The unconventionally persistent journey of ‘Gentle Ben’ heroine Beth Brickell
Growing up as a balsa wood airplane aficionado in post-World War II Arkansas, nine-year-old tomboy Beth Brickell spent Saturday afternoons glued to her seat inside the Pine Bluff movie theater catching B-Western double features starring Southern gentleman Johnny Mack Brown.
Dreaming of faraway places when not distracted by annoying little sister Beverly, the rebellious Scorpio consistently scored exemplary grades even when her family decamped to Camden. A high school blind date with a mysterious, serenading Lothario who may have been Elvis Presley capped Brickell’s idyllic Camden tenure.
Majoring in History and Political Science at the University of Arkansas, James Dean’s calamitous head-on automobile collision on September 30, 1955, prompted Brickell’s bereaved classmates to implore her to immediately track down a screening of East of Eden, the meteoric newcomer’s debut starring role in a motion picture. Totally unaware of Dean, Brickell was so captivated by his mesmerizing performance as Cal Trask, a frustrated son vying for his stern father’s acceptance and affection, that later that evening she decided to pursue acting full throttle.
Unsure of exactly how to accomplish such a lofty, seemingly impossible dream and figuring it best not to inform her parents, the Southern belle spent a summer abroad at the University of Scotland in Edinburgh advancing her graduate degree in European History.
But Brickell’s inner passion remained unnourished. That is, until a serendipitous, moment of truth resolve to pen a letter to Princess Grace Kelly, who had recently abandoned Hollywood for a storybook wedding to Prince Rainier, seeking acting advice garnered an astounding invitation to the Palace of Monaco. Kelly encouraged her protégé to aim for New York and study with the bustling city’s top tier acting coaches. A seven-month, mind numbing gig teaching typing and shorthand in Rome allotted Brickell enough boat fare to make the journey to the Big Apple.
Perfecting her craft over two years in a private upper floor 20-member class at Carnegie Hall taught by Sanford “Sandy” Meisner and another two years spent with Actors Studio founder Lee Strasberg — a relaxation technique suggested by the latter eased serious anxiety issues — Brickell found herself cast in a breakout smash television series in 1967 as the dependable wife of Florida Everglades game warden Tom Wedloe [Dennis Weaver] on the half hour family adventure series Gentle Ben. Spurning the romantic advance of the show’s producer in Miami and unjustly threatened with being trimmed from pivotal scenes in jealous retaliation, Brickell pleaded with the president of CBS to be released from her contract to little avail.
Into the late 1970s Brickell notched approximately 39 celluloid appearances, predominantly guest roles in episodic television — e.g. Bonanza, Gunsmoke, Emergency!, Hawaii Five-O, Fantasy Island — but occasionally enlivened by a feature film such as Kirk Douglas’s underappreciated, decidedly cynical Western Posse. Brickell’s scene-stealing, subsequent Bonanza role as a plain-spoken, battered mountain spouse in “A Single Pilgrim” was submitted for Emmy consideration.
A multifaceted individual also capable of political activism — Brickell conducted Democratic fundraising efforts in 1992 for Bill Clinton’s primary presidential campaign thus following through on her college major — directing independent films, and uncompromising investigative reporting — unswayed by death threats, she uncovered the motive and most likely suspect in the officially unsolved disappearance of socialite attorney Maud Crawford from her Camden colonial mansion — Brickell was nursing a cold exacerbated by a nose bleed by the finale of our nearly 90-minute phone conversation conducted four days before Christmas and exclusively debuting in this column today. Not surprisingly, the former leading lady hung in there like a consummate trooper for what stands as her most comprehensive, intimate interview in years.
The Beth Brickell Interview
Did you watch Westerns during your childhood?
I went to Saturday double features — cowboy movies — every week with my little sister Beverly. Johnny Mack Brown and Tom Mix were two of my favorites. I wasn’t all that aware of the stars at that point — I’m talking about when I was eight, nine, ten years old — so whatever they showed, I was there watching it.
