It turns out that Wes Parker, first baseman for the Los Angeles Dodgers from 1964 to 1972, is quite a rare film aficionado. At the onset of our discussion, he recommended I check out “La vérité,” the 1960 Brigitte Bardot film directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot; “The Music Teacher” (1988), a Belgian drama about two students studying opera music; and two Betty Grable-Dick Haymes musicals, “The Shocking Miss Pilgrim” and “Diamond Horseshoe.” Of these films, only “La vérité,” is available on Netflix, though it is designated as “saved,” which means it could be ages before it is offered. Parker stressed that the Grable-Haymes films are “Not. Great. Movies. The reason I want them is to hear Dick Haymes sing. He was almost as good as Frank Sinatra but he didn’t have the same appeal.”
Clearly, Parker is more known for his stint with the Dodgers than with acting, though as he pointed out, he devoted more years of his life to the latter profession. Parker batted .304 during the 1965 World Series to help the Dodgers to the title, and a career high of .319 in 1970. He was also the only Dodger to hit for the cycle (single, double, triple, and home run in the same game) from 1970 to 2009. In 2007, he was named to Major League Baseball’s All-time Gold Glove Team.
After playing for a season in Japan, Parker retired from baseball in 1974, and a friend told him he should consider acting. After getting an agent, he was cast in episodes of “Matt Helm,” “McMillan & Wife” and “Police Story,” alongside venerated actors like Lloyd Bridges and Rock Hudson. In 1977, he appeared in a recurring role on “All That Glitters,” starring Chuck McCann and Lois Nettleton and produced by Norman Lear. After a small part in the 1979 TV movie “Pleasure Cove,” starring Tom Jones, Parker took a hiatus from acting, though he continued shooting commercials. He was also an MLB sports announcer for NBC and USA throughout the 1970s and ’80s.
In the early 1980s, he was drawn to Christianity after watching minister Dr. Gene Scott on television. Coincidentally, his first and last feature film was the 1985 Billy Graham-financed Christian production “Cry from the Mountain” (discussed in further detail here). He left acting shortly thereafter, notwithstanding his work on commercials. Today, Parker is still involved with the Dodgers, serving as a representative of the Dodgers Dream Foundation.
I talked to Parker about his reflections on the highs and lows of his acting career, and following are excerpts from that interview:
Sam Weisberg: Have you always loved movies?
Wes Parker: When I was a kid, my mom would not allow us a television set. So my dad used to rent movies and run them in our living room every weekend. Back then, you could go to a camera store and get 16mm prints. My dad had the projector and we had a pull-down screen. It’d be family entertainment. When I was nine years old, I could thread the film and repair splices and everything. Those movies were so chewed up, they would break two or three times in each running.
SW: What was the first movie you remember him screening?
WP: “My Little Chickadee,” with W.C. Fields.
SW: Did you do any acting in high school?
WP: No, never. Some of my friends asked me what I was gonna do after baseball, and I said I didn’t know, and they’d say things like, “Why don’t you try acting? You live in L.A., you’re exposed to it, you went to school with a lot of actors’ children,” which I did. I went to school with Gregory Peck’s sons and Doris Day’s son. I grew up next to William Wellman’s [director of “Wings,” the first film to win an Academy Award, in 1927] kids.
SW: What was it like playing for the Los Angeles Dodgers so soon after they relocated from Brooklyn?
WP: It was a dream come true. My dad had season tickets so I used to go to all the games. And suddenly I was out there playing and he was watching me play. It was just amazing.
SW: How was the training? Was there a transitional period?
