By TOM WEAVER
Vincent Price may have failed to
immortalize Phyllis Kirk in wax in the 1953 chiller House
of Wax, but the experience did immortalize her on film
for generations of horror movie buffs. This was an odd turn
of events for Kirk, who (given her druthers) would have
turned down the top role in the 3-D thriller -- a remake
of Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933) -- because she
had no yen to become the 1950s' answer to Fay Wray.
Danish by descent (real name: Phyllis
Kirkegaard), a native of Syracuse, New York, Kirk had jobs
as a waitress and a perfume counter clerk before she began
a modeling career. Stage roles ensued before Hollywood beckoned;
she was a contract player at MGM and then Warner Brothers,
where she was stalked on the studio's "New York Street"
and other locales by Vincent Price's maniac sculptor in
House of Wax.
Kirk's talents were better showcased
on the small screen, where she had good dramatic roles on
many of the era's prestige series (and consequently made
the covers of TV Guide and Life). Her signature
TV role was as Nora Charles, the daffy, fast-talking wife
of Peter Lawford's The Thin Man (the 1957-59 NBC
TOM WEAVER: Were
you under contract to Warner Brothers when you did House
PHYLLIS KIRK: Yes. Otherwise I would never have
done it [laughs]! The interesting thing is that, with the
arrogance of a young actress who thinks she's going to rule
the world (and doesn't realize, while she's bitching about
House of Wax, that that will probably be the most
memorable thing she does in the movie business), I tried
to turn it down. I bitched and moaned and told [Warners
executive] Steve Trilling that I was not interested in becoming
the Fay Wray of my time [laughs]. And I was told, "Tough
titty; you're under contract, and you'll do what we ask
you to do, unless you care to be suspended." I decided I
didn't want to be suspended. And, incidentally, I went on
to have a lot of fun making House of Wax. It was
just fun; Vincent Price was a divine man, and was a divine
actor. As were all the other people, Paul Picerni in particular.
He was my "love interest" in House of Wax, and he
just was a gentle, kind, wonderful person, a dear guy with
an army of children [laughs]! I had a wonderful time doing
Q: House of Wax
was the first major studio 3-D picture; Paul Picerni said
there were good vibes all around, that people at Warners
felt the picture was going to be a success, and that he
was excited to be in it. What turned you off about it?
PHYLLIS: I just didn't want to be in a film that
I think was using a gimmick. I had already heard about,
and seen finally, the 3-D picture that preceded us, which
was Bwana Devil , and I thought, "I really
don't want to be in House of Wax. It's not serious."
But, after the film was done, I thought it was quite remarkable.
you happen to know who else might have been up for your
PHYLLIS: I have no idea. No one ever told me that
anyone else was ever up for it.
think Vera Miles was. And maybe also Joan Weldon.
PHYLLIS: I don't have any idea. For one thing, they
never tested me. Not that I recall, anyway. But I don't
think they did.
they show you Mystery of the Wax Museum? They did
show it to Andre de Toth before he started directing it.
PHYLLIS: No, they did not. Now, Andre de Toth was
just a remarkable guy, and I had worked with him before
on Thunder Over the Plains , and Crime Wave,
. I admired him and liked him very much. He was really
a remarkable director, and a director who was much more
appreciated in Europe than he was here. In France and in
England, and maybe even in Italy, he was considered a very
imaginative, fine talent. I saw him again not terribly long
ago. He's delightful and intelligent; highly intelligent.
don't think Paul Picerni has ever quite forgiven de Toth
for insisting that he, Picerni, put his head in the working
PHYLLIS: [Laughs] Well, Andre was tough, you know.
And not given to any bullshit that was going to hold up
his film, or not be what he wanted it to be.
were never on the receiving end of any abuse?
