The following interview was conducted on March 6, 2005, with the Sony Pictures Home Entertainment release of Batman and Robin: The 1949 Serial Collection imminent. I spoke with John Duncan, by phone, from his home in Gower, Missouri. The interview first aired March 21, 2005 on Celluloid Dreams. Celluloid Dreams airs every Monday night at 5pm on KSJS radio (90.5 FM) in San Jose, CA.
G: As Johnny Duncan, our next guest appeared in over forty Hollywood movies and befriended some of the biggest stars of Hollywood's Golden Age. On screen, he befriended the Bowery Boys and played Robin the Boy Wonder in the 1949 adventure serial Batman and Robin. John Duncan, welcome to Celluloid Dreams.
JD: Hey, thank you. Great to be here.
G: Though you're famous as an actor, you actually started out as a tap dancer during the Great Depression. Why did you start dancing?
JD: I started dancing in 1934. And then, we did—I had a partner called Lou Fischer, and it was called Duncan and Fischer Act, and we traveled the Orpheum circuit 'til about 1939. By the way, we were with the O'Connor family, and the Masterson Trio, which was Sammy Davis Jr. and his uncle.
JD: So that goes back years.
G: Yeah, and you also danced for the cameras later on, right? In movies like Swing Fever and Rock Around the Clock.
JD: Oh, yeah. My wife and I and—I had three partners. I had a girl by the name of Jenny Gray. And Ann Duncan. And we danced in all the rock and roll pictures—the jitterbug pictures, they used to call them in those days. And jitterbug started at a New York, uh, called The Lindy in 1938.
G: Uh-huh. And you taught Lana Turner the Lindy, right?
JD: Yeah, I sure did. Sure did.
G: (Laughs.) Was she an easy study?
JD: Yeah, uh, Lana was, uh, really a beautiful girl, and she was a typical teenager. And I'm talking about 19—you know, '40 and '41, '42 and that era of time. And there used to be clubs on Hollywood Blvd, that the dancers used to get together, and we'd put on shows and contests between us, and so we would draw dancers to these clubs and give them business, you know?
JD: They wanted us in there to get all the dancers to come in, and we'd drink and party and bring other people in, y'know?
G: Sure. Sure.
JD: Well, that's where Lana Turner and I got together and started dancing.
G: Now, you made your film debut at age sixteen. How did you break into movies?
JD: Oh, uh, I didn't break into movies. What happened was that a talent scout picked our dance act up at the Tower Theater in Kansas City, Missouri. And he signed a contract with me—he didn't with Lou, my partner, but he signed a contract with me for Twentieth Century Fox. I think it was fifty dollars a week. And he gave us three months to move (laughs) from Missouri to California. Well, at that time, I lived on a farm about a hundred twenty-five miles from Kansas City. So, (chuckles) y'know, it took three months, believe me, to—we didn't sell the farm, we sold all the equipment off of it and all of that, and it took us a week to drive to California.
G: Uh-huh. And when you made it to Hollywood, you played a sailor in two classic Bogart films: Action in the North Atlantic and The Caine Mutiny.
JD: Yeah. Bogart. Bogey, I used to call him, was: a) was a great guy; he was a very good friend of mine. He was a little guy like Jimmy Cagney, and Bogart and Alan Ladd and all of us were very good friends. We partied together with their wives, and when a part in a picture or something would come up, you know, for a little guy, why, usually I'd get it, and—so yeah, Action in the North Atlantic was the first sailor picture I did with Bogart, and that, I think, was 1943. I'm not sure (chuckles), but I think it was around '43.
JD: Then I did Caine Mutiny with him in 1954, right after he married Lauren Bacall.
G: Yeah. Was Bogart a friendly presence on the set?
JD: Oh, yeah! I mean he—Bogey was a great guy. He was just a fantastic guy. He really was. He drank every once in a while, but down on the set—he liked to drink, you know, when he got off work.
