Tuesday, May 26, 2009
Q&A with Albert Salmi biographer, Sandra Grabman
Q: I know that Albert Salmi was a familiar face on the small and large screens for four decades, but what made you decide to write his biography?
A: I'd admired Albert's work since I was a teen. Once I learned that he'd died in a murder-suicide, I yearned to find out more about him. Sure, he was usually the bad guy or the gruff sheriff in westerns and could be really intimidating, but what was he really like? If he killed his wife and himself, he must've been similar to those characters, right? No, something deep inside told me he wasn't. I searched for a biography about him, but none existed. Things said about him in books, magazines, and websites contradicted each other. What was true? What wasn't? Something just came over me - I didn't know what, but I had the burning desire to go right to
his family, friends, and co-stars myself and find out the truth, then report to the world my findings in a biography. The results were amazing, and it soon became pretty obvious to me where this push to write his biography came from. It's a complicated story, but you can find it on my website at www.sandragrabman.com, by clicking the "A Book That's Meant to Be" link under the Articles heading on the left.
Q: What's the most surprising thing that your research turned up about Albert?
A: Can you imagine that big, burly "television bad guy" lovingly reading bedtime stories to his little girls? When his daughter Lizanne told me about that, it made me smile. It was so opposite of his tough screen image.
Q: He had a different kind of accent and I can't quite place what kind it is. Can you?
A: Even though Albert was born and raised in Brooklyn, his parents were natives of Finland and lived in the Finnish section of town, so Finnish was the only language he knew until he had to learn English at age six in order to begin school. Where'd he learn English? On the streets. So I guess what you heard when he spoke was the Brooklyn version of "Finglish." By the way, I was coached on how to pronounce the Finnish words in Albert's biography before recording its audiobook version and I've got to tell you - Finnish is one difficult language to learn!
Q: Where did Albert learn to act?
A: Fresh out of the Army after WWII, he took advantage of the GI Bill and got dramatic training at the American Theatre Wing, then later the Actors' Studio in New York. He said it was a form of goldbricking because there were no tests and he received a stipend from the government. He also said that the reason he wanted dramatic training was to meet girls. I guess it was just coincidental that he had acting talent.
Q: I understand he was married to former child star Peggy Ann Garner and, had he stayed married to her, he might still be alive today. Is that right?
A: That's very possible. After Albert had wow-ed the 1955 Broadway critics in "Bus Stop," he took the play on the road. Peggy Ann was his co-star, and they fell in love. Once the tour was over, they married. After seven years, though, they couldn't agree on where to live. He dearly loved New York and the live stage, but her heart was on the sound-stages of Hollywood. The
arguments that ensued resulted in her divorcing him. Sadly, though, she never stopped loving him and came to regret the divorce. By then, though, it was too late. He had already entered his second marriage, one which would last the rest of his life. His new wife was a very abusive woman, though. Even though he loved her, she caused him tremendous anguish that resulted in
his tragic end.
Here's an excerpt from "Spotlights & Shadows: The Albert Salmi Story" that deals with his two years as a regular on the TV series "Petrocelli":
The series was filmed in Tucson, Arizona, and for once, Salmi played
none of the stereotypes that he had so often played in the past. He dressed
as a modern-day cowboy would in Stetson hat, jeans and boots, but that's
where the similarity to his earlier characters ended. In "Petrocelli," he
was the savvy investigator who dug up the facts his attorney-boss [played by
Barry Newman] needed to win his cases.
Life in Arizona agreed with Albert, Jenny says. "He was born in the
wrong era. He should have been a cowboy in the old west." Salmi loved the
wide-open spaces in this part of the country, and used this opportunity to
do some fishing for bass or catfish. In photographs of him during this
period, he appears much happier and more relaxed than he had been earlier.
The show filmed for six months each year, six days a week, so Albert was
unable to go home on weekends. His role wasn't as demanding as Newman's
however, so he brought his car and spent much of his off-time exploring the
area. "If I didn't get out and roam around and explore," he said to
columnist Dick Kleiner, "what would I do? I'd just stay in the hotel, going
from my room to the coffee shop and back again. I couldn't do that."
This series not only provided a regular paycheck, but it promoted a
happier family life as well. Live-in help would take care of the girls at
home while Roberta visited Albert for four or five days at a time during the
school year; then the whole family would come to Arizona for the summer.
Lizanne recalls that time in their lives fondly: "When he was filming
'Petrocelli,' my mom, sister and I were able to spend two whole summers
there with him at the Hilton Hotel. It was really great. My sister and I got
our own hotel room, and we each got to invite a friend for a week or so. My
dad got a bit upset when he saw the room service and food bill Jen and I ran
up at the coffee shop. We ate a lot of watermelon, hamburgers, and Fresh
fries. He called us 'the watermelon kids' or 'the French fry kids.' I think
that that time was a really great time for my parents, although my mom
really hated the really hot weather in Arizona."
Roberta didn't visit the set during this series, Newman says, but,
instead, would spend her time playing tennis or at the hotel with the kids
and some of her friends who would come visit. Salmi joined his family in the
He was happy when his old friend Mark Richman was cast in a
guest-starring role once. Their careers had kept them so busy, they had lost
touch with each other until now. Of Salmi, Richman says, "He was not a
run-of-the-mill guy. He was just an unusual man with a particular kind of
speech pattern, and he was a good-natured, warm, open fellow. We drifted
apart as life goes on and as our careers varied, then we were reunited again
and his new wife came to see us . . . . He invited us to go up to visit him
[at their vacation spot in Idaho]." Richman looks back on these times with
fondness. "We all adored Albert," he said. "He was like a big teddy bear."
Newman and Salmi would often play tennis or go places together in the
evenings after work. "We had a terrific time," Newman says. Salmi never
drank on the job, but they would sometimes have a drink when they went out
at night. Newman, who was single at the time, said that when they were in
town after work, there were plenty of opportunities for Salmi to have been
unfaithful to his wife, but he remained loyal.