|Publisher:||Simon & Schuster|
|Product dimensions:||6.38(w) x 9.50(h) x 0.97(d)|
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Chapter 2: Dr. Strangelove
Los Angeles, 1962. Larry Tucker and I took over the original Chicago company of Second City after it played in Los Angeles and eventually turned it into Third City. Our approach was a bit less cerebral than the Chicago troupe (which included Alan Arkin, Barbara Harris, and Severn Darden). We wanted more laughs. We fashioned original sketches about a fallout shelter salesman, Peace Corps applicants, and the saga of a showbiz impresario named Abe Tijuana who discovers a brilliant flamenco dancer, El Animal. Larry Tucker weighed about four hundred pounds in those days, and when he rolled up his waiter's red apron and turned it into a cummerbund as he stomped the flamenco, audiences went berserk with laughter. There were nights when I broke up onstage and had to make my exit before I peed in my pants. Larry was hilarious.
Third City led to a four-week tryout stint writing for the new Danny Kaye variety show on CBS television. The four weeks turned into four years, and somehow I'd made the transition from being a mostly out-of-work actor to a hot comedy writer. But I was far from satisfied. Here I was writing sketch comedy for TV while the silver screen was staring me in the face. By 1964, our second season with Danny, I was complaining to a shrink, Dr. Donald F. Muhich (more about Muhich later, including his role as Dyan Cannon's psychiatrist in Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice). In 1965, Larry and I wrote a very black comedy called H-Bomb Beach Party, a story about an American H-bomb lost off the coast of Spain and the ensuing hijinks in the search for the bomb. The movie almost got made -- but "almost" really dost always called "the boys."
The next day, Fields himself called us. "Let me tell you boys something. This is the funniest script I've ever read. I think Sellers would love it."
"Sellers?" asked Larry.
"As in Peter Sellers," said Freddie.
"But he's English," I said.
"Peter Sellers can do anything. Did you see Dr. Strangelove? Is it okay with you boys if I give the script to Sellers?"
"Yes, sir," Larry and I said simultaneously. "But I want to direct," I quickly added.
"Sure thing, pal. But one step at a time. If his lordship likes it, then we'll worry about you directing."
Twenty-four hours later Freddie Fields called me at home. "He loves it. He wants to do it as his next project. I can set this up at Warners today. You boys will get two hundred for the script plus a fee to exec produce, plus points."
The enormity of it all filled me with joy and a certain amount of terror. This was the big time and everything I'd ever dreamed about. Paul Mazursky directs Peter Sellers in I Love You, Alice B. Toklas! I knew I could direct even though I hadn't the foggiest idea of where to point the camera.
"That sounds great, Freddie" (I was already calling him Freddie). "But I get to direct, right?"
"Sure, pal," Freddie assured me, "but first you and Tucker have to go to the Beverly Wilshire Hotel and see Sellers."
"What's it about?" I asked.
"He wants to meet the two of you and talk about the script. Don't worry, he loves it." Freddie gave me the time for the meeting but warned me that I shouldn't open up the directing stuff. "Not yet, pal. Let him get around to that. Let it be his idea. Trust me on this one."
I was beginning to sense that there was something odd about S ellers. Freddie talked about him as if he was a bit eccentric. But what the hell, Peter Sellers was a genius, and geniuses have the right to be eccentric.
"What's he doing at the Beverly Wilshire, Freddie?" I asked.
"He lives there, pal. He's making The Party for Blake Edwards as we speak."
"Wow! Blake Edwards. That sounds great."
"Yeah, pal. Good luck. No directing stuff. Okay, pal?"
At eleven the following morning Larry and I took the elevator up to the penthouse of the Beverly Wilshire. We had rehearsed our basic moves -- no mention of me directing and we agreed that if he was really eccentric, we wouldn't look at each other for fear of breaking up. We knew we didn't stand a chance if we made eye contact. (We had already had a terrible incident with Danny Kaye. More about that later.)
We checked ourselves just before we rang the bell to the suite. We were wearing Nehru jackets. I was slim as a reed. Larry weighed in at about 350, so we made a curious pair. We smiled grimly at each other, almost like two pilots going off on a dangerous mission. Many of Sellers' performances passed through my mind: Dr. Strangelove (I'd have to call Stanley Kubrick for the lowdown); I'm All Right, Jack; Lolita (Kubrick again; they must get along). We were off to the races. Fame and fortune. I rang the bell. In a matter of seconds the door opened wide. I had expected a maid or a valet, but there was the great Peter Sellers himself. "Hello, boys. Right on time. I like that. I love your script." He was shorter than I expected, very trim, and would you believe it, he looked Jewish. Before we knew what had happened, Larry and I were having fun. This guy was great. There was nothing eccent ric about him. He was very smart and super-hip. Larry and I exchanged glances, safe with the knowledge that we would not break up.
"What I need, boys, is a voice. The voice of Harold Fine," said Sellers. Harold Fine was his character in Toklas. Sellers had boundless energy and enthusiasm. "I often like to start with a voice."
"I know a lawyer named Bernie Petrusky. His voice might be perfect," I said. "He's about thirty-five. He lives on my block."
"Bernie Petrusky," said Sellers. "Sounds perfect."
"If you like his voice, Peter," I added, "I'm sure Bernie would be happy to spend some time with you."
Sellers looked at me strangely. "Oh, I don't want to spend time with Petrusky. Just his voice, thank you."
I decided not to look at Larry, just to be on the safe side. There was something slightly odd about the way Sellers said, "Just his voice, thank you."
We discussed the script, and Peter truly loved it. We talked about casting and agreed that we would surround Sellers with mostly unknowns. This would be authentic and funny.
"I'll take the Petrusky tapes back to London and get the voice down, and we're off to the races, gentlemen." He hadn't heard them yet, but they were already known as "the Petrusky tapes." "If you boys are free this Monday, perhaps you can come over to Goldwyn and we'll talk about directors."
"That would be great, Peter," said Larry, looking at me to make sure I didn't open my mouth. A few minutes later we all hugged each other in the doorway. Sellers loved us, and we loved Sellers!
By the time we hit the lobby, we were on the phone with Freddie. "He's great, Freddie. He loved us! And we loved him! We're going to get him the Petrusky tapes," I almost shou ted into the pay phone.
