Basehart in Fellini's masterpiece La Strada. (Photo: Cinema Retro archives)
Cinema Retro columnist Herbert Shadrak recently spoke to
Stephanie Kellerman, a friend of the Basehart family and webmaster of The Talented Richard Basehart shrine at www.richardbasehart.com
Retro: Was Richard Basehart an actor’s actor? Was his enormous talent only
truly appreciated by other actors?
Kellerman: Several actors commented that he was an actor's actor because they
did appreciate his talent, but you would find an argument from his fans saying
that his talent was only appreciated by other actors. As for me... I
appreciated other actors because I liked the characters they played, but I
really didn't have an interest in the actors themselves. With Richard, I
watched him because I was interested in him and how he seemed to make each role
his own. To me, when others acted, they seemed to play the same character in
all their movies, different variations of themselves. They just had different
names. Richard was one of the few actors who could make the roles he played so
believable and the different characters came to life with their own personalities.
Why was this great actor so unappreciated during his lifetime – and perhaps
even now, 25 years after his death?
I think that happened because of two reasons. One, he moved to Italy for a
decade and was out of the public's eye in the USA. And two, he accepted the
role of Admiral Nelson in Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, with which he will
be forever identified. If
he had stayed in the U.S., I believe he would have become a greater star here.
He is considered a much greater star in Europe. Also, I have received several
comments over the years from people who emailed me at my Richard Basehart
tribute site that they had no idea he had such range as an actor because they
only knew him as Admiral Nelson, and were astonished when they went back and
watched some of his old movies, which by now most everyone has forgotten about.
we wouldn't have had Richard as Admiral Nelson if he hadn't needed money to pay
off Valentina Cortese after their divorce. She agreed to one last payoff
and Voyage was his chance to get out of making any more payments to
her. That means if he didn't have that expense, he wouldn't have taken the
role and the roles he would have taken otherwise would probably more closely
reflect what he had done in the past.
Richard Basehart did not
want to be typecast. He just wanted to act and he
picked roles that interested him, whether he thought they were good for
career or not. He wasn't really interested in becoming a star. I would
if anything, he was really a private person and didn't want his life to
fodder for the magazines. If you compare the number of articles written
him to others who were considered stars, you won't find as many. Val
had a more established career in the early fifties so Richard chose to
Italy to be with her. The stress of both of them trying to keep their
going and never seeing each other because of all the traveling finally
them apart. They split up around 1958 and Richard had pretty much moved
the States by 1960. He rarely saw his son Jack after that. Jack stayed
mother in Rome. Richard missed him terribly.
In the late forties, were the studio bosses trying to build Basehart up
to be a
big star? If so, his versatility would have been seen as a drawback, no
Yes, they were expecting him to become a great star… and yes, I think
versatility would have been a drawback because the studio heads would be
to pigeonhole him into a certain type of role. Richard wanted to stretch
himself and he wouldn't have been able to do such a wide variety of
He certainly had an opportunity to stretch himself as an actor with his
portrayal of Hitler in the little-seen biopic directed by Stuart Heisler
Richard tried to learn as much about Adolf Hitler as he could to make
human and believable to the audience. That was a very hard role for
physically and emotionally – the greatest acting challenge he had ever
He lost weight. His blood pressure went up. He would lose his temper in
explosive outbursts that left him hoarse.
In the 1970s, did Richard Basehart feel that his career had gone into a
decline? He was offered leading roles in C-movies like Mansion of the
and The Great Bank Hoax. He turned up in lousy made-for-TV movies like
Millions Die!, Maneater and City Beneath the Sea (though Sole Survivor
excellent). He made many guest appearances on TV shows like Marcus
Time Travelers and Little House on the Prairie. This seems to be a sad
of his talents. Basehart was capable of so much more, as he demonstrated
Andersonville Trial – in which he delivered a truly towering performance
first concentration camp commander in history.
