During his years in Europe, Lex Barker made the acquaintance of a number of colleagues from his home country. Brett Halsey, born in California, counts among them and became a friend. The simpatico and still radiant colleague began his career in the Hollywood movies of the 1950s, became part of the American community in Rome's 'dolce vita', like Lex Barker, and is a very interesting conversation partner with regard to film history. In 1978, Halsey wrote a multiple-award-winning novel The Magnificent Strangers, about his 'Roman time', weaving in personal experiences from the era.
Brett Halsey started his acting career at Universal at approximately the same time Lex Barker came to the film studio. The young man attended the studio school and won his spurs in minor roles. After the first larger role in a comedy hit, it was above all the active parts in the popular action and war genre that gave him a name, such as To Hell And Back (1955), with Audie Murphy, the juvenile delinquent dramas Hot Rod Rumble (1957), and Speed Crazy (1959), or the sequel to the classic The Fly, titled Return Of The Fly (1959), with Vincent Price.
In 1962, the Italian director Riccardo Freda calls Halsey to Rome for a swashbuckling adventure. In Cinecittà, the 'Hollywood on the Tiber', the attractive American quickly becomes known as a desirable leading actor. Aside from adventures with the sword, such as The Magnificent Adventurer (1963), or The Avenger Of Venice (1964), Brett Halsey also stars in spy thrillers like Misíon Lisboa (1965), Italo Westerns like Kill Johnny Ringo (1966), Today We Kill, Tomorrow We Die (1968) with Bud Spencer, as well as Italian horror productions, for example: Mario Bava's Four Times That Night (1972). The latter, known also as 'Spaghetti Horrors' count among cult movies today.
Guest roles in countless television series, but also regular contracts for Italian movie productions and roles such as Coppola's The Godfather: Part III (1990) make for a long-lasting career. In Germany, Brett Halsey is also known as the husband of Heidi Brühl, who was introduced to him by Lex Barker.
The following interview was made in two sessions (2008 and 2009) and is published here for the first time.
Class of Universal's New Talent School
Brett, how did you come to Hollywood?
I had been an actor since I was a child. At that age it wasn't in a professional capacity, but when I was going to school I was working on CBS as a page. And there was a big star, Jack Benny, and his wife Mary. They liked me and they arranged for me to meet the boss at Universal. And they put me in a career. So that's how it started. A lucky, unusual way to begin. While I was in school I was offered a contract at Universal International Pictures. When under contract to Universal while I was still in my late teens, I went to the studio's New Talent School for young contract players for two years.
Who else was in the studio school?
For example Mara Corday. She also knew Lex Barker. The only person from that school I have much contact with is Clint Eastwood. Clint was also in the school. We stayed in touch until today. He was a good friend over the years. It's hard to think of him as such an icon, because when we got together we sometimes had dinner or lunch. We'd be discussing children etc. Clint came to Rome when I was there. He spent time in my house, but he never really became a part of the American community in Rome.
Your first movie was All I Desire (1953)...
With Barbara Stanwyck. Director Douglas Sirk was a very nice man, very kind. He was helpful. Had a good sense of humour.
How was working in Hollywood in those days?
A new and strange world. If I had gone to Mars, it wouldn't be more strange.
Then the western The Man From Alamo (1953) followed...
Director Budd Boetticher was a friend of mine. He helped me. He sent me to a bullfight school for a film he wanted to make. I studied bullfighting in Mexico. But he didn't make the movie. I had a small part in The Man From Alamo. My next important film was Ma And Pa Kettle At Home (1954).
Yes. A very successful comedy series in America. It was my first lead. I had four or five films about these two people: Ma (Marjorie Main) and Pa (Percy Kilbride) Kettle. I don't think anyone in Germany knows that.
Universal's horror Revenge Of The Creature (1955), directed by Jack Arnold, is a cult movie nowadays.
It was a sequel of Universal's huge success Creature From The Black Lagoon (1954). Jack Arnold was a dancer originally. He had a good sense of rhythm. Also in his filming. We filmed all my parts in the studios. I played a young college student and was killed in the movie by the creature.
How was it to be killed?