WP: I played minor league baseball for a year, and then I played some winter ball to tighten my skills. Then I played with the Dodgers for nine years. Quite honestly I got sick of the travelling. And then I went into acting. I took three years of acting lessons. I started out with commercials and then I got a big break with Norman Lear. I did a reading with him for a new sitcom he was starting called “All That Glitters.” I worked with some good people. Chuck McCann and Lois Nettleton. And Norman was very nice to me. I was recommended to him by his partner Jerry Perenchio, so Norman read me and liked me and had me read in front of his people. I don’t think they were too excited about me, but Norman wanted me and that’s basically how I got it. He saw kind of a naïveté in me that he liked, and he thought he could develop that.
SW: And you were on “The Brady Bunch” while you were still playing with the Dodgers, right?
WP: Yeah, but you can’t count that. I played myself for ten seconds. That’s not acting.
SW: Some say it’s the hardest acting to play yourself.
WP: It is for some people, but for others it isn’t. I think John Wayne always played himself. But [when it comes to playing a character], I found out that I was never really comfortable in front of a camera, like you need to be. I was not good at being vulnerable in front of a camera.
SW: Besides “All That Glitters,” did you have a favorite TV experience?
WP: Lloyd Bridges was wonderful to me. I had a short scene with him on “Police Story.” He went up on his lines two or three times in a row, and he was apologizing to me and another guy, we were playing cops working under him. And he kept saying, “I’m sorry, guys. I don’t usually do this. It’s been a rough week,” or something like that. And we said, “Hey, you don’t have to apologize to us! We’re nobodies, we’re just happy to be here.” I really liked that man. And Lois Nettleton, who played the wife of Chuck McCann on “All That Glitters,” she just went out of her way to be nice to me. “What can I do to help? Have you tried it this way?” That kind of stuff. And Jessica Walter, who was from “Play Misty For Me,” she had a recurring role on that show. She was a sweetheart. Good humor, very smart, just hip, just with it, very alert. I was really kind of an intruder and wasn’t polished, and yet she did everything she could to make me feel comfortable.
SW: Was it fairly easy to break into acting given your status as a ball player?
WP: Yeah, it was definitely an advantage. But I blew it, big time. There was a spin-off of “The Six Million Dollar Man,” with Lindsay Wagner. And I was up for the lead, whatever it was gonna be. I don’t know what it turned out to be. I was the first person they read and the room was packed with all these sponsors and producers. And I gave the worst reading of all time. I was pathetic. My agent called later, and that’s what they told her. They said, “He was wooden, he was stiff, he was nervous.” My God, I was bad. That would have been something I enjoyed.
SW: What happened between your role on “Pleasure Cove” in 1979 and “Cry From the Mountain”?
WP: I remember “Pleasure Cove.” Tom Jones and Shelly Fabares were on it. She was wonderful, and Tom was a good guy, too. I had a good time doing it. Then I did guest TV spots, on trial court shows like “Divorce Court.” I never had a lot of lines. I did have one really good show, where I was trying to obtain custody of my son following a divorce. I think that was “The Judge.” I think I turned in a really good performance there.
SW: Did you have a favorite role?
WP: It’s hard to say because I don’t think I ever got to the point where I enjoyed it enough to have a favorite role. I really enjoyed the opportunity to be in “Cry from the Mountain.” It was an on-location shoot in Alaska. We had three weeks up there and then we shot the interiors back in L.A. It was an all-Christian cast and crew and I was Christian at the time. So it was probably as comfortable as I’d been in front of a camera. But I just lacked the experience and the skills to really know how to show emotion facially and physically in front of the camera. You have to learn what looks and feelings go with what words. I would sometimes feel the emotion but it wouldn’t look like that on camera.
SW: But that character is sort of bottling things up. He’s dreading telling his son about his pending divorce. The performance didn’t ring false with me, because he’s supposed to be bottled up.
WP: Yeah, but looking back 30 years later, I see where I could have brought that character to life. He still could have been bottled up but I could have made him more human, more approachable.
SW: How were you approached about that role?
WP: I had to read for it. I remember the casting director told me I was the second choice. The guy and the gal who were the number one choice, they were a married couple, but they had a conflict. So they picked me and the other gal [Rita Walter].
