Charles Holdefer

THE LEO INTERVIEW

from The North American Review


"Regrets are too easy. Remorse spun pure — that would be more like it."

So says Leo, though in a tone that is anything but severe. In fact, his most striking
feature, even more than a still imposing physical presence, is his chipper spirit. Like a
breeze it wafts through the uptown sunbeams entering his apartment at the Althea where
walls are studded with photographs of a career spanning the 20th century. Above the
exercise bike with four pedals, faces and accolades of those as iconic as himself,
interspersed with publicity stills of the once famous, now forgotten, and the smiles of
unknowns. All paying tribute.  

"Remorse about what?"

"Oh, not remorse of the
ordinary sort." He laughs. "That's hardly me."

Chipper, yes, but Leo has never been one for modesty. Informality makes no difference,
and in fact allows him to press his advantage. He conducted this interview wearing only a
lemon chiffon robe. The famous mane is thinner now, grayer, and a conspicuous paunch
swells where the satin sash is loosely tied, an immodesty which only the force of his
personality saves — just barely — from an appearance of being crude. His tail, which in
conversation he will seize and shake at you to underline a point, is combed to a glossy
tossle at the end. Finely powdered, too, with a scent of gardenia, if this interviewer's
nostrils may be trusted. Despite his years he remains undeniably handsome.

"In the beginning we were all just so busy, we didn't have time, my friend, to think about
remorse or anything along those lines. Wasn't till later, maybe the first USO tour, that
what I was doing began to be more than just work and assume a sort of weight. [As he
says this, one's eyes inevitably stray to the framed photograph on the nearby grand
piano, of a helmeted Leo in a jeep with Eisenhower.] I was going through a bad marriage
at the time. All the travel and the rest of it. Europe was a mess, you can't imagine the
conditions we had to put up with for the show! We had a bunch of skinny little guys,
Alsatians I think, running in a circle around a big wheel under the stage just so we could
get enough electricity for the lights. Where was I? Oh, yeah: telegrams about the divorce,
and me doing the same song and dance every night. The roar, of course. I couldn't wait to
leave. Then I realized there was no home waiting for me to go back to."

More than half a century ago — when Leo started making the entire world his home. In
the process he made his share of enemies, participated in some colossal flops, even
embarrassed himself. Yet all but the most sour of his critics acknowledge the extent to
which he appealed to millions. And they all agree on the reason why: The Roar.

Audiences in theaters the world over thrilled to his signature cry. It was a call to dreams,
a preamble to romance as couples clutched each other in the dark. Children tingled with
awe and anticipation of adventure. Leo brought it all.
The promise! Leo felt like everything
America might hope it could be; in a precious way, Leo
was America. After such a
performance, how could he ever top himself?

So much has been said, with hyperbole the habit, that it is difficult to keep a sense of
perspective. One must nonetheless ask: why this Leo? Many a show business lion,
arguably as sleek, young, and charming, had preceded him. Why did not some other
handsome cat break through the circus circuit before him? Clocking 5.87 seconds, how
did his roar become The Roar?

Though many have pointed to its potent mix of power and desire, what is often overlooked
is its spontaneity. If for just a moment one can ignore that astounding baritone, bared
teeth: how disarmingly casual the young cat appears! Looks as if he's hardly trying. In
fact, for all the bravado, Leo's is a performance of remarkable restraint. Behind the
searing youthful magnetism, there is a preternatural maturity. The result: genius.

"It took us twenty-three takes," he admits surprisingly. "Back then, to tell the truth, I
didn't know what I was doing. I was just young and hungry, that's all. They kept asking,
so I kept trying. Back then, I had the chops. People don't realize how hard we worked in
those days.”

"Do you think it's different now?"

"Of course it's different now! You got talented performers but there's nothing to let people
dream. That was the flip side to the hard work. Mount Olympus. We had the glamor,
kiddo."

"Isn't it possible that audiences have changed? And was it really as glamorous as you
say?"

Leo yawns an impressive yawn, almost like a roar with the sound turned off, while
reaching into the front of his robe and idly scratching his belly. Uninterested in such
discussions. "Then why are you sitting here talking to me?" he asks.

"Is it true DiMaggio came after you with a baseball bat?"

