Part Three: 1949
1959, Hollywood Studios
I had a friend, Rudy McKool, who worked mostly as a script supervisor and sometimes a dialogue coach. He was a favorite of several important directors.
He was doing a picture with a hot new director named Frank Tashlin who was to go down in Hollywood lore among picture makers as one of the great comedy mavens. Tashlin had started out as a commercial artist, seguéd to Walt Disney studios as a lead animator using the screen credit name Tish Tash. His first picture as a live film director was Susan Slept Here starring Dick Powell and Debbie Reynolds. It was a smash and Tashlin was in.
He soon was tapped to direct some Martin and Lewis pictures at Paramount and thats where he was when Rudy called me one day and suggested I visit the set. Hed arrange a pass for me.
I walked on the sound stage and stood, waiting behind the camera, as Tashlin, on one knee, was laying out a scene with his cameraman and a few of the crew. Rudy, as script supervisor, hung close by so hed know what was going on when the film was rolling. Frank was explaining how he wanted to set the scene and camera moves when Rudy looked up, saw me, and motioned me over. I stood there sort of on the outskirts of that tight little kneeling group for a few minutes, just watching and listening.
At what Rudy thought was the right moment, he tapped Tashlin on the shoulder. Frank looked up and Rudy said, "Id like to introduce Rick Jason to you."
I smiled down at him and he returned the smile and said something like, "Hiya" and went back to what hed been doing. That was that.
Well, Id had nothing else to do that day, so what the hell.
About six months after my visit to Paramount, one of the agents at Famous Artists called to tell me I had an appointment with Frank Tashlin at 20th.
Tashlin was lolling in a swivel chair with his feet up on the desk. He wore buckskin chukka boots, tan cotton slacks with a big, loose safari jacket to match, over a loose-fitting shirt. He looked as if he slept in his clothes. His face was about the same, except pleasant to look at. He was almost my height and twenty-five pounds overweight, had a twinkle in his eye, and always seemed about to break into a smile. His attitude bespoke a complete bemusement with the world around him.
He waved me to a chair. "I want to do a test with you," he said. No bullshit, right to the point.
"Howd you find me?" I asked.
"I met you at Paramount," he answered.
I was stunned. "I only said hello, you were in the middle of laying out a scene."
"And you remember meeting me?"
"Sure. Now heres the deal. As you know, Darryl Zanuck has just left the studio and Buddy Adler has taken over as head of production. He also has a deal to produce some of his own pictures. The first one under his new contract is The Lieutenant Wore Skirts and Ive got a part in it that youre perfect for."
"Thanks," was all I could think to say. I was still in awe that he could have remembered me. He waved the thanks away, tilted back in his chair, feet still on the desk.
"Lew Schreiber, the head of talent"
"Yeah, I know who he is," I said. "For a couple of years, no one could convince him Im not Mexican."
A wry smile spread across his face. "That sounds like Lew. Anyway, he wants an actor who he put under contract, to play the part and I want you. Well make a test in black-and-white, strictly for Buddy."
A few days later we shot the test. It was for the part of an Air Force ace with a big ego, a real smart ass, third male lead in the film. Frank broke it up into various angles, unusual for a test but close to what was done at MGM for Sombrero. On the set he was as fluid as water. Nobody got excited or rushed around, yet he got a days work done, most often in less than a day.
For the last shot of the test, he had a close up on me. He walked over and whispered in my ear. Something he wanted for the very last line. We rolled camera and when the sound mixer called "Speed," Frank, in his laid-back way, said, "Action." I said the few sentences to the off camera actor Id been playing to, then, as per his direction, I looked straight into the lens and merely mouthed the final words, with a broad smile, "You sonofabitch".
The following day Frank called me at home. Buddy had loved the test and at the end when I looked at him from the screen and my mouth formed that final line he burst out laughing and, Frank said, so hard he almost fell out of his seat.
"Youve got the part," Frank said. "Theyre going to talk contract with your agent, so be ready for it."
"I cant sign for anything if I cant get an outside picture a year," I said.
"I told Buddy hed be a fool not to put you under contract. You can get anything you want."
I called Famous Artists to find that Charlie Feldman was out of town. The next day Al Rocket called me and said I had the part in the picture. I didnt tell him I already knew it. He said they wanted to sign me to a contract. I told him Id go to his office to discuss it.
