My Second Adoptee: James MacArthur

James MacArthur1A year ago I wrote Ronnie Burns: My First Adoptee, about the first adoptee, with whom in the days of deep adoption secrecy, I ever “connected,” even though I never met him. My second adoptee was actor James MacArthur. Since MacArthur died on October 28, it seems an appropriate time to recall him.

James MacArthur 3James Gordon MacArthur was born on December 8, 1937 in Los Angeles. He was adopted at birth (another report says seven months) by “first lady of the the American theatre” Helen Hayes and her husband playwright, screenwriter (Twentieth Centry, Front Page, Wuthering Heights, Gunga Din) and Algonquin Roundtabler, Charlie MacArthur. His godmother was Lillian Gish. His extended family circle included Ben Hecht, Robert Benchley, Harpo Marx, John Steinbeck, and John Barrymore. He had one sister, Mary MacArthur, the biological daughter of the MacArthurs. In 1949 at the age of 19, Mary, an aspiring actress, died from the sudden onset of bulbar polio, a tragedy from which the family never recovered. Jim’s adoptive uncle, insurance entrepreneur and philanthropist John D. MacArthur, established the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the benefactor of the “genius awards.

Little is known of Jim’s adoption. Helen Hayes wrote three autobiographies, but none are available online, and I haven’t had the time to hunt down library copies. TV journalist and blogger Robin Chapman, in James MacArthur: Success and a Mystery says that Hollywood was a small town in the 1930s, She speculates that the adoptive and natural parents may have known each other, a possibility I can’t reject. (I need to pull out my Hollywood adoption files and make a list of Golden Age of Hollywood adopters. The number is staggering and much larger than the current A List.)
Jim spent his formative years in Nyack, New York, about 20 miles north of New York City (In the 1990s, his family home was purchased by Rosie O’Donnell.) Jim attended Allen-Stevenson School in the city and Solebury School in New Hope, Pennsylvania. In 1948 he made his acting debut on the Theatre Guild of the Air radio show. The following year, at the request of Mary, he appeared with her in a small role in a summer stock production of The Corn is Green. He continued to appear in summer stock and regional theatre the rest of his life. For awhile Jim attended Harvard , but, dropped out to pursue his career in theatre. Charlie advised him, “Do anything you like, son, but never become a playwright. It’s a death worse than fate!”
James MacArthur 5Most people remember James MacArthur as Danno on the long-running TV series Hawaii Five-O. But before he was Danno he was Hal Ditmar, the angry teen protagonist of the 1957 film The Young Stranger. Directed by a young John Frankenheimer, the film is an early entry in the mainstream teen rumble genre quickly replacing the un-sexed and innocent “youth films” of Andy Hardy and Henry Aldrich, Roger Corman and B movies not withstanding. Jim had originated the role of Hal in the 1955 Frankenheimer-directed TV play Deal a Blow. When Frankenheimer took the play to Hollywood, he took James MacArthur with him.
The Young Stranger is often unfavorably compared to Rebel Without a Cause which was released the previous year. While the film covers the same territory as Rebel, it also takes off on its own as a provocative statement of pre 1960s teen suburban existentialism. Hal Ditmar may be angry, but he is no unrestrained de-privileged Jim Stark whose “problems” force his parents to constantly move. Hal’s father (James Daley) may be an overly-busy guy who neglects his family, but he’s upscale–a movie producer– and doesn’t wear an apron around the house. Hal’s mother, played compassionately by Kim Hunter, is no henpecking neurotic Mrs. Stark, more interested in her home, neighbors and upward mobility than her son. (I once interviewed Ann Doran who played Mrs. Stark. She assured me that the script gave no first name to her character. Later, the first name “Carol” was tacked on the cast list.)
My mother had forbidden me to see Rebel Without a Cause for the dubious reason that James Dean was dead. I suspect it was really about sexual subtext. I got a pass on The Young Stranger, only because during a sleep-over weekend with my friend Janet, her dad took us downtown to the movies.
The Young Stranger had a terrific impact on me. I knew by my voracious reading of movie magazines that James MacArthur was adopted. When I saw the film, I was at the age where I was angry about a lot of stuff, including adoption, though I had yet to intellectualize much of it. I’d made a speciality of systematically rummaging through the house while my parents were away, looking for anything about my adoption. (It never seriously occurred to me to ask, since I was sure tears would ensue. They had a year earlier when I’d shouted “You can’t tell me what to do . You’re not my real mother.”) The Young Stranger had nothing to do with adoption, but it was about identify formation, hypocrisy, and crappy middle class status styles. And Hal Ditmar was portrayed by an adoptee. Was James MacArthur playing out adoption? I felt like he was playing out mine.
James MacArthur 4The following year, Jim starred in the first of a line of Disney films he was to appear in over the next few years, The Light in the Forest. Based on the Conrad Richter novel of the same name, situated in 18th century pre-revolutionary America,the film is about John Butler–kidnapped by the Leni Lanape as a child and reared as True Son, the son of the chief–struggling to fit in to the white culture he was taught to hate, after he is repatriated with his family and community 11 years later. Both the film and novel explore the tension between identity and family and the complexity of the brokenness of both. The film has a safe, contained ending. The novel leaves True Son’s fate open-ended as the territorial war between colonials and Indians heats up. Who am I? Where do I belong?
These films and the messages I extrapolated from them were great small discoveries. I told no one.

