Monday, October 13, 2014

#12. Marvin, undone by appetites, saved by Dalai Lama

#12.  Marvin, undone by time and appetites, saved by the Dalai Lama.

Marvin Schwartz was a complete original.

In the course of twenty years, his oddly wonderful path went from movie producer friend of John Wayne's to dope-smoking Emmy winning writer to and even bigger producer at 20th Century Fox and Texas party dog to hard traveling spirit seeker to Buddhist monk working for the Dalai Lama in Nepal.  Like I said, a complete original; now sadly departed for brighter shores and richer fields of service.

As a young man, Marvin had been a press agent.  For a while he worked for the jazz impresario Norman Granz, on the road with the mid-50s Jazz at the Philharmonic tours, mostly with Ella Fitzgerald and her husband, bassist Ray Brown.

Marvin said these jazzbos were a wild horse crew; in the main, they were adult pros, so they knew how to get in trouble.  Narcotics were a problem, mostly benzedrine.  They'd all get cranked after the show, move all the furniture to the center of the hotel room, then repaint everything with brushes, masking tape, drop-cloths, edgers.  When they were done, they'd drag the furniture back in place revealing a perfect job except for the new colors; bruise purple, dayglo orange, turkey turd tan, you get the drift.

Marvin's mission was to keep the tour going while putting out these kinds of metaphorical (and some, not so) fires.  Heroin has to be cooked and addicts are not the most steady-handed, fully concentrating people.

The guys were forever losing and leaving things at the hotel; watches, their road pillows, eye glasses, Buck Clayton was reputed to have left his favorite trumpet mouthpiece in his hotel bathroom where he'd been practicing.  He loved the echoey sound.  Marvin had to deal with all this.  And, oddly, he was good at it.  I think this is where he learned to love being a producer.

To break into the film world as a press agent, one of his first movie jobs was working for the film company that brought Britain's "This Sporting Life" to the United States.  Directed by the weird and great Lindsey Anderson, starring the even weirder and even greater Richard Harris, it was a hard core look at the brutal life of a professional rugby football player surrounded by thieves and thugs.

When they released the movie in America, it became a smash hit.  Marvin worked on getting an Academy Award campaign started for Harris and his co-star Rachel Roberts which ended by seeing them both nominated.  Watching Harris in that film is like being in the presence of a young Brando.  Marvin said the chiseled Irish actor turned out to be an Olympian drinker who could talk the birds out of the trees and the girls out of everything else.  Apparently it was in these lost wild nights where Marvin learned that when in doubt, order another round.

As he told me these stories and some others about his early days with John Wayne and Kirk Douglas on "The War Wagon,"  I think this is where I learned to love him.

I first encountered Marvin at 20th Century Fox.  He was producing "Welcome Home Soldier Boys," a low budget movie about Vietnam vets going berserk when they got home (a media mania back then) directed by my pal Richard Compton.  I met Richard and Marvin at the Fox commissary for lunch.  There was the usual complement of film and TV stars, producers and assorted execs, and other above-the-line genius presumptives.

We had just sat down when suddenly, every eye in the place turned to the main door and the hubbub sound died instantly.  There, walking in with studio head Dick Zanuck, was a UCLA film school acquaintance, Carroll Ballard.  He was wearing tight pink suede hot pants.  For those who do not remember hot pants, they were cut reeeaalll high, like at the belly button.  They were that generation's thong.  I had never seen anything remotely like it, especially on a guy.  Suddenly everyone started talking again.  I looked over at Marvin and Richard.  Marvin just put his head on the table; his shoulders shaking in laughter.  A few years later, Ballard would go on to make "The Black Stallion," one of my all-time favorites, pink hot pants notwithstanding.

Marvin was the first Hollywood producer I knew to wear full cowboy civvies; stove-pipe Levis, H-bar snap button rodeo shirts, Lucchese boots with full riding heel and a beautifully blocked flat brim Stetson.  He presented quite a picture folding himself into the cab of his red Ford Ranchero pickup truck amidst the Porches, Jaguars, and Mercedes in the Fox parking lot.  Once, when he came down to his truck, he was shocked to see that some joker had dumped a huge wire bound bale of hay in the pickup's bed.  He drove with it proudly until the last straws had blown out the back.