(Laughs) A funny thing happened after the scene where the Creature killed me. We shot it late at night. When I finished working it was around four o'clock in the morning. It was late and I was tired. In my death scene I had make-up blood all over me. But I was very tired. So instead of going to take my make-up off in the studio, I said, I'd go home and take a shower and take it off in the shower. Well, as I was driving home, people on the streets saw me in the car and were shocked to see a bloody mess driving his car down the street.
Your time at Universal Studios — how do you remember it?
It was a wonderful time, because I got an education, I worked in films. I made some friends that I lost over the years. It was a very nice time. Yes! But I have also contact to some living friends, for example Clint Eastwood or Tony Curtis. It was a good learning time. After Universal I was freelancing in movies and television.
Several of your movies made in those years were war or adventure movies...
Brett Halsey (in the middle) in To Hell and Back
The most important was To Hell And Back (1955) with Audie Murphy. We were also friends apart from work. You can understand why he was so brave as a soldier, because he was afraid of nothing. And he has no fear. I remember once, we were boxing, not serious, we used it to train, but not to hurt each other, and I accidentally hit him in the nose. Not too hard, but hard enough, so that he didn't like it. It was like the red line that rises in a thermometer when it gets hot. The red started at his neck, and then went to go up his face. I saw it and said: "That's it, Audie. No more. This fight is over." Because I knew that, if he got angry, we would really fight.
You also made an episode of Gunsmoke during that time.
On television. James Arness was a very professional, nice man. You know, when you're working on those television things, you don't have time for a social life. You do the work and go home. But it was pleasant work. Arness was the star and like the father of the company. He made sure everything was pleasant.
Meanwhile, you also were 'Marshall Matt Dillon'...
Yes, in radio plays. A new kind of thing. It was successful.
Did you ever meet John Wayne?
Oh, yes. I knew John Wayne very well. In fact, early on, during the fifties, actors didn't do commercials. Models did commercials. And one day my agent came and said: "Look, I have this commercial. Do you want to do it? It's Gillette Shaving." And I said: "Why did you ask me? I'm not a model. I'm an actor." "They'll have John Wayne in the commercial." I said: "Ah, ok." We both did the commercial together. It wasn't just the two of us. There were four or five people — he was the star. We became friendly. He was a nice man. I knew his wife Pilar very well. In fact, one of my most thrilling moments was when Pilar and I were talking about something. The Duke came over at that moment and pushed between us. I was thinking: "My God, John Wayne is pushing me away from his wife." What a compliment! (Laughs) John Wayne has to be with John Wayne's wife. He was smiling.
I remember the Academy awards for the Oscars, when he won the Oscar. I voted for him. I hadn't seen the movie. But I thought, it was his time.
You played with Guy Madison in Jet Over Atlantic (1959)...
We shot that in Mexico. They built the plane in Mexico-City. That was an interesting shoot. Guy was fine. He kept much to himself there. And I was a busy young man. My ex-wife came down, we spent time together. Mexico-City is situated very high. George Raft, the great gangster actor, had to use an oxygen tank because the air in Mexico-City is so thin. It's more than two thousand three hundred metres above sea level.
A great movie in the 1950s was Return Of The Fly (1959). What memories do you have of that movie?
I thought it was a good movie. David Hedison was the original 'Fly'. We're good friends. In fact we still do shows together. It was a big career move. It was one of 20th Century-Fox budget films. I went from that directly into The Best Of Everything (1959) which was a big budget picture. It was so strange to go from those low-budget pictures to the big budget ones where we were working with big stars like Joan Crawford or Stephen Boyd all the time. David Hedison also worked in Rome later.
How did you like working with Vincent Price?
He was a wonderful man. I did two films with Vincent. After Return Of The Fly we did Twice Told Tales (1963). Of all the actors that I worked with he is among my very favourite. A good actor. Generous as an actor, meaning: he's easy to work with. And just fun in general. We also had social contact in Rome. He was an art lover, too. We visited an exhibition. I saw a painting and asked him: "Is that a good one?" "The best of that painter's work I've ever seen." I bought it and as we're now talking together I'm looking at it.
