A few moments later Paul Burke is off camera, putting drops in his eyes. In Hollywood, if it’s not the Nazis, it's the smog. But grumbling is kept to a minimum. For this is the very same smog that photographs like English fog in nearby Chino, Cal., where 12 O’Clock High does all its exterior shooting.
We’re on the interior set in Hollywood, which means that just a few months earlier the late General Savage was sitting in that very chair, himself fighting the war and the weather. But Savage has been shot down and killed, the victim of a German crew flying a jerry-built B-17. And so Robert Lansing is out and Burke is in. C’est la guerre. It was felt, according to the official announcement, that the show required a younger star to appeal to a younger audience now that it has been scheduled for a 7:30 time slot. So, naturally, 37-year-old Robert Lansing was replaced by 39-year-old Burke.
On the show, Colonel Gallagher blames himself for the untimely death of Savage. It was, after all, by his authority that the bogus B-17 was allowed to join the flight formation. Paul Burke suffers no similar qualms. He’s a satisfied man, at least as far as his TV career is concerned. He’s got the starring role, a piece of the action, and he’s making, in his own words, “a lot of money.” But he could have had things just as sweet somewhere else. After all, he had already turned down 16 TV series this year before accepting his present assignment. In the last year or so he had also turned down three film roles and a couple of plays, one of which was the Broadway hit “Any Wednesday”, because he felt they weren’t right for him.
Why 12 O’Clock High? As Burke tells it, “I went on Naked City because of [writer] Stirling Silliphant. I trusted his taste. I went on 12 O’Clock High because of Quinn Martin’s taste. He’s the best executive producer in the business. Everything he does has quality.”
Burke, at 39, is in his fifth television series. Before making it big with Naked City, he had starred in Noah’s Ark, co-starred with Barry Sullivan in Harbourmaster and appeared in Five Fingers.
Off camera Burke smiles frequently, but more often wears a look one would associate with a Zen novice listening to his guru. It is a look of absolute concentration that suggests a man who trusts his eyes far more than he trusts his ears. The impression is that he believes only what he can see, so he must look harder than other people. This is probably pretty close to the truth; for Burke, in his own carefully chosen words, is “religiously an atheist.” “I believe there is a scheme of things,” he explains. “I don't believe in a personal God. There is a harmony that even Einstein hasn’t explained to me, but it makes me, in a far-out sense, a believer. I believe in man. I believe man has the responsibility to make himself better and better. To become perfect.”
When Paul Burke speaks of perfection, he means it as a synonym for logical, where other men might mean loving or compassionate or courageous. It is a concept of perfection that says just as much about what Burke considers imperfect. In speaking of his childhood, he elaborates on this: “I was raised in the barroom business. My father owned a string of clubs in New Orleans and, so, I tended to see people at their least rational. I do, by and large, think most people are illogical.”
And one look at his eyes tells you that time hasn’t lessened the contempt he felt 30 years ago for the Mardi Gras of drunks who paraded through his childhood.
“I was raised with voodoo and Irish superstitions. Open an umbrella indoors or rock an empty chair in my home, and people used to throw stuff at you. I remember when I was a kid I’d spend lots of time in cemeteries trying to fight the superstitions. Down in New Orleans, they bury the dead above ground, and sometimes the old tombs would crack open. I still remember putting my arms in open tombs to prove to my friends there were no supernatural bugaboos. My grandmother used to tell me if I didn’t go to sleep the hobgoblins would get me. It was like ‘The Dark at the Top of the Stairs’ in my home. There was even a dark place at the top of my house, and I used to wonder what their ankles were like and what color their shoes were.”
But there are bugaboos and there are bugaboos, hobgoblins and hobgoblins. So in 1957 Burke went into analysis for two years. “The project was P.B. -- the doctor and I working on me. I even went back to New Orleans and walked around in that old house trying to remember how it all was. I felt like the doctor’s helper. Analysis made me a lot wholer. If you understand yourself, you understand others,” he says, smiling. Still, he doesn’t mention the contradiction of disproving the bogies in the tombs and wondering about the footwear of his grandmother’s hobgoblins.
To determine the extent of this self-understanding, you ask him to evaluate himself as an actor and as a person. Strong point as an actor? He laughs and says, “Honesty.” It’s a short answer, but it serves. Watching him on the set that morning, you’ve seen that same special earnestness that marked his portrayal of Naked City’s Adam Flint coming through in Colonel Gallagher. Discussing a war plan with his commanding general, he says at one point, “Once the Nazis think they’re in a major battle at 20,000 feet, these two airplanes coming in at treetop level can make it all the way without even being noticed. I really believe that, sir.” You may not know if his is the right strategy, but you do know that he really believes it. Honesty, you agree, is indeed his trump suit as an actor.
Weak point as an actor? “Not honest enough. I feel that I may bend too much. Sometimes I think I give in too quickly when the director makes a suggestion I think is wrong. I’m my own worst enemy. I think I’ve overcome me more than most actors have, but the job’s not complete. When I’ve done it completely, then I’ll really fly.”
Strong point as a person? “A strong sense of responsibility. There are really only two sorts of people: those who lean on and those who are leaned upon.” It’s a simple view of people for a man as complex as Burke. He is obviously, though, a man who measures his own strength only by the weight and number of the people who lean upon him. “When I was 22 my father went broke overnight and there were suddenly five people leaning on me, and I was glad, because I knew that so long as I could take care of them, I could take care of me.”
Weak point as a person? “I get distracted too easily. When I moved out here, I fell in love with Palm Springs. I ignored my career. I didn’t want my agent to call with jobs. I was raised on roof tops; I just wanted to walk in the mountains and look at the stars and forget all about acting.” He still has a place in Palm Springs, but now also a home above the Sunset Strip, which has been decorated by the wife of his good friend, David Janssen.
About his future, Burke says, “I’d love to do light comedies; with heavy drama it’s like pulling up garbage for 16 hours a day. I’d like to write. I’d like to direct. Perhaps I’ll get to do some directing on the show, but I don’t like directing when I’m acting.”
A long-time friend and Harbourmaster co-star, Barry Sullivan, says of Burke: “When I first met him, he was doing Noah’s Ark. I thought he was too intense. He took it all too seriously. He still does -- but it’s all to the good. You see, I thought he was taking himself seriously, but he was taking his work seriously. There’s a world of difference.”
Maybe not an entire world. Not to an actor who claims that acting is more exciting than life. Not to an actor who remembers unwinding at a New York saloon at 2 a.m. after a long night’s work on Naked City, hearing a police siren, and hoping it wasn’t a case in his precinct.
Puffing on one of the countless cigarettes he goes through in a day, Burke sits in his bungalow apartment on the Fox Western lot. He has just finished lunch: a martini and a ham-and-cheese sandwich. He awaits the call that will take him back to the set.
He speaks smoothly. The right words come easily. He’s good at interviews. To a final question about his ultimate plans, he answers: “I don’t believe there’s such a thing as ‘having things made’. There has to be that certain tension; you have to fear something.”
Tension? Fear? It smacks of the rich man selling you on the advantages of poverty. After all, he has a wife, three children (“I was a child bride”), a fine big home, good looks, his health, a big career. Tension? Fear? What in the world have you got to worry about, Mr. Burke?
“I’m afraid I’ll be frightened... because I was brought up to be frightened.”
The call comes and he’s off to fight the war in Europe; the war in Paul Burke will just have to wait its turn.