Recently I happened upon a 1997 biography (Bogart by Sperber and Lax) about the great actor Humphrey Bogart. One of my favorite singers, Bryan Ferry, wrote a song about Bogart (“2 H.B.”). I’m a huge fan of film noir (many of Bogart’s films play in this genre). All told, Bogart has a gravitational pull on me as a fan and as an artist.
As I read the bio, I learned that Bogart had an incredible work ethic as an actor. He was (to quote Rod Steiger) “an artistic soldier,” a master craftsman from whom all artists and musicians could learn. I took some notes and called it “Seven Lessons from Bogie.”
Humphrey Bogart was far from perfect. They said he was a great friend and a worse enemy. Some say that, off-screen, he was mostly the disaffected hero Rick Blaine (from Casablanca) with a dash of the vitriolic Dixon Steele (from In a Lonely Place). Sometimes he needled people too much, but sometimes he did it because he thought they weren’t working at their full potential. There were two stories about everything he did.
Whatever people say about him, he was a focused, hard-working “regular guy.” As I read this biography about his career and how he “arrived,” I was impressed and inspired, and his work ethic as a creative person was informed by strikingly simple principals:
Seven Lessons From Bogie
1. Always be punctual. Show up prepared and ready to work. Respond to all phone calls and mail in a timely manner.
2. Do not behave with airs, except to have an air of humility and accessibility. Bogart hated phonies and snobs.
3. Be well-read. Be as informed as possible. Read as much as you can. You will always have something meaningful to say and, when you don’t, you’ll know it’s time to shut up and listen.
4. Be focused. Even though Bogart made it sound like he “happened into acting,” he wanted it when he was 14. He kept his focus on it despite studio slavery and third-rate treatment (getting roles only after Paul Muni and George Raft turned them down). He did not have his breakthrough hit (Casablanca) until he was 45 years old.
5. Take responsibility for your own shortcomings. Do not blame others — especially your parents. Bogart was the product of an upper class family that fell from grace. He was physically abused by house servants (the real source of his mouth scar), emotionally detached from drug-abusing parents, and he supported a sick mother and manic-depressive sisters. Yet no one ever heard him complain, and he thought it was unbecoming to rat on his parents.
6. Watch the backs of your colleagues and co-workers. Bogart was kind and instructive to people with whom he worked, even getting them work when no one would hire them, or defending them at the risk of his own career.
7. Work hard. When you’re bursting with talent but don’t know the way, taking on every assignment possible will refine you and show you the way.
—Johnny J Blair