A Conversation with Gene Barry
by Nan Jarrett

To look back over the 60+-year-career of a successful actor would take longer than the thirty-minute telephone conversation that l had with Gene Barry from his home on the afternoon of May 10th, 2000.  The still handsome, silver-haired, 80-year-old actor whom we remember from movies, stage and television remains active in his chosen profession, performing his cabaret act and making an occasional television appearance. Since becoming a partner in the development of the Gene Barry Fan Page in 1997, it has been my delight not only to speak with the actor on the telephone but also to meet with him in person. Through our many conversations over the past two years, I have gotten to know the man who made Bat Masterson and Amos Burke household names.  When I asked for a special interview to elicit a personal account of some of his career activities, the relaxed, soft-spoken actor graciously obliged.  So join me now as Gene Barry takes us inside his feelings and recollections.
First, I want to thank you for all you've done for the entertainment industry, for bringing us so much pleasure over the years with your portrayal of a variety of characters in every segment of show business.
It's been my pleasure.
We know that before launching a career in the movies and television, you had performed in some successful stage productions.  Which of these early appearances in the theatre was the most challenging and rewarding?
Well, I think one was the Max Rinehardt's production of "Die Fledermaus", which he called "Rosalinda."  I ran two years in that on Broadway in a major role playing the part of Falke.  Strangely, Falke in German means "the bat", and I wound up playing Bat Masterson on television.  Then I enjoyed doing the play, "The Would-Be Gentleman" with Bobby Clark and produced by Mike Todd.  I did a lot of things that never caught on and a lot of things that stayed for awhile.  Also "Katherine was Great" was another one from Mike Todd.  And there was one, "Idiot's Delight," in '48.  It was an off-Broadway production and it brought me more recognition as an actor and won me a commendation ... I won Variety's Critic Award for Best Actor for that one.  Those were all early in my career.
Did you back then have any goals, any set pattern you planned to follow in order to achieve stardom?
No, I just wanted to be a guy who could earn a living as an actor, and I did that for a long time.  I wanted to become a success and I wanted to eventually wind up in the movies.
Did you have any idea just how far you would go in your chosen profession?
How does one?  You know, it's the strangest thing.  I'll give you an anecdote.  I had a job in Louisville, Kentucky ... this was the summer of '51... and I bought a broken down car, a Kaiser Fraiser, and we drove out from New York, and I said to Betty, "We're going on out to California so let's bring enough stuff with us," ... of course, we had a baby boy with us ... and I did the engagement.  There were three shows, "Annie Get Your Gun" was one of them, and I can't remember the others, and we drove out.  I figured it would take us three days and it took us six days to California. But when I arrived in California, I called the corresponding agent to my New York agent; in other words, my New York agent had an agent in California ... they worked together. Two days later, I met him and in three weeks this person whose name was Paul Wilkins took me to every major studio in the industry and I was offered 3 or 4 contracts by the studios.  I accepted the one from Paramount and that's what started me.  It happened in just weeks.  I had enough money in my pocket to go back and that was it.  It's strange how things work out, isn't it?
Yes, it is.  In your early movie career you played a variety of roles .. good guys, bad guys.  Was there one character that stands out more than the others that you enjoyed portraying?
Well, I'd have to think about that ... I would really have to think about that ... I'd have to think about all of the movies.  Actually, there was one character that I did in "Naked Alibi" that comes to mind as one that I enjoyed very much.
Of all of the movies that you appeared in, your fans seem to identify you primarily with "The War of the Worlds."   Besides being perhaps your most well-known film, was it your favorite?