G: Sure. You also mentioned you would party with Jimmy Cagney. He had dinner parties, right? What were those like?
JD: Right. Well, he would get together with, oh, Wanda Hendrix and Audie Murphy and, and I can't think of a real good friend of his that was a character actor that did a lot of pictures with him that used to be at the parties, and then Bogart and my wife and I, and it was probably maybe just a half a dozen of us that were there, and we just sat around and talked, and he loved the farm, and me being from the farm, you know, (laughs) Cagney and I got along great, you know. So we'd tell all the farm stories together and laugh about them.
G: Sure. Is it true that you also used to hang out with Clark Gable?
JD: Yeah. Yeah, I used to ride motorcycles with Clark Gable, Keenan Wynn, Tom Bamford, and, uh, let's see—Tom Bamford was a race driver, and he used to drive these three-quarter cars down in Laguna Seca, down around San Diego—anyway, he had a motorcycle shop right across the street from Warner Brothers studio. And Keenan Wynn and he were friends, and I was friends with Tom, and Clark Gable come in, and he had a Harley, and he rode a Harley, and we all rode Triumph Thunderbirds, English motorcycles.
JD: So we'd ride together on a Sunday. Yeah. And you know it was—you know, pull up to the stoplight with Clark Gable on a big hog, you know, and that was quite something.
G: Now, one of your most important roles was—if I'm not mistaken—the title role of Million Dollar Kid.
JD: Yeah. It was probably the worst picture I ever did.
JD: I mean, you know, we really have bad pictures in our lives, but this happened to be one of 'em and, uh--'cause the director insisted, you know, that I play this rich kid, and so it was really difficult dialogue because, I mean, it was stupid, you know?
JD: "It was I" and stuff like that, instead of "Hey, it was me," you know?
JD: So it was really a bad picture. So I hated that picture. Yeah, Million Dollar Kid—that was me.
G: Did the East Side Kids treat you well—Huntz Hall and those guys?
JD: Oh, yeah, yeah! We were real good buddies. We didn't—the first one [was] I think called Cherry Street Gang or something like that. And that was, I think, '41. I'm not sure, but anyway, then from there on, I did, oh, god, a lot of them. They did eight pictures a year, and I probably did three or four a year with 'em—
JD: From 1941 to 1950. And, uh—in fact, I talked to Huntz Hall right after he'd been operated on. This has been four or five years ago: right before he passed away, and he called me. I was in Branson, Missouri, and I was Vice President of Fall Creek Resorts back there, and he talked to a buddy of mine, and he got my number—he called me, and so we visited, and just about two weeks later, I guess he passed away. You know it was really a sad thing because Huntz was really nothing like he was on the screen—stupid like that, you know?
JD: He was really a nice guy. And so was Leo [Gorcey].
G: Uh-huh. Well, you put your J.D. days behind you to play Robin the Boy Wonder, beside Robert Lowery's Batman.
G: You and Robert both were born in Missouri, and you crossed paths for the first time in 1943 in Campus Rhythm, right?
JD: Right. Right. You're up on your history there.
G: (Laughs.) I did my research, yes.
G: How do you remember Robert Lowery?
JD: Bob Lowery, I remember Bob Lowery as just—really, we had a lot of fun together. He was a typical Missouri B.S.-er. You know what I mean?
JD: I mean, he just loved to B.S., he loved the women. He used to go with, oh, what was her name, Barbara—oh, he did a lot of starlets—he went with a lot of a starlets, but this one particular one was—I'd come over one day to visit him on a Sunday morning, and we were gonna have breakfast together, and so I—Barbara Payton is the name of that little girl.
JD: And anyway, she was the one that Franchot Tone married, that this Tom Neal broke his nose and everything—they had a big thing over. And anyway, why, she was an up-and-coming star. And so I knocked on her door, and Bob had just talked to me about an hour before and said, "Get over here," said, "we'll have some breakfast." So I said, "Okay." And this is right after we made Batman and Robin. So went over there and knocked on the door, and he hollers, "Come on in!" and here he's in bed with Barbara Payton with crumbling cracker crumbs in his bed. I says, "You've got to be crazy!"