I never really had a chance to meet that generation of cowboys once I landed in Hollywood. I think they were all gone or were largely out of the limelight by then. I also never encountered John Wayne or Steve McQueen. I do wish I had met McQueen, as he was a wonderful actor possessing a genuine rebellious streak.
In a nutshell, what was it like growing up in Arkansas?
Getting up every morning in the summer, putting on shorts, going barefoot, finding explorations and adventures all day long, and then going home for dinner was idyllic. I loved growing up in Pine Bluff and also Camden, where I was a teenager and ultimately graduated high school.
Camden was special. We had very sophisticated town leaders who provided every possible thing for those of us growing up in the community. Camden was really a wonderful town in South Arkansas. The city’s population consisted of about 15,000 people when I was in school.
My dad, Carter Brickell, worked for a printing company. Later he was superintendent of a printing company in Dallas. Dad gave me a bicycle and toolbox for Christmas when I was eight years old. He taught me how to use tools, and it’s the most important skill I ever learned. Dad helped me build a clubhouse, doghouse, birdhouse, and scooter. I was always building things, including balsa wood airplanes which my dad hung from my bedroom ceiling. I had a stamp collection, too.
When I first went to New York in the early 1960s to study with Sandy Meisner, Lee Strasberg, and the illustrious Actors Studio, I had three apartments that I was subletting. I did some carpentry work in all of them. I don’t really build anything now, although I lived on a rural property in Arkansas for 13 years back in the ’90s and the early 2000s. I didn’t build it myself, but I had people coming in to build a log cabin guesthouse and chicken house.
My mom, Bettye Brickell, was a housewife who provided us with three meals a day. In high school we had a sorority and two fraternities. All three of them had a formal banquet and dance twice a year — in the summer and at Christmas time. My mother would make my formal gowns. It was a simple, fun time.
Did you get into any trouble with your parents?
Well, I was a rebel. I didn’t get into big trouble, but I was always unconventional. At a younger age I was a tomboy with pigtails and pretty much ran wild. I had a lot of freedom as long as I stayed within calling distance. I had a lot of friends, especially as a teenager, and I dated a lot.
Interestingly enough, I never met Elvis Presley, but he came to Camden before he was a big star. He sang three concerts at the Municipal (Muny) Hall [February 21, August 4, and November 16, 1955]. In high school I had a blind date with a guy who serenaded me with some song in the backseat of his car.
I’ve often wondered if it was Elvis. I don’t know who it was. I remember thinking it was quite weird that he was singing to me [Brickell graduated from high school in 1954 and was away at college — first at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway and then the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville — so odds are the mystery date was not the King of Rock ’n’ Roll].
When did you first speak in front of an audience?
Oh my goodness. I was 12 years old and working on a Girl Scout badge — something to do with civics or city government. One of the things I had to do was to step out onstage in front of a full auditorium in Camden and speak for one minute.
I thought I was going to die on the spot I was so nervous. That was the first time I was ever in front of people. Later I learned to do a Lee Strasberg relaxation exercise before I acted in anything. It eased my anxiety considerably.
Was there a moment when you knew that acting was your destiny?
When James Dean died, I was in college at the time. Everyone was saying, “Oh no, James Dean is dead!” I went, “Who is James Dean?” They said, “You don’t know who James Dean is? Go immediately and see East of Eden!” . It was playing in a Fayetteville, Arkansas, movie theater. I went that very night and decided right then and there to become an actress. I was so inspired by his acting.
How did Grace Kelly encourage your dream of becoming an actor?
Grace was really my inspiration and a role model for me. I just thought she was an ideal, terrific person, not that I necessarily thought she was the best actress in Hollywood, but that I just admired her. She seemed very much like a lady to me, and that impressed me.
I majored in History and Political Science at the University of Arkansas. I didn’t have anything to do with drama, or the “fruit bowl” as it was commonly referred to at that time. After graduation I decided to travel to the University of Scotland in Edinburgh and study European history for my graduate work.
