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.

*

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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19 Responses to “A Chat With Leigh Chapman”

  1. bobby J. Says:

    Marvellously entertaining and informative piece. The Hawks anecdote was worth it by itself. The sexual politics are fascinating, especially after the Colin Wilcox interview. Looking forward to the interview discussing specific episodes.

  2. Toby Says:

    Great post. Looking forward to the Q&A version.

    I love Truck Turner, for Hayes’ score if nothing else.

  3. Louise Moon Says:

    wow! what a babe! i can see why Hawks made a pass on her.. very interesting paths she chose. Hawaii on acid for a year.. wow.. interesting to read about her different jobs as an actress and writer. Her photos are amazing as well. i look forward to the rest of your story

  4. Frankie Chapman-Wheeler Says:

    Great article on my sister. I was there when she broke into the all male dominated writing scene and she was a force not to be taken lightly. I know this doesn’t cover all of her exploits but that is for another time. Thanks for writing about her.


    • Sweet, Leigh’s bro and I attended college together. I’m so happy to hear that she’s still knocking em dead in la la land. A wonderful piece of my youth revived while reviewing her accomplishments.


      • Woops, Did I mention 100 mile an hour excursions down Sunset Blvd in someone’s very fast new corvette ? Oh yeah. What a car. What a wheel man her brother was !
        One of lifes great memories !

  5. Dick Reidy Says:

    Chapman was a script writer long before womens lib. She’s funny, has a lot to tell about the history of Film and TV, and can take amazing underwater photos. Plus, as the article says, she’s devastating good looking, and has a thing for the poetry of Lewis Carroll. She’s a Renaissance Women.

  6. Ted Newsom Says:

    Excellent stuff. Leigh’s career proves the obvious was true all along: of COURSE women can write shoot-’em-ups. Leigh Brackett did it, as did my friend Katharyn Powers in the episodic world. I look forward to reading more about this two-fisted woman.

  7. Carol Baum Says:

    I have had the pleasure of meeting Leigh, as her sister is a dear friend of mine. She is as interesting and funny in person as in the interview. I look forward to reading more about this multi-talented woman!

  8. Dot Douglas Says:

    WHAT A BEAUTIFULLY WRITTEN ARTICLE. LEIGH IS MY COUSIN WHOM I HAVE NOT SEEN IN MANY YEARS BUT HAVE KEPT IN TOUCH THROUGH RELATUVES, THANKS FOR THIS ARTICULE. WELL DESERVED.


  9. I have to applaud bold, strong women like Leigh who were not satisfied with the status quo and being decorative and meek in the background. She and her sisters-in-spirit opened the door for other women in Hollywood, in writing, directing, and everywhere else.

    Even if women in Hollywood are still vastly underrepresented, at least we’re not totally *absent* anymore. Thanks, Leigh!


  10. I had saved this for special, as I was to busy to give it the attention it deserved, then forgot I saved it. WOW what a nice surprize! Leigh is my hero…She knows what she wants, and goes out and gets it. There is know guess work with this fearless female, as well. I have had the honor of knowing and being with her, everytime is an adventure! Underneath the tough, is a soft, caring person however. Why can’t we have more like her? She is a woman far more interesting than most. A great piece, thank you!!! Bambi La Fleur

  11. Joe Hill Says:

    I knew Leigh when she went under the name of Rosa Leigh Chapman. In fact we dated for a while when she visited her grandparents in Kannapolis, NC. If I remember correctly I spent a night down in Central SC met her parents and brother. She was a great gal. She even gave me encouragement with my writing, after reading several of my letters that I wrote her. I wonder if she remembers me? Her photography is damn beautiful. I’m a retired photography, ran a studio and color lab for twenty years. So very glad I stumbled onto this very informative website.
    My best to you Leigh.
    Joe Hill

  12. flyingdwarf Says:

    leigh, please get hold of me…..bonzini…:) go to billyspire@yahoo.com. so glad to see u r doing good. been trying to find u for sooooo long.


  13. Did the longer article ever happen? and if anyone could tell me how to get hold of Leigh I would be very grateful. I am writing a book about the Monkees TV show and am trying to contact people who appeared in it for their recollections. If anyone can pass information on I would be eternally grateful – my email is karon@tellynation.com. thanks

  14. Mick Wolf Says:

    This is a great article about Leigh. I am a big fan of Man from U.N.C.L.E. I would like to see more pics of Leigh from past to future. Is there an address to where fans can send mail to Leigh?


  15. Hi to Leigh (Rosa Lee in high school).. I loved being her friend. You didn’t mention in the article that she has a beautiful singing voice. Best, Anita Thompson Monroe


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