Virgil Films has released the remarkable documentary "The Coolest Guy Movie Ever", a unique look at the 1963 WWII classic "The Great Escape". The film cemented Steve McQueen as a newly-minted superstar of the big screen and featured one of the all-time great casts: James Garner, Richard Attenborough, Charles Bronson, James Coburn, David McCallum, Donald Pleasence, James Donald among them. United Artists originally intended the movie to be shot in Hollywood but director John Sturges argued that it would only be convincing if shot on location in Germany. "The Coolest Guy Movie Ever" visits those locations and presents how they look today. In some cases, the iconic locations have changed considerably while others remain instantly recognizable. The documentary was conceived, directed, photographed and edited by Christophe Espenan, a devoted fan of the film. Espenan and a team of dedicated assistants and enthusiasts of the movie painstakingly tracked down even the most minor locations. The documentary details the challenges this presented in Germany's ever-changing landscape. Most vitally, he also tracked down people whose families interacted with the film crew. Most interesting is the small hotel where key members of the cast, including Steve McQueen, stayed during production. The son of the couple who ran the hotel at the time (and who still operates it today) gives first-hand memories of what it was like to have legendary celebrities staying in the cozy venue and how polite everyone was to the family. The documentary is chock full of such wonderful anecdotes and is enhanced by ample film clips from the movie and very rare production photos.
We spoke to Joe Amodei, the President and CEO of Virgil Films, which has released the film as a region-free DVD. Here, Amodei shares his thoughts about the production.
did you first learn of the existence of “The Coolest Guy Movie Ever”
Somewhere around three years ago Steven Jay Rubin
introduced me to Chris Espenan who was directing the doc. I had previously
released Steve’s documentary “East LA Marine” about WWII hero Guy Gabaldon.
Steve knew I was a “Great Escape” fan and told me about the movie. I
immediately said “Tally Ho, I am in.”
attracted you in terms of agreeing to distribute the film through Virgil?
”The Great Escape” was the film that did it for me as a
kid going to the movies in Northeast Philadelphia. In those days I could walk
to the theatre so I went three or four times a week. I learned the meaning of “cool”
while watching the film. Steve McQueen was the definition of that word. We are
always on the lookout for film- related docs and this one really came close to
home. I also knew it was something I might be able to get my friend Michael
Meister involved in. He is a fellow “Great Escape” lover who ended up coming in
with finishing funds that allowed us to screen the film in the market at
Cannes. BTW Michael LOVES Cinema Retro!
did the rare production photos seen in the documentary originate?
A lot of them came from Walter Rimi’s son Christian who
graciously allowed us the use of his father’s photos. Walter was second unit
director of photography. Christian is in the film and gives a very emotional
talk about freedom and how important it s.
was WWII historian Steve Rubin’s role in making the documentary a reality?
He is the Producer of the film. Our very own Big X. My
Dad and I had the pleasure of seeing the film at Grauman’s Theatre (I still
call it that) in Hollywood a few years back during the Turner Classic Movies
Film Fest. Was very cool seeing it on the big screen with my father sitting
next to me. It’s not something I will ever forget.
are your personal memories of “The Great Escape”? When did you first see it?
The summer of 1963. The Merben Movie Theatre.
Philadelphia PA. I remember building a ramp for my bicycle to jump over. I was
lucky if I got the bike a foot or two off the ground. But it felt unbelievably
qualities about the movie do you feel resonate most after so many years?
The POW’s never give up. They try to escape from the
minute they get into the camp. They never give up. It is this heroism that the
real Stalag Luft 3 inhabitants had when they made the real escape in March of
1944. John Surges and crew made sure that courage was on display throughout the
is your favorite character in the film?
Simply put Virgil Hilts. But I do have a love for Charles
Bronson’s portrayal of “Tunnel King” Danny as well.
Nothing like that motorcycle jump over the fence to get
me going. There is also a scene where McQueen takes down a German soldier about
to shoot his friend, “The Mole” Ives. He
doesn’t get to save him but the gymnastic leap off the ground of McQueen’s body
into the German added to the coolness of the character. No one had done this in
movies before. We had cool actors like William Holden in “Stalag 17” or James
Dean in “Rebel Without a Cause.” But no one was cool like McQueen. No one.
reflections on Elmer Bernstein’s score?
In the top two or three of all time. It is the ringer on
my phone. I got the chance to thank him at a screening of “Sweet Smell of
Success” a while back. He was a nice and gracious man.
thoughts on John Sturges as a director and other films of his that have
Sturges never gets
the credit he deserves because a lot of his films were big time audience
favorites but not necessarily critical favorites. This guy not only made “The
Great Escape” but he also brought us “The Magnificent Seven", “Bad Day at Black
Rock,” “The Old Man and the Sea” and “Gunfight at the OK Corral.” Those are
In the late 1970s and early 80s, there
was a fear that gripped New York City. After 1977, the year of the Son of Sam
murders, the disastrous blackout, and the Bronx literally in flames later, the
cityscape and New York aura had drastically changed. The movie Death
Wish(1974) directed by Michael
Winner,made earlier, had caused quite a
stir reflecting the bleak and often paranoid reactions of citizens, and it
spawned several other films. Vigilante, produced and directed by
exploitation genre virtuoso, William Lustig, and written by Richard Vetere, was
perhaps arguably one of the leanest and no-holds-barred of this type of film.
Lustig and actor Joe Spinell had teamed up to make the lucrative but extremely
graphic and controversial horror/ serial killer film Maniac (1980). Vigilante
was Lustig’s follow up. Yet, Vigilante remains to be more aestheticized
with a raw prose of the street thanks to Vetere's work, and the grim urban
settings serving as a stark landscape, rather than relying on the raw
gratuitous gore of Lustig’s prior film.
caught up with Richard Vetere in July 2018, who was a former professor of screenwriting of
mine at Queens College in the late 1990s. I had seen the film on Netflix
recently and thought how underrated it was, and I wanted to contact Vetere to
find out his insight into writing such a gritty, visceral, and memorable film.
Vetere explains that Lustig approached him to write a “Blue Collar Death Wish”. One of the points Vetere
makes was how unapologetically politically incorrect the film is. It was on the top 20 highest grossing films of
1983, and it was an example of an innovative indie film, before indie
groundbreakers, Miramax, the Shooting Gallery and Tarantino were making waves
in the 1990s.
can easily be overlooked as an exploitation genre film, but offers the viewer
something more unique with the gritty performances especially by Forster,
dialogue thanks to Vetere, and cinematography that make it a stand out. I saw
the film when I was young and it made an impression. The political view is
obviously in --your -face about policing tactics and politicians not doing
enough for the public. We see this frustrated view in many of the films of the
era. Pre-Giuliani, pre-Disneyfication of New York was grim, but it had almost a
distinct street grit-aesthetic for filmmaking, such as in earlier films like The
French Connection (William Friedkin, 1971).
Vetere says what makes his film stand
out is that it is unapologetic for the action of the heroes in the movie. The
ending in which a judge is blown to bits was very controversial. He emphasizes
his own frustration at the growing apathy in the city by police and the public
alike. He also feels his film is one of the most realistic of the genre in
comparison to other films like Death Wish and Fighting Back. He
felt DeathWish had an ill-fitting sense of humor and the villains
were so over the top that they were not realistic. Vetere maintains that he was
going for “reality” untrammeled by Hollywood restriction or by a need for
self-justification as he felt Fighting Back had.
Richard Vetere's films that he wrote or
co-wrote include The Third Miracle
starring Ed Harris and produced by Francis Ford Coppola and directed by
Agnieszka Holland released by Sony Picture Classics, The Marriage Fool for CBS TV films starring Walter Matthau and
Carol Burnett, How to Go Out on a Date in
Queens starring Jason Alexander and the teleplay Hale the Hero! starring Elisabeth Shue for A&E.
What was happening politically at the time this film was made in the
early 1980s New York?
the late 1970s and early ‘80s New York City was a city on a major decline.There was no political will and no ability to
get anything done.Unlike today there wasn’t a single
neighborhood untouched by graffiti, street crime, vandalism and muggings.Prostitutes walked the streets, cars being
broken into -- all met with indifference by a somewhat over-taxed, somewhat
corrupt, somewhat bewildered police force.When you got on a subway you were basically taking your life into your
own hands since gangs roamed the subway with impunity.Just
stepping out of your house could be intimidating to the common citizen.You have to remember back then the police
only responded to a crime the concept
of attacking crime and preventing it was not put into effect. Also
the subway police and the street police were two different departments so if
someone committed a crime, they took refuge underground.So I would like to answer your question this
way – the average citizen was afraid and felt helpless.This made them apathetic to their own plight.As a young man this outraged me to such a
point that I wanted to take action.I
was angry at the indifference of the populace and of the authorities.From this anger and frustration came Vigilante.
Riding high: at the peak of his career, Reynolds and Clint Eastwood were the top boxoffice stars in the world.
At age 82, Burt Reynolds is beaten but not broken. The one-time superstar had many ups-and-downs in his career and he's now walking with a cane, the result of doing many dangerous stunts that went wrong. But he's still in there kicking. Reynolds, who resides in Florida, mentors acting students and is also starring in a new film, appropriately titled "The Last Movie Star", about a forgotten leading man who is to receive an honor late in life at a Nashville film festival. Reynolds was recently in New York to make an appearance at a retrospective of his films and was interviewed by Kathryn Shattuck of the New York Times. He comes across as candid and very much the same kind of wise guy that he popularized on screen. Click here to read.
In an interview with Craig Modderno of The Daily Beast, William Shatner reflects on all matter of subjects ranging from American politics (he claims to be agnostic on the subject) to his long-standing friendship with the late Leonard Nimoy and his disappointment at not having been cast in any of the recent "Star Trek" films. At age 86, Shatner is still one of the busiest stars in Hollywood, writing books, shooting TV series and feature films and hosting charity events. Click here to read.
RETRO-ACTIVE: THE BEST FROM THE CINEMA RETRO ARCHIVE
(Cinema Retro joins other retro movie lovers in mourning the recent passing of Turner Classic Movies host Robert Osborne. This is Lee Pfeiffer's interview with Osborne that originally ran in 2008)
Cinema Retro Editor-in-Chief Lee Pfeiffer chatted with Robert Osborne, the popular host of TCM's movie broadcasts. Osborne, who is also the official Oscar historian, is well known for his informative introductions and epilogues for the films that TCM broadcasts. Director Sidney Lumet once said that even if he doesn't desire to see certain films, he always tries to tune in for Osborne's introductions. Osborne is as affable offscreen as he is on the air. Witty, knowledgable and conversant in all things Hollywood-related, he has many of the attributes he ascribes to the stars he grew up idolizing. In addition to being a columnist for the Hollywood Reporter, Osborne is by all accounts America's premiere film historian.
CR: You seem to have every movie lover's dream job: to get paid to watch and analyze classic movies. How did this come about and what led to your association with the Academy?
RO: When I was first starting out as an actor, I was under contract to Lucille Ball at Desilu Studios, which was owned by Lucy and Desi Arnaz. Lucy knew I had this passion for movie history which at that time was not a normal thing. Most people weren't interested in movie history. She said, "You know, you would have a happier life as a writer than as an actor. You should be writing about movies, because nobody is." She told me that she thought being an actor would never make me happy, but writing would. She knew I was a journalism major at the University of Washington. She told me that if I took up writing as a profession, the first thing I had to do was write a book because people would look at you differently if I did. She told me it didn't even have to be a good book, but that everyone is impressed with anyone who writes a book because most people lack the discipline to do it. I knew she was telling me this for my own good, not some other agenda, so I quit being an actor and became a writer.
The thing I decided to write about was the Academy Awards because you could always find a list of who won Oscars, but you could never find a list of who was nominated. It was even hard to get one from the Academy because that was a very small organization at the time. So I wrote this book and it hit a chord with people because you couldn't get a book about the Oscars anywhere else. The cult success of that book has followed me around ever since. Years later, when they decided they wanted a history done of the Academy, they asked me to write it. (The latest edition of the book is titled 75 Years of the Oscar: The Official History of the Academy Awards-Ed.)
Garnett is one of the most respected and celebrated British filmmakers of his
generation having worked extensively in British television and through his work
with critically acclaimed filmmakers such as Ken Loach, whom the pair worked
together on the seminal British dramas Kes (1969) and Cathy Come Home (1966),
both of which Garnett produced. Opting to move away from producing, Garnett set
his sights on writing and directing his own feature films. After directing the
critically acclaimed drama Prostitute (1980), Garnett went on to the write and
direct the film Handgun (1983), a powerful cult rape and revenge thriller.
Eschewing the exploitation motifs as explored in the genre titles such as Death
Wish (1974), Abel Ferrara’s Ms. 45 (1981) and I Spit on Your Grave (1978), favouring
an art-house aesthetic and employing a docudrama stylistic approach, Garnett’s
film is a measured exploration of the nature of injustice and retribution while
a searing indictment of American gun culture and rape.
in Dallas, when young high school teacher Kathleen spurns the advances of
arrogant lawyer Larry, he coerces her to his apartment where he rapes her at
gunpoint, raping her a second time for good measure. Violated not only by
Larry, Kathleen is further violated by the authorities who do little to bring
the sexual predator Larry to justice. Enraged, Kathleen eradicates any form of
femininity by cropping her hair and donning army fatigues, while undergoing
firearm training, before taking the law into her own hands by luring Larry out
in the dead of night to administer her own brand of rough justice (it should be
noted that the ending will leave viewers divided, especially those expecting a
more violent denouement to the film). In this feminist vigilant film, Kathleen
is forced into this path when all around her fail her, while Larry is painted
as a bigoted, misogynistic, and racist bully, who believes his wealth and power
entitles him to anything, and this power can be derived through violence. This
is expertly shown prior to the harrowing rape scene when Garnett cuts to a
scene of Larry indulging in the high life with his equally grotesque pals,
before attending a “Foxy Boxing” match, where the all-female fighters fight
bra-less in an arena while the scummy patrons holler from the side lines and
try to grope the fighters as they walk by. It is an important point in the film
because it comes just prior to the rape sequence as Garnett is critiquing male
machismo and a sexist view of women. In a sense, with the bra-less boxers fighting
in the ring, we see that in Larry’s world sexualized violence is acceptable. In
this sequence Garnett attempts to show how this attitude and perception of women
leads him to violate Kathleen. The rape scene that follows is harrowing, yet
not overtly explicit. While the rape is shocking, especially as we see Kathleen
forced to strip at gunpoint, before being sexually violated, the most sickening
part is the attitude of Larry post-rape, where he administers blame on her for
being frigid. He sees nothing wrong in his actions, which makes it even more
satisfying when the pent up fury of Kathleen explodes as she goes hunting her
prey at the gun club where she has honed her sharpshooting skills.
expecting a film seeped in violence will be disappointed. This is a slow,
methodical and intelligent film shot in long, natural takes that make it seem
like a documentary at times, with standout performances by Karen Young as
Kathleen and Clayton Day as Larry. In October 2016, I was fortunate to interview
Garnett about his memories working on the film [note: spoilers alert].
Edwards:Your cult thriller Handgun is one of the more intelligent films that
emerged in the 70s/80s in the rape and revenge genre. Where did the inspiration
come from to make the film? Were you trying to bring attention to the
“date-rape” crisis that was afflicting American society and the failure to
prosecute the persecutors of the crimes?
Garnett: I was in America trying to understand it. Having been brought up
during the war, my idea of America was of GI’s giving me gum, Hollywood action
movies and glossy TV. My reading of its history and troubled present offered me
a different picture. I was particularly interested to see how Americans tended
to settle arguments by shooting each other. Why? I also saw the relationship
between rape and guns—in my view, rape is about violence more than about sex.
It is about power and control. So I went to Dallas—so resonant in all our minds
with violence, I even began the film with shots of Dealey Plaza, the infamous
West End district of Dallas where J.F Kennedy was assassinated. Research over
many months gradually produced a story. I have always researched and allowed
characters to emerge from it and then they, under interrogation, tell me a
did you set about writing/researching the film and securing finance for the
film? I understand that EMI stepped on board to get the film into production.
budget was small, around $3m, and my agent Harry Ufland set it up at EMI
without difficulty. I had no interference from them, until the rough cut and
then everyone wanted to “improve” the film. The problem was that I had made a
slow, thoughtful, and I hope considered character study, and they were
expecting a commercial hit—an action movie with some sexy rape scenes. I hadn’t
delivered. Some of the distributors were disappointed as they considered the
rape scenes a turn off and not sexy! I had to cut elements from the film that I
now regret. I also regret selling the film to Warner Brothers, instead of
Goldwyn, who were a small art house distributor. They were producing a Clint
Eastwood rape and revenge film. They didn’t want the competition so they bought
mine, sat on it, and opened it in a few theatres before pulling the film. It
was a failure. I was naïve. I wish I had gone with Goldwyn. They would have
been more sympathetic to the film.
did you opt to set the film in Texas? Was it their frontier attitude and
obsession with guns that prompted this?
has a frontier attitude, there are more guns there than people and the attitude
to women tends to be courtly even as they’re commodified. I had to choose
somewhere and could have set it anywhere, in truth. But Dallas seemed right at
how did you approach the visual style of the film? For me, the film is a fine
blend of action mixed with a naturalistic documentary sensibility.
style of the film was approached in exactly the same way my colleagues and I had
been developing for decades while working in small British films, many at the
BBC. I took Charles Stewart as Director of Photography and Bill Shapter as Editor,
who I’d worked with many times as producer and director. I spent many months
doing improvisations with actors, none of them known. I found Karen in New York
and the actors who play her parents in Boston; the rest of the cast I found in
Dallas. Some, like those at the gun club and in the gun shop, were just there
and non-professional actors. We allowed the actors freedom, no marks, the
camera has to follow them; they don’t exist for the camera and the lighting.
Our aim was to never to allow a line if it felt as though a writer has written
it; I wanted to abolish “acting” acting and “directing” directing as I wanted
the technique to be invisible so that all you see is a character in a
circumstance and the audience is eavesdropping on the action.
casting of Karen Young as Kathleen Sullivan was brilliant as she delivers a
highly believable performance of an innocent young girl pushed over the edge
into vengeance. How did you come to cast her in the role and were you pleased
with her performance in the film?
was excellent. A very talented young woman. She never flinched when going through Karen’s
journey especially as she had many arduous emotional scenes during the shooting
Even at 90 years of age Jerry Lewis can still grab a headline. When the Hollywood Reporter recently visited his home to conduct a video interview, Lewis looked as though he was facing root canal surgery. He rudely answered questions with one or two word answers, insulted the crew throughout in a not very subtle manner and for seven excruciating minutes that have since gone viral, he dissed the interviewer, who never lost his cool or the respect he showed to the comedy legend. In that regard, he showed more class than Lewis himself. This wasn't an ambush-style interview or one loaded with "gotcha" questions. The pity is that if Lewis had played ball with the interviewer, he could have provided some interesting insights from the standpoint of a man his age who is still actively performing on stage and in film. Instead Lewis acted as though he had not consented to the interview and that somehow the crew had engaged in a home invasion. By doing so, he only diminished himself. If he was that ticked off at the prospect of doing the interview, why didn't he just cancel it instead of degrading himself in this manner?
new book release just grabbed our attention that in many ways has both
everything and nothing to do with cinema. The book is titled, The World’s Hardest Music Trivia: Rock n
Roll History, Fun Facts and Behind the Scenes Stories About the Groups and
Songs You Thought You Knew (Nautilus)but at 388 well-researched pages there is
nothing trivial about it. The book is a fun read that not only covers rock 'n roll but also delves a bit into the realm of films, as well as providing interesting facts about eras gone by. Perhaps somewhat ironically its author, John
Grantham, spent over 30 years in Hollywood in and around the movie industry as
an actor, stuntman and voice over artist. Cinema Retro's Lee Pfeiffer caught up with him for a Q&A about his book which has a title longer than some nation's entire constitutions.
– It should be noted that this isn’t just a book listing questions &
answers about music. It’s an homage to the generations that lived and loved the
– Thanks for recognizing that. There are plenty of books that simply ask a
question and then provide you with the answer. I wanted to set a tone for the
music and provide a background for the songs and groups mentioned in the book.
– You started your sections that dealt with musical decades with an overview of
what was happening culturally, politically and financially during that period
–It was important to me that the reader experiences the questions in the
context that each generation provided. Music, perhaps more than cinema, has
always held a mirror up to society. The 1960s for example provided folk music,
anti-war music, tune in – drop out music amidst the background of a divisive
war in Vietnam that was fracturing America. There was “Black Power”, Women’s
Lib, the Eco movement and lest we forget, the introduction of terrorist
actions. For someone reading the book that wasn’t alive then or was too young
to remember, it’s helpful to set the scene if you will.
– You also included a lot of movie quotes instead of lyrics. Why is that?