"What the fuck are the Petrusky tapes?" asked Freddie. I explained. "Oh, yeah. He loves voices. You didn't say anything about directing, did you?"
"No," I assured Freddie. "He wants us to meet him at Goldwyn Studios Monday to talk about directors."
"That's great, boys."
"Maybe I can talk to Blake Edwards," I said. "Sure, pal," said Freddie, "but don't be surprised when you get on the set. They don't talk to each other."
I lit a cigarette. "How do they communicate then?"
"With great difficulty," chuckled Freddie. "No, they talk through the assistant director. You'll see. Good luck, boys. Oh, it's a done deal. Two hundred for the script and seventy-five to exec produce. Congratulations."
Larry drove us back to the office on Sunset. We were elated. In less than six months we'd written a script and gotten Peter Sellers to star in it. Fairy tale stuff!
"You think he's a little nuts?" I asked Larry. "I mean, he doesn't talk to Blake Edwards." "As long as he talks to us," Larry said. "But it's a good thing you didn't look at me when he said he didn't want to meet Bernie Petrusky."
"The Petrusky tapes," I said. We both lost it and laughed until the tears came.
The next day we went to Goldwyn to have our meeting. The set for The Party was amazing. The interior of a fancy modern home complete with swimming pool. Lots of extras standing around in exotic party gear -- turbans, tuxedos, bathing suits, low-cut evening gowns. Directing was going to be fun. We saw them shoot a scene, and, sure enough, Blake Edwards gave Peter his instructions through the assistant director. "Ask Mr. Sellers if he's comfortable crossing to the phone while he's doing the dialogue." " Yes, sir," said the A.D. Sellers practiced walking to the phone and talking. "Tell Mr. Edwards I'm very comfortable. Very comfortable indeed." Larry and I looked at each other as if to check our sanity. Why the hell didn't the two of them just talk to each other? An hour later, after our first director's meeting, we understood why. Peter Sellers was more than eccentric, he was nuts.
After they did four or five takes, all of which Sellers did brilliantly, Blake Edwards called a wrap for lunch. Larry and I followed Peter to his bungalow. Bert, a tall, very self-contained Brit, served Peter a light lunch. Bert had been Peter's batman in the British army in India, a sort of aide-de-camp, valet, and all-purpose fellow. Peter totally trusted Bert, and his faith was justified. If ever Bert thought his boss was off his rocker, he never showed it. By the same token, he was always very polite but never deferential.
"Bert, see if the boys want a bite to eat."
"Well," I began.
Larry quickly jumped in: "I could handle a chicken sandwich."
"Make it two," I added.
"Certainly," said Bert. "Care for anything to drink, gentlemen?"
We asked for some sodas, and Bert was off to the commissary.
"Well," said Peter, "I've been mulling over the idea of Fellini."
"Fellini?" Larry and I said simultaneously.
"Yes. Federico Fellini. He's the perfect man to direct Toklas."
I dared not look at Larry. I knew we were in deep shit.
"I love Fellini," I said. "He's the greatest filmmaker in the world. I loved I Vittelloni. I loved Dolce Vita. But I don't know if he's right for this, Peter. I mean it's such an L.A. story."
Sellers smiled at me as if I were a child. "Fellini's a genius. A g enius can do anything!"
"Fellini's a great idea," said Larry. "But doesn't he only do his own thing?"
"Boys," Peter said with a smile, "there's only one way to find out, isn't there? I'm having Toklas sent off to the Maestro right this second." With that, Peter quickly dialed a number. "This is Peter Sellers. Let me speak to Freddie, please."
While Peter busied himself on the phone, I sneaked a glance at Larry. His eyes rolled heavenward. But I was too nervous to laugh. This was serious stuff. Our star wanted Federico Fellini to direct our little comedy about a Jewish-American lawyer dropping out and becoming a hippie. Why not Ingmar Bergman?
"Hello, Freddie. I'm here with the boys, and we all agree that our first choice is Fellini....Yes, yes, Fellini. And if the Maestro is too busy, let's move on to Ingmar Bergman."
Larry quickly turned his back to me, avoiding any eye contact. Was this guy truly mad? Fellini, Bergman?
As soon as we left the bungalow, we called Freddie to find out what he thought of Sellers' ideas. Freddie assured us that this was nothing new and that it would quickly pass. "I'll just tell him they're both busy but they'd love to work with him," said Freddie. "Just come up with some more names for the next meeting." "What about me?" I asked. "No way, pal. It's too soon." We had another meeting at the end of the week. It was exciting to see Blake Edwards at work. Now the guard at the gate at Goldwyn Studios looked at us differently. "Go right in, boys," he said. Even he called us "boys."
"Too bad about Fellini," said Peter.
"Yeah," I lied. "He would have been great."
"I'm equally disappointed about Bergman," said Sellers.
"That's really a drag," said Larr y.
"Well, any ideas, boys?"
"What about George Roy Hill?" I asked. "We loved The World of Henry Orient."
Sellers snapped at us: "There's no way I would ever work with that man again! Absolutely out of the question!"
To this day I don't know why. George was a fine director. I had acted in a couple of TV shows for him. He was urbane, very intelligent, and actually helped actors. Henry Orient was a delicious film. But Peter didn't want him, and he never got the offer. Instead, Mr. Hill went on to direct Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
I then proposed the newly hot Mike Nichols, but Sellers found him not to his liking. Of course, the more directors he turned down, the better chance I had to be named, so I was in a paradoxical dilemma.
A few days later we suggested the British actor/director Jonathan Miller. We'd seen a BBC production of Alice in Wonderland that Miller had done and really liked it. Sellers smiled as only he could, happy, relaxed, and beaming.
"That's a wonderful idea, boys. Johnny Miller's a genius." With that, Peter reached for the phone in the bungalow and called Freddie Fields. As usual he got right through. "Freddie, the boys have just come up with a perfect notion. Jonathan Miller to direct Toklas. See that he gets the script through the pouch and is put on the next plane out from London. Thank you!"
Larry and I breathed sighs of relief. It looked as if we were home free. And even though I had mixed feelings because I wouldn't be directing, I really liked the idea of Miller.
Two days later we were informed that Jonathan Miller would be arriving at LAX that afternoon. Larry and I decided to meet him ourselves so that we could a t least have an hour alone with him before he met Peter.
