Fans enjoying the 23rd installment in the James Bond franchise, "Skyfall," owe a debt of gratitude to production designer Ken Adam for its scope, style, visual daring and many other attributes that define its very Bond-ness.
The 91-year-old former RAF fighter pilot set the visual template for the 007 franchise with his work on seven Bond films from 1962's "Dr. No" to 1979's "Moonraker," creating futuristic cars, weaponry and watercraft and numerous cavernous villain's lairs, exemplified by his massive volcano set for 1967's "You Only Live Twice," replete with operative monorail and heliport.
When I profiled Adam for The Hollywood Reporter on the occasion of his receiving the Art Directors Guild Lifetime Achievement Award in 2002, I wrote:
Equally at home in the Jet Age and the Age of Enlightenment, he has created the visual vernacular of the modern spy film with his jaw-dropping work on the James Bond films... articulated the darker side of our "neurotic technological age” in “Dr Strangelove,” and earned a pair of Oscars for his sumptuous recreations of 18th Century England in “Barry Lyndon” (1975) and “The Madness of King George” (1994)
Unfortunately, due to space limitations, I was only able to use a small handful of quotes from our lengthy conversation, which covered everything from his Bond work and his collaboration with director Stanley Kubrick to his opinions on the ominipresence of digital effects in modern cinema. So I've decided to present the interview below in, well, something close to its entirety.
Adam's sketch for the interior of Fort Knox in "Goldfinger" (1964).
Longwell: Scripts usually dictate production design, but with many of the Bond films, the production design seemed to dictate the script.
Adam: Yes. They’re not to be compared with other films, you see. Initially, of course, they did have the Fleming novels, but more and more the Fleming stories disappeared and the producers and the public seemed to rely more and more on the visual excitement of the film, meaning sets, locations, gadgets and everything else. It’s not like most films, where you get set a script by either a director or a director and producer, and you then visualize it, discuss it with the director in terms of concept, and once you more or less agree, then you start translating that script into visual terms. But the Bonds were somewhat different.
Longwell: That seemed to be particularly true with the volcano set on “You Only Live Twice” (1967).
Adam: We were desperate because we had covered about two thirds of Japan and we were looking for some of the locations that Fleming had mentioned, and of course they didn’t exist. We went in two helicopters and on one of the last days on the Southern island of Kyushu we found this area of volcanoes and that triggered a lot of ideas. It was decided that it would be interesting to have the villain inside the crater. So then I came up with this design concept, and I’ll never forget [Bond producer] Cubby Broccoli asking me how much it was going to cost. I had no idea, obviously. And he said, “Well, will a million dollars be enough?” And I said, “Sure.” [laughs] A million dollars in 1966 was a fortune! But then my worries started, you know. Once he had agreed, I said, “Well, can I do it for a million dollars?”
Also, they were in trouble. In those days already, those Bond films had a release date in about 3000-4000 cinemas, and we didn’t have a script! And this was the first glimmer we had of something visually exciting happening. So he felt, I suppose, a million dollars would be a reasonable expenditure if I come up with a really exciting concept.
Longwell: I imagine you had some pretty scary moments afterwards, wondering, Is this going to work?
Adam: Absolutely. I obviously tried to cover myself by calling in engineering firms and structural experts and all that, but it’s not like normal film set construction or design, and obviously everybody was experimenting. If someone does a skyscraper, it’s very easy to calculate, but I come up with a sliding lake of fiberglass 120 feet up on an inclination that was held by one cable, and nobody quite knew if it was going to work. And I realize that if something goes wrong, I’ll never work in film again. I had a lot of nervous moments.
The home of villain Hugo Drax in "Moonraker" (1979).
Longwell: Due to Bond, “Dr. Strangelove” and other films, you became associated with films of enormous scale. Do you think there’s something about your talent or your character that made you particularly adept at this type of work, or is it simply something you got connected to that you developed a knack for?
Adam: Well, I think it’s probably both. I remember early in my career when I worked for [producer] Mike Todd on “Around the World in 80 Days,” he kept saying to me “think big,” and that somehow came natural to me. And also I think it’s possible something to do with my background as a boy growing up in Berlin with architects like [Ludwig] Mies van der Rohe, [Walter] Gropius and [Erich] Mendelsohn, who obviously had some influence on. I was fascinated by shapes and light and shade and big surfaces. The Bond films and obviously “Dr. Strangelove” gave me an opportunity to express myself.
Adam's sketch for the SPECTRE conference room in "Thunderball" (1965).
Longwell: You came to England from Germany at the age of 13. What was your ambition as a young man?
Adam: I had all sorts of ambitions. I wanted to be an explorer… but I always used to be able to draw quite well, so from the age of 14 or 15 I was fascinated by films and also by the stage, and I hadn’t quite made up my mind in which direction I wanted to go. Then after the war it became apparent that I really wanted to design for films. Even before the war – in 1937-38, when I was 17 – I studied architecture not to become an architect, but to have a good grounding for film design.
Longwell: What inspired you to get into production design?
Adam: Well, I was attracted to films by chance. In those days – I’m talking in 1937 – the British film industry was run by three Hungarians called the Kordas (brothers Alexander, Vincent and Zoltan). I met Vincent Korda, who was the art director/production designer, when they were shooting a film with Marlene Dietrich called “Knights Without Armor,”and he was very nice to me and said, why not [become an art director]? But he said I felt I needed a certain architectural background, and that’s why I studied architecture.
Longwell: You were just a boy at that point. How did you happen to meet him?
Adam: Well, it’s a long story. My mother in those days had a boarding house in London, and one of the people staying there was a young Hungarian painter who became a camera assistant on a Korda production with [cinematographer] Jack Cardiff. And he took me to meet Vincent Korda, and that’s how it all started.
Longwell: Where did you study at?
Adam: I studied architecture at the Bartlett School at University College in London. I was also what they call "articled" with a firm of architects. It’s like an intern. You draw, but you also get practical experience. And then the war came, so that put a stop to all that.
Adam as an RAF pilot during WWII.
Longwell: You were a RAF fighter pilot in the WWII. Some say that had an effect on your style.
Adam: Yes, I think that’s true, because I was always enormously attracted to speed, adventure and excitement, so certainly it somehow found a reflection in some of my Bond designs, without any doubt. And also in hindsight when you look back at those films – and you were mentioning the crater in “You Only Live Twice” and “Moonraker” – it’s one thing to put things on paper, but it needs quite a lot of courage to come up with concepts and constructions that basically have never been done before. So my past probably helped me at that.
Longwell: Working on the Bond films, it must’ve been enormously exciting to be given such a humongous toy chest to play with.
Adam: It was like therapy in a way, because when you work on other films you have to be disciplined by the script, which in a way is the backbone of everything, even though you can play with your imagination, but you are more limited. On the Bonds, the sky was limit, and that happened really after the success of “Dr. No.”
