West" with Gary Cooper and "The Wonderful Country" (1959) opposite Robert Mitchum. Then, from 1972-77, she moved full-time to TV where she was the female lead in NBC's "Emergency," a one-hour drama series produced by first husband Jack Webb and co-starring her second husband Bobby Troup.
It was a most unusual series of career transformations and yet, all the while, Julie London retained her image as one of Hollywood's sexiest leading ladies well into her forties.
The only time I met her was in June, 1972, when I flew from Toronto to L.A. for the annual meeting of television critics to preview the new TV season. An NBC executive met me at LAX and directed my luggage to the Century Plaza hotel while he drove me at breakneck speed to London’s home in Encino, which she shared with husband Bobby Troup and their children.
Here’s a transcript of highlights of our talk:
BAWDEN: I confess I had the maitre d’ sneak me into one of your 1969 performances at Toronto’s Imperial Room at the Royal York hotel.
LONDON: So you’re the one that got away! Hey, I had a percentage of the gross, meaning you owe me $20, Bub.
BAWDEN: I tend to romanticize the life of a cafe society singer.
LONDON: To start out, I never called myself a singer. I say stylist. Because I honestly do not have the greatest voice, it’s the way I present myself, you see. But to answer your question, there was nothing romantic about it. At the Royal York or whatever hotel I was at, I’d stay most of the day in my hotel room and I never could sleep in the daytime. Then I’d be escorted through the back hallways and greasy kitchen to the room and wait cowering in some fear before the curtain revealed my presence. I’d sing as closely into the mike as I could. And, after 70 minutes, I’d go back to the hotel room and wait another hour or so and do it all over again.
BAWDEN: These wonderful supper clubs are closing all over the place. What’s the reason?
LONDON: It’s purely economics. I’d get 400 people tops in a nitery and it’s not the best way for a hotel to make money. Not when one can get 3,000 at the Flamingo in Vegas or in a Broadway theater. And I’ve been told some of the younger singers absolutely refuse to do two shows a night. They say they can’t do it. And then there’s the condition of America’s inner cities. It’s dangerous to go downtown in some places these days.
BAWDEN: Getting dressed up to have a great meal and listen to a great singer is somehow considered old fashioned.
LONDON: Well, it is. You gotta have the ego for it. And I never really did. I’d do a great first gig and then worry how to top it for the second show. As I was departing my last time in Toronto, they were lugging in the oxygen canisters to be positioned right behind the curtain. For Peggy Lee, who felt some night she might need it. And I figured I gotta quit this racket before I’m in that condition. I spent a decade singing in smoke filled rooms. Not healthy.
BAWDEN: Another consideration is delivery. Sonny and Cher just didn’t make it in supper clubs. They couldn’t project to such a tiny house. They’d hide behind amplification. But Marlene Dietrich, over 79, wowed the crowd because they caught every sigh, every whisper.
LONDON: Age can work against you. The last time I was at the Plaza in New York, the 8 p.m. show was full but the 10 o'clock show half empty. I asked what gives and they tell me at 10 that means show’s out at 11:15, then there’s the drive home and my fans can’t get to bed before 1 a.m. and that’s too late for them especially for the fellas who must get to work the next morning. So I switched the shows to 6:30 and 9 and we were back to SRO and I got to bed earlier, too. I told Guy Lombardo about it and he said the way he’s going, 5 p.m. will be too late for his crowd.
BAWDEN: How did you get started in the biz?
LONDON: I grew up in San Bernadino, born Nancy Peck, which I thought a great movie name. My parents, Jack and Josephine, were ex-vaudevillians who ran a photography business so performing came naturally. I first sang on the radio aged three and I loved doing radio because of the anonymity. We moved to L.A. in 1941 for the work when I was 14.
One day in high school I came down with hives. The doctor said I was allergic–to school! So, I quit and got a job as an elevator girl while attending the Hollywood Professional School as well. One day in the office block where I worked I opened the gates and agent Sue Carol stepped on, looked me over and by the time she got off I had an agent. She said, “I’m Sue Carol.” I drew a blank. Then she said “I’m also known as Mrs. Alan Ladd” and I really perked up! I was Julie Peck back then but Sue said it was a bad name. Peck was "unsexy," so I became Gayle Peck, then Julie London. when I was 17. Then I’m walking along Sunset Boulevard and see on the marquee Gregory Peck in "Days of Glory." I could have killed sweet Sue!
BAWDEN: Can I ask you a question about "Nabonga"?
