You know when you’ve hit a conversational brick wall with director Larry Peerce–albeit a very kindly brick wall. There’s a slight groan, an utterance of the phrase “My boy…,” and a gentle bemusement as to why anyone would expect him to remember a 40-year-old film or incident (even though Peerce, 90 at the time of this interview, has a near-photographic memory of several even older films and incidents).
But generally, Peerce enjoys discussing his career. He’s grateful for his near-fifty-year ride in film and television, however bumpy it was. The word he uses most often is “extraordinary,” whether he’s talking about a near-violent theater audience at one of his New York premieres, or the severe restrictions on filming at prisons, or his close friend Beau Bridges (the actor who appears most consistently throughout Peerce’s oeuvre.) He’s so generous with details, in fact, that during our four lengthy phone conversations, his wife, Beth, chimed in intermittently with sardonic remarks (“This is the longest he’s talked to anyone“; “I better get 2/3rds of the royalties on the book you’re writing!”)
In the time since doing the interviews, a few of Peerce’s feature films have become available on Amazon Prime streaming; a great deal of them, however, can still only be seen via third-party DVD orders or a catch-it-while-you-can YouTube posting. So he was an ideal subject for Hidden Films.
Peerce’s first and third films, “One Potato, Two Potato” (1964) and “The Incident” (1967)–he shot a rock concert showcase, “The Big TNT Show,” in 1965–are still critically lauded today; last month, Kino Lorber released a 4K restoration of the former film on DVD, complete with new Peerce interviews. Both movies screened in recent years at the TCM Classic Film Festival, the Wisconsin Film Festival and the Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque. Peerce held Q&A sessions afterwards, some of which can be seen online; because he told me some of the same behind-the-scenes stories, I have trimmed some anecdotes, but hopefully you can still sense the passion, intensity and fear that Peerce experienced shooting these early, topical, controversial works.
“One Potato” is a condemnation–more mournful than scathing–of the infamous miscegenation laws that were still enforced, at the time of the film’s release, in 16 states. Three years later, the revolutionary Loving v. Virginia Supreme Court ruling lifted the ban on interracial marriage, though several states continued (and continue) to defy that law. “One Potato” is most notable for the heartbreaking performance of Barbara Barrie, which earned her a Best Actress award at the Cannes Film Festival. She plays a white divorcee and single mom who marries and eventually bears the child of her black boyfriend (Bernie Hamilton). Though her daughter adores her stepfather and half-brother, Barrie’s vindictive and racist ex-husband (Robert Mulligan), turns to the courts to ensure he receives sole custody of his daughter.
“The Incident” doesn’t center on a widespread societal ill, but is equally powerful for its menacing, claustrophobic setting (it was adapted from a teleplay, but translates well to the big screen). Tony Musante and a young Martin Sheen play two New York City thugs; one night, giddy from their violent mugging of a pedestrian, they decide to terrorize random subway passengers. Conveniently, the train they board has very few station stops, so escape is near-impossible, and, given the thugs’ bigotry and hatred of the upright, this particular car is loaded with easy targets: a black couple (Ruby Dee and Brock Peters), a homosexual, innocent elders, terrified parents of a small child, and a baby-faced, wounded military officer (Beau Bridges). As in “One Potato,” Peerce drags out tension by lingering on close-up shots of characters speechless with horror and/or impotent rage.
After his first commercial success, the 1969 adaptation of Philip Roth’s “Goodbye, Columbus” starring Richard Benjamin and Ali MacGraw, Peerce’s feature film career was spotty (though, given his years of television work, he was always welcomed back to that medium, in between lulls). The critics were for the most part unkind to every subsequent theatrical release, from the pitch-black comedy “The Sporting Club” (1971) to the sniper thriller “Two-Minute Warning“ (1976) to the John Belushi biopic “Wired” (1989), loosely based on Bob Woodward’s oft-excoriated book. (Some of his films, such as the dopey, wafer-thin Rick Springfield showcase “Hard to Hold” (1984), were clearly work-for-hire gigs).
However, it is commendable that Peerce continued to tackle adaptations of extremely introspective books like John Knowles’ “A Separate Peace” (1973) and Sylvia Plath’s “The Bell Jar” (1979). He also helmed several films–culled from news stories–that centered on women’s struggles (rare for a male director at the time). In “Ash Wednesday” (1973), Elizabeth Taylor, in a desperate attempt to win back her estranged husband, undergoes dangerous plastic surgery; “The Other Side of the Mountain“ (1975) and its sequel (1978) depict real-life skiing champion Jill Kinmont’s (played by Peerce’s then-wife Marilyn Hassett) perseverance through paralysis and romantic heartbreak after a near-fatal accident; and “Love Child” (1982) chronicles real-life convict Terry Jean Moore’s (Amy Madigan) harrowing prison term, during which she is impregnated by a guard. All of these films have their mawkish or trite moments (most of them the fault of the various screenwriters Peerce worked with), and they don’t quite achieve the fierce, raw style of Peerce’s early works. But, with a few exceptions, they bear a gentle, sincere spirit that is rarely seen today in films about grown-ups, as well as excellent performances and gorgeous scenery.
The most glaring exception is “Sporting Club,” a film that Peerce himself disowns. Despite a riveting performance from Jack Warden, it is glum yet crass, dreary yet chaotic, murky about its own satiric intent, and fixated on privileged characters who relish in pointless sadism. It reminded me of Robert Altman’s similarly reviled, equally garrulous and brutish “Quintet.” Nonetheless, it’s one of two Peerce films that are notably hard to find, and for that reason alone, it has a certain mystique.
I felt that Peerce’s entire repertoire, not just the acclaimed 1960s films he is proudest of, deserved an in-depth look. (I was most interested in Peerce’s vast range with regard to subject matters and genres, a trait he shares with other diligent filmmakers covered on this site, such as Richard Brooks, Don Shebib and Rick King). Most of his films have not been publicly discussed since the press junkets accompanying their releases, and, as noted, several were hard to track down (especially the 1980 Treat Williams comedy “Why Would I Lie?”; there’s a $19 DVD at TrueTVMovies.net).
I talked with Peerce about–among many other topics–the difficulties of shooting in perilous environments (women’s prisons, sanitariums, football stadiums with thousands of extras), his bemusement with Woodstock-era rock ‘n’ roll, the highs and lows of having a venerated opera tenor father (the late, legendary Jan Peerce), and his unwavering support of Bob Woodward (despite Woodward’s outspoken detractors).
Sam Weisberg: In both “The Incident” and “One Potato, Two Potato”—but none of your other movies—there’s this style of long takes of characters looking distressed. In “The Incident,” for instance, after Brock Peters’ character is threatened on the subway, there’s a long shot of him in complete anguish. It extends the moment of panic, of dread. How’d you come up with that style?
Larry Peerce: I knew Barbara Barrie, but we had never worked together. It was always in my mind to cast her, I thought she was an extraordinary actress. I let her have these moments that I felt she needed, and I went with it. I felt the emotional strength with her. I didn’t have to be climbing all over her all the time. I could stand back and let the audience feel her emotion.
SW: Was there a filmmaker you admired that did that?
LP: Not that I can remember. I was an arrogant young kid at the time. I’d never done film in my life. I came out of live local television, so I had no dramatic training. I studied acting with Stella Adler in New York because I wanted to be an actor, so that helped me enormously. To be a director, in my kind of work, I’ve always felt you have to be an actor so you can understand and feel their pain, of how difficult it is for them to achieve what they do on film and stage. I trusted Barbara. I liked taking the time to watch actors.
The child [in “One Potato”], Marti Mericka, was extraordinary. She’d never acted in her life. We found her in Cleveland—we shot the film in a little town called Painesville. She came to me during the shoot and said, “What is Barbara doing when she stands over in the corner, before you start a scene?” I said, “Well, we give actors time to prepare themselves emotionally.” I’m talking to an eight-year-old kid and she understood it perfectly. We got to the last scene and she said “Larry, I need a moment,” because that’s what Barbara would do. I said OK, and I watched her. She stood there by herself and I watched that motor inside that child come to life, and I watched the emotions start to bubble up in her face. She did what Barbara did. She nodded her head and I rolled and she was fantastic. [Sadly, she never performed again].
She became a second assistant director in the directors’ guild, and went on to be a first [AD]. I came to New York for a shoot, this is like 15 years later, and she came up to me and said, “You don’t remember me, do you? I was the little kid in ‘One Potato.’” It was very touching.
SW: You worked with Robert Earl, James Earl Jones’ father, on that shoot.
LP: He was a character. He was a very sweet man. He didn’t like the food on the film. I said, “Anything I can do?” And he said, “Give me the money you take out of my paycheck.” So we said OK. It was like $22. He never gave me a problem again.
SW: What was the New York scene like back then if you wanted to make an independent film, and you weren’t, say, Andy Warhol, with your own coterie?
[NOTE: SOME OF THE BELOW WAS RECALLED/PARAPHRASED IN THE FOLLOWING ARTICLE ABOUT THE TCM CLASSIC FILM FESTIVAL IN 2016, HOLLYWOOD: https://www.iseeadarktheater.com/one-potato-two-potato]
LP: I called [producer] Sam Weston. I had a few thousand dollars, and I had to make something on film to show someone, so I could get a job. I found these guys who had written this little short, I read it and loved it and I said I’d love to make this. I asked Sam, how would you like to do this with me? He liked the script and he said, “Tell you what. We’ll make it, and then one Saturday night, I’ll come to your house with my wife, and we’ll have dinner and put up a 16mm projector and watch it, and then two weeks later you can come to my house and we’ll look at the film again, because that’s the only time anybody’s gonna ever see this film!” I said, “Come on.” He said, “Why don’t we parlay that money into making a feature film?” And that’s how “One Potato” was born.
My mother was a fundraiser in my day, and my dad was a member of the Metropolitan Opera for 30 years. When we had developed the screenplay, I called them and said “All I want is for you to introduce me and my partner to your friends who have money. Not a lot of money, but people that would go to Vegas and put $100 on the line playing craps, and lose it, and walk away not feeling like they ruined their life.” And they thought about it and said OK. They started off giving me $10,000 against the budget. We were budgeted at about $135,000, which was enough for about a 25-day shoot, with a union crew. Our cinematographer was Andrew Lazlo, it was his first feature, he had worked on a television show called “Naked City.” I liked how it looked. [At this point, Larry’s wife, Beth, tells him he’s rambling too much. Larry said, “He’s happy if I’m happy. If he falls asleep, I’ll hang up when I hear him snoring!”]
