I was one of about fifty-five members of the media who’d hopped aboard a junket to Oroville, Calif., where the 1975 Lee Marvin-Richard Burton movie, THE KLANSMAN, was being filmed.
Oroville is a little town some 150 miles north of San Francisco, with, in those days, a population of less than 8,000, all of whom seemed to be visiting the set to watch Burton and Cameron Mitchell beat the hell out of one another for the cameras.
Burton was doing close-ups. Whoever said it took two to make a fight obviously had never seen a movie being shot. Director Terence Young (who launched the Bond series) was filming Burton’s reactions to imaginary punches.
The actor grimaced, clutched his stomach, reeled backward into a door. “How’s that?” he grunted.
They tried it again. This time, Burton bent almost in two, moaning, twisting to the right. He staggered, assumed another fighting stance.
Just a few hours before, the actor had been sitting inside the Oroville train station ( transformed for purposes of the film into an Ellenton, Ala., bus depot) reciting the Bard, relishing the rich language, letting the words roll off his tongue. Critics who picked him to pieces for everything else had nothing but praise for his voice, possibly the best actor’s voice of his day. At the moment it was being used for ”ooofffss” and “arggghs.” Not Shakespeare, exactly. But Shakespeare rarely if ever paid for a Cartier diamond as big as the Ritz. .
Eventually he was joined by Cameron Mitchell, who at the least gave him something to hang onto..
Burton was playing an aristocratic Southerner who opened his spacious property to itinerant blacks; Mitchell, a redneck cop who was also a loyal member of the Klan. Young instructed them to “Really mix it up.”
Mitchell delivered a solid blow to Burton’s mid-section. Burton doubled, spun away, connected a fist to Mitchell’s head, sending him to the deck.
Then Burton fell, too. They continued their battle on a horizontal plane. .
“Cut!” Young almost yelled, adding to his assistants, “Please clear those people away from the background. We can see them in the shot.”
One of the folks asked to move was a tall fellow with a distinguished-looking mane of white hair, Millard Kaufman the screenwriter responsible for the shooting script. His other credits included the cult noir Gun Crazy, Convicts Four (which he also directed), the war drama TAKE THE HIGH GROUND, the heavily-budgeted RAINTREE COUNTY, NEVER SO FEW, a war melodrama with Frank Sinatra and Natalie Wood. And BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK, a mysterious-stranger-in-town suspense classic that had earned him an Oscar.
“The name of the game,” Kaufman said to me, ”is not writing but rewriting. William Bradford Huie (the author of THE KLANSMAN novel) had written one version of the script, Sam Fuller another. By the time I came in on it, I was given only two weeks to get it done.
“I’ve worked with Lee twice before. On BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK and RAINTREE COUNTY. We go way back. To the Marine Corps, actually.”
“BLACK ROCK Rock is a solid film,” I said.
“Yeah. There’s a cult for that film. I think they like it because it’s so damned simplistic.”
I suggested that the fight between Spencer Tracy and Ernest Borgnine may have had something to do with its popularity. Audiences get quite a cathartic rush when the one-armed Tracy sends the bullying Borgnine flying through a screen door.
Kaufman nodded. “We held back on that scene until the precise moment when it should have happened. We were very lucky. Hopefully, this will be the same thing. As a matter of fact, I had an entirely different kind of fight in this one. I had them roaming all over the countryside and hills, as far as you could see. But Terence said, ‘Let’s do it like BLACK ROCK.’ So here we are, smashing through doors.”
Young called for another take. Burton and Mitchell went through the routine again, but with some embellishments. Mitchell’s facial make-up grew bloodier and bloodier. Burton merely looked exhausted.
He stood, and, as he brushed himself off, reporters peppered him with questions. Some he ignored, some he answered with as few words as possible, his press- friendly veneer wearing thin. ” Which is your favorite place to live?” a thin, bespectacled man asked.