SW: What was the experience like, of reading for that?
WP: I felt like I was amongst friends. I think that’s key. When you go in for a reading and walk in front of a camera, you have to find a comfortable spot inside you. You can be comfortable and then be angry, or sad. But you have to be comfortable in front of the camera before you go to any emotion. Unless you’re so lucky that your nerves exactly match [that of] the character’s. And that’s just sheer luck. That’s not skill.
SW: Some of those scenes must have been so tough to shoot regardless of comfort level, because of what looks to be the danger involved. How did you shoot the white water rafting scenes?
WP: I’m a good swimmer, but that was hard because the water was glacial. It was just a few degrees above freezing. But they had a roaring fire right close by, so I knew the minute I got out of the water I was gonna get in front of that fire, and they’d have blankets and a change of clothes. And also they bundled me up. I had a skin suit that surfers wear. So that wasn’t that hard. The hard part was always being human, being vulnerable, being real, showing my feelings, being exposed. I also had a hard time memorizing lines. When I did “All That Glitters,” there were days that we did 30 to 50 pages, and a lot of those pages were rewrites that we were given at the last minute. And that was really hard for me. When you’re a beginning actor, you’re more concerned about the words. And that’s not what it’s about. The words have to flow out of the emotion.
SW: Especially when a director is loose enough to let you ad-lib.
WP: Yeah, if they give you that freedom it makes acting a lot easier.
SW: How would directors help you out?
WP: The “Cry from the Mountain” director [James F. Collier], he made that set a safe environment. On “All That Glitters,” I did not feel that way. I felt like I was being singled out sometimes because of my inexperience. Some of the actors were busy with their own scenes. They left me to survive, or not.
SW: A lot of actors think they have to stay in character all the time. They never turn it off.
WP: Well, if I was trying to win an Academy Award and shooting a first-rate movie, I’d probably do that, too.
SW: But if you’re really good, there’s something to be said for turning it on and off.
WP: You’ll probably be more sane if you do it that way. People work in different ways.
SW: It says on your Wikipedia page that you discovered Christianity because of Dr. Gene Scott. Did you draw on that when you were acting in “Cry From the Mountain?”
WP: No. I became a Christian in the summer of 1980. It benefited me in terms of feeling more comfortable about life and where I was heading. But it did not help me in front of a camera. My conversion was quite an emotional experience, but it occurred in the privacy of my den in my house, watching Gene Scott on television. I didn’t have any experience with that kind of emotion surging through me in front of 50 people.
SW: I’m guessing that you joined a very different sect of Christianity than Billy Graham’s—
WP: Yes, it was just reform Christianity. Just basic bible stuff.
SW: What was it like to make a movie managed by Southern Baptists?
WP: I never thought of Billy Graham that way, in fact I never met him. He never came on the set. He just financed it. None of that was an influence upon me. I was just hired to do a movie.
SW: Was there a lot of talk about religion on the set?
WP: No. We started every day with a group prayer, which was nice. But that was it. After that, we just went to work. There was nothing cultish about it at all.
SW: The movie doesn’t strike me as cultish because the religious aspect doesn’t come in until the last 20 minutes. But I’m wondering what you thought about some of the themes. For instance, the movie is a little bit harder on the wife for wanting the divorce than it is on the husband that had the affair. What was your take on that?
WP: I didn’t feel like I had to have a take. I think had I been a better actor I would have analyzed that more.
SW: How was the rapport with the three other actors you had to collaborate with?
WP: I really liked the old man, James Cavan, who prayed in the church, who was kind of a prospector up there. Rita Walter, I got along with but it never went beyond that. We didn’t date or anything. The boy who played my son [Chris Kidd], he was a nice kid, but his parents were there, so he spent most of his free time with them. I stayed in touch with James. He lived in LA and I saw him a few times. And I stayed in touch with Twila [Knaack, executive secretary at World Wide Pictures], I still see her. And the guy that was the head of World Wide Pictures [Billy Brown], he lives in Hawaii now, I stayed in touch with him for 20 years. I used to go to his Christmas parties.