– I feel like music provides the soundtrack of our lives. I tried to include
quotes from movies that highlighted the significance of music. Movies like High Fidelity and School of Rock are obvious choices. My favorite scene is from Barry
Levinson’s 1982 classic, Diner where
Daniel Sterns’ character Shrevie argues with his wife Beth, “The first time I met you? Modell’s sister’s high school graduation
party, right? 1955. And ‘Ain’t That A Shame’ was playing when I walked into the
door! It’s important”.
– You were a Hollywood actor and stuntman. Why then a book about music and not,
say, well the obvious, movies?
- (Laughs) Thank you for dignifying my career. I had more than my share of
stinkers. If my career had started a decade earlier much of my finer work would
have gone straight to the drive-in.
– Such as?
– Let’s see… Baja, Deadly Breed, Death
House… Of course therewas also Double Dragon and Master’s of the Universe… If Double
Dragon had done anything at the box office you could have an action figure of
my character, Torpedo, on your shelf!
– What would you say was your favorite role or movie?
– Hmmm. Harvey Keitel shoots me in the final scene of Get Shorty. I played Hari
Krishna #1. I doubled Peter Deluise in the TV show seaQuest DSV. There was a lot of fire and explosions on that, plus a
gnarly stunt where I had to crash through a plate glass window.
– Sounds like fun.
– Some days were better than others. The movie that was the most gratifying to
be associated with was an independent film I doubt many of your readers ever
saw called Miss Firecracker…
- …With Holly Hunter and Tim Robbins…
– That’s right. It also starred Scott Glenn, Alfrie Woodard, Mary Steenburgen
and the late Trey Wilson. I was the stunt coordinator for that. Scott Glenn came
up to me after the fight scene at the fairground and said it was the most
realistic fight he’d ever seen. It wasn’t of course, but it was kind of him to
– Your love of rock and pop is obvious from the book but what movies inspired
your career choice?
– All of them. I’d put moving pictures right next to the printing press in
terms of how it has shaped and moved society. You can’t understate its
influence. The optimistic messages of
Frank Capra’s films and the documentaries of Leni Riefenstahl, are from the same era. The 70s gave us gritty,
street level dramas like The French
Connection and Shaft . The latter
of which featured, perhaps, the best opening theme song in history.
John Grantham: Hollywood stuntman and author.
–Back to the music then…
– Oh right…My formative years were spent in Naples, Florida. My best friend’s
parents owned the only record store in town. That was our “Diner” if you will;
the place we would hang out and talk about girls and sports and movies to the
backdrop of great music. It never occurred to me that all that time spent
pouring over album covers and liner notes would someday form the foundation of
– With the success of “The World’s
Hardest Music Trivia…” can we expect to see The World’s Hardest Movie Trivia on the shelves soon?
– You’d have to ask my publisher. I’d love to do it. I am a student of
Hollywood. I couldn’t tell you who my Congressman is but I can tell you that Susan
Hart played the ghost in The Ghost in the
Invisible Bikini”, which I saw in 1966 at theYazoo Theater in Yazoo City, Mississippi. I was too young to know what
was causing that tingling sensation in my body as I watched the movie but I
knew I wanted to experience it again; and often.
– Maybe we should leave it at that.
– Probably for the best Lee. Thanks for the shout out. Rock on.
As he prepares to accept honors at the Kennedy Center on December 4 with President Obama and the First Lady in attendance, Al Pacino talks about his long, mostly illustrious career to Karen Heller of the Washington Post. We say "mostly illustrious" because the notoriously private Pacino admits to having built a "museum of mistakes" in relation to the roles he turned down in what turned out to be classic movies. Among them: "Taxi Driver", "Pretty Woman", "Kramer Vs. Kramer" and a little picture called "Star Wars". His first big break, playing Michael Corleone in "The Godfather", resulted in him almost being fired by the studio- and even Pacino admits he thought he was all wrong for the role. Click here to read.
Pacino says that Paramount tried to fire him three times from "The Godfather".
The first two people in my life who
taught me to think deeply about social and political issues and argue cogently
and passionately for what I believed in were my late father David and Norman
94-year-old entertainment icon is the subject of a terrific American Masters
documentary: Norman Lear- Just Another Version of You, which premieres nationwide Tuesday,
October 25, 9-10:30 p.m. on PBS.
Speaking from his home in Los Angeles about both the documentary and his
masterful 2014 autobiography, Even This I Get to Experience, he still has an energy level
that would put people a quarter of his age to shame.
“People think when you’re over 90 you’ve
changed. It’s everyone else who’s
changed. Suddenly I’m extremely wise,” Lear says. Charming and reflective, he explains why he
wears the white hat that has become his favorite article of clothing and his
He has never lost
his childlike view of the world. “I’ve
never been in any situation, no matter how tragic, where I didn’t see the humor
in it. Human beings are all foolish-
that knits us all together.”
When asked what the secret to creating
loving and enduring characters and family on television, he said: “My bumper sticker just outside on my car
reads “just another version of you.” I think the question is best answered by
that deepest of philosophies- I truly believe that as humans sharing our human
commonalities we are versions of one another despite our ethnicities, our skin
colors, or the country we may have been born in.”
“It seems to me when I look at the LGBT
issue and see how far it has moved, whether socially, legally, or politically, and
then I look at divisions in between races and I haven’t seen the same movement. Maybe that’s the next big movement, that the
race movement leaps forward the way the LGBT movement has.”
Lear and the late Maya Angelou shared a
concern that America was losing touch with its humanity. A national icon for hope, when asked whether
he was more worried about the American people 40 years ago or now, he said: “I’d
like to be the touchstone for hope that Trump is for lack of hope. He is gathering all of those people who are
suffering as a result of the fact that we have little if not a long way to go,
making for a culture where everyone has equal opportunity, and he is helping
those that do not enjoy equal opportunity that villains are keeping them from getting
and he is the hero.”
“Donald Trump is the middle finger of the
American right hand- they do not have leadership in any direction. If you look at the auto industry, there is
the airbag problem, in pharmaceuticals, the EpiPens, if you’re looking at
banking it’s Wells Fargo, and if you’re looking at politics, it’s Donald
Trump. It’s a very difficult place to be
if you’re broke and out of a job or you have a good job and two kids in school
and can no longer afford to live where you’re living.”
Connecticut, Lear learned to love America through the eyes of his immigrant
Jewish grandfather. “At nine, I was forced to become an adult,” he said when
his father went to jail. “But that kid
remained inside me for the rest of my life.”
A World War II
hero, he started writing during the early days of television, for Dean Martin
and Jerry Lewis, Tennessee Ernie Ford, and Frank Sinatra.
was part of the transitional generation from American Jews to Jewish
Americans. Proud, fiercely loyal and
carrying a sense of purpose and cultural and religious commitment to justice
that permeated their work.
In the 1970s, Lear singlehandedly
changed television with All in the Family, which became a platform for social discussion and reform. Norman Lear revolutionized the sitcom, taking the
American family from the
antiseptic and idealized to the contentious and
dysfunctional. He was the first to hold
up the mirror and share social issues through the sitcom format. Until Lear, mainstream television did
not carry Vietnam protests.
Living in London,
his partner, Bud Yorkin sent him a tape of a show called Till Death do us
Part. “The father was conservative; the
son was progressive. I went with that
relationship and never lived to regret it.”
That show became
All in the Family, which starred Carroll O’Connor as Archie Bunker, the bigoted
patriarch of a Queens New York working class family, who was constantly at odds
with his college student son-in-law, Mike Stivic (Rob Reiner), whom he referred
to as “Meathead” for his progressive views. The first show began with a disclaimer: “The program you are about to
see is All in the Family. It seeks to throw a humorous spotlight on our
frailties, prejudices and concerns. By
making them a source of laughter, we hope to show- in a mature fashion- just
how absurd they are.”
became a megahit. It was the top-rated show on American television, and
the winner of four consecutive Emmy Awards as Outstanding Comedy Series. All in the Family was not only one of
the most successful sitcoms in history, it was also one of the most important
and influential series ever to air, ushering in a new era
in American television characterized by programs that did not shy away from
addressing controversial or socially relevant subject matters and created an
intelligent discourse, couched against a comedic and satirical backdrop.
Stivic spoke for me,” Lear said. Like
Archie, he didn’t know a lot about what could be done about the country’s
problems, the nitty gritty of the scholarly work that led to his opinions. He had those opinions reflexively. I am the same way. I think of myself as a bleeding heart
conservative. I think the most conservative
thing in America is to be devoted to The First Amendment, to The Bill of
Rights, to the notion that we are all created equal under the law, and we must
find a way to ensure equal justice. I
think that’s an extremely conservative point of view. The bleeding heart part is because I don’t
know enough to know how to correct it and I vote for the people who seem to be
closer to how to correct it and to making good on those promises. The problem
is that the people who do the best job at pretending that they back those
documents are the Right. But it isn’t in
actuality as the culture progresses.”
“As for the career that followed,” he
said, “while the decision to cast Carroll O’Connor, Jean Stapelton, Rob Reiner
and Sally Struthers was my own, the four-way chemistry that resulted in each
player drawing comic strength from the other characters, at the same time
brilliantly playing against them to deepen the humor in every direction, was a
gift that I can only take credit for nourishing and using well.”
Archie Bunker and his family was followed by Maude, The Jeffersons, Good
Times, Sanford and Son, One Day at a Time, as well as Fernwood Tonight, a talk show parody
dedicated to battling bigotry and social issues through art, and Mary Hartman,
Mary Hartman, a parody of soap operas. In
the 1970s, most of America was laughing and thinking because of Norman Lear.
follows him around through recent and 40-year-old clips, discussing political
and social issues, and his battles with censors and censorship, which at the
time was called “program practices.” It also shows his influence on now famous
individuals, who have kept Lear’s activist flame burning bright.
He reflected on a few of his many
friendships, including Carl Reiner, with whom I was able to agree from own
experience: “Carl Reiner, a friend for some 60 years now is one of a kind. If no matter how good you may have a reason
to feel, if you aren’t feeling a little bit better for being with him, I would
call for a physician right away.”
“You raised me,” Jon Stewart said to him. “Where I think I learned how to process
complex thoughts, issues that I cared about, through the lens of comedy, was
watching Norman Lear shows.”
Carl Reiner and Norman Lear at book party for producer David V. Picker, Los Angeles, 2013. (Photo copyright Cinema Retro. All rights reserved).
“What could make me prouder,” Lear replies.
“”Good Times” was for white people,” Russell
Simmons said. “The Jeffersons” was for
black people. It was aspirational,
angry. George Jefferson taught me how to
walk- with confidence.”
With appearances ranging from Carl Reiner, Rob Reiner, Mel Brooks,
and Amy Poehler, and directed by Heidi Ewing
and Rachel Grady and Executive Produced by American Masters’
Michael Kantor, the film offers a unique insight into a “Gadol Hador,” a giant of his generation and those to
Lear retired from television to devote
his life to activism. He created “People
for the American Way.” Fighting for
civil rights resulted in death threats. He also bought an original copy of The Declaration of Independence and
toured it around the country. “All men
are created equal [with the right] to life, liberty and the pursuit of
happiness- The Declaration of Independence. The tour celebrated the founding fathers who pledged “their lives,
fortunes, and sacred honor” to make good on these words… But ironically, and
God Bless America, the last time I witnessed a reference to sacred honor was in
Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather.”
“He had such a
responsibility to make sure kids saw it and knew what that meant,” said George
Clooney. When asked about what advice he
would give to students who are embarking on artistic careers, especially
comedy, Lear said: “Go with your
gut. Deliver on your intention and go
with it- it’s golden.”
Cinema Retro Contributor Eddy Friedfeld
is the co-author of Caesar’s Hours with Sid Caesar and teaches film and
television classes at Yale and NYU
It's no secret to Cinema Retro readers that director John Landis has been a long-time contributor to the magazine. What they might know is that his wife, Deborah Nadoolman, has also gone above-and-beyond for us, as well. In 2012, we were shepherding members of one of our movie-themed tours around London film locations. Deborah, one of the most accomplished costume designers in the industry, was in the city for the opening of a major exhibition about famous costumes seen in cinema. The event was held at the Victoria & Albert Museum and there was overwhelming demand for tickets. We requested that perhaps she could give our members a private tour of the exhibition. Deborah readily agreed and she and her co-curator Sir Christopher Frayling arranged to have us gain entrance to the museum an hour before opening time for the public. Deborah regaled us with wonderful anecdotes about many of the costumes on display including those from "Raiders of the Lost Ark", as it was Deborah who created that iconic look for Harrison Ford. The Daily Beast's Joshua David Stein has written a very welcome article about Deborah and her achievements in the film industry. You're likely to find some interesting anecdotes relating to both "Raiders" and Michael Jackson's landmark music video for "Thriller" which John Landis directed and Deborah designed the costumes for. Click here to read.
He's arguably the last of his kind from the Golden Age of stand-up comedy. Don Rickles is now 90 years old and still performing, though according to a profile in the Washington Post, he's now considered a sit-down comedian, with a recliner on stage being about the only concession he's made to his advanced age and the onset of some physical infirmities. But his razor-sharp humor remains intact and Rickles still writes his own material to perform in front of appreciative audiences. Most people would be uncomfortable with being singled out by a snarky comedian but Rickles' fans consider it be a mark of honor to be on the receiving end of his insults. There was a time when Rickles broke barriers with his unique act in the 1960s. Until then, most stand-up comics were relatively benign and respectful to their audiences. Rickles changed all of that. A downside of his influence is that, while Rickles gentle ribbing never crossed the line into vulgarity, the younger generation of comedians had no such reservations. Perhaps because his act reminds us of a gentler time in American comedy, Rickles is now considered to be a national treasure. It's worth noting that he is also an accomplished actor, having appeared in dramatic roles in feature films in such diverse fare as Roger Corman's "X: The Man With X-Ray Eyes", "Run Silent, Run Deep" opposite the likes of Clark Gable and Burt Lancaster and "The Rat Race" with Tony Curtis and Debbie Reynolds. After Rickles caught on with his comedy shtick, he remained a popular fixture in feature films, often replicating his wiseguy persona, most memorably in the Clint Eastwood WWII comedy caper film "Kelly's Heroes". He also provided the voice of the grumpy Mr. Potato Head in the "Toy Story" films and reverted back to a dramatic role in Martin Scorsese's "Casino". In 2007, director John Landis paid homage to Rickles, who he met as an aspiring filmmaker on the set of "Kelly's Heroes", with the acclaimed documentary "Mr. Warmth: The Don Rickles Project". Click here for an interview with Rickles and clips of some of his best moments.
Actor Alan Young, the beloved star of the "Mister Ed" TV series died this week at age 96. In tribute, we are re-running Nick Thomas's exclusive interview with him.
(This interview originally ran in November 2009)
By Nick Thomas
Alan Young created some memorable characters over his long career in film and
television. Co-starring with Rod Taylor, Young played David Filby in the classic
sci-fi film of the 60s, The Time Machine. He also horsed around as Wilbur
Post for six seasons in one of best-loved sitcoms ever, Mister Ed,
and was the voice behind numerous cartoon characters such as the grumpy Scrooge
McDuck. Mr. Young is celebrating a milestone birthday- although he isn’t
especially fond of talking about such traditional annual events. But when
I spoke with him a few days ago, he was quite happy to chat about his long
Born in Northern England, Alan’s Scottish father soon moved the family to
Edinburgh, then later to Canada when he was six. Bed-ridden for months at a time
with asthma, Alan would listen to radio shows and write his own comedy routines.
He later made Los Angeles his home and went on to appear in some 20 films and
dozens more television roles. In 1994, he wrote "Mister Ed and Me," detailing
his experience with the world’s most famous TV horse, of course. He recently
revised and republished the book as "Mister Ed and Me... and More!"
Why did you update "Mister Ed and Me"?
My publisher suggested adding more stories about my life so I included some
that I think will interest readers. He also wanted more about Connie Hines, my
TV wife on Mister Ed. So I asked Connie if she would do a chapter about
her life and she was happy to.
The book’s divided into 3 sections, one called Lips Don’t Sweat. That’s an
When I was young, I was paid $3 for doing a short monologue. That impressed
my dad, who earned the same amount for working all day in a shipyard at the
time. He told me to "keep up this talking business because lips don’t sweat!" It
was good advice.
You also wrote "There’s no Business Like Show Business ....Was" which is
crammed with delightful Hollywood memories and stories. It’s extremely enjoyable
Well I love to write. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting and working with so
many lovely people here in Hollywood. I’ve heard so many of them tell
fascinating stories, so I wanted to put it all together so fans could read about
working in Hollywood in the "old days." Young people often say to me that it
must have been easier working back then. But in many ways it wasn’t. For
example, we had to learn by the seat of our pants, as there were few schools
that taught acting skills.
In 1972, writer Grover Lewis dared to venture where many other men met their Waterloo: onto the set of a Sam Peckinpah movie in an attempt to interview the cantankerous director. The film was "The Getaway" starring Steve McQueen and Ali McGraw. Lewis's piece for Rolling Stone is a true classic of film journalism, detailing how the elusive Peckinpah initially avoided him at all costs, leaving Lewis to get the essence of the man from the film's supporting actors and crew. Ultimately, he got to speak with the man himself and discovers why Peckinpah was very much like the macho wildmen who were often portrayed in his films. Click here to read the original interview, now presented by the Daily Beast.
(For extensive coverage of "The Getaway", see Cinema Retro issue #3).
Ridin' High: Eastwood shared the cover of Time magazine in 1978 with his friend and fellow superstar Burt Reynolds, who were acclaimed as the two biggest boxoffice stars in the world.
BY LEE PFEIFFER
Clint Eastwood is now an icon of international cinema but back in the late 1970s he was "merely" a superstar, devoid of the kind of critical praise that he now routinely enjoys. It was in 1979 that my co-author Boris Zmijeswky and I approached a publisher with a book titled "The Films of Clint Eastwood", the first attempt to analyze his films on a one-by-one basis. (If I ever looked through it today, it would probably strike me as awful, but, hey, we all had to start somewhere, I was just out of college and eager to write a book.) The publisher immediately agreed but when the transcript was handed in the editor voiced concerns to me. He said that, while everyone enjoyed Eastwood's movies, I was perhaps according him more credit than he deserved as an actor and director. When I told him that I felt Eastwood had the potential to become a world-class director, he chuckled in a patronizing sort of way. Apparently, I wasn't the only one who felt that there was more to the "Eastwood Mystique" than a cool, soft-spoken, hard-hitting action hero. Writer Robert Ward, who penned some masterful portrayals of iconic actors of the era through excellent interviews, also made no apologies for his admiration for Eastwood's talents. In those days there were precious few of us and Eastwood was happy to accommodate journalists who were serious about discussing his work. When Ward interviewed Eastwood in 1977 for Crawdaddy magazine, Eastwood's latest crime thriller "The Gauntlet" had just been released. Ward spent two hours interviewing Eastwood- then had to spend two more unexpectedly (for reasons you will discover when you to read the interview, now republished on the Daily Beast web site titled "When It Became Cool to Like Clint Eastwood".) What emerges is a portrait of Eastwood at a time when he was the biggest star in the world, yet still devoid of the opportunities he would get later to showcase his talents as director. Of his acting abilities, it had been said- not initially without some truth- that he attended "The Mount Rushmore Acting Academy". However, as the years passed, Eastwood- like all actors- became more competent and interesting in terms of expressing emotion on screen. Ironically, Ward interviewed Eastwood when "The Gauntlet" was under-performing in comparison to his other action flicks. No wonder- it's arguably the worst film of his career, at least in the era since he became a major star But Eastwood kept growing as a director and actor and some triumphs, small and large, loomed before him beginning in the late 1980s with "Bird". Even those of us who defended his work and looked prophetic for our early support of him could not envision the length and breadth of his career- and he's still going strong. Click here to go back and time and read Ward's excellent interview; one that has not been equaled since in terms of getting to the personal side of the man behind the myth.
interview was set for 10:30 AM. Usually
they run a few minutes late as the celebrity works his way through a call list.
