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I met radio veteran and prolific TV director James Sheldon when I sat in the front row of an Oct. 12, 2015, screening of Tab Hunter Confidential.
Jim was two seats down, having chosen the spot due to macular degeneration and hearing impairment. He was a tall, silver-haired gent who immediately placed his hand on my knee for emphasis as we chatted — not to emphasize any point he was making, but to ensure I knew he was not a sexless antique in spite of being 94 years old. We later had lunch, which became dinner out, which turned into dinner in when I arrived at his handsome Lincoln Center-adjacent apartment; can’t blame a guy for trying.
He’d been comfortably ensconced there for 25 years, having moved from his heyday hideaways in Beverly Hills and Malibu, back to the city in which he was raised. After a few years at NBC as a page boy and tour guide, he had worked in radio and had segued into advertising and TV. He worked for almost exactly 40 years as a TV director, retiring to travel the world on what was at the time a generous Directors Guild pension.
Jim had published a memoir with BearManor Media in 2008, but while it is an invaluable document of his experience in the early days of TV, it lacks juicy details. I believe Jim was reticent about flaunting his libertine ways because he had been married and had sons who had put up with a divorce and with his admission to them, in the ’60s, that he was bisexual, so he didn’t want to dwell on things that might embarrass them.
Jim agreed to give me a long, frank interview. He delighted in reminiscing with me about his first sexual experience with another boy in a rumble seat with oblivious passengers in the same car, and in cataloguing some of his more memorable affairs and flings with people of note. He was not a name-dropper so much as he found it incredible himself some of the people he’d met, directed, bedded or simply befriended. He was in awe of great artistry and still sounded wobbly-kneed over having met Ingrid Bergman at a party and directing Judy Garland and James Dean.
Before he died on March 12, 2016, of prostate cancer at age 95 — less than five months after I met him — Jim called me to thank me for my friendship, for my part in making him happy at the end of his life. He told me he had had a good run and was ready.
What follows are excerpts from our 2015 conversation about a life lived well, with innovation, and adventurously, shared the year he would have turned 100.
Matthew Rettenmund: You directed six episodes of The Twilight Zone, including classics like “It’s a Good Life” (1961), “Long Distance Call” (1961) and “I Sing the Body Electric” (1962).
James Sheldon: Yeah, they’re good. I didn’t like [“I Sing the Body Electric”] as much … I did two with Billy [Mumy], and they were both good; one [“It’s a Good Life”], he played a villain, the other [“Long Distance Call”], he was a darling. The lady who played his grandmother [in “Long Distance Call”] was a Hungarian actress [Lili Darvas] who was Mrs. Ferenc Molnár, the playwright, a delightful lady of — I guess she was about 80 then. [She was just 59.] But a big star in the theater in Hungary when she was younger, before World War II.
The freelance nature of your work must’ve put you in contact with a huge variety of interesting people like that.
Yeah, I got a chance to work with a lot of wonderful people.
I never knew that some guys specialized in one thing. A lot of guys specialized in one thing and maybe they made more money, but I liked the variety. I did a lot of Westerns, but I also, you know, did a lot of comedies — or you can call them comedies, sitcoms. But I worked very steadily from the beginning of television.
I always enjoyed running into children of famous movie stars. A girl that I went with for years was [Judy Lewis,] Loretta Young’s daughter by Clark Gable, but they never had been married. Judy and I became best friends and we went out together over the years. She died last year. Terrible.
I was always, not a starfucker, but a stars’-children-fucker. (Laughs.) Ernst Lubitsch’s daughter Nicola, Nicola Lubitsch, I went with for years and we’re still very close friends. She lives in California.
You know, I had a very “mixed” life, you know? I had some very nice girlfriends and I’ve had some very nice boyfriends …
So would you say you’ve gravitated toward men with age?
I think I have. My taste varied, but when you’re your age [mid-40s], you can get it up and get it on with anybody. But as you get older, you have to be more choosy. When you get to be older, it’s harder … sexually I could go from one to the other and never had a problem, but as you get older, it’s harder to fuck girls because you can’t always keep a hard-on. I’m older. I have ladies that I go out with because I like them as people, or I need a date for some social reason, but I really am happier with … [men].
I don’t understand — you say it’s easier to be with men than women because of erections, but how is fucking men different from fucking women?
Well, sometimes guys fuck you, and that’s easier. (Both laugh.)
When I was younger, I was very sexual. I’m still sexual, but I can’t do it as often.
Did you wind up speaking with Tab Hunter the night we met?
Yes; I knew him because his agent was a friend of mine — Dick Clayton.
Not Henry Willson [the famed Hollywood agent who represented Rock Hudson]?
I knew Henry. I sent him Troy Donahue — Merle Johnson his name was, originally. But he didn’t have the ability to last. I kept telling him to please go study, work with Sandy Meisner and, “Jim, I don’t wanna be an actor, I’m a movie star!” and then came the deluge and he was touring in small parts on the road and one-night stands. The last time I saw him, he was just in bad shape — it was very sad. But he never listened to me. He did at first, I sent him to Henry. I met him at a bar. I used to drive home when I was working out in the Valley and I lived in Malibu. I would drive and stop for a drink before I went over the Canyon with a producer I was working with who lived next door to me. There was this cute blond boy, he was 19 and he wanted to be an actor. So I set up an appointment with Henry Willson and he signed him! He could have done something. But he wasn’t very bright.