Burton thought about it. ”Switzerland.”
“I’m Swiss,” another reporter, a short man with reddish tan hair and matching mustache, said.
“The Swiss are so professional. Born hoteliers,” Burton continued as if he hadn’t heard the comment. “Very pugnacious and difficult people. but I’m very fond of them. They don’t care who’s in the village, who’s in town, as long as they’re making money.”
He wandered off to talk to the director and I asked Kaufman if it was easier writing for Marvin since he’d done it before.
“Lee’s a consummate actor. But you don’t write for anybody anymore. During the time of the major studios, there were Gable pictures and Grant pictures. But today, there’s something new each time out. What you do is develop a character and hope that somebody like Marvin or Burton will be interested in playing it.”
“Burton using a Southern accent?”
“Ummmm, yes. But like most aristocratic Southern accents, it’s a bit British. He adapted himself to it quite well. And he had a pretty good teacher. Elizabeth did the Southern thing perfectly in RAINTREE COUNTY, which is where she and I first met. I understand she was his coach for this film.”
One more take and the fight sequence was finished. Burton was the obvious victor. There was a glop of fake blood on his hand but that was nothing compared to the raspberry goo covering Mitchell’s whole head.
Burton hopped hastily toward his trailer and I sauntered that way, too.
Earlier in the day I’d discovered a friend working for the production company who’d promised to get me a brief interview with the actor when time allowed. She was standing beside his trailer when he entered. Before following him inside, she gave me a little wave that I assumed meant this could be the time.
At lunch there’d been a catering snafu with certain members of the press being treated to Taco Bell’s finest. A pair of tacoburgers were rubbing together in my stomach sending a neat rush of heartburn up my throat. I tried to ignore it by watching Linda Evans cross to her trailer. Her character identified in the production notes as “a young white woman who is raped in her stalled car on a lonely road at night,” she is an absolutely stunning blonde who, at that pre-DYNASTY point, had appeared in THE BIG VALLEY TV show and to better advantage in Playboy and other publications relaxing under waterfalls and similar bucolic spots photographed by her once great and good friend, John Derek.
I was still gawking at her when, from the corner of my eye I saw my friend giving me the high sign.
There was an air of anxiety inside Burton’s trailer. It was crowded. People were bustling about, pursuing tasks impossible to determine. The actor looked even wearier than he had after the fight. He was seated at a table. “Care for a drink, luv?” he asked as I sat down across from him.
I shook my head.
“Then what would you like to know?”
“I suppose we could start with why you’re doing this movie.”
He closed his eyes, “Oh God, It’s the question everyone seems to ask. I wish I could think up an answer.”
“Is it the loot?”
He picked up his drink, tasted it. “I’m an actor. And one of my obligations is to do films and plays that make a slight adjustment to my salary because my family is extraordinarily expensive.”
So it was the loot.
“What’s next on your schedule?”
“It’s one I want to do. In Mexico, I think. But not for five or six months. In the meantime, my wife makes a film. In which case, I can cease to feint for a while.”
A young woman boarded the trailer. Burton appraised her admiringly. “Isn’t she pretty?” he asked, not expecting an answer. Nor waiting for one. ”Anyway, I’ll do this film in Mexico in October or so. A fascinating film I’ve wanted to do since the book first came out in 1947.”
As the young woman moved on to the rear of the trailer, one could hear, coming from that direction, the sound of someone dropping ice cubes into a glass. Burton smiled. “‘Always behind my back you hear/ The sound of bottles clinking clear.’ Not a bad poem for just the spur of the moment, eh?”
Another rhetorical question.
“This film I really want to do, It takes place in Cuernavaca, Mexico, and as I say, it’s something that’s been with me for a while. A book by Malcolm Lowry, UNDER THE VOLCANO. Do you know it? Well, then you know what a wonderful story it is. I’ve been wanting to do it since I was twenty-two.”
“Who’s going to direct?”
