Old and new Hollywood connect
Paul Burke and Alia Shawkat live in parallel universes. They are grandfather and granddaughter, but the symmetry of their lives goes far beyond that. He has been a successful actor in television and films for more than four decades. He starred in Valley of the Dolls, Naked City, 12 O’Clock High, the original The Thomas Crown Affair, and dozens more films. She is 15 years old and already has nearly a decade of film and television work behind her. She’s currently starring in Arrested Development on Fox and is a veteran of State of Grace and films such as Three Kings and the upcoming Rebound with Martin Lawrence.
He represents Old Palm Springs, having fallen in love with the city from his first glimpse during a stopover on a train taking him to Hollywood in 1945. He remembers everything about that visit. He was fresh out of the service, it was a balmy 80 degrees, and snow capped the mountains. He looked around and made a vow to return. “No matter where life takes me, this will always be a part of my life,” he says. He has owned a classic Alexander-designed house near the Racquet Club since 1959 and welcomed dozens of Hollywood actors and writers — Steve McQueen, Jackie Coogan, Jackie Cooper, Billy Daniels, Hy Averback among them — as neighbors.
She represents Young Palm Springs — one of several young natives enjoying national acclaim. She also feels a strong bond to the desert, choosing to live out of a suitcase in a Los Angeles hotel with her mother Dina during the week so she can come home to Rancho Mirage on weekends. She manages, through e-mail and private tutors, to stay enrolled at Palm Valley High School. When she has a day’s vacation from filming, she comes home and goes to school. That’s how important it is to Alia to maintain as normal a high school experience as possible. She has seen what happens to child actors who fall prey to adult temptations. “Kids here don’t grow up as fast as kids in L.A.,” she says. “It’s so much more relaxed and grounded here.”
“I think it’s marvelous,” Paul says of Alia’s acting career, “but I don’t know how much can be attributed to me. Her mother was raised in Hollywood, but I rarely brought my children with me on jobs.” He pauses for dramatic effect and then smiles. “If I was a banker, I wouldn’t bring my kids to watch me make big loans! I did bring Dina with me when I was filming once in Canada, though.”
Alia got her start with local modeling agent Cindy Romano when she was 6 years old. Right away, her unusual beauty stood out, and she was photographed for a Calvin Klein catalog. That led to an agent in Los Angeles. At 9, she was cast in Three Kings, a film starring George Clooney. At 11, she landed the role on State of Grace. In her current series, Arrested Development, she plays a rebellious teen always going against the grain. “I’m much more shy and reserved than my character,” Alia says. “She’s more out there. I don’t get in a lot of trouble, and she does. I would say that we are both strong people, though.”
Paul retired from acting 14 years ago (“all my agents died,” he says with a shrug) and despite entreaties from producers for him to return, he has resisted. A few years ago, the producers of State of Grace asked him to do a guest spot. He said, “Absolutely not,” Dina recalls. “They said we’ll take that as a ‘maybe.’ They really, really wanted him to be on the show.”
It’s no wonder. Paul was the star or co-star of six major television series and was twice nominated for an Emmy as best leading actor. He has appeared in dozens of movies for television and theatrical release, on live television shows — including the highly regarded Playhouse 90 and Hallmark Theatre productions — and in more than 100 guest roles on television. The famed Pasadena Playhouse, where he studied acting, has awarded him a lifetime achievement award.
It’s hard for Paul to single out one career highlight, but his three-year stint as detective Adam Flint on the TV series Naked City, shot on the streets in New York City in the early 1960s, was clearly an important experience. The cast worked for 50 weeks a year, averaging 90-hour weeks. “The Screen Actors Guild was weak then,” Paul says. They would start at 7 a.m., take off an hour for dinner at 7 p.m., and then often shoot all night — working to shoot scenes before sunrise. His wardrobe trunk was literally the trunk of his car. A makeup man might hold an overcoat in front of him on Times Square while he changed on the street.
Paul learned to do his own wardrobe plots — the clothing worn in each scene — from Dragnet’s Jack Webb, with whom Paul had worked on the 1956 TV series Noah’s Ark. Webb wore only black ties in Dragnet, so scenes from various season’s work could be interchanged. “One time he got a haircut in the ’50s and it cost the producers $250,000 in stock footage,” Paul says, laughing.
During his years in Naked City, Paul wore only one summer suit, one winter suit, and two topcoats. He bought a dozen identical shirts and ties so he would always look the same in his scenes.
As they drove around New York City, the Naked City crew members often stopped if they saw a fire or something unusual. The actors would jump out of their vehicles and start filming, knowing that the producers could use the footage for fill-in shots on another episode.
“I was very lucky I had a great 40-year career,” Paul says. “I wanted to continue working into my 60s, and I have.”
When he retired, Paul and his wife, former actress and model Lyn Peters, moved here full time. “What I love about the desert is its solitude, its quiet,” he says. “I wanted to get totally away from time, which I could do by hiking in the [Indian] Canyons. It was prehistoric to me.”
He spent years climbing all the frontal peaks here — from Windy Point to Box Canyon, 20 miles east of Indio. “There’s no place on Earth where the nights were so exquisite, especially the summer nights. I used to arrange my schedule to be here during the summer. None of my friends were here. I used to see tinfoil on their windows, which back then meant ‘See you in October.’”
Alia (her name means “high born one”) has lived here all her life. She has an older brother, Paul, a senior at Palm Valley, and a younger brother, Sharif, at Marywood Country Day School. Their father, Tony, is a native of Iraq, and the family is well-traveled. Alia has been to Europe several times, studies French and Spanish, and understands some Arabic, courtesy of her dad.
When working on a series, she spends Monday through Friday in Los Angeles from September to January. Back at Palm Valley, she fits in soccer, volleyball, and student council, as well as two-hour piano lessons with teacher Denise Storck. “She doesn’t let any grass grow under her feet,” says Dina. “If she’s not doing one thing, it’s another.” She maintains an A grade point average in school and has hopes to attend Yale or Georgetown universities. She notes role models, such as Natalie Portman, who went to top colleges while acting during the summers. “A lot of child actors emancipate themselves from high school when they are 15 or 16,” she says. “I think that’s awful. Education is so important.”
Her parents are supportive, with her mother making the four-hour roundtrips for auditions and disrupting her schedule to live in Los Angeles several weeks each year. But she’s no Mama Rose. “You can’t push a child to do it,” Dina says. “If children want an ice skating career or are into high-level basketball or soccer, parents make these same sacrifices — getting up early, driving their kids long distances.”
It is clear, watching Paul and Alia cavort during a photo shoot, that there is a deep-seated affection between the two. He’s tickled by her success, and she is proud to have an accomplished grandfather so well-versed in desert history and show business lore. Alia says that her grandparents throw wonderful parties and barbecues, which she jumps at the chance to attend.
“My grandfather is an amazing storyteller,” she says. “My friends are infatuated with him. We’ll sit and listen and listen and then ask him to tell us more stories. He’s the best.”
She’s not acting as she says that. She’s simply a 15-year-old, speaking proudly and seriously.