Whether you know him as Gidget’s beloved “Moondoggie” or as T.J. Hooker’s right hand Officer Jim Corrigan or the smooth and swingin’ Vic Fontaine or even Philadelphia’s own James Ercolani, we all know him best as Jimmy Darren. A legend in tv both in front of and behind the camera, a film star and a globally lauded and loved recording star, Jimmy Darren takes the stage in Beverly Hills on May 10th as part of the 30th Annual S.T.A.G.E. Goes to the Movies for the benefit of AIDS and Aids Project LA.
Joining such luminaries as Mitzi Gaynor, Carole Cook, Mary Wilson and, of course, everyone’s favorite TCM host and film historian Robert Osborne, Darren will “do something from GIDGET. There’s two songs I sang in GIDGET. I open it was a portion of There’s No Such Thing which is a terrific song and then go into the song Gidget which is another terrific song.” And here’s a bit of trivia for you from Jimmy Darren, “ When I recorded them, Billy May did both their [composing] charts and they’re beautiful. We recorded them at Capitol with John Williams conducting. . . But back then he was ‘Johnny’.” Johnny Williams? Who knew!
Talking with Jimmy Darren is its own stage show as he takes you along on a trip down memory lane as he lovingly, and often laughingly, recalls some of the highlights of his own storied career, starting with his name. Although born James Ercolani, it didn’t take long before he quickly became known as Jimmy Darren. And folks, you better call him Jimmy. “Don’t call me James. I just couldn’t. I mean, I love my name, it’s my grandfather’s name but I wouldn’t like that. Don’t like ‘Jim’ but I like ‘Jimmy”’. . . . Jimmy Stewart was always Jimmy. Everybody called him Jimmy Stewart. And that’s good company to be in.” Interestingly, the name game was a result of marketing by Columbia. “At Columbia they thought that ‘James’ was a bit formal to put on a record so they used ‘Jimmy’ and on screen for films they used ‘James’. But it confused people. So they finally, I think, started putting James Darren on the records as well. It doesn’t make too much sense.” Confused the public as well it seems as Darren recalled a scenario that played out quite often over the years when approached by fans. “‘Jimmy Darren and James Darren? Not Bobby now. But Jimmy Darren. Are you related to James Darren?’ I’d say, ‘No. I am James Darren.’ ‘But it says Jimmy Darren here on the record.’ ‘Yea, I know that, but I am that guy.’. . . It would confuse them.”
Excited about seeing Robert Osborne host S.T.A.G.E. Goes to the Movies, Darren’s attention buoys even higher with his enthusiasm for TCM and the movies. Exhilarating and uncontainable, especially when it sparks personal memories of legends whom he admired, Darren quickly chimes in, “I watch that channel all the time, and I mean ALL the time. I watched THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE last night with John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart and Lee Marvin, who I absolutely love. He was the craziest guy. My God he was nuts but he was a wonderful actor. He was a wonderful actor. He was so good.” Speaking during TCM’s week long tribute to John Wayne, Darren’s excitement for "The Duke" is unabashed. “I love RED RIVER. I was a big Monty Cliff fan, too. He was like the premiere actor, this guy. He was a lesson for everybody.” But the fun quickly comes as Darren recalls meeting John Wayne himself.
“I met John Wayne at Sy Devore, oddly enough. Sy had fitted me for whatever, Sy himself because he would always be there with the tailor, and I came downstairs and there was John Wayne. I looked up and I almost wet my pants. I said, ‘Oh my God!’ And I said hi and I introduced myself. I’m sure he didn’t know who I was or care [laughing] but he was polite, he was sweet and it was really a thrill to have met him.”
