Repudiated upon its 1961 release by the tough-talking clergyman who inspired it, The Hoodlum Priest remains as obscure and intriguing as ever

On a sweltering afternoon in August 1960, movie star Don Murray stood on a Produce Row loading dock in despair. An hour earlier, during the filming of a robbery at the wholesale vegetable hub on North Market Street, his costar Keir Dullea had sliced an artery in his arm while attempting to break through a door. Production on The Hoodlum Priest, Murray's maiden effort as a producer, ceased while the profusely bleeding actor was rushed to a hospital.

The Hoodlum Priest could ill afford yet another untimely delay. Although principal photography was far from completed, already the film's unrealistic eighteen-day shooting schedule had nearly doubled. The movie's equally improbable $350,000 budget had been exhausted weeks earlier — and Murray and his coproducer were personally responsible for covering the excess. Now he stood alone on the loading dock and asked himself unmerciful questions: What business did he have producing even a low-budget movie? What was he doing in St. Louis, anyway?

Fifty years later, Murray recalls that sun-baked afternoon as vividly as if it were yesterday. "I was so depressed," he says. "I didn't yet know how seriously Keir was injured, so his well-being was a great concern. I also didn't know if we were getting anything worthwhile on film. I thought to myself: If only we can complete this movie, so United Artists won't think we stole their money. As an escape, I conjured in my imagination that the movie would get finished. The first review would come out, and it would be a rave in Time magazine. Then I began to laugh at myself, because I knew this fantasy was so unreal."

Don Murray wrote, produced and starred in The Hoodlum Priest, based on the life and work of Father Charles Dismas Clark, founder of Dismas House. The movie also starred Keir Dullea (center), who went on to greater fame in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Don Murray wrote, produced and starred in The Hoodlum Priest, based on the life and work of Father Charles Dismas Clark, founder of Dismas House. The movie also starred Keir Dullea (center), who went on to greater fame in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Filmed in and around St. Louis, The Hoodlum Priest had its world premiere at the Loew's State Theatre downtown.
Filmed in and around St. Louis, The Hoodlum Priest had its world premiere at the Loew's State Theatre downtown.

Unreality, though, had informed the entire project — beginning with its unlikely origins fourteen months before. When the film star flew into St. Louis in June 1959 to promote his current movie, Shake Hands with the Devil, a rousing melodrama about the 1921 Irish Rebellion in which he costarred with James Cagney, Murray had not yet seen the film. He eagerly attended a press showing at a private screening room. Minutes after the movie began, a stranger slipped into the seat next to him and promptly began to speak.

"Now listen, kid," the man said in a reedy, agitated voice, "I ain't no square priest, you see."

Out of the corner of his eye, Murray was taken aback to realize that the Runyonesque interloper beside him was wearing a priest's collar.

"I was instantly intrigued by the dichotomy," Murray says. "He was dressed like a priest, but he spoke like a character out of Guys and Dolls. One sentence out of his mouth, and he had me fascinated."

"Well, Father, listen," the actor replied. "I'm really interested in talking to you, but I haven't seen this film before, so do you mind? Let's meet in my hotel."

The next day Father Charles Dismas Clark visited Murray in his suite at the Park Plaza. They were an unlikely pair. Whereas Father Clark's furtive eyes were always on the lookout for trouble, Murray had a guileless air about him; only a month earlier, he'd been cast in a live CBS television special as Herman Melville's eternal innocent, Billy Budd. The two men came from disparate backgrounds, as well. Clark, one of fifteen children of an itinerant coal miner, was born in Pennsylvania and raised in rural Illinois. Murray was born in Hollywood, where his father was a dance director at 20th Century-Fox, his mother a former Ziegfeld girl.

As a young man, Clark came under the care of a priest who so influenced him that in 1932 (when Murray was three years old) he was ordained a Jesuit priest. In the mid-1930s, when Clark was teaching math at Saint Louis University High School, Murray's family moved east. His father was the stage director for Broadway's celebrated Hellzapoppin revues. While Murray was running track at his Long Island high school, Clark found himself increasingly tending to the needs of St. Louis' dispossessed — so much so that he gave himself the nickname Dismas, after the thief who was crucified alongside Jesus. By 1957, the same year Murray received an Academy Award nomination for his first movie role, opposite Marilyn Monroe in Bus Stop, Clark was so well known as a champion of ex-cons that a St. Louis Globe-Democrat reporter had nicknamed him "the hoodlum priest."

At the Park Plaza that June day in 1960, Father Clark spoke for three impassioned hours about his devotion to the disenfranchised. He described how a former St. Louis Circuit Court attorney had tried to have him arrested for tampering with a witness and how his work with ex-cons had led to an effort to have him defrocked. Murray sat mesmerized by the priest's compelling presence. "He was a spellbinder, and tremendously single-minded," the actor recalls. "When Father Clark was around, you couldn't discuss any subject other than the plight of ex-cons."

Clark explained that two weeks earlier, with the aid of a long-time friend and benefactor, prominent St. Louis criminal defense lawyer Morris Shenker, he had created the Fr. Dismas Clark Foundation, which qualified them to bid at auction on a former city grade school at 905 Cole Street. Clark intended to convert the building into the nation's first "halfway house," a shelter where 40 homeless ex-convicts per month would receive food, clothes and lodging. Dismas House would have its own barber and a fully stocked men's shop complete with a tailor. It would open the world's first employment agency solely devoted to finding jobs for former convicts, and an office set aside for state parole officials. Although this unorthodox approach defied the conventional thinking that ex-cons should be kept separated, Father Clark was convinced of the rightness of his approach.

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4 comments
BDT
BDT

awesome storywell donecant believe i was unaware of this as a SLUH grad

Ed Golterman
Ed Golterman

Don Murray and Kier Dullea screened the film a few weeks ago. Checketts shouldinvite them in for the 50th anniversary, put his Rat Pack Package on stage and make it a benefit for the St. Vincent de Paul prison ministries and Half Way House. The move wasdone four years before the Pack in the Opera House. Think that might sell out?. A couple of times?

 
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