Upon discovering there’s a networking group for Nebraskans in Hollywood called the Nebraska Coast Connection it’s not surprising for someone to ask, There are Nebraskans in Hollywood? Yes, and a lot more than you might think. The fact is there have always been Nebraskans in that strange and alluring land of make-believe. A surprising number of natives of this Midwestern state have played and continue playing prominent roles there, both behind the camera and in front of the camera, all the way from the motion picture industry’s start through the advent of television and more recently the dawn of multi-media platforms. The story that follows is my profile of the Nebraska Coast Connection for an upcoming issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com).
Much of my story is based on interviews I did with the Nebraska Coast Connection’s founder and president, Todd Nelson, a Holdrege, Neb. native who’s been doing his thing in Hollwyood for 30 years. His group’s monthly Hollywood Salon has become its signature event. This part social mixer and part professional seminar allows folks to tout their projects and to hear featured speakers, such as Oscar-winner Alexander Payne. I also have insights and impressions about the organization from three of the biggest names from here in Hollywood: filmmaker Alexander Payne, whose new film Nebraska is sure to fare well at the Oscars; writer-producer-director Jon Bokenkamp, whose hit new NBC series The Blacklist has elevated him to the prime time A-list; and former network executive and script writer Lew Hunter, who’s retired from the craziness but knows where the bodies are buried. All speak glowingly about the nurturing nature of the group and how it offers a home away from home environment in what can be otherwise a cold, harsh culture for those working in the industry or aspiring to.
I can speak to the warm hospitality offered by the group based on two recent experiences I had with it. I was there for the Sept. 9 Hollywood Salon featuring Payne and for a Nov. 16 screening of Payne’s Nebraska at Paramount Studios. I was also the featured speaker for its Nov. 11 salon. Todd Nelson was my gracious host each time.
This blog is filled with stories and interviews I’ve done with film figures, famous and not so famous. Much of that work as well as related activity I’m now purusing will feed into an eventual book about Nebraskans in Hollywood, past and present. I am the author of the current book, Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film.
Todd Nelson generously provided a set of photos for my story taken by homself and some other NCC stalwarts.
photo credits:TIM WOODWARD, TRAVIS BECK, TODD NELSON, DAVID WILDER
Nebraska Coast Connection: Networking group ties Nebraskans in Hollywood
©by Leo Adam Biga
Soon to appear in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Todd Nelson interviewing Payne at the Sept. 9 salon
Dreamers from Neb., as from everywhere else, have flocked to Hollywood since the motion picture industry’s start.
Softening the harsh realities of making it in Tinsel Town’s dog-eat-dog world, where who you know is often more vital than what you know, is the mission behind the Nebraska Coast Connection. This networking alliance of natives already established in Hollywood or aspiring to be is the brainchild of Todd Nelson, a Holdrege son who’s been in Hollywood since 1984. A former Disney executive, his company Braska Films produces international promos for CBS.
Early in his foray on the coast Nelson was aided by industry veterans and once settled himself he felt an obligation to give back.
His own Hollywood dream extends back to childhood. He made an animated film with his father, created neighborhood theatricals and headlined a magic act, ala home state heroes Johnny Carson and Dick Cavett, that netted a recurring spot on a local TV show and gigs around the state.
“I guess I didn’t know any better and nobody ever told me I couldn’t do it, so I just kept at it,” Nelson says.
As a University of Nebraska-Lincoln theater and broadcast journalism major he made the then-Sheldon Film Theatre (now the Mary Riepma Ross Media Arts Center) his film school.
“To see classic movies and to meet the filmmakers behind some of them was just a fantastic experience and a real eye opener for me.”
Frustrated by limited filmmaking ops at UNL, he talked his way into using Nebraska Educational Television production facilities to direct a one-act play for the small screen. He also worked as a KETV reporter-photojournalist in the ABC affiliate’s Lincoln bureau.
He was an extra in Terms of Endearment during the feature’s Lincoln shoot.
An internship brought Nelson out to the coast, where he worked behind-the-scenes on a soap and later served as personal assistant to TV-film director Paul Bogart (All in the Family). After five years as a senior project executive at Disney he left to produce and direct the documentary Surviving Friendly Fire.
Nelson formed NCC in 1992. A couple years later he befriended fellow Nebraskan Alexander Payne, then gearing up to make his first feature, Citizen Ruth. Payne was looking for an L.A. apartment and Nelson leased him a unit in the building he managed and lived in. The neighbors became friends and the Nebraskans in Hollywood community Nelson cultivated grew.
“He’s a terrific guy,” Payne says of Nelson “He is, as they say, good people.”
In 1995 Nelson inaugurated NCC’s signature Hollywood Salon series. He knew he was onto something when the first event drew hundreds. His strong UNL ties brought support from the school’s foundation.
The monthly Salon has met at some iconic locations, including the Hollywood Athletic Club and CBS sound stages. Its home these days is the historic Culver Hotel in Culver City, Calif., whose namesake, Nebraskan Harry Culver, attracted the fledgling movie industry to his city in the 1920s. Many Golden Era stars kept residences at the hotel, which purportedly was owned by a succession of Hollywood heavyweights. In this ultimate company town, the hotel is next to Sony Pictures Studios, giving the salon the feel of an insiders’ confab.
The group boasts a mailing list of more than 1,000 and nearly as many anecdotes from those who’ve found fellowship, employment, even love, through its ranks.
Payne likes that NCC affords a kind of Neb. fraternity in Hollywood.
“It’s wonderful and hilarious. It’s hilarious in the way that being from Neb. is hilarious. Maybe people from other states do the same, but I know the Neb. version of how they seek one another out in other cities. I know there’s a Neb. club of some sort in New York City. The state’s members of Congress host a Nebraskans breakfast in D.C.
“Nebraskans feel comfortable with one another outside of Neb. and I am no exception, I enjoy the group, we have a shared sensibility, a shared sense of humor, shared childhood references. And Todd is a forceful personality. He’s the most benevolent, charismatic cult leader one could imagine,” he says with a wink.
According to Nelson, “There is something really unique about Nebraskans. We belong together in this way that no other place does. I have watched other groups come and go trying to duplicate what we do and every group without fail has just fallen apart, and some of them are from the Midwest, so it’s not just the Midwest thing.”
Payne’s far past needing the NCC’s connections but he says, “I’m very happy to continue my participation as an occasional guest speaker.”
Bokenkamp does the same. The Kearney native parked cars when he first got out there. He did have a script but no idea how to get it to anyone that mattered. At Nelson’s urging Bokenkamp entered a screenwriting contest. He won. It got him an agent and eventually jobs writing features (Taking Lives) and even directing a pic (Bad Seed).
Nelson enjoys aiding folks get their starts in the business.
“There’s definitely a thrill watching new people realize their own potential,” he says. “Jamie Ball from Grand Island wanted to be an editor. I’ve given her a chance and she’s working in the big leagues now as a video editor, making a substantial living and finding she really enjoys living her dream. I love being a part of making that happen.
“But I also get the benefit of her good work and it’s enabled me to get home to see my son more often and to take a sick day once in a while. It’s a huge help to have her on my team.”
Against all odds small population Neb’s produced an inordinate number of success stories in film and television, including several legends. The star actors alone run the gamut from Harold Lloyd and Fred Astaire to Robert Taylor, Henry Fonda and Dorothy McGuire to Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift to James Coburn, Sandy Dennis, Nick Nolte and Marg Helgenberger. At least one major studio mogul, Darryl Zanuck, originally hailed from here. As have leading composers. cinematographers, editors, writers and casting directors.
Payne heads the current crop, but he’s hardly alone. Most homegrown talents are not household names but they occupy vital posts in every facet of the biz. For each hopeful who makes it, such as producer-writer Timothy Schlattmann (Dexter) from Nebraska City, many others give up. Having a sanctuary of Nebraskans to turn to smooths the way.
Nelson credits former UNL theater professor Bill Morgan with sparking the concept for NCC.
“He was the one who really put the idea of a Neb. connection in my brain. I would always visit with him when back home for Christmas and he would pull out a stack of holiday cards from all his old students. I’d say to him that I don’t know so-and-so, they were before or after my time. He would write down their contact info and nudge me to get in touch with them. He just thought we all should know each other. And inevitably when I did follow up, they would always welcome me into their lives because we shared Dr. Morgan…even if it was from a different era. That was the seed of the NCC right there.”
Among those UNL grads Nelson looked up was the late Barney Oldfield, a Tecumseh native who was a newspaper reporter and press aide to Allied commander Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower during World War II before becoming a Warner Bros. publicist and independent press agent to such stars as Errol Flynn, Ronald Reagan and Elizabeth Taylor. In his post-Hollywood years he worked in corporate public relations and became a major philanthropist.
“Barney was an amazing guy. He became a big supporter of the Coast Connection,” Nelson says. “We hosted his 90th birthday party at CBS on the big stage. He regaled us with stories of his old PR days and knowing everybody under the sun.”
Another of the old guard Nelson called on was Guide Rock native Lew Hunter, a former network TV executive and script writer whose 434 Screenwriting class at UCLA became the basis for a popular book he authored. Hunter, who today leads a screenwriting colony in Superior, Neb., offered a model for what became the salon.
“He used to do what he called a Writer’s Block when he still lived in Burbank,” Nelson says. “It was a kind of salon. He’s seen that our salon continues that, so he’s a big supporter.”
Hunter says, “Todd and I often thought and spoke about a similar monthly gathering of Nebraskans and he pulled it off. It has been a wonderful spin and he really is the father of it all.”
But what really compelled Nelson to form NCC was the stark reality that even though hundreds of Nebraskans worked in Hollywood, few knew each other and there was no formal apparatus to link them.
“I’d been working in Hollywood already 10 years and meeting a lot of Nebraskans and nobody seemed to know each other. We needed to have access to each other.”
Thus, the all-volunteer Nebraska Coast Connection was born.
“People teasingly called it the Nebraska Mafia, but it was kind of like that – we could take care of each other.”
