The Quest for Archibald Leach

Cary Grant just wasn’t getting it.  He’d signed on to be the star of the film, was being paid handsomely for his efforts, and he was working with the legendary director Alfred Hitchcock, no less.  What could possibly go wrong?

North by Northwest seemed destined to be a box-office smash when it debuted in 1959.



Indeed, prior to the start of shooting, screenwriter Ernest Lehman was quoted as saying he wanted to write “the Hitchcock picture to end all Hitchcock pictures.” He held nothing back, and created a melange of suspense, lighthearted fun, intrigue, and nonstop action.  There’s even a fight-to-the-death sequence that takes place on the face of Mt. Rushmore, not to mention arguably the most famous scene in Hitchcock’s long, storied career–the crop-duster attack!



And, of course, and above all else, the film features Cary Grant.



During filming, though, Grant wasn’t thrilled with the direction North by Northwest was taking. One day, he pulled Hitchcock aside, and said, “It’s a terrible script.  We’ve already done a third of the picture and I still can’t make head or tail of it!”  Hitchcock assured his leading man that things were going well.  The film is designed to be confusing, with myriad twists and turns, so if his lead actor was finding the story line hard to follow, all the better!



All Hitchcock said to Grant was to be himself.  Don’t even worry about the acting.  Don’t worry about the script.  Just be Cary Grant.  The rest would take care of itself.

And it did.

Hitchcock understood a fundamental truth, and used it to his advantage–people just liked Cary Grant.  He’d been Hollywood’s most luminous star for decades, the epitome of charisma, debonair charm, and cool.  Indeed, Grant himself once famously said, “Everyone wants to be Cary Grant.  Even I want to be Cary Grant.”



Grant’s on-screen persona was larger-than-life.  If you wanted to see raw emotion, vulnerability, weakness, you weren’t going to find that here.  His roles were designed to match his never-let-them-see-you-sweat mystique.  He was made out to be more icon than actor, more romantic ideal than flesh-and-blood person.  Grant’s public image surely wouldn’t have been so spotless if he were acting today, but in Old Hollywood, he was lifted up to stratospheric heights, and for the duration of his career, he never came down from his perch.  Well on into his fifties and early sixties, Grant played the lead opposite actresses such as Grace Kelly, Eva Marie Saint, Audrey Hepburn, and Sophia Loren–all two or three decades his junior.






Then, abruptly, in the mid-1960s, at the age of sixty-two, Grant retired from the cinema.  Hollywood’s quintessential leading man would not go on to play the sage, grandfatherly roles that would surely have come his way if he’d pressed forward with his career.  He would simply walk away and preserve the image, the concept, the legend that was Cary Grant.

It hadn’t always been that way.  During his growing-up years in the suburbs of Bristol, in southwest England, Cary Grant wasn’t known as Cary Grant.  He was born Archibald Leach, and his hardscrabble childhood bore little resemblance to the fame and prestige that would materialize decades later.  His father struggled with alcoholism and his mother was clinically depressed, sent to a mental institution when Grant was just nine years old.  His father simply told him that his mother had gone on a “long holiday,” and later, when she failed to come home, said she had died.  Grant didn’t learn of the lie for over two decades, and at that time, arranged to meet his mother just as his movie career was taking off.  But in his childhood, Archibald Leach, the future hero of the Silver Screen, was antsy, on edge, uncomfortable around others, nervous and awkward in his interactions with girls.  Described by a classmate as a “scruffy little boy” and by his teacher as “the naughty little boy who was always making a noise in the back row and would never do his homework,” Leach was expelled from school when he was fourteen.



Over a decade later, after honing his craft onstage and in vaudeville, and on the doorstep of Hollywood superstardom, Archibald Leach was advised to change his name to Cary Grant.

If you were to choose between “scruffy” Archie Leach and his later, more celebrated alter ego, and select the winner to serve as the main character for a novel you wanted to write, the choice would seem to be obvious.



And it is.


The four primary protagonists in The Eye-Dancers each struggle with their own personal hang-ups, outlooks, inner demons, and shaky self-esteem.  None of them are what anyone would call popular in school.  They don’t hang out with the “in” crowd, they’re not the trendsetters or movers-and-shakers of their peer group.  Mitchell Brant feels the need to fabricate and invent stories about himself, as he’s not confident that he’s “good enough” as he is.  Joe Marma lives in the shadow of his high-achieving older brother, and as the shortest boy in his grade, he has a king-sized chip on his shoulder.  Ryan Swinton doesn’t want to rock the boat; he likes to go along with the crowd and tell jokes to make people laugh.  Marc Kuslanski never met an equation he didn’t like; he closes his mind to the mysterious, the unexplained, the supernatural.  In his logical, rational worldview, everything, no matter how extraordinary, has a commonsense explanation.



