Sunday, May 27, 2012

Spaghetti Sunday



It was late in 1947 when my next story comes to life.  And yes this little tale does indeed involve film production.

How do I remember it was late 1947?  My paternal grandmother decided to have the Leggio clan over for a spaghetti dinner one Sunday late that year.   Because I had just turned 12 years of age in September, I was now allowed to eat at the big table with the adults.  The kids (including my younger brother, Wayne) all had to sit at the “kid table” where, until this day, I had previously sat (before turning 12).  So on this “spaghetti Sunday” I really felt special.

My grandmother's 2-story home was on the corner of Royal and America streets in downtown Baton Rouge.  The back of her house abutted the back of the then Governor's Mansion on North Blvd.


I sat next to my older cousin, Buddy.  I was crazy about Buddy.  He was 5 years older than me and was a lot of fun.  And “fun” is an understatement in describing the events of this particular Sunday gathering.


The entire Leggio clan was not in attendance.  There would have been no room for 6 aunts, 2 uncles, numerous cousins and in-law spouses in addition to my brother, my parents and me.   In attendance besides us were 3 aunts, 1 uncle, 4 in-law spouses and about 7 cousins.  At the big round table were the adults.   At the small square table were the kids.


Buddy was a perpetual practical joker.  And since I was now among the adults I got to enjoy being in close proximity to his antics. 


On this particular occasion he had acquired a spool of white thread.  He tied the thread’s end to a black cardboard cut-out of a cockroach.   Our Aunt Estelle was a lovable, high-energy and high-strung lady.  Knowing where she was going to be sitting, Buddy draped the cockroach-end of the spool about a foot over the table’s edge just opposite her chair.  The white table cloth would essentially render the white thread “invisible”.  Buddy was holding the spool end of the thread.  (Yes, yes, I know you’re way ahead of me).


Grandma Leggio was busy in the kitchen cooking spaghetti and meatballs.  My uncle George busied himself going back and forth into the kitchen to check on Grandma’s progress.  George was a big man and was trying to be patient and control his ravenous appetite.  


Pretty soon everyone except Grandma (who is still in the kitchen) is seated, ready to enjoy Grandma’s famous spaghetti dinner.   Uncle George, of course, is still up and down checking on the kitchen progress.  


Buddy now leans over to me and says “Watch this.”  He proceeds to slowly reel in the white thread.  Now appears the “cockroach” next to Aunt Estelle’s place setting.  And NOW we hear a deafening “AAAAHH, a roach, A ROACH” as she leaps up, spilling her water and causing 2 or 3 other family guests to do the same.


Buddy is now yelling “Momma, Momma!” as my Aunt Lou, Buddy’s mom, takes a belt to him.  And during this “roach” commotion we suddenly hear Uncle George now yelling “Momma, MOMMA!” Grandma, who has been clobbering George with a spatula, comes into the dining room announcing “George has eaten all the meatballs.  So it looks like we’ll be having spaghetti WITHOUT meatballs.”  

While my Dad is still laughing at Buddy's little prank,  my mom shames me for it and Aunt Lou defends me with "Audrey, that was entirely Buddy's doings, not Jerry Jr's"  And yes I dearly loved my Aunt Lou.


Dinner now ends and Uncle Jules requests that everyone join him and Aunt Frances in the living room.  He and Frances had just returned from a 6 week European vacation.  We were all going to be treated to 8 millimeter movie footage of their trip.  He had shot about 10 rolls of film.  (I told you this story would be about film production).


While Uncle Jules is preparing the projector with the first of his film rolls, we all settle into our seats in the living room (the “kids” get to sit on the floor) in preparation of the big travel log.  Neither Jules nor Frances had seen these processed film rolls.   Jules wanted them to be as fresh to him and Frances as to his family.


OK, the projector is now projecting.  But, OMG, what we see is a big flesh colored section of frame with just a small corner showing something that Aunt Frances disgustedly describes as a “beautiful country-side in Italy if Jules’ THUMB wasn’t in the picture.”  Uncle Jules was a cigar smoker.  When he shot the footage, his thumb would somehow wind up over the lens.   But because the eyepiece was clear it didn’t occur to him that the lens might not be clear.  And so his thumb was the dominant subject of their trip.   Nonetheless we all had to sit and watch about 30 minutes of “thumb” while Aunt Frances described what we were supposed to be seeing.


Fading memory does not allow me to remember whether or not we had dessert that Sunday.  But no amount of dessert could have substituted for the unending series of “entertainments” we enjoyed that day.   And, though my milestone 12th birthday had already come and gone, I considered this “Spaghetti Sunday” the best present I could have received, my very own special Thanksgiving.




Saturday, May 19, 2012

SUPERDOME




Do you remember my DEADLY TOWER post where I described Lee Edwards’ spoonerizing his one line?  In that post I described Director Jerry Jameson’s patience and amusement with Lee’s faux pas.

Well about a year after that production was completed and aired on NBC Jameson returned to Louisiana to cast and direct a made-for-TV pro-football epic entitled SUPERDOME.  He remembered my DEADLY TOWER performance and cast me (without audition) as the Coach of the Cougars Pro Football team.   Wow!  Did I feel special!

When I got the script I found that my role was quite substantial. I lost no time learning the script and letting family and friends know of my good fortune.

The cast included David Janssen, Edie Adams, Peter Haskell, Ken Howard, Van Johnson, Donna Mills, Ed Nelson, Jane Wyatt, Tom Selleck and a bevy of recently retired NFL players including Dick Butkus and Bubba Smith.

