A Tony 50-Year-Old
“In the most effortless performance of his movie career, Frank Sinatra played a character who seemed closer to his real self than any he had ever portrayed.” Biographer James Kaplan makes that assertion in his 2015 Sinatra: The Chairman about Tony Rome (1967), the Miami-set detective yarn that today marks the 50th anniversary of its theatrical debut. Kaplan continues: “The movie shoot was brisk and efficient, [director Gordon] Douglas displaying a craftsman’s skill at moving the story along (the screenplay, based on Marvin Albert’s novel Miami Mayhem, was by Richard Breen) and an old Sinatra hand’s flair for ensuring, each day, that the set was lit and ready for Frank to do as few takes as possible. Sinatra responded in kind. He seemed liberated in every word and gesture – even in his accent: Tony might well have come straight out of Hoboken. The man who portrayed him had almost always been a riveting presence on the big screen, in a sailor suit or a military uniform, sticking a needle in his arm or sweating out a remembered brainwashing. Yet even watching Sinatra’s finest performances, you did a mental calculation: the man emoting so effectively on-screen, the amazingly natural actor, was the same man who grinned as he wore a tux and sang Fly Me to the Moon. Of course, that was acting, too. There were a dozen (or more) real Sinatras, many of which you never saw in the movies. But Tony Rome – a man alone, a man who chased women or let them chase him, who drank and smoked and loosened his tie; who joked wryly and acted tough but now and then went down for the count – felt real, because Frank clearly felt so comfortable playing him.” Kaplan quotes co-star Gena Rowlands, who fondly remembered, “I found him to be a wonderful actor; he could do a whole complicated scene in one take, and I never saw him do more than one take. He was funny, too. He had a good sense of humor, and he was generous in his behavior with all the actors. There was nothing pretentious about him; he was just awfully nice.”
In sharp contrast to this picture of “Daytime Frank,” however, Kaplan also offers a glimpse at a darker “Nighttime Frank,” drawing on the recollections of comedian Shecky Greene, who was the opening act for the crooner evening Fontainebleu Hotel performances and also played the role of Rome’s shady buddy Catleg in the movie. Sinatra would retreat behind an inner circle of bodyguards and hotel security guys and begin drinking after each filming day ended and his mood turned edgier, which was aggravated when newspaper accounts of recent bride Mia Farrow and his The Manchurian Candidate co-star Laurence Harvey having too friendly a time in London during the filming of A Dandy in Aspic were brought to his attention. Tony Rome, however, frames Sinatra in full comfort-zone command as a down-on-his-luck, quick-witted and playfully amenable private investigator who warily navigates his way around Miami highbrows and lowlifes, cops and crooks when he’s asked to find missing jewels, and along the way gets mixed up with Jill St. John, Sue Lyon, Simon Oakland, Richard Conte, Lloyd Bochner, as well as real-life Sinatra compadres in cameo roles: Jilly Rizzo, Mike Romanoff, Rocky Graziano and Mickey Rudin. Shot in Panavision to capture the Magic City’s distinctive daylight dazzle and moonlight shadows by Joseph F. Biroc and propelled by a moody jazz-pop score by the great Billy May, Tony Rome shares hi-def office space with its equally frisky, Douglas-helmed sequel Lady in Cement (1968, arriving on movie screens the following November) on a frankly tantalizing Twilight Time ring-a-ding double-feature Blu-ray disc, currently available through December 1 only at 50% off original list during the label’s Pre-Holiday Promotion.