BlackSkaterdater

Noel Black, director of the cult movie Pretty Poison as well as a number of television episodes and movies of the week, died on July 5 in Santa Barbara, according to his son, director and unit production manager Marco Black.  He was 77.

Born in Chicago, Black was a graduate student at the UCLA film school at the same time as Carroll Ballard (who would work on Black’s breakthrough short) and Francis Ford Coppola.  With producer Marshall Backlar, a UCLA classmate, Black used car- and tricycle-mounted cameras to shoot Skaterdater (1965), an exuberant, wordless pre-teen romance between skateboard boy and bicycle girl.

Laying a surf guitar score by Mike Curb over gorgeous, time capsule-worthy SoCal images, Black’s celluloid calling card won a prize at Cannes and got picked up by United Artists to accompany its feature A Thousand Clowns (an inspired paring).  Skaterdater also marked Black’s television debut, as the ambitious prime-time omnibus ABC Stage 67 showed it in March 1967 alongside two other short films it commissioned from Black (one shot in New York, the other in Louisiana), under the title “The American Boy.”

Pretty Poison, the mainstream feature that Black wrangled out of all this attention, was a troubled production in which the inexperienced director clashed with both his crew and his leading lady, Tuesday Weld (“neurotic as hell,” according to co-star John Randolph). (Weld: “Noel Black would come up to me before a scene and say, ‘Think about Coca-Cola.’ I finally said, ‘Look, just give the directions to Tony Perkins and he’ll interpret for me.'”) A very dark comedy about the bond between an arsonist (Perkins) and a budding psychopath, scripted by Lorenzo Semple, Jr., Pretty Poison was an important forerunner to the New Hollywood movement, not only in its flouting of conventional film morality and its New Wave influences (Andrew Sarris complained that Black had borrowed too conspicuously from Antonioni and Resnais) but in the unlikely marriage between film-school talent and big-studio machinery.

That studio, Twentieth Century-Fox, tacked on a conventional ending, of which Black disapproved, and dumped the movie anyway. Some of the hipper critics, including Pauline Kael and Joe Morgenstern, made a cause célèbre out of it, echoing the more high-profile battle fought over Bonnie and Clyde a year earlier. In casting and subject matter, Pretty Poison itself plays like a companion piece to Bonnie and Clyde – Weld, having turned down the leading role in Arthur Penn’s masterpiece, gives us a hint of what shape her Bonnie Parker might have taken in Black’s movie – as well as to Psycho and George Axelrod’s deranged Lord Love a Duck.

But as New Hollywood took off, it left Black behind. His next two features – Cover Me Babe (1970), about film students, and Jennifer On My Mind (1971), a druggie romance written by Love Story‘s Erich Segal – died at the box office and lacked for critical champions. Ambitious projects planned in the wake of Pretty Poison collapsed, among them an adaptation of Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March and an Erich Segal-scripted biopic on Railroad Bill. Instead, Black’s only other theatrical features were Mirrors (1978), a New Orleans-lensed voodoo thriller with Peter Donat and The Exorcist‘s Kitty Winn that sat on the shelf for four years; the comic caper A Man, a Woman and a Bank (1979); and the Brat Pack sex comedy Private School (1983).

Turning to television, Black directed one-off episodes of McCloud, Kojak, Hawaii Five-O, Quincy, M.E., and the 1980s revival of The Twilight Zone, as well as the pilot for the short-lived Mulligan’s Stew. His more literary work included adaptations of Sherwood Anderson’s “I’m a Fool” and Ring Lardner’s “The Golden Honeymoon” for PBS’s The American Short Story and Hortense Calisher’s “The Hollow Boy” for American Playhouse, as well as an Emmy-nominated version of Ray Bradbury’s “I Sing the Body Electric” (retitled “The Electric Grandmother,” with Maureen Stapleton and Edward Herrmann) for NBC’s Peacock Showcase. Black also directed a spate of mainstream movies of the week during their early eighties heyday, including The Other Victim (1981), with William Devane coming to grips with his wife’s rape; the Reginald Rose-scripted lesbian romance My Two Loves (1986); and Promises to Keep (1985), with Robert Mitchum acting opposite his son and grandson.

Charles F. Haas, a prolific television and film director, died on May 12 at the age of 97.

Haas began his career at Universal in 1935, through nepotism; his stepfather was a friend of studio chief Carl Laemmle.  He rose from the production office and the cutting room to become, after the war, a producer and a screenwriter.  Haas directed ten B-movies in the late fifties, some of which – Girls Town, The Beat Generation, Platinum High School – are now remembered as minor camp classics.  But if Haas, whom Mamie Van Doren once proclaimed the best director she ever had, has any standing among cinephiles, it probably resides on Moonrise, the one feature he wrote (and also produced).  A dangerous, dreamy melodrama, Moonrise was directed by the presently fashionable auteur Frank Borzage, after Haas’s original choice, William Wellman, dropped out.