Variety managing editor Kirsten Wilder, yet another Neb. native in Hollywood, has a warm feeling for the group and marvels at its founder’s persistence.
“The NCC is near and dear to my heart. The reason the NCC is so successful is because of Todd Nelson’s staggering devotion to keep the group alive and thriving.”
Nelson defers credit to the natural conviviality of Nebraskans.
“You get these people that come out here from Neb. and it doesn’t matter where they’re from in the state, it doesn’t matter that they don’t have a direct contact with someone else, the fact that you are from Neb. is an instant welcome. It’s not entirely universal. I met Nick Nolte at the Golden Globes one year and I told him about our group and I said we’d love to have him come and talk to us sometime and he said, ‘Why would I want to hangout with a bunch of Nebraskans? I got away from that place.’ That’s a rarity, once in a while you run into it, but most of the time we find that everybody just connects instantly.”
A tribute screening of silent screen great Harold Lloyd’s work brought inspired NCC members to don replicas of the icon’s signature horned-rim glasses
Nelson says that in what can be a cold, rootless town NCC provides “a safe haven” that comes with the shared identity and experience of being among other Nebraskans .
“We call it Home Sweet Home in Hollywood and it has that quality to it. You need a home base I think if you’re going to do this kind of hard work of always having to put yourself out there and come up against the sharks of the world. I don’t think growing up in Neb. especially prepares you for how hard it will be to actually make it while you ply your trade and build your career. Hollywood just isn’t very nurturing. You can really use a community out here to help you get your bearings and give you a leg up. Or at least some friendly faces to be yourself with as you make your way.”
Bokenkamp admires what Nelson and the group provide.
“His love for Neb. runs deep, and he’s found a way to channel that love into a really positive networking group with the Nebraska Coast Connection. NCC is a warm, energetic and creative environment. Todd just wants to see people succeed.
“Thing is, in a land as strange as Hollywood, it’s just nice to have a place to go now and then that feels like home. NCC is that for a lot of Nebraskans.”
Payne says he can appreciate how NCC makes negotiating Hollywood less lonely and frightening for newcomers.
“L.A. is such a scary place to approach when you’re young and want a career in film or television. Everyone is telling you you can’t make it, perhaps you’re even telling yourself that, but you’ve giving it a try anyway. Add to that the fact you’re from Neb. and have no connections. Well, it turns out there is an organization that welcomes you and has people in exactly the same boat there to commiserate with. It’s a wonderful, caring organization.”
Nelson says without the NCC it’s easy for some to give up their dream.
“I’ve seen many people go back home after a few years of waiting for their break and not getting very far. Pressure from parents and friends is part of it. People in Neb. don’t really get how long and hard these careers can be to get started. There’s no distinct ladder to climb, no road map, lots of horror stories and kids here can run out of money or run out of steam. That’s when a ‘safe’ job back home near the folks looks more and more attractive.
“I’ve had many parents tell me they wouldn’t let their kid try it in Hollywood without the safety net we give them.”
Nelson says NCC offers a way to make foot-in-the-door contacts that parlay a kind of pay-it-forward, Neb.-centric nepotism.
“I know the NCC works because I see it over and over. People are constantly making job contacts, finding support, getting roommates, attending each other’s performances, hiring actors and crew for their films. It is going on all the time at every Salon. Hopefully it will happen even more with the interactivity built into the new website. Our goal is to have a kind of virtual salon to help everyone stay in touch with each other in between salons.”
“Even after some folks reach some level of success they come back often and say it gives them a friendly home base.”
Real jobs result from NCC hook-ups.
“As a producer who has hired or recommended over a dozen people to work at CBS-TV over the years, including a young Jon Bokenkamp, I know this group to be a huge resource of great talent. I don’t ever need to go elsewhere to find the best people,” Nelson says.
Nelson’s quick to point out he’s not alone in his home state loyalty.
“Jeopardy executive producer Harry Friedman is from Omaha and he is famous for hiring Nebraskans on his shows. Many others out here from Neb. recommend Nebraskans first. Why wouldn’t they? It always makes sense to hire people you know, or know where they came from, and Nebraskans are almost universally loved for their work ethic, responsibility under pressure and humble ‘get it done’ spirit.”
Nelson says he’s pleased the NCC, which rated a fall L.A. Times feature article, has made it this far.
“I don’t think if you told me 21 years ago that we’d still be going this strong I would have believed it. In fact, it’s kind of moving into some new levels. For example, with the Nebraska screening at Paramount I was able to reach out to all these folks who’ve been salon guests and they were very excited about it.”
Besides Nelson and Payne, attendees at the screening included Bokenkamp, Chris Klein, actor Nicholas D’Agosto and actress turned-mystery author Harley Jane Kozak.
Celebrating success stories like these is part of the deal. But Nelson says the heart of the NCC “will always be a group focused first on the kid that’s been out here for a week, that drove out in his dad’s car full of stuff, is staying on somebody’s couch and has 500 bucks to his name. I mean, that’s really what we’re here to do and that’s going on every month at the salon – somebody showing up for the first time who’s in that circumstance. That’s the way it works.”
Cinematographer Greg Hadwick showed up like that out of Lincoln, recalls Nelson. “I think he drove all night to make it to the salon.” No sooner did Hadwick arrive then he learned Nelson and his then-very pregnant wife were due to move that weekend and he volunteered to help.
“He was just a trooper,” says Nelson. “He rented a truck and stayed late. He was such an incredibly hard worker. He didn’t ask for any money and he wouldn’t take any. The next salon I told the group what he did and somebody who was looking for an assistant hired Greg based on my recommendation, and that kid has gone on to work his butt off in Hollywood, He just showed up, open, ready to jump in. He’s now started his own production company and brought guys out here from his hometown in Neb., so he’s kind of doing his own giving back.”
Nelson says he can usually spot who has what it takes.
“I’ve seen a lot of those kids who try to make it for awhile who don’t stick. Then there’s the ones that right away I know, Oh, yeah, they’re going to do it. There is a certain confidence, I don’t think you can make it in this town without that confidence. But there’s so much more to it than that. In so many ways it’s about, Do they have something to give? There’s a lot of people that come out here and they think, Well, what can I get out of this? Almost without exception the ones who make it are the ones who want to give back.
“I’ll back these people a hundred percent and help them on their way because that’s what you do here, that’s what it’s about.”
The reciprocity continues. Nelson and Payne attended the dedication of Bokenkamp’s restored World Theatre in his hometown of Kearney. Nelson says, “It was a great celebration of Jon’s good work.” Nelson also organized a group to attend a screening of Bokenkanp’s documentary about the waning days of drive-in theaters, After Sunset. Bokenkamp returned the favor speaking at the October salon. The home state contingent turned out in force for the Paramount Nebraska screening. And so it goes with the Coast Connection.
“There’s never been a time when it’s felt like a one-way street,” says Nelson. “It always comes back.”
Follow the Coast Connection on Facebook or at http://hollywoodsalon.org/.
Bruce Crawford’s Unexpected Movie-Movie Life, Omahan Salutes Classic Hollywood Films with Panache: See Shirley Jones and ‘Carousel” May 24
If you’re a classic movie fan in and around Omaha then the closest thing to a Turner Classics Movie Film Festival in these parts are the twice-a-year revivals that Bruce Crawfort puts on for charities. His next is a May 24 screening of the 1956 movie musical Carousel starring Shirley Jones and the late Gordon MacRae with a special appearance by Jones, who will speak before the film and sign autographs afterwards. The 7 p.m. event is at Joslyn Art Museum’s Witherspoon Concert Hall. Tickets are are available at the customer service counter at Omaha Hy-Vee supermarkets.
Also on this blog is an exclusive interview I did with Shirley Jones. You can also find here previous stories I’ve done about Crawford and his film events and guests. The blog features many other film stories as well.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Now appearing in Metro Magazine
When Omaha impresario Bruce Crawford introduces legendary stage-screen star Shirley Jones at a May 24 screening of Carousel it will mark the 32nd time he’s celebrated Hollywood royalty at one of his film events.
The 7 p.m. event will be at Joslyn Art Museum‘s Witherspoon Concert Hall.
Jones feels the 1956 film adaptation of the Rodgers and Harmmerstein stage classic, Carousel, features some of the great composer-lyricist team’s finest work. She was under personal contract to R & M when she made the picture with co-star Gordon MacRae. “I think it’s the best score they ever wrote. I think it’s the most beautiful,” says Jones. “I open my concert with ‘If I Loved You’ and I close it with ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone.’ Every song says something, every song means something in Carousel and I just think it’s magnificent.”
All the trappings
For 20-plus years now Crawford’s feted classic movies and the legends who made them. He does it in grand style, too. Attending a Crawford event has all the trappings of a Hollywood premiere, complete with red carpet, limos, searchlights, media, VIP guests, costumed reenactors and movie memorabilia displays.
Renowned celebrity pop artist Nicolosi creates original commissioned pieces for the events that the U.S Postal Service now uses to adorn commemorative envelopes and stamps.
Crawford’s programs always benefit a cause. This time it’s the Omaha Parks Foundation. Past beneficiaries included the Nebraska Kidney Association.
He counts Oscar winners among his acquaintances and friends. He particularly close to special effects wizard Ray Harryhausen. Crawford’s work in support of classic film has taken him around the country presenting programs around his first love – movie music. He’s been an invited participant for live programs and filmed documentaries honoring movie icons such as Harryhausen.
His Omaha events attract national media attention and his efforts earn endorsements from organizations like the American Film Institute. Radio documentaries he produced years ago on composers Miklos Rozsa and Bernard Herrmann still air worldwide.
Shirley Jones and Gordon MacRae in Carousel
A life devoted to film
Wherever he goes and whatever he does in service of film is an expression of the intense boyhood fascination with movies he grew up with in Nebraska City, Neb. and later cultivated as a young man.
“It’s been my therapy,” Crawford says of his work. “I would have to say it’s some strange destiny. I look back to when I was a kid and now I can see where it makes sense – I can connect the dots. But to be from a small town in this part of the country it’s so out of the norm, is so alien. It’s just an unusual life.
