Robert Nichols’ acting career didn’t start the way most Hollywood stories do. The Sacramento native’s big break came while living in London after serving in the US Army during World War II.
The year was 1949. Legendary director Howard Hawks was visiting London and cast Nichols in a small role in the Cary Grant/Ann Sheridan film I Was a Male War Bride. He moved to Hollywood and soon scored parts in several additional Howard Hawks films, including the science fiction masterpiece The Thing From Another World.
Mr. Nichols kindly agreed to the following interview, conducted via e-mail earlier this month.
How did you get the part of Lt. Ken “Mac” MacPherson in The Thing From Another World?
I had worked for Mister Hawks in I Was a Male War Bride. Later he used me in Monkey Business and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes so I guess he liked me.
What was it like working with director Christian Nyby and how big a hand did Howard Hawks have in the direction of the film?
Chris Nyby did NOT direct The Thing. Mister Hawks himself directed every single scene involving the actors and I have pictures to prove it. I believe Chris may have directed some of the second unit shooting.
Would you agree that Americans developed a skepticism of science and scientists following the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima? And if so, do you think The Thing reflects this skepticism?
I don’t believe Americans developed a skepticism of scientists. A very few years later they were our heroes for the moon landing. It was a point of view from Mister Hawks for this picture. You’ve got to have some conflict.
What was it like living in America in the Atomic Era? How were you personally affected by the uncertainties of the time – for example, the bomb, McCarthyism, the Cold War, etc?
Very little difference from today. We always have our fashionable paranoias. In my associates I don’t think we were overly apprehensive about the bomb or the Cold War. We had enough worries dealing McCarthyism in the business and that was major problem, loathsome man. One could never discuss politics on a set for the fear of being reported to HUAC and accused of being a Communist, which meant the end of your career. My own father-in-law [Alan Napier] was gray listed for five years.
How did you enjoy working with your co-stars (Kenneth Tobey, Margaret Sheridan, James Arness, etc.) on the film?
Liked them all. Made some lifelong friends, now all gone, alas. It was generally a happy company…Mister Hawks would not have tolerated it any other way, although there was a continuing conflict between Ken [Tobey] and Doug [Spencer]. Don’t know why.
What did you think of the idea that The Thing was basically a vegetable with a brain?
What was your favorite scene to shoot?
The fire in the bunk house was great fun to shoot. I enjoyed the scene in the plane where I was reading official reports. Had a chance to do a little acting.
Any special memories of the film that you’d like to share?
Although there was a credited screenplay, over half the dialogue was improvised, a very unusual technique at the time. The only speech I am sure was written by Charlie Lederer was Doug’s big speech at the end. I don’t think it was ever Mister Hawks’ intention to film a political diatribe. At any rate we certainly were not aware of it, not that it would have made nay difference. We were filming a good story.