The Spanish Flu, the pandemic that swept the world at the end of the second decade of the 20th century, has been mentioned a lot in the context of the current global health crisis. In the early years of this century the catastrophe that began in the last year of World War I was still within living memory. In a 2006 interview with the Irish Echo, Broadway and Hollywood actor Kevin McCarthy, then 92, spoke about the deaths of both of his parents in the pandemic three months before his 5th birthday. He recalled his “bad childhood” more generally, his decision to become an actor, his most famous film, “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” 50 years on (he’s pictured above in a scene with Dana Wynter) and his close relationship with his sister, the novelist and critic Mary McCarthy. He died at age 96 on Sept. 11, 2010.
By Peter McDermott
People aren’t writing roles for someone at Kevin McCarthy’s stage of life
“When do you find somebody, you hope his name is Anthony Hopkins,” he told the Echo in an interview.
So when the distinguished Welsh actor came knocking on his door recently, McCarthy didn’t hesitate for a second.
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It’s not that he’s complaining too much, or that he hasn’t been in movies recently. He has roles in three — albeit low-profile — 2006 releases. But the 92-year-old Hollywood veteran loves to work and the offers aren’t coming in with the regularity that he’d like.
That’s why he described as a “piece of gold ore” his five days filming with Hopkins on the edge of the desert earlier this month.
“It was great,” he said. “We covered a lot of material.”
Hopkins will require McCarthy again later in the spring to do more work on “Slipstream,” a project that has been a few years in the works, and is now scheduled for a 2007 release.
“What a terrific guy he is, and his talent just doesn’t quit,” McCarthy said of his latest costar. “He’s a Da Vinci type: he’s writing the thing; directing it; he’s going to play the leading role; he’ll be writing the music.”
The man who made Hannibal Lecter a household name will in “Slipstream” play a character, Bonhoff, who is obsessed with “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” and its star Kevin McCarthy.
“It’s strange and fascinating,” McCarthy said of the film’s script.
His work with Hopkins is but the latest episode of a remarkable life that began in Seattle on Feb. 15, 1914. A baby girl had arrived 19 months before him; Mary McCarthy went on to become an internationally celebrated novelist and critic.
They were the two oldest children of Roy McCarthy, scion of a prosperous Minnesotan Irish Catholic family, and Tess Preston, who was born to a Jewish mother and Protestant father in Washington State.
Preston enthusiastically embraced the McCarthys’ Catholicism and sent her firstborn, who would write “Memories of a Catholic Girlhood,” to the local convent school in Seattle.
Roy McCarthy struggled to find a direction in life and though he eventually qualified as a lawyer, he never practiced fulltime and remained dependent on his well-off parents. As a college student, he was told he had a badly damaged heart and was hospitalized for alcoholism at least once, though he quit drinking permanently after his daughter was born. Looking back, no one doubted that he adored his wife and young family (two more sons, Preston and Sheridan, followed Kevin’s birth).
In the fall of 1918, as the Great War in Europe drew to a close, J.H. McCarthy bought a house in Minneapolis for his eldest son and ordered him to come home. The couple and their four children, along with Roy’s brother and sister-in-law, who’d been sent to help them pack, boarded a train in Seattle in late October.
All eight came down with flu on the journey. “When, at last, the train arrived in Minneapolis, two of the four adults had to be lifted down to the station platform on stretchers and were taken to the second floor of the J.H. McCarthy house on Blaisdale Avenue,” writes Frances Kiernan in her 2000 biography of the novelist.
Roy McCarthy died on Nov. 6. The next day, Tess Preston McCarthy also became a victim of the epidemic that killed 20 million people worldwide.
The McCarthy grandparents simply told Kevin, three months short of his 5th birthday, that his parents had gone away, which the actor believes was psychologically devastating for a small child.
He retains strong memories of Roy and Tess McCarthy — “very romantic ones.”
And he still associates that traumatic turning point in his life with Armistice Day in Minneapolis.
“Whistles were blowing, bells ringing, horses braying; there were automobile horns — all kinds of noise,” he said.
Speaking from his home in Sherman Oaks, Calif., 87 years later, he remembered himself as “this little kid, who was standing in a pile of snow at 11 o’clock in the morning, and wondering what had happened to his parents, who had disappeared suddenly.”
