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.

Share

KIRK DOUGLAS CENTENNIAL & THE LEE MARVIN CONNECTION

The legendary Kirk Douglas turns 100-years-old today and here are two largely unknown anecdotes about the star: One inadvertently connects him to Lee Marvin and the other is quite personal.
First, the Lee Marvin connection. It’s no secret that Kirk Douglas was rightfully nominated for an Oscar several times in his career, never won, and has said publicly how much he would like to have won an Oscar in competition. Well, he came close once and never even knew it! I was fortunate to interview Cat Ballou director Elliott Silverstein while researching Lee Marvin Point Blank in the 1990s. Much of what he told me went into the book but the details concerning how close Kirk Douglas came to playing Lee Marvin’s role did not. Here it is for the first time…

The author of LEE MARVIN POINT BLANK (left) getting "Cat Ballou" director, Elliot Silverstein, to sign his copy of the book at the Egyptian Theatre in 2013.

The author of LEE MARVIN POINT BLANK (left) getting “Cat Ballou” director, Elliot Silverstein, to sign his copy of the book at the Egyptian Theatre in 2013.

Elliott Silverstein:..So, the company wanted a major star. After meeting, the group [of producers] decided they wanted Kirk Douglas. I said that this was my first movie and I knew that I was going to ask the actor who played the character to do bizarre, dangerous things, chancy dangerous, career dangerous, esthetically dangerous — bold, bizarre things. I didn’t think a star of Douglas’ magnitude would be comfortable doing those, particularly with a first time feature director. Although god knows, I had directed every television show there was. I was concerned that Kirk Douglas, as a major star, would not feel comfortable doing some of the crazy things I was going to ask the actor playing Kid Shelleen to do. In fact, I had not the leverage that I would have liked. I said, “I would like you try to get Lee. You got to try to persuade him.”
Dwayne: Did you have Lee in mind from the beginning?
E: No.
D: How did you think of Lee?
E: I’m coming to that. They warned me that Douglas didn’t think the role was quite large enough and encouraged me to try to think of some things to make the role larger. I called Douglas. I was a good soldier I think. I did the best I could to persuade him. I told him about some expansions I could make. He said he felt the role was too small for a star’s part and not small enough for a cameo. I went back in and reported that. They said who else have we got? I had been thinking about who else. I remembered The Wild One. Lee Marvin had a wonderful moment where he got off the motorcycle. I just remembered the moment. It was like a gesture you remember somebody had made. So, I said, ‘I’d like Lee Marvin.’ Well, nobody else had any ideas so they said, ‘Okay fine.’ That probably reduced the budget a little bit. It did not make everybody actually happy as they considered it, but nobody had any ideas. We wanted to start in the fall and this was already the end of summer. They approached Lee Marvin and he went crazy for the part. People kept telling me, ‘Oh, he’s going around at parties reciting the speeches from it.’ Things of that nature. The next thing you know…

And the rest, as they say, is history. Don’t get me wrong, there’s no way to ever know for sure if Kirk would have won the Oscar had he played Kid Shelleen, but who knows, right? Wonder if he regrets that as much as he regrets not playing McMurphy in the film version of One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest? The speculation is endless. By the way, if you want to see what he would have been like as McMurphy, since he had played the role on Broadway, check out the underrated, bizarre western, There Was a Crooked Man. A personal favorite of mine and one of the strangest films EVER!

And now, the personal anecdote. Back in 1981, I had read that both Kirk Douglas AND Burt Lancaster were going to appear on stage together as Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer as older men in the 1920s. It wasn’t easy, but I managed to talk my childhood friend, Ty Elliott, into going with me up to San Francisco to see the two legends in the brief run of “The Boys In Autumn.” Why? Because ever since he and I were kids The Adventures of Tom Sawyer was our favorite book and Burt Lancaster was our favorite actor. Who could ask for more!

The theatre marquee in San Francisco for the short-run of "The Boys in Autumn."

The theatre marquee in San Francisco for the short-run of “The Boys in Autumn.”

So, off we went and it was quite an adventure. Truth be told, the play itself was not all that good, making Tom Sawyer (Douglas) a child molester pining over Becky Thatcher and turning Huck Finn (Lancaster) into a mercy killer of his dying wife…yech! The saving grace was seeing these two titans of film in person, with an ending in which they joked playfully while doing a soft shoe routine. Movie fan heaven. (Side note: the play was retooled and went to Broadway with George C. Scott & John Cullum in the leads and not surprisingly, it still flopped!)

A Newsweek tidbit I saved proclaiming Kirk Douglas & Burt Lancaster in the play, "The Boys in Autumn."

A Newsweek tidbit I saved proclaiming Kirk Douglas & Burt Lancaster in the play, “The Boys in Autumn.”