The script dealt with illicit game wagering among the Cougar players.  As the coach my locker room lecture dealt with admonitions regarding player gaming and the possible consequences of such behavior.  In the course of rehearsing the locker room scene, the players (mainly Dick Butkus and Bubba Smith) took pleasure in razzing me, trying to throw me off, playfully trying to intimidate me.   And of course they did occasionally get the desired effect.   But when the camera rolled and I got it right, I was asked by one of them “You a real coach?”  What a complement?!   The scene went great and Jameson was quite pleased as was I.

Months later when ABC announced the air date, I let everyone know.  But when it aired, my only scenes were my few field side-line appearances.  What happened?  What happened to my great locker-room scene?  The next day I managed to get a call into the production office.  I asked about this disturbing omission.  I was told that the NFL had previewed the film and had objected to a plot structure that would include active players being involved in illicit gaming.  Because the NFL would have no problem with retired players being so involved, the script was re-written and edited to exclude active team players from such nefarious activities, thus rendering my locker room scene unusable.  My heart was broken, but at least I was not cut entirely.  Lesson learned – DON’T tout forthcoming productions for fear of possibly suffering humiliation.  I have adhered to that rule ever since this SUPERDOME disappointment.

And since then I have appeared in some 20 major roles that I have not been cut from, but nonetheless dared not boast about.  I did violate that vow with my recent role in TNT’s HIDE because I was tipped off that my scene (a nice little cameo) was left in, that it was pivotal to the story line.  But I will continue to beware the possibility of exclusion UNLESS I know for certain my scenes have not been cut.

The heartbreak I can handle.  It’s the embarrassment I have a hard time with.








Friday, May 11, 2012

Bones and Pennies

OK, let’s go back to 1945. I was but a wee little 10 year old. And I realize this might be construed as a departure from my usual film production musings, but you’ll notice a hint of “movie mania” featured in this posting.

My friend, Lloyd, and I would stroll down Main St. every Saturday to the Tivoli Theater to watch our hero, Wild Bill Elliott in a ½ hour cliffhanger serial followed by either a Three Stooges or a Laurel and Hardy or a Leon Errol comedy short. We’d have to pay a whopping 9 cents for the "picture show" (that's what everyone called a movie back then -- a picture show) and a nickel for a bag of popcorn.  From the 15 cents our moms would give to each of us we’d be left with a penny each after the show. That penny would be destined for a horrifying fate.



The Tivoli was adjacent to the old frame-structured Goudchaux’s Department store across from St. Joseph’s Cemetery. 

When the picture show would let out, Lloyd and I would cut through St. Joseph’s Cemetery to gain quicker access to North St. for our trek back home. If it was not too dark, we would often collect human bones that were strewn near washed out graves. The object of this collection was to add to the “make-shift” little pet skeleton we had been assembling over a period of several weeks. Sadly I have no pictures of our “Frankenstein” critter which consisted of a rib cage, 2 miss-matched legs, one arm, and no skull (at least not yet). We hid our osteo creature in an old abandoned shed that was situated behind my house. This was an area that adults seldom ever frequented, thus providing us some measure of privacy.

Our very last such excursion ended one weekend when we were caught red-handed. That was not a good day. I realized that day was not going to be a good day when the Tivoli insisted on charging me fourteen cents for the movie. I told the ticketeer I was under 12, but he didn’t believe me. This meant that I would have to mooch popcorn from Lloyd.  Needless to say I was teed off.

After the movie we made our usual trek through St. Joseph’s, then home. As we resumed our skeletal assembly, my mother suddenly appeared and said “WHAT ARE YOU DOING?” Lloyd and I both nearly jumped out of our skins (hey, this would have provided us with 2 complete skeletons). Anyway mom repeated her inquisition. I couldn’t lie. I said “We’re building a skeleton.” She asked “Where did those bones comes from?” I told her and she demanded “You and Lloyd take those back right now!” “But Mom…” “RIGHT NOW!” Our masterpiece had been uncovered (or more appropriately “unearthed”)!. Darn! Discovered by a perturbed and disturbed parent. Darn!

It was getting dark, so Lloyd and I dutifully gathered up our precious collection and made our way back to St. Joseph’s cemetery. We dropped the bones just inside the fence. No way were we going back in there after dark. Gloomily and sadly we trudged back home while fantasizing over other projects we might want to consider launching. SAAAY! How about pennies on the railroad track!? Not quite as adventurous as “grave-robbing”, but nonetheless quite compelling. And weeks later my mother would be heard saying “You and Lloyd did WHAT?”

Hmmm! Young minds! Youthful innocence! As Mark Twain so artfully characterized it: “Too bad that youth is wasted on the young”. But, Mr. Twain, I have to take issue with your reasoning. What good are the fruits of youth if they are only to endure over one's few, diminishing years?




Alfred Hitchcock




It was during the filming of HURRY SUNDOWN (Otto Preminger post May 2012) in 1966 that I became acquainted with Bo. I can’t remember Bo's full name, but “Bo” was his nickname and he was working either props or wardrobe on HURRY SUNDOWN.  Anyhow Bo told me about a bizarre experience he had while on the special effects crew of Alfred Hitchcock’s classic PSYCHO some 7 years earlier.

In the 1950s and 60s the industry’s “decency” code imposed very strict rules when a story-line involved nudity. If you saw PSYCHO, then no doubt you’ll remember the famous shower scene when Janet Leigh’s character, Marion Crane, is brutally stabbed repeatedly while showering. Leigh refused to allow her near-naked body to be filmed. So Myra Jones was contracted to be Leigh’s “body double”. The decency code barred any exposure of female breasts or pubic regions. Bo’s job was to assure that this code was complied with.



