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Gary M. Kramer

Cary Grant "took my breath away"

Adapted in part from Dyan Cannon’s memoir, “Dear Cary,” and produced by Cannon and her daughter, Jennifer Grant, “Archie” is an absorbing four-part miniseries on BritBox that examines episodes from the life of Cary Grant (Jason Isaacs).

The series toggles back and forth in time as actor Cary Grant, on stage in Joliet, Ill., recounts episodes from his childhood, as well as his relationships with Cannon (Laura Aikman) and his mother Elsie (Harriet Walter). As a child in London, Archibald Leach suffered a series of tragedies, including the early death of his brother. His young mother, Elsie (Kara Tointon) is committed to a mental institution by his father, Elias (Henry Lloyd-Hughes). When his father leaves him, teenage Archie (Oaklee Pendergast) decides to join a theatrical company and tour New York. He chooses not to return and struggles to find a work in showbusiness, eventually launching his film career in a Mae West vehicle, “She Done Him Wrong.” 

“Archie” also depicts Grant’s romance with young actress Dyan Cannon, which goes from flirtation to eventual marriage and parenthood, with several bumps along the way. Grant is incredibly controlling, and Cannon leaves him more than once because of how he micromanages her — picking out her clothes, putting coasters under every glass, hoarding imported candy bars, making career decisions for her and even correcting her Thank You cards. He also introduces her to LSD, against her will. 

It is only after the birth of his daughter Jennifer that Grant makes some decisions about his life and how to be better toward those around him. 

Cannon, who is as accomplished behind the camera as in front of one — she was the first Oscar-nominated actress nominated for an Academy Award in the best short film, live action category for her 1977 short “Number One” — chatted with Salon about making “Archie” and her life with Cary Grant. 

What was your impression of Grant, before and after meeting him, as well as while you were with him? Did he exude that charm that everyone feels? 

[Laughs.] Before I met him, I was in Rome, filming. I got a call from my agent saying Cary Grant wants to meet you; he has a part in a movie for you. I asked if they would pay my way back, they said, “No.” I said, I’m staying in Rome. When I came back, my agent, unbeknownst to me, said I was going on another interview and took me to Universal to meet Cary Grant, who had been calling my agent. I was escorted into his office, and it was like being hit by stun gun. The guy was tanned, wearing a white shirt open to the waist, and white slacks. He took my breath away. We sat for four hours and talked about life. He called me the next morning, and every morning after that. He would ask me out, and I’d say, “No, I can’t.” I’d lie and make up an excuse. My little voice said, “Don’t go there. He’s been married three times, and older than your father. He’s reported to do LSD, so don’t do it.” He called me for eight months. And, finally, his charm really won me over.  We started to date, and in the beginning, it was absolutely amazing; it was wonderful.

It has to be awkward for you to relive these things and present him fairly in a relationship that was abusive. Can you talk about the process of taking an episode from your life and memoir and turning it into a series?

It took me six years to write my book, and the reason it took that long was because I wanted to present the fair side of both of us. I have a daughter, and I have grandkids, and the public loves him. I did not want to take the stars out of their eyes. It was our relationship that was challenging for me. The book is one thing — reading something on the page is an experience. Jeff Pope came to me after reading my memoir and said, “Let’s make a movie.” And I said, “Let’s talk about what you want that movie to be.” We talked about it for about a year, and he would bring me what he wrote, and I would say that I liked this and not that. He said, “Let me option your book.” It took 10 years to evolve into a four-hour miniseries. I’m very proud of it, but is it easy for me to look at all of it? No. The third episode I have to turn away. It is very difficult for me to watch because it’s on the screen for people to see, and that’s awkward.

Laura Aikman nails Dyan. What can you say about casting, and how you worked with her to capture your personality as well as the dynamic between Cary and Dyan? Did you have discussions with Jason Isaacs to bring Cary to life? What advice did you offer about playing him?

We spent a great amount of time. I was involved in casting, and I was bowled over by Laura. I didn’t realize she was a Brit. Her accent was so perfect, and she got my laugh. I never heard anyone have my laugh before. We worked for many hours. They would ask me very personal questions and there are things we shared that no one will ever know about. Jason got the heart and soul of Cary. He did his work and that was not an easy job to take on.

