Q&A with Lesley Coffin

Lew Ayres: Hollywood's Conscientious Objector is a biography of the accomplished actor and staunch pacifist who changed the way America considers grounds for conscientious objection. This latest addition to UPM's Hollywood Legends Series will be available later this month.

Author Lesley L. Coffin an independent scholar and M.A. graduate in biographical studies at New York University. Below, she talks about her book, Ayres, and her research process.

What was it about Lew Ayres that convinced you he’d be a good subject for a biography? 

When I first heard the simple explanation of Lew Ayres becoming a conscientious objector at the beginning of his career and the claims it destroyed his career, the story peeked my interest. But I didn't have a desire to write the biography until I realized he had been nominated for a best actor Oscar after World War II. And when I began to do research and realized that this story had become part of Hollywood Urban Legend, and the rest of his career had been overlooked or forgotten. 

Had you been a fan of his films before embarking on this project? 

I had been a fan of the movies of his I'd been able to see on TV and DVD, such as All Quiet on the Western Front, Holiday, Johnny Belinda, and Advise and Consent. But it wasn't until I began studying his work and seeking out his harder to find films that I saw the range and talent he had as an actor. He had an interesting modern style of acting which was very natural, low-key, and sincere.

What’s your personal favorite among Ayres’ films? 

Holiday is still one of my favorite films and I feel his performance as Ned is probably one of the greatest in film history. His performance is so devastatingly sad and funny at the same time, I feel it is one the characters which set the stage for an entirely new type of character in movies, influencing films such as Harold and Maude, Arthur, or The Royal Tennenbaums. It was certainly the movie which made me take notice and start seeking out his other films. 

Can you explain a bit about your research? Did you have the blessing of his family? 

I spoke with his son, Justin, a number of times about being raised by Lew, especially in relation to Lew being a much older father. Lew married his third wife and had his only child when he was considerably older, so Justin had less information about his father's early life. But he was also able to show me some of the art work Lew made, parts of his unpublished autobiography, and where he lived. Going up to look out mountain at night and looking down on Hollywood while writing the book had a big effect. I don't think I could have written that chapter without going. 

I was fortunate to have a number of primary documents which were incredibly helpful for the research. Every Conscientious Objector has a national file which the National Archives still has, as does the Swathmore College Peace Collection. I also was fortunate enough to have access his correspondence with minister Paul Yinger, which began during the war and continued until his death. The oral histories he gave throughout the years were incredibly important, as were his television, radio, and press interviews. 

Were there things you learned about Ayres that surprised you? What preconception about him changed the most in the course of writing the books? 

Because so many of his films are not widely available on home entertainment or TV, studying his early work was eye opening. While most people familiar with classic films have seen his performances in All Quiet on the Western Front and Holiday and can see how he's changed and improved as an actor in that 8 year period, they haven't seen the films in-between. Lew truly did begin to approach acting as a craft he needed to develop and if you watch the lesser known movies he did as an untrained actor at Universal and the B movies he did at Paramount years later, his gradual development as an actor is evident. I really feel his Paramount years were necessary for him to become the star he became at MGM. 

I was touched when I learned that his childhood dream was to become a movie star. The fact that he pursued that dream and succeeded at such a young age is inspiring but bittersweet when you realize he was willing to give it all up because of his spiritual beliefs and how dismissive he could be about his contributions as an actor. Achieving his dreams at such an early age was the reason he began focusing on his intellectual pursuits and studying world religions, which became his life's great passion.