Bradford Dillman: Orson Welles: The View from Mount Olympus

Brad and Marty Milner

     Bradford Dillman was born in San Francisco in 1930 to a prominent local family. During the war he was sent to The Hotchkiss School in Lakeville, Connecticut. At Hotchkiss, senior year he played Hamlet in a dramatic association production and decided to become an actor. According to Blair Torrey, a longtime Hotchkiss master who saw the production as a student, Dillman's Hamlet remained "the best ever" put on at the school.

     At Yale, Dillman took part in amateur theatrical productions but steered clear of the Drama School which frowned on undergraduate life as rowdy.

     After graduation, Dillman headed to New York City to pursue an acting career. His parents "hit the roof" when he informed them he was not following his classmates to Wall Street. As a compromise, Bradford promised to give up acting if he "did not see any symptoms of success" within five years.

     New York in the 1950s was an exciting place for young actors. Dillman enrolled in the Actors Studio, the workshop dominated by Lee Strasberg, then at the height of its influence.

     In 1953 Dillman appeared in an adaptation of Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarecrow with fellow Studio students Eli Wallach and James Dean whom Dillman still remembers as "a wacky kid" but "very gifted."
     Before the five year probationary period was up--"as fate would have it"-- Dillman was cast in Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night which "had a huge success" on Broadway when it opened in 1956. Fredric March, whom Dillman regarded as a mentor, was one of the leads.

     Darryl F. Zanuck took note of the new young actor and signed Dillman to a contract at 20th Century-Fox. It was the twilight of the contract system, and Dillman was cast in two pictures a year.

     At Fox, and afterward, Dillman's clean-cut looks and smooth manner landed him a steady stream of parts playing Ivy Leaguers and scions-- but scions, it seemed, with an edge. He appeared as J.J., Robert Redford's carefree sidekick, in The Way We Were (1973), and played a renegade (but well-bred) DEA agent in The Amsterdam Kill (1977) with Robert Mitchum.


     In 1959, Fox cast Dillman in the screen adaptation of Compulsion, Meyer Levin's fictional account of the Loeb- Leopold murder case. Dillman played Artie Straus, the fictional counterpart of Dicky Loeb, the son of a Sears, Roebuck & Co. executive who tried to commit "the most perfect crime." Dillman gave a riveting performance in a cast that  included Orson Welles as the great criminal lawyer, Clarence Darrow, who saved the two university students from the gallows, and E.G. Marshall, who played the dour prosecutor (Robert Crowe) who had sworn the two would hang.

     Bill Miller was the cinematographer on Compulsion and a second film that Dillman made with Welles, Crack in the Mirror.

     In 1963 Bradford Dillman married Suzy Parker, a Long Island born redhead who had been a top fashion model in New York and Paris where she had been a pupil of Coco Chanel. Suzy's modeling career had inspired the movie Funny Face, in which she had a small part. After moving to Hollywood, she appeared in a number of movies, including The Best of Everything (1959).

Orson Welles

     In 1968 Suzy and Bradford moved to Montecito where Suzy gave up acting to raise their growing family. Their marriage lasted 43 years until her death in 2003. Over the years, Dillman continued to appear in films and numberous television dramas to support his large family. As acting jobs dried up, Dillman wrote an autobiography, Are You Anybody?: An Actor's LIfe, published in 1997 (forword by Suzy Parker).

     This interview was posted on American Legends in 2006. Ever the old school Hotchkiss-Yale gentleman, Dillman e-mailed American Legends: "The article is splendid." He died in 2017 at age 87.

    Here, as interviewed by Ron Martinetti in Santa Barbara, the actor recalled the two movies he made with the great Orson Welles.

AL: In the film Compulsion, Dean Stockwell played Judd Steiner, the fictional counterpart of Nathan Leopold, the brilliant 19 year old law student who helped plot the crime. How did you come to be cast as Artie Straus?


BD: Compulsion was one of Dick Zanuck's early assignments as a producer. Fortunately, he choose me. Dean Stockwell had been in the Broadway company of Compulsion with Roddy McDowall whom I came to know later, a terrific guy. But Dean didn't appreciate the fact that I had been cast and Roddy had not. Dean was standoffish and very difficult with me sometimes. That was okay. Since we were both playing heavies, we didn't have to be in love with each other.



Orson Welles played the Darrow-like lawyer, Jonathan Wilk, in the film.



The first thing I said to him was, "In my judgment, Citizen Kane is the greatest motion picture that's ever been made. It's a great privilege for me to be able to work with you." He said, "Thank you." That's when we were on very good terms.


AL: Did you seek out Welles for advice?

BD: On the set of Compulsion, Orson was very good. He was kind of supportive. He had such an eye for what was going on. If I had any questions, and I didn't want to ask Richard Fleischer, the director, Orson was right there.



There were a number of young actors in the film. Martin Milner played the young reporter (based on Al Goldstein) who had helped crack the case. Diane Varsi and Edd Byrnes were also in the cast. Did Welles encourage them?