Before I continue with the “Bo adventure” I’ll treat you to a little known anecdote about the PSYCHO  filming.  At the very end of that bloody, shower stabbing scene Janet Leigh’s character falls forward out of the shower, dead and open-eyed onto the bathroom floor. At this point you see a slow twisting camera zoom-back from her open-eyed lifeless face. Hitchcock wanted Leigh to be stone cold still during this zoom which began on a closeup of her eye. She couldn’t blink. But she had difficulty controlling her blinking. And also, when she was able to keep her eyes open, the eyes would begin to water and tears would roll down her face. So Hitchcock, the master, had an idea. Let’s snap a black and white picture of her open-eyed face on the floor, enlarge it to life-size, then the camera can do its zoom in on the picture. Ingenious! When I saw the film I seem to recall seeing some photo grain in this shot, but not enough to affect the integrity of the scene. It worked.


OK, back to the Bo story. The body double, Myra, was well paid to perform this body double task. Her pubic region was to be completely covered as well as her breasts. To effectively accomplish this, Bo used a special adhesive on a piece of diaphanous (vaguely transparent) material that had been cut in the shape of an isosceles triangle to fit the double’s pubic area. At the apex of the triangle a slender cork was mounted so that … (well I’m sure you get the idea).

Bo was a little guy, probably not more than 5’ 4” tall. On the week that the shower scene was to be shot Bo and Myra were assigned a special room in the studio. This room was exclusively for the purpose of preparing the body double each day. Gynecology stirrups were acquired to facilitate the effective placement of the diaphanous triangle material onto its designated “location”.

The table on which the stirrups rested was rather high. Bo had to use an apple box to comfortably position himself so he could do his job properly. The adhesive he used was instant drying and required a special solvent for removal.

On the first day of the “shower scene” filming Bo and Myra began their preparations. First he had to shave her pubic area. Bo said he always got these raunchy assignments. Poor guy. Covering the nipples was not a problem. The material showed just enough nipple shadow to convey nudity while not violating code. Now for the pubic region. He placed the cork gently into its anchoring orifice (I’ll spare you the details). He then painted the adhesive onto the triangle, then began pulling the triangle up and over onto the target area.

But whoops! His apple box toppled and Bo’s chin fell onto the remaining exposed triangle. You can use your imagination to visualize where his face was now resting. He is stuck there and unable to reach the bottle of solvent. Myra is now laughing while Bo is yelling (very muffled yelling) for someone to come help. Finally the room door opens and Hitchcock himself looks in. Before retrieving the solvent bottle for Bo Hitchcock says with his renowned dry wit: “Bo, lunch is not for another hour yet.






 

Rex Reed

I've often been asked who I've worked with in films. 
The following format I got from my long time friend, Rex Reed.

I

Took Bette Davis to the nuthouse
Betrayed William Holden
Ratted on Richard Widmark
Nearly killed Ken Scott
 Joked with Raymond Burr
Swapped theater stories with Joan Bennett
Ate watermelon with Otto Preminger
 Instructed John Wayne
Checked Jane Fonda’s heartbeat
Tended Michael Caine’s young son
Opened the gate for Cicely Tyson
Partied with Clint Eastwood
Swapped theater stories with Geraldine Page
Cursed Kurt Russell
Partied with Ned Beatty
Argued with Ed Asner
Gave orders to Tom Selleck
Chastised Ken Howard
Coached Bubba Smith
Coached Dick Butkus
Took orders from Harry Morgan
Argued with Charles Napier
Ministered to Pernell Roberts
 Chatted with Leslie Ann Warren
Married Meredith Baxter
Argued with Ralph Waite
 Loaned money to Margot Kidder
Fathered Judith Ivey
Discouraged Carroll O’Conner
Commiserated with Farrah Fawcett
Photographed Paul Newman
Sentenced Dennis Hopper
Chastised Melissa Gilbert
Supervised Gerald McRaney
Insulted John Goodman
 Treated Alec Baldwin
Indulged Larry Hagman’s daughter
Supervised Stephanie Zimbalist
Instructed Billy Bob Thornton
Challenged Scott Glenn
Insulted Rob Lowe
Praised Sam Shepard
Warned Susan Sarandon
Intimidated Judd Nelson
Respected Gigi Edgley
Frightened Jewel Staite
Hassled Jason Lee
Gossiped about Treat Williams
Conveyed bad news to Kathy Bates
Was intimidated by Michael Chiklis
Examined Angela Bassett
Chastised  Janeane Garofalo

It took over 55 years to garner all these cinematic "relationships".





Ralph Waite

The Internet Movie Database (Imdb) credits me with having been in “Unknown episodes” of the MISSISSIPPI series starring Ralph Waite. Everyone else in this series can be identified with specific episodes, but mine are “unknown”. Easy to get paranoid! I was cast in 1982 in a recurring role as the District Attorney (Mr. Sacks) opposite Ralph Waite in this series.

Sean Penn’s father, Leo Penn, had cast me as a police officer in an earlier episode and was so impressed with my performance (his assessment, not mine) that he brought me back several episodes later as Mr. Sacks, the District Attorney. I said “Won’t I be recognized as having been a cop in an earlier episode?” Penn said “Won’t matter. You could have been attending law school while on your beat.” OK, I’ll buy that rationale. I then proceeded to adjust to my new role.

In one particular episode, I am engaging in a pressing discussion with Waite. I am trying to convince him of a young teen’s involvement in a murder attempt. Waite, in the character of retired criminal attorney, Ben Walker, staunchly refuses to be convinced.

