Vincent Price may have failed to immortalize Phyllis Kirk in wax in the 1953 chiller House of Wax, but the experience did immortalize her on film for generations of horror movie buffs. This was an odd turn of events for Kirk, who (given her druthers) would have turned down the top role in the 3-D thriller -- a remake of Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933) -- because she had no yen to become the 1950s' answer to Fay Wray.

Danish by descent (real name: Phyllis Kirkegaard), a native of Syracuse, New York, Kirk had jobs as a waitress and a perfume counter clerk before she began a modeling career. Stage roles ensued before Hollywood beckoned; she was a contract player at MGM and then Warner Brothers, where she was stalked on the studio's "New York Street" and other locales by Vincent Price's maniac sculptor in House of Wax.

Kirk's talents were better showcased on the small screen, where she had good dramatic roles on many of the era's prestige series (and consequently made the covers of TV Guide and Life). Her signature TV role was as Nora Charles, the daffy, fast-talking wife of Peter Lawford's The Thin Man (the 1957-59 NBC series).

TOM WEAVER: Were you under contract to Warner Brothers when you did House of Wax?

PHYLLIS KIRK: Yes. Otherwise I would never have done it [laughs]! The interesting thing is that, with the arrogance of a young actress who thinks she's going to rule the world (and doesn't realize, while she's bitching about House of Wax, that that will probably be the most memorable thing she does in the movie business), I tried to turn it down. I bitched and moaned and told [Warners executive] Steve Trilling that I was not interested in becoming the Fay Wray of my time [laughs]. And I was told, "Tough titty; you're under contract, and you'll do what we ask you to do, unless you care to be suspended." I decided I didn't want to be suspended. And, incidentally, I went on to have a lot of fun making House of Wax. It was just fun; Vincent Price was a divine man, and was a divine actor. As were all the other people, Paul Picerni in particular. He was my "love interest" in House of Wax, and he just was a gentle, kind, wonderful person, a dear guy with an army of children [laughs]! I had a wonderful time doing it.

Q: House of Wax was the first major studio 3-D picture; Paul Picerni said there were good vibes all around, that people at Warners felt the picture was going to be a success, and that he was excited to be in it. What turned you off about it?

PHYLLIS: I just didn't want to be in a film that I think was using a gimmick. I had already heard about, and seen finally, the 3-D picture that preceded us, which was Bwana Devil [1952], and I thought, "I really don't want to be in House of Wax. It's not serious." But, after the film was done, I thought it was quite remarkable.

Q: Do you happen to know who else might have been up for your part?

PHYLLIS: I have no idea. No one ever told me that anyone else was ever up for it.

Q: I think Vera Miles was. And maybe also Joan Weldon.

PHYLLIS: I don't have any idea. For one thing, they never tested me. Not that I recall, anyway. But I don't think they did.

Q: Did they show you Mystery of the Wax Museum? They did show it to Andre de Toth before he started directing it.

PHYLLIS: No, they did not. Now, Andre de Toth was just a remarkable guy, and I had worked with him before on Thunder Over the Plains [1953], and Crime Wave, [1954]. I admired him and liked him very much. He was really a remarkable director, and a director who was much more appreciated in Europe than he was here. In France and in England, and maybe even in Italy, he was considered a very imaginative, fine talent. I saw him again not terribly long ago. He's delightful and intelligent; highly intelligent.

Q: I don't think Paul Picerni has ever quite forgiven de Toth for insisting that he, Picerni, put his head in the working guillotine.

PHYLLIS: [Laughs] Well, Andre was tough, you know. And not given to any bullshit that was going to hold up his film, or not be what he wanted it to be.

Q: You were never on the receiving end of any abuse?

