It's a long road -- paved with yellow brick, of course -- from the Land of Oz to the Theater Hall of Fame. But the lanky scarecrow named Ray Bolger has made the trip in style.
By Coincidence, Bolger's recent election to the Theater Hall of Fame has coincided with the release of his latest movie: a melodrama called, "The Runner Stumbles," directed by Stanley Kramer, with Dick Van Dyke and Kathleen Quinlan in the leading roles. This is ironic, since Bolger is best known as a song-and-dance man in pictures and plays ranging from "The Wizard of Oz" and "Where's Charley?" to "The Great Ziegfeld" and "By Jupiter."
His new film is a very different affair. Entirely serious, it examines the conflict between conscience and emotion in a Roman Catholic priest accuse of murder. Van Dyke, also famous as a comedian, plays the main character. Bolger portrays a church dignitary with a small but pivotal role in the story.
At lunch recently in New York, Bolger discussed his new movie. He also talked about his new place among the notables in the Theater Hall of Fame, which establishes "a permanent place of recognition for those who create the ephemeral glory of the theater." Bolger is one of 48 inductees this year, chosen by a 10 -member executive committee. The large number of new members is unusual, but [ words omitted from source] dormant for the
I asked Bolger how he came to be chosen for the honor, and he said he had "no idea." Yet he was pleased. "I got a telegram asking if I could come to New York ," he explained, "and here I am. The most exciting thing is the other people -- the people I'm being inducted with." They include Laurence Olivier, Henry Fonda, Katharine Hepburn, Tennessee Williams, and other actors, producers, directors, and writers.
Bolger himself is a man of no mean gifts. He is a writer as well as a performer having show "By Jupiter" -- a feat for which he remains officially uncredited. One of his latest accomplishments is a screenplay "about a woman who stands up to a developing company that wants to squeeze her out of her property."
Though Bolger is among the most popular and beloved of all musical-comedy stars, he never dreamed of such a profession in his early years. "My highest ambition was to be president of a bank," he recalls. "If there was any dream lurking in the back of my mind, it was to be president of the United States." He worked after school at the First National Bank of Boston, thinking serious banking thoughts. He couldn't even dance: "At the school prom, I just pushed the girl around."
When he finally got bitten by show biz, Bolger "worked at it, like I worked at everything else." He performed whenever and wherever he could, and studied dance -- learning ballet from a talented teacher, in exchange for bookkeeping services.
From there on, it was "a long, steady, slow, starving-to-death climb," he recalls. "Nobody hung me on a hook like a scarecrow and said, 'Now you are a star.'" But he never wished he was back at the bank, with steady hours and a regular paycheck. "Once I got into show business, I was hooked. . . ."
Today, Bolger dislikes giving advice. "I don't want people to think I'm flaunting my age and position," he says. But he will reveal the most important lessons he learned during his formative years. "The crucial thing is to get the kind of education that only life can give you," he maintains. "You must learn to keep your composure under the stress of adu[words omitted from source] have a buffer, and for me, it's my wife. She'll always tell me when I'm saying 'I' too much. . . ."
Bolger and his wife have been married for 50 years -- an accomplishment Bolger sees as not particularly unusual. "You always hear about the bad marriages in show business," he complains, "because they're the most interesting to gossip about. But plenty of people stay married for a long, long time. . . .
As for his new movie, Bolger acknowledges that "The Runner Stumbles" is an unusual berth for his usually comedic talents. "People always wonder if musical-comedy stars can really act," he says. "It's a question you hear 8 million times. But when you appear in a musical comedy, how much time do you spend actually dancing? Most of the time you are acting!"
Asked if he prefers one medium over [Word Illegible] other -- he has worked extensively in film, stage, and television -- he expresses enthusiasm for "anything that has contact with living, breathing people. I'm a real humanist."
Bolger accepted his role in "The Runner Stumbles" as soon as he heard that the film would be directed by Stanley Kramer, the maker of such pictures as "Judgment at Nuremberg," "High Noon," and "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner." Says Bolger, "I love to learn, and I felt I could learn from a man of his gifts."
As for the greatest role of his career, the "Brainless" scarecrow in "The Wizard of Oz," he reports that" sometimes people ask me if I still get residual payments for showings of that movie. My wife has the best answer to that question. She says I don't get