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The accidental [movie] star
John Sweet appeared in just one film in his acting career. It made him famous twice.
By G.D. Gearino; Staff Writer
The News & Observer, Raleigh, North Carolina
Sunday, November 12 2000
It's easy to imagine John Sweet's life as a movie. After the opening credits, you see Sweet as a youngster in a small town in Ohio before World War II. Within the first half-hour, he's serving in the Army and is based in London at Gen. Dwight Eisenhower's headquarters. Perhaps you even see Ike walk into the frame once or twice. It's the movies. No director will resist that, even if it didn't actually happen.
Then the film hits its stride: Sweet is plucked from obscurity and made famous. Women fawn over him, men envy him and the people of his hometown shake their heads in I-knew-him-when amazement. Sweet even achieves what is, in the 1940s, the ultimate affirmation of popularity: He is featured in Life magazine [June 26th 1944].
But remember, this is a movie. It's too soon for happily ever after. Good fortune rarely goes unchallenged on celluloid.
So Sweet sees it all evaporate. Just as suddenly as his fame developed, it is gone. He becomes an ordinary guy. Not exactly Joe Lunch-bucket, but not far from it. Other celebrities he has known, people who have remained famous, barely acknowledge him. Every time he changes jobs, he slides a little farther down the professional ladder. Memories fade. Marriages fail. A daughter is murdered.
We're almost to the end of the film. Sweet retires and moves to North Carolina, where he lives in perfect anonymity. He putters around his retirement community with the other pensioners, wearing a sweater even when the weather is warm. A drive over to Chapel Hill can kill an afternoon. His white beard looks rakish, but the hair above it is eight-decades thin. The best Sweet can hope for is the occasional moment of recognition from someone who knows his history.
But movies, unlike life, don't just sputter to a conclusion. You've paid your money and you want to see a big ending. Here it comes. Don't go for popcorn now.
More than a half-century after his brief fame, Sweet is rediscovered. One more time, the cameras focus on him and microphones are thrust in his face. One more time, he hobnobs with celebrities. People not only remember him, they love him. The film ends. The last shot is a close-up of Sweet's beatific smile.
Fame. Obscurity. Redemption. It is indeed the stuff of movies.
Except in Sweet's case it wasn't like the movies. It was the movies.
A command performance:
Sweet, an articulate man, explains it simply and concisely: "I'm a born-again movie star."
In 1943, Sweet -- a sergeant in the U.S. Army who served as a typist, far from the action -- was made into a movie star. He'd never acted in anything other than high school plays, hadn't studied acting and had no ambition to become an actor. In fact, Sweet didn't even ask for the role. He was ordered to do it, more or less, by his commanding officers.
The movie is called "A Canterbury Tale" It wasn't based on the literary landmark of almost the same name, but it borrowed its spirit from Chaucer's work. The movie tells the story of three "pilgrims" who are thrown together by circumstance as they travel to Canterbury, which has been bombed by the Nazis. Each is troubled, for separate reasons, but each finds happiness by film's end.
The script called for one of the three main characters to be an American soldier. The movie's director -- a prominent British filmmaker named Michael Powell -- surely thought himself lucky in this regard. Not only was England full of American military men, many of them were actors. Jimmy Stewart, for instance. Clark Gable. Burgess Meredith.
Powell asked for Meredith and was refused. The Army, Sweet recalls, decided "it would raise a morale problem for troops sleeping in mudholes, knowing the stars were still doing the star thing."
Sweet knew none of this at the time, of course. He wasn't involved in the discussions. He was a nobody, albeit a nobody who had become bored and joined a theater group as a way to occupy his evenings. The Red Cross was sponsoring a production of the play "The Eve of St. Mark" by Maxwell Anderson, and Sweet had won a leading role.
Two things then happened to change Sweet's life forever. First, Powell asked if he could recruit an ordinary G.I. to perform in the play, since the established stars were off-limits. He was told he could.
Second, somebody mentioned to Powell that he should check out the young American performing in the Maxwell Anderson play at the Scala Theatre.
The Powell and the glory:
"I hadn't heard of Powell," Sweet says. "I didn't know a whole lot of things. I wasn't a film buff."
