Thursday, March 26, 2015

An Interview with Michael McGreevey: The Actor-Writer Discusses Riverboat, Disney, the Fame TV Series, and The Waltons

Michael McGreevy and Sally Field in The Way West.
Michael McGreevey made his film debut at age of 7 in the 1958 Jane Powell musical The Girl Most Likely. He would soon become one of the most in-demand child actors of the 1960s. He appeared as a regular on the TV series Riverboat (1959-60) and starred in several multi-part episodes of Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color. He also guest-starred in classic TV series such as Route 66, Naked City, and Bonanza. On the big screen, he made films like The Way West (1967) with Kirk Douglas, Richard Widmark, and Robert Mitchum. Michael also continued to work for Disney, playing Kurt Russell's best friend in the three Dexter Riley movies (e.g., The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes). In the 1970s, he moved behind the camera and became a successful writer for TV series such as The Waltons, Fame, and Quincey, M.E. Michael McGreevey recently appeared at the Williamsburg Film Festival and kindly agreed to an interview.

Café: You were around 11 when you starred in Riverboat. In addition to stars Darren McGavin and Burt Reynolds, it featured a huge number of then-current and future stars. Are there any that you remember fondly?

As Chip Kessler in Riverboat.
Michael McGreevey:  That's the show I met Doug McClure on. It was one of the first things Doug ever did. He was a great guy and became a lifelong friend. Of course, he went on to do The Virginian. Mary Tyler Moore was on the show. I remember her because she was really cute (laughs) and very nice to me. There was Suzanne Pleshette, who went on to do a ton of stuff. Then, there were people on the show that I became very close to: Jack Lambert, who was a great character actor and a regular; John Mitchum, Robert Mitchum's brother; and, of course, Darren (McGavin) and Burt (Reynolds).

Café:  I've read where Darren McGavin and Burt Reynolds didn't get along. Is that true?

MM:  Oh, yeah. They were just two very different personalities. I think that Burt was insecure. It was his first job in Hollywood and Darren was a very polished actor. It was Darren's show really--he was Captain Holden. I think Burt was a little jealous of Darren and they clashed quite a bit. What finally happened was that Burt left the show. But I loved them both. Darren was very much a father figure for me and Burt was like a big brother. He had been a football player at Florida State and I was impressed with that because I was into football. The first football I ever got--in fact, I've still got it--he got me. We used to play catch. I still see Burt every once in awhile. He still says: "Don't tell people you were only 11 years old when we were on Riverboat."

Café: How did you get cast in Texas John Slaughter, your first episode of Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color?

MM:   I had done a small part in a thing called Toby Tyler, which was just a one-day shoot. My agent had said: "It's only one day, but you should do it because you might get in over at Disney and become one of the Disney kids." I thought, OK, I'll do it. After that, they called and I did the Texas John Slaughter episode. Then, I did Sammy, the Way-Out Seal, which was a big deal. I remember going for several interviews with director Norman Tokar. Bill Mumy and I got the parts. I showed up on the set and Ann Jillian was my girlfriend on the show. She became my girlfriend in real life later on, which was sort of neat. That was the beginning of the Disney run.

Café: You appeared in several multi-part Disney episodes. Which one was your favorite and why?

Billy Mumy and McCreevey in Sammy.
MM:   That's hard. Sammy, the Way-Out Seal was the most fun, because we were kids and we got to spend two days in a pool swimming with the seal. My favorite of the TV episodes was later, when I was an adult. It was called Michael O'Hara the Fourth and starred Dan Dailey and a wonderful actress named Jo Ann Harris. It was a two-part detective story, sort of a Nancy Drew thing. I really liked my performance in that one. It was a fun thing to do and very few people know that particular one.

Café: What was it like working on the Disney lot while making those shows?

MM:  It was wonderful, especially in the '60s when Walt was still alive. He'd come every day on the set if you were on the lot. There was a real family feeling on that lot at that point. It wasn't like the other studios. And because so many children worked there, it was a more conducive place for them in general. The crews were used to kids. Mr. Disney--Uncle Walt...I always called him Mr. Disney and he would always correct me--set the tone. It was like going to summer camp. I loved it.

Café:  And did you really beat Walt Disney in ping pong?

MM:  No. Actually, I never beat him. I tried. My mother said you'd better lose. Kurt Russell claims to have waxed him.

Café:  Was he good at ping pong?

Kurt Russell and McGreevey in
The Strongest Man in the World.
MM:  Walt? Yes. I don't know if I ever played Kurt. When we used to compare notes, I said I used to play ping pong with Walt and Kurt said: "So did I." I said I never beat him and Kurt said he beat him all the time.

Café:  You and Kurt Russell made a great team in the three Dexter Riley films. Did you get along off camera?

MM:  Yes, we were roommates for four years. I tell people that I could ruin Kurt Russell (laughs). We roomed together in our twenties. We're still good friends. I talked with him before I came here.

Café:  What are your memories of acting in The Way West with Kirk Douglas, Robert Mitchum, Richard Widmark, and Sally Field?

MM:  I think that was the most fun I ever had in a movie. I was a little disappointed in the end product. I thought it could have been a much better movie. In my opinion, they sort of ruined it in the editing room. In terms of the actual shoot and the cast, I adored Sally (Field). Director Andy McLaglen was just a wonderful man. I enjoyed that role. I met (Richard) Widmark on that film, who became my mentor. I did another film with him (Death of a Gunslinger). We spent four months in Oregon, too. I made some lasting friendships. John Mitchum was in it and Bob Mitchum, Kirk Douglas, and Timothy Scott, who later went on to do a lot of great work. It was just a wonderful experience.

