April 24, 2019

The "It's About TV" Interview: Edward "Torchy" Smith, author of Shooting the Breeze with Baby Boomer Stars!

Edward Smith, henceforth known as Torchy (with the red hair to back it up), is a man after my own heart. He "always had an interest in seeking a way to combine his nostalgia obsession with communications through the internet," resulting in his iHeart Radio program Baby Boomers Talk Radio, where he's interviewed over 100 celebrities from his generation, including kid stars. And it's those kid stars of the past that form the basis of his new book, Shooting the Breeze with Baby Boomer Stars!: Surprising Celebrity Conversations for the Retro Generation. Well, as an unapologetic member of said Retro Generation, I knew right away that this was a man I needed to talk with, and I'm delighted that he was able to make time to sit down for this latest edition of the It's About TV Interview.

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It's About TV: Torchy, welcome to the It's About TV Interview. If you're looking to talk about the past, you've come to the right place! 

Torchy Smith: I live in the past and I am proud of it.

So what gave you the idea to reach out to and talk with the child stars of the past? 

I always wanted to be a kid star myself.  I was a cute red-haired freckled kid and drew a lot of attention back then.  The only thing holding me back was that I did not live close enough for my mother to take me to any casting call in Hollywood.

My kids were in the business. My daughter was a TV producer for the “E” Channel and my son was a talent agent.  After my retirement I thought it was my turn now.

I liked how you talk at the beginning about how you contacted these people. It seems that in most cases, it’s just a matter of having the guts to reach out to them. 

Guts and getting their right contact information.  I think because I did my class reunions, I had the skills to know how to reach and FIND THEM.

Was there a common thread when it came to the experiences of the stars you talked to, of the conclusions that you or they might have arrived at, or are they all really unique situations? 

A common thread is MONEY.  They need it and as many artists (take out extra word here) are bad business people. The ones that took lemons and made lemonade have taken their fame and seemed to make a springboard from that. The business part of show business is just that. And there are many ways to still be in the business without being in front of the camera.  Look up the terms called BELOW THE LINE and ABOVE THE LINE.  Google them.

Speaking of money, one thing that comes through in many of your interviews is the question of royalties—or perhaps I should say the lack of royalties—that they earned for their work. Some people might be surprised to find that early success doesn't necessarily translate to great wealth.

In 1965, when Ronald Reagan was president of The Screen Actors Guild—that was the watershed year for TV royalties. All early TV actors and writers got screwed. The most amazing story is about the Jackie Coogan Laws. Google that. This can be a very long subject and a very interesting one. Many stars tell that they have recently gotten checks for about 15 cents.

Torchy Smith
Did you find much bitterness when you talked with these people, or a reluctance to talk about the past; or did they see their acting days as being more or less positive experiences, giving them access to a life that they might not otherwise have had? 

Yes….many hung up on me. Some had substance abuse problems.

Which leads to my next question: it seems that with so many of today's child stars—the kids who were on Disney Channel shows, for example—we hear about wild lifestyles, gender fluidity, drug and alcohol problems, the works. Granted, it's tough to handle stardom no matter how old you are, but was there a secret to the kids who made it through this period relatively unscathed?

I have concluded that if the parents had a plan “B” for their kids, that would help face the real world.  If the parents did not live off their kid’s money, then the pressure did not hurt the kid later on when the spotlight turned off.

How difficult was it for them to transition into an "ordinary" life? Or was it just a case of them doing what they were told because that’s what kids do? 

Paul Petersen has a line about that. “I never knew one kid that would drive himself or herself to a casting call.”  They all had difficulties.

What makes a child star grow into an adult star? In other words, do those who stay in the business and become successful have something in common, as opposed to those who kind of leave that life behind and do something else? 

Very few can start as a child star and maintain their fame without being type cast. Not everyone can be a Mickey Rooney or a Ron Howard.  The only common denominator is not to be typecast. But then, how do you know if your show is going to be a big hit for years?

And then there's someone like Shirley Temple, who had a remarkable career after show business: politician, diplomat, ambassador, parent. Was she just extraordinary, or do we just not hear about the child stars that go on to live “normal” lives without looking back? 

Yes, many have normal lives without looking back…But they were not as famous as Shirley.  (Shirley you must be joking)  (Laughs) From the movie Airplane.

In the course of your interviews, you actually seemed to have a lot in common with many of these stars, such as sharing an acquaintance, even though it might not have been a personal connection. Did that surprise you, or, for lack of a better description, are stars really that much like you and me? 

I don’t like the term HAS BEANS…but that made it easier in some ways. In other ways their agents are no longer around. After I got known and word spread, I most always dealt through their PR guy. Many still have some connection to a representative because they would write a book or needed a rep for personal appearances. Most stars are not like the average person.  They have a deep-rooted experience that they rest cannot comprehend. Once they get to know more about them you can understand that.  Of course, they have the same feelings and eat, and crap just like us. I have noticed that after awhile the fame settles in and becomes a part of their life that gets easier to appreciate.

What does our continuing fascination with the stars of the past tell us about our relationship to that time period? Do we romanticize it too much, or were things then really that different from how they are now? 

