- About the following chapter titled
"The Great Lanza"
from Joe Pasternak's autiobiography:
- According to several who were there,
Joe Pasternak, the prolific MGM producer who made Mario's Metro films,
was a somewhat hypocritical figure. Others have a different view. Whatever
the reality, there seems a consensus that had Mario linked up with Arthur
Freed or Vincent Minelli instead of Pasternak, the overall quality of Mario's
MGM films would have been better. A couple of notes before you read the
following extracted chapter from Pasternak's autobiography "Easy The
- * Mario was never a truck driver. * Mario
never chewed tobacco. * Mario never had a job...his mother worked, his
father had a pension as a disabled WWI vet. * Koussevitsky didn't change
Mario's name...Moss Hart suggested it. * MGM flattened out Mario's full
head of hair (especially in "Midnight Kiss") because they wanted
him to look like Gene Kelly but Mario held out and later combed his hair
the way he wanted. Later, at Warner's for Serenade, his hair was changed
again. * Terry Robinson got him down 25 lbs...not Pasternak!
- "The Great Lanza"
- No one knew what it was all about. The
calls had come from L.B.'s office. All the producers, all the executives,
and a number of directors were asked to meet on Stage One.
- Why Stage One? That was the huge recording
stage on the MGM lot. No one could figure that out either.
- Mr. Mayer was waiting for us when we
arrived, but it was his pleasure not to immediately divulge the reason
for his summons. After a few moments, however, a magnificent singer thundered
at us from a battery of speakers. I say thundered; the word may not be
entirely right. The voice was rich, warm, sensuous, virile, capable of
incredible highs and able to go down in register as deep as a baritone's.
My spine tingled.
- There were three records played in all.
Then, Mr. Mayer stepped before us. "Gentlemen, you've heard the voice,"
he said. "Now, I want you to meet the singer."
- A dark and bushy-haired young man, well-boned,
heavy-chested, emerged. He was of medium height, not striking-looking perhaps,
but I saw something in his face that was not unattractive. Meyer chatted
with him for a moment before a microphone and then thanked him for his
- When we were alone again, Mr. Mayer turned
to us and declared that the studio was going to sign this young man to
a contract. If any of the producers were interested, he suggested, they
might stay on.
- I could feel all eyes turn toward me.
The explanation is simple enough. Music, opera-style pictures, or operetta
- call it what you will - was my forte and naturally a singer such as we'd
just heard was considered to be my sort of thing. I felt a sudden loneliness
and the usual waves of doubt that hit you when you've got to make a decision
all by yourself. The young man appeared to be attractive but, I wondered,
had he enough personality to bear the heartless scrutiny of the camera
lens? He was stocky. Always a problem with actors, I thought. And then
his voice was an opera voice. Not since Lawrence Tibbett, a whole generation
before, had a male opera star made a successful venture into pictures.
- He would need grooming, I thought. Polish.
Something would have to be done about his hair. But I had caught a glint
in his eyes when he talked to Louis B. Mayer that I liked. And he was manly
and strong. All my life I'd wanted to find a voice with a face. Could this
- I went up to the boss. "I like him,"
I said. "I like him very much." "All right, Joe," he
replied. "He's all yours." Later that afternoon I met Mario Lanza.
He was brought to my office by his manager, Sam Weiler. I found Mario to
be completely charming. He appeared to be a little overweight but this
was no insurmountable problem for us who'd dealt with it with glamour girls
and their heroes. Seen across my desk, Mario had a strong face, an easy
manner, and striking black eyes.
- I told them about my search for a singing
voice belonging to a face a camera could focus on unabashedly. I had a
feeling this might be it, I said.
- "What are we going to do?"
Weiler asked. "Maybe we'll make an opera picture. Don't ask me what
an opera picture is. It won't be an opera staged in front of the camera.
I don't know whether it'll be an original, or a classic. Maybe we can't
even call it opera. Apparently, the word is poison, even on Broadway where
the audience is supposed to be a lot more worldly. But it's going to be
a story with real music."
- "Right away?" Mario asked.
I smiled. "Heaven forbid. Nobody knows Mario Lanza. I told you what
we were aiming for - some day."
- That first meeting of ours took place
in 1949. in the days, weeks, and months that followed, Mario and I became
very friendly. Not since Deanna Durbin had I such a feeling of shaping,
of creating a new theatrical personality. I told him that I though it would
take perhaps ten pictures to establish him. (I do not believe this overnight
star business. Overnight stars too often become overnight has-beens.) The
first task would be to find out what Mario Lanza was really like.