“And to have gone as far as it has and to be with these people and to have that recognition and reputation for these events is mind boggling. I never would have imagined it would have gone quite so far.”
What began as an avocation is now a career.
“The most meaningful part of it is that I’ve been able to have a career and make my full-time work honoring classic films. That’s been incredibly gratifying for me because I absolutely love doing this.”
Nicolosi, the Chicago-based celebrity portrait artist who’s lent his talents to Crawford events since 2008, says the Omahan’s enthusiasm for classic film is infectious.
“He has such a passion for what he does it’s literally palpable. In any business it all boils down to relationships and there’s a genuine warmth and authenticity about Bruce. He’s the real deal. He has that strong Midwest work ethic. Every event he does feels like a giant homecoming. He’s brilliantly fluent in film, too.
“All of that keeps drawing me back. Plus, I’ve fallen in love with Omaha.”
Ray Bradbury, Greg Bear, Forrest J. Ackerman, Bruce Crawford, Ray Harryhausen
Avocation to career
Crawford’s first event in 1992 paid tribute to Harryhausen. Getting Harryhausen to come for a double-feature of Jason and the Argonauts and Mysterious Island at the Indian Hills was a coup but Crawford had an inside track to him.
“It was still tough to pull off but it wasn’t as tough because I had that rapport with him. There was a connection.”
A bigger coup was getting a week’s run of Ben-Hur for its 35th anniversary in 1993.
“Doing Ben-Hur was off the wall because I had no connection to that film. I knew nobody involved with that in any way. That is the real rosetta stone to this whole thing,” he says.
Crawford, who puts these events together with equal parts chutzpah and doggedness, contacted Ted Turner because the media czar owned the film’s rights. Much to Crawford’s surprise Turner ordered a new print struck of the 1959 classic and allowed Crawford first crack at it. Crawford also got the family of the film’s revered director, William Wyler, to come and secured the support of its star, Charlton Heston.
The success of the Ben-Hur run “set the stage” for what’s come since. His third program, a screening of The Longest Day for the 50th anniversary of D-Day, featured reenactors in military uniforms.
“That’s when the showmanship started,” he says.
For a screening of Psycho he brought star Janet Leigh. For King Kong he anchored a huge inflatable replica of the ape outside the Indian Hills and come show night featured dancing girls in grass skirts. The special guests included Harryhausen and author Ray Bradbury.
Subsequent events featured Patricia Neal (The Day the Earth Stood Still), Debbie Reynolds (Singin’ in the Rain) and John Landis (Animal House).
Some unexpected guests have arrived too. For last fall’s showing of American Graffiti acclaimed director George Lucas showed up unannounced, jetting in from a New York gig on his way back to the west coast. He was spotted by the the event’s official guest star, Cindy Williams, as well as several attendees. For the premiere of Ben-Hur Crawford recalls that Liza Minnelli, who was in town doing an Ak-Sar-Ben show, came incognito wearing sunglasses and a scarf.
Bruce Crawford with Debbie Reynolds
The shows go on
Pulling off these events means countless phone calls and emails getting the details just right. He must please the sponsors and charities he works with as well as cater to his special guests..
“But above everything else I feel a commitment to the audience. I want to make sure people enjoy themselves and have a good time. That’s my biggest goal.”
He hasn’t missed a beat yet.
“I’ve been lucky enough to get films and guests that always find a very sizable audience. The events just keep coming together, but I don’t take anything for granted.
Nicolosi’s come to appreciate Crawford’s imagination and tenacity.
“The secret to his success is his passion. He has such a clear vision and, in an endearing way, a stubbornness, which you need. Then nothing can get in your way.”
As soon as Carousel’s over Crawford, ever the showman, will be thinking what to do next and how to top what he’s done before.
Tickets for the May 24 event are $20 and available at Omaha Hy-Vee customer service counters.
On May 24 a Hollywood legend comes to Omaha for a one-night only screening of the 1956 film Carousel, in which she stars with Gordon MacRae. It’s the latest classic Hollywood tribute event from Omaha film historian and impresario Bruce Crawford, who’s previously brought Janet Leigh, Patricia Neal, and Debbie Reynolds, among other movie legends, to town. The Carousel event is at the Joslyn Art Museum’s Witherspoon Concert Hall. The program, done up in the style of a premiere, starts at 7 p.m. Tickets are on sale at the customer service counter at Omaha Hv-Vee supermarkets.
In my Q&A with her Jones discusses many aspects of her remarkable career, including the Cinderella story of how she came to be discovered by the great composing team of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, who put her under personal contract and launched her career. Jones is an easy interview. Down-to-earth, smart, funny, and unafraid to tell it like it is. She would be fun to hang out with.
Shirley Jones Interview: Classic Hollywood Star to Appear at May 24 Omaha Screening of ‘Carousel’
Interviewed by Leo Adam Biga
©Exclusive for the blog, leoadambiga.wordpress.com
LAB: Let me start by saying that Carousel is one of my favorite musicals.
SJ: “Mine too. It’s my favorite score. I think it’s the best score they (Rodgers and Hammerstein) ever wrote. I think it’s the most beautiful.”
LAB: That’s obviously saying a lot given who were talking about here.
SJ: “I know, exactly, but that’s my feeling and by the way my opinion was shared by Richard Rodgers. He always stated that he felt his finest work was Carousel.”
LAB: What do you feel makes it stand apart?
SJ: “Well, just all of it, the lyrics. I open my concert with ‘If I Loved You ‘and I close with ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone.’ Every song says something, every song means something in Carousel. And I just think it’s magnificent. ‘The Carousel Waltz,’ the opening, is so beautiful. I mean, I’m not saying everybody would feel that way, but I do, and as I said Rodgers always stated that he felt that way too.”
LAB: Rodgers and Hammerstein became very close mentors of yours.
SJ: “I was under contract to them.”
Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein
LAB: And were you the only one they had under contract?
SJ: “The only one, the one and only person put under contract to Rodgers and Hammerstein. And it was supposed to be a five-year deal. It lasted about four years, I guess, under which I did the movie Oklahoma, then I did the stage production all over Europe of Oklahoma with jack cassidy as my leading man. That’s how we met. And then I came back to do Carousel. Before all that though I was in my first Broadway show, South Pacific. It was the first thing I ever did – the last four months of the Broadway production – and then a show called Me and Juliet, which I went on the road with. So I did all of those under the contract of R & H, and then it was over.”
LAB: Why were they responding to you so strongly? You were after all very young and green and a total unknown.
SJ: “Very, very young, I was 18, I was barely out of high school and on my way to college to become a veternerian. Oh yeah, that was the story, and I stopped off in New York with my parents. This was July. I was going to college in the fall. I’m from the Pittsburgh area and I’d done a lot of work at the Pittsburgh Playhouse during the summers when I was in high school. I was the youngest member of the church choir at age 6, so it was a gift that was given to me. Anyway, I went to an audition while I was in New York with my parents, an open audition. I knew this pianist in New York and he said, ‘Shirley, c’mon over, R & H are having open auditions for anybody that wants to sing for them because they had three shows running on Broadway at that time and their shows ran so long they had to keep replacing chorus people every few weeks. But I barely knew who these men (Rodgers and Hammerstein) were, you understand. I was a little girl from a town of 800 population. It was all very new to me.”
LAB: Was the audition run by John Fearnley?
SJ: “That’s exactly right, it was through him. People were waiting around the block holding their music. My friend and accompanist talked me into doing it. I said no at first because I was terrified. But I got to the stage, sang for the casting director and he did the usual, you know, ‘Miss Jones, what have you done?’ and I said, ‘Nothing,’ and he said, ‘Mr, Rodgers just happens to be across the street rehearsing his orchestra for Oklahoma (which was about to reopen at City Center and then go out on another tour) and I would like to have him hear you personally.’ And he cancelled the rest of the auditions for the day.
“So I waited. Again I wasnt sure who I was singing for and down the aisle walks this gentleman and he said, ‘Miss Jones?,’ and I said, ‘What did you say your name was again?’ Richard Rodgers. I sang for him and he said, ‘Miss Jones, can you wait about 20 mins? I’m going to call my partner Oscar Hammerstein at home and have him come and hear you.’ Now my pianist said, ‘Shirley, I hate to do this to you…’ But he had a plane to catch. He said, ‘I can’t wait,’ and Richard Rodgers said, ‘Nevermind, we’ll think of something.’Here I am alone, my first audition anywhere, anytime, anyplace. I waited and 25 minutes later down the aisle comes this very tall gentleman and he said, ‘Miss Jones, do you know the score of Oklahoma?’ and I said, ‘Well, um, I think I know some of the music but I don’t know the words,’ and of course I’m talking to the lyricist you understand. He said, ‘Nevermind, I have a score here.’ And I said, ‘Mr. Hammerstein, my pianist had to leave, I don’t have anybody to play,’and Rodgers said, ‘Nevermind, we have the full City Center Symphony across the street.’
“Now can you imagine, I’d never heard a symphony, seen a symphony, let alone sing with one. They took me across the street, I held the score in front of my face so I couldn’t look at them and I sang ‘Oklahoma’, ‘People We’ll Say We’re in Love’ and ‘Oh, What a Beautiful Morning’ with the City Center Symphony. Three weeks later I was in my first Broadway show (South Pacific). So that’s how it happened.”
Shirley Jones and Gordon MacRae in Oklahoma
LAB: You can’t make up something like that.
SJ: “No, you can’t, and you know xomething. I’m not sure it could even happen today. It was one of those fluke things that fortunately happened to me but I don’t i think it could ever happen in today’s times.”
LAB: Were there specific things in you they were responding to?
SJ: “Oh sure, well you know I was Laurie, I was from a little town, a little farm community. I was that girl. And the fact that I could sing. I could. As I said it was a gift. I’d studied. I mean, I could always sing but I started formal study when I was about 13 and I had a coloratura soprano voice. My teacher wanted me to go into opera because it was that kind of a voice but you know this music just came so natural to me. And the fact that the character was so close to who I was. And the fact that I had an incredible director for my first motion picture, Fred Zinneman. It was wonderful. That helped a lot.”
