Frank Langella dishes about the famous in memoir

Associated Press
FILE - In this Aug. 20, 2008 file photo, Actor Frank Langella poses for a portrait at the Roundabout Theatre Company in New York. Langella's memoir, "Dropped Names: Famous Men and Women As I Knew Them," goes on sale Tuesday, March 27, 2012. The book is a collection of 66 impressionistic sketches of movie stars, social celebrities, Broadway icons, politicians and writers. (AP Photo/Ed Ou, File)
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FILE - In this Aug. 20, 2008 file photo, Actor Frank Langella poses for a portrait at the Roundabout …

NEW YORK (AP) — The phone at Frank Langella's home rings and rings, unanswered. The very private three-time Tony Award winner apparently is not willing to answer questions about his debut book.

Oh, wait: It turns out he has inadvertently given out the number for his fax machine.

"We'll talk to Dr. Freud about that sometime," he jokes when the right number is called and he gets on the line.

It turns out that Langella, fresh off the Broadway revival of Terence Rattigan's "Man and Boy," would very much like to talk about his literary debut, the memoir "Dropped Names: Famous Men and Women as I Knew Them," which went on sale this week.

The book is a collection of 66 impressionistic sketches of movie stars, social celebrities, Broadway icons, politicians and writers, including John F. Kennedy, George C. Scott, Tip O'Neill, Bette Davis, Jill Clayburgh and Charlton Heston. All but one are dead.

There are stories of dating Elizabeth Taylor, streaking in front of Sir Laurence Olivier, playing Scrabble with Paul Mellon and being wooed by both Noel Coward and Roddy McDowall (neither attempt succeeded, he writes). He and Marilyn Monroe shared just one word, but it changed his life.

Langella plumbs his long career, which has put him in arm's reach of many famous people. He's gone from a sexy Dracula, Cyrano and Sherlock Holmes to a mature Richard Nixon in "Frost/Nixon" onstage and on-screen, Sir Thomas More in "A Man for All Seasons" and Perry White in "Superman Returns."

Not all the celebrities come off well, including Richard Burton ("Could anyone, I wondered, be so unaware of what a crashing bore he had become?"), Anthony Quinn ("a big bully") and Paul Newman ("emotionally vacant").

Langella also doesn't spare himself. He acknowledges being a terrible boor around Deborah Kerr and Dinah Shore, did something "unforgivable" to Jackie Kennedy and is wistful about being a lover to a faded Rita Hayworth, saying she was "the single most tragic example of how far from the real person an image can be." He calls "Cutthroat Island" one of his worst films, "the single most egregious example of excess I have ever witnessed in the movie world."

"I really felt very strongly that I wasn't going to write a sweetie-darling-honey-baby book," he says. "Most celebrities' biographies I read I can't get through — they're either immensely self-raising or absolutely whitewashing."

Langella says he sought out permission from relatives and intimate friends of his subjects before publishing. "I've chosen to write my memories — as I recall them — as honestly as I could," he says. "None of it was meant to be coy or a tease."

One of the most touching chapters — and one of Langella's favorites — is about Cameron Mitchell, a one-time leading man who by the mid-1970s had turned into a "fat, jowly mess, covering his sad decline with an over-the-top wisecracking demeanor." In one story, Langella writes that fellow actors teased Mitchell by spinning him around in a too-small jacket.

"I've never forgotten the look in his eyes. I've never forgotten the sad, broken terror when everyone around him was just laughing their heads off, thinking how funny it was," Langella says. "That's around the corner for everybody if we don't watch out. I suppose that chapter means a lot to me because of the ephemeralness of life and also the ephemeralness of my profession."

Langella says there are so many people who didn't make the cut in the book that he's already considering a second volume of "Dropped Names."

The Associated Press: How was the book born?

Langella: It's been in my head for years and years and years. I've been a very lucky duck: I've run into the most extraordinary people as a result of being an actor. But it started in earnest when Jill Clayburgh died. I hadn't spent a lot of time with her in her last years and I was so sad and regretted missing that. A friend I was with asked me who she was. He was a great deal younger. I sat down and took out a yellow legal pad and wrote for about three hours about Jill. And then I decided to write about somebody else. And then somebody else. And then pretty soon they just kept adding up. I would go, 'Oh, I remember this' and 'I remember that.' I wanted to immortalize them all, warts and all.

AP: Was it fun to write?

Langella: Actually, it was quite wonderful to write — and agony to rewrite. I wrote and wrote and wrote — I think it ended up to be about 110 people. And then it was very difficult to go through it and decide who to remove. People came in and went out and came back and forth. It took me a very long time to bring it down to the 65 or 66 it is. And then there was a great deal of reading them over and over. I must have reviewed every one of them several dozen times.

AP: Did you have any misgivings about telling tales out of school?

Langella: No. Anything I didn't think was proper to make public, I just simply didn't make public. I was very careful about that. I went through these stories over and over again and I kept asking myself, 'Do you want to say this?' and 'Do you want to say that?' A great, great deal was cut. Twice the book was cut. Because I wrote utterly without censorship. I wrote with abandon and I wrote exactly what I felt and exactly what happened in a tremendous amount of detail, which was very cathartic. And then I said, 'OK, that was cathartic for me, but now it goes into the fireplace.'

AP: You, yourself, don't always come off very well.

Langella: I was religious about making certain that I often showed the worst of my nature. You can't live on this planet for as long as I've lived and you cannot be a member of this profession for as long as I have without running up against extraordinarily complicated, difficult, loving, wonderful, marvelous, frightening, angering monsters and sweethearts — all kinds of people. You can't be an actor without being all those things at different times in your life.

AP: There are some heartbreaking stories of your subjects struggling in their final days with illness and mental problems.

Langella: I think it's everybody's worst nightmare. I mean, I'm 74 now, so of course I'm thinking about it all the time, talking to my kids about it and talking to family members about how to handle it, should something happen. I'm concerned with mortality. I'm very concerned with how the decisions we make throughout our lives affect the last decade or two of the life we have.

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Online:

http://www.harpercollins.com/authors/38327/Frank_Langella/index.aspx

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AP researcher Barbara Sambriski contributed to this report.

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