An Interview with Michael Dante
Want to shake the hand of a living legend or get his autograph? That’s a real possibility if you plan on attending the first annual television WestFest Tucson this month.
Actor and author Michael Dante, whose film and television work spans more than six decades, will be one of fifteen featured guests at the inaugural event. The former professional athlete turned actor, radio show host and author will be on hand to sign photos and books, and discuss his storied career and co-stars, some of whom include Audie Murphy, Ginger Rogers, Elvis Presley, Mamie Van Doren, Paul Newman, and Steve McQueen.
Perhaps best known for his leading role in 1975’s Winterhawk, Dante is also recognized for roles in Star Trek, Kid Galahad, Westbound, Seven Thieves, The Naked Kiss, Arizona Raiders and more. His diverse work also covers several genres in film and television. They include Westerns, science fiction, action-adventure, drama, comedy, and noir.
A resident of Palm Springs since the 1970s, Dante will make the trek to Tucson, Arizona, to partake in this special event. We spoke to Dante about his career, his body of work, and his new novel in advance of his appearance at TV WestFest, which takes place March 16-19, 2023.
Question: You grew up in Stamford, Connecticut – a very East Coast city – and yet grew up loving Westerns. How did that happen?
Answer: When I was a youngster growing up in my hometown of Stamford, Connecticut my buddies and I went to the Strand Theater every Saturday afternoon to see movies and western serials. At the first site of the good-guy cowboy, I knew I wanted to be a cowboy. A dream come true, eventually I became a cowboy in movies and on television.
Q: Baseball was your first true love, and you were a “bonus baby” with the Boston Braves in 1949. Tell us that story.
A: I signed a bonus contract for $6,000 with the Boston Braves just out of high school in 1949. After much dedication and hard work honing my baseball skills, my boyhood wish came true as I was invited to spring training with the Washington Senators in 1955. Unfortunately, at the time, I had a sore arm but because of divine guidance my life began to go in another direction.
Q: So how did you end up in acting?
A: Before I went to spring training with the Senators, I had a nagging sore arm and had to have shoulder surgery. My doctor advised me to go to a warm climate to heal before I began to throw again. I asked my mom and dad if I could use some of the bonus money to enter the University of Miami of Florida to study my second love, acting. They agreed and I became a drama major at the University in the fall semester of September 1954. At the beginning of the Spring semester of 1955, I met Tommy Dorsey, the number one band leader in the world at the time, when he was doing one-nighters up and down the east and west coast of Florida. He called my roommate Mickey McDermott to have dinner with he and his manager Tino Barzie because Tommy and Mickey were good friends and both he and his manager loved baseball. Mickey asked if I could come along, and they welcomed the idea. That same year, Tommy saw me rehearse a scene in a play at the University and was so impressed with my presence on stage and my potential, said he would arrange a screen test for me at MGM Studios if my arm didn’t come around. I left school to go to spring training with the Washington Senators in March of 1955 and all was going well except my arm wasn’t quite ready. Cut to the chase, I took a leave of absence from baseball, took advantage of Tommy’s offer, and had the screen test at MGM Studios. They signed me to a contract, and I never went back to baseball. 30 films and approximately 150 television shows, under contract to three major Studios, MGM, Warner Bros. and 20th Century Fox, and many awards, that you can read all about my successes in my award-winning autobiography, From Hollywood to Michael Dante Way; a street named after me in Stamford, Connecticut for all my accomplishments.
Q: Your film debut was not insignificant. It was a role in Somebody Up There Likes Me with Paul Newman, Pier Angeli, Sal Mineo, Robert Loggia, and a newcomer named Steve McQueen, who was a $19 a day extra. What was memorable about that experience?
A: There were so many firsts, one that stands out is the day that Steve McQueen and I met. It was my first movie and Steve’s first movie, Somebody Up There Likes Me with Paul Newman, Pier Angeli, Sal Mineo and Robert Loggia and was on location in New York City. I was standing in front of the Warwick Hotel and it was raining so hard and I couldn’t see the other side of the street, when a young man wearing no rain repellent clothing and a little baseball cap pulled up on his motorcycle soaking wet. He stopped and reeved his motorcycle engine and asked me if I knew where the MGM movie company was shooting. I answered him and told him to follow us in the limousine that was taking me to the location in just a few minutes. The limo arrived and he followed us all the way to the east side to the location in the pouring rain. Unbeknownst to me, we were sharing the same dressing room trailer. I got there first and went inside and I was dry, when the young man that followed us came in wet from top to bottom. I gave him my towel, he needed two towels to dry off, and introduced himself. He put out his hand and said, “Thanks, I’m Steve McQueen.”
Q: Having spent seven years in supporting roles under contract to three different studios – MGM, Warner Brothers, and 20th Century-Fox – was that a great learning experience or did you feel shackled because you were under contract?