We went to an agent in Los Angeles. He said, “We’ve got a great Western for you,” and I said, “We can’t do a Western any better than Hollywood could, we’d look like fools.” We were getting ready to leave and he said, “Wait, I’ve got a story a writer came to me with. Not a screenplay, just a story.” And it was the “One Potato” story. It had happened in California. And there was another case in Indiana, and both cases, the judge handed in the same verdict. And that was the beginning of the film. We had remembered reading a little piece about [the case] in The Los Angeles Times.
We started shooting it in 1963. We ran through our money in four days. We were broke. I ended up moving back into my apartment, at 35. My mother introduced me to people and we raised about half the budget.
Meanwhile, I had met this man, Leonard Davis, at the Monaco Film Festival, in 1961. I’d done a series of shows on Mahalia Jackson, it won an award, I went to Monaco to get my award. And I met Leonard and he said “If you ever have [a feature], I’d like to make some movies myself. Give me a call.” And my then-wife suggested I give him a call [for “One Potato”] and he said, “Come in,” so my partner and I went. His assistant was starting a film business, his name was Bob Goldston, who ended up producing “A Separate Peace.” I showed Leonard the screenplay and he offered to finance the whole thing, for $150,000. We had a 10% overcall, we had another $15,000, so $165,000 all in. He said, “If I give you the money, I’m the boss. The other option is, I’ll give you $75,000, and if you let Bob and I come and watch you shoot for a few days, we’ll leave you alone.” We didn’t want him to take the film from us, so we took the $75,000.
SW: Back then, a budget that low was pretty unheard of, right?
LP: Yes. What inspired us was this Frank Perry film called “David and Lisa.” Leonard Davis made me get a completion bond on the film, which was a nightmare, for an independent film. Fortunately, the film was a success and we paid everyone back and we made some money.
SW: What were some early secrets you learned about making a film on the cheap?
LP: Pray a lot and keep your fingers crossed. I didn’t know a damn thing. It’s a very different thing from television. But everyone was very helpful.
We were supposed to make the whole film in 25 days. We were getting dailies a week or ten days late. After the first week of shooting, we were looking at the film on a pillowcase on a wall, those were the dailies, it was just me and Sam and the cameramen—the actors weren’t invited. Barbara never wanted to see her dailies anyway. I said I needed another ten days, consciously knowing we were gonna invade the bond. We spent a big hunk of the [financier’s] money, he wasn’t happy about it, but he got everything back six or eight months later. I think it was 34 days instead of 25.
SW: At what point in the shooting did you say you wanted to do more features?
LP: Well, that had been my dream. We couldn’t sell the movie to save our necks. I knew a lot of people in the business. We’d show it to the studios and they’d say, “Very interesting, it’s good of you to make this sort of film.” “Well, would you buy it?” “No, no. We’d lose all the money.”
So we made the film totally without a release. We got into the Cannes Film Festival and it got the Best Actress award.
I’d never seen paparazzi in my life. We kept a very low profile. The night of the showing, with black tie and all that, you were put up in a box right in the front, the first loge area, so that everyone could see you all over the house. At the end of the film—the Europeans are very wild, they’re not like us, they’re very open about their feelings. I went to one screening, they stood up and started whistling and hooting. I thought the [festival] director was gonna have a heart attack. The camera guys were clicking, we came out and they were still at it, and the people I was with said, “Larry, you’re really important here.” The next day, I thought I’d get some pictures, and I went into the palace where they’d shown the film, and the guy was trying to sell me pictures from the night before.
Then, we sold it all over the world. Donald Rugoff from Cinema 5 picked up the film for the United States.
SW: How did the movie perform in more segregated areas?
LP: In those days, we went from city to city to show the film. I got invited on The Tonight Show. We plugged the movie and showed a clip. Then they were able to sell it all over the South. But I remember the scene where the couple kiss in the park, you could hear people gasp in the theater. I remember there was a Ku Klux Klan newspaper, they were brutal [in their review].
SW: In “The Incident,” Brock Peters has a similar style to Barbara Barrie, with a long take of his anguish. He enters the movie very angry and then when he’s actually confronted—and outnumbered—he’s very afraid.
LP: Brock and I both agreed on that.
I did a rehearsal for the film. The producer gave me five days, where I took each [character] unit—the husband and wife, Beau Bridges and his friend, Tony and Marty. I did an improv piece with each one of them. Finally, I [presented] a full improvisation, for the entire cast. We put all the chairs in the rehearsal room to simulate the subway car. The two guys were very nervous, Martin and Tony. They said, “You gotta tell everyone we’re really nice guys.” So I did, I said, “They’re just acting.” I sat down and the two boys came running in, and they started piddle-putzing around, playing games and all sorts of stuff. And I knew, if I couldn’t make this work, if the actors sitting on those chairs didn’t understand the fear these two boys could put into them—that they were capable of killing—the movie didn’t work.
So that lasted about an hour and I said, “That’s it. This is gonna be a total failure.” And then Tony Musante committed to doing what he had to do: he hit on Brock. And I mean hit on him. Vicious stuff he was saying. And suddenly the whole room became electric with rage and anger. Brock stood up and started to yell. I looked around the room and the other actors were mesmerized and frozen in their chairs. And I said, “That’s what we have to do. I’ll see you on Monday for the shoot.” So that’s how Brock ran into that subway car with a lot of rage.
SW: So that’s how the decision came about to have Brock’s character not fight Tony, when he gets that ugly tirade from Tony? Because he doesn’t know what to do with his rage?
LP: And in essence, that was the inarticulate rage of the black man in America, in those days.
When we did the final scene, Beau has been stabbed, Tony Musante has beaten him to death virtually, Marty’s kicked in the crotch and almost killed, and everyone’s frozen. The cops came running around, there was no written thing there, and Brock said, “I’ve got to have an end to my character.” I said, “I’ll think about it.” I came in the next day to finish the film—we shot it in sequence in the subway car—and I said, “I have an idea. When the cops come on, I’m gonna have them look around the car and come right over to you and bust you,” and he said, “Come on, you can’t get away with this bullshit.” I said, “Brock, don’t you know that’s the truth?” And then one of the extras playing a policeman, he had a badge around his neck. We had never met the guy, he was gonna be a background [extra]. He came in, and I’m standing with Brock 20 feet away from him. He looks around the car, looks over at Brock, comes over to him and sure enough he says: “I’m gonna get you.” And Brock said to me, “OK, you win.”
SW: The extra playing the cop said that unscripted?
LP: It was an extraordinary moment.
On opening night in New York, in a Broadway house, I can’t remember what theater, it was a very large, predominantly black audience. Why, I have no idea. Maybe because of Ruby [Dee] and Brock. Anyway, the scene [with Brock and the policeman] happened. There’s this terrible silence. And then suddenly they began stamping their feet, pounding on the floor, virtually in unison. It was terrifying. I’ve never seen anything like it. The people in the aisles got up and started banging the walls. The producer and I got so frightened we ran out of the theater. It was an extraordinary moment. That’s when I knew I hit the right nerve.
SW: That must have helped sell the movie, the word of mouth.
LP: It didn’t hurt. [laughs]
SW: They just were so angry that Brock’s character didn’t stick up for himself?
LP: I can’t say. It was just extraordinary. We got great reviews, some of the most extraordinary reviews we ever saw. But one guy killed us.
SW: Bosley Crowther, from The New York Times?
LP: He did it to us that year and also to “Bonnie and Clyde.” He ended up losing his job. It didn’t help us, because without him, our [press] releases weren’t gonna do much good. Every other critic in New York gave us extraordinary reviews. And he was so adamant about the film and [its] anger. He couldn’t deal with it.
SW: He was sort of a square.
LP: He surely was. He was the king of critics in New York in those days.
SW: And then when Pauline Kael raved about “Clyde,” it just wasn’t—
LP: Yeah. No one understood what had gotten into him.
SW: What’s the difference between that reaction, and, say, the reaction today when you show it at the Film Forum?
LP: TCM showed “The Incident” and “One Potato” on their channel. We showed the film in Los Angeles [at the TCM festival], and I thought 15 people were gonna show up, and we ended up with a full house. Beau came and Marty came. It was very exciting.
SW: In between those two films, you shot a rock concert film, “The Big T.N.T. Show.” [NOTE: I was lucky enough to catch this on YouTube before it was taken down; in the 1980s, excerpts from the film were joined with highlights from another 1960s concert film,”T.A.M.I. Show,” and released under the title “That Was Rock,” which is currently available on YouTube. “T.A.M.I” stands for either “Teenage Awards Music International” or “Teen Age Music International.”] How did you land that gig?
LP: I needed money. A producer who I’d worked with [offered it to me], and I said no. He said, “I’ll pay you $20,000 for two days work.” I said, “That’ll pay some bills,” so I did it, and the shooting was two days, but the time prepping it and editing it—it was a long experience.
SW: Why’d you initially turn it down?
LP: I wasn’t a great rock ‘n roll fan, I love a lot of the acts, but it just wasn’t my dish of tea. I started as a live director in local television, in Los Angeles. I started in Ohio, actually, as a local director and then I did a pilot for [“Big T.N.T.” executive producer] Henry Saperstein, he owned UPA Pictures, “Mr. Magoo” and stuff like that. Anyway, it was hard work, but I ended up enjoying it.
The Lovin’ Spoonful, they were just ripped. They came out on stage, and the two frontmen, these two idiots, they started to jump and down and they were counting off, and when they got to three, they leaned forward and banged each other in the head, and they fell down and fainted on the stage! It was very strange. But most of the [acts] were very nice.
SW: Did you notice any tension between Ike and Tina Turner?
LP: Nah. I met them for one day, there was a block rehearsal—you can’t do a dress rehearsal on those concerts. We sound-checked and away we went. She was very nice and he was a really odd guy. He was so coked up he could hardly walk. He was very fascinating. He said, “I got one thing to say to you. You keep the camera on her. I don’t want you shooting anything with me and the band.” So he knew what he was doing.
It was an eclectic group of performers. Petula Clark, Donovan. The Byrds, they were marvelous, but coming out with their capes and dark hats—it was an unbelievable game. [laughs]
SW: Was there camaraderie among the artists?
LP: Nope. They came in, they sat in their dressing room, they drank, they smoked dope, they came out, they did 20 minutes and boom, they were gone. They were smoking so much dope—it was 1966, there was an ocean of it.
