"I would probably be a grape-picker if
I hadn't made it as an actor."
He is one of the most handsome men who ever graced
the Silver Screen. His familiar face has also appeared
on television screens, the New York Stage, and other
stages throughout America and England. In a career that
has spanned five decades, he has played everything from
an apostle to a housefly--with equal dignity and grace.
And in a fast changing world that has seemingly cast
aside elegance and gentility in favor of crassness and
vulgarity, he has remained a gentleman. He is Ara David
Heditsian, better known to us all as David Hedison.
Of Armenian descent, the hazel-eyed, six-foot one-inch
Hedison was born in Providence, Rhode Island, on May
20, 1928. Expected to follow his father into the jewelry
business, the young Heditsian had his own ideas about
how he would make a living. After watching the dashing
Tyrone Power in Blood and Sand (1941) four times,
an inspired Ara decided instead to follow the movie
star into the acting business. And that he would do--later.
First, there was a stuttering problem to overcome, high
school to get through, and a World War to finish.
After joining the US Navy shortly after the Second
World War, Hedison trained for fourteen weeks in Sampson,
New York. For the next few months he was stationed in
Jacksonville, Florida. The young man finished up his
military career mothballing cruisers and destroyers
at the famous Brooklyn Navy Yard. Two decades hence,
on television, Hedison would once again find himself
in naval attire, this time carrying the rank of 'Captain';
however, upon his discharge from the real Navy
his rank was Seaman, 2nd Class.
Hearing that John Ford was going to be shooting a film
in Mexico, the former Seaman 2nd Class boldly sent off
a letter to the great director asking if Ford would
give him a job on the set. He said honestly that he
had no experience as an actor, but was sure of his ability.
To get a start in the acting business, he was willing
to work in any capacity. Hedison enclosed a photo of
himself in his Navy whites, his cap cocked on the back
of his head. Amazingly, John Ford wrote back explaining
that the film was not to be made after all. Even so,
Ford generously gave Hedison the names of people in
Hollywood to call upon should the young man get to California.
John Ford ended his letter with: "And the next
time you send your picture to an ex-Navy four-striper,
be sure to square your hat, sailor!"
After his stint in the Navy, Ara Heditsian planned
to study acting in New York. His father, however, wanted
his only child to attend Brown University; the dutiful
son agreed, reluctantly, to give college a try. Although
his heart wasn't in going to school, Brown was the place
where the professional life of David Hedison began,
as one of the Sock and Bushkin Players. Three years
later, David left the University for good and headed
for Manhattan isle, where he enrolled in the Neighborhood
Playhouse School for the Theater. During his first year
there, Hedison competed against 200 contestants, and
won a Barter Theater Award, which sent him south for
a summer of stock at the Barter Theater of Virginia.
To eke out a living during his lean, hungry actor days,
Hedison took on for a while the job of announcer for
WWNC, CBS's affiliate radio station in Ashville, North
Carolina. When he returned to New York again, Hedison
landed roles in two Kraft Television Shows. He did his
share of commercials, too. All part of learning the
ropes and putting food on the table. But he was always
short of cash. Most of his money went to pay his tuition
at the Neighborhood Playhouse. Life for Hedison in those
days was difficult at best. "I lived in a five-dollar-a-week
room on East 50th Street in New York, with a skylight,
no window, 87 layers of peeling paint, a small bedroom
with a sink. The bathroom was on the next floor. In
Providence we'd had a beautiful home with four bedrooms.
My own room had been luxurious, decorated in the best
taste. Yet, I didn't mind the horrible room in which
I lived. I could even put up with the insects that crawled
around the sink and that were so difficult to exterminate.
I could do it then because I was finally doing the thing
I wanted to do and I was exhilarated."
The fortitude of youth notwithstanding, things started
looking grim for David when he went three months without
any work whatsoever. Then, in what was surely his darkest
hour, David's acting teacher, Uta Hagen, recommended
her pupil for a part in an upcoming off-Broadway play
called "A Month in the Country". It was just
the break he needed. David auditioned for director Michael
Redgrave, won the part, and later won the Theater World
Award as Most Promising Newcomer. Someone at Twentieth
Century-Fox with a keen eye for talent spotted David
and signed him to a long-term contract. The foreign
sounding 'Ara Heditsian' did not sit well with the powers
that be at Fox, so the little Armenian boy from Providence
became 'Al Hedison'. Al's first featured role was in
the classic film "The Enemy Below" (1957),
co-starring Robert Mitchum and Curt Jurgens, and directed
by an old Warner Brothers alumnus, Dick Powell.
Next came "The Fly" (1958). "The lead
character spent a lot of time with a cloth over his
head," said Hedison, "and just about every
contract player turned the part down. But I read the
script and loved it." Although the movie was a
hit at the time, and is still beloved by generations
of fans, the film turned out to be something of a disappointment
to Hedison. David had some interesting ideas for improving
the script as written--none of which was taken seriously
by the director or the head of production. "This
is going to be a wonderful picture, and make a lot of
money, but we cannot use a fly mask!" pleaded
David. "It's corny, old hat. The right thing to
do is use progressive makeup." That of course is
precisely how it was done in the 1986 remake. Hedison
was simply ahead of his time.
