Sunday, June 1, 2014

#6. Carpenter Harry, Veronica, Les B., and "Hooper"

#6.  Harry the carpenter, Veronica saved, Les hits the jackpot, and my dance with Burt Reynolds for "Hooper."
We will get to Burt and the stuntmen but first (before I forget them), a few stories about show biz in general and trust specifically.

The first is the shortest and, for its two players, the truest.  Before he became a noir star, sullen and slow eyed Robert Mitchum met and married his wife Dorothy back east.  When they came west to Hollywood back in the late Thirties, Mitchum took her up on Mullholland Drive to show her the lights of Los Angeles spread out below. "Stick with me baby," he said.  "You'll be farting through silk."

Only Mitchum...


Veronica Cartwright has been a very good actress since she was a child.  Veronica had been in "The Birds" and "The Children's Hour."  Her sister Angela was in "Make Room for Daddy," "Lost in Space," and "The Sound of Music."  These two women know show business.

In the middle of her career, Veronica had hit a slow patch; happens to the best of them.  It was 1978, her last movie, a big budget remake of "Invasion of the Body Snatchers," had not been released yet, she was living in a little cottage in Beechwood Canyon and was down to her last $45.

That morning she got up, went to the bank and withdrew her money, all of it, and went downtown L.A. to the main flower mart.  Always one with a designer's eye, she walked around, carefully selecting the perfect flowers, not this one, THAT ONE, that's the one, look how great it is with these others.  When she was out of money, she got in her car and drove back home with her flowers.  On Olympic, she noticed she only had a quarter tank of gas left.  But even in L.A. it was more than enough to get home.  For whatever fate awaited her.

Back in her cottage, she arranged the flowers, then rearranged the flowers, then re-rearranged them.  Until they looked perfect.  Then she sat down, lit a cigaret, and thought about her life.  Here she was, about to be thirty, death for many actresses, tapped out, no real job in sight, recently broken up from a long standing relationship.  But, fuck it, it was a beautiful day, she had half a carton of smokes left, and those flowers were absolutely perfect.  In a beam of L.A.'s perpetual sun, she closed her eyes...

The telephone awoke her with a start.  What -- who -- what?!  It was London.

A few months back, she had auditioned for some smarty-pants Brit director who was doing a science fiction movie, an American movie, but over there.  Since Veronica had not heard anything for weeks, she'd pretty much let it go.  Lots of auditions, lots of "they've decided to go in a different direction."  But not this time.

The director on the other end of the phone was Ridley Scott, the movie was "Alien" and she had gotten the part: the only other woman on the deep space probe Nostromo, where 'In space, no one can hear you scream.'

Though only the Show Biz gods could tell you why, Veronica Cartwright believed, trusted, and triumphed.  But like many so-called triumphs, there's always a cockroach somewhere.  See, Veronica had been cast as Ripley, the lead!  Until she got to London and had to switch parts with this young unknown tall drink of water named Sigourney Weaver.  What -- who -- what?!

But still...


Screenwriter Leslie Bohem is one of the nicest, smartest, funniest men I know.  Even when he was a dedicated rock and roller with Bates Motel, Sparks, and Gleaming Spires, he was truly a decent man.  So it is with the greatest pleasure I pass this story to you.

It was the mid-nineties.  Married to long time girlfriend Peggy, Les was in a slow patch of his screenwriting career.  His father Endre, a Hungarian emigre had been a working TV and screenwriter in another era; for years a staff writer/producer on TV's "Rawhide."  So Les learned early to budget his time.

Recently, Les had taken some of it to write a few original scripts (meaning not from a book, short story, play, or God help us, song title) on 'spec' (meaning for free, uncompensated, on your own).

One was called "Daylight," about the catastrophic death of New York's Holland Tunnel.  The other was about the catastrophic birth of a new volcano up in Washington's northern Cascades.  Les was into catastrophes that year.  And births and deaths.  Then, one morning, unknown to him, in his agent's office, things began to heat up.

