This Friday at 7 p.m., at the East Tennessee History Center, the Tennessee Archive of Moving Image and Sound will be showing the 1963 film All the Way Home. It’s based on James Agee’s autobiographical story about his father’s death in an automobile accident in 1916.
Introducing this movie, the only big-studio feature-length motion picture both set in Knoxville and filmed here, will be a celebrity visitor. The big, recognizable stars were Robert Preston and Jean Simmons, but the story was mostly centered on one little kid named Rufus, played by a child actor named Michael Kearney. He’ll be doing the honors.
Today he’s believed to be one of only two surviving cast members of that movie made here in Knoxville more than half a century ago. (The other is Knoxville native John Cullum, who played his uncle. Now 85, Cullum is still active as a Broadway actor in New York.)
Born in Paterson, N.J., Kearney—it’s pronounced like “Carney”—enjoyed a career as a child actor for about 15 years in the 1960s and ’70s. Now the New Jersey native deals in real estate in Michigan, his late wife’s home. About to turn 60 in a few weeks, he has few regrets.
He got into the business early, first as a kids’ clothing model. His older cousin, John Spencer, was an actor first, and it seemed like fun. “I always wanted to do what Johnny did,” Kearney says. Spencer was enjoying a recurring role as an awkward teenager in The Patty Duke Show, but later became best known for playing White House Chief of Staff Leo McGarry on The West Wing.
“Mom said let’s try it, it’s probably a phase. We had no idea where it would go.”
Directors went for his blond, innocent appeal. He made a TV commercial for Post Toasties (“Do they still make those?” he asks) and appeared in a Christmas episode of the police sitcom Car 54 Where Are You? He had a very small role in a movie called The Young Doctors, based on an Arthur Hailey novel, and surely the only movie that ever combined the talents of Golden Age legend Frederic March, comic foil Eddie Albert, and rock ’n’ roll impresario Dick Clark. (When he met Clark, Kearney recalls, “I recognized him from television, and I froze.”)
In 1962 his family heard about another part, in a serious movie based on a Broadway play by Tad Mosel that was in turn based on the late James Agee’s Pulitzer-winning novel, A Death in the Family. Kearney auditioned for the part, somewhere in New York. On the callback he met director Alex Segal, who had done a great deal of work in serious TV dramas, and David Susskind, the TV and movie producer who was better known as a talk-show host. Kearney eventually got the job, which he remembers as the biggest break of his career.[media-credit name=”Courtesy TAMIS” align=”alignright” width=”300″][/media-credit]
They flew down to Knoxville in September, 1962. “It was just a thrill,” he says. “I remember coming down the steps off the plane” at McGhee Tyson. “There was just people everywhere”—cameramen, reporters, politicians celebrating the first big motion picture ever to be filmed in Knoxville proper. “All these people wanted to see me!” And he was not quite 7 years old. “Mayor Duncan [John Sr., father of the current congressman] gave me the key to the city—which I still have. I asked my mom, ‘What does this do?’ ‘Nothing, I think,’ she responded. But it’s the only key to the city I’ve received anywhere.”
Today he can’t remember whether he had ever seen a Robert Preston movie, like The Music Man, but he knew that he and Jean Simmons were both big stars, and was duly awed.
The British-born Jean Simmons mostly kept to herself. Her co-star was the opposite. “Robert Preston liked to be around the people,” Kearney recalls. “He was just a fun guy.” Charismatic, outgoing, and generous toward his junior co-star.
Kearney liked the whole crew. “They were just such great people, so down to earth and real.” He compares it to the easy camaraderie of a family reunion.
He didn’t get to know John Cullum well. One of the busiest actors at the Carousel Theatre in the early to mid-’50s, Island Home’s most promising actor had moved to New York a couple of years earlier, for Broadway roles like that of Sir Dinadan in the original cast of Camelot, with Richard Burton and Julie Andrews. But Kearney had one bit of experience that Cullum lacked: He’d been in a movie before. All the Way Home was Cullum’s motion-picture debut. Kearney had only a couple of scenes with Cullum and remembers him only as a nice guy, quieter than the others.
His memories of Knoxville 53 years ago are vague, as you’d expect. He recalls they spent most of their time here in the Andrew Johnson Hotel on Gay Street, and sometimes ate in its locally well-known restaurant.
He was missing most of the first half of second grade, and had a tutor he remembers fondly. “Carol Kress—she was a very, very nice young woman.” He was just learning to read. “Reading was a problem for me. I couldn’t read a script, so I learned all my lines by repetition.”
“I was doing so many things I’d never done before, seeing so many things I’d never seen,” he says. “I loved the trains.”
He remembers leaning over to see the trains at the L&N, as Agee describes in the book. It was a production seemingly designed to amuse a little boy, with lots of odd old cars, horse and buggies, and trains.
And one coffin. “I remember the funeral scene in the film. I’d never seen a casket before. It was something new to me, kind of an experience for a kid. I remember walking up to it, and kind of looking into it. It was empty. I was just curious. I was insulated from death. I hadn’t lost any close relatives.”
“I was a kid, and they let me be a kid, sometimes,” chasing him around the set. “I can’t say I have a single bad memory of the whole thing.”
