Dick Bakalyan: Dinky the Hood


Richard Bakalyan (holding a gun) with Cesar Romero in a still from “The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes”

By Frank Nahigian

LOS ANGELES — Life has a funny way of changing paths. In the 1930s, Richard (Dick) Bakalyan’s father was an Armenian immigrant who worked wherever he could find a job as a short-order cook in diners and restaurants around Watertown, Mass. He died in 1939 when young Richard was 8.

Little could they imagine that 25 years later, in 1964, Dick Bakalyan would be dining with Prince Rainier and his wife, Grace Kelley, on the deck of their yacht in Monaco as a guest of Frank Sinatra.

During the filming of “Von Ryan’s Express,” 20th Century Fox studio had rented a yacht for Sinatra to keep him happy; Sinatra invited some of his favorites in the cast, including Bakalyan, to cruise around the French Riviera, and when they pulled into a dock in Monaco, they were berthed next to the prince and princess, who invited them all to join them a couple nights later, which Bakalyan remembers as a fabulous time.

“Hey, I was there, not as the feature player, you understand, but I was fortunate to be there, be welcome and feel comfortable there,” he recalled in a recent interview.

He had nothing but good things to say about Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr., Jack Nicholson, Anthony Quinn, Cesar Romero and virtually every other Hollywood personality with whom he became acquainted. Naturally, being a puritanical New Englander, I asked him about morality in Tinseltown. “It’s the same as in any other town; it’s a small town.”

“It’s not an immoral place?” I persisted.

“No, it’s like any other town. In fact, people are more apt not to do certain things because it would get out. Some small towns, you think, oh, it’s nice and proper, and everything is going on, ok? This is a small town and word gets around fast. If there’s a nasty going on we hear about it fast and, you know, people group, a lot of people group, and no one wants to be the talk of the town,” he replied.

He has a large body of film and television work as a character actor, usually, a gangster or hoodlum type. His very first role was portraying a juvenile delinquent. Those of us who knew him way back when knew he wouldn’t fail in that role; he was eminently qualified by virtue of his appearance. He had done a lot of amateur boxing while growing up, picking up $15 for each fight, and his nose paid a price for it. He looked the part and played it to the hilt, so he was good at his craft, and feels he was lucky, too.

He had a memorable role in one of the greatest movies produced in Hollywood, “Chinatown,” which starred his friend Jack Nicholson. He said when he tried out for a role in the movie, directed by Roman Polansky, “this little guy comes in and he’s got a camera in his hand and he looks and he leans over and he goes, ‘click,’ that close to my face. It’s Roman Polanski, the director of the film. Dynamite. I got to meet him one on one so that we could chat, and that’s how he cast me. It wasn’t because some casting person liked me or whatever. It was that the director knew what he wanted for a certain character, so I got the role.”

“Is that how you met Jack Nicholson?” “No, I met Jack way before that, in the old days. We played ball together in the entertainers’ league. Jack has always been a stand-up guy, never changed. People want him to change, want to say he changed, but he’s always been a good man, a good guy.”

Another highlight of Bakalyan’s show business career was a two-summer TV gig he did with Bobby Darin. NBC wanted Darin to do a weekly series; Darin asked Bakalyan whether he’d be interested in being a regular on the show. “You know, does the sun come up in the morning? You’re damn right I’m interested! So we put it together and Bobby and I did this spot called ‘Carmine and Andy’ about two guys in New York City sitting on a stoop shooting the breeze. It’s about two friends; it was a nice spot every week and we got a lot of mail on it, and then they used me in other different little things, you know.”

Then there’s the anomaly with a “Beauty and the Beast” ramification. In 1969, the  prototypical gangster got the role of the narrator bird in the Walt Disney educational animated short subject, “It’s Tough to Be a Bird,” which won the Academy Award for best short animation in 1970. In it, a red bird explains how birds have contributed to human culture, even as people often try to kill them. He must have been as convincing a bird as he was a gangster, because in Disney’s full-length feature, “The Fox and the Hound,” his voice, representing that of Dinky the sparrow, joins the voices of Mickey Rooney, Kurt Russell, Pearl Bailey, Sandy Duncan, Paul Winchell. The juvenile delinquent had come full circle. Too bad Alfred Hitchcock wasn’t aware of him when he was directing “The Birds.” Bakalyan could have been an undercover operative on the side of the birds.

Did Dick Bakalyan have acting aspirations when he was a Watertown schoolboy? Well, he had a good friend named Danny Cronin with whom he walked home from school every day. He began boxing shortly after Cronin did. When Cronian stayed after school one day to try out for the junior play, Bakalyan thought he’d do so, also, because it might be fun and interesting. They found a role for him in the play. He didn’t act in the senior play, but he did get bit by the bug.

Hundreds of TV shows later, he still shows the influence of that early friendship.