G: Wow. It's fair to say that you were a little more athletic than Robert when it came to the Batman serial, though, right?
JD: Yeah. Well, we had to put a girdle on him or, yeah, a corset. We had to put a corset on him. But no one knew it at that time, and I don't think he minds it now because he did (laughs) you know, we had to put this corset on him and tie him in every morning about 5:30 or 6 o'clock in the morning because he loved to drink beer, and he had kind of a beer belly. So we'd tie him in—I would. I'd put my foot on his butt and pull these strings together, you know, ev-ery morning and—
JD: That's why after, you know, months of doing Batman and Robin, when they come into the picture, we said, "Oh my gosh, we don't ever want to see tights and mask again."
JD: Boy, how I wish I hadda kep' 'em. You know?
G: Yeah. Now, he would really run out of breath, right? He needed oxygen on set?
JD: Sure, sure, we'd be running, doing a scene—because a long shot, you know—and the camera'd be fifty yards from us, and we'd be traveling up a hill, and I'd tell him to hurry up because I was—Robin had to stay behind Batman, you know?
JD: And so it'd make him look good, and the director wanted him to take big, long steps, you know, when he's running, you know? And so that really killed Bob because he was trying to stretch his steps out, and running and I was running normal, you know? And I wasn't havin' no problem, but he was having a lot of problem. And he'd say, (gasping) "Cut! Tell him to cut," you know, "I can't go on no more," you know. Then we'd fall down on the ground when he cut. When the director would cut, why, Bob would fall down on the ground, and his cape would be over his face, and he says, "Oh my god, please don't—
JD: He says, "How many more busts do we have to go through this?"
G: (Laughs.) ...How did you get the role of Robin?
JD: Well, let me tell you what we called ourselves first, all right? Now, on the set, between Bob and I, we'd call ourselves Fatman and Bobbin. Okay?
JD: Or Duckman and Waddles.
JD: You know, "Hey Duckman, come here." He'd say, "Okay, Waddles." So I mean, I've kept that with me for years and years because Bob made that terminology up. So what was the question?
G: I was asking how you got the role.
JD: Well, uh, Kane...Bob Kane was with Sam Katzman at Columbia Studio there. And they wanted a boy sixteen years old, and Sam knew me and thought of me for the part when Kane first come up...about the project. But Kane wanted a kid sixteen years old, and at that time, I was twenty-six years old. So he said, "Oh, no, I don't want a guy twenty-six years old, you know, that's as old as Batman." So anyway, why, they looked at, gosh, kids and kids and kids and kids, and finally they couldn't find anybody—Kane didn't like 'em, so Sam called me and he says, "Hey, John, you know, wear some jeans or somethin' and a sweater and look as young as you can and, for god sakes, don't comb your hair or nothin', you know. Just come on over." So I did. And so when I walked in the door, before I was even introduced, Kane says, "Hey, that's Robin." So that's how I got the part.
G: Wow, that's terrific. You were chosen from hundreds of people who auditioned, right?
JD: Yeah. Yep.
G: When you auditioned, were you familiar with the character, or did that come later?
JD: Oh no. Hey, I loved Batman and Robin in comic books. I'd go buy 'em for ten cents. And on my honeymoon, I remembered I was sittin' reading a Batman and Robin comic book. And my wife come in in a negligee, and she says, "My god, put that book down!"
JD: So that's what I was doin'. That's how—yeah, I was very familiar with Robin.
G: Right. How long did it take you to film that serial?
JD: Ahh, I think it took about three months to film it. There was fifteen chapters, and we had three crews working—three units working—and we shot about, oh, fifty to fifty-five set ups a day; I know on the main crew we did. And the only stunt doubles I had was for long shots like on a train. You know, I had a double on that, but the other stuff, why, Bob and I usually did all of our own stuff.
