Well, my first punishment came when they insisted I immediately record the guide track with Julie before shooting began, some of which would be used in the final picture. I was stricken—absolutely terrified! No way was I ready for that. Hell, I was still struggling with my singing lessons. I appealed and was denied. Twentieth Century-Fox insisted or they would get someone else to record. I saw my career as a second Maurice Chevalier dwindling fast. I threatened to walk off the picture. But my agent, the remarkable Kurt Frings, came to my aid, tap-danced his way into their hearts and saved my bacon. He also saved me from a two-million-dollar lawsuit. With a lot of persuasion from Mr. Wise, it was finally agreed that I could mumble the guide track and record properly after principal photography was complete. I remember Darryl Zanuck's young son, Dick, who had taken over the studio, coming down onto the set accompanied by his partner, David Brown. He shook me by the hand in front of the entire cast and crew and said in soft-spoken tones but tinged with an unmistakable hint of somber warning, "Congratulations, Chris. Welcome back to The Sound of Music."
The next hurdle was my role as the Captain. The part of von Trapp was all right in its way, but certainly far from exciting. The Broadway book had not served him well. Even in the screenplay, he was still very much a cardboard figure, humourless and one-dimensional. Human flesh urgently needed to be grafted onto those bare, brittle bones. Mr. Wise was kindness itself; he thoroughly understood my concerns and at once brought Ernest Lehman and myself together, made a cabana on the lot available for us and told us to stay in there until we made the improvements. Ernie Lehman was not just one of Hollywood's best screenwriters; he was a prince among men. He made me feel that all his invaluable ideas were mine alone; not only was it fun to work with him; it was an honour. Of course, it was impossible to turn von Trapp into Hamlet, but Ernie had made remarkable strides and the result was a far cry from the tepid original. At least now the poor soft-centered Captain had some edge to him.
In my way, I was grateful of course, but still felt uncomfortable generally. I was not very experienced on film as yet—one or two major roles had been thrust upon me much too soon—and yes, all right, I'll admit it, I was also a pampered, arrogant young bastard, spoiled by too many great theatre roles. Ludicrous though it may seem, I still harboured the old-fashioned stage actor's snobbism toward moviemaking. The moment we arrived in Austria to shoot the exteriors I was determined to present myself as a victim of circumstance—that I was doing the picture under duress, that it had been forced upon me and that I certainly deserved better. My behavior was unconscionable.
One morning I woke up late with a raging hangover to discover that the film company had left me no call sheet for the day's work. Had they no respect at all? Paranoid that I had been overlooked, ignored—I went ballistic! I threw my clothes on and ran all over Salzburg trying to find the unit. I finally came upon them filming a scene with Julie and the children on the outskirts of town. They were in the midst of a take, but I didn't care. I walked right into the shot and let forth a stream of abuse at Mr. Wise and everyone present for their lack of manners. My blood was racing, my heart pounding; I was apoplectic! The first assistant director, that good old pro Reggie Callow (he'd been an assistant on Gone With the Wind ) gently led me away toward a nearby park bench in order to calm me down. With the patience of a saint he tried getting it through my thick skull that no call sheet had been sent me simply because I wasn't needed that day. Ashamed and embarrassed to the point of despair, I slunk back to my hotel, my tail between my legs. I was not, to put it mildly, in the greatest of shape.