Jack Lord wants to be Gary Cooper -- "tough as steel, soft as fog"

TV Guide, November 17, 1962

Snap. Snap. Snap. The tall, slim man in the bold black Stetson stands in the broiling sun -- dizzy with the white glare of the reflectors, the lights, the 100 degrees of the day -- snapping his fingers.

The camera is close in on the face, as the snapping fingers send jolts of emotion through it - - a hardening of the eyes, a tight working of the mouth, a quick spasm in the cheek muscles. The drops of dishonest sweat (dishonest because they've been applied with an atomizer) begin to run clear down to the cleft chin. The tall man swings suddenly into profile -- a classic profile right off the drawing board of Milton Caniff -- and the director calls "Cut!" Jack Lord can start unwinding now.

Lord is the star -- the only star, at his own insistence -- of Stoney Burke, the new ABC-TV series about a rodeo rider. But he will never completely unwind because he's a man driven desperately, humorlessly, to success. He wants his image to be "big, big, big," like Gary Cooper's. And fast, fast, fast, because the kind of success he wants has been a while in coming.

New pin-up boy?

He may well be big. He's got the face and the determination for it. But it's still too early in Stoney Burke's career to know for sure whether American males will like him for his ruggedness, whether girls will be pinning his picture to the bedroom wall, whether the kids will be imitating his style in haberdashery.

"This thing," Jack Lord will tell you about his role, "is a labor of love, and it's pretty hard to get tired of a lover."

"Jack is an actor of extremely wide range," says Leslie Stevens, the producer-director-writer of Burke, and an acquaintance of Lord's from the bread-and-beans days on Broadway. "He's tough as horseshoe nails, a street fighter with a brooding, almost Irish-poetic quality. I hesitate to say 'Heathcliff.' But there's a gentleness in him, a haunted feeling. And still, as Stoney Burke, he has broken noses all over his face."

"Oh, he was always intense," Sanford Meisner says. Meisner is the distinguished acting teacher who guided Lord through his first classes in New York's Neighborhood Playhouse. "I admire that in him. He has an absolute set of principles and lives by them. He has a quality of inner torment and a good theatrical face. I can see him doing 'Richard II'."

"I feel sorry for Jack," says an actor who has worked with him. "He could be good if he wanted to portray a real person instead of a great big star. He wants to be Gary Cooper."

Jack Lord played with Cooper in two movies, "Man of the West" and "The Court Martial of Billy Mitchell." "I've got an image of Coop," Lord admits. "It's a marvelous combination of great strength and great gentility -- tough as steel, soft as fog. I use that image every day of my life."

"Coop, you know, was painfully shy to the day he died. He'd drive his eyes to the ground and once in a while look up to see if he was making eye contact. It was no act. He had no guile in him, no pettiness. He was big, big. And I'm going to make Stoney big."

The actor who accused Lord of a Gary Cooper fixation also mentioned a "Renaissance-man complex": "Jack ought to chuck this Renaissance-man thing. He's been an athlete, a seafarer, a steel worker, a photographer, a TV writer, an actor. If he'd concentrate on one thing -- and heaven knows he's throwing everything into Stoney -- and if he did it with complete honesty, he'd be great. Real bronc riders are mangy, rough, sincere people, not stars."

The man-of-many-parts label is a valid one. Jack Lord even started life with four names. Thirty-four years ago, in an Irish-Polish-Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn, he was born John Joseph Patrick Ryan. Years later he felt the name was more appropriate to a police commissioner than to an actor and borrowed the "Lord" from a distant relative.

Athlete, sailor, painter

He want to New York University on a football scholarship, to sea for four years as an able-bodied seaman and a licensed mate, to Persia for 14 months building roads and bridges for the U.S. Engineers, and finally to New York as a Cadillac salesman by day and, by night, an acting student at the Neighborhood Playhouse.

Between college and Playhouse he also painted -- about 200 seascapes. He's been exhibited in Washington's Corcoran Gallery and New York's National Academy of Design. A couple of his works are in the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum of art (under his real name). And some original Lords hang in the man's lush, 2000-square-foot apartment in West Hollywood, along with a Gris, and a Degas that was painted on the top of a cigar box.

But from the moment Jack Lord entered Sanford Meisner's classroom he was no longer an artist but an actor. ("Art is a sucker's game," he tells you. "A man has to have a fantastic ability for survival.")

