Sam Tweedle: You’ve been in the entertainment industry nearly your entire life and started at a very early age. How did you start in this business?
Bill Mumy: Well, as much as someone at that age can make a decision, it was definitely my decision. I broke my leg playing Zorro when I was four years old, so for about nine or ten weeks I couldn’t run around. I was in a big cast and I had to stay inside. In those days, and this was in the late 50s, we didn’t have any VCRs or DVDs. You just had to wait for your television shows to come on the few channels that we had. So I sat there everyday and waited to watch Guy Williams as Zorro and George Reeves as Superman. Those two “caped adventure” shows really just illuminated my being. I wanted to get inside the television and be like those guys. To make a long story shorter, my parents weren’t young when they had me. My Mom was forty one. My Dad was almost fifty. He was a wealthy guy. I didn’t have any siblings. We lived in West LA. My mother’s father, Harry Gould, had been a very successful agent in the 30s. He had passed away before I was born, but Boris Karloff was probably his most famous client. My mother had worked as a writer’s secretary at 20th Century Fox for eleven years before she met my Dad. My Uncle was a first AD at Fox forever. We’re not talking about big inside show business stuff, but my family was not impressed or intimidated by show business. I really, passionately, legitimately wanted to get inside the television. Well, you can’t escape your destiny. My Dad’s attitude was if (my mother) wanted to take me and see what happens then go ahead.
Sam: What was your first gig?
Bill: The first thing my Mom actually did was book me on Romper Room, which was a show that civilians could be on. Anybody could be on Romper Room and she, very wisely I thought, wanted to see how I reacted and if I was comfortable on a sound stage with camera and lights and a schedule. I had a great time on Romper Room, and I stayed on there a couple of weeks longer than most people do. So, that’s was what happened. That was the opening of the door of getting inside of the TV.
Sam: I am a huge fan of 60s television, and I find that whatever I watch, you always seem to pop up on it eventually.
Bill: I was very lucky. I did a lot of work between the ages of five and twenty, and then a lot after that. I was very prolific.
Sam: One thing that should be noted though, was the fact that you were a very gifted dramatic actor as a child, which is something that most kids can’t do.
Bill: Well, everybody’s good at something, whether it’s making clam chowder or throwing a baseball or drawing a picture. Everybody’s got their gifts. I’m not insecure about saying that what I did fifty years ago holds up very well. Yeah, there are things I come across now and then that make me cringe. I had a good time being other people, and using that imagination. I don’t think there is any form of acting that is any more pure than kids playing cops and robbers. That’s the purest form of acting, and if you can take that headspace, and memorize the dialogue that you’re supposed to, and take your mark without looking at it… I don’t know. It was a lot of fun and it was easy and I enjoyed it. What was most fortunate for me, and for a handful of other young actors – but not many – was the variety of the type of projects that I was fortunate to be a part of. I’d do a Twilight Zone, and then a week later I’d be a sick kid in a Dr. Kildare, and then a month later I’d be on Wagon Train in an old time western, and then I’d be on a Disney movie for a month and play with some weird animal, and then I’d be in a Hitchcock, or on The Munsters. The thing was that I got to work with so many great directors and actors, and really let my imagination roam without just being – and I say this with no slight to anybody who did – as opposed to just coming in and getting a cookie and just talking about homework for eight or nine years. I really got to act. I enjoyed the process of acting. Even today it’s not hard for me to memorize dialogue. I’m just good at that.
Sam: One of my favorite things that you ever did was The Twilight Zone episode In Praise of Pip. I think it could be one of the best half hours that was ever filmed for television.
Bill: I am proud to have been a part of that. Jack Klugman was amazing, and of course Rod Serling’s teleplay for it was the first in America to address American casualties in Vietnam.
Sam: It’s a powerful piece that still stands up. Now, if I have this right, Jack Klugman did four Twilight Zones, and you did three, making you two the actors that appeared most on the series. Is that right?
Bill: I don’t have a score card, but I did three of the original Twilight Zone – Long Distance Call, It’s a Good Life, and In Praise of Pip, and I did a small cameo in the feature film. Then I wrote an episode for the UPN series, and then I returned to Anthony Fremont with Cloris Leachman and my daughter Liliana for It’s Still a Good Life. So, all in all, I have six.
Sam: Were you a favorite of Rod Serling’s? Did you get to know him at all?