door knockingJames MarArthur like other celebritized adoptees was tagged “adopted son of.” While private adoptees like us, outside of the scrutiny of the press and public, were locked in the closet, stigmatized, silenced and shamed by our birth/adoptive status, public adoptees like James MacArthur were stigmatized and othered, the most private part of their self exposed to conjecture and gossip by the public at large. While private adoptees might have been banging on the closet door to get out, public adoptees might have been knocking to get in. No matter private or public, we cannot escape our “adopted son/daughter of” identity whether in the home or the public square. No matter age or accomplishment we are eternally othered and identified by our adoptive status. When James MacArthur died he was identified as “adopted son of.”

James MacArthur, from what I can tell, came out of the process “normal.” I have no idea how he felt about his celebritized adoptee status; his position of public adoptee. I suppose he became inured early and knew he could do nothing about it.
I can only imagine how, as a child, Jim and other public adoptees felt. Adoption was not a forbidden subject in my adoptive family, but I had to tip-toe around it. My parents, however, especially my mother, felt free to discuss my adoption with anybody, both embarrassing and scaring me. I remember the outrage I felt when my babysitter, Starkey, asked me if I knew who my “real parents” were. I was not outraged at Starkey or the question which was never far from my mind, but that my mother had abused my privacy and who-I-am on a very primal level. If I experienced a Bastard Moment over one question, how did public adoptees feel about their core self being exposed to a voyeuristic public? For them, the Bastard Moment could be the Bastard Life.
Last year I wrote of Ronnie Burns:
When I see Ronnie or anyone else described as “the adopted son/daughter of” on some level, I cringe. But on another level, I want this. The descriptor is part of our identity. I will always be grateful for Ronnie’s visibility and the lifeline he threw out to me so many years ago, by his mere visibility, even if that visibility was front streetscaped–and surely an albatross. In a world where adoptees were freakisized internally, his presence tempered my freakishness and helped me psychically survive to sort things out later.

public exposureI continue to stand by this, but am also uncomfortable. I believe deeply that our adoption stories are our own to do with what we please. They are not to be exposed to the snoopy public (including other adoptees) without our consent. (For that reason I have not repeated conjecture from Robin Chapman’s blog discussion on MacArthur’s parentage.) At the same time, though, I am aware of the involuntary sacrifices that were coerced from public adoptees, which in fact, helped private adoptees cope with our own invisibility. People like Ronnie Burns, James MacArthur and the bevy of the Hollywood Adopted fetishized by the press stood for us in an odd way. Though rendered passive themselves, they made us feel visible and human. They let us connect to ourselves.