As the novel progresses, each character is confronted with circumstances that challenge his perspective, threaten to erode his already fragile sense of self, and even sabotage his ability to survive.  The boys can either be swept away and swallowed up by their own insecurities and weaknesses, or they can rise to the occasion to learn, grow, and adapt.

It strikes me that any character, really, needs to have the motivation, ability, and impetus to change over the course of a story.  If Character X begins a novel one way and ends the novel exactly the same way, we as readers might pause and ask ourselves, “What was the point of it all?”  Then again, maybe “character” isn’t the best word to use.



“When writing a novel, a writer should create living people,” Ernest Hemingway once said.  “People, not characters.  A character is a caricature.”



Real people are flawed.  They have moles and in-grown toenails, regrets and long-held secrets, wistful memories and would-be dreams that, through lost opportunity and the inexorable march of time, are now irretrievably lost.  The Cary Grant that the world saw, and thought they knew, was, in the words of Hemingway, a caricature–a glittering creation of Hollywood and the movies.  Archibald Leach was in there somewhere.  We just couldn’t see him.



If a literary character is Cary Grant-perfect right from the first page, there is no room for growth, no way for readers to relate.  The plot may wind through hills and valleys, wander through wooded ravines and turn sharply around sudden hairpin curves, but the protagonist will remain static.  The story will not engage.



If I were a producer or a director in Hollywood sixty years ago, the choice would be a no-brainer.  I’d take Cary Grant in the proverbial heartbeat.  But as an author, looking for a character to build a novel around?

Give me Archibald Leach.



Thanks so much for reading!


54 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. anisioluiz2008
    Nov 01, 2016 @ 19:35:14

    Reblogged this on O LADO ESCURO DA LUA.


  2. melouisef
    Nov 01, 2016 @ 20:31:42

    Correct real people are flawed and I normally do not like to see the private and naked lives of stars…..but I found Cary Grant interesting and respect him for giving up in time. But maybe I am different.


    • The Eye-Dancers
      Nov 03, 2016 @ 13:26:49

      I agree–the way the press is today, they are looking for dirt and looking to expose nasty secrets of celebrities. In Old Hollywood, there was a code in place, where they didn’t pry so much into personal lives and report everything. That was surely the better way to go.


  3. Sonya Solomonovich
    Nov 01, 2016 @ 20:37:15

    Poor Grace Kelly, she was always paired up with these much older stars like Jimmy Stuart and Gary Cooper.


  4. John W. Howell
    Nov 01, 2016 @ 21:36:10

    Super, Mike. i always like Cary Grant pictures and you did a great job describing NXNW


  5. joannerambling
    Nov 02, 2016 @ 00:12:58

    I was never a big Cary Grant fan, liked him in some things, Grace Kelly was so pretty.


  6. Lyn
    Nov 02, 2016 @ 00:36:16

    Another sterling blog post, Mgike North by North West is one movie I haven’t seen yet – which is strange, because I really like Cary Grant. I think of his movies I have seen, The Grass is Greener is one of my favourites.


  7. Lyn
    Nov 02, 2016 @ 00:36:59

    oops, sorry Mike, I typoed your name 😦


  8. Karina Pinella
    Nov 02, 2016 @ 01:53:35

    Cary Grant was definitely successful in transforming himself from a ruffian to a debonair gentleman. What a change! That’s the interesting story. He is his own Professor Higgins to his “My Fair Lad.”


  9. Pearl Kirkby
    Nov 02, 2016 @ 09:00:50

    A most excellent post! One never thinks about what Cary Grant’s real life role as Archibald Leach might have been, but your analogy to the “real” man and a book’s character is spot on. Bravo!

    Btw, you did a good job with the Eye Dancer characters. I enjoyed the book!


  10. sherazade
    Nov 04, 2016 @ 18:40:19

    Mi piacciono i film con Gary Grant molto eleganti e lui bravo. ‘Intrigo internazionale certamente ma anche Notorius poi Caccia al ladro..
    Grazie di ricordarti di me.



  11. Teagan Geneviene
    Nov 07, 2016 @ 09:50:07

    A very enjoyable post, Mike. Hugs.


