Buck Kartalian

Buck Kartalian: ‘Being Armenian Is Important for Me’

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By Artsvi Bakhchinyan

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

YEREVAN/MISSION HILLS, Calif. (2004–2019) – On May 25, 2004, I met American stage and film actor Buck Kartalian at the Ararat Eskijian Museum in Mission Hills, California. The actor came with his wife Margaret to attend my lecture on Armenian-Scandinavian historical relations, but before this I had conducted an interview with him for the Armenian press. I cherish fond memories about my meeting with that super-positive, dynamic, humorous man, as well as Mr. Buck’s photo with his autograph.

On May 24, 2016, Buck Kartalian passed away in a hospital in Mission Hills, at age 93. I published my interview with this veteran actor, who appeared in 77 films and TV series, in Armenian and Russian translation, but the original English text remained unpublished. On the occasion of the third anniversary of Buck Kartalian’s death, I would like to bring to light our conversation.

Interviewer Artsvi Bakhchinyan, left, with Buck Kartalian

Today is the 25th of May. I am interviewing Mr. Buck Kartalian. So, barev, Mr. Kartalian.

Parev, parev!

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I hope to publish this interview in the Armenian press!

Thank you. I really appreciate that.

Do you speak Armenian?

Hayeren choori bes ge khosim! [I speak very fluent Armenian!]. My mother was Vartanoosh. My father was Hovhannes. He died very young, maybe about 38 years old because of high blood pressure. My mother struggled with six kids – 4 sisters and a brother. I only have three sisters now. I get my humor from my mother. She was very funny and had a wonderful sense of humor. I would say things and then she would excuse me in front of people. I was going to do a play with them. My mother had made me go to Armenian school in New York. When I was in the 1st grade, my family moved to New York. That is where I mostly went to school, in Manhattan. I was born as Vahe Kartalian…being Armenian is important for me.

And then you moved to California and started to act.

The strange part of it is that here in California the people that are Armenian kind of take me for granted. It’s the Americans that make a fuss over me, because I did a film 35 years ago. To me, it was just another job, and I went in to see the director. He was in his little wagon, and he looked at me and said, “How about reading for Julius?” I said okay, and so I read with him. He smiled. He said, “Okay, you’re Julius.” As simple as that. Usually it doesn’t happen that easily. Today, I have to compete with all the old actors.

Topics: Actor, drama, film

I said okay. I then discovered that the movie was Planet of the Apes, the original one. In 1968, we just celebrated the 35th anniversary at a new theater in Hollywood. I was on the panel there. Not too many people are alive that were in the movie. I did the part of Julius, who is the keeper of the cages. The first one was really the ultimate in the movies. You know, it’s been selected as one of the 25 best films in history for the Library of Congress in the United States to be preserved forever. I am kind of proud of that.

During the movie, I remember one scene, Franklin J. Schaffner was the director, a very somber man. I worked for all kinds of directors. Directors that talk to the actor and get excited, calm, some that ignore the actor and just worry about the camera. You just go with the waves, the way they go. I like to think for myself as an actor. I’ll get an idea and I’ll say, “Ah! Ah! I have an idea!” Then maybe the director says, “Please, I don’t want any ideas.” The director says, all right, let’s do the scene.

Franklin J. Schaffner is now deceased, but a relaxed man, and he worked mostly with the camera. You had to know what you’re doing or you’d be lost. There’s something about being a professional actor. You have to know – you’re going to do his, and then to go for it! If the director wants it completely different, then you do it exactly the way the director wants it. You should be able to switch immediately.

Anyway, the director says: “This scene will open up directly on Julius.” That’s me. I was thinking, well, the scene is going to be opening up on me – what should I be doing? I can’t just sit here. I then said, ”Ah! Mr. Schaffner, why don’t I be smoking a cigar?” He gave me a look…if looks could kill. Then he said, ”Let’s shoot it.” Then he said, “All right. Somebody get Buck a cigar.” And in the scene I am humorous, and it’s the first funny scene and he didn’t want it to be ludicrous. He wanted it to be real. I talked to him later and said, well, the apes are humans. We have to act like we’re human.

But before your acting you had a wrestling and bodybuilding career.

