By George Castle, Special to Chicago Jewish News
Beauty – or in Sylvia Safran Resnick’s case, heartthrob status – is in the eye of the beholder. And she beheld plenty.
That’s why Charlton Heston did not make the cut, but Paul Henreid did, in Resnick’s latest book, “The Evolution of Hollywood Heartthrobs.”
Northwestern product Heston should have been the definition of male hunkiness, especially the way he played the two most prominent Jews ever in the movies – Moses and Ben-Hur.
“I did not like him,” said Resnick, a spry 90, who grew up in Jewish Humboldt Park before embarking on a long Hollywood career as an entertainment journalist.
“I just could not see myself falling into his arms,” she said of Heston. “I met him and did not like him.”
Well, Heston’s politics would have befuddled her. He was active in leading a Hollywood contingent to the 1963 civil rights March on Washington. More than three decades later, Heston still believed in rights – gun-owner rights – as president of the National Rifle Association, claiming they’d have to pry a firearm from his cold, dead hand.
But Resnick did a 180 with the urbane, “continental” Henreid, whom most film fans did not rate as a top-tier on-screen lover. An Austrian Jew who emigrated to the United Kingdom in 1935, Henreid dutifully played the serious “other man” and anti-Nazi resistance leader in a triangle with Humphrey Bogart – a first-stringer in Resnick’s book – and Ingrid Bergman in “Casablanca.” Resnick simply swooned when Henreid clutched Bette Davis in “Now Voyager.”
“I was 16 when I met him,” she said of her 1943 encounter with Henreid at the Hollywood Bowl. “I was rehearsing for a role in ‘We Shall Never Die’ to raise money for (Holocaust-afflicted) Jews. Paul and John Garfield were there. He was doing a walk-on, I saw him and got so excited. I called out and said ‘Hello, Paul.’ He smiled back.”
Still, not everyone made “The Evolution of the Hollywood Heartthrob” after they reacted positively to Resnick. One day, working in the early 1950s as a low-level MGM employee, Frank Sinatra winked at her in the studio commissary. Old Blue Eyes, a true ladies man, is not in the book.
Resnick’s ratings are totally subjective, but are informed. Long before she profiled male stars for Rona Barrett’s TV shows and a variety of magazines, she came from a Chicago show-biz line. Mother Sarah Greenblatt, who worked under the stage name Sonia Gable, acted in the city’s Jewish theater and sang on the old WCFL-Radio’s “Jewish Hour.”
An author, even at 90, cannot stop to rest long. Resnick is currently writing a contracted historical erotic romance novel set in 1947 Chicago during a time when ridding the city of back alley gambling was the aim of politicians. She is a veteran of strong language and sex scenes, having previously penned two erotic novels along with a biography of heartthrob Burt Reynolds.
What would her Yiddishe mama have thought of her racy literary side?
“My mom would have applauded me on the erotic books,” Resnick said “She was a free spirit, free with language and ideas.”
And long-lived, passing down her genes to Resnick.
“I don’t consider 90 a long life,” she said. “My mom lived to almost 101, but would have lived longer than she did. She ate every piece of crap she could get. And she was an inveterate gambler. She gambled religiously for 70 years.”
Sarah Greenblatt thus remains a huge influence on Resnick, both introducing her to show-biz while pushing her to see a cause in her life.
“She was the nucleus for my interest,” Resnick said. “I didn’t watch her much. But whatever I saw made a very big impression on me. I didn’t know consciously because I was so young. Later, I took a little theater course in college and appeared in a couple of plays. It kind of perpetuated.”
Greenblatt was part of a small group of actors in Chicago, working their way into Jewish theater. Then she appeared in New York with Menasha Skulnik, a famous Yiddish theater actor who starred on “The Goldbergs” during the golden age of network radio.
Meanwhile, Resnick started dreamily interacting with the stars of the screen in the archetypal neighborhood movie theaters around Humboldt Park during movies’ prime time just before World War II. She lived on the right side of the “tracks” – California Avenue – in the immigrant-heavy old neighborhood. First cousin Ken Green, who recently wrote a book about Humboldt Park Jewish life, lived in the more hardscrabble area east of California.
