Wednesday, June 25, 2014

This Character Actor Got The Girl - Eli Wallach

"...the quintessential chameleon, effortlessly inhabiting a wide range of characters, while putting his inimitable stamp on every role."
-From The Academy of Motion Picture Arts when he won the Governors' Award in 2010

The first two times I spoke to Eli Wallach were on the phone.

In the 1980s, I had written a screenplay and wanted to attach him for one of the parts. Actors' Equity had a membership department that had contact numbers for its members. Usually, it was a manager or agent. I assumed that would be the case with film legend Eli Wallach.


Hmm, I know that voice.

"Yes, I'm calling about Eli Wallach."

"That's me. What can I do for you?"

I hadn't prepared for this. After stumbling a little, I said. "I'm sorry. I got this number from Actors' Equity. I didn't mean to bother you at home. I thought....."

"Good. They got the right number. What did you want to know?"

"Well, actually, I was calling about a part in a movie."

"That's great. Tell me a little about it."

I proceeded, in bumbling fashion, to pitch the role to Eli Wallach over the phone. It had never occurred to me that I would actually be talking with him on this call, so I'm not sure how impressive the pitch was. At the end, he said it sounded interesting, and to call his agent about the details.

"Oh," I said. "Yes. Sure. I meant to call your agent to begin with."

That's all right," he said. "I like to always talk to people about the role first, see what it's about. You tell him I said it was okay."

We never did get the funding for that film, so the negotiations didn't get too far. However, years later, when I was line producer on Man of The Century, there was another call. Sorry, but this time re-telling a story I told before>

Anne Jackson, Eli's long-time wife and partner, was in our film, She was getting on in years, and we wanted her to be as comfortable as possible. Most (if not all) of her scenes were at a mansion out on Long Island, with a large spiral staircase. Anne had recently been ill, and, unfortunately, every time we had to do another take, it meant Anne going up and down that staircase in a long period dress from the Turn of the 20th (not 21st) Century.

Worse still was our luck in getting her there. Our regular cast vans had no problem getting there, but we wanted private transport for Anne. This was before everyone had a cell phone and there was no GPS in cars. Still, we carefully mapped out the route, faxed it to a private car service that came highly recommended, and arranged for them to pick her up.

The first day, they got lost with her. Got her to set very late and a little shaken.

After a similar bit of bad experience with another car service - they were late picking her up - we sent our 2nd AD - a very reliable guy - to pick her up personally in one of the 7-pass vans.

He got there on time. Knew the route. Got a flat.

It was somewhere around that time that my production coordinator got a call. She looked a little concerned as she handed me the phone without telling me who it was.

"Are you JB?"


"You're the guy who is in charge?"

That's always a debatable point, but since I had been handed the phone, assumed it was true in this case.

"Yes. Can I help you?"

"What are you trying to do? Kill my wife?"

In what was, admittedly, an odd reaction, I was at first impressed with talking to this acting legend (I wasn't thinking about the first call more than ten years earlier), and only a little later into the conversation did I delve into assuring him that we were doing everything we could to insure his wife's safety and that things would, definitely, get better."

Eli Wallach died yesterday at the age of 98.

I had not planned on a mid-week post, but I wanted to add personal notes here. I will refer you to the NY Times for a full and wonderful obituary that details this versatile actor's expansive career. 

It is a little ironic that only days ago I put up a post about Walter Brennan, another character actor, though I don't think of both of them the same way. Brennan was one of those wonderfully quirky character actors from the Studio days, who mostly developed their trade on their own or learning from fellow bit players.

Wallach, on the other hand, was from that generation of actors who came out of the Neighborhood Playhouse and later, Actors' Studio, where he was a founding member along with Lee Stasberg. Like Brando, they were that early generation of Method actors that Hollywood quickly realized could bring a level of risk and realism to the screen that it had not seen before.

In many studio films, they were used as to play different - see "ethnic" - characters, and in many cases, that meant a mustache. It may seem silly now, but they were still dealing with Hollywood conventions. 

The one that most people know, of course, is the Mexican bandit Calvera in The Magnificent Seven, and later Tuco in The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, mustached both. 

Then, there were the Italians, Guido in The Misfits and Silva in Baby Doll. Although he did not get the girl in either of those, he got to take his shot at bombshells Carroll Baker and Marilyn Monroe. Watch the subtle way he goes from sympathetic to cold as ice in one scene, and holds his own in a scene with one of the hottest actresses of her time.

Later, there would, of course, be other Italians and Mafioso, as well as Jewish characters. Given his age, many of the latter were Holocoust survivors, or later, little Jewish New Yorkers, which he was.