When I got out of the Navy (I was in the Navy for two years in World War II), I didn’t know what to do. I was with some actors, and when we came out, one day we wandered up to this gymnasium on New York’s Time Square, near 8th Avenue, this huge place; at one corner, wrestlers are working out, and at the other, people are lifting weights. There is a harness to do flips with. I start going there to work out and in a couple of months I really develop a lot of muscles. People can’t believe it. I learned to do flips. And hand-balancing. I was very strong.

They had acrobatics acts back then and they were everywhere. And hand-balancing acts were the opening acts and I would help out, fill in. One day a big Greek guy came in. He said to me, “I’m waiting for my partner. Hey, uh, Buck, you want to wrestle with me?” I said, “Wrestle with you?”

In the meantime, before the wrestling, I entered some contests, but I had a shape, I was symmetric. I was in perfect proportion. I entered the contest and I won. I was Mr. New York City. Then six months later, I entered the Mr. America contest. I was the runner-up. I came very close to winning.

In the gym, I was wrestling with a strong tall guy. Everything I do, I put humor into it. It’s just my way. Usually I don’t get into trouble. I dived under his legs. I leaped on his shoulders. A promoter was there in the gym. He told me: “Hey, kid, come here. I want you to join my troupe. We tour wrestling. We go several places and wrestle.” I said, “Yeah, but I only weigh 145 pounds. Those guys weigh two hundred or more!” He said: “But you’re a mass of muscle and you’re very funny.” That’s the way I am. I tried it out. I was a big hit with the wrestlers. We’d go to these little towns. They’d believe it was real. It was all fake — it was like dancing with a partner. I’d do all my little tricks. They billed me as the “Mighty Mouse.” I learned from the crowd. If they’re making noise, it’s going well. If they’re quiet, then it’s not so well.

Then one day some actors were going to a reading. I was through with my workout, and they asked me if I wanted to come along. I said, “Okay.” We go to some theater. A lady hands us each a book. I try to say I am only here with my friends, but she ignored me. Then the lady says, all right, you’re next. She says, you’re next, will you go in there? So I go in. The lights are all over me. The darkness out in the theater. A voice with an English accent asks, “Are you ready?” I say, not really.

So they tell me to turn to page 6. Somebody came out with me. I read with them and then I left.

To make a long story short, I got the part. Two weeks later they called me to come down and take fencing lessons. I’d forgotten all about it by then. It was Shakespeare, “Romeo and Juliet.” But Olivia de Haviland was Juliet. Jack Hawkins was Mercutio. An all English cast except for me! It was wonderful. When it was over, I didn’t know what to do. But, a guy told me that instinctively, I do the right things. They need someone in “Mr. Roberts.” You’ll be perfect and they’re going on the road. So, I went and read. I got the part. I kept going from one thing to another. I said, this is it!

And then the wrestler became a theater actor.

I never had any intention to be an actor. I always did funny things – that was me. “Romeo and Juliette” by Shakespeare was my first play. I did Samson. I enjoy theater very much. I have done maybe 200 plays. I did about six years of summer stock around the New York area – Connecticut, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. There used to be summer tents in the round. This was in the 1960s. I loved it.

I was on the road with “Mr. Roberts” for two years. I was in the movie, too. I traveled all over the country with that. Then people wanted me to do it. So they would call me in. I’d stage the play and do my own role. Then they’d ask me to stay on for another show. I was doing seven or eight shows every summer. Rehearsing one in the day time and then doing another one at night. I learned everything about acting — really, what acting is about. Not going to a teacher and it’s all, ”Do you feel this? Do you feel that?” What the hell is that? I put myself into the character and I do it. I use myself, too.

Can you recall some interesting moments from your acting life?

I use my arm a lot, my hands when I act. I can be as big as can be. One time in Philadelphia I was doing a play called “The Great Sebastians.” It took place in Vienna. I was assigned to this big actor and big actress. I was supposed to be a quiet man and spy on them in this play. I was supposed to be a pleasant man, a jokester. People liked him. So, when he turns them in, the audience is shocked. I was doing this part. I’d worked with this director maybe 15 times. They loved me. They knew what I could do.

