WRITER/DIRECTOR RICHARD BROOKS: THE NIGHT WE MET

Writer/director Richard Brooks has not been as historically lauded as many other directors but he’s always been a personal favorite of mine. I’ve been an admirer of many of his films long before I began researching Lee Marvin Point Blank and unfortunately, he passed away before I really started that research. A shame really as I would have liked to have gotten his take on working with Marvin on one of the best films either of them ever made: The Professionals (1966).

(L-R) Lee Marvin, Burt Lancaster, Richard Brooks and Woody Strode discuss a scene for THE PROFESSIONALS.

As an aside, I recently found out that one of Brooks last and highly underrated films, Bite The Bullet (1975), was originally going to be a prequel of sorts to The Professionals, with Gene Hackman and James Coburn playing the characters Lee Marvin and Burt Lancaster played in The Professionals. By the way, if you haven’t seen Bite The Bullet, I highly recommend it.

Writer/director Richard Brooks pictured in Maureen Lambray’s photo book, AMERICAN FILM DIRECTORS and as he looked at the time I met him.

One night, back in the early 1980s, a friend and I went to the Nuart in Santa Monica to see a Brooks double feature of Elmer Gantry (1960) and The Professionals, in which Brooks did a Q&A following both films. Knowing that the Oscar-winning writer/director had a penchant for adapting successful books and plays, I asked him about that, which allowed for the following exchange in the crowded theater:

Me: Knowing that in the stage version of Sweet Bird of Youth Paul Newman’s character is castrated, what did you think of the criticism the film got when you changed it to Newman getting beat up?
Brooks: What do I think of the castration of Paul Newman? Oh, I’m all for it!

The crowded theater roared with laughter followed by applause. It didn’t bother me that he avoided answering my query. I was glad to be able to feed him such a well used straight line. A group of us followed him out to the parking lot to continue the discussion when a little red sports car convertible came screeching in front of him. The female driver emphatically asked Brooks, “How can I get in touch with Burt Lancaster? HE IS SO HOT!” Everyone laughed and Brooks chuckled, “Sorry, dear. I haven’t seen or heard from Burt in years.”

The program from the double feature retrospective honoring writer/director Richard Brooks that he graciously signed for me.

….And then there was the time I got Robert Altman mad at me….oy!
– Dwayne Epstein

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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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LEE MARVIN: IN COLD BLOOD

I recently watched the 1967 classic true-crime thriller In Cold Blood on TCM and it still packs one hell of a wallop. Writer/Director Richard Brooks was at the peak of his game in his stark tale of the horrific murders of the Clutter family at the hands of ex-con drifters Perry Smith (Robert Blake) and Dick Hickox (Scott Wilson). As readers of Lee Marvin Point Blank know, Marvin himself came pretty damned close to being in the film.
How close? From the IMDb: “Lee Marvin wanted the role of Alvin Dewey but director Richard Brooks gave it to John Forsythe instead. Brooks had worked with Marvin on the extremely successful, The Professionals.  but Marvin had proved to be a handful on the set.”

L-R: Veteran character actor James Flavin, Robert Blake, Gerald S. O’loughlin, John Forsythe (in the role Marvin was to play) & Scott Wilson in Richard Brooks’ true crime thriller, IN COLD BLOOD.

I’m not quite sure where the IMDb got its information from but I had interviewed stuntman Tony Epper, who had worked very closely with Brooks and Marvin on The Professionals. His version of why Marvin was not in the film was quite different. While it’s true Marvin and Brooks did not always get along, both men were well aware of each other’s  personality traits and it was Marvin, not Brooks, who did not want to work with the other. Marvin thought of Brooks as a martinet who may have been a military veteran, but having not seen actual combat, he considered Brooks a phony and a bully. Unfortunate really as it was another golden opportunity that Marvin missed in being a part of portraying the horror of violence on film as never seen before at that time.

Lee Marvin as Detective Frank Ballinger on M Squad, or, as I like to think of it, how he would have appeared in the John Forsythe role for IN COLD BLOOD.

Tony Epper: “I’ll tell you what Lee did. I came over and Lee said ‘Go get some of that good wine at the liquor store.’ It was a different label, that’s all. Other than that, after the third drink, you know. Anyway, I get a phone call. I lived down in the valley in those days. It’s Richard. I remember Tommy Shaw, who was the production manager, in those days. He was a good production manager. Anyway, Brooks wanted to get the script of In Cold Blood to Tommy. He had called Tommy and Tommy couldn’t come. I took it, because his wife had a liver problem. That’s where the money went. Anyway, I went over and that’s when Brooks was still with Jean Simmons. He and I were good friends. Nothing but good friends…Anyway, I go in the house and there’s Richard. He says, ‘I want you to do me a big favor.’ I said ‘Do you want me to kill somebody?’ (laughs) He gives me the script. Lots of seals all over it. I stopped by Lee’s with the script and the bottle he wanted. Anyway, this part was Lee’s idea. He saw the sealed script I was to deliver to Shaw, and since he knew Brooks was so paranoid about anybody reading his script, he came up with this idea. He said, ‘Let’s just break the seal before giving it to Shaw.’ I asked Lee if he wanted to read it first. We never read it, just broke the seal. Brooks, until the day he died, kept asking me if we had ever read the script to In Cold Blood. I think that’s why he changed his mind about offering the role to Lee.”
– Dwayne Epstein

IN COLD BLOOD writer/director Richard Brooks (behind the camera) and cinematographer Conrad Hall behinds Brooks.

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