Only one Western movie stalwart can claim to have swiveled his hips and crooned alongside—and gotten socked right in the kisser by—the King of Rock ’n’ Roll himself, and that renowned actor is Michael Dante. The place, of course, was the set of the 1962 Elvis Presley boxing vehicle, Kid Galahad, and it was, in fact, the only occasion in Michael Dante’s career that called for him to sing and dance for the camera instead of, for example, to whip out a six-gun or ride high in the saddle.
Michael Dante, a performer with over 30 films and 150 television appearances to his credit, was born on September 2, 1931, in Stamford, Connecticut. On graduating from Stamford High School, the tall, dark, handsome and strapping young man actually signed a bonus contract with the Atlanta Braves, going on, however, to study drama at the University of Miami and, ultimately, play for the Washington Senators.
Fortunately, for Western movie buffs, an arm injury brought Dante’s baseball career to a premature close, and, after a series of marvelous coincidences, the celebrated bandleader Tommy Dorsey arranged a screen test for Dante at MGM studios and set him off on the distinguished acting career that we now celebrate.
In an exclusive, full-length interview with Wildest Westerns, Michael Dante shared with us his vivid recollections of the highlights of his varied, four-decade career in front of the camera, beginning with his entrée into the world of movies.
It was in the late 1950s that Dante was playing for the Washington Senators, and his roommate, major leaguer Mickey McDermott, happened to be a dear friend of the big bandleader Tommy Dorsey. While the team was in Orlando, Florida one pre-season for spring training, and Dante was struggling on the field on account of his injury, Dorsey just happened to be entertaining the troops at nearby Orlando Air Force Base. “Tommy loved baseball,” Dante recalled, “and came to work out with the ball club, and Mickey introduced me to him and his manager. I called Tommy ‘TD,’ and TD and I became fast friends. He said, ‘Gee, you got to be the best looking guy in baseball; I like the way you handle yourself. You’ve got a great combination, and I’d like to arrange a screen test for you.’”
Dante took a two weeks’ leave of absence, and, true to his word, Dorsey set up the screen test. Dante signed a contract and would go on to perform in many popular movies, including Westbound, Seven Thieves, Willard, Naked Kiss, Apache Rifles, Cage, and Return from the River Kwai, appearing alongside the likes of Edward G. Robinson, Audie Murphy, and Randolph Scott.
Dante’s first picture—in an uncredited role—was also Steve McQueens’s first: the 1956 biographical drama, Somebody Up There Likes M—the Rocky Graziano story, with Paul Newman as Rocky. Dante played Shorty the Greek, and he remembered the contribution that he and the young McQueen, along with the equally young co-stars Sal Mineo and Robert Loggia, made to the effort: “We did the youth sequence. We were the gang stealing hubcaps and robbing furs and the like. We were in about four scenes, concerning the early part of Rocky’s story.”
The movie was filmed on location in New York City, and Dante and McQueen clicked immediately, as Michael reminisced: “Steve comes riding up in front of the Warwick Hotel on his motorcycle, soaking wet. It was raining like heck. I was standing there under……………………….