Powell, like Sweet, has been relegated to the sidelines of film history, at least in the eyes of American moviegoers. But in the 1940s, Powell was one of England's top directors. Before making "A Canterbury Tale," Powell had directed Laurence Olivier in "49th Parallel," which was nominated for three Academy Awards. He later made "The Red Shoes," likewise nominated for three Oscars, "The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp," "Black Narcissus," "The Tales of Hoffmann" and dozens of other movies. When the British Film Institute recently released its list of the 100 top British films, five of Powell's movies made the rankings. Only David Lean, director of "Lawrence of Arabia," had more films on the list.
In short, Powell was a major-leaguer. If you want to extend that metaphor, Sweet was the guy who gets called out of the cheap seats to play in the game with the professionals.
As it turned out, the guy from the cheap seats hit a home run.
"Having seen the film, I am inclined to hail Sergeant Sweet as a new Gary Cooper," gushed the reviewer for the London Evening News after the film's premiere in May 1944. The Sunday Dispatch's reviewer agreed, and even upped the ante by one: "I prefer him to Gary Cooper. I like him better than I like James Stewart."
The Sunday Express, not to be outdone for hyperbole, practically canonized Sweet. "What a man the Sergeant John Sweet is," the paper rhapsodized. "And what a picture he appears in. ... He has toughness with charm. ... He is the best of America in battledress. He will make tens of thousands of fans in this country."
They're right: Sweet is charming in the film, which is available on videotape. He is occasionally awkward, as any untrained actor is expected to be, but otherwise he's a great, funny splash of American candor and humor.
The film begins with Sweet, traveling to Canterbury to meet a friend, accidentally getting off a train at the wrong station during a blackout. He is befriended by a British soldier and a London shopgirl, both of whom also are seeking to get to Canterbury. All of them have unhappiness in their lives: Sweet's girlfriend hasn't been answering his letters, the shopgirl's fiance is missing in action, and the British soldier -- a classically trained organist -- has been reduced to playing in movie houses.
They eventually get to Canterbury, but most of the movie follows them around the small village where they've been temporarily stranded. It is in those scenes where Powell made best use of his lanky, laconic American sergeant.
In one scene, for example, Sweet's character settles into a chair next to a British villager. The man mentions that his brother lives in America -- specifically, in "Butt City, Montana" -- and wonders if Sweet has run into him. The man clearly believes all Americans know one another, and Sweet flawlessly deadpans his way through the whole exchange.
- Man: "The name is Isaac Wells. Maybe you know him."
Sweet: "Tall fellow?"
Man: "Short and fat."
Sweet (after a thoughtful pause): "Can't place him." (Another pause.) "I come from Three Sisters Falls, Oregon."
Man: "I come from the Seven Sisters Road, London. Put it there." (They shake hands.)
Sweet: "Pleased to meet you. You sure are a whole mess of sisters ahead of me."
Ultimately, however, it all counted for nothing.
Sweet, despite the rave reviews, never made another movie. He finished his Army hitch and returned to the United States in 1945. As he said to Life magazine in 1944: "No big fat men with gold watch chains have driven up in limousines to offer me Hollywood contracts."
He did manage to work for nearly three years on Broadway. Thanks to introductions made on his behalf by theater industry insiders, Sweet was invited to read for lead roles in a number of Broadway productions. He didn't get a single one. Instead, he was offered a series of bit parts.
There wasn't anything puzzling or mysterious about why he kept missing the lead roles, Sweet says: "I wasn't entitled to have big parts. I wasn't disciplined, or focused on what actors call 'the craft.' ... When the movie was being made, I was in the hands of a director who could leave the bad stuff on the cutting room floor."
In 1948, Sweet concluded he would never make it as an actor. Each audition was like stepping up to the plate in baseball, "and I wasn't getting a hit," he says. "All those nonhits carried the message that I'd be better off doing something else."
He wangled a teaching job at Bowdoin College in Maine, which lasted eight years. When the college's administrators concluded Sweet didn't have a sufficient academic background for the long haul, they gently suggested he continue his teaching elsewhere. In 1956, he started teaching high school in Chappaqua, N.Y. (now best known for being home to Hillary Clinton). He stayed there until his retirement in 1973.
