Written by Fred Stanley
In Hollywood these days everyone, it seems, is excited about Barry Fitzgerald - except Barry Fitzgerald. On the basis of his performance as the whimsical, petulant old parish priest in Paramount's ''Going My Way,'' the New York critics have just given him their award for the best film acting of the year.
Today Barry Fitzgerald is in greater demand by the studios than any character has ever been in the history of the film city. One conservative estimate, by people who figure such things out, has it that if the 56-year-old Irish actor accepted all of the parts that have been offered to him in the past four months he would be working in front of the cameras, night and day, for the next two years. Film producers calculate that Fitzgerald's name in the cast of one of their products now means increased returns at the box office. That fact explains an increase in his ''per picture'' pay to $75,000 more than three times his pre-''Going My Way'' rate.
To all of which Barry Fitzgerald says: ''I am now just another Hollywood celebrity and that's downright boring.'' He doesn't understand why being a successful actor should mean that he can, per se, set the general public an example by smoking so and so's cigarettes or wearing this or that brand of underwear.
Gone are the days, he will regretfully tell you, when he could walk down the street unrecognized and just watch people go by. Now the people watch Barry Fitzgerald go by. In Hollywood he is too easily recognized, pointed out, stared at and besieged by that curious American phenomenon, the autograph seeker.
He finds it all rather bewildering. He resents the disruption of his previously inconspicuous private life. He can't even browse in Los Angeles book shops or join in a discussion with strangers at some out-of-the-way barroom or drug store without being tagged as Father Fitzgibbon. His old clothes and cloth cap, which once kept him inconspicuous, now make him a marked man.
And along with fame have come obligations - obligations which are particularly distressing to Mr. Fitzgerald, who cheerfully admits to being a ''very lazy man.'' Fame has brought sacks full of fan mail to be answered. It has resulted in invitations to parties and social events - for he is now being recognized, even by some of the town's so-called ''greats.''
A bachelor, the actor lives in a seven-room rented house on a hillside street just a few blocks north of Hollywood Boulevard. As you approach his home of an evening you will probably hear the hesitant tones of a piano - the sound a young girl or boy would make drudging along after Paderewski. The address is right, so you ring the doorbell - with some misgivings. Immediately, the music stops and the door is opened by Barry Fitzgerald, who bids you a laconic, ''How do you do.'' And then adds, just as briefly, ''I was practicing.''
Mr. Fitzgerald didn't begin to take piano lessons until he was past 50. He still takes lessons twice a week, as he explains it, ''just for my own amusement.''
He is surprisingly casual and relaxed. He impresses one as an intensely modest man gifted with a curious, searching mind. There are numerous clues that he and his characterizations, as many interviewers have noted, are cut from the same cloth. His small, wiry body - he's 5 feet 3 - has the unmistakable set of a man good in close fighting. Beneath bristly brows, his eyes glint shrewdly. His chin juts forward aggressively. His voice fumbles drolly at the beginning of a sentence, then gets away with a rush, often changing key before he reaches the end of the sentence.
He shares his home with Gus Tallon, an Iroquois Indian, who, besides fulfilling the usual duties of a stand-in - posing for the camera men while the set is being prepared and the lights and focus adjusted - acts as companion and general right-hand man. He also shares the task of preparing the morning breakfast - coffee, toast and eggs. Gus is the custodian of Mr. Fitzgerald's wardrobe - not much of a job, considering that the clothes closets hold only three suits, a sports coat or two, a few slacks and cloth caps galore. Mr. Fitzgerald will at once impress upon you that Gus is not an employee but a friend.
Asked about his screen roles, he says that the part of Father Fitzgibbon has been the most satisfying and therefore the easiest.
''No,'' he explains, ''it wasn't patterned after any particular priest I knew in Ireland. Call it a composite of several of my good friends of the cloth.''
He gets a good deal of amusement out of another misconception arising from his portrayal of Father Fitzgibbon. With a twinkle in his eye, he tells how on several occasions he has been recognized and stopped on the street by a son or daughter of the ''Ould Sod,'' who, after complimenting him on his performance in the role, adds: ''And, sure, no one but a good Catholic could have played a priest so well.''
Justifiably, he feels that these mistaken impressions are really tributes to his ability as an actor. Acting is one thing which he discusses without shyness or hesitation. In contemporary pictures, Mr. Fitzgerald feels, there is too much dialogue. The best acting, he says, is still pantomime - a look, a twist of the neck or the way a person walks can tell more than whole pages of dialogue.
In ''Going My Way,'' for instance, the glance of disapproval he gave his curate, Bing Crosby, when he discovered Crosby wearing the sweater with ''St. Louis Browns'' spelled out on it, or his silent shame when he learns that the turkey he is feasting on his been stolen, tells more in less time than even the brightest dialogue could.
