One of the negatives that occurs to every actor is miscasting, which finally came to roost on my doorstep when Darryl cast me in the title role of "Prince Valiant," an adaptation of Hal Foster's beautifully drawn comic strip that I had loved as a child. During the production, I was happy to be working for Henry Hathaway; I thought the picture was good, and I loved the romance of the subject matter. I was working with James Mason, another one of my favorite actors, and I thought I was sensational. I had no idea it would become for me what "Yonda lies the castle of my fadduh" was for Tony Curtis.
If I'd been paying a little more attention, I would have known something was wrong. Mainly, it was the wig. One day Dean Martin visited the set and spent ten minutes talking to me before he realized I wasn't Jane Wyman. Then I sat in the screening with the guys in the studio doing impersonations of the Singing Sword, not to mention me as Prince Valiant. And then I had to listen to jokes about the wig, which I now think made me look more like Louise Brooks than Jane Wyman. And I got upset about the ridicule, so much so that I still have a block about that movie.
But life teaches you many things, and one of them is that something good can come out of the worst experiences. I got a couple of life-long friends out of Prince Valiant ( Janet Leigh and the great cameraman Lucien Ballard) and I also got to know Sterling Hayden, who was so much more interesting as a man than, with a couple of exceptions ("The Asphalt Jungle," "The Killing," "Dr. Strangelove") he was on screen. Sterling was a purist about life, with an interesting political point of view that was very much on the left. He had originally wanted to be a carpenter, and he was one of those rare guys in the movie business who genuinely didn't give a shit about the movie business.
Sterling was exceedingly well-read -- his tortured autobiography called "Wanderer" should be required reading -- and he was without question one of the most accomplished sailors I've ever seen in my life. I saw him take his twin-masted schooner and land it single-handedly at a dock in Santa Monica. He had a feather-light touch at the helm. On a boat, he was the artist he always wanted to be.
Another person I got to know well and admire about this time was Claire Trevor. I had gone to school with her sons Peter and Donald, but I really got to know Claire and her husband Milton Bren through our mutual regard for boats. Milton had begun as an agent and become very successful in real estate and home building. Because of the fortune Milton made, Claire was able to back out of the movie business, and only worked when she wanted to.
Claire was very much her own woman, and I came to admire her honesty and directness. She was a straightforward, creative human being who became a very good painter. She was also terribly underrated as an actress, as anybody who has seen her in Ford's "Stagecoach" or Huston's "Key Largo" can attest. Neither part was original – a whore with a heart of gold and a well-meaning but weak alcoholic chanteuse -- but she gave each of those women a soul. No actress alive, not even Barbara Stanwyck, could have played those parts any better than Claire did. And she was able to tend her career while having a very happy marriage to Milton, and also had the complete respect of everybody in show business.
My realization about what Fox actually wanted from me, as well as getting to know well-rounded people like Sterling and Claire showed me by example how important it was to have a life outside of show business. It was a concept that would take another decade or so to ripen in my head, but I was beginning to realize that the most important parts of life didn't take place on a sound stage.
Click here for more information on the book.
Excerpted from PIECES OF MY HEART: A Life by Robert Wagner. Reprinted by permission of the publisher HarperEntertainment, an imprint of HarperCollins.