The Cult of Actor Jack Cassidy in The Phantom of Hollywood (1974)

*contains spoilers

Bipolar and bisexual actor Jack Cassidy (1927-76 burned to death) was the father of pop star David Cassidy (1950-2017 liver failure) and he seemed to be on the verge of something big in terms of his character acting career just before he died in an inferno in his West Hollywood penthouse apartment sparked by an errant lighted cigarette.

Actor Jack Cassidy in the 1970s

Cassidy had a big ego and the rise of his son David’s fame in the show The Partridge Family (1970-74) which also starred his wife and David’s stepmother Shirley Jones (1934-) was at odds with his career which appeared to be in decline. It was something which led to David’s inherited alcoholism from his father growing beyond control and causing his early death also.

“With Jack in a room alone there is no room for anyone else,” is a quote from The David Cassidy Story (2000 tv movie) which showed the general feeling about Jack, who partied hard by drinking and smoking to excess. He was even on amphetamines which affected his mental health and caused his final decline and fall.

From left: David Cassidy, Shirley Jones and Jack Cassidy

One of the last movies Jack appeared in was the Clint Eastwood directed The Eiger Sanction (1975). In this film Jack plays a sleazy homosexual with such conviction you wonder if he was tapping his own inner self. He practised for the part in an episode of Get Smart in 1968 playing an interior decorator named Mr. Bob. But it was his short appearance in The Eiger Sanction which was legend-making for me. Also, the tv movie The Phantom of Hollywood (1974 tv movie) made the previous year also helped to seal Jack as a legend, especially since he was used frequently in the tv medium throughout the 1960s and 70s.

The Phantom of Hollywood has the distinction of juxtaposing the end of the Old Hollywood and the end of Jack Cassidy’s career – although we and he didn’t know it – as it was filmed on the old MGM back-lot just as it was about to be torn down. Jack’s double roles in this film has him try to vainly save the memories of his ‘home’ before the bulldozers come and destroy it.

The Phantom of Hollywood (1974) DVD cover
The Eiger Sanction (1975) poster

The vainglorious actor Jack Cassidy was born in John Joseph Edward Cassidy in Queens, New York in 1927 to a strict Irish Catholic father and a mother of German descent. He made his debut as a chorus boy in the Cole Porter musical Something for the Boys In 1943. The title suggests Porter really did have something for them.

His second wife Shirley Jones said: “I was a virgin when I married Jack. He was very sexual and very up front about it. He even told me he had affairs with men; that was the first thing he said. He told me about having an affair with Cole Porter.”

He must have been a teenager when this happened. There is a report that he had an affair with actor and writer Tom Tryon (1926-91 stomach cancer) while the two of them appeared in the 1952 theatre production of Wish You Were Here. Tryon was later the lover of gay porn star Casey Donovan (1943-87 AIDS) and Tryon’s reported death from stomach cancer was said to be AIDS-related according to those closest to him.

Cole Porter’s Something for the Boys poster
Tom Tryon and his wife
Jack Cassidy with his first wife and son David

Jack married Evelyn Ward (no info) in 1948 and son David was born in 1950. They divorced in 1956 so Jack could marry Shirley Jones (1934-) whose career was on the upswing with appearances in the hit movie musicals Oklahoma (1955) and Carousel (1956). In fact, the pair had fallen in love during a theatrical tour of Oklahoma. They would have three sons, including another teen idol in the form of Sean Cassidy (1958-), before Jack’s bizarre and erratic behaviour caused her to divorce him for the safety of her boys.

From the time Shirley and Jack married she found success came easily even if she wasn’t interested in showbusiness. As Jack struggled with his career, he became jealous of his wife because her career was constantly on the rise while his remained static. This led to his excessive drinking and mood swings. Friends said he could be funny one minute and snarly and angry the next. It is reported he was very hard on his sons just as he was brought up. As the drinking increased, Jack turned to amphetamines to keep his weight down along with the endless cigarettes. The speed wouldn’t have helped a quick temper.

