The year was 1947, the film a little-remembered Eddie Cantor comedy called "If You Knew Susie." Fritz Feld, a veteran Hollywood character actor with more than 200 movies to his credit, was playing yet another French maitre d' with a penchant for exactitude when inspiration struck.
"In the film Cantor said to me, 'Fritz--more Champagne!' " Feld recalled. "I said, 'Champagne.' POP! 'Coming up!' " That sound became my accent aigue , my trademark; the POP! is worth more than the word."
Nearly 40 years later, as Feld's movie tally nears the 450 mark, his POP! --a sound he creates by slapping his palm against his puckered mouth--still resounds in commercials, TV movies and feature films almost as often as during Hollywood's heyday.
In the last few weeks, Feld has made appearances on four Universal television series: "Simon and Simon," "Magnum, P.I.," "George Burns' Comedy Week" and "Amazing Stories" (an episode that will be aired Sunday)--with scarcely time to notice that at 85 he is most likely the movies' most enduring character actor.
Most of his appearances, Feld acknowledges, have been very brief indeed; but for him their cameo nature only adds to the challenge of making each part distinctive.
"If you're a leading man and you appear in 15 scenes in a film, you may play one scene weak and do the next one better," he said. "I've got to be right on the nose with just one appearance or two. You want people to say, 'I'd like to see more of him.' "
People have been seeing quite a bit of this tirelessly spry performer since his 1917 screen debut in the German silent "The Golem," in which he played a court jester. "About 20 years ago they showed the film in Los Angeles," Feld recalled, "and of the entire film--director, producer, actors, extras--everybody was dead, except for me!"
Since he came to America in 1923 in Max Reinhardt's epic stage production of "The Miracle," American moviegoers have seen Feld as a villainous German in "Lancer Spy," a hotel manager in "Idiot's Delight" (more often he was demoted to itinerant desk clerk, as in Wesley Ruggles' "I Met Him in Paris" and countless others), a zany psychiatrist in "Bringing Up Baby" and--well, complete list furnished upon request; Feld could probably name them all from memory.
His favorite roles? "I'm like a pregnant woman; any baby I get is the most beautiful. Every part you play is individual. It's like asking which country you like best; you can find beauty in any of them."
Feld even enjoyed his less-than-auspicious stage debut as an unpaid extra in the German theater, circa 1916.
"I was walking past the Royal Theater in Berlin, and a big fellow came out of the stage door and said, 'Hey, you kids, do you want to be extras in a play?' The play was 'William Tell.' I was one of the waifs; we sat on the floor of the stage. In the final act a live horse rode out on stage, and we obediently knelt down behind it."
That quickly proved one of Feld's few miscalculations on stage.
The acting bug had bitten, however, and soon came studies in Reinhardt's acting theater, a succession of small parts in German films--usually playing a gangster or a grave robber--and finally Hollywood.
In November, 1940, Feld married actress Virginia Christine, who later became Mrs. Olson, the all-knowing Folger's Coffee lady. Their best man was director Ernst Lubitsch.
Years later, Feld would have his own directing experiences as coordinator of the Fritz Feld Community Theater in Brentwood, which for the last eight years has offered free summer stage and music festivals.
When he isn't working, Feld turns to another passion: traveling. Each city, inevitably, has a story.
"I've met very interesting people in my life. After playing in 'The Miracle,' I was sitting in a cafe one night in Boston with the leading ladies and was showing them some magic tricks. A man said, 'Do that again.' I told him, 'A magician doesn't show his tricks twice.' 'You'll show it to me,' he said. 'My name is Houdini.' After that we became very good friends.
"Another time I was in New York after coming from Asia Minor and was playing some Arabic music on the piano at a party. The man sitting next to me said, 'That's fascinating; play some more.' I turned around--Gershwin! He was an amazing man--he'd take us to his home and play the piano till 6 in the morning without stopping."
Of his current roles, Feld is most enthusiastic about his appearance as--what else?--a maitre d', on the Burt Reynolds-directed episode of "Amazing Stories."
"It's an allegorical story," Fritz explained. "Dom DeLuise plays Guilt; he's a big, fat man who comes into my restaurant. I take one look at this huge character and say, 'Table for two?' "
And yes, Feld will do the POP!
"It's funny; Virginia and I were in Africa once and came across about 50 young kids, all in uniforms," he recalled. "I did the POP! , and immediately they all started popping.
"Even in Africa, they pop."