We took an instant liking to Jonathan. He was a droll-looking man with sandy-colored hair, and looked something like a character from Alice in Wonderland. He was witty and full of enthusiasm about the script. We told him we'd take him to a lot of hippie pads and help with the casting, locations, and so forth.
"Have you ever actually met Peter?" I asked, a bit gingerly.
"Yes," said Jonathan, "but we've never really talked. I loved The Goon Show and Strangelove and lots of other things he's done. I have heard he's a bit odd."
Larry and I looked at each other and decided to plunge right in. "He's unpredictable," said Larry. "He's nuts and sometimes nuttier."
"You have to be careful what you say," I said.
Miller looked at us. "Oh, I'm used to dealing with all sorts of characters, but I'm not very good at censoring my ideas." We assured Jonathan that he could say whatever he wanted. By now we had reached Goldwyn Studios, and this pleased Jonathan no end. I don't think he'd ever seen a Hollywood studio before, and he was amazed at the number of palm trees he'd seen on the drive there.
When Sellers met Miller, he immediately embraced him as if he were a long-lost friend. "I'm so happy you're here, Johnny," said Peter. "You know the boys?" "Yes," said Jonathan. "They picked me up at the airport." "Splendid." Peter smiled. "I love the script," said Jonathan. "Yes," said Peter. "And the boys have gotten me the Petrusky tapes, so I'll get onto the voice of Mr. Harold Fine posthaste." We explained what the tapes were. "Jolly good idea," said Jonathan. (By now Larry and I had adopted slight British accents as well.) Mille r talked about casting, locations, meeting real hippies. Sellers was all happy nods and agreements. Finally, the logjam was broken! Toklas was on its way!
Then Jonathan said something about music. I never quite understood what it was he said. It was just an idea, a notion. Peter turned pale and his body stiffened. "I don't think this is going to fly, Johnny. No. Not at all. Bert." He turned to his batman. "See that Mr. Miller gets on the next plane back to London. Thank you so much for coming, Johnny."
With that, Sellers walked out of the bungalow. We had no idea what had happened. Bert was already busy on the phone. Larry and I took Jonathan outside and apologized. We spent a few minutes trying to put the pieces together.
"I said something or other about music," said Jonathan. "He's off his rocker," I said. "Quite," said Jonathan. "Oh, well. Perhaps I can use this experience in some other life." We laughed, but it was a grim moment for all of us. Larry and I didn't know what to do.
The next day Peter proposed that I direct the film.
"It's been staring me in the face all this time," said Peter. "You obviously know the script, and you have a marvelous handle on the acting side of things."
I looked at Larry. He shrugged, as if to say, "Let's go for it."
"Are you sure, Peter?" I asked. "I mean, I'd love to direct this film, but I don't want you to think I'm pushing for it."
"We'll get Freddie Francis to shoot it and Johnny Jymson to do the editing," said Peter, his mind already made up. I had no idea who Freddie Francis and Johnny Jymson were.
"That sounds great, Peter," I said. "Freddie Francis and Johnny Jymson! Wow!" "And I'll be there to help with the staging," added Peter with great excitement. "This is going to be good stuff." I felt like crying with joy. I absolutely believed everything would work out. No matter what I'd thought up to now, Peter didn't seem the least bit crazy. If anything, he made good sense. Support me with a top cameraman and an ace editor and know I'd have Peter himself to help stage the film. Perfectly logical.
As soon as we got back to our office, we called Freddie to give him the good news. "He'll eat you alive," said Freddie. "He's got too much time to turn the thing around." "You don't understand, Freddie," I said. "This was his idea. I didn't push him into it. He really likes me and he really respects me. Besides, what's the worst that can happen?" I could hear Freddie chuckle. "Kid, you don't know this guy like I do. But what's done is done. Let's make the best of it." Larry and I assured Freddie we'd walk on eggshells around Sellers. "Egg shells," said Freddie grimly. "It's a fucking minefield."
I now walked around like a director. There was a new zip to my step, not to mention a certain suaveness. The only person not to get too excited was my wife, Betsy. "That's great, honey," she said. "Just don't work too hard." But my head was spinning with ideas: shots, camera angles, casting prospects, mise-en-scène. Fellini, Truffaut, Sturges, Lubitsch. Billy Wilder, Mazursky! Mazursky! -- I was ready to join the pantheon and I hadn't even said "Action!" yet.
A few days later I came up with the idea of getting Haskell Wexler to shoot the film. He had a great reputation, and I thought it would be better if an American did the movie. He'd know the hippie scene and be familiar with L.A. I sent the script to Boston where Wexler was shooti ng a film. In less than a week I got a letter from Wexler stating that while he had a few script reservations, he'd love to do the movie. I called Peter, who seemed quite elated at this good news. "I hear Wexler is top-notch," he said. "Why don't you pop over to the house tomorrow since it's the fourth of July. We're not filming. We can have a little chat." "I'd love to, Peter. Would it be okay if I bring my daughter, Meg? She could swim." I knew Peter had a pool. "By all means," he said. "Britt's younger brother is here for a visit from Sweden. He's about ten." I called Larry to advise him of the meeting. "Have a great time," said Larry. "Remember what Freddie said about the minefield."
Little did I know. The next afternoon my ten-year-old daughter, Meg, and I arrived at the house. The door was opened by Britt Ekland Sellers. She was wearing a bikini and was probably the most beautiful woman I'd ever seen -- a perfect body, huge blue eyes, and full pink lips. Britt was also very gracious. She took us to the backyard area so that Meg could swim with her brother. I forget the boy's name, but he was as handsome as Britt was beautiful. Peter was delighted to see me, and I must admit I was very happy to be there. Peter suggested that the two of us retire to his den for our "chat."
"What do you think of my last few films, Paul?" said Peter. I decided to be totally honest. I knew that crazy people could tell when you're faking it.
"I think you're the greatest comic actor in the world. Strangelove; Lolita; I'm All Right, Jack -- all masterpieces," I said.
"Thank you," Peter said.
"But I don't think the last few things have been great. I think the scripts were not as good." I looked at Sell ers, trying to see if he was offended. He seemed quite cheerful.
"I appreciate your candor. Scripts not as good. Yes. Quite," he said.
