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In this story from August 1968, the popular actor reveals how he learned to relinquish control over his life and career.
When I was 15 years old, I read an article about a boy my age, Billy Clayton, who had just become an all-American skeet champion. “I wonder if I could beat that kid,” I said to myself.
For a year I spent every afterschool hour shooting and then entered my name in the competition. Billy and I tied for first place. There was a shoot-off and, incredibly, I won.
Well, this just reinforced something I had always suspected: the guy who works hardest wins. The idea excited me, and I went looking for competition. My brother Jim and I entered the international outboard championship. Together we took six different racing trophies.
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When we moved to Los Angeles, I threw myself into polo the same way. Polo was especially interesting to me because it drew me together with men who were my heroes off the field as well as on it: Spencer Tracy and Cary Grant.
I think they liked the youthful drive I put into the game; too bad they didn’t warn me that life requires more than that.
Or perhaps in his own brusque way Spencer Tracy did try to pass on the message. I was still in my teens when I decided that I wanted to become an actor. One day I told my idols. Spencer slouched down in his saddle and turned to Cary.
“Too bad!” he said. “We’ve just lost a good polo player and gained a lousy actor.”
I think he was talking about my overly competitive spirit. It might be an asset on the polo field, but Spencer knew that outside the limited world of sports, effort and results do not always go hand in hand.
I saw this myself as my training as an actor began. Every time a part was cast there would be general grumbling. “How come she got that part? My tryouts were better.” And the trouble was, it was often true.
There is an ingredient in success which goes beyond effort, even beyond talent–an element of luck, of knowing the right person, of being in the right place at the right time, of simple, gratuitous fate.
How the competitor in me resisted this idea! I rejected it even when luck stepped in and smiled on me personally. I had a tenuous claim to friendship with Deanna Durbin: I was the “friend of a friend.” So trading on this close relationship, I visited this young actress one day at her studio.
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While we were talking, the director walked in. He took one look at me and asked, “How’d you like to play opposite Miss Durbin?”
I thought he was joking. He hadn’t asked if I could act, or even if I wanted to. I “looked the part,” and for no stronger reason than that I was offered a chance at a dream.
When the announcement was made that I was playing the male lead in Deanna Durbin’s new picture, I’m sure a lot of young actors asked each other, “How come he was chosen? I’m better trained.”
Yet in spite of Spencer Tracy’s veiled warning, and in spite of my own luck, I still could not abandon the idea that success just had to depend on outdoing the other guy. I hadn’t realized how deep that attitude ran until the night I met a discerning young man. As we shook hands he said just seven words:
“You don’t like to lose, do you?”
If competitiveness was starting to show in my face, I thought, it was time I took a careful look at myself. A person who helped me do this was a young girl, Rosemarie Bowe, who had just come to Hollywood from Tacoma, Washington.
One day I was in a roomful of actors when Rosemarie walked in. Here was a very pretty young actress, new to Hollywood–potentially a threat to some of the older women in the room. I’d seen the situation many times and knew how vicious the infighting between the ladies could be.
Sure enough, two of the older gals started in on her: the snide remark, the innuendo, the small cruelties. I watched to see how Rosemarie would counterattack.