Lyle Talbot was born in 1902, just around the time when movies were getting started. He joined a traveling carnival, toured in theater troupes and wound up in Hollywood, where he became a reliable B-movie player. Eventually, Talbot became a fixture of family-friendly television on Leave It to Beaver and Ozzie and Harriet.
Talbot was a pro, not a star. Between movies and sitcoms, he played local theaters and summer stock productions all over the country. His virtuosity is exemplified by the fact that at various times, he played both Felix and Oscar in productions of The Odd Couple.
He married — several times — and had lots of girlfriends, including one countess. In 1948, he married Margaret Epple, who was quite a bit younger than he was. The couple had two daughters and two sons, and were married for more than 40 years.
Margaret Talbot, their daughter, is now a New Yorker writer who has written a family history in which she runs through the rise of popular entertainment in America. Her book is called The Entertainer: Movies, Magic, and My Father's Twentieth Century.
Talbot talks with NPR's Scott Simon about the Golden Age of Hollywood, her father's playboy past, and how he found work as an actor.
On why Lyle Talbot decided to get out of small-town Nebraska and become an actor
"I think it's fair to say there was not a lot going on for somebody like my dad who was a good-looking, fairly ambitious young guy who had a real playful streak and wasn't going to stay and run a drugstore or be a farmer. Traveling shows came through these small towns in Nebraska, and, just like you would imagine, like the circus coming to town, they caught a lot of kids' imaginations, and my father was one of them."
On the Hays Code, which was adopted in 1930 but not enforced until 1934, intended to regulate Hollywood film production
"The Hays Code, which was the morals code that governed movies and what you could show in movies, was actually in effect at that time, but the producers were doing a very good job of ignoring it and really flouting it. So the movies from that period are kind of racier and also more cynical in certain ways than a lot of the movies that came after, in the sort of Golden Age of Hollywood, when the code was being enforced. ...
"I think that, you know, when you had to work around some of these provisions, you had to suggest burning desire, you had to suggest that people were having an extramarital affair, you had to suggest certain kinds of violence without showing ... certain acts [which] were explicitly forbidden. There's even the old aspect of the code that people will point to — and this was actually something that was added in deference to British censors: You weren't allowed to show a married couple in bed together. You had to show them having two single beds."
On why Lyle Talbot went on the road to act, when production of his regular sitcoms shut down
"He loved to work. He was somebody who felt very lucky that he was able to make a living doing what he loved in a creative field. So, you know, I think in acting and in Hollywood, the hierarchy is so visible and the rewards at the top are so amazing, you know, that if you become a big star, that people who don't ... maybe become bitter. But he never felt that way. He felt very fortunate, and he wanted to work all the time. So when the agent called in our house, that was a big, big deal, you know. And, yeah, he ... I mean, sometimes he made fun of himself because he was in some terrible things, you know — a lot of turkeys."
On her father's B-movie roles
"I think the Ed Wood movies would come to mind ... Plan 9 from Outer Space is one of the movies. [So is] Glen or Glenda, which is the story of a cross-dresser, which is actually Ed Woods' personal story, brought to screen in a very surreal way — but still there's real heart in it. And he made other sort of exploitation movies of the late '40 and '50s in kind of his low period before he met my mother and started over again."
On having fun researching her father's former wives and girlfriends
"What an assortment. ... I have to say this with all due respect to my mother, because my parents never — I mean, theirs was a real love story, but part of the love story involved not talking about the past, the ladies of the past, you know. Certainly not the wives. Like, I had no idea he'd been married a total of five times. And, you know, there were certainly allusions to girlfriends — like, I remember once going into the garage and finding a picture of some blond bombshell cupping her breasts, and it said on it, 'Holding my own 'till you get home' ... and kind of looking at it and thinking, 'Hmm, I wonder what this is about.' I mean, literally thinking that. So, without feeling disloyal, I did find some of these women very interesting ...
"Now, I should say I'm really glad that none of them were my mother. But yes, they were interesting. The Countess di Frasso was this kind of Hollywood society, you know, dame, grande dame, who, you know, threw a lot of parties, was married to an Italian count. ... It was the classic, 'she gave him her money, he gave her the title,' because she came from a very wealthy family. And my father was the boyfriend in between Gary Cooper, who she sort of groomed for success, and Bugsy Siegel, the gangster."
On her mother's ostensibly ill-fated marriage to Lyle Talbot, who, when they met, was a problem drinker nearly three decades her senior
"He suggested that they get married in Tijuana, [and there was] even some doubt about whether the marriage was quite legal ... because he was trying to save publicity at that point, save her from the publicity. Yeah, it did not seem promising at all. I mean, people really were saying, to her certainly ... 'What are you thinking? This is not ... going to last.' And, in fact, it lasted until she died."
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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Lyle Talbot was a B-movie actor - not a marquee name. He played alongside big stars, like Ginger Rogers, Betty Davis and Spencer Tracy in movies from Hollywood's Golden Age, then not-so-golden ones too, like Ed Wood's "Plane 9 from Outer Space." Later, Lyle Talbot became a prominent fixture on family-friendly television with "Leave It To Beaver" and "Ozzie and Harriet." And he was the first man to play Superman's archenemy, Lex Luthor.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE)
LYLE TALBOT: (as Lex Luthor) The daily planet is wrong, as usual, and is powerless to unmask and stop me, as is its ally, Superman.
SIMON: And when sitcoms shut down for the summer, Lyle Talbot would take to the road and play local theaters and summer stock all over the country. He had a full romantic career too. But in 1948, Lyle Talbot fell in love, married and settled down with Margaret Epple. Their daughter is Margaret Talbot. She's a writer with The New Yorker magazine and has now written a family history interwoven through a history of popular entertainment in America. The book is called "The Entertainer: Movies, Magic, and My Father's Twentieth Century." We spoke with Margaret Talbot recently and she told us about her father - the pro, not a star.