- In the best meaning of the words, he
was a tough guy. Born January 31, 1921, in Philadelphia, he had worked
his way through school in a variety of jobs. He was studying voice and
working as a piano mover when he got his first break. The story he told
me he later related to Hedda Hopper, who took it down so well that I can
do no better than to use his words as she reported them:
- "One day we had to haul a couple
of pianos to the Academy of Music. When we entered the building the Boston
Symphony Orchestra was rehearsing. "As we rolled one of the pianos
across the stage, I heard my name called, turned around, and saw William
K. Huff. (Huff was a Philadelphia concert manager whom the lad had once
sung for and who had been impressed by his voice).
- "There I stood with a red kerchief
around my neck and my jaw filled with chewing tobacco. 'What are you doing
here?' he asked. 'Moving pianos,' I answered. Shaking his head he said,
'With a voice like yours you ought to be ashamed. You should be studying.'
'On what?' I asked. 'My family has no money and somebody's got to work.'
- "Huff took me to a dressing room
in which stood an upright piano. I spit the tobacco out of my mouth and
began to sing.
- "The old man who'd been conducting
the orchestra rehearsal entered the dressing rooms across the hall from
us, removed his sweat shirt and began drying himself with a towel....then
he crossed the hall and came into the room. Still with the towel in his
hand, he stood within three feet of me, gazing into my face as I sang.
- "When I ended he kissed me on both
cheeks and said, 'You will come with me to the Berkshires.' I had no idea
what he meant, since I'd never heard of the famous Berkshire Music Festival
at Tanglewood." The "old man" was the late Serge Koussevitzky,
the peerless maestro of the Boston Symphony.
- Koussevitzky said on that occasion, "Here
is truly a great voice." On another he said flatly: "There is
no question of it. This IS the greatest natural tenor since Caruso."
- It was Koussevitzky who had changed the
youth's name. Christened Alfred Arnold Cocozza, he was called Freddie by
everyone. The great conductor felt the name would prove a professional
liability. They both searched for a new name and decided on the masculine
version of his mother's maiden name: Maria Lanza.
- I was delighted in learning all I could
about my young friend's life. I had private reasons, as I have said, for
burying myself in what, after all, is work for a producer: the creation
of a public personality. But there was also a measure of dramatic coincidence
between my life and that of the young man's that gave me an added incentive.
I felt that in the career of Mario Lanza another typically American story
was working out. Do you realize that he has born in Philadelphia just a
few short weeks before that same city became my first home in the new world?
Like myself, he had come up the hard way. He was a maverick who broke all
the rules. Great tenors were not supposed to be self-taught. He learned
to sing from listening to Caruso records on the phonograph. He had to work
to earn his way, fight his way up from the bottom. He had actually started
to study professionally just a year or two before Koussevitzky had heard
him when he was nineteen.
- Lanza never made a pretense of being
a "good boy," or being easy to get along with. He had Dietrich's
ability to think outside of himself, with detachment. "Mario, you
sing like a sonofabeech!" he would say after hearing a playback of
himself that delighted him. He could be equally rough on himself when he
didn't like what he did to a song. Even when he was in the army he'd gone
his own way. He didn't like military life and he didn't care who knew it.
Coming after Tanglewood and being with Leonard Bernstein, one of the great
Koussevitzky's pet proteges, his reaction to the army is entirely understandable.
He would have rather sung with the Boston Symphony and who can blame him?
- He found himself, at length, singing
in the chorus of Moss Hart's Army Air Forces show "Winged Victory."
A small group of people had already been stunned by Corporal Freddie Cocozza's
voice, notably his Captain, Fred Brisson, the husband of Rosalind Russell,
who had been an agent before joining the service of his country. When "Winged
Victory" was brought before the cameras, Freddie Coccoza came to Hollywood.
One evening a group of the boys were invited to Irene Manning's house.
Among the guests were Ida Koverman, for many years, Louis B. Mayer's invaluable
assistant, and a brilliant judge of talent and personality in her own right,
Frank Sinatra, Hedda Hopper, and Walter Pidgeon. "Pidge" played
the piano. Freddie sang. He started at eleven. They did not let him go
until seven the next morning, and, what is more, his voice held up. If
ever a man was born to sing and loved it, this was the man.
- As soon as he got out of the Army, someone
at RCA Victor gave him a $3,000 bonus for signing with them. Victor did
not know whether he was ready to record at that time, but they knew that
one day he would be a great recording star and they wanted him under contract.
