When I was a young actor, before I became an older actor—and long before I decided to quit taking my rejections in person; choosing to be a writer instead and receive them through the mail or electronically, I worked on the stage, mostly in New York City. The high point of that time was when I got cast in an already established hit Broadway play.
Four months earlier, I’d taken over the understudy of the “juvenile” male lead in Cactus Flower. The character was named Igor Sullivan. (“Igor’s my own, I made up the Sullivan.”) I’d done that thankless job for four months, when the young man I was understudying, Burt Brinkerhoff, a nice actor who later became a television director, got a job in another Broadway show, one he hoped would make his career take off.
Meanwhile, he had to be replaced in Cactus Flower. I was the understudy and maybe/maybe not had the inside track. In any case, producer David Merrick held auditions. It was narrowed down to four other actors and me. We were to read with the star of the show, Lauren Bacall. Knowing how close I was to getting this huge career break. I developed a fierce nervous backache several hours before the auditions. I was petrified.
I had one thing going for me. As understudy, one of my jobs had been to knock one time—and one time only—on Ms. Bacall’s dressing room door when it was time for her next entrance. And I would, flashlight aimed at the path in front of her through the backstage darkness, conduct her to her point of entrance. This happened several times during each performance, eight times a week. I performed my task conscientiously, meticulously. I knocked once and was painfully respectful of “Ms. Bacall.” I’d been raised by a mother who could be very tough. I knew how to be respectful of women who had power in your life.
Ms. Bacall liked that. When I read for the role of Igor in Cactus Flower, she gave me a one hundred percent performance to help me be at my best. She wanted me for the part.
I got it. I played opposite her for several months. After I’d done the role for a while, she looked at me one night with a twinkle in her eye and said, “I discovered you.”
I never stopped being a little scared of her though.
Over a year later I got cast in the same role in the movie. In that version, Bacall’s role went to Ingrid Bergman. I wasn’t a bit scared of Ingrid. She was so gracious and kind to me it took my breath away. She was friendly, sexy, warm, everything I might have hoped she would be.
And Ingrid seemed to like me. I was extremely flattered. I knew it was silly, but I developed a sort of… I guess it was a crush on her. It didn’t matter that she was over twenty years older than I was. In the movie, I played the same intimate scene with her that I had with Ms. Bacall on stage. We danced in the scene. Igor says something about her being a sexy lady. She says, “An old sexy lady.” I say, “Good, let’s run away and live on your Social Security.” The choreographer smiled at me one day and said, “It looks like you’re having a thing with her.”
Well, not exactly.
But Ingrid liked me in a different way than Ms. Bacall had. Betty Perske (Bacall’s original name) liked me in the role. Ingrid liked me personally. We talked together for hours during the times Walter Matthau and Goldie Hawn were doing their scenes and while we were learning our dance number for the final nightclub sequence.
I was flattered that she liked me. I liked her back. I don’t know if it was a kind of mother thing she felt for me or something else.
Either way, it worked for me.
She was rumored in the past to have developed crushes on her leading men. She didn’t have one on Walter Matthau (although he admitted to having one on her). I became aware that during the ten weeks of rehearsals and shooting, she spent more of her off-camera time with me than with anyone else.
There was no doubt about it; Ingrid Bergman had a crush on me. This was during January, February and March of 1969.
I guess to be entirely honest though, I should admit that I was a little disappointed when I saw her at the film’s premier in New York the following December.
I said, “Hi, Ingrid.”
Ingrid looked into my eyes for a moment, searching, then answered, “Hi, Nick.”
But … and maybe it was only a little one, for a few sweet moments in early 1969, Ingrid Bergman had a crush on me.