Thursday, February 7, 2013

Johnny Twennies - Part 5 - Killing Eli's Wife

You Can't Get There From Here

I'm told that the phrase, "You can't get there from here," is attributed to people in Maine, pretty much as a way of mocking their road system and general demeanor.

Having only been to Maine once, I can't speak to the authenticity, but as a New Yorker who has lived in and worked in Boston, I can certainly appreciate that the cruel and inhumane system of "rotaries" common in New England are a maze designed by someone beyond evil, possibly the cruel NY Times Crossword designer, Will Shortz.

On Johnny Twennies, we found that good intentions are not good enough to necessarily get someone to set in an efficient, timely and comfortable manner.

One of our actresses was one of the Grand Ladies of the Theater (as well as film and television) Anne Jackson. A brief summay of her roles, including a Tony Nomination for Paddy Chayefsky's Middle of the Night and successful Broadway runs in plays from Tennessee Williams Summer and Smoke to Neil Simon's Lost in Yonkers does not do her career justice. Screen credits include Lovers and Other Strangers and The Shining. Younger audiences may best know her for a great recurring role as a feisty judge on TV's Law and Order.

Below are pictures of Anne with her husband, screen legend Eli Wallach, in their younger days, and when Eli received the Governors' Award at the Oscars in 2010.

With husband Eli Wallach then....

toasting Eli at the Oscars in 2010

When we worked with Anne, she was just about 70 years of age. A normally spry woman even at that age, she was not in great health at the time.

Regardless of her health, given her age and length of service, everyone from the producers to myself to Stan and our coordinator Dianne were determined to make her trip to set comfortable.

All of her scenes took place at the home of the lead character's "mother," the location in Long Island I previously referred to as The Money Pit.

This was one area we did not try to save money, and Stan and Dianne made arrangements with a reputable car service to pick her up at her door and take her to location, and with a Long Island car service to do the same the moment she was wrapped, so she did not have to wait for any other actors and/or crew.

I need to point out that this was not a requirement or request either from Anne or her agent; we did this because we felt it was the right thing to do. Anne could not have been nicer or more accommodating.

This was pre-GPS days, when we still printed maps and such. Once arrangements were made, Dianne plotted out detailed maps as well as printed directions from her home to set. These were faxed to the car service, which assured us their driver knew the way. We were taking no chances and insisted that the driver take our directions along.

I should also point out here these were our directions to set, and we got there with no issues regularly.

The first day of the car service, the driver shows up late. We scold, but we need to get her to set comfortably and there is no time to switch car services. The driver proceeds to get lost and, after many phone calls back and forth, gets her to the set late, upsetting both for us and for Ms. Jackson.

To make matters worse, on the way back, the LI car service arrives late.

We change car services for the second day. They take a "short cut" to save her time in the car; they get lost.

Unwilling to trust her transportation to chance, we send our reliable 2nd AD with a 7 passenger van to pick her up and take her to set. We know he won't get lost.

We do not anticipate that he will get a flat on the way to set.

It was somewhere around this time that I am in the office and a call comes in to Dianne. Listening to Dianne's side of the conversation without hearing the other became a habit over the years, and some of them were truly entertaining.

"Oh, my, I'm so sorry, sir."

"Surely, you can speak to Mr. Bruno."

Without saying anything else, she hands me the phone. I didn't have time to make the connection, until I heard that unmistakable voice.

"What are you trying to do, kill my wife?"

It was the voice I remembered from the evil bandit in The Magnificent Seven, Clark Gable's cowboy partner in The Misfits, the lecherous Sicilian Silvio in Baby Doll and Don Altobello in The Godfather Part II.

In an odd way, it was the fascination of talking to one of my screen favorites that struck me before the scolding. I had actually met Eli Wallach in passing at a local restaurant we both frequented on the West Side of Manhattan, and had spoken to him one time over the phone.

I was producing some play, and we were thinking of getting Eli Wallach. This was back in the 80s, and even though he was an established star, the contact info for him if you wanted to cast him was his home number with Actors' Equity. He would answer the phone, talk to you, and then, if interested, pass you on to his agent. I found this fascinating.

For the record, he turned it down.

If he was underwhelmed in our first conversation all those years ago, he was even less impressed now. I can't remember the conversation word-for-word, but the phrases, "I'm sorry," "we will fix this," and "I understand, Mr. Wallach." came up often.

To make matters worse, on set, where Anne was fighting a cold, many of her scenes took place coming down the long staircase that was so crucial to our final scene. We used stand-ins for any run-throughs, and even planned shots to minimize her time up-and-down the stairs, but it seemed no matter what we did, if something would go wrong, it would be when she was halfway down the stairs, having to climb them again for the next take.

This is humorous now, because Anne is not only still with us but, now in her late 80s, still a treasure. Her performance, in the end, was really very good.

What made it even more peculiar was that right after we wrapped, a Law and Order episode aired where Sam Waterson has all he can handle in chasing her (as a judge) up a long set of courthouse stairs before she upbraids him for some miscarriage of justice she perceived him to be perpetrating.

I swear, she practically bounced up those stairs, and this could not have been shot more than a few months previous.

A short time later, I ran into both of them at the restaurant I mentioned previously. They were having dinner with another couple, and Anne called me over to introduce me. When she mentioned the film, Eli turned, with that big grin that age has not changed, looked at me, and said, "Oh, so you're that guy." He then laughed and invited me to join them, which I did for only a brief moment before excusing myself, not wanting to interfere with their dinner.

Given all the good guys and bad guys Eli's characters had taken out or ordered taken out over the years, I wasn't going to over-stay my welcome.

Below, a video that tells you something about the love - and the humor - they both have.

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