"I mean, you were good. You were funny. But the films weren't really great. And you're a great artist, Peter. You deserve better than The Bobo," I said. (The Bobo was a real turkey that Sellers had made recently in Spain.)
He seemed content. We discussed the Haskell Wexler situation, and that satisfied him. At this point Peter announced that he was off to his bedroom for his afternoon "kip." A "kip" was a nap. Peter explained that since the heart attack he'd suffered a couple of years ago, he always had a nap in the afternoon. "You and Meg stay as long as you wish. Britt will entertain you."
Peter smiled and then was gone. Out by the pool, Britt was supervising the kids who were laughing and splashing. The sun was shining and life was good. I sat down next to Britt, and she confessed that she was worried about a role she was about to play in a new film, The Night They Raided Minsky's. Bill Friedkin was the director, and Britt was going to play an Amish woman. I suggested she do some research on the Amish or, even better, go to Pennsylvania and meet a real Amish woman. She liked the idea but was dubious about going. I was now into my "directing" mode, and I insisted that she make the effort. She sighed, and the top of her bikini stretched to its limit. She was stunning. Peter was a lucky man. About a half hour later, Meg and I left. Britt thanked me for helping her. I pecked her on the cheek, and she did the same to me.
The next morning I walked into our office on Sunset Boulevard. Larry Tucker was already there, clearly very depressed. "What's the matter?" I asked him. "Why'd you do it?" said Larry. "Do what?" I said. "Fuck Britt. Freddie just called. He said that Peter is suing for divorce and naming you as the corespondent." I started to laugh. "Come on. I wouldn't mind fucking her, but the closest I got was a peck on the cheek." "Freddie says you're out. Sellers thinks you're the devil." I realized this wasn't a joke. "What are you talking about? This is crazy! I swear I didn't do anything. Meg was with me. Britt's kid brother was there all the time!" The more I protested, the guiltier I sounded. "I'm calling Freddie!" I shouted.
Freddie was put right through to me. "Why'd you do it, pal?" "I didn't do anything, Freddie. I swear." "Was she great? I mean she is a great piece of ass." "The closest I got to her was my shoulder touched hers," I explained. "What was she wearing?" asked Freddie skeptically. "A bikini." "You shouldn't have done it, pal." "Freddie, I swear to you on the life of my daughter who was with me all the time, I didn't fuck Britt Ekland!" "I mean," sighed Freddie, "I'd understand it if you did. She's gorgeous." "But I didn't! The only thing I did was tell Peter The Bobo stank!" "That's almost as bad as telling Sellers you fucked his wife," said Freddie. "He practically directed The Bobo." I told Freddie I was going right over to Goldwyn to confront Sellers. "Don't do it, pal. That'll be the end of Toklas," warned Freddie. "But this is insane! I'm being named as a corespondent! My wife will kill me." "Yeah, but you're clean," said Freddie. "She'll understand. The thing now is for you to lay low. It could blow over."
"What about me?" asked Larry. "Should I still meet with him?" "Absolute ly," said Freddie. "Peter loves you." Freddie chuckled. "Let's face it, you didn't fuck Britt."
They were laughing at me even though I was about to make headlines as a corespondent. Somehow Freddie calmed me down, and I agreed to say nothing for a few days. All I knew was that Peter had summoned his lawyer from England. I was very worried. More than that, I was depressed. I was no longer going to direct, and I was truly innocent of all charges. Sellers was paranoid. Perhaps he smelled my lust, but nothing ever happened.
By Friday, everything turned around. When Peter's lawyer arrived at the airport, he was immediately sent home. Sellers had changed his mind and would not sue for divorce. I was relieved. But I was still out as the director; Peter had chosen Hy Averback. Averback was an experienced television director. He had a good sense of humor and knew that he had fallen into this job. I liked Hy. He was more than kind to me. He assured me in that deep, soothing voice of his that I could contribute behind the scenes. That was nice of him, but I still felt down and kind of lost.
In the following weeks the film was cast. Sellers returned to England with the Petrusky tapes, and Larry, Hy, and I were free to work. We found Leigh Taylor-Young and cast her as the hippie girl with the butterfly tattoo on her thigh. Leigh was married to Ryan O'Neal and was utterly beautiful. Joyce Van Patten, an old pal of ours, was set to play Peter's desperately adoring bride-to-be. And the great Jo Van Fleet was cast as Harold Fine's demanding mother who is accidentally turned on by Alice B. Toklas marijuana brownies. We had assembled a great cast. The only problem was that I had to hide during the shooting. Sell ers was not to see me. "He could flip, pal," said Freddie. "You gotta lay low."
The first day of shooting was in Venice. The art director was Pato Guzman, later to become my production designer and coproducer on most of my films. Pato was Chilean and had a unique eye for Americana, not to mention a delicious sense of humor. (We worked together for twenty-five years).
Warner Brothers spared no expense. There were large trucks, dozens of crew members, and a huge trailer for Peter. Everyone was excited about the film. The only problem was that I was parked two blocks away. The plan was for Larry to join me every now and then to give me a progress report. It was very frustrating. About two hours after shooting had begun that first day, Bert came hurrying up to my car. "Mr. Sellers wants to see you in his trailer," he said. I was shocked. What was this about? Wasn't I the devil? "What's happening, Bert?" I asked. By now we were walking to the set at a rapid pace. "Don't know, sir. All his nibs said was that he wanted to see you." I went through a dozen scenarios. We reached the trailer, and Bert opened the door for me. There stood Peter, looking every bit like my fantasy of Harold Fine. He avoided any eye contact with me. I looked around and saw Larry Tucker, Hy Averback, and Charley Maguire, the line producer, all standing together in the front of the long trailer. There was a small television set in the trailer. He already had a version of video playback. "Please play take one back for Mr. Mazursky," said Peter. I looked at the three conspirators for some hint of what was going on. Larry had a small smile, Charley was sweating, and Hy seemed to be mouthing to me silently, "Say what you want." Bert hit the controls, and there was a brief scene of Peter walking with his hippie kid brother, played by David Arkin, a nephew of Alan Arkin. I watched the scene intently. What a thrill to see our words on screen! "Ask Mr. Mazursky what he thinks of the take," said Peter to no one in particular. Was this the Blake Edwards communication bit? Hy mouthed his words again, "Say what you want." "Tell Mr. Sellers," I said, "that it's an excellent take. Very good. Perhaps if he had a slight hesitation in his walk, it might be amusing."
