Listed with the likes of box office gold Van Johnson during and after WWII, Lawford could throb the hearts of many bobbysoxers as well as thrill their parents. However, the actor would later say that he squandered those years at MGM. The star of Good News (1947) and Little Women (1949) felt his career was over at the age of 29 - with no big studio contract and no movie deals.
Says the actor in an interview with Bob Thomas,
"The studio had done a lot for me, and after ten years of security, it's rugged to go it alone. I could have stayed on, but at a cut. Months before my contract was up, I had a meeting with Nick Schenck... who said I could stay at the studio at less money. That was happening to most of the actors whose contracts were ending. I decided not to stay."
Being an independent performer is a frightening prospect after the stability of a steady salary. But Lawford was sure it was the best thing to do for creative control of his career.
"...I was afraid of getting stuck as a B-picture actor. I had been doing a lot of B's (sic) and there was no indication that I would be getting bigger pictures.... [If I signed an MGM contract] again, I would be 36 when I got out. If I were still a B-picture actor then, I'd be washed up. "
Lawford took a risk in not signing another contract with MGM, a risk that didn't immediately pay off. In the studio system, you are handed projects. At the studio, as Lawford says in That's Entertainment (1974), "We did what we were told to do." However, on his own, things weren't coming his way, projects did not simply fall into his lap. The actor was terribly discouraged.
In 1953, when friend Tony Martin asked him to introduce one of Martin's acts, Lawford believed the audience would be indifferent, but they were not. "I suddenly discovered that the last ten years weren't lost at all," he said.
This was a turning point.
The young people who adored him in the previous decade were now established adults, watching one of their favorite stars at home.
Lawford also enjoyed financing television, including famously securing funding in 1958 for the pilot of what would become the Emmy Award -winning program "The Dick Van Dyke Show." Lawford's new career was on the rise.
Was it worth the risk to give up the life he'd known earlier? How did Lawford's 36th year -the year in which he was afraid he'd be washed up if he stayed at MGM - turn out?
Pretty well. That year -1959- would be a very important one for the actor. It would start a new era for him. It was in that year that old MGM pal, Frank Sinatra, invited Lawford to join the Rat Pack - a group of influential performers who would headline in Las Vegas, pal around, make movies and invest in politics and entertainment.
A year later the Rat Pack -Sinatra, Lawford, Sammy Davis, Jr., Dean Martin and Joey Bishop- would release the first film featuring all of them together - Ocean's 11. This film would become a classic which would be remade in 2001 with a new crop of Hollywood big shots.
Lawford in his 20s could not have foreseen that the risk of keeping creative control of his career would pay off.
How could the terrified matinee idol -who made the mistake of not utilizing his stardom when he had it, who doubted his career could survive into his 30s- have known that he would be far more famous generation after generation for his middle-aged years than his extraordinarily popular younger years?
There are lessons here of perseverance, calculated risk-taking, trying against all odds, understanding that you don't have all the answers, and not sitting in the doldrums for too long.
100 years ago, Thomas Edison - another risk-taking go-getter- said at the age of 67 when his factory burned down, "There’s value in disaster. All our mistakes are burned up. Thank God, we can start anew."
Peter Lawford's legacy is better off because he understood this concept.