Spending an “Afternoon with George Montgomery” Saturday in Brea was a lighthearted, folksy affair with an old-time movie star gathering with a few of his fans.
A Saturday matinee in the Civic Cultural Center’s art gallery and council chamber proved more than appropriate: After all, Montgomery’s Western films were a favorite of the one-time Saturday matinee-and-popcorn movie crowds.
Most of the 100 or so admirers who attended the Brea event were in their 50s or older--fans who remembered Montgomery in such frontier movies as “Pawnee” and “Black Patch” and his TV series “Cimarron City.”
And the star himself, now 68 and still a strong tall-in-the-saddle figure, seemed to be enjoying all the autograph-signing fuss and relaxed banter. “I like making these appearances. It’s a great kick for me to meet old friends,” he said, smiling at the fans who lined up for his autograph and a handshake.
Although Montgomery has been relatively inactive as an actor for the past decade, the City of Brea had given him the red-carpet treatment all month.
When the exhibition of Montgomery’s sculptures, handcrafted furniture and paintings opened March 15 at the civic gallery, the city held a big-star reception for Montgomery, complete with civic and corporate dignitaries. (The show, which includes works by Charles Russell and other frontier artists collected by Montgomery, runs through April 12.) He spoke at city-hosted luncheons March 20 and 28.
And at Saturday’s afternoon visit, Montgomery took his fans (admission was $3 and $5) on a tour of the exhibition. This was followed by a casual sit-down chat in the council chamber, during which he showed clips from two 1960s action movies he directed in the Philippines, “The Steel Claw” and “Guerrillas in Pink Lace.”
Full-sized posters of his movies take up a whole wall of the gallery. There were the familiar Westerns of the 1950s and 1960s, but there were also films from his 20th Century Fox contract days in the 1940s, when he played everything from a private eye (“The Brasher Doubloon”) to a trombone sideman in the Glenn Miller band (“Orchestra Wives”).
“I was real lucky. You know, I was just a farm boy from Montana when I arrived there (Hollywood in 1937). Two days later, I was in a Garbo movie at MGM, getting $35 a day doing some stunt work,” recalled Montgomery, who went on to do stand-in work in low-budget movies--including a John Wayne Western--until Fox groomed him into leading man status opposite Betty Grable, Ginger Rogers, Maureen O’Hara and Gene Tierney.
By the 1960s--when he was producing his own films abroad and playing the dinner and stock theater circuit (“A Hole in the Head,” “Two for the Seesaw”)--Montgomery was well into sculpturing, painting and furniture crafting.
It is this part of his career that Montgomery prefers to talk about now. “It’s something I love doing and really have been doing for a good many years,” said Montgomery, who built his home in the hills above Sunset Boulevard.
His first one-man show was at the Palm Springs Desert Museum in 1976, followed by shows at the Frye Art Museum in Seattle in 1978 and the Charles Russell Museum in Great Falls, Mont., in 1982. Last year some of his works were shown in England, including the American Embassy in London.
A good sampler of Montgomery art--mostly on the early Americana motifs--is on display in Brea. Featured are many of his bronze sculptures, including one depicting Custer’s last stand and another of John Wayne as the loner in the Western movie “The Searchers.”
Also displayed is the pine and oak crib he built for his daughter, Melissa, who was born in 1948 (Montgomery was married for 18 years to Dinah Shore; they were divorced in 1961). “It’s gone the full cycle,” he said. “Melissa used the crib for her children.”
Much of Montgomery’s artwork is reproduced in his 1983 autobiography, “The Years of George Montgomery” (a $60 volume that he was plugging at the Brea events).
Montgomery still takes on acting jobs “now and then,” the most recent being a television miniseries filmed two years ago in South Africa. (“It’s all politics,” said Montgomery of the rising controversy in the United States over South Africa’s policy of apartheid. “We shouldn’t be telling them what to do, anymore than they should be telling us.”)
But Montgomery treats his film career as something that’s largely in the past. “I had a good run at it (making movies); it was a great time,” he said. “I like what I’m doing right now--this minute. Hey, I’d like to be asked to do this (conversation session with fans) again. It’s great fun.”