Robert Cummings, 1956
Charles Clarence Robert Orville Cummings
June 9, 1910
Joplin, Missouri, U.S.
|Died||December 2, 1990 (aged 80)|
Woodland Hills, Los Angeles, California, U.S.
|Resting place||Forest Lawn Memorial Park, Glendale, California|
|Other names||Bob Cummings|
Blade Stanhope Conway
|Alma mater||American Academy of Dramatic Arts|
Charles Clarence Robert Orville Cummings (June 9, 1910 - December 2, 1990) was an American film and television actor known mainly for his roles in comedy films such as The Devil and Miss Jones (1941) and Princess O'Rourke (1943), but was also effective in dramatic films, especially two of Alfred Hitchcock's thrillers, Saboteur (1942) and Dial M for Murder (1954). Cummings received five Primetime Emmy Award nominations, and won the Primetime Emmy Award for Best Actor in a Single Performance in 1955. On February 8, 1960, he received two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for his contributions to the motion picture and television industries. The motion picture star is at 6816 Hollywood Boulevard, the television star is on 1718 Vine Street.
Cummings was born in Joplin, Missouri, a son of Dr. Charles Clarence Cummings and the former Ruth Annabelle Kraft. His father was a surgeon, who was part of the original medical staff of St. John's Hospital in Joplin and was the founder of the Jasper County Tuberculosis Hospital in Webb City, Missouri. Cummings' mother was an ordained minister of the Science of Mind.
While attending Joplin High School, Cummings was taught to fly by his godfather, Orville Wright, the aviation pioneer. His first solo was on March 3, 1927. During high school, Cummings gave Joplin residents rides in his aircraft for $5 per person.
Cummings studied briefly at Drury College in Springfield, Missouri, but his love of flying caused him to transfer to the Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He studied aeronautical engineering for a year before he dropped out because of financial reasons, his family having lost heavily in the 1929 stock market crash.
Cummings became interested in acting while performing in plays at Carnegie Tech and decided to pursue that as a career. Since the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City paid its male actors $14 a week, Cummings decided to study there. He only stayed one season but later said he learned "three basic principles of acting. The first - never anticipate; second - take pride in my profession. And third - trust in God. And that last is said in reverence."
Cummings started looking for work in 1930, but was unable to find any roles, forcing him to get a job in a theatrical agency. Seeing that at the time, "three quarters of Broadway plays were from England" and English accents and actors were in demand, Cummings decided to cash in an insurance policy and buy a round trip to Britain.
He was driving a motorbike through the country, picking up the accent and learning about the country. His bike broke down at Harrogate. While waiting for repairs, Cummings came up with a plan. He invented the name "Blade Stanhope Conway" and bribed the janitor of a local theatre to put on the marquee: "Blade Stanhope Conway in Candida". He then got a photograph taken of himself standing in front of this marquee, and did 80 prints. In London, he outfitted himself with a new wardrobe and did up a letter introducing the actor-author-manager-director "Blade" of Harrogate Repertory Theatre, and sent it off to 80 New York theatrical agents and producers.
One of the producers to whom he sent letters, Charles Hopkings, cast him in a production of The Roof by John Galsworthy, playing the role of the Hon. Reggie Fanning. Also in the cast was Henry Hull. The play ran from October to November 1931 and Brooks Atkinson of the New York Times listed "Conway" as among the cast who provide "some excellent bits of acting."
Cummings later encouraged an old drama school classmate, Margaret Kies, to use a similar deception - she became the "British" Margaret Lindsay. He later said pretending to be Conway broke up his first marriage, to a girl from Joplin. "She couldn't stand me."
In 1934, Cummings changed his name to "Bryce Hutchens". He appeared under this name in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1934, which ran from January to June in 1934. He had a duet with Vivi Janiss, a native of Nebraska, with whom he sang "I Like the Likes of You". Cummings and Janiss went with the show when it went on tour after the Broadway run, and they married towards the end of the tour.
