Sixteen-year-old Mark Sanderson was on the verge of his first big break. It was early 1982 and Gerard Ravel, the 35-year-old host of the local public access show "Word of Mouth," had come to the apartment of Sanderson's friend and production partner James Baumgarten in Santa Monica, Calif., to check out their 28-minute martial arts adventure "The Last Silent Swordsman" with an eye towards putting it in a program he was mounting at the Nuart Theatre the following month, grandly titled "The Best Teen Super 8mm Films of '81."
After 15 minutes of fights, car chases and flying ninja throwing stars, Ravel had seen enough.
"He said, 'That's great! I want to put it in our festival,'" recalls Sanderson, who directed the film.
Just like that, Sanderson was in. There was only one small catch: He had to sign an exclusive management contract with Ravel's Word of Mouth Productions.
"My dad had to co-sign it because I was underage," Sanderson recalls. "[Ravel] said, 'Now, you're going to be approached by agents...' I was thinking, 'Who wants a 16-year-old kid to make a movie?'"
The more pertinent question was, "Is anyone interested in seeing a bunch of no-budget movies made by teenagers?"
Mark got the answer as his car approached the Nuart on the night of the event and he saw the line of people waiting to get in the theater circling around the block. And it wasn't just the casts and crews and their friends and family. There was a TV crew and professional still photographers snapping pictures. Inside the auditorium, the audience applauded, cheered and gasped at the appropriate moments. The six-thirty show was a sell-out, and the nine o'clock show was nearly three-quarters full.
Sanderson prepares the decapitation.
"When the guy [in the "Swordsman"] gets his head chopped off, I distinctly remember people saying, 'Whoa!'" recalls Raj Makwana, who played an evil henchman in the movie. "Afterwards, people were coming up to Mark saying, 'How did you do that?'" [Answer: A styrofoam wig head outfitted with a Halloween mask and ninja hood placed atop a dummy torso.]
"It was crazy exciting," Sanderson says. "Gerard sold the hell out of it. He was like P.T. Barnum." Although, "I don't remember any agents walking around saying, 'Here's my card,'" he laughs.
Blurbs for Abrams and Sanderson's films inside the program.
Perhaps they should have been.
It might not be on par with the future progenitors of the French New Wave coming together to publish Cahiers du Cinema in the 1950s, but in an age when the movie landscape is dominated 3D renderings of computer-generated comic book characters, the event stands as a significant seminal moment in contemporary film history.
One of the films screened that night was the 45-minute horror-comedy "High Voltage," made by 15-year-old Jeffrey (J.J.) Abrams, today famous as the creator of the TV series "Felicity," "Alias" and "Lost" and the director of "Mission: Impossible III," the big-screen "Star Trek" reboot and the recent Steven Spielberg-produced hit "Super 8," which, in a bit of autographical data mining, revolves around a group of 13-year-old amateur filmmakers in 1979. Another was the 28-minute Hitchockian thriller "Stiletto" by Matt Reeves, who went on to co-create the series "Felicity" with Abrams and direct the films "Cloverfield" (produced by Abrams) and "Let Me In." The program also included the 15-minute spoof "Toast Encounters of the Burnt Kind" directed by Larry Fong, the cinematographer for "Lost" and "Super 8," which, in an interesting bit of gestalt, has been cited for its visual debt to Spielberg's "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" (1979).
Others in this community of teen filmmakers went on to be prominent players in such TV shows such as "Heroes," "Parenthood" and "21 Jump Street."
Fong says he doesn't remember much about the event itself, but its key players never left his orbit.
"From time to time, J.J. would have a party and half those people would be there, and I still see them," says Fong, whose credits also include multiple collaborations with director Zack Snyder ("300," "Watchmen" and "Sucker Punch") and a trio MTV VMA Video of the Year Award-winners for R.E.M., Van Halen and the Goo Goo Dolls. "When you're a friend of J.J., it's kind of this weird club where you end up seeing each other over the decades even when none of us are doing anything. He hires you or you're part of his company and you stay there. It's kind of a family thing."
Ninja assassins in "The Last Silent Swordsman."
