Time Tunneling with James Darren

Alison Martino spends an afternoon reminiscing with the ’60s star everyone loves

James Darren is an icon, so when an opportunity to interview the actor-director-singer for this column recently came up, I couldn’t think of a better place for us to talk about his life and career than Greenblatt’s Deli, an iconic L.A. institution.

When we sat down, comedian Richard Lewis noticed Jimmy from across the deli right away. Richard and Jimmy worked together back in the early 1970s, and Richard was so ecstatic to see Jimmy again that he planted himself at our booth, regaled us with stories for more than an hour, and picked up our tab. It was the kind of delightful and unexpected interaction that, apparently, happens when you spend time with James Darren. Because when you have a face like that, well, things happen. You can see it for yourself when Jimmy performs at the South Point Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas this weekend.

James Darren, Richard Lewis and Alison Martino at Greenblatt’s Deli
James Darren, Richard Lewis and Alison Martino at Greenblatt’s Deli

Photograph courtesy Alison Martino

In addition to show business, Jimmy—who lives in Audrey Hepburn’s former home and jets around town in a rare 1958 Porsche—has a passion for Los Angeles history. The T.J. Hooker and Gidget star advocated to help save Norms diner on La Cienega earlier this year and has spoken passionately on behalf of the Los Angeles Conservancy alongside Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner. I haven’t come across many entertainers who can recall Los Angeles in the 1950s and ‘60s as vividly as Jimmy. He is the epitome of cool.

Over our lunch I asked him about finding fame, his friend James Dean, and his favorite Hollywood haunts.

How long have you lived in L.A.?
I came to Los Angeles to get discovered in 1954. I stayed at the Garden of Allah, a beautiful hotel at Sunset Boulevard and Crescent Heights. It was mystical, like being in a 1940s movie. It had this certain magic that is difficult to describe. I would walk across the street to a popular diner that was next to Schwab’s Pharmacy called Googie’s and buy a hamburger or whatever and bring it back to my room. I was so shy I would never eat it in the restaurant.

Then I met actor John Saxon, and he and I became very good friends—we still are today. I met him at the bar at the Garden of Allah in 1954. James Dean used to sit with [John and me] at Googie’s. He would usually be coming back from a car race, and he’d be picking stones from his hair!

James Darren used to walk to meet his buddies at Googies and Schwab’s on the Sunset Strip.
James Darren used to walk to meet his buddies at Googies and Schwab’s on the Sunset Strip.

Photograph courtesy Vintage Los Angeles

I also lived in the Villa Elaine Apartments across from the Hollywood Ranch Market. I lived at that market. There was nothing you couldn’t buy there, and it was open 24 hours a day. It was a total hangout. I would sometimes go there at 2 a.m. with other actors. I remember seeing Tony Curtis there a lot. Eventually, I moved into an apartment right behind Greenblatt’s, and James Dean would come by there, too. I had no idea how big a star he was going to be. I don’t think any of us did. I just knew he loved cars. We would sit around and talk. I even went up to the Griffith Observatory while he was shooting Rebel Without a Cause there.

A vintage postcard of the Hollywood Ranch Market
A vintage postcard of the Hollywood Ranch Market

Photograph courtesy Alison Martino

Speaking of cars, you have a very rare car yourself.
I have a 1958 Porsche 1600 Super Speedster. I bought it 40 years ago for $6,000. It’s one of the most beautiful cars ever. The design is eternal. I would like to put it in my living room but my wife won’t go for it. I don’t know how many are around today, but I’d guess only about a handful in this condition. Speaking of James Dean, he purchased the exact same model at a dealership across the street from the Hollywood Ranch Market on Vine and paid about $3,400. Mine is silver and his was white. I was in that car with him a few times. That wasn’t the one he died in. That was a Porsche 550 Spyder.

What were your favorite hangouts during your early days in L.A.?
When I was first under contract [with Columbia Pictures] in 1957, I would hang out at Norms. This was a few years before Gidget was released.

The Villa Capri (owned by Patsy D’Amore on Yucca in Hollywood) was my favorite Italian restaurant. I was there all the time. It was very casual; you never felt like you had to be “on.” I also went to Scandia, Matteo’s, and Dino’s Lodge.

I was at Martoni’s on Cahuenga Boulevard on the night Sam Cooke died. I was with Dick Glasser, my producer at Warner Bros., and Sam came over and talked to us for a while.

You could bump into just about anyone back then. In the ’50s and ’60s, you never really felt that you were being spied on or followed by paparazzi. If somebody was outside, it was usually a newspaper person with a flash bulb.

I liked Chasen’s a lot because we’d go to a little private room, but the Villa was my favorite restaurant. Patsy was a great host. These places had dark lighting that made them intimate. Today, places like Rainbow Bar and Grill and Musso and Frank ooze that same ambiance. The Hamburger Hamlet on Sunset was a big loss a few years ago.

I also loved The Luau in Beverly Hills. Joe Stellini was the maître d’. Steve Crane owned the place. Joe went on to open Stellini’s. In fact it was at Stellini’s when my wife said to Rick Husky, who had written and produced countless shows such as Mod Squad and Charlie’s Angels, “Why don’t you put Jimmy in a show? I want him to get him off the road.” That’s how I got into starring and directing in television series.

