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"Father Goose" Interview

Esther Park interviews Stephanie Berrington McNutt (Elizabeth)
Stephanie Berrington

September 2, 2005

How did you get the part of Elizabeth in Father Goose? How old were you? Had you acted before?

My parents knew a lady who was a studio librarian and who also happened to be English. The producers asked her if she knew of any children from English families who might be candidates for the movie. They were looking for children with no prior acting experience, if possible. She mentioned my sister and me. We had interviews, screen tests and eventually both of us got parts. I was 11 years old at the time and had no prior acting experience.

Where was the film made? What were the living conditions on the set? How long did it take to film?

The film was made on the Universal Studios set in Hollywood and on location at a coconut plantation in Ocho Rios, Jamaica. My family was living in Montecito (near Santa Barbara) at the time so we would drive to Hollywood on Sunday evening and come back home on Friday evening. We stayed at a hotel near the studio in Hollywood. On location, we stayed at the Hilton Hotel in Ocho Rios. We spent about 8 weeks in Hollywood and 4 weeks in Jamaica.

I noticed another one of the girls in the film, Jennifer, shares your last name. Is she related to you?

Yes, she is my sister. We are three years apart, so she was eight when we made the film.

How do you prepare to act opposite Cary Grant? Were you aware of him as a *superstar* at that time? Were you nervous? If so, was there anything he did to put you at ease?

I made little, if any, preparation. I was not aware of who Cary Grant was at all. My parents told me that he was a very famous movie star, but at 11 years old, it really didn't make a big impression. Consequently, I was not nervous at all. Mr. Grant was very friendly and good at telling jokes which all of the children loved.

What was it like to work with him? Did he seem to enjoy working with kids? During breaks and down-time, what was your interaction with him like? Did he socialize much on the set, or did he retreat to his trailer when work was done?

He clearly loved children. At the time elephant jokes were all the rage and we used to have informal competitions to see who could tell the funniest elephant jokes. He was very current on the latest jokes. We used to do this in between takes. Unless there was a good reason for him to leave the set, he usually stayed between takes and talked and joked. Since there were 7 children on the set, we also used to tell jokes among ourselves.

What did the cast and crew do for fun?

In Hollywood, we didn't have much visibility of that, especially since we were young children. In the evenings, we used to go out for dinner and then back to our hotel rooms. In Jamaica, we mostly went to the beach and swam in the pool. We also took a few shopping trips into Kingston and took some tours of local landmarks like Rose Hall which was supposed to be a haunted mansion. Our breakfast and lunch were provided in a large tent on the set. In the evening, the children all ate together in the Hilton Hotel dining room before it opened to other hotel guests. The waiters used to practice their skills on us before they were turned loose on the other unsuspecting hotel guests!

How much time was spent in rehearsals? Did the final cut deviate much from the script? Did Cary, you, or anyone else ad-lib?

We used to rehearse scenes just prior to shooting them. Each evening, we received a list with a schedule of the scenes that were to be shot the next day so we knew what we had to prepare/memorize in terms of lines. There were changes that were made to the script on an ongoing basis and we used to receive the revised pages which were printed on different colored paper to distinguish them from the original. Cary did ad-lib and sometimes when he forgot a line, he ad-libbed and it was better than the original so it was kept in the script. In the scene in which the children are sneaking onto his boat to take clothes and supplies, I slipped on the steps of the cabin and, although it wasn't in the script, I turned around to the child behind me and said, "be careful" which is what I would have said anyway. It seemed the natural thing to do. After we shot that scene, the director told me that I had absolutely done the right thing.

You played the awkwardness of a teen very well. Was it an acting "stretch" or were you going through that "difficult age" (as Leslie Caron described it) yourself? How close was Elizabeth to your own personality?

My character, Elizabeth, was 15 years old and I was 11 at the time. Boys were not on my radar screen at that point, so playing a love struck teenager was a unfamiliar territory and the other children teased me about it a little. They saved the love scene between Cary and me for the end and it was shot after all of the other children had left.

The scene in which he pulls you out of harm's way from the incoming plane is a pretty dramatic and physical scene. How was it done? Was more than one take needed?

We had several takes on that scene and it was a fun one to shoot. All of the personnel on the set were very kind and concerned about my well-being since it did require Mr. Grant to yank me off my feet into the air and over his back. They had mattresses and cushions in the bushes where I landed and the approaching "plane" that I was looking at when we shot the scene was actually a rag on a long pole (it gave me something to focus on). After each take, Mr. Grant always asked me if I was okay. On one take he was especially vigorous and I distinctly remember flying through the air. He was very concerned and apologetic after that one, but I thought it was kind of fun! I don't know if that was the one that they selected to include in the final cut or not.

The fake "seduction" scene is, of course, priceless. Was it difficult to stay serious during that scene? Were there any outtakes or bloopers due to laughter, or missed lines?

We had a number of takes on that one also. Since it was shot at the end of the production, they were concerned that Mr. Grant and I were too friendly by then and that I would not be able to demonstrate the appropriate "fear" reaction for the scene. We did have a few times when he laughed and/or I laughed but I think we finished it up in half a day. Even though he seemed like a "buddy" at that point, it was still unnatural feeling for me at 11 years old to be swooped up by a then 60+ year old man so I was fairly easily able to show some consternation.

Are there any funny or interesting anecdotes that occurred during the filming of Father Goose?

