Mickey Kuhn - Former child actor
MICKEY KUHN ON:
His favorite movie
“Probably ‘Gone with the Wind’ or ‘Red River.’ It’s got John Wayne and I just love Westerns. Plus I get to relive my youth.”
“Movies today are very good, don’t get me wrong. But everything is so real. If you shoot somebody on screen you can see the blood coming out of the bullet hole. When I was in the movies you shot someone and they didn’t even bleed. But you knew they were shot. It was a fantasy. That’s what I go to the movies for.
His favorite child actor
“Probably Gary Gray or the kid that was in ‘Shane’ (Brandon De Wilde). Gary Gray was a nice kid and a good actor but not full of himself. That’s the way it was back then. We appreciated the fact that we had fans.”
Being a child actor today
“I could have been a child actor today because I did what I was told and I knew my lines. There are a lot of challenges for those kids today though. It’s difficult to keep a level head on their shoulders. Some of these kids are very, very good actors, but it goes right to their heads.”
The price of movie tickets
“Yes, I get a bit of sticker shock (going to the movies today). My mother and I went to see “Gone with the Wind” and we paid 85 cents or $1 and that was because it was a special movie. We were supposed to go to the premiere, but my dog got killed right as we were leaving for the show. So my mom said we weren’t going. I was really upset.”
NAPLES — Like many families during the Great Depression, the Kuhns left the Midwest for California. That’s why 2-year-old Mickey Kuhn happened to be walking around a Sears, Roebuck and Co. store in Santa Monica in 1934 when a man approached his mother with a business proposition.
“He said, ‘Your little boy and my daughter look like they could be twins,’” Kuhn, now 77, recalls. “‘20th Century Fox is having a casting call looking for twins.’”
And with that, Kuhn found himself in the first of many Hollywood casting sessions — a sandy blond boy with a big bright smile and pinchable cheeks.
You’ve probably never heard of Kuhn, but you’ve heard of the movies he acted in, and the stars he worked with side by side.
He played small roles in “Gone with the Wind” and “A Streetcar Named Desire.” He worked with Jimmy Stewart in “Broken Arrow” and “Magic Town” and played scenes with Bette Davis and Claude Rains in “Juarez.”
The roles didn’t make him rich. They didn’t make him a star. But they did leave him with a lifetime worth of memories.
He had the opening lines in “A Streetcar Named Desire” as he helped Vivien Leigh onto the car. He got slapped in the face by John Wayne in “Red River.”
That scene with Wayne remains one of Kuhn’s favorite memories.
“Before the scene he came up to me and said, ‘Mickey, would it be OK if I actually hit you?” Kuhn remembers. “‘It’ll make the scene better.’ What does a 14-year-old say to John Wayne? Only took the shot once. And he was right.
“Now I tell everyone this is the face that John Wayne slapped.”
The living room of his condo in the Strand off Immokalee Road is a sort of shrine to his acting career. Framed posters on the wall showcase two of the biggest movies, “Dick Tracy” and “The Strange Loves of Martha Ives,” where he played the younger version of Kirk Douglas’ character in that actor’s first movie.
There’s a gun he pretended to shoot in a Western, with a holster belt designed to look like the one Wayne wore in most of his films.
In some ways the room is a shrine to youth. After a successful career as a child actor from the ’30s to the ’50s, Kuhn left Hollywood at 25 for something more stable.
He spent four years serving his country, spending the early 1950s in the Navy’s aviation corps. Then he joined American Airlines, which transfered him first to Washington, D.C., and then to Boston, where he ended up in a management position. And three years ago he and his wife, Barbara, retired to Naples after spending the three previous seasons in Bonita Springs.
He doesn’t regret leaving the movie business. Sure, he thinks he could have pulled together a nice living as a side player, especially in the 1950s when the market for Westerns on TV was booming.
“I was good for Westerns because I could ride a horse,” Kuhn says. “But my mother didn’t want me doing them.”
And he didn’t really want to be on TV. He tried a little a few small screen roles, with parts on three episodes of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents...,” but it just wasn’t the same.
Kuhn said he knew he didn’t have the star quality needed to be a leading man in Hollywood. “You had to be comfortable with people around you all the time,” he says. “I didn’t think I could ever do that.”
There is one part he auditioned for that could have propelled him into more rarefied air in Hollywood.
“I would have loved to played the Claude Jarman part in ‘The Yearling,’” he says. “I wanted to work with Gregory Peck. But I just wasn’t what they were looking for. I wasn’t right for the part.”
A near miss at more lasting fame aside, Kuhn’s Hollywood life was charmed. He had a front row seat for a few of the films that changed Hollywood forever.
“I remember going to the casting for “Gone with the Wind,” he says. “We were running late and when we got there, there was already a waiting room full of kids hoping to get cast. But when we got there the casting director said, ‘Oh, Mickey, thank God you are here.’”
He ended up in the office of famed movie producer David O. Selznick. As Selznick asked him questions, another man stood silently and watched. Eventually, Selznick looked over to the man, who nodded his approval. And with that slight head movement, Victor Fleming cast Kuhn in the highest-grossing movie ever made (when adjusted for inflation).
Kuhn’s mom hoped Mickey would get cast in another of Victor Fleming’s movies that year. “She really wanted me to be in ‘The Wizard of Oz,’” he says.
Kuhn is now one of five people still alive who had parts in “Gone with the Wind.” A guest bedroom in his condo is full of memorabilia from the film. He goes around the country speaking at conventions honoring it. He jets off to Olivia de Havilland’s birthday parties — she’ll be 94 this year.
Perhaps his favorite memory from the movie is a scene in which he needed to cry. No one was sure how to get the young actor to turn on the water works, but Fleming pulled him aside and whispered a tale so sad that the boy was able to blubber on cue.
Afterward, Fleming picked Kuhn back up to calm him. Then Kuhn took a playful swing at him. That punch was captured by a set photographer and now rests in a scrapbook full of shots of Kuhn with big-named stars.
He pulls them out for company. Barbara Kuhn dotes on her husband when the scrapbooks come out.
“Look there he is with...” she says, inserting names of different celebrities.
Mickey Kuhn is tickled pink that anyone would still care about his career, but he doesn’t consider it anything more than a good time he once had, helping support his family through the Depression.
“I got paid $100 a week on ‘Juarez,’” he says. “All that money went back to the family.... I was just one of about 10 kids who went out for all these parts. They were all my friends.
“Sometimes I got them. Sometimes I didn’t. And then I just moved on to the next.”