Sunday, April 20, 2014

#4. Plates, stories, and "The Last American Hero"

#4.  License plates, stories, and "The Last American Hero."

Hollywood talking license plates I have known.  One of my faves was on a vintage Caddy convertible, maybe a '57 or '58, driven up and down Laurel Canyon by a tall, elegant woman in her 30s.  The plate read "I DON'T."

Another was on an ancient but immaculate Rolls Royce.  Its plate: WANKER.  This is blighty talk for masturbator.  I don't think you can get this one any longer.

On the back of well-known editor Tina Hirsch's car: "IN SYNCH."

Frank Zappa lived at the top of Laurel Canyon and drove a BMW sedan.  It's plate: "YO MAMMA."

And speaking of mammas, a Toyota van driven by a mother on her way to school with five kids.  Her plate: "BUT MOM."

Troubadour nightclub owner Doug Weston used to park his lowered '46 two toned brown Chevrolet out in front of his club.  Its plate: "CHEBBY."  This is probably outski, too.

Another was some car from down in Boy's Town.  It said "SWALLO."  Next case.

And this on a director's little Mercedes coupe: "IQ 180."  Really, dude?

 This on a Rocky wannabe:  "YO ADRIAD."  I love the fact that he got the second hard 'd' in her name to mirror the boxer's plugged busted nose pronunciation.

Finally, my favorite plate story: mine.

For years on my Caddy Seville I had "C F KANE" for Charles Foster Kane, Orson Welles' greatest hit.  One night on my way home from an evening of light debauchery, I pulled up at the stop light at Olympic and LaBrea.  I was right next to a white Corvette, license plate "ROSEBUD!"  I went ape, blowing my horn, trying to point to our license plates, bouncing around, rolling down my window.  The guy -- stricken -- took one look at me and as the light changed, he floored it, laying rubber for half a block.  It was the last ol' Charlie ever saw of his Corvetted Susan Alexander.

But I still have that plate, now adorning a birdhouse.  Along with my "TECTOR" and "LYLE" plates: the Gorch brothers, Ben Johnson and Warren Oates from "The Wild Bunch."  I am looking out at that birdhouse right now.

Yep, I love talking plates.  But also "reader boards"

This one from a western North Carolina gas station.  "My boss told me to change this sign.  So I did."

And years ago, from a strip club in Hollywood called, I believe, The Black Pussycat.  "Stripping tonight -- The Rat Pack starring Peeler Lawford, Fran Sinatra, and Sami Davis, Jr."  I missed that particular night.  But I'm guessing they did it 'their way.'


Now, for extra credit, a few stories about fame.  The first one.

Producer Elmo Williams had just finished post production on his career-capping dream movie for 20th Century Fox.  It was called "Tora, Tora, Tora" about the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941.  Chock-a-block with stars, its multi-million dollar cost was well displayed on the screen; explosions galore, it was state of the art historical re-creation back in the day.  Elmo had been a film editor for years, won the Oscar for "High Noon," a brilliant cutting job by any measure, so this movie moved.

Elmo convinced the Fox brass to premiere the film in his little hometown of Lone Wolf, Oklahoma.  He'd left his family years before, right out of high school, to make his way in show biz, leaving the rest of his siblings back on the ranch.  But Elmo loved his roots and was anxious to go home again, this time in glory.  It's an old story.

So the arrangements were made, airline tickets issued, per diem checks cut, Lone Wolf's single hotel was booked out, car services contacted -- the Hollywood movie circus was on the road.

On opening night, cast crew and executives pulled up in the limos, searchlights carving the sky, this is what it said on the movie theatre marquee: "20th Century Fox Presents the world premiere of 'Tora, Tora, Tora,'


The second one.

Years ago the brilliant character actor Jack Warden was sleeping off a vicious hangover in the Malibu Sheriff's station.  He was shaken awake by a bushy-tailed young cell mate.  "Hey!  Wake up!  Are you Jack Warden the actor?"  Yeah.  I'm Jack Warden.  "Do you know the actress Peggy Ann Garner?"  Well, I know who she is, I know her work.  "Yeah?!" the kid said.  "I fucked her maid!"


My recently departed buddy Warren Miller and I knew this local named Nate.  He was a good actor (you'd know his face) and a really nice guy but an inveterate name-dropper.  One morning at Pupi's, Warren busted him on it.  Nate just laughed.  "Jesus, you think I'm bad, you should hear Pauly Newman!"  From that day forward we called him 'Natey.'


I needn't have worried about the "Last American Hero" producers-slash-writers when I walked into the Fox offices that day.  I figured that if I was already in trouble, I'd just call my new buddy Gene Kelly and we'd dance our way out of it.

Turned out Cutts and Roberts (unlike me) were actual grown ups and beyond the pain.  They had a movie to make.  I turned in my rough first draft and was handed an airline ticket and some cash.  Since the cast and crew had been hired, we were already travel booked and on our way to the stock car tracks of North Carolina.

Wait a minute.  North Carolina?!  I was from North Carolina.  Couldn't we go to Paris or London or someplace I'd never been?  No.  Turns out one of the reasons they'd hired me was I was an actual hillbilly homeboy.  Yeah, great.  Kudzu, red clay, brutal humidity, and fried pork rinds.  The state bird is a ten pound mosquito.