Dr. No's operations room.
Longwell: What did they think they were getting when they hired you for “Dr. No”?
Adam: I had worked for Cubby Broccoli before on two or three films. The film that was very successful that I designed for him was a period film called “The Trials of Oscar Wilde,” which was something quite different. By this time, I think I had established a certain reputation as an art director/production designer. I had never worked with [“Dr. No” director] Terence Young, but he was really a fan of mine. He liked some of the previous films I done, so he gave me carte blanche. And I don’t think they expected me to come up with what I did, but it just happened to turn out that way.
Longwell: Why do you think your work on “Dr. No” turned out so well?
Adam: There was a lot of luck. When I designed “Dr. No,” everything sort of worked out right. The main unit was working in Jamaica and I was left to my own devices. The studio was here in England. I suddenly came up with the idea that it would be fun to, apart from the tongue-in-the-cheek element, to express our technological age, which I hadn’t seen at that time, except going back to films like Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” . For many, many years, we used the same way of building the sets and they were never really reflecting this neurotic technological age that we were living in. So this gave me an opportunity, and I again was very fortunate to have the right team of people with me. I was working at Pinewood; I had worked there before. I had wonderful construction people who all rose to the challenge, because I made it quite clear that I didn’t want to use old studio methods. I wanted new material, experiments with new ideas and so on. I’ve found, in my experience, that if I have a good team of people collaborating with me, I can use my imagination to any extent I can. I’ve been very lucky that.
Also, on ‘Dr. No,’ there was no one looking over my shoulder. So when the two producers, Harry [Saltzman] and Cubby, and [director] Terence Young came back from Jamaica, I had three or four stages at Pinewood filled with sets, and nobody had seen any designs for those sets. Terence was the first one to look at them, and he loved them. And, of course, once the director loves them, well, the producers also liked them. And everybody got excited, and it became like a democratic society. Everybody came up with ideas, and it really was in a way the basis for the future Bonds.
The "tarantula room" from "Dr. No" (1962).
Longwell: One of the most simple and effective sets in “Dr. No” was the room in which Professor Dent [Anthony Dawson] is interrogated.
Adam: I call it the Tarantula Room. I’m delighted you say that, because I think it is one of my favorite sets, because it is so simple and theatrical or stylized. I think it somehow became the basis for some of the later Bond designs and certainly encouraged me to not only stylize Bond films but other films as well with rather simple means. Because this set was an afterthought and I had no money left. I think I had 450 pounds left. So I really had to come up with something very quickly that was very easy to construct and at the same time create a very important effect. It really worked. It’s amazing how people whose artistic judgment I respect always come back to this set.
The cavernous interior set for the sub-swallowing super tanker in "The Spy Who Loved Me" (1977).
Longwell: As your career progressed, did you ever feel constricted by the fact that people expected a certain hugeness from you?
Adam: No. I don’t think it ever restricted me. I’ve worked on, collaborated on or designed maybe 89 films. Today, I’m more interested in the story, the actors, directors and the people I work with, because you have to also enjoy what you’re doing. Although, I can’t complain. I had a good time on the Bonds, but they were an enormous, strain.
Longwell: Today, digital effects are often used excessively and badly. Reals set and miniatures are so much more rich and real.
Adam: Yes. everything you said, I agree with, and I’ve said it at lectures and talks and so on. I think it’s a very useful and wonderful tool, and it should be used as such, but it should not be used as a means to an end. If a whole film is done with digital effects, you know it’s artificial and you miss the reality of sets and locations. And I think it also must have a detrimental effect on serious acting, because for actors just to be in front of a green screen… Because I’m used to working with actors who possibly came from the theater who like to use props and like to feel the atmosphere of a set and feel at home in it. So I think it is great technical progress, but it has to be used as a tool, like anything else.
The flight simulator set in "Moonraker" (1979).
Adams' amphibious Lotus in "The Spy Who Loved Me" (1977).
Longwell: Ironically, some of your best work was done for some of the lesser Bond films, lacking good stories, like “You Only Live Twice” and “Moonraker.”
Adam: You’re absolutely right. On the other hand, “The Spy Who Loved Me” was one of the better ones. I mean, I liked the initial ones like “Dr. No” and “Goldfinger.” It upsets me if it’s been badly lit or badly shot, but if it’s well-filmed…
Longwell: You designed a lot of vehicles for these films, too. Was that something you enjoyed?
Adam: Yes. That’s the Boy Scout or the ex-fighter pilot in me – whichever way you like to look at it.
Longwell: Do you find your designs being imitated in real life?
Adam: People keep asking me that. I must say, I don’t look for it, but when I have exhibitions or books are published, other people say, “My God, you’ve been imitated” or “This has been copied.” I don’t know. At one stage, I thought I could design anything, no problem. When I did “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang”  and I had to design a sexy looking car at the turn of the last century… It wasn’t so much that it had to fly or be a hovercraft, but just to make it look attractive was quite a challenge. Some people who worked for me then still say, “My God, you were a pain in the ass,” because we would build the mock-ups and I’d keep changing it until I finally thought it was right.
Adam designing "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang."
Longwell: You also made two films with Stanley Kubrick, “Dr. Strangelove”  and “Barry Lyndon” . How did you get involved with him?
Adam: He had just arrived in England and he asked to see “Dr. No,” and after he saw it, he called me and asked me to meet with him, because he very much liked my work, and we immediately hit it off. It was an incredible start of a relationship, because we were both rather young and were sharing a lot of ideas together. I think in all my experience, I’ve never been quite that close to a director as I was with him, particularly on “Strangelove.”
Longwell: Was he someone who told you “go crazy,” or was he very hands-on and controlling?
Adam: No. It was a strange happening. We were sitting together at a table in his or my apartment, and we were going through what was then the script and I was sort of doodling on a pad in front of me, and he immediately liked the stuff I was doing. I had heard of his reputation and so on, and I thought, Well, everybody’s wrong. [laughs] He likes my stuff! I was in a way in seventh heaven.
I used to drive him to and from the studio every day. Driving about two hours a day, you get to know each other pretty well. After three weeks, he suddenly decided that the original concept for the War Room, which he liked, was not practical because I had designed a second level and he was worried what he was going to do with it because it to be full of extras and so on and it would cost a lot of money. He asked me to completely rethink it. So that’s how eventually the War Room design was born. But, initially, he was very complimentary about all the scribbles I’d done, so he obviously respected my work, but he was somebody who was also changing his mind, and when he did it normally was for the better.
Longwell: When you designed the interior of the B-52 for “Dr. Strangelove,” how much of it was based on the real plane and how much of it was your imagination?