In one block of the dialog Leo wanted a tight close-up of Waite and me. To accomplish this, he asked that I crouch down even with Waite. You’ll notice in the upper left picture of this post I am standing about a foot above Waite, who is seated on a stool. For the close-up (bottom left) you’ll notice that I am almost even with him (an editing miss-match, but who cares! That’s film production license). Leo said “keep crouching, Jerry, until I stop you.” When he finally stopped me, I was in a god-awful contortion. He also wanted me dead-still during this vital segment. I said “Leo, could you possibly let me kneel or sit on some apple boxes? This position is awful.” Then, before he could respond, Waite chimes in with “Aw, hell, Jerry, you can handle it.” To which I replied “Easy for you. You’re not having to do the crouching.” Waite said no more, then Leo, thank heavens, attended to my need.
 

The series garnered several awards including an Emmy nomination for Leo Penn’s direction and two nominations for the “young artist” category. No, I was not one of the young artists. And there was no “old artist” category. Drat! Maybe that was because the voting members could not decide if I was a cop or an attorney. Ahah! There’s the answer to the “unknown episodes”. I feel better now…. or at least I’ve convinced myself to feel better.

Nine years later (Déjà vu) almost the same thing happened again. I had been cast as a police captain (I guess I got promoted) in a series called DANGEROUS CURVES, part of a CBS late night line-up labeled CRIME TIME AFTER PRIME TIME. The director, David Paulsen, had pulled my head-shot from a submission
some 5 years earlier. He had been the main director of the famous DALLAS series and had asked if I would like to be Clayton Farlow’s field foreman in that series. Farlow was played by Howard Keel. Wow! Hell yes! I was nearly out the door when my Texas agent called back and said “Jerry, David forgot to ask ‘how tall are you?’” My heart fell and I said “How tall do you want me to be?” She chuckled and then said “You need to be at least nose to nose with Howard Keel.” Another DRAT! I’m 5-10 and Keel was 6-4. My loss (or was it their loss?).

But David didn’t forget me. In 1991 he had me playing a Police Captain in the first episode of DANGEROUS CURVES (top right images), and then 5 episodes later he brought me back in a guest lead role as a wealthy business man. In the opening credits I even got an "Also Starring JERRY LEGGIO as David Larkin"…. a little embarrassing to get a stand-out credit when NOBODY KNOWS YOU, but OK, I'll live with it. A wig was fashioned for me and I became David Larkin, a racist, rich, bullying asshole…. In other words – a jerk of the first order, a character type I had become quite comfortable with over my previous 40+ years. No ‘drat’ here. For the bucks, if I have to be a jerk, then let me be a jerk. I have played a jerk 12 times to date. “Can jerk, will jerk.”


The following film clips should be no problem UNLESS you are an Apple or Mac user.  I hope to correct that little shortcoming soon: 

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Oliver Stone


In 1990 my talent agent called saying “We’ve got a big one, Jerry.” She gave me the details and indeed it was a “big one”. Within the week I was on my way to New Orleans to try out for Oliver Stone’s “JFK”. In my previous post I spoke of my late friend Harold Herthem’s role in JFK. In this post I will take you on another JFK journey.This epic production required a huge cast. The New Orleans casting director, Tracy Kilpatrick, asked that I prepare to read for the role of Clay Shaw. If you are aware of the events following the Kennedy assassination, then the name Clay Shaw should ring a bell. He was prosecuted by District Attorney Jim Garrison (played by Kevin Costner) for his part in a conspiracy that Garrison genuinely believed existed, but was unable to prove.

I dedicated my efforts to mastering the sides for this role and, with a hopeful spirit, travelled to New Orleans on the appointed day. I read for the man himself, Oliver Stone. I must say it was hard to believe all the controversies in which he’d been embroiled. He could not have been nicer to me. He was very giving and encouraging. I truly felt that I was going to be “Clay Shaw”. I went home that day feeling very upbeat. Two days later my agent called and said that Stone wanted to see me again. Wow! Was I uplifted! I refreshed my lines and went in again to meet with Stone. Again he was very cordial, but very apologetic for having to ask me to make another trip. He never called me “Jerry”. He referred to me only as “Mr. Leggio”, rekindling memories of my lengthy interview years earlier with director Otto Preminger who also addressed me as “Mr. Leggio.” 
 
Stone (or “Mr. Stone”) said he was having trouble deciding between me and one other actor. I read again for him and he rubbed his chin while studying my head sheet/resume. This pause was becoming uncomfortable, so I decided to ask him if he would have a problem divulging who my competition was. He then held out his hands, palms up, oscillating them up and down like a balance scale, then saying, with his left hand up: “I’m trying to decide between you …”, then with his right hand up: “.. and Tommy Lee Jones”.  My heart sank. I was speechless. I gulped and said “Well no doubt I’ve got some stiff competition.” He said “I’ve no doubt that you can do the role. I just need to meditate on it a little more. We’ll be in touch.” In other words “Don’t call us, we’ll call you.”  To 'meditate on it a little more ' was code for "... further negotiations with Jones."

My drive home was mixed with gloom and considerably less optimism. Of course Jones got the part. And I kicked myself for not offering to accept a lesser role. The great irony of being part of a world of giant egos is that it is a fragile world often laced with ego- deflating rejection. I am aware that this is NOT really rejection per se, but more often just a more appropriate casting match. But hell, let’s face it, when you set your heart on a part, you do really feel rejected.

But I got over it. I also adopted a new audition standard .... don’t harbor any expectations (optimism or pessimism) …. Just “read and run.” If you get the part, great! If not, then you’re not going to be disappointed since you savored no expectations. This standard really works. It takes some discipline, but, believe me, it works. I’ve been applying this rule ever since this JFK disappointment.





Paul Newman



It was 1989 in Winfield, LA when I found myself in the role of a Times-Picayune photographer in the movie BLAZE. This Touchtone Pictures film starred Paul Newman portraying the latter years in the life of Louisiana’s colorful Governor Earl K Long.