After the play, we went over to a Bar & Grille to get drunk and bemoan both the play and the fact that we didn’t get to meet either of the two legends in-person to actually talk to. We were on our umpteenth gin & tonic when who should walk into the crowded establishment to pick up a to-go order? That’s right, the dimpled chin one himself, looking every inch a movie star. He came in like a whirlwind, wearing slacks, a dapper tan trench coat over a ribbed red turtleneck, hair flipping as he walked looking 20 years young than his mid-60s. He sat down in the shadowy corner waiting for his food, while I screwed up my courage. I downed the rest of my drink, gathered my screwed up courage, and took the long jaunt over to where he impatiently sat, hoping not to be bothered by fools such as I. Good thing I was drunk.
I stood in front of him, cleared my throat and was about to speak when he put his finger to his lips, making that ‘shushing’ sign and said, “Son, I’m just leaving now and would rather not be bothered…”
I cut him off and said, “Mr. Douglas. I just came over to thank you. Thank you, for Spartacus, Lust for Life, Lonely are the Brave, Paths of Glory….”
He looked at me while I babbled as he tried to read my face. An eternity later, he jutted out his hand and said, “You know what? Thank you, young man. We in the industry don’t hear that enough from our fans. I want you to know that I appreciate it.”
It was a moment that for obvious reasons I’ll never forget. Incidentally, a few seconds later, I watched Ty down his drink and do the same thing before Kirk Douglas beat his hasty retreat.
And now, now that he’s made it to the one hundred year mark, I say again, thank you Kirk Douglas. And here’s to a hundred more!
Did I ever mention the time I met Burt Lancaster? Ahh, perhaps another blog entry….

Share

HAPPY BIRTHDAY PRODUCER/DIRECTOR STANLEY KRAMER

September 29, 1913, marks the birthday of the prolific producer/director Stanely Kramer, who blazed new ground in dealing with the human condition’s most pressing issues. He also helped bring to the screen some of the postwar era’s greatest actors, such as Grace Kelly, Marlon Brando, Kirk Douglas and Sidney Poitier. Less remembered is the fact that he also played a highly siginificant role in the career of Lee Marvin. Early on, Kramer proved to be the one major Hollywood figure to recognize Marvin’s talent and utlized that talent to great effect for more than a decade. One of the first and most important roles in the actor’s career was an appearance on Jack Webb’s TV series, Dragnet. It was one of Marvin’s first lead roles, playing a homicidal natural foods fanatic (!) who gives Joe Friday and his partner a run for their money…..

Lee Marvin's appearance in this Dragnet episode caught the attention of producer/director Stanley Kramer.

Lee Marvin’s appearance in this Dragnet episode caught the attention of producer/director Stanley Kramer.

The actor was excellent in the role and impressed producer Webb with a hilarious anecdote recounted in Lee Marvin: Point Blank. Marvin’s agent, Meyer Mishkin, made sure to get a copy of the episode to show to all the major players in Hollywood at the time and the first to take notice was Kramer. He cast him in his first lead role as Sgt. Joe Mooney in the film Eight Iron Men based on the Broadway play A Sound Of Hunting, which had earned a film contract for Burt Lancaster in the same part. Marvin again proved to be perfect in the role, as seen below….

Left to right: Richard Kiley, Marvin and Arthur Franz. Franz had convinced to marry his first wife, Betty.

Left to right: Richard Kiley, Marvin and Arthur Franz in Eight Iron Men. Franz had convinced Marvin to marry his first wife, Betty.

Over the next several years, as Kramer continued to produce such films as The Wild One and The Caine Mutiny, he sought out Marvin to etch impressive characeterizations in roles both large and small. When Kramer decided to make his directing debut in the medical drama Not As A Stranger, as a good luck charm he cast Marvin in the small but interesting role of Brundage, a braggard med student who knew all the angles.

Over the years, Kramer took chances producing or directing such groundbreaking social issue films as Inherit the Wind (Evolution vs. Creationism), On The Beach (nuclear war), A Child is Waiting (mental retardation), and more. The two issues that he dealt with the most were the two that he believed to be at the heart of the nation’s greatest discord: racism (The Defiant Ones, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, etc.) and anti-semitism (The Juggler, Judgement at Nuremburg, etc). Producer Kramer even managed to combine both in one underrated project involving a black psychiatrist (Poitier) treating an American Nazi (Bobby Darin)!
The culmination of his belief in dealing with anti-semitism came with Ship of Fools, an epic project of pre-war Europe’s underestimation of Adolph Hitler. The film recieved mixed reviews over all, but when it came to Lee Marvin’s performance of Bil Tenney, a bigoted, misogynistic, burned out ex-ball player, the reviews were uniformly excellent in their praise….

In producer/director Stanley Kramer's Ship of Fools, Marvin managed to miraculously make his character sympathetic.

In producer/director Stanley Kramer’s Ship of Fools, Marvin managed to miraculously make his character sympathetic.

 

Towards the end of the film, Marvin has an amazing confrontation with screen legend Vivien Leigh which very few actors would be willing to undergo. When his character mistakes her for a prostitute he had planned a liasion with, Leigh proceeds to beat him mercilessly with the business endl of her high-heel shoe. Marvin took the beating like a pro and kept the shoe as a treasured memento!

A staged still from the climatic scene in Kramer's Ship of Fools in which Marvin takes a vicious beating from Vivien Leigh's high heel shoe.

A staged still from the climatic scene in Kramer’s Ship of Fools in which Marvin takes a vicious beating from Vivien Leigh’s high heel shoe.

I was extremely fortunate to interview the great Kramer toward the end of his life and his insight into Marvin’s persona was most impressive. He understood and knew the actor as well or maybe better than just about anybody Marvin ever worked with. All of his thoughts & opinions made it into the text of my bio and proved to be the highlight of my research. I have always been a fan of Kramer’s and his passing ( on Lee’s birthday!) is a constant reminder in today’s day and age of fluff film making that we sure could use him now….more than ever!

Share