Adam: I think almost everything was available. Even though it was on the restricted list or something, there were all these technical magazines like Flight, and you could really construct a very accurate reproduction of that aircraft. The only thing we didn’t know was the CRM code. And I had a very good assistant who was working with me. We sometimes call them “nuts and bolt men,” who are wonderful with bits and pieces. We finally came up with the CRM design. Of course, now it’s history, but at some stage, we invited some American Air Force personnel to visit the set, and they went white because it was so accurate.
The next day, I got a memo from Stanley saying that I’d better make sure that all my references were because we might be investigated by the FBI or the CIA.
Ryan O'Neal in "Barry Lyndon" (1975).
Longwell: War Room was more a flight of fancy?
Longwell: Did anyone ever let on that it might have any resemblance to the real War Room?
Adam: There’s an anecdote. How true it is I don’t know, but it’s been quoted that when Reagan became president he asked his chief of staff if he could see the War Room. He said, “What War Room?”Reagan said, “The War Room of the Pentagon shown in ‘Dr. Strangelove.’” It may be true, I don’t know.
Longwell: “Barry Lyndon” was entirely different – a British period piece that was shot without the use of electric lights.
Adam: His concept was to do all his night scenes by candlelight. That was an innovation, so we were experimenting with single wick, double wick, triple wick candles, and it became a nightmare. Some of them were non-drip, but they did drip, and the heat generated by hundreds of candles was sometimes enormous, particularly when we were filming in stately homes, so I had to come up with heat shields to protect their paintings and ceilings from all that candlepower.
Longwell: Did it ever annoy that so much effort was being exerted for Kubrick’s stylistic conceit?
Adam: Yes. But it was for a different reason. Before then, I always believed, fine, use locations as much as you like, but many things I felt I could better in a studio environment. But Stanley wouldn’t hear of it because he thought the most economical way to do that picture was on location. On that level, of course, he was proved completely wrong. It was an unhappy experience for me, but I think it would be too long to go into all that. And I think it was also an unhappy experience for Stanley, because remember by this time he had done “Clockwork Orange” and he had received a lot of threatening letters, so he was more reluctant to leave the so-called security of his home to go out and look at locations, so for weeks and weeks we didn’t. Certainly, he didn’t. So it wasn’t the happiest of films. But, you know, in hindsight, it was still a beautiful looking film.
Longwell: Did he want Ryan O’Neal in that role?
Adam: Yes. I don’t whether he started with Ryan. I mean, we all ganged up on him when he decided, but, you know, once Stanley decided, that was it.
Longwell: I thought it might’ve just been an economic consideration, because he was a huge star at the time.
Adam: I think he actually wanted him. I have a sneaking suspicion, and I may be wrong but Stanley always wanted to do a film of Napoleon, and he would’ve done an absolutely brilliant job. He had more research than anyone else in the world on Napoleon, and I always felt he did “Barry Lyndon’ as a sort of rehearsal for Napoleon, because we staged a big island battle sequence between the British and the French with gigantically long tracking shots, a thousand meters long.
Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters in "Pennies from Heaven" (1981).
Longwell: Out of all the films you’ve done, do you have any favorites?
Adam: There are obviously a number of films. I still think in a way that “Dr. Strangelove” was one of the most important films that I’ve done, because if you really analyze my design for the War Room, it is really rather simple. It’s big and claustrophobic, but again I think that theatrical style paid off. The actors everybody else felt it and it seemed to be a very integral part of the dramatic action of the film. And I liked doing some of the Bond pictures, obviously, because they gave enormous liberty to my imagination. But I always like period pictures. I liked doing “Pennies from Heaven” at MGM in Hollywood in 1981. I liked "Addams Family Values"  and pictures like that, because I could relate to Charles Addams and his New Yorker cartoons. But there’s a whole list of films. I’d really have to think about it. You have to give me more warning. [laughs]
It wasn't the type of talk show appearance one fantasizes about -- sitting on the couch, talking about the latest project and trading witty quips with the host -- but Mark Sanderson got his close-up.
During an appearance on ABC's "Jimmy Kimmel Live" to promote the release of his film "Super 8" last July, J.J. Abrams was shown a yellowed newspaper article about "The Best Teen Super 8mm Films of '81" festival at L.A.'s Nuart Theater from March 1982. The screen cut to a tight shot of the photo above the title ("The Beardless Wonders of Film Making"), and there was 16-year-old Sanderson peering through the viewfinder of a Super 8 camera, alongside Abrams, Matt Reeves and festival organizer Gerard Ravel.
"A friend texted me and said, 'You're on Kimmel.' And I go, 'What are you talking about?' recalls Sanderson. His name wasn't mentioned, but Sanderson says he understands. "Matt and J.J. have worked together professionally," collaborating on the TV series "Felicity" and the film "Cloverfield," "so there's a story there," he says.
Gerard Ravel, J.J. Abrams, Matt Reeves and Mark Sanderson (left to right).
Sanderson's name wasn't in the article, either, unless one counts the photo caption, but when it appeared in the paper's Calendar section shortly after the fest, his classmates at Santa Monica High School (aka Samohi) took notice.
"People were saying, 'Hey, man. You're in the paper,'" recalls Sanderson, who screened his 28-minute martial arts film "The Last Silent Swordsman" at the fest. "I said, 'What?' I look in the L.A. Times and, sure enough, 'Holy crap!' To be in the Calendar when you're 16 is like, wow!"
"These kids that were coming up to Mark were people we didn't even know," says Raj Makwana, who played an evil henchman in "Swordsman." "It was really weird."
The L.A. Times highlighted Abrams as the star of the fest, but in the article Ravel made clear he had big plans for all its participants. CAA had scouted this year's event and Disney Studios had expressed interest in promoting the next year's edition, he said. The filmmakers had signed "exclusive" management contracts with his Word of Mouth Productions, and he planned to strike a 35mm print of their shorts and tour the country with it, like he had done previously with surf films.
"I want to mold these film makers like a military organization because I'm a perfectionist," said Ravel in the Times article. "What I'm putting them through now is basic training."
It's unclear what the training consisted of beyond orders to refer all inquiries to him. Daniel Krishel and future "Super 8" cinematographer Larry Fong, who both had films in the fest, don't remember signing contracts with Ravel. But Sanderson was able to dig up a copy of his ("I save everything," he says), and it turns out that it was merely a 90-day non-exclusive license agreement for his film.
In the end, Ravel never got chance to lead his troops into battle. The next edition of the festival never happened, nor did the national tour with the 35mm print.
"I forgot where it ended," Sanderson says. "After the big hoopla, I don't know what roadblocks he ran into."
Perhaps Ravel came to the realization that while people around the country would shell out money to see the world's top surfers in action up on the big screen, they weren't exactly plotzing to see a grainy blow-up of no-budget amateur films. Besides, with the home video market taking off, touring the country with a celluloid print was quickly become an antiquated distribution model for niche films.Ravel subsequently turned his attention to his company NSI Video, which produced and distributed skateboarding and surf videos.
