DOWNTOWN — In the new book, “Raised by the Stars,” author Nick Thomas talks to the children of actors from cinema’s Golden Era about the joys and difficulties of growing up in the shadow of the Hollywood spotlight.
One of those children is long-time Santa Monica resident, June Lockhart. Her father, Gene, was a popular character actor who appeared in over 125 films throughout the 1930s-1950s.
Others interviewed include the children of leading actors such as Errol Flynn, Jimmy Stewart, Gary Cooper, Rosalind Russell, Bing Crosby, Ingrid Bergman and Rex Harrison, as well as many supporting and character actors who were popular in the ‘40s, ‘50s, and beyond.
Given the hectic lifestyle of living in the celebrity bubble, it’s not surprising that relationships between parent and child could sometimes be difficult.
“The lack of privacy due to constant media and fan attention, and the busy shooting and travel schedules could be tough on family life and sometimes left children feeling neglected or abandoned,” said Thomas, who grew up in Australia and now lives in the U.S. “I’m sure that’s still true today.”
The Lockhart family, however, was a remarkably happy one.
“There were always projects going on, and it was a sweet home,” recalled June Lockhart. “There was a lot of laughter, music, singing, entertaining, great Parcheesi, and parlor games. I was given lots of guidance, attention and affection. My father was sweet, funny, always smiling and chuckling. I never saw him pass my mother in a room without patting or hugging her. He was very affectionate.”
Gene Lockhart is perhaps best remembered for playing Bob Cratchit in the 1938 version of the holiday favorite, “A Christmas Carol.”
What’s interesting about this film is that the actress who played his wife, was Lockhart’s real wife. And one of his children in the film was June.
“When MGM made the movie and my parents were hired, they asked if I wanted to be one of the children. I said of course,” June recalled. “I thought my parents were wonderful as the Cratchits, and it was just great fun to see how a film was made.”
Even today, June still remembers her first lines in the film.
“My daughter, Junie, and granddaughter, Christianna, have never let me forget that the first words I ever spoke in movies were: ‘I know, I know — sausages!’” she said. “It’s become a family joke and we all shriek with laughter when we watch it now. Watching the film has become a family tradition each year. And now, to be able to watch it with my grandchildren — well, who gets to do something like that?”
June was a fixture on ‘50s and ’60s TV, and is best known for playing the mother in “Lassie” and “Lost in Space.” Her mother, Kathleen, also appeared in around 40 films, half of them with June’s father.
While June Lockhart followed her dad with a successful acting career, only a few of the children interviewed became actors, although many entered the world of arts or entertainment: Walter Matthau’s son became a director, Buddy Ebsen’s daughter is a singer, Rex Harrison’s son is a writer, and Red Skelton’s daughter paints.
“Some just didn’t have acting genes in them,” said Thomas. “Jimmy Stewart’s daughter became an anthropologist and spent years living with gorillas in Rwanda, while Yvonne De Carlo’s son was a lifeguard who saved over 500 lives.”
The idea for the book occurred to the author in 2009, when Thomas wrote a feature for the Washington Post to commemorate the centenary of Errol Flynn’s birth. He interviewed actors who had worked with Flynn, as well as his family members including daughter, Rory.
“That’s when I thought a collection of interviews with children of these great stars from the past might be appreciated by film fans,” said Thomas.
So he prepared a list of his top 100 favorite actors from Hollywood’s Golden Age, and attempted to track down the children. But it wasn’t always easy, or possible.
“Some of the actors never married, while others had no kids or their children had passed away,” he explained. “Obviously, those that I did locate were not ‘kids’ any longer, and many were in their 70s and 80s. Some were in poor health or, for various reasons, did not want to be interviewed. Others, I just couldn’t locate. But those who agreed to talk were enthusiastic, especially if their parent was perhaps less well-known, like Gene Lockhart.”
Thanks largely to cable channels such as Turner Classic Movies, Thomas says new generations continue to enjoy classic films. “It’s amazing how many younger people know these movies,” he says. “There’s still a lot of interest in this era of Hollywood, and the actors such as Lockhart who created movie magic.”
“My father made so many movies that I have never seen them all,” recalled Lockhart’s daughter. “So when one comes on television that I haven’t seen, it’s a wonderful treat.”
“Raised by the Stars” is published in softcover by McFarland and contains 50 photos. More information at the website: www.raisedbythestars.com.
Editor’s note: Nick Thomas provided this story to the Daily Press.