Shirley said that all the Cassidy men were well-endowed which would explain Jack’s sexual prowess and confidence and she described the actor as a sort of “sexual Svengali” who would set up various Menage A Trois with both men and women. Jack’s favourite actor was John Barrymore and he would often wear a moustache like Barrymore’s on and off during his career. Barrymore, incidentally, starred in the movie Svengali (1931) and was an alcoholic.

John Barrymore as Svengali (1931)
Jack looking Svengali-like or was it just “the look”
Jack as John Barrymore (left) with Rod Steiger in W.C Fields and Me (1976)
Jack Cassidy in Look in Any Window (1961)

As the 1960s dawned, all Jack could manage was a Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical in 1964 for She Loves Me. Not a bad feat and he had a couple more nominations. Meanwhile Shirley had won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for Elmer Gantry (1960). The closest Jack ever got to an Oscar was either in the living room or as an audience member beside his wife.

But as the 1960s progressed Jack became somewhat of a personality on television game shows. This was sparked by his appearance in the one season wonder tv show sit-com He & She (1967-68) which starred husband and wife team Richard Benjamin (1938-) and Paula Prentiss (1938-). This depiction of a modern couple who wear only pyjama tops to bed was a forerunner to the sit-com The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-77) with its apartment setting. Jack had the role of Oscar North and he put his heart and soul into this show playing what was essentially himself; a vain and self-centred star of the tv show within the tv show. Watch a few episodes of the show today and it has dated but Cassidy shines and really is revelling in the role of the slightly camp Oscar who picks up women at a drop of a hat. Cassidy was so good that he got an Emmy nomination.

Paula Prentiss and Richard Benjamin and Jack as Jet-man in tv show He & She (1967-68)
From left: Peter Ustinov, Shirley Jones, Elizabeth Taylor and Burt Lancaster win Oscars

He and the show were not the smash of the season as it was hoped and it was after the cancellation of this show that Jack Cassidy began to change. He was making many appearances on television shows beginning with gameshow Password. If you watch his appearance in gameshow Personality and the use of the words “sleazy” and “cheap” are used as a double entendre about Jack by the other stars and Jack’s witticisms are undercut by a few European protest coughs from the live audience…. His reputation had preceded him. Jack would make over one hundred appearances on Hollywood Squares, often as the centre square. His wit and intelligence were duly noted by producers and viewers alike.

Then came Shirley’s success with The Partridge Family alongside son David. According to The David Cassidy Story it was Jack who set up the audition for his budding actor son to play Keith Partridge. It helped that David was an accomplished musician and singer.

It was while The Partridge Family was being made that Jack reportedly turned down the role of Ted Baxter in The Mary Tyler Moore Show probably because it was so similar to the character of Oscar North in flop show He & She. Ted Knight (1923-86 bowel and bladder cancer) made the part of Ted Baxter his own and the show was a hit. Anyway, it was the one that got away and Jack would play Ted’s brother in one episode later on.

He was busy on television drama shows and was directed by a young Steven Spielberg in an episode of Columbo (1971-78, 1989-2003) which was one of three appearances he made on the show. In one of the shows he played a murderer by the name of The Great Santini. It was a name which originated from the musical drama Side Show (1931). But around the time of Jack’s death in 1976, it was also the name of a novel published by Pat Conroy (1945-2016 pancreatic cancer) about an abusive father who was cruel to his children, particularly his son.

David Cassidy sings I think I Love you for the tv show The Partridge Family
Jack in The Andersonville Trial (1970)
Jack drinks in an episode of Columbo … His mental health was ruined by substance abuse

The Partridge Family enjoyed huge ratings and fan mail poured in for son David. It would appear around this time that Jack was given a consolation prize of another Emmy nomination for his appearance as the defence consul in The Andersonville Trial (1970). He possibly got the role because it was directed by actor and fellow drinker George C. Scott (1927-99 abdominal aortic aneurysm) who had said shortly before falling fatally off the wagon: “The only reason I’m sober is because I didn’t want to die… Otherwise I had a great time drinking. I loved every minute of it, except when I was throwing up.”