  12. europasicewolf
    Nov 07, 2016 @ 12:54:10

    Great post! Lots of food for thought and a very charismatic man 😀


  13. Ste J
    Nov 08, 2016 @ 19:05:04

    Love North by North West, some iconic moments in that one, Cary Grant is much more interesting when we are reminded of where he came from.


    • The Eye-Dancers
      Nov 10, 2016 @ 19:12:34

      And I think Hitchcock understood that to a degree. He, more than any other director, played to Grant’s dark side a bit more–especially in films like Suspicion and Notorious! Anytime I need a pick-me-up (such as this week, after our disastrous election here in the States) I just put in a Cary Grant movie!


  14. Carol Balawyder
    Nov 09, 2016 @ 19:25:57

    Very interesting and great insight into characterization. 🙂


  15. penneyvanderbilt
    Nov 10, 2016 @ 15:42:23

    Reblogged this on KCJones.


  16. mikethepsych
    Nov 20, 2016 @ 15:42:02

    Reblogged this on Mike the Psych's Blog.


  17. Anna Waldherr
    Nov 20, 2016 @ 17:51:01

    I read somewhere that Cary Grant never forgot his impoverished upbringing. Stars often receive gifts from their fans. Not all these can be used. Cary Grant and Clark Gable would exchange w/ each other any monogrammed gifts they could not use. That way the things did not go to waste. You see, the stars had the same initials.


  18. Steph McCoy
    Dec 04, 2016 @ 11:55:45

    This is a great post Mike. You have a way of stirring up fond memories. I don’t remember if I saw North by Northwest but I loved Hitchcock movies and I’m thinking I’m gonna spend this Sunday watching some of the oldies.


  19. reocochran
    Dec 25, 2016 @ 03:43:25

    Characters in books display such interesting variations of author’s imaginations, Mike. Yours sound fascinating!
    I enjoy that Cary Grant was a good man, played a serious man with a few signs of a sense of humor. I remember when he had a daughter, there was a photograph in one of my Mom’s ladies magazine. I sometimes feel George Cooney could be a current Cary Grant. He has shown depth in a few of his roles and seems like he has changed and evolved in both his personal and private lives.
    Great post!


    • The Eye-Dancers
      Dec 28, 2016 @ 13:24:30

      Hi Robin! Yes, Cary Grant is one of my favorites. If I ever need a quick mood-boost, sometimes I turn to a Cary Grant movie! He started out as something of a comedian–slapstick was his forte at the start of his career–but obviously he developed into the ultimate Hollywood leading man . . .


      • reocochran
        Dec 28, 2016 @ 13:42:06

        There’s a calmness and surety in his person, whether an act or not, I felt he could be trusted. His “Father Goose” role with Audrey Hepburn (wasn’t she a nun?) and the children was one I really liked!
        As far as fine acting with charism plus character, Gregory Peck was someone to admire. Of course, I liked Atticus Finch! Take it easy, Mike!

  20. maguinolbay
    Jan 12, 2017 @ 01:54:48

    Hello Mike. Thank you very much for featuring my favorite Hollywood actor. He’s so handsome.


  21. Arlene G.
    Jan 16, 2017 @ 06:32:01

    Thank you for liking “Merry Christmas!” I enjoyed this thought-provoking post. Archibald Leach/Cary Grant is a great example of the difference between a real person and a fictional persona. While it is obvious that people in the entertainment industry assume personas, I wonder if people in general can avoid putting on a persona at one time or another in their lives. How many of us have tried to act differently from ourselves in order to try to fit in and be accepted by a particular social group?

    It is strange how we admire and strive for perfection in reality, yet perfection seems unreal in both the real and fictional worlds. 😀


    • The Eye-Dancers
      Jan 17, 2017 @ 19:10:18

      These are great points! And sadly I think it’s far too often the case that people put on personas. Peer pressure, fitting in, etc. are powerful motivators, and it definitely takes courage to just be yourself. I am guessing Cary Grant often felt burdened by the public persona of being Cary Grant!


      • Arlene G.
        Jan 19, 2017 @ 11:04:38

        Thank you. You make some great points as well. Society is constantly sending people messages that they are not good enough and that they need to be popular in order to find fulfillment in life, and sadly some people internalize these messages to the point where they develop psychological problems.

        I also agree that it takes courage just to be yourself, but I have noticed how some people have turned self-acceptance into a public event just to gain social approval!

        You are probably right about Cary Grant. He probably could not maintain his public persona all of the time, and this probably disappointed people who were close to him. Some of the disagreeable and “scruffy” qualities of Archibald Leach probably remained with him throughout his life, and some of the people in his off-screen life were probably surprised by them and did not like them.

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