Ah, yes, a very nice picture. Another big name on the list of Universal actors was Jeff Chandler. You played next to him in Return To Peyton Place (1961).
He was really another one of the favourite people. When I first went to the Universal Studios, while I studied, it was like going to Mars. I was just very young, impressionable, scared. And Jeff Chandler was a big movie star. I remember the second day I was there, just walking down the street in the studio, I saw Jeff Chandler coming toward me. He walked up, smiled, put his hand up and said: "Hi Brett, my name is Jeff Chandler. I just want to welcome you to the studio." That was so nice. From our movie Return To Peyton Place I have the script, where he wrote something very nice for me. When I heard about his death it was terrible. It didn't have to be, the bad operation.
Brett Halsey in Spy in Your Eye (1965)
What sort of genre was your television series Follow The Sun (1961/62)?
I played a newspaper man. Travelling around and having adventures all over the world. It ran for one season. But we filmed it all in Hollywood. No locations such as Hawaii, that was only an illusion of Hollywood. But it was my first main part in a television series. After that, I went to Italy.
Your first Italian production was Seven Swords For The King (1962)...
The director of that film, Riccardo Freda, liked my work. He had offered me a film before, but I hadn't been able to go. I was doing something else. So when Follow The Sun stopped, by coincidence he offered me a film again. I had always wanted to do a swashbuckler movie. So, I went to Italy and I did the film. When it was over, I came back here for the second film with Vincent Price. When we shot that film, I got an offer to go back to Italy to make three films. So, I went to make the three films. At the end of the films, I was an Italian actor (laughs) and I stayed.
Did you have special fencing training?
I studied it because I liked it. I had studied fencing before I went to Europe. It was one of my sports.
You also played in a sort of James Bond movie named Mision Lisboa (1965). You were 'Agent 077'...
Oh, that was fun. After the sword fighting pictures I made some Europe action pictures. After that the Westerns. My Italian career went on to include Spaghetti horror. I worked with some of the most famous Italian horror directors — Mario Bava and Lucio Fulci.
How was Mario Bava?
Oh, he was a wonderful director to work with. I loved it.
How different was he compared to American directors?
That is a difficult question. Italian directors have more freedom, I think, than American directors. They could curse at people. Like Fulci for example. He used to arrive in the morning, screaming at everybody, but when he saw me he gave me a very pleasant, "How are you?" etc. That was all show. Riccardo Freda was the first Italian director I worked for in Italy. He was a wonderful director. So skilled, but also a little perverse. I remember the second week, when we were shooting a big duel scene. It's common for Italians to drink wine with lunch, but I wasn't used to it and it threw off my timing with my sword. After that duel scene I never drank again. Not that I was afraid so much of getting hurt, but I was afraid I would hurt someone else.
Brett Halsey in Anyone Can Play (1968)
What memories do you have about the Italian actors?
Some were very good. Most good Italian actors were good because they had good instincts. The training was not as good as ours. But they have this organic instinct when they learn the mechanics of acting. The good ones were very good. A pleasure to work with. I found it interesting with the actresses. Because back in those days in the movie business a woman was either a Madonna or a prostitute. I started to think about it. Almost all of the Italian stars, female stars, became stars because of a man. I mean, what a man did for them. For example: Sophia Loren got her start because of her producer husband. Same, more or less, for Gina Lollobrigida.
One big difference between the American and Italian actors was: If there was a movie that would come up and I was offered the part and I couldn't do it, I'd call a friend of mine. Italians would never do that. Italian actors think first about themselves. If they lost a part, they wouldn't tell anyone else about it. Once I went to work and the car that took me to the studio stopped in front of the entrance because of a small group standing around. I asked the driver: "What's going on?" "That's an actors' strike. But no problem." "What do you mean?" "In this country the only actors who strike are the ones who haven't got a job." So I went to work.
Bud Spencer, you filmed also with him...
Ah, I really enjoyed working with Bud Spencer. The last time I saw him was when he was making a movie in Costa Rica and we spent time together. You know, he was an Olympic athlete.
Did you meet Klaus Kinski?