His manager had found him in New York where, armed with Victor's token
of confidence in his future, he had gone for study. Weiler financed further
study. Then Mario started singing summer concerts with symphony orchestras
in the outdoor programs usually during the hot season. When he sang in
the Hollywood Bowl, his eminent friends saw to it he got the attention
he richly deserved. The audition on MGM's Stage One followed, as I remember,
- Mario from the beginning was something
of a problem to me. There was a wild, unpredictable streak in his nature.
But that didn't trouble me too much as a producer. Temperamental displays
were not entirely new to me in my career. I tried to be even more tolerant.
Just then I was no stranger, either, to emotional problems outside the
studio; I couldn't presume to understand myself, so I would not judge Mario
- I hammered away at getting him physically
onto the screen. His first screen test proved so shocking that for a day
or two there was private talk of forgetting about making a picture with
him. He was dressed badly - he ran to loose-fitting shirts with long stemmed
collars - and his hair looked like a horsehair mattress that had burst
it's seams. I insisted we make another test. I begged him to lay off the
carbohydrates for a couple of weeks, got the barber to chop his hair with
a will, and I had him put into suits that emphasized height rather than
- He was everything I'd dreamed about.
The voice with the face. He was handsome, virile, charming. He looked so
great he didn't need a voice. We started to work in earnest. Our first
picture was called "That Midnight Kiss". We had no title, and,
I think, after we started work on the script, some justification for it
was found. The plot? Remember how the piano mover was discovered by Koussevitzky?
We also worked in a love story with Kathryn Grayson and used Jose Iturbi
as a symphony conductor. Mario was an instant success. Now, it seems to
me, the measure of a man is proved by how he stands up under two things:
failure and success. Mario had borne up nobly with the former. I would
now see how well he would do with success. We had no sooner finished the
picture than he was demanding top billing over Miss Grayson. In fact, he
said I had promised it to him. Since the business of billing - whose name
stands above whose and in what size type, and so on - is a complicated
one, hedged about with all sorts of technicalities, legalisms, and contractual
obligations, it is a matter I have always steered clear of. The charge
was embarrassing, but I let it go, explaining it away as an indication
such as one might commit on taking his first drink. And success is a very
heady wine, as almost everybody knows.
- I assigned Nicky Brodszky to write some
songs for Mario, feeling that their musical styles were harmonious. The
hunch paid off in Mario's second picture, "The Toast of New Orleans",
in which I carried his development as a screen personality along to the
next step. Nicky and lyricist Sammy Cahn wrote "Be My Love" for
that picture. By the time the picture played the neighborhood houses, the
song was one of the most phenomenally successful songs of the postwar period.
Mario's bel canto rendition of it was heard on juke boxes and disc jockey
shows all day long; he was soon to have his own radio show for Coca-Cola
and use it as his theme. We were ready, I felt, to make our first essay
with the great new film personality in a picture involving opera. We decided
to make "The Great Caruso".
- By this time, I was having avoirdupois
trouble with Mario. His weight was something to stagger you. He put on
fifty pounds as easily and quickly as most people add an ounce or two.
He could also take it off when he had a will to. Sometimes I began to believe
he was inflatable and deflatable, like a balloon. We begged him, played
games with him; there was nothing that simply cutting down on the volume
of grub wouldn't help.
- But when Lanza was of a mind to eat,
the Secret Service itself couldn't keep this trencherman in bounds. Once,
for example, I saw a waiter head for the stage with a mountainously laden
tray over one shoulder. "Where are you bringing that?" I asked
him. He said J. Carroll Naish had ordered lunch in his dressing room. Something
made me suspicious. Lanza was then on a "no lunch" kick. One
meal a day was all he needed, he assured me - a round, substantial dinner,
nothing else. He was taking naps during the noon hour break. I followed
the waiter. He did in fact go into Carrol Naish's dressing room but when
I opened the door, I found my star attacking triple helpings of potato
salad, huge slabs of ham, roast beef, generously buttered rye bread, and
heaven knows what else.
- When "Caruso" came out, Mario
was grossing, according to reports, a million dollars a year from films,
records, radio, and concerts. Variety, that tough-minded almanac of show
business, reported on what he did in concert:
- LANZA PROVES HOTTEST LONGHAIR DRAW WITH
$177,720 GROSS IN 22 CONCERTS
- ...It was one of the most unusual as
well as successful tours since Nelson Eddy's heyday a decade ago. In some
instances Lanza's share for an evening hit over $6,000. In Milwaukee it
was $6,750; in Omaha, $6,180; in New Orleans, $6,025.
