By SONIA HEMINGWAY Special to the Palisadian-Post When a Pulitzer Prize-winning author tells you that you should write a book about your life, you most likely have some good stories to tell. Over 10 years ago, author Frank Gilroy urged longtime Pacific Palisades resident and friend John Gay to chronicle the many stories of his 50 years in television and movies as an actor and screenwriter. The resulting book, titled ‘Any Way I Can,’ was written with the help of John’s daughter, journalist and actress Jennifer Gay Summers. ‘Frank knew I would never do it without Jennifer,’ says Gay, 85. ‘He told me to do it, and Jennifer made me do it.’ ‘I came over with a tape recorder,’ says Jennifer, ‘and I said, ‘Dad, just start talking.” Eighty-eight cassette tapes later, Jennifer faced the formidable task of transcribing the details of her father’s life from his childhood until 1963, when Gay began recounting his experiences with some of the most legendary actors and directors in Hollywood history in a meticulous daily journal. ‘We read every page of every journal,’ she says. ‘It took us years.’ As a teenager growing up in Southern California (he was born in Whittier), Gay recalls his early brushes with celebrity, from catching a glimpse of Judy Garland at the Beverly Hills Hotel to seeing Alfred Hitchcock in the lobby of the Academy Theater during a screening of his movie ‘Rebecca.’ Little did he know that several years later his experiences would come full circle as he collaborated with Garland’s husband, Vicente Minnelli, on ‘The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.’ After serving in the Coast Guard during World War II and receiving an honorable medical discharge, Gay followed his passion for theater, beginning his formal acting training at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in Manhattan. ‘Live theater is everything, it always has been,’ he says. ‘As soon as I got out of the Coast Guard, I didn’t want to go to university. I wanted to go to the American Academy. That was theater.’ He made the transition from actor to screenwriter when fianc’e Bobbie Meyer landed a part on Kraft Television Theatre. Dismayed by the quality of the dialogue, Gay felt he could write a better script. The resulting show, ‘Apartment 3C,’ starred John and Bobbie Gay, became one of the first sit-coms on live television. ‘When television came out, it was something so new, so revolutionary, that the opportunities were endless,’ Gay says. ‘If you could just pick yourself up, you could do it. And that’s what I did.’ Gay experienced the ultimate Hollywood rite of passage, living with Bobbie in less than ideal quarters and producing various scripts without a sale. However, the seemingly mythical break occurred with perfect dramatic timing, just as he and his wife (with new baby Jennifer) found an affordable house deep in the New Jersey countryside, in the middle of a pasture. In 1957, he received a phone call from the most successful independent film company in Hollywood at the time, asking him to write a motion picture for them. That fateful call set into motion a series of events that turned into his first feature film, ‘Run Silent, Run Deep’ (1958) starring Clark Gable and Burt Lancaster. ’It was overwhelming,’ Gay says. ‘I had no other employment then and it gave me an accelerated introduction into a screenwriting career. It came about because all three men behind the production company, Harold Hecht, James Hill and Lancaster, happened to see a television play of mine that they liked so much that they decided to hire me! Some luck, some talent; it can work wonders.’ Gay caught another break when asked to write the screenplay adaptation of Terrence Rattigan’s play, ‘Separate Tables’ (1958), starring Deborah Kerr, Rita Haworth and David Niven, for which he received an Oscar nomination. After years of walking a tightrope between success and failure, Gay felt financially secure enough to purchase a home in the Palisades Riviera (just down the street from his friend, ‘Twilight Zone’ writer Rod Serling), where he and Bobbie raised their three children. In the midst of the family’s move, he found himself on a plane to Mexico to shoot John Huston’s film ‘The Unforgiven,’ with Audrey Hepburn and Burt Lancaster. Gay details Huston’s terse and often intimidating style. ‘If an actor didn’t feel comfortable and asked for direction, Huston’s answer would be, ‘Do it again.’ I couldn’t get over how little discussion was given to actors in terms of their characters. I heard later that he wanted his actors to be unencumbered by thoughts of the director.’ With his career as a screenwriter established, Gay found himself traveling around the world, writing roles for actors like Henry Fonda, Rod Steiger, Rex Harrison, Paul Newman, Bette Davis (‘A Piano for Mrs. Cimino’) and collaborating with directors like Henry Hathaway. He describes his experiences working with Anthony Hopkins on ‘The Bunker’ and ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame.’ ‘Watching him in rehearsals was an inspiration in itself. Always trying different approaches in every scene. Never satisfied. Always brilliant.’ He recalls a teenage Liza Minnelli, visiting her father in Europe while on vacation from boarding school in Switzerland. ‘Effervescent and charming. You could sense her talent even then. And you could also sense they adored each other. That deep affection continued until the day he died.’ Gay went on to write 39 films (including ‘The Happy Thieves,’ ‘The Courtship of Eddie’s Father’ and ‘The Hallelujah Trail’) and five television miniseries, while garnering numerous awards, including the Writers Guild Laurel Award for Television Lifetime Achievement. The publication of his book (available at Village Books on Swarthmore) has been bittersweet for Gay and his daughter. ‘It has been an incredible experience to do this with one’s father,’ says Jennifer. ‘By the end, we were finishing each other’s sentences. I got to see how I grew up through a whole new set of eyes. It was a real journey, but so worth it.’ Even though he is retired, Gay has not stopped writing. ‘It’s an addiction,’ he says. ‘Once the fingers get going’how can you enjoy retirement when a screenplay or stage play is still possible? Keep working. Keep happy.’
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