After Moonrise, Haas found himself eminently employable as a screenwriter, work that he hated, and insisted on making a transition into directing (for which there was far less demand).  The night before he was to throw in the towel and accept a writing job, following a six-month drought, his agent came up with a debut directing job in industrial films.  Haas moved quickly into television and directed much of Big Town, a newspaper drama produced by the low-budget indie outfit Gross-Krasne.

Crossing over to the majors, Haas worked regularly for Warner Bros. (on their carbon-copied westerns and detective shows) and Disney (on Disneyland and The Mickey Mouse Club, among others).  Haas moved up to direct for a number of A-list dramatic series, including Route 66, The Dick Powell Show, and The Man From U.N.C.L.E., but on all of them he tended to move on after one or two episodes.  That peripatetic pattern led me to wonder if he had trouble delivering an above-par product.  But Haas claimed that he didn’t like to stay in one place for too long, and also blamed his unwillingness to court the friendship of production managers (especially at Revue, but also on Bonanza and other shows) as a reason why he sometimes wasn’t hired back.  In any case, it remains difficult to discern an authorial style in most of Haas’s television work, although there are high points.  In The American Vein, Christopher Wicking and Tise Vahimagi describe Haas’s “Forecast: Low Clouds and Coastal Fog” as “one of the moodiest Hitchcock segments”  I’m partial to “Cry of Silence,” the underrated “killer tumbleweed” episode of The Outer Limits, in which Haas conjured more tension and atmosphere than one would think possible on a soundstage facsimile of the nighttime desert.

When I interviewed Haas in 2007, he was 93 and retained a detailed memory.  He told me wonderful stories about Borzage, John Ford, William Wyler, and other Hollywood giants, and discussed own his directing career.  Never one to engage his actors in discussions of motivation and the like, Haas explained this theory of non-involvement with an example involving David Janssen, whose gifts he recognized:

In a picture at Universal [Showdown at Abilene], I had David Janssen.  I had him with [Jock Mahoney], who . . .  was basically a stuntman.  Stunts were easy for him, but as an actor he lacked a certain energy.  So I couldn’t afford to have David Janssen as his assistant, but he was under contract at Universal, and I had to [use] him.  So I had him leaning against a door in every scene.  He never understood why.  The reason was, if I hadn’t had him leaning against a door in every scene that he was in, he would’ve outdone [Mahoney], who was the star.  So it was a very indirect kind of thing.  You have to keep in mind that these are all talented people, and what you want to do is furnish them with energy, not with your idea.

On The General Electric Theatre, Haas directed Ronald Reagan, and thought him rather strange:

It’s pretty hard to characterize Ron so that anybody can understand.  He was very easy to work with.  He was interesting and cooperative.  We didn’t agree about anything, but we never fought about it.  He was perfectly reasonable, but he was a total nut.  Really.  One time while they were lighting the set, he said to me, “Chuck, what do you think is the worst thing that ever happened to the United States?”

So I’m thinking and pondering, and I said, “Well, the Civil War.”  He said no.  “World War I?”  No.  I said, “Ronald, what?” 

He said, “The graduated income tax.”

(Haas had another funny Reagan story, but I’m holding that one back until I have a place to publish the whole interview.) 

Haas retired from directing in 1967, when he was only in his mid-fifties, and devoted much of his later life to overseeing the Oakwood School, a private school in the San Fernando Valley that he had co-founded when his children were young.

A Chat With Leigh Chapman

December 8, 2010

Leigh Chapman doesn’t look like any seventy year-old screenwriter you’ve ever seen.  Auburn-haired and svelte, she arrives for coffee clad in tight jeans, a loose-fitting blouse with only one button fastened, and designer sunglasses.  Two young women stop to admire her knee-length boots, which are black and metal-studded.  “My Road Warrior boots,” she says.

It’s apt that Chapman would identify with Mad Max.  Her resume reads like a long weekend at the New Beverly, as programmed by Quentin Tarantino.  Chapman tackled just about every subgenre now enshrined in grindhouse nostalgia: beach parties (A Swingin’ Summer), bikers (How Come Nobody’s on Our Side?), car chases (Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry), martial arts (the Chuck Norris campfest The Octagon).  She did an uncredited polish on Robert Aldrich’s lady wrestler opus, …All the Marbles, and a treatment about a caucasian bounty hunter that morphed into the blaxploitation howler Truck Turner.

“I wrote action-adventure,” Chapman says.  “I couldn’t write a romantic comedy or a chick flick if my life depended on it.  I could write a love story, but it would have to be a Casablanca type of love story, and some people would have to die.”