I was in only one scene, but I was stuck in a Winfield motel room for a week. Rain had been plaguing this production for several days and my scene, an exterior scene with Richard Jenkins, kept being pushed back. Of course this delay considerably increased my salary, but I was going stir-crazy. In 1989 I had neither pager nor cell phone and I was asked to remain on stand-by in my room. At least the room had a cable connection and I watched old movies until they all started running together.
 

The day before my scene appeared on the call-sheet, the Tiananmen Square protests topped the news. Just as I was becoming absorbed in this tragic series of events, my phone rang and I was escorted to the set. 

My God! The sun was out! It was hot, but nonetheless a gorgeous day. The AD took me to the honey wagons and showed me to my dressing room. When I opened the door, I was met with a general clutter - shoes, clothes and personal items obviously belonging to someone else.

 
I had to find out what the deal was, so I started making my way to the wardrobe trailer. While en route I heard my name: “Hey Jerry,…. JERRY!” I looked over my shoulder and saw my friends Harold Herthem and Sid Lacy racing toward me. Slightly out of breath Harold said: “Jerry, Sid and I hope you don’t mind, but we saw your name on a dressing room door and decided you probably wouldn’t mind if we used your dressing room.” I said “Of course not, Harold. But wardrobe didn’t assign you guys your own dressing rooms?” Harold said “Hell, Jerry, Sid and I are just extras. We’re playing Earl Long cronies. You see that truck over there?” I looked and saw this big stake body truck with a tarp over it. Harold said “That’s what they told us we had to change in. Man, was it hot! Sid and I told the wardrobe ladyAre Long’s cronies supposed to be old, SWEATY fat guys … because that’s what we’re going to be if we have to change in that truck’, so when we saw your name, we figured ol’ Jer wouldn’t mind if we changed in his room. Hope you don’t mind.” And of course ol’ Jer didn’t mind and it was fun being with these 2 friends for the remaining 2 days of my schedule.

 
Later in this shoot Harold would be upgraded to a bit player and he lost no time joining the Screen Actors Guild. A year later he was cast by Oliver Stone as a coroner in JFK. But Harold’s big break came when he was cast as the family doctor in FORREST GUMP. To know Harold was to love Harold. He enjoyed boasting about his big contract fees and huge residual checks he was getting from JFK and FORREST GUMP.

One day, while I was en route on foot to the YMCA, I heard a horn on Capitol Heights Ave. Harold pulled up beside me and flashed his first FG residual check. I must admit I was impressed. It certainly was more than I had ever gotten in a residual. In fact it was more than I had ever gotten in a session fee. I was jealous, but nonetheless very pleased for Harold.


Harold went on to appear in 8 more films until his very tragic passing in 1998. His nephew, Louis Herthem, has essentially continued his uncle’s meteoric rise in the film industry. I couldn’t be happier for Louis. Again I must admit I’m jealous, but of course very pleased for Louis. Couldn’t have happened to a nicer, more deserving friend. High FIVES, Lou!!

Pardon the quality of the 3 pictures in this post. These were screen shots from .mpegs. In the middle picture are Harold (cigar in mouth) and Sid. The picture at the top is a shot of my dialog with Richard Jenkins who was playing the Picayune Reporter and in the lower picture is Paul Newman, as Earl, flipping the bird as I snap his picture.

Richard Jenkins would become a big hit 10 years later in a movie entitled "The Visitor" winning several nominations including Best Actor.  Go Richard!!




















James Wong Howe


In 1969 while in pursuit of the objectives of my Louisiana film development project (see previous posts) I spent some time with the production of LAST OF THE MOBILE HOTSHOTS being filmed in St. Francisville. I invited my friend, Sid Hanna, to accompany me on several trips to the set. Sid was an amateur photographer and was eager to exercise his newfound hobby. Sid’s photo equipment was top quality. This script was a Gore Vidal adaptation of a Tennessee Williams play. Directed by Sidney Lumet, his principal cast consisted of James Coburn, Robert Hooks and Lynn Redgrave. The cinematographer was the award winning James Wong Howe.



On one particular visit to the set I asked Sid to accompany me because I wanted pictures taken. On this occasion the production crew was readying an old 2-story house for an onslaught of flood waters. The crew had spent weeks installing wooden water shoots behind all the windows and a cistern on the roof (not visible from key camera positions). The scene was a river levee break with rushing flood waters overtaking this house and creating the effect of huge belching gushes of water spewing from all the windows out into the front yard. The “money” shot was to be done at night. The plan on this day was to do a test run of the flooding waters through the house. I asked Sid to standby because I wanted some shots of this event. 

Sid and I were fascinated at the ingenious professionalism of James Wong Howe, the cinematographer. He never used a light meter. He would simply hold his hand in the target light and instruct his camera operator on what ASA setting to use. Amazing! Howe held more cinemagraphic awards than any other of his class.


OK, back to the flood story. The count-down was beginning and again I asked Sid to be ready. ..4..3..2..1…. WHOOSH! The cistern was opened and the test went beautifully. The yard, which had been levied to contain the flood waters, suddenly filled and the test was declared a success. I looked over at Sid. Nothing. I said “Sid, you didn’t take a picture?” He said “I’m going to wait til tonight to get the ‘real’ thing. I don’t want to waste any film.” Over-hearing this, Howe said “Sid, film is cheap when you use it; it’s expensive when you don’t use it.” Wisdom from the master and, unfortunately so true. Neither Sid nor I got back out to the set that night.  We never got that shot. Sid’s “unshot film” proved to be expensive indeed.










