By TOM WEAVER
Brooklyn's own Sid Melton (real name: Sid Meltzer) inherited
his comedic talent from his father, a well-known comic who
appeared on stage with many of the greats of his era. (Melton:
"When my father was playing in London, Charles Chaplin
came backstage and wanted to meet him. To tell him how much
he enjoyed his performance.") Sid made his stage debut
in the road company of the Broadway play See My Lawyer
in 1939 and then, with an assist from his screenwriter-brother,
broke into motion pictures two years later. TV fans are apt
to associate him with some of the popular series (Make
Room for Daddy, Green Acres, etc.) he worked on as a regular,
while B movie fans will remember him as the "house nebbish"
for Lippert Pictures, the low-budget outfit that churned out
scores of late 1940s-early '50s pictures -- and, it seemed,
tried to "make room for Melton" in nearly all of
them! Here, he talks about one of his favorite movie roles:
the comic relief Air Force crew chief in director Sam Newfield's
1951 dinosaur "epic" Lost Continent.
SID MELTON: My brother, who's gone, was Lewis Meltzer,
a wonderful screenplay writer who wrote I-don't-know-how-many
movies. His first movie was Golden Boy  --
he adapted the Clifford Odets play for the screen. He also
wrote Rita Hayworth's first starring role, The Lady in
Question  with Brian Aherne. It was a great movie.
And he put in it a part for a guy called Glenn Ford, and
that started him on the road. My brother wrote for Cary
Grant, Charles Laughton ... wonderful pictures.
My brother had friends in the industry, and one of them
was an agent who got me an interview at MGM. And I got the
part: In 1941, I did a little one-scene thing with William
Powell and Myrna Loy, who were giant stars. Shadow of
the Thin Man. It was just a couple of days, but I loved
working in front of the camera with people like Powell.
William Powell was a wonderful actor. I was 20 or 21.
I remember exactly how Robert Lippert and I met. I met
him because of a friend who's gone, Harry Berman. Harry
was an actor -- he was talented, and a wonderful guy. Six-five!
And you're talkin' to a fella five-four, five-three-and-a-half
or four. Harry was with us when we went over to entertain
the troops, toward the end of World War II. After the war,
he suggested that I call this Englishman we knew, an English
writer, wonderful fella. Aubrey Wisberg [a Hollywood screenwriter].
Harry said to call Aubrey, 'cause we both had met him and
knew him. When I called Aubrey, Aubrey said, "You'd
be good for one of the little parts in Treasure of Monte
Cristo" [a 1949 crime drama Wisberg co-wrote and
co-produced]. We went to San Francisco and did it. It was
a Lippert picture and Lippert, having seen me in that, I
guess became slightly interested. Not excited.
Then I did a nightclub revue, wonderful revue, called
Smart Set, at the most famous club in Hollywood ever, Ciro's
on the Sunset Strip. I guess Lippert saw that too, and one
of his associates, Murray Lerner, called me in to do a part
in another Lippert picture. Lerner was a nice guy -- he
knew pictures, the making of 'em, the marketing, the distribution,
everything. This new picture they put me in was called
Tough Assignment  with Don Barry and Marjorie
Steele. After Tough Assignment, I went back to New
York on a bus -- the All American Bus, I'll never forget
it. Forty dollars with meals, and the meals were always
chili [laughs]. In New York, I did a couple of shows, including
one I did on Broadway and I got wonderful notices, wonderful
reviews. Called The Magic Touch. I was staying at
the Capitol Hotel near Madison Square Garden, the original
one, on Eighth Avenue and 50th or 51st Street, and one day
I got a message that I was to call Murray Lerner in Hollywood.
When I got him on the phone, he said, "You want to
come back? Bob Lippert wants to sign you to a contract."
I went back by train -- three days. The bus was five days.
When I got back to Hollywood, they talked to me about
signing with Lippert. Which I did. Terrible, terrible pay,
but that didn't matter, I was thrilled. I will always be
thrilled, because I learned to use my talents before the
camera. That was the thing I loved about it, the fact that
I learned to work before the camera and got to know the
"tricks." I always, always loved the movies, ever since
I can remember.
