Working with the Stars
In the last thirty years I’ve been fortunate to have worked with some of the best – and best known – actors and actresses in Hollywood. Even though for the most part, it wasn’t in Hollywood. It was here in Utah. But then, Utah is kind of Hollywood North with Sundance, Redford and all the TV episodics and films that have been shot here.
My first picture had no “stars” but some wonderful actors including Raeanin Simpson and Katherine Willis. Katherine was only 19 when she played my wife. I was forty. She was terrific. I don’t think she’d done a film before. I had done a number of films but only as an actor. This time I was her “husband” — and the director. I’ve never tried to direct and act since. Too much work.
Raeanin was wonderful as well. I’ve been fortunate in my career to have had the good sense to pick some very good “young” actors. Raeanin was the first. I will tell you her story someday. It’s a tragic one and underscores the pitfalls of this business. It’s also one I hesitate to relate because of the pain still associated with her loss. If you’d like to know more about her before I write that blog, go to the San Diego Union Leader newspaper in the LEGACY section and read what was written about her passing — particularly the letter to the drug dealer from her mother.
In my second film as a writer director I had the good fortune to work with one of legendary stars of Hollywood, Mickey Rooney. He was doing the series “Black Stallion” at the time in Vancouver B.C. and agreed to work on our picture, “The Legend of Wolf Mountain” for three days because it was on his way back to Canada to begin the second season. And he made $50K for those three days. And in 1989 that was a decent three day wage.
He was amazing. Never stopped talking. And he’s not big either. At least in height. I remember his measurements were sent to the wardrobe mistress: 21 inch inseam – 60 inch waist. But he knew more about acting, camera, movies and scripts than anyone I’ve met before or since. I liked him immediately.
Once we were setting up for a scene in the police station in Tooele, Utah and I had positioned the camera where I thought it would be the best – and most advantageous – angle to catch the scene’s action. As I was preparing to call action he shook his head and said quietly, “if you place it there, we’ll all be looking on the wrong side of the lens.”
What? I was sure I was right. In those days I didn’t know much about camera-right and camera-left screen direction and that’s dangerous because if you do it wrong when you have to edit a scene where the actors who are talking to each other — won’t be looking at each other. He was right of course. He knew more about it than I’ll ever learn because he had been doing it since he was six years old. Amazing man. He was in his late 70’s then. And how lucky I was to be working with him. He’d regale us with stories of Judy Garland, and New York and Hollywood in 1939 (that was the year he was the number one box office star) and he could talk about it right up to “sticks” (that’s when the clapper is struck together to sync the sound and begin the take). No, I never went to film school to learn directing – or camera – or writing or acting – or any of it. I learned it as I went. And was blessed to pick something up from great performers who were on my films.
The only other actor I’ll mention this time around (I’ll cover the actors I’ve worked with and discovered throughout the blogs to come) is Ernest Borgnine. He played the Grandpa in a picture I wrote and directed in California titled, “Castle Rock.” Ernie was the best. And I mean the best. A gentleman, a consummate actor who understood character and what to get out of a script more than anyone I’d ever known. And funny.
I think back to the days of TV’s “McHale’s Navy” and how I loved that series when I was in Junior High School. Ernie had won the Oscar for “Marty” in a Paddy Chaefsky script about a lonely butcher who just wanted to meet a nice girl. I asked Ernie about that role and he said he was third in line to get it. Two other more prominent actors (at the time) turned the role down. Ernie had done the play originally in New York but wasn’t asked to do the movie originally. Hollywood often does that. (Just ask Julie Andrews about “My Fair Lady”). But he told me that he knew he could do the film more than anything else he knew in the world at that time. And he did. He’s the one who told me, “If you think you might be good at something you probably have a talent for it.” I always thought about movies that way. Not sure if I had all that much talent but I’ve been doing it too long to quit now.
When Ernie passed I was heart-broken. He lived a very long time as did Mickey Rooney. I think, because those men had a good hearts. And good hearts often last longer. I miss them both and thank my lucky stars that I was able to work with them in my own small way.
It’s been a wonderful ride.