Resnick’s parents divorced when she was young, and she lived with relatives elsewhere for periods of time. That’s how she ended up in Los Angeles to meet Henreid as a teen-ager, only to return to Chicago to finally start a family herself. Eventually Resnick moved to the West Coast permanently.
After dabbling on the talent side of Hollywood, Resnick launched her writing career in the mid-1960s for the likes of Modern Screen, Photoplay, and Sterling Publications. Her first interview was with Mickey Mouse Club teen-age star Annette Funicello. She was the Hollywood editor of Ideal Publications. Resnick’s highest profile was as associate editor for “Rona Barrett’s Hollywood,” the most famous celebrity magazine in the 1970s: She also wrote a monthly celebrity beauty/health feature for Bestways, a leading health magazine during the 1970s.
Although Jews ran almost all the studios, were well-represented in the production ranks and were leading comics in vaudeville, on radio and transitioning into movies, they generally did not evolve into leading-man superstar types until the 1940s. Melvyn Douglas, a Jew, played romantic parts in the 1930s, but did not make Resnick’s book.
Cary Grant is in the center of the first grouping of heartthrobs. Resnick could not confirm Grant, thought of coming from Cockney roots in England, as having a Jewish background on his birth mother’s side, as has been rumored. But Grant was circumcised, uncommon for males at the turn of the 20th century, and gave to Jewish causes in a heartthrob career that lasted into the 1960s. He had his only daughter via Jewish actress Dyan Cannon, the third of his four wives.
Henreid, Garfield and Kirk Douglas emerged in the 1940s. Douglas in particular was proud of his Jewish roots and has boosted Jewish causes in his century-plus-long life. He also starred in “The Juggler” in 1953. The movie, filmed in a young Israel, may have been the first mainstream film focusing on a Holocaust survivor’s struggles.
“Kirk was very spiritual,” Resnick said. “He was everything you wanted in an actor, a man, a father and a friend.”
Resnick rated Douglas’ hardest role as “Detective Story” with Eleanor Parker in 1951. He played a morally-conflicted New York City detective, who dealt roughly with an abortionist (not referred to as such in the censorship-filled times). Also in 1951, Douglas played a corners-cutting reporter who exploited a mine cave-in to spur his own comeback in “The Big Carnival.” One year later, Douglas portrayed a heel of a Hollywood mogul in “The Bad and the Beautiful.”
These pioneer Jewish stars had to Anglicize or dramatically shorten their names for public consumption. Henreid’s family was aristocratic in the old Austria-Hungarian empire. He was born as Paul George Julius Henreid Ritter Von Wassel-Waldingau. Garfield started out as Jacob Julius Garfinkle. Douglas was born Issur Danelovich Demsky.
But despite their success, Henreid and Garfield ran afoul of Red Scare blacklisters at the dawn of the 1950s. Henreid had to switch to directing. Garfield’s film roles dried up and he returned to the theater before dying from a heart attack at 39 in 1952.
Douglas helped break the blacklist through his star power and courage. Forming his own production company, he employed the banned Dalton Trumbo to write 1960s “Spartacus.” His leading-man roles trailed off just as son Michael Douglas, whom Resnick included, got his own career going by the 1970s.
By the 1950s, a budding star might get away with keeping his own name. Such was the case with half-Jewish Paul Newman, whom Resnick rated as a favorite. Newman went on to the lead role as a fighter for Israel’s independence in Otto Preminger’s “Exodus” in 1960. Resnick similarly liked the manly-but-dignified Gregory Peck, who helmed “Gentleman’s Agreement,” the groundbreaking 1947 story of anti-Semitism, and codified all-time hero Atticus Finch in “To Kill a Mockingbird” 15 years later.
Resnick would always fall for a boyishly handsome face and traces of a Bronx accent. Thus Bernie Schwartz, who changed his name to Tony Curtis, made the grade.