LAB: You felt fortunate to be in his hands?
SJ: “Oh, I cannot tell you how fortunate that was for me because I’d never done a film of any kind. And when I did the screen test…I had to screen test for it. They sent me to Calif. and fortunately Fred directed the screen test, which was unusual, because usually they have an assistant director do it, and Gordon (her costar Gordon MacRae) was in the test with me. He was already cast. And so from that standpoint it was all just wonderful because when I finished the screen test Fred said, ‘Have you ever acted before a camera before?,’ and I said, ‘Oh no,’ and he said, ‘Well, don’t change anything, you’re a natural,’ and from then on he was my mentor. I workedd with a lot of directors but there’s just a few that I just absolutely adored and because they thought of the actor, they were with the actor. It wasn’t just – put your hand here and speak, it was giving actors a reason for things and he was certainly a big one at that.”
LAB: R & H really handled you with care.
SJ: “They put me in South Pacific first to keep me with them and decided to sign me so I wouldn’t go to work for somebody else and then sent me to Calif. to screen test when I was in Chicago with Me and Juliet. Two wks later I get this phone call and its Rodgers and he said, ‘Hello, Laurie?’ So that’s how it happened.”
LAB: That had to be one of the most amazing screen debuts ever, an iconic part, iconic music. That music is going to endure forever.
SJ: “That’s for sure.”
Shirley Jones in Elmer Gantry
LAB: The movie was a huge hit and with your very first film you were a star.
SJ: “Yeah it just happened so quickly for me, it really did. But the truth of the matter and this is what I say in all my interviews…I went on to do Carousel but at that point pretty much they stopped making musical motion pictures and Rodgers hated Hollywood. He didn’t want to be here. They produced Oklahoma themselves, that was their production, they were on the set every single day in Nogales, Aarizona, where we shot it. But Carousel was 20th Century Fox and that was the end of the musical until way later when Music Man came to be.
“My career was over because at that particular time when you were a singer they didn’t consider you an actress and you know I hadn’t done anything but that and they didnt make musicals anymore. So I went into television and fortunately they were doing Playhouse 90 and Lux Theater and Philco Playhouse and I did a Playhouse 90 with Red Skeleton called The Big Slide and Burt Lancaster happened to see that and he was taken with my performance. And at this point in time I was doing a nightclub act with my husband Jack Cassidy. We were touring, we were at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco and I get this phone call and this man says, ‘Miss Jones, this is Burt lLncaster,’ and I said, ‘Sure it is,’ and I hung up. Fortunately he called back. Anyway, he told me about Elmer Gantry and he said, ‘Get the book, read the book, and I want you to fly in on your day off and meet with our writer-director Richard rooks and read for the role of Lulu Baines.’
“I did that and I was amazed he was thinking of me for this role, which was just incredible. I met with Brooks. Brooks didn’t want me. He wanted Piper Laurie. He didn’t want me at all but Burt fought fought for me and that’s how I got the part (that won her a Best Supporting Actress Oscar). But my point is had that not happened my career would have been over because I wasn’t an actress to Hollywood then. After Gantry then I went on to do 30 films.”
LAB: You went on to work with Brooks again.
SJ: “Yes, yes on The Happy Ending.”
Shirley Jones and Gordon MacRae in Carousel
LAB: How did R & H feel about the film adaptation of Carousel – were they pleased?
SJ: “No, not completely, they weren’t. You know, Frank Sinatra was signed to do it. I did all the prerecordings, all the rehearsals, all the costumes, everything with Frank. We were shooting in Booth Bay Harbor, Maine. Frank was thrilled about playing the role, thrilled. He said it was the best male role ever written. We get up there and we were shooting with two separate cameras (for different wide screen processes), which everybody knew from the beginning. And Henry King was the director and Frank came onto the set for our first dramatic scene and he saw the cameras and said, ‘Why the two cameras?’ Henry said, ‘Well, you know, we may need to shoot a scene twice, we’re doing regular cinemascope and cinemascope 55,’ and Frank said, ‘I signed to do one movie, not two,’ and back in the car and back to the airport.”
LAB: So that’s true then that that’s the reason he walked off the picture?
SJ: “Well , that was not the reason I’ve come to know. I called Gordon (MacRae) in Lake Tahoe and told him, ‘You’ve got the part in Carousel,’ and he said, ‘Give me three days, I have to lose 10 pounds.’ In later years, every time I’d see Frank I’d say, ‘Frank, what happened?’ ‘I don’t want to talk about it, Shirley.’And just about three or four years ago or so I was in a big conference with the press and some of the old guys from way back were sitting in the back row and talking about everything and I brought this story up and one of these old guys spoke up and said, ‘Shirley, don’t you know why fFank left?’ I said, ‘No, do you?’ ‘Oh yeah, everybody knew.’I said, ‘What was it?’ H said, ‘Ava Gardner (Sinatra’s then-wife) was in africa doing Magambo with Clark Gable and she called him and said, Unless you get your fanny down here I’m having an affair with Gable.’ So that was it.”
LAB: Well, that does sound more likely.
SJ: “Doesn’t that sound more likely?”
LAB: You were reteamed with Gordon MacRae – what was your working relationship like with him?
SJ: “Oh, it was wonderful, I adored Gordon. He and Sheila were the godparents of my first born son (Sean). We stayed close close friends. He was my favorite male singer of all time. When I was 16 he had a radio show called ‘The Teen Timers Club’ and every Saturday morning I would turn it on and hear his voice, so at 16 I fell in love with that voice.”
LAB: You know the last several years of his life he lived in Lincoln, Neb.?
SJ: “I know, I know.”
Shirley Jones and Gordon MacRae in Carousel
LAB: What kind of an experience was the Carousel shoot?
SJ: “Well, it was beautiful. We, we were in Booth Bay Harbor, Maine,. It was gorgeous. Ihad a little house overlooking the water. We were shooting on the dock. And Barbara Uric became my very, very best friend. I adored Barbara, We roomed together in New York and we had a place together here. It was great, I loved eryv body in the film.”
LAB: It’s a beautiful film but its very melancholy.
SJ: “Oh my goodness, yes.”
LAB: It touches on things most musicals don’t get to.
SJ: “Well, yeah, it’s a dark story. I mean, that’s the point. Billy Bigelow’s a bad guy and that’s why a lot of people said Sinatra’s personality would have been better for the role than Gordon’s. But for me ne never could have sung it like Gordon. Gordon’s soliloquy was just to die over.”
LAB: Do you feel the film has been somewhat overlooked or underappreciated?
SJ: “Yeah I do, I don’t know why exactly but I do. You know they did a revival of it in New York at Lincoln Center and I was sitting at the matinee and there were a lot of women sitting in the audience and you know it’s about wife abuse basically and it was really interesting right during the show all these ladies got up and screamed, ‘Everybody leave, this is wrong,’ and they left the theater. Isn’t that something?”
LAB: How about the director of that film, Henry King?
SJ: “He was just an old-time director. That may have been the other reason why I feel the film wasn’t as good as maybe it could have been in many ways. He was very aging then and everything was just just what it should be, he didn’t go further than that. you know what I’m saying?.”
LAB: Even though movie musicals were already dying out by the time Carousel was released you still made two fine musicals after it, one of them, The Music Man, being another classic.
SJ: “Oh yeah, big time still. As a matter of fact my son (Patrick) and I have been doing it several places. I’m playing Mrs. Peru now on the stage. In 2014 they’re scheduling a four month tour of Patrick and myself, showing film clips and me talking about The Music Man.”
LAB: And let’s not forget April Love.
SJ: “Yes, Pat Boone, uh huh.”
LAB: I had the pleasure of interviewing him a couple years ago when he was the guest star for Bruce Crawford’s screening of Journey to the Center of the Earth, and he spoke very fondly of working with you.
SJ: “Oh, we had a wonderful time, really. Kentucky was great. We went to the Kentucky Derby. We’re still close friends.”
LAB: Didn’t you end up playing the role of Nettle?
SJ: “Mmm hmm, on the stage, I did it up in Connecticut. I’m graduating to the old lady roles now, I know.”
LAB: Do you enjoy coming to places like Omaha to share your passion for the films you made?
SJ: “Oh, sure, absolutely, of course I do. That’s been my career really. Winning the Academy Award. I’m still working up a storm all over the place. I just did a movie, this is hysterical – I play a zombie. They’re big now. Isn’t that funny? I’ve really come a long way, the Academy Award to a zombie.”
LAB: That proves you’re right on the cutting edge of things right now.
SJ: “That’s right, exactly.”
LAB: I have to ask you something about the Partridge Family because it was a pop culture phenomenon.
SJ: “Yes it was.”
LAB: Are you glad in the final analysis you did that?
SJ: “Oh, yes, I’m glad for personal reasons more than anything else and the fact it was a big hit. But you know at that time the agents and managers said, ‘Shirley, don’t do a television series,’ because I was a movie star. They said if it is successful you’ll be that character for the rest of your life and your movie career will be in the toilet. Well, they were right. But what I wanted was to stay home and raise my kids and that gave me that opportunity. I had three sons and they were all over Europe, on the road with me on movies everywhere and they were school-age and I said if this is successful it’s the perfect time for me to do this and it was. And it was great for me that way and it didn’t ruin my career but they felt at that time television was a step down.”
LAB: There are a few more of your movie experiences I want to ask you about. So what was it like working with Marlon Brando on Bedtime Story?
SJ: “Let me say that I think I got Brando at a very good time in his life because he wanted to play comedy and nobody would give him the opportunity. He’d just come from Mutiny on the Bounty in which he was hated. He was a brilliant actor but he wanted to expand. He adored David Niven. The only problem I saw at this time in his life is that it was nothing for him to do 40-50 takes on one scene.”