PHYLLIS: No, no, no, no, no. Well, I told you, I had worked with him before, and I worked with him afterwards, too. Always good experiences. And of course Charles Bronson; now there was a piece of work. His name was not Charles Bronson at the time, it was Charlie Buchinsky. I didn't particularly like him, although in later years I saw that he really was quite a fine actor, he was very worthwhile. (And, as with many of us, we get better as people as we age.) But I didn't care for him ON THAT FILM. This was the very beginning for him, and he was full of oats and swaggering around and being terribly macho. (It may have had to do with the fact that he wasn't very tall.) I got to know him a bit better later; I didn't work with him again, but I got to know him over the years because of "group things" and charity things. And also, I began to like him much more as an actor.

I had to go to London shortly after House of Wax came out, and reporters there would ask me about it. I would just say, "If it's your cup of tea, drink it!" [Laughs] Anyhow, I felt that it was a well-made, well-directed film. And scary! And all those running scenes that I had to do, I did. No double worked for me! I loathed all the crap about being made into a wax statue -- I mean, that's no fun! They pour this stuff all over you to make a mold, and then some genius re-forms the whole thing into wax.

Q: You're talking about the wax head of you that's in the movie.

PHYLLIS: Well, it was the whole figure.

Q: Now that you tell me this, I think I can tell from the expression on the wax head that you didn't have a good time having that mold made!

PHYLLIS: No, I certainly didn't. And then of course Carolyn Jones also had to have the same thing done to her. I didn't really know her very well; she was a good actress.

Q: Andre de Toth once said that Jack Warner ordered him not to wear his eye patch because then people would make fun of the fact that the movie was directed by someone who had no depth perception. Did de Toth go without it?

PHYLLIS: I don't think he ever did. He may have, but I don't remember it. But it was my favorite story in London, to point out to everyone that the director of the film Andre de Toth only had one eye and couldn't see in three dimensions. Everybody in London thought that was hilarious. But I'm sure nobody at Warner Brothers thought it was hilarious that I was saying that!

Q: De Toth also tells a funny story about your costume having so much padding in the bust area that he once stuck you with a pin, and LEFT it there when you didn't notice.

PHYLLIS: He stuck me with a pin? I probably just thought that he was ... you know ... feeling my bosom [laughs]! I wouldn't have been able to feel anything, because the padding was ... extraordinary! Well, I was even thinner than Carolyn, and had practically no bosom at all, so they had to do something. Andre's a naughty boy ... I don't remember him sticking me with pins, but on the other hand, if he was distracting me, and doing it at the same time with the pin, I wouldn't have felt it.

Q: Did you enjoy making period pictures, wearing costumes of the Gay 90s, etc.?

PHYLLIS: Well, I did and I didn't. Once I was in the costumes and performing, I was fine. But getting into the costumes and going through all that rigmarole was a pain [laughs]!

Q: The producer, Bryan Foy, had a long and interesting show biz career.

PHYLLIS: Oh, Brynie Foy; he was just a divine old curmudgeon. That's exactly what he was, with a hellish reputation for being impossible. I got called to his office before anyone had even told me that I was going to be in that film, and he looked at me long and hard and said, "Wellll, Miss Kirk, we're giving you this part because you're the only intelligent actress I know that I can stand." [Laughs] All right? That's all I remember!

Q: Did you like the guy?

PHYLLIS: Well ... yes. He was a character. I didn't know him intimately, I didn't go to dinner with him, I didn't know his family; I just knew him as a figure in a studio. But I knew a lot about him, because he had done some worthwhile things in his career.

Q: And what was Vincent Price like on the set?

PHYLLIS: Friendly ... unselfish ... generous, really generous as an actor, in terms of working with other actors. I didn't know Vincent intimately, but I knew him as a professional, and I found him incredibly intelligent and with a great sense of humor.

Q: Did you work with him before or after?


Q: Like you, Price didn't want to do the picture. Then de Toth told him his concept of the role; de Toth wanted there to be a vulnerability to the character, he wanted audience sympathy. That won Price over.