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Carroll O'Conner




In 1988 “All in the Family” came to Louisiana in the form of “IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT” starring Carroll O’Connor. Confused? Well, I’ll Unconfuse you. I had been cast in the role of Harry Giles for 2 episodes of the pilot for this series and O’Connor and I became good friends. I asked him if he missed his Archie Bunker character from “All in the Family”? He said he really did miss doing that show. He then said “you might notice some of ‘Archie’ in my character as Sheriff Gillespie.” I did notice the resemblance. Maybe you did too. Thus “All in the Family” had indeed come to Louisiana.


In one of my scenes my character, Harry Giles, answered his front door to Gillespie and his Chief of Detectives, Virgil Tibbs (played by Howard Rollins Jr.). The scene involved an inquiry into my daughter’s activities during a prior evening. Because my daughter had been witness to a terrible event and thus traumatized by it, I was being very protective of her, trying to discourage Gillespie and Tibbs from bothering her. Of course they were insistent, promising to go easy on her. 

This little scene was one of the toughest I had ever encountered because O’Connor kept “re-directing me” in contrast to the direction I was getting from Director David Hemmings. When I tried O’Connor’s direction, Hemmings would politely say “No, Jerry, that’s not the way I want it.” When I followed Hemmings’direction, O’Connor would put his arm around me (out of sight of Hemmings) and quietly say “Don’t do it the way David tells you, just do it the way I’ve told you.” I’d say to him I had always been taught to listen to the director. He’d say “I know, but just do it the way I told you.” This rug-of-war went on for about 5 takes. O’Connor would never admit to “re-directing” me and I was not going to rat him out even though I really wanted to. 

Then Hemmings, himself, escorted me away from the set and said “Is Carroll trying to direct you?” Thank God he asked me that. With great relief I was able to say “yes”. David grinned and said “OK, I do understand. He does this all the time. Just do it my way. I’ll handle Carroll.

The final take worked and O’Connor didn’t say a thing. I think he knew that I had admitted to Hemmings that he had been kibitzing, but, thankfully, he didn’t hold it against me. What he did do was put his arm around my shoulder again saying: “Let me introduce you to our boss.” He then escorted me over to a craft service table and introduced me to one of the most brilliant and influential television network executives to ever hit the TV network scene: Fred Silverman. If that name rings no bell, then perhaps you’ll remember the original Charlies’ Angels, The Waltons, Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show and, of course, All in the Family…. to name but a few Silverman creations.





Silverman was gracious, but It was quite obvious that he had no interest in small-talking with me, but was anxious to continue discussing some serious production matters with O’Connor. 


I felt like George Gobel did on Johnny Carson’s Tonight show back in the late 60s. Preceding George’s guest appearance on the show was Dean Martin, Bob Hope and I think Sammy Davis Jr. They had completely taken over the show with Carson saying “ … when did I lose control of the show?” These three had brought the house down, the laughs were out of control as was the audience. Carson himself was practically on the floor. Then finally, upon composing himself, Carson introduced George (Lonesome George) Gobel.  Poor George was to follow these three!? When Gobel came out, all viewers (myself included) wondered what he could possibly do to follow those three show-stoppers. When the audience finally calmed down and Carson calmed down and the 3 guests calmed down, then George, upon taking a deep breath, unloaded with “Have you ever thought that the whole world was a tuxedo and you were a pair of brown shoes?” Wow! That did it. The show was again out of control, but clearly within George’s control. What a master!  Sadly, taped footage of this show was accidently recorded over and thus lost forever.

My awkwardness in the presence of O’Connor and Silverman allowed me no such outlet or opportunity. I just quietly excused myself and meandered over to my dressing room.

The reason I knew their discussion was serious is because I managed to catch a few syllables of the conversation. It dealt with budget and union issues. It would be about 4 episodes later that the entire production team would move out of Louisiana and resume production in Georgia. Too bad ….. Louisiana’s loss.





Thursday, May 10, 2012

ESSO and the Whisk Broom




My late friend, Marzelle Braud, swore this really happened. The real names of the 2 gentlemen in this story I have long forgotten. The names I am using are not their real names.

Some of you may remember when Exxon was ESSO. About 50+ years ago an ESSO station was situated in a road-intersection wedge bordered by N. 22nd St. and Plank Rd. Today it is a SHELL Station.

When it was ESSO, the owner was a gentleman named Horace. Horace had a faithful employee named Henry who loved using the new vacuum system that Mr. Horace had purchased for the station. Back then your gas was pumped by an attendant who also cleaned your windshield, aired up your tires, checked your hood and, if requested, would vacuum your car, which Henry loved to do.



On one occasion a lady drove in to get gas. Henry set the pump on automatic and began cleaning her windshield. She asked if they had a whisk broom to which Henry replied: “No ma’am, but I can suck it out”.  To Henry's great shock the lady angrily started her car and drove out of the station, oblivious of the pump hose snapping out of her tank and bouncing on the pavement. The look on Henry’s face said “Why is she so mad?” Upon seeing this, Horace asked Henry what happened. Henry told him, then Horace ran to her car which was waiting for the traffic to clear. Her window was open and he asked what her problem was. Henry, quite puzzled, was observing his boss’ inquiry from a distance. He then saw Mr. Horace begin to convulsively laugh while bounding over to him saying “Henry, she didn’t ask if we had a whisk broom, she asked if we had a restroom.” 



Gualtiero Jacopetti



In 1969 Baton Rouge was visited by a team of Italian film-makers (Carlo Ponti Productions) led by director Gualtiero Jacopetti (I loved saying that name: Gwal tee err doe Jock O Petty … it has such a melodic ring). He was famous for the “Mondo” series that many of you (if you’re over 50) may be familiar with (Mondo Cane, Mondo Candido, Mondo Pazzo). Anyhow only one member of this visiting team could speak English, very crude and broken English at that. His name was Giampaolo Lomi, the Production Manager.