When the moment arrives an assistant handles the intros. Not this time. At precisely 10:30:00, the phone rang and
iconic Indie filmmaker John Sayles introduced himself. And why not? A no-nonsense, get- it -done type of auteur, Sayles handles his own
publicity calls and was keen to discuss his remarkable and varied career in
advance of a weekend retrospective at LA’s Cinefamily February 18 - 20.
broke into the business, like so many before him, by working with genre legend
Roger Corman who figuratively and literally wrote the book on low budget
filmmaking. “I got very lucky, didn’t
realize it at the time, “Sayles recalls. “I wrote three screenplays (Piranha, The Lady in Red and Alligator) and had them all made into
movies within the year.” The experience
helped shape him as a filmmaker. “A lot of it was learning what you had to have
money for and what was just labor intensive. What can you do with just good ideas and hard work?”
immediately put his guerilla filmmaking chops to good use. “My first movie
(1979’s Return of the Secaucus Seven)
cost under $100,000 and was shot in five weeks, my last movie (2013’s Go For Sisters) was under $1 million and
was shot in four weeks.”
facility for the unique language of screenplays served him well over the
years. His ”For Hire” literary work on
features like The Howling (1981), The Challenge
(1982) and The Clan of the Cave Bear
(1986) provided much-needed capital so he could make his movies like Baby, It’s You (1983), Matewan (1987), Lonestar (1996) and others. He also wrote an early draft of a Spielberg
sci-fi concept called Night Skies
that later became the worldwide phenomenon known as E.T. (Presumably that helped finance many a can of raw stock!) Through all of his projects Sayles keeps an
eye on the bottom line, asking himself, “How am I going to tell this story with
the means I have… and pay people decently and have it be a livable experience?”
John Sayles on set of AMIGO. Photo credit Mary Cybulski
at every level of the film industry will tell you that “the business” has
changed. Sayles has directed 18 films in
a thirty year career and has his own take on how today’s new technology has impacted
the new indie voices trying to get heard… “Technology has made filmmaking
so much more democratic. We were just at Sundance and they get 2000-3000
feature films submitted every year. When
we started out, that would’ve been a dozen. It’s much easier to make a movie, but there’s a bottleneck in
has made his name by telling highly personal stories that get his attention. “Generally it’s something that I know enough
about to be interested in, but not so much about that there’s no investigation
left.” Then he asks himself two
important questions – “What do I really think about this?” and “What really did
go on here?” Sayles is drawn to characters
who feel, “Oh my God, if I turn left it’s not very good and if I turn right
it’s not very good.” He cites his 2010
film Amigo, set in the 1900 Filipino-American
war. His main character is a small town
mayor who finds himself walking a razor’s edge when American troops take over
his town. “How much can I cooperate
without collaborating… that’s not a tenable position,” is how Sayles describes the
situation. “That’s a real moral dilemma!” he adds.
hunting for material, Sayles frequently turns to history. “History is full of
great stories and you don’t have to make much stuff up,” the auteur explains. He dipped back into history for his current
project titled To Save The Man. It is set at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School
in 1890 where young Native Americans from various tribes were sent to suppress
their unique culture and become, essentially, “white”. According to Sayles, it’s “…political as well
as being a high school story and it’s set in the year of Wounded Knee.” Sayles is now engaged in the arduous task of raising
money to make their summer start date. But even with all the hardships of
modern indie filmmaking, Sayles is grateful for every chance to get behind a
camera. “If you get to make a movie, that’s a great thing.” And John Sayles has made some great movies.
Weekend with John Saylesruns February 18-20 and features the writer/director
introducing six of his groundbreaking films including Return of the Secaucus Seven, Baby, It’s You and The Brother From Another Planet.
(Thanks to Matt Johnstone for his help in arranging this interview.)
Former actress Nancy Wait gained notoriety and a loyal following due to her big screen debut in the 1972 British sex farce "Au Pair Girls". She later returned from London, where she had studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA) and concentrated on building a new career as a painter and writer. Her memoir "The Nancy Who Drew" has received praise since its initial publication in 2011. Cinema Retro contributing writer Brian Davidson caught up with Ms. Wait for this exclusive interview that ties in with Brian's tribute to "Au Pair Girls" in the latest issue of Cinema Retro (#34). Visit Nancy's official blog/web site by clicking here.
Brian Davidson: Christa in ‘Au Pair Girls’ is an introvert
coaxed into wearing sexy clothes which imply confidence and an extrovert
personality. I understand that you took up acting initially to help overcome
shyness. Were you therefore attracted to the role because you saw something of
yourself in Christa?
Nancy Wait: Absolutely. I remember when I was 14, in my
first year at the High School of Performing Arts here in New York and my acting
teacher took me aside one day and told me I should wear red. I have brown eyes
and brown hair and used to like wearing the colour brown. And this teacher who
I thought was very glamorous and sophisticated told me I was too mousy. She
said ‘’You need to wear red to bring you out!’’ It made an impression. The
change I went through over the next few years was also the change most
teenagers go through on the way to becoming their own person, and I started to
enjoy calling attention to myself with makeup and various hats and certainly
more colourful clothes.
But however much I changed myself outwardly, inside
I remained the same shy girl. They say that an introvert and an extrovert are
two sides of the same coin and you will often find an extremely shy person
behind the most extrovert actor. In fact, that’s the very reason many of us are
drawn to the profession- the chance to be someone other than our shy,
introverted selves. Though my basic nature has always been shy and modest,
moving to London and going to RADA was a chance to be really brave- though it
was nothing compared to the courage I needed to play Christa in the film. And
you’re right, I don’t think I could have even imagined doing the role if she
hadn’t been shy at first. Luckily the scenes were shot in sequence, so while I
got my feet wet I could play her shyness first, the part of her character that
was closest to me in spirit. My confidence was up by the middle of the shoot,
when Christa breaks out. So it all worked out very well from that standpoint!
B.D. In order to help pay for your tuition at RADA,
I believe you worked as a Bunny Girl at London’s famous Playboy Club, a form of
role-playing which I’m sure appealed to the actress within you. How did your
transition from Bunny to film actress come about?
N.W. I was working at the Playboy Club during term
breaks to earn the fees for school, and in a way the film and being a Bunny had
nothing to do with each other and yet they had everything to do with each
other. For instance, I don’t think I ever dreamed I would be the kind of person
who would be brave enough to take her clothes off for a film. And yet I had
already stepped out of my previous comfort zone by taking the job as a Bunny.
And what I first thought was tremendously daring- parading around in the Bunny
costume- after a few weeks became just par for the course. So there was that
but also the fact that I was just a glorified cocktail waitress who had to wear
distressingly high heels and be on her feet for an 8-hour shift. So when I was
offered the film and realised I could earn the fees for school in a week
instead of a month playing one of the leads in a film directed by Val Guest-
me, who had never been close to a professional job before- I didn’t have to
think too long about it.
There was also that thing when something comes to
you, falls in your lap as it were, completely out of left field and you can’t
believe it’s happening to you. Because I wasn’t looking for an acting job-it
was too soon and I still had a couple of terms to go at RADA. But my boyfriend
had an agent, and this agent said it was never too soon for me to get my
headshots out there and, without my knowing, he was putting me up for parts. I’ll
never forget that afternoon when I was working at the Club and got a call from
this agent who told me I was up for a lead in a film and he said ‘’ Oh, and
they love that you’re a Bunny!’’ Meanwhile, little did I know that my unlikely
transformation from a shy, modest student into a Bunny was only a precursor for
the far more public transformation that Christa would go through …
Self portrait, 1980.
B.D. Unlike your already established co-stars
Gabrielle Drake, Astrid Frank and Me Me Lay, you had never acted in a feature
film before yet the part of Christa is surely the most challenging of the four
girls’ roles from an acting point of view. Did you find Val Guest sufficiently
supportive under the circumstances?
N.W. I wouldn’t really have known if the part of
Christa was the most challenging as I didn’t see the others’ scenes until much
later after the film was out. And even if I had seen them, my part was
challenging enough! On the other hand, acting is acting whatever the mode,
stage or screen, and the only important thing is to remember your lines and
‘’don’t trip over the furniture’’ as Noel Coward famously said. And Val Guest
was enormously considerate to a newby like me. My first day on the set, he had
me sit next to him while they filmed a scene with Gabrielle Drake and Richard
O’Sullivan- the one in the barn with all the bundles of hay- and like the
seasoned professionals they were, these two made film acting look easy. So that
was a bit of luck! I suppose another bit of luck was my first scene with Lyn
Yeldham who played Carole, the daughter of the home where I was an au pair. Lyn
already had professional experience in front of the cameras yet she was far
more nervous than I was and kept flubbing her lines. Though I felt bad for her,
it gave me a boost. There was someone on the set who was less sure of herself
than I was!
But honestly, if Val hadn’t been so kind and
patient and understanding I don’t think I would have been able to do half the
things he asked of me. You have to trust your director and Val made that easy
with the way he made it seem we had all the time in the world. You never would
have known we were on such a tight schedule. I’ve no doubt he was the same with
the other actresses but he let me know all the time that he thought I was doing
a wonderful job. It’s the sort of thing that goes a long way in getting a good
performance out of someone.
Warner Home Entertainment has recently released their
special edition DVD of director Joe Dante’s “Innerspace” on Blu-ray. The 1987
film is a sci-fi comedy that afforded Martin Short and Meg Ryan early career leading roles in a tale of inspired lunacy. The premise of the script centers on a narcissistic former military test pilot Tuck Pendelton (Dennis Quaid) who volunteers for an unprecedented scientific experiment. Doctors have the technology to shrink him and inject him into the body of a rabbit. They also obviously have the ability to bring him back into the outside world where he can resume his normal activities at his normal size. The purpose of the experiment is to allow medical technicians to eventually inject operatives into human beings so that they can perform miracle surgeries. However, there are some bad guys who are looking to benefit from the amazing technology by selling it to the highest bidder. After Tuck has been reduced inside a hypodermic needle, there is an altercation between the villains and scientists. A chase ensues that extends outside of the laboratory. By happenstance, Jack Putter (Martin Short), a nondescript grocery store clerk, is injected by the needle. The result is that Tuck is now floating around the bloodstream of an unwitting, innocent man. The laughs result from Tuck's ability to communicate with Jack and convince him of what is happening. Drawn into the mix is Tuck's girlfriend Lydia (Meg Ryan), who Jack befriends at Tuck's urging. In the zany antics that follow, Lydia is finally convinced of the fantastic scenario after she has become targeted by the head villain, a zillionaire named Scrimshaw (Kevin McCarthy). By then, there is a desperate race against time to get Tuck back into the real world before he becomes a permanent part of Jack's DNA.
"Innerspace" is a throwback to an era when major studios would routinely turn out family friendly comedies that were devoid of today's mandatory gross-out jokes and mean-spirited pranks. The entire cast seems to be having a blast under Dante's direction, perhaps because his films are glorious evidence that he has never grown out of the wonder of the types of films that appealed to him as a kid. The movie is a particular triumph of sorts for Martin Short, who proved he could carry a major budget production as a leading man. The special effects hold up extremely well even today (no surprise the film won an Oscar in this category).
We caught up with Dante all these years later to ask him to reflect on his thoughts about "Innerspace".
CINEMA RETRO: How do you feel the film holds up into today's modern age?
JOE DANTE: I've always liked it and I had a lot of fun making it. I think you can tell when you watch it.
CR: It's especially evident listening to the commentary track on the Blu-ray. It's no secret that you have been heavily influenced in your work by the classic and cult horror and sci-fi movies of your youth. Is it fair to say that "Innerspace" was a satire of "Fantastic Voyage"?
JD: I can't vouch for that because I wasn't in on the creation of it. When I was first offered it, the script had no comedy at all. I didn't think it worked that way so I went off and did something else. When I came back, they had a new writer and he approached it as comedy from the concept of what would happen if we shrank Dean Martin down and injected him inside Jerry Lewis. That was a concept I could relate to.
CR: Steven Spielberg executive produced the film. Was he involved before you were?
JD: Actually no, because I was offered the picture by Peter Guber when it was in its serious incarnation. During the time I went off to do something else, Spielberg had become involved. He was probably an impetus for turning it into a comedy.
CR: Did he have any constraints on you regarding your vision of the film?
JD: The atmosphere at Amblin was pretty free. The thing Steven would do is protect you from the studio and sometimes from the other producers. It was a very filmmaker-friendly atmosphere over there. You got all the best equipment and all the best people and all the toys you wanted to play with. Plus you had somebody on your side who was also a filmmaker and they knew exactly what you were talking about when you had a problem or you had a question.
CR: In terms of casting, you seemed to have your own stock company of actors you liked to work with: Dick Miller, William Schallert, Rance Howard, Orson Bean, Kathleen Freeman and even Kenneth Tobey.
JD: I think when you look at a director's filmography, you see the same faces popping up all the time because these people are copacetic and sometimes they become your friend. You originally hire them because you like their work and you like to watch them do their stuff so, whether it's Ingmar Bergman, Preston Sturges or John Ford, they have "go to" people that they put into almost every one of their pictures. The only down side comes when you have made a lot of movies and now you have a lot of people you want to include but, of course, you don't have parts for them.
CR: That tradition doesn't seem to be as prevalent today.
JD: That's because the business has changed so much. The movies aren't made in one locale anymore. There are less opportunities for an actor to shine over and over in a supporting role because when a movie goes to Canada or Australia, you have to use their local people. All those people who built up followings from television and movies and sometimes even radio were constantly being seen by people. Today there's just no opportunity to do that. Not only are there less movies, there are fewer roles and most of the films aren't made in Hollywood any longer.
CR: With "Innerspace", were the leading roles already cast before you got involved? Did you rely much on the casting director?
JD: No, once you are involved with a movie, you're in on all those decisions. The good thing about casting directors is that you can tell them who you want to see and they have the ability to make that happen. They make deals, they make contracts. I was using Mike Fenton, who was one of the best casting directors in the business at the time. Many of my best pictures were cast by Mike. Today, it's a little more piecemeal because so many of the movies aren't made here. So you have dual casting directors. You have the Hollywood casting director and the Canadian casting director. When it gets down to the smaller roles, they almost always cast in the locality you are shooting in. I made enough movies in Vancouver that I actually started to build up a Vancouver stock company because the talent pool there isn't that vast. I sort of bemoan the fact that actors don't have the opportunity for that kind of career longevity. When they decided to start giving all that money to the stars it came out of the casting budget. All of a sudden there wasn't much money for the supporting actors.
The book "Lee Marvin: Point Blank" is a very worthy volume that sheds light on one of the cinema's most under-appreciated icons. How can an actor be an icon and still be under-appreciated? Because while Marvin's films have withstood the test of time, he is generally ignored when it comes to discussion of his personal life. Marvin was always a difficult man to pin down in terms of his emotions. He could be a cantankerous drunk or a charming raconteur. Cinema Retro's Steve Mori visited the set of Marvin's ill-fated film "The Klansman" in the mid-1970s with more than a little concern about attempting to get an interview with the acerbic super star. Instead, he found Marvin to be pleasant and chatty. (The interview appears in Cinema Retro issue #15). Author of "Lee Marvin: Point Blank", Dwayne Epstein, deals with the dual side of Marvin's personality, which was often self-destructive. He made his share of classics but also got mired down in the type of claptrap actors take on to make a quick buck. Nevertheless, he had the kind of screen presence to ensure that even in his lesser films, he commanded the attention of the viewer.
In 2013, film journalist Andrew Kemp ran an interview with Dwayne Epstein regarding how his book came to fruition. Click here to read. (Please ignore references to events that were going on at the time regarding book signings and screenings of Marvin films.)
Last month, Entertainment Weekly re-published an interview from some years ago in which Steven Spielberg reflected back on the making of "Jaws"- and discusses the trials and tribulations of the film he thought would end his career before it even took off. Click here to read.
Director Joe Dante is revered by his fans not only as a
filmmaker but also because of his genuine passion for classic and cult cinema.
Dante, like so many other filmmakers and actors who became successes, was a protégé
of Roger Corman, starting out as an editor. Before long, he had progressed to directing and had a hit with his 1978 horror flick "Piranha". His deft ability to make audiences cringe as well as laugh became his trademark. More successful films followed including a segment of the "Twilight Zone" feature film, his werewolf classic "The Howling", "Gremlins", which is considered a classic by the generation who saw it as children, "Innerspace", "Amazon Women on the Moon", "The 'Burbs", "Matinee" and "Small Soldiers". In recent years, Dante has been busy operating his extremely popular web site Trailers From Hell, which showcases original movie trailers from decades ago, complete with introductions and commentaries from esteemed filmmakers and movie scholars. Dante'S most recent movie, "Burying the Ex" is specifically geared to younger audiences. It involves a twenty-something guy whose sexy but overbearing girlfriend Evelyn dies tragically in an accident. He blames himself for her death but begins dating someone else almost immediately. Things are going swimmingly with his new love until the recently deceased Evelyn comes back from the grave and demands that they resume their relationship- and she's not taking "no" for an answer. Its an amusing romp that spotlights a cast of exceptionally talented young actors. The film represents true "guerilla movie-making", having been shot on a limited budget in L.A. over a period of twenty days. "Burying the Ex" was shown at the Venice Film Festival, where it won some favorable reviews including one from the influential Hollywood Reporter. Some other critics griped that the film was too modest in its ambitions want Dante to do movies that are more reflective of his talents as an esteemed director. Indeed, Dante has ambitions to do just that, with a long-planned film biography of Roger Corman. We caught up with Dante to discuss "Burying the Ex" as well as his plans for the future.
CINEMA RETRO: What drew you to this particular project?
JOE DANTE: It's based on a short film by the screenwriter Andrew Trezza, which I haven't seen. He gave me a script a few years ago and I responded to it because I thought it was funny and I liked the characters. I also think it's a situation that the audience can relate to. I think most people have been in a similar situation. They are in a relationship that isn't good for them and they don't know how to get out of it. They stick around longer than they should. I thought that to expand on that concept and make a screwball comedy out of it was a great idea.
CR: As someone who has been involved in editing, screenwriting and even acting, did you have much input into the final screenplay?
JD: Sure. We worked on it together. It was originally a little longer than it needed to be, I thought, and so we pared it down a little bit. You know, over a period of years when you're working on a project, you can't help but doodle in the margins and try to improve it. But it's still pretty much the script that I originally read. It's better for the fact that we had a little bit longer to work on it.
CR: Is it true that you shot the entire movie in twenty days?
JD: Yes. I think of it as a return to my roots.
CR: How long were the shooting days?
JD: We couldn't go over twelve hours. There was no overtime in the deal. So we just shot until we couldn't. On a film like this it's really important that you get the shots so you don't have to go back on a location. There aren't that many locations. In fact, they're all within seven blocks of each other. You have to adjust your schedule when you're working on a low budget.
CR: What are the pros of working on an indie film compared to a major studio production?
JD: The pros are that you are pretty much left alone. There's not a zillion dollars riding on the movie so there's not that kind of panic in the executive suites. You know, worries that, God forbid, the picture might be too offbeat or have too many rough edges or it might alienate a segment of the audience. You don't have to worry about any of that because it's not that big of an outlay. Unfortunately, to get that kind of freedom, you have to give up the bells and whistles and do without some of the tools you would usually have to make the movie. You also have to do it very quickly and you have to make decisions fast. But sometimes this lends a certain energy to these movies that a long schedule, big budget movie might not have.
CR: How involved were you in the casting process? The four leads are very impressive young actors. Did you rely mostly on the decisions of the casting director, Brad Gilmore?
JD: Well, Brad has been on the movie as long as I've been. We've been looking for casts for years because this picture was gestating for such a long time. Then all of a sudden it came together. There was a certain amount of money available for a certain time frame and it meant we had to make the movie right away- and we had to make it in twenty days. So the cast came together in one week, believe it or not. Serendipitously, it happened to come together with the exact same people we wanted in the exact right roles to the point that I didn't have to do a lot of directing. To me, the fun of the movie is the cast.
CR: It's also a typical Joe Dante film in the sense that there are many homages to the cinematic past, from Dick Miller's appearance to vintage movie art. Who else would have an Italian poster for "The Pit and the Pendulum" in a modern film?
JD: Who else has one?
CR: Yes, I'm afraid that many of us who are obsessed with older films are living, breathing examples of arrested development. I suppose we hope we never really grow up. By the way, what do you think of today's horror films compared to those you honor from the distant past?
JD: I think there is a lot of talent out there. The hurdle that they have to overcome is that the audience they are making the films for is so steeped in the details of how these movies were made before that it becomes very difficult to try to surprise and shock them with something new that they haven't seen. Unless you want to go to the lengths of "The Human Centipede", there really isn't a great deal you can to shock people.
CR: I'd like to see directors, including yourself, make movies like the original version of "The Haunting", in which the horror element is suggested rather than blatantly illustrated with special effects.
JD: I think those are the kind of horror films that work the best. They're also the ones I think have the longest legs because movies that rely on showing things very clearly can date very quickly. Whereas a movie like "The Innocents" or "The Haunting" or "Dead of Night" are still intensely creepy because of things that you don't see. There are things you think you see because the director and director of photography make you believe you are seeing them. To me, that's the best kind of horror movie. Those are my favorite ones. The current ones, I think, tend not to be very psychological, although there have been some very good ones. "The Orphanage" was quite good and so was "The Devil's Backbone", for example, is a very good horror film. This genre used to be considered a "B" movie genre but it's now an "A" movie genre and some of the subtlety has disappeared.