PHYLLIS: I was a fan of Vincent's going into House of Wax -- right from the days when I saw him first in The Eve of St. Mark [1944], where he played a Southern soldier. And that's going back. I just thought he was brilliant, and then sort of followed everything he ever did. I got tired after a while of seeing him in horror film after horror film, because he was much more than that.

Q: Any memories of Frank Lovejoy?

PHYLLIS: Oh, well, how could you not have memories of that adorable man? I liked him very much.

Q: What memories do you have of the final scene, when you're Price's prisoner in the waxing vat?

PHYLLIS: They had flesh-colored gauze around me to create the illusion that I was nude, and Andre kept saying, "Phyllis ... pull it down a little further." And I said, "Andre ... I have no bosom. I greatly resemble my father in that department, and if I pull it down any further, whatever the 'illusion' is now will be, I promise you, gone!" [Laughs] I remember that very well! I was furious.

Q: How long did that scene take to film?

PHYLLIS: Oh, I don't know, I can't remember, honey, it was a hundred years ago! You're lucky I can remember what I've remembered [laughs]!

Q: Jack Warner was reportedly so afraid of production falling behind that he asked some of the key people NOT to leave the Warners lot!

PHYLLIS: That was the situation and I was asked to, for the duration of the picture, sleep on the lot, in an actor's ... cubicle. No, it wasn't a cubicle, it was perfectly nice, but they resembled apartments. Warners used them for visiting dignitaries and things like that.

Q: Were most of the cast asked to stay?

PHYLLIS: I think I was the only one who AGREED to do it [laughs]. I think I thought at the time, "I have to get up soooo early, and when I leave the studio at the end of the day, I have to drive all the way to Beverly Hills," which is where I was living. I thought, "I might as WELL just stay here."

Q: Your character is very intelligent; she figures out what Price is up to before anyone else does. But otherwise it's a pretty standard screaming, needs-to-be-rescued female lead.

PHYLLIS: Well, that was my point. The characters they gave young women in those days were by and large -- not always, of course -- but by and large dreary. And so you just did the best you could, right?

Q: In an interview you gave around that time, you said you'd probably always be a spinster because "I'm so strong and I'm so able to look out for myself. Men prefer girls who want to be coddled."

PHYLLIS: I never felt about my [House of Wax character] that she wanted to be coddled.

Q: But I get the impression from your interviews you were a lot more independent than the average young Hollywood actress back then.

PHYLLIS: I guess that's true. In fact, yes, that IS true. Still am!

Q: You also worked as an interviewer and writer for an ACLU newspaper and as a TV interviewer. How did you enjoy that phase of your career?

PHYLLIS: The ACLU thing happened in the middle of my acting career, and it happened mostly because I was hellbent to keep the state of California from executing a guy named Caryl Chessman. Ultimately, I had to give an address to the State Assembly about the whole situation; I even went to San Quentin (on three occasions, I think) and talked to Chessman. There's no doubt at all that he did some dastardly things, but he did not kill anybody. And it infuriated me because the state Legislature kept going out into the public and saying that his behavior had driven a young girl insane when in point of fact, the young girl had been insane for years. It was that kind of thing. And also, I abhor capital punishment, always have and always will. Of course, the William Morris Agency, who represented me at the time, wanted to kill me, [because I had done] these things. I looked at one of the guys there, I remember, and very rudely said, "If it hadn't been for God's kindness, you probably would be in prison for the same thing." Well, it was true; this particular agent was a great womanizer.

Q: In 1957, you told an interviewer that you wanted to eventually produce and direct. Were you on the level?

PHYLLIS: Not a director. I would have loved to be a producer, which simply means that you put it all together and tell people what you want and expect them to deliver.

Q: In your old interviews, you come across as very feisty, as the type who resented interviewers who didn't do their homework. Was that the real you, or was that just schtick?

PHYLLIS: Oh, no, that was ME. There are a lot of reporters who don't do their homework, and you have to do their homework FOR them. So you wind up interviewing YOURSELF [laughs]! Other reporters DO do their research, and they're interesting and fun.