In the wake of turning down the MTM show and Shirley’s success with The Partridge Family there were reports that Jack was unravelling due to his alcohol and drug abuse. The reports included the actor standing naked in his front yard watering the garden. There was an evening in Las Vegas when Shirley turned up to their digs and found Jack sitting naked in the corner of the room. He said: “I just realised I am Christ…” with the letters J.C. for Jack Cassidy as a bit of a hint. Shirley had him committed for observation. He was diagnosed with bipolar and given medication but he refused to take it regularly and continued substance abuse.

The smile has become more of a grimace on Jack here with wife Shirley Jones
A publicity shot of Shirley Jones and Jack Cassidy

“It’s very difficult for a male and female, man and a woman, not to end up competitors in a marriage,” said the actor in an interview about the rivalry between the husband and wife which existed.

Jack would often make a fire in the fireplace and one time he turned to Shirley after looking trance-like at the flames and said: “Look at the flames, aren’t they beautiful?” She called the doctor and when she returned found that he had set the coffee table on fire. This was the last straw for Shirley who took the boys and left the struggling actor to his own devices.

Despite being strung out on drugs and alcohol between jobs, Jack was giving some great performances on television and as I said there was that appearance in The Eiger Sanction. The film is an ode to Clint Eastwood’s sexual as well as physical prowess and a demonisation of homosexuals which Jack overcomes by pure charisma. His gay character of Miles Mellough “looks like he could change a nine-dollar bill in threes” according to fellow macho man George Kennedy (1924-2016 heart ailment) and Eastwood tells the openly gay Miles about “having an incurable disease and lack of guts to kill yourself.” He is also a man who’s “got the look… The look of a guy you wouldn’t count on in a clutch.”

Jack as he appeared in The Eiger Sanction (1975)
Jack inimitably orders a drink in The Eiger Sanction (1975)
Jack is left to die in the desert alone by Clint Eastwood in The Eiger Sanction (1975)

In The Eiger Sanction, Jack turns up at a desert resort with a dog he affectionately calls Faggot who promptly humps Clint’s leg. Eastwood and Miles were friends once.

“I’m afraid Faggot has not yet learnt to recognise that he’s straight,” says Cassidy flamingly and then asks the waiter for a drinks order: “I would like a frozen dykerie.”

And: “For what I want in this life I would even sell my dear mother.”

It’s only a short scene but Jack eats it alive so to speak and when he fails to kill Eastwood later on in a chase across the desert with his muscled lover and bodyguard, whom Eastwood promptly blows away, Jack reacts emotionally: “Oh Jonathan, you are an animal! … Look at that dear gentle man… You tried to kill me!” Clint takes him into the middle of the desert and leaves him there and we never see him again.

Cassidy’s scenes were so effective that I remember they used the latter quote for the ads whenever they used to promote The Eiger Sanction on network television.

Eastwood on the Eiger where a climber was killed during the production of The Eiger Sanction (1975)
A scene from the film Joker has Zorro, the Gay Blade (1981) playing at a cinema

Apart from Eastwood’s interracial romance with a double-dealing air hostess named Jemima, the film has some spectacular climbing stunts but it was jinxed at the box office by the death of a climber on the second day production began. Director Eastwood almost abandoned the production but continued to honour the memory of killed climber David Knowles (1947-74 crushed to death). The accident happened on the north face of the Eiger mountain after shooting for the day had wrapped. However, it was decided to film some point of view shots of the day’s rock slide sequence. Cameraman and experienced climber Mike Hoover (1944-) and Knowles rappelled down to a ledge with a hand-held camera for the footage and just as they were gathering their gear a huge rock broke free and hit the climbers, killing Knowles and breaking Hoover’s pelvis.

The screenwriters of The Eiger Sanction with its outrageous character played by Jack include Hal Dresner (1937-) who wrote Zorro, the Gay Blade (1981) as well as erotic novels.

