Johnny Stompanato and James Bond
In his review of Sir Sean Connery’s book Being a Scot, Euan Ferguson laments that Connery’s decision to write a book on the subject of Scottish identity, rather than a straight autobiography, means we will never hear his account of ‘the impossibly other-age story of his on-set headbutting of feared Mafia hitman Johnny ‘Stompy’ Stompanato’. Before he shot to fame as James Bond, Connery was making the film Another Time, Another Place (1958) with Lana Turner in London. Stompanato, an enforcer for Los Angeles’ Mob Kingpin Mickey Cohen, was Turner’s boyfriend at the time, and when rumours began to circulate of Connery and Turner having an affair, Stompanato flew to London and, so the story goes, threatened Turner and Connery with a gun, only to have Connery wrestle the gun from him and beat him up. A few months later, Stompanato was killed by Turner’s fourteen-year-old daughter Cheryl Crane. Crane stabbed him to death, so it is believed, in a heated moment when he was threatening her mother. Connery was in LA at the time filming Darby O’Gill and the Little People and had to go into hiding as Cohen suspected he was involved in the luckless Stompanato’s death.
As Ferguson suggests, the whole fascinating, sordid little story sheds light on a bygone Hollywood era. But it was only when I was reading the memoir of another onscreen James Bond, Sir Roger Moore’s My Word is my Bond, that I discovered Moore had his own frightening encounter with Stompanato around the same time as Connery. Moore had been friends with Lana Turner ever since they starred together in the historical drama Diane (1956). While she was in London filming Another Time, Another Place, Turner invited Moore to a party where the confrontation happened:
As the guests arrived, Lana pinned a label on them, mine read ‘Roger Boy Knight’, in reference to Ivanhoe of course. One of the other guests was a rather swarthy individual who carried the label ‘Johnny Dago’. I actually saw very little of him during the evening, which progressed from drinks to food to more drinks and music to dance…
At some point, as the other guests started to thin out, Lana asked me to dance – not one of my talents I must admit. As I shuffled around the floor with her in my arms, probably standing on her toes several times, I felt a cold breeze on the back of my neck. I glanced over my shoulder to find ‘Johnny Dago’ leaning against the doorjamb and staring, unsmilingly, at Lana and me.
A little voice in my head said, ‘Roger it is time you went home!’ I didn’t need a second prompt. I excused myself and made for the door.
A few weeks later I read that ‘Johnny Dago’ – better known as gangster Johnny Stompanato, with whom Lana was romantically involved, having recently divorced Lex Barker – had been deported by Scotland Yard for having physically abused Lana, and for having entered the UK illegally using a passport in the name of John Steele. He had, I read further, also turned up on the set of Lana’s film and threatened Sean Connery with a gun. Sean wrestled the gun from him and decked him with a right hook: all very Bondian. Johnny was convinced that Sean was having an affair with Lana, also very Bondian.
Moore’s encounter with Stompanato was not quite as heroic as Connery’s, but it is interesting to surmise how Stompanato’s rage must have been building step by step, first in his encounter with Moore and later Connery. Both men would achieve massive success as cinema’s greatest hero – James Bond. As Moore said, the whole affair was ‘all very Bondian’. Moore also had another interesting encounter with a gangster, this time Mickey Cohen:
I once met Cohen at a nightclub where I had gone to see the great Don Rickles, a fantastic comedian who became known as the ‘master of the insult’. Gary Cooper was also there that night, and Rickles, having made a few cracks at Cooper and then dismissing me for being a pretty boy at Warner Brothers, turned his attention to Cohen. He called him a dirty hood, then – obviously thinking better of it – dropped on his knees and held his hands together in a prayer towards the gangster, saying that he was only joking and he loved MISTER Cohen SIR!
If you thought Connery was brave taking on Stompanato, then you’ve got to admit Rickles was pretty damn brave calling Cohen a ‘dirty hood’ to his face!
I’ve never read Being a Scot: it struck me as an acquired taste, but I would highly recommend My Word is my Bond as a fascinating insight into a life well lived. The only false note is Moore’s constant dismissal of his talents. Sir Roger’s self-deprecating sense of humour is part of his charm of course, but it does get a little wearing for those of us who enjoy his work.