The Pre-Credit Sequence
By the time of the festival, Sanderson's eyes had been on the prize for nearly half a decade. He and classmate Reeves began making films together in 1977, the year of "Star Wars," crafting their own versions of the secret agent and kung fu movies that fascinated them as preteen boys.
"We had tremendous output, at least a movie or two a year," Sanderson recalls. "The films would be 20 minutes, then later they got to 45. We lived a block from each other, so it made it quite easy to work on stuff. His house was sort of the movie studio with all the equipment."
The duo formed their own production company, R&S Studios (for Reeves & Sanderson). Reeves assumed the title of president; Sanderson was vice president and head of security. They enlisted their friends as actors, printed stationary and published a newsletter to publicize their efforts.
"It was vertical integration," Sanderson says. "We not only would shoot the films and edit them, we'd put up posters around the neighborhood then show them for money to whoever would come. We believed in it that much, like, 'Oh, we're moguls.'"
Ravel too had visions of moguldom. An avid surfer since 1962, he had been touring the country showing surfing films. This was in the days before the home video revolution, when niche films had few avenues of distribution and the random access instant gratification of YouTube, et al, was still decades away. He would rent a theater or hall in each city, pass out flyers and put up posters around town, and enthusiasts would turn out in droves to see the wet-suited heroes they'd seen frozen in the pages of Surfer Magazine come to life and shoot the curl in super-slow motion.
By the turn of the '80s, the iconoclastic "movie brats" of the late '60s of early '70s had solidified their status as mainstream moneymaking machines. It wasn't just Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, who scored a blockbuster with their nostalgic thrill ride "Raiders of the Lost Ark" in the summer of 1981. Darker-minded compatriots like Brian De Palma ("Carrie," "Dressed to Kill"), John Carpenter ("Halloween," "Escape from New York") and Paul Schrader ("American Gigolo") were also turning out hits. Betting on the next generation of young filmmaking talent didn't seem like a bad idea.
Ravel launched "Word of Mouth" as a showcase for local amateur filmmakers, taking advantage of government regulations at the time requiring cable systems in communities with 3,500 or more subscribers to set aside TV channels for locals to show their self-produced programming and provide the equipment and the studio time for them to make it.
Reeves was flipping through the channels one day in June of 1981 when he stumbled upon an installment of "Word of Mouth" featuring a collection of Super 8 horror movies followed by an interview with the 14-year-old filmmaker, who had been making movies since the age of 7 when he borrowed his parents camera to make a stop-motion clay animation short.
At the end of the program, there was ad cheekily proclaiming, “Air your shorts." Eager to get on the action, Reeves called the number on screen and soon he too was showing and discussing his films on the show. Ravel told Reeves he should meet the kid whose films caught his eye, Jeffrey Abrams. An introduction was made, and the two became friends. When Gerard asked if they knew of another kid who might have a film for the fest, Reeves referred him to Sanderson.
Fong met Abrams around the same time, when he made the 42-mile trek from his home in Rolling Hills, Calif., with a friend to spend the weekend with the latter's divorced dad, who lived across from the Abrams family in the Pacific Palisades, a few miles north of Santa Monica.
"We were about four years older, but [J.J.] would come over and bug us and vice versa," Fong says. "He invited me to his house and he was just this whirlwind of energy and multiple talents even at that young age. His room was full of musical instruments and magic and monster books and models and stuff like that, and I was interested in all the same things, so we connected and became friends, even though at that age it's funny to be friends with someone that much younger."
Like Abrams, Fong was captivated by the works of Spielberg and horrormeisters Carpenter and David Cronenberg. He had been making Super 8 movies since junior high, both live action and stop-motion and cell animation, and experimenting with makeup effects, and Abrams called on him to help craft the transformation scenes for "High Voltage."
"There's this part where [a character] has these reactions to being electrocuted, and his arm swells up and ripples a la 'Altered States,'" Fong recalls. "I used bladders and stockings and latex and tubes."
Fong's own film "Toast Encounters" was a veritable special effects spectacular, featuring levitating sandwiches manipulated with an off-camera fishing pole, stop-motion-animated dancing foam rubber toast creatures and a spectacular scene in which the protagonist witnesses a toaster spacecraft land on a schoolyard, built in miniature.