The failure of Ravel's grand plans didn't slow down the teen filmmakers. The Times article caught the attention of director Steven Spielberg, who had his reps hire Reeves and Abrams to clean his own teenage 8mm films and repair the splices for $300. What Spielberg handed over weren't prints struck from negatives, but the original reversal film that had passed through the camera. In other words, he was entrusting two 15-year-olds he had never met with the only existing copies of his films.
"It was insane," said Abrams on "Jimmy Kimmel Live." "It was like giving us the Mona Lisa and saying, 'Will you clean this?' And dogs are walking past it and siblings [as it's] on the floor of our bedroom. I wanted to steal a frame, because it said 'Written and directed by Steve Spielberg.' And I was like, 'Come on, we have to,' and Matt's like, 'No!' So we didn't."
While Sanderson and Reeves remain good friends to this day, the duo had dissolved their production company several years earlier to concentrate on individual projects.
"There was no particular reason [for the split]," says Sanderson, who formed a new production company (Titan Productions) with another friend, James Baumgarten, and printed up a batch of new stationary. "You start making movies together and I guess you sort of go, 'I'd like to take a stab at doing this myself.'"
Nonetheless, they still worked together in theater productions at school and helped out on each other's projects. Sanderson played a small part in Reeves' "Raging Bull"-esque boxing movie "The Loser," while Reeves co-starred as the chief of police in Sanderson's 45-minute spoof of the 1970s cop show "Ironside," which screened during lunch in the Humanities Center at Samohi in 1983.
Palisades resident the late Bert Convy in game show mode.
"I never helped on J.J.'s stuff, but if I was around helping on Matt's film, J.J. would be there," Sanderson recalls. "There was all this intermingling of filmmakers."
Over at Palisades High School, Abrams was building a reputation as a force to be reckoned with. In addition to making Super 8 films, he also found time to co-compose the score and sound effects for the low-budget 1982 sci-fi/horror film "Nightbeast" and star as Tevye in the school's production of "Fiddler on the Roof," which also featured "High Voltage" star Adam Rosefsky as student revolutionary Perchik, a part originated on Broadway by their friends' dad, actor/game show host Bert Convy.
Alice Krige's demonic latex stand-in from "Ghost Story" (1981).
Abrams was also proving himself to be a master networker. While he never communicated directly with Spielberg at the time, he wasn't shy about reaching out to other cinematic heroes, such as legendary makeup artist Dick Smith ("The Exorcist," "Altered States").
"Both J.J. and I were in contact with Dick Smith," Fong says. "That's why we had to mention ["Dick Smith's Do-It-Yourself Monster Make-Up Handbook"] in 'Super 8.' I think I wrote him and he said it's easier to just call, so we'd call [with questions] and he'd say, 'Get a piece of paper. I'm going to be talking fast.' He'd talk to anyone, any time of the day. J.J., of course, took it a step further by meeting him several times, including one time when Smith had a clearing out of his basement [in upstate New York]." Abrams, who was attending Sarah Lawrence College in Yonkers, NY, at the time, "bought a whole bunch of his props and he was nice enough to buy something for me and give it to me as a gift, which was the 'Ghost Story' (1981) naked torso of Alice Krige," Fong laughs. "I still have that actual prop. It's rotting, sadly, because latex foam rubber always does that."
Fong says Abrams also concocted a documentary film project to use as a vehicle to meet another makeup master, Rick Baker, who had recently won an Oscar for 1981's "An American Werewolf in London."
"J.J. called Baker and said, 'I'm doing a piece on you. Can I come visit you in your studio?'" Fong recalls. "I said, 'How do you think up this stuff? I can't believe you met Rick Baker. It's so unfair.'"
After graduating from Samohi, Sanderson set out to make his first feature-length Super 8 film, "The Party Crashers of '65," a period comedy with 30 speaking parts, including ones for Reeves and another longtime classmate and collaborator Chad Savage (son of prolific TV writer Paul Savage), who died memorably in his 8th grade project "Dictator of Death," taking an imaginary bullet and falling off a wall with a packet of ketchup squeezed to his chest.
But as production dragged on, various members of the cast and crew moved away for college, including star Ian Murray, the grandson of comedian Jan Murray.
"We had to do reshoots and finish the film during spring and summer breaks," says Sanderson , who stayed at home and took classes through UCLA Extension and at Santa Monica College. "I'd go, 'I know you're going to hate me, but I've got to shoot these pick-ups of you acting to nobody because they're not here.'"
In the fall of 1986, Sanderson was accepted into UCLA's School of Film & Television. Reeves ended up across town in town in the film program at USC, where he cast Sanderson as a waiter in his thesis film "Mr. Petrified Forest." Sanderson also starred in Reeves' short "The Last Laugh" as a man who refuses to smile at a clown's increasingly desperate antics, until the clown finally shoots himself. Reeves returned the favor for Sanderson, playing Death in his UCLA Project One short "Regrets."
Four years prior to Sanderson's arrival at UCLA, Fong had tried to get into the film program there, but was rejected.
"I was thinking, 'How is this even going to happen? Maybe it's just a stupid dream,'" Fong recalls.
The son of a dentist, Fong had no family connections in the entertainment industry, and none of his neighbors in Rolling Hills, Calif., an hour south of L.A., were in the business, either. He decided to do responsible thing and finish up his undergraduate studies at UCLA by earning a degree in linguistics. But the filmmaking bug wouldn't go away, and a few years later he enrolled in the graduate film program at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, where his classmates included future top Hollywood directors Zack Snyder, Tarsem Singh and Michael Bay.
Throughout this time, Fong stayed in touch with Abrams.
"He'd always call up and say, 'Hey, let's have lunch,'" Fong says. "I never really knew why, to tell you the truth," he laughs. "We'd hang out for a little bit. We didn't really do anything. It just went on and on. I'd see him once or twice a year."
Back in Los Angeles on a break from his senior year at Sarah Lawrence in New York, Abrams ran into his old friend Jill Mazursky, the daughter of writer/director Paul Mazursky ("Down & Out in Beverly Hills," etc.), and the two decided to collaborate on a movie treatment, which Abrams' father then showed to Disney Studios head Jeffrey Katzenberg. Disney bought it, the tyro scribes penned the script, and in 1990 it was released as "Taking Care of Business," starring James Belushi and Charles Grodin. That same year, Abrams sold a script he wrote solo, "Regarding Henry."
"I went to New York when they were shooting and I went on the ["Regarding Henry"] set," Sanderson says. "It was the Pan-Am Building and I saw Harrison Ford. It was like this big expensive film, and he was paid $400,000 for the script."