I knew him very well from Rome. Klaus was a funny character, because, as you know, he was a crazy man. I've seen him do crazy, crazy things. But he and his wife used to come to our house for some of our parties. And he was a gentleman. I never could understand that other side. But I've seen him do really crazy things. As a friend outside of work he was fine.
Linda Christian was also in Rome...
She was with Edmund Purdom. I remember that, during the late 60s, early 70s, he invented some system for recording orchestral music [he was among the first to use the multi-track system]. It was something new. I saw Linda very often in Rome. I knew her through her children. Romina and I made a movie together in Spain Las trompetas del apocalipsis/Perversion Story (1969). She was very young. Around seventeen. Her sister Taryn wanted to be an actress. Not much happened for her. Linda had more than a few lovers. She was the glamour girl number one in that period. I used to see her with the athlete Floyd Simmons. They were together for a couple of years.
Do you remember Pierre Brice?
Yes. But I didn't know him very well.
He was always fun to be with. But he was a little bitter. He was such a great, handsome leading man. When he got older, he didn't have that anymore. He still worked, but he didn't make the transition into his senior years very well. But his "Scaramouche" started my love for spectacle movies.
What do you remember about Senta Berger, your partner in Jack Und Jenny (1963)?
It's difficult for me to talk about Senta. If you read the book The Magnificent Strangers, I tell the story of an Austrian actress who is really bad with a director. I modelled that character after Senta. The last time I saw Senta was in Rome. I felt kind of sorry for her. It was a series of three films for RAI. I was in one, she was in another and played an older woman. She wasn't very happy because, at the time they shot the film, she wasn't aware that the photographer was going to make her look her true age. After the film she was so disappointed by the way she had been photographed. She thought she looked like hell. But she didn't, of course. Senta is a good actress. But I don't want to talk more about Senta.
Where did you meet Lex Barker?
I met Lex when we were both filming in Berlin. I was there making Jack Und Jenny. Lex was there, making another film. He was instrumental in me meeting Heidi. She made the musical Annie Get Your Gun (1963). Lex introduced me to my ex-wife, Heidi Brühl. We became quite friendly, and also in Rome. We played the cards in Rome. There was a group on the Via Veneto. Americans and Europeans, mostly actors. We met almost daily, had coffee, and also played cards. Everybody liked Lex. He was a good guy.
Brett with Clint Eastwood
What other American actors where there?
Clint Eastwood was there. Walter Barnes. We were very good friends. Walter died several years ago. Then, there were Gordon Scott, Brad Harris, George Nader and Guy Madison. I saw his wife Sheila last week. She lives near here. So many people used to come and go. I used to say — you know in the department stores they have these pneumatic tubes where they put money and things in them to transport — I used to feel that there was one of those between Hollywood and Via Veneto, filled with actors going in each direction.
I did a series of juvenile delinquent movies. I met Brad when we were doing one together, I think it was called Speed Crazy (1959). He was a kind of stuntman. Brad has a very interesting career as an actor, as a producer. I don't know if he was directing, but he could. He is a very friendly man. I met Arnold Schwarzenegger in Brad's house. Arnold came over one afternoon. That was before politics.
It was the time of Dolce Vita in Rome...
You should read my first book called The Magnificent Strangers.
Charley Fawcett — my wife and I had dinner with Charley last year before he died. Charley was one of the great characters of our time. He was a wonderful man. He was a good friend also of Lex. We met very often. In fact, Charley was involved with the Afghanistan Mujahedin, and he asked me one day when we had dinner: "Do you want to go with me to Afghanistan and photograph the Russians?" "Oh, I don't know about that." "Listen, I guarantee I can get you close enough to the Russian tanks, so that you can take photographs." "Why?" (Laughs).
Last time we saw him, he was ill. Charley fought for different flags during WW2. He helped hundreds of Jews to come out of France.
Did you meet Lex' Swiss wife Irene?
I didn't know her enough. There was a big tragedy when she died. It took him a long time to get over that.
Have you met his children? Zan was at the Hilton hotel during that time.
