Wednesday, October 9, 2013
Release The Tigers
October 9, 2013
A week or so ago I read in the LA Times of the death of one of my favorite obscure character actors from my youth, a guy named Jay Robinson. His career peaked early, with his role as the insane and sadistic Emperor Caligula in a pair of "biblical epics," The Robe (1953) and its sequel Demetrius and the Gladiators (1954). These were cheesy movies at best, the first one featuring Richard Burton as a Roman official and Victor Mature as a defiant Greek slave, both of whom converted to Christianity literally at the feet of the hanging Jesus. The sequel was carried by Victor Mature, and starred Susan Hayward as Demetrius's love interest and also the wife of old Claudius, who stepped in after Caligula's death. Claudius didn't care much what Susan Hayward did in her spare time, so she and Demetrius lived it up during Demetrius's mid-movie crisis of faith. The fact that the dewy-eyed Victor Mature took over from Richard Burton as the star of the second movie gives you an idea of how this sequel, like most sequels, was only intended to keep the pot boiling, and wasn't expected to measure up to the first one. Despite good solid B-movie performances by the reliable Hayward and Ernest Borgnine as the trainer of the gladiators, the only real standout in the movie was Jay Robinson as the maniacal Caligula.
For some reason I could never quite figure out, The Robe was handled with a great deal more care than was its sequel, and didn't seem to go straight to TV, as did Demetrius and the Gladiators. It's not that The Robe was that good, even within its genre, which of course included the overwrought likes of The Ten Commandments (1956) and Ben-Hur (1959). Nor did Richard Burton's presence in it do much more than lend it a bit of respectability it didn't necessarily deserve. Burton chewed the scenery as ravenously as did the rest of the cast, with his sonorous and slightly bleating delivery, but the part did earn him a Best Actor nomination that year. The movie certainly didn't match up to his reputation as the new Shakespearean wunderkind of Hollywood, the younger version of Laurence Olivier. But I guess maybe the audiences were excited by him. Victor Mature, on the other hand, was a steady journeyman, never so blessed by the muses as was Burton, and had a lot less to lose and more to gain by starring in the sequel. He appeared in over sixty movies throughout the 40s and 50s and avoided squandering his talent and fortune on excesses of the flesh, unlike his more touted costar in The Robe. In fact, Mature retired early to play golf. He was as good as his name, and lived into old age, always with an insouciant appreciation for the years of fame he did manage to achieve despite his limitations as an actor and his self-parodying matinee idol looks. Richard Burton, on the other hand, became tabloid fodder, flushing his gifts away with booze and more mediocre scripts than he should have, considering that he did make a few great movies.
But let's get back to Caligula and those tigers. As a kid my absolute favorite over-the-top performance in the black-and-white world of Saturday afternoon television movies (often hosted by the late great Bill Kennedy) was that of Jay Robinson as Caligula in Demetrius and the Gladiators. He was so writhingly cruel that you just had to love him, draped in a louche manner over a chair, his head cocked like a mad bird, giving life or death commands to his Praetorian guards. It was in one of these scenes, when Demetrius was proving himself on the gladiatorial field, that he decided to have done with the worthless Christian by ordering him to fight the ravenous wild beasts who waited behind bars to gnaw their recalcitrant victims to death. "Release the tigers!" shouted Robinson, in a high whiny fey voice that perfectly suited what you figured a demented young emperor should sound like. The tigers were duly released, and of course Demetrius dispatched them all, proving himself a formidable fighter while causing Susan Hayward to squirm with dignified desire in her perch opposite that of the emperor.
I've taken a long time to get to the life and death of poor Jay Robinson. He was born in New York City, the son of a professional dancer mother and a father who was a director of the Van Heusen Shirt Company. He was bitten by the acting bug and got his start on Broadway before coming west to make it in the movies. A few years after those brilliant scene-stealing stints as Caligula when he was in his early 20s, rightly regarded today as the peak of his success, he was arrested for possession and sale of heroin, and suffered the consequences, including eventually a 15-month stay in a California prison for failing to appear in court. While in the joint he worked as a firefighter. Aside from a few random roles in 60s sitcoms, including a shot or two on Bewitched (as Julius Caesar if I'm not mistaken), he descended into comparative obscurity, working as a short order cook and a veterinarian's assistant between acting gigs. He appeared in mostly campy roles during the 70s and 80s, including an episode of Star Trek and on the soap opera Days of Our Lives and in one episode of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century entitled "Planet of the Amazon Women." I'm not sure what he principally did for a living, but maybe that handful of odd roles was enough to keep the wolf away from the door. It's a pity, really, because if he'd stayed at the top of his game he would have made a good Count Dracula. Instead he got the minor role of some named Mr. Hawkins in Bram Stoker's Dracula. Anyway, he died at 83 in his home in Sherman Oaks in the San Fernando Valley on September 27.
The real Caligula's career wasn't much more successful, except of course that he was at least a wealthy emperor for a few years, rather than just playing one on the screen, and got his profile on coins and all that. After a crazy four years of riding high, he crashed and burned before he turned thirty. Kind of like Jay Robinson, except that Caligula was assassinated in a plot initiated by his Praetorian guard. So he didn't get to live on in obscurity, just in infamy.
Jay Robinson claimed that being typecast led him to his heroin use and downfall, a rather poor excuse if you ask me. But maybe Caligula suffered from a similar ignominy, that is, being typecast. When you're the latest in a line of dangerous megalomaniacs, it's probably hard to break out of that role. First there was Julius Caesar, then his adopted son who called himself the Divine Augustus, then Augustus's adopted son Tiberius, and after that Tiberius's great nephew Caligula.
I guess the common theme in the whole story line, from Caligula to Richard Burton to Jay Robinson, is excesses of the flesh accompanied by ambition and delusions of grandeur. Ancient Rome and Hollywood have certainly produced more than their share of victims. Except for old Victor Mature, the Italian immigrant's son, who was pretty much content to rest on his laurels rather than to try to wear them on his head. Once when rejected for membership in a country club because he was an actor, he said, "I'm not an actor -- and I've got sixty-four films to prove it!" Today Victor Mature is buried in his home state of Kentucky, under a statue of a weeping Angel of Grief.
Jay Robinson reposes in Forest Lawn Memorial Park in the Hollywood Hills. The cemetery is just northwest of Griffith Park, down the hill from where a solitary male mountain lion roams at night. I imagine Jay is in the big mausoleum where some other show biz types, like Liberace and Bette Davis, are entombed. I'll go looking for him next time I'm out that way. He'll probably be in one of the more modest drawers, with the likes of George Raft and Sandra Dee and Roy Williams the Big Mooseketeer, a small brass name plate to identify his remains. But you never know--he might be in a big white marble sarcophagus topped with a statue of Caligula, armor-clad and demoniacally triumphant. That would be cool.