The Hollywood stuntman is under investigation for that WWII rescue. 3,158 words. Part One. Part Two. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
1955 – Saratoga, New York
I’m about two inches shorter than Gary Cooper but I have the same hair color, same build, same jaw line and same profile. In fight scenes I have to move like him and on horseback I need to ride like him. For the record, Coop does a lot of his own stunts but, fortunately for me, the studio isn’t about to risk their top box office draw on cliff dives, getting shot off horses or crashing into a saloon mirror. Because of such, I’ve been employed for over two decades as Coop’s stunt double.
People get confused between a stand-in and stunt double so let me explain: A stand-in is simply a man or woman who’s used by the director and the director of photography to get the lighting right for a particular scene. The person has to have some similarities to the designated actor. A stunt double is much more.
Not that I need the money. Only a handful of people in Hollywood know my family’s background or wealth. Even less care. Stunt doubles are props, called upon for one very specific need for a motion picture – to be seen and not heard. A few stars talk to me and show a genuine interest; Coop is like that. So is Randolph Scott and Duke Wayne, if he’s not too busy getting yelled at by Pappy Ford. But the majority keep me at a professional distance which is fine by me. We all have jobs to do and as long as I show up on time, sober and alert, I have no trouble on the set. It’s the perfect job for me, requiring athletic skill, paying a decent salary and providing a free lunch.
In 1955 I had the occasion to double for Coop in his latest feature, Friendly Persuasion. It wasn’t what you would call a very physical movie, being about Quakers and all, but it was good to be able to work with Coop again. There was one fight scene in which Coop gave me the majority of the falls even though, after reading the script, I was sure it was a stunt that he could handle on his own.
Tap Canutt, the son of my mentor — well, truth be told, every stuntman’s mentor, Yakima Canutt — was going to be the heavy in the scene. We went through some gags and worked with the director William Wyler to block out the scene. Coop walked off to his dressing room.
This was not like him; he usually stuck around to provide advice on how his character would move or react. I found out later that he had a hernia and was in great pain. Coop told me he had four operations for it in two years.
It was during this shoot that I received a telegram from my brother Babe that my mother had suffered a stroke after a day of horseback riding on the back roads of the family farm in Saratoga. Could I get back there right away? The telegram had been sent a week earlier to my home in Ojai, but I was staying temporarily in an apartment not far from the studio.
I hadn’t seen my brother since last Christmas when I took the train across country to spend a couple of weeks with my mother in Albany. He said at the time that he never knew how to reach me. “Don’t you even own a telephone?” he asked, shaking his head. “Take a step into the 20th Century, Caleb. How can anyone find you?”
“Maybe I don’t want to be found,” I replied.
I took a plane out of Los Angeles and had to change flights in Chicago and then Baltimore before arriving at New York’s Idlewild airport. From there I caught a train from Pennsylvania Station up to Saratoga. Along the way I sent a quick telegram to my brother: “On my way.”
My battered suitcase contained a change of clothes and a sports jacket I had borrowed from Coop and a couple of neckties from wardrobe. I waited at the train station for the car that I knew that my brother would send. I was sure he had assorted secretaries and minions checking timetables to determine what time I was expected.
I didn’t have to wait long for the maroon Packard with a white top. The driver tried in vain to get to the door before I waved him off and slid into the front seat. We pulled up to the house just after dusk; there was scaffolding around the roof. The Tudor mansion needed some paint and the gardens seemed overgrown but other than that the house looked the same as the last time I left it.
As I walked to the porch, the boards creaked comfortably beneath my feet. The front parlor was deathly quiet; the only sound coming from the ancient grandfather clock. That, and the aroma of dinner cooking from the kitchen, brought it all back for me. I was home.
My father had the place built the year after he married my mother, redesigning an old barn into a seven bedroom mansion. This was back in 1890, the year Babe was born. The piano was still in the corner opposite the clock and near the enormous marble fireplace. I heard some chatter in the back rooms and made out the voice: Babe’s. I followed it to my father’s old office and found my brother standing by the mahogany desk and talking on the phone. He gave me a wave. “I’ll be in the city next week and we can discuss it all then. Okay, honey, have to go. Uncle Caleb is here.”
He hung up the receiver and walked towards me, grinning. “There he is! The Prodigal.”
As he approached, I was surprised by his appearance. He was smaller than I remembered, compact and trim. His gray and white hair was long and brushed back off his forehead and behind his ears. It was the mustache that really surprised me; he never had one, at least that I could remember. It was full and white with the tips drooping almost down to the jaw line like an outlaw or a sheriff. He wore heavy work pants and mud-splattered riding boots. My always well-tailored and carefully barbered elder brother looked like a Western movie gunslinger — and I told him so.
“Do I? That’s the look I was going for.” He slapped me on both shoulders and shook my hand warmly. “Good to see you, Caleb. Mother’s been asking for you all day.”
“Can I go up and see her?”