My favorite director then, and will be one of my favorites
forever, was Sam Newfield, who did Lost Continent and
many other great pictures. His Lost Continent is
an epic that was waaay ahead of its time. He could do anything,
Sammy Newfield, he was one of the most wonderful directors.
He used to let me re-write my own scenes in the various
pictures, which I did.
Do you remember re-writing any of your Lost Continent
SID: No, on Lost Continent I don't think
I did. Maybe I put in a line or two ... I don't remember.
Sammy Newfield's brother was Sig Neufeld, a producer.
(Sammy had changed his name to Newfield.) It was a strange
thing: Sammy and his brother SIG Neufeld, they both had
one short arm. I don't know what the reach is for most people,
31 inches maybe. Well, both Sammy and Sigmund, I would say
there was almost a foot's difference between the two arms.
About 10, 12 inches -- very noticeable. Each had an arm
that was really crippled at birth, both sons. It was an
Newfield knew what he was doin'. I think that guy has
gone down on record as being the fastest B picture director,
and he was (I think) superb at what he did. Sammy Newfield
was an ace behind the camera, knew what he wanted. He was
one of the most wonderful directors and one of the most
underrated. He was never given his "big break,"
the chance to do big A-budget pictures. We did Lost Continent
in 11 days, Nowadays, for the same type of picture, if not
the same picture, they would take five to six months. Eleven
days, we did it in. Most of the features I did for Lippert
were done in five days! Would you believe that? I thought
so much of Newfield, he was that easygoing and that tremendously
gifted. He was the sweetest guy in the world, and I was
so sorry when he went [died]. He and Sidney Furie [Lady
Sings the Blues, 1972] were my two favorite directors.
Sammy was very inventive and very, very kind, he was the
nicest director I ever worked with. I never worked with
anyone as kind and as understanding and as inventive ...
such a great director.
Q: What was your reaction
to being offered a starring role in a sci-fi movie?
SID: It was a very good one, it was a happy one,
a happy reaction. I hadn't read the script yet, but I liked
the idea as soon as I was told, "You guys are assigned
to go and look for a missing rocket." You know who
is in your camp, who really thinks as [highly of Lost
Continent as] you do? Frank Sinatra, Jr. Lost Continent
is one of Frank Sinatra, Jr.'s, favorite movies of all time.
He never stops talking about it. He got me for Christmas
a case of about 10 or 15 VHSs he wanted me to watch, and
one of them is Lost Continent.
We shot Lost Continent at Sam Goldwyn Studios.
The thing that really stunned me was that set that they
built for the climbing-the-mountain scenes, a wonderful,
wonderful set. It was about 60 feet high, and they didn't
have a net -- that really threw me! I'll never forget the
fact that I was that frightened and worried. And a few others
were, too. There were no nets under us, and you really had
to dig into that material that the special effects men and
set designers and carpenters built it out of. It was at
least 60 feet high -- big! -- and there was nothing under
us to catch us. But no one fell, thank God. No one except
for the stunt double for Whit Bissell. The stuntman fell
into a mattress or an air bag or something. It was a pretty
good fall -- and he had to fall backwards. It was not less
than 30 feet.
Everyone in the cast was wonderful. And I don't just say
that. The cast was wonderful to work with -- Cesar Romero
and Whit Bissell and Hugh Beaumont and Chick Chandler. Cesar
Romero, I got along with fine. He was a good actor. Whit
Bissell -- excellent, excellent actor. And John Hoyt --
oh my God, he was a wonderful actor. You know his real name?
Hoysrack. German name. I remember my brother the writer
taking me to see John Hoyt (when he was John Hoysrack) in
a club. A little club, like cafe society. I was about 16
or 17. My brother said, "This man is very funny and
very wonderful." I never drank then, I never drink
now, I never will, but I sat and had my root beer, and Hoysrack
did his wonderful stand-up act. Very, very intelligent,
very intellectual, you know. He'd talk about this friend
of his who was [imitating Hoyt] "veddy, veddy, veddy
much into gardening. He'd have a lovely garden outside his
window. A bed of roses ... a bed of marijuana ... a bed
of roses ... " [Laughs] In Lost Continent, he
was excellent, playing the guy everybody thinks is the heavy.