I don’t know how I got up the nerve, but I wrote a letter to Princess Grace. She had married Prince Rainier in 1956 and had become the Princess of Monaco. I said that I had to make a decision about my life. I thought she was the only person in the world who could help me make my decision and could I meet with her after my studies in Edinburgh?
Low and behold I got a letter back from her secretary that said, “Her serene Highness, Princess Grace, would be happy to receive you in an audience at the palace in Monaco. Let us know when it would be convenient for you to come.” I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t know whether to be terrified or excited. I was both.
After my studies at Edinburgh, I went to Monaco and had a meeting with Grace. I said, “It’s been a dream of mine, but how does someone become an actress?” I didn’t know. She was the first person I ever told about my dream to act as I had kept it a secret.
Grace replied, “The best teachers are in New York, and you have to study first.” I knew she had studied in New York with Sandy Meisner. After being in Europe for a year, I went to New York and studied acting with Sandy. I didn’t take my first acting class until I was 24 years old.
I tried to follow in Grace’s footsteps as best I could because I didn’t know anything coming from Camden. New York was so overwhelming. I tried to do the things that I had read about that she had done, like holding out for the best agents. She had been with the biggest agency when she was an actress in the 1950s, so I thought, ‘Well I should hold out for William Morris,’ which was the biggest agency when I was there in the 1960s.
Nine years after I met with Grace, I was cast in Gentle Ben. I wrote her a letter to remind her that we had met and thanked her for how inspiring she had been to me. I told her that I was starring in a CBS television series. She wrote back thanking me for my letter, telling me it sounded very exciting, and wishing me a lot of luck. That was the last time we corresponded.
From all I have heard, Grace was very disappointed because Prince Rainier wouldn’t even show her movies in Monaco, and he certainly wouldn’t let her act anymore. Alfred Hitchcock wanted her to do Marnie with Sean Connery , and she really wanted to do it. Rainier put his foot down on that, so Tippi Hedren, who had starred the previous year in Hitchcock’s iconic The Birds, got the part. Grace would have been much better.
Was it relatively easy getting accepted into the prestigious Actors Studio?
Passing my Actors Studio audition was my number one goal in life. I was a nervous wreck. I did three auditions before I passed. You had to wait a whole year before you could audition again.
I had heard that Geraldine Page [nominated for eight Oscars starting with John Wayne’s Hondo and culminating with a Best Actress Oscar for 1985’s The Trip to Bountiful] did 14 auditions before she passed, so I wasn’t going to give up. By the time I did my third audition, I was more confident in myself.
I worked on scenes and developed my craft for two years with Sandy and two years with Lee Strasberg. They were the two top teachers in New York in the early ’60s. I was very blessed to be able to study with both of them. I always thought of Sandy as my undergraduate work and Lee as my graduate work.
Most of the plays I did were in summer and winter stock at different regional theaters. I did a little bit in New York, but I didn’t do anything on Broadway. I did 25 plays — unfortunately none of them were recorded on video — and then I went to Los Angeles and began doing television.
What exacerbated your decision to leave New York and move to Los Angeles?
When I was in New York, I signed with William Morris as a client. Not long after I became a client, Rowland Perkins, who was head of the television department in L.A., came to New York and interviewed all of the young acting clients at William Morris.
Rowland wrote a letter back to New York after that and said that if three guys and myself would come to L.A., he thought the agency could get us work in television and movies. However, my third Actors Studio audition was coming up. I said, “I can’t go anywhere until I do my audition for the Actors Studio.” So I did my studio audition and passed. One month later I moved to Los Angeles.
Those William Morris agents were so terrific. They had me in my first job three weeks after arriving in Los Angeles. I did five lines as a stewardess on the premiere episode of spin-off series The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. with Stephanie Powers [i.e. “The Dog-Gone Affair,” aired September 13, 1966]. One month later they had me in my first guest-starring role in “The Suburbia Affair,” a third season episode of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. featuring Robert Vaughn and David McCallum [aired January 6, 1967].
