Lawrence Tierney was at loose ends when he learned about the Dillinger picture. Caught in the middle of RKO’s indecision and rejection elsewhere, living in a furnished room with little money, he was considering a way out.
What was most important for Lawrence Tierney, what changed the course of his life – what defined and possibly cursed it – took place in 1944 after he walked out the doors of RKO Radio Pictures at 780 Gower Street, turned right and strolled almost three miles up the sidewalk to an office on Poverty Row.
Poverty Row wasn’t a street or a location. It was a rank, the name given the small, independent “studios” that churned out B-movies on bare-bone budgets, even tighter schedules, and with D-list stars, and occasionally came up with a hit. Many of the Poverty Row production companies were clustered around Gower Street near Sunset and Hollywood Boulevards. The King Brothers were set up on the Monogram Pictures lot, a couple of miles east.
The King Brothers were a trio of big, fat, noisy, pushy machers who’d turned themselves into movie producers by necessity. Frank and Maurice Kozinsky (kid brother Hymie tagged along as “technical advisor” when he returned from the Marines) were boys when their father, a Russian immigrant and fruit merchant, moved the family from New York City to Los Angeles in the 1920s. Over the years, the brothers rose from shining shoes and hawking newspapers to bootlegging and making a fortune owning slot machines (thousands of them). They “made a killing,” Tom Treanor wrote in the Los Angeles Times in 1941. “They operated almost every kind of machine from the original one-armed bandits to elaborate pinball games. One time they had 19,000 machines out.”
The Kozinskys moved into the motion picture business in a roundabout but perfectly logical manner. The brothers were developing “slot machine movies” – motion picture jukeboxes – and asked Cecil B. DeMille to provide them with footage to run on their slot machine projectors. In their opinion, DeMille didn’t act quickly enough on their request, and when he did, offered them dreck. The brothers put their heads together, and after consulting a couple of guys they knew from the racetrack – Louis B. Mayer and Frank Capra – decided to do it themselves.
They shot their first picture in six days for less than twenty-thousand dollars. The picture made some money, so they made another one. They changed their name from Kozinsky to King in 1942 and got into business with Monogram, one of the most monied operations on Poverty Row. Monogram was known for Westerns and adventure movies. In 1944, the King Brothers proposed a gangster picture.
Gangster pictures were a problem for the major Hollywood studios, but a sure sell for Poverty Row. The heyday of gangster classics like Public Enemy and Scarface in the early 1930s crashed to a halt in 1934 when, faced with boycotts and possible government censorship, the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, which represented the five major studios, began enforcing its Picture Production Code. The self-censoring set of moral guidelines laid out what was acceptable when it came to sex, violence, and politics, and applied to every film the majors released.
The rules didn’t always apply to the low-budget independents. That’s one reason the King Brothers didn’t hesitate asking Monogram to finance a film about John Dillinger, the infamous Midwestern gangster, bank robber, and cop killer whose spree ended on July 22, 1934, when he was shot down by federal agents as he stepped out of the Biograph Theater in Chicago.
It didn’t matter to the brothers that four months before Dillinger’s demise, MPPDA president Will Hays decreed that “no picture based on the life or exploits of John Dillinger” was to be “produced, distributed or exhibited by any member company” because “such a picture would be detrimental to the best public interest.”
Lawrence Tierney was at loose ends when he learned about the Dillinger picture. Caught in the middle of RKO’s indecision and rejection elsewhere, living in a furnished room with little money, he was considering a way out. His friend Jack Gage, a dialogue director who was helping him control his “doity boids” Brooklyn accent, suggested that Tierney reboot his career by heading back to New York, getting more experience as a stage actor, and returning to Hollywood with some solid credits. Tierney took the advice. He bought a ticket on the streamliner, a sleek train that would pull out of Union Station and chug him on his way home. He was four days from the “all aboard” when he read the item in Hedda Hopper’s column.
“I just walked into the King Brothers’ office without an agent or even an introduction,” he told columnist Patricia Clary of the United Press the following year. “Morrie and Frank interviewed me. But when they learned I had never played a role in the movies they said ‘no’ –politely, but ‘no.’”
Clary wrote that Tierney was so desperate for the part that he waited until the King Brothers’ secretary wasn’t looking and swiped a copy of the Dillinger script. He went home and practiced the scene in which Dillinger is betrayed by the “Lady in Red” (who lured him to his death).
I barged into the King offices the next day, breezed right by the secretary and went into the scene without wasting time on formalities. It was lucky for me they didn’t toss me out right away. Instead, they listened, liked my reading and signed me for the role even though I had no name value.
That was how it happened – but not quite. Looking back forty-five years later, Tierney recalled that when he first stepped into the King Brothers’ office, “they were out to lunch,” so he grabbed a Dillinger script from a pile and slipped it under his coat. He studied the script at a nearby diner and returned that afternoon to face a “very gruff” Morrie and Frank King and their production manager, Clarence Bricker. The role, they told him, had already been cast. Anthony Quinn had the part.