LAB: And you got the chance to work with the great John Ford in Two Rode Together, in which you co-starred with James Stewart and Richard Widmark.
SJ: “Couldn’t stand him. He was not good with women. He was a man’s man and he looked down on women. It was like, Who cares? I never got one direction from him, nothing. And he had a handkerchief hanging out of his mouth all the time. I said to Richard (Widmark), ‘What is that handkerchief?’ He said, ‘Shirley. don’t say anything about it, don’t ask him.’ But it was hysterical. He’d take it out and say, ‘Let’s get ready to shoot,’ and put it back in. And the script – there’d be a rewrite every single morning. So it was not an easy movie for me. Thank God I was working with people like Widmark and (Jimmy) Stewart because they were sensational and very helpful to me.”
LAB: They were protective of you?
SJ: “Oh, very much so, yes. So that helped a lot. I was offered another movie with him (Ford) after that and I said no.”
LAB: “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance?
SJ: “Yes, that was it.”
LAB: You had the misfortune of catching Ford near the end of his career when he was even more cantankerous than before.
SJ: “I think early on he wasn’t quite like that but it was terrible then.”
LAB: You’re in one of my favorite movies – The Cheyenne Social Club.
SJ: “Ah, I love that movie.”
LAB: I think it’s underappreciated.
SJ: “So do I. It’s a great movie. it was a great movie to do. Gene Kelly directed it. I had a wonderful relationship with him, and I adored Jimmy. Jimmy lived down the street from me. I loved the story. And I think it’s the funniest thing Henry Fonda ever did.”
LAB: Fonda and Stewart are so masterful together in their simplicity and naturalness.
SJ: “Well, they were college roommates (roommates back East and in Hollywood), and I’ve often said watching them work was truly an acting lesson. They would ad lib, they knew each other so well, they knew each other’s timing. It was incredible.”
LAB: And this next one is not a great movie but you costarred in it with one of my favorite actors, James Garner…
SJ: “Tank. Oh, yes, I loved Jimmy, we had a good time.”
LAB: You’ve worked with a lot of legends…
SJ: “Oh, very much. I have a book coming out by the way – in June. It’s Shirley Jones, A Memoir. Yeah, it’s the story of my life.”
LAB: Is that something publishers have been trying to get you to do for some time?
SJ: “Yes, they have, and Simon and Schuster bought this so I’ll be on the road doing a lot of talking.”
LAB: So will we see different shades of Shirley Jones?
SJ: “Different shades absolutely. I’m not saying I slept with every male star that I worked with but I have a lot to say about everybody I worked with and two crazy husbands and 12 grandchildren, so my life has been rather extraordinary from the beginning.”
LAB: As you may have heard, Bruce Crawford really puts on the dog for his events. They’re like Hollywood premieres, only Omaha style.
SJ: “Yes, that’s what I hear. That’s great, I think that’s wonderful, it gives them an opportunity to view this film.”
- You’ll never walk alone- (lesplaisirssimplesdelavie.wordpress.com)
- Carousel (bettysbrownies.wordpress.com)
- Live From Lincoln Center: Rogers & Hammerstein’s Carousel (alaskapublic.org)
- Carousel (3159shroyer.wordpress.com)
Cindy Williams Interview: Film-television Atar to Appear at Nov. 2 Screening of ‘American Graffiti’ in Omaha
©by Leo Adam Biga
FOR EVENT DETAILS, VISIT: http://www.omahafilmevent.com
Cindy Williams broke our hearts in American Graffiti and made us laugh in Laverne and Shirley and this ageless American Sweetheart is still plying her craft in film, television, and theater. She’s coming to Omaha for a 40th anniversay screening of the classic George Lucas coming-of-age movie, American Graffiti. The Friday, Nov. 2 event at 7 p.m. in the Joslyn Art Museum’s Witherspoon Concert Hall is the latest revival by film historian and impresario Bruce Crawford. Williams will speak before the film to share some behind-the-scenes anecdotes from one of the most warmly regarded pictures of the last four decades. She spoke with me by phone from a bus transporting her and her fellow cast members after having just completed a performance of Nunsense Boulevard as part of a tour the musical comedy production is making on the East Coast and in the Southern states. The play is part of the Nunsense franchise by Dan Goggin. Williams appeared in Nunsense I and she calls the material “a lot of fun,” adding, “They’re happy musicals about a gaggle of nuns.”
LAB: In terms of your work on American Graffiti the first thing I’m curious about is what did you make of the young George Lucas?
CW: “He was just one of the gang, he was like one of us, he was our age. We knew he had directed at film at USC. There were rumblings he was a boy genius and his film THX-1138 was received so well. When Ron Howard and I went in to read for him, even before we had read it, he said, ‘Think of it as a musical.’ He told us that was because the music would never stop in the entire film except when the source of the music was gone, which would mean that the car was gone or the characters were out somewhere where they couldn’t hear a radio.
“I remember walking out of that meeting with Ron and saying, ‘A musical, incredible, that’s genius. Both of us agreed on that.”
LAB: So what kind of an experience did you have working on the film considering it was a low budget production all shot at night and you were among a cast of relative newcomers on a film that the studio (Universal) had little faith in?
CW: “It was like a very risque church camp experience.”
LAB: How is that?
CW: “We had one car, which was the prop car, that also was the car that took us to and from the hotel – the Holiday Inn we were staying at. Everybody had to ride together because he (the driver) wasn’t going to make anymore trips than he needed to because he was also the prop master. There was a Winnebago for the cast. There were no dressing rooms, there was no makeup, there was no place to go.
“We would start shooting at 6 at night and end at 6 in the morning with a guy from Universal there watching the clocl, making sure we didn’t go over schedule, and with one hand on the plug to the generator (to pull it and shut down filming if he had to). And so it was like fly-by-your-pants and we’ve-got-to-get-this-done and we’re-all-pulling-together.
“I don’t know if Ron had worked for Roger Corman yet but I had and I believe Harrison (Ford) had and a few others had. It was like Roger’s schedule. We were all young and anything he (Lucas) said we would just go with. Like the ending scene…Ron and I had been dismissed, it was over for us for the night, so we were in the Winnebago and he was in the boys section and I was in the girls section and we were waiting to get a ride from the prop car home. And all of a sudden the A.D. came in and said, ‘Put your wardrobe back on, we’re shooting the ending scene.’ And this was like 5 in the morning.
“Well, we had never rehearsed it, we weren’t prepared. I panicked and I said, ‘I can’t do this, I’ve read it like twice, we haven’t blocked it.’ We put our wardrobe on and ran out to George and said, ‘We’re not ready,’ and he said, ‘We’ve got to shoot it now because we’ve got to get the sun rising.’ We said, ‘Well, what do we do?’ and he said, ‘Improvise.’ And so we all got together and decided what we wer’e going to do. Haskell Wexler, the cinematographer, with a hand-held (camera)…The cars turned over, they started the car on fire, and Harrison and I figured out I’d be hitting him with my purse and then Ron was going to run up…We just talked about it as actors and we discussed it with George in about 30 seconds and he said, ‘Action!,’ and that was it, it was one take and it was over.”
LAB: Did you have a sense while making it that the picture was something special or did it surprise you because as you know little was expected of the film and yet it became a sensation?
CW: “That’s a tribute to the genius of George Lucas and to the beautiful photography of Haskell Wexler (one of three DPs on the film and officially credited as the film’s “visual consultant”). But, you know, the overriding factor is George Lucas had a vision and he shot the vision. And when he said it was a musical, when you think about the music in the film it’s another character in the film and it tells the story. It just leads everybody through this fabulous one night of coming-of-age.”
LAB: Do you regret that Lucas departed from this personal, humanist strain of movies to go on to do the Star Wars franchise?
CW: “That’s a very good question, no one’s ever asked me that. But here’s the thing: we wouldn’t have had Star Wars, there wouldn’t have been the phenomena of Star Wars. Yeah, you’d have to ask George, I can’t speak for George. In him, you have someone who can write the humanist story and who also can write the techno story and the fantasy futuristic story in brilliant terms. And let’s not forget it was written by Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck and George.”
LAB: Anything more you’d care to add about Lucas?
CW: “He’s a great great person, he’s got a wonderful heart and he just happens to be a genius. He’s a computer-age genius along with being a humanist.”
LAB: Even though you were a relative unknown to most moviegoers then, you’d already done some films and a fair amount of television before Graffiti and you’d worked with some very good people. I’m thinking of Drive, He Said with Jack Nicholson and Bruce Dern and Travels with My Aunt with Maggie Smith and directed by George Cukor.
CW: “I don’t even know if I had a line in Drive, He Said. Travels with My Aunt – I had just come back from doing in Spain, and the next day they called me about American Graffiti and I said, ‘I cannot come in and meet anyone.’ I was jet-lagging so bad that I was sick, I just wanted to go to bed for like a month. They kept calling me and I went in and that was because of the casting director Fred Roos, who’s brilliant. He produced The Godfather. He cast American Graffiti. Fred Roos had cast Mayberry RFD and that’s why he thought of Ron to play the lead in American Graffiti.
“I went in and I met with George and I really liked George. After I read the script I said, ‘I’d like to play debbie, the Candy Clark character, or Carol, the Mackenzie Phillips character, and Fred Roos said, ‘No, we’ve cast those, we cant find the ingenue, Laurie,’ and I said, ‘Oh please don’t make me an ingenue who cries all night.’ I didn’t want to go and screen test becauae I was so tired. I didn’t think i could learn the dialogue. I’ve got ADD and Dyslexia anyway, so it was almost impossible. I needed two weeks and a fresh mind. Well, I went in and did screen test with Ron and they offered me the part, and I said, ‘I can’t,’ I was still jet-lagging. I know, it sounds crazy. So then my agent called and said, ‘I think this is going to be a great movie.’ But it wasn’t until Francis (Coppola, who produced the film) called (that she accepted the part).
