From the moment acting teachers, directors, and even fellow actors first laid eyes on him, they knew Richard Erdman belonged in films.
Erdman, who turns 90 in June, was born in Enid, OK, and at the age of five his family moved to Colorado where they lived for nine years.
“I performed in a lot of school plays and my drama teacher at Colorado Springs High School told my mother she should take me to Hollywood,” said Erdman. She did, and young Dick finished his schooling at Hollywood High.
After graduation, a friend took him to Warner Bros. in 1944 to try out for a part in “Janie.”
“We walked into a big room and director Michael Curtiz came in. He looked at me, and immediately said I was perfect for the role of Scooper. Warner Bros. signed me to a contract right away!”
Known for his fiery temper, Erdman says Curtiz could be gracious.
“I did an interview for Time Magazine and Mike (Curtiz) was with me. The journalist asked him ‘do you think your discovery – Mr. Erdman – will be a success?’ He answered in his thick Hungarian accent ‘is not success, is going to be great!’ which was a pretty good compliment from Mr. Curtiz.”
The same year, Erdman had one line in “Mr. Skeffington,” but it impressed Bette Davis.
“She had come over to watch my scene. I delivered a telegram: ‘Telegram for Mrs. Fanny Skeffington … from the War Department’ was all I said. But the following day, she went around the lot telling people what a wonderful young actor the studio had found.”
Erdman would go on to work with the best, including Errol Flynn in “Objective, Burma!”
“We drove out to the Warner Ranch in Calabasas for location shooting in the same car every day and he couldn’t have been nicer to me. In some scenes we were waist deep in mud simulating a swamp. It was a very hot summer and tiring, but Errol was great throughout. There were no actresses in the film, but women would just turn up on the set and follow him around. He literally had to fight them off. He was a man’s man, but also had a sensitive side to him. He was just a charming guy.”
When Erdman’s agent arranged a meeting with director Billy Wilder, who was casting for “Stalag 17,” Dick didn’t even have to open his mouth. “Mr. Wilder took one look at me and said ‘you are Hoffy.’ And I got the role of Sgt. Hoffman.”
Unlike Flynn, Erdman says “Stalag 17” star William Holden was very quiet and stayed mostly in his dressing room until needed on the set.
“I went to the Oscars that year when he won for Best Actor. But he wasn’t pleased. Back stage, he threw the statue against the wall. He thought he should have won for ‘Sunset Blvd.’ and he was probably right. His role in ‘Stalag 17’ wasn’t nearly as challenging.”
In 1950, Erdman worked with Marlon Brando in “The Men.” The two met at a hospital where they talked with patients to prepare for the film about a paralyzed war veteran. Brando invited himself back to Erdman’s apartment.
“He ended up staying with me for four weeks while we shot “The Men.” He was very laid back, considerate – even withdrawn. He was making $40,000 for the film, a lot then, so you’d think he could have afforded his own place! But he was good company as a roommate.”
Most recently, Erdman appeared as Leonard in “Community,” the quirky but popular sitcom during its 2009-2014 NBC run.
“It was a small role and my wife asked me why I was doing it, but it was just such fun,” said Erdman. “I’ve been so lucky, even as a kid, to be in the company of great actors.”
Nick Thomas teaches at Auburn University at Montgomery, Ala., and has written features, columns, and interviews for over 550 magazines and newspapers.