Like their fictional counterparts in "Super 8," the real life teen auteurs weren't above incorporating snatches of real life drama into their films for added "production value." Daniel Krishel remembers being in the middle of shooting a robbery scene for his film "Six Inches of Death" in an alley behind his house, using fake guns and a knife, when the Beverly Hills Police rolled up, sirens flashing. He showed them his camera and assured them that they were merely students shooting a movie. As the cops returned to their squad car, Krishel told one of his actors to lay on the ground and play dead, then placed the camera on the ground in front of him and rolled film.
"The last shot of the film you see is the cops surrounding him with their car and their lights and everything," Krishel says. "For a student film, to have the actual Beverly Hills Police in my movie, it looked pretty neat, pretty real. And I remember that caught a lot people [at the festival] by surprise."
The juvenile movie crew in "Super 8" lives in a quaint, isolated Ohio town. Their big dream is getting their film into the Cleveland International Super 8 Film Festival. To their parents, factory workers and cops, making short films is viewed as a frivolous hobby, at best.
Not so for the real life Super 8 auteurs in Abrams circle.
"My parents bought me my first camera," Sanderson points out. "They were artists in their day, but never got to do it. My dad," an aerospace engineer, "was a budding singer. He used to send tapes to Capitol Records and sing in the piano bars, and my mom wanted to be a Rockettes dancer. They were always saying, 'Go after your dreams.'"
Growing up in Santa Monica in the '70s, "it was the back lot, basically," says Sanderson. " 'Charlie's Angels,' 'Starsky & Hutch,' 'Quincy,' all these shows that we watched and followed, would be shooting there every week, and after school we'd go off and hang around the set. The gaffers would take us under their wing and say, 'Hey, sit here.'" Becoming a filmmaker "didn't seem like a crazy dream we were trying to chase," he says, "because it was happening around us.'"
Abrams' father Gerald W. Abrams was a successful TV movie producer ("An Act of Love," "Berlin Tunnel 21"). Writer/director Nicholas Meyer ("Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan") attended J.J.'s bar mitzvah and special effects pioneer Douglas Trumbull(“2001: A Space Odyssey") sent him note of encouragement when he was 11.
For the leads in "High Voltage," Abrams called on friends Adam Rosefsky, whose father was local TV financial guru Robert S. Rosefsky, and Peter DeLuise, the son of comic actor Dom DeLuise ("History of the World, Part I," "The Cannonball Run") and, later, one of the stars of Fox's "21 Jump Street" (1987-1991) alongside Johnny Depp.
"The Palisades was one of the areas where the Hollywood folks lived," says Rosefsky. "So, like anywhere else, you sort of follow in the footsteps of your father."
Sanderson and Reeves attended Santa Monica High School (aka Samohi), where the baseball team's roster included Charlie Sheen (whose father Martin sheen was riding high as the star of "Apocalypse Now"), future "Lois & Clark" star Dean Cain (stepson of director Christopher Cain) and Brat Pack heartthrob-to-be Rob Lowe. In theater class, the pair acted alongside future Oscar-winner Robert Downey Jr., who had already appeared in several films directed by his father, noted underground filmmaker Robert Downey, best known for the cult classic "Putney Swope" (1969).
"He disappeared in 11th grade," Sanderson recalls. "Then one day we're watching 'Weird Science' and I'm like, 'Holy, shit! It's Robert Downey Jr.!'"
Also roaming the halls of Samohi was the youngest son of TV director Leo Penn and actress Eileen Ryan, Chris Penn, who would go on to co-star in such films as "The Wild Life" and "Reservoir Dogs" before succumbing to heart disease in 2006 at the age of 40. His older brother Sean had co-starred opposite Timothy Hutton in the movie "Taps" the previous fall and would shoot to fame that summer as Jeff Spicoli in 1982's "Fast Times and Ridgemont High."
The brass ring was clearly within reach. Big things were happening, and not just to remote, mythical figures in newspapers and magazines. Then, suddenly, Sanderson was one of those people, and his classmates weren't so jaded that they failed to take notice.
Check out The Real Kids of "Super 8," Part 2, in which I take a look at what happened in the wake of the fest, the teenage chutzpah of J.J. Abrams and where some of the lesser-known 40-something "kids" are today.