The trio turned to Peter for his reaction. Without a moment's hesitation he said, "Let's go for another take. I want to try this hesitation bit." And with that Peter strode out of the trailer. Hy quickly whispered that it was a good idea. I breathed a sigh of relief and followed the group out to the set. "What do I do?" I asked Larry. "Stay and watch or go back to the car and wait for another call?" "Stay," Larry said, smiling. "I think His Holiness liked what you said."
This routine went on for two days. Sellers would ask for me to come into the trailer. The whole time I was there, he said not one word directly to me. I'd give my opinion, and they would go for another take. I was concerned that this would unsettle Hy Averback, but he was splendid. Hy saw the film as a stepping-stone in his career and seemed to really understand the mechanics of Sellers' bizarre head-trip. Larry and I were so relaxed we began to laugh again. Then on the third night of shooting, Bert called me at home and told me that Peter wanted to see me. "Will you be there, Bert? What's it about?" "Don't know, sir. But I won't be there." "What about Britt?" I asked nervously. "Oh, she lives there, sir." N othing could ruffle Bert. Now what? I wondered. Was this going to be about me as the corespondent? Was it about the film? As I drove to Sellers' house in Beverly Hills, I tried slow, deep breathing to calm myself.
The door was opened by Britt. I forget what she was wearing, but it wasn't a lot. She seemed even more desirable than before, and although I was innocent, I felt guilty. "Oh, hi, Paul," Britt said with a big smile. "Peter is expecting you." She seemed totally relaxed.
I followed her into the living room. There was Peter. He smiled at me. "Thank you, Britt," he said, and she left the room. "Hi, Peter," I said. "Hello, Paul."
He looked at me with great intensity. Was he going to shoot me? Hit me? No. He suddenly rushed forward and put his arms around me. I didn't know what to do, so I put my arms around him. "The ship is sinking, Paul. Sinking, I tell you," and with that he began to sob. What the fuck is going on? I wondered. Here I was holding up a sobbing Peter Sellers. "Sinking, Paul. We need a captain. You've got to take the helm! I've made a terrible mistake!" Did he mean mistake about Britt or about Alice B. Toklas? For a moment I thought he would collapse in my arms. "I think Hy is doing a great job, Peter." "You've got to take the helm, Paul," Peter insisted. "Let me be the first mate," I improvised. "Hy is the captain, but I'll be there to help steer the ship." Sellers broke free and looked at me. He smiled and wiped the tears from his eyes. "Yes, Paul," he said with sudden enthusiasm. "You'll be the first mate!" As Freddie had predicted, things could always turn around with Peter Sellers.
For the next month the ship sailed smoothly. Larry and I had found a novel by M ichael Frayn called The Russian Interpreter that we wanted to turn into a movie. It was about a British publisher who goes to a book fair in Moscow and is approached by a dissident Russian poet who asks him to smuggle his work to the West. Peter loved the idea and decided we'd call our new company "Peter, Paul and Larry Productions." He summoned David Begelman from New York and Sandy Lieberson, a CMA agent, from London. Freddie would join us for a meeting in Sellers' home in two days. Sure enough, two nights later we all met at Peter's home. Freddie was his usual lively self. Begelman, whom I'd never met, wore a black suit, probably a British cut, a very expensive cream-colored shirt, and a black tie. He was very suave and full of smiles with Peter. Sandy Lieberson seemed very young and likable, a man with no pretense. He was clearly jet-lagged.
Peter was full of enthusiasm. "I love Interpreter! This will be the first film that truly explores the Russian coldwar dilemma. It's a perfect role for me, and the boys have come up with some wonderful notions."
Fields, Begelman, and Lieberson nodded enthusiastically. "Sounds great, Peter." "Fabulous, Peter." "It's a wonderful idea. Wonderful, Peter."
"Yes," Peter said, pacing back and forth. "And we're going to call it Peter, Paul and Larry Productions!"
Begelman smiled. "I love it, Peter." Freddie and Sandy nodded approvals.
"And we're going to split the profits equally," said Peter. "One-third, one-third, and one-third. Equal portions for me and the boys."
The agents tried to hide their disbelief. Larry and I smiled modestly, not daring to look at each other. After a moment, Freddie spoke. "Jesus, Peter, I know you love the boys and so do I, but Interpreter will be only their second movie. I was thinking more along the lines of fifty percent for you, and the boys split the other half." I admired the way Freddie was so open about his opinion of the deal.
But Peter would have none of it: "Out of the question, Freddie. It's going to be an equal share all around the table!"
"Then that's the way it'll be," said David Begelman. Larry and I quickly exchanged glances. It was clear that our agents knew when the discussion with Sellers was over.
"Wonderful," said Peter. "Let's drink to The Russian Interpreter and to Peter, Paul and Larry Productions." We all stood up and toasted. Peter smiled at me, and even though I knew he could turn on me again, this time I was positive that nothing could go wrong. Freddie gave me the quickest glance possible that said to me, "Your troubles are just beginning, pal," but nothing could bring me down.
"Thank you so much for flying in, David and Sandy," said Peter, all smiles. "Well, it's off to bed for me. I'm shooting a film, you know. Have a safe journey home, gents." With that, Peter strode out of the room, a happy man.
About two weeks later the shit hit the fan again. Peter had confessed to Larry and me that while he liked Los Angeles, there was nothing stimulating to do in the evening. He proposed a "cinema club." "We'll show a different film once a week and serve the food of the country the film is set in. I was thinking of Tuesday evenings at 8:30 at the Charles Aidikoff Studios. It's a delightful little screening room. I thought we'd start with Pather Panchali by Satyajit Ray, and I would serve curried lamb and the usual condiments."
"That's a great idea, Pete r," said Larry. "I loved Pather Panchali," I added. "I can't wait to see it again." And I meant it. This was the side of Sellers that was so attractive. It would be fun to see a fine film once a week and talk about it. I began to think of what film I would suggest.
