November 17, 2015
Quotable lines and hard action were the trademarks of a Leigh Chapman script. Or at least that’s true to the extent you can find common threads running through the resume of a screenwriter who saw herself as a craftsman and a pro, and whose credits are a tangle of rewrites and early drafts worked over by other hands. Dirty Mary Crazy Larry, Chapman’s signature film, is about half hers (the other half is an interesting story), and The Octagon has her dialogue. The others, at least the ones you’ve heard of, are mostly patch jobs, and you can watch them and play the unwinnable game of trying to guess which lines might be Chapman’s.
Largely averse to introspection, at least when it came to her work, Chapman struck the sort of primitive-artist pose that reminded me of the early Hollywood auteurs, like Howard Hawks (Chapman’s not-quite mentor) and John Ford. For them it was somehow unmanly to admit to anything poetic or confessional, or even intentional or calculated, in the work. And yet, while she had few passion projects on her resume (really none; the handful of personal screenplays were never filmed), Chapman did manage to choose her genre and stick to it. The films that carry her name are all adventure stories, tinged with suspense, larded with violence, streaked with pulp. Chapman’s sense of fun and her refusal to take anything very seriously tend to push them towards camp. Even the television episodes that she she wrote early in her career bear her sense of mischief: in both Burke’s Law and The Wild Wild West, the only series for which she wrote more than one script, Chapman took the most pleasure in figuring out the mechanics of her characters’ deaths.
And her relatively sparse credits don’t tell the whole story: Add in the voluminous unmade projects (compiled in an appendix below) and you get the full picture, which is that Chapman was a sought-after specialist in a lucrative strain of Hollywood product. In 1974, near the beginning of the decade or so during which she worked non-stop, Chapman gave an interview to The Hollywood Reporter in which she shrugged off the feminist movement, an attitude sufficiently out of fashion at the time that it prompted a barbed rebuttal from comedy writer Joanna Lee. Chapman’s disinclination toward positioning herself as any kind of pioneer undersells the difficulty of the career transitions she pulled off – from contract starlet to television writer to movie writer – all the while surrounded by
In one sense, given her utter indifference to dates and details, Leigh was a journalist’s nightmare. She plowed through life like one of her heroines, not stopping to take names or fret over broken furniture (literally, in the case of her fling with Harlan Ellison). Once I tossed aside my notes and gave up on the notion of delving into the minutiae of her scripts, I discovered that Chapman’s sharp wit and startling candor made my interview with her one of the most vivid that I’ll ever do.
As I wrote last week, Leigh and I were on the same wavelength from the start, and our initial meeting in April 2009 was supplemented by lengthy follow-ups over the telephone and by email. Fresh anecdotes trickled in as late as six months prior to Leigh’s death, from cancer, in November 2014. Because her prose style was a bit different from her manner of speaking, I have rendered the portions of her remarks that came from Chapman’s emails rather than from our conversations in dark red.
So why don’t you remember anything about your days as an actress?
I think I just I hated being in front of a camera and I just sort of went into shock, you know?
What made you do it, then?
Well, I came to L.A. I got married a couple weeks after graduation from college. College was a girls’ school called Winthrop College in Rock Hill, South Carolina. I did four years in three to get out of there. My [future] ex-husband, his family lived in a nearby town. He was at Duke. We went out on a blind date and then he’d come down every weekend, and I’d sneak out. I mean, it doesn’t matter now, but they would expel you for having a drink. Oh, it was horrifying. So Jerry was my salvation. We both graduated at the same time, and the issue was, considering my parents, how can we manage to be together on the same kind of level that we have been, unless we get married? Answer: we can’t. So we got married. He came from a wealthy family – my family was poor. Hs father wanted him to be a doctor, and he didn’t want to do that. He wanted to go to night school. I got a B.A. in French. I figured I was less prone to fall back if I had nothing to fall back on. Except for French, I wasn’t interested in the courses. I was interested in reading all the books that were not available to me to read in my little teeny town, okay? So I did all this extracurricular reading, and was doing plays. The plan was kind of that Jerry would go to med school and I would become one of these ivory tower intellectuals. Then all of a sudden one day he said, “I want to be an actor. Let’s go to Los Angeles.”
Were you on board with that?
Oh, absolutely! Are you kidding? Wow. So, we came out here, and his father was . . . very displeased with him for having done this, and so he cut off the funds. I absolutely understand why he did it. But since Jerry had never, ever been allowed to work – it was, you get a new convertible every year, all you have to do is just make decent grades, get into med school, and party. So he was totally inequipped for Los Angeles. We had no money, and I think it was four days into being in Los Angeles – yeah, I went to an employment agency, and I was relying on high school typing. I ended up interviewing at William Morris. It was working for an attorney, and I came back and said “I don’t think I want to work there. He’s so stuffy.” And [at the employment agency] they’re going, “Are you insane? Your husband wants to be an actor, and they’re offering you a job at William Morris, and you don’t want to take it?” I go, “Oh. Yeah, I guess I’d better.” So I did.
Luckily, the attorney that I worked for would rather discuss philosophy than do his work, which is the only reason, I’m sure, that I did not get fired.