G: Right. And so those stunt doubles were really used because they were filming at the same time as you were filming—
JD: We shot some stuff, and we had to get a lot of set-ups done, and there was no use us being shot from fifty yards unless we had a lot of dialogue to do for close-ups later.
G: Sure. Now, you did most of the fighting, certainly, and there's plenty of it.
G: Those punches and throws are very convincing. How were those fights worked out?
JD: Hey, we just got with each other before the scene, and we said, "Okay, we're gonna do this, we're gonna do that," and we just rehearsed the scene, and you know, you're working with professional stunt guys, and they know what they're doing.
JD: They knew how to take a punch, and we knew how to throw 'em. We knew how to take 'em, too.
G: Right. Did you ever get into any hairy moments on the set?
JD: No, actually I didn't. Actually, I didn't. I really enjoyed it. It was like—I think it was the most fun picture I ever did in my life, was Batman and Robin.
G: Now, you've kept track of Batman and Robin on TV and in the movies over the years. What did you think of Burt Ward's Robin and Chris O'Donnell's Robin?
JD: Well, (chuckling) you know, that's really a tough question. You know, I—Chris O'Donnell was fantastic—I loved Chris O'Donnell. You know, I don't think he looked very much like Robin because his hair was pretty short, but I'm thinking about Robin from the old days. And this was when they got the muscle suits on and everything. We didn't have muscle suits in those days. We had to build our own muscles. (Laughs.)
JD: But, uh, and then Burt Ward, you know, how can I say—I don't think that I've ever met Burt Ward, I'm not sure. But how can you say anything bad? He had to play a cartoon character, you know. And, if I liked the show? No, I didn't like the show because it was a cartoon thing. And, of course, Batman and Robin should have been played, you know, like Batman and Robin.
G: Right. Yours was a serious take on it.
JD: Right. Right. I mean, you know, after three months in the tights and mask, why, you begin to think you are who you're playing.
JD: And it's really hard to get out of it because you come home for dinner at 8 o'clock, and you're tired and everything, and you're studying lines for the next day, and in the bathtub taking your make-up off and everything. So you're down—really, you don't get out of character, because you go to work the next morning at 4:30 or 5 o'clock, you get in your car to drive to the studio. So, you know, pretty soon after three months, why, you begin to think—you act like who you are, you know?
G: Sure. Now, do you have an opinion on the Batman and Robin who preceded you, in the first serial?
JD: Uh, no, you know, it was years before I found out that there had ever been anyone before that—but I know it was Douglas Croft, and I forget the Batman's name—
G: Lewis Wilson.
JD: But it was pretty bad. (Laughs.) It was pretty bad.
JD: I mean, the little boy was—Douglas Croft was really a skinny little thing. You know, he was like Burt Ward, you know. Thin-wise.
G: Yeah. Now, they're making a new Batman movie series starting this year, but there's no sign of Robin yet. Are you going to go see the new movie?
JD: Oh, well, sure. I wouldn't miss it, without Robin in it, or with him in it. I just love the series. I think it's great.
JD: I mean this is—it made me what I am today, and that's still going, hanging in there after 81 years. It's made me think about Robin for at least fifty-five of those years. So yeah, I love the series.
G: Now you and Alan Ladd became friends. Was that on Salty O'Rourke?
JD: Yeah, we did—no, we were friends before Salty O'Rourke because Alan did one of the East Side Kid pictures—and I forget what year—but he had dark hair, and Ladd had ears like Clark Gable. You know, they kind of stuck out. And on the East Side Kid picture, he was trying out some ear cups. And they're little suction cups that go behind the ear, and they're on a rubber band, real tight rubber band, and it goes around to another suction cup, and you put 'em against each ear and then put the rubber underneath the hair, and it draws the ears back. And that's the way they used to do it. So that's when I met Alan, on one of the East Side Kid pictures.
