I had the distinct pleasure and honor to interview Robert "Bob" Dix at Cinecon on September 4, 2010. Bob was there to promote his book "Out of Hollywood: Two Generations of Actors - The Autobiography of Robert Dix," but very graciously left his table so we could find a semi-quiet corner in which to conduct this interview. Obviously Bob's career is worthy of discussion in itself; however, since Silents Are Golden is a silent movie site, I asked if he would mind talknig about his memories of his father, their relationship and his father's career - something he was most willing and honored to do. The reader will quickly see that Bob has a great admiration for his father and fond memories of their time together.
Dix: I was just 14 when my Dad passed on. Although I have vivid memories of my youth together with him and the times we spent together at our ranch in the Malibu mountains, and our home in Beverly Hills, a lot of what I learned about my Dad's career, in both silents and talkies, was from people in the industry whom I worked with as an actor. So, I was always very proud of him because there wasn't a crew member or a fellow actor that I met through the years that didn't have something kind to say about the man, as well as his talent. It is an interesting story, the story of Richard Dix who was born Ernst Carlton Brimmer. He was from St. Paul, Minnesota, and when my grandpa learned his son was going into the theater, my grandpa disowned him. "They're not taking my good name into the theater!" So, he just took the name Dix from a school chum and put the name Richard on the front end of it.
SAG: How old was your Dad when he began to take an interest in the theater?
DIX: He was in his late 'teens, early twenties - and he went to New York. He studied under a Shakespearean actor - almost starved to death for a couple of years. Finally got a job as an understudy to a star on Broadway at the time. I've forgotten the gentleman's name. Opening night the guy became ill with pneumonia, and my Dad stepped on as the lead in this play. The next day on his door they hung a star. And I heard stories about during that two years how he'd cut the cardboard that came in the shirts from the Chinese laundry and put it in the bottom of his shoes.
Like a lot of fellow actors, they all had tough beginnings. Therefore, when the stock crash came in '29, he lost literally over $6 million. Those are hard dollars when you're talking about 1929. You can multiply by at least10 times to compare to today. So he had to liquidate all his real estate holdings and everything for about 10 cents on the dollar to get even, and he ended up basically with just his contract with Paramount Studios. But because he was a self-made man from those days when he put cardboard in his shoes, he just started over, and he did well. He was always in a variety of roles, both in the silents and the talkies. He ran the gamut with the various characters that he played in comedy, drama, westerns - I think he made 17 (westerns) in all.
SAG: It does seem he's best remembered for the westerns he made during the sound era.
DIX: Yes, mainly because "Cimarron" won the Academy Award in 1931 - the story of the opening of the Oklahoma territory. And still a good movie today. But you know it's a different world we live in today - and the people in the movie industry. In those early days, the pioneers - in all departments, not just actors - they were learning to paint with light. They were finding out about different lenses and other techniques. Pretty much what Shakespeare said is still true - the story is the thing. My Dad was always looking for a good story, and they don't come along that often, a well-written screenplay. So briefly, in a nutshell, that's the highlights of Richard Dix and his career in Hollywood.
SAG: Tell us a little bit about your Mom.
DIX: Mom was the daughter of a garage mechanic from Santa Monica, CA. She had been touted by her mother, who was a former Ziegfeld gal - if you remember, the Ziegeld Follies were a big deal back in the twenties. And my grandpa on her side was a stagedoor Johnny. Grandma used to say, "I had to marry him to get rid of him!" (laughs) But, anyway, he was a mister fix-it kind of guy, and ended up with a Ford agency in Santa Monica. But Mom was highly educated, and after graduating from UCLA, she went on, under the maiden name of Virginia Claire Webster, to do graduate work in Berkeley, CA., and a Master's in English.
SAG: So when was this?
DIX: In the early 1930's. When she graduated with top honors - being in the middle of the Depression - finding a job as a teacher was a difficult task. My father, because he was fortunate enough to be in a bracket and make some money, and needing a tax shelter, he opened an import business. He advertised for a secretary, and over 500 girls answered the ad. One of them was Miss Webster. It got down to two gals - my Mom and another gal. They were finally taken by the "front guy" to the back room to meet this guy who owned the company - a guy named Brimmer - Ernie Brimmer. When my Mom walked in, he told her, "Miss Webster, I want you to know that you and the other young lady are equally qualified for this job. But she has an invalid mother to support, and I think she should have this job. And she said, "I do, too, Mr. Brimmer. I agree with you." And he said, "Well, that's my legal name. But I'm a movie actor. My name is Richard Dix." He was one of the biggest stars in Hollywood at the time, but she had had her nose in the books.