J.H McCarthy and his domineering wife, Elizabeth, made the fateful decision to entrust the small children to her sister, who lived in rather less comfortable circumstances two blocks away.
Margaret Sheridan Shriver, then in her 50s and recently married for the first time, had no experience of caring for small children. But the real problem was her husband, Myles Shriver, who severely beat his new charges, particularly the two oldest, for the least infraction.
In that era, orphans were looked down upon and pitied in equal measure, but were also considered fortunate, as in this case, if there were rich grandparents and other family to save them from institutionalized care.
In fact, comparing notes in adulthood, Mary and Kevin McCarthy discovered that they had both independently conjured up fantasies of escaping to a nearby orphanage.
After six years, the Prestons stepped in and took their granddaughter away to live with them in Seattle, where she continued her Catholic education. The boys — also plucked from the “dire situation,” as McCarthy described it — stayed in Minnesota, billeted in schools or the homes of various relatives.
Thirty years later, Mary McCarthy consulted her brothers when writing a series of New Yorker essays that became “Memories of a Catholic Girlhood,” and today, Kevin McCarthy still recommends the volume as an authentic account of his own childhood up until their paths diverged, when he was in his 11th year.
They met again a decade later and renewed a close relationship that endured until her death in 1989.
McCarthy continues to be immensely proud of his sister, who was perhaps best known for “The Group,” her best-selling 1963 novel that follows the lives of eight Vassar graduates.
“You just have to pick up any book she has written, at any time, at any page and any one, two or three sentences and feel you’re in the right place,” he said. “Such a marvelous talent with the language.”
Because of his “bad childhood,” McCarthy decided to make up for it by having a good time in college, but he performed poorly academically, squandered much of his inheritance and eventually dropped out.
Back in Minnesota, he was living at the YMCA on a $5 a week budget. “I was in a bad way, living on Milky Ways and hamburgers. It was awful.
“I had to redeem myself or I wouldn’t have much of a future,” McCarthy recalled.
The family money had virtually run out, but he convinced his guardian to give him the $26 admission fee to the University of Minnesota.
He took what he regarded were the hardest courses – such as psychology and philosophy — and did well.
McCarthy also got a campus job to pay his way, and it was one of his fellow-workers who suggested he consider the student theater group, which had plenty of women recruits but had trouble getting men to try out. His friend added that he’d heard it was casting for “Henry IV, Part I.”
McCarthy replied that he’d taken some Shakespeare in his courses and struggled with the meaning of the language. “I couldn’t possibly do it,” he told him.
“You don’t have to make sense of it. Just talk loud,” his friend responded, daring him to show up.
“So I talked loud,” McCarthy said, laughing. He got the part.
“It was the beginning of the end of everything else for me except theater,” he said.
The tradition continues in the family. His daughter is studying for her Masters degree in theater studies in New York City.
McCarthy has two children from his second marriage to Kate Crane McCarthy, “my present and everlasting wife”, whom he married in 1979 and three from his first marriage, which ended in the early 1960s. He also has a stepdaughter.
“They’re all great,” he said proudly of his children.
But his other passion remains central to his life.
“Kevin is an amazing professional and never complains no matter how rough things may be. Once he shows up for work, he’s there to work,” said director Paul Bunnell, who cast McCarthy in his 2006 movie “The Ghastly Love of Johnny X,” which he described as a “Sci-Fi-Musical-Comedy.”
McCarthy, said Bunnell, “reworked some of his dialogue, with my blessing, to make his character more believable.
“There was one slightly heated debate on the set between Kevin and myself about how to play a particular moment in the script,” he said.
“In the end we wound up playing it both ways. I think Kevin’s way might have been the best.”
Bunnell recalled also the young cast and crew bonded quickly with McCarthy.
Kevin McCarthy on the film set signing some memorabilia.
“They loved him,” he said.
He recalled that Will Keenan, who plays the film’s title role, asked the veteran star if he had any advice for a young actor.
McCarthy inquired: “Are you working? Are you getting any jobs? Do you feel like you’re making progress at the game?”
Keenan said he was and added: “But mostly I just keep getting parts like this. Oddball characters. Misfits.”
McCarthy nodded and said: “Well, just keep going, son. Just keep going.”