Category Archives: From Out of the Past

The Other Side of Paradise: Part Two

One of the films many exploitative ads, made even more so by O.J.'s later infamy.

(This is the second of two parts. Read Part One here.)

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.

Burton tries out a grimace

Burton tries out a grimace

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.

Screenwriter Millard Kaufman who also co-created Mr. Magoo.

Screenwriter Kaufman who also co-created Mr. Magoo.

“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.

Linda Evans

Linda Evans

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. 


1Book_under_the_volcano“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.

"Was there anything else you wanted?'

“Was there anything else you wanted?’

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.

burning crossAt the far end of the room a large cross had been centered on the wall, its light bulbs simulating fire. Oddly enough, it and the other Klan trappings did nothing to dampen the party atmosphere.

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.marvin4

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.party scene

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.

The Other Side of Paradise with Richard Burton

klan2

“William Alexander, Terence Young and Bill Shiffrin

would like you to be their guest

on the location of THE KLANSMAN and at a reception and press party in honor of

Mr. and Mrs. Lee Marvin

Mr. and Mrs. Richard Burton

and members of the company, Friday, in Oroville, California.

We will leave at noon by private airplane from Los Angeles International …” 


So it was that I found myself boarding a snappy little blue and white Holiday Airlines prop-jet charter on a sparkling spring day in 1974, lugging a tape recorder and trying to conjure up a snappy batch of questions to bounce off of the Burtons and the Marvins.

Liz and Dick, looking like a couple

Liz and Dick, looking like a couple

The lure of the Oroville location was a potent one, press-wise, and the plane was jam-packed with journos and photographers of all shapes, sexes, colors, nationalities, joined together in one common cause — to get the real lowdown on whether or not the Burtons were heading for splitsville.

Unbeknownst to most of us, one of the members of the cast of THE KLANSMAN was also aboard: Luciana Paluzzi, a curvaceous, red-headed Italian lady I remembered fondly from the TV series FIVE FINGERS and, as a Bond girl, in THUNDERBALL. She was mentioned in the press kit as playing Burton’s “regular mistress” in the movie.

Once we were airborne, Ms. Paluzzi stepped up to the flight attendant microphone and in her charming accent announced, “Welcome, everyone. I wish you to know I am hijacking this airplane and taking you all with me to Italy.”

The humorous Ms. Paluzzi

The humorous Ms. Paluzzi

Then the beautiful lady smiled, apparently unaware that her little joke would have been rewarded with a stretch in the slams had it taken place on any major airline in the free world. On that flight however, where spirits were high, it was met with nothing more than grins and chuckles.

Ms. Paluzzi returned to her seat, shaking hands with friends among the press corps.

As the flight continued, I used the time to check the production literature that had been provided. The script for THE KLANSMAN, it turned out, had been adapted by Millard ( BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK) Kaufman, from a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by William Bradford Huie that concerned “the conflict in a Southern town between a sheriff called Big Track Bascomb (Lee Marvin) and a Southern land owner, Breck Stancill (Burton), both of whom are involved in a show-down with the Ku Klux Klan.”

klanbook

Idly wondering about the other novels in the running for the Pulitzer that year. I continued to peruse the notes, discovering that producer William Alexander’s interest in the novel was so intense  “he immediately dropped several other projects.” In fact, “an inner compulsion told him the novel must be transferred to the screen as an important commentary on the great American dilemma.”

Alexander then jetted “more than 300,000 miles, internationally, corralling some $412- million and a top director and crew.”

By the time the plane taxied toward the Oroville Airport (a subtle joke here: there was no Oroville Airport, just a flat asphalt landing strip and a gate), I had digested as much as any human should of the continuing story of Alexander’s fight to capture the great American dilemma on celluloid and was ready to see the day’s shooting.

A bus awaited.

Welcome to Oroville

Welcome to Oroville

Having been born and raised in the deep South, I immediately understood why Oroville had been chosen as the site for the film. The little ex-gold town, 150 miles north of San Francisco and just this side of Paradise, California, looked altogether sleepy Southern, rather like my memory of Macon, Ga., at some time other than the Magnolia Festival when Macon really used to swing.
With a population of 7,700 at the time, Oroville wasn’t even one-tenth the size of Macon, however. And damn smart were the Oroville town councilors who were obviously keeping a population lid on the place rather than let it go the way of Paradise which was teaming over with 14,000 residents.