LONDON: I just knew that was coming. I always get that one. So, yes, I’m ready, but don’t blame me. It was a Grade Z African movie that was filled with stock footage. A real dog of a picture. I just turned 17 and needed that $300 a week. It came in mighty handily. Buster Crabbe was the star and he was awfully nice to this newcomer and he still had a good physique. The publicity claimed Nabonga was a tamed gorilla but it was Ray Corrigan in that monkey suit. You think I was stupid enough to get into a cage with a real gorilla?
JULIE LONDON, age 17, plays the "white witch of the jungle" in the
1944 film "Nabonga." That's Buster Crabbe cowering in the
background and Ray "Crash" Corrigan in the gorilla costume. Julie
played a little girl raised by the gorilla in darkest Africa. In this scene,
she gets a little bossy with her former "parent."
Once I turned on the TV in Berlin and "Nabonga" was playing in German, so go figure. I remember Fifi D’Orsay, who left half way through when she stopped getting paid. At one point they thought of renaming it “White Goddess.” It came out after that Hedy Lamarr movie "White Cargo." I’m the gal who grew up in the jungle and still speaks perfect American! Critics asked why, in this study of darkest Africa, were there Indian elephants and American alligators. All I can say is that after this I could only get extra work.
BAWDEN: You’re listed as doing extra work in "Janie" (1944) and "Diamond Horseshoe" (1945).
LONDON: I’m thinking "Janie" was made before "Nabonga." In "Night in Paradise" (1946) my part was cut down to "uncredited."
BAWDEN: Your next big film was "The Red Hous" (1947).
LONDON: Not a bad comeback for a kid of 21! "The Red House" was an early movie by director Delmer Daves, who was so nice. He always explained everything to cast and crew. It was Edward G. Robinson who was the star and he battled furiously with Dame Judith Anderson, who was always trying to top him. I was the school slut Lon McCallister has the hots for when he really should be romancing Eddie’s daughter, Allene Roberts. Lon was a darling but his entire career he was playing teens. He never grew up. He always looked so young and fresh. This was just about Rory Calhoun’s first movie, too,. He was so handsome back then,. Couldn’t act, but none of us kids could.
A very sexy JULIE LONDON
with screen newcomer RORY
CALHOUN in the 1947
thriller "THE RED HOUSE."
BAWDEN: Them, in 1947, you married actor-writer Jack Webb, a marriage that produced two daughters, but ended in divorce in 1953.
LONDON: We kept on talking for the sake of the girls. I met and married him when he was fresh out of the Marines. I was 15 when we had our first date. Always took me to jazz clubs. He didn’t want me working, so for a few years–1950 to 1954--I didn’t work much. We divorced in 1953 and he left me with a generous settlement but I simply had to do something. So I went back to acting and singing.
BAWDEN: Before that, though, you had some pretty big roles in smash movies.
LONDON: "Tap Roots" (1948) was a Susan Hayward vehicle with Van Heflin--and Boris Karloff as an Indian! Susie was hard as nails, hated any other female she ever worked with. Producer Walter Wanger kept telling us, “After all, this is not 'Gone with the Wind,,'” and he was right. Susie had lost out in playing Scarlett but I thought her Southern belle was way over the top.
I then did "Task Force" (1949) at Warners. Gary Cooper, Jane Wyatt, Wayne Morris and Walter Brennan were the stars. The last 20 minutes were in color, I remember that. My part was small but a decade later I got to co-star with Coop in a western and his is the only autographed picture I keep in the house.
I finished my short Warner contract with "Return of the Frontiersman" (1950) with Gordon MacRae. I was the only gal on the lot shorter than MacRae, who was a shrimp. Jack Holt and Rory Calhoun were in it, too. It was my introduction to westerns, which I always enjoyed doing.
Then I was in the movie version of "The Fat Man," which came from the radio series starring J. Scott Smart. They added a sidekick. Dashiell Hammett created the character but Universal scrubbed him from the credits after he was blacklisted. This was about Rock Hudson’s biggest part to date and, boy, was he nervous. Jayne Meadows was also in it. I was the Rock’s girlfriend. And then I retired for four years. Not that there were many offers.
JULIE LONDON does her sultry bit in Universal's "The Fat Man," with J. Scott Smart, reprising his famous detective role from radio in the 1951 feature film.
BAWDEN: Then came big breaks as a singer.