I related to him what Tashlin had told me. Stangely, he seemed neither impressed nor excited that we could write our own ticket. He called a new agent into the office to accompany me out to 20th. Englishman Hugh French had been an actor, doing second and third supporting parts until three months before. Rumor had it that most of his work came about because he was a Hollywood social animal, good looking, sort of a road company David Niven. He was a bachelor, therefore a good odd man at a sit-down dinner. Work had been tapering off, so he hit up his friend Charles Feldman for a job as an agent. As an actor, hed been barely adequate. As an agent, he hadnt yet reached that lofty height.
When I announced that I wanted a two-picture a year deal with the right to do one outside, Rocket told him to take care of it. Even when the dice are loaded in your favor, you need the best representation you can get. I should have insisted that since Feldman was away, I wanted only Rocket to handle the deal. But, I didnt.
I followed Hugh to an office where there were filing cabinets full of contracts. He hadnt the slightest idea how to negotiate a non-exclusive contract, or even how much to ask per picture. He found a non-exclusive contract in the files that had been made on another actor at one time. It called for $12,500 a film. So he told me thats what he was going to ask for and he started out of the office. I just stood there, looking after him.
He came back to the doorway, "Arent you coming?" he asked. I told him wed better have a talk first. That annoyed him. A nothing actor hed never heard of was taking up his valuable time. He had socialized only with stars and top executives and thats all he cared about.
I wasnt a star. He didnt care how long Id worked and waited for this break. When I told him I wanted $25,000 per picture, I thought he was going to spit in my face. I got enough of his British accent with, "I know, old boy" repeated until I could have strangled him.
We went to head of casting Billy Gordons office; he worked for Lew Schreiber. Billy was a little guy, with a trim mustache, who looked as if he enjoyed good food and great wines. (I later found out I was right and we eventually formed a close and lasting friendship.) A very kind man, down to earth, and though hed never met me, came around from behind his desk, shook my hand, and congratulated me on getting the part. Then he asked, as he took his seat again, "Would you care to wait outside while Hugh and I talk contract?"
"Id prefer to stay. After all, it concerns me."
Hugh turned to me, slightly, "Its not usually done, old boy."
"Perfectly all right, old boy," I said.
He turned to Billy. He was really pissed, and frankly I didnt give a damn. Five years fighting for the kind of contract I wanted, so much that Id given up a lot of opportunities, and here I was with an amateur agent handling the deal.
Hugh laid out what he wanted for the picture, including fourth place billing after Tom Ewell, Sheree North, and Les Tremayne. Billy wrote everything down on whats called a deal sheet. Then he said the studio wanted to talk contract, a regular seven years. Hugh glanced toward me but I was planted in my seat. He said two pictures a year with the right to do one outside and the start price was twenty five per pic. Billy wrote down everything, informed him hed have to consult with Lew Schreiber and hed get back to us. On the way out I stopped and turned back to Billy. He looked up and asked, "Yes, Rick?"
"Its just an idle question," I said, "I wondered if Ben Lyon was still with the studio?"
"He retired several years ago. He and Bebe Daniels live in Palm Springs, I think. Why do you ask?"
"Oh, nothing of any importance. Thank you, Mr. Gordon." As Id been leaving, I realized that Billy was now using what had been Ben Lyons office when hed offered me seventy-five dollars a week in 1948. Now, it was seven years later and, of course, we got everything we asked for.
The Lieutenant Wore Skirts came off beautifully and made a lot of money. Tashlin was a dream. Hed never worked with live actors before becoming a director, but he had a natural touch. He did his homework, treated his crew and everyone else on the set as equals, and we all had fun. He had a natural gift for sight gags (probably from his experience as a cartoonist) and he was able to get the exact performance he wanted from each actor.
He had a signature gimmick in his films in much the same way that Alfred Hitchkock did. Hitchcock was always an extra, in one scene in every film he did. Tashlins signature was always a complex shot of a mirrored door or panel that would open (or close) a full hundred-and-eighty degree arc. During the swing, you never saw the camera. Hed never tell me how he did it.
I certainly had the contract Id wanted so badly for so long, except I didnt allow for one thing Id made a mortal enemy. Lew Schreiber, head of talent, whose sacred door Id bypassed. He decreed that I was to do no film at 20th. Screw the fifty thou they were going to pay me, it wasnt his money. He was going to show Buddy Adler that though Adler was head of production, Schreiber was Head of Talent! It was the reverse of the Columbia Pictures syndrome.
Harry Bernson, one of the agents at Famous, let me in on that bit of information. I tried to make my peace. After all, Id never even met the man. I went to his secretary and asked for an appointment to see him. She told me he had a full calendar and that shed get back to me when there was an opening. I tried several more times, but she never called.