It is, when you think about it, a strange career arc. Sweet started out at the top -- a star in a major movie -- and then descended to bit player on Broadway, college lecturer and, finally, high school teacher. It's the mirror image of the path you'd expect.
"They went from major to minor," he says of his job changes.
His personal life also took some odd turns. He married and divorced three times. (He now lives with his fourth wife, Barbara, in Chatham County's Fearrington Village.) And his oldest child -- a daughter who was born while he served overseas in the Army, and whom he barely knew for a long time -- was murdered in 1967 in Washington. The killing was never solved, he says.
In 1984, Sweet moved to the Triangle. His movie-star background was known to only a few.
Michael Powell slid into his own kind of obscurity over the same period. After hitting his high tide artistically in the 1940s, Powell's reputation began to slip. In 1961, it plummeted with the release of "Peeping Tom," a movie about a voyeuristic killer that was roundly panned. He made only a handful of films afterward, and by the 1970s Powell was largely forgotten. His films were rarely shown or mentioned.
But Powell had two important supporters: Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese.
Coppola, director of "The Godfather" and "Apocalypse Now," was an admirer of Powell and appointed him as director emeritus at American Zoetrope studios, Coppola's movie production company. Scorsese, director of "Raging Bull" and "GoodFellas," practically made the resurrection of Powell's memory a crusade. He pushed for the restoration of many of Powell's films, sought Powell's advice on countless occasions, presented him with an award at the Telluride Film Festival and readily acknowledges that numerous scenes in his films had their inspirations in Powell's movies. (Scorsese's film editor, Thelma Schoonmaker-Powell, eventually married Powell and lived with him until his death in 1990.)
Sweet's resurrection had to wait a few more years.
In 1997, Sweet learned that somebody was looking for him. An Englishman had written to the local paper in the small Ohio town where Sweet grew up, seeking word of Sweet's whereabouts. When he heard about it, Sweet contacted the fellow and asked, in essence, who are you and what do you want with me?
"I was delighted to receive your letter," the man responded. "I had been trying to trace you for several months. ... A friend of mine, a collector of WWII movie memorabilia, has been trying to trace you for nine years."
As it turned out, the man was an author named Paul Tritton, and he was writing a book called "A Canterbury Tale: Memories of a Wartime Movie." Did Sweet happen to have any photos taken at the time of the production? And did he have any memories of the moviemaking he'd care to contribute?
Sweet had both. He might have been a star in 1943, but he also was star-struck. He'd kept dozens of publicity photos from the time and -- with his clerk training holding true -- had even typewritten short commentaries to go along. He happily supplied them to the author.
Then, earlier this year, Sweet heard the words that, after 57 years, he never expected to hear:
Would he like to come to England and be a movie star again?
The event was a special screening of "A Canterbury Tale" at the Kent International Film Festival in October. With the help of the Powell and Pressburger Appreciation Society (screenwriter Emeric Pressburger was Powell's longtime collaborator), Sweet and his wife were brought to England to appear at the screening. Joining him was the one co-star who remains alive: an actress named Sheila Sim, now known as Lady Attenborough thanks to her marriage to famed film director Lord Richard Attenborough.
The screening drew hundreds of people, and the two stars attracted a herd of journalists. They were featured on a 15-minute segment on BBC Radio and interviewed by television and newspaper reporters. Sweet autographed some 150 copies of Tritton's book. "Wherever we appeared there was a great popping of flashbulbs," he recalls.
There was another bonus for Sweet: the image of himself, huge on the screen, from nearly 60 years before. Movie stars -- real movie stars -- are accustomed to this. But among those of us who grew up before videotape, who else can expect to see their ghostly, younger selves so vividly lifelike?
"It's an astonishing experience for an 84-year-old man to see himself in his boyhood form," Sweet says.
Now Sweet has returned home, where life has returned to its ordinary, nonfamous state. He busies himself these days by working on his journal, recording his life in a series of essays that are produced at a clip of four to five a month. On a typical afternoon, Sweet climbs the stairs to his loft, scoots up close to his desk, inserts a piece of yellow paper into his typewriter, and taps out his memories of stardom found, lost, and then found again.
Reprinted with permission of The News & Observer of Raleigh, North Carolina
© The News & Observer, Raleigh, North Carolina.
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