Oroville was so small it didn’t have a bus depot. Which proved troublesome, because one was needed for the flicker. It was where the heroic Breck Stancill and Butt Cut, the redneck deputy played by Cameron Mitchell, were scheduled to stage one hell of a slugfest.

Officer Buttcut

Officer Butt Cut

Movie magicians can, of course, do anything. I remember reading that when production on the film JAWS had been halted by a failure to find a giant shark to terrorize a fishing boat, executive producer Richard Zanuck saved the day, and the budget, by hiring a dingy full of midgets that made the little shark they had seem monstrous.

In Oroville, the solution was even simpler. They transformed the train station into a bus depot. It was there we disembarked our bus to join the crowd of sightseers ringing the building.

 

Hollywood magic

Hollywood magic

According to the press kit, director Terence Young had thrown open his set to the public, inviting townspeople and visitors alike to “come and see” the movie being made. Judging by the Englishman’s slightly deflated expression, he might have eaten those words for lunch. “Would you please try and keep them back from the windows,” he wearily beseeched a member of the crew.

As well-prepped as I’d thought I was for the journalistic job on hand, it appeared I had missed the big story. Most of my fellow scribes were inquiring about the whereabouts of someone named Kim.

”Oh, she’s around somewhere,” a lady crew member replied.

“Who’s Kim?” I asked her when the others had moved on.

“It’s been in all the papers. She’s the teen-age girl that Richard Burton met on the street and befriended.”

“Teen-age girl? Befriended?”

“There’s nothing wrong with that,” she said. “He says he thinks of her as his daughter and there’s no reason not to believe him.”

“Of course not,” I said.

“But the friendship is causing the poor girl all sorts of problems, though. She was supposed to be getting married soon, but last I heard, there’d been a hitch and the marriage is off.”

“Too bad,” I replied. “Ah, you wouldn’t know where Kim is right now?”

“Probably with Mr. Burton.”

“And where would Mr. Burton be?”

“Inside the bus de … well, the train station.”

“Where all the people are crowding?”

She nodded. “I don’t know why they’re just standing there like that. You can walk right in if you go in from the back. C’mon, I’ll show you.”

We were headed in that direction when I nearly bumped into a pretty little girl who hadn’t quite lost all of her baby fat. A barely pubescent Sandra Dee, too young to remember Sandra.

“Well, hi, Kim,” the lady crew member said. “We were just talking about you.”

“Oh, hi,” Kim said. “You guys seen Richard? I want to show him this sweater.”

It was pink and fuzzy and fit her well.

“He’s in there,” I told her, pointing toward the train station like I was a guy in the know.

She eyed my tape recorder with suspicion. “You’re one of the reporters, right? They’ve been buzzing around all day asking really dumb questions. I promised Richard I’d show him the sweater, but I think I’ll do that when he’s not so busy.”

She darted away and got about twenty feet before the photographers picked up her scent and moved in for the kill.

“So much bother,” my new guide said. “And they’re just friends.”

Burton was inside the train station, easily accessible through the rear door. He was sitting in the ticket office, talking with Cameron Mitchell, screenwriter Millard Kaufman and a few crew members.

Outside, his and Mitchell’s stunt men were engaged in a fight scene, bruising and bloodying one another in fine cinematic style. Judging by Mitchell’s makeup, it wasn’t hard to figure out who’d wind up on the short end of the altercation. Sticky red goo had been liberally applied to cheek, nose and eye. His shirt was torn and tattered. He looked like he’d just tumbled out of a Compton pool hall after doing a Heil Hitler. burton drinking

Burton was dapper, dashing and seemingly energetic, gesturing with a glass half full of some clear liquid, definitely not water. It had been reported that he and Marvin had been trying to outdo one another in the booze game and that morning it had taken him three attempts to get out of his limousine. He seemed in fine form for all of that, a bit weary, but in full command.

He was talking about plants, of all things, describing a book on the subject that he’d recently read. “It’s quite bizarre,” he intoned, getting more dramatic mileage out of the word than most actors can squeeze from a five-page soliloquy.

