He's a brash, brassy singer with acting talent who believes he's a young Sinatra -- and he is BOBBY DARIN
Not so very long ago, a Donald O'Connor movie was showing at New York's Radio City Music Hall. In front of the theater a young man stood rocking on his heels because he had nothing better to do. He had light blond hair, a sinewy build and wore flashy, southern California-style clothing, but his face could have been that of a choir boy.
"Hiya, Donald," a passing fan said, moving briskly through Rockefeller Center.
"Wait a minute," the young man yelled frantically, catching up with the stranger. "Did you really think I looked like Donald O'Connor? Huh? Did you really?"
Today the young man still looks somewhat like a choir boy, if not a little like Donald O'Connor. He sits in an office high above Broadway, owner of a world-wide music company, a tremendously popular singer, an actor who was nominated for an Academy Award and married to the beautiful young actress Sandra Dee. He wears tight pants, a blue tie on blue shirt, and shoes with elastic sides and leather loops in the back. He was born May 14, 1936, stands 5'8" tall, and has very brown eyes.
His name: Bobby Darin. "Donald O'Connor was my first hero," Bobby says. "I used to see his pictures 10 or 15 times. The way he could sing, act, play those drums! That's how I really got my start. On the drums."
When Darin was 14 years old and attending the Bronx High School of Science, he heard one day that the school drummer had quit the band. Immediate tryouts were being held for the position and Darin, who has never gone about anything in a quiet methodical manner, rushed to a friend's house and borrowed a set of drums. In a matter of hours he not only taught himself how to play, but well enough to win a berth in the band.
"It was my first break in show business," he says, in his rapid-fire speech. "From there I went on to the Catskills, playing drums in a little band I organized. I worked every summer up there until I was 18. I made 10 bucks a week. Now I make 11." He actually makes almost as much as Radio City Music Hall grosses. Is this why he's supposedly not liked by many people?
"Hell, I've been rubbing people the wrong way ever since I was a kid in the Bronx. We were poor, but I used to dress up for Easter in a sharp outfit. The other guys wore those heavy flannel jobs, and I stuck out like a sore thumb. They hated me but who cares? I never got along with anybody from my old neighborhood, anyhow."
While the other boys were aspiring to be either cops or racketeers, Bobby Darin (or Walden Robert Cassotto, as he was known in those days) had only one thought: how to break out. "Back in the old days I didn't know exactly how I would do it, but I knew I had to make it big. What burned me up about the other guys was that they had no ambition, no goals. The biggest thing for them was to go down to Times Square on Saturday night and get in a fight."
The odds were heavily stacked against Darin. His father died before he was born, and he was brought up in New York by his mother and older sister. His voice becomes softer when speaking of his mother who recently died. "My mother taught me to be me," he admits. "I've never been ashamed of being myself. I also learned from her that happiness is not just attaining something, but striving. If I had everything in the world, I'd be a miserable guy. I have to be trying new things, testing myself in different ways."
After gathering laurels as a jivey Catskills drummer, Darin decided to abandon the field altogether and become an actor. "Actually, I was in love with an older woman my last summer in the Catskills," he explains. "When she turned me down, I thought nothing worse could ever happen to me. Instead of jumping in the river, I jumped into the acting business. It turned out to be the same thing."
The theatrical world didn't welcome Darin with open arms. "I was less than outstanding in landing a part," Bobby confesses now.
No one -- except Darin -- could have foretold his later success. At one point a woman in his old neighborhood took him aside and said, "Listen, you were born on this block. You talk and look just like everyone else. So how come you're always trying to be different?"
Darin had no answer for her then, and still doesn't today. "Everybody in the old neighborhood thought the sun rose and set on 135th Street, but I saw an outside world where the sun rose over a lot of places. Riding the subway to that school every day was like taking a trip around the world for me."
But after graduating from high school and then pounding the pavement in front of theaters for many months, Darin's view of the world became a little bleaker. Then one afternoon in a candy store he met a young man named Don Kirshner (now president of Columbia Screen Gems Corporation) who wrote songs for a living. Here was finally someone who wanted to be more than just a ribbon clerk and whose energy matched Darin's. The two of them teamed up, first doing "demonstration records" of other composers' songs. (These are songs which are recorded privately in hopes of a sale to a record company.) It was a quick way of picking up $10, and it also started Darin singing. He'd hardly known he had a voice before. He began composing songs of his own, too, and doing sporadic nightclub work.
From then on in, the Bobby Darin Story reads like a Hollywood musical extravaganza of the '40's. He and Kirshner would barge into a Broadway office, with Bobby belting out a melody. "Occasionally we got thrown out," he says. "Sometimes the big shot would offer us pennies, and I'd walk out. Now and then we made a sale."
It was a more precarious life than the Catskills had ever been. But on March 10, 1956, the big chance came. "I had an appearance on the Tommy Dorsey Show after recording 'Rock Island Line' for Decca," Darin says. "I gave it everything I had, and then I settled back to get swamped with offers and fan mail. You know what? Not a damn thing happened. No one in the world seems to have caught the program."
So, Bobby was forced to go back to making the rounds of music companies. In 1958, he cut the records for his own compositions, "Splish Splash" and "Dream Lover," and for the album That's All. The lead song in the album was "Mack the Knife" -- and his recording of it sky-rocketed him into the leading ranks of pop singer. Its single issue sold over 2 1/2 million records alone.