“Joe Losey, I hope. Of course you know the novel is about a classical, idiotic, fantastic, genius drunk. Naturally, they had to get me. If you remember the book, I play an absolutely upper class Englishman who went to Eton and Oxford and so on. Thankfully, I’ll be able to go back to my own tongue. I’m not an Englishman, but I have acquired the accent.”
“Is it easier than playing a Southerner?”
“Oh, yes. The Southern accent is rather more difficult than I thought. Especially as nobody else is speaking Southern in the picture. Only I am.
“Who’s that?” he asked suddenly, looking out of the window at a pretty, long-legged girl walking by.
No one near us seemed to know.
He continued staring at the girl as she walked away. ”Was there anything else you wanted, Dick?” he asked me.
I gave him the answer he was hoping for.
The big press party took place less than an hour later. But the events leading to it had been stressful for the organizers. Not only had one of the main attractions, Mrs. Burton, sent her regrets (the reason being, according to Mr. Burton, a sprained ankle after she fell off of her high-platform sandals), the whole game plan had undergone a severe shakeout.
First, the aforementioned lunch problem had merely been the tip of the food problem iceberg. The caterers in charge of the party had declared bankruptcy the day before, And, for reasons undisclosed, there’s been a quick change in location — from the quaint spa, Prospector’s Village, to an austere brick building known as The Monday Club, though not by any signs out front. There were no signs out front, only a little brass jockey with his hand extended as if expecting a tip.
That evening, the first sight awaiting us past the jockey’s open palm and the open doors of the Monday Club were two lovely young women, dressed in old South gowns and welcoming us to the party. In the main dining hall, the costumes changed a bit. The bevy of beauties positioned near the long tables and overloaded groaning board, were garbed in outfits that resembled a mashup of the Playboy Club bunnies with the Ku Klux Klan. The garments were all white, of course, with a cross emblazoned on the bulging bodice, cinched at the waist and cut off abruptly at the crotch. It was enough to send the Imperial Wizard into paroxysms.
The buffet spread included a roast pig with olive eyeballs, collards. black-eye peas … bottom line, soul food! Platters of golden corn bread rested on the dining tables. Pretty impressive, considering that it was put together in the twenty-four hours since the original caterer went all Mother Hubbard.
The Klanettes had been instructed to make sure we had as much booze we could drink, a task to which they warmed with all the zeal of Bourbon Street B-girls. Most of them had been imported from Chico State, but at least one of them was from neighboring Paradise, Ca., a small town whose name suggested an excess of chutzpah on the part of its founding fathers. I asked the Paradise Klanette if her home were really paradisaical.
“Only compared to Oroville,” she said sweetly, handing me a martini, straight up, three olives. “Oroville, you know, is the Dull Capital of the U.S.”
“But surely you don’t consider all this dull?”
She looked around the big room. “Surely,” she replied, “you don’t consider this Oroville?”
The main dining room was filling rapidly. Ditto a little closed-in patio, where the drinks were flowing. In addition to our press group. there were members of the cast and crew, friends and relatives of the producer, William Alexander, various businessmen who’d hit the mahogany for a hefty percentage of the budget and other media mavens who’d been hanging out on the set for anywhere from a week to a month.
The latter included a pair of photographers sent by Playboy from San Francisco to cover the rape sequences. Since quite a few ladies manage to get raped in the film, they have had their work cut out for them. There was a young couple, supposedly representing the New York Times, the female good-humored and sexy, the male something of a pill. They drove all the way from the Big Apple in a camper.New York Times? Really? In a camper?
The band straggled in, six or seven young musicians probably from Oroville. As they set up, some eager eaters among the press started piling up their plates and heading for the dinner tables. Had they ever eaten collards before, I wondered? And, if so, why were they eating them now?
The band broke into a musical number. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but it wasn’t a funky rock treatment of “Night in Tunisia.” Somehow, though, it seemed apropos.