  The Villa Capri restaurant in the 1950s

The Villa Capri restaurant in the 1950s

Photograph courtesy Filomena D’Amore

What clubs did you go to?
Ciro’s heyday was a bit before I busted into showbiz, although I did go there and to The Mocambo. They were big clubs and you’d see every star in the world there: Gary Cooper, Frank Sinatra, Rita Hayworth—every star from that era. The only club I ever worked here was the Cocoanut Grove. Today I work the Catalina Jazz Club. I actually had the biggest sold out crowd there to date. That was very exciting.

When Gidget debuted you became a teen idol. Do you remember when you first realized that you were a Hollywood sensation?
The defining moment was when I was at a studio in San Francisco and word got out that I was there. Thousands of girls were screaming out front. When I had to leave the building, they tackled me to the ground and pulled pieces of my hair out. The police had to rescue me and took me to the roof until things settled down. It was total pandemonium. That was the moment. 

I know that you were very close to actor and comedian Buddy Hackett. How did you meet and what was it like working with him?
I was at the Cocoanut Grove to see a Nancy Sinatra show in 1970 and Buddy Hackett came to my table to introduce himself. He said, “So, what are you doing now? How would you like to work with me?” I said, “Sure that’d be great.” And we shook hands. He said, “My attorney will call you.” I said “OK, great.”

When he left, I told the people I was with, “Boy, I’m happy I’m wearing boots because there’s so much bullshit in this town.” I said, “It would be great, but I’ll never hear from him.” But I did. Maybe a week-and-a-half later, his attorney called. We [booked a gig] at the Sahara for two weeks. After that, Buddy said, “How would you like to stay on with me?” I said, “I’d love it.” We worked the Sahara for 14 weeks and around the country for 40 weeks and had a great time. Sometimes when I’m on stage today I feel that Buddy is coming through me.

James Darren, Philadelphia Mayor Frank Rizzo, and Buddy Hackett, who was presented the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia
James Darren, Philadelphia Mayor Frank Rizzo, and Buddy Hackett, who was presented the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia

Photograph courtesy James Darren

What did he teach you?
Everything. When I started working with him, he came out on stage after like three, maybe four songs. We talked, and it was like a Martin and Lewis kind of routine, so I tried to be funny. After that show, Buddy called me in my dressing room and said, “When I come out on stage and we talk, I want you to be one thing: honest. Don’t try to be funny. Because I’m funny. If you’re funny and I’m funny there’s nothing for me to play off of. So just be honest with me and I can work off that. If I ask you, ‘What time did you get up this morning?,’ tell me the truth.” From that alone I learned so much. He’d do things that would floor me off the top of his head. He was so brilliant. His timing was everything. Just like a metronome.

When did you buy your first house?
The first house I bought was for my parents. I bought my first house on Heather Road in 1964. I bought the house I still live in on Kimridge Road in 1966. Audrey Hepburn owned it previously. Life magazine did a spread on it while she was living there. When I moved in Peggy Lee lived on the street and Frank Sinatra and Ernie Kovacs lived around the corner.

How did you evolve from acting to directing?
Rick Husky persuaded Aaron Spelling and Leonard Goldberg to put me in T.J. Hooker. The cast was William Shatner, Adrian Zmed, and Heather Locklear. I did that from 1980 to about ’84. When we had one show left on “T.J. Hooker,” it didn’t have a director assigned. I asked Rick, “Do you think I could direct it?” I didn’t even know what I was talking about! Deep down inside my guts were spinning. Rick said, “If I don’t do it, you can.”

I knew it was the next step. Anyway, when Rick told me I was doing it, the blood left my body. Thank God I knew the crew. That was a giant help because I had no idea or not much of an idea what I was doing except what I would visualize in my head. That’s how I directed. I would see a scene and that’s how I would block it. The first episode I directed was called “Into The Night.” After that, I went on to direct shows like Melrose Place, 90210, Hunter, Walker Texas Ranger, and Werewolf, which was my favorite.

And you directed yourself, too!
I directed myself. I wouldn’t recommend it because you can’t see yourself. Your brain is playing a dual role. It’s saying, “Am I doing this scene right for Jimmy Darren as an actor?” and, “Is it working right for me as a director? Am I getting what I want?” I would never direct myself again.

What advice would you share with up-and-coming actors today?
Opportunities are so rare in this town. I initially turned down The Time Tunnel, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and Goodbye Cruel World. My advice to anyone today is: Take the jobs!

What has kept you in Los Angeles all these years?
You can drive 45 minutes to the beach or an hour to the snow or to the desert where you can motorcycle. It’s such a convenient and spectacular place to live. Even though I’m from Philly, Los Angeles is home.

Alison Martino is a writer, television producer and personality, and L.A. pop culture historian. She founded the Facebook page Vintage Los Angeles in 2010. In addition to CityThink and VLA, Martino muses on L.A’s. past and present on Twitter and Instagram