Quote Origin: All Actors Are Cattle

Alfred Hitchcock? Leonard Lyons? Apocryphal?

Illustration of a group of cattle from Quaritsch Photography at Unsplash

Question for Quote Investigator: Alfred Hitchcock was one of the greatest movie directors of the twentieth century in my opinion. A controversial quotation about actors has long been attributed to him:

All actors are cattle.

Did he really say this? Who was he speaking to?

Reply from Quote Investigator: There is good evidence that Alfred Hitchcock did refer to actors as cattle by 1940, and his astringent remark became widely known in Hollywood. Eventually he provided elaborations and playful variations. Details are given further below.

Hitchcock was not the first person to describe actors as cattle. A book published in 1900 discussed a court case between a prominent actor named William Charles Macready and a stage manager named Bunn. The manager was portrayed negatively because of his harsh attitude toward actors. Boldface added to excerpts by QI:1

The plaintiff in the case got little or no sympathy from the public, for he belonged to the order of manager, not yet totally extinct, who looks upon actors as cattle and plays as mere pens wherein to exhibit them at so much profit.

The earliest instance located by QI of Hitchcock using the phrase was reported by the popular gossip columnist Leonard Lyons in the Washington Post in July 1940. The remark was contained within a larger joke that zinged the acting skills of George Raft who often portrayed gangsters in melodramas:2

When Raft, incidentally, appeared in “The House Across the Bay,” his director was absent for one day, and Alfred Hitchcock was asked to help, by directing some closeups. “You know,” Hitchcock warned Raft, “that I think all actors are cattle?” Raft replied, “Yes, I know—but I’m no actor.”

In October 1940 an Associated Press article with a Hollywood dateline included an instance of the quotation. The George Raft joke was altered, and the location of the anecdote was moved from a film set to the home of a well-known actress:3 4

There is a locally-famous story about this Englishman’s attitude toward actors. One evening at Norma Shearer’s, breaking a conversational lull, Hitchcock pulled himself up portentously and announced: “All actors are cattle.” He hoped to provoke a stimulating argument.

After a stunned silence, George Raft, so goes the story, said “But no one ever called me an actor.”
And Hitchcock replied, quietly: “Yes, I know.”

Every actor in town knows the story, but all who have had the pleasure of working with the pudgy director say that whatever he may think of them as a class, he certainly is one of the few who can get the most out of all actors at all times.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In November 1940 an article in the New York Times labeled the quotation a “famous observation”. The actor Robert Montgomery knew of the remark and responded with humor:5

When Montgomery first reported for the film he thought he would have some sport with Hitchcock over the director’s famous observation that “all actors are cattle.” Just before the cameras turned, Montgomery bowed gravely and said, “Mr. Hitchcock, the clay is ready to be molded.” The director retorted, “The word is presumptuous. You should say putty.”

In September 1941 a magazine called “Hollywood” detailed an elaborate prank that had been inspired by the quotation. The actress Carole Lombard orchestrated the diversion, but Hitchcock was unruffled:6

The best actors in the business can not escape him. His favorite comment is: “Actors are cattle! They should be treated as such!”

This remark has achieved such fame that, on the first day of the shooting of Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Carole Lombard brought in three young heifers from her ranch, placed them tenderly in a small corral on the set, and labelled them “Robert Montgomery,” “Gene Raymond” and “Carole Lombard.” A large sign was placed on the rail of the pen: “Mr. Hitchcock’s Cattle,” and a cowboy costume—size 152—was draped over a chair nearby.

When the great director appeared, he merely glanced at the lowing herd and muttered: “This seems to be the set for a western! Boy, remove the rubbish!” He never gives anyone a chance to triumph over him.

The “Hollywood” magazine article ended with query about actors and a response from Hitchcock:

I asked him what he really thought about actors. This was his statement:
“Fundamentally, actors are a race apart. This group is divided into two sections: first, those who have talent and have never received any recognition for it, and, second, those who have received recognition without having any talent. Either way, they’re cattle.

In May 1943 a Los Angeles Times journalist asked Hitchcock to explain his now well-known saying:7

Quoted in the Post as insisting “Actors are cattle,” the director passed off the phrase as one of his “Machiavellian quips.” not to be taken seriously. “Let us say, rather, that actors are a necessary evil,” he cautioned, with a straight face. “As a matter of fact, I couldn’t work if I weren’t on friendly terms with them; I’ll bend over backward, every time.” (I had a quick flash of 246 pounds bending over backward.) “Besides, I get into each picture I make, if only for a couple of seconds—so I’m probably a frustrated actor at heart myself!”

In October 1944 the thespian aspirations of Hitchcock’s daughter stimulated questions:8

Alfred Hitchcock flew to Boston to see his daughter, Pat, in the new play, “Violet.” Hitchcock was confronted with his much-quoted statement that “all actors are cattle.” “It still goes,” he insisted. “But Pat is the nicest cattle I’ve ever seen.”