Other films followed, "Son of Robin Hood"
(1959), "Marines, Let's Go" (1961), and television
also beckoned. Hedison's first spy role came when he
was cast as the lead in the series "Five Fingers"
(1959-1960). The show lasted a brief 14 episodes. After
the fold of "Five Fingers" (where incidentally,
Ara's middle name got bumped up to replace the 'Al'),
David found himself in "The Lost World" (1960)--Irwin
Allen's redo of the silent classic. It was this role
that endeared Hedison to Mr. Allen, and led four years
later to Captain Lee Crane having the face, voice and
body of David Hedison.
"I figured that if Basehart ... could play the
Admiral, I could play the Captain." Best known
for his portrayal of Captain Lee Crane on Voyage
to the Bottom of the Sea (1964-1968), David Hedison
actually turned down the role of Crane--several times.
First in 1961, when Irwin Allen had asked Hedison to
co-star with Walter Pidgeon in the film version of Voyage:
"I read the script, and the part was nothing!
Crane was a dry-one-dimensional bore. Voyage
was an action-adventure film, and the emphasis was on
visual effects, so I said 'No thanks.'" In 1963,
Allen came calling again ... and again ... and again.
This time, for Voyage the TV series. "I
still didn't want to be Crane. It would be the
same problem of character, with the added burden of
a weekly series." Fortunately, the indefatigable
Mr. Allen did not give up, and Hedison's friend, Roger
Moore, then starring in The Saint, told Hedison
he'd be crazy not to take the part. Actors may
be artists, but they also have to eat! Hedison heeded
the advice and the rest is history.
When the SSRN Seaview returned to port for the
last time, a weary and somewhat disillusioned David
Hedison headed for London. However, before leaving the
land of his birth, he took the time to turn down the
part of the dad on a new series that would premier in
1969: The Brady Bunch. Said Hedison, "...
after four years of subs and monsters, who needs kids
and dogs?" Shall we take just one moment to contemplate
what might have been if David Hedison had signed
on to play Mike Brady ... Okay, moment over.
While he was in London, Hedison did some of his best
work. Starring with Lee Remick in Tennessee Williams'
"Summer and Smoke", David received a glowing
review from The London Times. The BBC recorded
the performance--but not for posterity. In order to
obtain the rights for the television showing, the BBC
had to agree to erase the tape 48 hours after the airing.
What a loss. Probably the most fortuitous thing that
happened to Hedison in Europe was his chance meeting
with Bridget Mori, the woman who would end his bachelor
days by agreeing to become his wife. The couple married
in 1968. When David and the new Mrs. Hedison returned
to America a few years later, they brought two little
daughters with them.
Throughout most of the 70's and 80's, David was one
of Hollywood's busiest actors. It is difficult to name
a TV show on which he did not guest-star. From "The
Love Boat" to "TJ Hooker" to "Fantasy
Island", David was constantly on TV. From 1991-1996
David was a regular on the long-running soap opera "Another
World". And as all trivia buffs are aware, Hedison
happens to be the only man on the planet to have played
James Bond's friend 'Felix Leiter' twice, in "Live
and Let Die" (1973) and "License to Kill"
Since the very beginning of his career, David Hedison
has always felt most at home on the stage. "When
I go back to the theater, I feel good about myself.
When I do films or TV, it's to make a little bread to
pay my mortgage..." Hopefully the mortgage is paid
off by now; but whether it is or not, it is certain
David will continue to pursue his first love, the theater.
Fortunately, for the legions of Hedison fans out there,
David is always appearing in a play somewhere.
With regard to his professional life, Hedison has come
to accept the fact that his "level of stardom"
has not quite approached the magnitude of his boyhood
idol, Tyrone Power. "In your career, you must be
so careful, otherwise you get caught in a particular
image and it's hard to break. When people think of David
Hedison, they think of Voyage." There can
be no denying that statement. Nevertheless, David Hedison
is a fine actor who for decades has been overlooked
and underrated by an indifferent and fickle Hollywood.
Producers indeed kept Hedison shackled to his image.
They refused to look beyond the Voyage khaki
and to examine the depth of Hedison's talents. Take
for example "The Return of the Phantom"--
the Voyage episode in which Hedison breaks out
of the Captain Crane straightjacket and takes his character
to new and frightening dimensions. Playing against type,
Hedison turned in a brilliant performance. Incredibly,
he was not even nominated for an Emmy.
Despite Hollywood's mishandling of his career, David
Hedison is still a working actor; he still has throngs
of admirers the world over; he's still married to the
same lovely lady after 30 years (quite an accomplishment
in Hollywood); and he's the proud father of two beautiful,
grown daughters. All things considered, the little Armenian
boy from Providence has done all right.