The late Valerian Smith (Local Baton Rouge dentist), who had assisted Jacopetti on previous productions, contacted me for assistance in casting this film. A side note: the beautiful Lynn Whitfield is Valerian’s daughter. Don’t know who she is? Do you know who Josephine Baker was? No? Lynn played the title role in HBO’s “The Josephine Baker Story” in 1991, winning that year’s Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Miniseries, winning the Image Award for Best performance in a Miniseries and a Golden Globe nomination for the same category. Not bad for a homegrown success story.

OK, back to my Carlo Ponti adventure. This Euro International script was entitled “Goodbye Uncle Tom”. The Internet Movie Database described the plot as follows: “Two documentary filmmakers go back in time to the pre-Civil War American South, to film the slave trade.” Jacopetti would cast himself as one of the filmmakers along with Franco Prosperi as the other. Once filming was underway and casting was complete, my job was now concluded. I won’t name the locals that were cast because if I miss one, I’ll not hear the end of it. Unfortunately the IMDB only acknowledged the Italian cast and crew. How thoughtless of them.

Early one morning, while I was en route to Point Coupee parish on other state business, I saw this white Pontiac convertible with 4 familiar faces parked in the median at the foot of the old Mississippi River bridge. My curiousity got the best of me. I U-turned on Hwy 190 and returned to this curious gathering.
As I drove up to where they were parked, I recognized Jacopetti, Lomi and 2 others just sitting there. Two were sitting on the car’s trunk while the other 2 sat in the car. I asked “What’s happening, guys?” Lomi, the only one who could speak some English, said “Waiting for train.” If you are familiar with the “old bridge”, you are then aware that it includes a rail. They wanted a shot of a train crossing the bridge. I then said “Do you have a schedule?” Lomi didn’t understand me. I then asked “Do you know when a train is going to cross?” He shrugged and said “We just wait”. So I wished them well and continued on my way to Point Coupee.

Later that day, near 6 pm, I began my return to Baton Rouge from Point Coupee. Upon arriving at the foot of the bridge, yep, there they were. Still waiting. Again I stopped. There were fried chicken boxes and cups of sodas strewn everywhere. Lomi said “We still wait for train.” Dusk was quickly setting in. I decided not to subject them to any further translation challenges and simply wished them well and continued back to Baton Rouge.

Years later, when I had an opportunity to see this film, I was quite impressed. They had indeed gotten their train shot. It was beautiful, shot at dusk, just before dark. They had patiently waited over 9 hours for what could have been a wasted effort Had this been an American product, better planning would have been the order of the day. No director would have expended an entire day awaiting that shot. An American director would have simply dispatched a second unit cameraman and small crew AFTER having checked the train schedule. But in the case of this Italian crew patience paid off.


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Lee Edwards


In 1975 director Jerry Jameson cast me in the role of Mr. Valchex in THE DEADLY TOWER. This made-for-TV film had a star-studded cast including Kurt Russell, Ned Beatty, Pernell Roberts, John Forsythe and Gilbert Roland. The reason the Baton Rouge state capitol was selected for this film’s location was because Austin, TX turned it down. The script was based on the 1966 Charles Whitman massacre of dozens of Austin’s University of Texas students, faculty and visitors. Whitman had positioned himself on the observation deck of the campus tower and proceeded to pick off 44 people, killing 16 and wounding 28. My role was that of a grieving husband whose wife, played by Becky Davis, was among the deceased. The people of Austin felt that a re-enactment on their campus would be too painful. Thus our state capitol was chosen.

 

Some of you may remember Lee Edwards, Baton Rouge's Little Theatre director until his death in 1978. Had it not been for Lee, we would probably not be enjoying the high caliber of theater that we’re blessed with today. 

In this film Lee had a bit role as a passer-by. His character, upon seeing the gunfire from atop the “tower”, was to say “There is someone shooting in the tower.” But when director Jameson said “action” Lee’s line came out “There’s someone tooting in the shower.” CUT! Jameson said “Let’s try it again.” And once again Lee said “There’s someone tooting in the shower.” CUT! Jameson then asked Lee if he was aware of what he was saying to which Lee said “Yes, there’s someone tooting in the shower.” Jameson, laughing, then said “Did you hear yourself?” Lee then reflected for a moment and realized his mistake. He got it right on the third take.


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Hallmark Hall of Fame (Old Man)



In 1997 I won a major role in Hallmark Hall of Fame’s OLD MAN, based on William Faulkner’s novelette. Adapted for television by Horton Foote, the period was during the 1927 great flood that ravaged the Mississippi River (affectionately known as the “Old Man”). The setting was Parchment Penitentiary in north Mississippi. The film starred Jeanne Tripplehorn and Arliss Howard and featured, besides myself, Leo Burmester and Ritchie Montgomery. Except for Tripplehorn and Howard, all the other roles were “nameless”, i.e. Cajun Man, Shanty Man, Singer on Boat, Boat Captain, Deputy and my role – The Warden.

The main “prop” required for this epic feature was “rain”. Most of my scenes were accompanied with rain that was produced by a rain-making machine. Because I was the warden, I and my deputy, Ritchie Mongomery, were naturally entitled to the use of rain gear. Inmates were not so fortunate. On one occasion, we were all dressed out and ready to shoot a scene when suddenly the skies opened up and the real stuff started coming down. Director John Kent Harrison said “Because of the rain we’re going to re-schedule this shoot” I said “Isn’t this scene suppose to be in rain?” John said “Yes, but it needs to be on our terms, not His” (indicating the Diety). Hmmm! OK.