CR: The makeup effects in "Burying the Ex" are particularly impressive, given the limited budget and production schedule...
JD: Well, Gary Tunnicliffe, our makeup guy, had his work cut out for him because of our limited shooting day. There was only so much time to put the makeup on and to take the makeup off. That had to all be coordinated very carefully so we wouldn't lose time. We also didn't shoot it in sequence so he had to have a chart to remind of how decomposed Evelyn would be. That was also hard for Ashley Greene because, when you are building a character- especially a crazy character who has mood swings- you have to be careful about what you did yesterday and how does that fit into the movie.
CR: Speaking of the character of Evelyn, do I have to even ask if her name is derived from "The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave"?
JD: I started making trailers when I first go into the business. I've always loved movie trailers. I had a collection on 35mm and there was a lot of cool stuff but it was just sitting in a vault. I was never showing it to anybody so I thought, "This is crazy. These things need to be out there." I thought that just putting them on the internet wouldn't be exciting in itself. So I thought about doing commentary tracks for about five of these trailers. So I did and I put them up on the internet where they sat unnoticed for a while. Then my friends started to see it and they would say there were movies they wanted to talk about. So it just grew. I think John Landis and Edgar Wright were among the first contributors. It just became a thing to do and now we have over a thousand trailers on our site. There are fifty different commentators, all talking about what the movies meant to them and trying to get you to see the movie. Today, when there are so many movies available to see than there ever was in my lifetime, there needs to be some curating factor that tells people that this is a good movie, that this is a movie that you never heard of, this is a director that you've never heard of, this is an actor you should know. It's very rewarding to me when people come up to me and say, "I just saw this movie that I found on this site and it's a great movie and I'm going to see other movies by this guy now." That's what it's all about.
CR: Are you still toying with the concept of doing a Roger Corman biopic?
JD: I wouldn't say "toying"...I'd say slogging, trying to get somebody to finance the movie for about the last ten years. But I haven't given up and I still think it's a great project and we're looking at all sorts of alternate ways of getting it done. It's a funny movie about Roger doing "The Trip". Everything in it is true, which makes it even funnier. We came within a hair of making it twice. I think if we can get that close twice, we can get that close again.
CR: One last question. It's regarding the recent passing of Sir Christopher Lee, who you worked with. Would you care to share any thoughts about him?
JD: It's very sad but on the other hand, the man lived to be 93 years old. He went out at the top of his game, singing heavy metal, for God's sake. He's probably more famous now than he was in his Hammer heyday because of the breadth of his career. I know he was having health problems. He couldn't travel because he couldn't bear to sit in an airplane seat. So the factor of age was really encroaching quickly but it didn't slow him down. He's still got unreleased movies. He was a real character in person and a wonderful guy to be with. He was so amusing and so the opposite of his public persona.
In this rare interview, conducted by publicist Dick Strout in 1962, the usually press-shy Steve McQueen discusses his personal life and career. Typical of interviews of this period, it's pretty much a plain vanilla affair with rather bland questions and equally bland answers, but McQueen interviews are rather hard to come by and this does illustrate a period in which the up-and-coming actor felt it was necessary to play the publicity game in order to advance his career.
Charles Bronson was known for playing men of few words on screen. However, this characteristic stemmed from the actor's real life persona: he loathed giving interviews and avoided discussing his personal life. There are relatively few instances of Bronson being interviewed by media outlets but in 1993 he did go on camera to make some remarks. They ranged from the whimsical (he recalls rooming with Jack Klugman early in their careers and says that Klugman was enough of a slob to justify his being cast as Oscar Madison in "The Odd Couple" TV series) to the sentimental (he speaks movingly of his wife Jill Ireland, who had only recently died from cancer.)
On June 16, the Warner Archive will release the 1975 screen version of Neil Simon's comedy classic "The Sunshine Boys" as a Blu-ray special edition. The film stars Walter Matthau and George Burns as Lewis and Clark, a legendary vaudeville comedy team who have not been on speaking terms since they broke up their act eleven years ago. For their work in the film, Matthau was nominated for the Best Actor Oscar, George Burns won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar and Richard Benjamin, who co-stars as Matthau's harried nephew and agent who tries the Herculean task of reuniting the team for a television special about comedy greats, won a Golden Globe award. Cinema Retro had the opportunity to speak with Richard Benjamin about his memories of working on the film.
Cinema Retro: "The Sunshine Boys" must have had a very personal meaning to you, given the fact that your uncle, Joe Browning, was popular vaudeville entertainer.
Richard Benjamin: Not only that, but here I had grown up listening to Burns and Allen on the radio and all those shows- and in those days, parents and children listened to the same programs. So it was Burns and Allen, Jack Benny and all that. So when we were filming ""The Sunshine Boys", George Burns used to ask me to go to lunch every day, which was a thrill. One day, walking with him to the commissary, I asked, "Did you know my uncle? He was in vaudeville" and he said, "What was his name?" I said, "Joe Browning". He said, "Not only did I know him, but I know his act. Do you want to hear it?" He started to do my uncle's act! It was incredible. I mean here I am walking between sound stages with George Burns and he's doing my uncle's act. He said, "You know, he was a headliner. We weren't the headliners on some of those bills, your uncle was." It was amazing to hear all that. Obviously, the movie is a love letter to vaudeville and all those guys, so it had a lot of meaning for me.
CR: You also got to meet another legend of comedy, Stan Laurel. How did that come about?
RB: When I went to see my uncle, who lived at the Beacon Hotel on Broadway and 74th Street, which was a block away from where we were shooting "The Sunshine Boys", he had a one bedroom suite in his hotel. There was a trunk in the middle of the living room, right as you walked in. It was a big steamer trunk with his initials on it: "JB", and the "J" and the "B" were intertwined, you know the way they would do that? He was ready to go! If he got a call, he was ready. So anyway, years and years later, my friend who I went to Northwestern with was out here at UCLA doing a master's thesis on Laurel and Hardy. One day he said to me, "I'm going out to interview Stan Laurel. Do you want to come?" I said, "Are you kidding?" So he and I went out there. Stan Laurel and his wife were in a six story apartment building facing the ocean in Santa Monica. This was a place that Jerry Lewis had put them into because they evidently had no money at all. People never knew it but Lewis did things like this, but he never broadcast it. He set them up in that apartment. When we got there, there was a buzzer downstairs and my friend Jerry buzzed it. A voice came on and said, "Yes? (imitates Stan Laurel). We told him who were were and he said, "Come right up!" I thought, "My God! Through this little speaker, I'm hearing Stan Laurel! This is unbelievable!". So we went upstairs and there in the center of his living room is his trunk with the "S" and the "L" intertwined. He was ready to go, too, just like my uncle. Those guys had a motto: "Have Trunk, Will Travel". It was life to them.
CR: Prior to working on "The Sunshine Boys", you already had a working relationship with Neil Simon...
RB: Yes, they were casting the national company of "Barefoot in the Park" with Myrna Loy. Fortunately, a friend of mine who I went to school with, Penny Fuller, said she was understudying Elizabeth Ashley. I mean, listen to how these things work...She asked if I was reading for the national company. I said, "For what?" I didn't know anything about it. She said, "Your agent didn't tell you about it?" I said, "No". So I called my agent at that time and asked, "Can you get me a reading for this? I'm really right for it." He said, "Oh, Oh, sure...that's a good idea." But it never would have happened had Penny not told me. So I went in there and I did a scene- actually I did it with Penny- and Mike Nichols was casting it. I had never met him but I recognized his laugh from his comedy records with Elaine May. After the reading, he came up to me and said, "Well, that's fine." I didn't know what that meant. When I was walking out, my agent was there and he said, "You've got it! They're casting you!". So that was my introduction to Neil, through being cast in the national company. Then he and Mike cast me in the national company of "The Odd Couple" with Dan Dailey. Then Neil asked me to do "Star Spangled Girl" with Tony Perkins on Broadway. So there was a ten minute audition and I'm working for three years and doing all these other things with Neil. I mean, if Penny didn't tell me that, I don't know if you and I would be talking today. You could just miss something by inches, you know? That's the thing about this business. You really never, never know. Anything you plan on never happens but something else happens.
CR: Prior to filming, you had also worked previously with director Herbert Ross on "The Last of Sheila" (1973).That must have put you into a pretty good comfort zone going into "The Sunshine Boys".
RB: Yes, I was. Also the material was just fabulous and funny. Being with Herb again was great.
CR: Jerry Lewis always said of Dean Martin that being the straight man was the hardest job in all of comedy. In the film, you're the straight man between Walter Matthau and George Burns. You obviously found the formula for not overshadowing the stars while not being overshadowed yourself, especially since you won the Golden Globe for your performance.
RB: You couldn't be in a better environment. I mean, all these people and the experience they all had. With that material and being at MGM and having everything that you needed, it was pretty special- and I knew it at the time. I was grateful to be in it. It was really great and Herb was terrific.
CR: As you know, neither Walter Matthau or George Burns were originally envisioned for the film. Phil Silvers had auditioned for the role of Willy that Matthau ended up playing and Jack Benny had been signed to play Al but he dropped out when he was diagnosed with a terminal illness. (Screen tests and make up test of Silvers and Benny appear on the Warner Archive's Blu-ray release of the film.) I presume you weren't involved with the production in these early stages...
RB: No, no, I wasn't. I saw on this new Blu-ray those tests but I wasn't on the film at that time.
CR: When George Burns took over the Jack Benny role, you, Matthau and Herb Ross got together with him to go over an initial reading of the script. Can you relate what that experience was like, especially since Burns hadn't made a movie in over thirty years?
RB: His character doesn't appear until about fifteen or twenty pages into the script. So he was just sitting there, kind of looking off into the distance. We were wondering why he hadn't opened his script. It was right in front of him in a folder. Well, we're flipping pages and reading and every once in a while we would look over at George and think, "Well, he should be opening that pretty soon." Then we started to worry that maybe he was just out of it and didn't quite know what was happening here. He didn't touch the script. He was just staring out the window. Finally, we got to his first page and we thought, "If he doesn't open it now, it's going to be kind of sad." I had the line before his so I said my line and without missing a beat he said his line. Then he said the next line, then next and next and next and next. He was just ripping those lines out there. He's not missing anything and he's very funny. So Walter says, "Wait a second! What the hell is this???" So George said, "Aren't you supposed to learn the script?" Walter said, "Yeah, yeah- but you don't have to learn the whole thing!" So George said, "Well, don't you know your lines?" I thought, "We're in for it now! We'd better be on our toes because there's no fooling around with him!"
CR: I understand you were on the set every day, even when you weren't required.
RB: Yes, because George wanted to go to lunch with me every day.
CR: As a native New Yorker, you must have appreciated all the locations that were used in the film.
RB: It was right where I grew up. But the scenes in Willy's apartment were a set. We shot that in California.
CR: It's really a terrific piece of work. It really looks like an apartment, right down to the set decorations. Al Brenner, the production designer, did a great job.
RB: Yes, that's the brilliance of Brenner and people like him. He was just fabulous. I think the lobby was the Ansonia in New York but the apartment was all a set. It was a tremendous amount of work. You know, the play is set all in the apartment except for the scene where they go to the variety show. The New York locations were great- like going to the Friars Club and the street scenes and Willy going to that garage when he is lost and where we shot the commercial for Frumpy's potato chips.
CR: I never realized F. Murray Abraham was in the garage scene.
RB: Yes, he was the mechanic who gives Willy directions.
CR: He was a decade away from winning a Best Actor Oscar for "Amadeus".
RB: I know. Isn't that incredible?
CR: A unique aspect of the film is that there is no musical score.
RB: Only that vaudeville scene that opens the credits- and then I think there's something at the end, but there is no music throughout the film. That's because nothing needs to be emotionally enhanced. It's all real.
CR: As an established director in your own right, don't you find it fascinating that there was a time when you could make a major commercial film that contained so many long sequences of nothing but dialogue?
RB: It would be a challenge to find actors who could do it. We had Walter from the stage and George from vaudeville who could both do long, long takes. What's great about that is that you build up power during those takes. It's like being out on a wire because if anybody screws up, you have to go back to the beginning. Stage actors love the challenge but there are other actors who can't do it. They can only little short things. You don't trust anybody when all they can do is all those little quick cuts because it's not life real life.
CR: It must have pleased you when the film opened at Radio City Music Hall.
RB: It was great because my wife's (Paula Prentiss) first picture, "Where the Boys Are", opened there. That was the first time I saw her on the screen. That was- and maybe still is- the biggest screen in the world. The theater seats thousands so it was quite something. Having grown up in New York and having walked past that theater my entire life and then having all that happen was thrilling. It's still thrilling to me.
CR: You've said that "The Sunshine Boys" is a valuable filmed record of a bygone era - vaudeville- that might otherwise be forgotten.
RB: I don't know if people even know what that era is any more. Those people lived more on stage than off. They did eight shows a day, seven days a week. They were on the road for fifty weeks or something like that. They knew audiences better than anybody because of that tremendous experience. There's nothing like it today. What gives anybody that kind of experience? But Neil wrote an extraordinary play. He's quite extraordinary. I think it was Walter Kerr who once said about Neil, "Yes, they are jokes but why they are so funny is because the truth is in them."
CLICK HERE TO PRE-ORDER "THE SUNSHINE BOYS" BLU-RAY FROM AMAZON. (AVAILABLE ON JUNE 16)
(Thanks to Carol Samrock of Carl Samrock Public Relations for her assistance in arranging this interview.)
Actor Hugh O’Brian became an icon of American
television through his long-running series “The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp”. O’Brian
also became a popular fixture in feature films as well as stage productions. At
age 90, he’s still going strong. His autobiography “Hugh O’Brian or What’s
Left of Him” has just been published and his Hugh O’Brian Youth leadership
group is continuing to inspire American teenagers to become productive adults. Additionally, O’Brian has been promoting the
SFM Entertainment’s release of “The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp: The Complete Series”
We caught up with O’Brian recently for a phone
interview from his home in Los Angeles. O’Brian’s wife Virginia, who co-authored his autobiography, also
contributed some anecdotes. Hugh O’Brian
possesses a marvelous sense of humor and makes self-deprecating jokes at the
drop of hat. However, the main characteristic that comes across is that he is a
true class act.
Cinema Retro: Can you give us some background on how
you became involved in “The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp”?
Hugh O’Brian: I really was a fan of Wyatt Earp before I
got the role. I was in the Marine Corps and before my time, he had spent some
time in the San Diego area. Every two or three weeks, he would go over to the
Marine Corps base , which is where I enlisted in 1943 when I was seventeen
CR: You ended up being named the youngest drill
instructor that the Marine Corps ever had…
HO: Yes, they made me a drill instructor at age
seventeen. I don’t know if you’ve ever met any drill instructors, but it would
be very difficult for any of them to believe that. My grandfather was a Marine and my dad was a
Marine. He worked for a company called Armstrong Cork. Cork, at the time, was
the main thing you would use for insulation in homes and so forth. Dad became
the captain in charge of the Marine Corps in the Chicago area and he made a
wonderful recruiting effort there. Every summer from the time that I was four,
I would go with my dad for the two week training period up at Great Lakes,
Wisconsin. I had my own little pup tent and so you could say I was involved
with the Marines since the age of four. Anyway, Wyatt Earp loved the Marine
Corps because of the discipline and what they stood for. There was a guy by the
name of Stuart Lake, who wrote the book on Wyatt (“Wyatt Earp: Frontier
Marshall”- Ed.) I made a point of
meeting him. He became very became very instrumental in my finally getting the
role of Wyatt. He liked the fact that I did all my own stunts, which was a
stupid thing to do! On one film I had
done, I jumped off the roof of a 36
story office building in New York City. These guys with guns were chasing me I broke loose and there was only
one way to go: up. They were following me and I went over to the edge and as
they came towards me, I went over backwards and came through a window
below. There wasn’t any way you could
practice that! I did my own stunts, not because of ego or anything like that,
but because when you look at a film or a TV show, they usually have a stunt man
or a double to do the fight scenes. I insisted from the very beginning that,
while obviously they could lay out action scenes so they could get paid, but I
would do the stunts myself. It helped the filming tremendously because they
didn’t have to cut to a longer shot in which they would have used a double. If
there was something that I thought was much too risky, then, of course, I would
let the stuntman do it. I think appreciated the fact that I tried to do my own
stunts. It was like Wyatt Earp being alive and doing it.
Cimino with Eastwood on the set of Thunderbolt and Lightfoot.
Controversial Oscar-winning director Michael Cimino avoids interviews at all costs and hasn't spoken at length to a main stream publication in over a decade. However, Hollywood Reporter writer Seth Abramovitch convinced Cimino to engage in an extensive discussion of his career. The result is rather mesmerizing, as Cimino waxes about his passion for classic films (particularly those involving John Ford and John Wayne) and his respect for Clint Eastwood, who gave him his first job as director on the 1973 film "Thunderbolt and Lightfoot". In fact, Cimino spends a good part of the interview invoking Eastwood's name and praising him as one of the best filmmakers working today. However, he also goes into detail regarding the political aspects of his 1978 Oscar winner "The Deer Hunter" and laments the fact that he was painted as a right wing fanatic in the wake of the film's release. He also takes satisfaction in the reappraisal his massive 1980 boxoffice bomb "Heaven's Gate" is enjoying with both critics and audiences. At times sarcastic and even cynical, Cimino is nevertheless a fascinating character in his own right. (Oh, and he denies long-standing rumors that he is undergoing a sex change operation!). Click here to read.
Grass Valley, California resident (Norman Eugene) Clint Walker
starred in the iconic television western Cheyennefrom 1955-1963. This was
the golden era of TV westerns, with dozens of similar shows airing around the
Like their big screen counterparts, TV
cowboys were usually handsome, brave, resourceful and of course good with a
gun. However, there was something a bit
different about the Cheyenne Bodie character as Walker portrayed him. He fit
the genre all right. A big, handsome man built like an oak tree (6’6”, 48-inch
chest, 32-inch waist), he rode easy in the saddle and looked better than almost
anybody in a Stetson and boots. Men who doubted his resolve always ended up
regretting it. Ladies looked his way. Still, despite never violating the
conventions of the formula, Walker somehow managed to make the sum of his
character add up to more than its parts.
Knowing perhaps from fan mail that young boys
comprised a large part of the Cheyenne
audience, the writers frequently stocked their scripts with gentle morals.
Often as not it was a lesson about tolerance of others, especially others
unlike ourselves. Oh sure, the bad guys
almost always ended-up dead in the end, as was to be expected. Cheyenne was in at least one obligatory fight
per episode, frequently letting his huge fists do his talkin’ for him. The producers more and more frequently showed
him bare-chested (the money shot for the growing number of females in the
Yet, none of this is really what most fans
of the show remember. What we remember is the man himself, his down-to-earth
persona and quiet sense of humor, his willingness to bend when necessary but
never sacrifice his core principles. And something more: the decency and
kindness with which he treated others, especially the down-and-out, the town
drunk or the old man who everybody poked fun at. Clint Walker in the role of
Cheyenne Bodie helped teach, if only in a small way, a generation of young
American males that being a man wasn’t just about being tough. It was also
about sticking to your word, lending a helping hand when needed, and practicing
that most ancient of all western codes: whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them.
I recently spoke with James Drury about his old pal Clint
Walker. Drury played the title role in one of the most popular and
longest-running television westerns in history, The Virginian.
“I first met Clint on the set of Cheyenne,” Drury told me. “I did the show with him and we hit it off and
have been good friends ever since. That’s the way it worked sometimes. You’d walk
onto a set and meet somebody and you’d become friends for life. I don’t think I actually worked with Clint in
the acting field again until more recently when we did a Kung Fu: The Legend Continues episode with David Carradine. However,
we have worked in many other venues together. Within the last few years we’ve
attended a lot of film festivals. I
always try to sit next to Clint any time I can because I get the overflow from
his crowd. He draws more people at a film festival and autograph session than
just anybody. He usually has a line around the block. He has immense and well
I asked Drury about any parallels between
the character Clint Walker played on TV and the real man. “I believe Clint patterned the Cheyenne Bodie character
after his own personality,” he told me. “What you see is what you get with him.
He lets it (his personality) work for him every day of his life and people love
him for it. He’s a wonderful gentleman
and a wonderful human being, he really is. He’s always doing everything he can
to help everybody else. Whatever is going on, he’s there to help. I’m always
willing to talk about him because he is such a dear friend and gentleman.”
“You know it takes a lot of physical
strength to do a western,” Drury continued. “Both mental and physical strength to
do all the things you have to do on horseback and the other tasks. Westerns are make-believe but we actually had
to do the work as well. If we were pretending to be digging a cesspool, then we
were digging a cesspool. You had to get down there and do it, whatever it was.
Clint had done all sorts of physical labor
before becoming an actor and built up a tremendous amount of strength. Then he
got into the body building. He made his own weights out of cement. He put
cement in two five gallon cans and stuck a pipe in both ends and made a barbell.
