Page 4 - Tom Weaver's interview with Phoebe Dorin
Robert Ellenstein, an actor who guested on one of the Wild Wests, told me he
would see Dunn regularly sipping gin out of a thermos. Did he drink to
dull the pain?
Yeah. He self-medicated. And that's partly what hurt him so much. I think it hastened his death as well.
...I no longer feel it (wav 69kb)
Mm-hmm. Mike was in physical and emotional pain. He drank because he thought he had to. Back then, alcoholism wasn't something a lot of people knew much about, and it certainly wasn't something I knew about. How do you tell someone who has the kind of physical handicap Michael had how to live their life? I knew that I wasn't dealt that hand, so I couldn't tell him what to do. It became a problem for us after a while because alcoholism hurts everything. Everything. What starts out as medicating to dull the pain, ends up where you're a slave to that medication. It's like a drug, a prescription drug --you can get hooked on anything. It was very difficult for Michael. He would even stop for long periods of time, but he didn't know enough to go to AA. Who the hell knew about alcoholism at that time? Who knew liquor was really that much of a problem?
In New York, after the nightclub act, we would go out and we would go to Downey's, let's say --Downey's [an Eighth Avenue restaurant-bar] was the hangout. And there was Albert Finney and there was Richard Burton and there was Jason Robards --and they would drink Michael under the table! That's what people did then. No one ever looked at it and said, "Gee, those guys are alcoholics." They were, but we didn't know it. They would just drink all through the night, it was a big joke. Put a bottle of Jack Daniel's in front of them and everyone would try and drink each other under the table. Who knew that that could lead to a lot of misery for all of them? I mean, it killed Burton, and Robards almost died in a car crash with it. And Michael, who was even tinier --it did a job on his liver, I know that. But with Michael it was very progressive and it was very slow --he had been doing it, I guess, since he was in college. And when he was happy and he was not in pain, he didn't do it.
Did he ever show up tipsy for your nightclub act or for Wild West?
No. No. No. Mike was a true professional. And he never drove drunk. It was on his own time. But still, it does damage to your body. People told him, "Don't do this. Your liver is in a lot of trouble to begin with. Don't do this, it's poison." But I guess you don't think you can die from alcohol. Now people are so savvy about it and they know that you can. But then it was so socially acceptable, I can't tell you! People would laugh and say, "Oh, ha-ha-ha-ha-ha, did you see Michael last night? He was so drunk at Downey's! Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha!" It was like a symbol of being a big man. Now we would look at them and say, "Oh, my God, what's wrong with them?"
Were you a drinker with him?
I had never been around liquor much and I didn't know anybody who had been around liquor, and I never drank, ever. I still don't, to this day. But [with Dunn] I went through everything that a person who loves an alcoholic goes through: The feeling of powerlessness, the loving-the-person-and-not-being-able-to-save-them, the anger at their constantly getting drunk. I went through all of that. I didn't know enough to go to Alanon 'cause I didn't even know that Michael was an alcoholic.
The nightclub act was sort of a Catch 22: People would buy us drinks. "You must have a drink"; "You must come to my table and sit with me" --they adored us. And we were there the whole night, doing three, four shows a night. I didn't drink so I'd have a ginger ale. Michael would start the Jack Daniel's. And he could really hold his liquor. But it was an occupational hazard. So by the time the evening was over and Mike went out to Downey's to start drinking with all his theatrical buddies there, he'd be really drunk. I would say to him, "Michael, I can't deal with this. I just want you to know it. I don't like it and I can't deal with it." "I promise, I promise, I promise, I promise." But promising --that doesn't work with alcoholism. So I never knew what it was --I was never savvy enough to simplysay, "This is unacceptable. You have to go to a program, or I can't be part of this with you." Toward the end, that's what caused me to pull away from him, even though I loved him. I loved him, he was my best friend. But I just couldn't take it any more.
Liquor, women, and cards..(wav 54kb)
Was Dunn much of a ladies' man?
[Laughs] Yeah, he was, he was a ladies' man. A raconteur and a ladies' man. He loved women --he loved them. He was hilariously funny and very bright and charismatic, and women adored him. And a lot of them were very, very beautiful women!
Was he looking to have a girlfriend or to get married?