That afternoon, dead broke, Les was home with three bags of laundry, and no quarters for the machines.  He clawed through the couch cushions and came up with some, Peggy's old bronzed baby shoe for a few more -- let's see, if he doubled up on the sheets and tee shirts, he could just about make it -- and then, finally, he hit a stash of change in a coffee mug they used when they played poker.  Yesss!  As he hoisted the bags, his phone rang.

"Leslie, are you sitting down," his agent asked.  No, but I will.  What happened?

Well, this happened.  When Sylvester Stallone revealed his interest to play the hero in "Daylight," suddenly two studios were interested.  And two others had looked around.  Pretty soon there came two more of the sweetest words a writer can hear: Bidding War.  And now, Les's agent was just about to close a deal for the script.  $750,000!

When word of this got around, suddenly Les's volcano script "Dante's Peak" went into heavy rotation.  It soon sold for a million two.  Les Bohem was back on his way.  And had lots of clean laundry.

As I said earlier, every dog will have his day.  And good dogs will have two!

My friend Richard Compton had a little two bedroom, two bath cottage in the Hollywood Hills, off Laurel Canyon.  It needed work, like most of those houses.  After Richard finished "Macon County Line," a surprise success, he had a couple of bucks squirreled away for a remodel.

Back then, there was one guy, The Guy, in the canyon to do the work.  We knew him as "Harry."  He was to wood what Michelangelo was to marble.  And now in between small part acting gigs.   So Richard hired him -- cash only please  -- forthwith.

Harry at work was slow, methodical, and brilliant.  Nothing seemed to faze him.  Carpenter ants?  He'd smile and take care of it.  Mold?  Didn't matter, in two days it was remediated and gone.  Twenty year old electrical problems?  Harry tore the knob-and-tube out, rewired, and kept on chuggin'.

Since I was over there lots (hiding from a hot summer in Richard's ratty swimming pool), I would see Harry up close and personal.  He was always pleasant, always friendly, but didn't talk much.  Just one of those kind of guys.  He looked like he was about to tell you a really good joke...if he could just remember what it was.

At the end of every work day, sawdust on his pony-tail, he'd come in the living room, fire up a blunt, sit on the couch and look around, making note after note in his head about what he needed for the next day's work.  Three of those, a tube of that, a new sawz-all blade, a bag of ten-pennies, on and on; you could almost see it registering in his mind through the smoke.  Never wrote anything down, didn't have to.

When he was finally done, we were amazed.  Harry'd come in under time, under budget, and, even with his reputation, under praised.  The work was immaculate, the joinery was nearly invisible, the the job was perfect.

But could we make a bank run?  Because he had to leave the next day for Northern California and he wouldn't be back for a while.  We remembered he was an actor but hadn't thought much about it.  He said it was some movie for this young film school director named John, wait, GEORGE Lucas... called "American Graffiti."  And then maybe this other movie Lucas was planning called "Star Wars."

Harrison Ford was (and apparently still is) about the best carpenter wood craftsman I have ever seen.  And I'm sure when Richard sold that little house ten years later, the remodel story probably added another twenty-five grand to the price.  Second bathroom and built-in bookcases by Han Solo!


Years ago, just before John Garfield was supposed to testify before House UnAmerican Activities Committee in New York about his so-called left-leaning past, he decided he'd go back to Brooklyn where he been born and raised.

At this point, Garfield was arguably the biggest movie star in the world.  Women wanted to have him, men wanted to be him; he was Brando before Brando.  Check out "Humoresque" or "The Postman Always Rings Twice" and get back to me.

He caught an #8-Flatbush Ave. bus, thinking to just ride and look.  Through Prospect Park...Lefferts Homestead, Brooklyn Botanical Gardens, the zoo, all the way out to Floyd Bennett Field where a car was waiting to take him back to his hotel.  The next day he would face the rabid commie-hunting committee of slavering weirdos.  But today it was old home week.