SW: You had Joan Baez in there, one of my parents’ favorites.
LP: She and I didn’t get along too well. It was uncomfortable. I have a habit [just then, Larry’s wife Beth chimed in with “had a habit”]—I had a habit, I never did it again. I’m not a touchy-feely guy, but back then, I’m sitting in a control truck, I’m not on the floor, I’m talking over a P.A. system. I said, “If you could move downstage and a little to the left, darling”—I always used that word. Well, let me tell you: she unloaded on me. “Fuck you, motherfucker!” Well, I never did that again. She was not the warmest human being I’ve encountered in my life.
Ray Charles was fascinating. He said, “Come here, boy.” I sat down right next to him, and he ran his hands over my face, like he was reading braille. And he finished and said, “OK, you’ll do, everything’s fine, brother.” That was our total meeting. I guess if he hadn’t liked my face I would’ve been out of a job.
They [Shout! Factory] recently called me to do a voice-over commentary, they re-released it [both on its own and with “T.A.M.I,” in 2016], and I turned it down.
SW: What music did you like growing up?
LP: I was born in 1930, graduated college in 1952, so it was before rock ‘n roll showed its face in America. But I did rock ‘n roll shows, I worked at KTLA in Los Angeles. It was a local station, we were forced to do programming for the 18 hours a day that they were on the air. We’d sign off at 1 AM and come back around 6:30. I ended up doing a rock ‘n roll show with a guy named Johnny Otis. He did the [“Willie and the] Hand Jives” [song]. He was white and Greek and he worked with all black acts and a black band, he was married to a black woman, and he was passing himself off as black. It was an extraordinary experience. He introduced me to everything. We had a show once a week with him and he had every black act on the show in the year and a half I did it. I was there in 1955, 1956. Louis Armstrong, Moms Mabley, Lionel Hampton. Otis ended up as a born again Christian minister.
SW: Was Redd Foxx on there?
LP: Yes, he did a clean act. He was a funny guy.
SW: Moving on to “Goodbye, Columbus,” [SPOILER ALERT!] I had to ask about one part of Philip Roth’s book that was excised from the film [adapted by Arnold Schulman]: the scene where Richard Benjamin’s character first tells Ali MacGraw’s to get a diaphragm. She’s so adamantly against it, bursting into tears, because of the sneakery she’s going to have to pull off with her parents. He really lashes out at her and pressures her. Philip Roth is not afraid to show the cruel side of his protagonists. And she ends up giving in and then of course the final scene is the big argument before their breakup, about her hiding the diaphragm badly and her mom finding it. The film softened that one side of Richard Benjamin’s character. You don’t see him yelling at her about that, so when they break up, you feel more for him than for her. What led to that decision?
LP: I really don’t remember, frankly.
SW: I guess a better way to ask is: do you think the relationship ending is both their fault, a product of being young and indecisive, or do you think it’s really that she messes up by accidentally–or subconsciously–leaving the diaphragm in plain view?
LP: Well, you know she did. Who leaves that in the drawer? You know your mother’s gonna find it. All I know is Phil liked it, so that made me happy.
We showed him the script. [Producer] Stanley Jaffe insisted we show him. I said, “What for? He’s not gonna like it, he’s gonna compare it to his novel.” And sure enough he saw the script—he’s a college professor [at the time]—and Stanley asked how [the meeting] went and I said, “I thought it went terribly. He gave us a C-minus.” And we never saw him again.
We opened the film in New York and we were a huge hit. And the day after we opened, at 7:30 in the morning my phone rang. He said, “Larry, it’s Phil Roth. I saw the movie. I really liked it.” I said, “Wow. That’s really nice. I’m glad you did.” He said, “That’s it. I liked the movie. Thanks a lot,” and he hung up the phone. That was the end of it.
SW: I liked it too! I know there were some critics, like Pauline Kael, that disliked the wedding scene.
LP: Well, that’s part of life, my friend. I was not looking to make pro-Jewish or anti-Jewish statements. I’m Jewish and come from a very religious home. My father and mother were kosher their whole lives, OK? People sent my father letters saying “Your father must be rolling over in his grave.” It got really ugly. My father got really irate. He was very supportive of the film—he was in it. It was what it was. It really is a look at Jews in America. People going from poverty to upper middle class living, with a lot of nouveau riche attitudes. And that’s really what the film is about. It’s not necessarily anything else. At least that’s my take on it.
SW: Plus, you’re adapting a book about a kid who is Jewish, but from a very different—
LP: A totally different world, yes. Exactly.
SW: And it’s a first-person account. This is his observation of the wedding. And the movie is presenting his point of view. So I find it odd that people would think, “That’s Larry Peerce’s view of Jews.”
LP: That’s what people do, you know that. Nothing you can do it about. When we first started to look for people in the cast, we had a couple of agents call us. “The two of you should go to hell.” Big-time agents. “You should be ashamed of yourselves.” Jesus.
SW: They felt that way about the book, too?
LP: I’m sure they did, if they ever read it. That’s debatable in itself.
SW: Why was the setting moved from New Jersey to The Bronx?
LP: We wanted to shoot the film in Newark, where [the protagonist’s] early life is, staying with his uncle and aunt. We got in the car and drove over, and the riots had already occurred. It was a burnt-out nightmare. We met the Mayor and he looks at us and says, “What are you guys, crazy?! What are you doing here?” We said, “No. We want to shoot here.” He goes, “Get the hell out of here. You find some other place to go.” I said, “Listen. I was born and raised in the Bronx, until I was four years old. My grandparents lived there.” So that’s where we did it.
SW: What part of the novel hit home for you, as someone that grew up in a religious home?
LP: It hit me a lot, frankly. It struck me.
Stanley came to me. Our lawyer introduced us, in 1967. I was 37, it was right after “The Incident,” which Stanley liked very much. He asked if I’d ever read the book and I said, “I love it.” And he said, “Would you like to do it? I’ve hired Arnold Schulman. I have an option on the piece and he’s writing a first draft. Would you meet us and sit with us and do a re-write?” I said sure. I was living in California, they came out, they checked into the Beverly Hills Hotel, and we spent about two weeks, going over that script from top to bottom. That was the beginning of the film. Another wonderful experience.
SW: How was working with the young Ali MacGraw?
LP: She’s terrific, just a lovely, lovely girl. She was a total novice, she’d never acted in anything, she’d had like three lines in a movie with Kirk Douglas [“A Lovely Way to Die” (1968).] Dick Benjamin was wonderful, Jack Klugman—it was an extraordinary cast and a wonderful experience for everybody.
SW: I read part of a book written by your editor, Ralph Rosenblum [“When the Shooting Stops, the Cuting Begins: A Film Editor’s Story,” co-written by Robert Karen], that mentioned Monroe Arnold, who plays Ali MacGraw’s uncle. And how his original monologue had to be cut down.
LP: It was very difficult to do. We realized it made its point so quickly on film—both of us loved the scene and wanted every inch of it—but finally we had to look at the reality. It made its point so quickly that we didn’t need it all.
SW: To me, he still makes a very big impression. He’s not small at all.
LP: Yes, because it’s film. You see him and you know him. It’s film.
SW: Did he understand the decision?
LP: No, not at all. It was difficult. I thought I’d lost a friend. But we worked that out.
SW: Ralph goes into some detail about the early days of “The Sporting Club.”
LP: I never saw [the book]. Don’t particularly want to. God knows what he—he was gone so quick.
SW: Just that he was at the casting session where you picked Robert Fields to play the lead. How’d you find him?
LP: He was in “The Incident.” Right or wrong, that’s who I picked.
SW: I read a 1978 interview with you, where you said, about that film: “I became consumed by the evil in the story and in people and in humanity, and I changed my whole way of life. As soon as I do that, I always always screw it up.” What did you mean by that?
LP: It was the wrong approach to the piece, frankly. I felt it was wrong. Finding that out after you’ve made it and blown it and it’s gone—it doesn’t mean a damn thing, my friend. That’s the game, that’s how it is.
SW: There’s certainly some fascinating stuff in there. It’s very unconventional. I laughed at the duel scenes. There’s a great performance from Jack Warden.
LP: Wonderful actor, wonderful man.
SW: How was the shoot itself?
LP: It was very tough. That’s not a film that would be enjoyable to shoot. It was very tough, very painful.
SW: It’s dark.
LP: It’s very dark and I made it darker.
SW: Did you stay in touch with [screenwriter] Lorenzo Semple, Jr.?
LP: No, I didn’t.
SW: It got a few good reviews. There was one in The New York Times.
LP: I remember that very well. Farber. There weren’t many [good reviews].
SW: So it was more that you yourself disowned the film.
LP: I didn’t, really. It just is what it is. You make ‘em and, are you happy or unhappy you did it? I don’t know. Not every film is the most marvelous in the world and you’re not always right and you’re often very wrong.
To this day, I’ll never really understand. I went through periods of darkness, if you will. I got really successful after “Columbus.” And then what do I pick? “The Sporting Club.” Talk about dark! And I did that a number of times.
SW: I love dark comedy and never think it’s anything to be ashamed of, if that’s where you’re at creatively.
LP: I remember this famous agent in Los Angeles—I don’t remember his name—said to me years ago, “Larry, I’ve seen a lot of your films and at best I can say you certainly have eclectic tastes.” And that’s really the truth. I finished “Columbus,” they wanted me to direct “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” I wanted to do it and I got into a fight with Paramount, because they wanted some sort of contractual thing with me. Then I was offered “Love Story,” and if I’d done that, I’d have been a really rich man, I guess. And I did “The Sporting Club.” I ended up in Siberia.
SW: Why’d you turn down “Love Story”?
LP: I hated it. It was just not for me. I just read the book about the making of “Chinatown.” I’m in it, they mention me, because Peter Bart [long-time editor-in-chief of Variety] made up some story that I opted out of “Love Story,” because I wanted to make the character a Vietnam vet and no one wanted that. But I opted out the first day! I met Erich Segal and knew we were destined for a bad experience. Stanley Jaffe was with me, I brought him in to be the overall producer of the film. We spent an hour or two with this man, we walked out and looked at each other and said, “That’s it, we’ll never make this movie with this guy.” Bob Evans didn’t talk to me for a year and a half. If it wasn’t for Ali [MacGraw], I never would have made up with him.