I’m sure he could lift a D12 tractor if he felt like it. He’s got to be one of
the strongest men I ever met. Incidentally, someone told me just the other day
they had measured Clint’s draw with a six-gun and he was among the fastest
there was. I just heard that recently, though it doesn’t surprise me.”
I asked James Drury about the traditional
American values reflected in the Cheyenne
series as well as shows like TheVirginian and The Rifleman. “As my friend Richard Farnsworth used to say, that
early part of our (country’s) history was our Camelot. It’s the time we look back to when integrity,
honesty, loyalty and true friendship were qualities people went out of their
way to share and have because the conditions were so terribly difficult you had
to take care of your fellow man, and he had to take care of you. People had the
tendency to make friends and keep them. There’s a little saying from the Cowboy Way that goes, If it’s not true, don’t say it; if it’s not
yours, don’t take it; if it’s not right, don’t do it.”
Good words to live by and, according to
someone who has known him for over fifty years, fitting ones for Clint Walker,
both the actor and the man.
Ian Ogilvy in his latest film, "We Still Kill the Old Way", now available on Blu-ray and DVD.
Ian Ogilvy: Saints, Sorcerers and Secret Agents
Cinema Retro's Mark Mawston recently caught up with the legendary Ian Ogilvy to discuss projects past and present.
Mark Mawston: Ian, your film career began in the mid
60’s with The She Beast, directed by Michael Reeves. You had a great
relationship with him. How did that come about?
Ian Ogilvy: Well, when we were 15 years old we made
a couple of amateur movies together after we were introduced by a mutual friend
and we became great friends. I used to stay at his mother’s house with him in
Norfolk and over two years we made these two little amateur movies. I then lost
contact with him as I went off and did different things like attending drama
school and he went off and did lots of assistant director jobs and general “go-foring”
jobs in the movie industry. Then one day my English agent said “Have you heard
of a guy called Michael Reeves? He wants you to play the lead in his first
film!” So, as it turned out, he hadn’t forgotten me and I hadn’t forgotten him
and that’s how it came about.
MM: You seemed to be Reeves’ muse,
appearing in all three of his finished films (The She Beast, The Sorcerers and the
classic Witchfinder General). Through those films you worked with two of horror’s
greatest stars, Boris Karloff and Vincent Price. What can you tell us about
IO: Well I wasn’t really his muse. The
thing about Michael was that he couldn’t really direct actors. He didn’t
understand what acting was all about so he left them pretty much alone. He only
liked to work with actors he knew and trusted. I simply became the actor he
trusted and that’s how we worked together. As for working with Boris, well he
was a complete delight, the most charming, courteous old man id ever met in my
life and quite funny, too. He always tried to do his best. Vincent on the other
hand, well its quite well known that he was an unhappy actor when doing this
film (Witchfinder General a.k.a The
Conqueror Worm) and really didn’t want to be there. He didn’t like Michael and
didn’t like the way he was being treated by Michael but still gave, I think,
one of his best ever performances in that movie. So Michael was right and he
was wrong. I didn’t have much to do with either of them bar meeting regarding
each film but other than that, didn’t really come across them. My knowledge of
Vincent specifically isn’t that great as I didn’t spend a lot of time working
with him. Our paths and parts ran parallel yet different, if you know what I
MM: Yes I believe the famous put down by
Reeves to Price;
Man, I have made over a hundred films, how many have you made”?
Reeves: “ Three good ones” cleared the air and led to, I agree, one of
Prices best performances.
After this you worked on Waterloo with
Christopher Plummer, Jack Hawkins and Orson Welles. Did you spend time with the
IO: Orson Welles spent one day on set and it
was miles away from where I was! His entire role was shot in one or two days,
filmed in Italy or somewhere. I didn’t get to meet Rod Steiger, either, as
there was no need to because they got all the French actors to come in and do
their stuff, then get the British actors in. There was no particular reason for
us to meet. Although I do wish I’d met Orson Welles. I don’t think anyone did!
MM: What was the overall experience working
on Waterloo, as it was so different in set-up and sheer scale?
IO: Well, the sheer scale was enormous. It was a vast project. It
couldn’t be done today, or if it was, it would all be CGI. We had over 25,000
extra’s which was The Red army, The Russian army. We were given whole
regiments. The Director Sergei Bondarchuk had made War and Peace a few years earlier, an 8 or 9 hour epic using
the same soldiers so they all knew about dressing up in uniforms (laughs). It
was a huge film, the biggest I’ve ever been involved with.
MM: You’ve starred in some of the most
beloved cult TV shows, such as The Avengers and Ripping Yarns. Did you prefer
TV and did it give you more scope as an actor?
IO: When people ask actors that they tend
to say it would be films for the money, TV for the regular bread and butter,
which is what you did the most in order to give yourself a decent living and the
theatre for the material, as the material is always better than TV or
film. I loved doing films but they
didn’t come around as often as TV shows. TV was a general staple in those days,
if not now, though things have changed . Back then , if you’d looked at TV from
6:00 PM in the evening until late at night when it stopped, TV would be
employing actors. Now it just seems to be quiz shows, cooking shows and so-called
reality shows. We, as young actors, had more opportunity than they do now. I
liked TV, as it gave me my daily bread.
MM: Were you approached by The Pythons for
IO: (laughs) I don’t know to be honest with
you! I think I may have gone and read for them or they knew me from before. I
hardly remember how I got that, but it was a joyous job.
MM: It was on again recently and holds up
wonderfully and your turn in it was especially good. Bar long running series
Upstairs Downstairs, you’re most recognized for your role as Simon Templer in
Return of The Saint. How did that come about? Did producer Bob Baker spot you?
IO: No, it was Bob’s wife who spotted me in
Upstairs Downstairs and said “Bob, if you ever do another Saint, that guy would
be good” which was odd really, as my character in that program was so weak, so effeminate,
that I was surprised she made the connection. Still, Bob trusted her judgment
and his agent called me and Bob took me to dinner and asked that- if he did get
a new series off the ground- would I be willing to do it? I said “Sure”, but I
forgot all about it for several years, as I didn’t hear anything back. Then in
the late 70’s, all of a sudden, it came back again and he managed to raise the
money, as he’d managed to get Lord Lew
Grade to back it. So it happened after talking about it all those years before.
Return of the Saint
MM: It shows your range as an actor, that
you can play a total fop and yet still be seen as an all action hero
Click this link to view very rare interview footage shot at Knotts Berry Farm where the premiere of the 1971 film "Big Jake" coincided with the dedication of the John Wayne Theatre. Wayne is on-hand with his co-stars Maureen O'Hara and Richard Boone and there is a lot of teasing and kibbitzing between them. Wayne showers O'Hara with praise about her beauty and O'Hara tells tales about the making of "The Quiet Man", wherein Wayne and director John Ford conspired to drag her through sheep dip. Wayne is heard speaking candidly, complaining about "this damned wig" he has to wear and putting in the prerequisite controversial political comment in extolling America as a haven for "free enterprise", while taking a dig at liberals. Apparently, Duke didn't consider that many of the studios that made his films and paid his salary were run by those dreaded liberals. Nevertheless, these were more civil times in certain ways and Wayne counted people on the political left and right as his close friends. As a bonus, Glen Campbell, Wayne's "True Grit" co-star, shows up to chat with Duke and Boone about the "Generation Gap". It's marvelous to see these true icons on screen together and talking candidly.
INTERVIEW CONDUCTED BY DARREN ALLISON, SOUNDTRACK EDITOR FOR CINEMA RETRO
was instantly transported back some 40 years while handling the re-issue of Hammer’s Dracula with Christopher Lee
LP. There was something about holding this mint piece of vinyl that reached
beyond mere nostalgia; I was holding such a prominent memory of the past – new
- in my hands – today...
course, that feeling of déjà vu was pulled sharply into focus given that this
LP is almost a perfect clone of what had once gone before. Naturally, the only
implemented change was the replacement of the original EMI Studio2Stereo logo
from the top left hand corner of the front sleeve. However, the licencing of
this recording has since changed, and instead Dust Bug’s unobtrusive logo now
sits in its place, rather proudly it must be said - and causing very little
recently spoke with Nick Bug, the man behind Dust Bug Records and asked him about
the album, the production, and the decision behind re-releasing such an iconic
Nick, tell me - what made you decide to form Dust Bug Records?
Firstly, we wanted to release records that we love (both old and new). But it
was more than that; we also wanted the added bonus of really going back to
traditional analogue where possible.
Your debut release Dracula with
Christopher Lee is regarded today as something of a classic. What made you
decide to pursue this particular title to launch your label? Did you own the
original album back in 1974?
Certainly I‘ve always been a horror movie fan since I was a child and that
carries you through life. The Dracula record I first heard in 1974 when my
parents visited a Hi Fi fair in Harrogate where B&O (Bang & Olufsen) were
using it as a reference disc for their latest systems. I was only 10 at the
time so it really stuck in my memory. It hasn’t been released on vinyl since
then so I thought what better place to start than with such a cult album that
has followed me through life!
You decided to go back and produce this album in pure analogue – can you tell
me why – and perhaps give us some details about the process, and using the
We thought that if a job is worth doing its worth doing well and going the
extra mile to cut from the ¼ inch tapes was a no brainer for us. We wanted to
deliver pure 100% analogue to vinyl fans. We used a vintage cutting room in
London with a complete analogue chain and beautiful vintage equipment; it was
more like a living museum. The complete signal path is given inside the sleeve,
we thought it was important to let people (and especially the vinyl fans) know
that it wasn’t just cut from a CD!
I was quite taken by the attention to detail regarding the packaging, I guess
the option was there to take an ‘easier’ approach, perhaps to release the LP in
a standard sleeve? Why did you decide on the full gatefold reproduction, I
assume this added to the production costs - did you incur any problems in
taking this option?
It had to be as close to the original as possible and that obviously means
having the gatefold sleeve and trying our best to mimic the laminated front
sleeve by using a high UV gloss and then going for a matte inside as per the
original. It did add to the production costs as did the analogue cutting but we
believe it’s worth it and we are very pleased with the final product.
And of course, you used a nice retro technique in pressing the album in a ‘mist
enshrouded blood infused virgin vinyl’?
Yes indeed, we wanted to deliver the album in a limited edition format to give
the fans something special. You can never tell what the end result will be and
of course every single one is different, unique - as it was dependent upon at
what stage the colours were added. I think the finished result works particularly
Were you happy with the overall finished result?
I have to say, it’s always a bit nerve wracking when you open that first box
and look at what the factory has produced. But yes we are very pleased; it
exceeded our expectations on every level.
Do you believe there is still a market for vinyl? I know this is a strictly
limited release of 500 copies, are initial sales looking promising?
In my opinion, vinyl is the king of formats; it’s as simple as that. I don’t
believe any other format comes close if you are serious about your music and of
course being a record collector myself it’s the only option! Sales have started
well and we hope it will continue... it’s a limited edition run, so if you don’t
have one, don’t hang about!
Regarding Dracula, do you have the rights to press more vinyl or are you happy
with just the 500 copies?
With regards to a vinyl repress, the answer is no - not in the format it is
now. There are 500 only of the numbered first pressing in the limited coloured
vinyl so there will be no more. The idea of the label is to produce small
What about a CD release, have you considered the option, and if so, would the
packaging again reflect the retro style of the LP?
Yes, we do have the CD rights so it is possible we will do a small limited run,
and if we do go ahead with the CD it would also be in a gatefold replica
So Nick, what about the future, what is the aim of Dust Bug Records? Can you
reveal any future titles in the works or anything in particular you are
We are indeed chasing down some other titles to release, but I can’t say too
much at this stage. It’s not just soundtracks either; Dust Bug will release
many different genres going forward. But nothing will be rushed, we believe in
getting it right and sometimes that takes time.
Hayes in his one man stage show Riding the Midnight Express with Billy Hayes, which is now on tour.
By Mark Cerulli
“Ne Oldu, Ne Oldu,
That line from Midnight Express,
delivered with swaggering menace by a depraved prison warden (played by the
great Paul L. Smith) burned itself into this scribe’s cortex back in 1978. Alan Parker’s iconic film about the real-life
ordeal of American student Billy Hayes caught smuggling drugs in Turkey and
sentenced to a hellish prison became a cultural phenomenon – not to mention an
international box office success. It earned glowing reviews and Oscars for screenwriter
Oliver Stone and composer Gorgio Moroder. Hayes even met his wife Wendy at the
splashy Cannes premiere. No joy for Turkey, though - there was an international
outcry about their seemingly draconian justice system and the country’s once-booming
tourism hit the skids hard. The gritty association to the film has stuck ever
Retro caught up with the real Billy Hayes, now touring with his one-man show “Riding
the Midnight Express with Billy Hayes” to separate fact from Turkish prison fiction. And as Hayes freely admits, it’s been a wild
months ago I was in a prison cell, eating beans and now I’m flying to LA to
talk about a movie deal for my book!” Hayes remembers, still scarcely believing
the turn of events. Unlike many authors
who are gently shunted aside as their work is repurposed, Hayes bonded with
Oliver Stone, then making his name as a hot young screenwriter.
spent a week in the Mayfair hotel in New York with Oliver, eight to ten hours a
day” he recalled, likening it to being in a washing machine on spin cycle, “but
I loved every second of it.” Stone, who had read an early galley of the book,
wanted to glean any hidden gems and Billy wanted to see how a screenwriter
worked. Then they parted ways - Stone
off to a cabin to write and Hayes waited to see how actor Brad Davis would
bring him to life.
had no control, I had sold the rights …” Billy remembered, “but I ended up
being really lucky. Oliver wrote a great script and (director) Alan Parker was
brilliant… but at the same time, my biggest problem with the movie is everybody
says ‘I’ll never go to Turkey, I saw Midnight Express’. I love Turkey, Istanbul is wonderful… I got
busted on my fourth trip. In the movie you don’t see any good Turks.”
island of Malta stood in for Turkey when that country predictably refused
filming permission and the producers flew Billy in for some publicity shots. He and star Brad Davis hit it off, forging a
friendship that would last until the actor’s death in 1991. “They walked me onto the set in that incredible
stone fort, Fort St. Elmo, and they were shooting a scene on the balcony with
Brad and Randy (Quaid) and it was like I was looking across at myself… it was
was even time for Billy to meet his tormentor in chief… “They took a break and
I was being introduced, I felt this hand on my shoulder. I looked up and there
was Paul Smith, in costume, looking like the badass sadist guard… then he
smiled. He was a very nice, warm, cuddly guy.” The 6’4” Smith (who later played ‘Bluto’ to
Robin Williams’ ‘Popeye’) was so cuddly that Brad Davis went to the director
and said “This effing guy is killing me in the fight scenes.” Alan Parker promised to get Smith to dial
back, but instead told the hulking actor, “You’re doing great, keep it up!”
the movie, effective as it was, wasn’t the real
story, not completely. Yes, Hayes
smuggled hash and yes, he was just 54 days away from release when the Turkish
court, under pressure to “get tough” on drugs, heartbreakingly re-sentenced
him to Life, but that’s where film and fact start to diverge.
did indeed get retried. The judge – as
in the film – was very sympathetic. As
Hayes recalled, “He said he wished he had retired before having to render the
(new) verdict.” In fact, said judge did
him a solid – since he couldn’t give him a lower sentence than Life, he reduced
Life to 30 years. A nice gesture, but
thirty years is still THIRTY years! When
the sentence was handed down in court, the real Billy Hayes said, “I can’t
agree with you, all I can do is I forgive you.” Run through Oliver Stone’s typewriter, Billy’s enlightened zen morphed
into, “I hate you. I hate your nation...
And I fuck your sons and daughters because you’re all pigs!”
Strong stuff. A “dramatic beat” in
Hollywood parlance… and there were immediate consequences. After Billy’s
escape, Turkey didn’t seek extradition. After publication of his book, they
still gave him a pass… but once the movie came out, they issued an Interpol
arrest warrant, a travel restricting scarlet letter that branded him for the
next twenty years! “Thank you,
Oliver.” Billy laughs.
His other issue is with the film’s
portrayal of his incredible escape. On film he has a final confrontation with
the psychotic warden, impaling his skull on a coat hook. (Listen for the “pickaxe in a watermelon” sound
effect!) Then he slips on a guard’s
uniform and walks out the door. It
worked and was the kind of ending that had audiences cheering… but his real
life escape was even more dramatic. Billy had managed to get himself moved to
an island prison and was planning to somehow swim to shore when a storm forced
the local fishing fleet to take shelter in the prison harbor. In the teeth of the storm, Billy swam out,
cut a rowboat loose and rowed to the mainland. Eventually he walked through the highly defended (and land-mined!) border
between Turkey and Greece and got his freedom, along with lifelong bragging
“The one thing I thought was, if
they make this into a movie, they’ll put this ending in, it’s made for Hollywood…
and then they didn’t do it!” Billy remembers, adding, “Alan (Parker)
showed me the movie in this little screening room in New York… at the end of
it, I was all sweaty and Alan asked, ‘So what do you think?’ I said ‘I loved
the movie, but I missed my rowboat, what happened?’” The director explained that to include
Billy’s elaborate, true-life escape, they’d have to cut out 45 minutes of
Billy Hayes (left) with Brad Davis, the actor who portrayed him in the film. (Photo courtesy of Billy Hayes).
“As a filmmaker I understand it…”
Billy concedes, “but I really wanted my rowboat. It gave me back my life!”
Over the last forty-odd years,
Billy has tried to set the record straight about his entire ordeal, but never
has he had a forum like this one-man show, which grew out of his 1980s college
lecture tour. As Billy puts it, “At the very least, my life is a cautionary
The Midnight Express with Billy Hayes” was put together by lead producer Barbara Ligeti (who’s
made several films of her own including Hugo
Pool and Motorama). She was looking for a singular talent to
present at Edinburgh’s Fringe Festival and Barbara, who knows everybody, knew
had met Billy when he was in a play I enjoyed in the late 80s, I didn’t realize
he was ‘THE’ Billy Hayes.” Ligeti laughs. “I asked him ‘Can you tell your story in an hour on a stool with a
bottle of water?’” Billy signed on and
the Edinburgh show proved too good to leave as a one-off event. “We all went to work” Ligeti remembers, “and
now the show is up to 70 minutes with an immediate Q&A afterwards.”
Producer and Director Jeffrey
Altschuler helped Billy craft his lecture into a riveting, yet uplifting live presentation.
Altschuler, who had worked in TV commercial production, had numerous ties to the
film version of Billy’s life, “I knew the guys who put the movie together,
Peter Guber and Neil Bogart, and I knew Alan Parker from commercials.” That helped when Barbara brought him in to
dramaturge the show. He and the star had
a lot in common…
grew up in the 1960s in New York, we both dropped out of college. I chose to
buy and sell horses instead of hash”, Altschuler recalled. “It was a very different time, everybody got
stoned but nobody thought about where it came from or how it got there until Midnight Express.”
with any creative project, it all came down to the material. “I was really impressed with Billy’s writing.”
Altshuler said. The two honed the
script from a lecture to a dramatic reading and when the show’s original
director left, Altschuler got the gig even though he had never directed live
just had to encourage him and get him to dig a little deeper to cover the
material the way it should be covered. It was totally a collaboration.”
city after city, the show has received a rousing reception. Many Turks are coming out to see the
performance, something Billy appreciates. “They’re young kids whose parents were alive when all this was happening
and they’ve been hearing about it, now we can talk about it.”
decades of wanderlust, Hayes sounds like a man who has finally found his place
in the world. “This just confirms to me that this is what I need and want to be
doing now…. it’s cathartic and therapeutic, but every time I tell it it’s like
the first time.” With plans for the
show to tour the globe, there’s not even a hint of Midnight fatigue. “This has
been a joy, it’s just been a joy.” Sounds like a happy, Hollywood ending at last.
The Midnight Express with Billy Hayes” will return to New York’s Barrow Street Theater starting
In an amusing interview with Marlow Stern of the Daily Beast, Woody Allen plugs his latest romantic comedy, Magic in the Moonlight but also addresses any number of other issues ranging from his friendship with Diane Keaton and the reason they no longer make films together to the endless strife in the Middle East to the reason why he rarely appears as an actor in anyone else's films ("Nobody offers me anything!). The Woodman used to avoid interviews like the plague but in recent years he's become more receptive about doing them and in this case, he actually seems to enjoy the experience. Click here to read.
The Hollywood Reporter visits Jerry Lewis at his home in Las Vegas and finds the 88 year old comedy legend as opinionated, cranky and funny as ever as his career undergoes yet another renaissance. Click here to read
On his web blog Hill Place, writer Shaun Chang catches up with former actress Cristina Raines for an exclusive interview. Raines had prominent roles in such 1970s gems as Michael Winner's The Sentinal, Robert Altman's Nashville and Ridley Scott's The Duelists. Interestingly, this accomplished actress gave up the glamour of show business for a career in nursing. Click here to read.