Darin and Kirshner dissolved their partnership amicably, and both are good friends today. Doors that had not only been closed to Bobby Darin, but also locked and bolted, suddenly sprung wide open after his recording success. He became in great demand for nightclubs. His appearance at New York's Copacabana Club in 1960 broke all records. He flew between well known East and West Coast nightclubs like a shuttlecock, and everyone wanted him on TV. What did Bobby have going for him? Said a producer, "The kid's got star quality."
After making his way to the top in Pop music, Darin retried what he had started out to do: he became an actor. His first picture was Come September with Rock Hudson, Gina Lollobrigida and Sandra Dee. He met Miss Dee on the set in September, 1960. Her reaction to the "Darin charm," was immediate. "She hated me," he says. "She thought I was the most obnoxious man she'd ever met."
But throughout the three months' filming of Come September, Miss Dee and Darin discovered that all the bickering and wrangling was just a coverup for something else. They were in love, and the two of them married that December. One year later, Bobby became the father of a son named Dodd Mitchell Darin, in whom he takes great pride today.
"What's life like being married to a beautiful 23-year-old woman who has been a movie star for eight years? Do their careers ever get in the way?
"We keep everything separate -- the acting business and the home life," Darin says. "When we made That Funny Feeling, we treated each other in a strictly professional sense during the day. At night we pretended that we hadn't worked together at all."
Now that Darin is one of the top names along the nightclub circuit, he has decided to retire from the field. "In November, 1963, I played the Flamingo in Vegas, and then called it quits. Everyone said I was crazy, that I'd be back. But to this day I haven't set foot on a nightclub stage, and I don't intend to."
Being simply an actor is not enough for Darin, either. For some time he was connected with the T & M Music Company, which deals mainly with getting songs copywrited and performed. After giving up nightclub work, he just stepped in and bought the company. "I've got to be involved in a lot of things," he says.
When not appearing in pictures, Darin is in his office five days a week. The New York office employs 15, and Darin is proud to add, "We're represented in every country in the world -- except those behind the Iron Curtain."
He takes the business seriously, is obviously successful at it, and believes he's a stern taskmaster.
Bobby's employees, however, don't seem to live in terror of him; in fact, they seem pretty much at ease with him.
"Where did the story get started that you're not liked very much?" I asked Bobby. "You seem like a nice guy to me."
"Okay, I'll give you an example," he said. "That's a nice-looking dark shirt you got on. Now why wear that red tie with it? See what I mean? I like to burn people up, right off the bat. If they stick around, they like me for me. Also I like people who throw wisecracks back at me. Now if you'd said something back about my shoes or tie, then we'd be getting along just fine."
Darin's bark is perhaps tougher than his bite. "I've had to fire two employees in my life, and it damn near killed me. When I really say something I mean, I use a very soft voice. No yelling or theatrics."
Bobby rarely mentions this softer side to his nature. Near the close of the interview, the phone rang: it was his wife calling from Lisbon where she is making a movie. In reverse Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde style, he lost his Broadway pose and became a considerate husband and proud father.
A few months ago he appeared on the Johnny Carson Show with actress Margaret O'Brien. The talk got around to the subject of marriage within the acting profession. "I'd never marry an actor," Miss O'Brien flatly stated.
"Oh, yes you would," Darin said, "if you loved him." "No, I wouldn't."
Today Darin says, "I could have broken that girl. It would have been so easy to do. But, you know, there were a million people watching, and I didn't want to embarrass her. I shut up -- or what is considered shutting up for me. Even with that, I got all these letters saying, 'How dare you speak to a young lady that way!'"
Even though Darin is Hollywood's enfant terrible, he has many friends and admirers out there. There is even one man he looks up to, an ex-New York boy himself. "I mean Mr. George Burns. I'll always put the 'Mister' in front of his name. To me he's the greatest. He's been like a father to me."
Hollywood itself has been impressed enough by Darin's talent to nominate him in 1964 for an Oscar for his supporting role in Captain Newman, M.D. "Those were my peers that did that. It was only the biggest moment in my life, that's all it was."
Darin and his family live in a fine home not many minutes away from downtown Los Angeles. Not satisfied with having a swimming pool like everyone else, he has a lake. "My sister just wrote me that she caught a trout in it. What do you think of that?" Darin is, above all else, a good family man. He has even hired his brother-in-law as his personal assistant to accompany him during road tours.
Perhaps the next professional step for him will be to become a director or producer. "I've got all the money I need," he says. "If I wanted to buy a yacht, I could. There's nothing I couldn't write out a check for. But that's not everything in life."
The old neighborhood in the Bronx where Darin grew up has been leveled and a new housing development put up in its place. Darin has no regrets about the loss of the old scene, but shudders at the thought of the new buildings. "They all look the same. I don't know how anybody finds the right door. I hate the new place even more than the old."
And in the newly released picture That Funny Feeling (for which he wrote the score), Darin not only stars with his wife but with his old idol -- Donald O'Connor.
Maybe O'Connor will be standing outside a theater, and a stranger will say, "Hiya, Bobby." Maybe it could happen in the exciting world of Bobby Darin.
Thank you to Joy Cash for this article.
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