G: Now, you two became notorious practical jokers. What kind of gags did you used to pull?
JD: Oh, yeah, well, we used to—we did a few westerns together, and we used to put Saran Wrap on the ladies' toilets, so they had a lot of wardrobe on, these big skirts and everything, and they'd go in to the honey wagon—we used to call it the honey wagon sitting out there. And they used to go in and close the door, and then you'd hear all of this screamin' and hollering and cussing—
JD: And yeah, so we had a lot of fun doing that. And we used to put—I used to put snails in Ladd's boots at 5:30 in the morning, and he'd walk around and for about ten minutes, then all of a sudden feel his socks being wet and everything and start running after me cussing me. And I won't tell you some of the things he did with me.
JD: Ohhh, it was pretty bad, pretty bad. He put dog dung on my saddle, and boy, you try to get the smell out of the leather on the seat of your pants, it don't come out easy.
G: (Laughs.) Now, you worked on pictures that starred a who's who of Hollywood: Rita Hayworth and Gregory Peck, Susan Hayward, Bob Hope, Mickey Rooney, Gene Autry, Lon Chaney Jr., Lena Horne, Peter Lawford, and Ronald Reagan in Bedtime for Bonzo. And I'm only scratching the surface here.
JD: Yeah. You know, I was thinking about this the other day, with Ronald Reagan doing Bonzo. We were at Columbia Ranch, and we had a box lunch out there on Columbia Ranch. And he had to put up with this (laughs) chimpanzee. He didn't like that chimp very well, and the chimp didn't like him very well. But anyway, why, we used to talk by the set and have box lunch, have a sandwich and an apple and all that and visit. And then later on, for him to become President of the United States was, you know, quite an honor just doing it because he was really a nice guy, you know?
G: Yeah. You appeared in When Willie Comes Marching Home for John Ford. What kind of a director was he?
JD: John Ford was: a) it was all business. I mean, he was a good director, but I mean, it was—you never saw him laugh or clown around much.
JD: Not that I remember him.
G: You also worked on a very notorious movie with an infamous man. I'm talking about Plan Nine From Outer Space, directed by Ed Wood.
JD: (Laughs.) Yeah. Yeah. Boy, he made some—he made some cheap pictures. I gotta tell you this—this must have been one of 'em because—I don't remember much about it. I really don't. People say to me about Planet Nine [sic], and I say, "Oh my god, I don't even remember it." And I really don't. I don't know what I did in it. I've never seen the picture. I don't know what the heck it was about!
G: Right. Well—
JD: It was just like a picture—now, listen: Cathy Downs and Harold Lloyd Jr. and I did a picture in 1950 called The Spark. And it was done by a private producer—private money. We did the picture, made the picture, and we shot it in Michigan around Lake Erie. All right. For years and years, I never saw the picture. I never saw it even advertised or anything else; it just disappeared, you know? Then all of a sudden, this picture comes up, and I hear that I'm in it and all this stuff—it's called The Flaming Urge. And I said, "My god, that sounds you know, like (laughing) bad pictures." You know, that's an urge. Well, it happened to be The Spark. And I've never seen it yet, to this day. So I don't know. It was a nice little picture. You know, it wasn't anything [like] delinquent stuff, we used to call it, [no] bad stuff about it.
G: Yeah. Your last film was the classic Spartacus. Where did you shoot your part, and did you work directly with Stanley Kubrick?
JD: Yeah. Uh, on Universal backlot. And we had the Spartacus set out there, and I had a frame made, set on top of my shoulders—another man's shoulders in a frame and a head and a neck and everything set on top of my shoulders. And then they run a tube up the center of this, skeleton-like, you know. And it had a bag of blood on it. Okay? Not blood, but, uh—
G: Stage blood.
