First Person: Interview with Bella Stander

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To link in with the article in issue 7 of The Big Picture about Hollywood screen actor Lionel Stander’s stand against the House Committee on Un-American Activities during the McCarthy era, Jez Conolly asked Lionel’s daughter Bella to reflect upon her father’s career and legacy.

JC: What would you say is your father Lionel’s most enduring contribution to screen acting?

BS: His presence. When he’s in a shot, you can’t take your eyes off him. He steals every scene in A Star Is Born (William A. Wellman 1937), which I still think is one of the best inside-Hollywood pictures ever made.

JC: Lionel worked with numerous British actors and directors – Tony Richardson springs to mind – can you recall his impressions of working in the UK? And what are your own childhood memories of the country?

BS: He never told me his impressions of working in the UK (or anywhere), though he would have me in gales of laughter with his over-the-top impersonation of an unctuous toff. Tony Richardson and Dad must have liked each other, because my father acted in three plays and a movie by Richardson in the early 1960s: Luther and Bertholt Brecht’s The Resistable Rise of Alberto Ui in New York, St. Joan of the Stockyards (Brecht again) in London and “The Loved One,” which broke the Hollywood blacklist. I spent the summer of 1964 with my father in London, while he was acting in St. Joan of the Stockyards in the West End. My then-stepmother picked me up at the airport and took me directly to the theatre, where I stood in the back and watched my father on stage, in a massive fur coat that made him sweat buckets (he said it weighed 20 lbs). I have lovely memories of that time. London feels like my second home; I’ve been back a few times since. When I was there five years ago I walked around Mayfair and found the building where we lived in 1964, on Curzon Street by Shepherd Market.

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JC: It’s well documented that your father stood up to the House Committee on Un-American Activities during the Hollywood blacklist period. Is there anything about the hearings that Lionel was involved in that is less well-known that you can share with us?

BS: I learned a lot about him from his FBI file, despite large sections of it being blacked out. Some time after the uproarious 1953 hearing, he went to the FBI office in New York with his hat in his hands. He couldn’t get any work in the US, and he’d been denied a passport so couldn’t accept a job offer in Europe. He practically begged the FBI agent to help him get a passport. The guy told him that had nothing to do with the FBI (ha!) and he’d have to take it up with the State Department in Washington. Dad said he was so broke he couldn’t afford to go to Washington. The guy basically shrugged his shoulders, but hinted that if Dad would care to be helpful and give some information, well then… J. Edgar Hoover wrote on the agent’s report: “Be certain Stander doesn’t use FBI to regain respectability.” I felt like washing my hands after touching that piece of paper, though it was only a photocopy.

JC: Given the contemporary assertions of the Right in US society, I’m thinking of the likes of Beck, Limbaugh and others, do you feel a personal sense of continuing the stand today that Lionel and others took in the 40s and 50s?

BS: Absolutely. That’s why I signed on to a Victims of the McCarthy Era Amici Curiae brief for Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project (http://ccrjustice.org/hlp), a Supreme Court case challenging a provision of the USA Patriot Act.

JC: Difficult I know, but can you sum up in a few short words the experience of being the daughter of a high profile film actor?

BS: Difficult doesn’t begin to describe it. I was from the 4th of his 6 marriages, and after those halcyon days in London would go years without seeing or hearing from him.

JC: I believe you interviewed Chris Welles Feder, daughter of Orson Welles – did you find much in common with Chris?

BS: Yes, which is why I wanted to interview her. Our fathers exhibited similar traits and we had quite a few parallels in our lives.

JC: Perhaps you could tell me a little about your own work, and also what you’re doing to keep the memory of your father alive?

BS: I’m a writer, a book publicity consultant and now also the publisher of Bella Terra Maps. I’ve amassed quite a collection of Lionel Stander movie stills. About 40 of them are framed and hanging in my “Dad gallery.” So I see my father every day, which I never did when growing up. I’ve started writing a memoir about him several times, but haven’t been able to finish. Chris Welles Feder didn’t write hers till she was in her late 60s, so I still have some time. I wrote an article about him though: Lionel Stander: A Hollywood Story. I also wrote a good chunk of his Wikipedia entry.


Read the accompanying article about Lionel Stander in the current print issue of the Big Picture


Photographs kindly provided by Bella Stander

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