Memories of Moondoggie

You would be hard-pressed to find a female baby boomer who didn't have a crush years ago on James Darren. The dark-haired, puppy dog-eyed heartthrob played the dreamy surfer Moondoggie in 1959's "Gidget" with Sandra Dee and the 1961 sequel, "Gidget Goes Hawaiian." He also appeared in 1963's "Gidget Goes to Rome," as well as playing the hip scientist Dr. Tony Newman in the 1966-67 ABC series "The Time Tunnel." Between acting gigs -- Darren was under contract to Columbia Pictures -- he was topping the pop charts with such songs as "Goodbye Cruel World." He moved beyond teen fare to take roles in such films as the Oscar-nominated 1961 adventure "The Guns of Navarone" and the 1960 drama "Let No Man Write My Epitaph."

Darren, now a youthful 68, became a victim of typecasting and spent the '70s and early '80s appearing in clubs with Buddy Hackett. He returned to acting in 1983 on the ABC cop series "T.J. Hooker" and then segued into a 16-year career directing such episodic TV series as "Melrose Place" and "Hunter." In 1998, he joined "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine" as a crooning hologram called Vic Fontaine.

These days, Darren is back performing standards in nightclubs and casinos. And he'll probably set young female adults aflutter once again with the DVD release Aug. 3 of the three "Gidget" films on a double-disc set from Columbia TriStar.

The father of three sons -- his eldest is "Inside Edition" reporter Jim Moret -- Darren recently chatted about his Moondoggie years at one of his favorite watering holes -- the Polo Lounge.

Do you remember your first visit to the Polo Lounge?

When I signed my contract with Columbia in 1958,I was with Joyce Selznick. She managed me. She had a room here. I had moved from Philadelphia to Los Angeles and then took a room here for a couple of days. Then I moved to a place called the Elaine Apartments. It was on Vine and Fountain. They jokingly said it was a brothel, but I never had any luck! It was a real funky place.

What was it like to be under contract to a major studio at such a young age?

I think being under contract was exciting. I liked that. It is job security, but we were groomed and cared for. Joyce Selznick, she was really great. She loved me. She really took great care of me like a sister would.

So were you a singer before you came to Hollywood?

I wasn't really a singer. I was a kid in Philly whose dad would take him to bars and nightclubs and I would get up and sing two songs. I didn't sing professionally until I did "Gidget." They knew that I liked singing, but they didn't know how well I could sing. So when we did "Gidget," they were thinking about having someone do the vocal and I would lip sync. I told them I could do it. So we went into one of the sound stages and I sang "Gidget." They said, 'He sings fine,' then I did all the other songs.

So why was your character nicknamed Moondoggie?

Because he made love by the moon and he was a dog!

Did he only go on the prowl once a month?

No, it didn't have to be a full moon. He didn't need that much of an excuse.

You and Sandra Dee had great chemistry in the original "Gidget." Did the sparks fly between you off-screen?

She was 17. Her mother was real strict. I was in love with her and she later said she had a crush on me when we made the film. Her mom was obviously protective and rightfully so. I had to be very careful, especially with me being an old wolf!

At what beach did you shoot the films?

Malibu.

Were you a surfer dude before "Gidget"?

I never surfed in my life. I can still stand on the board and ride a small wave. That's about it. When we were there at the beach, we met lots of people. Doug McClure was actually a surfer and they put him in the movie.

Did you enjoy being a teen heartthrob?

It was great. I taped some shows, audiotapes of shows [from that time], that I sometimes listen to to hear what I did years ago. There will be like 20,000 screaming fans [on the tapes]. I'll play them for my kids, and it impresses them.

There was a show out of San Francisco called "Dick Stewart." It was a dance show. And there were these group of young ladies [from the audience] who broke through the glass door and pulled me out on the sidewalk. They started pulling hairs out of my head for souvenirs. I was enjoying it -- not the pain, but the adulation. The police rescued me and brought me up on the roof. And I'd look down from the roof and they would scream. That was fun.

The first time I remember watching you was on "Time Tunnel."

I thought it was really an interesting show. It was only on for one season, but it really has tremendous legs. I was playing a relatively young scientist, and producer Irwin Allen would come to me every day and say, "Your sideburns are too long." And I'd say, "You think every scientist looks like Einstein?" So I told the makeup guy, 'He wants me to cut my sideburns and I don't want to cut them.' So they would put a white line under my sideburns so they looked like they were cut because the rest of the skin was tan. But Irwin was clever enough to catch on!

-- Susan King

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