Q: Years and years from now, people in their homes can push a button and see ANY movie, or ANY TV episode. Which of YOUR credits would you like them to watch?

PHYLLIS: I'd like them to watch The Thin Man.

Q: Any other "recommendations" for future generations?

PHYLLIS: Are you putting all of this in a time capsule?

Q: I like to think of my books as "time capsules," yes!

PHYLLIS: Okay [laughs]. There were a couple of live television things I did that I loved doing, and I liked when they were finished. There was a series called Robert Montgomery Presents and we did The Great Gatsby, and Robert Montgomery played Gatsby and I played the girl. I loved that, I thought they did a wonderful job with it.

Q: There was a lot of speculation way back when as to whether you and Peter Lawford really got along on The Thin Man.

PHYLLIS: Peter Lawford and I got along BEAUTIFULLY, we were good friends, and we continued to be good friends long, long, long after The Thin Man was gone.

Q: The rumors that he disliked you, that you two never were friendly -- how did those rumors start?

PHYLLIS: Because that's what people DO! I mean, how can you ASK me such a silly question, when every day you pick up a newspaper and read things about actors and actresses that are just ... LUDICROUS! Far-fetched and TOTAL lies! They love to write things like that, they think it's "scintillating," and it makes reporters thrilled if they can suggest that there's a feud going on between two people who have to work together every day. That's what it IS, my friend!

Q: What was it about The Thin Man that makes it your favorite?

PHYLLIS: Well, it was fun, and it was fun to DO. I loved Dashiell Hammett. Our series was not a carbon copy of the Thin Man books, or the Thin Man [movies] done by William Powell and Myrna Loy, because it was television and it was in the '50s. They had us sleeping in separate beds, and you couldn't say even a MILD expletive; that could NOT be in the script. I just had fun doing it, I LOVED doing it, and I was very fond of Peter.

Q: Do you watch your own movies and TV shows today?

PHYLLIS: Well, if something comes up on the air I watch it. But I don't have tapes of ANYthing.

Q: I read that you tried to veer away from having show business people as guests on your TV talk show.

PHYLLIS: No, that's not true, although I DID do other things, largely. But [guest selection] didn't really have anything to do with ME, it had to do with the producer, Shirley Bernstein, Leonard Bernstein's sister. We did a lot of interesting things, but not necessarily "show biz guests."

Q: And what do you do today?

PHYLLIS: I'm not doing ANYthing in show business. I've begun over the years having difficulty walking properly, and it isn't because (evidently) of any known illness, it's just ... a fact [laughs]. So I haven't acted for a long time; a VERY long time. Not since the early '70s. And THEN what I did was to find a new career, I went into the public relations business and I worked for a public relations firm for several years, and then I went to CBS as a publicist. And then I went BACK to the original press office that I worked for BEFORE CBS ... because it was time to leave CBS. We had Mr. [Laurence] Tisch galloping around, making weeeeird decisions about all kinds of things. And a whole army of us left because Mr. Tisch considered us "too old." I'm retired now.

Q: Today your claim to fame, of course, is House of Wax.

PHYLLIS: After I left Warners, I went on and did mountains of television, and The Thin Man with Peter Lawford, and all of those things are much more memorable in terms of people remembering them than the movies I did. The movies I made were [laughs] ... somewhat obscure, I think you would say. But House of Wax was not obscure. And I must say, the interest in it over the years, and the comments about it, and the times that they have replayed it, including with the 3-D glasses; amazing. Just amazing! And it wasn't a big hit originally, was it?

Q: Well, it was on the list of the top grossers of 1953.

PHYLLIS: It was? Well ... what do I know? Or ... what do I care [laughs]?!

Tom Weaver is the author of John Carradine: The Films, Science Fiction and Fantasy Film Flashbacks, Attack of the Monster Movie Makers and many others available from McFarland & Co.

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