Interview with Sylvia Lynch, Author of "Jack Lord: An Acting Life"
Copyright 2019 by Michael W. Rickard
Sylvia Lynch is the author of the new biography Jack Lord: An Acting Life (click here for my review). Dr. Lynch is dean of the School of Education at Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, Tennessee, has published two books of western outlaw history, and her short stories have appeared in a number of anthologies. Recently, she agreed to an interview via email to discuss her new book, Jack Lord: An Acting Life, and the classic Hawaii Five-O.
1. How long did it take you to write your biography of Jack Lord? Once I actively started the research, it was about a three-year project. I did spend a significant amount of time before that trying to determine if there was a book there. At first, I wasn’t convinced. I thought it would shape up to be more like chronology of his career and I wasn’t sure I wanted to do that. The magic bullet was finding his papers at the University of Southern California. I knew the first time I went there and saw the nature of the collection that I had struck gold and that his story did need to be told.
2. What challenges if any, does being a fan bring to writing a biography? It’s a bit like writing news articles or other intended “objective” studies. While I was a big fan of his work and I knew enough about him –good and bad- to cause me to go into it with some preconceived ideas, I had to lay that down, and try to look at him with fresh eyes. I’m not saying that was easy – it isn’t – but it’s necessary. I did come out of the whole process, however, with a confirmation that he wasn’t perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but I was very pleased to be able to see that he was a very smart, very driven man who worked hard to achieve what he wanted to do. I have no doubt he was difficult and I think some of the stories about some of those incidents when he was hard on people or seemed to be self-centered are probably true. I will say, however, that I learned he was a very visual person, and I have worked with those kinds before. They have a hard time when things don’t play out like they envisioned. I also think he wanted anything that had his name attached to it to be the best it could be. I certainly did not agree with everything I learned about him, but I didn’t learn anything that made me not respect him or continue to want to write about him or learn about him. In fact, it made me want to know more.
I guess the short answer to your question would be it is imperative to lay aside your personal opinion – good or bad – when writing biography.
3. One of the things I notice about academic biographies is that they tend to be better researched. How did you background as an academic help you research the book? Well, thankfully, my many years in education –both as a student and as a teacher- gave me lots of experience in how to find and validate good sources. I have taught that stuff for so many years and any time you teach something, if you are doing a good job, you should be learning alongside your students. The biggest help I have on doing these kinds of projects is the research is my favorite part. I have had to admit I have a nosey side and sometimes when I do book talks I confess that biography feeds my nosey nature.
4. What do you think separates your biography from other celebrity biographies? I’m not sure there is anything that sets it apart in a dramatic way; again, I think the good fortune I had to be the first to extensively utilize that great collection at USC gave me the opportunity to share and/or validate new and commonly held ideas about Jack Lord as a person. I also learned a lot from taped phone conversations by a reporter when Lord didn’t know he was being taped. It was natural and uninhibited and yet he was the same Jack Lord I saw in other sources.
5. What is it about Jack Lord’s life that impressed you the most? His tenacity, his refusal to compromise once he knew what he wanted stood out to me. I also think some of that gave him his reputation as being difficult or stuck on himself. He was also a tremendous business man and he took a lot of flak for that. What he did with that Stoney Burke series and the money he wound up making from that “flop” as he called was remarkable. I liked the fact that he worked as hard as anyone else who worked with him and that he didn’t let criticism by others hold him back.
6. What is it about Jack Lord’s life that surprised you the most? I think I would have to say how close he actually was to his family and how hard he worked to keep his family life away from his work life. Also, I knew he was a prolific philanthropist, but I was stunned when I realized just how much he did.
7. Your book begins with your experiences watching Jack Lord on Hawaii Five-O. It sounds as if this was your first experience watching his acting work. If so, what did you think of his other work after watching it? I actually had seen him in other television shows growing up, but I just hadn’t remembered that was him. For example, I was a big fan of Bonanza, Dr. Kildare and other popular westerns that he guest-starred on and I was surprised when I started looking for his appearances on television and seeing how many of those episodes I had seen and didn’t realize that was Lord. I really enjoyed watching all his earlier work.
8. Jack Lord often received outstanding reviews for his work, but did not land major roles or see pilots picked up. You talk about several of his near-misses such as film roles he didn’t get or pilots that weren’t picked up. Do you see any of these as having the same potential for success as his role on Hawaii Five-O? No, I really don’t think so. That is just my opinion, but Five-O was his show and McGarrett was his character – no doubt about it. It was such a unique concept at the time and the character was so easy to admire. I think when he told his wife after he read the part that this was the one they were waiting for, he knew too this was something special and he was the right one for the job.
Jack Lord (left) playing CIA agent Felix Leiter in Dr. No.
9. Do you think Jack Lord’s demands for series and film roles were too much for someone in his position (a star who had not achieved major success)? For example, legend has it he was not asked back to play Felix Leiter in Goldfinger because he wanted equal billing with Sean Connery and a raise in pay (although it should also be noted that by at least one account, the producers were concerned he might overshadow Connery due to his screen presence). I do think he set a high bar right out the gate, and I don’t know that you can consider that a “fault.” I know he struggled because he did hold out for more money sometimes or bigger billing and it cost him roles, but I also think we have to give him credit for standing by his principles. His decisions were his own and he was the one impacted so really there’s not harm. He still wound up, in the end, getting the right role that made him not only rich and famous but iconic in his field.
No stranger to Westerns, Jack Lord made the most of a one-season role as Stoney Burke.
10. Can you think of anyone who ever parlayed a one-season role (Stoney Burke) into such financial success? No, I can’t. This was such an amazing story. Here again, however, I think the reason for that success was his extraordinary work ethic. He saw an opportunity and he threw himself totally into and the result was it made him a wealthy man. I also have to acknowledge how hard that gig was. The traveling and the amount of energy he had to put into that night after night was undoubtedly difficult.
Jack Lord as Stoney Burke.
11. One legend that’s out there is that Jack Lord was a candidate for the role of Captain Kirk? Your book doesn’t go into details on this. Was this due to a lack of evidence? No, not at all. I couldn’t really find any supporting evidence, but I did find other indications that he was firm in his intentions when it came to what he wanted in a role. I saw some of that in his work life before his went into acting too. Again, I think he was just driven and determined that he was going to get things like he wanted them. I don’t know that I would consider that a fault. After all, he was the one who ultimately suffered the consequences when he made those decisions – good or bad. It kind of relates back to his tenacity and his refusal to share a lot about his private life. He had parameters that meant something to him and he just didn’t care what everyone else thought. I guess, too, you have to say in the long run it paid off for him.
12. What do you think is Jack Lord’s legacy in Hollywood? At the very least, he accomplished something great with Five-O. I mean, 50 years later, and look where it is. I also think he was respected for his philanthropy. I was stunned when I realized just how much charity work he and his wife did. It takes the edge off any criticism one may have about his being concerned about good salaries. Look what they did with it. People are still benefiting today from their charity work.
Jack Lord's charitable work and devotion to Hawaii saw him honored many times, including this tribute.
13. Other than his tremendous work as a philanthropist, what do you think Jack Lord’s biggest contribution was to society?
While I do think his philanthropy is certainly remarkable, I think he stands as a good example of the importance of a strong work ethic. I also think he has shown us that when it comes to achieving goals, much of your success is going to be relevant to how badly do you want it and how hard are you willing to work for it.