SW: Did you want to make other pictures for World Wide Pictures?
WP: I guess after that experience I decided that my future wasn’t in acting. I was comfortable on a baseball field. I felt that was where I belong. I never felt that way in front of a camera, I never thought, “This is what I want to do for the rest of my life.”
SW: What did you do after “Cry from the Mountain”?
WP: I did a lot of commercials. I love doing those.
SW: What was your favorite baseball memory?
WP: Probably playing against Roberto Clemente. He was a right fielder for the Pittsburgh Pirates [died in 1972, in a plane crash]. I had such admiration for him. If I had to compare him to an actor, he would be like a Tom Cruise today. He was a major, major star.
SW: You had a world record that took almost 40 years to beat, when you hit the cycle—
WP: Yeah, I did that in 1970, a single, double, triple and home run in the same game. And no one did it until a year or two ago.
SW: Have you seen “Moneyball” yet?
WP: I have and I thought it was well-done. I thought Brad Pitt did a terrific job. If you really watch him in that movie, he looks so much like Robert Redford, I couldn’t believe it. He even wears his hair like Redford. He’s morphing into him. I almost think it’s deliberate because of the way he wears his hair, the way he acted in that movie, kind of that laid-back thing that Redford used to have. I had to keep thinking consciously, “This is not Redford, this is Brad Pitt.” The movie was good, not great. I thought it dragged a lot in the beginning.
SW: Were you following what Billy Beane was doing with the Oakland Athletics at that time? Do you remember thinking his choices were insane?
WP: No, because they were winning at the time. It was working. The only question I had was whether you can take sabermetrics and use it as a 100% replacement for scouting and eye-balling ball players, and the answer is no. It’s more like an enhancement to scouting.
SW: Did you start to think that both Beane and the older scouts were right, watching the movie?
WP: No, I never bought into sabermetrics. I don’t think there’s any replacement for eye-balling ball players, home runs, stolen bases, runs batted in. Those things are always going to be important. But it’s true that there is value in getting players who have an ability and a knack for getting on base. And they were a small market club, they didn’t have a lot of money. They were forced to find a way to evaluate and get talent without spending money on it.
SW: So it’s something you couldn’t get away with on a team with a lot of money? What did you think of the movie’s claim that the Red Sox used the same tactics to win the World Series in 2004?
WP: No, they paid a lot of money for that championship. They paid for really good players. They might have used that mentality five percent, but not to a significant degree. They wanted to hire Beane, but not to use sabermetrics. They were gonna give him a ton of money to hire really good ballplayers who would also fit into his formula. They wanted him because he was a darn good evaluator of talent at that point.
SW: So you had an ongoing job with the Dodgers while you were acting?
WP: Yeah, I was announcing games for NBC and USA. I was more comfortable at that than I was at acting. I did that for six years. But the thing that I’ve done the most of in terms of work is acting. I did that for about 15 years. I’m one year short of being in the AFTRA [American Federation of Television and Radio Artists] guild.
SW: Have you gotten paid for any video royalties?
WP: Mainly for commercials. When I did “Brady Bunch,” I got money for reruns, but it scales down pretty quickly. In commercials, they run 13-week cycles. You start off with about $200 the first time it’s shown, and then maybe get $180 the second time and $160 the third time. And then it goes down to practically zero, but if it runs another 13 weeks, it starts again at $200.
SW: Do you remember “Cry from the Mountain’s” theatrical run at all?
WP: It was very brief. I do remember that I went to opening night at a theater in the Valley. And after the movie, they stopped me on my way out and said, “There’s a guy here who became Christian because of the movie. Would you talk to him?” So I did. I spoke to him for about ten minutes. I thought that was rewarding, to say the least.