SAG: So she didn't recognize him?
DIX: Gosh, no, she didn't know who he was.
SAG: Even after he told her his name?
DIX: She said, "Thank you very much," and left. Uncle Jack stuck his head out the window and watched her go down the street. "Man, now there goes a woman!" he said. The next day he called her and said, "Miss Webster, I have an opening at the studio for a script supervisor. Would you like the job?" And she said, "Well, I've never been a script supervisor, but if you'd allow me to learn . . ." and he said, "Certainly would!" So she went to work as a script supervisor, and about the second day on the job, Dad asked her, "Miss Webster, would you care to have lunch?" She said, "No, I never mix business with pleasure." My dad, being a pretty sharp cookie, asked her the next day, "Miss Webster, would you bring your pad and pencil? I have a letter to dictate to you at lunch." (laughs) And needless to say, he romanced her as a very charming guy could do. And he people have told me through the years he was very much a gentleman and very much a nice guy. Of course he had the bucks to impress a young lady, too!
He had this ranch up in the Malibu mountains, 165 acres, beautiful Spanish American home on top of the mountain. He would take her - and her mother! - who was eventually my grandmother, up there for a weekend. Always very proper, you know. They were sitting on a bench overlooking the Santa Monica Bay. He said, "Virginia, I want you to be the mother of my children. Will you marry me?" She said, "No!" He said, "Why not?" She said, "Because you've never said you love me!" And he said, "Would I have asked you to marry me if I didn't love you?!" Anyway, of course, she finally accepted - let's say the challenge for his love, or whatever. Of course, he was 16 years older than she. He was the love her life. I ended up being her caregiver at the end of her life. She lived to 95.
SAG: What year were they married?
DIX: 1934. I was born in 1935.
SAG: Other children?
DIX: He was married once before. I have a half sister - the same name as my wife - Mary Ellen, although I haven't been in touch with her for many years.
SAG: So you were an only child for your Mom?
DIX: Well, my identical twin and myself. Ten months after they married, my Mom ended up with twins. My brother was 10 minutes older than me. He used to say, "I fought my way into the world first," and I'd say, "No you didn't. I kicked you out!" Unfortunately, at 18, I lost him to a logging accident. So I'm the only surviving male member of the family. I did have a sister that was adopted. My Mom wanted a little girl. She's still with us and living in California.
SAG: Well, you were born in 1935, and your father was still in films until around the mid-forties . . .
DIX: 1946, actually. As a matter of fact, we were playing tennis at the tennis court at the ranch - he always whipped my butt, and I started beating him. Then I noticed he didn't look so hot. I said, "Are you OK, Dad?" And he said, "I feel like I swallowed a piano." I'll never forget that line, you know. That's when he had his first heart attack. I helped him back to the main house, and my mother took him to the hospital. And after that in 1946, he quit work. He couldn't work anymore. Up to that time, he had done seven Whistlers for Columbia Studios - all of them a variety of characters and roles he played in that series. He had one more to do, and he wasn't able to make that last movie. In fact there's a friend of mine, Dan Vann, who is an author-historian who is writing a book about that series called "The Whistler."
He had a fascinating career. He sustained from the late 'teens to the mid-forties. That's a long career, you know.
SAG: What do you remember about the kind of father he was for you?
DIX: He was a good example of how to get along with people. He sincerely loved and cared for his fellow man. It didn't make any difference what someone's station in life was. It could be a crewmember at Paramount, the janitor, taxi driver, or the president of the company. He didn't care. He did care what kind of guy you were - what kind of man you were. What your values were. And certain things that he said to me through the years acted as guideposts even though I was very young. For example, one time at the country club, we came in from me caddying for him. We walked into the clubhouse, and there were a bunch of guys sitting around laughing and telling jokes and stuff and talking about their wives. We excused ourselves and went to the men's room, and he told me, "Rememeber something, Son, don't ever say anything negative about your wife." That was very wise advice. That's just one example that comes to mind. His work ethic was very important to me as a young man . I remember him telling me stories about when times were tough, he would drive to downtown Los Angeles and see guys grubbing around in the garbage cans looking for something to eat. And he would say, "Except for the grace of God, there go I."