One wouldn’t think of a star like Jimmy Darren as being “star struck” after all these years, but even he still gets excited, and a bit amazed, at some of his fans, like “The Boss”. “I was up at Beverly Center with my friend Larry Goldman, this is 2-3 years back, and Bruce Springsteen - I hear this motorcycle and I ride motorcycles so I’m curious - and this man gets off the bike and Bruce Springsteen walks in. So I told Larry, ‘I gotta say hi to this guy because I’m a big fan.’ I walked up to him and said, ‘I don’t want to bug you. My name is Jimmy Darren and I just want to tell you I love your stuff.’ He said, “Goodbye Cruel World. I bought it in Freehold, New Jersey.’ And now my friend Bobby Ross married Bruce’s sister. He calls me about a year later and says, ‘I’m going through Bruce’s 45's. I found your record. I found Goodbye Cruel World.’ Is that funny!” And there’s Elton John. “Elton John came out of Tower Records, I’m going back about 4-5 years now, he comes out and says to my son, ‘I just bought your dad’s The Best of Jimmy Darren, his CD.’ I thought, 'Jesus! Bruce Springsteen bought my record, Elton John. Pretty cool.'”
But since we’re also talking about S.T.A.G.E. Goes to the Movies, does Darren have any favorite or most memorable acting performance of his? “Hmmmm. That’s tough. There were special moments working with Shelley Winters and Burl Ives and Jean Seberg, of course, in LET NO MAN WRITE MY EPITAPH. Martin Scorsese told my son Christian that’s one of his favorite movies. And of course, GIDGET with Sandra [Dee]. There are scenes I can think of, particular scenes with Sandy when I was up sitting on a rock and she brought me a hamburger or something. I remember that. That was a very special moment. And of course, NAVARONE. In NAVARONE I worked with the giants, with Peck and Niven and Quinn and Stanley Baker and Anthony Quail. I don’t think I could take one moment because I feel that I would be unfair to the other two or three. . .There are moments in that whole film that I absolutely love. There’s a moment in GIDGET that I absolutely love and remember vividly, and in EPITAPH as well. But, I can’t think of one thing as myself as an actor that really tops everything.”
While Darren is hard pressed to pick a favorite acting performance, when it comes to music, there’s no hesitation. “A favorite album that I did was with Stu Phillips who did Goodbye Cruel World and Her Royal Majesty, and who talked me into Goodbye Cruel World because I didn’t want to do it, was called Love Among the Elms. It was the best album I’d ever done. Ever. Ever. Those songs like, You Make Me Feel So Young, Young At Heart - that was the best I’d ever done.” And for Jimmy Darren it’s all about memories. “[M]ore than the talent on the records, if there is much, it’s memories. For me, if I think about some of the stuff I recorded like Goodbye Cruel World or Her Royal Majesty, stuff like that, I cringe. People say, “It’s a good record” but I don’t like it. . . I feel I sing so much better today than I ever sang then.
Never losing the “wow” factor of life, Darren lovingly reminisces about Frank Sinatra. “My relationship with the Sinatra family and with Frank, no matter where I’d see him or when I’d be with him, and I’d spend a lot of time with him, it was always ‘wow’. I was on the set everyday with him on PAL JOEY, everyday when I was at Columbia. But after that, the relationship went on for years and years. I’m godfather to his first grandchild, Nancy’s daughter AJ. My wife and I are godparents to her. Just that and in the church with Frank, and all his friends, with Dean and those people; the church on Lankershim and Moorpark.
“It’s interesting when you talk about how you don’t lose that wow factor. It’s so true. I sometimes have to pinch myself to say, ‘Am I really here with so and so or am I really talking to this person?’ And even when you become friends, like with Anthony Quinn. He and I, when we were doing THE GUNS OF NAVARONE, he’d say to me, ‘You want to go to Rome for the weekend?’ And I’d say, ‘Okay. What the hell.” And we’d go and we’d live together in this house. When I think back on it, it’s like it was a dream. It’s surreal. You kind of lose the reality that they’re people. They have such a great presence that when that happens to you and you’re sitting there it’s like this great person that you see on a screen who’s 20 times the size of a normal human being is coming and hugging you, when that’s happening you don’t think of them as a person, a regular person, even though they are.”
Of course, Jimmy Darren has a whole new generation of fans thanks to Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Initially turning down the role three times before being cast 50's era lounge singer Vic Fontaine, Darren is quick to credit executive producer Ira Behr for this career resurgence, all thanks to a script that “was written so beautifully, I read it and I fell in love with it.” And as fans of the franchise can attest, no stone is left unturned when it comes to high levels of production values and attention to details both on the big and small screen.