LONDON: Well, no, I was singing with a so-called big band when I was 18. Matty Melnich’s orchestra. So I had that prior experience. Then after Jack left I was going steady with Bobby Troup, who asked me to sing at a party and I sort of wowed everybody. I guess I’d had a couple. Then he arranged for me to sing in a Hollywood club, The 881 Club, and I was scared but patrons seemed to like it. For my first album I needed a few original songs and a high school buddy, Arthur Hamilton, told me he’d written several songs for "Pete Kelly’s Blues" that Jack had turned down for Ella Fitzgerald as inappropriate. One was "Cry Me A River," which I loved and then it went to the top of the charts and gave me my image. My favorite song of that time was "Go Slow," which sums up my singing style.
JULIE LONDON sings her No. 1 record hit "Cry Me A River" in a sequence from
the 1956 Jayne Mansfield film "The Girl Can't Help It." She was the top female vocalist for three consecutive years in Billboard's annual survey, 1955-57.
album covers left the
she was sexy. She
made 32 albums
BAWDEN: You did a lot of TV singing in those days.
LONDON: An appearance on the Ed Sullivan or Perry Como shows guaranteed SRO crowds at my next club date. I did the Andy Williams, Steve Allen, Garry Moore and Dinah Shore programs. Live TV was scary fun, if you know what I mean. Later on they’d use me on "Hollywood Squares."
At left, JULIE LONDON with first husband JACK WEBB. At right, with second husband BOBBY TROUP, the singer-composer-jazz pianist who co-starred with her in TV's "Emergency," which was prodcued by first husband Webb.
BAWDEN: You also went dramatic.
LONDON: Well, yeah, I did two bad movies around then–"Fighting Chance" and "Crime Against Joe"--you don’t want to know about. I’d (also) do (drmatic roles on) "Zane Grey Theater" on TV and David Niven’s TV series.
BAWDEN: How did you get that juicy part in Jose Ferrer's "The Great Man" (1956)?
LONDON: He just phoned me up, said he was a big fan of my albums and so was his wife, Rosemary Clooney. I did a song "The Meaning of the Blues," which Bobby Troup wrote with Leah Worth. You have to remember it came out a year before "A Face in the Crowd" and this guy was a radio commentator, not one on TV. I hear Arthur Godfrey was livid. There’s even scenes with a young crooner patterned after Godfrey and Julius La Rosa. Audiences felt they should have seen the great man –that was a big flaw. I played an alcoholic ex-singer, it wasn’t a big part but it showed I really could act.
JOSE FERRER plants a kiss
on JULIE LONDON in
"The Great Man."
BAWDEN: What did you think of "Man of the West" (1958)?
LONDON: That rape scene was murder on me. I was shaking for days afterwards. Scenes inside the train were shot on a real traveling train–no back-projection. Jack Lord was so much in awe of Coop, Jack kept flubbing his lines. And so did I! I was a dance hall girl, Billie—one step short of a prostitute. The sleazy stripping scene turned a lot of people off. Heck, it turned me off, too! Jack then gets beaten and stripped by Coop, which was a bit of a stretch as Gary was then 57 and in declining health. UA loathed it and dumped it into the grind houses as the top of a double bill. But Gary said it was among his best westerns. He planned to make a western with Anthony Mann out of "King Lear," if you can believe that. But he died in 1961.
JACK LORD menaces GARY COOPER
as a partially-undressed JULIE
LONDON looks on in "Man of the
West," a grim western from
director Anthony Mann.
BAWDEN: Also that year you made "A Question of Adultery" (1958).
LONDON: Oh, please! It was about an adultery trial and there were a lot of distinguished British actors in it. Most states banned it outright. These days it might be PG. Then I did "Night of the Quarter Moon," which really got the censors in a flap. I was a black girl light enough to pass as white. I marry John Barrymore Jr. and his family finds out and it was all very silly. But you know it was based on a real miscegenation trial but that trial had happened in 1924. This one never plays on TV.
Singer NAT "KING" COLE
plays a scene with JULIE
LONDON in the film about
"Night of the Quarter Moon."
Cole had an early hit record
with "I Get My Kicks on Route 66,"
a song composed by London's
husband, Bobby Troup.
BAWDEN: You also did more westerns.
LONDON: I did "Saddle the Wind" (1958) with that wonderful gentle man Bob Taylor. Can’t act, but such charm. The young punk in it was John Cassavettes, which shows how long ago it was made. Bob always played himself. He was very good in these kind of star vehicles. Rod Serling wrote it, so the dialogue was above average. We shot in Colorado and George Folsey’s camera work is magnificent. But is it a particularly good picture? Not really. Then I toiled away in Mexico making "The Wonderful Country" (1959) and when I saw it my part was all of six minutes long. Bob Mitchum had all the close-ups and you kept seeing the back of my head in every scene. Gary Cooper would never have acted like that.
