Several folks have told me that the stories of some of my encounters in researching Lee Marvin: Point Blank are worthy of a book itself. Well, with that in mind, I’ve decided to recount some of those adventures periodically via this blog. First up, the late, great film and TV director, John Frankenheimer. L.A. Times film critic Charles Champlin graciously put me in contact with Frankenheimer of whom whose films I have been a fan of, such as The Manchurian Candidate, Seven Days in May, Bird Man of Alcatraz and especially the underrated Seconds.
Getting the interview itself was somewhat rocky as schedule conflicts, traffic, and unfortunate events kept cropping up on both ends. Yet, I persevered. In doing so I learned a basic rule of thumb that a researcher can really do nothing about but grit one’s teeth and sally forth. Works like this: If the subject is amenable and easy to get along with, then whoever you must come in contact with in their sphere is almost always the opposite, i.e. managers/agents/assistant/Gal Fridays, etc. Since Frankenheimer was ultimately a wonderful interview, you can guess what his assistant was like. She’ll remain nameless out of respect, but geez, did she put me through the wringer!
As for Frankenheimer, he could not have been more forthcoming with wonderful heretofore unknown tales of working with Marvin in both early live television and in the mammoth undertaking of filming Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh with Marvin in the starring role as Hickey. I had no idea that both Gene Hackman and Marlon Brando were up for the role which Frankenheimer savored with delight in recounting how glad he was that Marvin played it. There were other revelations, of course, but you have to read the book to discover those.
Director John Frankenheimer (left) with Lee Marvin on the set of The Iceman Cometh (1973).
Here’s the interesting part. The interview was conducted in his temporary offices for the editing and promotion of his then latest project, the cable movie he directed about Andersonville. As such, the quarters were rather cramped with narrow hallways throughout to connect the trailer-like buildings. As for Frankenheimer himself, he had a striking a presence, with a resonant voice, tinged with a slight New England accent and a broad-shouldered build well over six feet, more than enough to intimidate my scrawny little 5 foot 6 frame. I was not surprised to find out later that he had originally wanted to be an actor. He could have been quite successful with his massive frame and impressive bearing.
All this is stated to set the scene. The interview over, we shook hands. said our goodbyes and I make a quick trip to the restroom before going out to my car for the long trek home on the 405. As I turned the corner on the way out, Frankenheimer was turning the narrow corner towards me. With no one else around at the time, he seized the moment to put the final punctuation on our conversation.
As he looked when I met with him, from the L.A. Times obituary of John Frankenheimer.
His massive hand jutted out just slight below my throat to slam me against the wall. Pinned like a butterfly, allI I could do was stare at him. Doing that very theatrical thing that tough guys like to do in movies, he looked away from me, sniffed the air slightly and said, “You’re not going to take any cheap shots in your book,” then looked directly at me to add, “Are you?” In my head I was saying,”That’s none of your business, buddy!” What came out of my mouth was, “Of course not, Mr. Frankenheimer, sir.” He held me there a few seconds more, staring me down, and then, finally released me. I slid down the wall slightly, checked my neck to make sure it was still there and then sheepishly left to my car. I tried like hell to look as masculine as possible, but I think I looked as masculine as Don Knotts. As I drove home I kept thinking to myself, “Are all the interviews gonna go like this and is it worth it?” The answer would take me months and even years to discover.