The Poor Nut and the Modest Actor (1927)
In 1917 this former English bank clerk, with his army discharge papers under one arm, stepped on the stage for the fun of it. and now, the public won’t let him step off. He made his début, in London, in Peg o’My Heart and came to America at the invitation of the producer of Just Suppose. The first conspicuous notice was given him when he took the part of the son in The Serpent’s Tooth, in 1922. Then followed juvenile rôles in The Romantic Age, Lady Cristilinda, Aren’t We All?, Outward Bound, The Green Hat and The Werewolf. To-day he is playing the title rôle in Her Cardboard Lover, at the Empire Theatre, New York, one of the season’s greatest successes.
Photograph by Maurice Goldberg
Posed Exclusively for
“No mysterious ladies ever threaten to kill me on account of my fatal beauty; they do not even write me ordinary love letters. The result of this comparative freedom from the onslaughts of fanatics has been to make me very careless. I find myself behaving just like an ordinary person; an obviously ridiculous proceeding for an actor who wishes to succeed. When, for instance, a strange person demands to see me at the theatre, instead of being properly suspicious, I behave just like a stockbroker or an automobile salesman, and say quickly: ‘Show him in.’ And that, precisely is how Mr. Japonski got in to see me.” Now see what happened to Mr. Howard in his dressing-room at the Empire Theatre, New York.
The Poor Nut and the Modest Actor
One Player’s Strange Experience — Vouched For — With a Backstage Caller Whose Mission Was Mysterious
by Leslie Howard
I understand that there are quite a number of actors and actresses who go about in a state of more or less permanent terror as the result of anonymous letters and unknown visitors. They are threatened with everything from robbery, blackmail and physical violence to intense and interminal adoration. I believe the latter is the most frequent form of anonymous persecution. I know of one famous American actress who had constant communications from an unknown admirer whose erotic convictions went to the length of imforming her that she was much too beautiful to live, that the sooner she was put away the better, and that he was the man to do the deed. She, though her friends told her to laugh heartily at these pleasantries, sought police protection.
At the risk of cries of “sour grapes,” I have to admit that nothing like this ever happened to me. No mysterious ladies ever threaten to kill me on account of my fatal beauty; they do not even write me ordinary love letters. In fact, the only affectionate epistle I ever received from a stranger came from somebody in Buffalo, who signed himself “Dorian Gray,” and described himself as “the most exquisite young man in the world.” That, however, believe it or not, is another story altogether.
The result of this comparative freedom from the onslaughts of fanatics has been to make me very careless. I find myself behaving just like an ordinary person, an obviously ridiculous proceeding for an actor who wishes to succeed. When, for instance, a strange person demands to see me in the theatre, instead of being properly suspicious, I behave just like a stock-broker or an automobile salesman and say quickly: “Show him in.”
And that, precisely, is how Mr. Japonski got in to see me. Of course when I say “Japonski,” I don’t really mean Japonski, That is merely what the name sounded like on the lips of my dresser.
Immediately Mr. Japonski entered I was gripped with what is popularly known as “nameless dread,” an obsession which deepened as the interview proceeded. He was a tall, lantern-jawed gentleman with a sombre eye, and he came in furtively. I am convinced it was furtive. It was the end of the performance, and my frail form was enveloped in a thin dressing-gown, which would have been useless had Mr. Japonski carried a gun.
“Mr. Howard?” he queried doubtfully.
“Yes,” I replied and instantly regretted I hadn’t said “No,” which would have been much simpler, especially as he didn’t seem to believe me anyway.
“Won’t you sit down?” I invited, signaling to my dresser on no account to leave the room.
“I prefer to stand,” said Mr. Japonski, continuing to tower over me.
“Just as you say,” I murmured politely.
“Well, sir,” continued my visitor, “I saw the show again.”
This cheered me up a bit. Possibly he was just another of my public.
“I’ve seen it eight times.” (This rather worried me.) “Perhaps you can tell me,” he went on, “why they persist in doing it.”
“Why, producing these bum French farces.”
I suggested that if he didn’t like the play, eight times was too often to go and see it.
“Ah,” he said darkly, “I had a reason.”
This, of course, set me trembling again, but I nonchalantly asked him what the reason was. He ignored the question completely.
“Those jewels the lady wears in the second act,” he said, “those aren’t real, are they?”
(Aha, I thought cleverly, so that’s what he’s after.)
“I don’t think so,” I replied cautiously.
“I knew it,” said Mr. Japonski. “You see this ring?”
He flashed at me a sparkling ring that he wore.
“That’s very pretty,” I said.
“Would you say that was a real diamond?”
“I certainly would.”
“Well, it’s not–it’s just a wonderful imitation. They’re selling thousands of them. You’d buy a ring like that, wouldn’t you?”
At least I saw daylight. He was neither a murderer nor a robber. He was just selling imitation jewelry.
“I’d love to buy one,” I chirped, greatly relieved.
“Then you’d be a sucker,” said he dourly, “same as I was.”
“But,” I argued, “I’d only buy it as an imitation.”
“Who the hell wants imitations! If I could find the guy who sold me that I’d put a bullet through him.”
By now I had begun to worry once more, but I was reassured a moment later.
“Who the hell,” philosophized Mr. Japonski, “wants jewelry at all. He who buys jewelry is taking food out of the mouths of his dependents. Are you a married man, Mr. Howard?”
(So that’s it. He’s an insurance agent.)
“Yes,” I said eagerly, “one really ought to buy insurance instead of jewelry.”
“Insurance nothing,” he growled. “I fell for that too–and both my wives died on me.”
By this time I was getting hot and cold. This indefiniteness was getting on my nerves. Then he gave me another clue which cheered me immensely.
“You know,” he observed, after having regarded me in intense silence, “you ought to have your own theatre and produce your own plays. What’s the use of working for other people?”
“How funny you should say that,” I said. “I’ve been thinking the same thing for a long time.”
“Sure. You could start on a hundred thousand, couldn’t you?”
“Fifty thousand,” I said modestly.
“Well, you don’t want to cramp yourself.”
“No–perhaps you’re right. Say seventy-five thousand.”
“Yeah,” ruminated Mr. Japonski, while I looked hopeful. “Trouble is to find the dough. I been looking for years. Now I’m down to my last five dollars–just five little bucks.”
Of course it was a disappointment, but I felt sorry for him.
“If,” I suggested, “I could help in a small way–”
“Help my eye,” he said, frowning violently. “Nobody can help nobody. Besides, I should worry–I know where I can get it if I want it.”
This sounded very sinister to me, and I coughed loudly to conceal my apprehensions. My visitor was quick to notice it.
“Got a cold?” he asked. “If you were a mental scientist like me you’d never have a cold.”
“You think I ought to be one?”
“It’s a matter of taste. You know Mrs. Hamilton Jones of Chicago?”
“Neither do I. Well–guess I’ll trot along.”
And he was gone. I looked at my dresser.
“What do you make of it?” I asked.
“Just wanted someone to talk to,” summed up my impeccable aid.
But it didn’t satisfy me. My one fear now is that some dark night Mr. Japonski will be waiting for me outside. But I am much more careful now.
(Theatre Magazine, September 1927)