“I hadn’t seen The Godfather but I had seen (his) You’re a Big Boy Now – it’s one of my top ten favorite movies of all time. I was just awe struck that Francis Coppola would call me. I was like hypnotized: Yes, evil master, I will do the film. I said, ‘Of course I will.’ And it wasn’t because of The Gofather, it was because of You’re a Big Boy Now.”
LAB: You went on to work with Coppola on The Conversation, which also reunited you with Harrison Ford.
CW: “I could tell you a whole bunch about that (film) and about the genius of Francis Coppola, and I’m talking about a double scoop of genius.”
LAB: A few years after Graffiti you played the character of Shirley Feeney on several Happy Days episodes before starring alongside Penny Marshall in the monster TV sitcom hit Laverne and Shirley and so I take it then that Graffiti had quite an impact on your career?
CW: “Oh, absolutely. People always ask me if it was because of American Graffiti that Happy Days happened. I think they had already shot the pilot for Happy Days and American Graffiti was shelved by Universal. They hated it (despite great test screenings). Yeah, it was shelved for a year and then Francis Coppola offered to buy it. You should look that up, it;s so interesting. And then it was because Elton John and a bunch of musicians had screenings for it and people went crazy and they loved it and it became a populist kind of thing. And then I guess Universal took another look.
“Well, you know Universal passed on Star Wars (too), so then Fox picked it up.”
LAB: And the rest is history. Star Wars helped usher in the blockbuster event motion picture but Graffiti became a huge hit in its own right, sparking the nostalgia craze, and it’s still one of the top money earned versus cost to make productions in movie history.
CW: “Who knew?”
LAB: Why do you feel it resonated so strongly with the public?
CW: “It was the music, the cars, the characters. It all took place in one night, it was coming-of-age. There was something for everybody in that film.”
LAB: It’s a beautiful observance of certain youth rituals in a particular place and time and yet there are universal themes of yearning and courtship it touches on, too.
CW: “That’s so true, Leo. It’s the basic goodness of those rituals and also, and I remember George saying this, the story took place before President Kennedy was assassinated and before we all went to just hell in a handbasket, before everything became cynical. It was like a delineation. It was an age of innocence in those cars and with that music. There was nothing diabolique or gruesome or shocking. It was just all this sweet mirth. They were happy times, and you go to Garry Marshall in creating Happy Days. It was really a lovely time. It was such a different time.
“I remember that line drawn where you’re happy one day and then the president is assassinated and the whole country is trying to figure it out and mourn and grieve, and then all this cynicism began.”
LAB: You obviously continue to feel very warmly about American Graffiti and what it represents.
CW: “I always will. That film, to be a part of it, is such a privilege and an honor. A happy happy time of my life.”
LAB: Are you still close to some of the cast and crew?
CW: “Oh yeah, I see Paul Le Mat all the time and Candy (Clark) and Bo Hopkins. Things were so uncanny about the film. Like my best friend Lynne Marie Stewart, who played Miss Yvonne on Pee Wee’s Playhouse, she played Bobbie Tucker, who throws Richard Dryfuss out of her Volkswagon. Do you remember that scene? Well, Richard Dryfuss was her childhood friend – they went to elementary school together, and I knew Richard because of Lynne way before any of us started acting professionally. And so that was just like crazy that we all got cast in it, though Lynne and I went to theater school together. We knew Fred Roos together.
I haven’t seen Suzanne (Somers) and Ron (Howard) in a while. Richard, I’ve seen recently, and Harrison. But yeah everybody’s very friendly.”
LAB: Did you see any evidence of Howard’s interest in being a director?
CW: “Yes, he would get out of the car and he’d go and talk to Haskell and come and sit back in the car because we had no where else to do, and I’d say, ‘What are you doing?’ and he’d say, ‘Oh, I’m just asking Haskell how he’s shooting this because I’d like to direct some day,’ and I thought, ‘Yeah, right.'”
LAB: I take it that you’re coming to Omaha for this revival screening because you enjoy celebrating the film with fans.
CW: “I’m happy to get up before the film and tell everybody this was shot in 28 nights for $750,000 and most of that went to the music rights. Tell them little stories about it because people who love it, that just makes them love it even more and it let’s them see it the way I see it. I kind of give them a from-the-inside out kind of view of it. So yeah it’s a happy thing, Leo, and how many of those are in the world right now?”
LAB: The whole night shooting aspect of it is pretty fascinating.
CW: “Twenty-eight nights. It all takes place at night except for one shot in the morning when Kurt (Dryfuss) takes off for college in the plane. If you look at the plane real close one of the engines catches on fire when it starts up.”
LAB: Just how tight the shooting schedule was boggles the mind. But then again working fast forces you to be inventive.
CW: “You know, when you don’t give people a chance to (over)think and they’re thinking on their feet sometimes you get the best stuff because people just work twice as hard and they just buckle down. It’s great. When I was in school and we’d have a scene due a week you just did it, you didn’t question anything, you didn’t say, ‘What’s my motivation?’ You figured it out in your mind and your body and your heart and your soul and you did it.”
LAB: Do you regret making the sequel to American Graffiti?
CW: “No, not at all.”
LAB: Even though it was very poorly received and is not well regarded today either?
CW: “I know but I don’t regret it at all. I wish George had given the director more time to shoot it.”
LAB: Where do you place American Graffiti in your career compared with other projects you’re most proud of?
CW: “They’re on a loop – American Graffiti, Laverne and Shirley and The Conversation.”
LAB: You’ve done some producing as your career’s gone on.
CW: “I did co-produce Father of the Bride and that’s a whole other ball of wax, which im happy to talk with you about some other time. It’s a good story.”
FOR EVENT DETAILS, VISIT: http://www.omahafilmevent.com
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- Happy Birthday, Cindy Williams!!! (kidzrockinc.co)
- Penny Marshall Looks Back On Life – And The Movies – In Memoir ‘My Mother Was Nuts’ (movieline.com)
- AFI Night: #62 American Graffiti (mateohines.wordpress.com)
Gabrielle Union Takes Serious Turn in BET Drama ‘Being Mary Jane’ and PBS Documentary ‘Half the Sky’
Gabrielle Union. She’s hard to ignore because of her beauty, intelligence, confidence, grit, and good heart. All those qualities and more are on display in a new PBS documentary event, Half the Sky, premiering Oct. 1 and 2 that features her as one of six celebrity advocates who travel to different corners of the world to explore women and girls overcoming oppression. Those traits are reportedly also on display in her title role performance in the new BET movie, Being Mary Jane, that’s set to premiere early next year before developing into a series. My cover story on Union below is the latest among three cover stories I’ve done on the actress over the years. You can find the previous stories on this blog as well. I expect I’ll file more Gabby stories in the future as well.
Gabrielle Union Takes Serious Turn in BET Drama ‘Being Mary Jane’ and PBS Documentary ‘Half the Sky’
by Leo Adam Biga
Now appearing in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Gabrielle Union has reached a point in her film and television career where she’s doing more meaningful projects. Not by accident either. The maturing actress known for her assertive persona and frank views has been ever more deliberate about her personal and professional choices.
“Probably since 2006 I’ve been concentrating on making sure I’m happy and doing things for the right reason and surrounding myself with good, positive people and eliminating the rest,” says the Omaha native with mega family and friends here. “I’ve got a peace of mind I’ve never had and I’m just really happy.”
It seems hard to believe but this glam goddess is 40 now. She’s still enough of a pop culture presence and sex symbol to grace the cover of the new EBONY magazine. She’s the perfect age, too, for the driven title character she plays in the new BET movie Being Mary Jane. The drama, slated to air in early 2013, is leveraged to become the network’s first original dramatic series.
The movie premiered at the recent Urbanworld Film Festival in Manhattan.
Her character Mary Jane Paul is a smart, popular Atlanta TV host striving to have it all in a male-dominated field while her biological clock ticks.
It might as well be describing Union’s real life as a single black female juggling career, family, living large and causes. Mary Jane’s another in a long line of her together black women roles. As she puts it, “I don’t mind creating positive images for women of color.” She says she and her two adult sisters, both successful in their own right, are confident, capable people today in large measure because of her mother, Theresa Glass Union, a former social worker and corporate manager.
Gabby’s no stranger herself to career and relationship issues. After her marriage to former NFL player Chris Howard ended in divorce she was a free agent. Then she met NBA icon Dwyane Wade, whose own marriage dissolved. Since finding each other on the rebound they’ve become a favorite power couple in celeb circles.
But it’s a project that didn’t require Union to do any acting that may make her most enduring impression. She’s one of six celebrity advocates in the new PBS transmedia documentary series Half the Sky. It premieres October 1 and 2. Union and Co. serve as witnesses and guides for this sprawling, multi-continent media event that examines the oppression of girls and women in developing nations.
The despairing realities revealed are offset by the courageous actions of individuals and organizations, so-called agents of change, working to improve conditions on the ground.
The title comes from the best selling book by noted New York Times journalists Nicholas Kristof and Sherly WuDunn. The series explores how girls and women in poverty become trapped in family-society restraints that limit opportunities and enable abuse, servitude and discrimination. The film finds education the most powerful liberating force for freeing people from bondage.
Girls are often discouraged from completing their education and even if they do they must still confront serious obstacles. Some do. Many don’t.
Producers invited Union to participate along with fellow actresses Diane Lane, Eva Mendes, Meg Ryan, Olivia Wilde and America Ferrera. Each was assigned to travel to a separate developing nation (Liberia, Sierra Leone, India, Pakistan) with Kristof. Their mission – to investigate what problems females face and report on proven remedies. Union and her peers acted as citizen journalists – their curiosity, empathy and questions complementing the professional reporter’s work.
Having a celebrity tag along is nothing new for Kristof.
“Nick has a history of engaging witnesses in his travels as a reporter,” says Half the Sky executive producer and director Maro Chermayeff. “He does his yearly Win-a-Trip where readers apply to go on an extensive journalist’s trip with him and he’s also traveled with Angelina Jolie and George Clooney (the actor intros the series). He has a very hard core following and what he’s often said about that is he wants to ‘bring fresh eyes.'”