In 1952 a conversation between two actors was quoted in “The New Yorker” magazine. A mass audition was labeled a “cattle call”:9

Weaver, a light-haired young man in a leatherjacket and a white shirt, asked Miss Raphael if she was going to Cattle Call.

“I don’t think so,” she said, and told us that “Cattle Call” is the actors’ name for the weekly assemblage of actors and actresses that one of the television studios holds to see who is available for parts.

In 1962 Hitchcock was interviewed for Esquire magazine, and he recalled his adage from two decades earlier:10

“I once said that actors are cattle,” he smiled. “But that’s a joke. However, actors are children, and they’re temperamental, and they need to be handled gently and sometimes . . .” he paused for emphasis . . . “slapped. I always talk things over with them in the dressing room before we go on the set. Otherwise, one too often has all the drama on the set and none in the scene.”

In March 1965 the Screen Producers Guild held an awards banquet at the Beverly Hilton in Beverly Hills, California. Alfred Hitchcock was awarded the Milestone Award and during his acceptance speech he implausibly denied that he had equated actors and cattle. He also suggested an amended version of his famous statement. In fact, the following line was deliberately comical. It was scripted by the television comedy writer James Allardice who also composed the short introductions and signoffs spoken by Hitchcock in the TV series “Alfred Hitchcock Presents”:11 12

I deny that I have ever said actors are cattle. What I said was: ‘Actors should be treated like cattle.’

In conclusion, QI believes that Alfred Hitchcock did say that all actors are cattle. Yet he received high praise for his directorial skills from many actors who worked with him. His remark was part of a theatrical persona. Hitchcock was also an actor.

Image Notes: Illustration of a group of cattle in a field from Quaritsch Photography at Unsplash.

Acknowledgements: Thanks to Steven Losie who mentioned a 1954 citation for the thematically pertinent term “cattle call”, and thanks to Peter Morris who found a 1952 citation for “cattle call”. In addition, thanks to mailing list discussant Peter Reitan

Update History: On June 9, 2024 the 1952 citation was added to the article. Also,  the format of the bibliographical notes was updated.

  1. 1900, Twelve Great Actors by Edward Robins, Profile of William Charles Macready, Start Page 207, Quote Page 235, The Knickerbocker Press, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, New York and London. (Verified on paper) ↩︎
  2. 1940 July 26, Washington Post, The New Yorker by Leonard Lyons, Quote Page 7, Column 2, Washington, D.C. (ProQuest) ↩︎
  3. 1940 October 19, Miami Daily News, Hitchcock Treats Actors Like Children Or Cattle by Hubbard Keavy, (Associated Press), Quote Page 6A, Column 6, Miami, Florida, (Google News Archive) ↩︎
  4. 1940 October 20, Trenton Evening Times, Section 2, Hitchcock Sneers at Actors But He Makes Them Stars, (Associated Press), Quote Page 10, Column 8, Trenton, New Jersey. (GenealogyBank) ↩︎
  5. 1940 November 3, New York Times, Hollywood Bidding: ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’ Fetches Record Price From Paramount—Other News Quote Page 141, Column 8, New York. (ProQuest) ↩︎
  6. 1941 September, Hollywood, Volume 30, Number 9, ‘Actors Are Cattle!’ Says Director Alfred Hitchcock by Kate Holliday, Start Page 19, Quote Page 19 and 68, Published monthly by Fawcett Publications, Inc., Louisville, Kentucky. (Internet Archive full view) ↩︎
  7. 1943 May 30, Los Angeles Times, Town Called Hollywood: Director Pleads Off Poundage by Philip K. Scheuer, Quote Page C3, Los Angeles, California. (ProQuest) ↩︎
  8. 1944 October 21, Washington Post, Times Square Tattle by Leonard Lyons, Quote Page 8, Washington, D.C. (ProQuest) ↩︎
  9. 1952 November 8, The New Yorker, The Talk of the Town: Crazy, Crazy, Start Page 23, Quote Page 24, Column 3, The New Yorker Magazine Inc, New York. (Online Archive of The New Yorker at archives.newyorker.com) ↩︎
  10. 1962 August, Esquire, Volume 58, Number 2, Talkies by Peter Bogdanovich, Start Page 33, Quote Page 36, Esquire Inc., Chicago, Illinois. (Verified on microfilm) ↩︎
  11. 1965 March 9, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Screen Producers’ Tip: ‘My Fair Lady’ Oscar by James Bacon, (Associated Press), Quote Page 37, Column 2, Cleveland, Ohio. (GenealogyBank) ↩︎
  12. 1965 May 3, Morning Advocate (Advocate), Viewing TV: Alfred Hitchcock’s Writer Had Bird Nest on the Ground by Hal Humphrey, Quote Page 7B, Column 3, Baton Rouge, Louisiana. (GenealogyBank) ↩︎
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