Why we make those decisions, and how and when and where, it’s just happenstance. I might have screwed “Love Story” up, to be honest. I think Arthur Hiller did a great job and it was an enormous success and I think I wouldn’t have done as well.
SW: So you had creative differences with Segal?
LP: It just wouldn’t have worked. I remember saying to somebody that I don’t think I could play a love scene where the girl is lying in bed dying of cancer, with tubes coming out of every orifice, and he comes down and lies on the bed with her and they have this lovely thing. Come on. I just couldn’t do it.
SW: What’d you think of the final movie?
LP: My boy! It was terrific, for what it was. Hiller respected the material. I would not have done that.
SW: I’ll move onto “A Separate Peace.” You choose challenging books to adapt. The narrator is introverted, the narrative is inward-looking.
LP: I love the book. Stanley Jaffe and I finished “Columbus” and we were on a plane flying from New York to Los Angeles, for meetings. And Stanley gave me [his copy of] “A Separate Peace,” which I’d never read. I graduated high school in 1948, so I didn’t know anything about it. I loved it. He was the original producer, but then he became president of Paramount Pictures, he wasn’t allowed to make movies, so he handed it off to me and I brought in Bob Goldston.
SW: Was it tough to film at the actual Exeter school?
LP: I never had a problem. I loved making the movie. Those kids had never done anything. It was a marvelous experience.
SW: I’m curious why we didn’t see more of [lead actor] John Heyl.
LP: He didn’t want to [continue]. He [became] a high school teacher in Salinas, California.
SW: Did you keep in touch?
LP: My wife found him, out of the blue, within the last two, three years. We talked. He’s grown into a lovely man, he’s married with kids. I met him as a 16, 17 year old kid. And he’s now a lot older than that, believe me.
SW: [SPOILER ALERT!] My take on the book is that Gene pushes Finny off the tree, because they have this deep friendship, but it’s rooted in competition. He feels bested by Finny in terms of sports, and he wants Finny to feel competitive with him about academics. And when Finny doesn’t seem to care about classes, he’s threatened by that. It unleashes this anger in him, like he has no competitive edge.
LP: There are so many different theories. That the characters are really two halves of the same human being, and you’re seeing both sides of them as they fight it out to see which side of them survives. I loved the book. It really struck home with me. I’m very proud to have made the film.
SW: What really puzzled me about the book, and I was hoping you could clarify, is that Gene more or less confesses to Finny shortly after he pushes him, when he visits him in Boston. And I think Finny is so shocked to hear it that Gene ends up backtracking. But in essence he confesses it twice. And I was wondering why John Knowles has him do that.
LP: John was not a man to explain himself. He said, “That’s up to you, dear boy,” and that was it.
SW: Was he happy with the film?
LP: He seemed to be. I had a marvelous time making the film. I loved the cast.
SW: The winter scenes are beautiful to look at.
LP: Paramount was wonderful about that. I shot those scenes in about six or seven days, in the snow. And we were able to shoot the final shots of the film. And then we came back in the spring and shot the rest through the summer.
SW: Was it a hit with kids that were reading it in school?
LP: Supposedly, a lot of kids loved it. High school classes have sent me things. They’ve watched it as a group.
SW: Were there any other classic novels that you always wanted to adapt, or came close to adapting?
LP: I don’t remember, my young man. I haven’t worked in 15 years. I’ve had so many reincarnations of my career. I’m a very lucky guy, I was fortunate. I started as an actor, was a director of local TV, made my first movie, couldn’t get a job for a year, it got all these great reviews, the film was loved but I couldn’t get arrested. And then finally my agent, Malcolm Stewart, got me a job doing a TV show called “Branded.” By that time I would have taken any job, as long as I didn’t have to be a waiter. I did seven or eight of those, I did two or three years of film television. And in that time, 1965 and 1966, I did every TV show you could imagine. “Run For Your Life,” I did all that stuff. And ended up, frankly, learning my craft. So when I did “The Incident,” I was finally technically knowledgeable. On “One Potato,” I didn’t know where I was going.
[Beth says something inaudible. Larry says to me: “My wife is ready to shoot me. She’s ready to shoot you, not me. She said I just gave you more information than I’ve given anyone in my life. I don’t usually do that. As long as I don’t end up in the Sing Sing Daily News I’ll be alright.”]
SW: When you were casting “Separate Peace,” did you look at any kids that are now famous?
LP: Yeah, actually. Jeff Bridges. But I didn’t want professional actors. I probably was wrong. I look back over the years, “You damn fool, why didn’t you use them?” But Jeff had just starred in “The Last Picture Show.” I didn’t see him going from there to playing a preppie at a fancy academy. I decided to use these kids. One of them, Parker Stevenson, had a pretty good career. But John Heyl wanted no part of that. He had told me he wanted to be a set designer. I asked what happened [with that path] and he said, “Too many guys were pinching my butt.”
That was the period where people’s hair was down to their shoulders. And for the train scene, with all these soldiers [riding by], by the time the barber finished cutting 100 boys hair, he was standing literally up to his waist in hair. And the kid who played Leper, a lovely young boy named Peter Brush, he was a shy kid with long, beautiful, wavy hair. We cut his hair and we had to stop shooting. He almost collapsed. He couldn’t look at himself in the mirror.
SW: You mentioned off-line to me that you had some issues getting the film back from distributors.
LP: I’d need someone at Paramount to let me take the dupe negative and make a print and that’d cost me so much money, I can’t afford it. There’s not a single copy anywhere and I’m very sorry about it. I really love the film, and I haven’t seen it in a long time. And Paramount never put it out, they didn’t do a damn thing. They put it out on Laserdisc and it flopped so they never did it again. [NOTE: Though never released on DVD, the film is now available on Amazon streaming, most likely for a limited time.]
The film wasn’t sharply shot, it wasn’t old-fashioned sharp shooting, which would transfer well. I had one copy that was just so terrible you couldn’t watch the damn thing. My wife’s never seen it, I’d love to find it myself. I haven’t seen the bloody thing in years.
SW: You’re clearly fond of this one. What was your favorite thing about it?
LP: I just loved making the film. There was something very touching about it. It was conducive of my period. When the war started I was 11, and when it ended I was 15. And so I vividly remember the war. I had two uncles that served in Europe and I had one uncle that got shot up. So I’m very aware of it.
There’s another film of it, so don’t get confused. I’ve seen it, it’s not my favorite, but that’s just me. [Peter Yates] is a marvelous director, but I don’t know what the hell they were doing.
SW: The next movie you did was “Ash Wednesday.” I read some stories where you said Elizabeth Taylor was swarmed by paparazzi on the set.
LP: I’ve literally never seen anything like it. We had police, it was unbelievable, they were everywhere. They would hide behind lots and jump up.
SW: Did she handle it well?
LP: She was pretty good about it. She’d get scared, but she was not one to cower in the corner. And she had a bodyguard, so she was pretty well covered. They knew how to travel, they were very secluded in their own lives. They’d only come out when they’d go to restaurants. I went with them to this restaurant in Rome and there’d be 50 people outside jumping and yelling with the cameras.
SW: You’ve recalled in interviews that “Ash Wednesday” was shot in the midst of one of Taylor’s splits from Richard Burton.
LP: When it started, they were together. He was there for the whole shoot. We finished and then came back to loop her, six or eight weeks later, and they’d split up. She was very sad and then they got back together.
SW: How was it working with her?
LP: She could be very, very difficult. She was who she was. She was a great star, in terms of old Hollywood. Some of them are marvelous and lovely and some get mean as hell, and Elizabeth had her days. She was a very decent person, though.
SW: I like the scene where she has lunch with the daughter and the daughter is taking the dad’s side, for leaving her.
LP: That was the last thing we shot. The young lady who played that role, Maggie Blye, she and I were living together. She did “Hombre,” she did about eight or ten movies. It was really good to have her, they worked really well together.
The film was the first two acts, and when the husband leaves her and she’s left standing at the station, that should not have been the end. There should have been another beat, of her in Europe, pretending to be young. That’s what attracted me to the story, and we never fixed the script well enough to make it work.
SW: You wanted it more upbeat?
LP: No, it’s just that [it ends] after the first two acts. That’s good for a radio or TV soap opera, but for me the next act would have been what happens to this woman when she’s alone. She wakes up and says, “Hey, I’m 50 years old and I may be looking great, but what I am gonna do?” That would have made a very interesting ending. But we couldn’t convince them to do it. [Producer] Dominick Dunne and I were adamant about it and we lost. What happened was, they were gonna let us do a big rewrite, but the American writer’s guild strike happened while we were doing it. We hired an English writer to do it, and then the day after, the English guild honored the American strike.
We started to run way over [schedule]. Elizabeth got sick in the middle of the shoot and we had to shut down. We started on a 45-day schedule and ended up going 80 days. They were calling us from Los Angeles, shouting and yelling, “You tell her, blah blah,” and then they came and they didn’t do anything. “Oh, you’re lovely,” etc.
I think it cost $11,000 to shoot there daily. It got really difficult.
SW: You were at least stuck in some beautiful parts of the world.
LP: Oh listen, you can’t beat Cortina d’Ampezzo, my boy. It’s so beautiful. Taylor lived in Switzerland and had Swiss residency, and we scouted the whole country, and two weeks before we were about to shoot, she announced to us with her lawyer that her tax situation wouldn’t allow us to shoot there. And we had to restart the film. And we ended up finding Cortina and a little town named Treviso, that’s where we shot the hospital sequences and the scene with the daughter, a lot of the interiors. When we started shooting, there was plenty of snow, but when we finished there were tulips coming out, and they brought snow in from way up in the mountains. It was a nightmare, as you can imagine.
SW: Was there a ton of off-screen partying?
LP: We had a lot of people in the film that we used as extras, and half of them were dukes and princes and counts and their wives. I remember one party given by one of the extras, where they handed out [stuff] from Buccellati, the Italian silversmiths. The gift for everyone at the party was a sterling silver rose!
SW: What are some of your favorite Elizabeth Taylor memories?
LP: We had a lot of tough times. We fought a lot. She was always late. We had a showdown on a stage one day, because she came in two and a half hours late, and Henry Fonda was waiting. He was one of the nicest, most marvelous, talented, prepared actors you could imagine. And I started to go crazy. I had 200 extras in tuxedos and evening gowns, and she was so late, and I was so embarrassed for Henry. And he said, “Larry, don’t worry, everything will be fine, I’m used to this stuff.” Then she and I got into it and she said, “Well, if it’s gonna get rough, I want Richard to be here,” and I said, “You better get him, because it ain’t gonna be nice.” She sent for him and he came down and said “What’s going on?” I told him, and he listened, and he turned to Elizabeth and said, “He’s right.” Well, she went ballistic. You can imagine. He was drinking terribly. They were not a standard healthy couple.
