BURT LANCASTER: THE NIGHT WE MET

Burt Lancaster is one of three individuals I consider my all-time favorite movie actors, a holy trinity, if you will. The other two — James Cagney and Steve McQueen — I never had the good fortune to meet. However, one memorable night in the 1980s, I spent at least a half an hour talking with Lancaster one-on-one in the alcove of the Nuart Theater in Santa Monica. Seriously.

The facade of the Nuart Theater where I first me Burt Lancaster.

Long before I began working on Lee Marvin Point Blank, I was living a very strange existence. By day, I was a janitor at Kaiser Permanente in Downey, and by night, I went to movie premieres via the freelance writing I did for our local newspaper. My friends and I also haunted all the great revival theaters on the L.A. scene, depending on the scheduled programs. I distinctly remember reading the program of the Nuart one day while at work and seeing an upcoming screening for a Lancaster double feature of The Professionals & The Scalphunters, two of his best! In a small box at the bottom of the listing were the words: “Mr. Lancaster will appear between films, schedule permitting.” Since he had been in the news recently due to major bypass surgery, I thought the chance of his appearances were slim to none. Even so, I knew I’d regret not taking the chance if he did somehow show up since surgery aside, he rarely did such events even in good health. Besides, they’re great films to see on the big screen.
My best friend and his fiancee’ were students at CalArts so we arranged to meet that night at the theater along with some of his classmates. On the outside chance Lancaster showed up, I brought along my original poster to Birdman of Alcatraz for him to sign if he was willing. No pressure.
Well, my friends arrived, the movie started, and since I knew it inside and out, I went with my gut that if he showed up, it would be around this time. I ambled outside, and waited outside the lobby with its colorful sunburst mosaic along with a few other fans. In no time at all a sleek jet black Jaguar cut thru traffic, then pulled to the curb and out popped the man. Dressed in a black suit with a turtleneck and sporting a salt & pepper goatee, he whirled around with that Lancaster smile and asked, “How’s that for a New York driver?” Among the gathered, not a word was said as the movie geeks stared at the bona fide movie star in stony silence. I’m a movie fan but deny my geek-dom, as I had a pretty non-movie related social life.
So, I broke into applause and said “Very nice. Very nice indeed.” He smiled back at me, walked up, shook my hand and thus began our conversation as he signed my poster.

The poster I framed after Burt Lancaster signed it.

Check out the blurry image in the top right corner.

The interior of the Nuart is festooned with retro movie posters and a small couch in an alcove under a giant poster of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, which is where our conversation continued. I’m embarrassed to admit that much of the memory of our talk has vanished into time, other than a few highlights, such as telling him about going to see him and Kirk Douglas in their play in San Francisco (that adventure can be read here).

Burt Lancaster as he looked around the time I met him.

I do remember that I had to keep reminding myself that I was actually talking to Burt Lancaster. In fact, at one point I said as much and he responded, “Listen son, we’re having a nice conversation. Don’t ruin it….” He then threw his head back and did that famous Lancaster laugh. I had to tell him, “You do you really good!” To which he knowingly stated, “Oh no. Frank Gorshin does me MUCH better!”
It wasn’t long before someone came over and told him it was time to speak. We said our goodbyes and I joined my friends inside. When my buddy asked where the hell I was, I told him, “I’ll tell you later.”
The house lights then went up and the man was introduced to thunderous applause. He spoke briefly and then took questions. What was extremely cool was that the audience consisted of true Lancaster fans. Someone asked about Nick Cravat and there was a smattering of applause. Lancaster smiled and asked the audience, “You know Nick?” Then the place went nuts. He laughed heartily and said, “Well, I’ll tell him you said hello!”
And so it went. A truly magically night of movie memories. I’ve often wondered why he didn’t do such things more often as he clearly enjoyed himself at the event. Years later, when I began working on Lee Marvin Point Blank, I thought about that night many times, thinking how perfect it would have been had I asked about The Professionals and working on that particular classic. Such was not to be of course, but, I did talk to costars Woody Strode, Jack Palance, Lancaster’s career-long stunt double Tony Epper, producer Phil Parslow and more. Each went on the record with exclusive tales about Burt, Lee, director Richard Brooks and more, all of which can be found only in the pages of Lee Marvin Point Blank.

From the many photos in LEE MARVIN POINT BLANK that I was able to caption.

Until then, all the best, and if you ever get the chance to meet your idols, by all means do it. You won’t be disappointed. At least I wasn’t.
– Dwayne Epstein.

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ERNEST BORGNINE: THE ELUSIVE INTERVIEW

When I began Lee Marvin Point Blank, I had a handful of people I wanted to interview that I considered holy grails: Angie Dickinson, Charles Bronson, Jack Palance and Ernest Borgnine. Well, I got two out of four to go on the record and the other two I came excrutuatingly close to getting an interview on he record. Why these individuals? Well, each of them worked with Marvin several times throughout their respect careers, making their insight quite valuable to my work.
I was fortunate enough to get a brief interview with Jack Palance when he read some of his poetry at an event here in Long Beach. He was wonderfully theatrical in his own way and that which he was willing tell me about Lee Marvin (especially about Monte Walsh) definitely went into the book. The restaurant story is one of my favorites.