After that everything was guest-starring roles on television and three motion pictures. The two Hawaii Five-O episodes that I did with Jack Lord were a favorite experience. The first was “No Bottles…No Cans…No People” [aired September 21, 1971]. I was onscreen almost the whole time in my second appearance [“Good Night, Baby — Time to Die!,” which aired February 15, 1972].
Were your parents supportive of your decision to pursue acting?
I never talked to them about it — I just did it. It was sort of my secret. Of course I corresponded with them when I went to New York and studied acting and began acting in plays. Then they realized what I was doing. They were okay with my decision to pursue acting.
My dad was very proud of me. He kept a huge, newspaper-sized scrapbook of all the things that were related to my acting — playbills, interviews, newspapers, and magazines. On the front of it he placed a big gold star with the words, “Journey to a Star.” I gave it to the American Academy — the Margaret Herrick Library — in Los Angeles.
A prequel to the 30-minute CBS television series, Gentle Giant was a full-length theatrical film distributed by Paramount in 1967. Originally costarring Vera Miles of Psycho fame as Florida Everglades game warden Tom Wedloe’s wife Ellen, how did you land the role for the more fondly remembered 1967–1969 television version?
About five months after I was in L.A., I had a screen test for Gentle Ben. There were five women who were tested, and I got the role. Later on at a party future Oscar winner Ellen Burstyn [i.e. Martin Scorsese’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, 1974] told me she was one of the other five.
I was tested with Clint Howard, who was seven years at the time and Ron Howard’s younger brother. It’s still very vivid in my mind. We did a scene on camera, and I wanted to be sitting on the floor talking to him. The cameraman put the camera on what they call a Hi-Hat down on the floor so they could shoot up at my face so I could still be down on the floor. Clint was such a fun, talented little boy. Anyway, they chose me to be Dennis Weaver’s wife. He wasn’t present at the screen test.
Did you have to move to Florida to film Gentle Ben?
We shot Gentle Ben in Miami in the Everglades, but I didn’t have to move there. They would fly us back and forth to Miami to film. They put me up in a really nice apartment on Bal Harbour in Miami which was a really nice area. I only remember pretty sunny days in Miami, no bad weather. We would film in the spring for maybe three months — shooting a 30-minute script per week — and then we would have a month or two off. We went back each summer during the two years it was on the air.
Were you given script input or allowed to express ideas for your character’s wardrobe, development, etc.?
We always wanted better scripts. Dennis was the one who kept after them to improve the writing. It was a very successful show [No. 19 overall in the Nielsen ratings at the end of the 1967–1968 debut season]. I remember us being No. 2 the week we did a birthday show for my character Ellen [i.e. “The Battle of Birthday Bay,” aired January 14, 1968].
I didn’t get along with the producer, and I didn’t want to continue. I tried to get out of the show, and they wouldn’t let me out. I went all the way up to the president of CBS, and I said, “I can’t go back. I don’t get along with the producer. He’s making my life miserable.”
He replied, “Well, we can’t let you out of the show because you’re what’s known on my side of the desk as a television likable.” “What is that?” “We’ve never gotten a negative letter about you. After kids, our second biggest audience is men between the ages of 25 and 35, and we think they’re tuning into the show to watch you. We can’t let you out.”
I kept on telling him problems that we were having, and they cancelled the show three days later [The decision to scuttle Gentle Ben was also unquestionably ratings-influenced, as it finished the 1968–1969 season out of the Nielsen Top 30].
What was the producer doing that was causing you such agony?
One time I was five minutes late getting to the set. In front of the entire cast and crew, he yelled, “If you can’t be on time, I’m going to have CBS write you out of the show.” I quickly retorted, “I was only five minutes late, and it was because we weren’t through with hair and makeup.” He stated, “Five minutes adds up to thousands of dollars.” That was one thing that was very embarrassing for me.
When I first got to Miami, he came onto me. I wasn’t interested, and I guess that’s why he didn’t like me. I don’t want to reveal his name, but it definitely wasn’t Ivan Tors. He was also doing Cowboys in Africa starring Chuck Connors for ABC at that time, so we rarely saw Ivan.
