A man with a sharply etched face, a controlled manner and the body of an athlete sits at the restaurant table. There is a latent tension under the casual pose. His face is expressionless -- the skin pulled taut over the cheekbones, concealing all signs of emotion.
“I grew up watching the drifters,” he says. “My parents owned a few nightclubs in New Orleans. I stayed up late watching the barflies, the brawlers ... I listened to the stories of wasted lives, I watched the effect of wasted lives. It gave me a strong feeling of urgency about my own life. I knew that without a long-range purpose I would be dry, empty, unfulfilled. In 1948, when I was 22, I made a plan for my life. I swore that nothing would prevent me from carrying it out but death.”
The man with the ring of dedication in his voice is Paul Burke, 35, the star of Naked City -- a man who is known to the public as the quiet, intense detective Adam Flint. He is the son of Marty Burke, a boxer who fought Gene Tunney and sparred with Jack Dempsey and later owned a string of nightclubs in the New Orleans French Quarter.
The blueprint that Paul Burke worked out for his own life, 13 years ago, was simple -- a little list of goals you could print on a postage stamp: to train himself as an actor, to direct plays, and finally, to write.
“I’ve achieved my first two goals,” he says quietly. “It hasn’t been easy.”
This is a striking understatement. The struggle Paul Burke has gone through, from the day at 22 when he headed for Hollywood to launch his career until the day his name flashed on the screen as the star of Naked City, is heroic even in the annals of the actor’s world. For years, in Hollywood and New York, he lived a desperately precarious life as he studied acting, worked at odd jobs and battled to gain a foothold in his profession while trying to support a wife (blonde ex-dancer Peggy Pryor), three children, and eventually his father. As one friend comments on his life at that time, “His perseverance under brutal burdens was not that of an ordinary man.” Gradually his reputation as a good actor grew. By 1957 he had appeared in almost 200 TV films. Then came a few leading roles: star of Noah’s Ark, co-star of Harbourmaster, a regular on Five Fingers -- three series that foundered.
Last year Paul Burke got his first starring role in a successful series, Naked City. He is now at his second goal: He is a “successful actor”. It has taken him 13 years.
What does acting mean to Paul Burke to justify such a struggle?
“Acting,” he says. “is exciting. It’s the excitement of re-creating a human experience. Acting is more exciting than living -- more electric, more immediate than living. That’s because life is full of random elements. In acting, you select, you choose the elements. This selection allows you to get to the essence of the character, the essence of an experience.”
Acting is more exciting than living ... It is an odd statement to make if one means it literally. And Paul Burke does. In fact, it is the key to unlock his character, which is by no means a simple one.
Burke is that most anomalous of beings -- a “star” who is a totally unknown man, a public figure who is a withdrawn human being. Superficially, he does not seem to be. He can chat, pour a drink and play the hail-fellow-well-met with the rest of the sophisticated confrerie. He tells entertaining stories about his grandfather, Martin P. Burke, who was a New Orleans policeman in 1898 (“When he met up with a lawbreaker, he’d put his gun and billy aside, roll up his sleeves and give the hood an opportunity to defend himself. For defensive practice, he’d punch a mule’s hindquarters”). He patiently tells lady reporters how he met his wife at a party (“I cooked the spaghetti”). When asked, he recounts the details of his present suburban existence in Scarsdale, NY (“Peggy is getting used to being a member of a car pool”). But it does not take too perceptive an observer to realize that the chat is a smoke screen: Paul Burke’s small talk is designed to reveal little of himself.
Those who have worked with him closely over a period of
time know that there is a wall around him that they cannot pass.
His co-star, Horace McMahon, who considers him a “fine young fellow, a
serious actor, a good team player,” says of him: “Paul is very retiring.
He’s a very quiet person. He doesn’t talk much.”
“I don’t understand them,” he says. His eyes have an odd look, intent yet remote. “It’s hard for me to communicate with most people. I can understand a character in a play. I can’t understand people in the same way.
"In a play, you can deduce the character’s goals, his
values, from the script. You can deduce his motives. You can
figure out how he’ll react and why. Given this -- therefore
that. It’s predictable, it’s logical. But people --
they’re illogical, they’re unpredictable. Most of them rarely are
what they say they are. They rarely act the way you expect them to.
I don’t really trust them. Quite often, I choose not to make
contact with them.”
“I’ve always been afraid of the illogical, of the superstitious. All my life. I’m attracted by logic. I like reasonable people, I respond to them. I can communicate with them. I trust them.”
When he does “choose to trust” someone, he talks at length, articulately, perceptively, and projects an intensity which makes the existence of the other, the “silent” or “aloof” Paul Burke, unbelievable.
“Man should be modern,” says Burke, firmly. “Intellectually understanding -- purposeful -- creative -- unafraid -- happy.”
He leans across the luncheon table. “Do you want to understand me?” he demands softly. “Let me tell you about my dream house. I’ll build it on the desert, high, high up in the mountains. There’ll be an awful lot of sunlight. I’ll blast the house right out of the mountains, right out of the rocks. It will have strong aluminum girders. And glass...” He is silent for a moment and smiling. His face seems illuminated by the sunlight in his own imagination. For a moment, his eyes are warm and glowing. “Sunlight, strong aluminum girders,” he says. “That’s my universe.”
Held by his own luminous vision, Paul Burke has forgotten his battle, his wall of reserve. But he will shortly remember them. In a while, he will resume his habitual cloak of reticence, and go about the “unexciting” business of living.
He is a paradox -- a persevering fighter who has overcome obstacles that would have felled lesser men -- and a hero-worshipping idealist who is wary of people. Yet he is a type that is not uncommon. There are many dedicated men in every walk of life with a glowing image of what they think life should be, who retreat from a world that does not conform to their ideal, and who turn their work into a private world of their own.
For Paul, this private world is acting -- or, more precisely, fiction. It is a world of carefully “selected” elements, a world of “essences”, a “re-creation of reality” which he can understand, and in which he can operate. As Adam Flint in Naked City, he is seen and his voice is heard weekly in millions of homes. And yet for him, this eminently public performance is private experience -- a refuge from the very human beings who are looking at him.
His two future goals -- directing (“You have the responsibility
for the total play”) and writing -- contain the same twin elements:
Both are means of public expression, with private meaning for Burke.
“I’ve wanted to write since I was 18,” he says. “I have so many blocks.
I’ve built so many walls around myself, it’s hard. But I want to
do it. I must be qualified as a human being. I must know what
I am. I must know myself exactly.”
What does run a man’s life? Burke points at himself. “I run my life.”
He does, far more than most men. And yet he doesn’t.
He is a man who is pulled, with great force, in two opposite directions:
He is simultaneously trying to conquer the world -- and to retreat from
the world. This conflict has put him under severe pressure.
Until he resolves it, he will continue to be that anomalous being -- a
public figure wrapped in anonymity -- a withdrawn man who finds fiction
more “exciting” than reality -- a man who cares more deeply for “characters”
than for people.