Café:  What led to your decision to enroll in UCLA and to pursue film writing and directing?

Michael McGreevey at the 2015
Williamsburg Film Festival.
MM:  My father (screenwriter John McGreevey) was a writer, so I always had some aspirations to write. UCLA was the best choice, because I could sort of go to class and still work if I had to. I really wanted to be a psychiatrist, but got into chemistry and realized I wouldn't make it through medical school. So, I became a psychology major and then got to statistics and realized I wasn't going to get through that. So, I went and became a film major. I had always been an actor, but I didn't really have any idea about the other side of the camera. I had seen it done as a kid. I became convinced that I could write, produce, and direct. I kept acting for about five more years. The Disney movies, although they were a delightful experience, typecast me. People forgot the other movies and thought I was this comedic actor, though I had never really done comedy until those last two or three Disney movies. I thought, well, great, I can just disappear and start writing. I was lucky enough to have a father that was well established and had a lot of contacts.

Café:  What inspired you to write the 1978 made-for-TV movie Ruby and Oswald, which became a collaborative effort between you and your father?

MM:  I had started on my own to research Jack Ruby. I was fascinated with him. I went to my Dad to get some advice on how to approach the screenplay. He said it might be more interesting to parallel Ruby with Oswald. I said I'll do that. I went back and did some stuff with that and realized there was all this documentary footage with Kennedy. In reality, the movie, although it's called Ruby and Oswald, is a three-way depiction of those four days in Dallas where we cut back and forth between the documentary footage of Kennedy and the recreated story with Ruby and Oswald. Dad and I both knew a man named Alan Landsburg, who had done a lot of documentaries. We went to him with the project first and he knew Mel Stuart, who had done an Academy Award-winning documentary called Four Days in November (1964). So, Mel was attached to direct it and we went into CBS and sold it right away as a three-hour special event movie. I was very proud of that movie; it was very well done.

Café:  You've written episodes for several first-rate TV series such as Fame and The Waltons. What was your favorite series to work on?

MM: Fame, by far. I started as a free-lance on one episode of Fame. I later became the story editor and then became the creative consultant--they kept moving me up. I ended up producing the show the last season. I did a total of four seasons on Fame. My background was in musical theater. It was like Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland--let's put on a show every week. And they were paying me all this money to do it. It was fun. I loved The Waltons. I just finished a movie about (Waltons creator) Earl Hamner called Earl Hamner Storyteller. The Waltons were an important part of my life and I really enjoyed working on that show.

Café:  Do you have any upcoming films or appearances that you'd like to share with our readers?

MM:  We just screened Earl Hamner Storyteller, a ninety-minute documentary about Earl Hamner in Lynchburg (Virginia). Tuesday night, we screened it in Richmond for University of Virginia mucky-mucks and the governor of Virginia. It should appear on television in the fall. It will probably be on the Hallmark Channel. Earl is 91 and we got to screen it for him in Los Angeles in February and he got a standing ovation. It made my year.

Café:  He was such a great TV writer. People think of him with The Waltons, but he also wrote episodes of Twilight Zone and created Falcon Crest.

MM:  That's all in the documentary. He has been a family friend, my Dad's best friend. My Dad wrote 20 episodes of The Waltons and I wrote four. So, he's been Uncle Earl my whole life. But doing this movie was really fun, because I got closer to him and found out things I didn't know about Earl.

Café:  Thank you so much for doing this interview, Mr. McGreevey.

You can learn more about Michael McGreevey at his web site and you can "like" his Facebook page.


  1. Boy, that interview took me back. I don't know if I feel younger or older! Now I have to check out "Michael O'Hara the Fourth" somehow.

  2. CW, that one intrigued me, too, because I don't remember it. I was hoping it was on YouTube (at least a clip)...but no luck.

  3. Thanks for doing this interview. I've enjoyed Mr. McGreevey through his work on Disney movies going back to Sammy the Way-Out Seal and including the Dexter Riley movies, and I saw him in a rerun of Naked City on Me-TV not too long ago. Mel Stuart also directed & eventually wrote a book about Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory.

    1. Jon, thanks for the additional info on Mel Stuart.

  4. This was great! I loved the anecdotes about ping-pong with Walt.

    1. Michael McGreevey was a great storyteller and a lot of fun to interview.

  5. Rick, you are an excellent interviewer and Mr. McGreevey did an awesome job providing information from his work as a child to today! Like you and Caftan Woman, I would love to see "Michael O'Hara the Fourth" because I am not at all familiar with it. I really enjoyed hearing about his experiences with Uncle Walt Disney and so many others. It was especially touching to hear about his documentary on Earl Hamner and I can only imagine how thrilled he must have felt to be able to show it to him. Thanks to Mr. McGreevey for sharing his experiences with us and to you for another top-notch interview!

  6. I never knew that Michael McGreevey's father was John, the screenwriter. I enjoyed his work on Nanny and the Professor and Family Affair. This was a very enjoyable read. My favorite of Michael's roles was as Wally in Snowball Express, but I too have to check out Michael O'Hara the Fourth now.

  7. I'm wondering why The Walton's aren't included with a spot in this blog?