Monday, May 7, 2012

Raymond Burr


In 1960 after 2 years on the payroll of the Louisiana Division of Employment Security (today's Louisiana Workforce Commission - LAworks) Field Services Director Charles Densdorf bestowed a "gold mine" on me. He said "Jerry, because of your theater background, I think you'd be the ideal person I can assign to the casting needs of film makers that come into Louisiana."    I shamelessly agreed with him and thus began an odyssey that shaped my future in the world of film-making. He put me in charge of the regional 9 parish farm labor service explaining that this would allow him to assign me to movie projects as they emerged.... meaning that the farm labor service activities could always be put on hold.  I had no issue with that rationale.

 
My first project was on 20 Century Fox's "Desire in the Dust" starring Raymond Burr, Martha Hyer, Joan Bennett along with numerous other luminaries. I had no problems casting the needed extras and bit roles. I was to stay with the production daily from start to finish.  I even became an AD (assistant director) shepherding extras according to the needs of the director.

One member of the crew was a very personable gentleman named Paul Baxley.  Paul was the stunt coordinator for this production. He himself also performed stunts in the film and, being the coordinator, his job was to recruit and manage stunt doubles for the production. A stunt double temporarily becomes one of the script characters in place of the star who has been cast as that character. This assignment happens when the character must perform an act which would be considered too risky for the star.  The stunt person is then made up and dressed as close to the likeness of the star as possible and then performs the required stunt.

On one occasion, when Paul was off duty, I overheard the director, William Claxton, asking his First Assistant Director if a stunt driver was available. He wanted the film's lead actor, Ken Scott, to be in the process of making a U-turn in the road while an oncoming car brakes hard to keep from T-boning Scott and his jeep. Naive little ol’ me said "I can do that." The AD said "Do you have a car?" I said “yes”, pointing to my little nearly new Nash Rambler “over there”. They said OK and proceeded to wet the street down so I could get a good skid. After some direction, we attempted the hard braking skid as Scott made his U-turn in the street. The final take was the keeper. I skidded as he U-turned and came within a half foot of hitting him. Claxton yelled "Cut, print." Scott paled with that near-miss and said to me "Good driving." 

The AD came to me and asked for my union number. I said I didn't have one. He said "You have to have one." I said “I didn’t have one. I’m not in the union.” Like Scott he also paled, but for a different reason. "What do you mean you don't have one? Aren’t you with the Paul Baxley team?" I said "No, I simply heard that you needed someone to do this stunt and I raised my hand and said 'I could do it.'" Little did I realize at the time that stunts are to be done by union stunt artists who are INSURED for this kind of thing. 

20th Century Fox could have had a costly liability situation had that stunt gone wrong. But it didn't and "my stunt" was left in the film.  Raymond Burr got such a big kick out of my imposition into the stunt world that he insisted that I go have a beer with him at the “Varner” store across from the Clinton Courthouse where the scene had taken place. The reason I put Varner in quotes is another story which I will relate later on.


The next day the location changed temporarily to Oakley Plantation. This was an unscheduled location change because of cast scheduling conflicts. On that day I got to the set about an hour after shooting had begun. One of the stars was the beautiful Martha Hyer. The scene for this shoot involved Martha drunkenly driving a convertible Pontiac from the main road up to the front of the house (Oakley Plantation). After a take, when the car pulled up in front of the house, what I thought was Martha exiting from the car was actually Paul Baxley in a dress and blond wig. At that point there was a “cut” from the director, then Martha herself continued the scene.


Paul was a genuinely fun person and enjoyed the joshing he was dealt.  He then came over to me, laughing about my introduction into the stunt world the day before.


The next day shooting resumed at the Hwy 10 location in Clinton and everyday while at that location, Raymond Burr would collar me and insist on buying me a beer. Though I have never been much of a beer drinker, I happily obliged him and did manage to stay sober with each beer session.  Burr was a very big man and would himself down about 6 or 7 beers during our hour long socializing…. and he would never exhibit any inebriate effects. Along with film work in general we would also talk about his character in a series called “Perry Mason” which no doubt some of you may recall (if you are over 60).

OK, the Varner Store saga: in 1957 Jerry Wald came to Louisiana to shoot William Faulkner’s “The Long Hot Summer” starring Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Orson Welles and Angela Lansbury. One of the settings was an old dry goods store on Hwy 10 in Clinton across the highway from the Clinton Courthouse. The script called for a general merchandize store to appear at that location. It would be called “Varner’s Store”, named after Orson Welles’ character, Will Varner, This film became so popular that the actual owner of that store chose to keep the name, “Varner’s Store.”



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