November 4, 2015
The cigarettes were what killed her. I don’t know that for certain, you never do, but Leigh died of cancer and she sure loved to smoke. Never apologized for it. Chose a restaurant with outdoor seating for our one afternoon together, and then another when that one was too crowded, so that she could smoke during the interview. I wonder if she was defiant until the end about the pleasure she took in smoking, or if she felt foolish about having traded some years for it. Probably the former. I wish I could have asked her.
Leigh Chapman, who died a year ago today, was an actress and a screenwriter, associated in the latter capacity with the kind of drive-in cinema of the seventies that enjoys a cult following now. Early on, she wrote episodes of The Wild Wild West, then segued to the big screen with energetically schlocky action and exploitation movies: Truck Turner, Dirty Mary Crazy Larry, The Octagon. When I published a short profile on Leigh in 2010, it resonated with contemporary readers. In her attitude as much as her work, Leigh embodied a kind of kickass feminism that’s popular in the cinema today. It’s a shame that she wasn’t active during a time when she could’ve written movies for Ronda Rousey or Zoe Bell.
The full interview I did with Leigh in 2009 has gone unpublished for so long that it’s gotten embarrassing. Just as Leigh was an odd match to the older white guys who were writing for the same shows that she was, our exchanges were hard to fit into the template of the detailed oral histories that I was compiling at the time. Leigh could tell a great anecdote, but she had a mind like a pinball machine. It was pointless to confront her with chronology or discrepancies. I’d ask what television shows she watched before she became a professional; she would mention watching Route 66 in college; I would point out that Route 66 debuted in 1960, after she graduated; Leigh would insist that she never watched television after she moved to Los Angeles; and however much we might go back and forth (and then continue by email), we’d never sort out how and when she saw Route 66, just that somehow she had been obsessed with Tod and Buz’s Corvette. And the whole interview was like that, one rabbit hole after another.
After our first and only meeting in person, Leigh declared that I would be the archive to which she would donate her files. I tried to refuse, but she insisted with her usual obstinacy. I was a little relieved when the envelope arrived and her personal papers consisted – predictably – of exactly three headshots and a handful of clippings. The real value was in the witty annotations she affixed to each by post-it note, some of which I’ve reproduced here. Leigh had a great sense of humor, a very youthful one. Actually, Leigh was youthful in many ways; she was a gym rat and an iPhone junkie and she dressed like someone a third her age. We were chatting on the day when David Carradine died under rather gruesome circumstances, and I ended up explaining to her what a “gasper” was. Leigh adored her new bit of slang, and I could tell she couldn’t wait to try it out on someone else. She would have loved the gaffe that remained in the headline of her Hollywood Reporter obituary for a day or so, rendering her most successful screen credit as Dirty Harry, Crazy Larry, and she would have howled at the round of Twitter wisecracks that ensued after film critic Matt Zoller Seitz mocked the paper’s shoddy proofreading. Had the same error turned up in an obit for someone else from Dirty Mary, sending the link to Leigh is the first thing I would have thought to do.
The Man From U.N.C.L.E., on which Leigh had a recurring role, remains a major fetish object among TV fans. Leigh drove U.N.C.L.E. historians crazy by turning down every interview request; I think she did give one other substantive interview after I met her, to someone who was doing a book on ’70s action films, but she continued to evade interviews and convention invites even after I became the one relaying them to her. (Leigh did have a specific reason for not wanting to talk about the show, although it’s hard to explain.) I’m not sure why she said yes to me and no to others. She was kind enough to say she liked my initial letter, but probably it was just because I approached her as a writer, which is how Leigh thought of herself, rather than as an actress.