- No single concert artist this season
has come anywhere near this box office record. The tour take has only been
matched by such big groups as the Sadler's Wells Ballet and the Royal Philharmonic,
or the Toscanini-NBC Symphony tour of a year ago.
- "The Great Caruso" did phenomenal
business, too. In ten weeks at the Radio City Music Hall, it brought in
$1,500.000. One theater in one city, mind you.
- By now Lanza had made it. But I didn't
want him set in the public consciousness as an opera star, no matter how
great. I wanted him to be taken also as a man. I planned to next make "Because
You're Mine", a story about a singer who is drafted into the Army,
doesn't like it, and finally is a better person for learning to be a human
being like everybody else. After that, a romantic period musical was in
the works: "The Student Prince". Beyond that, still nebulous
but gaining shape, was the big opera picture. That was my dream, my ambition.
It lay before me like a challenge, a dare.
- But Mario, riding high, was writing a
new definition of the word 'temperament'. I think you would have to search
far and wide in the annals of the theatre and musical world to match the
great Lanza. Did an assistant director call him in front of the cameras
too abruptly? "Fire him," Mario demanded. "Mario,"
I pleaded, "the man's only doing his job. Besides, he's worked for
me for twelve years and he's got a wife and children." The great star
loved practical jokes, each on a successively more infantile level. He
ate mountains of food and berated the cameraman for making him look fat.
He was stormingly proud one moment, contrite as a schoolboy the next. He
did; he didn't; he was hot; he was cold. He didn't approve of Doretta Morrow,
whom I'd brought from New York to sing with him. Nothing personal. He wanted
to make the picture with Lana Turner. But the part called for a singer,
I assured him. No matter. He still didn't want to do the picture. Then,
the next day, he thought Doretta was just fine. I wondered if even back
in the wonderfully crazy days of Swanson and Negri if a player with but
three pictures to his credit could throw such thunderbolts from on high.
- I tried every trick of appealing to Mario.
"I gotta talk to that boy for you, Joe," Jimmy Durante offered.
"Him and me, we're Eyetalians. He'll listen to me." If Lanza
did listen to one of the sweetest men in show business, he gave me no sign.
Lillian Burns, who is God's gift to new talent, and to whom Mario had often
generously (and deservedly) praised to me, saying he owed her more than
anyone realized, did her best. To little avail.
- Finally, after midnight meetings, tense
conferences, agreements, disagreements, more meetings and still more meetings
- Mario decided to do "Because You're Mine". But he had put on
about fifty pounds, I'd guess, and we had to postpone shooting for six
- He did reduce. He looked better and he
sang better than ever in his life. "Because You're Mine" was
chosen for the Royal Command Performance. Mario was full of assurances
that he had wronged me grievously and had learned to trust my judgement.
What was to be our next picture? "The Student Prince"? Great.
He went to work at once recording his songs.
- On the first day's shooting we were doing
one of those scenes that called for a huge number of extras. Where was
Mario? No one knew. At the end of the day, he was found. He was sorry,
he was contrite. Tomorrow he'd show up for sure. Next day, no Lanza. Again:
sorry. Is anything wrong, son? No, no, I'm all right. Is it anything we
did that's bothering you? Oh, no, no.
- This went on for days. Even his agent,
Lew Wasserman, a top-chop character, couldn't get to talk to THIS client.
The studio was actually well over a million dollars in the hole, representing
money paid out, not mere bookkeeper's charges, when the storm broke. After
Mario had broken written engagements, the picture was abandoned and the
studio sued Lanza for its costs and damages.
- The incident was in many ways the most
upsetting I had ever known. I had been - as this record shows - harsh with
Mario, but always con amore, with love, as a father is harsh to a son whose
inner fineness he will never doubt. To the end, I thought well of him.
I would always think of him as a friend, even though his stubborn refusal
to work in a picture in which I was so deeply committed seemed to me to
be unfair, to say the least. It wasn't easy to give up my dream of an opera
picture. A venture into the cinematic unknown such as I envisioned required
a lucky meeting in time, space, and spirit. With Lanza I had felt a beginning
was possible. He was the foundation stone. I wished him well, as I say.
I wrote the unhappy ending of our relationship down to one of those things:
the unfortunate circumstances that so often dog our endeavors in show business.
- (The chapter goes on to address the personal
issues of Pasternak's marital problems at this point.)