The tour of Ziegfeld ended in Los Angeles in January 1935. Cummings enjoyed the city and wanted to move there. He returned to New York, but then heard King Vidor was looking for Texan actors for So Red the Rose (1935) and auditioned pretending to be Texan. He practised his Texan accent by listening to cowboy bands on the radio.
The ruse was exposed, but Vidor cast him anyway, under his real name. (Reviewing the film later, the New York Times said Cummings "does a fine bit" and "has the only convincing accent in the whole film.")
He followed it with a part in Paramount's The Virginia Judge (1935). In July, the studio signed Cummings to a long-term contract. Before his first two Paramount films had even been released, he was given a leading part in Millions in the Air (1935).
Cummings had a good role in the Western Desert Gold (1936) then was given leads in Forgotten Faces (1936) and Three Cheers for Love (1936), He was also in Beyond Flight (1936), Hollywood Boulevard (1936), The Accusing Finger (1936), Hideaway Girl (1936), Arizona Mahoney (1936), and The Last Train from Madrid (1937).
In the mid 1930s, his mother and he reportedly received $1 million from mining stock, once thought to be worthless, which was left to them by Cummings' father.
Most of these were B pictures. He had a small role in an A picture, Souls at Sea (1937), then was in Sophie Lang Goes West (1937), Wells Fargo (1937), and College Swing (1938). He had a small role in You and Me (1938) directed by Fritz Lang, and was in The Texans (1938), and Touchdown, Army (1938).
Eventually, Paramount dropped their option on him. "I was poison," he said. "No agent would look at me." In June Paramount announced he would return for King of Chinatown with Anna May Wong but does not appear in the final film. In September he was cast at Republic playing the lead in a crime movie, I Stand Accused (1938). Cummings says it was "a fluke hit. So at least I could get inside the casting agents again."
In November 1938, Cummings auditioned for the romantic lead in Three Smart Girls Grow Up (1939), starring Deanna Durbin, for producer Joe Pasternak. He says Pasternak was reluctant to cast him because the producer wanted a musician, but Cummings told him, "I could fake it. I'd had a lot of experience faking things harder than that. He let me try it and he signed me up."
On 21 November Cummings gave Universal an option on a seven-year contract starting at $600 a week, going up to $750 a week the following year, then ultimately up to $3,000 a week. The film was a big success, and in March 1939, Universal took up their option on the actor. Three Smart Girls Grow Up was directed by Henry Koster who called Cummings "brilliant, wonderful. I made five pictures with him. I thought he was the best leading man I ever worked with. He had that marvelous comedy talent and also a romantic quality." Reviewing the film the New York Times said Cummings "displays a really astonishing talent for light comedy - we never should have suspected it from his other pictures."
Pasternak used him again, supporting another singing star, Gloria Jean, in The Under-Pup (1939). (He was meant to reteam with Jean in Straight from the Heart but it appears to have not been made.
In August 1939 Columbia wanted him for the lead in Golden Boy but could not come to terms with Universal.
He supported Basil Rathbone and Victor McLaglen in Rio (1939), then was borrowed by 20th Century Fox to romance Sonia Henie in Everything Happens at Night (1939). At Universal he had a key role in Charlie McCarthy, Detective (1939) then he was borrowed by MGM to play the lead in a B movie with Laraine Day, And One Was Beautiful (1940).
Cummings made his mark in the CBS Radio network's dramatic serial titled Those We Love, which ran from 1938 to 1945. Cummings played the role of David Adair, opposite Richard Cromwell, Francis X. Bushman, and Nan Grey.
MGM borrowed Cummings a second time to play opposite Ruth Hussey in Free and Easy (1941). At the same time, he was borrowed by a company established by Norman Krasna and Frank Ross, who were making a comedy from a script by Krasna for release through RKO: The Devil and Miss Jones (1941). Cummings played Jean Arthur's love interest, a union leader, under the direction of Sam Wood. Cummings shot the film at the same time as Free and Easy.Free and Easy lost money for MGM, but Devil and Miss Jones was a critical and commercial success.