Dennis was very, very supportive of my predicament, along with Gentle Ben editor Erwin Dumbrille, a good friend of mine. The producer would tell the editor to cut me down in the scenes. Erwin would have to talk him into keeping the scene[s] because they were important. Both Dennis and Erwin were always looking out for me.
What did Dennis Weaver teach you?
He taught me how to meditate, but I didn’t have the patience to meditate. He was a vegetarian, and a couple of years later I became a vegetarian, too. He meditated every day before and after we filmed. I’m talking about an hour to an hour and a half of mediation.
As long as I had to go away and work on Gentle Ben, I felt blessed that Dennis was with us because he was such a positive role model for me. I think he was a role model for everyone. He always kept the set very peaceful, very uplifting. He had a wonderful sense of humor. He was a wonderful leader and fabulous individual.
Did you stay in touch after Gentle Ben ended?
We stayed in touch in a sense, but we weren’t everyday friends. Of course, he had a family and a wife, Gerry Stowell. He invited me to his 50th wedding anniversary in 1995, and I was honored to attend.
We worked a second time together on a rarely seen television movie about Abraham Lincoln, The Great Man’s Whiskers , costarring Dean Jones and Ann Sothern. Dennis played Abraham Lincoln.
Ten years later we reunited for an episode of his short-lived ABC series Stone [Created by the illustrious Stephen J. Cannell of earlier Rockford Files fame, Weaver portrayed a police sergeant moonlighting as a celebrity crime novelist. His superior, the gruff, scene stealing character actor Pat Hingle, was none too pleased. Ten episodes of Stone were broadcast between August 1979 and March 1980 on ABC. Brickell’s final appearance as an actress materialized in the fifth episode entitled “Just a Little Blow Between Friends”].
Later in your career you became a writer-director-producer of independent films. Dennis also worked behind the camera as an occasional director on four episodes of Gunsmoke and one episode of McCloud. Did you ever discuss directing with him?
No, but Dennis got me my first episodic directing assignment on Stone. It was cancelled before my show came up for directing, so I never had an opportunity to film that episode. Nevertheless, I became a member of the Directors Guild with that show, and I got paid for it.
I doubt Dennis had anything to do with me nabbing the guest starring role of “Dianne Stone.” I think Corey Allen, the director who I was observing, asked me to do the role. I don’t remember anything about the experience. I had basically stopped acting by then and wanted to direct.
How did your two Bonanza episodes originate?
Agents are so important. They always got me my work, called me up, and told me where and when to go. They had a script sent to me for my first episode entitled “Emily” [aired March 23, 1969].
I portrayed Little Joe Cartwright’s past girlfriend Emily McPhail, so I got to spend time with Michael Landon. We had a kissing scene, and he was very funny. Every time director Leon Benson would call, “Cut!,” Michael would say, “I think we need to do another take.” The crew was laughing, so we’d do another take.
The only television show guest appearance that I got for myself was the second Bonanza that I did — Dilsey Brennan in “A Single Pilgrim” [January 10, 1971]. Bonanza’s producer was a lovely man named Richard “Dick” Collins. Dick and I became friends after I did “Emily.”
About every six weeks or two months we would have lunch. After a season, we were having lunch and he said, “We’d love to have you on our show again, but there are no roles for you this season [this is for the next season]. For example, we’re casting a role next week for a mountain woman who has to be very plain, she’s abused physically by her father-in-law, and you’re not right for that role.”
I replied, “Let me audition for it.” He said, “No, no, no, she has to be depressed.” “I can be depressed!” “No, no, you’re much too pretty, and she can’t be pretty.” “I’m not pretty without makeup!” I kept arguing with him. Finally I said, “Just let me come in and audition for it.” Finally he said “Okay,” I think just to shut me up.
