Weaver's Interview with Phoebe Dorin
Exclusive interview © 2000 - 2002 Tom Weaver, all rights reserved. Tom is a Sleepy Hollow, New York, freelance writer who contributes to the magazines STARLOG, FANGORIA, CULT MOVIES and many others. He also writes liner notes, cast-crew biographies, and audio commentaries for Universal DVDs. The following is posted with permission. Thanks Tom!
"In this exclusive interview, Dorin candidly recounts the highs and lows of her very special friendship with Michael Dunn, the actor with whom she shared stage, nightclub, and TV spotlights." -TW
He was the diminutive actor who attained full-size success via a series of towering performances in the 1960s: Michael Dunn. The three-foot-ten, 75 lb. Dunn is best known by millions of TV fans as the recurring villain Dr. Miguelito Loveless on The Wild Wild West (1965-68), but movie buffs also recall his Oscar-nominated performance in Stanley Kramer's Ship of Fools (1965). New York theatergoers of a certain generation remember his work in such Broadway plays as Ballad of the Sad Cafe, for which he received a Tony nomination and a New York Critics Circle Award. Even nightclub patrons remember Dunn: In the mid-60s, he and his friend and fellow actor Phoebe Dorin debuted their unique act "Michael Dunn and Phoebe." The act was hailed in periodicals like Time and The New York Times, performed at night spots throughout the country, and led directly to their casting on Wild Wild West. (Dorin co-starred in the Loveless episode as the mad doctor's accomplice and singing partner Antoinette.)
Manhattan-born Dorin made her living as an art director in the years before she began concentrating on her acting career. Outside of her collaborations with Dunn, she worked with an improv group and acted on- & off-Broadway; since Dunn's 1973 death (at age 39), she has worked steadily in episodic TV and done voiceovers for commercials ("Millions and millions of commercials!" she laughs). In this exclusive interview, Dorin candidly recounts the highs and lows of her very special friendship with Michael Dunn, the actor with whom she shared stage, nightclub, and TV spotlights.
The Interview (held in August, 2000): (Tom Weaver in blue print; Phoebe Dorin in black)
Before you got into acting, you studied at Cooper Union and worked as an art director.
Cooper Union in New York City is one of the most famous art schools in the world. It's down in the Bowery, on Third Avenue, and it's just this great, great school. You can't into it, you have to win a scholarship to it, and you are never given grades, you are either asked back the next year or you're not. But it really teaches you how to think because there are no grades, you literally have to be very creative and learn how to put things together. It's a school of art, architecture and design, and when you enter it, you take everything --the architects have to learn to paint, the painters have to learn to be architects and so on. And what happens then is, you find you have proclivities toward other things, and a lot of people do change what they do.
Some wonderful people that have come out of Cooper Union --most of the leading art directors in New York are Cooper Union graduates.
So you were more
interested in art than singing and acting at that point?
That had always been a big conflict for me, painting and art and design [versus] theater. I always felt that the more spiritual thing was the painting and I did that for many years --I was an art director, I worked at CBS and at Dell Publications, at a magazine there. But I just one day thought, "I'm lying to myself" and what I did was quit cold --I quit art directing and I started waiting tables and going to acting class, until I eventually landed my first off-Broadway show. And that's where I met Michael.
In your first off-Broadway show?
Yes, Two by Saroyan. Alvin Ailey was in it (that was Alvin's first role), Cynthia Harris, Jimmy Broderick --an extraordinary cast. I was not only in the show in a very tiny role but I designed and painted the posters for them. One day I was on the floor mapping out this enormous poster that was supposed to go outside the theater, and I looked down and standing on the poster were these two little feet. I didn't know what they were --I'd never seen little feet like that! They were very tiny and they were in those strange little shoes that are shaped to your feet. I thought, "They don't look like kid's feet but they don't look like big feet either." And I look up and there's Michael standing on the poster. I said to him, "You're on the poster" and he said, "Let me help you fill this in." So he grabbed a paintbrush and he helped me, and we became very, very good friends. What parts did you and he play in the show? He played a policeman [laughs]! He had to run in and he had to beat Alvin Ailey up. And I played a pregnant lady, and I literally gave birth on stage. (A big football.) It was very funny! After the show every night, in order to "unwind," what Michael and I would do is go to the Plaza Hotel, one of the ritziest hotels in New York, right on Central Park where you get the hansom cabs. Right across from the Plaza Hotel is the Plaza Fountain. We would go to the Fountain --usually in the winter they didn't fill it with water. We were both very tiny, and we would sit in the Fountain and we would sing --he had this gorgeous singing voice, and we found out that we loved to sing together. We'd sing for hours. And we ended up with a little "following," a little coterie of people who would show up from night to night. And then of course there would be tourists and lovers taking hansom cab rides and people strolling down Fifth Avenue. They'd sit and listen and make requests for songs, and it became a "thing." In fact, if we didn't show up one night, the next night people would be very angry that we didn't show [laughs]! It was a fabulous way to release all that energy, and it was also loads of fun. Michael and I just got to be such good friends that way.
