I am not using names in this series of articles about my dad because it is his legacy that matters. I am going to change that this time because Ham Smith, principal of then-newly opened Oakwood High School, changed my life forever. Forever for the good.
I need to back up just a bit. I had taken off with a teen-aged girl to parts unknown earlier in the year. I had stolen money from my dad to do so. I was 15 or 16 at the time. It was during the school year. Not only was I a missing teen, with an undercurrent of drug trafficking that wasn’t true but still an undercurrent, but truant and traveling across state lines. Things were messy because of my behavior.
My dad, James Whitmore, was an actor of some recognition at the time. He’d been nominated for an Academy Award and had starred in a popular television series, “The Law and Mr. Jones,” as well as other TV shows and movies. It was 1966 or 1967.
When I ran out of money in Elk City, Oklahoma, I called and he wired me the money to come home. I had stopped caring. Too painful, I guess. He had not. Pali High, short for Pacific Palisades High School, didn’t want me back. I didn’t care. I had a job as a delivery boy at a liquor store and was drinking as often as I could. My dad let it be known that he was going to find a school for me and he would help provide me with a life worth living.
Off we went. Together. Trying to find a private school – no public school would take me. We went to a couple in Santa Barbara. No way, they said. My grades were not even close to their standards. I think because I basically skipped my junior year, my GPA was F or worse, if that’s possible. Others said no as well. Dad even tried out of state private schools. Some back east where he had connections. They all said no. A resounding no. And remember, at the time, my dad was somewhat famous and certainly financially sound. But no school wanted to have anything to do with me.
Enter Hamlin Smith. My dad had heard of a school in the San Fernando Valley in Southern California that had just opened that might be a fit for me. It was called Oakwood School. It had been founded by fellow actors, movie directors, composers, writers, etc. In other words, artists who wanted to give their kids a better education that was not being offered in public schools at the time. I forget if it was K-12 or just junior and high school. I do remember Ham Smith, though. I will never forget him and to this day am grateful for his intelligence, wisdom and love. He cared about his students.
When I met him for the first time at his office in this converted-church like structure, he seemed disheveled; an unkept work bench. His hair was uncombed. His clothes appeared to have been used as blankets. He was, however, keenly interested in me. He asked a series of questions nobody else had asked. I honestly can’t remember the questions, but they were intriguing and forced me to pay attention. That I do remember.
After a while, he said I could come to the school but I would have to repeat the 11th grade. I didn’t care. My dad was enthusiastic about this new chapter. My dad was enthusiastic about me.
Oakwood seemed just like any other school at first, except smaller. The teachers were younger, I remember, and the classes were much smaller. Otherwise, boring as hell. Obviously, I was a spoiled brat. Not because of my parents. My brothers were not like me. They certainly had their challenges but nothing like the selfish liar I had blossomed into. They made friends easy, excelled at sports and received good grades. I had no friends, except one – a good one – and grades were absent as my attendance. The only thing I did have was girlfriends. That was never a problem.
Yes, I was getting drunk every chance I got. Before school. After school. Not easy when your 16 or 17, but alcoholics manage to find a way.
Every now and then I would see Ham Smith barreling through the school courtyard like a bowling ball. He was a force to be reckoned with. He always asked how I was doing. Always. Just being around him made life better.
Then a teacher at Oakwood who’d been volunteering at a then-successful drug rehabilitation center, Synanon, asked me a question that would change my life again. He wanted to do a play in the school’s main chapel. Oakwood to this day is still in and around that old church. The chapel was the main auditorium at the time. This was really more a dramatic reading really of a popular book of its day, “Franny and Zooey” by J.D. Salinger.
He said he needed experienced actors to do the piece. He said I had acted before. It was a statement more than a question. I said “of course” or some other lie in the affirmative; never acting a day in my life. At least, not the way he intended.
Simultaneously, the teen-aged girl I had run off with was out of my life. I had, much to my surprise, abided by my dad’s rule and had stopped seeing her until a fateful day when I saw that big, clumsy blue Cadillac she drove with the huge, pitted metal fins. Like a rumbling, cranky shark, it came down the street, coughing and wheezing behind me. She pulled up beside me. I started to tremble. I approached her car.
“Hi, Steve,” she said coyly, wearing a low-cut T-shirt. I was pretty much trembling in high-gear now. Cleavage can do that to a man, especially a teen-ager. I hadn’t seen her for months. I’m sure I mumbled something of a hello in nature.
“I’m pregnant, Steve,” she said matter-of-factly. Stunned, I still managed to ask: “Is it mine?” Smiling, she said, “I’m not telling,” and drove off. The rusty old blue shark Cadillac disappeared around a corner with a final cough from the exhaust.
Part Six: Success and more of my dad’s love protects his son from himself.