"Good," said Peter. "And Bruce and Thea will bring some hash brownies, and we can get a bit of a buzz on." Bruce and Thea were Bruce McBroom, the still photographer on Toklas, and his girlfriend, the great Theadora Van Runkle, who did the costumes for our movie. "So it'll be Bruce and Thea, Paul and Betsy, Larry and Marlene. Of course, Myrna will be there." (Myrna was Peter's secretary.) "And I thought I'd invite Leigh-Taylor," sighed Peter. There was no mention of Britt. By now we knew that Peter had fallen badly for Leigh Taylor-Young, whose husband, Ryan O'Neal, was out of town shooting a movie. As usual, as soon as Peter left, Larry and I had a huge laugh. This was going to be fun! Pather Panchali, curried lamb, hash brownies -- how could we get through the night without losing it?
Came Tuesday night and the first screening, and things went smoothly. Pather Panchali was very powerful, the curry was delicious, and the brownies were very potent. Peter sat in the back of the small screening room holding hands with the exquisite Leigh-Taylor. It was fun.
"What shall we see next week?" asked Peter.
"How about Vittelloni?" I said.
"Vittelloni?" said Peter. "I don't think I know it."
"Fellini's I Vittelloni. It's one of his first films. It's really great, Peter."
"Wonderful, Paul! I can't wait for Tuesday!" said Peter.
"I'll bring some hors d'oeuvres from La Scala," I threw in. <
"And I'll make some pasta," added Betsy.
"And we'll bring the brownies," said Theadora.
"Fellini's Vittelloni, pasta, and hash brownies -- sounds like a great mix," said a happy Peter Sellers.
Truthfully, I couldn't wait for next week myself. I loved Vittelloni and wanted to see what effect it would have on the crowd. I had first seen it in the fifties at the Eighth Street Playhouse in Greenwich Village. I remembered coming out of the afternoon screening into the summer sunlight, tears in my eyes. Who was this Fellini who told us the story of four bored young men in a small town in postwar Italy and made us feel we knew them like brothers?
Toklas was going very well. Peter had Harold Fine down perfectly. The scenes were funny and sometimes touching. He was truly a genius. Everybody seemed happy. "It's almost Tuesday night," chuckled Peter.
My wife, Betsy, prepared a large pot of spaghetti Bolognese, and I bought a delicious trayful of goodies from La Scala. By the time we got to the Aidikoff screening room, all the others were already there nibbling on their hash brownies. This was a happy crowd. People dug into the salami and cheese and peppers.
"I love these anchovies," said Larry. "As a matter of fact, I also love the peppers and the cheese and the bread, and I also love you, Alice B. Toklas!" Laughter filled the air!
"Well," said Peter. "Shall we get to the film?" Peter leaned over and hit the controls of the squawk box. "All right, Charles, we're ready for the Vittelloni."
A few seconds went by, then the heavily New York-accented voice of Charles Aidikoff spoke: "Ready for the what, Mr. Sellers?"
"Vittelloni," said Peter. "Federico Fellin i's Vittelloni. It's his masterpiece."
"Sorry, Mr. S.," answered Aidikoff. "I ain't got no Vittelloni."
A stab of fear coursed through my veins. I realized that I had not ordered the film. "Oh, Peter," I said in despair. "I thought Myrna was ordering the films."
"Nobody told me to order anything," Myrna threw in quickly.
"I'm not blaming you, Myrna. It's my fault," I told her. I could see that the others were coming down off their highs very fast.
"You mean," said a very distraught Sellers, "we don't have Fellini's Vittelloni?"
"No," I said. "No, Vittelloni."
"Does anybody want some spaghetti?" asked Betsy, lifting the lid off the large black pot of pasta.
"I don't want spaghetti, and I don't want Vittelloni!" Sellers shouted hysterically.
"Well," said the ever calm Betsy, "I'm hungry." And she began to serve herself. I could see Larry Tucker fighting off massive tears of laughter, but I was pissed.
"I don't ever want Vittelloni. Never, ever, never!" shrieked Sellers.
"Fuck you, Peter!" I lost my self-control. "My wife offered you a plate of spaghetti. Who the fuck are you to be rude? I made a mistake. Okay? It's my fault. But fuck you! I'm only human!" I was shaking.
Dead silence in the room. Everyone waited to see the next move. Then from out of the squawk box we heard the marvelously unpretentious voice of Charles Aidikoff: "I ain't got no Vittelloni, Mr. Sellers, but I could show you something else. I'm not supposed to show it, but what the hell. Nobody's seen it yet. It's a movie by this guy Mel Brooks. The Producers."
"Run it, Charles! Whatever it's called, run it! As long as it's not Vittelloni!"
The ro om went dark. For the next two hours, in spite of the anger and craziness, we all laughed helplessly. We were seeing a comic masterpiece. When the lights went on, Peter dialed a number on the telephone. "Hello, Joe. This is Peter Sellers. Sorry to call you so late....Yes, I know, Joe. It's two a.m. for you in New York, but I had to call and tell you I've just seen the greatest comic film of our time, The Producers. It's a masterpiece, Joe. Greater even than Fellini's Vittelloni. And I'm taking out a full-page ad to that effect in tomorrow's trade papers." Sellers hung up, a happy camper. He turned to us, completely calm. "That was Joseph E. Levine, the producer. Good night, all."
For reasons that I still do not understand, the Vittelloni incident was soon forgotten by Peter. I expected him to carry his rage into the next days, and I couldn't believe he would ever forgive me for standing up to him. Not only did he not mention it, he was even nicer to me. He once woke me up at 2 a.m. and played a record. "Listen, Paul. It's Don Ellis and the Big Band. Absolutely perfect for Toklas." I could feel Betsy stirring in bed next to me. "Sounds wonderful, Peter," I said with a yawn. "Yes," he chuckled. "I'm sending Bert over with the disc this very moment." It was useless to argue. Half an hour later Bert delivered the LP as if it were a perfectly normal thing to be doing at 2:30 in the a.m.
Then there was the fabulous evening at the Sellers' home with a concert by Ravi Shankar and his great tabla player. Peter did a perfect imitation of Shankar's Indian accent. After the concert we got to meet Shankar and hear Peter do the accent to his face. Ravi laughed and so did we. These were exciting times. And although we were always slightly nervous that Peter would suddenly lose it, nothing happened. His work on the film was impeccable. He was prompt, fully prepared, and very generous to his fellow actors.