Director Sam Peckinpah ("The Wild Bunch," etc.) was obsessed with what he called "the third man through the door" -- the character in the movie who covers the entranceway as the star and the second lead rush past to glory, often taking a bullet for the heroes. His face is frequently blurry in publicity photos, his back story usually left unexplored. But, according to Peckinpah, his wasn't simply a neglected tale that deserved to be told at least once, it was the only Hollywood story worth telling.
The concept came to mind earlier this month when, studying a photo from Hal Roach's 100th birthday party (discussed in my previous blog post), I became fixated on Laurel & Hardy imitators lurking in the background, partially obscured by Cesar Romero.
When I was at the event at Motion Picture & Television Country House and Hospital in Woodland Hills, Calif., back in January 1992, I thought their presence a bit surreal. Roach had worked with the real Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy for decades, producing their films. They were close business associates, if not friends. Imagine having people dressing up as your dead grandparents at the next family reunion, aping their voices and mannerisms. It's a little different, sure, but not so much.
But a gig's a gig, and getting paid to mix with TV and film stars (including Charlton Heston, Dan Aykroyd and Robert Blake) at a party marking the centennial of the birth of a pioneering film producer is a pretty good one.
But who were those guys? I did a little googling and found they were Jeffrey Weissman (Laurel) and Bevis Faversham (Hardy). Checking Weissman's IMDB listing, I discovered he had also played George McFly in the "Back to the Future" sequels in 1989 and 1990, replacing original George Crispin Glover. After that, the roles quickly slowed to a trickle and didn't pick up again until 2000. I wanted to talk to Weissman and find out what happened after the credits rolled, so to speak.
Thanks once again to the internet, Weissman wasn't hard to find. When I got him on the phone, I of course discovered there was a lot more to his life and career, including frustrating near misses (the lead in 1983's "War Games"), interesting encounters with icons such as Iggy Pop and Dick Van Dyke and some serious repercussions to taking the role of George McFly that eventually drove him to leave Los Angeles.
Weissman had been living a peaceful life Petaluma, Calif., with his second wife (and onetime junior high sweetheart) Kimbell Jackson, acting in independent films (including the upcoming "The Chateau Meroux," featuring "Back to the Future" co-star Christopher Lloyd) and teaching at Sonoma University and the San Francisco School of Digital Filmmaking, while continuing to entertain at events in character as Laurel, Charlie Chaplin, Groucho Marx and other old time movie icons. Then last October, Jackson was diagnosed with brain cancer.
Jackson's current prognosis is good, but her treatment has left them with a mountain of medical bills. To help combat those, Weissman is hosting "Tumor -- Be Gone," a benefit tonight (Saturday, May 21st) at the Glaser Center in Santa Rosa featuring Emmy-winning comedian Rick Overton, Michael McShane (from the British version of "Whose Line Is It Anyway?") and Grammy-nominated chanteuse Perla Batalla.
Anita Garvin with Laurel & Hardy.
What do remember about Hal Roach's birthday party?
Jeffrey Weissman:It was surreal, but it was really fun. Charlton Heston came up and said, "Hal... It's Chuck Heston. Remember me?" And Mr. Roach said, "Of course, I know who you are." The exact same words came out of Virginia Mayo's mouth Hal talked to us as if we were Laurel & Hardy, too.
Do you thinking he was doing that in a fun, self-aware way or was there some senile dementia involved?
Weissman: He was doing it more for fun, just going along with the role playing. He seemed to be very lucid and together. I had encounters with Lew Wasserman, who was a bit of a mogul, but Hal was from the period of real moguls, and that was pretty awesome.
I know your primary gig with Laurel & Hardy was at Universal Studios, which Wasserman ran for so many years, and the Motion Picture Fund [the nonprofit behind the Motion Picture Home] was the pet charity of his wife Edie. Would they bring you out to the home with Bevis to do Laurel & Hardy on a regular basis?
