An Interview with Peter McCrea
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In the film Happy Land, there's a lovely moment where your mother places a cornstalk in her hair and plays Indian with her character's little boy. Did your parents ever play "dress up" games like that with you when you were little?

They didn't do that with me. I think they had enough of it in their careers! But they loved it when my little neighbor friends and I would play Tarzan, cowboys and Indians, and army games.

Since we lived on a ranch, my dad and I would take horseback rides or walks in the hills. We would go out in the hay field and throw the baseball or football in the evening before dinner. Even when I was as young as six, Mom allowed me to build small bonfires — with her supervision. I would also create play cities with my toy trucks and bulldozers, with roads and "rivers" (from the hose) in the sand pile that Pop made for me under the trees. When I was in fourth grade, Pop and I built a great tree house that I loved. I would sometimes sleep up there.

Mom got rid of the television when I was about six years old, (Pop had an old black and white in the bunkhouse where he would watch football games) so after dinner Pop would read books to me. Some were western stories by O. Henry, Zane Grey or Charles M. Russell. I had only books until I went to college. I read books like Robinson Crusoe, Tom Sawyer, and the Greek myths. I read Swiss Family Robinson thirteen times. I didn't miss TV then, and I look back at growing up without it as a great benefit now.

What did your parents read themselves?

My dad liked biographies and histories of people like Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt and other historical people. When I was born, Pop was fifty, and by that time he wasn't as much into reading novels. I don't remember him reading too many novels other than John Steinbeck, who is one of my favorite authors. He read O. Henry, and loved his western short stories. When he was younger, he read several books that ended up becoming movies like The Ox-Bow Incident and Magnificent Obsession, and some others that he played in. I remember him mentioning he had read The Most Dangerous Game as a young man, and then later he was in the film.

Mom was fascinated by philosophy. She read a lot of religious books on various subjects from various denominations. She read Buddhist authors, she read Eastern philosophy authors, she read Christian authors; she read Biblical studies. She read more novels and plays than Pop. I remember her loving George Bernard Shaw. And Mom had a lot of books on art history.

What values have your parents impressed upon you?

A lot of things...just by their example. They felt that how you lived your life was important. They didn't preach to me or my older brothers much. They would just say what they believed, but they weren't heavy handed about it.

Both of them were very philanthropic. They were both very charitable with the YMCA and with the Boys' Club and with charities oriented toward kids. Mom was always fighting for the little guy. When she was first starting out she would work on, sometimes, three movies simultaneously. They'd have her working all night on one while she would be shooting retakes on another in the morning and then shooting another in the afternoon. There were no restrictions on what the studios could do, and so she was part of the early days of getting the Unions together and protecting the people who had less power. Pop was always someone who had respect for working people. He started doing manual labor when he was eleven or twelve, working on a farm near his home where he grew up in Hollywood, and driving teams of horses in the hay fields.

Pop really believed in honoring your word and keeping your commitments; being on time, being professional, being prepared, doing things with your full attention and intent. He also believed in not procrastinating: "Do it now. Whatever needs to be done, do it now, don't procrastinate." And he always talked about thinking ahead. He was great at living in the moment and enjoying the moment, but at the same time, when it came to work or things that demanded responsibility, he always thought ahead.

Mom was incredibly big hearted and generous and would literally invite people off the street to dinner. In fact, one night she was driving back from L.A. to the ranch and she saw some soldiers hitchhiking — this was on a Wednesday night before Thanksgiving. So she gave them a ride and then invited them to stay at the ranch. They spent the night and had Thanksgiving dinner with the family. That was just the way she was. Even when she was a widow in her eighties and she wasn't even driving anymore she would get a ride with me or a friend into Los Angeles from the ranch and then she would take the bus downtown and work in a soup kitchen. I would say, "Mom, what are you doing riding the bus?" And she would say, "I like it, I really like it. I don't want to be driven everywhere."

She would always wear old clothes when she was going down to the soup kitchen, and one time a homeless guy got on the bus and sat next to her. He had a loaf of bread, and as they were riding along he kept looking at her. She wasn't dressed up, she had no makeup on. He thought she was poor too, so he offered her his loaf of bread. She was so touched! She thought that was so kind of him. They had a nice conversation and she never let on who she was.

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