Classic Hollywood #107 – Greer Garson, Great At Memorizing Lines

Greer Garson – Acting Talent Does Not Equate To Being A Good Talk Show Guest

Greer Garson (1904-1996) was a fine and talented actress. Anyone seeing her deeply moving performances in Goodbye Mr. Chips or Mrs. Miniver can attest to that.

Garson won the Academy Award for her portrayal as the title character in Mrs. Miniver. Six additional Academy Award nominations for Best Actress in a Leading Role affirm that her colleagues appreciated Garson’s acting skills.

But according to Craig Tennis, a former talent coordinator of The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson from 1968-1976, Greer Garson was not great when it came to spontaneity.

In order to be a good interview you have to have something to say when responding to questions.

In Tennis’ breezy book Johnny Tonight! (Pocket Books, 1980), he describes that Garson, along with many other celebrities, did not possess the raconteur spirit of being entertaining or interesting.

Tennis explains:

There aren’t too many artists with that special blend of qualities that makes them amusing in an open format like “Tonight.”  Ironically, most performers are either limited in intellectual scope and are therefore dull or they’re unable to really talk  – that is converse outside of a role.

…When they are forced to extemporize, to be themselves, these larger-than-life people tend to be shy or even inarticulate. What’s more, on a talk show there is no script per se – just notes on a general direction to aim in – and for someone used to being in full character, that can be terrifying.

Buddy Fogelson and Greer Garson accepting 1971 Eclipse Award for Ack Ack from Mervyn Leroy photo via outofthepastblog

I saw that insecurity at its most extreme in the case of actress Greer Garson. She and her husband at one time owned Ack Ack, the 1971 Racehorse of the Year – and Greer came on the show to talk about him. As she and Johnny chatted, he would interrupt her periodically and ask a question about the animal, and every time he did, she would shoot him a confused look and then go right on as if he hadn’t spoken.

I can remember walking backstage and seeing Mike Zanella, her coordinator, staring with a frozen look on his face. He was holding a crumbled piece of paper she had discarded with the interview she had memorized on it, and was reading her “conversation” off the page, almost word for word. She had actually written her dialogue down in advance like a script; she felt incapable, after so many years of acting, of talking spontaneously, even about her own horse. 

2 thoughts on “Classic Hollywood #107 – Greer Garson, Great At Memorizing Lines

  1. Shannon

    This is interesting, perhaps it’s why there are so few interviews with her! I’m surprised though, because she had a reputation for being really brilliant and well-read and funny. Perhaps she was that way in private but felt she had to “perform” for an audience? She was delightful on “What’s My Line” so I’d have thought she could pull off the basic improv a short talk show interview requires.

  2. Kevin

    Robert de Niro is another one. Incredibly boring interviewee. Marlon Brando’s appearances on Cavett and Larry King are interesting only because it’s Brando. Otherwise, sleep-inducing. I give Tom Hanks for being engaging and funny, though.


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