Giving up the spotlight to a glowering coconut doesn't faze James MacArthur

TV Guide, September 22, 1973

To be Second Banana to Jack Lord in Hawaii Five-O is to be as an almond is to a coconut. This, at least, is the gospel as enunciated many times by the coconut. It states, in effect, that there is only one star in Hawaii Five-O, and the name is Lord.

This dictum does not seem to bother the almond, James MacArthur, who contentedly plays the No. 1 mid-Pacific crime-buster-assistant, Danny Williams, to Lord's glowering Steve McGarrett, in the CBS series -- now entering its sixth successful year on the network.

The Happy Almond and the Dour Coconut relationship was reflected rather interestingly recently -- on a morning when the show had just been listed as first on the Nielsen ratings for that week. By coincidence, the day's shooting was to take place in an abandoned World War II Navy warehouse near Pearl Harbor, the same building where the show had its uncertain beginnings in its first year, 1968.

Lord, 6 feet 2 inches tall and regal-looking in white pants, a Hawaiian print shirt and a broad-brimmed plantation-owner hat, drove up in his $50,000 private motorized dressing room, the size of an intercity bus. MacArthur, a half-foot shorter than Lord, and bulging muscularly in the plain tan-twill suit in which he was about to work, arrived in a $3500 red Toyota.

After exchanging perfunctory nods with the star, MacArthur, his all-American-boy face still all-American-boyish at 35, surveyed the scene with distaste. The broiling sun already was beating down on the tin roof of the warehouse and the jungle-like growth was creeping up almost to its doors. Lizards slithered about and we could hear the rustling of rats in the underbrush.

"This is where it all started," MacArthur told me. "Warehouse Number 7 was our studio and our headquarters. At night the rats would come in and chew up the furniture on our sets, and in the daytime one of the assistant directors would have to fire off a gun before we did a scene. That was to scare off the mongooses. They brought mongooses to Hawaii from India to kill off the rats, you know. Now there are so many mongooses -- they're about the size of a small dog -- that they're all over the place out here in the boondocks. They'd stampede across the tin roof or run right in front of the camera when we were shooting. So we still call this place 'Mongoose Manor' when we have to use it -- which, thank God, isn't often. We've come a long way since those days."

MacArthur then allowed as to how he, too, had come a long way since 1968. "When I was first offered this job by Leonard Freeman, the producer," he said, "I was in a pretty low state. My first marriage had come apart after nine years and I felt as if I were caught in flypaper. I had starred in maybe three good movies, but I was tired of being type-cast as a sensitive young what-do-you-call-it, unable to cope. I was tired of being called 'the potential new James Dean.' I had a hangup about being known as 'Helen Hayes' son.' All this is why I gambled on taking the Danny Williams part in Hawaii Five-O. It meant playing a second lead and giving up my movie career, but at least it was a job that I got on my own ability. And instead of playing weak guys, I could be a physical guy, which basically is what I am."

Although Jack Lord has been described as "a Sandy Koufax who thinks he can pitch without an outfield," MacArthur, one could say, has developed into a super shortstop on Hawaii Five-O. Without detracting from the over-all importance of The Star, executive producer Leonard Freeman emphasizes that MacArthur's contribution has been inestimable. "CBS thought I was crazy for casting Jim as a detective," Freeman told me, "but he has helped give the show its air of authenticity. When a door opens and the TV audience sees MacArthur standing there, they say 'This is a cop. It's the same as when they used to look at E.G. Marshall and say, 'That defendant has found himself a hell of a lawyer'."

MacArthur admits that standing in a door and looking like a cop does not exactly tax his acting abilities, but there have been other compensations for his five-year exile from Hollywood. Although the show's credits still read "starring Jack Lord with James MacArthur" (and others), the public considers him a star, and he shakes as many as 300 tourist hands a night along Waikiki Beach -- as opposed to none by the reclusive Lord, who basically is a shy man and rarely appears publicly, except at children's benefits, to which he is dedicated.

Having "straightened my head out," as he puts it, MacArthur is happily remarried -- to Melody Patterson (the pretty young blonde in the old F Troop series). He and Melody are heavily involved in the social and cultural life of Honolulu. While I was with them, for example, MacArthur played in a pro-celebrity tennis tournament (he reached the semifinals); we attended the opening of a giant nightly Polynesian dance festival (in which he's an important investor and a member of the board of directors); we hammered away at wrought-iron ornaments in an exclusive boutique called The Iron Butterfly (which is owned by the MacArthurs and run by Melody); and I watched him direct a local Community Playhouse production of "The Front Page" (the most famous play written by his famous father, Charles MacArthur, with Ben Hecht).

Perhaps more than anything, Jim's ability to identify himself openly once again with his late father and very-much-alive mother ("She gets up every morning and attacks the day") is an indication of how Hawaii stint has helped cure his previous hangups. There was a time when he was so determined to stand on his own that he was reluctant even to talk about his celebrated parents.

A lot of this is understandable. He was reared in the renowned MacArthur mansion on the banks of the Hudson River at Nyack, N.Y. The sprawling Victorian estate was a gathering place of the great wits and talents of the day, such as John Barrymore, Robert Benchley, Ben Hecht and the Marx Brothers. The constant contact with such luminaries both delighted and confused young Jim and his sister Mary, later a talented actress who died tragically of polio at the age of 19.