Chapman arrived in Hollywood at a time when women fought uphill to succeed as screenwriters, and rarely specialized in masculine genres like westerns and crime pictures.  She fled her South Carolina hometown (“a humid, green version of The Last Picture Show”) after college and found work as a secretary at the William Morris Agency.  Chapman had minored in theater, and the agency sent her out on auditions.  She landed a recurring part as the spies’ Girl Friday on The Man From U.N.C.L.E.  Screen Gems signed her to a six-month contract and cast her as a guest ingenue in episodes of its television series, including The Monkees.

“They thought I was going to be the next Katharine Hepburn,” says Chapman.  “Of course, they weren’t doing any sitcoms that had anything to do with Katharine Hepburn.”

Acting wasn’t her bag anyway.  Congenitally nocturnal, she hated the 5 A.M. makeup calls, and recoiled at the notion of revealing her inner self on the screen.  While moonlighting as a typist, Chapman decided she could write scripts as good as the ones she was transcribing.  Television jobs came easily.  Her favorite shows were those that let her think up clever ways to kill people, like Burke’s Law (an exploding tennis ball) and The Wild Wild West (a gatling gun in a church organ).

One of Chapman’s last casting calls was for the legendary movie director Howard Hawks.  Hawks was instantly smitten.  Only years later, after she caught up with Bringing Up Baby and Red River, did Chapman understand that Hawks had seen her as the living embodiment of his typical movie heroine: feminine and pretty, but also tough, fast-talking, and able to hold her own in an otherwise all-male world.

Hawks had a fetish for deep-voiced women, and he started Chapman on the same vocal exercises he had devised to give an earlier discovery, Lauren Bacall, her throaty purr.  “I was supposed to press my stomach into an ironing board, to make my voice lower,” she remembers.  “It only lasted as long as I was pushing myself into the ironing board.”

Hawks deemed Chapman hopeless as an actress, but liked the sample pages she gave him.  He put her to work on a Vietnam War script (never produced), and for a while Chapman shuttled out to the director’s Palm Springs home for story conferences.  Finally, Hawks made a tentative pass, and Chapman shied away.  “That was the end of it.  He had too much pride,” she believes, to persist.

Hawks wanted her to write Rio Lobo, the John Wayne western that would be his swan song.  Instead, Chapman “dropped out” and moved to Hawaii, where she spent a year lying on the beach and taking acid.  It was one of many impetuous, career-altering moves for Chapman.  A self-described “adrenaline junkie,” she collected dangerous hobbies: motorcycles (Hawks taught her how to ride dirtbikes), fast cars, guns, skiing, and even momentum stock trading, which pummeled her portfolio when the dot-com bubble burst.  In 1963, she spent her first paycheck as a professional writer on a Corvette.

Skeptical about commitment and children, Chapman favored passionate but brief affairs, some of them with Hollywood players.  Her U.N.C.L.E. co-star Robert Vaughn and the science fiction writer Harlan Ellison are two that she will name for the record.  Any time permanence loomed, Chapman bailed – a response more stereotypically associated with the male of the species.  “My alter ego is male,” she says.  It is a credo vital to her writing as well as her personal life.  “I decided early on that guys got to have all the fun.  Women don’t interest me.”

Today, Chapman keeps a low profile.  She lives alone in a Sunset Boulevard high-rise, drives a vintage Mercedes, and burns off pent-up energy at the gym.  It is the lifestyle of a professional assassin awaiting an assignment, although Chapman, at least so far as I know, has never killed anyone.  Her final film credit, for the 1990 thriller Impulse (one of her only scripts to feature a female protagonist), preceded a decade of turnaround follies.  She was attached briefly to Double Impact, the camp classic in which Jean-Claude Van Damme played butt-kicking twins.  The Belgian kickboxer hired her to flesh out another idea (“Papillon, but with gladiatorial combat”), but that script was never made.  Later Chapman rewrote the pilot for Walker, Texas Ranger, but she fell out with the showrunners and substituted her mother’s name for her own in the credits.

“One day,” says Chapman, “I woke up and just said, ‘If I write another script, I’ll puke.’”

Now she channels her energy into underwater photography, a hobby she took up about five years ago.  She hopes to arrange a gallery showing of her photographs, which she alters digitally into exuberant, kaleidoscopic whatsits.  Scuba diving began as another kind of thrill for Chapman, but what she loves about it now is the feeling of weightlessness that comes as she drifts among the reefs.

“It’s the most serene I will ever get,” Chapman muses.  “Which is not very.”

Ripcord1

 

Above: Leigh in her television debut, an episode of Ripcord (“Million Dollar Drop,” 1963).  Top: Promotional still from The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (courtesy Leigh Chapman).  Photo captions and Ripcord image added on 10/31/13.

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Author’s note: This piece was commissioned last year by LA Weekly, but spiked after a change in editorship.  A longer question-and-answer transcript, focusing more on Chapman’s television work, will appear next year in the oral history area of my main site.  Below are two of Leigh’s underwater photographs, with her titles (and the note that these images have minimal digital manipulation, relative to some of her other work).

 

Aphrodite’s Throat

The Guardians

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