When you would sing in the Fountain, what hours are we talking about here?
Starting around midnight?
Well, if the show closed at around 11, we would get down there by 11:30, quarter of 12. And everyone in New York stayed up late at night, walking the streets 'cause it was gorgeous and beautiful. That was our little following. We would sing 'til about one, two in the morning and then we would be so exhausted we'd go home and go to sleep [laughs]! That went on for quite a while.
What kind of songs did you sing in the Fountain?
We sang folk songs, we sang standards, we sang show tunes --whatever people would request. And also stuff that we had been working on. And then of course there'd be a moment where Michael did a solo, 'cause he was wonderful, 'cause he was so great.
"I do have a fairly large ego - it has to be. If I were not totally convinced I'm a superior person, I'd be a very inferior one." -quote from Life Mag.
How did this turn into a nightclub act?
One day Roddy McDowall was photographing Michael for Life magazine --Michael had just done Ballad of the Sad Cafe on Broadway and there was talk of him now doing Ship of Fools and The Tin Drum. Roddy said, "Michael, I'm gonna follow you around, but I don't want you to do anything that you don't ordinarily do. I really want to spend the day with you." So he did. And at night, we went to the Plaza Fountain and we sang, and all the people came around, and Roddy took pictures for Life and was so charmed by it that when we went out for a bite to eat afterwards, he said, "You guys are crazy. You have got to put this together in a club. Why are you giving it away?" We said, "Oh, no one will come," and Michael said, "No, I'm too self-conscious. When they see me, they'll freak." Roddy said, "I didn't see them freaking at the Fountain. I really think you should do it." So Roddy was the one who put the little bee in our bonnet and encouraged us, and we did it. And that was the beginning of the nightclub act.
Okay, finally both of you are sold on doing the act. What was the next
step, where did you go to rehearse and everything?
You have to remember, when Roddy suggested this, we still were so poor. I was still waiting on tables and trying to be an actress, and Michael was, well, he was sort of moving up, but we still didn't have a pot between us. Michael somehow bartered to get rehearsal space at Variety Arts, this big rehearsal studio on Broadway. We would go in three, four hours a day. We had an accompanist, and we had a director, Neal Kenyon. But the act didn't work for quite a while until I came up with the idea of "library steps." We had two little units, basically little stages for ourselves: I had a little stage and he had a little stage. It was a series of spiral steps, and they would be wheeled on stage and we would run out and jump on our units and begin the act on these units, in a spotlight. That it enabled us to do was change heights. And the audience didn't realize what was going on. In other words, Michael could sit on a higher step than me and sing to me, and they weren't aware of his height because he was taller, he was in a spotlight. It was the element that made it work. But everywhere we went to perform, we had to ship those staircase units --I can't tell you what it cost! That's what we spent most of our money on.
Most of your earnings?
Most of our earnings, yes. When we did the nightclub act in New York at Upstairs at the Duplex, I think we each earned $40 a week. I'll never forget one day when we had a rehearsal call. Our manager John Softness was supposed to be there and I think a director named Marty Charnin, the guy who wrote Annie. It was the first day we were really gonna come in and "launch" this, and there were going to be a couple of really important people watching this rehearsal just to see --"Was this act viable or not?" We were very excited, we'd waited a long time for this. We met at one of the bars in a very exclusive hotel (I forget where), and people started showing up with shocked looks on their faces. We didn't know what was going on. And then finally we heard a woman scream, she was hysterical! John came in and we asked, "Why are you late?" He was weeping, and he said, "Kennedy's been shot." So that was the end of the rehearsal, that was the end of everything for awhile. It put everything on hold, and it took us awhile to get back into it and get the rehearsal space again.
Upstairs at the Duplex, on Grove Street in Greenwich
Village --is that where
Yeah --a magical, magical place. A lot of us started there --we were working with Joanie Rivers and Dick Cavett and Jo Anne Worley, and we were all making 40 bucks a week. And we would be there 'til three, four in the morning. As long as there was one person left alive in that audience, Jan Wallman, the entrepreneur who ran that little club, would make us perform [laughs]! If they were sleeping on the table, she would say, "You're paid to do a show! The show must go on!"--and we would do the show. What it was for us was great training, which was fabulous. But Michael and I weren't making money until we started playing the Hungry I in San Francisco and until Michael did Ship of Fools. Then his name started to pay off and the nightclub act began being known --we were reviewed in Time magazine and people started coming on their own. That's when we started making money. Before then, we were making so little. And if they told us we had to pay them to perform, I think we would have done it [laughs] --that's how dumb we were!
