O'Dwyer & Grady Starring in Acting Innocent
I wasn't really naked. It was just supposed to look that way.
If I'd really been naked, the bruise on my leg and the thumbprint-size one above my left elbow would have shown. But they had me in this full-body pinkish colored leotard thing. The prop guy picked me up and I grabbed the meat hook and hung there, and then he pulled a mesh bag up from my feet and looped it over the hook, too.
"There you go, Bill," he said. "You look just like a side of beef."
Behind me, I could hear him back off of the set.
"OK, places everyone!" That was the assistant director.
I heard the familiar sounds of a scene being launched. The smack of the chalkboard that said what take we were on (nine). The director's voice ordering: "Lights. Camera. And — action." Then the heavy footsteps of the two other actors. And their dialogue:
"All right, where's the kid?"
"He's right in here."
The scene was supposed to be taking place inside one of those walk-in meat lockers at a restaurant, see. In an earlier scene, the cook had hidden me in a big fur coat that was hanging just inside the door, and one of these guys had found me. Now they stomped over to the coat and one of them flung it open.
"There he — hey! Where did he go?" More stomping, and the two of them rushed back out of the meat locker.
"Cut!" A bell rang, my shoulders ached. "Okay, everybody, I think we can live with that one. Somebody get Billy down."
The prop guy, Joe, lifted me off the meat hook and helped me out of the mesh sack. I plopped myself onto a hard wooden chair. A second later, I felt big, warm hands massaging my shoulders.
“Some great acting there, Pardner. You had me convinced.”
Surprised, I looked behind me and grinned. “Hiya, Roscoe,” I said. “How come you’re still here? I thought you’d finished your retakes.”
“I have.” He smiled back at me. “I just thought you might need a little shoulder rub after all that hanging.”
That’s the kind of guy he is. Roscoe "Chubby" Muldoon was my co-star, or I was his, and he was the best pal I’d ever had. He had been one of the great comedians in the silent movies. And here I was playing an abandoned kid in Roscoe’s first talkie. He played the cook who was trying to protect me.
“Well, Pardner” — that’s what he always called me — “I need to be going. Do you have many more scenes to reshoot?”
“Two or three, I think.”
“That could take all day.” He paused, an arm across my shoulders. “How about we have a day on the boardwalk after everything’s wrapped up?”
“That’ll be swell, Roscoe.”
“All right, see you around, Pardner.” He ruffled my hair and walked away.
While I sat there enjoying the feel of blood returning to my fingers, my manager, Maureen, marched out from the dark behind the cameras. A girl about my age walked beside her. I hadn't known Maureen was there; she usually doesn't stick around while we shoot. My stomach knotted. Maureen is the one who gave me those bruises on my leg and arm but you’d never guess that from the way she acted at the studio.
"Hello, Mrs. Fritz," I said with a cheery smile. See, this is why my name's on all those marquees: I can act, real good.
"Well, hello, Billy," she said, just as cheery. "I want you to meet someone. This is Virginia Grady. She's going to play Fred in the Rusty and Fred pictures.”
That was my next project — six comedies about a group of kids getting into mischief. I was going to play Rusty, the leader, and the Fred character was supposed to be a tomboy named Winifred. This girl didn’t look very tomboy at the moment, standing there in a prim, light blue dress. I was suddenly aware of how goofy I must have looked in my leotard.
Maureen's voice took on a note of grandness as she continued, “Virginia, this is Billy O'Dwyer." She always introduces me like I'm the greatest star ever. What I am is her meal ticket.
"Hello, Virginia." I stuck out my hand for a shake, better trained than a monkey and trying to maintain my dignity.
"Hello, Billy." She did the same.
And I could tell in an instant that her act was a mirror of my own. See, we movie kids are expected to be clever and witty, yet always polite and cheerful, no matter what. I could pull it off without much trouble. One look at Virginia, and I knew she could too.
"The shooting schedule's been moved up a week," Maureen said. "You two will need to be here tomorrow for publicity stills. Filming starts a week from Monday."
"Why so —" And then I caught myself. "Gosh." Too slow. Maureen had ordered me to never, never question her in public. I knew I’d be in trouble. I tried to recover. "How unusual to have such a short break between pictures. I'll have to work hard on my lines next week."
A shadow crossed Virginia's face. Could she sense my fear?
"You both will," Maureen said, her expression not changing. "We'll have a line run-through today at the dance school. Three o'clock. Costume fittings and rehearsals next week. And if things work out, we'll have more for you two to do."
I grinned at her. It was the only way I could keep myself from groaning. She’d been wanting to work up a stage act for me and another kid, if only she could find the right kid. I could tell she was hoping Virginia was the one. Me, I wanted to stick to making pictures and let it go at that.
"Well,” Maureen said, “I have some business to attend to, Billy. Joe or someone can help you get cleaned up. Virginia, do you have a script?"
"Yes, Mrs. Fritz."
"Good. You'd better go. Your aunt looks anxious." She sent Virginia toward a mousy-looking woman who stood by the door. "Billy, I've got your copy of the script. I'll pick you up at two."
"I'll be ready, Mrs. Fritz!" I hoped that if I sounded extra enthusiastic she would forget that little slip earlier.
As it turned out, she did forget. But it wasn't because of my sparkling and dynamic performance, then or later at line rehearsal. It was because of what happened that day at a ritzy apartment in Coney Island. When we got back to Maureen's place in the evening, the phone rang and the voice on the other end gave Maureen the news that would change my life.
[… The news is that an actress has been found dead and Roscoe Muldoon is in jail, charged with her murder. Billy and Virginia believe Roscoe is innocent and step out of the spotlight to track down the real killer. But as their investigation leads them closer to the truth, they find that they’re putting more than their careers in danger.]