20th Century Fox borrowed him for Moon Over Miami (1941), starring Don Ameche and Betty Grable; Fox was willing to postpone the film so Cummings could finish Devil and Miss Jones. In January 1941 Louella Parsons wrote that "is that boy going places in 1941. From the looks of things it's a Cummings year - because all his troubles with Universal are ironed out and almost every studio in town wants to borrow him.
Meanwhile, Sam Wood was directing an adaptation of the novel Kings Row (1942), over at Warner Bros, where the head of production was Hal Wallis. Wallis did not have any contract players at Warner Bros who were considered ideal for the role of Paris, and after trying desperately to get Tyrone Power tried to borrow Cummings, who had done an impressive test.
However, Cummings was busy on It Started with Eve and the actor had to drop out. Then the schedule was rearranged and Cummings was able to make both films. Production of Kings Row did have to be suspended for a week so Cummings could return to Universal to do reshoots for Eve. Both films were huge successes. Hal Wallis said Cummings "was actually too old for the part" in King's Row "not quite right, but he was helped considerably by an extraordinary support cast."
Back at Universal, Cummings starred in the Alfred Hitchcock spy thriller Saboteur (1942), made at Universal, with Priscilla Lane and Norman Lloyd. He played Barry Kane, an aircraft worker wrongfully accused of espionage, trying to clear his name.
In December 1941, John Chapman said Cummings was among "the most sought-after leading men in town" and was one of his "stars for 1942".
Universal announced Cummings for Boy Meets Baby with Deanna Durbin, which became Between Us Girls (1942) with Diana Barrymore. He filmed it concurrently with a Hal Wallis movie at Warner Bros, and Princess O'Rourke (made 1942, released 1943), Norman Krasna's directorial debut.
In December 1941, Cummings joined the fledgling Civil Air Patrol, an organization of citizens and pilots interested in helping support the U.S. war effort. In February 1942, he helped establish Squadron 918-4 located in Glendale, California, at the Grand Central Air Terminal, becoming its first commanding officer. Two weeks later, he and other members of the squadron went in search of the Japanese submarine that had attacked the oil refinery at Goleta, California. During the war, Cummings participated in search and rescue missions, courier missions, and border and forestry patrols around the Western United States. For this work he used his own aircraft, Spinach I, a 1936 Porterfield, and Spinach II, a Cessna 165 Airmaster. The squadron he established still operates as San Fernando Senior Squadron 35 and is based at Whiteman Airport in Pacoima, Los Angeles.
In November 1942, Cummings joined the United States Army Air Forces. During World War II, he served as a flight instructor. After the war, Cummings served as a pilot in the United States Air Force Reserve, where he achieved the rank of captain. Cummings played aircraft pilots in several of his postwar film roles.
Cummings was meant to be in Fired Wife with Teresa Wright, Charles Coburn, and Eddie Anderson and a director "comparable with" Leo McCarey. However, when he found out these actors would not be in the film, and the director would be Charles Lamont, he refused to be in it. (Filming began in April 1943 with Robert Paige taking Cummings' role.) Universal put him on suspension for five weeks, refused to give him a new part, or pay his weekly salary of $1,500 after the suspension had been lifted. Cummings notified the studio in May 1943 that he considered himself no longer under contract. In September 1943, Cummings sued the studio for withheld wages of $10,700, also arguing that for some time, Universal tried to put him in minor roles to "run him ragged" and "to teach him a lesson".
In March 1944, the court ruled in Cummings' favor, saying Universal had voided its contract with the actor and owed him $10,700. This decision happened in the same fortnight as another court case involving Olivia de Havilland, which also ruled in the actor's favor.
Cummings had been considered free of Universal since August 1944. In January 1945 Cummings signed a four-year exclusive contract with Hal Wallis, who had left Warners to become an independent producer. Shortly after he took leave from the Air Force to star in You Came Along (1945) for Hal Wallis, directed by John Farrow with a screenplay by Ayn Rand. The Army Air Forces pilot Cummings played (Bob Collins) died off camera, but was resurrected 10 years later for his television show. Cummings was under contract to Wallis for four years.