PHYLLIS: No, no, no, no, no. Well, I told you,
I had worked with him before, and I worked with him afterwards,
too. Always good experiences. And of course Charles Bronson;
now there was a piece of work. His name was not Charles
Bronson at the time, it was Charlie Buchinsky. I didn't
particularly like him, although in later years I saw that
he really was quite a fine actor, he was very worthwhile.
(And, as with many of us, we get better as people as we
age.) But I didn't care for him ON THAT FILM. This was the
very beginning for him, and he was full of oats and swaggering
around and being terribly macho. (It may have had to do
with the fact that he wasn't very tall.) I got to know him
a bit better later; I didn't work with him again, but I
got to know him over the years because of "group things"
and charity things. And also, I began to like him much more
as an actor.
I had to go to London shortly after
House of Wax came out, and reporters there would
ask me about it. I would just say, "If it's your cup of
tea, drink it!" [Laughs] Anyhow, I felt that it was a well-made,
well-directed film. And scary! And all those running scenes
that I had to do, I did. No double worked for me! I loathed
all the crap about being made into a wax statue -- I mean,
that's no fun! They pour this stuff all over you to make
a mold, and then some genius re-forms the whole thing into
talking about the wax head of you that's in the movie.
PHYLLIS: Well, it was the whole figure.
that you tell me this, I think I can tell from the expression
on the wax head that you didn't have a good time having
that mold made!
PHYLLIS: No, I certainly didn't. And then of course
Carolyn Jones also had to have the same thing done to her.
I didn't really know her very well; she was a good actress.
de Toth once said that Jack Warner ordered him not to wear
his eye patch because then people would make fun of the
fact that the movie was directed by someone who had no depth
perception. Did de Toth go without it?
PHYLLIS: I don't think he ever did. He may have,
but I don't remember it. But it was my favorite story in
London, to point out to everyone that the director of the
film Andre de Toth only had one eye and couldn't see in
three dimensions. Everybody in London thought that was hilarious.
But I'm sure nobody at Warner Brothers thought it was hilarious
that I was saying that!
Toth also tells a funny story about your costume having
so much padding in the bust area that he once stuck you
with a pin, and LEFT it there when you didn't notice.
PHYLLIS: He stuck me with a pin? I probably just
thought that he was ... you know ... feeling my bosom [laughs]!
I wouldn't have been able to feel anything, because the
padding was ... extraordinary! Well, I was even thinner
than Carolyn, and had practically no bosom at all, so they
had to do something. Andre's a naughty boy ... I don't remember
him sticking me with pins, but on the other hand, if he
was distracting me, and doing it at the same time with the
pin, I wouldn't have felt it.
you enjoy making period pictures, wearing costumes of the
Gay 90s, etc.?
PHYLLIS: Well, I did and I didn't. Once I was in
the costumes and performing, I was fine. But getting into
the costumes and going through all that rigmarole was a
producer, Bryan Foy, had a long and interesting show biz
PHYLLIS: Oh, Brynie Foy; he was just a divine old
curmudgeon. That's exactly what he was, with a hellish reputation
for being impossible. I got called to his office before
anyone had even told me that I was going to be in that film,
and he looked at me long and hard and said, "Wellll, Miss
Kirk, we're giving you this part because you're the only
intelligent actress I know that I can stand." [Laughs] All
right? That's all I remember!
you like the guy?
PHYLLIS: Well ... yes. He was a character. I didn't
know him intimately, I didn't go to dinner with him, I didn't
know his family; I just knew him as a figure in a studio.
But I knew a lot about him, because he had done some worthwhile
things in his career.
what was Vincent Price like on the set?
PHYLLIS: Friendly ... unselfish ... generous, really
generous as an actor, in terms of working with other actors.
I didn't know Vincent intimately, but I knew him as a professional,
and I found him incredibly intelligent and with a great
sense of humor.
you work with him before or after?
you, Price didn't want to do the picture. Then de Toth told
him his concept of the role; de Toth wanted there to be
a vulnerability to the character, he wanted audience sympathy.
That won Price over.
