Today at Berkeley Lab

Walt Flannery: A Life, Once on the Silvery Screen

— By Sabin Russell

Last night’s Oscars were a time for reveling in Hollywood dreams. For Berkeley Lab’s nighttime maintenance manager Walt Flannery, thoughts about the silver screen bring up not dreams, but memories.

Walt was just a three-year-old when his parents moved to West Hollywood in 1950. Television was beginning to find its way into American living rooms, and the rising stars at the movies were Marlon Brando and yes, Doris Day. With a penchant for being in the right place at the right time, little Walt Flannery was right there with them.

Like a lot of West Hollywood urchins, Walt and his sister took a screen test, and unlike most of them, they were cast as child actors in commercials. “We weren’t shy around a camera, and we were able to memorize and speak our lines, so we got a lot of work,” he recalls.

Walt has become a familiar face at Berkeley Lab since he joined in 2009, after a 31-year career at Chevron. He’s the guy with glasses and the flashlights, radio, and iPhone dangling from a pair of suspenders. When most of the lab staff has gone home for the evening, Walt is just getting started. With some major lab operations such as the Advance Light Source running 24/7, he plays a big role behind the scenes. As Maintenance Process Manger for the Facilities division, he helps to keep the hilltop campus running on the off hours, and is there to help if anything goes wrong.

It was during a commercial shoot nearly 60 years ago that the crew working on a Doris Day picture, By the Light of the Silvery Moon, spotted Walt and cast him as Ronald “Pee Wee” Harris – a small part, to be sure, but there he was. “There was a caste system, with an “e,” in Hollywood, so we kids didn’t mingle with the big stars.” says Walt. “We just had to know our lines, and do exactly as we were told. We had to be perfect.”

During his run as a child actor in films, Walt had a role as a general’s son in Sabre Jet (pictured above with actor Richard Arlen), a 1953 Korean War melodrama starring Robert Stack. The next year he played the part of Napoleon Bonaparte’s bastard son, Oskar Bernadotte, in Désirée, which starred Marlon Brando as Napoleon. In 1955 he was cast in Untamed as Terrance Kildare, the young son of an Irish family that fled the potato famine for South Africa. His mother, Katie, was played by Susan Hayward. The star of the movie was Tyrone Power.

“People that I meet are a lot more excited about this than I was. I guess I was extremely lucky, because people tell me they would have done anything to do that,’’ he says.

Walt had roles on the Loretta Young Show, a popular television series, and appeared as his perky, cheerful self on Kids Say the Darndest Things, with Art Linkletter. During a first live interview, Linkletter asked him why he was wearing suspenders. “I told him ‘I’m afraid my pants will fall down.’” Walt remembers. “They loved it!” It won him regular appearances.

Walt’s television and screen career came to an abrupt halt in 1956, when his mother had a nervous breakdown and pulled her children out of the Hollywood rat race. At the time, he had been learning his lines for a movie with Charlton Heston, The Ten Commandments. Walt and his sisters were on the short list for casting in a new TV series, The Mickey Mouse Club. But his days in front of the camera ended as quickly as they began. His parents told his agent not to call again, and Walt continued on with his life.

“Maybe it was a good thing that I never became a Mouseketeer,” he says. “A lot of them were all messed up, and were really taken advantage of.”

Resilience is something Walt learned after the abrupt end to his child acting career. He grew up outside the spotlight like a typical West Hollywood kid, until he graduated from high school. And then his life took another sharp turn. His parents, who had always been free spirits, took all their assets — including all that Walt and his sister had earned from acting — and left the country to travel the world. Walt was cut loose in Los Angeles, and learned to live by his wits.

“I lived in a van, but basically I guess you could say I was homeless,” he recalls. To keep from going hungry, he would hang out till closing at the local Sizzler, and feast on the scraps left behind. He picked up work as a night janitor, and as a plumber. He put himself through college, got married and found a place to live. His parents eventually returned from their “vacation,” as Walt puts it. “They were flat-assed broke. They wanted to live with me. They ended up living with my sister.”

With a degree in history and certification as a journeyman in plumbing and heating, he stayed in plumbing and heating. In 1978, with the economy in rough shape, he walked over to a neighboring Chevron refinery and signed on as a laborer. He rose in the ranks, from mechanic to plumber to pipefitter, and eventually became a manager in operations. He oversaw evacuation of Chevron’s Houston offices during 911; he was operations chief for recovery in New Orleans after Katrina.

He doesn’t watch his movies very often, but when he does, it’s typically with his three grandchildren, or his great granddaughter. On Thanksgiving Day, they watch By the Light of the Silvery Moon, which takes place during Thanksgiving in Indiana, sometime after World War II. They look at this cheerful, perky man in glasses and suspenders, and they tell him: “Grampy, you look just the same.”