So we were ready to rehearse and the producers keep looking at me. So, I asked him why? He said, well, Bucky, I just finished in New York, and the guy in New York who did this role was very tall. The guy plays a 45-year-old communist. I asked him, how tall is a forty-five-year-old communist? So, anyway – the director said he’d talk him into the job. I do the part. The first couple of days, the reaction that I got was so good. The producer called me in. Then he told me, you know Buck, I learned a lesson. Right now I can’t think of anyone who can do this part better than you.

So, I also sang one time. I did several musicals, but I had never sung. One director said, for this, Buck, you’re going to have to sing a song. I said, no, not me. The director said, a good actor can sing. Buck, please. It’s a character song. It was Kiss Me Kate. A big opera star did the lead in this. I said okay.

He talked to the piano player. I couldn’t even get past the first line. I went to talk to the director. The director said he’d talk to him. Then there was also an orchestra. The director then told the piano player to follow my lead, whatever I did. I said to myself, I am going to have fun with this part and do it my way. I did a little dance with it. The audience loved it. We got a standing ovation. The director said, I’d never heard anyone sing so badly and be so good! Even on Broadway in the chorus. The leads, their training is not the same as the chorus. The leads know how to sell themselves. In a show, you want to see someone create a character.

Is your being Armenian somehow visible in your acting? I have read in one review about you characterizing your humor as Armenian. Do you agree?

I think so! I did a couple of roles that had Armenians involved in them. I can show them on a DVD. I did a thing on the Lou Grant Show about a family that is going to marry a Turk. I worked with actress Magda Harout. She was my wife about four or five times, in a play and on a couple of other TV shows. I worked very well with her.

With Krikor Satamian they were at the Armenian General Benevolent Union Artavazd Theater. They were successful and I don’t know why they didn’t further pursue it. The critics just embraced everything we did. We got rave reviews. This Armenian group — they can do anything! They should do more work.

I did a couple of things for an Armenian director, in “Sons of Sasoun” by Sarky Mouradian. Armenian directors don’t know that they have to train. You can’t just say you are one. You have to do other and observe and watch the directors’ work. That’s why their movies turn out like (makes a bad noise – belch). The Armenians can do anything that they want to do. You look at any field and there is an Armenian. They are very bright people.

I know you created an Armenian family with Margaret Poloshjian, and one of your sons’ names is Aram, like my second son’s.

Ooooooo!!!!!!!!!!!!

I know also your other son made a short film, “Pedestrian,” with you and Krikor Satamian.

Ah, you have seen Jason’s film? (laughing). He had written four or five scripts. I told him which I thought was the best and that I’d be perfect in the lead. About a man, who when he was younger, who gets arrested for something he didn’t do and spends 25 or 30 years in prison. Finally, he escapes. He wants to get revenge on the people who sent him to jail. The police are looking for him. So, my son told me it would cost too much to do. So, he chose a different movie. I got some character actors together and we all did smaller roles just help him out. He got wonderful reviews. A thousand films are made each year by new filmmakers.

And what you have done recently?

Now, I am still with an LA agent. In this city, you have to have an agent. You make appointments and you go see the casting person. The casting person will see maybe 30 or 40 people for one part then pick out three and send them to the director for another call back. I haven’t done anything in a couple of years. I was offered a few things. But the theater is a big commitment.

I have been doing independent film. I did three or four independent films. I work a few days. They are union films. I get paid my union pay. My agency has a big commercial department. This year I did four commercials. One is a Velveeta cheese, another a Cingular phone – a really cute commercial. I did a Rally hamburgers. Then I did Wachovia Bank commercials. I don’t need the money, I just love the work. I love to work!

What do you wish your compatriots in Armenia?

I just wish that Armenia could prosper. For people to love one another. Really to make their country a good and strong and united country. It’s hard for me to say it. I know a bunch of Armenians. Seven families on my block. One family invites me over. They have a very big house and two sons — everyone lives there together. They all have cars. They’re in business together. They love to have their own businesses and they become successful right away. They’re wonderful business people and good workers. People across the street, they talk about how hard it is in Armenia. I’ve never been there. I wanted to go there.

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