Nicholas Wrathall turned an introduction to Vidal by his nephew into a rare filmmaking
opportunity. The result is Gore
Vidal: The United States of Amnesia, a new, in-depth look at the writer’s
long and singular life.
took seven years to make,” Wrathall told CinemaRetro, “five years of
interviewing him and I benefitted from the time frame because I got to know
author wrote a number of historical novels including Burr, Lincoln and 1876 along with screenplays, essays and
teleplays; but was best known for speaking out, totally unconcerned about the
feathers he ruffled along the way. In
addition to Wrathall’s interviews, the film makes use of decades of Vidal’s
televised appearances – arguing about sexuality in the 1950s, arguing against the Vietnam War and social inequality in the 1960s, stirring the intellectual pot whenever
possible. Archive footage shows Vidal’s
incredible reach – he was friends with JFK, Paul Newman, Eleanor Roosevelt and numerous
other boldfaced names. Viewers also see
a remarkable progression - from a young, vigorous Vidal, thoroughly enjoying
sparring against arch conservative William F. Buckley, to a more mature provocateur
railing against Ronald Reagan and finally an increasingly frail elder statesman
horrified by American imperialism and the Iraq war. Through it all, Vidal maintained his wry sense
of humor noting that “We are the United States of Amnesia, we learn nothing
because we remember nothing.”
in NY, LA, Washington as well as Italy and Cuba, the film offers a definitive
look at one of the last “intellectual celebrities” of our time. “He was courageous, and provocative, that’s
why Carson and Cavett loved having him on their shows.” Wrathall adds.
with his razor sharp opinions, Vidal was also known for throwing lavish
parties, attracting movie stars, artists and politicians. Ground Zero for these coveted events was his
beloved villa, Rondinaia in Ravello, Italy. In fact, one of the film’s emotional highlights is Vidal’s final visit,
packing up books and memories and staring out at the incredible view one last
time. Actor Tim Robbins reminisces about
bringing his family for a stay with Gore and his partner, Howard Austen - only
to be joined by two other dinner guests, Sting and Bruce Springsteen and their
spouses. There was nobody Vidal didn’t
seem to know.!
notable talking head was author Christopher Hitchens – in one of his last on
camera interviews. He and Vidal had a
complicated relationship – at one point Hitchens was his literary heir apparent
only to be cast out when he spoke out in favor of the Iraq War, something Vidal
documentary ends with a final off camera question – “What is your legacy?”
Although Vidal dismisses it with a sneer, the documentary’s director thinks
that along with being a “writer, essayist and novelist… he was a brave,
outspoken person who lived at the center of our culture.”
Vidal: The United States of Amnesia opens in Los Angeles on June 6th. It is currently playing at the IFC Center in New York.
(For Don L. Stradley's review of the film click here)
Brian Williams and Ron Howard. (Event photos copyright Giacomo Selloni. All rights reserved.)
Earlier this month, Cinema Retro was invited to cover Tribeca Talks, a new live interview series that took place as part of the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City. We sent our "Man About Manhattan", Giacomo Selloni to cover the initial event at which Ron Howard was interviewed by NBC newsman Brian Williams. Here is his report:
By Giacomo Selloni
Ron Howard is an articulate film director. So it should come as no surprise that he is also an articulate speaker. He also has a way with anecdotes, as one might expect, given the length and diversity of his career.
"I think it's wrong to think of what I'm in as the movie business," Howard says. "It's the moving image business. I think it's necessary to work in all different mediums." He also says it's hard to call it the film business as the industry moves further towards digital movie making. Part of his process is deciding not only how to tell a story but what medium to use, film, television even the internet. "Some stories might work better on the internet, with little three-minute segments. The audience is always going to tell you what they want," he continued, "the audience clearly wants to have the option to view different stories in different ways."
"You're sixty, and a grandfather; it's enough to make one check their watch," Brian Williams said about Howard as he asked him questions about his career. When called upon to tell stories about the people he's worked with in his career that has now spanned six decades, Howard's abilities as a story teller came to the forefront. John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Betty Davis, Jimmy Stewart are among the legends he's acted with or directed. Howard recalled his first meeting with "The Duke." He was picked up at the airport in Carson City, Nevada by "The Shootist" dirctor, Don Siegel and driven to the motel where they were all staying. "C'mon," Siegel said, "let me introduce you to The Duke." Upon introducing the young star of "Happy Days" to John Wayne, Siegel handed Wayne a copy of the latest TV Guide that he picked up at the airport. It featured Ron Howard and Henry Winkler on the cover. "A big shot, huh?" said Wayne. Howard later asked Wayne if he wanted to run lines. Wayne told Howard that no one had ever asked him to do that before. Howard was struck by how hard Wayne worked on finding the right spots to insert his trademark pauses and hitches. They weren't by accident, they were part of a "structured performance." "That's one thing all the great ones had in common," Howard recalled, "they always worked a little bit harder than everyone else."
Howard co-starred with John Wayne in the Duke's final film, the 1976 Western classic The Shootist. Wayne considered young Howard to be among the most professional actors he had ever worked with.
Williams asked Howard if he would ever return to acting. "I would kind of like to," Howard replied - much to the audience's approval. Now that he and his wife are empty nesters she's urging him to get out of the house more. He told the story of how he got his first full-length feature directing job. "Kids off TV sitcoms were not from the fertile ground where the industry looked for directors." He made a deal with Roger Corman who wanted him to make "Eat My Dust," a film he did not want to star in. Corman gave him the opportunity to pitch a film that was in the same car-chase vein. "Grand Theft Auto" was the result. Howard co-wrote the script with his father, actor Rance Howard, and it was a major boxoffice success. The rest, as they say, is history. A few years later Howard gave up acting completely in order to concentrate on his booming career as a director, although out of sentiment, he did co-star in the smash hit TV movie "Return to Mayberry" in 1986 out of sentiment and respect for his co-stars from "The Andy Griffith Show".
The subject of politics and popular culture came up. Howard is a great believer in American culture. "We are truly a melting pot nation and we understand how to make it work and grow." Working primarily in Europe for the last few years, he is troubled by the confusing messages the United States sends to the rest of the world, the whole red state/ blue state thing. People are purposely polarized. Moderate ideas, he claims, don't get any attention. The only messages that get attention are those of the extremists. In closing, Brian Williams told Howard that "If our country were to prepare a time capsule, your films would have to be in it - if not you, yourself." A quick look on IMDB as a reminder of his distinguished directorial career may have you feeling the same way.
(Giacomo Selloni is a playwright and serves as Treasurer of the legendary Players club in New York City.)
issue #27 of Cinema Retro, writer John Exshaw presents a remarkable, previously
unpublished interview with iconic British actor Peter Cushing. The following
companion piece was not included for reasons of space but we are very proud to
run this as a web site exclusive.)
to interviewing Peter Cushing, in May, 1993, I arranged to speak to Christopher
Lee at the Carlton Towers Hotel in Knightsbridge, where he kindly shared the
following thoughts on Cushing as actor, colleague, and friend.
didn’t meet him until we did the first Hammer movie. I’d seen him. Of course
the thing which I’d seen which impressed me most, understandably, was 1984, which was remarkable. He was
wonderful in that. . . . Live TV! [shudders]
dedication; and this is the answer to why Peter Cushing is an actor. Total
dedication. Total! The most professional actor I have ever worked with. And I’m
not going to say underrated, because he isn’t underrated. He’s highly regarded
all over the world as a brilliant actor, and deservedly so. The record shows
that. . . . Also, one thing that we do share, I think, more than anything,
which is more important than anything else – I think we share the same
dedication, I think we share professionalism, I think we share the same
feelings about doing the best we can – one thing we certainly share is the same
sense of humour, which, of course, the general public is totally unaware of. If
they knew what we got up to on the set in every film we’ve made . . . the
imitations that I used to do, the dances that he used to do. . . . Oh, we used
to dance together in the rushes, yes; me made up as the Frankenstein creature,
a sort of, a sort of, what do you call it – buck-and-wing dance, you know. And
in years and years and years he and I have shared this idolatrous love of the
Warner Brothers’ cartoons, you see, and Sylvester, and Tweety Pie, and Yosemite
Sam. And I’ve always imitated them, you see, and he does the same. And we used
to do that on a set; people used to think we’d gone out of our minds, and we’d
make each other laugh. Sometimes it’s so important – in a way, it’s absolutely
essential – but we’re both of us ice-cold when it comes to doing it, even if
we’ve been laughing a few moments before. Again, that’s a thing we also share,
what can I say about Peter Cushing that I haven’t said before? I mean,
consummate actor, brilliant technician, and a marvellous human being. I’ve
always said, you know – I’m sure you’re aware of this – that he should have
been a priest. . . . Because there is a great love for his fellow man. There’s
an almost superhuman loving kindness in Peter, and it’s always been there. I’ve
never heard him say anything harsh about anyone. He’s also a deeply religious
man. Those are the two things we don’t have in common. I’m afraid I do say what
I think. I’m not tactless but I am a more direct person than he is. I don’t
have his tolerance. I don’t have his gentleness. I don’t have his faith; I wish
I did. . . .
is not an easy person to get to know, believe you me. There’s a lot about Peter
that I don’t know. . . . But of course, as you know, Helen died in the 1970s
and that is his only desire left in life. And it’s genuine. He has stayed alive
because he’s a man who would never take his own life because that would be a
great sin, and he has stayed alive through some pretty terrible experiences,
you know. He’s had cancer, and problems with his legs, his hips, breathing, and
all sorts of medical problems – but the spirit is unquenchable and the speed of
thinking and the mind haven’t changed at all. I mean, it’s another cliché – the
spirit is willing but the flesh is weak. The same thing with Vincent [Price];
mind like a rapier, both of them. Only the physical disabilities of getting
old. . . .
he’s certainly one of a kind, and of course this business of staying alive,
simply existing, which is how he looks at his life – existence. He’s only
waiting for that moment; only waiting for it. And he’s been waiting now for
twenty-three years. It must be terrible to be so admired and so loved and so
respected but to impose, I feel, on yourself, deliberately, a sort of monastic
seclusion which he seems to prefer. He seems to; I mean, you wouldn’t think it
if you saw him with a group of people but I think he prefers to be alone. I
don’t think the house is full of people. I don’t think there’s many very, very
close, intimate friends – but nor have I, and nor have many people.
Acquaintances, yes; admirers, yes – scores of thousands all over the world,
people who feel they know him, people who feel that he’s a friend – all that.
That’s on a professional basis; I think on a personal basis, I get the
impression that he’s a person who keeps his life and his relationship with his
wife very much to himself. It’s locked up in a cupboard of which he has the
key. He doesn’t open that cupboard and release anything unless he chooses to.
But I don’t either.
To order issue #27 of Cinema Retro with John Exshaw's exclusive interview with Peter Cushing click button below
In an interview with The Guardian, screen legend Claudia Cardinale looks back on her remarkable career and recalls the great actors and directors she worked with. Cardinale is still making movies and claims that acting is her life's passion. Click here to read. Click here to visit Cardinale's official web site
The film-related web site NixPix offers a fascinating and insightful interview with Nick Redman, a noted film historian and co-founder of the boutique DVD label Twilight Time. Redman discusses his involvement in the early days of the home video industry when he worked as an archivist for Fox, pushing for the release of classic soundtracks sometimes in conjunction with deluxe laser disc editions. Redman also talks about the discovery of reels of rare silent footage from Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch that was ultimately transformed into the Oscar-nominated documentary The Wild Bunch: An Album in Montage. Redman discusses the DVD boom of the late 1990s and its recent downturn as a result of the financial meltdown along with the public's insistence for "on-demand" product. He also talks about the origins of Twilight Time and the label's plans for future releases. Click here to read
actor, musician, Maxton Gig “Max” Beesley, Jr’s destiny as an actor was firmly
set when his mom was inspired by American, Academy Award® winning
actor Gig Young, in choosing her son’s middle name. Beesley, born and raised in his beloved
Manchester, England, was raised in a family steeped in the arts. His father, Max Beesley, Sr. is a venerable
jazz drummer and impressionist, and his mother Chris Marlowe was a jazz singer. His step-brother Jason Milligan is also an
actor and Jason’s wife Angela Griffin is an actress.
first, American audiences may not easily recognize Max Beesley’s name, but in
fact, many are far more familiar with his esteemed CV of work, which includes
numerous acclaimed acting roles in many stellar films, TV series, and also a
supreme music career, than they realize.
has garnered considerable praise and is most well known here in the States and
in the UK for his role as the unflappable Woody on all 3 seasons, (and now
filming Season 4) of the British black comedy, thriller TV series, “Mad Dogs”
which just premiered its third season June 4, 2013. The series is broadcast Tuesday nights at 9pm
on Britain’s SKY TV. U.S. and global
audiences can watch Episode 1 and new weekly episodes on SKY TV’s website at http://sky1.sky.com/sky1hd-shows/mad-dogs
also just co-starred in the nifty and thoroughly riveting indie crime thriller
film, “Pawn”, which was co-produced by the film’s star, actor Michael
Chiklis. “Pawn” was also helmed
by Chiklis’s own film production company,
Extravaganza Films, and was released direct to Blu-Ray and DVD on April 23,
2013. The film focuses on a seemingly
easy to pull off robbery by some small town hoods, (Beesley’s character Billy,
being one of the baddies) at an all night diner. But in actuality the details behind the heist
involve a delectable smorgasbord of intelligent, multi-layered, plot
complexities and jaw dropping twists. The job goes south quickly, escalating
into a tense hostage situation with dirty cops and crooks alike manipulating
and double crossing one another and the outcome. The unfolding events are told
from various different perspectives by the many characters, who recall different
key elements that reveal the many surprising and well thought out plot twists
and turns. Think “Roshomon” meets
Beesley is a prominent fixture across the pond in England via his many starring
turns on some of British TV’s biggest hit series, here in the States, many
people know of him and often first discover Beesley and his many stellar film
roles, as well as his sterling TV work and luminous musical talents, from his starring
role in the 2001 motion picture “Glitter” opposite Mariah Carey in her film
actor Beesley authentically and convincingly portrayed street smart New York
music producer and club DJ, Julian “Dice” Black, co-starring as Carey’s romantic
interest, who discovers and mentors the musical talents of Carey’s character,
Billie Frank. While the film was panned
by critics and fans alike at the time, Beesley’s gritty and charismatic
performance, however, was a stellar knockout and all but saved the film.
“Glitter”, has, and continues to attain, a growing, appreciative audience and
in retrospect holds up well as a very entertaining, dark, and realistic take on
the downsides of stardom and the music industry.
first garnered critical acclaim in the lead role on the 1997 BBC British TV mini-series
“The History Of Tom Jones: A Foundling”, which was broadcast here in the states
many diverse film roles reflect the multifaceted depth and range of his acting talents. He starred as Wullie Smith in director Mick
Davis’s inspiring and charming tale of a Scottish town’s two pub soccer teams
who play one another to settle an old grudge in 1999’s “The Match”. He’s worked with such prestigious indie, art
house directors as Mike Figgis, portraying Antonio in the offbeat and disturbing
2001 film “Hotel”, and with director Tamar Simon Hoffs, in the 2003 screen
adaptation of the award winning stage production “Red Roses and Petrol” which
won first prize at the Avignon Film Festival.
“Red Roses and Petrol”, Max starred opposite Malcolm McDowell to great acclaim as
the angry, damaged, rakish Johnny Doyle, attempting to come to terms with his
dysfunctional relationship with his family and his deceased father in this poignant
and raw character study.
worked with “Blade” and “The League Of Extraordinary Gentleman’s” cult director
Stephen Norrington, starring in the vividly dark, bleak, and shocking gothic
thriller, 2001’s “The Last Minute”. Beesley
also starred with Selma Blair in the 2001, emotionally charged drama and crime
thriller “Kill Me Later” as Charlie Anders. Max transformed into the tattooed baddie Luther, a member of the
Hellions biker gang and henchman to the Hellion’s leader Henry James played by
“The Fast & The Furious’s” own Matt Schulze in the 2004 action film “Torque”,
starring Martin Henderson and Ice Cube, and produced by Neal H. Moritz who has
produced all six of “The Fast and the Furious” films and which was also
produced by Brad Luff (who also co-produced “Pawn”).
become a lauded mainstay of the British TV airwaves starring on such hit shows
as “Bodies” from 2004 to 2006 as Dr. Rob Lake and on the post apocalyptic
science fiction series “Survivors” from 2008 to 2010 as the amoral and
remorseless Tom Price. U.S. fans will be
happy to know that Beesley also crossed the Atlantic pond, here to the States
to guest on an episode of “CSI” in 2011. But it was from 2006 to 2009, that Beesley starred in the role that
would make him a beloved icon on British television, as the roguish romancer
with a checkered past, yet utterly likable rapscallion, hotel general manager,
Charlie Edwards in “Hotel Babylon”.
before Beesley embarked on an esteemed acting career, he had already made his
name as a successful and talented musician. A gifted pianist, percussionist, and solo jazz artist, Max is also a songwriter,
producer, arranger, and film composer, (scoring two of the films he’s acted and
starred in, 2003’s “The Emperor’s Wife” and 2005’s “Her Name Is Carla”). He’s recorded, written for, produced, arranged, played, and toured
with Robbie Williams, Stevie Wonder, George Benson, Paul Weller, George
Michael, James Brown, The Brand New Heavies, Omar, Earth, Wind & Fire,
Jamiroquai, and many more. Max was a member of the jazz band Incognito, as
well as releasing several records with his own sparkling acid jazz project, Max
Beesley’s High Vibes.
Beesley’s creative path changed, when he was first bitten, or rather smitten,
by the acting bug in 1995 after renting director Martin Scorsese’s 1980 landmark
film “Raging Bull”. The young Beesley was blown away by Robert De Niro’s Oscar®
winning performance. Max’s immediate
dedication and commitment to his craft included his then taking time to study acting
in New York, honing his skills, then returning to England where his acting
career took off with his casting in 1997 in “The
History Of Tom Jones: A Foundling”,
and the rest as they say is history.
as Max and I were doing this interview, he had been cast in, and is now filming,
his first major role on American television, as new recurring character Stephen
Huntley in Season 3 of the USA Cable Television Network’s legal drama,
“Suits. Beesley’s character will be part
of the “British Invasion” of Attorneys involved in last Season 2’s merger of
law firm Pearson/Darby. Season 3 of
“Suits” premieres July 16, 2013 and airs Tuesday nights on the USA TV Network.
this interview, Max Beesley discusses how he was cast and prepared for his character
in “Pawn”. Max also expounds about his
own independent film project currently in development, “Mr. Goodnight”, which
he wrote, produced, and will star in, helmed under the auspices of his Los
Angeles based, film production company, Patricia Jean Films, Inc. Max also enthusiastically discusses what we
can expect in Season 3 of “Mad Dogs”, film composing, and the craft of acting.
Adam Ferrara with Edie Falco in Nurse Jackie. (Photo: Ken Regan/SHOWTIME)
By Eddy Friedfeld
Adam Ferrara used to fight fires with Denis Leary on Rescue Me. He now drives way too fast on Top Gear. This season he is trading witty banter and love
scenes with Edie Falco. As New York City
Police Sergeant Frank Verelli, his scenes with Falco are as funny and even hotter
than those with the crew of the fictional “62 Truck.”
the superb Showtime comedy drama about hospitals, addiction, friendship, and
family, with the former Carmella Soprano, the brilliant Edie Falco, leading a
magnificent cast and guest stars including Merritt
Wever, Paul Schulze, Dominic Fumusa, Anna Deavere Smith and Peter Facinelli, Bobby
Cannavale, Morris Chestnut, Stephen Wallem, Betty Gilpin, and Ferrara.
As the fifth
season wraps up this Sunday night, the show is still smart, tight, and
interesting and has just been renewed for a sixth season.
“When I got the
Nurse Jackie gig I called my Mom,” Ferrara said. “‘Ask Carmella if she got to keep the
jewelry,’ she told me.”
He commented on
the different energy on his new gig, responding to my observation that Rescue Me
was working with a baseball bat, versus Jackie where the comedy and drama
require a scalpel-like precision: “Rescue Me-was all percussion- every one banging away on their own
instruments. Jackie is an orchestra-
it’s all woodwind. The first day I got to
the Jackie set- there was a juicer. Rescue Me was a guy show. We
would smoke cigars. There was so much
smoke billowing out of Dennis Leary’s trailer one day it was like we were
electing a new pope!”
The Long Island
born actor always loved comedy. “I loved
The In-Laws, Animal House, Smokey and the Bandit, The Sunshine Boys, and
anything else by Neil Simon. When I was
growing up, I kept [Mel Brooks and Carl Reiners’] 2000 Year Old Man and George
Carlin and Richard Pryor albums under the mattress with the Playboy Magazines.”