Around this time, Sanderson teamed up with Greg Grunberg, a member of the Palisades crowd who had known Abrams since kindergarten, to write an action film script. While it generated interest from a high profile actor, it never sold. Nonetheless, "it was an exciting time," Sanderson says. "Everybody was coming up through the ranks doing their stuff."
Grunberg was subsequently given a small part in Reeves' directorial debut "The Pallbearer" (1996), starring David Schwimmer and Gwyneth Paltrow, and he went on to be a regular in the TV series "Felicity" (1998-2002), co-created by Abrams and Reeves, and "Alias" (2001-2006), created by Abrams, before being cast as one of the leads in "Heroes" (2006-2010).
Several of the Samohi filmmaking gang have also been involved in Abrams and Reeves' professional projects, including Lawrence Trilling, who served as a producer and sometime director on "Felicity" and "Alias" and now fills the same role on NBC's "Parenthood," and Savage, who was a co-producer on "Felicity," "Alias" and, more recently, "Friday Night Lights" (2007-2011).
After graduating from the Art Center College of Design, Fong quickly found work as a cinematographer shooting commercials and music videos, including R.E.M.'s award-winning clip for "Losing My Religion" (1991), directed by former classmate Tarsem Singh. But work in film and television was elusive.
"You go to film school because you want to do films, but I couldn't get arrested shooting an indie for free anywhere," Fong laments. "In a dozen years shooting, I did two tiny independent films. No one was interested in me. I was thinking, 'Who am I going to work with in film? I'm never going to work with Scorsese or Spielberg or any of those people?' Then my agent would say things like, 'It's going to happen with someone you know, like your old friends.' And I'd say, 'What are you talking about?' Then it turns out it's exactly true."
An image from the movie "300," shot by Larry Fong.
Fong's first professional collaboration with Abrams came in the mid '90s, when Abrams tapped him to shoot a Japanese Coca -Cola commercial he was co-directing. In 2004, Abrams approached him about shooting the pilot for the TV series "Lost" in Hawaii.
"He said, 'I know you don't want to do TV, but I have a script. Is there any way you just might want to shoot it?'" Fong remembers. "I said, 'Oh, yes!'" he laughs.
Two years later, Snyder, who had worked with Fong on numerous commercials, hired him to shoot his second feature film directorial effort, "300" (2006), and the pair went on to collaborate on "Watchmen" (2009) and "Sucker Punch" (2011).
For the most part, Sanderson forged his own path. After graduating from UCLA in 1989, he spent the next six years working as waiter while trying to catch the elusive big break. He wrote scripts alone and with Andrew Roperto, with whom he co-founded the sketch comedy group The Amazing Onionheads, which self-produced a comedy pilot and recorded a novelty song ("Down with VEG") that got airplay on Dr. Demento's radio show.
Finally, in 1995, Sanderson waited his last table when he landed a gig as a staff writer on the MTV dating game show "Singled Out." In 1997, he co-wrote and co-produced the low-budget feature "Stingers," co-starring Seymour Cassel. The following year, his script for the WW2 coming of age drama "I'll Remember April" was put into production with director Bob Clark ("A Christmas Story") and co-stars Pat Morita and Haley Joel Osment, after languishing in development for several years.
If the passage of time weighed on Sanderson, the feeling was reinforced when the producers announced the project in the trades in 1996 and erroneously listed his age as 26.
"I said, 'I'm 30.' They said, 'Twenty-six sounds better.'" Sanderson says.
Not all of the teen auteurs went on to have careers in show business.
Krishel was in the film program for all four years at Beverly Hills High School, which would occasionally feature guest lectures by industry figures, such as director Sydney Pollack. But while he says making films "was a fun thing to do," he decided to pursue a career in law. Today, he's an attorney with his own practice in Woodland Hills, Calif., handling matters involving entertainment, real estate, labor, general business law.
Similarly, "High Voltage" star Adam Rosefsky took a few theater classes in college, but he says "it wasn't my calling." Today, he lives on the East Coast and works in biometrics sales, involving fingerprint and iris recognition technology.
It sounds like James Bond movie or "Mission Impossible."
"Yeah, except I can't watch those anymore," says Rosefsky, "because they look so fake to me now."
The real life advances in technology over the last three decades have not gone unnoticed by the Ravel's former charges. Sound is recorded eighteen frames before the image on Super 8mm film, so Sanderson would have to instruct his actors to wait a few beats after he called action before starting their lines. Film came in 50-foot cartridges that ran for 2.5 to 3 minutes (depending on whether one shot at 24 or 18 frames-per-second) and could cost close to $10 each.
"It was expensive for us, so we had to be almost damn sure that we rehearse a scene enough that it would be close to be the take," Sanderson observes. "Then we'd have to ship off the film to get processed, then we'd watch it and go, 'That one thing was a mistake, but it's good enough. Let's move on.'"
In the early '80s, decent Super 8 equipment could only be found in a handful of specialty camera shops or ordered over the phone from New York. Today, high def movie cameras are built into every smart phone, and video editing software is bundled with every new computer. Young filmmakers can do endless takes and review them instantly.
But high pixel counts, instant access and the ability to edit on a laptop at Starsbucks don't necessarily make for better films.
"The image is good, but I don't see the story or the acting or the originality or anything -- a fraction of what I saw when J.J. was making disaster films in Super 8 in high school," Fong says. "So how do you explain that? I'm not sure."
It could be that the proliferation of idiot-proof digital tools has diluted and obscured the pool of quality work. Or perhaps a generation conditioned to expect instant gratification doesn't have the stamina or the attention span to develop their craft. One thing is for sure: it has robbed today's young filmmakers of the romantic buzz Sanderson and his friends used to feel as a small band of artistes on the fringe of jock-dominated school culture, pining for the next issue of "Super 8 Filmmaker" magazine and the mysterious techniques it would reveal.
But Makwana was grateful to have today's crop of digital tools at his disposal earlier this year when he set out to create a cover and design the website for "33 Days," lead singer Bill See's memoir about a hand-to-mouth North American tour with their band Divine Weeks in 1987.
"Back in the day, I don't know how the hell I would've done it," says Makwana, who was Divine Weeks' guitarist. "These tools are helping us now get these and other creative projects out," as well as promote them via social media. "I wish we had them back then to make 'Swordsman.'"
Although Makwana was happy to help Sanderson with his films, his passion was music. But when Divine Weeks broke up in 1992 after releasing three independent albums, he left behind the gypsy life of a musician. Today, he has a wife, a six-year-old son and a straight job as the president and controller of a real estate services company, but he got a taste of his old life back in May when he and See played a few of the band's songs at a book release event at Book Soup in West Hollywood, and there are tentative plans for more promotional performances.