In between, there was, well, every imaginable role in between. Like many actors, he did movies and television to pay the bills, and theater because he loved it, often with his lovely wife Anne. In 2000, friend and comedienne Anne Meara wrote a play they did together about two retired comedians, "Down the Garden Path."

He did many episodes of a personal favorite of mine, the anthology series on early television like Playhouse 90. He plays an aide to Russian dictator Stalin here.

There is one similarity to Brennan. Because he lived up until 98, to many, especially younger viewers, he was always old. That's why I chose a picture at the top of the post that showed him when he was young.

The quote from Brennan, oft referred to by other character actors as well, was that they never get the girl. While that might have often been true on screen, he did get the girl he really wanted, his adoring wife Anne. Here, again, I offer this cool  and funny tribute she offered to him in 2010. (Yes, I have used before as well - but then to show Anne - good enough to share again)

My heart goes out to Anne now. I used to see them often at West Bank Cafe on Theater Row, and when Anne once called me over to their table, Eli had fun sharing with his dinner guests the adventures Anne went through on our film. I wanted to  dig a hole and hide, but that impish smile said that it was all in jest - maybe.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

All in the Family: The Making of Town Diary - A Cast of Walter Brennans

"I'm not a glamour boy and I never get the girl. I like to play old people because there's something to them.  Did you ever see anyone under 30 who had any character or expression in their face." - Walter Brennan, Oscar Best Supporting Actor Winner in 1936, 1938 and 1940

In preparing this post on casting Town Diary, I realized that a previous post on Casting in general - Priorities - Casting - had discussed a lot of what happened during the casting process for the film. Rather than repeating most of a rather long post here, let me elaborate a little more on what our process was, and what it wasn't. I highly recommend checking out that post if you are newer to the blog or have forgotten it.

If Town Diary was going to succeed,  it needed a great ensemble of character actors.  That meant finding a Casting Director who understood that and was not just interested in casting names.

Low budget indies tend to thrive when they find people, especially staff and crew,  who are happy to be there. With our budget, we would not be able to afford an established Casting Director, but we did better. We got an enthusiastic, experienced casting assistant who worked for some time in Georgianne Walken's office. The wife of actor Christopher Walken was not only established,  but known for understanding how to cast indies.

With Susan, our Casting Director,  we had someone excited about the job with access to the type of actors we were seeking.  One meeting with her and we knew she got it. At the time, we still did things like solicit headshots on Backstage and put notices up in the Hollywood Reporter. Now, both of those are unnecessary - at least for a SAG feature - but we were at the cusp of the old ways of doing things meeting the newer, online Breakdown Services.

Our offices would be half of a full-floor loft space in Greenwich Village, with me living in the other half. A past partner of mine sublet the space to me while he was out of the country, and it was working out of the office here with him that I remembered the disaster that was our previous casting experience on another film.

It was standard to request headshots and resumes, and to have them sent to your office address. Regardless of the disclaimer you would always add about "No Dropoffs," inevitably, headshots would appear under your door the Thursday the ad hit Backstage. A day or two later, the bags of headshots would come - and I do mean bags. The mailman would show up and an entire mail bag - sometimes more.

While you ran only one ad, the headshots would come long after you had gone into production, in fact, they would still trickle in six months and more later. When this was also your home, it could be overwhelming.

Susan and my assistant, Christine, who was involved with the casting, went through these mountains of pictures, and from a few of them, and more from her files from Georgeanne Walken's office  and agent submissions, we set up appointments at a casting facility where we rented a room for a few days.

What I was not going to do was have an open call. To this day, there are folks that still feel it is a good idea. For those who have never experienced it, by the time you show up - usually a half hour BEFORE the announced start time - there is already a sign-up sheet started by the actors who are have been waiting on line, some for hours.

It's sad and inspiring, and reminds you that for every actor who goes on to be rich and famous, they, like most others, have to go through the grueling and often humiliating experience of appropriately-named "cattle calls." Actors wait for hours to be seen for a few minutes. In the case of Broadway shows, for example, where Actors' Equity would insist that productions see any union member, actors were "auditioning" for roles that were already cast.

We were determined not to do this. Even going through the mind-numbing amount of headshots we received was difficult enough, and then there were the actual auditions.

Jack was still in Chicago at first, so I did the first stage, and some of those roles we filled without Jack having to see the folks.  As I said in the "Castings" post linked earlier, we got really lucky with some great character actors, like Bob Hogan as the town gossip, and the actor who would eventually play the main supporting role of Frank Ryan, the lead's childhood friend, an actor named Luke Reilly. He is one of those guys who was on a number of Law and Orders, had a recurring character on soaps, and was just wonderful. He was never a star, before or since, but he was great in every scene.

