Every year since his death, the Cinematheque and Don Malcolm’s MidCentury Productions have presented one of Paige’s favorite films to honor the week of his birthday. This year, the Egyptian is screening the deliciously entertaining 1964 Sam Fuller drama The Naked Kiss, starring Constance Towers in an iconic performance as a prostitute who wants to get out of the world’s oldest profession and moves to a seemingly perfect small town to reboot her life. But she soon discovers that the little town is not quite as idyllic as it seems.
Towers' career also included stage musicals like Carousel and The King and I (opposite Yul Brynner) and she was married to actor/U.S. ambassador John Gavin for over four decades until his death last year. She will be interviewed by Foster Hirsch at the Egyptian screening on Jan. 27.
The delightful, vibrant 85-year-old actress recently chatted over the phone about working with Fuller, Ford, and Brynner.
Susan King: The Naked Kiss was one of Marvin Paige’s favorite films. He was quite the character. Did you know him?
Constance Towers: He was a character! I knew him for years. My husband and I both knew him. He knew everybody.
King: The opening sequence of The Naked Kiss is jolting, with your character beating your pimp with your shoe. I had read somewhere that you and the actor had cameras attached to your chest.
Towers: Well, the cameraman had the camera attached. It was handheld. That was the wonderful thing about Sam Fuller: he had the courage and the imagination to be ahead of the curve. When he did that, nobody was doing that.
King: The legendary Stanley Cortez - brother of actor Ricardo -- was the DP on the film.
Towers: He was one of the best; I was so lucky to have him. He had an eye for a lady’s face, and he knew how to light it. He knew how to be soft. You just could hand yourself over to him with total trust and never be upset about the way you looked.
King: I’ve read conflicting reports that when your pimp rips off your wig and we discover you’re bald that you actually had shaved your head. Other stories say you were wearing a bald cap.
Towers: I didn’t shave my head. I think there I would have drawn the line. But I was so thrilled to be working with Sammy and to have a chance to do these innovative things that he would come up with that I don’t know. If he had said, "Shave your head," I might have done it.
King: The two films you made with Fuller –- Shock Corridor and The Naked Kiss -- you were definitely cast against type.
Towers: Sammy did that. He would look for people that allowed him to go against type.
King: Was it his scripts that convinced you to do these films?
Towers: It was more than the scripts. It was Sammy -- because when you met Sam Fuller, you met a man who was so enthusiastic, so kind of childlike, uninhibited totally. He said exciting things. You knew that if you were going to work with him, which every actor wanted to do, it was going to be an experience. Certainly, it was a broadening experience for me, acting-wise. He worked very closely with the actor and worked very simply.
King: Did you have rehearsals, or did he talk with each actor individually about a scene?
Towers: He talked to you. He never embarrassed somebody openly by saying, "Why did you do that?" You would read about other directors who would embarrass an actor on set and took delight in doing that sadistically. Sammy was very much a friend of the actor. He was always pressed, because he was on a low budget and had to get it in on time, so he was restricted. But that pressure never bled over into his dealing with the actor. He always had time and patience and he got exactly what he wanted. He didn’t shoot scenes over very often.
It was his enthusiasm that was so infectious and was very seductive. Gene Evans and I were sitting at his memorial next to each other. We both looked at each other and he said "Did you have any idea that these films would be so iconic and would last the way they have?" We were both marveling at the fact that it was Sammy who talked us into doing these particular films.
King: I’m sure it was a much different experience for you working with John Ford -- who had a notorious mean streak -- on 1959’s The Horse Soldiers and 1960’s Sergeant Rutledge.
Towers: He treated me like I was on a pedestal, but I observed a lot of other [behavior]. John Wayne would take a lot from him and Pappy [Ford] knew when to push his buttons because he wanted the performance. So, he really knew how to get to Duke Wayne. He would just say a word or go off [on Wayne]. Once he turned to him -- it was a big dramatic scene in The Horse Soldiers -- he turned to him and said, "Well, I see you have been working with your son and taking some dramatic lessons" in front of the crew. That was a terrible thing to say to him. You could see he was visibly upset, but it played in the scene.
King: You played Anna opposite Yul Brynner on Broadway in 1977-78 and then on tour in The King and I. In fact, I saw you both in the show at the Pantages. He had a reputation for being difficult.
Towers: I had an experience with him that he had Miss Anna on a pedestal and never did anything that made me feel uncomfortable. I would go in before the show and meet him for tea at about 5 in the afternoon either in his dressing room or mine. We would talk about the performance the night before. That was my little opportunity to always treat him like the king and say, "Oh, by the way, do you remember that thing you wanted to try in rehearsal and we never got around to it?"
He would say, "Oh, well tell me about it." It was something I had thought of the night before. I would tell him it was his idea and he would say, "Oh, wonderful. Let’s try that." He was wonderful.
Constance Towers will be at the Egyptian Theatre to speak in further detail about her career on Sunday, January 27 for a 6:30 PM showing of THE NAKED KISS and a reception for all ticket buyers. Details can be found here.
Veteran journalist Susan King wrote about entertainment at the Los Angeles Times for 26 years (January 1990 - March 2016), specializing in classic Hollywood stories. She also wrote about independent, foreign and studio movies and occasionally TV and theater stories. She received her master's degree in film history and criticism at USC. After working 10 years at the L.A. Herald Examiner, she moved to the Los Angeles Times.