[Pause] Well, he tried a couple of times, and it was very sad. I was really a good friend of his and I could read these women like a book. When he started to get famous, he started to get a lot of money and they saw that. If you would flatter him, he'd give you the shirt off his back. It was very painful to watch. There were two women --he was engaged once to someone who didn't love him, and then he married a woman who really used him and took him for every cent that he had. She was a burlesque dancer or something and she was gorgeous, and she told him that she loved him. And Michael loved walking with her on his arm, for him it was a feat: "I'm just like you guys. I've got a beautiful woman on my arm." And when they were divorced, I was told she supposedly took everything. It was terrible.
Did you try to warn him, or did you stay out of it?
I stayed out of it. I was just simply there for him, as his friends were. You couldn't really get into that with Michael.
There were ten Lovelesses and you aren't in all of them.
And you're not in all of them because...
Because Michael married this woman I told you about. She wanted to play Antoinette, and she started working on him. And so he had me replaced, which is something I never thought he would do. It broke my heart. I heard that she couldn't act, so they replaced her immediately. Then they used different [female sidekicks for Loveless], but nobody who could ever sing with him and nobody who could ever really work with him the way I did.
How did you find out you had been replaced?
I was in California and he was in New York. I was waiting for him to call me and tell me when he was coming back out [to do another Wild West], and he never called. I called our manager John Softness and said, "Something's wrong. I know something's wrong. What's going on? I can't get him to talk to me." And John said, "Well, he asked to have you replaced, and he asked to have his wife play Antoinette." I couldn't even speak. Finally I said, "I don't believe you," and he said, yeah, that's what happened. Then, of course, she couldn't do it. And I would not come back. They asked me to come back, and I wouldn't. Because of the betrayal. Being friends with him for so many years. I knew he loved her --I understood all of that. I understood he was trying to give her a career. But it hurt me so much that he would do that to me that I couldn't go back and work with him, I just didn't feel the trust would be the same after they had replaced me. Also, I said to myself, "You know what? I need to make my own life away from him. I have always been associated with Michael Dunn. And if I don't have enough talent on my own to be an actress, maybe God's kinda doing for me what I can't do for myself." I was devastated in the beginning, because not only was it The Wild Wild West and I felt I "owned" Antoinette, but it was also money --it was my living. But then I thought, "You know what, Pheeb? If you can't be an actress without being tied to Michael's coattails, you're not an actress. Go back to being an art director." So I decided I was not gonna go back to New York, I was not gonna go back to Wild West --I was gonna go ahead and be an actress on my own. And that's what I did. That's how we split up. After he divorced his wife, I saw him again and we talked and he apologized to me. I understood it --I did, I really understood it.
But he didn't speak to you again until after the divorce.
Mm-hmm. That's when he called me and asked if we could get together for dinner, and I said, "Of course we can." He told me what had happened, and I knew what had happened. He told me he was so sorry, that he never wanted to do it, and that his managers begged him not to do it. (His managers had known me since we were "kids" --we'd come through everything together.) But Michael did it because I guess she said, "You either do it or I'm outta here" --who knows what she did? I mean, this is a woman who I heard took every cent from him. I wasn't in court when this happened, but our manager John was and he told me what happened: Michael stood there in front of the judge and the judge said, "Michael, you don't have to pay this woman any thing. She's obviously an opportunist, she married you for your money. You don't have to give her alimony. You don't owe her anything. You've only been married a few years." And Michael stood there and said, "I'm as good as any man. I want to pay her alimony." And so he did, he did! You see, those were some of the hang-ups that he had in terms of his height. "I'm as good as any man and I can have this beautiful woman in my life" --even though she might have been out for everything he had. "I can pay her alimony just like any normal guy," he felt --and supposedly gave everything away to her. I don't know what ever happened to her, I don't even know if she obtained Michael's estate. I don't think she got that. I heard she tried, when he died, to get his estate, to take it away from his parents. But I have no idea what finally happened.
After your reunion, how often did you see him?