“Not just yet. She’s taking a nap.” Babe walked across the room to the small bar set up in the corner. “Bourbon still suit you?”
“Yes and some water. Traveling has left me pretty dry.”
I sat down on the large leather sofa. Babe handed me my drink and lifted his glass. “To long-lost brothers…”
I laughed and held my glass up for the toast. “Not so lost, Babe. I’m only a telegram, phone call and three train rides or airplane trips away.”
The room had the look of controlled chaos. In addition to the three phones on the desk, there was a stock ticker in one corner and two small desks with typewriters along the far wall. The large desk was covered with paperwork and two waste baskets were filled to overflowing.
Babe noticed me inspecting the room. “What can I say? I’ve been camped out here for almost a month. You saw the work being done on the roof? The whole place has fallen into disrepair; it’s my own fault, I haven’t been around enough.” A sudden pang of guilt hit me in the chest. He went on. “I can’t expect the old gal to keep up with all that needs to be done. Only the stables seem to be in good shape, thanks to George.”
George has worked for my mother over the last twenty years. The grandson of slaves, George knew almost as much about horses as my mother did. He was also her most trusted friend. (“You’ve gone soft,” he used to say to me whenever I visited. “I thought you were doing man’s work out there in Hollywood. Did they turn you into a costume maker or something?”)
“What happened? I mean, how’d she fall?”
“Riding Bamie.” My heart sank. Bamie was the tan and white Palomino I bought her last Christmas. “Smart horse!” Babe continued, “Came right to George in the stable. He brought her back, called the doctor and then called me. It was nobody’s fault. Least of all Bamie’s!”
I finished my drink. “So, brother, how’s business?”
This made Babe sit up. “That was Charlotte on the phone. She’s in charge while I attend to things here.”
Charlotte was my niece and Babe and his wife Peggy’s only child. After it was clear his wayward younger brother would never have any interest, Babe began to groom her in the family publishing business in between riding lessons, dancing lessons and debutante balls.
“Taking over for the old man suit her?”
Babe grunted with amusement. “Caleb, you really should get more involved. I mean, how long can you stay in the movies? Getting punched, shot and falling off horses? You need a contingency plan.” He stopped, looked down at me and threw up his hands. “I’m sorry. Who am I to talk to you this way? You’ve been making your own living for thirty years now and here I am treating you like a child.”
I stood up and gave him a gentle pat on the shoulder. “You’re a big brother looking out for his younger brother, that’s all. By the way, I really don’t get shot or punched and I fall off horses intentionally. You know that, right?”
I put my drink on the table and looked toward the kitchen. “Enough business talk for now. When the hell do we sit down for dinner?”
After a meal fit for my homecoming, I left Babe and took a tray of food up to my mother. I found her light was on and she was sitting up alert and smiling. “Thin,” she managed to say. “You look so thin, my boy!”
I leaned over and kissed her on the cheek. The room smelled of fresh flowers and rubbing alcohol. I was surprised by my mother’s healthy good looks. “You look beautiful, Mom, I mean it. Like you just came in off a long ride through the meadow.”
She blushed. “No rides for a while, I’m afraid, but aren’t you sweet for saying so. Now give the old gal a hug!”
I tried not to squeeze too hard; my mother felt like a bundle of sticks wrapped in cloth. I sat beside her on the bed and we fell into easy conversation. She asked me about the movie business, about my ex-wife and the grandson she never gets to see. Marie had been a starlet working at MGM and we had what you might call a whirlwind relationship followed by a quick wedding in Reno. Then disillusionment; no parties, no mansion, no easy life by the poolside. Marie took three years of that type of life before she packed up the boy. I’m still not sure how glamorous it is to be married to a biologist.
“We need some young Wyatts around. Now, please pass the tray. Believe it or not, I’m starving. But you can keep me company and regale me with tales of Hollywood.”
My mother fell asleep after my stories about the great Douglas Fairbanks; I told her he always reminded me of my father but she said no, Clark Gable. I brought the tray downstairs and saw Babe who beckoned me into the living room. He lowered his voice as we sat down on the sofa.
“There’s something you need to know…”
“What? About mom?”
Babe shook his head. “No.”
“Come on, Babe, what’s the big secret?”
“The U.S. Congress will be meeting in a few weeks; a Senate investigation committee has been formed about the creation of the atom bomb during the war.”
“And have you forgotten about the little band of commandos you were with in ‘39?”
A bad taste made its way from the back of my throat to my stomach. “Wasn’t our wartime mission classified?”
“Yes, but it wasn’t our wartime was it? The U.S. was still two years away from entry. Did you forget who you got out of Austria? What his profession was?”
“Of course, Dr. Belson, he was a physicist. So?”
“So anything that ties into the Manhattan Project up to and including the new hydrogen bomb is being probed by the Senate, with possible hearings in the House.”
This made no sense to me. I poured two glasses of straight scotch and handed him a glass. “Who’s pushing this?” I asked.