In whatever corner of the world the celebrities, Kristof and filmmakers went they met females in distress as well as advocates working on their behalf. Chermayeff profiles select girls and women, whose stories become the prism through which we view the problems and solutions.
Union spent two weeks with Kristof and Chermayeff for a segment set in Vietnam‘s Mekong Delta. The actress got close with two girls there, Duyen and Nhi, both of whom contend with barriers to try and further their education.
“Their stories are amazing and their overcoming adversity kind of puts everything in perspective,” says Union.
During her Delta stay she met John Wood, co-founder of Room to Read, an NGO providing books and support to millions of children worldwide. It got its start in Vietnam. Duyen and Nhi are both Room to Read scholars. She also met a pair of Vietnam nationals who work as program facilitators with the girls and their families.
Half the Sky promotional materials brand the project’s ambitious aim as “turning oppression into opportunity” through programs and efforts that “seek to engage, educate and motivate the world to action.”
Union says the experience opened her eyes to the “very skewed idea Americans have of Vietnam.” She says she went “open to hearing the stories from the war and the rebuilding that happened after the war.” She adds she was most surprised by how “for the most part the Vietnamese are very openly welcoming of Americans.”
Chermayeff, who made the HBO doc The Kindness of Strangers in Omaha, says some colleagues questioned using celebrities
“But we knew celebrities could do two things. They could be fresh eyes and they could also shine a light, bounce a little bit of their ability to draw in a different audience on these very important issues.”
At a screening of the finished film she says skeptics acknowledged how effective the advocates are as “a bridge between the audience and the experience.”
“We knew we didn’t want the talent to distract from the stories or to be playing the role of an expert. They’re not experts. But we knew we were reaching out to women who were socially engaged, who had walked this walk and talked this talk before. They were working in this space. Gabrielle Union’s done extensive work with young women and girls on gender based violence in the States.”
Union’s heavily involved in supporting rape victims and raising money for cancer research. While a student at UCLA she was raped at the job she worked. From the time her film-TV career took off in the late 1990s she’s spoken candidly about what happened and she encourages victims to become survivors whose voices are heard. After close friend Kristen Martinez died of breast cancer Union devoted herself to spreading the word about the need for breast cancer screenings, which she does as a Susan G. Komen for the Cure ambassador.
When asked to carry her activism to Half the Sky she balked at first, only because she was coming off an especially busy period, but after seeing how it aligned with her own values and interests in empowering females, she signed on.
“I just couldn’t say no. i just wanted to be part of telling the story. It was incredibly humbling. I mean, I do a lot of work for women and girls on behalf of the Susan G. Komen for the Cure, Planned Parenthood, the UCLA Rape Crisis Center. I lobby state legislatures and the U.S. Senate and Congress to create funding for rape crisis centers. I’m on the President’s Committee to stop violence against women.
“I was happy to do be asked to take part in such a huge project as Half the Sky in bringing awareness to the issue of girls and women living in oppression.”
The much-anticipated series is the kind of prestige, serious endeavor that might gain her a whole new following. Most of her recent film work has been in black-themed soap operas featuring her niche as a sharp-tongued shrew with a heart-of-gold (Deliver Us From Eva, Think Like a Man, Tyler Perry’s Mr. Good Deeds) though those pictures do have wide crossover appeal.
While not apparent at first there’s a thruline from Half the Sky to Being Mary Jane to other work she’s doing because they’re all projects that matter to her.
Mary Jane is produced by Mara Brock Akil and Salim Akil, the hot writer-director team whose BET series The Game is a phenomenon. They’ve also collaborated on the network’s Girlfriends and the feature Sparkle.
Mary Jane Paul may be no stretch for Union, whose real life intelligence, strength and independence have sustained her in a rough business, but it represents one of the few times she’s gained the lead in a straight dramatic role. The Akils promise to give her more to work with than the bitchy divas she initially drew attention with or the stalwart, largely thankless wifely supporting parts she’s lately assumed.
She says she’s long wanted to work with the couple and recalls a conversation she once had with Mara Brock Akil about the types of roles and projects she desired. Ones with substance and relevance. She feels Mary Jane realizes those aspirations, saying it’s the best TV pilot script she’s read since Scandal, the ABC thriller series she wanted but didn’t land (Kerry Washington got the lead).
Besides the creative team behind it Union says what ultimately sold her on Mary Jane is its very real, true depiction of aspirational single black women just like herself and her friends. The dramatic situations, whether with family or romantic relationships or work dynamics, seem drawn from her and their own lives.
Not surprisingly, she often calls actor friends for feedback when weighing a possible career-changing role.
“Anytime I have a question about acting and should I do it, should I not do it, I call Sanaa Lathan (the star of Something Different).”
Mary Jane was such a natural fit Union didn’t necessarily need her friend’s counsel this time. She did on the underrated and undersign Cadillac Records (2008).
“I asked Sanna about it and she said, ‘Baby, if it doesn’t scare you, you shouldn’t do it.’ And if you look at her choices she definitely lives by that and I’ve tried to incorporate more of that. Even auditioning for things where I’m like, ‘Oh, gosh, there’s no way in hell I’ll get that,’ and most often I don’t but to even put myself in a position of trying and to stretch myself as an actor and to put myself out there as an actor and to take more risks feels pretty good.”
Union’s embraced her share of risks, too. In Neo Ned (2005) her character and a neo-Nazi played by Jeremy Renner fall hard for each other in the confines of a psych ward.
On the surface her Cadillac Records part as Geneva Wade, the girlfriend of Muddy Waters, may seem safe but she says it was a stretch because, “one, there was no glamour to it, and two, there was no humor.” Thus, it exposed her. “Yeah, it’s scary to not be able to have a lot of hair and makeup and to not look glamorous and to not always get the punchline, so it was a little nerve wracking for me.”
“And if you’re going to put people in victim or hero mode she was a bit of a victim of Muddy Waters,” says Union. “She took a lot of grief, she was the long-suffering partner but she stood by him and she supported him and she dealt with whatever came her way and she did it with quiet dignity and class.”
Union says, “It reminded me so much of my mother’s story and so many women of that generation or now who deal with that same thing, and I tried to portray it with as much respect as I could.”
The star’s parents divorced years ago.
Half the Sky took Union out of her comfort zone again. Minus a script. she wasn’t asked to be anyone but herself. No where to hide. Minus a wardrobe of styling outfits, she wore practical casuals for negotiating dikes and roadways and coping with rainy season downfalls and repressive tropical climes.
Chermayeff admires that Union threw herself into this immersion experience with poor working class families living on dikes in the delta.
“I love her, she’s a great girl.”
Dueyn’s family lives in a makeshift tent after their shack was flooded. Just to get to school is an epic journey for the girl, who must cross waterways in boats and then make a 17-mile trek by bike, each way. To appreciate how much effort all that takes Union retraced the route alongside the girl, including making the bike trip.
As Kristof shares in a voice-over, “Duyen is kind of a classic situation in rural areas where you have a girl who’s so bright and so capable but she’s a long way from any school…and that is far from unique in the developing world.”
Union explains in her own voice-over, “I think I realized just how long, how lonely her journey home is. Crap roads, crazy vegetation where anyone can hide. Anything could happen to her in 17 miles, and she’s just rolling by herself. I asked, ‘Does anyone ever bug you as you’re riding home?’ and she said, ‘Oh yeah… men have stopped me before.'”
Human predators prey on targets like Duyen. In certain parts of the world it can mean being sold or kidnapped into the sex trafficking underworld.
Sometimes the abuser’s right inside the family. Nhi is forced to sell lottery tickets by her father, whom, she reveals, beats her when she doesn’t sell her entire allotment.
“It’s probably a lot worse than even what she’s shared because she can’t control it,” Union tells the Room to Read facilitator. “With Nhi everything she’s feeling you can see. She’s trained by her father you don’t tell the neighbors what’s going on, you don’t tell your teachers, you don’t tell anyone what happens in this house but her emotions are betraying her.
“For a lot of children in disadvantaged situations and households education’s a safe haven. (School’s) a place where for the most part you can trust the people there and it’s a few hours every day where you are physically safe and good things are happening.”
“That’s a story that was very, very close to Gabby’s heart because Nhi was really working and struggling,” says Chermayeff.
As Union tells the facilitator, “When I was 19 and I left home I ended up getting raped…When you’re raped it’s the absence of control, so the one thing I could control was school and I just dove into my school work and I became an amazing student. So I can relate to Nhi being so driven in school and I just wish for girls who have to go through any kind of adversity that they have education as an outlet for healing.”
The actress says she came away from Vietnam inspired by “the perseverance of these young girls, who move hell and high water to get an education. If that means paying for it themselves, they pay for it themselves, if that means living away from their families they do that.” She says Nhi’s situation so moved her that she and Dwyane Wade have set up a scholarship fund for Nhi to complete her studies.
Union’s helping Wade raise his two sons and a nephew. She has three new young siblings to dote on now, too, since her mom, who lives in Omaha, recently adopted three pre-school aged children. The children’s biological mother is a niece to Glass and a cousin to Union.
“It’s like we’re starting over,” Union says . “I’m coming back in big sister mode trying to mold a set of young people and provide as much as we can. It’s kind of like we’re going back in time and we get to do it over and fix some of the mistakes we made in the past. My mom very much believes in we-are-our-brother’s keeper and you’re only as strong as your weakest link, and she refuses to let our family down.”
For more on the documentary, visit http://www.halftheskymovement.org.