Tab’s career ended too abruptly, too. But as Tab said [at the Q&A], maybe it was a mistake to leave Henry. I didn’t know him well, but I liked him.
There’s a picture of you with Judy Garland — were you a huge fan?
I used to be, yes. She was really something. I followed her very closely. I was 16 when I went away to college and I met a guy who also liked Judy Garland and we used to dance with chairs with her singing “You Made Me Love You.” This was 19 — God! — 1937 at the University of North Carolina. When I went to Hollywood the first time, a friend of mine, a guy I’d been a page boy with at NBC, worked at the Berg-Allenberg Talent Agency, and he introduced me to Judy. I couldn’t talk. But I did see her — there’s a picture many years later when she was on her last legs and doing this thing at CBS and I worked at CBS.
Your IMDb page starts with Mister Peepers (1952-55), but that seems incorrect.
Well, I started directing in ’48.
I went away to college and I became a member of the Carolina Playmakers. I never did very well as an actor, but I worked backstage. I always wanted to be a director. I wasn’t sure if it would be in the theater or radio — there was no television then — and I got a job offer from an agent to be their assistant, but they didn’t offer me any money, and then NBC offered me $14.50 a week so I went to work at NBC. Of course, my folks lived here, so getting $65 a month was spending money — I lived at home right here on the isle of Manhattan. I was a page boy at NBC, and then I was a guide, and then I was in the news department. It was during the War that O.W.I. [the Office of War Information] took over NBC International, so they put me in the press department.
I was doing publicity, and after you work in the press department for a while, you get to know people and there was a girl, I went to see her, and she was the secretary to the guy who was in charge of assistant directors, I went to see her and I said — a friend of ours who was an assistant director was leaving to become a director at CBS — and I said, “I’d like to see Mr. Knight about Bob Stevens’ job,” and she said, “Oh, Jim, there are 20 guys ahead of you,” and I said, “What can I do to get to the head of the list?” and she said, “Well, you can come home with me tonight” — and I did, and I got the job. She later married Burt Lancaster and had five children.
So what did you wind up directing first?
It was a radio show, a fire prevention series called Crimes of Carelessness, and it went on the Mutual Network — and radio — every Sunday. And I did that for six months. And then, all of a sudden, there was television! The first television show I directed was We the People, which was kind of like a magazine on the air. We’d have different news stories and the people in person. And sometimes it would be Richard Rodgers or Oscar Hammerstein, it might be Mary Martin.
I was already directing when Mister Peepers popped up. Fred Coe, a very good producer, a star producer at NBC, was preparing Mister Peepers and he said to me, “I’m thinking of doing a pilot with a young comic named Wally Cox,” and I had just seen Wally at whatever club he was playing. I said, “Oh, he’s terrific!” And he said, “Wanna direct the pilot?” And that’s how I got to direct Mister Peepers.
Wally Cox was a sweet guy. We got along very well. My wife and I — I had married by that time — we had a summer house we rented for the summer out on Fire Island, and over the hill was another house and Tony Randall and his wife [Florence] lived there. His wife worked with my cousin Gertrude in the dress business,and she kept saying to me, “Why don’t you give her husband a job?”
One week, I’m lying on the beach and I see Tony Randall walking along, poking at dead pigeons, and Wally had been out for the weekend as a guest the week before and Wally was walking along the beach poking dead birds so I thought, “Gee, they would get along well,” so I called Fred and asked if I could use this guy with five lines and he said sure, so Tony Randall comes to the studio and he and Wally just hit it off and by the end of the week — we started rehearsals Monday and it was on the air Friday — Tony had three pages or 15 minutes worth of stuff. Anyhow, it worked and we started his career with that. He was always very nice, telling everybody I gave him his first job.
When did James Dean enter your life?
I was working at Young & Rubicam before Mister Peepers, and I didn’t have a show, I just sat and watched commercials from other freelance directors and a friend of mine said, “There’s a boy coming to New York who I hear good things about and he doesn’t know anybody,” and James Dean walked into my office. We became friends. He was such a pest that I, there was another girl I had met who had just become an agent; she handled Marge and Gower Champion and a few people like that and I thought Jimmy Dean needed an agent, not me, so I sent him to Jane [Deacy]. They got along very well.
I got Jimmy his first jobs, in television. I did a show with him [Robert Montgomery Presents episode “Harvest” (1953)] — two shows with him — one with Dorothy Gish, who was the leading lady, and they just re-ran it on TNT the other night! The reviews I got from people who saw it, like Bruce Goldstein at the Film Forum, said it was so much better than the others.
You managed to direct him twice, but he died so quickly. Is it true he wasn’t really a star until his death?
He didn’t take off until after he died. He was working and was well-received, but Warners publicized him at just the right time.