This feature starts out with me, mug of coffee in hand, peering out my office window surveying inmates being escorted (in the rain) to a work detail. This scene appears over the opening credits. My character is contemplating how to best use trustees for rescuing flood-stranded residents down-river from Parchment. Dictionary.com defines a “jerk” as a contemptibly naive, fatuous, foolish, or inconsequential person. My character is truly a “jerk.” I want all the credit and recognition for these rescues with no concern whatsoever for the well-being of these inmates.

One of the settings for this feature was a Catfish Farm near Madisonville. The 4-foot deep pond portrayed rushing waters splashing against the “banks of the Mississippi.” This effect was achieved with the use of air boats ( just out of sight of the cameras) swirling through the catfish pond waters. I (not the warden, but me) asked the pond owner how this affected the catfish. He said “They don’t care. They’re very hardy. They just go to the bottom of the pond and wait til all the commotion is over with.” 



I loved Jeanne Tripplehorn (of “Waterworld” fame). She was a classy lady, easy to work with and as sweet as she could be. But she had an awful vice … chain-smoking.  Whenever the camera was not on her, she was puffing away. When the camera was rolling, she would ask an assistant to be her “ash tray” until a “cut” was heard, then she would quickly grab that butt and resume smoking. When not on camera, she was never without a cigarette. She agreed that this was a nasty habit, but just couldn’t make herself stop. Hopefully by now (15 years later) she has managed to rid herself of that unhealthy addiction.

OLD MAN went on to win an Emmy Award for “Outstanding writing for a Miniseries”, the Humanitas prize for a 90 minute category, the Golden Reel Award for outstanding sound editing, the Christopher Award for Best Film and an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Sound Editing for a Miniseries. Of the 50+ films I’ve been involved with since 1960, I have portrayed a “jerk” in 12 of them. Could this be type-casting? OLD MAN was no exception. My warden character was definitely one of my more stark “jerk” portrayals. I looked but couldn’t find an award for “Best Portrayal of a jerk”. Darn! I think I could have won that one hands down.




Wonder what my next “jerk” character will be.



The following film clips should be no problem UNLESS you are an Apple or Mac user.  I hope to correct that little shortcoming soon: 


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Oran "Doc" Teague (Always Acadia)


In a previous post I took you back to 1955 when I enjoyed a brief stint with WBRZ-TV just after it took to the air.

With this post we will go back even further, another 200 years to 1755. Well, not really. I was cast in a leading role in an original play commissioned by the state to commemorate the Acadian Bicentennial. Written by LSU’s Dr Clinton Bradford, the play was entitled ALWAYS ACADIA, dealing with the origin of Louisiana’s Acadian (Cajun) culture. The play depicted fictional characters who were part of the Great Acadian expulsion from Canada during the French and Indian War (a span of 8 years from 1755 through 1763).

My character was named Peter LeBlanc around whom the plot was structured. Sadly I no longer have that script, but this post is not about the script as much as it is about the logistics of producing and presenting this 3+ hour stage epic.

Many may remember the name, Oran Teague.  A member of the LSU Theater faculty “Doc” Teague was an extremely talented director and was one of the most likable and delightful theater people I had ever had the privilege of knowing and working with. Sadly Doc left us several years ago.  He had been a mentor to my long ago friend, Liz Cole (Elizabeth Ashley), a Baton Rougeon who bounded off to New York in 1957 and became an award-winning Broadway headliner. She even made the cover of Life Magazine as “Broadway’s Brightest and Newest”, but sadly that issue came out on November 22, 1963, the date of JFK’s assassination. Her big LIFE moment was upstaged by the assassination.

Anyhow, getting back to ALWAYS ACADIA, the state had budgeted $125,000 for construction of an amphitheater at the Evangeline State Park in St. Martinville. While the theater was under construction, we were in rehearsal at LSU … many hours of arduous, grueling and painstaking blocking, dancing, singing with a cast of probably more than 200, reminiscent of Jamie Wax’s and Paul Taranto’s EVANGELINE and PASSAGES productions of nearly 2 decades ago.   It was planned that the ALWAYS ACADIA production would run Fridays through Sundays for 4 weeks. Saturdays and Sundays would each include a matinee and a night performance. 

We opened in St. Martinville at the park's new ampitheater on a very cold, but sunny, early Saturday afternoon. We had a fairly attentive audience, though many “escaped” before the 3 hour production ended. The outdoor stage faced an audience that had no seating. People either had to provide their own seats or just sit on the ground. It was bitterly cold.

That first night as the play was approaching Intermission (about 2 hours in) I was on stage pouring out my soliloquy. Man was I into it.! It is now about 10 pm and grotesquely cold. As I was concluding the soliloquy, my eyes focused on an audience that, except for one SLEEPING couple, was no longer there. NO AUDIENCE. I was the only one on stage.  I stopped, peered out to an EMPTY “house”, then looked over into the right wing, saw Doc motioning “what’s the matter?” while I motioned for him to come out on stage.  He timidly peeked out, then, after surveying the situation, announced in his megaphone voice “THAT’S IT! WE’RE OUTTA HERE. LET’S LOAD UP AND GET THE HELL BACK TO BATON ROUGE.”

And that was it. We opened. We closed.

Doc had long been apprehensive about doing an outdoor production in mid-winter, but the rule-makers wanted an exact period match, which meant performing at that time.  Didn’t work. Too cold. Didn’t even get a review. But that night we all really enjoyed a raucous good time on the Greyhound buses as we returned to Baton Rouge …. never to utter another line of ALWAYS ACADIA.

The amphitheater is still there, but all the expenses borne by the production-- a waste except for some props and costumes that went into the LSU Theater inventory. But AA (ALWAYS ACADIA) was no more ….. nevermore, nowhere, no how, no stadia for ALWAYS ACADIA.