I went to the Salvation Army and bought this dress that was about two sizes too big for me — a very plain, paisley dress. I pulled the hem out on one side so it would hang down. I didn’t wash my hair for days. When the day came for the audition, I wore thong sandals, put dirt under my toes and fingernails, and wore no makeup. And I thought about everything that would make me depressed.
I went into Warner Brothers Studio, and I’ll never forget the look on the receptionist’s face when I walked into the Bonanza office. She thought I was a homeless person who had wandered onto the Warner Bros. lot by mistake. With a very compassionate, puzzled voice, she asked, “May I help you?” She couldn’t believe it when I told her who I was and that I was there for my audition.
Once I was officially cleared to go into my audition, there were about five men present — Dick, director William Wiard, and whoever else was there. They were just speechless and couldn’t believe it was me. I got the role!
Of the primary Bonanza cast, pretty much all of my scenes were with Dan Blocker when I did “A Single Pilgrim.” I also got to work alongside Jeff Corey, who as my father-in-law was beating me up. He was a good actor. John Schuck played my timid husband. I told the makeup man, “I don’t want any makeup.” I encouraged the hairdresser to make me look as plain as possible.
I was very pleased with what I did [Brickell’s final lines to Blocker as he departs the mountaintop brings chills to this day: “Life’s a single pilgrim, fighting unarmed amongst a thousand soldiers,” part of a poem taken from Death’s Jest Book, published posthumously in 1850 by the estate of Thomas Lovell Beddoes].
The producers submitted my performance for Emmy consideration after the episode aired. I didn’t receive an Emmy nomination, but producers could submit one performance a year in each category. The nomination depended on how many SAG [Screen Actors Guild] members actually saw that episode, and not enough people had seen the episode. Incidentally, my second Hawaii Five-O episode was also submitted for Emmy consideration.
In “The Widow and the Rogue” [broadcast on October 29, 1973], your sole appearance on Gunsmoke, you depicted Martha Cunningham, a homesteader seeking a better life out West with her young son [Clay O’Brien]. Rampaging Comancheros brutally murder your husband, who is never seen and is out seeking help for his family’s broken down wagon. As illiterate hillbilly and Deputy Marshal Festus Haggin, beloved Gunsmoke cast member Ken Curtis is transporting the charming, albeit scheming petty thief J.J. Honegger [James Stacy] to the Dodge City jail when they stumble upon your predicament. Do any memories come to mind from your brief stint on perhaps the most iconic western series of them all?
I had no idea until I was a special guest at the 2016 Memphis Film Festival how much interest there is in those westerns from the ’50s, ’60s, and early ’70s when there were so many of them. Gunsmoke and Bonanza remain in syndication to this day, and I didn’t realize that. I was really very surprised.
Almost all of my work on Gunsmoke was with Jim Stacy. I honestly don’t remember much about that episode or even the storyline except the wagon. I liked Jim a lot. He was a very handsome fella and nice guy. Jim had a very terrible motorcycle accident which resulted in the amputation of his left arm and leg not long after we filmed “The Widow and the Rogue.” He and I both did Posse two years later, which was his first role after that devastating accident.
In episodic television, could you meet with the cast and director prior to filming and undergo any rehearsal?
No, episodic television goes too fast. There’s very little time for rehearsal. The only time you rehearse is right before they are going to set up the camera and the lights. The director runs through the scene with the actors, and then the actors go away and prepare whatever their performance requires while the lighting and cameras are being fine-tuned. The next thing you know, you’re on the set, the camera’s rolling, and you’re doing the scene.
The directors were pretty flexible if you requested another take because you felt you could deliver a better performance.
Did you do any location shoots beyond the United States?
I filmed in different places in the United States but never abroad. I filmed in Bend, Oregon, with Clint Walker. We did a 1974 episode of Kodiak together called “The Last Enemy” with fellow guest star William “Bill” Shatner [Walker portrayed a rugged Alaska State Trooper during the 30-minute series’ abbreviated four-episode run].
I never had an opportunity to come back to my home state of Arkansas and do any onscreen work, although as a director I shot two independent TV movies back in Arkansas for PBS [1985’s Summer’s End and 2005’s Mr. Christmas].