Video grab: Clowning around on location with costar Jack Palance during THE MAKING OF MONTE WALSH.

I met Angie Dickinson (finally!) during a taping of the A&E Biography episode on Lee for which we were both interviewed. The stars were aligned that day as the very private star relented, allowing me to spend the day at her house just reminiscing about her projects with Lee Marvin.

In POINT BLANK, Angie Dickinson actually drew blood from Lee Marvin, who of course, never said a word about it.

The A&E producers had told me they didn’t get much out of Angie for the show, so I was quite pleased with what she had gone on the record about with me.

And then came Bronson. The closest I got to the extremely reclusive star was when I had dinner at a friend’s house who lived literally across the street from Bronson. Former publicist and renowned biographer, Peter Levinson, invited myself and Sam and Christa Fuller to dinner one rainy night and conversationally, he mentioned that Bronson was his neighbor across the street.

Bronson & Marvin on the set of their last film together, DEATH HUNT.

I spent a good part of the evening staring out the front window and trying to figure out how to approach him but, alas, it was not to be. I’m just happy to say I got that close, though.

And what, prey tell, became of Ernest Borgnine, the actually subject of this blog? Well, that was the most frustrating of all. From the earliest point in my research I tried to make contact with him but with little to no luck.

Lee Marvin (left), looking like a wax museum figure from the Hollywood Museum gets his orders from General Ernest Borgnine in the lackluster DIRTY DOZEN sequel.

His agent at the time, a gentlemen named Harry Flynn, tried in vain to get Mr. Borgnine to talk to me but he kept telling me that Borgnine was too emotional when it came to talking about Lee Marvin. Keep it mind, this was before the advent of social media so periodic attempts at contact were snail mail, fax and e-mail. Flynn kept telling me he was working on Ernie and told me when to check back, which of course, I did. That is until……

The cover of Borgnine’s 2008 autobiography.

Apparently, the truth was Ernst Borgnine was saving up his own stories about Marvin for his own autobiography which of course, is his right. What insight into Marvin was there from his frequent costar’s memoirs? Luckily, not much.

I enjoyed the book, actually, but that which dealt with Marvin was what I had already gleaned. So, with that in mind, save your time and read Lee Marvin Point Blank as Borgnine’s anecdotes are all in there….and so much more!
-Dwayne Epstein

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2-DVD SET OF LEE MARVIN RARITIES!

While I was working on Lee Marvin Point Blank, I put together a 2-DVD set that can best be described as Lee Marvin Rarities. It helped immeasurably with my research as it showed, among other things, Marvin being interviewed on a variety of subjects in a variety of setting, and he was ALWAYS quotable!
Of course, some of these items are available on YouTube and such but certainly not all making it quite a rare collection of vintage material, indeed! Anyone interested in a copy can message me here privately as I’m the only one allowed to read the messages and respond privately, as well. The DVDs consists of:
Commercials he did during M Squad for Pall Mall cigarettes
The Making of Point Blank
Point Blank Trailer
Bad Day at Black Rock Trailer
The Wild One Trailer
The Comancheros Trailer
Clip of him winning the Oscar for Cat Ballou
Interview backstage after the Oscars
The Dirty Dozen Trailer
The Making of The Dirty Dozen
Interview on the set of The Dirty Dozen (Tonight, Let’s All Make Love in London)
The Making of Monte Walsh
The Making of Emperor of the North
A comedy sketch with John Byner in tribute to John Wayne (1976)
Documentary footage making The Big Red One
Blooper clip from The Bob Hope Show
Appearance on The David Letterman Show
Interview for Spencer Tracy Documentary
Montage of film clips by the BSOL (Bastard Sons of Lee)
The BSOL and YOU promo tape

Check out the blurry screen grabs my poor technological skills were able to produce (the discs are not blurry, of course)…
– Dwayne Epstein

Video grab: Hustling Pall Mall cigarettes for M Squad’s main sponsor.

Video grab: Rare footage showing Lee Marvin (with giddy fellow Oscar winner Julie Christie) being interviewed BACKSTAGE AT THE OSCARS.

Video grab: Being interviewed about swinging London on the set of The Dirty Dozen for the extremely rare documentary, TONIGHT, LET’S ALL MAKE LONDON.

Video grab: Being interviewed on the set during THE MAKING OF MONTE WALSH.

Video grab: Clowning around on location with costar Jack Palance during THE MAKING OF MONTE WALSH.

Video grab: Rare footage showing Marvin & costar Ernest Borgnine rehearsing their fight scene from THE MAKING OF EMPEROR OF THE NORTH.

Video grab: Documentary footage showing Lee Marvin doing his Sam Fuller impression from THE MAKING OF THE BIG RED ONE.

 

 

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