Gore Vidal in the Movies

Gore Vidal reportedly once said, "Never pass up an opportunity to have sex or to be on television." One hopes he's had more opportunities for the former than for the latter.

Gore Vidal, center, as Director Josef in Gattaca, flanked by Loren Dean, left, and Alan Arkin.

In fact, Vidal began his career in motion pictures long before television was an option. At the age of 10, he learned to fly a plane, and on May 13, 1936, he became the youngest person ever to fly "solo," although an administrative assistant to his father, Eugene Vidal - a pioneer aviator and adviser to President Roosevelt - was crouched down in the cockpit with him. Pathé newsreel images of his flight made their way into movie theaters of the times, thus marking Vidal's ostensible film debut.

He wouldn't appear on film again until 1946 when, at the age of 21, he took part in Ritual in Transfigured Time, a contemplative 15-minute film by the Russian-born experimental filmmaker and theorist Maya Deren. Anaïs Nin, with whom Vidal had a close friendship at the time, also appeared in the film. You'll have to be sharp to catch Vidal's appearance, which lasts for just a few seconds (much to his dismay at the time). He's visible in a crowd of people about four minutes into the film, during a stylized (i.e., ritualized) party scene. The woman with him when he enters the picture appears to be Nin.

FEATURED PAGE: A slide show of Vidal in the movies and on TV

For the next 60 years, Vidal would appear in movies and on television, sometimes in scripted roles but more often as himself. He was twice a panelist on What's My Line?: on May 15, 1960, with James Cagney as the mystery guest (see this clip on YouTube), and on April 12, 1964, with Barbra Streisand as the mystery guest (see this clip on YouTube). He was an always-popular guest on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson; a guest once on Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In (Jan. 11, 1971), where Lily Tomlin as Ernestine the telephone operator always referred to him as "Mr. Veedle" [see Tomlin's classic bit on YouTube]; and a talking head in such documentaries as The Celluloid Closet, Inside Deep Throat and the classic Felliniesque bacchanal Roma.

He has also appeared in several documentaries about himself, including Gary Conklin's Gore Vidal: The Man Who Said No, an account of his failed 1982 Senate race in California; and the biographical documentary The Education of Gore Vidal. And of course, during the 1968 presidential election, Vidal and his nemesis, William F. Buckley Jr., appeared together on ABC in a series of infamous political debates. And let's not forget this classic appearance on The Dick Cavett Show, where he feuded memorably with Norman Mailer.

Vidal and Carson trade barbs on The Tonight Show.
One of Vidal's more unusual appearances as himself came in early 2005 on the closing episode of the short-lived TV series Jack & Bobby, a story of two fictional brothers named by their liberal college-professor mother (Christine Lahti) for the Kennedy siblings. One of the series' brothers grows up to be president, and the other dies young. The series ended after one season with an episode titled Legacy, which told us the fates of the brothers in semi-documentary format, with Vidal reflecting on the brothers' lives.

As an actor - or, if you will, "actor" - Vidal has been in eight films. The first three of these roles were uncredited cameos in films that he wrote: Suddenly, Last Summer, his adaptation of the Tennessee Williams play; The Best Man, his adaptation of his own hit Broadway play; and Gore Vidal's Billy the Kid, a TV-movie adaptation of his 1950s television play, in which he played a preacher opposite the titular Val Kilmer.

Vidal shares an relaxed moment with an institutionalized Mary Hartman.

Then, in 1990, Vidal had one of his two most notable roles in a dramatic film. For his friend Tim Robbins, Vidal portrayed Sen. Brickley Paiste in Robbins' political mockumentary Bob Roberts, the story of a right-wing senatorial candidate in Pennsylvania - Robbins played the role himself - challenging an aging liberal incumbent (Vidal). One senses that Vidal wrote much of his own dialogue during the characters' climactic debate. And in 1997, Vidal was the sinister Director Josef in Andrew Niccol's superb futuristic drama Gattaca. Vidal has also played a private school headmaster in Igby Goes Down, written and directed his nephew, Burr Steers; a professor of American history in With Honors; and a congressman in Shadow Conspiracy.

And popular culture must never forget Gore Vidal's friendship with Mary Hartman, the beleaguered 1970s Fernwood housewife portrayed by Louise Lasser in the groundbreaking soap-opera spoof Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. Vidal's advice to Mary during her time in a mental hospital just may well have pulled her through her troubles and set her on a path to becoming a writer.

Finally, Vidal's name pops up now and then in various contexts on television. He's been the punch line of jokes on such TV sit-coms as Frasier and Will & Grace; his name-calling spat during a debate with William F. Buckley is No. 28 on TV Land's list of the 100 Most Unexpected TV Moments; and in early 2006, "Gore Vidal" was the question to an answer on Jeopardy. In the category "Ben-Hur," Vidal earned a contestant $2,000 when he correctly replied to: "This author of Burr and Lincoln, although uncredited, contributed to the screenplay of the 1959 film version of Ben-Hur." One needs to know a little about the author, and nothing about the movie, to get that question correct.

For a full list of Vidal's big- and small-screen credits, you can read his listing at The Internet Movie Database.

©Copyright 2005 by
Harry Kloman
University of Pittsburgh