Did Kirk Douglas personally seek you out for the role of Mrs. Ross in the underappreciated, decidedly cynical Posse ? Seems like most of your screen time was spent observing the action while politically ambitious Marshal Howard Nightingale [Kirk Douglas] doggedly pursued notorious train robber Jack Strawhorn [Bruce Dern]. You weren’t given ample opportunity to leave much of a lasting impact — the near seduction of Nightingale is your best scene — which makes me wonder if part of your role was trimmed from the breezy ninety-two minute final version.
I don’t think any of my scenes were cut from Posse, as I had more of a featured role. Kirk wanted me for that. He directed, produced, and starred in Posse [Douglas’s only other film as director was Scalawag, a 1973 remake of Treasure Island in a western setting. Released to scathing reviews and limited screenings, Douglas portrayed a peg-legged pirate. The comedy western is officially unavailable in any format although a fan uploaded a decent, albeit unremastered quality print to YouTube].
Actually I learned something very important from Kirk. I had been doing a lot of television. Posse was my second motion picture after The Only Way Home  with Bo Hopkins. Kirk didn’t want me to move my head when I talked. That was very awkward for me because I wasn’t accustomed to doing something so technical — to hold my head still while I was talking no matter what my emotion was, no matter what I was saying. He corrected me on that several times.
Later when I saw the movie I believe that Kirk was right. He told me, “If the actor doesn’t move their head, it makes more of an impact with what they’re saying.” I’ve noticed since then that all of those stars from that generation must have had people telling them that. If you watch their performances they never move their head.
I had a problem on Posse. I was wearing contact lens, and I had just gotten a new left lens that was very sensitive to the light. There we were in Tucson, and I couldn’t go back to the optometrist. My left eye kept closing if they had the lights too strong. When I got back to Los Angeles I had the lens changed. I don’t know if it was too strong, but something was wrong with the prescription.
Do you miss acting, and would you do it again if you were approached with a role that piqued your interest?
I stopped focusing on acting when I went into the American Film Institute in 1975 to become a writer-director [until 1980 Brickell sporadically acted in four TV and film projects culminating with the guest spot in Weaver’s police procedural Stone]. I don’t receive any scripts in the mail. It doesn’t work that way. You’re as hot as your last job in Hollywood.
I’m seriously fascinated by your stint as an investigative reporter leading up to the publication of The Disappearance of Maud Crawford .
After I became a director, Richard Lovett, my agent at CAA, said, “What would you like to do now?” So I told him a little bit about an unsolved mystery in my hometown of Camden which was the disappearance of an attorney back in 1957.
Maud disappeared from the face of the earth one rainy, foggy Saturday night from her colonial mansion. No body, no clue, no trace, and no motive were ever found. Richard told me, “That would make a good movie. Write a screenplay about it.”
I didn’t know enough about it to write a screenplay, so I went back to my hometown and began asking questions, 29 years after Maud had vanished. I discovered in the first week that the case had never been properly investigated, and people in the town were still frightened to talk about it. That really got me interested.
Instead of writing a screenplay, I had a journalism background. I put on my investigative reporter’s hat and stayed 16 months investigating the case. I discovered the motive for murder. I wrote 19 articles, which the state newspaper The Arkansas Gazette published on the front page over a five-month period. It was quite a sensation.
What I learned was that a state police commissioner, who was also the wealthiest person in our county, had her murdered because she was standing in the way of him stealing his senile aunt’s twenty million dollar estate. In today’s money that is equivalent to $164 million dollars, so it was a tremendous amount of money.
At the time in 1985 the three investigators on the original case were still alive, and they were willing to talk to me and tell me things that had not been made public back in 1957.
For example, the state police detective on the case told me, “I found a clue, and I took all of my files, materials, and evidence to Little Rock. I told the chief that everything pointed to Mike Berg having had Maud Crawford murdered. Well, Mike Berg was the state police commissioner.