Before Tierney could board the train to New York, he got a call from his agent. RKO was picking up his option, after all. He’d be making a hundred dollars a week. “The week after that, I’m walking around the studio lot and I pick up a newspaper and there’s a banner headline in the column: King Brothers still looking for unknown to play Dillinger,” Tierney told the Murphys. “My agent got my screen tests from Warners, showed them to the King Brothers, so they brought me in and talked and talked and talked. I said, ‘Gee, you guys are funny, I was in here two weeks ago and I didn’t have an agent. I wasn’t signed with anyone. All I had was a ticket to New York and I stopped in and you told me it’s all cast.’ They said, ‘You’re full of shit.’ They wouldn’t believe me. I went home, brought the script, threw it on their desk and said, ‘There’s your script, I’m the guy to play it!’ I think that convinced them.
They thought, ‘This guy’s a crook, he should play Dillinger!’ So that’s how I got the part.” That’s exactly how it happened – only not exactly. There was another person in the room when Tierney first auditioned for the King Brothers. Philip Yordan was convinced that Tierney, the unknown with the doity boids accent, was the only man for the part.
Yordan had written the script that Lawrence Tierney “borrowed” for his impromptu audition. He had come up with the idea of focusing on John Dillinger after the Kings turned to him to write a gangster picture (their first choice for a writer, George Beck, wanted too much money). Yordan had received his first writing credit in 1942 on a film called Syncopation that starred Adolphe Menjou, and he’d written the mystery movie, The Unknown Guest, for the King Brothers in 1943. His latest work was a play, Anna Lucasta, set to open in August on Broadway at the Mansfield Theatre, with an all-Black cast.
Yordan said he got help writing Dillinger from producer and director William Castle (later known for his innovative B-movie promotion gimmicks, and as producer of Rosemary’s Baby). “I had a secretary and I dictated the whole script to her. William Castle was supposed to direct it. He was sitting with me as I dictated,” Yordan told Pat McGilligan in 1987, in an interview that would appear in McGilligan’s book, Backstory 2: Interviews with Screenwriters of the 1940s and 1950s.
When Yordan showed the finished work to the King brothers, he said “they liked it,” but that Steve Broidy, president of Monogram Pictures, thought it was too expensive to lens. “Broidy says, ‘Are you crazy? …This picture looks like it’s going to cost over $50,000. The one I made before cost $26,000. We have got to protect our investment, so Chester Morris has to play Dillinger.’ I said, ’Chester is fifty years old and he can’t play Dillinger.’ He says,’Well, I’m not going to put up the money unless…’
“There was a kid that came in the office by the name of Larry Tierney,” Yordan recollected. “Boy, he looked like Dillinger, and he was mean, and I wouldn’t sell the script until they agreed to put him in it.” The King Brothers were faced with a double dilemma: a studio that rejected the budget, and a writer who had the nerve to withhold the script unless he had casting approval. Chester Morris was only forty-three years-old, not fifty – and who the hell was Lawrence Tierney? They put the gangster picture aside for a moment. Frank King suggested that Yordan write them something “simple” – meaning cheaper to produce. In short order, he gave them two more scripts. After Johnny Doesn’t Live Here Anymore and When Strangers Marry were produced (both featuring rising star Robert Mitchum, recently under contract with RKO) and promised to turn a profit, Broidy decided that Monogram would ante up something substantial by Poverty Row standards – $65,000 – for their gangster picture.
(The MPPDA got wind of the plans and on June 28. Will Hays’s successor, chief censor Joseph I. Breen, sent a letter to Frank King, reminding him that the Production Code Administration would approve the Dillinger picture only if “numerous violations of the Special Regulations Re Crime in Motion Pictures” were cut from the script. According to the American Film Institute archives, Breen also warned that “political censor boards everywhere” would be “critical” of the film.)
Mitchum lobbied for the Dillinger role, but RKO nixed it as wrong for his image (and $350, the weekly fee RKO would charge to loan out the actor, may have been more than the Kings could stomach). Yordan, meanwhile, stuck to his guns about his choice for the lead.
Monogram caved and moved to “borrow” the unknown Lawrence Tierney (and the blonde Anne Jeffreys to play Dillinger’s moll, the “Lady in Red”) from RKO Radio Pictures.
RKO didn’t blink. They rented Tierney to Monogram for a hundred dollars a week.
The above was excerpted from Chapter Two of Lawrence Tierney: Hollywood’s Real-Life Tough Guy by Burt Kearns (University Press of Kentucky, 2022).
Burt Kearns is an author and writer who produces and directs nonfiction television and documentary films. A veteran print and broadcast journalist, he wrote the exposé memoir about his life in television, Tabloid Baby. He also cowrote the book, The Show Won’t Go On: The Most Shocking, Bizarre, and Historic Deaths of Performers Onstage.