PHYLLIS: I was a fan of Vincent's going into House
of Wax -- right from the days when I saw him first in
The Eve of St. Mark , where he played a Southern
soldier. And that's going back. I just thought he was brilliant,
and then sort of followed everything he ever did. I got
tired after a while of seeing him in horror film after horror
film, because he was much more than that.
memories of Frank Lovejoy?
PHYLLIS: Oh, well, how could you not have memories
of that adorable man? I liked him very much.
memories do you have of the final scene, when you're Price's
prisoner in the waxing vat?
PHYLLIS: They had flesh-colored gauze around me
to create the illusion that I was nude, and Andre kept saying,
"Phyllis ... pull it down a little further." And I said,
"Andre ... I have no bosom. I greatly resemble my father
in that department, and if I pull it down any further, whatever
the 'illusion' is now will be, I promise you, gone!" [Laughs]
I remember that very well! I was furious.
long did that scene take to film?
PHYLLIS: Oh, I don't know, I can't remember, honey,
it was a hundred years ago! You're lucky I can remember
what I've remembered [laughs]!
Warner was reportedly so afraid of production falling behind
that he asked some of the key people NOT to leave the Warners
PHYLLIS: That was the situation and I was asked
to, for the duration of the picture, sleep on the lot, in
an actor's ... cubicle. No, it wasn't a cubicle, it was
perfectly nice, but they resembled apartments. Warners used
them for visiting dignitaries and things like that.
most of the cast asked to stay?
PHYLLIS: I think I was the only one who AGREED
to do it [laughs]. I think I thought at the time, "I have
to get up soooo early, and when I leave the studio at the
end of the day, I have to drive all the way to Beverly Hills,"
which is where I was living. I thought, "I might as WELL
just stay here."
character is very intelligent; she figures out what Price
is up to before anyone else does. But otherwise it's a pretty
standard screaming, needs-to-be-rescued female lead.
PHYLLIS: Well, that was my point. The characters
they gave young women in those days were by and large --
not always, of course -- but by and large dreary. And so
you just did the best you could, right?
an interview you gave around that time, you said you'd probably
always be a spinster because "I'm so strong and I'm so able
to look out for myself. Men prefer girls who want to be
PHYLLIS: I never felt about my [House of Wax
character] that she wanted to be coddled.
I get the impression from your interviews you were a lot
more independent than the average young Hollywood actress
PHYLLIS: I guess that's true. In fact, yes, that
IS true. Still am!
also worked as an interviewer and writer for an ACLU newspaper
and as a TV interviewer. How did you enjoy that phase of
PHYLLIS: The ACLU thing happened in the middle
of my acting career, and it happened mostly because I was
hellbent to keep the state of California from executing
a guy named Caryl Chessman. Ultimately, I had to give an
address to the State Assembly about the whole situation;
I even went to San Quentin (on three occasions, I think)
and talked to Chessman. There's no doubt at all that he
did some dastardly things, but he did not kill anybody.
And it infuriated me because the state Legislature kept
going out into the public and saying that his behavior had
driven a young girl insane when in point of fact, the young
girl had been insane for years. It was that kind of thing.
And also, I abhor capital punishment, always have and always
will. Of course, the William Morris Agency, who represented
me at the time, wanted to kill me, [because I had done]
these things. I looked at one of the guys there, I remember,
and very rudely said, "If it hadn't been for God's kindness,
you probably would be in prison for the same thing." Well,
it was true; this particular agent was a great womanizer.
In 1957, you told an interviewer that you wanted to eventually
produce and direct. Were you on the level?
PHYLLIS: Not a director. I would have loved to
be a producer, which simply means that you put it all together
and tell people what you want and expect them to deliver.
your old interviews, you come across as very feisty, as
the type who resented interviewers who didn't do their homework.
Was that the real you, or was that just schtick?