He is a literate
and thoughtful comedian and performer- the more you studied in school, the
funnier you will think he is. And there
is a lot of thought that goes into the comedy and the drama.
“The comedy and
drama feed off each other. I studied
with Stephen Book. His approach to
breaking down a script is a technique called ‘purpose of scene,’ which helps
you become a better writer as a standup comedian. It lets you look at what the joke is
about. I’m a confessional comic, and a
lot of my material is scenes. I interact
with characters I create on stage in a standup capacity. I don’t have to get the laugh, one of the
other characters in the scene can get the laugh and it colors the presentation
of the standup in a particular way. It’s
about crafting the comedy.”
acting and hit a line, you can’t hit it the same way you hit it in
standup. In standup you’re winking at
the audience, in drama you’re connecting with the other person. I look at the audience as one person. In standup, you’re in control of the entire
process. In acting, you’re one person
who is part of a larger scene. You’re
serving your part of the whole. You can
play the scene the way you want, but you have to hit the story beats, you have
to react to the other characters and story points, and character
revelations. It’s like playing nine
ball, you gotta hit the balls in sequence.”
keenly aware of the challenge of mixing comedy and drama into a careful blend
that generates both laughter and pathos, and the risks of not getting it right: “In my Rescue Me training, just because the
words are done- doesn’t mean the scene is over. “Denis used to say- there’s no pop in this scene. He would yell: ‘Make me laugh, Ferrara!’”
When asked about
the challenge of being funny and poignant, he said: “You get the chance to be an actor, not just
carrying pipe. You’re not the wacky
neighbor walking in and saying ‘this was my toast!’”
‘trouble’ of doing the Jackie show- is watching Edie work. She is so amazing, she’s distracting. She can break your heart and piss your off
with just a look. I was just doing my
job. But people are talking about our chemistry.”
The challenge is
great for Frank, who despite their palpable chemistry, is still not fully aware
of the depths of Jackie’s complexity and addiction, which will hopefully be
developed next season.
“The Jackie set
is a happy house. It’s nice to create
with that kind of group. It’s a joyful
birthing process. Sometimes there’s
kicking and screaming, but we’re having a good time making it. Rescue Me was like that too. We laughed our asses off. When I came back after hiatus it was like we
never left. Denis created, wrote,
starred in it, and then sold it. After I
got the Jackie gig, I sent Denis an email thanking him for giving me a place to
learn. He sent me an email back that
said ‘Go f-yourself.’”
I pointed out
that most of Ferrara’s characters are working class and that the articulate and
educated Ferrara chooses a regional accent for most of his characters, the way Michael
Caine kept the Cockney accent because he wanted to preserve it. The earnestness, authenticity, and heroism of
his working class characters, including Frank Verelli, goes back to his Long
Island roots: “I know who this guy
is. I come from working class people. People who shower after work. When Frank has to take care of Jackie, I saw
my father in this character. He was full
of insight and advice. He said: “If you ever get jammed up, pay off your
car. They can never tow your house.’”
He recalled his
role in Definitely Maybe, where he co-starred with Ryan Reynolds (“I don’t care
where your mail is delivered, that is one handsome man,” comes the almost
involuntary joke). “I played a
professional character, but I lumbered when I walked and I put a pencil behind
my ear out of respect for my roots.”
He also talked
about his role on Top Gear, where he gets to drive the world’s most amazing
cars, his favorite being a Lamborghini Gallardo. “I did 180 and change- it tops out at 202
miles per hour.”
When asked how
much training he was given, he said: “They didn’t even ask to see my driver’s license! I did go to stunt school on my own. I trained with Danny Aiello III, God rest his
seasons of his two shows wrap, he will continue to develop a new one-man show-
a comedy drama about dealing with his father’s death from cancer.
lucky. I got the support. My Dad wanted to do a lot of things with his life
that he didn’t get to do. When I told my
Dad that I was thinking about being a comic, he said- do it now and give it
your best shot, before life gets complicated. I realized that he had unfulfilled dreams and he was encouraging me to
chase mine. When I got an Olive Garden
commercial I was unsure whether to take it. He said: ‘you can be an artist, you don’t have to be a starving
artist. Otherwise, go rent a loft and be
misunderstood. You have to eat.’ When he saw the restaurant, he said ‘no self-respecting
Italian is going to eat at a place with a window that big so someone can come
by and aim.’”
Retro Contributor Eddy Friedfeld teaches comedy and film history at NYU and
the late sixties, William Atherton has starred in motion pictures, on Broadway
and television. He first achieved international prominence as the lead in
Steven Spielberg’s first feature The Sugarland
Express, and followed that with starring roles in
John Schlesinger’s classic The Day of the
Locust, Robert Wise’s TheHindenburg
and Richard Brooks’ Looking
for Mr. Goodbar. Atherton is known around the world for his memorable
roles as the antagonistic anchorman in the action blockbusters Die
Hard and Die Hard 2, as
the relentless government bureaucrat in the iconic Ghostbusters
the conniving professor in the cult classic Real
Genius. Among his more than 30 feature films are
co-starring roles in John Landis’ Oscar,
Bill Duke’s Hoodlum,
Richard Pearce’s No Mercy,
Alan J. Pakula’s The Pelican Brief,
Costa Gavras’ Mad City
and Ed Zwick’s The Last Samurai.
television, Atherton has starred in numerous mini-series including Centennial
Some of his many TV films include leading roles in TNT’s production of Joan
Didion’s Broken Trust and
his portrayal of Darryl F. Zanuck in HBO’s Golden Globe-winner Introducing
Dorothy Dandridge. Atherton was also a
recurring series lead opposite Damian Lewis on NBC-TV’s Life
and, as Principal Reynolds, resolved some of
the vexing questions in the final season of Lost.
honored for his work on the stage, Atherton has created roles on and off-Broadway
for many of America’s leading playwrights. These include the title role in Joe
Papp’s original production of David Rabe’s The
Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel, the role of Ronnie in
John Guare’s The House of Blue Leaves and
Bing Ringling in Guare's Rich and Famous. Atherton
also starred in the Broadway premiere of Arthur Miller’s TheAmerican
Clock and in the Tony-winning revival of Herman
Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny Court Martial.
His repertoire of more than 20 well-known productions also includes the
acclaimed New York premieres of Franz Kafka’s The
Castle and Kressman Taylor’s Address
Unknown. For his work on the stage, he has received
the Drama Desk Award, the Outer Circle Critics Award, the Theatre World Award
and nominations for an Obie and Chicago’s Joseph Jefferson Award.
Recent feature films include the thriller The
Kane Files as well as Tim
and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie, which premiered in
2012. Atherton appears on an upcoming season of Childrens Hospital this summer.
This interview focuses on Atherton's
work since 2005. We began our talk with The
Girl Next Door (2007), based
on the Jack Ketchum novel of the same name... it follows the unspeakable
torture and abuses committed on a teenage girl in the care of her aunt... and
the boys who witness and fail to report the crime. Then we discussed Headspace (2005), the story of the
mysterious metamorphosis of 25-year-old Alex Borden, a handsome, charming and
intelligent young man with the world by the tail. Alex becomes alarmed when his
intellect mysteriously begins to grow, and so do the horrors that invade his body,
his nightmares and his waking hours.
said Jack Ketchum's The Girl Next Door
is "a film that has legs." Could you elaborate on this?
Atherton: From what I know, it has legs in that it's
still around and people still talk about it. It was a very difficult subject
and I thought they did it very well. I bookend it, which is great. As an actor,
I don't participate in anything in it like that (of a graphic nature). I don't mean that necessarily in a negative
way. My position in it was kind of like the conscience of the film. It gave the
film a spiritual edge. I mean, it's recounting a childhood but at the same
time, the weight of that childhood is enormous and so bookending it like that,
even though the scenes are very short, gave it a lot of substance and it was
mine for each moment and meant something important in terms of the whole film.
thought your role as Adult David was absolutely heartbreaking, as he is a man
who has contemplated the loss of his young love for over 50 years. I watched
those bookend scenes several times and they are profoundly moving. I especially
like the scene where you rescue a homeless man (Mark Margolis).
Girl Next Door is based on a true story (of monstrous child abuse). It happened in New Jersey in the 1950s.
Andrew van den Houten, the producer, got onto it and he was the one who really
marshalled it along. I had done Headspace
So van den Houten had you in mind for the role of
Adult David after working with you on Headspace.
I guess he's a big fan of yours.
WA: Yeah. And then we crafted those scenes together and figured out what to
use, what not to use, how much of the voiceover to use, to try and keep it as
spare and as evocative as we could to save time.
that was it. It was a very quick shoot. This friend of mine would tell me that
it was very difficult to shoot the kids since they couldn't see certain things
because they were under 18. The girl who was being abused (Blythe Auffarth) was 21 by that time. But the younger kids couldn't
see what was being done to her. It was a real ballet in terms of how to orchestrate
that. I wasn't present at the shooting of the more intense scenes.
I was doing a play... Address Unknown with the English actor Jim Dale, directed by Frank
Dunlop from the Young Vic. We were doing that at the Promenade Theatre in New
York and Address Unknown was a very
big issue in the thirties. It came to be because this woman who was in
advertising in San Francisco (Kressman Taylor) had some friends in advertising in
Germany and went there in the 1930s and came back to San Francisco. So she
wrote this book which is a very small, slight book.
The play is just these letters sent back
and forth between these two men, who were partners in an art gallery. The one who stayed in Germany became a real
Nazi. He was responsible for the death of the sister of the guy who was in San
Francisco, who was Jewish. What Kressman Taylor did was, she made up this story
along those lines and she had it in the letters back and forth and you see how
the two men change. The theatrical evening was reading these letters essentially
and performing them as dialogue. So the revenge that the guy in San Francisco
ultimately had was that he started writing letters with stuff like "a
Picasso Red 3" in the text. It sounded like a code and the Nazis in
Germany arrested the Nazi gallery owner and shot him. (laughs) That's Address Unknown.
What this has to do with the Headspace movie is that I met Andrew van
den Houten a couple of months beforehand through a friend of a friend of mine
in New York. A very young kid, very talented and he asked me to do this movie
when I was doing the play. I shot on my days off for about a month in New York
on the dark days in the theatre. That movie did very well for Andrew and it got
him started. I'm the doctor who finds the guy who finds the kid (whose intellect begins to grow). Dee
Wallace and I have a couple of scenes at the beginning of the film. Andrew
marshalled a very good cast. Sean Young, Olivia Hussey and Udo Kier are in it.
It's a very interesting movie and it did very well. Andrew was ambitious in
terms of the technical thing. He did some nice stuff (with monster makeup and special effects).
2010, you appeared in Re-Animator: The
the Steve Allen Theater in Hollywood. Critics said you and George Wendt knocked
it out of the park in your respective roles as Dr. Carl Hill and Dean Halsey.
We did a stage reading for it here in L.A. and we did a couple of nights of it
for director Stuart Gordon. And then they did a permanent production of it. I
didn't do the permanent production. I just helped them out in the stage reading
but it was a lot of fun. There weren't any special effects in the stage reading
– just the music and playing the scenes. Kind of like a description of what
might happen, but there were no special effects in what I was involved with.
Bedtime, a star-studded episode of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, you
play a disreputable public official who abuses his position to prey on women
who come to him for assistance.
Yeah, and all the women got the Emmys! (laughs)
thought you walked away with the show, but why is a classy guy like you so damn
good at playing these sleazy characters?
The reason is because the characters that I play are far more interestingly
written than the nice guys. Nice guys kind of take care of themselves, but
there's not much conflict usually, particularly in television. You come and
play a character and you can have all kinds of dimension which is very hard to
keep up week to week. And so they bring you in for color and the writing was
terrific and that's really how that all happens. The writing is often
interesting for the villain. You can kind of play around with it. And it makes
was a real Seventies reunion episode of Law
and Order: SVU. I suppose this was deliberate, right?
Yes, the Seventies! Shit, the Sixties. Some
of those gals – Ann-Margret... I mean, wow!
Atherton in Headspace
Getting Back to Zero, you play a
professional gambler who goes by the name of Box Car Joe. Your performance was
described by a crew member as "stellar." Can you tell us about your
role in this film set in the world of underground casinos?
It was the moving casino thing. This is a
picture I did about three years ago; it was about the underground world of
gambling and how they move from one place to another and the stakes can get
very high and it's entirely unregulated. There's an enormous industry in
underground gambling. So that was kind of the scenario of the picture and you
have people who are really addicted to gambling who get into that world and
become part of the fabric of that world. Box Car Joe is one of those people who
is addicted to gambling. He's arrogant, rich. They kind of run on the
electricity of the moment in order to keep from essentially collapsing into a
black hole. That's why they keep the gambling going, because there really is
nothing else. So the gambling becomes a whole force unto itself and brings them
along. Getting Back to Zero came onto
Netflix about two months ago.
The whole world for indies has changed in
the last four or five years. It's become a lot more difficult for different
films. Tonight I'm going to a movie I did a year and a half ago called The Citizen which was about one of the
guys – it's a fictional picture, but it's about one of the guys who got caught
in 9/11. Simply because he was Middle Eastern, he got into trouble in New York.
It's with me and Cary Elwes and we went to the Abu Dhabi Film Festival in the
fall and tonight it's a screening for the Hollywood Film Festival with a
Q&A afterwards. It's a lovely picture and it stars Khaled Nabawy, who is
the George Clooney of the Middle East. He's enormous over there in the Arab
world. The film festival in Abu Dhabi was incredible. We had a great time and
the movie was very well received.
me about your role as Winston.
He's a prosecuting attorney trying to
deport Ibrahim (Nabawy). It gets
pretty intense. I'm in a courtroom and so what I'm trying to convey is that at
the time, people were suspicious of people and you couldn't really take
anything for granted. Everybody had to toe the line in a way. That's just the
way the world changed. It was not necessarily a personal thing against this man
so much as it was saying: "This is the scenario now. You have to account
for yourself in ways that you wouldn't have had to before, but that is the way
of the world now. So it may seem to you
to be unfair and perhaps in the long run it is unfair, but that's the reality
of the moment and we all have to address it."
would you say The Citizen is one of
your better recent films?
Yeah, I think so. The
Citizen won Best
Ensemble Acting at the Boston Film Festival. They're in the middle of doing a
distribution deal for it now in the U.S. The
Citizen is a great picture. It also stars that lovely young actress Agnes
Bruckner who is playing Anna Nichole Smith for HBO. The Citizen will go into general release in the summer. I don't
always stump for everything that I'm in but I do stump for this one because I
think it's a terrific picture.
are you working on next?
I have an offer for a movie but I'm not
sure if the deal is going to work out. I've been involved in that process for
two movies in the past two months. On one of them I said, "No, we'll see
what happens with the other movie." I also just came back from Palm
Springs where I did a big musical benefit for Jewish Family Service of the
Desert. I used to do music in New York years ago. So it was a big musical
extravaganza for a couple of thousand people and was filled with artists like
James Barbour, Michelle Lee, Kate Ballard, and other great people. It was a big
musical evening for the Jewish Home Services Charity in Palm Springs, held at
The McCallum Theater, a big musical venue out in the desert. It was called Michael Childers Presents One Night Only.
I sang Isn't It Romantic?, which was
used in The Day of the Locust.
How did you feel about taking on the role of Honoré
in Gigi – the recent stage revival at
the Reprise Theater in Los Angeles?
I loved it.I had a fabulous
time. Millicent Martin and I did the enormously popular song Yes, I Remember It Well. We were a huge
success. Gigi sold out. Millicent was
great. The whole production was great. It was the most successful show they've
had (at the Reprise Theater). That was when I was asked to perform at the first big do
in Palm Springs. So Millicent and I also performed Yes, I Remember It Well at the McCallum Theatre's annual charity
event. And then they brought me back this year.
So you're edging back into musicals all these years
after singing What'll I Do? in The Great Gatsby (1974 version).
I'm still around
and I'm still doing it and I can still do it and I've had the most eclectic
career I can imagine. You have to go through the easiest door. All of a sudden
there was a door that opened to musical comedy. I can do a dance routine but
I'm not a "dance dancer" the way Christopher Walken is an acrobatic
dancer – even now. I'm a hoofer. I can do a routine, a soft shoe shuffle and
stuff like that.
Jinn sounds like a very intriguing picture.
I shot Jinn
about two or three years ago and I did some more on it last summer. It's really
a film-in-progress. The director of Jinn
is a very talented guy.
It's really a Middle-Eastern Exorcist.
A jinn is one of the spectres of Arab folk tales, a ghost essentially and part
of Middle Eastern lore and it's a very interesting kind of sci-fi slash horror
picture. So we'll see what happens. They're still in the midst of editing Jinn and putting that together so we
should see Jinn in a month or two. My
role as Father Westhoff is kind of like the Max von Sydow character in The Exorcist.
an episode of The Unknown series, you
again worked with Martha Coolidge, the director of Real Genius, in which you played the douchebag professor Jerry
directed Introducing Dorothy Dandridge (a 1999 TV-movie in which Atherton played 20th
Century Fox studio boss Darryl F. Zanuck).
I understand Yesterday
is a horror story. What can you tell me about it and about your role as Jim
It's an episode
of a series on the Web called The Unknown...
a series about a guy who has a website and he collects stories of the Beyond
and puts them on his website. So he's uploading the Yesterday episode. I play the priest who has somebody come and
confess to him. The person he sees at the end is already dead. And Martha shot
it very well. Yesterday is very
classy. And it's been quite successful as a webisode on Crackle.com.
Can you give me your honest opinion of Tim and Eric's Billion Dollar Movie, in
which you play a gangster by the name of Earle Swinter?
opinion is that it made money and did well and that's all you'll get out of me.
(laughs). I think it made money overseas. It's very hard to say what does make
money and what doesn't make money. But it did better than people thought, which
is always important. I think Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim are very talented
and they're going to find their niche.
Did you have a blast working with Robert Loggia?
Oh yeah. I love
Bob. He's always terrific. Tim and Eric's
Billion Dollar Movie is not for us. It's a kid's picture. It's not the kind
of thing we'd be interested in. Their audience is the hip kids on the internet.
Their audience is like the one for Childrens
Hospital or Workaholics (Atherton recently guest starred in an
episode of each series). Those are very hot internet cable comedies. That
is their milieu and that's Tim and Eric's audience.
So the new generation knows who you are basically
because of your guest appearances in these productions.
Yes, I'm happy
How do you feel about present-day Hollywood? You
have an international reputation from Ghostbusters,
the first two Die Hard films, and the
incomparable excellence of your performances. How do you fit in to this new
Hollywood of Marvel Comics summer blockbusters, Internet movies...
Well, I don't
know about that. Ghostbusters was one
of the first summer blockbusters, where it was really designed for that kind of
thing. That's almost 30 years ago now. Pictures I began with like The Sugarland Express and all that –
they belong to a different era. But no, I think it's about the same now.
Everybody is trying to figure out the best way to do it. Everybody is trying to
figure out the best way to get good product out there. It's always been a
business and the summer blockbuster thing has been going for a long time. Look
at the Die Hards. They were
positioned to be summer blockbusters. And that's 20 years ago. And Real Genius the same way. So nothing has
changed very much. What's changed is that things come and go more quickly.
Perhaps that's how I see it now. The attention span is less now than it used to
be, but not because of Hollywood. It's the culture's attention span that's
What can you tell me about your participation in the
Sci-Fi Channel Creature Feature Ghouls.
WA:Ghouls was very ambitious for
Sci-Fi because they wanted to see how much they could do technically with the
CGI stuff for television. It was all shot in Romania, so Erin Gray and I went
over there for a month and that was fascinating because you were shooting in
Romania which was a hot location for a number of years until it got too
expensive. It was very cheap to be in Romania back then. They had finished
shooting a big Civil War picture there – Cold
Mountain with Nicole Kidman and Jude Law. We were in Romania a couple of
years later. There were a lot of pictures being shot in and around Bucharest.
We worked in the big studios in Bucharest. A lot of American production
companies were buying or leasing space in them. The crews were very good and
very cheap. It was just cheaper to bring a lot of people over there from the
States to shoot the picture. That changed after SAG's Rule 1 became official.
And that is, if you're an American actor and you're in SAG, if you shoot a
picture in Romania for international distribution, you have to have a SAG
contract. If you go to Romania to shoot something for Romanian television, they
don't care. But if you shoot something in Romania for international
distribution, it has to be a SAG contract. So SAG's Rule 1 slammed into the Romanians.
