“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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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 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.’
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.
“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.
“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.)