The day Cary Grant gave me a ticking off over the telephone

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The Independent Culture

In all the deserving praise of Cary Grant (greeting the season of his films at the National Film Theatre), never forget that he retired. Not that all actors should be compelled to stop. Still, it's encouraging to find one ready to concede that there are better things to do with life – and to admit the absurdity of anyone much past 60 trapped in pictures.

So it was, in 1966, after a mild comedy, Walk, Don't Run (his 72nd film), that Grant called it a day. He was 62, in good health and immaculate condition, just three years after Charade and only seven years older than North by Northwest, one of his happiest adventures (where it seemed reasonable that the 35-year-old Eva Marie Saint was ready to spend her journey with him on a cross-country train).

One year before Walk, Don't Run, Grant had married – for the fourth time in his life – Dyan Cannon. She was 29, and in 1966, she gave birth to a daughter, Jennifer, the only child Grant would ever have. The marriage didn't last, but Grant was determined to spend time being a father. Many directors hoped he would relent. Yet he turned down Sleuth, A Touch of Class and Heaven Can Wait – Warren Beatty wanted him to play the angel, but had to make do with James Mason.

He was never a secure or confident person, but all that happened in those "empty" years was that his reputation grew as audiences realised there was no one new like Cary Grant. But then, encouraged by his fifth wife, Barbara, he began to conceive of what would be called A Conversation with Cary Grant. For charities that took his fancy, and in venues removed from major cities, he quietly developed a live act: there would be a 30-minute selection of clips, and then Grant himself would stroll on stage and talk to the audience. He took questions, he told stories and, above all, he managed to be Cary Grant, that ideal figure he often said he had laboured after in real life.

As word spread, so the Telluride Film Festival was inspired to get Grant for a tribute. This is the best film festival in America, held over the Labor Day weekend in the Colorado Rockies. The festival directors, Bill Pence and Tom Luddy, enlisted me to help snare Grant. For we had heard that his Conversation was coming to the Marin Center, not far north of San Francisco.

I had written an essay on Grant that was meant to intrigue him enough to accept the festival's invitation. The article, and phone numbers, were deposited at the stage door with someone who promised to get them to him.

The three of us saw the show, and treasured it. The marvel was not just Grant's ease with a crowd of 2,000, but the unvarying intelligence, and the revelation of an actor who had thought about the smallest details in a performance. Put it this way – he showed himself as our Cary Grant, the best actor the movies have ever had.

The next morning, early, my phone rang. There was a woman's voice – his wife, I'm sure – asking if I could take a call from Cary Grant. I consented, and there he was, that voice, on the other end of the phone. But he didn't much like the article I had sent. And as soon as he spoke, I saw why: I had contrived in this article to create the voice of Grant, talking to himself. It was impertinent, it was reckless, it wasn't "normal" criticism. So, instead of praising Grant, I found myself trying to defend my stupid efforts. He listened, but he didn't seem impressed. He did sound faintly huffy and grumpy, and no, he certainly wouldn't be coming to Telluride. I put the phone down in dismay.

About 45 minutes later, the phone rang again, and this time, there was no buffer. It was him, and he didn't bother to say so. "Look, I read it again. And I get it now. Yes, I think I rather like it."

Had he heard the impact he had made on me? It seemed impossible, but this infinite star had sat down and re-read the piece. He persuaded me that he had. He liked it, and he'd wanted to say so.

No, he couldn't come to Telluride – accept one festival and they'd all jump on him. But what had I thought of the show? Because he was trying to improve it, and maybe he'd put it on film one day soon. So we discussed the show and he was greedy for suggestions. We parted on good terms.

In his last few years, he did that show over 30 times, but it was never filmed. He died in 1986, and I hope he knew there was enough film of him to support the highest claims – if read twice.

'Cary Grant: Part 1': NFT, London SE1 (020 7928 3232), Saturday to 21 September