Yes, there were several and probably some I no longer remember. I do remember the scene when we are traveling back at night in his dinghy and we get passed by the two large ships. That scene was shot on a sound set on Universal's back lot. It was a large tank like a swimming pool. We had wave-making machines which were logs attached to steel arms that kept slapping the water to make waves. The larger ships were actually projected onto screens above the water. At first, the dinghy was just floating free and was not attached to anything. In one of the first few takes, it took on so much water that it sank (it wasn't supposed to) and most of the children were thrilled. It was like going for a swim. There was one child, however, who did not know how to swim so the directors and producers all jumped into the water in their good clothes and expensive watches to "save" us. Needless to say, most of us didn't want to be saved at all! Photos were taken and I believe they were published in the Los Angeles Times.

Were there any problems that occurred during filming?

See above. Other than the day-to-day issues that came up, there was nothing major.

Cary was described as very meticulous on the set- always prepared for his scenes, and often checking lighting and other technical aspects himself. Did you notice that particular trait?

He was usually very well prepared. I did not notice him checking lighting, but he was very involved in all aspects of the production and often made suggestions or changes that he thought would improve the product.

What was it like to work with Leslie Caron?

Miss Caron (to us!) was also very kind and was very professional.

Did you learn anything about acting specifically from Cary or Leslie?

I think we learned that it should be fun and we should act as it came naturally to us. We were children playing children's parts and above all, they did not want us to be stiff or programmed. As a result, we could be fairly "free".

What was director Ralph Nelson like?

He was the "boss" on the set. What he said went and we always obeyed him. He received the Oscar for his direction of "Lilies of the Field" with Sidney Poitier while we were filming Father Goose. Sidney Poitier came to the set to congratulate Ralph.

Being on the set with 6 other girls must have been a wonderful bonding experience. Discuss.

It was like having 6 sisters. We were all school age and at the time, California law required that children have at least 3 hours of academic instruction per day. So, we had a trailer on the set with desks in it that was our classroom. We were all at different ages so it was like a one-room school house with one teacher for us all. When they needed us for a scene, they would come to the trailer and knock and off we would go. It was probably very frustrating for the teacher. Each of the girls was with her mother. There were two sets of sisters, my sister and I and Nicole and Laurelle Felsette (who played the French sisters). There was one girl from Australia (Pip Sparke who played Anne) and her mother and my mother became close friends. They still correspond today. While we were in Hollywood, we used to go over as a group to the commissary each day for lunch. We used to particularly enjoy that too because we used to see other actors and actresses often in costume from other productions including some TV shows. I remember one day in particular, visiting with "Grandfather" from the Munsters. We went onto that set and were treated to all of the tricks and special effects. We became closer when we were on location because we were all staying in the hotel together and taking all of our meals together. We went swimming together and walked on the beach, etc. and became good friends.

Being on the set with 6 other girls must have led to some occasional "drama". Discuss. :

We actually all got along very well. Sometimes one or more of the girls didn't want to join in the silliness or fun but we always tried to be inclusive.

Cary Grant was dating Dyan Cannon at the time. Did she visit the set?

Oh, yes, she was often there, particularly in Jamaica. We used to see her at lunch time in the lunch tent and used to play games.

Cary seemed to relish playing the role of a beach bum- the antithesis of his screen persona and previous roles. In your opinion, was this character closer to the "real" Cary Grant? Did you feel you got to know the real Cary Grant?

Yes, I think I did. He enjoyed being able to relax and really wasn't a stiff person at all. He was very down to earth and may have felt he could be more himself with kids as opposed to adults. He laughed easily and was very sharp and quick-witted. A wonderful companion.

Did you keep in touch with Cary, Leslie, or any of your co-stars after the movie was completed? Did you form close friendships with any of the girls?

The Christmas after we wrapped the film, Mr. Grant called my sister and me at home to wish us a Merry Christmas. We were very touched because it was so thoughtful. When the reviews came out, Dyan Cannon sent us some of them with comments. We did not have any further contact with Miss Caron or most of the other girls. I still get news of Pip Sparke through our mothers who correspond between California and Australia. I also bumped into Mr. Grant a couple of times after the production, the last one being at the Variety Arts Club in Los Angeles when I was in law school (which was about 17 or 18 years after Father Goose). He was with his then-wife, Barbara Harris. He recognized me and remembered that I had lived in Santa Barbara and that my sister, Jennifer, was in the movie too. Mr. Grant's daughter with Dyan Cannon is also named Jennifer. We have also seen one of the assistant directors, Mike Moder, who is now Julia Roberts' father in law.

Tell us about the premiere and reaction to the film. Did you attend a big Hollywood premiere? How did your family and friends react to your film debut? Did you have any further acting aspirations?

Father Goose opened at Radio City Music Hall in New York City and we did not attend. We did, however, attend the sneak preview of the film which was in Santa Barbara and was attended by Mr. Grant. It was very exciting and great fun and was my first time to see the final film and also to see the public's reaction to it. I also remember seeing it with a friend of mine when it was in the theaters and she laughed so hard at the "seduction" scene which I thought was strange at the time because I didn't think it was that funny. Now, of course, it is quite amusing.

What was the best part of the Father Goose experience? The worst?

I think the best part was being associated with a Cary Grant production. With a star of the stature that he was, the production was of the best quality. The people were nice and everything was top notch. It was fun to experience first-hand how a movie is made and to have the whole process de-mystified. Having a month in Jamaica wasn't too bad either! The worst part was probably being separated from my father and brother for an extended period of time. At the end of the Father Goose production, another company was arriving in Jamaica to film "High Wind in Jamaica" and asked us if we would be interested in staying and working on that production. My mother's answer was, "No, we need to go home."

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