MARGARET TALBOT: He was somebody who felt very lucky that he was able to make a living doing what he loved in a creative field. So, when the agent called in our house, that was a big, big deal, you know? And sometimes he made fun of himself 'cause he was in some terrible things. You know, lot of turkeys.
SIMON: Do you remember one specifically?
TALBOT: I think the Ed Wood movies would come to mind.
SIMON: I mean, maybe we should explain. This was originally - this is the pie plate, trembled to make it look like a UFO.
TALBOT: Exactly, exactly. "Planet 9 from Outer Space" is one of the movies.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "PLANET 9 FROM OUTER SPACE")
TALBOT: (as General) Just a few minutes from Hollywood in the town of San Fernando, reports have come in of saucers flying so low the exhaust knocked people to the ground. There have even been stated claims of saucer landings.
TALBOT: But he made other sort of exploitation movies of the late '40s and '50s in kind of his low period before he met my mother.
SIMON: Your book is beautifully written.
TALBOT: Thank you.
SIMON: And I want to get you to read a section, which, alas, contains just a few of your words, but a note that your mother wrote your father, please.
TALBOT: (Reading) After both my parents died, I found a birthday card she'd made for my dad in which she inscribed an unattributed quote: "How wonderful to sit in a theater filled with anonymous people all paying for the privilege of sharing him with me. I would hear the applause, the oohs and ahs, the sighs, the comments, the coughs all around me. At the sound of the familiar deep voice, I would smile, titillated by the bittersweet pleasure of knowing him in a way no one else could. And she had added for all the magic moments in the theater, the intimate days and nights and the lovely years together, I thank you and love you." That was in 1982, by which time they had been married 34 years. She was 54 and he was 80.
SIMON: Well, I made a note: when your mother met your father, you father, Lyle Talbot, was a problem drinker, he had been married at least four times and was 26 years older than she was. Now, as you say in this book, if your own daughter met a man like that, you would say run for the exit.
TALBOT: Exactly, exactly. And he, you know, suggested that they get married in Tijuana, even some doubt about whether the marriage was quite legal. It did not seem promising at all. I mean, people really were saying to her, certainly, what are you thinking? This is not going to last. And in fact, it lasted until she died.
SIMON: And your mother really was the love of his life.
SIMON: And they enjoyed what sounds like a truly wonderful marriage. But did you have some fun researching your father's girlfriends? What an assortment, by the way.
TALBOT: What an assortment. Yes, I have to say this - with all due respect to my mother - because my parents never - theirs was a real love story, but part of the love story involved not talking about the past, the ladies of the past. I had no idea he had been married a total of five times. I remember once going into the garage and finding a picture of some blonde bombshell cupping her breasts. And it said on it: holding my own until you get home.
SIMON: That's quite an inscription.
TALBOT: Yeah, and kind of looking and thinking, hmm, I wonder what this is about.
SIMON: The Countess di Frasso.
TALBOT: Yes. Now, I should say I'm really glad that none of them were my mother, but they were interesting. Now, the Countess di Frasso was this kind of Hollywood society grande dame who threw a lot of parties, was married to an Italian count. And my father was the boyfriend in between Gary Cooper, who she sort of groomed for success, and Bugsy Siegel, the gangster.
SIMON: That's quite a...
TALBOT: Yeah, yeah.
SIMON: ...quite a range, yeah. One of the films that your father Lyle Talbot appeared in disappeared in a while, because they were made before the code, as they call it. That was the Hays Code. What was that?
TALBOT: Yeah. Between 1932 and 1934 - my father arrived in Hollywood in 1932 in the depths of the Depression - that was the period that's now known as pre-code. And the Hays Code, which was the morals code that governed movies and what you could show in movies, was actually in effect at that time, but the producers were doing a very good job of ignoring it and really flouting it. So, the movies from that period are kind of racier and also more cynical in certain ways than a lot of the movies that came after in the sort of Golden Age of Hollywood, when the code was being enforced.
SIMON: It's interesting. You kind of advance the argument here that although the Hays Code might have been concocted for what we would now call the wrong reasons, it had the effect of making movies more artful.
TALBOT: Yeah. I think that, you know, when you had to work around some of these prohibitions, you had to suggest burning desire, you had to suggest that people were having an extramarital affair, you had to suggest certain kinds of violence without showing - certain acts were explicitly forbidden. And there's even the old aspect of the code that people will point to - and this was actually something that was added in deference to British censors -you weren't allowed to show a married couple in bed together. You had to show them having two single beds.
SIMON: What are some of the ways in which you think movies have made us look differently at the world? In fact, even kiss differently?
TALBOT: There's actually pretty good evidence for this because there were these studies in the '30s called the Payne Fund Studies, which interviewed young people about the impact of movies on their lives. And a lot of them say quite specifically that they learned how to kiss, how to romance a girl and look deep into her eyes. And if you were a gal, a woman, you know, how to grip the back of your boyfriend's head in just such a way. And people would actually specifically give credit to the movies for teaching them these methods of seduction and of making out, basically.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "SIN TAKES A HOLIDAY")
BASIL RATHBONE: (as Reggie Durant) I'm going to hold you closer than you've ever been held before.
CONSTANCE BENNETT: (as Sylvia Brenner) I've never been held close at all. Sometimes I've been vain only, and regretted it. But tonight, I'm glad.
SIMON: That's Basil Rathbone with Constance Bennett in the 1930 film "Sin Takes a Holiday." We've been talking with Margaret Talbot. Her new book, "The Entertainer."
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.