“The chief said, ‘You can forget about it.’ There’s too much money involved. He can fire you and me on the spot, no questions asked. He removed me off the case and ordered me to leave all of my files and evidence in Little Rock. The next time I went to Little Rock all of my files had disappeared.” So that’s what was going on at the time, and that’s why the case was never properly investigated.
We don’t know for sure what happened to Maud’s body. However, there is suspicion. They were building a new Safeway in Camden at the time. Maud vanished on a Saturday night. Construction workers handling that job said that their orders were changed Monday morning. They were told to pave the parking lot, and that was not what they were supposed to be doing that day.
There was a suspicion that she was buried under the Safeway parking lot. Mike Berg owned a construction company, and they were in charge of leveling the ground for the parking lot. It was believed that he used his influence to have their orders changed and the concrete poured in the parking lot on that Monday morning. That’s why there’s a lot of suspicion that that’s where she’s buried.
Has there been interest in a feature film exploring the unsolved case?
The difficulty with a movie, although I have written a screenplay about it, is that Mike Berg was dead by the time I uncovered the motive and publicized his relationship with Maud. They had a longtime feud about this senile aunt, and Maud was her attorney. Maud had drawn up a will for her leaving her fortune to three out of state nieces. Mike thought that he should get the money, and he ended up getting it all.
It could be an independent movie or made-for-television undertaking. It couldn’t be a big studio movie because they’re not doing that kind of movie anymore. Blockbuster comic book franchises are where the money’s at.
Over the years so many people have contacted me online asking how they can read those articles. I decided to publish them as a book. I wrote an introduction and published all of the articles and approximately 64 photographs that originally ran with the stories as The Disappearance of Maud Crawford. It sells well to this day.
You were persistent and didn’t give up even when you were forcefully urged to back off the investigation. I admire those qualities immensely.
My life was threatened, and everybody kept saying, “You’re going to end up like Maud Crawford.” Everyone thought I was going to get killed, but I didn’t. I’m still here.
Have you considered penning your life story?
I’ve been working on a memoir that fits the description of narrative nonfiction, and that’s what I’m calling it instead of a memoir. Recently I spent a year at Harvard taking creative writing classes to get feedback on the book. I didn’t use a co-writer and haven’t selected a title yet. I continue to improve it and am in the process of getting critiques about my query letter, which literary agents require in order to decide if they want to spend the time reading a manuscript.
I’ve also written two non-fiction books available on Amazon and my web site, LuminousFilms.net. Besides The Disappearance of Maud Crawford, there is William and Mary Brickell: Founders of Miami and Fort Lauderdale, published by the History Press in 2011 and the first book about the most important pioneer couple in South Florida. The Brickells had the same surname as mine but pronounced it differently.
Have you been married?
Yes, I have. In 1991 I married an attorney named Jim Spencer in El Dorado, Arkansas, which is 30 miles from my hometown of Camden. I’m divorced now. I thought I had found true love at the time, but sometimes it doesn’t work out. I am a happy, single person, and have no interest in getting married again.
What is the secret to being a happy, single person?
You have a lot of freedom, no compromise, and don’t have to cook for anybody but yourself. I’m vegetarian, and Jim wasn’t. That was one of our problems. We couldn’t even eat together.
What would your perfect day consist of?
I’ve always been very achievement-oriented, so a perfect day for me would include some kind of creative work — writing, directing, acting, coaching, or teaching.
Any parting words of wisdom?
I’ll tell you a story that Grace Kelly told me. When I met with her, I didn’t know anything about how one becomes an actor. I told her that it was my dream, but that I didn’t know if it was realistic or not.
Grace said, “I would never tell someone not to pursue their dreams because of an experience I had in New York. A young man came to me who had just finished Yale Drama School. He sought my advice and opinion about him going to Hollywood and trying to get in the movies. I talked to him and discovered that he was married with a young son. I told him not to go, that Hollywood was too brutal. It was Paul Newman.” So like Grace Kelly, my advice is that young people should pursue their dreams.
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