“Archie” paints Grant as a control freak and touches on your age difference, his drug use, and how you were skeptical about taking LSD, as well as his bisexuality, which you overlooked. 

You say, “his bisexuality that I overlooked.” I never saw any indication of that during our marriage. He was faithful to me. I was faithful to him. If he had relationships before our marriage, I can’t attest to that. But during our marriage, he was with me, and I was with him. I never saw him flirt with a guy, but if that happened, that was up to Cary. That would not have impressed me one way or the other. 

Can you talk about the episodes you included in the series and why you included them?

I wanted to be fair. I wanted to protect his audience. Cary is beloved all over the world. There were many things I left out of the book. It boiled down to control. He felt if he could control the scene, and how I looked, and walked, and talked, and wrote, and did everything, his life would be OK. But that is not the way it works, is it? I thought, I would do that if I could make him happy — if I could give him that happiness he didn’t have as child; if I could make him feel safe and loved and wanted and cared for. But those are things we all have to work out for ourselves in life. You can’t really make anyone happy. 

I was very young. He was older than my dad. I loved him enough to want to make that happen. I gave up my career. After we divorced, I was stopped from working in Hollywood. He was on the board at Faberge. They offered me the part; he said if I took the part, he’d leave the board. They reneged the offer. It took me a long time to heal. We all have cracks. I had mine and he had his. The trick is to heal the cracks.

Why do you think Grant wanted to be with you? 

Honestly, Cary felt safe with me. He knew if he asked me to do something, I’d do it for him. He would not have sex. He had his first child with me. There is a reason for that. He felt safe with me and trusted me. And he could until I said, “No more.” He offered me a movie to stay with him. But I couldn’t do it. I knew what a movie starring opposite him would do for my career. But I couldn’t breathe in that atmosphere anymore.

Grant says on stage in Joliet, Ill., that it is wise to “Leave the past in the past, where it belongs.” However, you are bringing this past to light, first in your memoir from 2012 and now with this series, more than a decade later. Why keep telling this story? 

I think people will love him more after this miniseries. What I want them to take away from it is what this man had to go through as a child and, in spite of it, he became one of the biggest stars the world has ever known. I want them to understand what he went through as a child and remember all the amazing movies he made for us and the inspiration he was to so many. 

“Archie” suggests Grant was a better father than a husband. Why do you think that was? 

When there is intimacy between male and female it changes everything. A relationship between a husband and wife is different from a child and its father. He can feel safe again. He can protect the child, and the child won’t leave him or abandon him. I think he got to be the father he hoped his father would be and wasn’t.

You have had a distinguished career in front of and behind the camera. Much of your success occurred after your relationship with Grant ended. Can you talk about how you focused your career after the relationship ended?   

It took me a while to heal from all that. I worked here and abroad and made a lot of movies. There came a time when I just decided I didn’t want to act anymore. The pressure of the industry and all that it includes, so I just stepped back. I turned down offers for years, and then I wrote the book, which needed to be written. A week after Cary passed away, Swifty Lazar, the top literary agent, said let’s write the book. I said “I’m not ready. It’s not time.” Twelve to 15 years later, Jackie Onassis said, “It’s time to write your book.” I said, “I’m not healed yet.” She said, “You don’t even have to mention Cary. You have enough of your own to talk about.” I said, “No, I need to be healed.”

It took me a long time. I really loved the man and more than that, I had to learn how to love myself. He wanted me to take LSD to save our marriage. I knew I shouldn’t take it. The corny thing is that he and his ex-wife Betsy took it — and they are divorced! So why are you telling me to take it?! He said, “I love you differently, and we have a baby, and it will save our marriage.” The LSD made me crazy. It messed up my mind terribly. It took me time to heal and get myself straight and understand why I caved. I used to be that girl who said “No.“ That is what attracted him. I said “No” for all those months. Once I said “Yes,” It changed. Isn’t that interesting?  

I really thought I loved him, and he said he loved me, and it was going to be forever. I thought I better figure out what love really is. Because I don’t have the slightest idea what it is. I became a big spiritualized God girl. I finally found something that was for real. I’m happier now than I ever have been in life, and I found out what love is. This has brought a happy closure for me. 

A new episode of “Archie” premieres every Thursday on BritBox through Dec. 28.

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