Weissman: Yes. Then I'd often go back out of character. One of the first times I went out there, they brought a little Dixieland jazz band, Laurel & Hardy and a few other characters. We were in the community room and they said, "We have a very special guest coming in to meet you, Stan," and they wheeled in this woman. The band was playing and she acted like she wanted to dance, so I started dancing with her, even though she was in a wheelchair. And, at one point, as Stanley, I spun out and started dancing with a new partner, and from behind me the woman in the wheelchair said [in a falsetto voice], "Stanley!" And I got shivers down my spine, because I hadn't realized until that moment that it was Anita Garvin, the silent film actress/comedienne who played Stanley's wife in many films. My heart melted. She was such a talent. I would go back out spend time with her and she would regale us with stories of doing the shoots and things. Those stories were pure gold, the real reward for meeting those folk and doing those gigs for Universal.
Weissman and fellow Stooges with Iggy Pop.
It must be sad for you that virtually all of those people are gone now.
Weissman: Yeah, it's heartbreaking. I did an event [in 2007] for Iggy Pop's 60th birthday as The Three Stooges team. We brought Iggy's 60th birthday cake out to him after a party in San Francisco. Because I was playing Larry Fine, [Ron Asheton, guitarist for Iggy's band The Stooges, who passed away in January 2009] cornered me and said, "I was Larry's best friend the last few years of his life. I'd go out to the Motion Picture Home and spend my weekends with Larry." He'd tell me these stories about his time with Larry and how he snuck him out of the Motion Picture Home for a Vegas weekend getaway with his secret girlfriend and how Larry's sister claimed that he killed him, because Larry died shortly after that trip to Vegas. But I was like, at least Larry had a good time until the end.
Weissman with Dick Van Dyke.
Have you ever had encounters with famous fans of Stan Laurel, like Dick Van Dyke? I know he visited Laurel a lot in the last years of his life.
Weissman: I had a small guest starring role on a "Diagnosis Murder" [in 2000] and sort of to break the ice, because I'd heard that Dick can sometimes be ornery, I brought an Alpaca sweater with the Dick Van Dyke label that I'd found in a thrift store back in the early '80s. I found Dick's assistant and I showed it to her. Later, Dick came out and found me and said, "Are you the guy with the sweater?" And I said, "Yeah." He said, "I had completely forgotten that I'd lent my name to these people back in 1961" or whenever it was, and that broke the ice. I talked to him about having played Stanley for 17 years at Universal and my exploits, and after that it was hard to get us on set because were sharing stories almost the entire day. He was really lovely.
Weissman on the set of "Twilight Zone: The Movie."
How did you get into show business?
Weissman: I was raised in L.A. and Hollywood and my folks were loosely associated with the entertainment industry. My dad had a private club [for bridge, backgammon, etc.] that Omar Sharif and Don Adams and all sorts of folk played at. He was business partners with Lorne Greene. But my folks never really wanted me to go into show biz. They didn't thwart me, but they didn't really support me that much. So I went out on my own to get training at ACT [the American Conservatory Theater] in San Francisco after doing some walk-on stuff in films like "The Rose" and "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band" in the late '70s.
When were you at ACT?
Weissman: In the early '80s… about the same time as Annette Bening. I was doing my intermediate studies and fell into an opportunity to screen test for "War Games" in '82. I tested with Ally Sheedy, and a very aggressive agent who had just come out of the William Morris Agency and started her own agency pursued me because [director] Martin Brest told me I was his favorite for the lead in "War Games." Unfortunately, Martin got fired, and the role went to Matthew Broderick.
Returning to Los Angeles from L.A., Weissman went on to land small roles in “Twilight Zone: The Movie” (1983), “Crackers” (1984), starring Donald Sutherland and Sean Penn, “Johnny Dangerously” (1984), starring Michael Keaton, and “Pale Rider” (1985), starring Clint Eastwood, as well as guest spots on such TV shows as “Dallas,” “Scarecrow and Mrs. King” and “Max Headroom.” But it wasn’t enough for him and his first wife to make ends meet.
Weissman as Groucho Marx.
Weissman: I was pretty much in between acting gigs. [In 1987,] I had a friend call me up who had played Stan Laurel and was also running a lookalike agency, and he asked if I'd ever considered doing Stanley, because the Stanley he had working up at Universal got fired. I needed work, so I went up and auditioned. Ironically, Bevis, the Oliver Hardy you see in the shot with Hal Roach, had seen me as Mercutio in a production of "Romeo & Juliet" in Hollywood and he turned to the boss and said, "This guy's got talent. I'll get him into shape." Because I was doing Stanley all wrong. But within a couple of weeks I was doing a passable Stan Laurel and kept improving on it. A year later, I put together Charlie Chaplin and the year after that Groucho Marx, because I felt the guys who were doing them were not doing a great job and needed to be honored better. So I sort of fell into it.