It was around here, Marvin introduced me to his friend Barry, one of the premier entertainment lawyers in L.A.  I loved and trusted the way those two were together so I signed up with Barry and have been with his legal armada now for over four decades.

Earlier that year, Marvin had won an Emmy for co-writing "Tribes," a highly rated TV movie about a drafted surfer hippie in Marine Corps bootcamp.  At the televised ceremony, in front of millions, with a big loopy grin, Marvin thanked his bartender and his weed dealer.  What can I say, my kind of guy.

He also introduced me to saloon society; that demimonde evening pattern of hanging out in bars and lounges, drinking one's life into a velvet oblivion while some 'jazz' singer warbled a Carpenter's song or tried her pipes on (appropriately) "Lush Life."  About a year of this was all I could take, but what a year it was; college prep for alcoholics.  At that point, of course, I couldn't see it coming.  I was just barely understanding that sometimes no matter how hard you stared at the solution, you couldn't always tell which problem it went with.

Many of my Marvin memories are tied up with Texas.  Here's why.  He had fallen in love with an original western script making the rounds called "Dime Box" written by Bud Shrake and helped by Gary Cartwright, both doper roper Texans to their core.  Marvin optioned it and set about to make the movie.  The first thing he did was to somehow cast Dennis Hopper as Kid Blue, the lead.

At that point, Hopper was probably the most famous actor in the world.  He had done, of course, "Easy Rider," produced, directed and starred.  It was a smash hit yet the toxic rumors flew.  On his next project, he went to Peru (oh-oh) to do "The Last Movie."  The stories of cocaine, waste and fraud that sprang from the shoot became legendary as they were spoken!  Since that movie tanked under the weight of its own reputation, Hopper had become a complete pariah.  People were lining up to turn on him.  Kind of like the national finger-pointing fallout after President Clinton's sneak blowski.

By the time Marvin signed Hopper up for ("Dime Box" now called) "Kid Blue," the actor was radioactive.  And yet, this upcoming little western was all anybody in Hollywood could talk about.  Dennis this, Dennis that -- he tapped out his wife before he threw her out in the Taos snow, he hoovered so much Bolivian marching powder, he was blind in one eye and had a limp.  He ate a live scorpion, for god's sake!  You're crazy for hiring him.  And Marvin just smiled and honed the screenplay.

This is where the Chow Puppy came in.  Not as a writer; Marvin already had those, and good ones they were.  He invited me to come with him to Austin to hang out and maybe we'd even get some work done on a Hell's Angels project we were ghosting up.  And we'd get to hang out with Bud and Gary.

There is just no way to over estimate the burgeoning power of Texas in the Seventies. Outlaws Waylon and Willie, wild-man Jerry Jeff Walker, "Texas Monthly," the NFL Cowboys, a growing film industry, art collections like the de Menil in Houston, big oil (a.k.a. the awl bidness), non-fiction best sellers about high society family murders and their trials.  There was "Austin City Limits," and "Dallas," the #1 show on TV; hellfire, Texas was IT.  And money, weed, Cuervo Gold, and that around the clock marching powder seemed to be everywhere.

Hot fun in Texas, bro.   Because Mad Dogs party every night.

A good restaurant-bar we all drifted to was The Raw Deal.  Slow moving fast talking people on the make.  The Broken Spoke.  Armadillo World Headquarters.  And (as the cheapie film poster always said) GIRLS, GIRLS, GIRLS, one of whom was local politician Ann Richards who later became Governor and spent her last days with longtime companion Bud Shrake.

One of my favorite Texas moments oddly came one night in Beverly Hills, at the tail end of a party at Marvin's canyon house.  The phone rang.  It was one of his woman friends calling from Austin.  "Marvin, I'm stayin' up at Uncle Bud's place and we was talkin' about you and movies and all, and them young girls always around you."  Marvin looked out at the young girls in his house, some going home, some cleaning up, some helping a blithering Chow Puppy find his car keys.  "And we was wonderin," she went on.  "Are you in it for the wool?"