One of the local photographers told me that the movie was responsible for a new prosperity in Oroville. “Last year, I made about $5,300 as a photographer. Just last month I’ve sold pictures totaling $6,000, thanks to the Burtons and the rest. People just can’t get enough of ‘em.”
He was bending my ear with complaints about how uncooperative the younger members of the cast have been — “punks” was the pre-punk word he used — when Lee Marvin entered the bar area. He was moving fast, as if he were being chased, or had a definite goal in mind. I was reminded of the scenes in POINT BLANK when he clomps down long, seemingly endless halls with fevered determination.
Marvin possessed that special off-screen star charisma. Burton didn’t have it. He was just as recognizable, of course, and was arguably a better actor, but Marvin charged the air with electricity and dynamism. He was not a man who went unnoticed.
He paused briefly to smile and bark out greetings to familiar faces, but allowed no one to deter him from his destination. Which was the bar, where a drink was waiting.
Like a member of a relay team, he grabbed the booze baton and took off in our general direction. The photographer with whom I’d been conversing said, “Watch this,” and waved to him. To my surprise, Marvin responded by joining us.
After a brief introduction, he and the photographer got into a conversation about some photos he wanted to see. A gent who might have been one of the film’s backers caught Marvin’s attention and the actor turned quickly and reached out to shake the guy’s hand. As he did, I saw the stitches of his coat give way at the shoulder. It was like a breakaway suit.
Suddenly, he turned to me, and asked, “Yeah?”
“Huh?” was all I could manage.
“You tapped me on the shoulder.”
I wondered if I should tell him about the rip. Decided not to. Instead, i asked him the first question that popped into my head. ”What was it like working on DRAGNET?”
He blinked. Lee Marvin blinked. “DRAGNET? That’s what you want to know? What year is this? Okay. It was like this on DRAGNET. It was work. Jack Webb told you what to say, where to stand and what to do and you did it.” He cocked his head and gave me a half-grin. “People ask me about POINT BLANK. Randy Scott. Sam Fuller. Duke Wayne. Jack Ford. The goddamned horse from CAT BALLOU. DRAGNET? That’s a good one, baby,” he said, turning away.
At dinner, I was seated between producer Alexander’s mother and co-executive producer Bill Shiffrin. Mrs. Alexander was a charming, quiet woman who seemed worried that her son had not yet put in an appearance at what was essentially his party.
“He’s fine,” Shiffrin told her, sounding a bit less than convincing. “Still at the motel, probably, but he’ll be here soon.” He then turned to a couple seated across the tablecloth and was soon caught up in a conversation that prompted him to exclaim, “I put this thing together. Me. I’d like to have seen ‘em make THE KLANSMAN without me.”
Shifting away from this display of familiar Hollywood hubris, I spotted a table where Burton was sitting with Cameron Mitchell and his wife and two visiting ladies. The latter were being treated to what I supposed was one of Burton’s entertaining reminiscences. The press people who hadn’t had their shot at him were perched nearby, furiously cooling their collective heels, waiting for the ladies to leave. But the ladies had no intention of leaving. Finally, a reporter charged the table, feeling that the moment had come to ask them to surrender their chairs.
It was the wrong time for a confrontation. Burton glared up at the journalist, unblinking, and snapped off a few words that, though they did not carry to our table, were easy enough to imagine and, in any case, sent the guy scooting away
Producer William Alexander picked that moment to make his entrance. He was a dapper fellow, dressed in a dark three-piece suit, who resembled a diminutive Isaac Hayes. He made his way to the bandstand and, while the musicians took five, addressed the crowd in a voice both mellifluous and commanding.
His first bit of business was to introduce the investors in the audience and, as he did, the Klanettes seem to gravitate in the direction of those taking the bows. Stars were important, but money men were a joy forever.