Your primary gig was at Universal Studios?
Weissman: Yes. I was in character at least five days a week full-time for seventeen years. I also played Stanley in an Equity production of "Babes in Toyland" with Robert Morse. And we would also tour. For example, when there was a fire at Universal, the Vice President of Marketing sent Bevis and me to London to a big convention to tell everyone that the [studio] tour was still open. We did events in Denmark and Switzerland, and a several-weeks tour of Australia promoting the Universal tour. I also co-wrote a music and magic show for Laurel & Hardy, and Bevis and I took it on a cruise ship in the South China Sea. So Stanley's been very good to me.
Weissman as George McFly.
How did you wind up taking over for Crispin Glover as George McFly in the "Back to the Future" sequels?
Weissman: Ironically, the same agent that asked if I'd ever considered playing Stan Laurel called me up and asked if I knew who Crispin Glover was. I said, "Of course, I do." I did a film with Crispin at AFI the year before he did the first "Back to the Future" film. I thought he was a fascinating actor. I even got his number and tried to stay in touch. [The agent] said, "Do you think you're about the same height as him?" I said, "No, he's taller than me. What's this for? Does he need a photo double for the sequel to 'Back to the Future'?" He said, "Well, I'm not at liberty to say." I said, "This is pretty obvious. Let me go in there and see what I can do." They put me through an audition with casting director Mike Fenton's office, and then had me do makeup tests with [cinematographer] Dean Cundey and [director] Bob Zemeckis.
You didn’t know they were thinking of replacing Crispin.
Weissman: As far as I knew, I was going to be a stand-in and photo double. I even called Crispin and said, "I don't know if you remember me. It's Jeffrey. I hope you'll put in a good word for me. I could use the work. My wife's going to have our second kid," etc. And he never called back until much later, when the third film was out and he was ready to sue them. I really didn't know until the Friday before we were to start shooting that I was going to be doing the role. They sort of kept it all under wraps. They couldn't work out their contractual agreements with Crispin, and it was the makeup guy who said, "Crispin's out. You're going to be playing George." And I was like, "You must be joking?" They were pretty shrewd in their negotiations. They waited until after 5 p.m. on Friday to negotiate the contract. "Quick -- what's the lowest amount of money that you'll accept?" And I was like, "You must be joking. Hold out for some big money," which, unfortunately, they didn't. They were offering scale and I got them to double that at least.
It must've been intense with all the conflicting emotions.
Weissman: It was. The first day on set, when Michael J. Fox and I came face to face, he said, "Oh, Crispin ain't gonna like this." I was made up to look like Crispin as Young George. I couldn't help but feel like I was some kind of scab or something. It did feel like it was underhanded. But I also understand that [executive producer Steve] Spielberg, Zemeckis and Universal needed to have him and they saw him as an eccentric upstart. So my Libra nature is seeing both sides of the argument. Unfortunately, I was caught in the middle of it.
They had you in a bit of makeup.
Weissman: Just a bit. It took three and a half to four hours a day just to get into the makeup [including chin, nose and cheek prosthetics] and we had several days where my call would be 4 a.m. to get into the makeup so I was on set by 8 a.m., and we'd shoot for 20 hours or more and then I'd have six hours until I was called to makeup again. So there was some hard-working, long-houred weeks, but all in all it was a really exciting shoot to be a part of and in the long run the reward for me has been the fan base. I've had amazing attention from around the world because of those films. I've been invited to go to London in July to be at a Comic-Con with Christopher Lloyd and Leah Thompson. It's a really nice family. For example, I'm often a guest at the DeLorean owners club meetings. When they have their big events, I'll come out and entertain or emcee or run their auctions. They like me a lot, which I love.
Weissman with Michael J. Fox at a "Back to the Future" 25th anniversary celebration.
I know Crispin called you up during his suit against the producers and the studio. [It was eventually settled out of court, and it inspired the Screen Actors Guild to adopt a rule forbidding the use of an actor’s likeness without his or her permission.] Have you talked to him since then?