Of the others involved in "Swordsman, one is a lawyer and another is aerospace engineer. Festival organizer Ravel is now a real estate agent in Hermosa Beach, Calif. He did not respond to requests for an interview, but on his Facebook page he posted about providing the "Kimmel" producers with the newspaper article, hanging out in the show's green room and reconnecting with Abrams.
Not everyone appreciates the significance of his accomplishments.
"I went to Venice High to talk to my [teacher] friend's film class and they said, 'Have you made any big movies?'" Sanderson says. "I thought, 'Do you know how hard it is? Never mind. I thought I'd have a three-picture deal, too.'"
The pot at the end of the rainbow for screenwriters is not what it was back in the late '80s and early '90s, when people like Shane Black and Joe Eszterhas were making mult-million-dollar script sales right and left, but Sanderson is okay with it.
"I'm very happy to get paid to put words on paper," says Sanderson, who shares his philosophical musings about screenwriting in his blog My Blank Page. "I still have that wide-eyed kid inside of me that gets excited about being on a set and thinks, 'Oh, my gosh, this is for real.' I don't take it for granted."
For part one of The Real Kids of "Super 8," click here.
You can also read my Filmmaker Magazine interview with Super 8 film festival founder Gerard Ravel.
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.
Historically, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) has embraced changed with all the speed and enthusiasm of the Vatican or the Daughters of the American Revolution. Aside from a few minor tweaks here and there (e.g., the addition of the Best Animated Feature category in 2001), its awards lineup has been relatively static for the past seventy years, especially compared to the TV Academy, which alters and adds Emmy categories with regularity. But when AMPAS took the bold step of doubling the number of Best Picture nominees from five to ten in 2009, it may have been an indication that its capacity for change was, well, changing.
On Tuesday night at AMPAS' "Cinematography in the Digital Age" event at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills, Academy executive director Bruce Davis said that the pervasive use of computer technology has inspired the organization to reexamine all its awards categories and ask two vital questions: "Is this going to make sense at all in ten years?" and "Is this going to be a category that even ought to continue to exist?"
"I don't want to scare anybody here tonight," Davis told the crowd, "but it is a time for very serious looks at what we're doing in all kinds of disciplines."
The most obvious issue is the diminishing distinction between animated films, most of which are now made digitally, and "live action" films that make heavy use of computer-generated visual effects, which are animations by any other name, created with the same tools and techniques.
If the line between live action and animation continue to blur, "then there's really not much point in having an Animation category," Davis said, "and we'd like to keep [it]."
According to Oscar rules, to be eligible for the Best Animated Feature award, "a significant number of the major characters must be animated, and animation must figure in no less than 75 percent of the picture's running time." Director James Cameron estimated that his 2010 Best Picture-winner "Avatar" was 60% CG animation and 40% live action, which is edging close to the limit. But the rules also stipulate that movement and characters' performances be created using a frame-by-frame technique, and "Avatar" used motion capture of live actors to power its animated figures.
Davis said even actors who thought their categories would be spared the impact of the digital revolution "have woken up to fact that we as Academy voters may be asked to evaluate two very different kinds of performances in the next year." One is the traditional performance recorded by a camera; the other is the motion capture performance, "which is really a collaborative effort between himself and a team of technicians who have the ability to... change the nature of that performance," Davis said. "They can slow down a gesture [or] supply a fleeting facial expression that really wouldn't have been there with just the actor there by himself."
If any Oscar categories are altered prior next year's awards, it's unlikely it'll happen on Davis' watch. He's set to retire from the Academy on June 30th, 2011, after 30 years with the organization.
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).
My sister-in-law couldn't believe Lt. Charles "Chick" Hennesey was screaming in her face -- or, more accurately, Jackie Cooper, the man who played the character on "Hennesey" (1959-62), a CBS series she remembered fondly from childhood as a favorite of her parents.
It was sometime in the mid '70s. She had been walking across the USC campus on her way to class when she inadvertently walked into a scene Cooper was directing for a TV series (most likely "The Rockford Files" or "Quincy"). The area was not cordoned off. No production assistants were strategically stationed to stop her. So when Cooper angrily asked her if she knew how much money the blown shot had cost them, she yelled right back, something along the lines of, "Hey, bub, I go to school here! Know how much that costs?!" Cooper told her to get the hell out of there. "Which I did because, you know, I had to get to class," she says.
The incident was the first thing my sister-in-law thought of when she heard Cooper died last week at the age of 88. In a way, it's fitting, given how his behavior was reminiscent of the role cited in most of the obituary headlines -- blustery Daily planet editor Perry White, which he played in a quartet of "Superman" films starring the late Christopher Reeve.
The first thing I thought of when I heard of Cooper's passing was a photo that's been with me for nearly 20 years, jammed in series of desk drawers with old birthday cards, canceled checks and orphaned computer cords, too inconsequential to treat with care, too weird to throw out. It shows him leaning over pioneering film producer Hal Roach. On other side of Roach is Cesar Romero, best known as The Joker from TV's "Batman" (1966-68). Laurel & Hardy imitators lurk in the background.
The date was January 12th, 1992. The occasion was a 100th birthday party for Roach, who wouldn't actually turn 100 for another two days. Laurel & Hardy (Jeffrey Weissman and Bevis Faversham) were there because Roach produced dozens of films starring the comedy duo. I always figured Cesar Romero was there because, well... back then it seemed like he would show up for the opening of a tuna can. But it turns out that Roach produced his TV series "Passport to Danger" (1954-56).
The event was held in the assembly hall of the Motion Picture & Television Country House and Hospital in Woodland Hills, Calif. Roach didn’t room there with other aged industryites, most if not all of whom were younger than he was. He lived alone in his house in Bel Air. But he did have a personal connection to the facility: it was built and run by the Motion Picture & Television Fund, a charitable organization he established with Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks Sr., Cecil B. DeMille and other Hollywood heavyweights in 1921 to aid industry members in need. By 1992, Roach was the sole survivor of its founders. He had also outlived both of his children and many of the kids in his "Our Gang" comedy shorts (later repackaged for TV under the title "The Little Rascals"), including Carl "Alfalfa" Switzer, Billie "Buckwheat" Thomas, Matthew "Stymie" Beard and Darla Hood.
As Roach was about to enter the party, he was greeted by Anita Garvin, a full-time resident of the facility who played Laurel's shrewish wife in a numerous films. He then walked into the room under his own power -- slowly -- and was seated in a chair at the back of the room. Charlton Heston showed up to pay his respects. So did B-movie actress Marie Windsor, whose credits include "Cat-Women of the Moon," produced by my wife's great uncle, the late Al Zimbalist.
As the organizers prepared to serenade Roach with "Happy Birthday," people crowded into the room, craning their necks to see him. On my left was a surprisingly tall Dan Aykroyd, who was playing Roach's silent film-producing rival Mack Sennett in the "Chaplin" biopic starring Robert Downey Jr. that would be released later that year. A foot or two away was Micky Dolenz, who had starred in the TV series "Circus Boy" (1956-57) as a preteen before going on to gain fame as a member of The Monkees.
