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.”
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.
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).