Rebel Without a Cause  was the only of his films in release. [Note: it was East of Eden that had already been released.] I had moved to California that summer. I had wanted to do a movie, but I was working for CBS Television and Jimmy was gonna do a movie with me, returning the favor, and that’s how I got to know the agent who was handling him in California for Jane, who was Dick Clayton for Famous Artists, and we all sort of were together a lot that summer, and then one day, Ralph Levy — who was the guy who sent Jimmy to me in the first place in New York — called me and said, “Did you hear what happened?” … Jimmy had been killed … So I never got to do the movie with him. But we saw a lot of each other in those days.
Never had sex with him. I know people who did. I know one guy in particular who I introduced him to who gave Jimmy a couple of jobs and I know that they had sex.
The actress Liz Sheridan wrote a book in which she claimed to have been with Dean.
A lot of people have [made that claim]. Some of us didn’t talk about it. But this director, [the late] Bob Stevens, did … he had just gotten his director’s job at CBS and they had a little thing before Jimmy really took off. While he was in New York. “Before he signed with the agent, I got him.”
As a kid, I adored The Love Boat. You did several episodes. What was that process like?
The scripts weren’t very good, they weren’t very funny. I remember one day I said, “Lookit, we all know this is a lousy script, but if we play it like we believe it’s a good script the audience will believe it’s a good script.” And they went to work! … So I kept getting Love Boats, which I didn’t enjoy — because it was too rushed.
You’ve done so many amazing, iconic series I hesitate to ask, but as a kid, I was obsessed with Partners in Crime (1984).
Oh, yeah! In San Francisco. With Lynda Carter and Loni Anderson. I enjoyed doing that show because it was shooting in San Francisco. The two ladies were crazy competing. They would keep us waiting all the time. The sun was going down, and I go into the makeup room and I say, “Ladies, you might be prettier, but you’re not gonna get your close-ups …” and they’d come out. I liked San Francisco and we had nice hotel rooms.
You did several That Girl episodes with Marlo Thomas (1967-1969). Did you find her to be a major talent?
What she did, she did well. She handles herself well. She’s smart. She’s not my favorite person, but I admire her. She took that funny face and learned how to make it up to look better, and she really ruled the roost in her own show.
Up until that time, I always dressed in a tie and jacket when I went to work. In New York you did, in California I did, and one day she said to me, “Jimmy, why don’t you dress like the rest of us?” and I never wore a tie on the set after that; I became more comfortable. I just thought the director should dress like an advertising executive.
What can you tell me about your Disney affiliation?
I had a good time working with Disney — half a dozen shows [seven episodes of The Magical World of Disney (1966)]. Even though I really didn’t like him politically, I thought he was really clever and we got along very well.
Walt was a character, somebody I was glad I got to know, whether I approved of all the things he believed or not. He died very young. I did the last five shows that he produced, and then he went into the hospital, which was across the street from the studio, and the story has it that he would lie by the window to see what time people got to work to give him something to do.
Walt was an experience, and he was in every casting session — he really had his finger in every pie. I remember there was an actor I wanted to use. It was a three-parter, he came East for a week, it was about seeing-eye dogs [“Atta Girl, Kelly!” (1967)], a three-parter with Beau Bridges and Arthur Hill and there was an actor Walt wanted to use. You don’t argue with Walt Disney, so I said, “OK.” He was attractive enough — Sean Garrison was his name. The Disney people are very polite, they’re all so uptown, you never hear “fuck you” or anything.
So Sean Garrison was arriving [on set] in a bus from the airport and it’s the Disney group and he was drunk, had drunk too much on the flight. Cute young guy, very pretty. And [the associate producer] went over to him on the bus and said, “Please stop drinking, this is a Walt Disney Picture and you’ve gotta …”
“Fuck Walt Disney!” Needless to say, I got the actor I wanted, because they sent him home. He was so pretty, but he never quite made it.
What was Los Angeles like when you lived there?
I had a charming house that I fenced in and put a pool in. It was pretty wild at times. No one could see. You could swim naked. Then I got a lot of money for it and stopped working as often as I had been and bought this [apartment] when I still lived in California. I wanted to travel. So when I stopped working, I started traveling and I went to Africa and South Africa and Australia and Tahiti and France and England and so forth. I just wanted to have time to just travel.
Do you ever get back to L.A.?
I still have friends in L.A. but I used to have more; they’ve all gone by the wayside. The last time I was there was for my friend Jerome Lawrence’s funeral. Jerome Lawrence and Robert Lee wrote Inherit the Wind (1955) and Auntie Mame (1956), but they were very successful television writers before that. And they were friends. Bob was married, Larry was gay, but they were always having big-name parties — I met Ingrid Bergman at his house, I met Barbra Streisand at his house, they were always grand Hollywood parties. When Auntie Mame became such a hit, he became so rich he built a big house overlooking the sea with lots of decks and it was a great house for parties, and I used to be part of that crowd.
What did you enjoy most about your chosen profession?
I loved it all. It was all very exciting and creative — and romantic.
Matthew Rettenmund is the author of the novel Boy Culture. A series based on the novel, which inspired the 2006 film of the same title, is in postproduction. He blogs at BoyCulture.com.
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