“A STAR IS BORN
Introducing Larry Parks, Al Jolson’s Alter Ego”
A YOUNG man from Olathe, Kan., who is prancing the Music Hall’s screen as Al Jolson, is the sudden current personification of the “‘Star Is Born” motif. His name is Larry Parks. In setting about to make “The Jolson Story” two years ago, Columbia Pictures put on the traditional search for the man who would play the name role. Most of the aspirants had indulged in that popular American indoor sport, giving an imitation of the “Mammy” perpetrator. None, however, seemed to be just what Sidney Skolsky, the columnist who who turned producer to film the story of his lifelong friend, ordered.
This young man, Larry Parks, aged 31, was on the studio contract list. He had made a swarm of “B” pictures, had supported Paul Muni in “Counter Attack,” had played a Technicolor Western bad man in, “Renegades.” He had also done some quiet home work in the study of Jolson records, and when he said he’d like to try out for the Jolson role, he was given a test. At this point Columbia’s big boss, Harry Cohn, Skolsky, director Alfred E. Green and Jolson himself realized that the grail was right there on the home lot. The emotions of Parks himself, at realization of what the part would mean to him, added up to a pleasant panic,
Then began the grind of transforming Larry Parks of Olathe, Kan., and later of Joliet, Ill., to Al Jolson of New York, Hollywood and the globe. Jolson and Parks became inseparable, going to the races together and to shows and ball games and fights. Jolson talked with his alter-ego- for hours; he put on for him one-man shows, in which he reproduced the high spots of his famous routines. He re-created for Parks the atmosphere of the old Winter Garden, and of the first sound picture, “The Jazz Singer.”
Parks, who is 5 feet 11 inches tall and weighs 160, has small literal resemblance to Jolson, but as the companionship continued he took on the mannerisms and characteristics of the man. In the end, by virtue of constant association, the empathy or osmosis or trans-substantiation was complete and Parks became Jolson to a point at which he was a little frightened. He could not stop being Jolson, he says, even when he was alone. He is alone a good deal, because his wife, Betty Garrett, to whom he has been married for two years, is the star of Broadway’s “Call Me Mister.”
Becoming Al Jolson was far from the thoughts of Larry Parks when he was studying to be a doctor at the University of Illinois. His father was an advertising man, his mother a talented organist. He had had two childhood illnesses which left him with a weakened heart, and one leg slightly shorter than the other. His own will power and determination to be like everybody else, plus the encouragement of a hearty, non-coddling medical man, cured him, Today he’s a good swimmer, plays lacrosse, goes in for motorcycle racing.
Pullmans to Pictures
He thought doctors were wonderful and that it would be fine to be one. Onlytrained by his musician mother, he had done a little singing on the Joliet radio station, and at college he joined the dramatic club. By the time he had his Bachelor of Science degree he had decided not to use it. Then it was Broadway, and no jobs. He became an usher at Carnegie Hall, and later a uniformed guide at Radio City. “And this, ladies and gentlemen,” the dark-eyed, dark-haired guide would say, “‘is the Music Hall, showplace of the nation.” He made friends, at this time, with another would-be actor who was also a guide. The friend’s name was, and is, Gregory Peck.
Parks read Theatre Arts Monthly, answered sixty-four stock company ads, had six replies and took the job with the Guy Palmerston Players in Massachusetts because it offered a high of $20 a week. After that it was New York’s Group Theatre, where he played small parts in “My Heart’s in the Highlands” and “The Pure in Heart.” Then his father died, and he gave up acting for a more reliable income as a Pullman inspector on the New York Central Railroad out of Chicago. He hated it. When John Garfield, who had become interested in him at the Group Theatre, sent him a wire saying that a part awaited him in Warner’s “Mamma Raviola,” he hopefully hopped a bus to Hollywood. Thirty-six hours before “Mamma” was to start she was canceled.
The despondent and out-of-funds young man served as stooge while Barry Fitzgerald was testing for the part later played by Edward Everett Horton in Columbia’s “Here Comes Mr. Jordan.” Mr. Fitzgerald was found not to be the type; Mr. Parks was put on the contract list. His “B” career started with “Mystery Ship,” and after that, for thirty-odd pictures, it was the usual bleak miscellany of the film beginner. And now its “‘The Jolson Story,” and the letter B has been deleted from Mr. Parks’ alphabet. Coming up is another double-A–the Technicolor “Down to Earth”–in which he plays opposite Rita Hayworth, who plays Terpsichore, The Muse of the Dance.
Turner Classic Movies includes the following bio details on its website:
One of the most unfortunate victims of the second House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) wave was actor Larry Parks, who had transitioned from a stage career into a string of movie roles that eventually culminated in his Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Al Jolson in 1946’s The Jolson Story. He was hauled before HUAC only a few years later, and his early familiarity with the Communist Party, which he admitted to in his testimony, was enough to shatter his career. Married to MGM musical star Betty Garrett, Larry Parks‘ life as a movie actor was basically over, and although he and Betty toured in a stage show together, eventually Larry devoted more time to non-entertainment businesses and only acted a few more times. The obvious pain the HUAC proceedings inflicted on Parks’ life made him one of the most unfortunate stories of the blacklist.