When we got to Charlotte, most of the cast and some of the crew went to the huge hotel bar to drink and celebrate.  I hadn't yet begun my wonderful, grim dance with alcohol for a few years (in Paris no less, you'll read about it later), so I took my suitcase and went up to my room.  Having nothing to do, I set  up my typewriter and went to work.

I had no idea how much time passed but all of a sudden it was deep night outside.  I heard Jeff Bridges and his best bud, Gary Busey coming down the hall, singing.  Director Monty Johnson was right behind them.  I heard him say goodnight to them in his deep baritone radio voice and then, he knocked at my door.  I let him in.  "Where were you, Chow Puppy?"  I pointed to a stack of pages next to my typewriter.

He picked them up, scanning quickly from scene to speech to scene.  "Jesus...Jesus... Jesus...JESUS!  I was quaking when I dared look at him.  But he was smiling.  Big.  "I think we're gonna be all right.  Go to bed, pup.  Call's at 6am."

This was my first day on a big go-picture.  I thought it'd always be like this.  Yeah, right.

The next day, I went out to the location with the company.  And discovered as so many have found out, that being on a set without a set-type job is stunningly boring.

Everyone is running around doing a million different jobs that you can't ascertain any sliver of, bullhorns, telephone pagers, dollies, lights, sound men and mikes and booms and after a few minutes of just being, you realize you are always in someone's way.  Where can I go, what am I doing?  This is so boring.  Get me outta here!

The next day, we developed a pattern that was to last nearly all the movie.

They would shoot all day. When Monty the director got back to the hotel, he'd give me a shot list and a schedule for the next day and tell me what need to be written, re-written, or cut.  Then, the typing troll worked all night.

Early in the morning, I would slide the new pages under Monty's door.

He'd read them over breakfast, give them to the company secretary who would re-type them at about 200 w.p.m on what was then called, I believe, a stencil.  They would crank the new pages onto 3-hole-punch various colored paper chucka chucka chucka into script form, staple them up, and send them out to the locations on a motorcycle to pass out.

As the glorious North Carolina sun rose behind curtains, the vampire screenwriter would be hitting the shower on his way to bed.  

Our last days were in Bristol for the short track Grand National stock car races.  That's what they called NASCAR back then.  The day before, with me looking on at Monty's invitation, they had just shot a solo scene of Jeff (as Junior Jackson), homesick and lonely, going into one of those Record Your Own Voice booths to send to his Momma back home.  This was a scene I had either invented or stolen from Arthur Miller's "The Misfits" and Jeff knocked it out of the park.  I even saw a few quick wipe-away-tears.  I mean, besides my own.

So happy as a clam, I was in bed the next day, shoveling quarters into the mattress-vibrating Magic Fingers and opening and closing the radio-controlled blackout window shades.  Open, closed.  Open, closed.  All while I sang some Beach Boys tune in Magic Finger vibrato, quivering and wavy.  I couldn't get over all this high tech wonderment.

My room phone rang.  My agent, Mike Medavoy!  Jungle-drum word was getting back to Hollywood that I had done a quick and pretty decent job on "The Last American Hero."  Mike had gotten a call from a producer named Eli,  a former Oscar winner back-when, more recently on thinner times.  Eli had just optioned Pete Townsend's Who rock opera "Tommy" and needed a rock and roll-loving screenwriter and -- What?!

The first thing would be to fly to London to meet with manager Chris Stamp (actor Terrance's brother) and The Who, all first class of course and -- What?!

You still love rock and roll, don't you?  Yes!  You haven't cut your pony tail have you?  No!  Is this a job you'd like to try?  Getting it made may be a long shot but I can get you twice your price (called 'quote').

That deaf dumb and blind kid sure plays a mean pinbaaaallll!  WHERE DO I SIGN?!

Stay tuned for London adventures and more general notes on the screenplay.


  1. How Come I had to wait a week to get this ??? Huh?? Run Puppy Run !!
    I'm ready for London... I'm ready for "Kingey" too.. Good Stuff.
    Col Bob

  2. I love reading these and I am looking forward to the next one.

    Your NC nephew,

    1. Sgt. D.E.Haynes, First Cav. Div. (AM)May 1, 2014 at 8:46 AM

      Sgt.W.Kerby USMC

      Looking forward to "Informed Sources" script being re-designated SBU (Sensitive but Unclassified.)

      Sgt. D.E. Haynes, First Cavalry Division (Air Mobile)

  3. Bill - Loving every one of these stories...Now enjoying the southern Utah sunshine in the land of red rocks and many a western film I'm sure you know. Ciao, Chow Puppy...Good Golly Miss Molly Cook

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  7. Wanker. Not you--I mean that great Rolls Royce license plate! How tragic that Rosebud never found out he was idling right next to Citizen Fucking Kane.

    I love your Last American Hero story. Reading about the scene you'd either invented or stolen from The Misfits, I was thinking, "Wow--so Billy actually IS famous." (For anyone else who didn't realize this, Google "Bill Kerby" [not "Billy" {or "Pauly"}]. Esp. see /bill-kerby/ . Fucking Emmy-nominated!!)

  8. The Tora, Tora, Tora marquee made me laugh.

  9. NC state bird and Magic Fingers vibrato tickled me, too.