No, no, that wasn't my favorite, not by any means.  How could it be?  It was just acting to special effects all over the place.  We never knew where we were in that ... the director would say, at this point this monster or whatever special effect ... react to it.  You didn't know if the special effect was going to be good.  It so happened that they were and it won the Academy Award for Special Effects that year.  No, that wasn't my favorite picture.  As an actor, what would you do in a picture like that ... run and react.  No, I think my first picture, "The Atomic City," was an outstanding role for me because I played a real person.  I enjoyed playing a role with Clark Gable and Susan Hayward in "Soldier of Fortune."  And I remember one I did for Sam Fuller, "China Gate."  That's when TV came to me and against my judgement ... I didn't want to go into TV ...but I couldn't resist taking on "Bat Masterson" when they told me ... I told you the story, didn't I?  I had just come off of "Our Miss Brooks" when one of the guys at Ziv approached me about doing a western series, but I told him I didn't want that kind of exposure ... the idea of playing a saddle-type cowboy was repulsive to me.  Then he told me about the derby hat and cane and I went by the costume department and saw the outfit that Masterson would wear and I couldn't resist ... that did it.
I have read that you walked off the set of "Bat Masterson" at one time.  Was is a money thing?
About that ... I didn't walk off the set. We were negotiating and they didn't sit down with my agents as they said they would.  They had guaranteed to do it from the beginning and never did, so I went on strike.
And you got the raise?
I got the raise.  You know, Nan, I still have my original Bat Masterson costume.  What do you think it would be worth?
I don't know.  Maybe priceless.
I don't know whether to sell it or give it to The Smithsonian.
Well, if no one wants it, I'll take it.
I'll bet you would.  [There was a great deal of humor in this exchange.]
Much has been written about your portrayal of Bat Masterson as well as Amos Burke and Glenn Howard.  All of these characters were charming and sophisticated and elegant and witty and sexy.  Were these qualities that you seemed to portray so easily and naturally actually a part of the Gene Barry persona?
You know, I never knew that.  I think what happened ... when the man said "Bat Masterson, derby hat and cane" ... I didn't play these things in the movies, you see ... when he said "derby hat and cane," I knew exactly how I was going to play the role.  And then the next one, "Burke' s Law", I was cast actually in the same genre, the elegant captain of the police, and, after that, they all seemed to follow "Bat Masterson."  And in doing so, I think I trapped myself or the industry trapped me.  I have not been able to play just an ordinary human being.  They don't give me those roles ... a father, a grandfather, a man who is not the elegant head of an industry like in "The Name of the Game", for example.  Do you understand what I'm saying?  I didn't like it too much ... the fact that I trapped myself or got entrapped in that type of performance. When I should be playing other kinds of things today, they want me to play romantic, older leading men.
But, did you do it so well because you are so much like these characters?
I don't know, I really don't know.  Maybe I look that way.
I had the idea that you would take a script and edit it to add some of your personality to it.
No, no, no ... a line here and there you would change. No. The attitude of the actor is his interpretation of what he reads, and the written word is what creates the role in the actor's mind, and I guess in reading the things that were given to me, I reacted as you guys saw me, you know.  But if it was another kind of role ... a gangster, or a doctor or a person who suffers, it wouldn't have been that at all.  I'm trying to make it clear.  I didn't do that deliberately.  If that happened it was because they were all written in the same genre.  That's what it was.
Well, you did break out of the mold with your appearance in "La Cage aux folles."
Yeah, I sure did.  I would have thought that being nominated for a Tony Award I would have had other offers in the theatre.  I have had very few offers in the theatre.  Somehow I feel it was the role, the role that hurt me.
It was different for you.  Some, perhaps most of your fans, as did I, raised an eyebrow when it was reported that you had accepted the role of a homosexual in the Broadway musical.   It was such a dramatic change.
Well, it was a role ... a hell of a role.
I saw "La Cage aux folles" in New York, and I also saw you in "Watergate: A Musical" in Atlanta a few years earlier.
Watergate?  When I played Nixon?  I'll be dern.  Wow!  How did it play to the audience?
I thought it was great, and was sorry that it didn't make it to Broadway.
