Every community likes to brag about the celebrities who were born there, or spent part of their childhood there, or attended a local college. Along these lines, I guess Akron, Ohio, is best known today as the city which gave us basketball superstar Lebron James. However, when I work at the Akron Beacon Journal (1962-68), the celebrity mentioned most often was actress Lola Albright, whose so-so Hollywood career took an unusual turn when she was offered a part in a television series in which she was expected to sing.
That series was "Peter Gunn" (1958-61), and the results were amazing. Making often brief appearances in 84 of the program's 114 episodes, Ms. Albright became television's reigning sex symbol for three season, and surprised everyone with a better-than-average singing voice that earned her a recording contract.
The success of the program rubbed off on her in other ways when she was offered co-starring roles in films. Until then she had been featured in only one movie of any note, 1949's "Champion," which mad a star out of Kirk Douglas. She also had a supporting role in Frank Sinatra's "The Tender Trap" (1955), but remained in the shadows of Debbie Reynolds and Celeste Holm. Four years after that film, she did "The Monolith Monsters," a piece of junk about rocks from outer space that land on Earth — and start to grow!
But by 1961 her career seemed to be on the right course, though, at age 37, she'd have to choose her roles carefully. She received good reviews for "A Cold Wind in August," about a stripper involved with a teen-aged boy, though the film was more of an art house attraction than a popular favorite.
In 1962, she co-starred in "Kid Galahad," with Elvis Presley, a musical remake of a 1937 film starring Edward G. Robinson, Bette Davis and Wayne Morris. (Gig Young played the Robinson role in the 1962 version.)
Ms. Albright learned there was no career benefit to appearing in a Presley film. She went from "Kid Galahad" to guest roles in television programs, including "The Dick Van Dyke Show," "My Three Sons," "The Beverly Hillbillies," and "Dr. Kildare."
In the interview that follows, mentions her experience in doing a movie in France with Jane Fonda. That film, "Joy House," also starred Alain Delon and was directed by Rene Clement, and in the United States, anyway, it bombed. (Besides Ms. Albright, the film had another connection with "Peter Gunn"; it music was composed by Lalo Schifrin.)
It was between the filming and the release of "Joy House" that I sat down with Ms. Albright at a restaurant owned by her third husband:
Akron Beacon Journal, June 14, 1964
HOLLYWOOD — One of the first persons I met out here was a studio publicity man who told me I really should make it a special point to interview Lola Albright while I was in town.
“She’s from Akron, you know,” he said, beaming like he was telling me something I didn’t know. “Think of the hometown angle you can get.” He winked as he nudged my ribs with his elbow.
“Fella,” I answered, matching him wink for wink and nudge for nudge, “I’d want to interview Lola Albright even if she were from Mingo Junction.”
AND SO IT came to pass a few days later that Ms. Albright and I met in a restaurant owned by her husband pianist Bill Chadney.
The first thing I noticed was the contrast she presented from top to bottom She was wearing her sandy blond hair in a long pony tail that bounced around the back of a frilly white blouse that would have made Jayne Mansfield look like a little girl.
But Ms. Albright also as wearing a skin-tight pair of black stretch slacks — and whoosh! The little girl was suddenly grown up.
Next I caught myself trying to imitate her smoky soft voice. My effort sounded like a poor imitation of Peter Lorre.
Finally, I noticed Lola fidgeting with something. She had a ball-point pen in her right hand and a matchbook cover in her left.
“My husband ordered 65,000 books of matches when he opened the restaurant six weeks ago,” she explained. “They’re beautiful, aren’t they? Expensive, too, thanks to this raised gold lettering.
“There’s just one problem. They’ve all got the wrong telephone number.”
SO THERE we sat — me asking questions, and Ms. Albright giving me answers while she crossed out and corrected the telephone number.
“I don’t know if I’ll ever get all 65,000 done,” she said, “What made it worse — the day the matches arrived, we had a fire in the kitchen and a flood in the bar.”
Despite the rough start, the couple claim they’re extremely happy with the new business venture.
“Bill has always wanted to be his own boss,” she said. “Of course, I won’t be able to work as much as I have been. Not if I want to see Bill, anyway. I just finished a TV show and hardly saw Bill all the time I was working. I got up for work about the time Bill was coming home from the restaurant, and when I got home each evening, Bill was just leaving.”
THAT TV assignment was a starring role in a “Suspense Theater” drama to be presented this fall by NBC.
Ms. Albright also has a movie due for release in the fall — “Love Cage,” which follows the current trend toward bizarre mysteries. She plays a murderess who keeps her husband’s body locked in an upstairs room until this secret is discovered by a visiting niece.
She made the film in Paris with Jane Fonda and Alain Delon, and if she never goes back to France to work, it will be understandable.
“Most of the cast and crew were French; only a few of them spoke English. Jane didn’t have as much trouble as I because she speaks the language fairly well. Oh, I picked it up after awhile. Those two years of French I had at West High finally came in handy.
“A BIG PART of the problem was the script. It was written in French and translated for an American audience by a woman from London. Unfortunately, the woman wasn’t familiar with American slang. Much of her translation had a double meaning.