- Girls Gone Global (thedailybeast.com)
- Will You Join the Half the Sky Movement? (blog-aauw.org)
- Join Six Amazing Actresses for an Inspiring Television Event | Independent Lens | PBS – Trailer (point4counterpoint.wordpress.com)
I have been fortunate enough to interview several film legends and with this story I landed a biggie in the person of the late Robert Wise, the Oscar-winning producer-director who made two of the greatest screen musicals in West Side Story and The Sound of Music, though as my piece points out he was a versatile enough filmmaker that he made memorable movies of all different genres, including horror, crime, Western, and science fiction. My story appeared on the eve of a revival screening of West Side Story at the restored Orpheum Theater in Omaha some eight or nine years ago. The event was organized by local impresario Bruce Crawford. For the story I interviewed Wise, co-star Russ Tamblyn, who came to the showing, and Crawford. Though Wise was not a great filmmaker or auteur he was certainly one of the most commercially successful prodcuer-directors of his era. His career also spanned an incredibly long period, from the Golden Age of 1930s-1940s Hollywood well into the 1980s, and intersected with scores of great talents. It was a distinct privilege to speak with him. Flm lovers should note that this blog is full of my stories from my work as a film journalist.
‘West Side Story,’ An American Classic
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in the New Horizons
Before becoming the home of Omaha’s performing arts in the 1970s, the Orpheum Theater reigned as the grandest movie palace in the city. It’s only fitting then the newly renovated downtown Orpheum will, for one night only, on Monday, November 11, showcase a national cinema treasure — West Side Story — in a special screening benefiting the St. Vincent DePaul Society of Omaha
The event is the latest in local impresario Bruce Crawford’s series of annual film revivals presented in the manner of Hollywood premieres. This time, he’s arranged personal appearances by three West Side Story notables — its Oscar-winning producer-director Robert Wise, co-star Russ Tamblyn and vocalist Marni Nixon, who provided the singing voice for Natalie Wood. Also, a choreographed work by Robin Welch of the Omaha Theater Ballet will pay homage to the dance numbers in the film. Wise, Tamblyn and Nixon will speak prior to the film and sign autographs afterwards.
Crawford said he’s secured “an archival print” for the showing, which will offer audiences a rare chance to see the film in all its 70 millimeter Super Panavision glory on the big screen. In the opinion of Crawford, a devotee of film music, West Side Story “broke the mold” as far as the American musical is concerned. “I consider it a modern opera. Maria,Tonight, In America — these are not just show tunes, these are almost operatic arias,” he said. “I think it transcends the musical genre and is the most unique of all film musicals, hands-down.”
Released by United Artists in 1961, West Side Story became a huge box-office hit and one of the most honored films in Academy Award history, winning 10 Oscars, including for Best Picture, Best Director (Wise and co-director Jerome Robbins), Best Supporting Actor (George Chakiris) and Best Supporting Actress (Rita Moreno). As successful as the film was, it owed everything to the original stage production upon which it was based. Boldly transposing the forbidden romance of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet to the New York gang milieu and exchanging the Montague-Capulet feud for the gang warfare between the Caucasian Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks, playwright Arthur Laurents, lyricist Stephen Sondheim, composer Leonard Bernstein and director-choreographer Jerome Robbins covered new ground in American musical theater with their honest depiction of racial issues.
The modern, socially-conscious drama became a Broadway phenomenon soon after opening at New York’s Winter Garden Theater in 1957. Brimming with an urgent passion and intellect, the show ran more than 700 performances before going on tour. Sensing a hot property when they saw one, producers ponied-up to buy the film rights. In the changing landscape of American cinema then, old-line Hollywood studios were giving way to brash new independent film companies, one of which — Mirisch Pictures — acquired the rights to the play and, in association with Seven Arts Productions, launched the much-anticipated screen version.
To helm the film, veteran Robert Wise (Somebody Up There Likes Me) was signed and, in an unusual arrangement, Broadway’s Robbins was given co-directorial responsibilities. The plan was for Wise to direct the dramatic scenes and to shape the overall story for the camera and for Robbins to develop the demanding dance and music numbers. Screenwriter Ernest Lehman (Sabrina, The King and I, Sweet Smell of Success, North By Northwest) wrote the film adaptation. Bernstein and Sondheim again provided the powerful music and lyrics around which the entire spine of West Side is built. In preparing the film, Wise-Robbins elected not to use any leads from the Broadway show and instead cast five fresh-faced young players under contract to various studios.
As the souful, starcrossed lovers whose romance defies family, ethnic and gang codes of honor, Richard Beymer was cast as Tony, the Polish-American boy, and Natalie Wood as Maria, the Chicano girl. Newcomer George Chakiris took the showy part of Bernardo, the charismatic leader of the Sharks. Plucked from the obscurity of previously decorative bit parts, Rita Moreno won the role of Anita, the fire brand mate of Bernardo. And, finally, for the cocky role of Riff, the leader of the Jets, Russ Tamblyn got the call.
In recent phone interviews from their California homes, Wise and Tamblyn spoke about making the film and the artists they collaborated with. After 56 years directing some of the most famous features in movie history, 88-year-old Robert Wise is finally retired from picture-making, although movies are always on his mind. The venerable Wise is the last of the old guard of Hollywood filmmakers. In a distinguished career that saw him transition from the editing room at RKO, where he cut such classics as Citizen Kane, to assuming the director’s chair, from which he oversaw dozens of popular films of every conceivable genre, Wise earned a reputation as a fine craftsman. His fluid, incisive, unadorned work exudes a sober integrity reflective of his own character. In preparing a film a director is like a reporter and Wise, who intended to be a journalist, anchors his work in research. “When I go into any project I research every aspect of it thoroughly, so I can tell all the truth and reality I can up on the screen,” he said.
By the time Wise joined the West Side creative team, he was a bankable, versatile director adept at making suspense films (The Curse of the Cat People), horror films (The Body Snatcher), film noirs (The Set-Up), crime thrillers (Odds Against Tomorrow), Westerns (Blood on the Moon), science fiction flicks (The Day the Earth Stood Still), high dramas (Executive Suite), biopics (I Want to Live) and war films (Run Silent, Run Deep). Despite never directing a musical, he worked as an assistant editor on Astaire-Rogers pictures, an experience, he said, that helped him know “the form” of the musical. Four years after West Side, he struck gold with another Broadway adaptation — The Sound of Music –which broke all box office records.
Wise knew the challenge in making a film from a play, any play, was in finding ways to open the story up in cinematic terms that liberated the action from the constraints of the stage. So that he could capture the grit, vitality and scope of West Side’s New York City setting, he realized he must get dynamic shots of the Big Apple and thus fix the story’s urban location in people’s minds. To do that, he came up with the novel idea for the signature opening — a sweeping helicopter pan looking straight down at the looming cityscape. The resulting images offer arresting views of the city and serve to heighten the reality and poetry of the stylized drama. The filmmaker had to fight reluctant, penny-pinching executives to do the opening his way.
“Well, they were not too happy about it because it was going to cost a lot more money to shoot that, but that was the only way to do it,” he said. “I didn’t want to fake that out here in Los Angeles. I wanted to deliver New York and I didn’t want to do it with that same old shot across the river of the bridge and the skyline. I got to wondering what it would look like just straight down — a New York most people have never seen. I didn’t actually shoot that myself. A second-unit man did it for me. I think we had about a half-hour’s worth of film, which we cut down into what’s in the movie.” The montage rythmically leads into the first pulsating shots of gang members moving in the streets and breaking into dance.
Aside from his own contributions, Wise felt secure knowing he had a brilliant book, sublime lyrics and memorable music to work with. In his mind, a film is only as good as its screenplay. He said, “We had a marvelous script by a writer-friend of mine, Ernest Lehman, who’s done several of my other things. The foundation of any film is the script, and if it’s not on the page, you’re not going to get it up there (on the screen). If you’ve got it on the page and if you get the right cast together and the right crew, then away you go and you let the chips fall where they may.”
Russ Tamblyn said West Side was a project where “all the ingredients clicked.” Among the big egos and talents behind it, he said, it was the cool, calm, quiet Wise who held it all together. “He was quite different from Jerome Robbins. Jerry was very passionate and out front. He would get mad at dancers if they couldn’t remember steps and he wanted actors to keep doing stuff over and over and over again. On the set, boy, he was a demon. Whereas Robert Wise was more laid-back. He was the kind of director I really like — that’s more self-assured and would point you in the right direction and leave it up to you to go there. That’s the thing I loved about him. He just is really sweet. You can call him at his office, and he answers the phone. There aren’t many people in his position that do that.”
When, more than half-way through production, the film fell behind schedule and went over-budget, the fiery Robbins was fired and assistant Tony Mordente, who also played one of the Jets, Action, assumed the choreography. Ironically, Robbins won Oscars for his energetic, sexually-charged choreography and co-direction.
Behind-the-scenes intrigue or not, Tamblyn enjoyed the shoot and felt lucky to be part of the film at all. He was “on loan” to the producers from MGM, where he was a contract player. He actually tested for the role of Tony, but ended up playing Riff over the objections of studio head Bennie Thau, who felt the part projected the wrong image for a young star being groomed as a clean-cut boy-next-door type. West Side was not the first or last musical for Tamblyn, who displayed his acrobatic style, replete with his trademark back flip, in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Tom Thumb and Hit the Deck. While lacking formal training, the former Los Angeles youth tumbling champ got the equal of a graduate-level dance education from such master choreographers as Robbins, Michael Kidd and Hermes Pan. Although “extremely intimidated” by the dances required in West Side, he gained confidence during months of rehearsal and from being in the company of fellow former child actors Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer, whom Tamblyn later co-starred with in David Lynch’s cult TV series Twin Peaks.
Tamblyn, who considers West Side Story “the peak” of his career, enjoys attending revivals of the film. “Last year we did a cast and crew reunion in New York at Radio City Music Hall,” he said. “It was completely sold out. It was right after 9/11 and we didn’t even want to go, but Mayor Giuliani asked us to, and it was one of the best trips I ever had there.” Robert Wise was there too and said the film “played like gangbusters.” For his Omaha screening, Bruce Crawford is “thrilled” to have the combination of “a legendary filmmaker, a classic film and the Orpheum Theater.”
- How we made … Russ Tamblyn and George Chakiris on West Side Story (guardian.co.uk)
- Five top stage-to-film musical makeovers (nydailynews.com)
- West Side Story, film soundtrack, CD review (telegraph.co.uk)
- The Search for the ‘West Side Story’ Album Cover in NYC (wqxr.org)