Yeah. We were both living at the Hilton, Lex and I. It's funny. My relationship with Lex was very good. We spent a lot of time together. But if you'd ask: "What did you do?" I'd have to say: "we didn't do anything". We just enjoyed each other's company. You know, we were both victims of the film business. So, we couldn't talk very much. The conversations we did have were about children or cars.
And how was Tita?
My only negative was Lex' wife Tita. She was an awful person. Like her mother. Her mother was just a pain. But I don't want to talk more about Tita, either.
At that time Lex was one of the biggest movie stars in Germany. Do you know what he thought about his part, Old Shatterhand, in a type of movie series like Tarzan?
Lex always wanted to be regarded more as an actor. And Shatterhand was very successful for him. But it wasn't gratifying for him as an actor. He didn't resent it, he just wished he could do better things. — He was very good as Old Shatterhand.
Brett Halsey played Johnny Ringo, too...
Why didn't you get a part in the Karl May series?
I was working more in Italy. I've never worked for Artur Brauner or Horst Wendlandt. I didn't work much in Germany. I did only two films. Jack Und Jenny and Der Kongress Amüsiert Sich (1966).
How was Der Kongress Amüsiert Sich?
That was a big disappointment for Germany because it was a very expensive film. I remember the premiere was in Munich and it was booked in the theatre for sixteen weeks. But after three weeks they took it off. I remember problems with the film. The director's name was Géza von Radványi. And I remember problems with the script, went to him and told him I thought the script wasn't clear. "I'm not sure: is it a comedy, is it a drama? How do you suggest I play my character?" He was sitting in his chair: "Brett, I hate this fucking business. I don't want to direct anymore. I want to be a producer. The producer is making all the money." "Thanks, that helped me a lot," I answered. (Laughs) But it was great to work on that film with Curd Jürgens, Lilli Palmer or Walter Slezak. It was wonderful to work with Slezak. Curd was great, because we were shooting in Vienna. When Curd Jürgens walked into a restaurant, it was as if God had walked in.
You played in European Westerns. What's your opinion about these sorts of movies?
I like the Italian Westerns. They were not authentic in many ways, but they were good drama. Good action. They played well. I think in the end they made too many of them. But the ones I was in were pretty good. And one that was very successful was Today We Kill, Tomorrow We Die (1968). We filmed in Italy and Spain.
How were the conditions?
Conditions were ok. You know, they were Italian films, after all, and we didn't record sound. Sometimes the physical conditions weren't up to American standards. For example: I remember when we filmed a fight. One of the stuntmen got a knife in his leg. We stopped. I said: "Where is the first aid?" Nobody had a first aid kit. "Where is the hospital?" Nobody knew where the hospital was. If the man hadn't received help with his leg, then he could have died.
But you as an American actor helped them to achieve more authenticity?
Most of their training was instinctive. The stuntmen would often get hurt because they didn't really always know what to do. Some of them were very good. Lex and I had the same stuntman — Gianfranco Bastianoni. He was an excellent stuntman! But often, some of us American actors would do the stunts ourselves because we did it better. Especially when working with horses.
Where did you learn to ride?
Well, my father raised horses. I was breaking western horses when I was twelve or thirteen. I trained horses as well.
Did you grow up on a ranch or farm?
My father was in the building business, but he also raised horses. We spent part of our time living on a ranch.
The German Westerns were a little bit different to Italian westerns. There were more Indians...
I saw them, but don't remember them much. I think those I watched were in German, so I couldn't follow much. But they were good productions. Brauner spent money on them.
Brauner is a well-known movie producer in Germany...
I sent him a letter two or three years ago when he won a prize. Now he is more than ninety years old. Wow! He was a good producer, but I think at present the German film industry is down.
What are your other memories about Germany?
Oh, I like Germany. But I told Heidi I didn't want to live there. I didn't want to be Mr. Heidi Brühl. So that's why I couldn't live in Germany. But I like Germany. Our daughter Nicole is in Germany. She is very happy there.
Looking back to Heidi Brühl...