Alexander next sent kudos to director Terence Young, writer Millard Kauffman, and “the gentleman who suffered with me, helped me, who gathered the greatest crew in the world, who helped with all the actors, who is my friend. I ask you to meet Bill Shiffrin.”
Shiffrin rose and nodded, rather humbly, I thought.
Alexander saluted, in order, Marvin, Mitchell, Lola Falana, O.J. Simpson (“We’re sorry he’s not here tonight, but …”). Then it was back to more bankers.
Everyone applauded the bankers. Even the chef standing behind the buffet table.
“There’s a lovely young lady who has come all the way from Italy to be with us,” Alexander said. “And another young lady in our cast who has come from no further than southern California. Miss Luciana Paluzzi and Miss Linda Evans…. and Mr. David Huddleson and …”
I noticed that literally all the food had been devoured. All the beans, the salad, the rice, the, gasp, collards. The pig was pure carcass. It’s eye sockets were empty. Some evidently ravenous scribe had eaten the olive eyeballs.
At the mike, Alexander wasn’t even breathing hard. “And there are some people, the film finance people from London, you should meet.
“And the art director and staff who helped to decorate this hall. And Cameron Mitchell. I see him back there. I mentioned him before. Stand up and take a bow, Cameron.”
Mitchell did that. He also pointed to Burton, still huddled with the two ladies.
Alexander squinted. “Is Richard here? Dick? Dick’s here? Well, Dick, welcome to the Klan.” Burton responded with a left hand wave.
The producer then left us with a rather curious request. ”Don’t judge us by tonight. Wait until the film comes out and you can judge us then.”
On this odd closer, the band took over with what sounded like a calypso version of ”Wait ‘Til the Sun Shines, Nellie.” People began to pile out of the room. Burton, to the delight of the photographers present, lifted up a beautiful black girl and planted a kiss on her bare midriff.
It was only 10 o’clock on a warm, spring night in Oroville, California and William Alexander, with the now-acknowledged help of Bill Schiffrin, had made us all happy as kings.
P.S. Several months later, on a chilly day in October, or maybe November, I went out to the swimming pool of the apartment complex in Santa Monica where I was then living and discovered that the only other person enjoying the sun was Richard Burton stretched out on a cabana chair next to the pool. He looked tanned and healthy and well-rested. He was, it turned out, the guest of one of my neighbors in the building, a woman who worked at the nearby St. John’s Health Center assisting patients to overcome their alcohol dependency. She infrequently invited them to spend a few hours in the sun away from the sometimes depressing hospital atmosphere. That was the case with Burton.
I doubt that he really remembered our meeting in Oroville, though he politely said he did. We exchanged a few comments about that and the weather and, once I’d done a few laps in the pool, I left him to his sunny solitude.
It was not until hours later that I remembered his plan to be in Mexico at that particular time, appearing in UNDER THE VOLCANO.
When THE KLANSMAN made it to the screens toward the end of that year, the reviews were less than positive. Vincent Canby in the New York Times, for example, found it “one of those rare films that are not as bad as they seem when you’re watching them. That’s a warning to be disregarded only by lunatics, but the point should be made that it’s not an uninteresting film to think about afterward.”
There weren’t many lunatics rushing to the theaters. Regardless, the following year, Burton again joined William Alexander, screenwriter Millard Kaufman and director Terence Young for a thriller titled JACKPOT.That title, unfortunately, proved to be prophetic. Burton’s costars, Robert Mitchum and Audrey Hepburn, departed before shooting started. They were replaced by James Coburn and Charlotte Rampling, but filming was halted at approximately the half-way point when the financing gave out.
Burton never got the opportunity to star in his pet project. But he was asked to read passages from the novel for a 1976 Canadian television documentary, VOLCANO, AN INQUIRY INTO THE LIFE AND DEATH OF MALCOLM LOWRY.
A film adaptation of UNDER THE VOLCANO was eventually made. It was directed by John Huston and featured Albert Finney. It arrived in theaters in 1984, the year that Burton died.