BAWDEN: Is the story that you dubbed a scene for Laraine Day in "The Third Voice" (1960) true?
LONDON: Yup. In the last shot it’s Laraine Day screaming at the top of her lungs. Only after they screened it, the studio was dissatisfied. Laraine had decamped, so I was in that day and I dubbed her scream. I can’t see that scene without laughing a bit. Laraine, I demand my scream back. We all seemed to spend a lot of time on the phone which was part of the plot. It didn’t do well. Both Joe Cotten and Bill Powell had passed on it and the marquee value of Edmond O’Brien, me, Day, that was hardly box office, right?
BAWDEN: In the 1970s, your primary focus was the TV series "Emergency." I'm curious to know why they’d think of such a glamorous girl to play an ER head nurse.
LONDON: Jack Webb phoned and asked me to consider it. I asked to see a script and he said he didn’t have one ready but he needed my signature to pitch it to NBC. The deadlines were looming. It was designed as a mid-seasoner, which is still rare on TV. He’d already used Bobby Troup in some episodes of "Adam 12." And he simply told me, “I think you’re a damned fine actress and you can project that grace under fire ER nurses must demonstrate.” So, I believed him and to our surprise NBC picked up the show before the entire pilot was finished.
in her last great role
as Nurse Dixie McCall
on TV's "Emergency."
BAWDEN: Expectations were low?
LONDON (laughing): To put it mildly! NBC had two bad sitcoms that were performing badly ("The Good Life" and "The Partners"). Jack phones up and says “We got picked up!” I cheered. Then he said “And here’s the bad news—we’re up against 'All In The Family.'” which was the number one rated series that year. But Jack said not to panic. Expectations were zero and, in fact, we did take down Archie Bunker just a little bit our first half.
BAWDEN: Which do you prefer--touring as a singer or doing a TV series?
LONDON: Oh, honey, it’s a question of looking out for my family. My husband and I have five kids between us. Do you know how lonely it gets in a hotel room when you realize your kids are getting ready for bed and you’re not there for them? It’s an awful sinking feeling. Not that I don’t hate getting up at 5 a.m. and driving to Universal City. But the joy of sleeping in my own bed is something else. Being on the road just plain wore me out.
BAWDEN: Doesn’t learning the strange staccato speech of a Webb script get to you.
LONDON: A bit. It’s a rhythm he first learned writing the original radio scripts for "Dragnet." And being an ER nurse, I was told by the girls I watched in actual situations not to be garrulous. Offer the patient and family as few words as possible. There’s no time for chit chat and don’t give them false optimism. Be kind and caring but remember the ER might be packed with patients needing care. Firmness is needed.
BAWDEN: You seemed to work well with your co-stars–Robert Fuller, Randolph Mantooth, Kevin Tighe--right from the beginning.
LONDON: I’m already best buds with Bobby (Fuller). The fact reviewers said I looked a decade older than him is all right with me, I am older. And signing a western star (to play) a doctor was one of Jack’s best moves. (Fuller had starred in two earlier TV westerns, "Wagon Train" and "Laramie.") Bob has the humanity an ER doctor must carry at all times.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: This was the only time I interviewed London and it was just about my first solo interview in Los Angeles. I remember at one point London went into the kitchen for iced tea and Bobby Troup grabbed me by the shoulder and said, "Stop shaking so much; you’re doing just fine." A few summers later at an NBC all-star affair for the TV critics at the Century Plaza hotel, London brushed up against me playfully and whispered “Hello Canada!” and then was gone.
After "Emergency" folded in 1977, London was hired by Webb as a possible executive producer of pilots but could not make a network sale and drifted out of the business a few years later, refusing all acting and singing invitations. In 1978, she did make TV spots for Rose Milk Care Cream, looking appropriately creamy.
She suffered a stroke in 1995 and Troup became her principal heath care provider. He died in 1999 and the rest of the family pitched in to take care of her until she died in October, 2000. I’d written to her months before her death and received an autographed photo of her riding with Robert Taylor in "Saddle the Wind."
The family seemed to be tragedy prone. Daughter Stacy Webb died in a car crash in 1996 and one of her twins, Jody Troup, died of a heart attack in 2010.
©2012 by Jim Bawden. This column first posted June 4, 2012.