Brando and Me
It was to be my first feature film. Edgar Scherick of Palomar Pictures in New York had hired me to adapt an Algis Budrys short story (it had appeared in the Saturday Evening Post) into a screenplay. Chokeberry Bay was completed in the fall of 1969 and went through two directors. The first, an award winning Czech, Jiri Weiss (90 Degrees in the Shade), under whose tutelage I learned to write film was fired over the 4th of July weekend in 1970 because he didn’t know that William Holden was an actor. That was the end of Jiri and the rewrite we worked on together. I was then matched with a director whose nameI have since committed to the dead brain cells of the weed-smoking ‘60s.
Chokeberry Bay was basically a three character show, the antagonist a 60-ish retired, crippled U.S. Army Colonel who walked around his beachfront compound with the assistance of aluminum cuffed-crutches and two trained Dobermans that could open doors, fetch packages, and keep intruders frozen in their frightened tracks. The other two, a young married couple from the big city, become his captives.
On a summer’s Sunday morning in 1970, while visiting my folks at their lake house in Connecticut, I received a call from Edgar telling me to meet him immediately at JFK to fly to “Hollywood” for a quick meeting with Marlon Brando who was interested in our film but required a face to face meeting.
I met Edgar with the clothes on my back: Levis, a pair of rough-worn, steel-toed, bridge-builder work boots, a heavy work shirt and a paper bag filled with a razor, a comb and a fresh pair of boxers. Oh, and my shoulder length hair pulled back in a ponytail. “Where’s your clothes?” Edgar asked. “Home,” I answered. “I didn’t have a chance to get them.” “You’re going to L.A. like that?” he snickered. “You’re going to meet Brando like that? You look like street bum. No one’ll take you seriously.”
Edgar apologized to everyone for my appearance, telling them I wasn’t with him. It was true, in 1970, no one traveled by air wearing jeans and work boots, certainly not in First Class. At the Bel Air Hotel, he apologized to the Desk Clerk for the way I was dressed, handed me the keys to my cottage and told me that in the morning we’d go down into Beverly Hills to buy me slacks and a decent shirt and a pair of shoes.
We didn’t have the time to do that in the morning because Brando had moved the noon meeting up to 10 AM. We joined the new director and the production designer (they had been checking locations on the West Coast) at the Bel Air’s pool. I was in the same clothing I wore the day before. My freshly shampooed ponytail glistened in the California sun. I was shocked to see the director dressed in a lime green, zippered jump suit (jump suits were IN then) with matching lime green, leather boots. With his enormous midsection and beard he looked like Orson Welles dressed as a cough drop.
Edgar couldn’t wait to comment on my appearance to the director and the designer and wondered if we’d pass a “five and dime” to get me some pants and shoes. Later, I found the time to whisper to Edgar and ask why he hadn’t commented on the green jump suit. No response. He obviously approved. After all, directors are artists and therefore, quirky.
The four of us drove up to Mulholland Drive in a rented car and through the gates to Brando’s compound. Marlon’s lawyer showed us into the Brando living room where he asked if we wanted any coffee or tea. Edgar said “No.” Like for all of us. But I was in the mood and asked for some tea. I got a dagger stare from Edgar but it was too late, the drink dam had burst and everyone ordered something.
Waiting ten minutes for Brando, his lawyer explained that Brando owed “hundreds of thousands of dollars to his credit cards” and was in need of a job, and for us to be prepared to pay dearly. This was of course, just before The Godfather.
When Brando appeared, carrying a beautiful, silver tea service, with lovely china cups, he was wearing work boots, blue jeans, a work shirt, and his shoulder length hair was pulled back in what he later explained was a “Tahitian knot.” Brando focused on me and asked how I wanted my tea. It was marvelous the way, during our meeting, he directed all of his comments to me even refusing to look at the lime green jump-suited director.
What we discovered was Brando wanted to play the young married guy, saying he couldn’t honestly play any younger than perhaps forty-two. I told him that we wanted him for the Colonel and his eyes glazed over. “Oh, you want me to play the Colonel…” he mumbled in his Brando-ish way. “Okay. I can do that.” At which point, as he walked around his living room, he proceeded to rewrite the script. He saw the picture set in Ireland; he saw himself as an Irish Colonel who commanded his dogs by playing the violin. He acted out scenes as they came to him, playing all the parts, all of which had me transfixed. In the car, driving out of the compound, Edgar’s only comment was, “Okay, Brando’s out.”
Ultimately, the director fired me and rewrote the script, then cast Alan Alda to play the part of the Colonel, demoting him to Captain, and finally, asking the three principal actors, including a young Blythe Danner, to improvise the movie. The experiment failed and the final film, renamed To Kill a Clown was named to the “Ten Worst Films of All Time,” an honor my friend Alan Alda and I can laugh about—now.
UPDATE: To Kill a Clown has become somewhat of a cult film (really?) and has a huge following. Alan and I can now laugh about that – and we do.