What happened there is that they spent all of their money in Atlanta.  They spent weeks and weeks and weeks there.  They should have taken it elsewhere or gotten off the stage and improved it for whatever it needed because I thought it had an awful lot of merit.  It was different.  Remember the song that I sang at The Algonquin, "Groucho and Me?"  I sang that in "Watergate."
How did you feel about the short-lived re-make of "Burke's Law" in the 90s.  Were you pleased with the new series?
I hadn't been on TV much for the last 20 years, but that was my fault.  I just never found parts I really liked.  And ...well, when the idea to revive "Burke's Law" came to me, ... I had been looking to revive that show for a number of years but all the deals fell apart, so, when I was approached, I really didn't know that it would be a weekly series ... I thought it was going to be a TV movie.   But I signed on to do the show because it would have been very difficult for me to allow another actor to play Amos Burke.  And we did enough episodes for two seasons ... the series ... I think we did 30 ... at least 30 of them.  But the series was cancelled.  Scheduling was the biggest problem, you see, especially during the final few months.  We were not on a regular schedule ... the show was pre-empted again and again by CBS for one thing or another and then moved from one night to another, and, actually, I don't think my fans knew when or if I would be on and I suppose lost interest ... and, of course, we lost ratings.
Not only did you revive your role as Amos Burke, but a few years earlier you also appeared in several TV specials as Bat Masterson ...
Yeah, I had been making public appearances ... you know, attending events and functions as my old Bat Masterson character and I enjoyed doing that occasionally ... so it was good to do Bat in a couple of movies ... "Paradise" was one and the Kenny Rogers movie, "Gambler".  You know, Nan, when I was doing Bat Masterson it became a chore with the publicity, the special appearances, the traveling ... so much .. so many things that took me away from my family ... but doing him again for specials  ... I really had fun doing Bat again.  Still even now, I get offers to do Bat.
Now I'd like to ask a few personal questions.  Do you ever watch any of your old movies or TV Shows?
Rarely, if ever.  Rarely.  I'd rather read.
Your talent as an artist has been somewhat over-shadowed by your entertainment career.  Have you ever had an exhibit, sold any paintings and what is your favorite subject?
No, I haven't had an exhibit.  In fact, just recently I bought some new brushes and oils and want to begin painting again.
By all reports, you have lead a model family life and you've been blessed with a long and happy marriage.  Briefly, can you tell me the main ingredients each of you contributed to your marriage?
Sharing, loving, protectiveness, respect, and, of course, physical attraction.  I think that's very important.
You've been politically active on the local and national level in the past.  Are you currently stumping for a presidential candidate?
Well, I'm not doing anything actively, but I would vote for Gore if the election were to happen today.
In a previous conversation, we talked about your unpublished autobiography ....
Yes, I started it some years ago, but my publisher said it wasn't sexy enough, so I abandoned the project ... I still might write it.  "Looking Back."  I was thinking about it last night.  I was thinking of putting it all together and calling is something like "Looking Back."
Well, in the year 2000 as you look back, what do you find was the most satisfying one career achievement?
Well, frankly, I think it was the acceptance of the New York critics in "La Cage aux folles."
I'd like talk a few minutes about your fan page.  We would like to use the title "The Official Gene Barry Fan Page," but we can't do this without your permission.
You need my permission?
Yes, we do
You have it.
We've read that you recently did an episode of a new show, "Hollywood Off-Ramp."
Yes.  I really did it just to have something to do.  It was filmed in Vancouver.
I'll ask you just one more question, and this is my husband's question.  How is your golf game?
Well, that's one of the problems.  I hurt my shoulder and I can't play golf right now.
Thank you, Gene, for giving me so much of your valuable time and for expressing your feelings so honestly and openly.
Thank you, Nan.

As I transcribed my interview with Gene Barry, I found dozens of additional questions coming to mind.  As time goes by, perhaps someday I'll be able to bring you Part 2 of the life and career of Gene Barry as he recalls it.