An actor's life
Mar 11, 2015 07:44AM
● By J. Chambless
Actor Bo Brundin with family photos displayed in his Hockessin home.
Bo Brundin [4 Images] Click Any Image To Expand
(Editor's note: This article first appeared in our Summer 2013 edition.)
By John Chambless
Looking back on his roles in more than 40 films and TV shows since 1970, Bo Brundin smiled and admitted he's not really comfortable with being a star.
“People say I'm a movie star, but I'm a good character actor, that's all,” he said. “If they want to call me a star, if they get something from it, well, OK.”
Brundin, 76, has a lot of stories about his years in show business and his current semi-retirement, and they have a way of intermingling. Spend an hour with him at his home in Hockessin and you'll get a hundred tantalyzing narrative threads that add up to one remarkable life. Through it all, Brundin has a twinkle in his eye.
Born in 1937 in Uppsala, Sweden, as Bo Rosenquist, he is perhaps best known in America for his role as the World War 1 ace flyer Ernst Kessler in the 1975 film “The Great Waldo Pepper,” starring Robert Redford. It's a movie he doesn't mind discussing, and despite having to go over some well-worn anecdotes, he's happy to oblige.
In the film, Redford plays a World War 1 flyer who has turned to barnstorming stunts during the 1920s. Plagued by crashes but never giving up on his chance to be a hero, he eventually meets a German ace, Ernst Kessler, on the set of a movie being made about Kessler's life. Brundin, slouched in a chair on the movie set, delivers a jewel of a performance – worn down, disheveled, alcoholic, Kessler nods to the young man who is playing him in the movie with bemused resignation. Brundin's performance leaves Redford in the dust and makes an impression that stands out as a career highlight, all these years later. It was the first scene the two shot together, and it was done in one take.
Brundin deflects the praise, but said he put considerable thought into his character, which is based on the real German ace and stunt flyer Ernst Udet. The costume designer, for instance, wanted Brundin to button up the vest he wore in the scene, but “I had it open, a little sloppy,” Brundin recalled. It was a tiny, but vital, detail.
By all accounts, the set was not entirely calm under director George Roy Hill, who had directed Redford previously in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” and “The Sting.” For one thing, Brundin had to spend hours in the cockpit of a wood-and-canvas plane, soaring over the Florida countryside, pretending that he knew what he was doing at the controls.
“It was a little scary, because there was a real crash just about an hour before I went up for the first time,” Brundin recalled. "I saw the crash, and [stunt man] Frank Tallman had his forehead split. It took three weeks in the hospital. ... We used the Tigermoth plane, which was a great plane except it's a little clumsy. It's like a little elephant in the air."
Earlier, faced with a lack of clouds in California for the flying scenes, the location director had to search for properly photogenic clouds for a week, eventually ending up in Lakeland, Fla. The planes were real, the engines were lubricated with mineral oil, and they left trails of smoke. To film in the air, the camera was mounted in the middle of the plane, shooting backwards toward Brundin.
The conclusion of the film – as a staged dogfight becomes real and the two pilots realize they cannot land their damaged planes – is a silent salute from Brundin and an acknowledgement from Redford as the screen fades to black. It's a memorable sendoff for a vivid character who is still tied to Brundin.
“I still have the leather coat I wore in the film,” he said. “It's a little too small for me,” he added, laughing. "My belly's gotten big."
Brundin also has a music box of a German flyer in a red biplane that was given to him by George Roy Hill. It had actually been given to the director by Paul Newman, who wanted to team up with the director and Redford again in “Waldo Pepper.” Hill, however, was reluctant to work with the same two actors for a third time.
Brundin counts “Waldo Pepper” and his work in the TV miniseries “Rich Man, Poor Man” as his favorite roles, but his resume includes a long list of TV shows. He's been on episodes of “Wonder Woman,” “The A-Team,” “Falcon Crest,” “Dallas,” the miniseries “Centennial” and “The Word,” among dozens of others. Much of his TV work has been done in Sweden, as well as several of his film appearances.
The pace of television work – seven days of shooting to produce a one-hour show – is often a frantic rush, Brundin admitted. He would sometimes get a couple of days' notice that he would be appearing on a show. Brundin, a dedicated method actor who usually does deep research into his characters, did the best he could. "I think it's high tension that does it," he said. "You don't have time to rehearse much, you're so nervous doing it, you know. It's just 'Whoops, there it is.'"
Brundin retains a Swedish accent that has gotten him cast as a series of Germans or Russians in his films. He's fine with that, and accepts that Hollywood likes to pigeonhole actors.
Being an actor sort of happened to Brundin, he said. He had done regional theater in Uppsala as a young man, “and I got so hooked. I had no idea I was going to be an actor,” he said. He had the right beard to be cast as a crusader in an amateur stage production called “Painting on Wood.” The show would eventually be redone as “The Seventh Seal” with Max Von Sydow.