Bill: Well it’s not like we went out for margaritas after the days work. I can honestly say that he liked me. He liked my work, which is a blessing. I auditioned for Long Distance Call, but I did not audition for It’s a Good Life or In Praise of Pip. They just asked me back. His wife Carol and Buck Houghton, who produced the original series, called me at home and asked me to come in and be a part of the Universal feature when they were putting it together. And they said to me that Mr. Serling really enjoyed my work. I can tell you this, in terms of recollections of working with him, but normally when an executive producer or creator of a series comes on the set the crew falls to attention. The boss is here, and everybody gets uptight. But when Rod Serling came on the set I was very aware that everybody was really happy to see him. They were very relaxed and wanted to talk to him about preparations for the next week’s script. He was a very light presence on set. You look at him and he seems like a very dark man.
Sam: Well, he was called “Television’s Last Angry Man.”
Bill: But I remember him being very light on the set. I recall him telling jokes and being very accessible and very friendly. He was such a singular talent. It’s a shame that we lost him at such a young age because I think his style of writing is immediately recognizable. If you found an unpublished Twilight Zone episode and had The Simpson’s characters read it, you’d know it was a Rod Serling script. You could tell.
Sam: Was Lost In Space your first full time gig?
Bill: Well, I had done some animated series before that. I did the Beany and Cecil series with Bob Clampett. I was the host of that series. I played Matty Mattel. I think it was called Matty’s Funday Funnies. So I would go into the recording studio and play that character. I made two pilots before Lost in Space. I did one at Revue for Universal with George Gobel called My Uncle Elroy that didn’t sell. I think that was in 1961. A year later I did one at Desilu with Pat Crowley called The Two of Us and that didn’t go. I was offered quite a lot of other pilots but my “team,” which was really my parents and my agent, said “Look. He’s got a great thing going. He’s working with Jimmy Stewart. He’s working with Walt Disney. He’s working with Rod Serling. He’s working with Lucille Ball. Why do you want to tie him down to one show?” But when Lost in Space came along it was exactly the kind of thing I wanted to do since I broke my leg playing Zorro. I can’t think of a ten year old boy who wouldn’t have wanted to be Will Robinson. He had a laser gun and he actually used it. He flew the ship, programmed the robot, and saved everybody week after week after a week. He was such a great character. Listen man, I would go back to playing Will Robinson today if I could. I loved playing that guy.
Sam: I think it was wild that even though you were working with such big names as Guy Williams and Jonathan Harris, you somehow managed to upstage them. Obviously the writers knew that the core audience was going to relate better to Will Robinson.
Bill: For whatever reason it happened. If you look at those eighty-four episodes of Lost in Space they really run the gamete of style. The first twenty are kind of this cool black and white family against the alien elements sci-fi show. Slowly it shifted into this trio of Dr. Smith, the robot and Will, and it became somewhat formulaic. Then, when we went to color, it became this kind of campy fantasy pop art. It was 1967. It was the short lived psychedelic era of our culture. So it kind of became this bigger than life crazy psychedelic thing. Then, in the last twenty five episodes or so, it tended to be a melding where half the cast were playing it straight again and half the cast were playing up the humor. It went through its phases, but the one that was consistent was that it always was seen through Will’s eyes. Will was the grounding force of the show. He was the guy. I’m glad he was the guy. I never had a bad day on that show.
Sam: You and Jonathan Harris had a fantastic chemistry.
Bill (doing a Dr. Smith impersonation): Yes we did. Indeed, dear boy. Don’t you forget it.
Sam: Was it a natural click?
Bill: Well, yeah. I never really had too many uncomfortable moments working with any actor. I was comfortable working with most everybody. It’s just the more that Jonathan and I did together, the more he changed the character. He really changed the character of Dr. Smith himself. He really turned him from a snarling saboteur villain to this bumbling insulting kook. The more he played it for comedy, the more Irwin Allen liked it. The show really went the way that Jonathan led it. But we had great chemistry together, and we never had a bad day. We were always prepared, as was Bobby May who was inside the robot. When we had our work to do – and I think this is a very big reason the way it went – they’d get us done in a couple of takes. Nobody screwed up. It was easier for the crew and it was easier for us, and people seemed to like it.
Sam: When did you start playing music?
Bill: I started playing when I was ten. In fact, Will Robinson played in the pilot of Lost in Space, and he played on a number of episodes after that. I started playing guitar when I was ten, and I took lessons for three years. I loved it and I wanted to get as good as I could. I started writing songs at eleven. I think I got better as time went on (Laughs). I always liked music. I remember doing episodes of Ozzie and Harriet, and watching Rick Nelson and James Burton and his great band. I remember watching Rick lip syncing the songs at the end of the show and really digging that. I did three of those. That was a fun place to work. Ozzie was a big football fan. He played in school and there was some big football game on, and we broke for lunch and instead of going back to work afterwards, everybody just watched the game. We just chilled out and watched football and after it was over we all went back to work.