Well, maybe one. “Lots of my memories are surprisingly clear,” he says. He remembers going up to Cades Cove to film a scene, and riding around in an vintage Mercer automobile, towed behind a camera truck.
That was fun. But in one scene straight from the book, the boy is presented with his great-great grandmother, an actress in makeup played by Lylah Tiffany, who had played the same role on Broadway. “I had never met her prior to that shoot,” he says. “The reason you see fear was kind of real. She was scary-looking!”
He suspects that technique to get a natural reaction from a child actor was deliberate. “That’s okay, though,” he says. “It didn’t do any permanent damage. I didn’t make much of it. They were such great people, and we’d laugh about it. Later on, I met her. She was a very sweet woman.”
Tiffany was an elderly former vaudeville performer who by the 1960s was playing accordion and telling fortunes for quarters in the streets of New York. Photographer Alfred Eisenstadt took an arresting photo of her begging outside Carnegie Hall, and it made the rounds. She was tagged for this one Broadway and movie credit. Kearney unexpectedly encountered her in the streets of New York years later. She didn’t recogized him at first, but when he said, “I’m Rufus,” she responded, “Oh, my god,” and gave him a hug.
Kearney and his mother returned to Knoxville for the big “world premiere” at the Tennessee Theatre on Oct. 17, 1963. (“World Premiere” is a relative term. The movie had actually been shown, and positively reviewed, in New York a couple of weeks earlier.) He was barely 8 then, and had been involved with All the Way Home since he was 6—close to a quarter of his life.
“I remember that night, and the parade of cars. “I was overwhelmed by all the attention. We went up on stage” before the standing-room-only crowd at the Tennessee Theatre. “Someone had to pick me up” to reach the microphone. “I froze. I didn’t know what to say. Someone whispered in my ear, telling me to say something, but I couldn’t hear them. People were laughing.”
It was a black-and-white movie in a color era, and despite its star power, didn’t get a huge roll-out, and probably didn’t show in every market. It was the 196th top-grossing film of 1963. (Of 2,247 total, according to IMDB.)
Kearney and his family stayed in touch with Robert Preston for a few years. When Kearney was 9, he and his mother went to visit Preston backstage during his run in the title role of the Broadway show Ben Franklin in Paris. He had shaved his head for the role. “I thought, ‘Wow, what happened?’”
Kearney remembers All the Way Home as a positive turning point in his life. Compared to a lot of child actors, he had a fun ride of it. In 1967, he played Kurt Russell’s little brother in the Disney Civil War drama, Willie and the Yank, also known as The Mosby Raiders. Most of his later work was on TV, but in 1968 he appeared in the Burt Lancaster film, The Swimmer, a serious film about mental illness. He later heard about serious tensions between Lancaster and others on the set, but he didn’t witness it. “Burt Lancaster was a very nice man,” he says. “I was never part of it.” He played in a TV remake of the film The Desperate Hours, and by a pretty weird coincidence, his father in the film was Arthur Hill—who played the father in the Broadway version of All the Way Home.
But he thinks his best acting may have been in a 1967 TV film shot in Alabama called The Thanksgiving Visitor, playing author Truman Capote as a child. For what it’s worth, Kearney played Capote about 40 years before Philip Seymour Hoffman did. “He was a character,” Kearney says of Capote, “but a nice one. He treated me very well.”
Things started drying up for him in the 1970s. “When I was young, the blond-haired, blue-eyed kid was what everyone wanted. In the ’70s, it was kind of like I went out of style.”
His last filmed acting role was in 1975, a fairly prominent role as a young man in trouble in a 1975 episode of The Streets of San Francisco called “Merchants of Death,” opposite Karl Malden and Michael Douglas. (IMDB has him playing some roles in the 1990s, but that’s in error, he says. He’s tried to correct it, so far without success.)
He got married in 1981, moved to Michigan, his wife’s home, started a family, and after a last flurry of some summer-stock stage acting, put it all behind him. “I’m very happy the way it worked out,” he says. “It was just time to move on to something else.”
He admits he’s never read A Death in the Family, the novel on which the movie is based. “You’ll find that’s not unusual, for actors,” he says, to avoid reading the source material of a character they’ve portrayed. But the story means a lot to him, anyway.
“Unfortunately, it has become my life,” he says. “I lost my wife very suddenly. Not in a car wreck, like in the movie, but without any warning. It was something I was totally unprepared for.” Since then, he’s been thinking about All the Way Home. “It was very much like that.”
Today he has two grown daughters and a grandson. He hasn’t played a role in 40 years. Would he ever consider an offer? “You never know,” he says. “I love it. Life happens, things went in a different direction. But I’ve never quite let go of it. It’s still in me, somewhere.”
He’s proud to be part of this movie he worked on 53 years ago. Interest began stirring in it four or five years ago when a Nebraska film historian named Bruce Crawford tracked him down for an Omaha film event. Then Knoxville Agee historian Paul Brown contacted him. Then Bradley Reeves of the Tennessee Archive of Moving Image and Sound contacted him, wondering if he could come down for this week’s event.
“I just feel great about it,” he says. “That something I did so many years ago is still around, and people want to see it.”