Then came three looney episodes in a row.
It was Peter's routine every morning when he showed up on the set to greet everyone by their first name. "Morning, Hy. Hello, Larry. Good morning, Paul. Morning, Jo. Joyce, my dear..." Suddenly Peter turned pale. He hurried into his trailer, visibly shaken. Larry and I raced after him, almost like the Marx brothers swooping along. We knew something was wrong, but what?
"You okay, Peter?" asked Larry.
"June Sampson is wearing purple," said Peter between clenched teeth. June Sampson was the script girl on the film. It was her job to keep a record of all the shots made, the lenses that were used, and the camera angles chosen. The script girl is the watchdog on a film, and June was very good at her job. She was British, always cheerful, and knew Peter. "Purple is death," said Peter, the color all gone from his face. Larry and I peeked out of the trailer. Sure enough, June was wearing a purple cashmere sweater. Larry and I shook our heads in disbelief, as if to say how could she be so stupid as to wear purple.
"Purple is death?" asked Larry.
"Yes," said Peter. "Sophia told me that. You never wear purple on a set. Never! Purple is death!"
We knew that Sophia was Sophia Loren. We also knew we'd better hustle if we wanted any work out of Sellers. We hurried over to June who was chatting happily with someone. I took her aside and told her what had happened. "You have to get a sweater from wardrobe, June." June burst into tears. "M e mum knit this sweater for me. I love...this...sweater. "June," I whispered, "he's nuts. He thinks purple is death."
We looked over at Sellers' trailer and saw Peter peeking out the door. Larry helped the sobbing June over to a wardrobe woman, and I went back to the trailer.
"She's changing into something else, Peter," I assured him. Sellers nodded, but he was still nervous. "Good, good," he said.
Then Larry joined us. "Take a look, Peter," Larry said. Sellers looked out. He was immediately as happy as a lark, a man who had been reprieved from sudden death. As Peter strode out of the trailer, I saw that June had changed into a vivid yellow sweater. She was still sobbing, but it only took a word or two from Peter to calm her down. He was happy and wanted her to be happy, too. After all, he was saved from death. I looked at Larry.
"Didn't she know that purple is death? Every good script girl should know that," said Larry. We had to close the trailer door to keep our laughter a secret.
The next episode was much worse. Everyone had shown up a few minutes early. The actors were studying their lines; the crew was hard at work. Hy Averback was almost done with his first pack of Marlboros. Larry and I were nervous with expectation. We were finally going to shoot the scene where Harold Fine's mother and father accidentally get turned on by marijuana brownies. Joyce Van Patten, a marvelous comedienne, was smiling into her script. Salem Ludwig, an old Actor's Studio pro who played Harold's father, was relaxing. And Jo Van Fleet, who had done brilliantly as James Dean's mother in East of Eden, was studying her lines. Jo had won an Oscar for best supporting actress in East of Eden. She, too, was a Studio member. Her performance was meticulous -- funny, acerbic, domineering, but never the cliché Jewish mother. We all turned as we heard Peter's voice.
"Good morning, everybody. I slept like a baby lamb. Wonderful kip!"
"Good morning, Peter," said everyone.
I began to relax. He seemed very happy, almost manic.
"Good morning, Hy."
"Morning, Peter," Hy said from inside a big smile.
"Hello, Larry and Paul! How are the boys today?"
"Feeling good, Peter," I said.
"Never been better," said Larry.
Now Peter turned to his fellow actors. "Good morning, Joyce."
Joyce beamed at Peter, almost as adoring as the character she played in the film. "Good morning, Peter."
"Hello, Salem. I trust you slept well."
Salem nodded. "Just fine, Peter."
"Good morning, Jo." Jo Van Fleet, her reading glasses perched on her nose, her face buried in her script, muttered, "Good morning, Peter."
Without any warning, Sellers turned on his heels and stared at Jo, a look of sheer disgust on his face. "Good morning, Peter?" he said, imitating Jo. "I don't call that a really nice 'good morning,' do you?"
We all stared at him, not yet sure whether or not this was some sort of joke on Sellers' part. Jo Van Fleet had done absolutely nothing except say, "Good morning, Peter." True, she hadn't really looked up at him when she said it, but no one could be nuts enough to take umbrage at that! In a matter of seconds we knew that that was enough to do the trick.
Jo's lips were quivering with fear. "But Peter, I was studying my sides....I did mean it as a nice good morning."
Peter turned to all of us for affirmation. "Well, I still don't call that a really nice good morning! Anything but! You'r e playing my mother in this film, and I should think a mother would have a better good morning than that for her son!"
In the most shameful day of my life, I found myself nodding to Peter. So were Hy and Larry. We were humoring this madman at the expense of a now sobbing woman. We were afraid to tell him to go to hell. If we did, the picture would certainly go down the drain.
"But Peter," wailed Jo, "I love my son! Aaaaahhhhh!"
Then the magnificent Salem Ludwig stood up. He was a short man, but he seemed seven feet tall. "Mr. Sellers," he said calmly, "I think you are being most unfair to Miss Van Fleet. She was studying her lines. She meant no disrespect. Moreover, what you're doing is very cruel and uncalled for."
I wanted to shout, "Bravo!" but of course I didn't.
Peter looked at Salem. He smiled. "I quite appreciate what you're doing, Salem. Quite. That took a lot of courage on your part. But, nevertheless, that was not a nice good morning."
With that, Peter turned and walked out of the soundstage. Hy and Charley Maguire sped after Sellers. Larry Tucker and I lifted Jo up and half-dragged her to her dressing room. "He's crazy, Jo. He can't help himself. You're innocent! That was a nice good morning." But all poor Jo could manage was deep racking sobs.
We got her into her small trailer, and she immediately dialed a NY phone number. Nothing we could say calmed her down. Salem came into the trailer, and we told him what a stand-up guy he was. Then we realized that Jo had called her psychoanalyst in New York and was tearfully telling him what had happened. "He said I wasn't a good mother," Jo sobbed into the phone as Salem patted her on the back.
Larry and I raced out of the t railer and trotted to Peter's bungalow. In addition to his trailer, Sellers had a large and comfortable bungalow. By the time we got there, Peter was methodically handing shirts, socks, and underwear to Bert, who transferred them into a beautiful brown leather suitcase on the bed.
