Hal Stalmaster is a natural actor, and Walt Disney knew it.
In 1956, when Hal was 16 years old, he auditioned for the film “Johnny Tremain.” Adapted for the screen by Walt Disney Productions from the 1943 young adult novel by Esther Forbes, “Johnny Tremain” tells the story of how a teenaged apprentice in Boston helps the Sons of Liberty while overcoming his own personal obstacles. Playing the lead role called for a young actor of special talent, and Walt Disney found what he was looking for in Stalmaster.
The result was a classic film about the road to the American Revolution, the struggles of youth, and coming of age. Released in 1957, “Johnny Tremain” was a hit with audiences of all ages and Mr. Stalmaster’s portrayal of the title character spoke directly to the hearts of millions of young viewers. It became a staple for educators across the country and is still shown in schools today. Hugh Harrington, one of the editors of Journal of the American Revolution, placed “Johnny Tremain” among the Top 10 Best Revolutionary War Movies of all time.
After acting, Hal Stalmaster went on to an active and rewarding career behind the scenes of Hollywood and retired about 5 years ago. He recently took some time to talk with us about his experiences from starring in “Johnny Tremain.”
1 // You were 17 years old when “Johnny Tremain” was released and according to the opening credits, the film “introduced” you to the big screen. How did you get into acting at that age, and how did you land the role?
I started acting in about 1955 or 56, when I was working in the office of my brother, Lynn Stalmaster, who was a well-known casting director. At some point an agent came into my brother’s office and asked if I had ever considered acting. First I played a young Bob Richards, who was a famous pole vault champion, in a 90-minute “Movie of the Week,” for television. Then an agent suggested that he take me to the Disney studios to pursue a role in their planned movie, “Johnny Tremain.” I read for the part of Johnny, and Walt Disney chose me for the role. I think he may have felt that I had kind of natural quality that he liked. So “Johnny Tremain” was not really my “introduction,” to acting but it was my first role in a feature film and I was 16 during production.
2 // And how was it working at Disney?
I enjoyed it very much. Walt Disney was a fine man and extremely dedicated to his work. He sometimes adjusted what some might consider minor details during filming because he wanted every aspect of every scene as correct as possible. And there was a great atmosphere at Disney. Everyone called everyone else by their first names, including Walt.
3 // Your performance resonated with many young viewers. How did you approach the character?
First I read the novel, “Johnny Tremain,” before we began shooting. And during production the director, Robert Stevenson, sometimes made suggestions about particular aspects of scenes, but he let me act as naturally as I wanted to. I think that Disney intended to show the Revolution from the viewpoint of young adults and that comes across in the final movie, which is great.
4 // Boston’s “Sons of Liberty” figure prominently in the film. Do you know if the actors that played such famous Bostonians like Samuel Adams and Paul Revere enjoyed their roles?
Disney cast some very good character actors to play the historical roles. The make-up artists and costumers worked hard to give them the appearance of what we understood Samuel Adams and Paul Revere, and so on, looked like during the Revolutionary period. Those actors were experts at bringing a certain “truthfulness” to their roles and I think it worked effectively.
5 // The final act of the film depicts the battles of Lexington and Concord. Did you and the actors receive any training for the battle scenes? Where were the outdoor scenes shot?
We shot the outdoor scenes at a place called the Rowland V. Lee Ranch which was near Chatsworth, California, northwest of Los Angeles. It was the same location where they filmed the great Gary Cooper movie, “Friendly Persuasion.” The technical advisor on “Johnny Tremain” was a famous English gentleman named D.R.O. Hatswell, and he was on the set to ensure we maintained historical accuracy. His great expertise was in costuming and he made sure all the actors wore their clothes and uniforms properly.
6 // Do you have any favorite parts of the film?
One interesting thing is that the scene where my hand gets burned by molten silver seems to always be memorable to viewers. The scenes involving Mr. Lyte, Johnny’s long-lost uncle and played by Sebastian Cabot, also leave strong impressions with younger viewers.
7 // That scene where your hand is burned is certainly powerful. How did that work into your character?
I played having a burned and mangled hand as a shameful thing. First of all the injury occurred while Johnny was breaking the Sabbath, which was a bad thing in colonial Boston, and the injury made him feel like he was less than whole. It wasn’t until after Dr. Joseph Warren operated on his hand that Johnny became a whole person again.
8 // You also played in the Disney series, “The Swamp Fox” which was about Colonel Francis Marion in South Carolina. Did you enjoy portraying Revolutionary War characters?
I definitely enjoyed learning about the periods depicted in the films. I liked history even before becoming an actor, though my interest was mostly in the Civil War. Then I learned a lot about the Revolutionary era making “Johnny Tremain.” I was in college at UCLA when the Disney studios suggested me for a role in “The Swamp Fox.” One funny thing is that I was in ROTC at the time and had short hair, but the role called for me to have a pony-tail. So I had to get special permission from the Army to let my hair grow, and for a while I was one long-haired ROTC cadet on the UCLA campus. I took an entire semester off from college to appear in “The Swamp Fox.” And while filming, I enjoyed learning about Francis Marion, his raiders, and the southern campaigns of the Revolution.
9 // Johnny Tremain has been shown in countless American schools for decades. Do you feel that you have contributed to Americans view of the Revolutionary War?
I don’t think that I personally had such impact but I’m glad that the film as a whole did. It was very smart of Disney to re-release the film in two 40-minute segments for showing in schools and on “The Wonderful World of Disney” because that reached a lot of younger viewers. I think that Disney was hoping that the Revolution would spark with young people in the way that the film and series “Davy Crockett” did. I’m not sure that the Revolutionary era ever really caught on, but am glad that people still seem to learn from “Johnny Tremain.” I sometimes still receive fan mail regarding the movie, and that’s always a high honor.
10 // You must have some strong memories of making the film. Do any stand out?
One interesting thing is that as a minor, I still had daily school work with an on-set tutor. I even had homework. But I considered myself incredibly lucky to be working for Disney and overall, my experiences making this movie were all very enjoyable. I am very glad it continues to reach people.
After acting in “The Swamp Fox,” Hal returned to UCLA and graduated in 1963. He served for two years as an Army officer at the Presidio in San Francisco, California. Soon after Hal finished his military service Disney re-released “Johnny Tremain” on television on “The Wonderful World of Disney.” A San Francisco newspaper ran a publicity story about him, and an agent asked him to return to acting, which led to appearances on “My Three Sons” and “12 O’Clock High.” But Hal’s real interest was working behind the camera, and he moved on to casting for the Disney studios. Casting led to him becoming an agent, and Hal worked happily in that role until his retirement.
From all of us who grew up watching you Hal, thank you for enlightening us about your experiences in “Johnny Tremain,” and thanks for inspiring generations of budding historians.