But you couldn’t not love Elizabeth. Off the set, she was marvelous. But on the set, she was a totally different person. She told me about doing “Lassie Come Home” with Roddy McDowall, on the MGM lot. There are two stages, 150 yards from one end to the under. And they built the town there, where Lassie lives. It was a big scene, later cut from the film, where she and Roddy are looking for the dog in a snowstorm. Well, in those days, they used unbleached white cornflakes for snow. And they’d use a an airplane to create a wind effect, you put it off camera and the wind blows at 60, 70 miles an hour. There were four of them, one at each corner of the stage. The grips would go up high and turn them on and dump tons of fake snow and the wind would blow them into the kids’ faces, and they’d start flinching. Elizabeth told me they took them to the hospital on the MGM lot and the doctors put Novocain in their eyes. So, she was ambivalent about work, carrying those memories into each shoot. The stories she told were unbelievable, you almost thought she was making them up, they were so horrible. But she was telling the truth.
She was very talented. She would take direction well. It was just tough getting her to work.
SW: A lot of your films from this time period are about the plight of various women. What attracted you to those stories?
LP: God, I don’t know. Frankly, I was more interested in the father-son relationship [in “Ash Wednesday.”] I was interested in parent-child relationships, I can tell you that.
SW: Do you think a similar tragic film could be made to “Ash Wednesday” today, with so many people getting facelifts and going on Instagram boasting about it?
LP: It’s become insanity. But if you want to get your face fixed, get it fixed.
I had a hanging double chin, that my father and grandfather also had. I complained to my mother years ago and she said “Well, fix it.” And then I witnessed the facelift we’d filmed in Paris. I want to tell you, it’s not an experience you want to have.
We went to a plastic surgeon, who was very famous in those days. I’d never witnessed any operations. I was very nervous. We go in and he was doing a varicose vein operation. On the table was a woman who looked to be about 200 pounds. She was wearing a diaper and a top and was unconscious and there were pipes coming in and out. They had made an incision at her ankle and one way up near her groin. They inserted an instrument that looked like a straightened coat hanger, in the vein, at the top, and ran it down the leg, it came out the opening at the bottom. They hooked a wingnut to it, and he said, “Are you watching this, boys?” And out came the varicose vein. And at this point the cameraman [Ennio Guarnieri], who didn’t speak any English, all he said was “Oh dear me…” and he started to faint—he weighed 250 pounds — into my arms. That’s when I swore I’d never do plastic surgery in my life. What people go through to get it, I have great respect for them.
SW: How did “The Other Side of the Mountain” fall into your lap?
LP: I came back from Italy to edit “Ash Wednesday,” and I couldn’t get arrested. “Ash Wednesday” opened and my career closed. It got some terrible reviews. Canby called it one of the great kitsch films of the ‘70s. I said, “Oh boy, that’s one I want to carry to my grave.” He was very good to me a few times, but he could be brutal. I loved his review of “Krakatoa, East of Java.” A friend of mine, Bernie Kowalski, directed the film, and Canby’s opening line was “First of all, Krakatoa is west of Java.” [laughs]
Anyway, Ed Feldman hired me to do a movie of the week, and I was desperate. My agent said, “You’ve gotta do this.” It was with Beau Bridges, a wonderful film about adopted children looking for their biological parents [“The Stranger Who Looks Like Me.“] And then he asked me if I wanted to do “The Other Side of the Mountain.” And I’m one of those guys who takes forever to make up his mind. And my agent started screaming at me: “If you don’t make this movie, I’ll kill you.” I decided to make the film and Ed and I became friends. Terrific guy.
SW: Had you heard of Jill Kilmont at the time?
LP: No. Ed found the story. He lived in Beverly Hills. His kids went to school there, and they kept coming home telling him about this teacher, Ms. Kilmont. She was in a wheelchair and couldn’t move. He got curious and went to the school on a PTA night and met her, and she was an extraordinary lady. There had been a book written about her and he bought the rights to her life and hired David Seltzer to write it. That’s how we went into business together and had a very good relationship that stayed on together, making this nice, sweet, schmaltzy film.
SW: When you met Jill, was she excited to make the film? Was she nervous?
LP: She came on the set very little. We met her family, her brother and mother, they were wonderful. We were up in Mammoth [Mountain] shooting the accident, where she supposedly fell off the cliff. She was sitting on the side with her mother, and Life Magazine had come to cover the story. They were photographing her and watching this event. Ed told me this story later: her mother started to cry because it brought back this whole nightmare. And Jill turned to her and said, “What’s the matter?” and she said, “Sorry, darling, I can’t control myself, remembering what happened.” And Jill said, “What’s the matter with you? It’s only a movie!” The strength of that person to overcome what she overcame, it was phenomenal. She was an extraordinary dame.
SW: Was she happy with the final result?
LP: She seemed to be. The film was successful. We never thought anything would happen with it. Ed and I went up to Denver, skiing country, to preview the film. Nobody came from the studio, except the man who ran that part of the country for Universal, and we thought it’d be a nightmare. We go there, we check in to the hotel, he met us there. They hired a limo for us, And there was a line outside the theater. I said, “Oh, look, it must be for the Dustin Hoffman film that’s playing!” He said, “No, you idiot!” It was absolutely extraordinary, they filled the house. It was a small theater. There was a guy who owned a chain of theaters, chewing on a cigar, and he said, “If we do $700 tonight, this film will run for six months.” I said, “Oh, come on.” Well, people went crazy. So many people came they had to have a second screening. And he was right: we ended up showing at that theater for five months.
SW: It was a time when tearjerkers were really popular, which must have helped. Were you personally a fan of movies like that?
LP: No, not really.
SW: Plus it was a crowdpleaser, so despite a few nasty reviews—
LP: It didn’t matter. You’re absolutely right.
SW: Tell me how the sequel came about. I actually liked it, because it wasn’t your standard “handicapped person overcomes adversity” tearjerker. It was about her need to find love, to trust her intimate instincts again. I know it was a harder sell.
LP: Ed wanted to make it, Universal wanted to make it. I would not have made it, frankly, but I ended up marrying the young woman who starred in the film [Marilyn Hassett]. I wasn’t gonna desert her and let her make that film if I wasn’t helping her.
SW: So they went to her first?
LP: Absolutely. As soon as they did that, Ed knew he had me locked in with it.
I thought it was a nice little script. I said, “This is gonna go down in flames” and he said “No, it’ll do well.” I made it for so little money and I still get checks from it.
SW: You married Marilyn in between the two films?
LP: I think so, yeah.
SW: I read an interview where she said when she read the script to the sequel, she was worried about how it would come off, because she knew the real Jill Kilmont. Is that true?
LP: If you think I can remember that, my boy—it ain’t possible.
SW: The Beau Bridges character from the first film had died. She had amazing chemistry with him.
LP: Beau is an actor of extraordinary ability. He deserves far more than what he’s been given. And he was so helpful to her, he deserved a great deal of [praise] for how well she did in the film.
SW: Was it easy to work up similar chemistry with her and Timothy Bottoms? I think he’s also unsung.
LP: No, it wasn’t easy. Very different acting approach. The chemistry wasn’t really flying, as I recall.
SW: Did Jill like it?
LP: You know, she wasn’t the most open person in the world, so I was never sure. She didn’t share emotion with you. She was one of the strongest people I’ve ever met in my life. The fact that she lived to her 70s is a miracle of modern science. Do you know when you walk in the city with your kid and you reach a street corner, and they have that thing that lets wheelchairs ease down into the street? That was because of Jill. She worked on that for years and helped get that through Congress. When I was a kid, you had to bounce the wheelchair off the curb, and they’d fall out.
SW: I read that Marilyn related to Jill because she, too, had a very bad accident at a young age, with an elephant.
LP: Yeah, she was doing a car commercial or something, riding an elephant, and they were shooting out in the San Fernando Valley, in this tent, in the summer, it was like 140 degrees in the tent. There were a lot of extras getting restless, and the elephant got agitated and went nuts and flipped her off of it, and stepped on her.
I’ve worked with animals and it can be very scary. I remember I was doing the pilot for “The Green Hornet,” with Bruce Lee. The opening scene was in the hallway of the lobby of the Daily Sentinel, at night. The camera moves in on the elevator and goes to a floor and the door opens, and a leopard [steps out]. It looks around, there’s a cleaning lady mopping a floor, you realize it’s late at night, there’s one person at a desk typing, way at the end of the room. The leopard goes by the woman who almost faints with fear—and by the way, with leopards and animals like that, if you have a woman who God forbid is having her period, the animal goes berserk and could kill her. And so we found a woman in menopause already.
Anyway, the leopard was supposed to go all the way down to the guy typing. And he jumps up on the desk and they have a fight and the leopard pushes him out a window and walks back to the elevator. This is the stage directions! I said, “You gotta be kidding.” They said, “You can do it, Larry.” Leopards—not only are they dangerous, but they’re very difficult to handle. Every time we did that shot, the elevator door would open—if a leopard or animal like that is enclosed in a small space, it goes to sleep. Turned over on its back, with its legs in the air. Well, that’s not the response we wanted.
The cameraman, Jack Marta—I’ll never forget it—he was much older, I was a young guy. He said, “Don’t worry, kid, they’re gonna bring out the chicken. You’ll see.” My guild’s [way of] protecting me from this wild animal was the following: a piece of 4×8 plywood on its side in front of me, and I’d stand behind it with the cameraman. The 8-foot part was the length, and I’d look over the 4-foot part, and this leopard is supposed to walk by me. So Jack said, “They’re gonna bring out the chicken.” We did the shot, this guy went up in the grids above the set, and hangs a chicken over the leopard, and shakes it and it makes a noise. The leopard was in a locked position, in an 8×10 elevator. And we know that the leopard jumped 18 feet, because he hit the chicken and drew blood, he nailed this poor chicken. He jumped over the top of the elevator and started racing around the set at 100 miles an hour. And Marta kept saying, “Don’t move, kid.” I said, “Move?” I was paralyzed with fear. It was running on the walls. The grips were locked with fear. This trainer was chasing it around with a piece of meat, to try to calm it down. That was my great adventure with a leopard.