I mentioned that Terry O'Quinn (I believe he was billed as Terrance Quinn in our film), who was already a well-known actor from shows like X-Files and Millenium, and who would reach star status after Lost, was one of our better finds.  

Television has a way of making stars out of character actors like Terry, James Gandolfini, William Peterson, Steve Buschemi et al. Their experience filling in the background on smaller roles that were not as fully written as the leads meant that when they were a lead, they created characters that came across the home screen and stuck.

Terry was amazing. He had a military background, which made him a natural for roles as high-ranking military in television and film. The role we wanted him for was the ex-sheriff who was somewhat crooked, and we wanted the character to be menacing.

Terry was well-known enough to us that we would have been happy with offer-only (meaning he would not have to audition and would only take the role if we offered it to him) or, at the most, having him send us a tape through his agent. Terry lived in Pittsburgh, and he insisted on coming in to audition, driving all the way for his short audition and driving right back.

Usually, people stand or sit in a chair. I usually frown on actors stepping up and playing right to us in front of the table, but that is exactly what Terry did. The sides (part of scene chosen for audition) for his scene were where he threatens the lead and warns him to drop his investigation. When Terry looked into our eyes with the threat, there was no actor there, just the character. It was chilling. He would finish, flash that wonderful warm, smile, and Terry, the very nice actor, would come back.

He auditioned for me, then came back to read for Jack and I. We never saw a second person for the role.

One thing no one tells you about auditions is that they are a great way to see where your script needs work. We had done readings, and I thought I had trimmed the dialogue sufficiently. I had not. One character had almost a full-page monologue (it was part of dialogue with another character - but it was mostly him). It was the stage-writer in me that had not gone away.

By the time the third actor came in and went  through this agonizingly long speech, I knew it had to be cut. I was bored hearing it about halfway through - and I had written it. No viewer would be able to bear it. Of course, we had distributed this long speech as sides for the character, and, as my Casting Director Susan kept reminding me, it would be unfair to ask actors to only do a short part of it, or to cut them short, even if it was no fault of their own.

It was instant karma. I had over-written the scene, and now I was to pay the price by having to listen to ALL of it over and over and over again, actor after actor. Mea Culpa.

It was Susan who also first got on me about not being as good as I could be about making believe I was still interested when I knew an actor was wrong. I took her scolding to heart, and from then up until today, I have tricks to keep it seeming like I am glued to even the worst performance. It's only fair to the actor.

 I remember other small moments, like when the actor who originated the role of Judge Turpin in Sweeney Todd, Edwin Lyndeck, came in to audition. He was there for a role that was not quite perfect for him, but when his headshot came in from agent submissions, I could not resist bringing him in.

I remember seeing him on stage with the original cast of Sweeney on Broadway. A good friend of mine, Mary Pat Green , herself a now popular character actress ( a lovely woman, her broad shoulders and ability to create a hard look have often found her in "bulldog" roles- she is much prettier than you have ever seen her on screen) was in the show and got me great tickets. Over twenty years after seeing it, Lyndeck's performance of "Pretty Women" with Sweeney (Len Cariou in that production ) stuck with me. An old man singing lustfully about his attraction to a nubile teen, as written by Steven Sondheim, was at once lecherous and melodic. It was a mean trick to get both across, and Lyndeck had done that.

Unfortunately, he was still wrong for the role. Over the years, there are times I've brought in people who had previously impressed me, even if they they were not exactly what the role required. It's frankly something I need to stop doing, because too many times, the audition confirms what I knew in my gut, but my desire to work with that talent made me hope it could work. When Edwin finished, I took a moment to tell him how much he had thrilled me all those years earlier. He deserved to hear that.

Jack and I were both in our forties, and so it was not surprising that many of the roles were men and women who were forty and up. It worked for the type of character actors I liked, actors like Walter Brennan.

When you look up character actor in the dictionary (or, more likely now, Wiki) there should be a picture of Walter Brennan. While that is not the case, Brennan's Wiki immediately points out that only three men have won three Oscars, and only Brennan won all three for Best Supporting Actor. He easily could have won more.

The picture at the top of this post is how most people think of Brennan, both for his numerous cowboy sidekick roles with John Wayne (most notably for me, the iconic Stumpy in Rio Bravo) not to mention his roles on television later as Grandpa on The Real McCoys, and, to a lesser extent, a show I watched as a kid, The Guns of Will Sonnet.

It seemed Brennan was born old, and that is not a coincidence. As someone who trained horses on film sets early in his career, he got his teeth knocked out, so he was able to play older roles even when he was younger just by removing his dentures. However, old and/or drunken characters (his Eddie in To Have and Have Not opposite Bogart is pretty much an updated of Stumpy to John Wayne in Rio Bravo) is not all he could play. He also could look like the characters below.