It’s tempting for someone who does what I do to describe sources as friends. But for the most part people tell you their story and then you go your separate ways; it’s a memorable encounter, a lovely one in some cases, but it stretches the notion of friendship. I think Leigh and I were friends, or at least phone-and-email friends, if that’s a different thing; it probably is. We had similar views, which were not shared by many, about relationships (against them) and children (against them). She was sort of a half-baked Ayn Randian, which I couldn’t cosign, but I understood exactly how Rand’s headstrong individualist heroes inspired Leigh (and I went along with her to this extent, actually: that every creative person should have a streak of Howard Roark in her). Like me, Leigh was a loner and a night owl – from the outset, I was on strict instructions never to call before mid-afternoon. She lived by herself in a Sunset Strip high-rise and although she wasn’t a recluse, she felt no great need to emerge in search of human companionship. She was fond of her three siblings and their families, but that seemed to be it; there was no one the movie biz with whom she still hung out. Only after she died did I realize that, during her last three years – once a sinus problem forced her, cruelly, to give up her passion for underwater photography in favor of still lifes and city scenes – Leigh had joined a photography group and become close to some of its members; it was from one of those friends that I learned the details of her death.
It it possible to crave solitude and still be lonely: this was the specific contradiction in Leigh’s nature that made me see her as a kindred spirit. Leigh’s desire for privacy was always a little ambivalent. After my profile of her was published, Leigh enjoyed the attention and didn’t pretend otherwise, but also joked that I was turning her into “a fame whore.” Some time after that, her address was published on an internet forum for celebrity autograph hunters and she got a flurry of mail asking for signatures. Leigh asked me what the hell was going on and when I explained (including the fact that many of the inquiries were probably from dealers), she asked me to send back her old pictures so she could have them duplicated and honor the autograph requests. Then she changed her mind a few hours later: “Don’t bother returning the foto. Now that I know what the game is … I don’t wanna play.” I could always count on a long and friendly response from Leigh to the most trivial email; I owed her a reply when she died. Once she trusted me, she was totally open, and one problem with editing our interview has been sifting out the lengthy follow-up material from our banter about everyday life and, especially, contemporary television, which Leigh kept up with and had strong opinions about.
(Here are some samples of Leigh Chapman’s TV criticism on the fly. House of Cards: “an artful depiction of why one will never find a single Diogenes among the current administration and ruling class.” True Detective: “… dark, very dark … very Neitzche/existentialist … which happens to be my bottom-line world view.” The Newsroom: “The idea that a middle-aged man is still hung up on a pseudo-Wikipedia twit is appalling.” Girls (and yes, I think this is a jab at Lena Dunham’s nude scenes; Leigh was a feminist on her own terms): “I’ve only watched 5 minutes of the show but that was enough to give me hallucinations of Ahab’s great white whale.” Her favorites were the testosterone-saturated Entourage and the pulpy True Blood, which were classic Leigh, although she also admitted to having liked Sex and the City, which certainly wasn’t.)
I felt let down that I didn’t get to say goodbye, a little betrayed that Leigh didn’t tell me she was dying. But of course she was the type to keep it to herself, as I will be in my time, because all the glum and awkward conversations are especially unendurable for people as independent as she was and I am. Leigh was diagnosed in February 2014 with lung cancer that had already spread to several other organs, and by April the prognosis was grim. There was surgery and chemo but it was too late, and she stopped treatment in September. Naturally I went back and checked: we last exchanged emails on May 30 (she had Googled my new neighborhood and offered her approval). Although our interview was long since “finished,” any time something came up regarding her career, I sent it her way in the hope of eliciting tales I hadn’t heard before. The elusive Antonio Santean, a credited collaborator on Dirty Mary Crazy Larry whom Leigh had never met or heard of during production, died in March, and his death notice shed a little bit of light on a mystery that had always bugged her. (“Something’s still weird here,” she wrote back. And then she parsed some of the minutiae of WGA politics and never addressed the fact that I was sending obituaries to someone who’d just been given her own death sentence.)
Then I mentioned that Leigh’s film Boardwalk, directed by her then-companion Stephen Verona (The Lords of Flatbush), had just come out on Blu-ray. Leigh already knew that, because she’d been invited to a private screening to commemorate the re-release – a screening with an admission charge, never mind that she’d written the movie.
“Sent him the $12 via Paypal and stayed home,” she reported, as if I hadn’t already guessed.
My full interview with Leigh Chapman is here.
“No memory of when, where, or why the ‘bunny’ shot was taken.”
“Correction: Me? ‘Crying’ in an office? No f—ing way!”
“Me? A shill for this ugly lamp? I guess I must’ve but I certainly don’t recall it.”