It is always somewhat of a shock to hear of the passing of any of the actors we have come to know from endless reruns of old movies and vintage TV shows, yet the death of Richard Stapley (who changed his name to Wyler mid-career in Italy after signing to appear in a few Spagetti westerns) was especially bittersweet for me since we had come to know each other very well during my last year in Hollywood.
He was introduced to me by a mutual friend Isobel Gray, who worked at developement at Nu Image and had known Richard during his second reinvention in the states as a script writer back in the late ’70s. I knew his name mainly from his apprearence alongside Boris Karloff and Charles Laughton in Universal’s swansong to their glory days of classic black-and-white horror: THE STRANGE DOOR (1951) was shot on the still standing sets from the likes of HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1945). At one point Richard and I sat in my apartment and recored an audio commentary for the film – the recording lasted exactly 45 minutes until he simply could not remember anything else, other than Karloff sitting in his limosine parked by the soundstage door taking tea with Mrs Karloff and avoiding any other aspect of the production until it was his time to act. Richard found him as always professional and well mannered.
“I was just too young and still very much in awe of being a working actor in films to notice very much of the production itself,” Stapley explained. “My parents had come over to watch their son the Movie Star so I had my hands full trying to impress them during the making of DOOR.”
I only knew him for that one year in 2005, and he was by then 81 years old and still struggling in Hollywood – this time with a screenplay he had put together from his novel Tomorrow Has Been Cancelled. I had talked him into doing the Ray Court memorabilia shows, at the Marriot-Hilton near the Burbank airport. Ray gave us a table next to Lana Wood (DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER) and for one rainy weekend we sat together watching the passing parade and making a small bit of change in the process. This experience of doing autograph shows can be fun – or it can be the ninith circle of Hell if you are trying to pay the rent and don’t have the temperment to sit at a table and constanly reminding strangers that those are indeed photos of yourself from better days.
Richard had his days of wine and roses, having starred in his own TV series THE MAN FROM INTERPOL as well as having been a contract player at MGM. He was an in demand young actor through the end of the ’40sand early ’50s, but he never managed to take the next big step into stardom, and his Hollywood career faded. Eventually he returned to England, working as a sports announcer who could also handle a race car when given the chance. He was in his element until he suffered major injuries on the track, landing him in hospital. Richard had opportunites to resume his career, but they never worked out. He met the legendary Gloria Swanson at a time – long before Andew Lloyd Webber – when a musical of SUNSET BLVD was being planned. Richard did a treatment that Gloria liked and with a composer in tow Richard wrote lyrics to three songs, two of which were recored by Swanson to help raise money and find backers. Unfortunately, the project never came to be.
My lasting memories of Richard are of sitting at Starbucks, talking with enthuisiusm about his novel as well as a biography he was working on, as if time was always on his side. All he needed was the right meeting with the right producer to place him once more in that rarified company of players that create the collective dream known as Hollywood. When I heard of his passing in Palm Springs ealrier this week I could only think that: “Tomorrow has been cancelled.”