OSCAR ALUMNI: Maximilian Schell to Appear at Academy Tribute Tuesday

The 80-year-old filmmaker will attend a screening of and Q&A about "Judgment at Nuremberg," the film which earned him a best actor Oscar 50 years ago.
United Artists

It's been five years since the legendary Austrian-born Swiss actor-director Maximilian Schell was last in the United States, but the 80-year-old, who landed in Los Angeles Monday, will be celebrating a much bigger milestone Tuesday at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Beverly Hills: the upcoming 50th anniversary of his best actor Oscar win for his performance as an attorney defending alleged Nazi war criminals in Stanley Kramer's Judgment at Nuremberg (1961).

(Schell was also recognized by the Academy with a best actor nod for The Man in the Glass Booth [1975] and a best supporting actor nod for Julia [1977], and directed the foreign-language films First Love [1970] and The Pedestrian [1973] and documentary feature Marlene [1984], which received nods in their respective categories, as well.)

The Academy tribute, which will begin at 7:30pm PST, will feature a screening of the film, a Q&A with the actor moderated by Larry King and videotaped tributes to him from the likes of Tom Brokaw, William Shatner (who also appeared in Judgment at Nuremberg), and Alec Baldwin (who starred in the 2000 TV mini-series Nuremberg). Advanced tickets have sold out, but those who wish to wait in the standby line will be assigned numbers starting at 5:30pm PST.

Schell granted The Hollywood Reporter his one and only interview prior to the Academy event for the first of our "Oscar Alumni" pieces, in which we will catch up with honorees from Oscars past at least once each month. Asked if he can believe that it's been a half-century since his big night, he chuckled, "I must!" Other highlights of the conversation appear below.

On his parents and why his family fled Vienna for Zurich when he was 8  "My mother was an actress and a director, as well. And my father was a playwright and poet. He wrote plays -- and he wrote things against Hitler."

On his acting debut at the age of four  "I played in a play by my father... My mother directed it. I had to dance with a 'violet,' and she was very beautiful, and, of course, I fell, sort of, in love. But my mother, for some reason, changed it, at the last moment, to another girl... and I said I wouldn't appear. Then she said I wouldn't get anything to eat that night, and I still said, 'Nm-mm.' Then the 'violet' even came and took my hand, so I went in front of the audience, and I shouted, 'I'm not a flower. I'm grass!' And there was a fantastic reaction from the audience -- huge applause. I'd say the biggest I ever had."

On being 'discovered' for his first American film The Young Lions (1958)  "An agent... for William Morris was sent to Europe for scouting... to find out who would be interesting for America... and they sent him to my agent, who said, 'The only one I know is Maximilian Schell'... and then he asked me to come to Paris to meet [director] Edward Dmytryk and Marlon Brando. Marlon couldn't speak a word of German and I couldn't speak a word of English, but, somehow, we got along very well for two hours, and at the end he said I should play the part."

On arriving in Hollywood  "It was exciting. I loved Hollywood from the beginning. I think it's such a wonderful, adventurous city, and all the good things are here... [However] One of the bad things in Hollywood was when I drove with this girl down Sunset Blvd., and she said, 'Who's your favorite composer?' and I said Mozart. 'How do you spell that?' I said, 'I don't think this is the right city for me."

On the live TV version of Judgment at Nuremberg that aired on CBS's Playhouse 90 in 1959  "George [Roy Hill] was so happy with me [in the 1959 live TV version of Child of Our Time that also aired on CBS's Playhouse 90] that he said, 'If I ever find a part for you I will immediately call you'... then George sent me a script called Judgment at Nuremberg." [Claude Rains, Melvyn Douglas, and Paul Lukas also starred.]

On Stanley Kramer's big screen adaptation of Judgment at Nuremberg  "Stanley Kramer saw [the TV version], and I was the only one he took [almost -- Werner Klemperer also appeared in both versions], because he thought, 'That young actor would be a special Hans Rolfe'... I was really surprised... of course, I didn't know it would be such a success." [Spencer Tracy, Burt Lancaster, Richard Widmark, Montgomery Clift, Marlene Dietrich, and Judy Garland also starred.]

On the role that he played in on TV and film (and the role that he initially wanted even more)  "Hans Rolfe was just a lawyer -- and, actually, it was not written for a 30 years old, you know, but George felt that I would be perfect for the part. Actually, I preferred the accused one, the role which Burt Lancaster played, because it's a great role: you can be silent for the whole film, and then, again, you have a great speech. But he [Hill] said, 'He is a minister -- he must be older. And I think it's much more interesting that you play the young man -- it was written for you!' And I think he was right."

On performing his big speech near the end of the film (click here to read and watch it in its entirety)  "Tracy had in his contract that he would always only work from ten to one and from three to five... Always, when they wanted to set up a scene with Spence, and it was ten to five, you know, Spence would take his watch and say, 'Well, folks, I don't know if you will make it!' And they didn't make it, of course, and he went. But then, when I had my great ending speech -- which we wrote together, actually, Abby Mann, and George Roy Hill, and myself -- he said, 'Max, do you need me?' You know, it's usual that your partner who is not on the screen sits or stands next to the camera. So he said, 'Max, do you need me for this scene?' I said, 'Spence, it's already five o'clock.' He said, 'Well, you don't need me.' But then he stayed there for an unknown little actor from Switzerland -- he stayed, and he helped. It was a great show of friendship, and it taught me a lot."

On learning that he -- along with co-star Tracy -- had been nominated for the best actor Oscar  "I think I was skiing somewhere in Switzerland. I didn't know anything much about acting honors. It was wonderful to be nominated."

On Oscar night  "I came for the Oscars. The first three times I came, and then afterwards I said, 'I'll stay in Munich, and take a sleeping pill, and if the telephone rings I'll know I won, and if it doesn't ring I'll sleep well.'" [Click here to watch Joan Crawford announce the best actor nominees for 1961 (which also included Charles Boyer, Paul Newman, Stuart Whitman, and Tracy), open to envelope and read his name, and him deliver his victory speech.]

On the impact of the Oscar  "Well, it was, for me, a plus. Of course, it made me known in the world... Of course, it's very important for an actor -- but my real goal was directing... Unfortunately, there weren't so many good parts... And I started to direct."

On being so closely associated with playing Germans and/or films about World War II (including Judgment at Nuremberg [1959-TV, 1961-film], Return from the Ashes, Counterpoint [1967], The Pedestrian [1973], The Odessa File [1974], A Bridge Too Far [1977], Cross of Iron [1977], Julia [1977], The Man in the Glass Booth [1975], and The Diary of Anne Frank [1980-TV])  "I didn't like to [play] too many Germans, you know? Because the Germans didn't have the image of loving, fantastic men, you know?... Germany has another side -- a wonderful side -- and that side I always loved to represent."

On whether he now thinks of himself more as a director than an actor  "Yes, much more. To be honest, I don't think I'm an actor. I'm a creator -- or try to be."

On his current projects  "I have three plans: one is to do a film about Karl Marx in his last days in Algeria... another is to do a wonderful film about Beethoven and Napoleon, who, according to history, had never met, but I knew they did... and then to do a film maybe about myself -- an old actor who did Hamlet three times in German, and now he hopes to do it once more... I don't know if I can make them, but it's nice to think about... I love to discover -- constantly to discover, constantly to be surprised, constantly to be astonished about what's happening in the world."