Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Tom Neal -- Detour (Part I)

Neal with Ann Savage in Detour
Neal, a dependable actor in some 180 films from 1938 to 1953, is nevertheless fated to be remembered in Hollywood lore for two acts of violence committed 14 years apart.  Born in Evanston, Illinois, on January 28, 1914, Neal enjoyed a privileged life as the son of a banker.  Excelling at sports at Northwestern University, Neal became a Golden Gloves boxing champ...a skill he would later use to deleterious effect in Tinseltown.  Briefly flirting with a Broadway stage career in the early 1930s, he earned a law degree from Harvard University in 1938, but never practiced.  That same year, Neal arrived in Hollywood and appeared in his first screen role as a bit player in MGM's Out West with the Hardys.  The good-looking, muscular actor worked almost nonstop from the late 1940s until his final film, The Great Jesse James Raid, in 1953.  Often cast as the tough guy or suave leading man in grade B motion pictures, Neal's film credits include 6,000 Enemies (1939), Flying Tigers (1942), Behind the Rising Sun (1943), Thoroughbreds (1944), Crime, Inc. (1945), The Brute Man (1946), Call of the Klondike (1950), and Danger Zone (1951).  In 1946, Neal starred as the Fate-stricken character, "Al Roberts," in the Edgar G. Ulmer directed film Detour for Poverty Row production company PRC (Producers Releasing Corporation).  Shot in six days on the microscopic budget of $30,000, Detour has since become a darling of critics who laud it as a major example of film noir.  The movie was remade in 1992 starring Tom Neal, Jr., the actor's son.
Tone and Payton
Payton and Neal
No doubt Neal would have continued his undistinguished, but solid acting career in B movies if not for his disastrous involvement in an ill-fated love triangle.  Barbara Payton, a sexy blonde "star" of such forgettable early 1950s films as Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye (1950) and Drums in the Deep South (1951), was better at garnering headlines than acting.  Though only 25, Payton was very publicly engaged to the 45-year-old actor, Franchot Tone, the patrician-looking ex-husband of Joan Crawford.  The press followed the couple's every movement and, shark-like, smelled blood in the water when the buxom star broke off her engagement with Tone in July 1951.  The reason?  Payton "knew in a minute" that she "loved" Tom Neal after spying the muscular 37-year-old actor in swim trunks poised on a diving board at a mutual friend's pool party in Hollywood.  The pair generated headlines of their own when the mercurial Payton decided to renew her friendship with Franchot Tone.  On September 14, 1951, two days before Payton was set to marry Neal, the young star and Tone spent the evening dining and dancing at Ciro's.  Neal was waiting for the couple at Payton's Hollywood home at 1802 Courtney Avenue when they arrived from their "date" around 1:30 A.M. the next morning.  The fickle bombshell ordered Neal to leave and, when he refused, instructed Tone to make him.  Tone, nine years older and twenty pounds lighter, invited the 5'10", 180-pound former Golden Gloves boxing champion (who, incidentally, spent his spare time lifting weights) out on the front patio to settle the dispute.  Not surprisingly, Neal beat Tone senseless, breaking the actor's nose and fracturing his cheek.  Tone woke up in California Hospital 18 hours later suffering from a cerebral concussion.  He later underwent two hours of facial surgery to save his distinguished good looks.  Tone never landed a punch.

As Tone slowly recovered, Payton informed the press that her engagement to Neal was off.  The star of Bride of the Gorilla (1951) now intended to wed Franchot Tone as soon as he was able to stagger down the aisle.  Neal, left to twist in the legal wind while awaiting Tone's decision whether or not to file felony assault charges against him, told his side of the "parlor man" versus the "athlete" story in a September 17, 1951 Los Angeles Times article bearing his by-line.  Maintaining his love for Payton, Neal said she instigated the confrontation with Tone over a period of months by playing the two men off against one another.  Of the altercation:

"Barbara came out and asked Franchot when he was going to get rid of me and then threw her arms around him and kissed him.  That's what touched it off.  Tone said, "Let's go."  He threw a right and I threw a right and mine got in faster.  I struck him several more times and it was all over.  I saw them carry him into the house....  It was one of those things, where I had to defend myself and where the sight of the girl I love kissing another man just made me see red.  I mean, when you're fighting for a girl -- well, you just lose your head a little, I guess.  I have nothing against Tone whatever.  I'm sorry he's in the hospital and I'm ready to do anything I can do to help him.  And I hope he and Barbara will be happy."

On September 27, 1951, Tone announced that would not file charges against Neal for their one-sided fistfight.  The next day, Payton and Tone married in the sexy star's hometown of Cloquet, Minnesota.  The couple separated after 53 days of marriage amid rumors Payton was still in love with Tom Neal.  Tone divorced the fickle actress on May 19, 1952, citing "extreme mental cruelty."  The court papers did not mention his former rival, but Payton had resumed a torrid relationship with the actor that eventually fizzled after they appeared together in Neal's final film, The Great Jesse James Raid, in 1953.  Rendered unemployable by the scandal, Neal was forced to leave Hollywood for Palm Springs where the broke former B-movie actor was reduced to working as a gardener.  Still, he fared better than Barbara Payton, who was also made persona non grata in the film capital by the scandal and her subsequent bizarre behavior.  After making her last movie in 1955, Murder Is My Beat, Payton descended into a nightmare world of alcoholism, check kiting, homelessness, and prostitution.  The sexy woman movie stars once fought over died on May 8, 1967, at the age of 39 from heart and liver failure in San Diego.

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