A six-gun salute to a longtime slinger

Times Staff Writer

JOEL McCREA never won any Oscars -- in fact he wasn't ever nominated. And he frequently joked that his career was built around hand-me-downs. "No one writes a script for me," he once said. "They write a script for Gary Cooper and if they can't get him, they use me."

He also was modest. "People say I'm a one-note actor, but the way I figure it," he remarked, "those other guys are just looking for that one right note."

Tall, handsome, athletic and personable, McCrea was one of the most durable and dependable Hollywood stars. During his 30-year career, McCrea was equally at home in dramas, comedies, thrillers and westerns.

"He was a talented guy who knew his place," says film historian Rudy Behlmer. "He didn't want to play 'Macbeth,' but his range was pretty ... good when you stop to think about it. He was good-looking, but he wasn't pretentious. He didn't drink. He listened and he was affable. Obviously, he was bright, and people would gravitate toward him."

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art's film department is paying tribute to the actor with a three-week retrospective, "A Centenary Tribute to Joel McCrea," which opens Friday with two of his earliest films, both from 1931: "Girls About Town," directed by George Cukor, and "The Common Law," in which he plays an American painter in Paris who falls in love with a kept woman turned nude model (Constance Bennett).

The tribute features some of McCrea's best films, including the two seminal comedies he made for Preston Sturges, 1941's "Sullivan's Travels," which Sturges wrote for him, and 1942's madcap romantic comedy "The Palm Beach Story." It also includes the underrated 1940 Alfred Hitchcock thriller "Foreign Correspondent"; George Stevens' 1943 romantic comedy "The More the Merrier," which features one of the greatest seduction scenes ever put on film; the 1936 William Wyler-directed drama "These Three," based on Lillian Hellman's "The Children's Hour"; and the groundbreaking 1962 Sam Peckinpah western, "Ride the High Country," which was McCrea's last film until he briefly came out of retirement in 1976.

"He was a greatly underappreciated actor," says Oscar-winning producer Walter Mirisch ("In the Heat of the Night"), who made five films with McCrea, including "Wichita." "He was very, very serious about his work and marvelously professional," says Mirisch, who was friends with McCrea until the actor's death in 1990 at age 84.

"Later in his life, when he was in his 40s or so, he started just to do westerns. He loved the Western life. He lived on a ranch all of his life. He ran cattle on that ranch for a long time. There were so many great sides of him, and so many wonderful stories.

"I remember in 1988, Joel saw an announcement in the paper that I had been given the Thalberg Award by the academy," says Mirisch. "He called me and said, 'I have to be there, Walter.' And I said, 'Of course you are going to be there.' He appeared that night, I thought, handsomer than ever. His hair was snow white. He was tanned, and his face was the same. He was so handsome in his dress clothes. [McCrea's wife] Frances [Dee] said to me, 'Look at him. Look at his shoes.' And he was wearing black boots!"

Though McCrea had a reputation for being tight with his money, Mirisch remembers his generosity. "He liked 'Wichita,' and it was exceedingly successful. So I got a telephone call one day from a man who identifies himself as the Cadillac dealer in Oxnard. He said Joel McCrea has ordered a Cadillac for you and he asked me to see what color you wanted. I called Joel up and said, 'This is incredible.' He said, 'The picture did well and I made much more money from it than I thought it would. I think you also should enjoy some of that.'

"He said, 'People think I am the tightest Scotch Irishman in the whole town, so don't bother telling anybody because they won't believe it anyway.' "

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'A Centenary Tribute to Joel McCrea'

Where: Leo S. Bing Theater, L.A. County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles

When: 7:30 p.m. Friday to Nov. 5

Price: $6 to $9

Contact: 323-857-6010 or go to www.lacma.org

Schedule

Friday: "Girls About Town," "The Common Law"

Saturday: "Sullivan's Travels," "Ramrod"

Oct. 21: "Foreign Correspondent," "These Three"

Oct. 22: "The Palm Beach Story," "Primrose Path"

Oct. 28: "Stars in My Crown," "Colorado Territory"

Oct. 29: "The More the Merrier," "Gambling Lady"

Nov. 5: "Ride the High Country," "Stranger on Horseback"

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