Garfield had been on the bus for about twenty minutes with other passengers sneaking peeks at him.  Finally this old Jewish man put down his paper, looked intently at Garfield.  "Julie?  Julie Garfinkle is that you, all grown up?"

Charmed to be remembered by his original name, Garfield nodded.  "Yes.  It's me."

The old man folded his newspaper and smiled.  "So?  Vat's new?"

My friend Carl Gottlieb told me he thought Martin Mull had the best definition of Hollywood: "It's high school with money."                    
I have always loved Hollywood movies about Hollywood.  In my opinion, Gene Kelly's "Singing in the Rain" is at the very top.  Followed by the tragically under-seen "Bofinger" with Steve Martin and Eddie Murphy, "The Bad and the Beautiful" with Kirk Douglas and Lana Turner, "Career," written by Dalton Trumbo among others and staring Dean Martin.  Michael Tolkin's "The Player" directed by Robert Altman should be mandatory viewing for every show biz aspirant who lands at LAX.  Those who drive in, should have to stop at the city limits and look at Richard Rush's "The Stuntman" with Peter O'Toole and Steve Railsback.

And for those who still read, here are a few of my current favorite Hollywood books.

"Lizzie Pepper, Movie Star" by Hillary Liftin.  It is trashy and quick, a nearly fictionalized story of a mega star very much like Tom Cruise and his young love, a beautiful Katie Holmes type.  It's a knowing, smart, and brave book: I imagine the lawyers mud wrestling the bulging insurance riders dealing with possible retaliatory bombing runs from Cruise, Holmes, and of course the ever present Church of Scientology.  If you think you'd like to be famous, this book will give you the full scale Willys as it surely steers you in the opposite direction.

"Le Jet Lag" by Peter Lefcourt is a frantic, hilarious Hollywood book set in and against the Cannes Film Festival where, thank God, everything is going in the wrong direction.  Lefcourt is a really good writer with years of Show Biz experience (see his "The Deal").  One of "Le Jet Lag's" unforgettable characters is an old washed up TV star, playing out his last years in Europe doing cameos in low budget movies.  Somewhere, somehow he has learned to be a very good pickpocket to eat and pay his skeletal rent as he winds his way through this story nearly being recognized by everyone.  Nearly. 


Time passed and one day I got hired to rewrite a script Warners was developing called "The Stuntman."

Tom Rickman had taken a pass at it so it was already in good shape.  I never thought they needed to hire me, but I was grateful.  Since Rush's stuntman movie was finished and released first, we had to find a new title.  Ours was to star Burt Reynolds to be directed by Hal Needham, a legendary stunt-gaffer and Burt's best buddy.  The reason Warners was so high on this project began to assert itself one evening over at Burt's house, our first actual meeting.

There I was, drinking coffee, trying to make light conversation with one of Hollywood's biggest stars, and not doing too well.  He had just finished "Smokey and the Bandit" for Universal which opened as the #2 movie ("Star Wars" was #1) in America for the third straight week.  And Burt was a gross percentage player.  In other words, he got a percentage of the gross take, from dollar one, before the studio taught it to jump through hoops, to roll over and beg.  This is what all stars and star directors and producers get.  So Burt (and maybe even Hal) were already raking it in from "Smokey."

But it turned out that on Burt's old iron-clad contract with Warner Bros, he owed them one last picture, for, maybe, $250,000, whatever...but no gross percentage.  He had "net points," sure, but they never pay off.  In a famous lawsuit about profits to Art Buchwald on the Paramount hit "Coming to America," star Eddie Murphy had famously called them "monkey points."  Net is meaningless in big movie accounting.  For a juicy full accounting of these practices, see the book "Fatal Accounting" about Pierce O'Donnell and Art Buchwald.  Your jaw will be hanging open for days.

Two interesting things happened as I was working on this project.

