Early Life and Education
Self's father, Edwin Byron Self, worked as an Advertising Manager at the Dayton Rubber Manufacturing Company, Akron Rubber Company, Miller Brewing Company, and Joseph Schlitz Brewing Company. Edwin Self wrote a novel, Limbo City (1949), and at least three plays which opened on Broadway: Junk (1927) starring Sydney Greenstreet, Two Strange Women(1933), and The Distant City (1941). His play, The Lady and the Clown, starring Estelle Winwood, opened in 1944 at the Civic Theatre in Chicago with William Self playing a small part. Edwin and Elizabeth (Elsie) Fundus Self, a homemaker, had two children: William and Jean LaVerne Self (later Bright).
From childhood, Self has had "enthusiasms," keen interests that started when he was young and had continued throughout his life. Some of these interests had resulted in important connections and personal friendships. Self's fascination with Rudolph Valentino, for example, began when he was only five years old and his sister took him to see The Son of the Sheik (1926). Self had said that because his sister told him that Valentino had just died, he expected to see the movie idol in his casket on screen. Valentino stayed in Self's mind. He saw all the movies and read all the books he could find. As an adult, he became friends with Valentino's personal manager, George Ullman; one of Valentino's best friends, Robert Florey; as well as with Valentino's brother, Alberto.
It was also show business that led Self to become an accomplished tennis player. In 1932, age eleven, his parents took him to New York to see a Broadway production of Show Boat. Self's father pointed out tennis champion Bill Tilden in the lobby, telling him that Tilden was the greatest living tennis player. Self did not know anything about tennis, but he was impressed. He asked Tilden to sign his program. Back in Dayton, Self bought Tilden's book, Match Play and the Spin of the Ball, and talked his parents into purchasing him a tennis racket. With time, he would become runner-up in the Wisconsin Junior Tennis Championship, represent Wisconsin on the Junior Davis Cup team and, in 1945, win The Wisconsin State Men's Championship. Self played Varsity tennis at the University of Chicago and in his Senior Year was elected Captain of the team. When he came to Los Angeles in 1944, as an unknown and untried actor, his skill at tennis allowed him to make important contacts. He regularly played with Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn, Charlie Chaplin, and Jack Warner, among other Hollywood notables. He also became friends with and played Bill Tilden.
One of Self's favorite hobbies was magic. When he was thirteen years old, he won a citywide contest, mounted by the renowned magician Howard Thurston and his traveling show, to name "Dayton's Best Amateur Magician and the Person Most Likely to Become Thurston's Successor." The contest was limited to children thirteen and under. Being the winner, Self appeared at the Colonial Theatre on the stage with Mr. Thurston to perform his trick. Although he had never before performed this trick in public (a fact he had left out on his contest application), it went off perfectly. Self's photograph was taken with Thurston and a notice appeared in a Dayton newspaper. He was friends with some of the best-known magicians and magic historians in the United States, and attended many of the major magic conventions. For many years, he was a member of The Magic Castle, a professional magician's club in Hollywood. In later years he became a close friend of Howard Thurston's daughter, Jane, who had appeared on stage with her father.
Another film that sparked a lifelong interest was Annie Oakley (1936), which starred Barbara Stanwyck. Self was fifteen years old when he saw the movie at the Keith Theatre in Dayton. Annie Oakley's brother, who lived in nearby Greenville, Ohio, had lent some of his Oakley memorabilia for display in the lobby. The film and the memorabilia fired Self's imagination, and his fascination with Oakley and Buffalo Bill Cody took root. He looked up Oakley's brother in Greenville and the two became friends. He also started writing an Oakley biography. To research this project, Self, age seventeen, persuaded his family to travel to Cody, Wyoming so that Self could study the Oakley scrapbooks in the small log structure which housed the Buffalo Bill Museum. He also persuaded the museum's founder and curator, Mary Jester Allen (Buffalo Bill's niece), to name him Assistant Historian. Self had letterhead stationary and business cards printed with this title, although he never did anything in the position. The book was never published, but Self went on to serve on the Board of Trustees of the Buffalo Bill Historical Center: the five-museum, five-football-fields-sized outgrowth of the original institution. Many of Oakley's grandnieces and nephews were his friends.
While in high school, he decided to take up acting. In 1938, he appeared in Roosevelt High's Junior Class play, and in 1939 he was cast in the leading role of the Senior Class play, The Eyes of Tlaloc by Agnes Emelie Peterson. He also worked behind the scenes as electrician and stage manager. Self's drama teacher, Bertha May Johns, was a great inspiration to him as well as to her other students.
Self gave up drama while at the University of Chicago, thinking he should devote himself to more serious pursuits. While there, he joined Phi Kappa Psi Fraternity. He graduated from Chicago in 1943 with a degree in Political Science.
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