With an acting career that spans work for Cecil B. DeMille and Joseph Losey to Quentin Tarantino and David Lynch, Russ Tamblyn’s creativity and longevity is proof that there’s life after child stardom. In Tamblyn’s case, there’s also been a bounty of juicy film and TV roles long after his legendary legs no longer kicked up movie musicals such as “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” and “West Side Story.” His decades in film and TV include all genres, from Robert Wise’s suspense classic “The Haunting” to George Pal’s colorful kidfare, such as “Tom Thumb” and “Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm” and Lynch’s “Twin Peaks” series. It’s a career he explores in his upcoming memoir, “Dancing on the Edge.”
It was in 1948, eight years before the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. touted his arrival as “Most Promising Newcomer,” that Tamblyn first appeared in the pages of Variety for his role in a Los Angeles stage production of “The Stone Jungle,” directed, it should be noted, by one Norman Lloyd, who is on course to celebrate his 105th birthday this November.
You hit the boards early.
I was about 9 or 10 when I started taking tap-dancing lessons from the Bob Cole Studio in Inglewood. I learned as much as I could from him.
Did you come from a showbiz family?
My father, Eddie Tamblyn, was a juvenile dancer-comedian from New York. My mother was a chorus girl, and that’s where they met. Then the Depression came along, and he couldn’t get work. We were broke a lot.
You were very young when you got cast in “The Stone Jungle.” Was that a good experience?
The show started with Lloyd Bridges in the lead and then it was recast with Shepperd Strudwick in place of Bridges. It got new producers and Norman Lloyd was directing it. Lloyd Bridges came in and grabbed Norman by the shirt and lifted him and shoved him against the wall, and Bridges said: “This was my baby! This was my show!” Norman tried to explain to him the producers wanted Strudwick because he was a name.
Did the role lead to more work for you?
A talent scout saw the play and brought me to interview for a part in “The Boy With Green Hair.” That turned out to be my first film. The film’s star, Dean Stockwell, and I became good friends on the movie.
Before you’re a teenager, you’ve got a choice role in a Cecil B. DeMille epic. That’s jumping into the deep end of the entertainment pool.
I had a great audition for “Samson and Delilah,” and when it finished DeMille came out and said, “Congrats, Rusty you got the part.”
DeMille was known as a pretty tough director.
There was a bad day on “Samson.” We were doing a huge scene on stage two, with maybe 200-300 extras. I had to run up to Victor Mature, who was Samson, and say: “Samson, I‘ve got my slingshot. We can fight our way out of here!” And I held up the slingshot in front of my face. DeMille shouted out: “No! Rusty, put it on the back of your head. It covers your face!” And I did it again. I covered my face. DeMille grabbed the slingshot and banged it on my head and shouted: “Not here! Not here! On the back of your head! It blocks your face!” About 200 people started to cry for me. You couldn’t get away with it these days. When the whole thing was over, I asked my mother, “Where were you?” And she said, “I’m not going to tell DeMille how to direct his picture!”