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- December 24, 1979
- Vol. 12
- No. 26
Don't Let Looks or Talent Fool You: What Made These Stars Famous Were Their High Schools
DeWitt Clinton: a Bronx melting pot for making it
When Neil Simon picked Judd Hirsch to portray him on Broadway in his autobiographical Chapter Two, he didn't know the actor had trained for the part at Simon's old high school, De-Witt Clinton in the Bronx. "I wasn't prejudiced," says Neil. "It's just the law of averages." But averages seem beside the point with a list of famous alumni that also includes director George Cukor, jazz legend Fats Waller, critic Lionel Trilling and comedians Don Adams and Jimmie "J.J." Walker. Clinton has also turned out actor Martin Balsam, lawyer William Kunstler, photographer Richard Avedon and composer Richard Rodgers.
"There were 3,750 boys and not one girl," notes comic Robert Klein, who served on the prom committee and planned to be a doctor. "We were distracted by any female teacher under 50. We were known for intimidating subway passengers and for obscene noises we made with our lips." Klein sang with a rock group called the Teen Tones, practicing "in the boys' room because it was the only place we sounded good." In Hirsch's day the girl shortage meant panty raids on nearby Walton High—all girls—and playing penny hockey in the cafeteria. "I didn't really make friends at school," he admits. There was more action for subsequent NBA star Nate Archibald, who led Clinton's '66 basketball team to a 21-0 season.
Daniel Schorr, class of '33, was "a fairly fat kid" who edited the yearbook but "didn't date, didn't dance and didn't go to the senior prom." When a "scared" James Baldwin ran the literary magazine in '42, he was its only black. And author Bruce Jay (Lonely Guy) Friedman was solitary even then—"I tried not to notice"—although his '47 classmates named him "second funniest." Writer Paddy Chayefsky, '39, says he "wasn't popular" but did play basketball ("I'm only 5'5", but that didn't matter then"). Simon, who had already swapped his given name of "Marvin" for "Doc," says he "wasn't into girls. At 16 I could hardly talk." He bombed in math and biology and spent hours alone writing radio scripts for Jack Benny but never had the nerve to send them. "I was really shy," he concludes. "But being shy in a boys' school is practically redundant."
Andover success is a tradition
Humphrey Bogart flunked out in 1918 and John F. Kennedy Jr. had to repeat a trimester of math. But if toughness is an Andover tradition, so is the success of the alumni of Massachusetts' and the nation's oldest incorporated boarding school (founded 1778). Among its alums are artist Frank Stella, singer Jesse Colin Young, the Rev. William Sloane Coffin Jr., sports mogul Bill Veeck, Tarzan creator Edgar Rice Burroughs and Oliver Wendell Holmes. GOP presidential candidate George Bush was known as "Poppy" when he played first base. Otis Chandler, publisher of the Los Angeles Times, was a three-sport athlete, but Benjamin Spock felt "different and unacceptable." Jack Lemmon, nicknamed "Sweets," was a scholarship student who earned money waiting tables and once cracked up a class with a Yiddish rendition of the Gettysburg Address. "I'm not sure I made too big a dent," says Lemmon. "When I got my diploma, the headmaster said, 'Good luck, Tom.' "
Beverly Hills: aluminous assembly line
Showbiz comes naturally at Beverly Hills H.S. Richard Dreyfuss and Albert Brooks were friendly rivals in the class of '65; Al beat out Ricky to host the talent show. Dreyfuss was a driven actor even then, constantly studying Shakespeare tapes. But Brooks was a football player and class clown. He and Larry Bishop (Joey's son) double-dated and took turns in the back seat. The more serious one-year-older Rob Reiner "got good grades," says his dad Carl, "and was upset that people with C's would graduate too." Shaun Cassidy's mom Shirley Jones remembers, "School wasn't his first priority; show business was." Ballet dancer Maria Tallchief '42 jitterbugged on a floor rolled out over the swimming pool; Betty White started taking acting lessons after she was named "best-looking." And Richard Chamberlain, whom one classmate remembers as "bland and a goody-two-shoes," was declared by '52 the "most reserved."
New Trier: ambition in the Midwest
Alumni of wealthy, progressive New Trier H.S. north of Chicago still talk about the electric moment in 1959 when Ann-Margret Olson sang Heat Wave at a school show. "Her costume was low-cut, slit from the floor almost to her navel, an outfit she could wear in Vegas today," recalls one student. An ex-boyfriend further tattles that "she had practiced very hard working her leg out through the slit." Yet she was remembered as "sweet and soft-spoken," even though when one underclassman asked her to sign his yearbook, "She said that she didn't give autographs. Already."
Of course, Ann-Margret is only one of many stars who matriculated at the 78-year-old school that's justifiably famous for its academic excellence and its formidable drama department. Still, the likes of Bruce Dern, Rock Hudson and Hugh O'Brian didn't take up acting until college. "I was too busy playing ball," says four-letter man O'Brian. Dern was a championship half-miler on the track team and, friends say, obsessed with outshining his older brother. Bruce, who notes that drugs weren't used in his day, drank beer. And none other than Ralph Bellamy was kicked out in 1920 for smoking in the basement. Penny (Coming Home) Milford made good in drama, starring as Princess Winifred in Once upon a Mattress. "The teacher was constantly saying, 'Ann-Margret could do that.' I was always aware of her shadow."
Like everyplace else, some kids at New Trier felt left out. Dern recalls that "when I went to movies would cry. The popular girls wouldn't go out with me." Milford remembers that cliques would exclude her from their parties. And Rock Hudson—then named Roy Fitzgerald—felt "plain-looking and unattractive. One part of me wanted to go out for the school plays, but another said, 'Don't make a fool of yourself.' The star of the drama productions was a kid named Charlton Heston."
Not that "Chuckie" Heston felt any more secure. "I was a gawky, awkward kid from the Michigan woods," Heston claims. He broke his nose playing football—and is remembered as a grind and teacher's pet. "Also, the rifle team didn't do a hell of a lot for your social reputation. I didn't have the money to date and I didn't know how to dance. I was absorbed in questions like, 'Is it all right to masturbate?' and Ms my beard going to grow?' " Heston, like most other high school kids from New Trier—or Beverly Hills or the Bronx—"didn't know that adolescence is by definition a time of feeling you are never going to make it." He and a few other gifted ones spent the rest of their lives finding out how wrong they were.
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