The TV pie back the (extra word taken out) 50’s and 60’s was in three pieces. Today it is about 300 pieces and cut up with the same viewership. This is a big difference for competition with programs now compared to back then. If you were in a bad TV program and it was aimed at kids, we still watched it and still talked about it to our friends on the playground at school.  We had no other choices. So, the TV kid stars were known no matter what.

I feel frustrated that my grandchildren will never know that somehow things felt better with less choices.  We had three flavors of ice-cream and enjoyed it just as much as they do with 31 flavors. We felt safe and the reason why is that program called “Happy Days” was because THEY WERE.

Was there anyone who opened up to you in an unexpected way, maybe telling you something that they hadn’t talked about before, or something that really caught you off-guard?

Yes..Sherry Jackson from the Make Room for Daddy show and many other TV and film appearances.

Until she dies, I promised I would not say. And I believed every word of it. She talked on the phone with me almost once a week. We became friends, then ended up in an argument. I was going to write her life story. That is all I can say for now.

Without going into too much detail—obviously, I want people to buy your book!—what are some stories you can share that might really surprise us? For example, you mention that Anson Williams's second cousin was Dr. Henry Heimlich, who came up with the Heimlich Maneuver. 

Mark Metcalf, who played Neidermeyer in Animal House, did everything he could to avoid going to Vietnam, which mostly included hiding out in the woods of Oregon for about a year. After that he went back to face the music and they didn’t want him anymore.  The irony here is that at the end of the movie they showed funny and fictitious updates of the Animal House Kids and they labeled Neidermeyer with “Killed by his own troops in Vietnam.”

Staying with Animal House, Stephen Furst, who played Ken Dorfman, arrived in Los Angeles seeking a career in acting and not knowing one soul there. He found his first job as a pizza delivery boy and came up with the genius idea to staple his headshot and resumé to each pizza box he delivered. BINGO ! It worked.  He got his first audition that way from Matty Simmons, the producer of Animal House.

Not quite as good as Lana Turner's story, but it'll do!

Billy Gray, who's best known for his role as Bud in the TV series, Father Knows Best, was in a ton of feature films before that including one of the most important science fiction movies of all time called The Day the Earth Stood Still. As a little boy he taught Mr. Carpenter, the spaceman [played by Michael Rennie] all about the ways of earthlings. Recently they made a new version of that classic movie. Billy contacted them about playing a small part or even a bigger part of the old professor that was originally played by Sam Jaffee. He seemed perfect for that role. The casting people seemed enthused and gave him the script to study. He spent a lot of time practicing the German Professor with an accent and even put a screen test on YouTube. They chose John Cleese instead. The reviews were harsh, and the movie was a bomb.

It's always nice to see some cosmic justice, so to speak, in Hollywood.

Kathy Garver, who played Cissy on TV’s Family Affair, got her big break as a child in 1956, when she played a child slave in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments. Garver was told as an extra to sit in a wagon with a lamb on her lap for the beginning of the great march of thousands of slaves leaving Egypt. At first when Mr. DeMille spotted Garver he thought she might steal the scene and bellowed out to the cameraman, “Don’t let that little girl’s face get in the shot!" So, they placed a blanket over her face. Then all of a sudden, he changed his mind and little Kathy stole his heart. Mr. DeMille had a short scene written just for her on the spot. It was an auspicious beginning.

Finally, Lyle Waggoner was best known for his many years working with Carol Burnett and the cast of memorable characters on her variety show. But it wasn’t until after his stint with the TV series Wonder Women that he really made some serious money. On location shots he was provided a mobile trailer that was used as his dressing room. He asked the production head that if he bought one would they rent it from him. They said “yes.” He went out and purchased one and leased it to the show for $450 a week for three years. Waggoner eventually attained a whole fleet in various models and created a multi-million-dollar company called “Star Waggons”  that his son now operates. Seems all of Hollywood leases from the company.

I really appreciate your taking the time to talk with me today, Torchy. Anything in closing that you'd like to add?

This is an update that has a connection to my book and interviews…Johnny Crawford of The Rifleman TV series had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and has been placed in a facility dealing with that horrible disorder. Paul Petersen, a lifelong friend, has started a Go Fund Me Page to raise money for the expensive cost incurred at such a facility. The Go Fund Page is called Johnny Crawford’s Alzheimer’s Fund. I have interviewed both of these cherished Baby Boomer Celebrities in person and for my Radio Show. Both are featured in my book. I had one of the last interviews that Johnny ever gave.

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In case I didn't make it clear in the interview, Shooting the Breeze is a terrific read—fun and easy. His chats with the stars ("interview" is too stuffy a word; "shooting the breeze" is an apt description) are filled with tidbits that you've probably not read anywhere else. If you're one of us living in the past, or at least taking long vacations there, I think you'll appreciate adding Shooting the Breeze to your bookshelf.

My thanks once again to Torchy Smith for joining me at the It's About TV Interview, and a special word of appreciation to Jeff Abraham for helping to arrange our conversation. Be sure to check out Torchy's website, Baby Boomers Talk Radio, and his Facebook site, Baby Boomers VIP Interviews, for more fascinating trips back into the wonderful world of the past. TV  

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Thanks for writing! Drive safely!