PHYLLIS: Oh, no, that was ME. There are a lot
of reporters who don't do their homework, and you have to
do their homework FOR them. So you wind up interviewing
YOURSELF [laughs]! Other reporters DO do their research,
and they're interesting and fun.
and years from now, people in their homes can push a button
and see ANY movie, or ANY TV episode. Which of YOUR credits
would you like them to watch?
PHYLLIS: I'd like them to watch The Thin Man.
other "recommendations" for future generations?
PHYLLIS: Are you putting all of this in a time
like to think of my books as "time capsules," yes!
PHYLLIS: Okay [laughs]. There were a couple of
live television things I did that I loved doing, and I liked
when they were finished. There was a series called Robert
Montgomery Presents and we did The Great Gatsby,
and Robert Montgomery played Gatsby and I played the girl.
I loved that, I thought they did a wonderful job with it.
was a lot of speculation way back when as to whether you
and Peter Lawford really got along on The Thin Man.
PHYLLIS: Peter Lawford and I got along BEAUTIFULLY,
we were good friends, and we continued to be good friends
long, long, long after The Thin Man was gone.
rumors that he disliked you, that you two never were friendly
-- how did those rumors start?
PHYLLIS: Because that's what people DO! I mean,
how can you ASK me such a silly question, when every day
you pick up a newspaper and read things about actors and
actresses that are just ... LUDICROUS! Far-fetched and TOTAL
lies! They love to write things like that, they think it's
"scintillating," and it makes reporters thrilled if they
can suggest that there's a feud going on between two people
who have to work together every day. That's what it IS,
was it about The Thin Man that makes it your favorite?
PHYLLIS: Well, it was fun, and it was fun to DO.
I loved Dashiell Hammett. Our series was not a carbon copy
of the Thin Man books, or the Thin Man [movies]
done by William Powell and Myrna Loy, because it was television
and it was in the '50s. They had us sleeping in separate
beds, and you couldn't say even a MILD expletive; that could
NOT be in the script. I just had fun doing it, I LOVED doing
it, and I was very fond of Peter.
you watch your own movies and TV shows today?
PHYLLIS: Well, if something comes up on the air
I watch it. But I don't have tapes of ANYthing.
read that you tried to veer away from having show business
people as guests on your TV talk show.
PHYLLIS: No, that's not true, although I DID do
other things, largely. But [guest selection] didn't really
have anything to do with ME, it had to do with the producer,
Shirley Bernstein, Leonard Bernstein's sister. We did a
lot of interesting things, but not necessarily "show biz
what do you do today?
PHYLLIS: I'm not doing ANYthing in show business.
I've begun over the years having difficulty walking properly,
and it isn't because (evidently) of any known illness, it's
just ... a fact [laughs]. So I haven't acted for a long
time; a VERY long time. Not since the early '70s. And THEN
what I did was to find a new career, I went into the public
relations business and I worked for a public relations firm
for several years, and then I went to CBS as a publicist.
And then I went BACK to the original press office that I
worked for BEFORE CBS ... because it was time to leave CBS.
We had Mr. [Laurence] Tisch galloping around, making weeeeird
decisions about all kinds of things. And a whole army of
us left because Mr. Tisch considered us "too old." I'm retired
your claim to fame, of course, is House of Wax.
PHYLLIS: After I left Warners, I went on and did
mountains of television, and The Thin Man with Peter
Lawford, and all of those things are much more memorable
in terms of people remembering them than the movies I did.
The movies I made were [laughs] ... somewhat obscure, I
think you would say. But House of Wax was not obscure.
And I must say, the interest in it over the years, and the
comments about it, and the times that they have replayed
it, including with the 3-D glasses; amazing. Just amazing!
And it wasn't a big hit originally, was it?
it was on the list of the top grossers of 1953.
PHYLLIS: It was? Well ... what do I know? Or ...
what do I care [laughs]?!
Tom Weaver is the author of John Carradine: The Films,
Science Fiction and Fantasy Film Flashbacks, Attack of the
Monster Movie Makers and many others available from