I saw him all the time --I was back in New York, and we used to go to dinner. I think things were not going that well for him. First of all, she wiped him out. And she wiped him out emotionally as well as financially. And I had never stopped caring about him, it wasn't like he wasn't my friend. I understood what he did and why he did it. Really. Michael would do something like that to keep someone in his life who he loved, knowing that she didn't love him. But to keep her, he would do anything. So I agreed to meet with him and I saw him very frequently after that. But the alcohol had taken a tremendous toll on him and I could see it, because by that time I was a lot more savvy about the alcohol and what had been going on. His skin was very yellow, so I could tell that his liver was affected. He was tiny --a tiny person! --and the amount of liquor that he drank! He used to put away an inordinate amount of Jack Daniel's, and that wasn't good for his liver.
So you could tell he was sick that night.
Yes, I could see it. He just wasn't the same Michael, he didn't have the energy and his skin was very yellow. I even said to him, "Michael, have you been to the doctor? You look very jaundiced." But it was hard to talk to him about that stuff, because Michael knew he was going to die. It's easy for people to say, "Well, he died of the alcoholism," but he didn't die of the alcoholism. The alcoholism didn't help him, but that's not what killed him. What killed him was the disease that he was born with, which was terribly painful for his entire life.
Achondroplasia is a bone disease, and bone diseases are very painful. He knew that his organs had no place to go and that it was only a matter of time. And if he knew, let's say at night when things were quiet, that his heart wasn't beating right or his lungs weren't working right he would never talk about it. Never. Not even with me.
A few weeks later, he left town. We were supposed to get together, but he said, "I'm going away to do [the movie] The Abdication  with Liv Ullmann in England." And he died in his hotel room over there.
How did you hear about it?
The way I heard about it was bizarre. I was at a party and someone was talking about Michael's death. I walked over and I said, "Excuse me, what are you talking about?" "Michael Dunn died." I couldn't speak. I ran home and I called my manager, I said, "Where? What? How? What do we do?" He said Michael died in England, in his sleep. I guess it was his liver, but it was also his organs --he wasn't going to live much longer, Michael knew that. He was very young. And here's something else that happened: When they went to get his body from the hotel, it had been taken. Someone had "kidnapped" him! It might have been a maid, or the people who found his body --they also stole stuff from the hotel room. It was terrible. His poor parents --it was bizarre! I have never been through a more bizarre episode in my life! The [English authorities] finally got a hold of his body, but we were never told exactly what had happened. They shipped the body to Florida, where his parents were, and John Softness and I went to the funeral. John and Michael went to college together, the University of Miami, and had been friends for years.
I see on your résumé that you wrote and produced a 1992 TV movie called
That's a movie that I wrote with my partner Christian Stoianovich. As a woman gets older in this business, there is nothing for her. And I really did not want to ever be victimized. I love writing, and I thought, "I can recreate this thing that I love to do: I can write the women that I want to play, but they won't let me play 'cause I'm past 40!" And I started writing with my partner, and it became very joyful. Christian is a director and I of course came to it from acting, so we pooled our talents in terms of writing and now I mostly write and I love it. I love it. It's hard, it's really hard. It takes a tremendous, tremendous amount of discipline, 'cause it's not about writing, it's about rewriting and rewriting and rewriting. Especially if you sell something. Then everybody wants it the way they see it. You can see when they're telling you how to rewrite it that it's not gonna work, but you have to do it.
Show business is a funny thing: It's a very, very unforgiving mistress.You act because you love it. You will give show business everything, everything that it demands of you. But later, when it's show business' turn to give you back, it doesn't. It's very unfair that way --you can ask any actress what happens after a certain age. It's just over [laughs] --it doesn't matter how good you are, how much you've given it. But I saw it coming and I started writing waaay before the work started to dwindle. So I really love it and I'm not bitter in any way, because I'm lucky to still be doing "my bliss," the thing that I love the most. I don't know many people who love to get up and go to work and who are still being creative and love it so much. No one has a gun to my head saying, "You have to do this." This is my choice. I'm able to earn a living and I'm able to be very creative, which to me is everything in the world.
Michael Dunn Web site: Includes a medical biography, film & stage credits, photos of his college days at the University of Miami, photos of his gravesite at Lauderdale Memorial Park, Loveless-Antoinette lyrics and audio files of the duets heard on The Wild Wild West, and photos & captions from Life Magazine.
Our Wild Wild West video
page offers QuickTime clips of Miguelito and Antoinette.
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Wild Wild West
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