“Jane and I had a constant battle with the director trying to convince him the dialog would sound dirty to an American audience, and they would snicker when they were supposed to shudder. It was a tough battle. European directors — in my experience, at least — are reluctant to listen to actors.
“American directors may not agree with an actor’s suggestions, but, at least, they’ll listen to them. And they’ll argue until the point is settled, many times in the actor’s favor.
“But not in Europe. Our director threw tantrums each time we made a suggestion. You wouldn’t believe how he carried on! He kept screaming at us, ‘That’s the trouble with you American actors — you think too much!’ ”
BUT AS THEY SAY in TV commercials, that was just part of the story . . .
“There also was an actor in the film who spoke very little English. We had a scene in which he was supposed to slap me three times. When we rehearsed the scene, I discovered he didn’t know how to stage a slap. When he hit, he hit!”
Ms. Albright then showed me how it is possible to whack someone without actually making contact.
“I tried to teach him how to do it, but he couldn’t get the hang of it . . . or I couldn’t get through to him, I don’t know which. Anyway, I was hoping to postpone the scene until someone taught him how to slap. but he was appearing every night in a play in Paris and couldn’t work as late as the rest of us. So the director decided to get the scene out of the way early one day and wouldn’t wait until the actor learned how to slap.
“Well, his first slap knocked me clear across the room. I tried to finish the scene, but I couldn’t remember my lines. I could hardly get up I was so stunned. The left side of my face got so swollen, I couldn’t work for the next three days. Luckily, I didn’t have to get slapped again. We picked up the scene from where I landed in the corner.”
IT WAS on those five words — “I landed in the corner” — that the interview moved away from this particular assignment into a discussion of her career as a whole. Without doubt, that career has been unusual.
Her first job out of high school was as a receptionist at WAKR radio. Soon she declared her independence, left home and moved to Cleveland and got a similar job at WTAM. Her face and figure attracted the attention of an agent who arranged an interview with scouts from MGM.
“I’ve never figured out how I got the contract,” she said. “I was terrible; absolutely terrible, but it din’t bother me that I was terrible. The important thing was the contract. I wanted to be a good actress who worked a little, but I wasn’t really interested in learning how to act. As a result, I was a bad actress who worked a little.”
SHE MADE a few soon-forgotten films, but got a break when Stanley Kramer put her in “Champion,” the movie that elevated Kirk Douglas and Ruth Roman to stardom. Lola Albright? She landed in a corner.
“I was more concerned with my marriage to Jack Carson than I was with my career,” she said. “I never really wanted to work again until that marriage broke up. After our divorce, I took stock of myself and decided acting was the only field open to me.”
She also started taking singing lessons, and not a moment too soon. Blake Edwards called her just before starting work on his television series, “Peter Gunn.” “Lola,” he said, “Ive got a part in my show that would be great for you if you could only sing . . .”
“Wait just a minute,” she told him. “I just happen to have a record I cut last week. Why don’t you listen to it?”
He did, and she got the job.
THE “GUNN” series turned Lola Albright into one of television’s sexiest performers. The show led to a recording contract and also helped her get the lead in a low budget movie called “Cold Wind in August” in which she played a 28-year-old stripped involved with a 17-year-old boy. The controversial film was a hit in the art house circuit and her performance drew rave reviews.
One agent told me her biggest mistake was letting that performance speak for itself. “If she had hired a good publicity man, she might have won an Academy Award.”
Her career tapered off after that, but by choice. The big factor was Chadney, who had a small recurring role on “Peter Gunn” as a pianist and had been Ms. Albright’s voice coach at the time.
Although married twice before, she claimed her marriage to Chadney was special. “The others were mistakes. Bill is the man I was looking for. I’m happier now than I’ve ever been.”
At one point in the interview Ms. Albright told me her husband was eying me from behind the bar. "He's jealous," she said, smiling. "He's wondering who you are. I didn't tell him you were here to interview me." (Nothing happened, though the movie version would have Chadney confronting me, which would lead to a fight, which I would deliberately lose.)
Ms. Albright and Bill Chadney would divorce in 1975. Most of her career after 1964 was in television, though she did a few movies, most notably "The Way West" (1967) with Kirk Douglas, Robert Mitchum and Richard Widmark, and a cult favorite, "Lord Love a Duck" with Tuesday Weld and Roddy McDowall. She also appeared in a 1968 Doris Day flop, "Where Were You When the Lights Went Out?" and with David Niven in "The Impossible Years," also in 1968.
But mostly you'd find her in episodes of "Kojak," "Medical Center," "McMillan and Wife," "Starsky & Hutch," "Columbo," "The Incredible Hulk" and other prime time TV series. She also filled in for Dorothy Malone for awhile on "Peyton Place."
Because most movies and television show remain available — for those who search for them — I still occasionally watch "Peter Gunn" and enjoy the surprising chemistry between Ms. Albright and Craig Stevens as much as I ever did. The stories on "Peter Gunn" were simple and often stupid, but the dialogue was sharp and holds up 60 years later.
I enjoyed meeting Lola Albright, who was surprisingly down-to-earth, friendly and funny. However, I wish I could have conducted the interview somewhere else, and had time to talk about her second husband, Jack Carson, who was one of the most under-rated actors of his time.
She died in 2017 in Toluca Lake, California, at the age of 92.