“I’m addicted to the game show channels,” he tells us
Harry, are you still mad at me for accidentally tuning your guitar down to e flat when we made demos together at my house?
Oh. That was a long time ago. You know, I was a born singer, I sang when I was a kid. When people would leave the house I would get up on a stool and sing an old song by Woody Guthrie, or before him, “The Singing Brakeman”, Jimmie Rodgers. Anyway, I sang this country song, standing on a stool, thinking about this girl I was in love with. I was six years old, she was 18. Her name was Thelma. So I sang, “T for Texas, T for Tennessee, T for Thelma, That gal made a wreck out of me”.
Growing up in Kentucky in the late 1920s/1930s, did you get to see many movies as a kid?
Mark Barclay, London
Not a lot. As I grew up, I saw more and more. The first film I ever remember, I think my mother took me to it, was called She Married Her Boss, with Melvyn Douglas. Why did I go into acting? I did a play in high school, then I did a play in college called Pygmalion by Bernard Shaw. I played Arthur Doolittle with a Cockney accent. I had a good ear for dialects and my speech was good so I knew then that’s what I wanted to do. I quit college and went to the Pasadena Playhouse. This was 1949. I was trained on the stage and I can do stage as well as I can do movies, but I prefer films.
You were in the navy during WW2. What do you remember most about the battle of Okinawa?
Stephen Phelan, Buenos Aires
I was a gunner on an anti-aircraft gun, 40mm. I was the pointer, I fired the gun. I never fired a shot actually. A Japanese bomber came over one night, 30,000 feet up, totally out of range, the whole harbor opened up shooting at it. I radio’d into the bridge, they didn’t know what the fuck they were doing. So I held my fire and later got a commendation – cool under fire – when I got into the navy air corps at the end of the war. But I dropped out. I didn’t want to do anymore military. Suicide planes were coming in. One of them came right towards our ship one time. They’d come in with the sun, very low, heading for our ship, just a few hundred yards away and their nose dived straight up in the air and slid back down in the water. Someone had hit it, thank God. Because they were so low, they couldn’t fire at it, because the other ships would hit each other.
What advice would you give your 18 year-old self?
Peter Ross, Glasgow
Study up on the Eastern religions. They’re the only ones that are realistic. There’s no answer, see. Daoism and Buddhism are the exact same religion. And also the Jewish Kabbalah. They all say the same thing. The word ‘Dao’ means ‘The Way’, ‘the Nameless’. You can’t see it, smell it, touch it, or anything, but it’s there. There is no answer. That’s what Buddhism says. The Void, oblivion, no answer. To be in that state is an enlightened state.
What are the best and worst things about having Jack Nicholson as a housemate?
It was mostly good. Jack is a very strong-minded person. Nothing was really bad, actually. We’re still very close friends. He gave me this advice in Ride In The Whirlwind , he said, “Harry, I want you to do this part, but I don’t want you to do anything. Let the wardrobe do the character, just play yourself.” That was the beginning of my whole approach to acting. How did we come to live together? I don’t know whether he’d gotten a divorce at the time, but he was living with Bob Towne, a writer. Towne had these two big, mangy dogs, I can’t remember what kind they were, those big bony kind, what are they called? Afghans? Maybe afghans. Jack called me and said, “Harry, Towne’s dogs have eaten the drapes half way up the wall, can I come and stay with you?” I lived in a little adjoining house down the bottom of Laurel Canyon and then we rented a house way up towards the top on Skyline Drive. We lived there for two and a half years then he did Easy Rider and that’s what got him started.