The next day, the stuntman put pieces of meat on himself, because he was supposed to be wrestling the leopard. He was Hungarian. He kept saying, “Come on baby, come on sweetheart.” The leopard reached out and popped him one in the face, blood’s flying off his face, and again he did one of those 200-mile-an-hour runs off the walls. We finished a week with that animal and it was unbelievable. [NOTE: The final product of this death-defying shoot was a roughly 40-second sequence; the leopard is only on screen for around seven to 10 seconds. The scene can be viewed here. Though intended to be the pilot, the episode was aired third.]
SW: Speaking of frightening shoots, in between the two “Mountain” films you shot the thriller “Two-Minute Warning,” with a football stadium’s worth of extras playing spectators fleeing from a sniper. What was the most intense moment of making that movie?
LP: I enjoyed making it—it’s the only action film I’ve ever made. I worked with a SWAT commander on that film. Until I met him, I wouldn’t know a SWAT commander from a box of lettuce. And we became friends. He’d never mixed with a film crew. The police are very insulated people. They’re only friends with each other. I learned a very tough lesson: the police, and we as civilians, look at each other in a very different light. We look at them as cops. Do you know how they refer to us? “Assholes.” That was my first encounter with them, he was one of the toughest men. And I learned a lot about life from him, and later, he in a sense from me. I felt I was a very destructive part of his life, because he learned a different world.
His name was Kenneth Slonsky. At the time, he was the most decorated officer in the L.A. SWAT. He led the attack on that terrible shootout with the SLA, at the back of the building where the women were.
He was assigned to us by the police department. I wanted the SWAT people to look like SWAT people. He came on as my advisor, and then he took the actors I cast, for a week, and he said “I’m gonna change them a little.” The next time I saw him was the day we started to shoot. It was the scene where the SWAT arrives at the stadium, when Cassavetes shows up with his men. They were in separate cars, not like you see in the movies where they’re in one truck. They’re in their cars and they keep their weapons hidden, so you’d never have the problem of catching them all in one place, with all their weaponry. Slonsky blew a whistle, and out came my guys carrying guns, and they looked like they’d been in the army for 10 years.
SW: What did you mean when you said you affected his life destructively?
LP: The last shot we filmed was the opening shoot-out, in Eagle Rock. He said, “I don’t want you to turn around, but you’ll see a car up the block with two men on it.” There were two L.A. internal affairs officers, in an unmarked car. I said, “Why are they here?” He said, “They’re watching me. I forgot to reup my time with you because there was only two days left on the shoot. They’re here checking up on me.” That’s the way it was, it was like a military operation. They brought him up on charges. They told him he needed one or two weeks of no pay, at home. He accepted it. And then he went out on a real shootout, he was seriously wounded. He saved his partner’s life, killed the badguy. I saw him at the hospital. It was horrifying. He recovered, he was on a cane. And they still [docked] two weeks on him. And he left the department. And I felt I had unfortunately affected that. [At this point, Larry’s wife said: “Now you need thirty-five percent of his book rights.” And: “In the twenty years we’ve been together, you’ve talked more to him than me.”]
He was extraordinary. He wore dark glasses inside at night, because you could never see his eyes. I saw his eyes, and I wanna tell you, you didn’t want them looking at you. I was with him in this crowd, a thousand people we had to get through, and he said “Follow me.” And he walked through it with his glasses off, and the crowd just parted. It was that kind of magnetism that came off him.
SW: Tell me about working with Charlton Heston and John Cassavetes.
LP: Both really nice, totally different human beings. Chuck was a very nice guy as long as you didn’t discuss politics or guns. You know, he started as a flaming liberal. He marched in Selma. He took a heavy right turn at the corner of 47th and 7th, and that’s his right. Not a guy with a great sense of humor, but very professional. He asked me to do another movie with him, but I didn’t like the script. John Cassavetes was wonderful to work with. I was nervous as hell but he was terrific.
SW: Were you a big fan of his films?
LP: I certainly was.
SW: You were making a film that has a really negative stance on guns. How did Heston deal with that?
LP: I never had that trouble. He was very professional, very hard working.
SW: So now it’s well established you are well known for shooting in intimidating settings. How was it filming in an actual mental hospital for your next movie with Marilyn, “The Bell Jar?”
LP: Oh my God. It was very difficult for Marilyn to play that role [Sylvia Plath], expressing that kind of insanity. It becomes very frightening and very dangerous.
On “The Incident,” I remember finishing work one night, and Tony was still in character. I was terrified to unleash him on the street in a murderous condition. So I sat and talked to him for an hour, we had a drink, he cooled off. But it becomes very dangerous.
We were casting the role of the taxi driver who gets mugged at the beginning of “The Incident.” We couldn’t say “Come in and read for me,” so we decided to do a little improvisation. We were sitting in the rehearsal room, Marty and Tony were looking around the room, and Marty started saying “Give me your money, give me your money,” over and over again to the guy, who was not prepared to do an improv. He reached in his pocket and faked bringing money out and said, “Here.” Tony looked at him, took his fist, and punched his hand down—I mean bashed it—and the guy’s arm swung back and hit the wall. He’s going, “Oh, Jesus,” or whatever he yelled. And these two guys were on him in 10 seconds. I’m 20 feet away. And Tony pulled a plastic knife out of his pocket, and by the time I came across the room and grabbed him, he had plunged the knife into his back and chest 20 times. And the poor guy’s going “What are you doing to me?” I said, “Happily enough, you’re hired.” What are you gonna say? He was terrified. [laughs] So if you start dealing at that level of emotion, if you’re not well trained, you can really get into trouble.
SW: Why were they actually punching the guy?
LP: Tony, in character, was hitting him because he didn’t have money in his hand, he was faking it. In the acting parlance, the actor is indicating reality. And they went berserk. They were in character and this poor schmuck was trying to get a two-line part in a movie.
SW: Did they know that he wasn’t prepared?
LP: They had no idea. To them, he’s just another actor coming in. They figured he was trained the way they are.
SW: Was he OK?
LP: He was fine. He was very happy when we hired him. It worked for the movie! [NOTE: In the scene itself, the victim is beaten up for only having eight bucks in his wallet.]
SW: Did he work again?
LP: I never heard from him again. [laughs]
So anyway, when you’re dealing with those levels of emotion and you get into insanity, and mental institutions—that’s scary stuff. We shot at a real sanitarium in Westchester. And while we working, this woman ran out and two attendants came running and wrestled her to the ground. And the actors were mesmerized in the middle of this scene. Marilyn looked over and watched this. Those realities, when you’re working—that’s why shooting on location can be really exciting, because the reality’s not being created falsely in a studio.
SW: Was it tough to get permission to shoot there?
LP: They were very nice. We kept our distance, we didn’t show any [of the patients]. But that [type of incident] happened twice while we were shooting. It was terrifying.
SW: Like “A Separate Peace,” the Sylvia Plath book seems particularly difficult to adapt. But it was such a hot script from the moment it was posthumously released. How did you get the rights to it from [Plath’s widower] Ted Hughes?
LP: I don’t remember. [Producer] Bob Goldston was involved with that. [He died in 2017.]
SW: Was it a personal project for you?
LP: No, it really wasn’t. Someone brought it to me and I read it and said, “My God, what a difficult job here!”
SW: What was your main takeaway from the novel?
LP: My boy, I don’t remember. Do you realize how long ago this was?
SW: Were there things about the book you remember not liking and not wanting in the film?
LP: No. My memory’s good, but not that good.
SW: The main difference to me seems to be that Esther’s mother, in the movie, is more of a sweetheart, so it’s more jarring when Esther is so mean to her. Also Esther doesn’t partake in an orgy in the book, she just watches it. Then, she has a lesbian affair with an old friend she sees at the insane asylum. In the book, she just befriends her. I read that the real-life woman this character was based on sued many people involved in the film, in the late 1980s. [Harvard psychiatrist Jane V. Anderson, who died in 2010].
LP: I have no memory of that at all.
SW: You interviewed with The New York Times around the time “Bell Jar” was released, and one of your quotes was: “Hollywood may be right up there with Riyadh and Tehran in the competition for most sexist city on earth.”
LP: Jesus. I used to have a big mouth, I guess.
SW: No, you were against sexism! You said Marilyn had told you about being harassed in offices. Is that what drew you to “Bell Jar,” that the character is so mistreated by men?
LP: That’s what fascinated me. She’s an extraordinary writer.
SW: Tell me about working with Robert Klein, in the orgy scene.
LP: One of the nicest men I’ve ever worked with in my life. He ended up doing a comedy bit and he described shooting the orgy scene with Marilyn rolling around on the bed, and he said, “The director’s married to her.” It was hilarious.
SW: When you worked with the screenwriter, Marjorie Kellogg [died in 2005], was it tough to figure out what to keep or not?
LP: She was a terrific lady. Those choices are very difficult. You know that whatever you do, they’re gonna fault you. It just goes on and on, what’s filmic and what isn’t.
SW: There was talk of a newer adaptation, with Kirsten Dunst involved. I think she got the rights to direct it but they lapsed.
LP: That adaptation is so difficult.
SW: Did you plan any other films with Marilyn?
LP: No. We split up and that was it.
SW: Shortly after “The Bell Jar”?
LP: It was quite a while after. But we never [worked] again.
SW: Because that movie had been so tough?
LP: No. It’s just that life changed.
Anyway, after I did “The Bell Jar,” it was tough to find a job.
SW: You did make “Why Would I Lie?” just a year later, which, by the way, was the hardest of your films to find.
LP: Did you find it? Then you’re better than I am! I haven’t seen it in years.
It was very pleasant when we made the film. Treat Williams was lovely and very nice to work with. We brought the film in, we screened it, took it out to preview it in Seattle or something, and we got the most extraordinary ratings. And we opened it and it didn’t do a buck’s worth of business. They changed the name of the film. It was MGM and the head of the studio was David Begelman. He was quite a piece of work. The book was called “The Fabricator.” They said, “Well, you can’t name a film that, because people won’t know what it means.” I said, “Well, the advertising can tell the world what it really means.” And they said some bullshit, like, “Well, we tested a group and they came back and said they thought the guy worked in a factory.” I said, “They could go to a dictionary and that’d explain it to them.” And they changed the title without our permission to “Why Would I Lie?” I said, “How do you name a film with a question [like that]?” It was a disaster. The film disappeared in 20 minutes.