“Plahnts react to your personality. One extraordinary story in the book, apparently authenticated, concerns a test in which they used five or six nice, ordinary people like us and one psychopath they borrowed from a penitentiary. Just went there and said: ‘Could we have a psychopath,’ I suppose. They strolled the people past the plahnts, one by one. The psychopath was fourth in line and when he passed by, the plahnts, all of them, started shaking.

“I made my own experiment. I moved in close to a plahnt of mine and said: ‘You son of a bitch. I hate your guts.’ I swear to God, it started to shake. Now, I’m not entirely sure it wasn’t a reaction to a whiff of my breath, mind you ….”

He veered off onto another topic, but a female visitor stooped him short. “I hope you went back and told your plant you were just joking.”

He raised an eyebrow. “Joking? Good Lord, no, darling. I really detested the thing.”

“I hear it’s true of warts, too,” a young crew member interjected.

Burton looked at him, forehead wrinkled in confusion. “Warts?”

“Yeah. You can talk them away, my doctor says.”

Burton sipped his gin. “Warts. Amazing.”

Suddenly, all hell broke loose outside the building. Thuds, smashes, crashes. Mitchell winced at the thought of the men bouncing off the walls outside, Burton shook his head enigmatically.

“I’ll tell you about something that happened in Mexico a while ago,” he said. “It was almost cocktail time. I happened to be sitting down, looking out at this bridge. And there are five elephants crossing the bridge. Seems the circus was in town, but how am I to know this? I’m hung over. Elizabeth is doing something, puttering, having a bite to eat.

“I tell her, ‘Darling, there are five elephants crossing the Bridge of The Thousand Days.’

"Richard, you're so boring."

“Richard, you’re so boring.”

She answers, ‘Oh, Richard, you’re so boring.’

I say, ‘I swear to Christ, sweetheart, five elephants are crossing the Bridge.”

The train station’s front door was thrown open by a man who rushed into the room. He had a whistle around his neck and a clipboard in his hand.

Burton turned to him, eyes blazing at the interruption.

The newcomer announced that Butt Cut’s stunt double had been hurt during the fight.

Mitchell leaped from his chair and rushed toward the door, followed by the guy with the whistle and clipboard.

Burton frowned. He called after the departing men. “How bad?”

The man with the whistle paused long enough to reply, “Cut his face. Not too bad.”

Burton settled back in his chair, sighed, and took a sip of gin. Or maybe vodka.

“I suppose we should get back to the story,” he said, “because I am known as a great raconteur around here. Anyway, I saw the elephants and, eventually, Elizabeth saw the elephants. And this fellow, Phil Ober, a fine character actor who’s retired and a council or something down there, told us the circus was in town. He suggested we go. I explained I had a fear of heights and can’t stand to see the acrobats. But he prevailed and we went, Elizabeth and I and Mr. and Mrs. Ober.

“I speak enough Spanish to get along, but I am far from fluent. We’re sitting there and all these incredible things are going on. Clowns are rushing about.  A dwarf is riding a panther’s back. Things like that. I close my eyes for the high wire act. And so on.

“Finally, this fellow takes center stage and I hear him mention the name ‘Elizabeth Taylor.’ I tell her, ‘I believe they want you to go take a bow.’

“She gets up to do that. Only they escort her to a wooden wall and position her there. And this fellow arrives and begins throwing daggers at her.

“One lands near her head. One here, one there. Under her arms. Within inches of her crotch.
“Now, all this time the dwarf and his panther are on the prowl, so there’s nothing I could do to protect Elizabeth or anybody else for that matter. I must say Elizabeth was awfully good about it. I was watching, almost frozen in fright, when I realized someone was grabbing me and putting me up against the wall. How could I refuse after my wife had gone through with it?

“Instead of placing me head-on like Elizabeth, they turned me sideways, stuck a balloon in my mouth and one in each hand, then placed one hand behind me so that I was standing there like a … well, I’m not exactly sure what I was standing there like.

“I imagine you’ve probably experienced having a balloon break in your hand. Try having one break in your mouth. A bit painful. But soon all the balloons were burst and the ordeal was over.