I looked to my right and noticed a short middle-aged man had materialized in front of me. Dressed in a skin-tight jeans and T-shirt combo, showing off a tight, muscular frame, he was accompanied by an attractive younger woman who could've been his girlfriend, his daughter or his assistant. Looking at him, I couldn't help but think of "buffed monkey," a nickname friends had bestowed upon a similarly short and muscular high school classmate.
After studying the man's face for a moment, I realized it was "Baretta" star Robert Blake, who played Mickey in "Our Gang" comedy from 1939 to 1944. He looked uncomfortable, like he wanted to pace the floor, but the crush of people prevented him. It's unlikely Blake had been running into Roach at parties over the years. Was this the first time in decades he was confronting this living ghost from his ghastly childhood, conjuring up memories of brutal abuse at the hands of his alcoholic father who mercilessly pressured him to support the family? ("Being locked in the closets, and beat up, and burned, and sexual stuff...." Blake once said. "I mean, most people like me end up on death row, or in the graveyards, or in prison.")
There's no evidence suggesting Blake had any reason to resent Roach directly. The same cannot be said of Cooper.
Like Blake, Cooper had done a stint in "Our Gang," beginning in 1929. In 1931, Roach loaned out the 9-year-old Cooper to Paramount to star in the film "Skippy" for $25,000, paying the young actor his contractual rate of $50 a week and pocketing the difference. The film gave Cooper the title for his 1982 autobiography “Please Don’t Shoot My Dog,” a plea he made when, in a ploy to get him to cry for a scene, his grandmother had his dog dragged off-set and shot by a security guard. (Not surprisingly, Cooper was adamant that his own four children stay out of show business until they were adults.) The deadly shot was faked, the dog was unhurt, and the film became a smash critical and commercial success, propelling Cooper to superstardom and earning him an Oscar nomination for Best Actor, making him the youngest person ever to be nominated for the award. He eventually lost, but the film’s director Norman Taurog -- a onetime child actor who was Cooper’s uncle -- took home an Oscar for Best Director. Roach subsequently sold Cooper’s contract to MGM, where the towheaded moppet starred in a series of hit films with the gruff and bearish Wallace Beery, including “The Champ” (1931) and “Treasure Island” (1934).
If Cooper harbored any ill-will towards Roach, he didn’t show it at the party. But a person who makes it to 100 tends to inspire a certain amount of awe and curiosity. What's his secret? How'd he last this long? It certainly wasn't because he was a health nut. Roach was a chubby man who was reportedly smoked and drank well into his 90s. At 99, he still went to the racetrack regularly and had a girlfriend. On top of that, his skin was remarkably smooth and taut. That alone would inspire respect and admiration in Hollywood, but, as Noah Cross (John Huston) said in "Chinatown" (1974), even politicians, ugly buildings and whores all get respectable if they last long enough.
Roach's reputation was less stellar back in 1937, when he partnered with Vittorio Mussolini, the son of Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, to form R.A.M. (short for Roach and Mussolini) Pictures. (Click here for a vintage Time Magazine article on the partnership.) Roach received assurances from the dictator that Italy wasn't planning to impose sanctions on Jews, but people in Hollywood didn't buy it. The backlash moved Roach to back out of the deal, but he reportedly displayed an autographed portrait of the dictator in his home up until his death from pneumonia on November 2, 1992, two and a half months shy of his 101st birthday. Fortunately for Roach, that small corner of his history was all but ignored in his obituaries, which instead focused on his legacy as a film pioneer.
Cooper wasn't quite as lucky. Looking at his sixty-year show business career that included an Oscar nomination as a child actor, lead roles in several successful TV series, including "The People's Choice" (1955-58), and an Emmy-winning career as a TV director ("MASH," "The White Shadow"), many news editors zeroed in on his relatively minor supporting role in a series of comic book movies and decided it would make the most compelling lead.
Me? I chose the time he showed up at some old guy's birthday party.
NEXT: A Q&A with Jeffrey Weissman, the man who played Stan Laurel at Roach's birthday party, as well as George McFly in the "Back to the Future" sequels.
For the second time, the 91-year-old screen legend had told me he was planning to return to the stage in a one-man show, and for the second time, I told him he should revisit his role as Randle P. McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (which he had played on Broadway back in 1964) -- this time with an all over-80 cast.
It was the fall of 2008, and I had come to Douglas' Beverly Hills home to interview him for an article I was writing for The Hollywood Reporter about the beginnings of runaway production in the 1950s. I had been there a half hour. I had the quotes I needed. Yet there I sat, repeating the same joke.
I could see it in his eyes. Douglas must be thinking, "Who the hell does he think he is?! This punk, this pisher, wasting my time! " It was as if he was hissing the words through clenched teeth, as over the top as Frank Gorshin's famous impression of the actor. He was Spartacus, dammit! He'd dined with presidents and banged Joan Crawford!
The way I remembered it, anyway. But listening to the recording of my visit more than two years later, I discover that my Cuckoo's Nest crack got laughs from the two relatively young female publicists in the room and, regardless of what Douglas might've thought of the joke, he played along like the old pro he was.
"That would be a good show to do, because it's one set," said Douglas of my proposed revival. "I'm going to do it. You gave me a good idea."
If my memories of the day are darker than they deserve to be, it's due to the lingering feeling that, transfixed by the allure of fame, I had overstayed my welcome.
I had a similar feeling about Douglas as I watched him present the Best Supporting Actress Oscar on “The 83rd Academy Awards” telecast last month. The next morning, publications from around the globe declared that the 94-year-old actor had stolen the show when he went wildly off-script, flirting with actresses a third his age, teasing Hugh Jackman and performing a will-he-or-won’t he routine with the envelope. I too was charmed by Douglas, but after the third unsuccessful attempt to ease him off the stage, I was half-expecting him to break out into "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going" from Dreamgirls.
On one level, it was inspiring that a hunched and wrinkled nonagenarian not only had the wherewithal to walk across the expansive stage of the Kodak Theater and perform under blinding lights, but the cojones and the charisma to command the rapt attention of tens of millions of viewers worldwide armed with nothing but a cane and a handful of seemingly-improvised wisecracks. But if a celebrity between the ages of 8 and 80 had been similarly hogging the spotlight during someone else’s big awards moment, pundits would be making unflattering comparisons to Kanye West stealing the microphone from Taylor Swift at the MTV Video Music Awards in 2009. Of course, Douglas' manner was relaxed and engaging, not aggressive and confrontational like West’s, and, besides, it’s a universal truth that otherwise inappropriate actions are somehow charming if performed by infants or the aged ("Did you see him try to pinch the waitress' butt? How cute is that?").