SW: Did the studio change anything else about the film?
LP: They changed the [theme] song, to some B.S. I vaguely remember it. I haven’t seen it in so long. Maybe it’s a nice movie, maybe it’s garbage. I thought Treat was terrific.
SW: It’s interesting. You don’t see too many protagonists like that: sympathetic compulsive liars/failure-to-launch types. Were you in touch with the writer Hollis Hodges a lot?
LP: No, I don’t think so. The guy who wrote the screenplay was a famous playwright. [Peter Stone, died in 2003.]
SW: The producer hasn’t done much since that film. Pancho Kohner.
LP: He was terrific. He was the son of the famous producer Sam Kohner, and he’s Pancho because his mother was a Mexican movie star. He was producing movies at Fox. They’d shoot a movie during the day, he’d come in at 6 and shoot the same movie in Spanish, with a different crew. He did well for quite a while.
SW: What drew you to that particular character?
LP: My boy, you’re trying to stir up memories that are long gone.
SW: “Love Child” was one of my favorites.
LP: Thank you. I liked it a lot. Again, I haven’t seen it in so long.
We shot it in Fort Lauderdale and at a prison in Alligator Alley, that road from Naples to the Gulf of Mexico. I’ve shot at some prisons and it’s not a nice experience. And this was one of the worst. It was a woman’s prison, and holy Moses, what a place! It was really very scary. It got so unpleasant. We had started to build some cover sets in Fort Lauderdale, and we ended up building the whole set there, because it became impossible to work at the prison. The prisoners were in the cells and they’d start screaming and cursing. And the rules letting us in were extraordinary stringent, as you can imagine. We’d come in there at 6:30 or 7 in the morning with IDs. The cast and crew would walk in the front gate and the trucks would go in the back gate, and it was timed so the first truck and first group of people would go in at the exact same time. It was really complicated. We’d walk into the front end of the prison, they patted us down every single day. We brought some extras with us, because we couldn’t shoot the actual prisoners up close, we gathered some really impoverished women and dressed them in prison garb. And you couldn’t tell them apart from the prisoners. So they were so nervous about us being there.
They let us in through this sally port, they’d take us in 15 or 20 at a time, stuff us in this glass room with a door locked at the other end. The guards would look at us, decide we were ok, and then let us into the prison. They’d have a little fun, they’d let us stand there, 20 people bumper to bumper, like on the I.R.T. at rush hour. And finally they’d open it and let us in. And at the same time, they were letting the trucks in.
SW: Did anyone get injured?
LP: No. After we did a lot of scenes in the yard, and it worked very well for us, [we left], because it was a scary place. There were no high walls, it wasn’t Sing Sing, but there was barbed wire, alarm systems underground. It was quite something. Some of the women are totally insane and it’s very, very scary.
SW: Were you there for research before the film?
LP: Indeed I was.
SW: What drew you back to that dark subject matter?
LP: Well, I found that a fascinating story. It was a great lesson to me about America and the class system, this young woman coming from an impoverished background, and what happens to her. And the mentality of people that commit crimes.
I did a documentary that ended up at San Quentin. We were gonna put a reporter in a cell and he’d stay there for [a certain] amount of time, to give us the reality. And San Quentin, Sing Sing, places like that are truly terrifying. They had the towers there, with the machine guns. You walk into this tunnel, the walls are 45 feet thick. And the reporter and I were met by an assistant warden, he took us into the yard, and it looked like a Humphrey Bogart movie. There were 5,000 men in that yard, walking around talking, smoking cigarettes. And it doesn’t take 20 seconds, they all stop talking and turn and stare at us. And the warden is talking to us, like, “Don’t let this alarm you. They see you’re not in uniform.” And guards are walking on parapets carrying rifles, looking down at us. We started to walk across the yard and the guys literally parted like the Red Sea. But as we walked through, some of them stayed close, and everyone came up with a story. “Hey, you gotta help me, I’m here on a bum rap.” We interviewed these people, and I never met one guy in the prison who ever said “I deserve to be here.” I interviewed a guy who had been a reporter on a small newspaper in Long Beach. He’d been caught robbing a filling station, he didn’t earn very much. I said, “Why did you do this?” And he said, “I needed money, I needed to buy a car.” I said, “Couldn’t you have gone to the credit union?” and he said “Oh, I didn’t have time.” We never went back there again. It was very bizarre.
SW: Can I find that film anywhere?
SW: Do you remember the name of it?
LP: No. This one, I assure you, you won’t find it.
SW: The screenwriter of “Love Child” was Paul Maslansky, right before he did “Police Academy.”
LP: One of the nicest guys that ever lived. He said, “I’m working on [“Police Academy”],” I said, “Oh, what is it? Can I read it?” He said, “No, it’s such garbage.” And then they made five of them.
SW: It makes sense that the climax of the film is Terry Jean Moore’s trial, where she has to prove she can raise the baby while still in prison. But did you ever consider showing the story of how Terry Jean Moore raises the baby under those conditions?
LP: No. That girl was lovely, but she pulled a hold-up. They needed money. It was a different mindset for people like that.
She was on the set with us. I think she liked the film. She has a tiny role as one of the prisoners. The daughter was on the set with us, very cute little kid, maybe two or three or four.
SW: Did you keep in touch with Terry?
LP: No. I met her when we were prepping the movie. She was working in Disneyland, making minimum wage, she was driving one of those buses at the airport, from the luggage area to the rental cars.
SW: Despite your aforementioned indifference to rock n’ roll, your next film was the Rick Springfield vehicle, “Hard to Hold.”
LP: Yeah. It was what it was.
Making the film was a strange experience. Ned Tanen at Universal asked me to do the film, and I said, “There’s nothing there.” [NOTE: Richard Rothstein, who died in 2018, was the original screenwriter; he received story credit]. He knew it needed a rewrite. He said, “If you want to sign on, hire who you want, take the time, get the rewrites you need.” I went to San Francisco–the original script was set there, I think- with this writer, an extremely talented man [Tom Hedley Jr.], and we checked into the Fairmont Hotel and spent almost a month there. When we finished, we had [only] half a script. We got back to Los Angeles and Ned had been fired from Universal. He ended up at Paramount, ran it for a long time. I see another man sitting across the desk, and he said, “I love the script.” I said “We need a little more work,” and he said “You got a go,” and he gave us a go on the film! It was a little difficult.
SW: What’d you think of Springfield’s music?
LP: I loved him. It wasn’t heavy rock, it was very pleasant. He was easy to work with.
SW: He said in an interview that he could tell rock music wasn’t your favorite thing.
LP: No, it wasn’t. [laughs] The concert was murderous to shoot. We hired another act to help bring in a crowd. They were famous, I can’t remember who it was, this woman was the lead singer. She was supposed to be the closing act. Springfield would do his thing first and we’d film it. A half hour before the shoot, she said she wasn’t gonna close for Rick Springfield. So she became the opening act! And then holding that audience—when you shoot, it’s not the same as doing a concert. You may need to shoot more, to do pick-ups.
SW: What’d you think of the finished film?
LP: It was OK. It was nothing.
SW: How was it working with Keith Richards’ wife Patti Hansen? Did he come by the set?
LP: He did. He was very nice. She was a terrific lady, a phenomenal human being. It was an amazing experience knowing her. She was terrific in the film. And she’s the main reason he’s alive today. And they’re still together [since 1983, shortly after the film wrapped.]
When we met him, Keith was off the stuff, but he’d smoke ten joints a day and he drank a bottle of bourbon one day while he was watching her shoot. And that was a normal, easygoing day for him. He was something else. A very bright man, really sharp, sharp guy.
Everybody liked her on the set. She worked hard, she was professional. There were people walking around dribbling around Keith.
SW: Did he and Springfield get into some mischief?
SW: You said in an interview that the film was a bit about the trappings of success, which you could relate to, since your father, whenever he heard a cough, he’d check into a hotel, because he could not risk getting sick and missing a performance.
LP: In my house, nobody said “Gesundheit.” All you’d hear is “Don’t sneeze,” which is a little odd when you’re six years old. And if you coughed, he was out the door, bags, checked into a hotel.
My father, he was like a god, particularly to Jewish Americans. He was one of the first openly Jewish classical artists. He wouldn’t work on the Day of Atonement, and they respected him for it. He never had any problems with it.
SW: Did you spend a lot of time backstage?
LP: I spent a lot of my [early] years back there. To this day, it’s very difficult for me to go backstage in a theater. My wife gets mad at me, because we’ll go to shows and I know the cast and she’ll say, “I’d love to meet them,” and I’ll say, “Well, someday.” My father and I had a difficult relationship. And besides that, people were yelling and pinching at me, [as a child].
SW: Are you a fan of opera?
LP: Yes, absolutely. My father debuted at the Met in November 1941, a Saturday afternoon broadcast, exactly one month before Pearl Harbor, when I was 11 years old. He was an amazing artist, Toscanini’s favorite tenor. He sang with him ten or 12 times.
SW: Did he work with Leonard Bernstein?
LP: Oh, he worked with them all.
SW: Was he proud of your films?
LP: He was in “Goodbye, Columbus.” He was very funny about that. I initially wanted him to play the cantor, and he said, “Do I have to sing in that?” and I said, “Yeah,” and he said, “If I play the uncle, you’re gonna pay me scale. If I play the cantor, you’re gonna pay my concert price. So make up your mind.” [laughs]
SW: I’m guessing he never missed a show.
LP: No, he was a professional to the end of his days.
SW: I read the Bob Woodward book of “Wired,” which itself was controversial. What fascinated me wasn’t that he fabricated anything; it’s extremely well-researched—
LP: He was one of the most extraordinary researchers that ever was. We had a meeting with Ben Bradlee at The Washington Post, and he told us that he loved Woodward and that without question he was the best and most thorough reporter he’d ever worked with. He said he would check and recheck over and over, he never came in with scant information. That book was researched to pieces, and you can rely on everything the man said.
SW: So you felt he was completely in the right, in how he went about it?
LP: Absofuckinglutely. I happen to believe everything the guy writes. For his editor in chief to say he was the most thorough, the most honorable and honest guy that ever was in the newspaper business, that’s a hell of an [accolade] from another great man.
Woodward told the truth about Belushi, let me assure you. Nobody necessarily wanted to hear the truth. We had a lot of trouble with his manager—
SW: Bernie Brillstein.