Wonderful actor and nice man. He was really a gentleman.
I shouldn't even say this, because I have so much respect
for the late, wonderful Sammy Newfield, but for the scene
where I'm killed by the triceratops, I said, "Sam, you know
what'd be a good idea? When the triceratops comes toward
me, let's cut out a cardboard with horns and shadow it over
me." I'm terribly immodest to say that that was my thought.
Robert Lippert liked me very much. Why shouldn't he [laughs]?
If I may be immodest, aside from working cheap, I think
there are very few that can do what I do. I got [good] notices,
writeups from critics -- I throw 'em away, I don't even
save 'em any more. And I still get fan mail, quite a bit.
You know how Lippert started? He owned theaters in and around
San Francisco, and he was supposedly the one [of the theater
owners] who started free dish night. And he loved making
movies once he got into it. I will never stop being appreciative,
appreciating what he did for me. Because I learned to work
before the camera and do these things with the looks and
the reactions and the delivery. You pick these things up.
you mind if I ask how terrible your Lippert salary was?
SID: I don't mind, because it was that terrible!
It was $140 a week. And he did a terribly sneaky thing,
Lippert, may he rest in peace. I was on a loan-out from
him, because Bob Hope wanted me for a part in The Lemon
Drop Kid  at Paramount. I had Bob laughin' for
nine weeks, talkin' and ad libbing. Anyway, Paramount [paid
Lippert] either six or seven hundred a week [for Melton's
services], and Lippert was givin' me my 140 a week. Lippert
just gave me my salary and took the rest. Then, come tax
time, he was gonna have me pay the tax [on the full amount]!
An attorney, Eddie Rose, said, "How dare he do that!
We'll go to the IRS!" Eddie Rose was wonderful, he
called Lippert and told him, "You think you're gonna
have Sid Melton pay the tax on what you made on that deal?"
And Lippert immediately backed out, he said, "No, no,
no!" [Laughs] But he never gave me the difference!
Which of your movies do you hope are still being watched
a hundred years from now?
SID: Well, I think Lost Continent ... The
Steel Helmet  ... and Lady Sings the Blues.
I was very, very proud of Diana Ross' performance in that,
and she was wild about my performance. And Knock on Any
Door , because of Humphrey Bogart. I had a wonderful
scene where Bogart questions me on the witness stand. Oh,
he was wonderful -- and apologetic! He said to me, off-camera,
"Sid, do you mind me wearing glasses?", "Sid,
do you mind me holding the script?" I mean, no one
ever did that but Bogart. I am still, at this moment, sad
about his going [dying] that early. I used to call him at
home, and he'd get right on the phone with me -- oh, he
I remember so much about Lost Continent for the
simple reason that I thought it was that wonderful a picture.
And the amazing thing is that no one -- no one I ever speak
to -- fails to bring up that picture when they're talking
to me about my career. And I've been in the business over
50 years. In fact, make it 60 years [laughs]! There's a
very, very successful, very big, big star, very successful,
his name is Billy Crystal. You know ... the Academy Awards.
He had them call me in [for an interview] when he was producing
a TV thing and also a feature called Mr. Saturday Night
. And he gave me neither [laughs]! But when I walked
in the first time, he looked at me and he said, "You
-- you -- you kept me up four nights! What you did to me!"
Talking about Lost Continent, where the triceratops
had me for lunch! He said he had nightmares for four nights
over the scene where the triceratops got me ... I couldn't
get over that!
Tom Weaver is the author of I Was a Monster Movie Maker:
Conversations with 22 SF and Horror Filmmakers, Science
Fiction Confidential: Interviews with 23 Monster Stars and
Filmmakers and many others available from McFarland