As Darren recalls, “They had this beautiful set for me which was Vic’s Place, Vic’s Club, and when I would be up there singing there would be a relatively medium or tight shot, all the crew would be around. I’d be performing for the crew. It was great. . .My first day on that set, I felt so welcome [it was like] I had been there from Day One.” Because Vic Fontaine and his holographic club was set in the Rat Pack era, Ira Behr wanted authenticity and started by asking Darren where his tuxedos were made back in the 50's. “Well, 50's, 60's, 70's, Sy Devore.” Expounding, Darren notes, “[Behr] went to Sy Devore and they still had my pattern. They made my tuxedo. Then he said, ‘Where’d you have your shirts made?’ . . .[I]t was Anton who later bought [the shirtmaker shop] and Ira went to them and they had my pattern because I still have shirts made there. And he got everything that was from the 50's. The exact same thing. My tuxedo was a 50's tuxedo. My shirts were what I had made in the 50's. Pretty cool.” But beyond cool were Darren’s shoes which he wore in every episode of Deep Space Nine.
“There was a guy. His name was DiFrabrizio. And DiFabrizio was a shoemaker, literally a shoemaker. He made Sinatra’s shoes, Dean Martin’s shoes, Sammy’s [Davis] shoes, Tony Orlando’s shoes - everybody you can probably mention had custom shoes made by him. I was in there one day and he said to me in his broken English, he said, ‘I have a pair of Dean Martin’s shoes here. He’s the same size as you. I’ll show them to you. If you like them, you can have them because Dean wore them a bit but he wasn’t crazy about them.’ So he brought them out and I looked at them. ‘Oh, DiFabrizio! I love these shoes. I love them!’ They were the ugliest shoes you’ve ever seen. They were so ugly! [laughing] But I told him, ‘Oh, I love them! They’re gorgeous shoes!’, because I wanted them. I wore those shoes in every single scene in Star Trek. Dean Martin’s shoes. Every single scene.” Interestingly, Darren hadn’t “worked in too many productions where they had done that and tried to be really true to the era, but Ira, boy, he was a real stickler about that.”
But beyond Deep Space Nine, Jimmy Darren went back into the recording studio. “Glenn Barros, who is the President of Concord Jazz Records, which is a beautiful label, a great label, was a Trekkie. And coming on the show, I got a record contract from it!” Back in the studio now, Darren is working on a new album with a Latin flair. “Bossa Nova and stuff like that. But it’s one with a more contemporary feel. It’s traditional basically because you wouldn’t want to get away from that . . .but it has a lot of today’s feel and sound is more contemporary. Kind of more modern Brazilian or Cuban feeling.”
Thankfully, Jimmy Darren plans on being around performing and entertaining for a long time to come. “Once I get on that stage, I’m in heaven. I really am. ‘I'm just in my glory. I’m a ham! That’s the bottom line. I was born a ham and I’ll always be. I never think about giving it up because I like the performing so much.” Which come May 10th, is a good thing for AIDS and S.T.A.G.E. Goes to the Movies.
Still the same humble boy from the City of Brotherly Love, devoted to family and friends and those in need, Darren eloquently summarizes why he gets involved with S.T.A.G.E. and why he keeps returning. “We’re helping other people, doing things that will benefit other people; people who are maybe not really accepted like they should be. . . Did you see the Matthew McConaughey movie? If it wasn’t for that guy [Ron Woodroof], what the hell would be happening now? . . . People say to me, ‘Oh, you’re for gay rights.’ I say, ‘I’m for human rights.’ I don’t believe we should single out somebody. I don’t care what you are - straight, gay, black, blue, green - it’s human rights. We should all be one people. . . We should treat them and care for them because they’re people. And gay marriage? I’m totally for it. . .They’re two people that love each other and that’s all that matters. Two people that love each other. It’s their choice and we should celebrate it and enjoy it with them.”
We’re all gonna be doing a lot of celebrating on May 10th when S.T.A.G.E. Goes to the Movies from 7:30 to 10:30 at the Saban Theatre, 8440 Wilshire Boulevard, Beverly Hills, California 90211. For more information or to purchase tickets go to www.stagela.com.