“Lyle Talbot sat on the ringside with a new blonde,” one wag wrote in the late ’30s, “but I would say from the number of times he was called to the telephone that quite a few of the old blondes were trying to get in touch with him.” All of these tidbits, of course, were an indicator of something far greater than just the state of their subjects’ love lives. They were early evidence that the cult of personality, which now pervades not just entertainment but politics, business, and pretty much every other aspect of American life, was already in full force. Being a successful star was no longer a matter of simply acting. It was now a far more complex proposition that had as much, if not more, to do with what you wore and said and did off-screen as what you did on it. Actors were accountable not just to their studios but to their fans, who were no longer satisfied with the packaged bios and romances put out by publicity agents.
In other words, the American public was learning nothing less than how to be “modern media consumers—to be charmed by movie stars but not overwhelmed by them, to live in the world of celebrity without either turning their back on it or becoming unstrung by the fact that they themselves were not celebrities.” Now, of course, we live in a time when the idea of someone accepting their own failure to be a celebrity seems quaint—the Bravo channel alone is testament to that—but Talbot’s excursion into the ways the world of movies has affected the American psyche sheds considerable light on the origins of the fame-hungry culture we live in today. In addition, it animates the final years of Lyle’s story, which might otherwise read like the rather worn plot of a Hollywood movie in which the handsome young actor never quite lives up to his early promise, nearly drinks himself to ruin, and is saved at the eleventh hour by the love of a good woman.
The other thing that saves this story is the sheer affection with which it’s told. Talbot is wise enough not to linger too long on the details of her family: the early death of her beloved mother, who was 26 years younger than her father and the only one who saw in him “the essential sweetness beneath the suavity, the hard drinking, and the playboy rep”; the stories of her brothers’ and sister’s lives and her own childhood. But she offers a clutch of evocative sketches that give a marvelous sense of a world that feels as long gone to us as her father’s childhood did to her—California in the 1950s and ’60s, before the glamour of Hollywood had tarnished and real small-town life was still possible close enough to commute to work on set.
Along the way (just after a pit stop at Ed Wood’s studios, where Lyle was briefly employed), we learn that the Talbot children grew up sheltered from the culture of Hollywood, albeit in Studio City, where their parents bought a modest house with the money from the sale of the Talbot Hotel back in Nebraska and then kept running with the salaries Lyle earned after his transition to television via movie serials (Superman and Batman and Robin among them). Even as a child, Talbot knew her peaceful life was touched by the delicious fantasy that is the stock-in-trade of any actor. She describes being trained very early on to answer the phone properly in case her father’s agent was calling. “Our job was to be ready, and to be ready was to be hopeful—no matter how long the hiatus between jobs, even if the part was small, for a small part could be a cameo, and a cameo could be classy.”
Lyle Talbot is best known to many through his role on Ozzie and Harriet. “We got to live our suburban idyll,” his daughter writes, “in large part because my father was enacting another one on TV.” He performed in more than 300 movies and TV shows before his death in 1996. But he never had even a starring role as dazzling as the one his youngest child, with history as her guide, has now written for him.
The Entertainer: Movies, Magic, and My Father's Twentieth Century by Margaret Talbot. Riverhead.