Also for Wallis - who had now moved to Paramount - he did The Bride Wore Boots (1946), a comedy with Barbara Stanwyck. He was announced for Dishonorable Discharge for Wallis from a story by John Farrow, but it appears to have not been made. Neither was Its Love Love Love, which was announced by RKO or Dream Puss, which Wallis announced for Cummings at Paramount.
In 1946, he said, "often I play the boyfriend of a girl young enough to be my daughter. I'm 36 and whenever I start drooping, I run one of my pictures and feel like a kid again."
Around this time, Cummings also said he was more interested in producing and directing and hoped to only act in one film per year.
Cummings had the lead in two films for Nero Films, a company of Seymour Nebenzal and Eugene Frenke, who released through United Artists: a film noir, The Chase (1946) and a Western, Heaven Only Knows (1947).
Cummings decided to form his own company with Frenke and Philip Yordan, United California (at one stage it was known as United World, but the name had to be changed, as it was too close to another company of that name.). In December 1946, it was announced that Cummings had signed an exclusive contract with United California Productions, and that the deal with Wallis became to make one film a year for seven years. They announced Bad Guy from a script by Yordan. They were also going to do Joe MacBeth (ultimately made by other people).
In 1947, Cummings had reportedly earned $110,000 in the past 12 months.
The Lost Moment (1947) was a film noir for Walter Wanger at Universal based on The Aspern Papers by Henry James. It was a big flop at the box office. He was meant to follow it The Big Curtain for Edward Alperson at Fox but it was never made.
United California eventually brought in manufacturer Frank Hale as partner. Its first film, Let's Live a Little (1948), was a romantic comedy with Hedy Lamarr, and was released through United Artists.
Cummings announced a series of projects for United California: Ho the Fair Wind from a novel by IAR Wylie, The Glass Heart by Mary Holland, Poisonous Paradise (a docudrama for which some footage had been shot called Jungle), Passport to Love by Howard Irving Young, and a remake of Two Hearts in Three Quarter Time. Cummings was also trying to interest Norman Krasna into writing the story of how Cummings broke into acting, to be called Pardon My Accent.
Cummings did The Accused (1949) for Hal Wallis at Paramount, supporting Loretta Young.
He did a comedy at Universal, Free for All (1949).
In July 1949, Cummings signed a three-picture deal with Columbia. He made Tell It to the Judge (1949), with Rosalind Russell, for them. He did one for Wallis at Paramount, Paid in Full (1950) (originally Bitter Victory), then went back to Columbia for The Petty Girl (1950) a musical with Joan Caulfield.
Cummings did announce he would make The Glass Heart for his own company and release through Columbia, but this did not happen.
At Columbia, he was in The First Time (1952), the first feature directed by Frank Tashlin. On TV, he was in Lux Video Theatre ("The Shiny People", "Pattern for Glory"), Betty Crocker Star Matinee ("Sense of Humor"), and Robert Montgomery Presents ("Lila My Love").
Cummings was one of the four stars featured in the short-run radio version of Four Star Playhouse.
"It's tricky to come up with something every week that's tricky and believable," said producer Don Sharpe. "We hope that eventually the personality of Cummings will become so dominant to the viewer that the plots won't look bad."
The series ran for 33 episodes before, it was reported, Cummings decided to end it and accept other offers. In actual fact, the show had been axed. "After it was dropped, I was as dead as you could possibly get in show business," said Cummings. "I sat in my agent's office one day and heard a top producer tell him on the phone that nobody would buy me." Out of work, he accepted the State Department's invitation to go on a goodwill mission to Argentina. The show earned him an Emmy nomination.
Cummings was in Marry Me Again (1953), at RKO for Tashlin, then went to England to star in another Hitchcock film, Dial M for Murder (1954), playing the lover of Grace Kelly, whose husband Ray Milland tries to kill her. The film was a box-office success.
Cummings was chosen by producer John Wayne as his co-star to play airline pilot Captain Sullivan in The High and the Mighty, partly due to Cummings' flying experience; however, director William A. Wellman overruled Wayne and hired Robert Stack for the part.