Weissman: No. I like him, but his attorney used some pretty bad tactics and things that I sort of said in confidence and them out in public. I had a bad backlash from that.
For taking that role?
Weissman: No, for talking with Crispin. I had told Crispin that at one point while we were shooting, Spielberg came up to me -- not really talking to me, but just being a smart ass -- and said, "So, Crispin, I see you got your million dollars after all." That's when I knew what Crispin was holding out for. Crispin's attorney ended up talking about that and it got into Variety and The Reporter, and shortly thereafter my boss at Universal said, "Hey, what did you do wrong on 'Murder, She Wrote'?" I said, "I never worked on 'Murder, She Wrote.'" And he said, "Well, Angela Lansbury had worked with Laurel & Hardy and asked for Laurel & Hardy to be on this next episode, but not you." And I was like, "Uh... That's strange." And I was like, "Oh, shit." That didn't come from Angela, that came from the casting director.
Did your fellow actors ever say anything to you about putting on the makeup and doing the part?
Weissman: Most everyone just sort of rolled with it. They just wanted to work as did I. I haven't had too much response. It's ironic because a lot of the public don't know there was a different actor there. I'll go to events and mention my work in those films and a lot of people says, "No, that wasn't you" or "That was you?!" which means I did my job, I guess. But it was the producers’ objective to make it seamless or seem like it was the same actor. It's that gray area. Universal claimed they owned the character of George McFly. But Crispin's argument, which won, was "that's my likeness."
With the distance and perspective you have now, I imagine you enjoy going to the shows and being a part of it.
Weissman: I do. It's really all about the fans. When I walk into the room with people who know what I've done, there's a really nice glow. People are like, "Wow, I love those films, and you were a part of that." It's really special. There's no denying that.
Weissman and wife Kimbell Jackson.
It was so shocking, especially after all you've been through, to hear about your wife's brain cancer diagnosis. Tell me what happened.
JW: About three years ago, she started having pretty regular chronic migraines and was suffering terribly. They'd often be located behind the eye. She couldn't function. She had a very challenging job with opening a hospitality room for Joseph Phelps Vineyards new venture. We think her doctors through Kaiser misdiagnosed her. They went, “Oh, is it allergies? Is it x, y and z?” They finally diagnosed her with a seizure disorder, saying there was too much electrical flow in her head, and put her on all these medications. She was on like 11 different medications and was just overmedicated all the time. She got the project open and was set to be pretty much the main person running the hospitality room, but because she was so medicated and having a hard time dealing, they had her train an assistant and made him the new boss and finally let her go. Then, sure enough, a couple of months after her COBRA ran out last year, she on her own got herself weaned off the medications and started using biofeedback to get a handle on the migraines. She had over 180 migraines just in one year. Then last October on about the 20th, she had a fall. I came home and her chin was bruised. I said, "What happened?" and she had fallen. Shortly afterwards, she developed a withering of her left hand and arm and then a pirate drag on her left leg, ao I made her go in and get an MRI. First, we went to the emergency room and, after a seven and a half hour wait, they took an X-ray and said, "We can't find anything. Come back in a few days." And I said, "Forget this," and went and got her an MRI, which showed about five lesions in her brain that turned out to be tumors. We finally got an initial diagnosis of central nervous system lymphoma and then finally after two months got her medical coverage from the county with a high co-pay and got her a biopsy that confirmed it was lymphoma, then she started her chemo in mid-January. Here it is May, and the last MRI is showing no tumors.
Is that a common result? Is it usually that successful?
Weissman: I would love to say "yes," but I don't think so. It really is a good [result]. She's had a lot of support from friends and people around the world, really, who know her and me and who've been praying and supporting as they can.
(If you're outside of Northern California and unable to attend, you can still contribute to Kimbell's health fund via PayPal using the account email@example.com).
Todd Longwell is a freelance journalist who has written for a wide range of publications, including the Los
Times, the New York Post, American Cinematographer, Filmmaker, Emmy, Film Threat and, yes, even the
Weekly World News. For ten years, he was a regular contributor to The Hollywood Reporter. More recently, his byline has appeared in Variety.