Jack’s last feature film would be the American-International release of Larry Cohen’s (1936-2019 cancer) The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover (1977) which was released posthumously. He also played his matinee idol John Barrymore in W.C. Fields and Me (1976) in which Rod Steiger’s (1925-2002 pneumonia) impersonation of Fields was described by one critic as “speaking out of the corner of his mouth as if he’d had a stroke”. Someone described Jack’s Barrymore as “a fine performance” which has been made all the more poignant by Jack’s alcohol related death.

A comparison of Jack Cassidy and his hero John Barrymore
A poster for Jack’s last theatrical release

For the Hoover movie, Jack and co-star Dan Dailey (1915-87 following hip replacement surgery), who was known for cross-dressing during and upon completion of alcoholic binges, visited First Lady Betty Ford (1918-2011 natural causes) in person – herself a recovering alcoholic – to ask for permission for director Cohen to shoot around the Washington locations used by the real J. Edgar. She agreed.

The film which seals the legend of Jack may only be a cheap tv movie but The Phantom of Hollywood (1974 tv movie) is a mythmaking cross between the death of old Hollywood and almost a premonition of the death of Jack Cassidy. It also heralded his possible rebirth as a character actor… something confirmed the following year with The Eiger Sanction which had announced to world once again that Jack’s vainglorious character from He & She was now modern-day, out and extremely dangerous.

The Phantom of Hollywood was shot on the old MGM lot as it mouldered away unused and would soon face demolition to make way for redevelopment. The real estate prices were too good to ignore for the studio well past its glory days and fast going broke. People didn’t want to make movies “on the lot” anymore and preferred the real location.

The MGM lot as it appeared before being razed in The Phantom of Hollywood (1974)
Compared to when it appeared in Pride and Prejudice (1940)
The Phantom of Hollywood (1974) with his mace or flail

There are shots at the beginning of the movie which compare actual black and white footage from MGM movies such as Pride and Prejudice (1940) and Waterloo Bridge (1940) from the peak of the studios output to the then present day site. The cameras are in the same position and compare the fantasy of the movies to the reality of rotting decay of outdoor and indoor sets. The studio in the movie isn’t called MGM but World Wide Studios instead and remnants of the skeleton staff of the studio watch actual footage of the auction of MGM costumes and memorabilia on teevee and lamenting the good old days. Meanwhile a couple of vandals are found murdered with their heads bashed in on the back-lot. A cop played by Broderick Crawford (1911-86 strokes) thinks it’s an accident. Actor Crawford was prone to heavy drinking and it shows.

“It’s curiosity,” says another cop played by John Ireland (1914-92 leukemia): “You can’t fence it in” about the history surrounding the near-abandoned studio. Ireland was a suspected wife-beater who used to date alcoholic actress Barbara Payton (1927-67 heart and liver failure).

But we know the killer is some sort of monster dressed in an almost sado-masochistic costume with a hood which reveals only his eyes and carrying a medieval one-handed mace or flail.

The old alcoholic stars are laid on thickly and include Peter Lawford (1923-84 liver failure) as the studio head who looks like he would prefer to lift a glass of spirits and not the weights which furnish his office. Then there’s Jackie Coogan (1914-84 heart and kidney failure) who didn’t have a reputation for drinking but his smoking and eating habits are obvious by his appearance. They are all symbolic of the passing of the legends Old Hollywood and I have only touched on each star’s inherent legacy.

A manhole cover in Sony’s Culver City studios reveals its history to this day
Thirsty thespian Broderick Crawford was one of many alcoholics in The Phantom of Hollywood (1974)
Happy hour for Doris Day and a cadaverous looking Peter Lawford

According to the movie, there are tunnels which run all over the place beneath the studio and the killer has a lair somewhere in one of them under the back-lot.

“Destroy the back-lot and you destroy yourself,” a note warns Lawford’s studio chief who has sealed a redevelopment deal for the old sets and outdoor facades to be razed.

