Most of us think of your work in the entertainment industry as the TV star of the late-1950s and early ’60s. But you had already appeared in movies. You must have been very young then.
I was. I was born in 1934. I started working in 1940 at the age of 6 or 7, playing bit parts. It wasn’t that exciting. The first thing I did was “The Grapes of Wrath” with Henry Fonda. I don’t think I said anything in that role.
That’s a heck of a way to start.
Yes. My brother, Darryl Hickman, had a good part as Winfield. He’s three years older than I am.
How did you come to be a student at Loyola University?
I graduated from Cathedral High School in 1952 and decided to become a Passionist priest. I applied and left for St. Louis, where the seminary was. Well, I hated it. I felt so uncomfortable. I felt had done something rash, and I hadn’t realized what was involved, especially with a very strict order like the Passionists. After two weeks and with the advice of the rector, I left. I told him, “I think I better go back and go to school.” He wished me well. And I came to Los Angeles and met with Roland Reed, S.J., academic vice president, and Catherine Emenaker, the registrar. Father Reed said, “Welcome. I understand.” I took the entry test, and I was in. So, I started my freshman year, and that was my best year, 1952–53.
So was the fact that Loyola is Catholic important to you?
Yes, and the fact that it was Jesuit. I was familiar with it and knew people who had gone here. Loyola had a good reputation, and it was nearby. My family was living in Los Feliz, and I commuted every day. I didn’t live on campus. I had a great freshman year. I loved it. I didn’t have to work in TV movies, or anything.
How did you get a role on “The Bob Cummings Show”?
In the summer of 1953, I was looking for a job and took the test for the Department of Water and Power. I passed it, and they offered me a job for the summer. Then, an agent I had had years earlier called me and said, “They’re having interviews for this thing called ‘The Bob Cummings Show.’ ” I said, “Well, I’m going to school and I have this job with DWP. I’m not that interested.” But I went. I met Bob Cummings, and George Burns, who was executive producer, and Paul Henning, the producer who later did “The Beverly Hillbillies.” I read for them and left. A week went by, and the agent called back and said, “They want to see you again.” So, I went back, and they offered me the part of Chuck MacDonald, the nephew. I didn’t know what to do. I asked my father, and he said, “Take the job that pays the most amount of money for the least amount of work.”
So for three and a half years, I went to Loyola a day or two a week and worked on the show for two or three days a week. And that’s how it all came about.
Was it difficult to be a student and a TV actor?
Yes. I had fairly decent grades. I had B’s. But I finally got to a point in my senior year when I couldn’t do it any more. It was too hard to keep up, and I thought I had to drop out. Father Reed said, “Well, you have three courses left, maybe you can make them up.” Which I did. In the ’60s, after “Dobie Gillis,” I went back and took an econ course from John Killeen, S.J., — economics was my major — and courses from James Markey, S.J., and George Kennard, S.J., and got the grades and graduated.
Later, after I had finished my bachelor’s degree, I went back to Loyola again and took some graduate courses. I was thinking I might get a master’s degree and teach communication art. I was in the middle of a couple of courses when I got a part in the movie “Don’t Push, I’ll Charge When I’m Ready.” I asked Father Reed if I could take a leave at Loyola, but he said no. So I dropped out again. But I’ve done more than my share to get the credits to graduate. I love Loyola Marymount. It’s a really fine school.
Did your fame during your run on “The Bob Cummings Show” put you in a spotlight on campus?
I was accepted and left alone. It wasn’t a problem. I don’t remember being singled out or spoken to about TV or movies.
Do you think that would’ve been possible at any college at that time, or was it a special quality at Loyola?
I think it would’ve been possible at any college.
Was the star culture different then?
Yes. There weren’t as many tabloids. That culture didn’t exist in those days.
Did your television work keep you from being involved in the campus theater productions?
It did, and I was very aware of it. I had friends who were involved in theater on campus: Bob Denver, who played Maynard, was in the Del Rey Players, and Dick Jones, an actor who later wrote for “The Carol Burnett Show,” was in Del Rey Players. I went to their shows, and I supported the Players, but I had no time to get involved. Often, I had to rush from campus to get to work. I had a car.
Your classmates probably wanted to be your friend because of your car, not your show.
That’s right. But it was an old car. It was a Plymouth.
Did you feel then that your TV and movie career would give you an income for the rest of your life, or did you feel that you needed a college degree no matter what?
I felt I needed a college degree. That’s why I took economics. It was in the liberal arts, and it was broad and covered a lot of things. I didn’t quite know what I was going to do.
You said your first year at Loyola was your favorite year. Why?
Because I didn’t have to work in TV.
How did you land the role in “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis”?
Max Shulman had a deal with George Burns to develop the show but he couldn’t find anyone to play the part, and Max felt I would be good. When the show wasn’t developed, Max left George Burns and went to Fox. They approached me, and I went in and read for the part. They wanted me. I had done “The Bob Cummings Show” for four or five years. I left the Cummings show and did the pilot in the fall of 1958, and it went on the air in fall 1959. By that time, I was out of Loyola.
You mentioned that you knew Bob Denver when you were both on campus. Were you close friends when he was cast as Maynard G. Krebs on the Dobie Gillis show?