"He was a very intense young man," Meisner recalls. "I remember pairing off the class into partners for rehearsal. Jack said he didn't need a partner, he had a tape recorder. He had just ruined 20 years of the acting philosophy I'd built up. But I made it clear from the beginning that tape recorders were out." Jack fell into line.

Lord has his own memories of those first classes. "Meisner opened me up. I was closed, introverted, a scared guy. He had me leave the room and return with an improvisation of a ham Shakespearean actor. I was petrified. I must have stood outside that door for 15 minutes. But then I remembered the sonnet that begins, 'When in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes,' and slung my overcoat around me like a cloak, and burst through that door like a banshee. I had to. And once I started, once I broke through the sound barrier, a kind of relaxation set in .Sandy was tender with me."

At about this time -- just short of 10 years ago -- Lord married an attractive young fashion designer named Marie Denarde. "The best thing that I ever did," he says. "I won't go around the corner without her." He insisted upon a clause in his contract which specifies that wherever the TV series takes him, there is a first-class accommodation for two. He calls her "warm, pretty, unselfish." And: "She still has a 19-inch waistline."

A thoughtful wife

A recent visitor to the Stoney Burke location was curious when Lord reached into the pocket of his denim shirt, withdrew a small flat bottle, and sipped from it. "Oil of roses," Lord explained. "That's my wife for you: always thoughtful. She used it in a cake once and found it had a pleasant smell and taste. Now she gets these little bottles for me and fills them with oil of roses. I think it's a consideration when you're talking with somebody." Nine years ago life was not all oil of roses for Jack and Marie Lord. The parts came hard -- first a job on the Ralph Bellamy series Man Against Crime; then, after a year he was landing an occasional lead on television. He played opposite Kim Stanley in the short-lived "The Traveling Lady" on Broadway, and Brooks Atkinson of the New York Times was kind enough to say that Jack Lord's performance had a "fervent sincerity that is overwhelming." There were other parts -- movies, plays, television -- but nothing that would establish Lord as -- well, as another Gary Cooper. He turned down a number of television series -- 22 by his count -- because they weren't right. It was thumbs down on the Robert Preston part in Wagon Train because "Westerns were getting tired." And thumbs down on the lead in Ben Casey because "I can't stand an atmosphere of human misery."

"My heart began to pound"

Then Leslie Stevens offered Lord the lead in a new series about a modern-day bronc rider. The meeting of Jack Lord and Stoney Burke was, to hear the actor tell it, a momentous one. "As I read, my heart began to pound. He had all the qualities I hoped for, all the resources a man needs to survive. A classic hero. But he's intensely human, with all the human foibles and animal propensities. He honors integrity. To him a handshake still means something. He's a man of great depth, great depth. He's from the Dakota range country, of pioneer stock, maybe from a Quaker background, certainly a religious background. He's a man close to God, without ever mentioning it. Essentially, he's a loner."

The Hollywood Reporter has it that Lord signed a three-way, five-year, million-dollar contract with Leslie Stevens' Daystar Productions, Ziv-United Artists and ABC-TV. The man is working for every nickel of it.

He began, with great intensity, to study the speech of Dakota-born Casey Tibbs, the champion bronc rider who does much of the fancy riding on the show. (Lord is not allowed, contractually, to get any farther than the chutes on the back of an animal.) He "has flattened the diphthongs a bit, spread the vowels, and dropped the final g's." You'd never know he hails from Halsey Street, Brooklyn.

There's an occasional accident -- "On the first show we did, I climbed on this bronc in the chutes; it was stung by a bee and damn near killed me" -- but the true ordeal comes with the blasting heat, the grinding concentration upon the work at hand, and the long, long hours. Lord gets up each morning at 4 and studies the day's script until 6:45, when a front-office takes him to location 40 or more miles away. (Stoney Burke is eternally on location, never in a studio.) He starts at fever pitch, but his energy level drops sharply by 4 or 5 in the afternoon and the snappings of his fingers are like pistol shots in the dry, dusty air of the TV encampment in the San Fernando Valley. He gets home late, has an omelet dinner, falls into bed around 9.

Is it worth it? In response, Jack Lord will quote you a poem by James Russell Lowell that ends with the line: "Not failure, but low aim, is crime."

Lord, with all his weighty, self-conscious words and his taut, disciplined yet ready-to-crack style, is aiming high.

Click here to see the cover of this TV Guide, featuring Jack Lord.