Sam: You also mentioned that you worked with Lucille Ball.
Bill: Yeah. I worked with Lucy. We did a one hour dramatic show together called The Greatest Show on Earth. It was a circus show that Desilu produced. She did the dramatic guest appearance with me as a runaway kid. We filmed it on Halloween, and she called wrap on the show really early. Like three-thirty or four o’clock that day. She said “My kids want to go trick or treating, and I’m sure Billy wants to go trick or treating, so we’re wrapping early.” Honestly, that was fifty years ago. I haven’t recanted that story in decades. You look back at those things and you go “It wasn’t a horrible experience at all.”
Sam: But I’ve heard the story about you working with Alfred Hitchcock. He wasn’t so good with kids.
Bill: That’s a true story. You know, I have not studied Hitchcock because I don’t want to. For what I have heard, he wasn’t fond of actors in general. I know Veronica Cartwright liked him a lot, because she worked with him on The Birds. We have these conversations and she tells me how great he was, and I tell her what an asshole he was. I’ll leave it to history to decide how talented and great he was. To me, he was unforgivable.
Sam: Do you care to talk about that experience?
Bill: Well, here I am, this eight year old boy. I might have even been seven, I don’t know for sure. I’m in every shot of this teleplay that he’s directing called Bang. You’re Dead. It’s the story of this kid whose Uncle returns from a holiday, and all his friends are outside playing cops and robbers and his Uncle says “I got a present for you,” and the kid is impatient, and he goes to the suitcase and finds a revolver and a bag of bullets, and he takes this gun and he puts three bullets in it, and the rest in his pocket. For the next half hour he goes around spinning the chamber and playing with this gun and playing with his friends until he fills all the chambers and you know the next time he pulls the trigger something is going to happen. It’s a great dramatic anti-gun teleplay. It’s really good, and the entire show it’s like Atlas holding the globe. The entire is on the shoulders of the kid. The episode won a bunch of awards. For whatever it’s worth, Billy Mumy was really good. It’s like I was a different person, but I can look back and say that kid was really good. So there is no reason for anybody to want to mess with his head. Now we have child labor laws which were much more in effect in those days, and they had to release me from work in ten minutes, and they wanted to get one more close up of me before they wrapped up for the day. So the welfare worker teacher had told the first assistant “You’re going to lose Billy in ten minutes.” So they said “Okay. We got one more shot. We’ll do it right now and to save time we’ll have him stand in for himself. We won’t call in a stand-in. We’ll light him on the set.” So I had no problem with that, but I’m not a stand-in. I can feel myself getting worked up about this right now. I had been working all day. I was seven years old, and working eight and a half hours and doing a fine job. I don’t remember what day it was, but it wasn’t the first day, so I had been doing it for a few days. They are telling me to stand still while they light me. So I’m seven years old and not a stand in, and I’m fidgeting around why they are trying to light me. So I know you’ve heard this story but I’m repeating it. Alfred Hitchcock always wore a black suit with a tight tie and he was a very imposing physical presence to a little kid. He gets out of his chair, and he looked like Jabba the Hut, and he’s sweating profusely, and his jowls are hanging down, and he walks right up to me, and he bends down to talk to me so nobody else can hear and he says, “If you don’t stop moving about I’m going to get a nail and I’m going to nail your feet to your mark, and your blood will come pouring out like milk. So stop moving.”
Sam: Wow. That must have been really intense.
Bill: Nobody heard him. I’m looking around for my mother. Of course, I knew he wasn’t really going to nail my feet to the floor, but it was a terrifying moment nonetheless. This famous director walks up to me and threatens me in this whispery, heinous way. Here’s my point: they get their shot. All he had to do was pat me on the shoulder, or call me over to his chair and say, “Thank you Billy. I was just kidding.” If he had done that I probably wouldn’t have remembered it. But he let me look at him, and he knew he had terrified a little boy, and he liked that. He either took pleasure in it, or he didn’t care less. Either way, fuck him. Shame on him.
Sam: Hitch is famous for his sadisticness.
Bill: But how uncool was that? But the story goes on: I can remember exactly where these events took place, and when we walked off the soundstage where my mother’s ’59 pink Cadillac was waiting to go, I said, “Mr. Hitchcock said that he was going to nail my feet to the floor, and I would bleed like milk,” and my Mom just looked at me, absorbed what I had told her, and said, “Honey, he’s British. They have a different sense of humor.”