The first is I got to work part time with Robert Towne, one of (if not THE) greatest screenwriters ever.  I noticed recently, he had a consulting producer credit on "Mad Men."  Maybe that's why it was so good.  Back then, Warners had made some kind of 'house-keeping deal' with him in which they set him and his huge, dreadlocked floor-sweeping Komondor dogs up in a continually remodeled casita next to Clint Eastwood on the lot.

In one of our meetings, Robert (who always seemed aware of an unknown camera angle on him) told me the the first thing he wanted to know about his characters was what they feared.

I was gobsmacked.

It set off a four alarm fire in my brain because, as simple as it sounds, embarrassingly, I had never thought of this.  I ran back to my office and applied this handy dictum to Sonny Hooper, my main man stuntman.  It opened many story doors for me -- then and now -- and as I leafed through what I had already written, it began to rain ideas.  What a day.

The second cool thing that happened was that next to my Warners' office back in the Writers Building, a new bunch settled in: Saul Krugman Productions.

Saul was a fast talking, funny, very opinionated personal manager from New York City who now was contractually linked to character actor Tony Zerbe who worked constantly and screenwriter  Charles Eastman who had just done a Robert Redford motorcycle racing picture called "Big Fauss and Little Halsey."

But mostly then, it was about David Carradine, a huge star from the "Kung Fu" TV show wherein he would talk Buddhism and lounge around like a cat for fifty minutes and then explode and karate kick the shit out of everybody for the last reel.  Saul also was managing Barbara Hershey and Jon Voight, star of "Midnight Cowboy" a massive hit for which he had been paid scale, nominated for an Academy Award, and become the most sought after actor in the business.  He had already made "Deliverance" at the studio for movie star bucks which cemented his career's trajectory.  I either didn't know about his bizarro right wing political beliefs or they hadn't surfaced yet.  But Jon as an actor and a regular guy was...and is...the real deal.

Yet to me, Saul was the most interesting.  He was then in his mid sixties I'd guess, red-faced with a mane of white hair, barefoot in his Italian loafers, he talked like Thelonious Monk played piano.  It never quite made perfect sense, but somehow you got it.  And one afternoon, finally off the phone, he invited me to lunch at the commissary.  Hello, syrup-soaked Monte Cristos!

That day, oddly, was one of the most important of my life because over lunch, Saul told me about the most important day of his life...five years before, back on the mean streets of New York, when he'd had his first heart attack and died.

Nobody had ever talked to me this way before; it made me proud, it made me nervous, it shook me to my core.  Because Saul told me the wondrous details of where he went when he died, what he saw, how he felt.  All the sarcasm and naked ambition was gone, while I looked at him, he simply became who he was.

I am not going to recount the details for you here.  It was Saul's reality-dream and I am sure he is now where he was then.  But he said he'd never known such peace, such beauty, such a profoundly happy feeling.  Right up to the point where someone was yelling at him and pounding his chest.  Saul said he struggled mightily to stay where he was.

But slowly, surely, he was dragged back, looking down on his own racking body, coming to in a speeding ambulance, sirens wailing, EMTs shouting instructions, outside horns honking.

At this point there were tears in his eyes.  "I told you this because I thought you needed to hear it, Chow Puppy."  Then he started his rice pudding.  "God, I love rice pudding," he said.

I did need to hear it, Saul.  More than you know.  Thank you.  And I love rice pudding, too.  Especially the kind with the swollen raisins.


A week later, I flew down to Mexico with my first draft of (new title) "Hooper" where Burt Reynolds was shooting the big budget "Lucky Lady" with Gene Hackman and Liza Minnelli, a period costume romp in speed boats.  On an open ocean.  These comprise three of the hardest things to shoot and apparently it was not a happy set.

Warners arranged for me to hitch down on Gene Hackman's private plane, a sweet little Beechcraft King Air.  For reasons best known to himself, this pissed Hackman off royally.  Part of the tax-dodge reason he even had the plane was to lease it back to the various film companies for serious money.  But every time I'd see him, ol' Gene would give me the stink eye.  And that's serious coming from Popeye Doyle.