As I mentioned about legends, at the time this film was made, it was probably common knowledge that Jack had an obsession with fire, just as it can’t be underestimated that his sly sex life was common knowledge and gossip in Los Angeles which led to The Eiger Sanction being such a natural extension of himself… Fire and burns relate to the back story of the main ‘evil’ character in The Phantom of Hollywood. Anyway, the killings continue and Jack plays an old hand at the studio named Otto – his brother Karl is the killer. The masked killer is no doubt a relation to the Phantom of the Opera who disguises his rotting or disfigured face.

Jack as Otto who is the brother of The Phantom of Hollywood (1974). Or Jack, should he live so long!
Former child star Jackie Coogan makes an appearance in The Phantom of Hollywood (1974)

The film is so low-budget that instead of the release of That’s Entertainment (1974) which was the extremely successful documentary released by MGM, we are instead treated to a reel featuring a series of clips from MGM movies strung together by editor Cooper and shown in a studio theatrette to Lawford.

Made for tv horror fans of the 1970s era as well as those who liked the original stars as well as MGM movies made in the 1940s perhaps lapped up this melding of serial killer and Hollywood history. Jack as the kindly Otto, aged by make-up, leaves us wondering if it is some sort of disguise and he’s really the Phantom of the back-lot.

“Nothing must queer this deal,” says Lawford, who was bisexual in his later years according to one gossipy biography, about the real estate contract. Not even Jack Cassidy!

The movie was originally titled The Phantom of Lot 2
The redevelopment of the MGM back-lot

Despite the actor’s reputation, he worked constantly in the 1970s and must have had a good work ethic and just like alcoholic actor Spencer Tracy had said: “Turn up on time and know your lines.” The simple key to a drinker’s success in the business. The wheels may have been falling off around this time mentally for Jack but he reached an iconic peak just the same. The studio in The Phantom of Hollywood is a microcosm of Hollywood with the behind-the-scenes shady deals and the odd murder occasionally overshadowing the formal partying of the in-crowd.

The remains of MGM studios still exist, in part, as Sony’s Culver City’s studios and I’ve been there and seen the old manhole cover which still have the ‘MGM’ name on them. Then there’s the remains of the 20th Century back-lot which was redeveloped into the residential complexes known as Century City after the expensive failure of Cleopatra (1963)  forced its sale. Universal and Warner studios still have tours of what’s left of their existing backlots.

The climax, or big reveal, of The Phantom of Hollywood has our heroine, who is the daughter of the studio’s boss, kidnapped and taken back to Karl’s lair. She is played by little known tv actress Skye Aubrey (1945-2020) who was the daughter of real-life one-time MGM president James T. Aubrey (1918-94 heart attack) who was in charge of the shut-down of MGM studios between 1969 and his resignation in 1973 when he declared the job was done. Aubrey was behind the selling of the ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz as well as the back-lot in reality. His daughter’s casting in a kind of real-life role injects some little-known mythologising into the proceedings!

Heroine and little known tv actress Skye Aubrey had a famous father who helped raze the real MGM lot
He was James T. Aubrey who was known as The Smiling Cobra or the most hated man in Hollywood
The bulldozers movie in for The Phantom of Hollywood (1974)

As the bulldozers move in and Karl rants at the them as the dust seeps into his lair below, we learn that he was once an aspiring actor with a resemblance to John Barrymore according to his publicity stills, he even resembled Jack Cassidy – surprise! However, as he was preparing for his greatest role in The Three Musketeers, he got too close to a stunt explosion and it burned and totally disfigured his face. It has driven him mad not to be a star and also by the fact he was offered little more than a job as a night watchman at the studio as a result of his injuries… Then another recovering alcoholic actor in the form of former Dead End Kid Billy Halop (1920-76 heart attack) completes the cast in a late cameo as a studio engineer.

“We don’t even know what he is,” says Ireland about the killer as they speculate about the Phantom’s use of a Shakespeare quote to threaten them.