I don't think he was offered as many of the roles that he would have
have played. I also think he was becoming more of a family man and
stay home more with his daughters. Jenna was born in 1964 and Gayla in
thoroughly enjoyed being with them. According to Diana, he didn't even
going out to eat. He liked staying at home with his family. I think that
also why he did more documentaries at that time, because voice work
require as much travel.
figures that Richard’s career faltered when they both decided they
going to all the events that actors go to. He went because he thought
wanted to go and Diana went because, as an actor's wife, she thought she
go with him. One day they just looked at each other and asked, "Do you
like this?” They both said “no” and that was that. They stayed home
She feels that this elusiveness figured more into his lack of offers for
than anything else.
Basehart in the 1977 version of The Island of Dr. Moreau.
In 1976, Richard Basehart appeared in Mansion of the Doomed, in a role
of character (a “mad doctor” who collects eyes from the living), and
so disturbing, that for many people who admired him as Admiral Nelson,
reputation was left in tatters. Mansion of the Doomed sounds mighty
Have you seen it?
Yeah, I have it. People wondered why he accepted this role. Even with
his reputation for taking weird roles, most people thought it was
beneath him. I
think it was easy for Richard to play this part as it was filmed very
close to his
home. By this time, he was not interested in traveling the world just to
be in another movie. He essentially became a stay-at-home Dad. Even
Diana and the girls are in Mansion of the Doomed.
I do not agree with the assessment that the role of Dr. Leonard Chaney
hero reputation in tatters, though. Richard’s fans already knew he
take run-of-the-mill roles. And those who didn't know him well enough
aware that he liked off-the-wall roles.
Why did Basehart agree to be cast against type as the Sayer of the Law –
monstrous human/animal hybrid (albeit an intelligent one) in Don
Island of Dr. Moreau (1977) – a remake of the horror classic Island of
Souls? Did his decision stem from the opportunity to work with Burt
and Michael York in the pleasant surroundings of the Virgin Islands? Or
Basehart secretly always want to play a monster?
Don Taylor, his best friend (he was the rancher in The Savage Guns, a
western” Richard made in Spain in 1961) asked Richard to play the Sayer
Law in the film he was directing based on H.G. Wells’ novel The Island
Moreau.No one else would take the role,
so Don asked Richard what he could offer to entice him to play the part
wise old “manimal”. Richard asked for a rock for Diana. So Don bought
large Italian marble rock for her to sculpt… and that was Richard’s
agreeing to play the Sayer of the Law.
The Great Bank Hoax is one of Basehart’s few forays into comedy.
the film was a critical and commercial failure. Based on this single
performance as a bank president trying to cover up a massive
describe Basehart’s approach to comedy.
Richard loved comedies, but was never offered one, so he didn't get the
to prove his talents in that area until The Great Bank Hoax – rather
his career. Diana said he was a quick thinker and could come back with
and was always able to improvise a short witty repartee for any
Did Basehart agree to play a cameo as the Soviet Ambassador in Hal
There simply for the opportunity to work with the gifted Peter Sellers?
ever relate any anecdotes about his experiences on that film?
He really enjoyed his cameo in Being There and especially meeting the
of doing a Russian accent convincingly. Shirley MacLaine came on the set
day just to watch Richard work, as she was a great admirer of his.
CR: Norman Lloyd writes that Richard Basehart did an episode of Tales of
Unexpected (which Lloyd produced) where his dedication to his work under
difficult circumstances was extraordinary. Please tell us more about
The role was physically demanding. He had to carry a body into the surf.
the close-ups, it looks like it really was Richard and not some
may not have been in the actual ocean, but he was carrying a person on
with his arms wrapped around his neck through increasingly deep water.
was very close to the end of his life. In fact, this was his final
What did he consider to be his finest role?
I would think he was proudest of his work in The Andersonville Trial,
Hours and He Walked By Night. Those are all classic performances that
test of time. But no matter what he appeared in, Richard literally never
"A man stays
alive as long as he is remembered. He is killed only by forgetfulness."
– Richard Basehart as Lieutenant Rennick in Decision Before Dawn
Click here to read Herbert Shadrak's previous tribute to Richard Basehart