Frank’s a hell of a guy,” Humphrey Bogart remarked while discussing his friend’s casual attitude toward moviemaking. “He tries to live his own life. If he could only stay away from the broads and devote time to develop himself as an actor, he’d be one of the best.”
Both Sinatras—the first-take genius and the self-indulgent dilettante—were displayed in a career that included 58 movies and one made-for-TV film in 49 years.
His film work began in 1935 with Major Bowes’ Amateur Theatre of the Air. Next he appeared as a singer with the Tommy Dorsey band in Las Vegas Nights (1941) and other movies. His first film without a band behind him was 1943’s Higher and Higher, a dull musical.
In 1945, Sinatra made a short, The House I Live In, in which he sang about brotherhood. The film brought him a special Academy Award. He then signed with MGM, for which he made three musicals with dancer Gene Kelly: Anchors Aweigh, Take Me Out to the Ball Game and On the Town. “He’s a born teacher,” a grateful Sinatra later said of Kelly. “I didn’t even know how to walk, let alone dance. It was Gene who saw me through. We became a team only because he had the patience of Job and the fortitude not to punch me.” There were solo projects as well, including such forgettable films as The Miracle of the Bells, in which he played a priest. As the ’50s began and he confronted a dim career, he also faced a problem in movies: He had never played a successful dramatic part.
He had, however, read James Jones’s World War II novel From Here to Eternity and become obsessed with playing the pugnacious GI Maggio in any film version of the novel. When he learned Columbia Pictures was making a movie of the book, Sinatra campaigned for the role, sending Columbia president Harry Cohn plaintive telegrams signed “Maggio” The film’s producer, Buddy Adler, and director, Fred Zinnemann, wanted Eli Wallach for the part, but Wallach had another commitment and Cohn liked Sinatra’s offer to work for a bargain-basement $1,000 a week. (Later, rumors said the horse-head sequence in Mario Puzo’s The Godfather was an account of how Sinatra landed the Eternity role, supposedly using Mafia influence. Puzo denies the story, and Kitty Kelley dismisses it too.)
Released in 1953, From Here to Eternity, costarring Burt Lancaster, Montgomery Clift and Deborah Kerr, was a hit. It also brought Sinatra an Oscar and respect, revitalizing his career. Still, he viewed movies casually. His friend Billy Wilder, director of Some Like It Hot, wouldn’t cast him, saying, “I’m afraid he would run after the first take—’Bye-bye, kid, that’s it. I’m going. I’ve got to see a chick.’ ” Sinatra saw it differently: “I don’t buy this take and retake jazz. The key to good acting on the screen is spontaneity—-and that’s something you lose a little with each take.”
On the set he also displayed the split personality that ruled his personal life. Ernest Borgnine, who as a nervous screen newcomer played the bully in Eternity, said Sinatra “was the most wonderful guy to work with…. He knew how I must have felt, and he took the time to break the tension.” But actor Maurice Manson, who worked on Sinatra’s ABC-TV show, said, “It was a brutalizing experience for actors who take their work seriously. I only lasted one day with that man.” During shooting on Meet Danny Wilson in 1950, Sinatra called costar Shelley Winters “a bowlegged bitch of a Brooklyn blonde.” Frank, she responded, was “a skinny, no-talent, stupid Hoboken bastard.”
Still, in 1954 and 1955, Sinatra was continually making movies, including The Man with the Golden Arm, the 1955 film about a drug addict that brought him his second Oscar nomination.
By 1958, Sinatra had become the top moneymaking movie star, ahead of such actors as Elizabeth Taylor and Marlon Brando. Sinatra even directed a film, None But the Brave, a World War II movie that received mixed reviews. He also starred in a series of movies, including Ocean’s Eleven, Sergeants 3 and Robin and the 7 Hoods, with his pals from the Rat Pack. “It was all nuts,” Sammy Davis Jr. once said of their on-set antics. “We were making one movie, and Frank was told it was too long. He took a script, pulled out a fistful of pages, and said, ‘There. It’s shorter now.’ ” Post-Pack, Sinatra played hard-boiled cops and detectives in such films as Tony Rome (1967). His last major role—as a cop—was in 1980’s The First Deadly Sin.
If Sinatra didn’t follow the rules, at least one director, George Sidney, who worked with him on Anchors Aweigh, had no complaint. “If he wanted one or two takes, what’s wrong with that?” Sidney asked. “Horowitz played an hour and a half in concerts without going back and correcting a note or a passage he thought he could do better.”