But the fun part of it was that you could go there and visit beautiful little
towns... Sibiu and university towns like Brașov – these little Baroque gems in the middle of the Carpathians and
you were shooting in some really lovely places. So that's what we did for a
Ghouls is what it is. It was a
horror picture for the Sci-Fi Channel. I think they were trying to shoot as
many things as they could for all the distribution that they could get. So I
was there with Erin Grey (Buck Rogers in
the 25th Century) and that's really all I can say about it. I was not part
of the overall viewing of it or the overall putting it together as much as I
was with Andrew's stuff like Headspace
and The Girl Next Door.
you were called upon to play another bastard in Jersey Shore Shark Attack, a Syfy Channel production.
WA: That was just a hoot. I did
that because Paul Sorvino was in it. Paul and I have known each other for many
years. It just seemed kind of fun and stupid and I guess it was fun and stupid
and so that's why we spent four or five days down in El Segundo and we just had
a very good time and it's one of those things you do just for the hell of it,
because it's silly and stupid and we had a good time doing it and that was
didn't feel that you had to bring a different element to your portrayal of
another villain – a ruthless developer intent on demolishing a seedy boardwalk
frequented by Italian-Americans?
WA: No, you try to reel it up as much as you can because the more you
ground it, the funnier it can be. You can't riff on a riff. (laughs) Somebody's
got to be the straight man so you try to do it that way and hopefully it'll all
What was it like to be crushed by a ferris wheel?
WA: Again, I watched that from afar. Paul and I just looked up and yelled
"Oh my God" and that was that (laughs).
What role do you play in Childrens Hospital, Adult Swim's hit comedy series?
WA: I play an official who is kind of like the Inspector-General. Shooting
that episode was a lot of fun. I worked with Henry Winkler. Henry and I have
known each other for a thousand years, all the way back to New York and The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel in
Mel Brooks is profiled
in a superb American Masters documentary entitled Mel Brooks: Make a Noise,
which premieres nationally on PBS stations on May 20th. One of 14 EGOT
(Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony) winners, he has earned more major awards than
any other living entertainer, and shows few signs of slowing down. With new interviews with Brooks, his friends
and colleagues, including Matthew Broderick, Nathan Lane, Cloris Leachman, Joan
Rivers, Tracey Ullman, Rob Reiner, and his close friend, with whom he created The 2000 Year Old Man, Carl Reiner. A
DVD with bonus material will be available Tuesday, May 21 from Shout Factory.
"When they called me to say I had been
chosen as the next 'American Master,' I thought they said I was chosen to be
the next Dutch Master. So I figured what the hell, at least I'll get a
box of cigars. When I realized my mistake I was both elated and a little
disappointed at losing the cigars," Brooks said.
The comprehensive film takes viewers from
Brooks’ early years as Melvin Kaminsky in the Catskills (“I became a drummer
because I wanted to make a noise,” Brooks said. “I could have been a floutist, but there was not enough noise”), to his
work with Sid Caesar (“that SOB held me back because of his Promethean talent”),
to finding his own voice. He knew he had
something, he didn’t know how to peddle it, ultimately realizing that his “job
was to spot the insane and the bizarre in the commonplace.”
has a unique and a decidedly different feel. “You get a view of the participants being seen on monitors,” said
filmmaker Robert Trachtenberg.
a photographer by trade so I usually shoot my documentaries in studios to
achieve a consistent look (and be able to get more people interviewed per day).
Because Mel is a filmmaker, I thought it was appropriate to show the milieu -
the edges of the set, the monitors, etc. I didn't want the interviews to exist
in a vacuum, and I flat out refuse to have a vase of flowers or a lamp behind
“Mel was different from anyone else I've worked with because
.... he's Mel! It's a pleasure to talk with someone who is so bright and has
such command of the language - you don't want it to end. The most fun was being able to throw out
questions that he hadn't heard before - or approach topics from an angle that
was new to him. As Rob Reiner says, he's at his very best when he's put in a
asked him deep, probing questions for four months, and he got to keep the shirt
we bought for him. So I think we both made out pretty well."
for my conversation with Mr. Brooks earlier this week, I spent two weeks
calling close friends with whom I shared an eternal love and reverence for
Brooks and his works and sought their input as to what made him better and more
enduring than anyone else who does what he does. It was the joyful conversations themselves
that provided the obvious conclusion: No
one else could have gotten me to make those calls to other busy people who took
the time to think and laugh. Each call reflexively
elicited dialogue from his films (including my favorite, “What’s a dazzling
urbanite like you doing in a rustic setting like this?”), which over the years
has become the shorthand of our affection. Brooks’ comedy is the currency of our friendships.
While it is well-settled that he is a genius
at comedy, he is also a genius at collaboration and friendship. Infused in his work is his love for comedy
teams and the journey: The Marx Brothers
and the Road Pictures with Bob Hope and Bing Crosby. At the core of every one of Brooks’ films
there is a partnership and a friendship between at least two characters that
are on an adventure. It is the well-defined characters that launches and
sustains the comedy and makes the stories enduring. “Unconsciously I was a pup in a cardboard box
with three other pups, my brothers, and we tumbled about with each other,” Mel
Brooks insightfully said, recalling his modest Brooklyn roots. “That’s why my films are almost always two
guys on a journey,” he said.
“When you parody
something, you move the truth sideways,” Brooks said. However in developing the on-screen
friendships, Brooks built foundations of truth and drilled down deep into the
I invoked Sid
Caesar, Brooks’ friend and former boss, who said: “Great comedy is stories with
beginnings, middles and ends. And its
best version is combining comedy with pathos. In City Lights, Chaplin’s little tramp character falls in love
with a blind girl. He takes out his last dime and gives it to the blind girl to
buy the violets she is selling. When she goes over to the water fountain to
rinse out her cup, Chaplin follows her with love in his eyes. She rinses the
cup and then throws the water in his face. There was a hush in the audience
because they didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry. That to me was a great
piece of comedy because Chaplin captured that bittersweet moment, and was truly
working both sides of the street.”
While most of
the interviews analyzed the comedy penthouses of his skyscraper classics, I
challenged him to analyze the foundation of Brooks’ work: The Da Vinci “science of the art,” the sub-textual
pathos of his work- comedy as the currency
and engine of friendship, defining the essence of the characters that define
and drive the comedy, and a comparison of his fictional friendships with his
real-life counterparts. Brooks’ understanding and creation of screen
friendships mirror his real-life friendships which go back decades.
Early days: Mel and Sid Caesar (Photo courtesy Mel Brooks/PBS)
Brooks’ 1974 masterpiece is a satire of Western films and a brilliant social
commentary on race and government. The two
heroes- Black Bart (Cleavon Little), the Sherriff of Rock Ridge and The Waco
Kid (Gene Wilder), are overtly friendlier than Newman and Redford’s Butch and
Sundance, on which they are based. When
it comes to character development, the Brooks films take the attendant
characters and make them more passionate, compassionate, and affable. The
comedy is buttressed by friendship, heroism, and honor.
interchange in the film occurs after Bart has killed Harvey Korman’s villainous
Kid: “Where are you going?
Kid: “Nowhere special… I’ve always wanted to go
As the two ride
off into the sunset, and then into a town car, the scene is as poignant and
heartfelt as it is anachronistically funny, with the best friends not knowing
where they are going next, and not concerned because they are going there
friendship mirrors the relationship Brooks has with Carl Reiner, his comedic
and creative partner in crime for over 60 years. “When I first joined The Admiral Broadway
Review, the predecessor to Your Show of Shows, I was so unsure of myself I was
throwing up between parked cars. I came
from South Third Street in Williamsburg [Brooklyn]. I thought I was destined to work in the
Garment Center and work my way up from shipping clerk, to salesman, to maybe a
partner. I thought that any minute I
would be fired. Sid fought for me, but
[Show of Shows producer] Max Liebman didn’t want me.” According to legend the stern and staid
Liebman would throw lit cigars at the young and animated Brooks.
With Carl Reiner, 2001 (Photo courtesy Robert Trachtenberg/PBS)
“Carl came to
the show and thought I was really talented- he supported me at every turn. Carl was a little older and had been on
Broadway, he starred in Call me Mister. I
was leaning on him for the first two years until I felt I could be there and
had my own sense of confidence. If I
said I was the best, he said “’you are.’” He created the 2000 Year Old Man with
his tape recorder having faith that I could become any character he threw
out: From a submarine commander to an
Israeli psychiatrist or a Cockney English director.”
portion of my life Carl was my rock. Christ said on this rock I will found my church. On this Jew from the Bronx I founded my
In public from
across a room he looks at Carl not only affectionately and for artistic fuel,
but often protectively, to make sure his friend is okay. To anyone with close friendships of their
own, their rare and enviable bond is apparent and palpable. There is purity to it. They are the Butch and Sundance Kid of
comedy, both comedic alchemists, creating funny lines, images and situations
literally from the air spinning their golden wit and entertaining and
energizing everyone around them, endeavoring to make everyone in the room not
only entertained by but engaged in the comedy. “We have a talent for that-
turning a room into a community and we enjoy doing that,” Brooks said.
“He’s not a kid anymore
and I still love him,” Brooks said of the now 91-year old Reiner. Things turned
around. 60 years later Carl leans on
me. We’re both very lucky we’ve survived
the storms of age and loss. It’s the
son’s duty to take care of the father. He
just called to ask whether I want the marinated lamb chops or the baby lamb
chops- I said get the baby lamb chops thick.”
In 1967’s The Producers,
Brooks took the name of Gene Wilder’s character Leopold Bloom from James Joyce
Ulysses, and undertook the challenge of making the audience root for two
characters that are crooks. It is because
of the affection and friendship between Bloom and Max Bialystock (Zero Mostel)
that the story works.
“You can’t help
yourself, you want them to succeed,” Brooks said. “I try to explain it all in the lovely speech
that Bloom makes in the courtroom trying to protect his friend, Max.”
After the jury
foreman (Bill Macy) announces that the jury finds the pair “incredibly guilty,”
Leo: “Ladies and Gentleman of the jury, Max
Bialystock is the most selfish man I ever met in my life.”
Max: “Don’t help me.”
Leo: “Not only is he a liar and a cheat and a scoundrel
and a crook who has taken money from little old ladies, he has talked people
including me into doing things that they would never have done in a thousand
year… this is a wonderful man who made me what I am today. And what about all the women: Max made them feel young, attractive and
“It’s the father
taking care of the son,” Brooks said. “And
then the young guy is taking care of the old guy. I also had that in The Twelve Chairs. The young streetwise guy is dealing with the
“’out of it’” privileged aristocrat, who never had to worry about life until
the revolution set him back on his heels.”
Frankenstein, which director Brooks co-wrote with Wilder has Wilder’s Victor
Frankenstein nurturing Peter Boyle’s monster. In none of the other 200-plus versions of the genre did the creator ever
risk his life to save his creation. Boris Karloff never sang and danced when he portrayed the monster, nor
did he sit on his creators lap. “In no
other version did anyone say: “This is an angel- this is a good boy,”” Brooks
Producers and Young Frankenstein are metaphors for Brook’s friendship with Gene
Wilder. In accepting his Oscar for Best
Screenplay from Frank Sinatra for The Producers he thanked Wilder three times, with
both men fighting back tears. “Gene
Wilder came from nowhere, unknown. Just
like Carl spotted the talent in me ten years before that, I spotted the talent
in him. I knew there was no more
talented actor in comedy or drama than Gene Wilder.”
“He was so grateful
to me for supporting him emotionally and bringing the best out of him. I have a great wine collection because of
him. I was drinking Manischewitz until I
met Gene. He really understood
wine. Anne [Bancroft] and I went over to
his apartment in the [Greenwich] Village one night. A real dump. But he had a rotisserie, a barbequed chicken. I didn’t know how he did
it. He servedChâteauneuf-du-Pape, a Rhone wine, and
I said “What the hell is this liquid?”
So I began buying that wine and then he served NuitsSaintGeorges, a burgundy. I
had not yet hit gold, a claret or Bordeaux. At the next meal he ordered LynchBages, a French Bordeaux, which I began to collect Bordeauxs,
including Sassicaia. I now send Gene something I don’t think he
can afford and he’s always happy to get it.”
Cinematic legends meet: Mel, Alfred Hitchcock (who he used to call "Al"!) and Anne Bancroft during the production of High Anxiety. (Photo courtesy of Mel Brooks/PBS)
Favorite Year was Brooks’ love letter to Sid Caesar and early television, and
was based on his own experience as the youngest writer on Your Show of Shows. Benjy Stone (Mark Linn-Baker) is assigned to
chaperone the less than reliable movie-star Alan Swann (Peter O’Toole) who is
scheduled to appear on King Kyser’s (Joseph Bologna) Cavalcade of Comedy. The film made me fall in love with Sid as
well. I told Brooks that it was 20 years
to the week after I saw My Favorite Year that I was writing with Sid. The affection between the two is still
strong. “If Sid Caesar was in a coma and
you walked into the room, Sid would get up, say “’hello Mel,’” and drop back
into the coma,” I said.
acknowledges the connection he still has with the 90 year old Caesar, whom he
visits regularly. “I’m one of the few
people who can get his synapses to fire in that special way. And I’m proud that I can do that. Because if there was no Sid Caesar there
would be no Mel Brooks.”
Brooks of an evening at New York’s Pierre Hotel in 2000, where Caesar was
honored and Brooks presented him with an award. He moved the capacity crowd of the great ballroom to near tears. “And it’s not the chicken,” the choked up
Brooks said at the time, praising his friend. “Life takes you on different paths. I got on the right road when I went with Sid- and it never went wrong.”
He recalled the
now fabled “Writers’ Room,” still one of the most romantic metaphors in history
for creativity and comedy and arguably the greatest collection of comedic
talent ever assembled.
“It was very
stressful to be that creative. We had an Olympic level of comedy height and had
to get over that crossbar. We knew when we
were settling for cheap standup material and when we were exalted in terms of
the human condition and being genuinely funny. We always aimed for that. Max
Liebman was a master- he put on live Broadway review every week for 39 weeks a
year. Sid wanted me- I could come up
with bizarre things- all kinds of crazy things that distinguished Sid from
other comedians. I came up with material
for the German Professor character and foreign movies.”
“There were only
a few of us in the beginning. Max
supervised the writing with Sid and Carl sitting in. There was Mel Tolkin, Lucille Kallen and then
myself. Tony Webster was brought
in. The later incarnation of the
Writers’ Room included Doc and Danny Simon, Mike Stewart, Aaron Ruben, Woody
Allen, and Larry Gelbart. We’d work
separately and all meet and complete each other’s tasks. Unless there was a big movie parody where we
all sat in a room together. It is still
the only show where the writers became as famous as the stars.”
He recalled meeting
another young writer whom he is still close to, Rudy DeLuca, who along with
Steve Haberman is part of Brooks’ inner circle. “Rudy is a real pal- he was working on the Carol Burnett show with his
partner, Barry Levinson. Rudy has such
a funny personality- he was crazy board member in Silent Movie. In High Anxiety, Rudy played the hit man with
the aluminum teeth. Who came up with the
idea of putting a little Japanese umbrella in his drink when he was stalking me
in the bar.”
wrote with me on High Anxiety. He would
tell me stories about growing up with his friends in Baltimore. I took him to Il Vitelloni, Felini’s first
film- which is about a group of friends who grow up together in Italy. I said, this sounds like what you’re talking
about. Take your stories put them
together and take out the ones that don’t work. He wrote the script to Diner in three weeks.”
I explained to
Brooks that two people shaped my creative life and influenced what I wanted to
do more than anyone else: Larry Gelbart
and Mel Brooks. “Including me, he could
have been the best writer in the Writers’ Room,” Brooks said.
I told him that
1974 was my “favorite year,” Gelbart’s MASH was on TV and Blazing Saddles and
Young Frankenstein were in the movies. The intellectual driven comedy made the smart kids feel hip and
ambitious. “You have to know a little
bit about the world and the history. All
the references are critical- if you don’t get them you don’t get the essential comedy
and what we’re trying to do.”
In 1982- I
bought 10 copies of The High Anxiety Soundtrack, the flipside of which included
the songs from all of the other prior Brooks’ films, to give as holiday gifts
to friends. When I presented it to one
of my college friends, he clutched the LP to his chest and ran off eager to
play it. Flash forward to 1995, I get a
box in the mail- it was The 2000 Year Old Man Boxed Set that had just been
released on CD with a note from that friend thanking me for the LP 12 years
a similar experience: “I screened High Anxiety for Alfred Hitchcock. He didn’t say a lot, turning to me a few
times, when the newspaper ran down the drain, he said “’brilliant,’” which was
very nice. He said he had less showering
[in Psycho] than I had. At the end he
got up and left without saying a word. I was so worried. I thought this is no good. I guess he didn’t
like the picture.”
“The next day on
my desk in my office at 20th Century Fox there was a beautiful wooden
case of 1961 Château Haut-Brion. Six
magnums. Priceless. Unbelievable to this day. There was also a little note: "Dear Mel: I have no anxiety about High Anxiety,
it’s a wonderful film. Love Hitch.”
“The only two
people who ever said I was a good director were Hitchcock and Billy Wilder. I
never heard from anyone else in the business. Until the AFI called me. Last October, the AFI named Brooks the recipient of the 41st American Film
Institute's Life Achievement Award,
which will be presented in June, joining Shirley MacLaine, Tom Hanks, John Ford,
James Cagney, Jack Nicholson, Barbra Streisand, Clint Eastwood, Sidney Poitier
and both Kirk and Michael Douglas.
been saluted as a comedy force but never as a film director. I always explained the movie clearly so that
the story worked. My dream was to get
over the Williamsburg Bridge and get to Manhattan ever since I was three years
old. Me and my childhood [and lifelong]
friend Gene Cogan, formerly Eugene Cohen, would walk over the bridge to
Delancey Street and get a knish and a root beer. I knew there was something great over that
Kaminsky got his knish and root beer. And Mel Brooks crossed the East River Rubicon and journeyed to entertain
millions as a masterful storyteller and continues to entertain new generations
of grateful fans with big noises that get even bigger laughs.
Retro Contributor Eddy Friedfeld teaches comedy and film history at NYU and
Yale and is the co-author of Caesar’s Hours with Sid Caesar
Can't get enough Mel? Check out Lee Pfeiffer's extensive interview with him in the latest issue (#16) of Cinema Retro.
He's been in movies so long, it's hard to remember when he wasn't on the scene. From his first big splash in the 1962 film adaptation of Billy Budd up to the present day, Terence Stamp proves he is a diverse talent with a knack for stealing every scene he is in. Filmmaker Magazine writer Lauren Wissot caught up with Stamp at the Palm Springs Film Festival and got him to open up about some fascinating aspects of his long career- including an amusing anecdote about Joshua Logan literally begging for him to star in the 1967 screen version of Camelot. Click here to read.
Screen legend Jerry Lewis just turned 87 years old but he still has plenty of energy- as evidenced by the fact that he's currently in production on a new film titled Max Rose, which is a drama. Lewis was recently interviewed by Entertainment Weekly and he discusses the film and his career. Click here for more
Here is an excellent, informative interview with the legendary Sir Christopher Lee, conducted back in May 2012 when he turned 90 years-old. In it, Sir Christopher discusses his film career at length and thanks his millions of fans for their support over the course of his remarkable career.
He was the basis of Sidney Lumet's acclaimed 1973 film and says that Al Pacino played him better than he could play himself. Frank Serpico, who along with his friend, the recently deceased David Durk of the famed Knapp Commission, exposed massive corruption in the New York City Police Department, is living quietly in upstate New York, enjoying life with a younger woman, the occasional cigar and working on his memoirs. The former detective with the mindset of a counter culture protestor started on the NYPD as an idealistic young cop determined to bring in Gotham's crooks. What he was appalled to realize was that many of the crooks were working as cops themselves. Serpico violated the "Blue Wall of Silence" and exposed his fellow officers, leading to the formation of the famed Knapp Commission that helped clean up the NYPD but also gave the force a black eye for many years. Serpico was alienated and despised by his fellow officers, a bunch of boneheads who adhered to an "all-for-one and one-for-all" policy that saw them side with the worst elements of the force. Serpico was shot in the face while making an arrest and he still gets a bit riled by the fact that his fellow cops were less than helpful in getting him prompt medical assistant. Today, he takes satisfaction in knowing that, although his name is still cursed by some current bone-heads on the NYPD, he is revered by law enforcement agencies around the world. He also takes amused pride in the fact that the cinematic Serpico ranks #42 on the list of all-time screen heroes (right behind Lassie). For a recent New York Daily News interview, click here.
Sir Anthony Hopkins is not one for courting the press or giving extensive interviews, but he is making an exception for Hitchcock, the acclaimed new film in which he portrays the legendary director's trials during the filming of Psycho. The blunt-speaking Hopkins weighs in on his doubts about playing the role, Hitchcock's later career and the "disgusting" spectacle of actors trying to curry favor with Academy members in order to secure an Oscar nomination. Click here to read.