Over at Paramount they tell you how he saved a scene in the forthcoming ''Two Years Before the Mast.'' Playing the ship's cook, Mr. Fitzgerald was called on to serve a plate of food to the bellicose captain and then answer him back in kind when the officer disapproved of the offering - using fitting sea language, of courses. The scene was taken several times but failed to justify Director John Farrow. Then, on the next ''take,'' Mr. Fitzgerald, instead of following the script, picked up the plate, sniffed significantly at the food, cast a comical pitying glance toward his irate skipper and shuffled out of the cabin - without saying a word.
That wasn't the way the scene had been written, but that's the way it will appear in the picture. In that one scene Mr. Fitzgerald indicated real understanding of the potentialities of motion pictures as a medium of art. With economy of motion and speech he revealed the underlying nuances of character.
Mr. Fitzgerald has always been a comedian on the screen. And he runs true to form in envying the tragedian.
''I would rather be a villain on the screen and bop someone on the head occasionally than play the most noble of characters,'' he says. ''A villain doesn't have to be repressed - and audiences have a sneaking affection for him, especially if he is picturesque. And besides, it's easier to portray villainy.''
Barry Fitzgerald was born William Joseph Shields in Dublin on March 10, 1888. After finishing high school he entered a special school, where he was trained for a civil service post as bookkeeper with the Board of Trade. He explains that he became an actor because he is essentially a lazy person. His brother, Arthur Shields now also a film actor in Hollywood was formerly with the Abbey Theatre. Mr. Fitzgerald hung around the theatre because he was interested in the literary side of the Irish renaissance, and got to know some of the actors. He was urged to walk on, carry a spear, just for the fun of it. He did. And finally, because he didn't, as he says, have the energy to refuse, he graduated into bit parts.
Uncertain whether his superiors in the Government service would approve of his stage activities, he had a talk with the man in charge of programs at the Abbey Theatre about assuming a stage name. That is how Barry Fitzgerald was born.
His first speaking part came in the Abbey production of Richard Sheridan's ''The Critic.'' He had been assigned to a second sentry's role in that play. The first sentry said: ''all this shall to Lord Burley's ears.''
Fitzgerald was supposed to answer: ''It is meet that it should.''
He had rehearsed that line with more care than the entire production had received. he could literally give it in his sleep. Then came the big moment before the footlights. The first sentry spoke his line. A helpful pal, near Mr. Fitzgerald on the stage, whispered: '''Tis sheet it moud,'' and thus it was that the stunned Mr. Fitzgerald delivered the line. The audience roared with laughter and he was started on his career as a comedian.
For seventeen years, until 1929, Barry Fitzgerald led a double life. From 9 to 5 he was a bookkeeper. At night he was a member of the Abbey Theatre. He learned his roles riding to and from work, at evening rehearsals or after bolting his lunch. In 1929, when he went to London to do Sean O'Casey's ''Silver Tassie,'' he left his post as a civil servant.
His most famous role on the stage was as Captain Jack Boyle, the alcoholic, pompous braggart in O'Casey's ''Juno and the Paycock.'' It was one of the richest characterizations in the modern theatre. It was deep, with the stubbornness, the lawlessness, the moods and volatile beauty of the Irish heart.
Another of his memorable roles was the rascally tippler, Fluther Good, in O'Casey's ''The Plough and the Stars.'' It was for this role that Director John Ford - now a commander in the United States Navy brought Mr. Fitzgerald to Hollywood in 1937, when he made a film of that play. From then on Barry Fitzgerald was busier than he had ever wanted to be.
Fitzgerald is not the swimming-pool-in-the-back-yard type. He never goes to the lush Hollywood night clubs. His principal outdoor amusement, motorcycling, has been somewhat cramped by gasoline rationing. But he still rides his motor bike to and from the studio occasionally.
Another of his outdoor pasttimes is golf, at which, he will candidly inform you, he is the worst player in the world. On good days he goes around the eighteen holes in 110 to 120. A few weeks ago he came in with a card of 104 and called in a number of his cronies to celebrate. Characteristically, none of the have names that a devoted movie-goer would recognize.
Perhaps his most revealing hobby is cutting records of those radio advertising jingles which have made listening to the radio the dangerous business it is. He plays these home-made records over and over, chuckling with glee and the inanities of the music and rhymes. He is making a collection of such pieces to send to Ireland to be played on the phonograph in a certain pub so that some of his old pals may enjoy this new American art form.
The two things he likes best about America, though, are our pie à la mode and the fact that the ''man in the street has the feeling that he's as good as the next one.'' And that's no idle compliment, for he has spent many a night and day wandering about the streets with a pipe in his mouth and his hands thrust deep in his pockets.