Sam: No way.
Bill: Now in my autograph book, because when I was a kid I’d carry this autograph book around to the sets with me, and I got some amazing autographs, he wrote, “To Charles William Mumy Jr., a wonderful actor. Alfred Hitchcock,” and he drew his little profile. But, believe me; I worked at Universal off and on until he died. I did at least one or two different Alfred Hitchcock Presents that he didn’t direct. But every single solitary time that I had to pass his office I always took the long way. I always went all the way around the sound stage and behind his office. I went six hundred yards out of my way because I never wanted to talk to Alfred Hitchcock again. That’s my Alfred Hitchcock story. I’m sick of telling it, but every time I tell it I get all riled up.
Sam: Let’s bring it back to something else. After In Praise of Pip, my second favorite thing you did is Fish Heads.
Bill: (Laughs) Well there’s quite a few years in between.
Sam: I understand that, but when I was a kid, before YouTube, the Fish Heads video was legendary. It was a rare occurrence if they showed it on MTV. Even to get a recording of that song was gold.
Bill: Fish Heads has been very good to Barnes and Barnes. We continue to make a surprising amount of money from that song, which is of course over thirty years old. Rolling Stone named it number fifty-seven of the one hundred videos of all time. It was guerilla novelty film making, and rock, and the right people put together to do that.
Sam: So explain to me exactly who or what Barnes and Barnes is?
Bill: My friend Robert Haimer and I have known each other since we were twelve. We shared, and still do, an appreciation for left of center stuff, be it pre-superhero Marvel Comics or Three Stooges, or whatever. We both enjoy this quirky stuff. Both of us have had our serious musical roads which we were attempting to forge for ourselves, but we had this little private joke where we would release some rock n’ roll energy stuff and make it crazy. So we came up with all these Barnes and Barnes songs together.
Sam: Is there an origin story to Fish Heads?
Bill: Well, we had had a Chinese meal together, and they had brought us this plate with this fish head just staring at us. It was Robert’s chorus. I have to give him full credit for the chorus, but I wrote all the verses. He owns it more than I do in terms of the melody and the concept, but it was a great collaboration. Then Bill Paxton, who was a wonderful guy and very talented, and Rocky Shank, who was a great cinematographer, took our little sixteen millimeter hand wound camera, which was the same kind of stuff Buster Keaton used, and some super eight cameras, and we just kind of went out and spent a very little amount of money making the video. Robert and I paid for it and produced it, but I give Paxton and Rocky far more credit for putting it together.
Sam: How did Fish Heads get on Saturday Night Live?
Bill: Well, Paxton wouldn’t take no for an answer and when he finished the film he flew to New York and forced it onto Saturday Night Live. It was almost like an old Mickey Rooney or Our Gang kind of a story. Here was this guy who hadn’t done any acting yet. Nobody knew who Bill Paxton was. He didn’t have any kind of powerful calling card from a big time lawyer or agent or anything like that. He just was fearless and just walked into Lorne Michael’s offices and wouldn’t take no until they watched Fish Heads. Saturday Night Live ran it two weeks in a row, and it was good! Of course Dr. Demento played it all over the world.
Sam: Well I hope you know that a whole generation of weirdo kids see Fish Heads as one of the defining songs of their youth.
When talking to Bill Mumy, I felt like I had found a sort of kindred spirit. It wasn’t just because the two of us seemed to have many of the same interest and passions, but the fact that Bill Mumy “gets it.” Far too often people who work in the pop culture industry try to downplay their legacy in fan culture, or try to convince me that their acting roles were “just another job” and that meeting pop culture legends was “part of a normal day.” But even as a child, Bill Mumy was able to balance a professional manner with fan sensibility, allowing him to observe Hollywood as it happened in an unsuspecting manner, but still maintaining a personal sense of wonder to remain passionate about his experiences. That is why Bill Mumy’s stories are some of the most entertaining and honest accounts of pop culture history. Bill Mumy’s stories are a virtual treasure trove, and sadly we only scratched the surface. There are not enough words to tell all of Bill Mumy’s adventures through the pop culture journey.
For more on Bill Mumy and his current music projects, visit his web-site at http://www.billmumy.com//
POP CULTURE ADDICT NOTE: I’d like to thank my friend Alan Mercer for making the introductions that helped our interview with Bill Mumy come together. A brilliant photographer, Alan’s interviews are some of the best in the business. Discover Alan’s own pop culture experience at http://amprofile.blogspot.ca/.