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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VEGAS VIC VS. LEE MARVIN

Vegas Vic, the iconic smiling, waving, giant cowboy towering over the streets Las Vegas is again back in the news and the legendary run-in Lee Marvin had with him is part of the story. Of course, since it’s been more than fifty years since Marvin tangled with the neon cowpoke, some of the facts have been skewed, as they were five decades ago.

Vegas Vic, as he looked at the time Lee Marvin and company decided to take him on.

A local Nevada news broadcast decided to highlight the the signs history last week and its fascinating history could not be told without mentioning the showdown he had with Lee Marvin. The text of the broadcast featuring Lee is below:
The booming voice continued until 1966 when a decision was made to go silent, though the circumstances behind the decision have changed and grown over time.
“That Lee Marvin story might be apocryphal,” says [Nevada State Museum Director, Dennis] McBride with a laugh. “I don’t know. He was staying downtown in one of the hotels. And he’d been filming a movie here and he was tired, trying to sleep.”
Marvin and his fellow actors and crew members had been based out of Las Vegas while shooting the movie “The Professionals” a couple of hours away in Death Valley.
“Legend has it that during the 1960s, movie star Lee Marvin got angry over Vic’s booming welcome,” News 3’s Denis Rosch reported some three decades after the original incident.
“He opened up his window. Shot arrows at the sign,” finished up then-Pioneer owner Marc Curtis. “Stuck several arrows in Vegas Vic and shortly thereafter, the city council decided to silence Vegas Vic.”

“Hey, Woody! What do you say we go into Vegas tonight and have a little innocent fun….”

Mr. Curtis got most of the story correct but there were several important details he left out. Having interviewed both the late Woody Strode and Tony Epper for Lee Marvin Point Blank, Marvin’s co-conspirators in Vegas, I can attest that there was infinitely more to the story than what Nevada’s news station printed. By the way, you can watch the video and read Vegas Vic’s full history here. You can also get the REAL story (Not what Lee Marvin told the cops at the time) only in Lee Marvin Point Blank. Enjoy!
– Dwayne Epstein.

 

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LEE MARVIN BIOPIC CAST PART II: BIOPIC FAMILY

Because Lee Marvin Point Blank proved to be as successful as I hoped it would be, a film adaptation seems plausible, so, to continue that line of thinking from the previous blog entry, how about considering the biopic family casting? Lee Marvin’s parents, brother, costars and friends were an integral part of his life story and casting them would round out the biopic family nicely.

(L-R) Lee’s father Monte, mother Courtenay and Lee shortly after he finished USMC basic trying.

 

First up, his father Monte. Described in letters and first-hand accounts as being physically imposing (Lincoln-esque by one account), one friend of Lee’s who knew him said, “If someone went in a bar to give everyone shit, they’d walk a wide circle around Monte. Monte was pretty tough”

Actor J.K. Simmons

Several actors come to mind for the role, such as Tommy Lee Jones, this year’s Oscar winner Gary Oldman, Harrison Ford, Liam Neeson, even Bruce Willis. The two most impressive to my mind would be either Oscar winner J.K. Simmons, or Lee’s Emperor of the North costar, Keith Carradine.

For the role of Lee’s mother, Courtenay Washington Davidge, certain specific characteristics are also most prominent. According to Lee’s first wife, Betty, Lee’s mother had a soft little voice with a Virginia accent that she used to subtley manipulate her husband and two sons. A veritable steel magnolia by way of Tennessee Williams, by some accounts. Reese Witherspoon, Kate Winslet and even Meryl Streep come to mind. Then again, Meryl Streep comes to mind for every role. Based on what I’ve heard and read about Mr.s Marvin, my personal choice would be Renee Zellweger.

Actress Renee Zellweger.

Rounding out the Marvin family cast is Lee’s older brother, Robert. I had the good fortune to get to know Robert towards the end this life and at that point in his life, I would describe  him as rather curmudgeonly, irascible and eventually, quite affable. What I learned about him was that as a younger man he was understandably quite jealous of his brother’s success. Only 18 months apart in age, the Marvin brothers were both close and distant with each other throughout their life times.

Robert visiting his brother in Tucson in the early 70s.

For that reason, I see the character of Robert Marvin as being portrayed by an actor who can elicit both laughs and sympathy, such as Will Ferrell, Jon Heder (Napoleon Dynamite), John C. Reilly and the like. My own personal choice would by Bill Hader, the SNL alumni who was a gifted mimic on the show, but more importantly the possessor of both funny bones and an as yet untapped dramatic talent.

SNL alumni and underrated actor, Bill Hader.

 

Another major supporting role might be several real-life individuals rolled into one. The reason has to do with an aspect of Lee Marvin’s persona I discovered in my research. Early on, Marvin learned that if he’s going to get in trouble for some of his nefarious escapades, it’s always better to do it with a partner to take part of the heat for whatever transpires. Whether riding his motorcycle through the Beverly Hills BMW showroom with Keenan Wynn, wreaking havoc upon the ‘Vegas Vic’ sign while filming The Professionals with Woody Strode, causing a barroom brawl over a game of darts in London with Bob Phillips while filming The Dirty Dozen, or creating the bizarre prank of ‘the vibrator salute’ with Tony Epper while filming Paint Your Wagon, the legendary exploits he indulged in always required a partner.

Woody Strode and Lee on the set of THE PROFESSIONALS.

 

Any number of contemporary actors could do it but if it were up to me, I’d like to see it be along the lines of someone more like Woody Strode. As he told me himself, “We were like brothers.” So, with than in mind, Dwayne Johnson would be a nice choice or, barring the monetary chances of that, some well-built, talented young up-and-coming actor would do nicely.

A Woody Strode Google search resulted in this young actor, France’s Eebra Toore popping up. Anybody know if he speaks English…without an accent?

And so, with lead role possibilities considered, possible directors in mind, and now supporting cast members short-listed, all that’s left is a wise producer willing to take a chance on a story that resonates like a cross between Mad Men and The Hurt Locker. Hey, just because Lee Marvin was famous doesn’t make a movie. A fascinating story is mandatory no matter who it’s about and Lee’s life, work, and influence more than covers all those bases. After all, what Hollywood faked, he did for real.  Any takers?
-Dwayne Epstein

 

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