Carleton Carpenter, who had been a living link Broadway's distant past — as well as to the Golden Age of Hollywood — died Monday at his home in New York state. He was 95.
Carpenter was born July 10, 1926, in Bennington, Vermont. Bitten early by the acting bug, he recalls in his 2017 memoir The Absolute Joy of Work: From Vermont to Broadway, Hollywood, and Damn Near 'Round the World (BearManor Media) journeying by bus to Manhattan at 17 — and promptly snagging his first Broadway part.
Buying the trade tip sheet Actor's Cues, his confidence didn't let him down.
“They were looking for 17-to-20-year-old guys for a play and I thought, 'I’ll just go get that after lunch,'" he told me in our exclusive interview. "I got over there and they said it was on the top floor and when I got up there, you heard them rumble from the room and the door opened and the guy was leading somebody out the door and I was there and he said, 'You’re too old!' and took the other actor down. A guy sitting there grabbed the bottom of my heavy winter coat and said, 'They told me the same thing six months ago… and I’m still reading for the part!'”
“Off came the coat and I scrunched down behind several people and smoked three or four cigarettes and probably 35 or 40 minutes later the same guy with the slate board in his hand came over and said, 'Hey, you’re next.' I went in and read five different parts and they gave me the show and told me to go into the other room and read it, so I did. Then they told me they wanted me in the show, but they didn’t know what part, and could I come in the next morning? I left and was practically on top of Grand Central, so I picked up my bag and headed for my mother’s second cousin’s place. He asked me how I did and I said, 'I think I have a show.' He said, 'That’s nice.'”
The show, Bright Boy, ran from March 2-March 15, 1944 — 16 performances, which was enough to earn him an older male fan, who called for him backstage often. Carpenter, who would later identify as mostly gay, recalled being embarrassed when a co-star teased, "Well, that’s what you get for coming onstage with nothing on but your shorts and a towel around your neck when the curtain goes up!"
A future gig on the Great White Way led to yet another gentleman caller — a famous one.
“I was taking my wig off and somebody knocked and there stood Cary Grant!" he recalled in 2017. "My feet wouldn’t move. He’s saying how much he enjoyed me in the show and going on and all I could say was thank you. He climbed three flights of stairs and I’m waving my wig at him. He said he would like to take me out and buy me a drink. In the meantime, I’m looking over at my rotten jeans on my dressing table and I thought, 'My God.' And I did have a date. I wanted to tell him I had a date but maybe all three of us could go out, but as soon as he heard the word 'date,' the door slowly began to close and he was gone. I’ve thought about maybe he wanted a piece of ass — he might very well have. He was a gentleman’s man as well as a ladies’ man.”
Never particularly closeted about the men (and women) he himself romanced, Carpenter remembered an unconsummated love for a man he experienced while they served the U.S. in the Navy in WWII.
“I had never had a real close friend like that in school — I went right into the Navy out of school,” he remembered. “I would meet up with him after my Sunday chores. We’d go up together and look for special stones and that kind of stuff and we’d lie on our bellies on the shoreline talking about our girlfriends at home, and all the time of course I was falling in love with him and I didn’t know that. I didn’t know.”
Debuting in the movies in 1949's Lost Boundaries, a Mel Ferrer (1917-2008) drama about a mixed-race Black doctor passing for white, Carpenter tasted fame after appearing in Summer Stock (1950) with Judy Garland (1922-1969) and then Two Weeks with Love (1950) with Debbie Reynolds (1932-2016). The latter was not only a hit, it spawned his hit duet with Debbie, "Aba Daba Honeymoon." The fast-paced confection sold a million records, and was so popular the pair went on a tour of major U.S. cities performing it.
“That was a whole big ruse,” he told me regarding how the song made it into the film. “I found that sheet music in a pile on top of a piano on the set of the movie, dug that out and thought it would be fun. I put that sheet of music back underneath the whole pile with a little corner hanging out and I waited about two and a half days until Jack Cummings, who was the producer, was on his way in. I got Deb over and I pulled this out and there was someone playing the piano there and I said, 'Don’t bother with any of the beginning stuff, just start here,' and we jabbered away. He came in and walked over to where we were singing and he said, 'You know —' it was hard to keep a straight face! — 'That would be a good number for the two of you…' And I said with the straightest face ever, 'Reallllly?' The rest is history.”
“You know, you and I are gonna be singin' 'Aba Daba Honeymoon' when we're both a hundred years old!” Debbie told Carleton 70 years ago. They reunited to perform it in 1971, and did their last take on it in 2012, at Cinecon.
Though he never took off as a major movie star, he did have another fine hit via Fearless Fagan (1952), starring opposite a lion — and Janet Leigh (1927-2004).
He was particularly proud of Sky Full of Moon (1952), with Jan Sterling (1921-2004).
Along with some TV work, most on dramatic anthology series, but also guesting on the seminal early sitcom The Goldbergs (1956) and such series as The Millionaire (1959), The Rifleman (1959), Father Knows Best (1960), Perry Mason (1963), McHale's Navy (1963) and The Ropers (1979; final TV appearance), he played Miss Untouchable, a jaded queen, in the gay time capsule Some of My Best Friends Are ... (1971) — watch that one below:
More known for his work on the stage — including acting with Angela Lansbury (b. 1925) in her Broadway debut Hotel Paradiso (1957), touring in Hello, Dolly! in 1965 opposite Mary Martin (1913-1990) and other divas and appearing in Broadway's Crazy for You (1992; final Broadway credit) — he also published mystery novels in the '70s and '80s.
Summing up his work ethic, he said of posing for True Detective in his spare time in the '50s, “I did a ton of those. I did two a day. You could be the mugger in one thing and the sweet-natured rube in another. I just loved the work, honey, that was the main thing. That was always the thing with me — I didn’t care anything about all of the glop that went with stardom.”
Carpenter is survived by two nieces, several cousins and longtime friend Alan Eichler (b. 1944).