Having discovered “I can do something? I'd better stick with it,” Brundin wrote to relatives in New York who offered to sponsor him in America. At the age of 20 in 1958, with $300 in his pocket, he arrived in New York. There followed, he said, lots of lean years, including a period of eating only ketchup and plain spaghetti.
"It was the best time of my life, to spend almost 10 years in New York City," Brundin said. "I lived all over Manhattan. I even lived in Hell's Kitchen. In the apartment above me was Robert Duvall, and he was struggling then, too. The fanciest place I lived was in the Dakota. ... We used to get together once a week and read plays, and at one of them was Dustin Hoffman. It was the time when he had given up acting. He said, 'Bo, I can't get a job. Five years I've been beating my head against the wall and nothing happens.' He said he thought he could teach comedy. Next time I saw him was outside the Plaza Hotel, and he was filming a scene from 'Midnight Cowboy.'"
In 1969, Brundin met a young woman named Michael, an aspiring actress, at an audition in New York. That pivotal year had an indelible effect on the young couple. After the assassination of Martin Luther King, Brundin felt he had to do something. He joined the Poor People's Theater, a group led by actress Trish Van Devere that aimed to perform at a rally in Washington, DC. Brundin was going to read a poem about the mythical figure Icarus as part of the show. As it turned out, there were 200,000 people on the mall, so the show went on at a church nearby.
During the show, six white racists entered the hall, and Brundin deftly defused the situation by inviting them in and pointing them out to the whole audience. Whatever violence they had planned never took place. "It totally threw them. They stayed for the first act, and then they walked out," he said. "That saved the situation."
Van Devere later ended up getting Brundin introduced to George Roy Hill for “Waldo Pepper,” which is another story.
And then there was the time that he filmed a small part for director Jerry Lewis in “The Day The Clown Cried,” an infamous 1972 film that has never seen the light of day. The fact-based story of a clown who ends up at a Nazi concentration camp, the film was plagued by legal tangles and the fact that its tone has been described, by the few people who have seen it, as an awkward mix of tragedy and pathos.
“I played a political prisoner,” Brundin said. “Jerry Lewis was directing. He moved the whole production to Sweden. I did one scene when another man is shot by a Nazi. It was very close to where I was standing. Jerry said, 'I want a very strong reaction here.'”
Brundin drew on a traumatic childhood incident and let that emotion carry him through the scene. “I think the take took five to seven minutes, just the one take," he said. "Jerry came up and said, 'Bo, I've never seen anything like that. You're going to get an Oscar for that.'"
Brundin has never seen the film. “I think what will happen is that, when Jerry Lewis goes some day, then the movie will come out somehow,” he said with a shrug.
After making his big-screen debut in the acclaimed “A Baltic Tragedy” in 1970, Brundin jumped at the chance to be the star of a horror film, and “The Headless Eyes” was shot in New York City and released in 1971.
“It was not very good,” Brundin said of the film, in which he plays a crazed artist who has his eye gouged out and then goes on a killing spree, taking out the eyes of young women and using them in his artworks. It is perhaps the only film in which a spoon is the lethal weapon.
Brundin also counts “Shoot the Sun Down,” in which he played a sea captain with a treasure map, as another “not well done” film, despite it having a great cinematographer and a bright young co-star, Margot Kidder. It was also the film debut of Christopher Walken.
From that film, though, Brundin struck up a long friendship with Sacheen Littlefeather, who would later famously go on to reject Marlon Brando's Oscar at the Academy Awards.
He got to save the world from destruction in the 1979 disaster movie “Meteor,” even though he died at the end, he noted with a smile. The film starred Sean Connery, Natalie Wood, Karl Malden, Brian Keith and Henry Fonda.
Although he largely retired in 2002, Brundin last year appeared in a 15-minute short called “Starlight” that is posted on YouTube. In it, he plays God and narrates a violent, epic script as a voiceover. “It's a weird one,” he admitted. “There's symbolic stuff about the guy destroying the world and rebuilding it. We filmed it in Sweden. It went out to a lot of festivals. It took a long time to get it done. The director is a vibrant young filmmaker. Very, very interesting.”
Brundin also regularly posts videos at a blog called www.foreveryoung.nu – most of them in Swedish – and also appears in several videos during which he reacts and laughs while watching other videos. In the age of instant internet fame, he has attracted several comments from viewers who don't know his long resume. "I like this cute old man," one commenter wrote.
He and Michael moved to Hockessin from Sweden almost two years ago because she grew up in the area and has a large extended family. They don't have children of their own, but they get to dote on kids who visit the house, which is decorated with antiques from Sweden and a few framed photos from Brundin's days in the movies.
Recently, Brundin attended a screening of “The Great Waldo Pepper” at the Flash in Kennett Square, and answered questions from the audience afterward. It's the kind of thing he'd enjoy doing again, he said. For now, though, he's enjoying his memories.
It's a long road from Uppsala to Hockessin, but Brundin is happy to be here.
To contact Staff Writer John Chambless, e-mail email@example.com.