Michael Dante has had a film and TV career that included acting alongside such legends as Edward G. Robinson and Elvis Presley and a starring role in one of the key cult movies of the 1960s, director Sam Fuller’s “The Naked Kiss.”
The actor’s roots in Stamford remain deep, however, and are reflected in the title of his new memoir, “From Hollywood to Michael Dante Way” (Bear Manor Media, $22.46).
In 2011, a portion of Prospect Street in Stamford was named Michael Dante Way in honor of the man who started out to be a professional baseball player, but was able to parlay his good looks and his unshakeable work ethic into dozens of film and TV roles spanning almost 60 years.
Dante had the good fortune to start in the movie business in the 1950s, during the tail end of the Golden Age of Hollywood, when actors still worked under contract to the major studios.
“I really learned my craft, particularly at Warner Bros.,” Dante said in a recent phone interview from his home in Southern California.
“We didn’t get paid much, but you had a chance to do everything,” the actor said of such interesting chores as dubbing new vocal tracks on films. “You would never get those opportunities today.”
Dante was on a sports career track growing up in Stamford, where he was on Stamford High School’s baseball team and also played on a team sponsored by the local newspaper — the Advocate All-Stars — which won a regional championship in 1949.
As a kid, the ballplayer loved movies, but didn’t really think about acting professionally until bandleader Tommy Dorsey — a major baseball fan — landed the young athlete a screen test.
Dante got a big break when MGM put him in “Somebody Up There Likes Me” (1956) as one of Paul Newman’s young hooligan friends — an unknown Steve McQueen played another tough street kid and shared a dressing room with Dante — but the performer knew early on that demonstrating versatility would be his strong suit in movies and TV.
When Warner Bros. started steering Dante toward a featured role in one of the many TV series it produced in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Dante resisted the offers.
“I didn’t want to do a series because I knew that my versatility would be my salvation. My ability to go into different characters,” he said of moving from romantic roles to villains and acting in almost every genre from Westerns to film noir.
“I turned down a lot of money to build a reputation,” he said. “I wanted to be my own man and to achieve what my goals were as an artist. I never stopped going to classes and working on things. I knew from my baseball days that if you don’t keep working on your game, you don’t do well.”
“From Hollywood to Michael Dante Way” has been published in an oversized format that combines a memoir with a scrapbook of great stills from Dante’s long career. Those looking for gossip might be disappointed — Dante has nothing but nice things to say about Presley and the other stars he worked with — but as a behind-the-scenes look at working in Hollywood, the book is hard to beat.
The 82-year-old actor writes at length about his starring role in the 1964 melodrama, “The Naked Kiss,” which is a favorite film of Martin Scorsese’s and was recently added to the Criterion Collection of classic, restored DVDs.
“It was a very small budget, but he was one of the greatest directors and knew how to use the money he had,” Dante said of the tale of a prostitute (Constance Towers) who hopes to lead a new, straight life in a small town until she crosses paths with the handsome but deeply disturbed character played by Dante.
The actor said his absolute trust in Fuller included a bizarre sequence in which Dante was required to operate the camera. “He told me it had never been done before,” the actor recalled, laughing. “Shooting your own close-up.”
“The Naked Kiss” was initially released as a B-movie, which played drive-ins and less reputable theaters, but quickly became a favorite of French film critics who adored Fuller’s take on overheated melodrama. American critics and film cultists also started to embrace the picture in the decades that followed.
“Fuller told me, `This picture won’t make a quarter, but 35 or 40 years down the road people will get it,’ and he was right.”