He stops scratching, half a grin appearing on his lower lip.

"Yeah. He caught us
in flagrante. But let's get this straight: Marilyn would've never left
him for me. There was nothing, like,
serious. I almost got killed that night — no exit but
through the window, and there wasn't even time to open it!" A shudder ripples through the
folds of skin around his chin. "I don't blame him though. And Marilyn was a sweet kid,
really sweet. It's really too bad what happened to her later," he opines.

"You never lacked company, though. How do you account for the number of young
women in your life? Is it just fame?"

"Oh, that's a lot of it surely. But these wonderful ladies also need something, and I like to
think that I've been there for them." He pauses, mouth pursed, eyes half-closed —
somehow, for a reason Leo does not disclose but whose existence he nevertheless
insinuates, his well-known predilection for starlets is necessary, even poignant. He leans
closer, now nods. "Something else too. You might as well know.
It's the mane. I mean,
don't ask me why, but they just can't keep their hands off it, baby!"

Then he tosses his head back and laughs, laughs, and suddenly black ties fall loose
above dinner jackets, cars sprout fins, the pack is back, and one is in the presence of an
unreconstructed swinger — it's amazing, almost like meeting a Confederate general — a
sensation that a moment later totally evaporates with a scuffling and tromp in the hallway.
It's the arrival of Trevor, a bubbling two-year-old, who scampers into the room.

"Come here, dude! Come right here!" he cries, scooping up the young one as he trots by,
adding, "it's all right, no problem," to the pierced nanny hovering at the threshold. "How
was the park?" Leo booms.

"We saw the baby goats."

"You saw the baby goats!" Leo says to Trevor. "And how were the baby goats? How
many did you see? What colors were they?"

Trevor looks around — a resemblance with his father is striking — but he doesn't have the
answers, yet. He basks in the attention.

"You know, there's nothing like being a father again to get your feet back on the ground,
to remind you what really matters in life. What really matters to me is our trip to our place
in the mountains this week-end. We're going to the mountains, aren't we, Trevor?"

Leo does appear calmer, even younger, with Trevor, and is avowedly grateful for what he
describes as a second chance. (Vanessa, 34 years his junior, is for the record his fourth
wife; she declined to participate in this interview.) Leo's earlier offspring grew up in the
shadow of his career, and he speaks with open declarations of contrition about his
failures as a father. Son Daryl died over 20 years ago, after a short stint fronting a rock
band and series of small film roles; daughter Julie (the only one whose picture appears
among the crowd of faces in this room) now lives quietly on the West Coast ("She's had
her share of troubles, too. She opened a chain of health spas. We talk often on the
phone"); the youngest, Richard, remains estranged from his father, and in certain circles
has acquired a notoriety of his own. Always the most political of Leo's brood, he
denounced his father in the harshest of terms for the way he'd constructed his public
image, feeding the crudest stereotypes of the King of the Jungle. Richard left the U.S.
and for years lived on the savannah, far from the world of his upbringing, and nowadays
works as a grassroots activist.  

"Oh, he has his reasons, I guess," Leo says now, though past retorts via the media were
less conciliatory. "I just think he might see differently if we spent some time together,
talked things out. That fuss about my spread in
National Geographic — really I still don't
see what the big deal was."

"Have you ever run down an oryx?"

"Brother, I don't know an oryx from a penguin! So I posed for a few shots. I
never
pretended I wasn't born in the Bronx. And let me add that being a zoo cub was no picnic
— Richie had it much, much softer, more than he'll ever know or admit, no matter how
much he preaches. I meant no disrespect to anybody in Africa or to cats back home. Or
to oryxes everywhere, for God's sake. It was just business. If you want to talk politics
you're only going to put everyone to sleep."

"But there was a time when you did your share of talking politics."

"Not really. Or just a little. Probably was drunk when I said it."

"Was that the case for your remarks about Mao?"

"Huh? You got to be kidding. What was that?"

"This surfaced in a recent book by Frances Wilcox, professor of French and Film Studies
at Duke University, a 1969 article on you in
Cahiers du cinéma in which you said,
according to her translation, 'Mao not only makes sense of the past, he is the future, too.
My life had no meaning till I discovered Mao and the people's revolution.' And a bit further
on: 'Purgative violence is necessary to construct the new revolutionary man.'"