“Now the owner or the manager of the circus comes over to thank us. ‘You were very nice,’ he says, ‘very nice to give a boy a chance like that.’

“‘A boy?’ I ask.

“‘Yes,’ he tells us. ‘He is only 16 and this is the first time he throws the daggers. You have given him great confidence.’

“Amazing. And the thing is – Elizabeth and I have been photographed every now and then. But there was not one bloody soul there with a camera to take a picture of the event. Mrs. Ober is a journalist. She wrote the story and, without a picture, no one believed it. But it happened.”

Other members of the press junket had learned the secret of the rear door and the crowd was growing. One of the newcomers asked Burton about his father.

Burton and his father

Burton and his father

“Oh, God, I’m so envious of that man,” the actor replied, showing some emotion. “I remember once, he’d been away for four or five weeks and he comes into the room. My sister said: ‘Where the devil have you been?’ And he answered, ‘Well, to tell you, I was flogging a dead horse when suddenly, to my astonishment, it came to life, and I’ve been riding the nightmare ever since.’

“Brilliant man. A coal miner. Went down in the mines when he was 70 years old.”

Someone wanted to know who introduced him to Shakespeare’s works. “Probably my father,” Burton replied after a sip of gin. “I’m not entirely sure. Certainly I grew up with it. It’s part of my life. If you want me to speak some Shakespeare for you …”

His drink goes unnoticed in his hand as he recites a speech from THE TEMPEST, the one that mentions “all these actors, as I foretold you, are vanished into air. Into thin air … We are such stuff as dreams are made on and our little life is rounded with a sleep.”

He paused, smiled. “Beautiful, eh?”

Another sip of the clear liquid and he added, dramatically: “When I die, there’s a good possibility that my last words shall have been written by Shakespeare.”

“Or Millard Kaufman,” a crewman waggishly suggested.

Burton looked as if he had a reply to that but, because the screenwriter was present, he decided not to use it. Instead, he moved on to CYMBELINE and the speech that ends: “Golden lads and girls all must, As chimney sweepers, come to dust.”

He took another drink, rattled the remaining ice cubes. “Anyway, we’ll speak more about dust some other time. And must and fust and lust.”

A bold lady journo, eyes like lasers behind cat-shaped glasses, moved toward him. “Speaking of lust,” she said, “what about this item in the paper? Did you see it?”

Probably  a Kim story. She shoved the folded newspaper at him.

He cocked one eye, frowned. “This looks like Latin. Was I speaking Latin again?”

He fell silent, glanced longingly at the door.

“Are you thinking of returning to Oxford?” someone asked.

With a sigh, he replied, “I have to go back there. I’ve been made a Fellow of St. Peter’s College and a Don. I suspect those long-haired children would like to investigate my pretensions  So, I’m afraid I must go back.”

“When?” the lasert-eyed reporter wanted to know.

“What year is this?” Burton inquired.

“1974.”

“Next year, then. They’re paying me very nicely. A hundred pounds a year. Also included is a bottle of vintage port per day. But I’m not allowed to have women in the college. Which is why Elizabeth may leave me …”

He paused, noticing a young woman who’d just entered the room. “You’re very lovely,” he told her, putting his heart into it.

The woman was slightly embarrassed, flustered. Burton tried to maintain eye contact, but she lowered hers.

The tender moment was shattered by a question. “How do you feel about all this attention being paid you?”

Reluctantly, the actor turned from the woman. “I’m an extremely private person. Talking to you people today is part of my job, though I rather like talking, as you may have gathered. But the minute I’m away, I pull the blinds down, close the door.”

Outside the building the fight had stopped. Sightseers had moved to the window to look in on the celebrity. One mother held up a baby girl, pressing her cherub face against the dusty glass. Burton waved at the tykette.

“Yes, sweetheart,” he crooned. “Yes, little baby. She doesn’t know what’s going on, but wishes she were in on it.”

Now Kim, I’m not sure of, but this one is definitely bringing out his paternal feelings.

“Are your children here with you?” someone asked.

“No. One is in England, going to school. Another in Switzerland, going to school. Another in New York, going to school. One boy is in Wales. The other is about to enter the University of Hawaii. Elizabeth was here, but she had to go into Los Angeles …”

“She’s not going to be at the party tonight?”