In 1954, he appeared in an original TV play for Westinghouse Studio One written by Reginald Rose and directed by Franklin Schaffner, Twelve Angry Men, alongside actors such as Franchot Tone and Edward Arnold. Cummings played Juror Number Eight, the role taken by Henry Fonda in the feature-film adaptation. Cumming's performance earned him the 1955 Emmy Award for Best Actor in a Single Performance.
In July 1954, Cummings formed his own production company, Laurel (named after his daughter and the street he lived on, Laurel Way). He intended to make a film called The Damned from a novel by John D. MacDonald directed by Frank Tashlin. No film resulted, but Lauren would make The Bob Cummings Show.
From January 1955 through 1959, Cummings starred on a successful NBC sitcom, The Bob Cummings Show (known as Love That Bob in reruns), in which he played Bob Collins, a former World War II pilot, who became a successful professional photographer. As a bachelor in 1950s Los Angeles, the character considered himself quite the ladies' man. This sitcom was noted for some very risqué humor for its time.
A popular feature of the program was Cummings' portrayal of his elderly grandfather. His co-stars were Rosemary DeCamp as his sister Margaret MacDonald, Dwayne Hickman as his nephew Chuck MacDonald, and Ann B. Davis in her first television success as his assistant Charmaine "Schultzy" Schultz. Cummings also was a guest on the NBC interview program Here's Hollywood.
Cummings was seen on the show by Nunnally Johnson, who cast him opposite Betty Grable in How to Be Very, Very Popular (1955) at Fox, which turned out to be Grable's last film. Cummings' contract was amended to allow him time off to rehearse and record his show.
Around this time, Cummings said he had made 78 films and, "I always had the feeling I was distinguished for none of them. Hollywood's never been really hot about me. I was always second choice. I used to say to my wife Mary 'Somebody's got to be sick someday - Bill Holden or maybe some boy not even born yet! I used to say 'If I could find another business where I could be successful!."
Cummings was one of the hosts on ABC's live broadcast of the opening day of Disneyland on July 17, 1955, along with Ronald Reagan and Art Linkletter. On that day, Bob Cummings realized the camera was on him, when, just moments before, he had been passionately embracing the young woman in a bonnet with the stricken look on her face.
Cummings' performance in The Bob Cummings Show earned him another Emmy nomination for Best Actor in a Continuous Role in 1956.
He turned down The Heavenly Twins for the Theatre Guild and was mentioned for Bewitched by Charles Bennett in England, but did not do it.
During the series' production, Cummings still found time to play other roles. He returned to Studio One ("A Special Announcement"), and did episodes of General Electric Theater ("Too Good with a Gun"), The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show, and Schlitz Playhouse ("One Left Over", "Dual Control").
He was also in "Bomber's Moon" for Playhouse 90 (1958), from a Rod Serling script directed by John Frankenheimer, who said "Bobby's a really fine dramatic actor, but people usually associate him only with comedy. Naturally enough I suppose. Directing an actor like this who feels immediately what the script wants and what the director wants makes you love this business."
"It's a great life, acting," he said in 1959. "I wouldn't have it any other way. I'm a completely content actor."
When the show ended in 1959, Cummings claimed it was his decision, as he was tired and wanted to take a year off. He was also keen to sell the show into syndication. "I don't think I'll do another comedy," he said.
He guested on Zane Grey Theater ("The Last Bugle", directed by Budd Boetticher), The DuPont Show of the Week ("The Action in New Orleans"), The Dick Powell Theatre ("Last of the Private Eyes", co-starring Ronald Reagan), and The Great Adventure ("Plague").
The New Bob Cummings Show followed on CBS for one season, from 1961 to 1962. It was a variation of The Bob Cummings Show with Cummings as the owner and pilot of a plane who gets up to various adventures It only lasted 22 episodes before being cancelled.
Cummings returned to films with support roles in My Geisha (1962), written by Krasna. He was top billed in Beach Party (1963) although the film is better remembered today for introducing the teaming of Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello.