"I said no such thing!"

"These statements are fabricated?"

"Sure they are! Come on, what do you think? Where have you been? And if they're not
fabricated I was just fooling around, taking the air out. Those journalists print what they
need you to say. Especially over there, nobody spoke enough of the same language that
we even bothered to try. These serious little guys wrote their serious little articles, while
Orson and I hung out at the rue de Buci. He was there at the same time, you know, sort
of in exile, too, if you can call it that. He'd promised me the lead in
Lear, he was going to
play all three sisters, and we were waiting for the money so we could begin shooting, and
in the meantime we went to our favorite rôtisserie where we had chicken-eating contests.
We would say how much more subtle and sophisticated life was over there, how artists
like us were better appreciated, and the journalists agreed, and quoted us on politics.
One day, I swear, we ate 43 chickens. Yet the whole time we were plotting our return to
the States. Orson wanted to drop the film and had it in his head that we should go back
to America together, a triumphant return, I could be in his magic act. But I would have
nothing of it."

Leo breaks off here, perhaps preferring to pass over what actually happened, the less-
than-inspiring homecoming for a short-lived and quickly forgotten TV sit-com ("Pa's
Paws"), no less than three guest cameos on "Love Boat," several unfortunate record
albums and an act in Las Vegas (audiences of winter vacationers off charter planes really
went to see The Sex Kittens, his high-stepping back-up chorus, who appeared in almost
no costume), till he infamously hit bottom one night on a talk show when he took a swipe
at another guest,
griffes sorties, after a remark that he construed as insulting to his
dignity. Tabloid photos of the time show a bloated, bedraggled Leo with a snarl on his lip
as he ascends the courthouse steps.  

Then the stay at the Betty Ford clinic. More than a few of his admirers and critics
assumed that Leo was washed up. With intervening years, some even presumed him
dead. In a bizarre footnote to his life story, a mentally ill former sporting goods salesman
from Corvalis, Oregon, named Roland Pitcher, started claiming to be Leo, gave interviews
and autographs till one day in a stand-off with police encircling his home he tragically
turned his gun on himself. That was more than a decade ago but the story still confuses
the uninformed.

Yet since such low points, Leo's rehabilitation has been astonishing. And he has
accomplished it, one must conclude, not through new projects or career gambles — Leo
is now notoriously chary of his time, selective of public appearances, and interviews such
as this one virtually unheard of — but through stubborn survival. Indifferent to this year's or
next year's fashion.

"Is it true you turned down
Cats?"

Leo sighs, shrugs.

"Well, I could never get on board. We were approached, yes, but negotiations went
nowhere. The title was a sticking point. Why the plural?"

"What's next?"

Leo sniffs the air. "Who's to know?
Why know? Bye, dude!" he calls to Trevor as he runs
from the room, disappearing into the sun's glare from which a slim white hand emerges,
and leads him away.

Since stage, screen and television are no longer Leo's chosen venues, and websites the
ephemeral creations of fans and enthusiasts over which he has no control, perhaps this
interview offers the role he wants to play today. The best way to burnish his image and
define his niche in American culture. He is frank about this.

"Even though I know what's more important now, and my family comes first, I still like the
fuss. I still hunger for something to show, sure."

"What would you consider appropriate?"

"Several congressmen are proposing a postage stamp. That would be OK, I guess."

"But you spoke of remorse. Let's come back to that. What remorse?"

"Well" — he searches. "It's like I haven't found a role as great as my promise. Yeah,
that's it. So much has happened yet it doesn't add up to what at one time seemed
possible. It wasn't just me who thought so, either. Everybody seemed to believe it. There
was a time, a lost time — a beautiful time, truly — when I was part of something too big
to fit on a postage stamp. Why should we settle for that?"

Leo gets up suddenly as if to put things right this instant. He advances to the window,
looks back, beckons with a paw. Half a beat later his tail repeats the gesture with a lurid
swish. (Was it on purpose, or some nervous shtick?) "Come here, kid, take a look."

The view of the park, the leaves of treetops shimmering, the spiny backbone of the island
protruding nakedly and beyond, the deep, deep swirling orange of Everything West.

"What are you going to do with it," he asks, "after I'm gone and it's yours?"