I knew him, but we became good friends on the show; yet not social friends. We were very close at work. I had the greatest respect for him. We were close and never had a harsh word when we worked together. We did four years and 150 shows together.
How does your friendship with someone off camera affect how you work together on camera?
I think the friendship makes it better. In our case, it did. I thought Bob was bright and funny in the show. That feeling was picked up by him, I’m sure, and by the audience. He was my friend. “Maynard, what does that mean?” I’d say, “Maynard, go home and feed your iguana.” He’d say, “He don’t need me, Dobe. He can open the refrigerator door himself.” I think our friendship mattered a lot. We were very different in real life.
I was kind of picky and obsessive about the work and other things. For example, he once had a new car, an MG, and it broke down. I said, “Well, have you changed the oil and had the car serviced?” He said, “No.” I said, “Why not?” He said, “Well, the car doesn’t need that. They just tell you that to sell you more stuff.” I said, “Bob, you gotta’ take care of the car or it will break down.”
Or he would be reading a script, and I’d say, “Bob, it’s your line.” He’d say, “What page?” I said, “Page 10.” He said, “Well, I don’t have Page 10.” “You don’t have Page 10? What happened to Page 10?” He said, “The baby ate it.” We were different like Dobie and Maynard were different, but close friends.
Who came up with Maynard’s trademark comment “Work!”?
I don’t know. It evolved in rehearsal. He must’ve come up with it himself, because the writers didn’t write it.
Your show dealt a lot with conflict between the generations. Do you think it blazed a trail for sitcoms that came later in the decade, like “All in the Family”?
It did. The Dobie Gillis show was the first show that I’m aware of that was not about the family. It was about the teenagers, the kids, life from a teenager’s point of view. All the other shows — “Father Knows Best,” “The Donna Reed Show,” “Ozzie and Harriet” — were about the family. But “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis” was not. Parents were part of the show, but they weren’t the driving force.
After the Dobie Gillis show, you did some directing. Was that fun for you?
I enjoyed it for a while, but I wanted to turn to my art. I worked for CBS for 10 years, and that was fine. When I left in 1987, I wanted to maybe act a little more, pursue my artwork, and do a lot of things I hadn’t been able to do.
Did your interest in art begin as a boy?
Yes. I drew all the time, sketching things. I wanted to be a car designer, so I drew cars. I had a summer job in high school at Columbia Studios. My job was to deliver scripts. When there were no scripts to deliver, I would sit with a pad and draw.
When did you begin painting seriously?
When I left CBS. I made the movie “Bring Me the Head of Dobie Gillis,” then I went to the Brentwood Art Center, where I learned a lot. And I went on from there.
Your work is very pastoral.
That’s on purpose.
Landscapes seem to be a major subject.
I love landscapes. I love flowers and colors.
I don’t know. I love bright colors. My favorite color is yellow.
Imagine you’ve arrived at the gates of heaven and you discover that something is missing that you always believed was true of heaven. What’s the thing that if it’s missing in heaven will make you want to come back?
If it were all flat white, it wouldn’t work for me. It has to be colorful.
What is the biggest difference you see between being an actor and a painter?
When you’re doing a role on TV, you’re working with people. It’s a collaboration: directors, writers, actors all working together. When you’re an artist, you’re all by yourself. It’s all you, nobody is helping you, and the decisions are yours to make.
You’ve done a lot of both. Is that because you’re a person who seeks balance in life?
I don’t know. I think it’s a mistake to overanalyze oneself. You ask, “Why do you like color?” I don’t know. I just like it. You could ask, “Why are you happy with the way things are?” Because I feel good about them.
That seems a very Jesuit thing to say. I can hear Ignatius saying, “If you’re analyzing things so much that you stop doing them, you’ve gone too far.”
Well, that’s why I like the Jesuits.
Which artists have influenced you?
Vincent van Gogh, Claude Monet, Edward Hopper.
Have you ever painted anything that would come close to a gritty, urban scene?
No, I don’t believe in gritty, urban scenes. I believe in pastoral, warm, happy, bright cheery scenes.
That’s interesting: Why are you using the word “believe?” Why don’t you say, “I don’t like to paint gritty scenes.”
Well, because you like what you believe. If you don’t believe in it, you can’t like it. Gritty urban scenes are not much fun. You have to do what you enjoy.
How about portraits?
I don’t do portraits. I don’t paint people.
Do you know why?
No. I just don’t. I would rather just paint the field.
You went to art school, but in some ways you seem self-taught. Would you agree?
Yes, and no. Study is a trap. Sometimes, you have to branch out on your own and put it together with your own imagination and your own instincts. We were talking about color earlier. You have to feel the color in your heart and soul. The rules that apply don’t always apply. The rules are rules made by other people. But if you’re going to paint a painting, paint it the way you see it. That’s the way I’ve approached it, and I’ve done very well with it.
Your path certainly is unusual: acting a child, entering and leaving seminary, acting again on a hit show, going to college as an economic major, returns to acting and a lead role, toying with teaching, then later in life pursuing a long-standing interest in art. I can’t imagine many people putting all of those things together.
Well, I have done it, but not on purpose. That’s just the way my life went. I could come back to acting again. I’m not turning down anything, but I’m fine, if you know what I mean. I don’t mean financially or anything, I mean I’m happy with what I do.