For Jack Sheldon, ‘For the Boys’ Role Is a High Note : Performing: The trumpeter and actor, who will play in Huntington Beach Sunday, clearly enjoys his two careers.
Not all of his role as bandleader Wally Fields in Bette Midler’s new film, “For the Boys,” came naturally to trumpeter and actor Jack Sheldon. He had to rehearse a dance number with co-star Karen Martin in which he moves around the stage with her while playing his horn.
“It wasn’t really dancing,” Sheldon said earlier this week by phone from his Hollywood Hills home, “but walking in time with the rhythm. I’d never done that before--moving around and playing the trumpet. It was tough. But it came off real well.”
The rest of the time, Sheldon is seen mostly in front of a band blowing the trumpet, counting down the tunes, or flashing the “OK” sign to Midler’s nervous Dixie Leonard or Martin’s vivacious Vicki Lee.
Fields, it turns out, is a lovable, wisecracking musician a lot like, well, Jack Sheldon, who will play Sunday afternoon at Maxwell’s restaurant in Huntington Beach.
Working with Midler was “heaven,” he says. Midler was happy to let him ad lib the line, “What would I have to give you for one little kiss?"--a line that gets the expected risque reply.
Left on the cutting-room floor, though, was a scene in which Sheldon joined Midler in singing “Ain’t Misbehavin.’ ” “She can sound like anybody,” Sheldon said of the singer. “Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington, Judy Garland.”
The one point in the film in which Sheldon does look out of place has him slouched down behind an electric piano in a cold outdoors wearing a cap with earflaps. He’s at some outpost in Vietnam, backing Midler as she sings a mellow version of John Lennon’s “In My Life” to a hard but youthful-looking band of soldiers. As the shells start to fall, we get one last glimpse of Fields scurrying for cover. What happens to him?
“I get killed there in Vietnam, but the movie was so long that they cut that part out,” Sheldon says. “First, I got shot in the back. Then they tried it where the little girl and I get blown up and burned in front of the bunker and (co-star) Jimmy Caan has to crawl out of there over my burned body. But they cut it out.”
Being in the movies is a dream come true, Sheldon says.
“I’ve always loved the movies and movie stars,” he says. “I used to skip school and spend the whole day at the movies. That’s where I got my education.”
Not that being before the cameras is anything new for Sheldon, who just turned 60. “For the Boys” director Mark Rydell remembered Sheldon from an “I Spy” episode he directed in which Sheldon played--what else?--a trumpet player.
Sheldon even starred in his own short-lived series in the ‘60s, “Run Buddy Run,” a situation comedy in which he starred as a regular Joe who overhears a group of gangsters plan a murder. “It was like ‘The Fugitive,’ only a comedy,” he said. The producers “didn’t even know I played the trumpet until I brought in (pianist) Lou Levy and (trombonist) Frank Rosolino to play for one episode.”
Sheldon also was a regular on another short-lived comedy in the ‘70s, “The Girl With Something Extra,” which starred Sally Field as a mind-reading newlywed. And he’ll still pop up on the occasional “Dragnet” reruns.
Currently, he’s heard singing “Ac-cent-tchu-ate the Positive” at the beginning of the new ABC-TV series “Home Front.” He’s best known, though, as Merv Griffin’s trumpet-toting foil on the talk-show host’s long-running program. They’ll also be teaming up at the end of the month, when Sheldon goes out to Atlantic City for Griffin’s annual year-end big-band tribute at his Resorts Hotel there.
“Merv’s really been great to me,” Sheldon said. “He’s kept me working for 20 years now. He’s a loyal friend. Through him I’ve got to work with every bandleader ever known: Basie, Dorsey, Glenn Miller, even Lawrence Welk. I’ve gotten to sing with Ethel Merman and do magic with Orson Welles. Everybody came through his show.”
And like Wally Fields in “For the Boys,” Sheldon also has played for those in uniform. In the early ‘50s, he was a member of the 503rd Air Force Band stationed at Edwards Air Force Base. At night, he says, he drove his well-worn ’34 Dodge into Los Angeles to play with such notables as Art Pepper, Dexter Gordon, Wardell Gray and even Charlie Parker.
“He was so nice, so encouraging,” Sheldon says of Parker. “I played piano for him once when Russ Freeman hadn’t shown. And when we got through with the tune, he leaned over to me and very politely says, ‘Let’s wait until Russ gets here.’ ”
Sheldon dubbed his last recording (1988, for the Concord label) “Hollywood Heroes,” the moniker he’s been using for occasional combos since he began doing studio work more than 30 years ago. It is a collection of ballads and good-time music--"I Want to Be Happy,” “The Joint Is Jumpin’ "--featuring the trumpeter’s instrumental and vocal stylings.
In the ‘60s, he said, he used to play that kind of music, with drummer Shelly Manne, bassist Joe Mondragon, and Howard Roberts on guitar. “We all worked in the studios--that’s how we made our living, so we thought we’d be heroes like the guys in the movies, like Clark Gable and Humphrey Bogart.”
For all his sideline work acting, Sheldon remains a dedicated trumpet player who still makes time to practice at least three hours a day.
In fact, “I really feel good if I can get four hours in,” he confides.
He’s currently taking classical lessons from former MGM Orchestra first-chair trumpeter Uan Racy and has been asked to play the Haydn Trumpet Concerto with the Santa Cruz Symphony.
“We can get away with a lot in jazz,” he says. “Classical music is so much more precise and difficult. Wynton Marsalis (has done) both. I figured if he could do it, so could I.”
Sheldon has a new album awaiting release on Concord and is currently working on another with singer Shirley Horn and longtime associate Johnny Mandel.
“I first worked with him on ‘I Want to Live’ with Susan Hayward, and also did ‘The Sandpiper,’ ” he said. “I knew him when he was just a kid playing valve trombone.” That is Sheldon playing the trumpet solo on “The Shadow of Your Smile” on “The Sandpiper” soundtrack.
Sheldon also been digging up troves of be-bop tunes that he performs with a quintet, most recently at Marla’s Jazz Supper Club in Los Angeles. He’s kept busy with club dates at places such as Lunaria in West Los Angeles, M.K.'s P.O.V. in Toluca Lake and the Mondrian Hotel on Sunset Boulevard.
Although he has offers to go to Europe, Sheldon likes to stay close to Hollywood.
“I hate to leave L.A., because of the movies,” he said. “Everything for me is right here. I can take about three weeks away, and then I have to get back.”
Jack Sheldon appears Sunday at 2 p.m. with the Frankie Randall Trio at Maxwell’s, 317 Pacific Coast Highway, Huntington Beach. Admission: free. Information: (714) 536-2555.