Well, duhh.

But the 'wool' was only a small piece, as it were, because he was Marvin Schwartz and he was in it for the love of EVERYTHING.  And everyone.  He burned hot and fast and eventually had to call in the dogs and piss on the fire.  Some version of this happens to many of us.  Sooner or later.

But at one point in that era's cyclone, Marvin had accidentally picked up a book on Buddhism at The Bodhi Tree bookstore on Melrose.  Then another.  And another.  I am not sure, but I think these books might have saved his life.

As his phone stopped ringing and the money and so-called studio 'housekeeping deals' ran out, Marvin sold his canyon home, his red Ford Ranchero, a few of his option deals, and yard saled his furniture and clothes.  With those proceeds, he put money aside for his children, paid some of his debts, and then bought a one-way KLM coach ticket to India and a 3rd class train ticket north to Nepal.

Richard and I took him to Musso & Frank's for one of his last dinners out.  We stopped at Cherokee Books where he found a used copy of Somerset Maugham's 'The Razor's Edge.'  "I always meant to read this," he said with a big smile.  "And now, I finally have the time."

A few days later, he left his Hollywood life and found reality.  Only this time, wool was not involved.  Just the heart.  "Remember, Puppola, if it was easy, anyone could do it.  So follow your bliss."  He laughed, hugged me, and the next time I saw him, fifteen years had passed.

We got the occasional letter, those flimsy light blue Aerograms that were covered, edge to edge with his tiny scrawl.  He was in the Canary Islands, he was in Sri Lanka, he was on a crowded train going to New Delhi, he was sick, he got well, and finally, he was at the monastery in Nepal.  He changed his out loud name from Marvin to 'John' because it was easier for them to pronounce and he wouldn't be writing for a while since he was working, mostly chores and driving the Jeep all day.  Then, prayer and chanting.  He said the Dalai Lama was a good guy and they laughed a lot.

Years later, my phone rang in Hollywood.  "Hi!  Want to have lunch at Nate n'Al's?"  It was him.   He was in town to help out his old friend Michael Wayne put together the DVDs for the John Wayne Film Collection.

Marvin showed up in beat up stovepipe Levis, sandals, and pale orange Buddhist robes, his long curly hair was cut short and even grayer.  He had lost twenty pounds; old and thin as a buggy whip.  But there was an aura of peace and calm around him, utterly mismatched with that deli's usual suspects.

As he wolfed down at B.L.T., I told him he was the Deli Lama now.  He laughed.  "Bacon's the thing I missed most.  And flush toilets."  His blue eyes were so clear, so happy, half way through my Rueben, just being there with him brought me to tears.  He reached out and took my hand.  "How's it going for you, Puppola?"  I told him, hell, if it was easy, anybody could do it.  But I finally found a good chunk of my bliss, I said.  Her name was Paula and she was from Seattle.  It put a smile on his face and it's pretty much that face I remember now because I never saw him again.

But I know he's out there, somewhere.  Because as Texan Robert Earle Keen says, "The road goes on forever and the party never ends."



  1. What a mad life you led, Billy! I find it funny that the owner of The Bodhi Tree at the time your buddy Marvin bought his book, Dan Morris, moved to Whidbey soon thereafter, and lived here for many years.

  2. I could never have survived what you went through. I am far to intrigued by toxins and what they do. And yet, while I live in North Hollywood working on a Star Trek satirical comedy project I was cold sober and typed fast. There were six other writers and they were good and funny.

    But there is an intrinsic sadness to the desperation that attends the movie-making process. Nothing new about this. Sadness and paranoia: the gifts that keep on giving. ~ Russ Mason

  3. "He changed his out loud name": that wording is charming! How appropriate that Marvin bought a copy of "Razor's Edge" shortly before going off on a spiritual journey sort of like Larry's.

    I'm glad you found a good chunk of bliss in my aunt.