More on James MacArthur. Most of the information here is taken from wiki

James MacArthur was a jack of all theatre trades. Despite his family credentials he made his bones in summer stock. working as a set painter and lighting director. He teched for Barbara Bel Geddes in The Little Hut and for Gloria Vanderbilt in The Swan. He also did special effects, and even ran a theatre parking lot. After The Young Stranger he headed for Broadway where he appeared opposite Jane Fonda in Invitation to a March and received a Theater World Award for his role. Most of his theatre work, however, was regional.

James MacArthur was a journeyman actor and seems to have loved craft over ego, taking jobs that other actors of his stature might have looked down on. He somestimes took small but pivitol roles in films such as in The Bedford Incident and Clint Eastwood’s Hang “Em High.

The amount of his TV work is phenomenal and include nearly the span of TV history: Climax!, The Arthur Murray Show, Studio One, Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse, Wagon Train, The Untouchables, Walt Disney, Amos Burke, Alfred Hitchcock, The Virginian, Gunsmoke, Death Valley Days, Hollywood Squares, The Love Boat, Murder She Wrote, and of course, Hawaii Five-O where he played Lt Danny Williams for 11 years. In 1989 he played Mortimer in the national tour of Arsenic and Old Lace with Jean Stapleton. He returned to Hawaii Five-O to film an unaired pilot for a new show staring Gary Busey and himself as the now Governor Daniel Williams. At the time of his death, MacArthur was in negotiations for a cameo in the new Hawaii Five-O.
Like young TV actors in the 1950s and early 1960s Paul Peterson, Shelly Fabares, Rick Nelson, and Annette, and slightly older Edd Byrnes, Connie Stevens, and George Maharis, MacArthur embarked on a recording career, specializing angsty teen love recitations. YouTube houses his lecture to girls on how hold on to a guy in his cover of the Moonglows hit, The Ten Commandments of Love and the slightly better In-Between Years recorded with the Earls. Thankfully, he didn’t give up his day job.


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6 Replies to “My Second Adoptee: James MacArthur”

  1. Really really enjoyed this post.

    I have always been a cringer when it came to “adopted child of” when it just seemed irrelevant to the description of the person in question.

    As I sit here and write this I cannot think of one celebrity that I connected to as an adoptee growing up. Not sure why, or if I’ve just forgotten.

    I’d also like to say that growing up I was the one embarrassing my mom (reverse of your experience) by bringing up my being adopted to others although I have to admit my mom hid any discomfort fairly well.

    Leaving any judgment of adoption aside, on the surface James MacArthur got a pretty interesting family. I had no idea before him dying.

  2. Maybe I’m just weird about this, but seeing real life adoptees out there (not actors playing them) was a revelation to me. I never knowingly knew any adopted person in real life until I was out of college, and that was only one person, quite a bit older than I. I didn’t know any others until I was in my 30s.

    I’ve only begun to think about public and private bastards. I think it’s worth pursuing on a deeper level.

    As for connecting with actors, my big connections was James Garner who had nothing to do with adoption. Oh my! I had a huge James Garner collection, and still have some of it, including an autographed (probably not genuine)pictures of him I kept framed over my bed. There was also James Dean and….Bridget Baradot, Oh strange is that last one. The bonus was that my parents had seen Garner on Broadway in the Caine Mutiny Court Martial. He played a judge with one short line.

  3. Very interesting and thoughtful, Marley.I didn’t know about these people when I was growing up, but always did take an interest in people who were adopted I heard about, even though I rarely if ever talked to the ones I knew about it until I was about 30. Seems possible that the adoptees in the Hollywood world helped to sustain your interest in movies–though there certainly were lots of other reasons for that!

  4. Mine was a private adoption. I always knew something was odd as the family treated me like a stepchild but didn’t know what was up. The truth sets you free – that and 23 and Me. Always liked Danno – probably stereotyped him to be on 5-0 for that long. Great article.

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