Exclusive Interview, Part 4: Clu Gulager on Bette Davis, Ernest Borgnine and Three-Headed Monsters


Clu Gulager has spent the majority of his life acting. Although he was born in Oklahoma, he has spent the majority of his life in front of the camera. Recently, we sat down and had a conversation about his life times as a western and horror star. This is the fourth and final installment of that conversation. The first three parts can also be found on

What changed the way that you approached your acting?

Bette Davis, I'm mentioning names because these are familiar names. I had to work with Bette Davis one time because they fired the one guy and hired me very quickly. I had to fly down there in two hours to Dallas. I tried to learn the lines and I couldn't in that length of time. Bette Davis had done her close-up the day before so she was out on the tarmac of the airfield. One hundred and twenty-five degrees and she was an old woman. They said, "You don't have to do that Miss Davis, you've done your close-up. We'll have the script supervisor read it." She said, "As long as you're here. I know who you are by the way. You're a very good actor. I will respect that. I will stand right by the camera and feed you your lines." Well, I didn't want her to because I didn't know my lines. But she stayed there, an old lady, and I couldn't remember anything. So we finally got through it. But it was embarrassing. I just hated it. Then, and she's one of the great actors, really, she was a really gifted woman. I've seen some pictures of hers that really blow me away every time I see them.

So they called me up one day at the studio when I was under contract at Universal and said, "Tomorrow morning we want you to do a 6-1/2 page scene with this woman." She's one of the great actresses of all time. I'd seen her on stage in New York in Sweet Bird of Youth, Geraldine Page. She was so good. She's one of the great actors. I said, "Nope". They said, "What do you mean nope? You're under contract." I said, "Nope, I'm not going to make an ass of myself in front of this great artist just like I did with Bette Davis. I'm not going to do it. I can't learn the lines that fast. I'm not going to do it. It would be a struggle. She'd think I was a bad actor." So I just didn't do it. I learned my lesson from Bette Davis. Geraldine Page subsequently died and I never got to work with her.

How did that change your approach to work?

You like to have more time. I had no time. They called me at ten o'clock and I had to be on the set at six thirty for make-up. There's no time to learn a six and a half page soliloquy for me, my kind of learning. I decided that I would never ever do that. That changed my approach right there. You might say, "So you had enough money?" No, I didn't have any money. I just felt so strongly about my art of acting I didn't want to do that badly.

If you couldn't show yourself in a good light then you didn't want to...

The best light I could. I've never shown myself in a good light. I'm not a great actor. But I wanted to do the best I was capable of. I wasn't capable if I didn't know the lines a little bit.

Did you ever work with Bette Davis again?

No. She was so sweet to me. She complemented me and all that crap. Can you imagine? Complementing me? I'm supposed to be complementing her but she would have none of that.

So there really is a difference between actors who are giving versus actors who are trying to drive you into the ground?

Yep, that's true. I worked with Joseph Cotton one time on a picture they wrote for me, an hour long show on Desilu Playhouse. It was a TV show. We were sitting in the dirt road on our director's chairs waiting and I heard him say, "Watch this." I looked around and a little boy was coming over with a pencil and paper toward him. He came over to Mr. Cotton and said, "Mr. Cotton?" He said, "What are you doing boy we're working? Can't you see? Get away. We're busy. Get away." He turned and snickered to me. Well, that's terrible. I would never do that. I don't see the purpose of that. But he was showing off to me, I guess. He did that to that little boy and that little boy probably was traumatized for the rest of his life with being around artists. That's not good. Different actors are different. That's not a good way to behave. That artist around me made me feel bad by doing that. That affects your performance, I feel. Everything goes into it when you're on the set or should.

Did you ever work with Ernest Borgnine?

No, but I was at various functions with him. A good friend of Ernest Borgnine's was Barry Sullivan, a guy who worked with me in The Tall Man series when I played Billie the Kid he played Pat Garrett. We were at a birthday party in Beverly Hills and Ernie showed up with this elephant condom as a gift. He thought that was very funny. "Here's my gift. Ha ha ha" We're all just laughing. That's how I met Ernie.

I think Barry Sullivan was a man who never quite got his due. He never quite got that role that...

He was an alcoholic. He drank a lot and sometimes we had to shut the set down on The Tall Man because of that. Sometimes he would get impatient with me because I wasn't good with lines. Couldn't remember my lines sometimes. He'd get impatient because he had this photographic memory. For him it was just like falling off a log. That bothered me but there was nothing I could do about it because I just wasn't good with lines. I never grew to be good with lines.

How far did you go in schooling?

Well, I went to about five universities. Never got a degree. I taught at three universities, film acting. I went to Columbia in New York and took theater. But I took comparative literature and Shakespeare mainly at Columbia. I realized there that the teachers approach theater from a literary point of view, the words rather that what's on the boards of the actors acting or the costumes and lights and so forth. They don't think. They think in terms of the words, word placement, the wordsmithing. There's nothing wrong in that except with me, it threw me off because I approach Shakespeare and all these directors and writers we talked about from a theatric point of view. That was where I came from. In film the words are blood. To me, in theater, the words are blood too. However, it’s a three-headed monster from my perspective, most actors. We put a little of ourselves in there, in the author’s characters. Stanislavski, a great acting teacher most of us think from the Moscow Art Theater turn of the century, said that you have to put some of the you in it otherwise it becomes too stagy. You have to make it kind of identify with your quality. Also the director has a lot to say about it. So that’s the three-headed monster the director, the actor, and the author. Does that make any sense at all?

Sure, but if you get off script and you’re carrying the spirit is that bothersome to you?

You mean change the words or just memorize the words? I’m a writer and have been in it for decades so naturally there are some ways I can do things better maybe than the author has that character to do them. It’s still the character. So yes, I like to change the words sometimes. I was on Playhouse 90 one time and Ralph Nelson the director said, “Come on. These are etched in marble these words. Don’t change them.” Well, I don’t agree with that.

If you are going to leave actors with one thought what would you say?

Make me believe you. I want to believe you. If I believe you, you are more than halfway home.

What do you think of the new HD with the lighting and all?

I love it. I made a short for Universal in 1968. We edited it in 1969 and it opened the Cannes Film Festival in 1970. Not because it was good or bad but because they felt it showed the state of the art of all the film instruments. My short. It did. I put a lot of new stuff in it. So that’s what I like. Filmmaking to me has to do not only with the actors’ portrayal and the story but also with the lights and the camera and with the sound, sound design, the production design. Go see “Lawless” and you’ll see what I mean about production design. It was extraordinary. It would be worth it to see that.

So what’s next for Clu?

I’m writing a script, a musical horror film for John (Gulager) right now. Came out of a scene that we did for the workshop that we showed that Sunday at the New Beverly. Some people thought that maybe we should make a movie out of that. So that’s what I’m doing right now. If John likes it then he’ll write the music and we’ll try to get it on. A lot of if’s in writing, right? You’re a writer. You know better than I do.

It was a great pleasure to interview you, Clu. I sincerely hope to do it again down the road.

When he is not acting Clu can be found roaming the Hollywood Hills or eating a Pink's chili dog.

Del Howison is a journalist, writer, and Bram Stoker Award-winning editor. He is also the co-founder and owner of Dark Delicacies “The Home of Horror” in Burbank, CA. He can be reached at