“No, luv, sorry, but she sprained her ankle and had to get it looked at. Fell off of a …”

“Are any of your children going into theater?” The question had come from the rear of the room.

“Thank God, no. It’s a terrifying profession. The pressures of film and theater are too great. I prefer to put up with them. And so does my wife. But I wouldn’t want my children to have to.”

I felt a point needed to be clarified. “What exactly was it that Mrs. Burton fell off of?” I ask.

He turned his pale eyes on me for a second. “Her sandals, old man. You know how these short girls love to wear these enormous high heels. Well, she fell off of hers.”

An elderly reporter asked, “Do you like living here in a small town?”

“As a matter of fact, I like it very much,” Burton said, rising. He began edging toward the door with his empty glass.

“But what do people find to do here?” a reporter asked.

Burton grinned. “Just interview me, apparently. Goodbye, luvs.”

He strolled through the door and like those actors in THE TEMPEST vanished into air. Thin air.

(NEXT WEEK: PART TWO — A real BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK fistfight; Burton answers for the nine thousandth time why he’s making the bloody movie; the Big Bash takes place, complete with booze, soul food, burning crosses, and Ku Klux Bunnies; Lee Marvin rips his coat; and sundry other KLANSMAN capers.)

A Different Chandler

81G-c5wkFJL._AA1500_A few weeks ago, Turner Movie Classics aired the 1971 noir film, Chandler, starring Leslie Caron and Warren Oates, a tie-in perhaps with the its release as a new Warner Archive DVD .  As one of the log lines describes it: “A private eye (Oates)   is hired to follow a mobster’s former mistress (Caron).”  Several notable noir icons are present, including Gloria Grahame, Charles McGraw and Royal Dano.  What is left unsaid is that the script used the same basic outline as Raymond Chandler’s final completed work, PLAYBACK.

The movie does not live up to its promise. But, for me at least, it holds fond memories. I’d been a resident of Southern California for about a week when I became marginally involved in its production.

Caron and Laughlin

Caron and Laughlin

A few film notes: its producer, Michael Laughlin, had put together several very successful films in London, and was married to it star, Leslie Caron.  Paul Magwood was a first-time director. The fledgling screenwriter was John Sacret Young, who would later win an assortment of awards and accumulate lots of loot for creating and producing the television series, CHINA BEACH. The script was not an official adaptation of PLAYBACK, but, by naming the private eye Chandler and then releasing the movie with that title, they were not exactly hiding its source. An homage, then.

playback

Through a friend of Magwood’s, I got to sit in on meetings, meet the participants and even appear as an extra in a sequence at the art deco train station in downtown L.A. where Oates, as Chandler, follows Caron, the female in jeopardy. All great fun, and fascinating. But it wasn’t exactly putting food on my table.

As I went on to writing jobs that were lucrative, if not as entertaining, I followed the film’s progress in the trade publications. There was a screening of the rough cut that the then head of the studio, James Aubrey, didn’t like at all. He ordered changes, clarifications. He didn’t like those either.

Finally, one morning when Magwood showed up at the studio with his editor, he discovered that Aubrey had locked up the film. He, his editor and Laughlin had lost control of their film. It was cut and reshaped by nameless others. A subplot was shot and inserted. Key bits of dialogue were deleted.

James T. Aubrey, known fondly as The Smiling Cobra

James T. Aubrey, known fondly as The Smiling Cobra

Laughlin and Magwood took out an ad in the trades telling other filmmakers to beware of Aubrey.  This did not endear them to the studio head.  The film, released on the bottom half of a double bill, was not an overwhelming hit.  It nipped Magwood’s directing career in the bud, severely damaged Caron’s and Laughlin’s standing and curtailed Oates’ chances of moving up from notable character actor to leading man.

Would the movie have been better received if Aubrey had allowed it to be released in its original state? Who knows.  As it is, some reviews consider it a precursor to Robert Altman’s THE LONG GOODBYE (itself not a hit at the box office, but at least a succes d’estime), with praise for its “lack of cinematic grandeur,” and with  nods to Oates’ performance.  1881532,+6sTjxPRUGCafxHS2Ex3GdyjlOstrrF97fLDbVcay+5+CslGxWUiU0buAB4vkKKZ_Y_G7SGC1csBlRG_nSOviw==

In any case, shortly after its release, Aubrey was unceremoniously given his walking papers from the studio.