We had a great time. We lived in Rome for a long time, and have two wonderful children. By the way: My son is now a director. It was funny when we travelled back and forth from Rome to Germany. When we were driving into Germany, the police always asked Heidi for an autograph. Then we drove back to Italy, and the Italian police were asking me for an autograph. That was so funny.
How was your time in Europe as an American actor?
Great, because we had success and money, and occasionally the chance to do some good films. I was primarily a B action and adventure star. That genre of films died. That's why I came back.
You had no problems when you returned?
Yes, I did. Italian films were not popular in Hollywood. So, when I came back it was almost as though I had quit the business. It took about a year to start again. Then, I went into soap operas. I did a couple of those. I was more of a working actor. My star level was behind. I mostly did television.
Did you meet Lex again in California?
He used to come to my house here. Sometimes twice a week. We played Backgammon when he visited us.
Do you know what plans he had? He was looking for movies and it wasn't easy for him.
For me neither. But we didn't talk about the movies.
Which of his friends from that time did you also know?
For example Warren Stevens. I see Warren occasionally now.
You played with Warren in his television series Tales of the 77th Bengal Lancers (1956)...
That was great fun. Those days in television were very difficult. But very professional. We would do things like Tales of the 77th Bengal Lancers. They would shoot an episode of those half-hour shows in three days. That's very fast. I remember one in which I was a young lieutenant. I did three of the shows playing the young lieutenant, and I was leading a charge of my men against the bad guys, and I had my rifle and a pendant, the flag. And I was supposed to lead my men, then jump off my horse and lead the charge on foot. As I was riding down the hill, I was thinking: "How can I get off this horse?" Because I had a flag in one hand, and a rifle in the other. How could I get off? So, I thought: "Hopefully, the horse will stop when I rein him to a stop, and stay stopped." Well, when I started to get off, the horse kept going. And I fell right into some cactus. The point of the story is — you couldn't stop acting in those days. Everything went so fast. So, I got out of the cactus and continued to lead my men down the hill. I spent the rest of the afternoon in hospital having the pieces of cactus taken out of my back and backside. But you didn't stop. Unless you were dead you didn't stop. But in the next scene, I didn't sit down. (Laughs) That was fun.
How was your impression about Lex' health?
Fine. Lex always appeared as a very healthy man. I was amazed that he died so young. If you thought about who might be the next to die, Lex would be way down the list. A big surprise. I read it in the newspaper.
Lex died in the streets of New York City...
It was terrible where he died. He had a heart attack on the street.
Both of you were good athletes. Did you train together?
No. I don't know where Lex trained. Brad Harris and Gordon Scott were in the gym all the time. I trained with them, not with Lex.
Later you began to write books. How did that come about?
When I was living in Rome, I felt that what was happening in the film industry was an event. A historical event. Things were happening and I said to friends: "Oh, that was good. That's going into my book." Well, every actor thinks about writing a book. So, I talked about it. When I came back and I was talking to a writer friend of mine about it, he said: "You have a good story. I think it will sell." I wrote some pages, they gave me a contract. It could be a big event. And in the contract it said, if I don't write the book I have to give the money back. So at that time I became an author. (Laughs)
You played in many television series. For example The Fall Guy with Lee Majors...
Yes, we recently worked together in a series named Cold Case.
... and your latest movie is Hierarchy (2009) where you played a priest.
An interesting role and I enjoyed it. They don't ask me to play with my sword or my pistols anymore.
Looking back — you must be proud for having been part of that movie era?
Proud is not the word. Maybe grateful is the right word. Because everyone who was there or even touched on that time knows it was a magic time. Why did I say The Magnificent Strangers? Because the American actors were kind of bigger than life. We were regarded as something a little different there. I remember Gordon Scott. [Another US American in Rome, Scott was the Tarzan just after Lex Barker.] Gordon wasn't normally a violent person but, that one time, someone had said something to him on the street. And he grabbed the guy and put him over the hood of a car and hit him. When he drew back his arm to hit him again, someone grabbed his. So he threw that person over the car. It was a policeman. The policeman said: "Oh, oh." Gordon was like Maciste. The policeman apologized.
Thank you for the conversation.
Reiner Boller (2008 - 2010)
Assistance: Marlies Bugmann 2010