The Phantom of Hollywood was disfigured by burns
Skye Aubrey listens as Jack laments the passing of old Hollywood

“If I fail… all fails,” says the Phantom grandly about his all-consuming quest to save his studio home. Then there’s some of Jack’s own myth: “(I was) a fine actor… I was to be a new star… I had ability… I was handsome…” Jack could be speaking about the advancement of age and himself with burn scars which resemble somewhat the actual portrait from MGM’s The Portrait of Dorian Gray (1945) and its attendant legend about morality and the destruction of the self by appetites both carnal and for alcohol and drugs. The parallels between Jack and Oscar Wilde’s tale of debauchery and decay are there. Oscar North?

“He was good… you know, a little hammy,” says Coogan about the Phantom and he lights a cigarette almost ironically, considering the circumstances of Jack’s death.

The Eiger Sanction (1975) trailer
The Phantom proclaims his immortality and weakness: “…I live in a world of dreams!”
And then plummets to his death!

The decline and fall of the star system and old Hollywood and the decline and fall of Jack Cassidy are summed up by the ending of the movie. Jack came too late to be a star in the studio system and he lacked that true essence but he reached certain heights… and Jack’s final fall from grace to his death is forever caught on celluloid when he cries: “You fools… fools! I am not among your ruins!” as he stands above the police at a great height looing down amid the demolished mess: “I live in a world of castles and palaces and mansions in dreams!” Then by pure accident he falls to his death in slow motion. It is gradual and slow.

The official story of the final evening of Jack’s life is that sometime on a night in December of 1976, he had asked Shirley to come over for drinks but she refused. Jack ate alone at an Italian restaurant and was fobbed off by another actress who he also asked over. The other story is that he spent his last night at a gay bar before returning home. Actress Nannette Fabray reckons he flicked a cigarette which missed his lighted fireplace and it set fire to the flammable rug as well as the flammable fixtures which were dangerously popular during this period in the mid-70s.

Actress Gloria Dickson (1917-45) also burned in her sleep due to an unextinguished cigarette
Outside Jack’s burnt apartment building in the early hours of morning
What was left of Jack’s apartment after the fire

Music was heard coming from Jack’s penthouse apartment until the early hours and he had apparently fallen asleep with a lighted cigarette which set the couch on fire. Who knows? His body was found after the inferno was extinguished near the door after he apparently tried to crawl out of the apartment. Jack’s blood alcohol was 0.12% and according to the autopsy: He did breathe in smoke – but not a lethal amount. He died very quickly from thermal burns.

Jack’s car was missing from his garage the night he died and there was a vain hope that it wasn’t his body in the apartment. But a signet ring and dental records confirmed the worst. An unnamed man returned the car the next day and there was no further mention of him in the investigation of the fire.

Jack’s son David was affected badly by his father’s death and battled alcoholism as well career droop as a result of no longer having to prove himself to his father. In the end, the singer lied about suffering from dementia on stage to cover up the fact he was drinking again.

Shortly before his own death David said: “I did this to myself man. I did this to myself to cover up the sadness and the emptiness.” David would perform the old Johnny Ray (1927-90 hepatitis and liver failure) classic Cry at his intimate performances in honour of his father. When he finally died of liver failure himself in 2017, Shirley Jones said: “I will … find solace in knowing that David is now with his dad.”

David Cassidy with father Jack Cassidy
David Cassidy gives one of his last performances
Jack as The Great Santini in Columbo. A cruel father?

Jack Cassidy lived his life to the fullest and could be funny, vicious and bitter. He was a star of the stage and the small screen as opposed to the big screen but it is fitting that his two greatest roles should be contained in both mediums. It is ironic that he should be consumed by fire as if it were some sort of hellish fate determined by his, at times, bad behaviour. Forgotten today by mainstream Hollywood, his ghost is said to haunt the apartment where he burned to death alone but this phantom is a benign one according to those who have encountered it.

PS Jack was approved for a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2005 but fundraising has failed so far to achieve this goal. As he didn’t leave anything to his family in his will, I guess Shirley Jones, who is estimated to be worth $25 million dollars, isn’t interested in donating.

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