 

I doubt any of them thought too fondly of CHANDLER. But I do. Because of it, I became friends with Michael Laughlin. Many years later, while working on one of his film projects, I spent the winter at St. Barth’s with him and his new family. The latter included a bright and pleasantly precocious twelve-year-old girl who became the inspiration for the teenage sleuth Serendipity Dahlquist in the mystery that launched my career as a novelist SLEEPING DOG.sleeping_dog_scroll

Hooray for Hollywood!

Burning Daylight, Henry Hathaway and Me

Burning Daylight, I have recently discovered, is the title of a Jack London novel about an Alaskan Gold Rush profiteer that was a bestseller back in 1910. It’s also the name of a Power Pop/Alt Country band. I was referencing neither with this blog’s title. I was going for something more apropos: “burning daylight” means “wasting time.”

I first heard the term many years ago, grumbled by the film director Henry Hathaway, who was not exactly complimenting me on my work ethic at the moment. How this came about is a story that might be called “So You Want A Screenwriting Career?”

Henry was seventy-six years old when, having directed over sixty films (ranging from Zane Grey-inspired “B” westerns to Kiss of Death and True Grit), he decided to film a mystery-comedy in Europe that needed a new writer’s touch.

He could not have found a newer writer than I, a recent Southern California transplant from New Orleans by way of Chicago. And so it was that Henry and I traveled to Germany and Denmark in the cold November of 1974 fully intending to create a meaningful, or, if not meaningful then at least entertaining, little potboiler titled The Praying Mantis.

Its plot concerned a bored lady of quality who lures her lovers into Amsterdam’s then-notorious Zeedijk area to kill them with kindness … and a stiletto. Her melodramatic penchant creates a socio-politico situation in which the Red Light district is shuttered and a financially- pinched pimp and his prostitute are forced to hunt down the guilty party so that business may continue as usual.

Ben Hecht

This woozy premise, owing more than a tiny debt to the German classic, M, had been concocted by Ben Hecht. The story, Hathaway assured me while smiling his jack-o’-lantern grin, had been in Hecht’s typewriter when the famous journalist-screenwriter made the obit page. Since then, the idea had been turned into a script that was not quite what the producers had in mind, and Hathaway himself, though he seemed to savor much of its riper dialogue, felt that a complete rewrite was in order.

Savalas and Cardinale in Escape to Athena, a movie I did write.

The plan was for us to jet to Hamburg where we would scout that city’s filmable bordello-lined strasses by day and crank out the script by night. The money was there, mainly from German backers. Telly Savalas, an international celebrity thanks to the then-popular TV series Kojak, and Italian actress Claudia Cardinale had been tapped to star. Filming was scheduled to begin in six weeks. It was a very heady situation for a novice screenwriter —working in Europe with a legendary director on a project that had been begun by Ben Hecht.

A few nights before I was to depart, an actress friend casually mentioned “the old man is so tough on people, some agents ask for Hathaway Pay for their clients.” It had an apocryphal ring. Certainly my agent had not heard of it. Still, Hathaway had been quoted as saying, “To be a good director you’ve got to be a bastard. I’m a bastard and I know it.” My friend went on: “He likes to test you. Just don’t let him push you around.”

Henry (“I’m a bastard and I know it.”) Hathaway

There was no pushing of any sort on the flight over. Henry, an experienced traveler, was also a wonderful raconteur with an apparently endless source of movie-land lore. Instead of exploring the boundaries of the script, we talked about the people he’d worked with — how Randolph Scott’s hat used to fly off so much it had to be tied on, the firmly-affixed Stetson becoming his trademark; how Henry had to force Jimmy Stewart to talk fast for Call Northside 777; how John Ford, as a gag, convinced Henry to cast the “next John Wayne,” Bruce Cabot, in his film Sundown and how Cabot had slept through most of the shoot, off-camera and on-; how Marilyn Monroe, who was a rising star at 20th, couldn’t get the studio to underwrite a relatively small loan for a modest cottage she wanted to buy.

