George Montgomery : Ex-Leading Man Takes to Role of Renaissance Man

Times Staff Writer

Few would guess what is behind the front door of the house George Montgomery built himself on a winding road in the hills just north of Sunset Boulevard.

From the street, there are no windows--just a door, a wall and an intercom--the kind of privacy that would be expected of a man of Montgomery's fame. He was, after all, one of 20th Century-Fox's leading men in the '40s before turning his acting talents to television and producing movies himself.

A dashing figure, he was linked romantically with Hedy Lamarr and Ginger Rogers before marrying Dinah Shore and settling down with her for 18 years.

The polite but businesslike woman's voice answering the buzzer at his house came as no surprise. What luminaries don't have barriers at their front doors?

What was startling was the man who opened the door. It was Montgomery, handsome and charming though he is, as he puts it, "dragging 60 and pushing the hell out of 70." Montgomery, still, as Hedda Hopper described him in 1947, "as unaffected as an old shoe."

And Montgomery more than ever, a Renaissance man, as everything in his house, indeed the house itself, reveals.

"I designed and built this house," he said matter of factly. "Why, designing and building houses has been a hobby of mine for about 40 years"--about as long as he has been making furniture.

"This Queen Anne hutch belonged to Harry Karl and Marie McDonald and then, later, Debbie Reynolds (after she married Karl)," he said. "I made it and those Queen Anne chairs and black walnut table, which stretches out with its leaves to 20 feet, for Harry and Marie in 1951." He bought them back, he explained, after the businessman died in 1982.

"One of my most recent hobbies is sculpturing," he went on, pausing by one he did of John Wayne, another he did of Clint Eastwood. "I've been knocking around the movie business for 45 years, but I only started sculpting in 1975."

And what he sculpts reflects the many Western roles he has played and his childhood as the youngest of 15 brothers and sisters raised on a 20,000-acre Montana ranch. "Mainly, I do horses and cowboys and Indians," he said.

Of the 50 sculptures he has created so far, there have been a few lone figures but "a lot of major pieces," as he described them, "ones with 10 or 12 horses in them," ones like "Custer's Final Moments," which is in his living room. Montgomery creates his sculptures in bronze and in a style reminiscent of Charles Russell, who also lived in Montana after he ran away from his Missouri home at the age of 16 to become a cowboy. Russell, a well known painter and sculptor of western scenes and subjects, died in 1926.

Three years after Montgomery started sculpting, some of his works were shown along with Russell's in an exhibit in Seattle. Since then, Montgomery has had other showings. "Last summer, I was one of five artists from the states to have works on display at the Sherwood Forest home of the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire," he said.

This weekend, he is exhibiting some of his sculptures at Plaza La Quinta in La Quinta, and next Saturday through April 13, he is presenting a one-man show at the Civic Cultural Center in Brea.

That show will feature part of his western and movie-memorabilia collections and some Montgomery-made furniture, sculptures, drawings and paintings.

"When Dinah and I were together, we went to two art classes," he said, remembering back to 1952, 10 years before he and the popular singer--parents of two children (Melissa Ann, born in 1948, and John David, adopted as an infant in 1954)--were divorced. "She kept up her painting and did very well."

He did his first painting in 1952 but didn't take up painting in earnest until about three years ago.

"So this is really my new hobby," he said as he stood by a half-finished oil on an easel in his dining room.

Besides the dining and living rooms, there is a family room, five bedrooms, maid's quarters (in a separate apartment) and nearly 7,000 square feet of space in the house, which he built from 1969 to 1970.

The house also has walls of glass leading out to a buffet, barbecue, lava rock fireplace, tropical rock garden and 55-foot-long swimming pool with three waterfalls. Inside, there are heavy beamed ceilings 20 feet high in the entryway and 15 feet high in the living room. And from inside or out, there is a panoramic city view.

"There are a little more than 1 million acres below me that I claim," he said with a wink. "See that. It's Beverly Hills, and it's all mine."

Montgomery erected a factory in Van Nuys, where he and men who worked for him built furniture for several years beginning in 1948, and he designed and built, by his count, 11 homes--"six for ourselves--that is, Dinah and myself--and this one, for me." Dinah married once briefly after their divorce, but Montgomery never remarried, and they still occasionally see each other. They have two grandchildren.

Montgomery probably first got the itch to build a house when he was building barns and chicken coops on the Montana ranch where he was born (as George Montgomery Letz), but he started working on houses after he got married.

"I added almost 7,000 square feet to our first house in Encino," he recalled. "We had 6 1/2 acres, and I had some cattle on it that I bought from (actor) Joel McCrea."

Later, when Montgomery built houses from scratch, they were also large and spacious. (One that he built in Trousdale sold about a year ago for $3.45 million, he said.)

Montgomery has always loved the wide open spaces. He likes outdoor living. That's why he still owns part of a Montana ranch he bought years ago. He can't stand crowds, though he has had 180 people at one time in his house. "That just happened," he sighed.

What he likes--besides open space, sculpting and painting--is traveling.

"What I'd do for years is say to myself, 'Hey, I'd love to be in the Far East for two years. So I'd do a picture there," he said. "I signed a couple of deals with Fox where I was the writer, producer and star, and then I could travel. Now I have friends all over--in Africa, South America, you name it."

Since building the home overlooking Beverly Hills, he has been away from it about 50% of the time, leasing it when he has been gone.

Now that he considers himself "basically retired," he wants to travel even more.

"I've always been a wanderer," he said, "and I want to take a trip on the Trans-Siberian Railroad because my parents came from the Black Sea area." (They came to America with 13 children and after they arrived, they had two more and adopted four.)

Montgomery also wants to travel all over the world to see museums, because, he said, "I love art." That's apparent in his book "The Years of George Montgomery," published about two years ago by Taylor Publishing in Dallas. "This isn't a Hollywood personality book," he said. It has more than 100 pages of color photos, replicas and reproductions from his movie-memorabilia and Western art collections.

Since he wants to travel more, he has put his house on the market at $1.25 million with Mike Silverman & Associates of Beverly Hills, explaining, "The house just ties me down."

And what would happen to the sculptures, furniture, paintings and other collectibles in the house?

"They will all be assigned to a museum," he said.

Some of his work will remain in private hands. He gave a sculpture that he made of two Indians on horseback to President and Mrs. Reagan in 1981, and a sculpture he calls "The Finish" with "a slew of horses" is at a horse breeding farm in Ontario. "I've sold sculptures for up to $20,000 apiece without any difficulty," he said, adding that for him, "everything has come easy."

"I wrote a script in Africa in a week and sold it to 20th Century Fox," he said.

A brochure on his one-man art show in Palm Springs in 1977 lists him as a motion picture producer, actor, director, script writer, cowpuncher, architect, cabinet maker, painter and sculptor, but Montgomery is also a philosopher.

Asked if he would consider acting again, he replied, as expected: "Sure, if the right role came along." Then he paused.

"I've had a lot of years in the business, and it's been great," he said, "but I think my sculptures will outlive most any actor."

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