How long were your gigs at places like Upstairs at the Duplex?
We would be there for months. When we played a gig there, we played it for months.
I've always lived with constant pain, so that wasn't a factor in whether I made a life for myself or not. I could have copped out, lived with my parents and pulled the dwarf bit." -quote from Life Mag.
Did he have miniature furniture in his apartment?
No. He lived on the West Side, about three doors down from the Actors Studio, in Hell's Kitchen. Hell's Kitchen was the Italian neighborhood --all the Italian Mafia. And it was one of the safest neighborhoods in New York, 'cause nobody came there to start trouble [laughs]! I mean, you could leave your car door open, you could leave your apartment door open --there was nobody there who was gonna dare! And everyone in the neighborhood knew Michael and adored him. His Italian friends were wonderful. I would see them a lot when I'd go down there. There was a guy named Gary and there was Nunzio [laughs]--oh, they all knew Michael and they loved him and they would cart him around on their shoulders! They knew Mike before he became famous. He just was a terrific guy and the neighborhood loved him. Oh, we had a great time in the beginning. I think Michael was happier when he was on the road to success. I think those were his happiest times.
What kind of songs would you sing in the act?
Very sophisticated. It would be a combination of Broadway, jazz and old standards --standards like "You Make Me Feel So Young," there'd be a lot of duets, there'd be a couple of solos that Michael would do. Very moody, beautiful solos. But it wasn't, "First we're gonna sing this," "Now we're gonna sing this," "Now we're gonna sing this" --the act was structured like a little play. We would start out as children on these little library steps, and it almost looked like we were in a jungle gym or a little playground. And we would keep segueing --the music kept segueing --into more and more sophisticated stuff. The act had a tremendous following. And we did it all --we built it with the director, we chose the songs, we even had one or two songs that were written directly for us by Charlie Smalls, a very good friend of ours. (Charlie wrote The Wiz, the black version of The Wizard of Oz, the musical.) We did blues, we did jazz, we did show tunes, we did standards. But the act was more unique than that. I can't explain it, you had to see the act to understand it. With Michael, it couldn't just be a singing act like Sinatra would sing or Rosemary Clooney would sing. That is conventional. Michael was so unconventional and the act was unconventional, but the music was terrific.
How long was your act?
I would say about 40 minutes. Because it not only had singing, it had a lot of comedy, a lot of patter. That was part of "the story": Before we would sing a song, there would be a little joke, a little relationship between the two of us that the audience was completely sucked into. And then we would sing. And then something else would happen and before they knew it, we were "different" people and we would sing something else. It was a combination of acting skill and the singing thing. It was almost like a miniature Broadway show. It was wonderful.
So the act was a hit.
We were like this little phenomenon. This is when nightclubs were all the rage: People didn't stay home and watch television, they went to nightclubs. Joan Rivers and Woody Allen and all these people were working out their stuff in clubs, and we were the opening act for most of 'em. We were the opening act for Dick Cavett, Bill Cosby, we went to Mr. Kelly's on Rush Street in Chicago, Time magazine wrote us up --it was quite a run! For nightclubs, it was really an extraordinary time, it was like a renaissance --I've never seen it that way since. The Bitter End and Upstairs at the Duplex and Julius Monk's --I don't know if these clubs mean anything to you, but they were the renaissance, they were "what was going on in New York." If you wanted to go hear a folk singer, you went and you heard Richie Havens, and then maybe you'd go watch Woody Allen do his nightclub act. They were nobody and so were we, we were nobody too.
A few minutes ago, you talked about Dunn being
up for a part in a film
adaptation of The Tin Drum that was going to be made in the '60s.?
When Gunter Grass [author of the novel The Tin Drum] saw Michael in Ballad of the Sad Cafe, he said, "Eureka! We can now bring this to the screen. This is the man I want to do it." But, unfortunately, Michael died before that happened. They would have done it as an American film, but they couldn't do it 'cause Michael was gone. (continued)
Dorin and Dunn's duet (wav 350KB), Ho, Young Rider, from The Night of the Green Terror
Page 1 | Page 2 | Page 3 | Page 4
Michael Dunn Site Map | Wild
© 2000 - 2002 Tom Weaver