In Hollywood, it’s often known as just plain Army. As in, “did you see in Army today. . . ? “
The world first heard about Warren Beatty and Annette Bening’s marriage in it. The fact that Rock Hudson was suffering from AIDS first appeared there. Deals, casting, parties, weddings, divorces, babies--if you’re on the map in Hollywood, you’re in Army.
Army Archerd’s column “Just for Variety,” which is 40 years old this year, appears in the show business trade paper Daily Variety. It’s not as widely seen by the public as were the nationally syndicated columns of the legendary Hedda Hopper, Louella Parsons and Sheila Graham. People outside Hollywood are most familiar with Archerd from his years emceeing the arrivals at the Academy Awards. But as Daily Variety and Archerd’s former longtime editor Thomas M. Pryor once said, “It’s not the number who read (the column). It’s who.”
“Who” is just about every key player in Hollywood and much of the media who regularly scan Archerd’s column.
Archerd, 71, has no secretary or assistant. Trained by his early days as a reporter for the Associated Press and the former Los Angeles Herald-Express, he turns out his column every day by relying on well-cultivated sources.
Some observers say he’s too cozy with Hollywood and that individuals give a story to Army because they think he will treat it kindly. Archerd would discount that.
A big celebrity gala, organized by Daily Variety, will honor Archerd on Friday night, raising funds for three charities. The sold-out guest list includes some of the industry’s biggest names.
After 40 years, he still likes show business. But his first love remains The Column.
Question: Coverage of the entertainment business has mushroomed in the last decade, especially on TV, which can break a story faster than newspapers. How do you stay competitive?
Answer: I work harder, I think. I really try and stay on top and get to the source of everything. If you saw my column when Audrey Hepburn died, you can see I learned of her death right off from my longtime sources (in Europe). And I was immediately on the phone to Switzerland getting a firsthand reaction from her son.
Q: You just happened to have Audrey Hepburn’s phone number in Switzerland at your finger tips?
A: Yes. There are three drawers full of numbers. Of course some of them need updating. . . .
Q: You’ve seen generations of stars come and go. How do you stay in contact with young Hollywood?
A: Well it’s quite simple. First of all I do it in person. I go on the sets. I meet them, I talk to them, see them at large occasions. I introduce them at the Academy Awards and at the People’s Choice Awards. I’m involved with talking to their agents. And, you know, I do it every day. You know these people who are so-called hot-shot reporters who are reporting once a month or once a week or what have you. Let them do it once a day. I think they’ll all agree with me that they can’t.
Q: A mention in your column provides recognition, publicity and a certain cachet. Can you put a value on that?
A: I really don’t know. I just sit at the typewriter--well, now I sit at the word processor, excuse me--and that’s about as far as I think the column is going. I really don’t know what the effect is.
Q: But there are always rumors that, because a mention in the column is so desirable, you have been offered money.
A: Oh yeah.
Q: And how do you respond to that?
A: I just don’t. (Money has) come in the mail to me even recently and I just send it back and say please don’t waste your time.
Q: What are the big changes in show business from your early career to now?
A: Everything used to be centralized in the major studios and in the three networks, and about three or four or five record labels. And now it’s just enormous. And it’s such an ever-changing scene. Front pages of our paper, almost every day, have somebody new taking over at an office, which somebody just left or doesn’t even know that he’s vacating until he reads it in our paper.
Q: What incidents have touched you?
A: Well I guess moments at the Oscars are always the most emotional. You know, like Ingrid Bergman’s return and Charlie Chaplin’s. I remember sitting with Chaplin in Walter Matthau’s house with Groucho Marx on the other side of me . . . then there was Oscar Levant, all at the same table. You just try to soak it in and hope that you’ll keep a picture of it.
To me, there’s always a great excitement at the creativity of this business. When I go on a spectacular set that has been the result of genius artists who have created it, or watch a fine director working with a fine cast--it’s really something. It’s the motion picture business, which is not duplicated any place else in the world.
Q: What do you think was the most notable story you’ve broken?
A: The Rock Hudson story. It turned out to be the most important Hollywood story of all time, really, because it created a sensitivity . . . an international concern about the most horrible plague that has ever hit the world. And everyone, including people at the L. A. Times and New York Times, agreed that had I not printed the story, Rock Hudson might have died of liver cancer, or what have you. And AIDS would never have been the subject.
Q: How did you find out about Hudson’s illness?
A: I had known Rock since he started his career at Universal. I had known his friends, and when he did become ill, I’d known that he was ill. As far as the AIDS illness, it was his friends who told me. And I had known the finality of it for six months before I printed it.
Q: What prompted you to print it at that particular time? Hudson’s trips to Paris?
A: Exactly. And the week before he had been up to visit Doris Day. . . . And of course everyone was talking about how terrible he looked. I called and tried to talk to him. But I had missed him. And I left word. But it was too late.
So I just wanted to stop everybody from creating all these terrible, terrible things and let them know the truth. The man was really terminally ill and he was seeking help.
Q: Are these the kind of subjects you usually shy away from?
A: I don’t think I shy away from anything. But the treatment of a subject is the important thing.
Q: Well, for instance, in the case of Rock Hudson: You said you knew about it for six months. . . .
A: Well, the personal stories have always been tough. I mean I don’t shy away from it, but I try to treat them, of course, tastefully, but first of all accurately. Everybody’s interested in who’s doing what to whom, and you always hear somebody’s out, somebody’s in. At least I give them the opportunity to tell me whether they are or aren’t.
Q: What is the science of writing Army Archerd’s column?
A: News. That’s what it must be: exclusive news. Exclusivity is what I’m always fighting for. And, you know, something people will want to read.
Q: Who is the one star you wanted to talk to?
A: Well, there’s Garbo of course.
Q: Did you try on many occasions?
A: Oh yeah, sure I tried.
Q: How did she elude you?
A: She eluded everybody! But even the elusive Katharine Hepburn and I have a good relationship. So I don’t know anybody else who’s really eluded me.
Q: How did you report on Hollywood in your early years?
A: When I worked for the Herald-Express, I worked for (columnist) Harrison Carroll. I was his leg man. I covered the whole scene around town those days. You’d drop by the clubs--when we had clubs like Ciro’s and Mocambo, the Crescendo and the Interlude . . . .
Q: After 40 years, do you ever get the feeling of deja vu?
A: Oh sure. You see so many stories that you see printed about projects that are being developed or being bought and that enormous salaries and sums are supposedly being paid for them. But then if I check up later and see if they’ve ever been made--I can’t find the percentages. But it’s quite small. Q: Has there ever been an occasion where you found out a week or even a day later that somebody misled you?
A: Well it hasn’t been that but it has been more that they’ve handed me a line of bull that wasn’t true. The thing that really peeves me off--"No, I’m not gonna be leaving Paramount.” Fade out, fade in two days later. . . .
Q: To the public, the job of a Hollywood columnist is the stuff of legends. Would you care to debunk the perception?
A: I’d be foolish to do that. I mean, I think of someone who writes a column about the shoe industry. Certainly the shoe business is not as interesting as show biz.