Q&A with Rebel Without a Cause Screenwriter Stewart Stern

Back in 1999 at the beginning of my magazine career, I interviewed Rebel without a Cause screenwriter Stewart Stern for Seattle magazine, where I was an editor. In the spirit of today’s Cinemode, Rebel without a Cause, I thought it would be fun to dig up this lost interview after all these years and post it on On This Day In Fashion. The short Q&A with Stern centers around the fact that I’d recently discovered that the author—the nephew of Paramount Pictures founder Adoph Zukor and actress Mary Pickford, and first cousins to the Loews, who ruled MGM—had traded in the jungles of Hollywood for the wilds of Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo, where he was a hiding out as a docent with the gorillas. Stewart was nothing less than a peach, and we talked in his garden and living room for about three hours. I didn’t ask him about fashion or anything stylewise, of course, but he told me about James Dean and surprised me with a cool story about Jim Morrison and another about his aunt, the legendary actress and “It” girl, Mary Pickford.

It took me hours to find this little gem—probably the fourth or fifth story I ever published—on an old disk, and now I’m determined to find the mini-cassette tape I recorded the whole thing on. I don’t remember exactly what was on that tape (lots of family bits and a conversation about the homosexual undertones of Rebel comes to mind), I only remember that as a young writer I was devastated at all the words I had to cut. When (if) I ever find that tape, I’ll maybe transcribe it and post the whole long-lost interview. In the meantime, this conversation is what made the cut for publication:

[Originally published in the November 1999 issue of Seattle magazine]

My dear little Stewart,

I am not going on the choo-choo train so I can’t take you with me. It is too hot in California but maybe in the winter we can be together.
I think you are the dearest, sweetest little boy that I know, and I love you very much.
Promise me to be a big brave. Try and not be afraid of bugs and animals anymore because I know you are really my brave.
Goodbye for a little while—big hugs and kisses for a dear little boy.

your Aunt Mary Pickford

This letter is framed on the wall in Stewart Stern’s Madison Valley home between two photographs of actress Mary Pickford dressed as Peter Pan. It was a role she longed, in vain, to perform, and her devotion to that play was young Stern’s introduction to the theater. The adult Stern is now a renowned screenwriter and author, best known for scripting the classic Rebel Without a Cause. Today the little boy who was afraid of bugs and animals is a devoted volunteer at Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo, where he works with western lowland gorillas and mountain cattle. He also teaches screenwriting at the University of Washington Extension program. I spent an afternoon with Stern discussing baseball, animals and a pair of famous Jims.

Ali Basye: You must have a great scrapbook from Hollywood. What was it like working with James Dean?

Stewart Stern: Jimmy was very kind and very quiet. He was good at calling attention to special kinds of moments during rehearsal that would work into the film. There were improvised moments in Rebel. Where they’re on the bluff and Buzz says to Natalie, “Gimme some dirt.” And she gives him dirt and rubs his hands, and he says, “Gimme a kiss.” And she kisses him. And then Jimmy says, “Me too.”

And you think he means a kiss?

Right. And she says, “What?!” And Jimmy says, “Some dirt.” Well, that was partly in the script and partly not.

I’ve heard you were dismayed to learn that knifing was popularized after Rebel Without A Cause.

Of all the things to take away from the movie, they took the knife fight.

An audience takes what it wants. I was disappointed to visit Jim Morrison’s grave and find it littered with cigarette butts and empty bottles of booze.

I once cooked dinner for Jim Morrison.

What did you cook for him?

Steak and salad. For hours we talked about everything except rock ’n’ roll. I couldn’t believe this was the same guy who played with the Doors. Around midnight Jim said he had to go to work and I said, “Work? It’s 12 o’clock at night!” He said that’s when he really got going and began work. So he asked if I wanted to come along. We drove up to the studio, and that’s when Jim Morrison came out! It was like Sybil! He was jumping around and singing his heart out. They did about four songs and then he just collapsed on the floor. They said, “Oh, he always does that.” We piled him into the back of a car and he drove off in the night. And I never saw him again.

Are you retired from Hollywood? You haven’t written anything since “A Christmas To Remember” [for television, 1978].

I think I’m retired.

Are you writing anything new?

I’m working with students. I’m working with my marriage because I got married very late. My wife, Marilee, is an inspiration. She’s an artist and just had her first one-woman show in New York. Coincident with when I stopped writing movies, I moved to Seattle. We are sort of following our bliss here.

When did you move north?

In 1986. I was still working with Paul Newman. [Stern gathered 22,000 pages of research for an autobiography of Newman, an old friend, which is yet unwritten.] I was commuting from L.A. to Seattle, and I fell in love with the Woodland Park Zoo.

I got to be a baseball fan when I started watching the Mariners. The decency that comes out of the interchange between the catcher and the pitcher is important. All those players really play their hearts out. But [catcher] Dan Wilson was the one I focused on. And he sent me a baseball! That’s a talisman. Then I heard about how active he is in community work. I began to notice how active this whole community is. It confirms my feelings about Seattle people and how involved they are up here.

How did you end up at the zoo?

When I began to go up to the zoo to edit transcripts for Paul, I noticed how happy the animals were, and how happy all these people in khaki were—the docents. And I found that I could volunteer. We give tours and we explain why the animals are important and what zoos are for. We’re sort of go-betweens, because the animals are really the ambassadors, wonderful animals that represent something that is diminishing so fast it is probably going to disappear.

Would you do anything different?

I think if I could do it again I’d be a baseball player. A ballplayer who also volunteers at the zoo.

This interview originally ran in the November 1999 issue of Seattle magazine.

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