“Senator Luther Hodge, from–” He looked genuinely confused. “Hell, I’m not sure where he’s from. One of those square states, I think. Who cares, the point is he’s been able to get the President excited about it.”
We sat there quietly for some time and pondered the gravity of the situation. I finally said, “Who told you?”
“Bill Donovan. He’s expecting a subpoena. He told me he will try his best to keep the rest of us out of it.”
“Again, wasn’t this a covert operation in the interest of national defense or some such nonsense?”
“Well, I heard that’s all going to be de-classified, in the name of national security.”
I laughed. “Relax, Babe! We’ll finally be heroes when all this comes out. Hey, maybe they’ll make a movie out of it. And maybe I’ll play myself.”
“Are you enjoying this?”
“I’m starting to! Seriously, though, what can they do? It was war and the Nazis were the bad guys.”
Babe became conspiratorial again. He said in a low voice, “It’s not the hearings I’m worried about, it’s the witnesses.” The hairs on my arm stood up and there was a cold feeling in my stomach just from the look in my brother’s eyes. “Now, you’re familiar with the members of our gang of liberators, right?” I remembered them all.
1955 – Hollywood, California
The last person I ever expected to hear from again called me when I got back into town.
“Okay, first of all, who is this?”
“It’s Rita Lake.”
Now that unfamiliar voice had some meaning. “How are you?”
She wasn’t in the mood for conversation. “Fine. Can you meet me around six-thirty? At that old dive outside of MGM, the greasy spoon, Tiny’s?”
“Okay, Rita, but what’s this about?”
“Tomorrow… It’s about you and your brother.”
Then she hung up.
It was just getting dark when I reached Tiny’s, an old-hamburger joint that was frequented by actors and actresses who spent the day waiting for work. I took a booth in the back and ordered coffee.
Even though we worked in the same business and in the same town, I hadn’t seen Rita Lake in fifteen years but I knew it was her as soon as she walked in the door. She was wearing dark glasses. Her hair looked different but her walk was unmistakable.
She gave me a quick peck on the cheek and settled in on the other side of the booth. The waitress came over and I asked Rita if she wanted a cup of coffee.
She took off her glasses. “I thought you’d offer me something stronger. Coffee’s fine, thanks.” When the waitress left, she reached across the table and took my hand. “You look good, Caleb.”
“You, too.” And she did; her deep brown eyes were still bright and her smile still wide. “Still at the studio, I see.”
“Yep but no longer acting; I’m an executive now in public Relations. I’m a Vice President! I got tired of all those pre-dawn make-up calls. Besides, this was a job I was destined for. But even though I’m no longer in the field, as they say, I still have to keep my ear to the ground.”
I leaned into her. “You have some news for me?”
“That Senator Hodge, the one who’s heading up the atomic bomb investigation? He’s got an itch for your brother and he intends to go through you to get him.”
“So let him subpoena Babe to get him in front of that committee.”
Rita sipped her coffee. “Getting him in front of the committee is one thing and getting him to talk is another. Babe can plead the fifth til the cows come home and Hodge will never get the answers he wants.”
“As far as that Senator knows, there was no raid, no Dr. Belson and no band of Merry Men… and one woman.”
“He knows something, probably not everything, but he talks to Hoover constantly. Hoover was always fighting with the OSS for information during the war. He’s helping with the investigation. It’s my business to know, Caleb. Just as I know that they want to put you in front of HUAC.”
I was shocked. “What the hell for? I thought that witch hunt was over!”
She patted my hand impatiently. “Keep your voice down. Joe McCarthy may be gone but there’s still a House Un-American Activities Committee. Believe me that book, Red Channels, is still in circulation. I still have to clear writers at the studio on a weekly basis.”
“Why me? I have no affiliation with the Communist Party.”
“Your ex-wife, Marie did.”
“Yeah, for about five minutes. She was also a WAC during the war. Now she’s married to a Republican.”
Rita shook her head. “Doesn’t matter; just a whisper of being a Commie can get you put in front of that committee. Now there’s nothing official yet but you could be blacklisted even before the investigation even begins.”
“So this is leverage to get Babe to testify?”
“It’s what I would do if I wanted to get someone to talk.” She finished her coffee. “Caleb, I have to go but I’ll see what I can do from my end. She grabbed my hand again. “Listen I never said thank you. For saving my life.”
I smiled. “It was a team effort. Don’t mention it.”
She laughed. “When I think about you carrying me! And after, remember?”
“Of course.” The conversation had turned unexpectedly intimate so I changed the subject. “How’s your shoulder?”
“Oh, you mean other than not being able to play tennis anymore? No, it’s fine.” She let go of my hand and stood up to leave. “I’ll be in touch, Caleb, as soon as I hear anything.” She blew me a kiss and went out the door.
At that moment, I sincerely wished my biggest problem professionally and personally was falling off horses.