SAG: Did you have the opportunity to visit him at the studio?
DIX: I did, but not frequently. I have a picture of my twin brother and I visiting him at the set when he was filming "The Badlands of the Dakota." We were about six years old, and he's sitting there in a Wild Bill Hickok outfit showing us a pistol.
SAG: Was it exciting for you as a child to visit the studio?
DIX: I think it was the same as any kid visiting his Dad at his job. Whatever he did to make a living, you just accepted that. It was quality time you spent with him. He was on location a lot, and, since unions hadn't come in very strong by that time, he would work as many as six movies a year - filming back to back. My mother would tell me he'd come home and start working on another screenplay immediately after he'd finished filming a movie. Which reminds me of another story. When the unions were first coming into the motion picture industry, Dad was on a train rented by, I think, Twentieth Century Fox, and they were going out to location. He always carried his own makeup kit - they didn't have makeup departments in those days. He put his script and notes and everything in this case. The train stopped in Arizona somewhere for water. Dad got off the train with some of the other guys. He always kept this little case with him, and he put it down. I think the fellows were having a nip or two. Well, he got back on the train and realized he had left his case. The train had just started to roll, and so Dad reached up and pulled the cord to stop the train. The first assistant director - which he had never known before; they hadn't had these guys - and he said, "What's the matter, Mr. Dix?" He said, "I'm sorry, I left my case on the platform back there with all my notes, makeup and everything." The assistant director said, "Well, I don't care who you think you are, Mr. Dix. We're not stopping this train for anybody." And Dad said, "Oh?" He had a bridge that was in about the center of his mouth, and he takes the bridge and spits it out the window and said, "Now what are you gonna do?" He'd have a hard time filming without his teeth, so he went back and got his case and got back on the train.
SAG: So when you went to school, were your friends conscious of the fact that your Dad was a star?
DIX: Once in awhile, but my hometown was Beverly Hills. So the grammar school I went to, we were all sons and daughters of stars - people like Bill Wellman, the son of William Wellman, Zanuck and others.
SAG: So who were your friends in school?
DIX: The son of the mayor of Beverly Hills, Tom Tannenbaum, who ended up as assistant head of the talent department of MGM studios - Tommy was one of my close friends. You're going back a long ways for a 75-year old man - back to grammar school. (laughs). We attended each others'birthday parties, and that was just like you did in your neighborhood no matter where you came from. We were all motion picture kids, so that was not unique.
SAG: How did your father feel about his children going into motion pictures?
DIX: He didn't want us boys or any of us going into the motion picture industry, because, he was right. It's always chicken or feathers - things are going great or they are terrible. Remember the character actor named Jesse White? Jesse used to hang out in the drugstore there in Beverly Hills. Everyone would come there sooner or later. It was a local hangout, you know. And he'd say, you know when you finish a movie, the first week he was just hearing the accolades and how wonderful he did. The second week, not as many people would come by and would say, "Hey, Jesse, how you doing, buddy. That was a great job you did." By the third week, nobody's talking to you, and by the fourth week, you're panicking because you're wondering where your next job is coming from. One of the things I did as a young fellow, I delivered groceries in Beverly Hills from the local market. I was delivering groceries to Jimmy Stewart, Jimmy Durante, Bob Cummings, the Warner Brothers estate - a lot of these people were on my grocery route. But through my friend Tom Tannenbaum, I, at 18, got a contract with MGM studios. I did an interview test, and they signed me to a seven-year contract. I did two years on the contract until television came along and wiped out all the contract players. Keenan Wynn, the first day I appeared at the MGM lot, he said, "Come here, Bob, I want to tell you something. Now, he was Ed Wynn's son. He said, "At first when people talk to you, they say, 'That's Ed Wynn's son, Keenan.' Then pretty soon it's, 'That's Keenan Wynn whose father was . . .' and pretty soon it's just Keenan Wynn." It's process that people go through. I was always very proud of my father's work and who he was as a guy. And people would always come to me with a story.
SAG: You're obviously very proud of your father and what he did.
DIX: Sure. I always was and happy to stand up before folks and let them know I appreciate their love and appreciation of his talent - because all over the world, people knew who Richard Dix was.
copyright 2013 by Tim Lussier. All rights reserved.
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