A: Being under contract, had its pluses and minuses. On the positive side, I really learned a great deal about working under pressure when doing television and working in front of the camera perfecting my craft. I also enjoyed receiving a small paycheck weekly. On the other side, I had to do what the casting director dictated, particularly when I was under contract to Warner Bros. Studios. For example: The first movie I co-starred in, Westbound with Randolph Scott, Virginia Mayo and Karen Steele, and I received terrific reviews. After finishing the film, the casting director demanded I do a small part in one of the television shows there; it wasn’t even a starring or even co-starring role. That’s when I knew I was going to be cast improperly. I confronted him with that, and he answered with, “Do you have script approval?” I said, “What young contract player ever did?” I was certain I would no longer want to be under contract there. A few months later, I was very happy to leave to go on to do much bigger and better things.
Q: When you appeared in 1962’s Kid Galahad starring opposite Elvis Presley, was that an enjoyable experience?
A: Working with Elvis was a pleasure. He was a gentleman and highly professional. He was always on time, knew his dialogue, very polite to everyone and had no negative temperament. We had fun doing all the boxing scenes in Kid Galahad together. He was a good actor and a very good athlete. Elvis was one-of-a-kind. Recently, I had the good fortune of meeting Austin Butler and director Baz Luhrman of the new movie, Elvis. Austin gave an award-winning performance, literally channeling Elvis in his performance. We enjoyed a wonderful conversation about Elvis and parted a little teary-eyed.
Q: Two years later, 1964, you starred in The Naked Kiss, a noir film in which you play a daring and provocative role. Did you have any second thoughts?
A: In the beginning, I did but after I spoke with multi-talented director, writer, Sammy Fuller about the character and subject matter, I would be working with someone very special. And he was. Sammy was full of enthusiasm and energy throughout the filming and always coming up with new ideas. He told us that the film would not be popular at that time but many years down the road it would be much more appreciated. A couple of years when filming a documentary about noir films, The Naked Kiss was chosen as one of the best Film Noir movies of all time. Martin Scorsese, the award-winning director, said, “The opening scene of The Naked Kiss was the greatest opening in any motion picture he ever saw.”
Q: That same year you appeared in the first of two movies – Apache Rifles and Arizona Raiders – with World War II legend, Audie Murphy. Did you have a friendship with him?
A: I filmed Apache Rifles in 1964 and Arizona Raiders in 1965, co-starring with Audie Murphy. I enjoyed working with Audie, very much. Audie Murphy was quiet, subtle, and soft spoken. He was always professional, on time, well-prepared and a good actor. A lot better than he got credit for. Audie and I had a mutual respect for each other’s privacy and work. I never heard a harsh word from him toward anyone, he was always a gentleman. We were going to do a third movie together but sadly; he was killed in a plane crash. He was a hero on and off the screen; a very special human being who had a feline-like nature about him.
Q: In your 1967 appearance in Star Trek, you made pop culture history as “Maab.” You’ve appeared at several Star Trek conventions. What’s that experience like for you?
A: Star Trek Conventions are interesting and exciting to be a part of. The ‘Trekkies’ are the most faithful, patient, and polite fans in the world. They will wait for hours just to get an autograph, smiling all the way. I’ve seen many Trekkies carrying large portfolios of autographed pictures of all the Star Trek characters and they knew all about them, their episodes, roles, plus dialogue from the many Star Trek seasons. I have attended Star Trek Conventions throughout the country and even in Italy, The Trekkies and western fans are the most loyal of all fans and they welcome the celebrities with such enthusiasm and open arms. ’ After all, Star Trek is nothing but a western in the sky. I thoroughly enjoyed guest starring with Julie Newmar in Friday’s Child as ‘Maab. Like Leonard Nimoy said and I say as well, “Live Long and Prosper.”
Q: You received your star turn in 1975’s Winterhawk, a movie that seems to have a big following. How did you prepare for that role and why does that movie still resonate?
A: I prepared for the role of Winterhawk by personalizing with his leadership decisions. This came naturally to me because I’ve been in a leadership position most of my life. I chose to make his decisions based on spiritual guidance rather than his ego. As a result, there were many more nuances added from those choices than were written. The reason why Winterhawk still resonates is because the spiritual essence that I brought to the character was very strong throughout, adding a great deal of dignity and nobility to the Blackfoot People. The scenery and horsemanship were spectacular! This character lived with me for the next 40 years and I wanted the Blackfoot Chief Winterhawk to live on through the sequel book I wrote, a novella, entitled, Winterhawk’s Land. Maybe one day to be made into a movie, too. Of all the movies I have done, my personal favorite is Winterhawk.
Q: John Wayne saw Winterhawk and reached out to you asked you to co-host a charity event with him. Tell me what “The Duke” was like?
