Blog post by Ross Munro for Wholly Cinema.
As I checked out the recent Twilight Time bluray release of Charles Bronson’s 1973 woefully underseen crime drama “The Stone Killer”, I couldn’t help noticing the top notch supporting role played by veteran character actor Stuart Margolin. Suddenly, my memory was jarred back to thinking about all the great movies and TV shows that Mr. Margolin has been a part of: from the following year’s “Death Wish” ( as the man who gifts Bronson with the pistol that starts his avenging reign of terror on the mean streets of NYC) to the award-winning sidekick, Angel, in the classic LA-noir TV series “The Rockford Files”.
I immediately realized I just had to set upon the path of tracking down this amazing actor and interview him for Wholly Cinema. It was an immense pleasure to chat with the still hard working Iowa-born and Texas-raised actor about his life and career…
Wholly Cinema: How did you get involved in being part of Charles Bronson’s “The Stone Killer” and how did that lead to your role in the following year’s “Death Wish”?
Stuart Margolin: I met with the director of “The Stone Killer”- Michael Winner. That was just a regular interview and we talked about the character in the movie. That was back in the days of the Vietnam war and we talked about the young soldier who was involved in the Mai Lai massacre and I said that’s what the character reminded me of. He liked that and so we went with that. I believe it was one year later and Michael Winner was doing “Death Wish” and he brought me back in.
WC: What was it like working with Charles Bronson?
SM: It was quite the experience- he kept very much to himself. I’ve told this true interesting story: we had done “The Stone Killer” and we’d just finished shooting “Death Wish” and I went to the airport to fly home and he walked into the airport and saw me and introduced himself. Even though we acted in scenes together we had never actually met- that gives you some idea of how he kept to himself.
WC: What inspired you to get into acting?
SM: I just kind of always wanted to do it when I was a kid. My original instinct was probably to be a singer and a dancer but I couldn’t sing and didn’t want to study to be a dancer- so acting seemed like the next best thing.
WC: What would you say is your style of acting?
SM: From the time that I first studied acting I spent time studying around those who used and taught the Stanislavsky Method of acting. I’ve tried to emulate and always live that style- I try to engage whoever I’m acting with and listen to them and react to what they say or do. They say, ‘acting is reacting’.
WC: Was there a defining moment when you thought ‘hey, I can make a living doing this’?
SM: I made the decision after high school to go to the Pasadena Playhouse to study acting and after two years left that and spent another year studying in New York City. Then I came back to California to do a play and got an agent because I started working- my career was a slow but steady climb as I got bigger and bigger parts. This went on for ten or twelve years and then I was being sought after as a young character actor and comedian until I had a choice to be on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” or “Nichols” with Jim Garner- I chose to work with Jim Garner because I thought I’d have more fun which I never regretted.
“Nicholls” lasted a year (1971-72)- it was a great series with great writers and was the favorite show Jim ever did. It closed down after a year and then I was approached by Jim’s executive producer and Stephen J. Cannell to be part of “The Rockford Files”. So my career got a little bigger and I won a couple of Emmys and I’ve had a real steady career over the years with a lot of parts.
WC: What was your experiences working with the great James Garner?
SM: He was one of my best friends which didn’t develop immediately but came about the more we worked together. I mean, we always liked each other but there was a scene early on in “Nichols” where he was coming down the staircase and I was trying to go up and we improvised a little as we kind of crossed each other up and I think at that moment we both realized we had chemistry together. Our timing was in sync and we both enjoyed that.
WC: How do you feel about being labeled a “character actor”?
SM: I’ve always enjoyed being a character actor. I always thought character actors were my heroes and that’s what I became.
WC: What was it like working on all those iconic TV shows from the 1970’s?
SM: I was very fortunate to work with great writers which any actor will tell you is a great way to further your career. Jim Brooks, who wrote “The Mary Tyler Moore Show”- I guess you’d have to call him one of the greatest TV writers of all time. And also film writer and director- he went on to do everything. Similarly in “The Rockford Files”, the second writer in command was a guy named David Chase who went on to create “The Sopranos”.
WC: How has all your acting experiences informed your abilities as a director?
SM: I think when I first started directing I’d written some scripts and it occurred to me that if I want to see them become what I’d written then I’d better learn to direct. Since I wasn’t technically trained as a director I realized that my strong suit was working with actors and create the proper setting for them to do their best work. The best directing I’ve ever done came from my experience of acting.
WC: Over the years, what changes have you noticed in the film/TV industry?
SM: When I first started making films they used to use those big lights that were fed by carbon- sometimes the lights would go out or start to flicker in the middle of a shot. This is when they shot on film- you’d do a “take” and then the director would “print” it or not. If you printed more than one take then that cost you more money at the film laboratory but nowadays on digital you can shoot as many takes as you want. So just in that sense alone it’s a speedier process and has become a boon for low budget films.
WC: What are you currently working on?
SM: I just finished a film that I wrote called “What The Night Can Do”. I ended up acting in it along with Jo Beth Williams and Max Martini and an actress from Toronto named Peyton Kennedy which was directed by Christopher Martini. I’m super proud of this film and was also a co-producer on it- so keep an eye out for the movie. I made a Canadian film a couple of years ago called “The Second Time Around” that got very good reviews when it played at the Whistler Film Festival and had a six week run in Toronto which is very good for an independent Canadian film. I want to get back to writing now- the first thing I’m going to do is a collection of short stories I’ve wanted to do for a long time about teenagers and juvenile delinquents of the 1950’s as a forerunner to the revolution of the 1960’s. A subject I know well.
Viva La Cinema!