"I do think, Bert," said Peter, quite relaxed, "that an earlier flight to London would be preferable." "I'll do what I can, sir," said the implacable Bert. Toklas was in ruins. Kenny Hyman, the head of the studio, joined us. Hyman told Peter in no uncertain terms that he had to finish the film, but Sellers seemed not to even hear Hyman. He handed a pair of felt slippers to Bert. "We don't want to forget these, do we, Bert?" "No, sir," said Bert, neatly packing the slippers.
I was desperate. "Peter," I said, "you do realize she's a sick woman. She's calling her analyst in New York right now." Peter looked at me. "Her analyst?"
"Yes," I leaped in. "She's obviously got severe problems."
"Big problems!" added Larry.
"Big problems?" said Peter.
He was on the edge. I said, "Peter, I think Jo is so into playing your mother that she flipped. She got confused. She didn't know what she was doing, so she behaved rudely!"
Larry and Hy Averback nodded their agreement. Everybody was nodding. I was disgusted with myself. Could I sink any lower? Then Peter began to unpack the clothes that Bert had just packed. He put his socks and underwear back into their drawers. My God, he was changing his mind. Just for good measure, I sank even lower. "Peter," I said, "it would take a great man to forgive Jo Van Fleet." Peter looked at me understandingly. Then he looked at his wrist watch.
"It's getting on to lunch. I'd like a small bite, a bit of a kip, and then let's get on with our work."
We practically fled the bungalow. "I was bad!" I said. "Very bad."
"He's certifiable!" shrieked Larry.
That afternoon, Peter Sellers, Jo Van Fleet, Joyce Van Patten, and Salem Ludwig made us laugh until tears ran. The love between Peter and Jo as Harold Fine and his mother was more than abundant. They had an eerie camaraderie that could not be explained except to say they were both geniuses...or was it necessary for all actors to go through the hell of that morning to get these results! Was this "the Method" taken to the extreme?
About two weeks later we were in the home stretch of the movie. As good as things had gone before, we now faced a new and very dangerous problem. Peter's real feelings for Leigh Taylor-Young were seriously interfering with his "reel" feelings for the character in Toklas. At this point in the movie, all of the hippies were moving into Harold Fine's apartment, making him very uptight. They were even sleeping in his bathtub. Harold had to get tough with his hippie girlfriend. Instead, Peter doted on Leigh-Taylor, his shiny eyes filled with love instead of anger. Nobody seemed to be able to do anything about this. I asked Hy if he would mind if I spoke with Peter. "Be my guest," said Hy, and he meant it. In spite of everything that had happened so far -- the "Britt corespondent" incident, the Vittelloni debacle, the Jo Van Fleet travesty -- in spite of all these things, I still believed I could reach Peter Sellers when it really counted. I was different.
"Peter," I said. "I think this is going to be a great film." We were on the set of Harold's living room, a dozen hippie types lolling around. "I quite agree with you, Paul. This is a good one," Peter said with a nod. "Can I be totally honest with you, Peter?" I asked. "Of course. I would expect nothing less," answered Peter. I could already see the slightest glimmer of doubt in his eyes. Perhaps it was his paranoia. I've always felt that paranoid people really suspect the truth. They may be nuts, but they are also keenly aware of real feelings. (My mother, who was quite paranoid, always accused me of not wanting her in L.A. when she came out for a visit. "You wish I would go back to New York, don't you, my wonderful son?" I always pleaded innocent on all counts, but the truth was, I did want her to go home. I was afraid of her.) "Well, Peter," I said, "I think you've got to be tougher with Leigh-Taylor in this scene. Much tougher." "I don't follow you," said Peter, his eyes getting blank now. I decided to leap right in. "I think you're letting your real feelings for Leigh creep into the scene." Peter looked at me as if I were a snail. "You're giving me very bad vibrations, Paul. Very bad." I felt a combination of fear and determination. "Nevertheless, Peter, you're hurting the movie." Sellers stood up, livid with anger. "Very, very bad vibrations indeed!" I lost it. "I don't care what kind of vibrations I'm giving you! You're fucking up the movie!" Peter pointed at me and said, "Very, very bad vibrations!" "Fuck you and fuck your vibrations!" I shouted, then turned and headed for our trailer.
Larry had obviously heard me shouting. "What happened?" he asked. "Is he coming this way?" I said. "Yeah..." "Then I'm a goner!"
Peter leaned into our trailer and pointed at me, "Very bad vibrations! I don't want to see you here ever aga in!" He turned and left. I was back where I started, an outcast on my first film. For the next few days I was back to hiding and sneaking into dailies. But somehow Peter's work had changed subtly. He was tougher with Leigh, and the scenes went well. At the wrap party, Peter studiously avoided me. It was a strange ending, but Freddie Fields had predicted everything.
Ten years later I was staying at the Beverly Hills Hotel for all the Academy Award hoopla. An Unmarried Woman was up for best picture, best screenplay for me, and best actress for Jill Clayburgh. I was shooting Willie and Phil in New York and was back in Los Angeles for the awards ceremony. I returned from an interview and was about to walk into the hotel lobby. There was Peter Sellers. We hadn't seen or spoken to each other in all these years. I felt all the old emotions, a dizzy combination of fear, adulation, laughter, and downright wonder at this amazing man. Was he really Chauncy the gardener from the brilliant Being There?
"Hello, Paul." "Hello, Peter." He took my arm and said,
"You've done very well. I've seen all your films. Very well indeed." "Thank you, Peter." For some reason I felt like crying. "I was wrong, Paul. Will you ever forgive me?" "There's nothing to forgive. We were all very emotional." "Be well, Paul." "You, too, Peter." He went for his car, and I walked into the lobby.
Copyright © 1999 by Tecolote Productions
Table of ContentsIntroduction
Fear and Desire
Bubbe and Zeda
Git Gat Giddle
Show Me the Magic!
"Thanks, I Needed That!"
Night Club Days 1955-1961
Bob & Natalie & Elliott & Dyan
What Are Friends For?
The Betty Ford Clinic
To the Finland Station
Ode to Shelley
Love in Bloom
How I Became a Woman
Marriage, Yiddish Style
The Ones I Never Made
A Place in My Heart