Although Orson was helpful to me on Compulsion, he was not overly friendly. Welles was not a gregarious person. We didn't have sessions in which we sat around and talked of all the great movies he had done and all the people he had worked with. Orson didn't talk to the other actors. He never talked about the plot, he never talked about the script. He was the last person called on the set. Everything would be rehearsed. You learned to be very wary in a scene that you didn't step on his lines or anything like that.



Did Welles rehearse his scenes?



He didn't like rehearsing. He wanted to keep his performance fresh. My recollection is that he would do a scene three times-- and take three was fine.


AL: Did Welles discuss acting technique?


Orson was more a director than he was an actor. He always heard a scene. If he was making a suggestion to Dick Fleischer, Welles would say, "My voice could come down on this word... then Brad's can come up...." It was all radio acting. When he was performing, he was performing for radio.


AL: You worked several times with both Fredric March and Welles. How would you compare the two?



Welles and Freddie March acted from the outside in. I came from the Actors Studio. We were trained to act from the inside out. Welles and Freddie March were what we call "indicators." Rather than experiencing the emotion, they indicated it. That was contrary to everything I had been taught. Of course, Welles never talked about the Actors Studio. To him, his Mercury Theater was the definitive acting group. Who's to say it wasn't? Some pretty terrific people came out of there: Agnes Moorehead and others.



In Compulsion there is the climatic courtroom scene in which the great attorney pleads for the boys' lives. Meyer Levin used Darrow's actual speech.



Orson had read a great deal about Darrow. But he was more interested in knowing where the cameras were going to be during the courtroom summation. We filmed it in one shot. The cameras were fully loaded. Orson plotted it out very carefully. The word was that he was going to stand at particular moments during the speech because he wanted to be sure that he would be seen by the cameras. This was all wonderful preparation.


AL: Did Fleischer and Welles clash on the set?



Orson considered himself to know a lot more than Richard Fleishcher to put it bluntly. Fleischer took it all very nicely. He was able to baby Orson, to sweet talk him to get some of the things that he wanted from Orson.


AL: After finishing Compulsion, Fox put you in Crack in the Mirror, another Welles movie, also directed by Richard Fleischer. Supposedly, Darryl Zanuck wrote the film for Juliette Greco.



Compulsion had been a terrific success, and Dick Zanuck wanted to use me again right away. The movie was shot in Paris. Orson's attitude toward me completely changed because he had to share the Cannes Film Festival award for best actor with Dean Stockwell and myself. I was then portrayed as an enemy.



Even someone like David O. Selznick found Orson Welles overly competitive.



Orson was hell on wheels. He did everything humanly possible to sabotage me. In the film we each played dual roles that required complicated make-up for the different characters. I would have my hair sprayed blond for one character, for the other it would be tightly curled. Orson would come in every morning after my make-up had been carefully done, and he would say, "How you doing, Curly?" and ruffle my hair; or, he'd do the same thing: "Hi, Blondie." Orson, by the way, did his own make-up. He had this make-up box that must have gone back to the Mercury Theater. It had never been washed.



Darryl Zanuck was known as a tough master on the set. What was his relationship with Welles?



Darryl Zanuck was too busy taking care of Juliette Greco to have interaction with Welles. Zanuck was very protective of Juliette. The few times he was down on the set, he was making sure that no one was making eyes at her.


AL: In her biography, Barbara Leming writes that Orson Welles resented not being selected to direct Compulsion and so was out to undermine Richard Fleischer on Crack in the Mirror. (Barbara Leming, Orson Welles, New York, Penguin Books ed., 1985)



Richard didn't fool around with Orson. Nobody fooled around with Orson. He did his own thing. I was sitting in make-up one particular day, and Welles came in. He said, "You seem damn cheerful this morning." I said, "Well, as a matter of fact, I am..." I told him: "My wife is coming today." He said, "Your wife? You're kidding...." I asked him why he thought I was kidding, and he said: "Well, nothing personal, I always thought you were a fag." The make-up area was upstairs. I was still reeling from his comment when I headed downstairs to the sound stage. Suddenly, it hit me. I was about to do my most important scene in the film, and Welles knew it. He was deliberately trying to knock me off balance so my performance would be affected.


AL: Did things get better toward the end of the shoot?

No. Finally, there was this one scene in which I was supposed to murder him. As we started in with the blocking, Welles said to Dick Fleischer, "This is ridiculous. This is like a gnat attacking a lion." Remember, Welles was a huge man; he weighed 300 pounds, whatever. I said, "Orson, I realize this looks ludicrous...but if I could bring you to your knees, we might make it look believable...."He said, "Bring me to my knees..." and went on ridiculing me. I asked him, "If I could just demonstrate..." and finally he said, "I suppose so...." By that time I was really angry. I got him to his knees and put a Marine Corps move on him. He screamed...he just screamed like a baby and backed away from me. I thought how silly that it had come to this. The man is a genius, and he feels threatened by some 28 year old kid. This is silly....


AL:  Welles died in 1985. Did you ever see or work with him again?


BD: No. We parted in Paris...that was the last time I saw him.


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