A: Pilar Wayne, Duke’s wife, called me after seeing Winterhawk and asked me on behalf of Mr. Wayne to participate in raising money for his favorite Charity for Abused Children in Newport Beach, California. The event took place at one of the local restaurants and only women were invited to the luncheon, to bid on all the gifts donated by local merchants to be auctioned off there, benefitting the Charity. Duke’s son, Patrick Wayne and I were the auctioneers at the first event. The restaurant was closed for the day, only open to the invited ladies for the fund-raising luncheon. Patrick and I auctioned all the items and raised over $50,000 in one afternoon in the first year. The second year, Jack Kelly and I were the auctioneers and the third year Patrick returned and he and I were the auctioneers again, raising each year over $50,000. There was no publicity because Mr. Wayne did not want any fanfare. It was an honor for me to participate in John Wayne’s favorite charity benefit. Meeting Mr. Wayne for the first time, I extended my hand, shook his and he said, “Thank you, Michael for helping us. All I want to be is your friend.” I answered, Thank, you Mr. Wayne. It’s my pleasure.” He said, ‘Call me Duke” and I answered again ‘Thank you, Mr. Wayne.” Even though he asked me to call him Duke, I didn’t think I had earned the right yet to call him Duke. After the third year, Duke had already seen Winterhawk and loved my work in the movie. He said he had a script that he would like me to do with him. He continued to say that he was going to Hartford, Connecticut, for about a week and would be in touch when he got back. It was a few weeks later when I heard from his secretary that he had some ‘business to take care of’ and he would be in touch. He never mentioned he had lung cancer and had a about a year to live. A year later he passed away. He was giant of a man, the greatest cowboy on the motion picture screen and I was proud to be his friend.
Q: In the 1990s, you pivoted to a radio career and hosted your own syndicated radio show out of Palm Springs, with so many legends appearing on The Michael Dante Celebrity Talk Show. What was that experience like and how did you get your guests to open up?
A: From 1996 to 2008, I hosted my own celebrity radio talk show coming from Palm Springs, California, The Michael Dante Celebrity Talk Show. I knew most of my guests from the world of entertainment and sports, through the many years I worked in Hollywood and being a professional baseball player. Having been a professional in sports and show business, it was easy for me to talk with my guests, and I was able to reach most of them at home to book the shows. I learned a lot about radio in a very short period of time. The first thing about being a talk show host is to listen. A good host listens more than talks. The ability to listen and listen more is a great gift to any actor. Secondly, to do your homework to know as much as possible about your guest to ask good questions. This will fill air space in case the guest isn’t very talkative. Fortunately, my guests liked my good questions, knew I did my homework about them and kept talking. I enjoyed interviewing the stars as much as they enjoyed being interviewed. For all those that have passed and those that are still with us, these interviews will live on in perpetuity.
Q: You’ve written a book about that experience and are working on an archive project regarding the show. Tell me about that please.
A: I wrote a book about my radio show interviews, My Classic Radio Interviews With The Stars – Volume One to pay respect to the talented people who entertained the world for many years and I had the privilege of interviewing. I did not want them to be forgotten. The book can be purchased on my official website, michaeldanteway.com and on Amazon.com. The shows can be heard for free on teamdanteradioshows.com and Spotify.
Q: When the show ended in 2008, you pivoted to a writing career. To date, you have written six books – two non-fiction and four novellas. What is it about the writing process that stimulates you?
A: I chose to approach my life and work as an art form. Inventing and creating as an actor and radio talk show host broadened my creative gifts to share those creative inventions on paper. I learned to create my own style of writing novellas, combining edited scenes with a screen play in mind and continue the narrative like a book. I did so to attract filmmakers to read 80-100 pages of edited major scenes to easily make the transition into a screenplay. I’m in the process of finishing my 7th book, a novella, Listen to the Rain. My radio show book and this new book are contemporary. The other four novellas I have written are from the western genre. I find it easy, as long as I am creating and inventing, to go from different categories as the subject inspires me. It brings me great t joy when I hear someone tell me, “I loved your book.” I’m grateful for the divine guidance in my life.
Q: In March you’ll be a guest at the inaugural TV FestWest in Tucson. What do you enjoy about the festival experience?
A: I enjoy meeting and greeting fans and friends at all the festivals I’ve attended. I’m also looking forward to seeing my celebrity friends again and to be a part of the first TV WestFest event in Tucson, Arizona, March 16-19, 2023. At these venues, I autograph and sell my books and photographs from the various films and television shows I’ve been in throughout my 60+ year career.
Go to my official website, michaeldanteway.com. There is information about my books and my photos for sale, and more information about all the work I’ve done and the awards I received. Appearances, Interviews and Videos are there, as well. Also go to teamdanteradioshows.com to hear my exclusive radio show interviews, and for free. You can also access these shows on Spotify.com.
I look forward to seeing you all at TV WestFest in March!