The first day, they were all out shooting on the boats so a production assistant dropped me off at Burt's house, a four bedroom three bath Santa Fe style jobbie with open doors just begging to be wandered through.  So I dropped the script on the dining room table, set up my IBM Selectric (more on this little beauty later) and looked around for some books to peruse.  I love to see what people are reading.  But there were none.  So I set off exploring.

Oh, please.  Tell me you wouldn't do the same thing.

The house was as neat and clean as a five star hotel.  I think I was supposed to bunk there but I can no longer remember for sure.  So I began to stroll around.  I am naturally curious and a life-long lookie-loo with semi-elastic boundaries.  I know I went to the kitchen first but I can't remember that either.  Then the various bathrooms.  Don't really remember them either.  But I'm sure they were nice.  Oh, wait: the master bath had a huge Jacuzzi, the first in-home one I'd ever seen.

Then in the master bedroom suite -- ahh, the memory returns -- a huge California king bed, a couple of pictures of Sally Field...or was it Dinah Shore?  Memory, don't desert me now!  I glanced at both of the bedside tables and paused for a moment.  But I didn't look in them.  No way was I going to open those drawers.  A few years prior, in another house, I had and saw things I wish to God I'd never seen.  You can probably imagine but that's all you'll get from me.

Then, I encountered Burt's enormous closet; no doors, a huge walk-in.  So I did.  Lights came on automatically.  Jesus.  Sue Ellen didn't have a closet this big on "Dallas!"  Even the closet had its own closet: shoes, in this case, boots, all shined and lined up for inspection.  And in the closet's main room, about twenty feet of hanging, pastel Western suits, each three inches apart, seemed to go on forever.  And over there, double hung rows of shirts.  On and on.  And on.  It looked like a men's clothing store in Amarillo.

Right about here, the water in my memories sort of evaporates.  I recall Burt and I at the dining room table talking about some scene in the script which elicited his Carson show famous giggle.  And then somewhere, at some point, for something either real or imagined, he told me he was going to tear my head off and shit in it.  If you Netflix "Hooper," a movie about making movies, you will see we used that very line to good effect.  It's been years since I saw it, but I believe he is talking to the screenwriter when he says it.  Hmmm.

Burt died recently and was remembered fondly.  Sadly, he passed without getting to tear my head off and take a dump in it.  I supposed I have that to look forward to somewhere in Hollywood Heaven.  Line starts over there, Burtski.

When I finished "Hooper" and it was made, mirable dictu, the Writers Guild awarded me my co-screenplay credit!  My first one.

The movie cost $6,000,000 and ended up making $78,000,000 which essentially means Warners had to put on extra traffic cops to direct the dump trucks of money.  They were so high on it, in front of the main entrance, they built an enormous billboard with a huge model of a bridge-jumping rocket car mid-flight whose WHEELS ACTUALLY TURNED.  Across the whole display was the catch line "Ain't nobody can fly a car like Hooper!"

And there, down just a little, there was my name!  I must finally be a real writer; I mean there's the proof.  At one point, I think I just stood in front of it and gaped.  Wow.  Wowie-wow.

Aren't I pitiful?


  1. Keep those stories coming, Billy. All four Willefords particularly enjoyed the story about Harry.

  2. I sure hope this is going to be a book! Or screenplay?

  3. So Jon Voight's a right-wing freak? Damn. Although somehow it doesn't surprise me. Anyway, "Midnight Cowboy" is just about my favorite movie AND my favorite book of all time.

    ". . . talked like Thelonius Monk played piano"--now that's funny! How exciting that you talked to an actual person who had a near-death experience. I wonder if, before that, he talked like Thelonius Monk played. And loved rice pudding.

    ". . . a huge walk-in. So I did." That's one of the funniest things ever written!

    But Sally Field or Dinah Shore . . . that's a pretty bizarre mix-up. Keep working on that memory--it seems to be doing well for the most part.

  4. Veronica Cartwright and Harrison Ford stories are great, as is the Robert Towns stuff.