In 1964, he was a guest star as a beauty pageant judge in The Beverly Hillbillies episode titled "The Race for Queen". He was credited as Robert Cummings.
In 1964-65, Cummings starred in another CBS sitcom, My Living Doll, which co-starred Julie Newmar as Rhoda the robot and Jack Mullaney as his friend. After 21 episodes, Cummings asked to be written out of the show. It only lasted five more episodes.
He was in another Broadway play, The Wayward Stork, which had a short run in early 1966. A review in the New York Times said Cummings "is not in top form. He sounded a bit hoarse and somewhat strained. Usually he is a quite acceptible, breezy farceur."
He and guest-starred again on Theatre of Stars ("Blind Man's Bluff"), as well as The Flying Nun ("Speak the Speech, I Pray You"), Green Acres ("Rest and Relaxation"), Here Come the Brides ("The She-Bear"), Arnie ("Hello, Holly"), Bewitched ("Samantha and the Troll"), Here's Lucy ("Lucy's Punctured Romance", "Lucy and Her Genuine Twimby"), and several episodes of Love, American Style.
He relayed those experiences in the written introduction he provided for the book Airstream written by Robert Landau and James Phillippi in 1984.
In 1987, he said, "I wouldn't mind living until I'm 110. I still swim, do calisthenics, and keep fit. I've never been in hospital, except for a hernia operation at one time. People laugh about my using so many vitamins. When I tell them I take 50 liver pills a day, they look surprised, but whether they laugh or not, the thing works." He added, "I'm retired, I live on a pension" and "if I have a problem I get expert counsel, then ask the opinion of a good psychic."
Cummings married five times and fathered seven children. His first marriage was to Emma Myers, a girl from his hometown. His second marriage was to Vivi Janiss, an actress he met while performing in Ziegfeld Follies. His third wife, Mary Elliott, was a former actress and she ran Cummings' business affairs. They separated in 1968 and had a bitter divorce, during the course of which she accused him of cheating on her with his former secretary Regina Fond, and using methamphetamines which she said caused wild mood swings. She also claimed he relied on astrologers and numerologists to make financial decisions with "disastrous" consequences. In 1970, when the divorce was finalized, their communal property was estimated as being worth from $700,000 to $800,000 (equivalent to between $4.6 million and $5.3 million in 2019).
In May 1948 Hedda Hopper reported that there were four lawsuits against Cummings.
In 1952, Cummings was sued by a writer of My Hero who had been fired. In 1953, Cummings was served with papers concerning the suit by a sheriff; Cummings allegedly assaulted the sheriff and was then sued by the sheriff for damages. Both cases were settled in 1954.
In 1972 he was charged with fraud for operating a pyramid scheme involving his company, Bob Cummings Inc, which sold vitamins and food supplements.
Despite his interest in health, Cummings was a methamphetamine addict from the mid-1950s until the end of his life. In 1954, while in New York to star in the Westinghouse Studio One production of Twelve Angry Men, Cummings began receiving injections from Max Jacobson, the notorious "Dr. Feelgood". His friends Rosemary Clooney and José Ferrer recommended the doctor to Cummings, who was complaining of a lack of energy. While Jacobson insisted that his injections contained only "vitamins, sheep sperm, and monkey gonads", they actually contained a substantial dose of methamphetamine.
Cummings continued to use a mixture provided by Jacobson, eventually becoming a patient of Jacobson's son Thomas, who was based in Los Angeles, and later injecting himself. The changes in Cummings' personality caused by the euphoria of the drug and subsequent depression damaged his career and led to an intervention by his friend, television host Art Linkletter. The intervention was not successful, and Cummings' drug abuse and subsequent career collapse were factors in his divorces from his third wife, Mary, and fourth wife, Gina Fong.
After Jacobson was forced out of business in the 1970s, Cummings developed his own drug connections based in the Bahamas. Suffering from Parkinson's disease, he was forced to move into homes for indigent older actors in Hollywood.
On December 2, 1990, Cummings died of kidney failure and complications from pneumonia at the Motion Picture & Television Country House and Hospital in Woodland Hills, California.