Ladies of Hamburg

Shortly after we arrived in Hamburg, Germany, a stand-in for Amsterdam whose officials were less than sanguine about the movie’s theme, two problems arose. Henry took one look at that city’s red light district, a gritty, cobblestone boulevard complete with weary maedchen in underwear yawning at us from behind picture windows, and growled: “This is the ugliest goddamn place I’ve ever seen. You’d have to be an idiot to make a movie here.”

The next day, at lunch, one of the German backers asked the director if a character in the story — a pathetic, elderly woman who had been a colonel’s mistress at Auschwitz — might be excised. The German people had grown quite weary of hearing about the camps, he added.

Hathaway leapt to his feet, threw his napkin on the table. “The old dame’s going to be in the script,” he assured them. “And she’s going to have even more to say about Auschwitz, and if you don’t like it you can take your money and hit the road.”

Which is what they did.

Tivoli Gardens in Winter

So, while the producers scurried about seeking new funds, Hathaway and I moved on to Copenhagen and a hotel suite overlooking a snow-covered Tivoli Gardens, where we began working on the script.

Remembering the advice of my actress friend, I fought Henry tooth and nail over the opening scene. That continued until dinner that night, when he informed me, “This movie’s going to begin the way I want it to begin and that’s all there is to it. If you don’t like it, you can catch the next flight home.”

So much for hanging tough.

From that point on, we kept discussions of the script away from the dinner table, reserving that time for more of Henry’s reminiscences, all of which were fascinating to me. I had just read one of David Niven’s autobiographical books in which the actor purposely had neglected to name the principals of many of his stories. I’d give Henry the situation and he’d fill in the blanks. “Oh, right,” he’d say, bringing up the memory without skipping a beat. “He’s talking about Judy Garland, kid. Yeah, that was a heck of a thing…”

Day and night, we reworked the script, pausing only every so often, for sleeping, eating and storytelling. After fifteen days, I informed him that I had to leave the hotel, if only to walk around the block. I walked around several blocks in the cold, had a beer and a sandwich, and paid the Danish equivalent of ten dollars — a ridiculously high price in those days — to see The Way We Were at a cinema complex.

When I got back to the suite, Henry was in the sitting room, in the dark, waiting up for me. “What’s the matter, kid?” he asked. “Tired of the script already?”

From time to time, the producers would fly in to keep us posted on the financial picture, which was always bright but never quite complete. They’d trade a few stories with Henry then call me aside and ask my truthful opinion about the script. I would tell them, with all due modesty, that it was developing beautifully and would rival anything William Goldman could put on paper. Actually, I thought it was turning into a surprisingly effective little black comedy.

Henry seemed so pleased by our progress, we began to actually leave the hotel to check out the city’s location potential. One day, the driver motored us past a row of little houses beside a canal. It was exactly the setting Henry had in mind for his Bordelloland. He got out of the car smiling from ear to ear. “You see, kid. This’ll make it dark and creepy, but not ugly. The movie’s gonna be great, even if your script isn’t.”

My script was finished the second week in December. Henry was happier than I’d ever seen him. He asked me to start thinking about our next film. The holidays were on us and the producers suggested we fly home until the new year when, they were quite confident, our project would be fully funded.

Alas, that didn’t happen in the new year. Or ever. Henry did not make The Praying Mantis or any other movie.

Several years later, at a cocktail party honoring a British film critic, I spotted him sitting at a crowded table across the room. I hadn’t spoken to him since the day he’d called to tell me the project had been officially scrapped. As I walked toward his table, he was winding up one of his stories. The group of people broke into gales of hilarity.

“Henry?” I asked tentatively.

He turned toward me. His eyes grew wide and his big face broke into its familiar grin. “Hey,” he shouted to the people at the table, “this is the guy I was just telling you about.”

Henry passed away twenty-eight years ago this February.

I never found out what I’d done that had prompted all the laughter. I wasn’t about to ask at the time. But, it occurs to me now that a few minutes of embarrassment was probably a small price to pay for a crash course in screenwriting that no university could ever match. And, though I never quite became a part of Henry Hathaway’s filmography, at least I can say I joined the select ranks of those who made it into his collection of vignettes.