What was most unsettling to me was the idea that after all the years of fame and acclaim, Douglas still needs it -- and us -- so badly. He still has something to prove, whether the audience is millions of TV viewers or a single reporter, as I found out when I rang the doorbell of the actor's home just south of Sunset Blvd. two and a half years earlier.
When I heard of Elizabeth Taylor's passing this morning, my first thoughts were not of the striking violet-eyed beauty she possessed in her youth, her movies (let's face it, she didn't make too many exceptional ones) or even her stormy marriages to Richard Burton and six other men that made her a tabloid icon. No, it was the memory of holding an almost-empty bottle of Demerol, the kind you stick a syringe into. The patient's name on the label was "Mrs. Sen. John Warner." It was dated circa 1979. Taylor was married to Senator John Warner of Virginia from 1976 to 1982. That's right, I was holding Elizabeth Taylor's Demerol: a macabre piece of celebrity memorabilia representative of the pain that came with her glamor and her fame.
The bottle belonged to a man named B.J., who had appropriated it during his stint as one of Taylor's assistants in New York City in late '70s, a time when she was so heavy she was portrayed by John Belushi in drag on "SNL," munching on a chicken leg.
B.J. showed it to me in 1989, when we were working together at the Sunset Blvd. offices of Celebrity Service, which provided clients not with high-end escorts or limos, as some confused callers assumed, but contact information (agent, publicist, etc.) for film and TV stars and other notable public figures.
Click the image to see the article from Film Threat Magazine.
The information was stored on tens of thousands of White Out-caked 3"x5" cards (already an embarrassingly outdated information storage system at the time), dating back to the 1940s. If you got bored, you could look on the back of a file and see what hotel Cary Grant stayed in when he was filming To Catch a Thief on the French Riviera in the summer of 1954 or call Joey Bishop's home phone number and see if it was still good.
As we rifled through the files, B.J. would regale with stories of his days in New York, including tidbits about people like Taylor and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, as well as tales of weekends spent at gay sex clubs in the Meat Packing District, like the one about the time he stepped into a cab after long "shift" at the Mine Shaft and the driver looked in the rearview mirror and said, "Hey, buddy, what's that stuff on your cap?"
I was fresh out of UCLA Film School at the time, but I'd seen and heard enough not to be shocked by mere bathhouse debauchery. If anything robbed me of my innocence, it's what I came to call Celebrity Festivals of Death.
Whenever news organizations caught wind that a celebrity might be dead or at least packing their bags for The Hereafter, our phones would light up with calls for their rep, as well of those of others who had worked with them, loved them or, it seemed, once breathed the same air.
Eager to protect their "scoop," the intrepid journalists from Entertainment Tonight, Variety, National Enquirer, Reuters, et al, wouldn't actually tell us the star in question had passed, but after the fifteenth call in a row for Frank Sinatra or Richard Pryor, we'd catch on and ask, "So . . . did he die?" to which they'd typically reply, "We're not sure." Thus the responsibility of confirming the death often fell in our laps.
Actress Rebecca Schaeffer.
My first Festival of Death did not involve someone who was a true celebrity -- not in life, anyway. It was Rebecca Schaeffer, a 22-year-old actress who was shot and killed by a mentally ill fan in July 1989. Suddenly, the quiet of the afternoon was broken with a mad flood of calls for this girl who had done little more than co-star opposite Pam Dawber in the short-lived series "My Sister Sam" (1986-88). What's up with that? The first thing we had to do was confirm that her contact information was current, so we called up her agent's office and asked, "Do you still handle her?" We had no idea she'd been murdered. I can't recall for sure, but there's a chance her agent didn't know either. As information about what happened slowly emerged over the next few hours, a pall settled over the office. It was heartbreaking.
John Candy on the set of 'Wagons East.'
Oftentimes, the agent, manager or publicist in question knew very well that their client was dead, yet they denied it anyway. I remember calling up John Candy's agents at CAA on the March morning in 1994 when word of his death began to filter back from Durango, Mexico, where the 43-year-old actor had been shooting the movie Wagons East. As gently as possible, I asked if Candy had passed. "Um... he's not feeling well," replied the agent's young female assistant. It's possible that they were trying to make sure Candy's family and associates heard the news from them or another friendly source first, instead of a journalist calling for a reaction. ("I'm sorry. You didn't know? He's dead.") But agents' assistants know that the truth won't set them free, it will only get them in trouble, so they lie as a matter of course.
Bob Hope enjoying breakfast.
Usually, the is-he-or-isn't-he-dead drama unfolds behind the scenes and, more often than not, the rumor turns out to be false. But occasionally the public is invited to view the festivities. In 1998, the Associated Press inadvertently posted its pre-prepared obit for Bob Hope on the internet, and the "news" quickly found its way to congressman Bob Stump, who announced Hope's death on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives. Back in Los Angeles, the offices of Celebrity Service were getting slammed with calls from frantic journalists, convinced that the 95-year-old comic legend was already reading his wisecracks off of cue cards in the Great Beyond. I called Hope Enterprises and Linda Hope came on the line and told me her father was alive and had "just finished eating breakfast in his Toluca Lake (Calif.) home." Translation: Not only is Old Ski Nose still breathing, he's not in the hospital being fed through a tube.
With the TMZ-ing of celebrity reporting in recent years, this might all seem a little quaint now, but it affected me enough that I was moved to write an article about it, titled Celebrity Death Feeding Frenzy. If it had been written within the last ten years, it definitely would've mentioned Taylor, who's probably been the subject of several false death rumors during the last two months alone, as she lingered in the hospital. And as sad as her predicament was, you can bet the journalists chasing the story were buzzing on adrenalin, just as they would be covering a plane crash, a war or a similar large-scale tragedy.
The note from Jackie O. (Click to enlarge.)
Taylor had come back from the brink of death so many times -- starting with a bout with pneumonia in 1960 that left her with a tracheotomy scar -- it almost seemed like she could go on forever. But her work lives on, right? And as her friends, family and true blue fans mourn her loss, I'm the jerk writing about her Demerol. I'm sorry. I guess I've just seen too much of the celebrity meat grinder.
As for B.J., he died of AIDS in December of 1989. Given his raucous bathhouse tales and his occasional observation that he was in "the waiting to die period of [his] life," we should've suspected something was up. But he never looked or acted sick until that November, when he went to the hospital with a bad cough and never emerged alive. I inherited his job as the editor of the company's daily newsletter, the Celebrity Bulletin, along with a note from Jackie O that he'd gotten from friend who worked with her at Doubleday Publishing ("Lewis ... I took the Russia book. I'll be careful. Thanks, Jackie.") I scoured his desk for the bottle of Demerol, but it was nowhere to be found.
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.