September 7 is the birthday of the late Peter Lawford (1923-1984) and his son Christopher Lawford passed away just two days ago. We’ve had occasion to refer to Lawford from time to time, so we give him his own post today.
Nowadays, Lawford is chiefly remembered for being a “Member of the Rat Pack.” Is that a thing?, I can’t help wondering aloud. I’m afraid I’m too much of a dyed-in-the-wool Puritan to acknowledge that it is. His main accomplishment in life was the people he drank with, is what it boils down to. Yes, the Rat Pack wasn’t just a gang of fraternizing friends; they also performed in live nightclub shows together, and acted together in films in various combinations. But, I mean, really. Lawford was the son of wealthy British aristocrats; his father was an army general and a Knight of the Realm. Granted, aristocrats have their own form of court-based sycophancy which I only partially understand. Lawford appears to have transplanted his to an American version, where fame was the coin of the realm. The title of this post comes from my imaginings about those fabled Las Vegas nightclub shows of the late ’50s and early ’60s. I have a clear picture of what entertainers Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr and even Joey Bishop are doing in front of an audience. What is washed-up B movie actor Peter Lawford doing? Handing Sinatra his drinks? The sad answer is: pretty much yes.
And the way in which Sinatra, a talented hoodlum for New Jersey, cut Lawford off at the knees when he didn’t deliver his brother-in-law John F. Kennedy to Sinatra’s house for a visit, says all you need to do know about the depth of the “friendship” between the men, and the misplaced values of American culture. “Can you deliver what I want? No? You’re fired; hit the bricks!” This attitude delivered us the current “President”, the most despicable specimen of humanity that ever walked the earth. For more on the culture that produced these guys, see my essay here.
When I was a kid, it was well past Rat Pack days, but you still wondered what Peter Lawford was. What did he do? Yes, yes, I know he was a vaguely likable actor and television personality who popped up in things from time to time, but that didn’t account for the fame that attached to his name. I was too young, you see, to know about the earliest leg of his career. Lawford was not yet 20 when he became a Hollywood actor. As an MGM contract player he was in a category with guys like Van Johnson, a young playboy type who was cast mostly in light, forgettable fare, appropriate to his skill set. After a few years, he began to get cast in better films and in better parts, including: The Canterville Ghost (1944), The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945), Son of Lassie (1945–not a better picture per se, but a popular one, and his first leading role), Ziegfeld Follies (1945), Cluny Brown (1946), It Happened in Brooklyn (1947), Easter Parade (1948), Little Women (1949), and Royal Wedding (1951).
As he approached 30, his career lost steam and MGM cut him loose. In 1954, he married Pat Kennedy (one year after JFK wed Jackie). The union probably made sense at the time: a liaison between a burgeoning American aristocracy and the decaying English one. In retrospect there seems to have been much of “convenience” about it. The marriage only lasted a dozen years. Lawford was out of the family before either Bobby’s assassination or Chappaquiddick.
Lawford hooked up with Sinatra and company in 1959. The cinematic fruits of the relationship included Never So Few (1959), Ocean’s 11 (1960) and Sergeants 3 (1962). In 1962 came the famous Kennedy snub, and Lawford and Sinatra parted ways. Member of the Rat Pack? Only for three years, although he did get a residual, lingering boost from the association, and some later projects that seem to have grown out it of include Jerry Lewis’s Hook Line and Sinker (1969) and the two Sammy Davis collaborations Salt and Pepper (1968) and One More Time (1970), which we wrote about here.
Lawford was in some cool stuff in the ’60s. Exodus (1960). The all-star D-Day tribute The Longest Day (1962) — how could he not be? Everyone else was, and he was English, to boot! (On the actual D-Day, however, 21 year old Lawford was stretched out next to some swimming pool. His landing craft was a sea monster floatie). As the 60s wore on, it became more campy-cool stuff like Dead Ringer (1964) with Bette Davis, Harlow (1965), The Oscar (1966), and Skiddoo (1968).
The kind of stuff I would have seen him in in my youth (when he was fully in his long hair and neck-scarf phase) were episodes of Laugh-In, The Doris Day Show, Supertrain, and Fantasy Island. He was in the amazing 1974 TV movie The Phantom of Hollywood (an updating of Phantom of the Opera starring Jack Cassidy, set on the ruins of the old MGM lot). He was the narrator on the short-lived Highcliffe Manor (1979). He was on all the game shows and talk shows, of course. In the late ’70s he narrated a lot of TV documentaries about Hollywood people he’d known: Elizabeth Taylor, Howard Hughes, Gregory Peck, Clark Gable. His last screen appearance was in the notorious Where is Parsifal? a movie I am still dying to see.
In most of his appearances during his last couple of decades, cigarette in hand, Lawford always sounded sloshed or on pills, or both, slurring every word, barely hanging on. It comes as no surprise to learn that he suffered from kidney and liver problems during his last years. Heart failure finally took him at 61. (His son Christopher also died of a heart attack, and at around the same age, 63. Though he died in much healthier circumstances — he was doing yoga at the time.)