With Jim, the confusion arose over whether people wanted him for who he was rather than for what he was. While he attended such private schools as Allen-Stevenson in New York and Solebury in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, he found it rather easy to get roles in summer-stock productions such as "The Corn Is Green" -- and even in a distinguished John Frankenheimer play on CBS, "Deal a Blow," which led to a movie version, "The Young Stranger" in which he played the same part. "I suspect it all happened," he says, "because Mother was doing another play at the time for Martin Manulis, who also produced the Frankenheimer play."

In 1958, when he was 20, MacArthur married Joyce Bulifant, whom he had known since he was 16. He was at Harvard College then -- a history major "and very bored." He decided to drop out in his second year and give acting a full-time whirl. He studied for several months with Boris Marshalov, a Stanislavsky disciple, in New York; and he did a Broadway play, "Invitation to a March," with the equally young Jane Fonda. Then he and his wife, Joyce, took off for Hollywood.

"Other kids," MacArthur told me, "arrive in Hollywood unrecognized and unwanted. I was met by Harpo Marx, was invited to his house for dinner that first night, and listened to six hours of stories by George Burns. Helen Hayes' and Charlie MacArthur's boy then got four movie roles in a row -- 'Kidnapped,' 'Third Man on the Mountain,' 'Swiss Family Robinson' and 'The Light in the Forest'."

After that, the novelty began to wear off. Until 1967, Jim did only about one film a year, and the press no longer was referring to him as "the new James Dean." A couple of the pictures were good ones ("The Truth About Spring," with John and Hayley Mills, for instance), but most, like "The Love-Ins," were in the schlock category. By then, he had two children -- Charles, now 13, and Mary, now 8 -- both of whom he dearly loved, but his relationship with Joyce was deteriorating. That's when, both at home and in his career, he felt as thought he were "caught in flypaper."

It was about that time that he took a small role in a film called "Hang 'Em High," starring Clint Eastwood. The picture turned his life around. Its producer was Leonard Freeman.

Freeman told me: "I hired this kid on a hunch, which could have destroyed me and the picture if it didn't work. Before that, I knew him as a young man who cried a lot in his films. In my picture, he had to be a tough young country preacher who had to get up on a huge gallows and prepare six men for hanging. He had to speak two pages of script without an interruption. I had 550 extras in that shot. If MacArthur blew his scene and I had to hire the 550 extras for a second day, we would have been ruined financially. That's how close you have to cut costs in an independent production. But Jim did a fantastic job. He not only performed the scene perfectly, without a fluff the first time, but also five other times for different camera angles. I heaved a sigh of relief, thanked him and he left. And the picture went on to make a lot of money."

Freeman remember all this a few months later when he had to find a new Danny Williams to replace the actor he had used in the two-hour TV pilot of Hawaii Five-O (CBS wanted someone else in the series). "Jim's agent suggested him for the part." says Freeman, "and I went right to CBS with the idea. They said, 'You're out of your mind. He's too ethereal.' I said, 'In my movie, he showed an inner strength and a tough physical quality no one ever has seen before. He'll be totally believable as a cop.' They said OK in a way that suggested it was my funeral. But I signed Jim, and from the first day he showed up at Mongoose Manor to begin work, he had to scale 12-foot walls and such, and proved I was right."

Today, Mongoose Manor has been replaced by a beautiful, modern, air-conditioned studio near Diamond Head -- and MacArthur has graduated into a self-confident young man reveling in the realization that he has done it all on his own. He's even security enough now to understand and tolerate Jack Lord's rages; he does not laugh at Lord's idiosyncrasies, which include gritting his teeth and banging his hands together frienziedly to build up to a peak of energy for a scene. He is the favorite of everyone else in the cast and the crew. Belying his square appearance, Jim delights them with such aberrant observations as (while watching a girl in a bikini pedal past on a bicycle): "Where was the sexual revolution when I needed it?"

He and Melody live in a charming condominium apartment high above one of the best ocean views in Honolulu. Since Lord dominates most of the Hawaii Five-O scripts, MacArthur's acting hours are short and he has plenty of time for surfing and tennis and for his multiple Honolulu business enterprises, such as The Iron Butterfly shop. In off-season, he and Melody do a lot of travelling. Last winter, for example, they went with his mother to see the opening of a major revival of "The Front Page" in London. Jim and Melody then continued on to Africa, where he drove the length of the continent in a Land-Rover and she bought Nigerian and Kenyan art objects for their boutique.

Jim's new self-confidence has brought him closer to his mother than ever before. Without notice, the great Helen Hayes will show up suddenly in a little Japanese hotel, the Kaimana, near the MacArthur apartment, and spend the summer there playing with Jim's two children, who visit with him in Honolulu during vacations and holidays. She tells Jim (whom she and her husband adopted as an infant) endless stories about the Ben Hecht-Charles MacArthur days. She encourages him to keep directing his father's plays. She encourages him to think of directing as his eventual career.

Occasionally, Miss Hayes goes to see her son work on the Hawaii Five-O set. On those days, the technicians and the stagehands gape; Jack Lord is gracious and respectful; and James MacArthur plays Danny Williams as though he were a character out of Dostoevsky.

On those days, there are no almonds and no coconuts.