By Harvey F. Chartrand
January 10, 2005 - 2:11 AM PST
Paul Picerni was born in 1922 in the borough of Queens and he still has that great New York accent. He made a slew of war films, but unlike some actors who were war heroes only on celluloid, he actually saw active combat in real life. One year after enlisting in the Army Air Corps, Picerni was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant Bombardier at Victorville Air Force Base in California. He flew 25 combat missions (in the China-Burma-India theater of war) and received the Air Medal with three Oak Leaf Clusters and the Distinguished Flying Cross.
Picerni returned to Civvy Street and eventually graduated as a drama major from LA's Loyola University in 1949. While on campus, he starred in numerous plays. The Los Angeles Rams NFL football team hired Picerni as their half-time master of ceremonies, a job he performed for 30 years until the Rams moved to Anaheim.
Warner Bros. signed him to an important role in the war story Breakthrough (1950), an oddly appropriate title for Picerni's career, coming as it did after several uncredited appearances and bit parts. This led to a seven-year contract and to numerous roles in such pictures as The Desert Song (with Kathryn Grayson and Gordon MacRae), Pushover (with Fred MacMurray and Kim Novak) and The Shanghai Story (with Edmond O'Brien and Ruth Roman). Picerni also garnered the romantic lead in the biggest hit ever made in 3D - House of Wax. All told, Picerni has appeared in 63 films and 455 TV shows.
As Robert Stack's sidekick, Agent Lee Hobson, on The Untouchables from 1959 to 1963, Picerni gained international fame in one of the highest-rated television shows of all time. He has guest starred on such popular TV series as Dragnet, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Batman, Kojak, The Lucy Show and Alice. Picerni has also appeared in numerous commercials; he was for a time the spokesman for General Electric, Rexall Drugs and the Weber Company.
Throughout Hollywood, the gregarious Picerni is known as "The Benefit King," never turning down a request to MC functions for local charities and worthy causes. Paul and Marie Picerni have been happily married for 53 years - some kind of record in Hollywood. They have eight children and ten grandchildren.
Now 82, Picerni is a busy retiree, writing Steps to Stardom with Tom Weaver, a book about the actor's 55-year career in show business. Picerni will soon start work as a dialogue coach and appear in a cameo role in Retirement, a theatrical film directed by his brother Charlie Picerni and starring veteran actors George Segal, Jack Warden, Ossie Davis and Rip Torn. Filming begins in February in South Beach, Florida. Retirement is a comedy about four grumpy old men who go on a road trip to prevent one of their daughters from marrying the wrong guy.
I contacted Paul Picerni at his home in Tarzana, California, in November 2004.
Your first screen credit was The Secret Fury (1950), a mystery with Robert Ryan and Claudette Colbert. Actor Mel Ferrer directed the film. Can you tell me about your scenes as Dr. Roth?
I remember I got that part on the same day I got two other parts - in Where the Sidewalk Ends for Otto Preminger at 20th [Century Fox] and The Killer That Stalked New York at Columbia. On a Friday the 13th yet! Turned out to be a lucky day for me. My first son was born on that day, too.
I had one scene with Claudette Colbert in The Secret Fury. We were examining a patient, I can't remember who. It was a nice long scene with a lot of dialogue. I was a young but capable actor, still going to Loyola University, but I was fine-tuned like a racehorse, so when opportunity knocked, I was ready for it. I remember I had to learn this strange new word - "electroencephalograph." Claudette Colbert was a gorgeous woman and it was a thrill to work with her.
Actually, my first [uncredited] part was in Beyond Glory (1948), with Alan Ladd and Donna Reed, a West Point story. The director was John Farrow, who was from the old school - with the jodhpurs and the riding crop. That was the first picture Audie Murphy ever made. He was one of the cadets. I played a detective. Ladd goes AWOL because his wife has some kind of problem, and I'm hired by the father of a snitch to trail Ladd.
You had a good part as a buck private in Breakthrough, the story of an American infantry unit from its basic training to combat in Europe, with John Agar, David Brian and Frank Lovejoy. Leonard Maltin praises the film as being "stark and satisfactory." Any comments?
I had a powerful scene. I played Rojack, a soldier who has a traumatic wartime experience. My buddy [William Campbell] has his legs blown off. As the medics are working on him, I tell a captain: "I had two uncles in the last war. All they ever talked about was Paris and babes. This (looking at my buddy's stumps) is what I'm going to talk about when I get home!" I get choked up just thinking about that scene.
But then the Korean War broke out. When Jack Warner saw the rushes, he said, "Cut that scene out of the picture and put the kid under contract." He cut the scene because it was such a condemnation of war, and the government was supplying us with tanks, troops and equipment for the picture. Warner figured the scene would be bad for the morale of our fighting men in Korea. I still had a wonderful part, though - the fourth most important character in the film.
You next appeared in Operation Pacific (1951), an action-packed submarine movie starring John Wayne, Patricia Neal and Ward Bond.
I had some nice scenes in the original script. There's one scene where we rescue a couple of nuns and some orphans on this island and bring them to the submarine. Among the children is this little baby. We're in the galley, feeding the kids. The Chief says: "How we gonna feed the baby?" I say: "I got an idea, Chief." I put a hole in one of the fingertips of a rubber glove and the baby sucks the milk from the glove. Well, then the rewrites came through. Blue pages and pink pages. I see that I am no longer doing this scene. It is now John Wayne doing the scene. I learned a big lesson that day - that the stars have the right to preempt the best scenes!
There's another scene where I was supposed to rescue my little buddy, who I know can't swim. After saving a downed pilot, he's coming back toward the sub in a rubber raft that's riddled with machine gun bullets. So I dive off the sub and swim in and rescue him. Well, the blue pages come through and now John Wayne - the submarine commander - comes off the conning tower, dives off the side of the sub, swims out and rescues little Peewee, in place of me! Who ever heard of the commander of a sub jumping off to rescue one man? These were choice little scenes and it was kind of heartbreaking to lose them in rewrites.
The submarine was built in a studio tank on Stage 22 at Warners. They had wave, lightning and rain machines. When the Duke dived in, the director [George Waggner] yelled: "Cut, cut!" And Duke says: "What the hell is wrong?" And the director says: "Duke, when you hit the water, your toupee came off!" [laughs] I had a little gratification when that happened.
You then played Frank Lovejoy's brother in the Cold War drama I Was a Communist for the FBI.
Frank Lovejoy was a moody, withdrawn sort of guy. I did a lot of pictures with him, but I didn't like him very much. Later on, I guest starred on Frank's series Meet McGraw (1957). One day on the set, he clutched his chest and asked me to bring him some nitroglycerin pills from his dressing room. I did and Frank put them under his tongue. We got along better after that. [Lovejoy died in 1962 at age 48.]
"Cut that scene and put the kid under contract.""Holy mackerel, was that something!"
"It was just miserable working with him."
"I miss Telly terribly."
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Harvey F. Chartrand
Editor of Ottawa Life Magazine, Harvey F. Chartrand has written for the Globe and Mail, the National Post, the Jerusalem Post, Shock Cinema, Take One, Rue Morgue, Filmfax, the Film Journal... the list just goes on and on.
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