LP: Brillstein, and his ex-comedic partner—
SW: Dan Aykroyd.
LP: Oh, let me tell you—very ugly. Aykroyd was on a movie [“Loose Cannons”] and had J.T. Walsh fired because he’d been in “Wired.” J.T. was one of the best actors I’ve ever worked with, and one of the most extraordinary people. And when they told him they were firing him, he said “I want to be paid,” and they said, “No, you haven’t started yet, screw you!” He said, “Alright. Then I will call a news conference and announce the reason you’re firing me.” And they had a check in his hand in ten minutes.
SW: And the story about his firing still got out, ironically.
LP: The true story is that they enabled this man to continue with this habit. Listen, I’ve had people hate me for making that movie. One of the big reasons I made it, frankly, was to show my kids what happened when you did what these people did. He was shooting speedballs and it killed him. Robin Williams admitted that [Belushi’s death] scared him straight for years, because they were all doing [drugs].
SW: In the oral history of Saturday Night Live, the book of “Wired” gets discussed a bit. Belushi’s friends and family were upset that the book overlooked his scholarly side, his sweet side, his talent. It’s virtually all about the drugs. And he comes off so scary and violent in the book.
LP: Well, he was a very scary, angry, violent guy. First of all, the complexity of comedians—a lot of old comics are some of the worst people that ever lived. Total reversals of what they present as their public personas. Guys like Jerry Lewis, oh he’s making faces, he’s the king of comedy—he was a horrible man.
SW: You met him?
LP: Oh, I knew him. And Milton Berle—they were murder, those guys. The newer comics seem to be less like that. But when you mix all that stuff up and throw a lot of drugs in, it does terrible things. Yes, he was a marvelous comedian, and he might have been the nicest man that ever lived. But I didn’t want my kids to emulate him because they thought he was great and funny. I wanted them to understand [the dark side].
Probably I was wrong. I knew what I was getting into. The producer [Ed Pressman] kept saying, “We gotta make this film funny,” and I said, “Ed, what are you talking about? Maybe you’ll get a couple of chuckles here, but this is about a man who was shooting speedballs and died.” And I didn’t want our actor [Michael Chiklis] to emulate John Belushi, because you couldn’t. He was terrific, he had a great persona, but there was no reason to, as far as I was concerned. He and I argued about it, I won some and lost some. But they killed the movie.
SW: What do you mean by “they”?
LP: Well, CAA [Creative Artists Agency], and those people, they murdered us. When we opened in Los Angeles, they literally had the theater remove the marquee with the name of the picture on it. It was a difficult time.
SW: I know that Brillstein and a few other people managed to legally remove their names from the movie. But Aykroyd is a character in it. And he was the biggest opponent.
LP: Because he’s a public personality, there’s nothing you can do about it. Brillstein, you can’t consider him a public persona in a sense. I had nothing to do with that. They laid down the ground rules and I said yes or no to it and that was it.
SW: I read that Jim Belushi trashed Ed Pressman’s office, in protest.
LP: You better believe it. He scared the shit out of me. I thought he was gonna beat the hell out of me. I didn’t meet him, they shot me out of there. I was in the cutting room, my editor made me leave. He came in and gave my editor a lot of shit. They didn’t have fisticuffs, but evidently it came close.
SW: I read in some news reports that the first slated director was Robert Markowitz, and that before Michael Chiklis was found he’d picked an even younger actor named Michael Marx, from obscurity. How’d you get the gig?
LP: I don’t really remember. Markowitz was unavailable, I think. All I know is Ed called me and offered me the film.
SW: Were you reluctant at first because of the material?
LP: I had not read the book, and I did and went “Oh my God.” Sure, I had reservations. Maybe I should have had more. When you start poking holes into icons, you’re looking for a lot of trouble.
SW: Although, the film isn’t out to demonize him. If anything, the script is more sympathetic to him than the book.
LP: Exactly! All of those [detractors] never read the script! They were in total denial, especially the people working in the background with him, because they were all enabling him. I’m not saying they were using—I wouldn’t even presume to think that—but they certainly were enabling him.
SW: Again, in that SNL oral history, certain celebrities argued that he was such a force of nature, you simply couldn’t tell him to just stop.
LP: The only person you could say that about is Moses or Jesus Christ. I don’t believe that. That’s my feeling.
SW: Were there initially more flashback scenes, of Belushi working in movies or on SNL?
LP: We never did a lot of that. We did one of his [SNL] baseball bits, but I said, “It should be out of the film.” I handed in my first cut, I showed him start the skit but not finish it. And [they said], “Oh my God, what are you doing, you left it out!” I put it back. I didn’t think it was funny. Chiklis did a wonderful job, but…you can’t do that! It just doesn’t work. It’s like watching William Bendix try and be Babe Ruth. I love Bill Bendix, but he didn’t look like him, act like him and he shouldn’t and couldn’t hit like him.
SW: Tell me quickly your perspective of “Wired” going to Cannes.
LP: I wasn’t there. I would not have been there. I thought everyone that went was an idiot and I thought the whole thing was ridiculous. I said, “You’re gonna get killed there.” So I have no knowledge of that at all. You could feel it coming. That gives me chills.
SW: How did Woodward feel about being a character in the film, actually interacting with Belushi?
LP: He told me he liked the film. I saw him in later years and he was terrific to me. My wife is a realtor and a member of the National Association of Realtors. I was with her in Washington for their annual meeting and Woodward was the guest speaker. He was so nice to me. We sat next to each other and jabbered the whole luncheon. I’m a great fan of his.
SW: The whole story of how that book started is fascinating and heartbreaking. Apparently, John’s widow Judy came to Woodward because she was a huge fan and she thought he would understand the Hollywood scene the same way she did, and the drug scene. And I suppose it’s not his fault that he got there and didn’t necessarily have a sympathetic vision of it.
LP: And that would be a tough thing for him to be sympathetic about. He was a straight-laced Midwesterner. So he’d find it difficult to accept that that’s “part of the scene,” or whatever colloquial expression you use. And I understand that. I don’t think he’d be judgmental; he’d still be a reporter, and honest about it.
SW: Were you a fan of Belushi?
LP: I loved him. What’s not to love? He was funny and marvelous. He’s one of the reasons you watch Saturday Night Live, to see him and Aykroyd and Jane Curtin. You had to sit through a lot of crap to get to the good sketches.
SW: Did you talk to a lot of people that knew him when you made the film?
LP: I must have, this is so many years ago, this is foggy in my mind. I know I walked the whole island, the [Martha’s] vineyard [where Belushi had lived].
SW: Did you meet Judy?
LP: No. I don’t think she was very willing to meet anyone involved in the project.
SW: Did you contact any of the detractors afterwards, to try to clear the air?
LP: No. I’m not one to do that.
SW: How was working with Patti d’Arbanville?
LP: Terrific lady, terrific actress.
SW: Ray Sharkey?
LP: We became great friends. The tragedy of his life—it was very sad. He went back on that bloody needle. He went totally crazy. It was very sad.
SW: Was he clean on set?
SW: Was the shoot itself fun?
LP: Well, you can’t say that’s “fun.” I envisioned the film as—it starts with someone prepping a shot, fills the spoon, he heats it, cooks it, puts it in the needle, puts it in some water and mixes it, shoots it down the line and dies. The movie was that trip down that [hospital] hallway. I never saw that as a bundle of laughs or a lot of fun. It was a painful experience.
SW: Why was “Wired” the last feature film?
LP: Because that ended me, my friend. No one would come near me. I totally understood it.
SW: But you had had lots of ups and downs like any director.
LP: I got a couple offers but nothing attracted me at all.
SW: I wanted to close with some—hopefully—less painful questions, very general. Did you ever think about writing your own original script?
LP: No, I never did. My wife is angry at me about it, but I never did. I don’t think I’m capable. I wish I were.
I love the collaboration of a writer and director. It happened with me when I did “Goodbye, Columbus,” working with Schulman was so wonderful, and he became part of the whole process of making the film, from the first draft all the way through the rehearsal period. I kept saying, “What are we gonna do about the letter [read aloud at the end]?” The book revolves around that letter. You can’t stand around a hotel room with two people and read a page and half letter and talk about misspelling and bad English and have a scene. I said, “We’ve got to bring that to life.” I invited him to the improvisation during the rehearsal, he witnessed it all, and he came up with the scene of the father and Ali together at the wedding, when he in essence tells her to do what he wrote about in the letter. So the whole thing came together. And that came through a collaboration with Schulman that I thought was absolutely marvelous.
SW: Beau Bridges is like your soulmate. He’s in more of your films than any other actor. What made that the case?
LP: I couldn’t tell you. I met him when he was 26 or 27. We’ve stayed friends. Our working relationship has always been extraordinary. I only wish we could have done more. If I’d have done “Love Story,” he’d have played the young man.
SW: Did you always want to make many different genres of films?
LP: Yeah, I was always that way. Action was not something that appealed to me until “Two-Minute Warning.” I did some action stuff in television. The producer of “The Incident” saw one of my cop television shows and liked the action and said I’d be alright to make the film.
SW: What was your favorite locale to shoot in?
LP: I love New York City. Rome was a pain in the ass, but I loved that. I loved shooting in London. Sometimes, you get stuck in a small town in the middle of nowhere, where the Motel 6 is the best place in town, and you’d be there for three or four months and lose your mind. I remember being in Cisco, Texas, on a scout. We were in the Motel 6, it was so hot, and they only had window air conditioners that had frozen solid because the air was so humid. We ended up in the Dairy Queen in town where it was air conditioned. Nothing else was open so we stood there for three hours until they closed. So those towns, I didn’t appreciate very much, but I had a great time most places.
SW: Finally, have you ever responded to a critic, positive or negative?
LP: No. Fuck that. Come on. I may be a schmuck, but I don’t read my negative reviews and say “Oh, I should’ve listened to this guy.” My father’s attitude about critics was—I walked into his dressing room in some city he’d appeared in, and he had his shirt on, a tie, his socks, garters, shoes, hat on his head, but no pants—he always put them on last because he didn’t want them to get creased. And he’s reading the last night’s review. And he said “Did you see what this son of a bitch said about me?” That’s what I grew up on. From that point on—I love to quote the great reviews—but you learn a life lesson, you gotta take the good with the bad. Don’t harbor it.
SW: So if he’d been wearing pants, you might have learned a different lesson?
LP: It might have been a different story. [laughs]