We did a great job with the supporting roles. What was left was the lead role of Brian McCauley and his assistant, Veronica, as well as the role of Brian's friend's younger brother, Jimmy. Here, we would have differences of opinion, as well as mixed results with dipping into the pool of actors I had worked with in the past.

Until then, some fun with Walter Brennan. Below, Brennan as Eddie in To Have And Have Not. Eddie, much like Stumpy in Rio Bravo, is the sidekick who never stops talking, usually nonsense. Here, the fun is a very young Lauren Bacall repeating back to Eddie a story he told earlier in the film. (Unfortunately, none of Stumpy's better scenes are available on Youtube).

Monday, June 9, 2014

All in the Family: The Making of Town Diary - Cast What You Know*

"The first thing you should do with an actor is not sign a contract with him. Take him to dinner. And take him for a walk afterwards." Elia Kazan 

Jack, our director,  was very much of the Kazan school; that you should cast people who are close to the type of character they are to play. I have always thought that a good actor can find the character in themselves regardless of how they lived their everyday life. In some of the roles, we had both.

The script I wrote was meant as an ensemble piece, with the two leads, David and Veronica,  being the two roles we thought might attract name actors at some level.

I've talked about putting together cast on the Modified Low,  and how you can sometimes attract quality actors you might not have thought you could on the reduced salary, which then was in the neighborhood of $248 a day or $800 plus per week.

Even before we started casting, I enlisted the some of the talented folks I knew from my local food and watering hole, West Bank Cafe. Located right on NY's Theater Row, it was a regular hangout for talented actors as well as behind-the-scenes folk.  The Stillers (Ben, Jerry, Anne et al), Eli Wallach and wife Anne Jackson,  the late John Spencer (West Wing), many of The Sopranos cast (who bartender Kaleda had dubbed "The Perfume Mafia")  as well as many other talented stage and film actors made it their home, a nice atmosphere that had a greater energy without ever being loud.

Joe W, one of the bartenders,  was an actor looking to get into the production side. I brought him on as Director's Assistant (not to be confused with Assistant Director).

For myself assistant,  I brought on a regular named Christine. Like Joe W, she was young, bright, enthusiastic and charming,  the latter a trait in men or women that sometimes can help secure needed items. With Jack, JR, and I all over 40, it also insured feedback from another generation,  something I also think is important.

Experience is important,  but, as I've said here before, it's easy for experienced people to fall into patterns that sometimes need change, or at least challenging.  Joe W and Christine would provide that often. Both also had small roles in the film.

I had never gone on a walk with talented  actress Angelica Page, but we knew each other from both drinks and dinners as regulars at West Bank Cafe. Angelica is probably best known for her role as the mother who poisons her daughter in The Sixth Sense.

The daughter of late Oscar-winner (A Trip to Bountiful)  Geraldine Page (who presenter F. Murray Abraham called "the greatest actress in the English Language) and Rip Torn (Men in Black) Angelica is a versatile stage and film actress from a family that imbued her with a strong personality and, in a mother who was not only a fine actress but legendary acting teacher, a strong sense of responsibility to the work.

One of the characters in the script explains how she, and the sheriff at the time of the young girl's drowning,  had gotten rich on viaticals.  Jack was the one who made me aware of this rather morbid practice where, at the height of the AIDS crisis, people would buy out the insurance policies of AIDS patients at a fraction of the dividend. Those patients, who basically had a death sentence at that time,  needed the money now. As the rather cold character tells the documentary filmmakers,  "They needed the money, and we made a nice profit. Worked well for everyone. "

Angelica would not need it explained to her that while she had to come off as chilling to an audience,  she needed to also genuinely be convinced of her own "noble" actions.

Jack took my word that she could do it, but both she and Jack wanted to discuss the role over the phone.  Jack called her while she was in LA and we were in Chicago. The call lasted almost an hour, with Jack's end of the conversation being mostly one word responses to her ideas for the role. When he got off the phone,  I asked him how it went.

"Good," he said.  Then, he smiled. "I think she is still letting me direct."

We both laughed. Angelica knows her craft, and prepares meticulously for every role. She can also be intimidating, which made her even more perfect for the role. She would be having her person doing a wig for her, something she offered to do at her own cost because she knew we were on a tight budget.  That is her level of professionalism.

While we had ideas for the other roles, we knew we would need a Casting Director.  More on that and the casting process in the next post.

* A reference to the old writing advice, "Write what you know."

N.B. Some of the names here, and moving forward, are changed not because they did anything wrong, but rather to protect the privacy of folks who I did not seek permission from to use their stories.