JD: Yeah, fake blood. And then they covered it, and they put a cape on it and everything, and then I could look through this frame and all of this stuff—it looked like a big, tall warrior is what it looked like, you know? So I had this fight with Kirk Douglas, a sword fight, and he cuts my head off. And when he cuts my head off, this blood and stuff squirts out like the veins in my neck, you know. And, my god, they had to cut it, it was so gruesome. It squirted all over Douglas, all over the other actors around and everything, and today it would have been great. They say, "Oh man, that would have been great." But in those days, they said, "Oh, my gosh. We can't let that get—be in the film," you know.
G: Sure. You still get out and meet the fans. What's the best comment you've gotten from an admirer?
JD: Uh—well, I think when they call me a legend or something like that, you know. I mean, that's really—that goes beyond my means. And I just can't—it's hard for me to believe that people are still interested even in seeing anything I've ever done. I just—it's remarkable I'm still here.
G: Since you retired, you moved back to Missouri. What have you been up to?
JD: Well, I tell you, we've got a beautiful home my wife and I built, and we've been here about a year and a half, and I got twenty acres and rolling hills with a forest in front, and we sat about a half a mile off of the highway with a winding road—gravel road—that goes up to the house. Then I got a pond there. Then I got a cabin we built that my wife made into an office—an escrow office. And then we have the home about fifty yards from that, and we have a forest all away around the home. And it's all planted in grass, and I mow it. Now, that's my job.
JD: I mow it. I mow the whole twenty acres, and in the spring and summer, I have to mow it at least three times a month because that grass is very fertile, and it gets about a foot and a half high, and it gets too long for—I use a Dixon mower, a six-foot mower, so that's one of the mowers that turns on its axis. So it goes twelve miles an hour, and I mow fast and accurate. (Laughs.)
G: Right. You also answer the fans through a website now, right?
JD: Sure. Sure. You bet your life I do.
G: Is that originalrobin1949.com? Is that right?
JD: Right. Yeah. That's it. I'd love to hear from all of 'em because you know I'm sitting out here on twenty acres, and there's nothing around, only it's really beautiful because we got deer and coyote and wild turkey and bobcat and all of that. And like I said, it's kind of a rolling hills, and then all of it is grass, just like a lawn, and then you got the forest in front of the house, about thirty yards, forty yards in front of the house. And then it comes all the way around the house to the back of the house. And then to the right, to the west of the house, is like a prairie, you know? It's really beautiful, so yeah, I'm sitting out here, and I mow, and I think of all the good times that I had through my life. And yeah, I enjoy hearing from people that are still interested that I'm still here.
G: Well, lastly, I have to ask you: when we talked the other day, you mentioned that people are always after you to write a book. If you do, what will be in it?
JD: Well, you know, I don't know whether I'm going to write a book or not. Because I don't really think—my life has been interesting to me. It really has. And I've known a lot of stars and everything, but the people that would be buying the book today, it would be hard for them to know Gregory Peck or Lana Turner or Robert Taylor or Joan Crawford or people like that. I've had—friends with Cagney—and so, you know, I would be talking to a different era of people that wouldn't really know the people that I'm talking about. So I don't know whether it would be an interesting book to them or not. And the only people that probably would be, would be people that would be older that would remember these people.
G: Well, I don't know about that. I've had a very interesting time chatting with you myself.
JD: Well, thank you.
G: Thanks very much for coming on Celluloid Dreams.
JD: Well, bless your heart, and thank you for inviting me. And I really miss California. I lived there and was raised around California in my teenage years. You know, from Inglewood to Hollywood to Woodland Hills to Sherman Oaks, all those places, and yeah, I miss it with all my heart, and the people of California. And I love you all, and it's good talkin' to you.
G: All right. Thanks a lot, John. We've been talking to John Duncan, a.k.a. Johnny Duncan, the original Robin from 1949. Batman and Robin. Thanks, John.
JD: Alright. Bye-bye.