“Women adored his looks,” Resnick wrote. “At one time studio heads were so concerned that his beauty was a detriment that they nearly overlooked his true potential.”
Eventually, Curtis found his meaty parts, teaming with Sidney Poitier as the white-black pair of manacled convicts who had to get along in their attempt to escape in 1958’s “The Defiant Ones.” That movie featured two Jews in prominent roles as Southerners. The very Jewish Theodore Bikel portrayed the sheriff pursuing Curtis and Poitier.
And, like two generations of Douglases, Curtis’ acting bloodline continued. Jamie Lee Curtis, whose mother was Curtis’ first wife Janet Leigh, has carved out a prominent film career in her own right.
The reader of “The Evolution of the Hollywood Heartthrob” will find out some little-known facts about a Chicago-area product. Harrison Ford’s mother, Dorothy Nidelman, who worked as a radio actress, had a Russian Jewish background. The Fords lived in Morton Grove and Park Ridge. Ford later became an agnostic.
Famed first for Han Solo in “Star Wars” and then for Indiana Jones in “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” Ford could bail himself out with his hands. Struggling for roles early in his career, he hired himself out as a carpenter to pay the rent. Such talents earned him a tag as “carpenter to the stars” for building furniture and making repairs for other actors.
Even though Resnick intentionally left out some superstars like Heston, she now second-guesses herself for some omissions. She first mentions John Payne, the male lead off Maureen O’Hara and Santa/Edmund Gwenn in “Miracle on 34th Street.” She also cited two foreign-born stars of yesteryear that maybe should headline “Heartthrob 2.0:” Omar Sharif and Fernando Lamas.
“In two interviews with him he was absolutely charming,” she said of Sharif. A native Egyptian, Sharif was condemned in his homeland for playing Nicky Arnstein opposite Barbra Streisand’s Fanny Brice, in 1968’s “Funny Girl.” The film also was banned in other Arab countries. Sharif and Streisand became romantically involved in the filming, and he came back for more, reprising his role in 1975’s “Funny Lady.”
Beyond her book ratings of sex-appeal with actors, Resnick can rank her best-and-worst interviews. One made her book cut, the other did not.
Never a heartthrob, but a consummate actor. Carroll O’Connor was a favorite. “He had a real contrast of his screen image, the way he portrayed Archie Bunker, and his own personality,” she said. “He was a serious man. But he could play anybody on the screen.”
Meanwhile, Chad Everett – included in the 1960s section in the book – was “tough…He was kind of testy. If you said the wrong thing to him, he’d really get upset.”
All through her film-studio and writing career, Resnick knew sexual harassment, just publicized at its most extreme in the Harvey Weinstein controversy, was rampant in TinselTown. But like other peccadillos and scandals of the day, reporters did not write or broadcast all they knew. In the politics of accessing celebrities, much information was held back to protect sources.
“I kept all the secrets to myself,” Resnick said.
Weinstein was the latest in a long line of Jewish film executives linked to sexual harassment. Resnick dodged her date with the casting couch by dressing down for an (acting) interview with a Jewish casting director at Samuel Goldwyn Studios.
“I made the ‘mistake’ of not making myself as pretty as I was,” Resnick said. “I put my hair up in braids. I was not dolled up. He was very disenchanted with me.”
Resnick now lives – and writes – at Heritage Pointe, a Jewish-run assisted living residence in Mission Viejo, Calif., not far from Disneyland.
“They have a rabbi and synagogue here,” she said. “It’s very social, like belonging to a kibbutz. It’s a good place with a good administrator.”
A good place, indeed, to organize memories and chronicle the men of the silver screen who made their female fans swoon.
‘The Evolution of the Hollywood Heartthrob,’ published by Bear Manor Media, can be purchased on amazon.com, bearmanormedia.com, and on request at Barnes and Noble. The author’s website is: sylviasafranresnick.com. More details are found at facebook.com/hollywoodheartthrobs.