So your boss was an attorney, not an agent, at William Morris?
Yes. And I shouldn’t say this, but I would do things like, there would be some huge law firm that would call and leave a message, and I would just forget to tell him about the message. I mean, it wasn’t for me, you know? But we had these long philosophical discussions, and my typing was adequate.
Then, after about a year, I realized that I felt that our lives should go in separate directions. So I’m the bad guy who said, “I want a divorce.” My ex-husband was wonderful. He did nothing wrong. I actually think I’m allergic to marriage, also.
So there I was. I’d minored in drama in college, and I wasn’t equipped to do anything else. I certainly wasn’t going to continue to be a secretary, so they let me sneak out for some acting interviews, and I got hired. That was it. I did two stage plays (Neil Simon) [Come Blow Your Horn (1963) and Under the Yum Yum Tree (1964), both at the Ivar Theatre in Hollywood]. Not amateur stuff. Professional, paid-for gigs. The reality of theatre – doing the same thing night after night wrecked any romantic notions I had about theatre. I learned, oh, God, I have to do this again? For another month? If it’s not new and exciting, it’s not for me.
I was dating a writer, and he paid me to type some scripts. And as of about script number six, I thought, “You know, I think I understand how this works.” And I watched the show, a particular show, to check out the format, and wrote a script and sold it.
What show was it?
It was Burke’s Law. I did a couple of acting gigs on it. So maybe that’s why I chose that show.
How does Edward J. Lakso fit into this?
That was the writer that I was dating that I was typing scripts for. I think he has claimed that he taught me how to write. You can’t, in my opinion, teach someone how to write. He was writing for Combat at that time; logic tells me that it was Combat scripts I was typing.
Did he write for Burke’s Law? Is Lakso where you got sample scripts from that show?
Oh, no, I watched the show, and analyzed. And I would get TV Guide and I would look through the plotlines, to see what they had done or had not done . . . . I just picked Burke’s Law because I liked it, and then Shirley said, “Oh, I put it on so-and-so’s desk.” I had a roommate who was still working at William Morris, and she gave it to the associate producer there, and I’m so sorry that I don’t remember his name, because he was a very nice man. Anyway, this gentleman [Richard Newton] read it, and had me in for a meeting. He said, “Look, I like the way you write. I think x, y, and z needs to be changed a little bit, and if you’re willing to make those changes without any guarantee that I will buy the script, then make the changes and come back in.”
So I made the changes, went back in, they bought the script, and I went out and bought a Corvette.
You did say that in one interview at the time – that after you sold your first script, you bought a convertible.
Yes. Was the first one a convertible, or the second one? Doesn’t matter. I bought a Corvette. I mean, I thought that was one of my better decisions.
Just think if you still had that car today.
Oh, I know! I watch the muscle-car things. If I had either one of those Corvettes . . . . The very first one was a white Corvette. The second one was a gray one. And you know who bought the second one? Barry Diller. He was working in the mailroom at William Morris.
I just knew I wanted a convertible. And it had to be a Corvette. I mean, I rented my roommate’s car for a year, because I was not going to have a car until I could have a Corvette. Cars, oh, man, when I get obsessed with a car – I wish there were cars I wanted now. I’d probably be writing. I’m serious. When I’d get obsessed with a car, I’d figure out a way to make the money to get the car. I’ve only had a few cars, but they’ve all been special cars. And yes, I wish to god I had that ’Vette back. Holy shit, what they sell for. After that came a Facel Vega, which you probably have never heard of. It was a Facel Vega II. They only made 212. Ringo Starr had one. I sold a car that was in parts, where the engine had seized up, everything had deteriorated, about twelve years ago for $50,000. Then after that I had a Pantera. I [sold] it on a whim. Hung up the phone, cried. I never cry over men, but I cried [over a car]: “Why did I sell that?” But my ethics are such that I gave my word, and I couldn’t go back on it.
Chapman loved fast cars, but never put her in a Porsche.
Had you done any writing at all before television?
No. I mean, I did love books, always. There might have been some kind of a latent desire to do some writing. I read Truman Capote’s Other Voices, Other Rooms, and he wrote that when he was like 21, and then I read The Fountainhead. It was, all of a sudden, I’m not as insane as people think I am. This person has said, and much better than I ever could, all the things that I believe in. All the precepts by which I wish to live my life. So, having read that, I went: I don’t have a chance.
Then also there was this essay contest in a philosophy [class]. I entered this contest, and I didn’t win. I was absolutely devastated. I thought, okay, that means you can’t write. Now what I didn’t factor in was – I’ve already sort of described the kind of school I went to? Well, I wrote a paper in favor of buddhism. Where the girl who won wrote a normal Christianity thing. I don’t know if that factored into it. So that was my only attempt at writing. I wanted to be a fashion designer, and the subject of writing didn’t come up again until I typed those scripts.
Do you remember the process you went through to write that first script?
Well, apparently I do have a rather analytical mind, so I watched a couple of episodes and sort of figured out what the format was. You know, the act breaks, and then I had learned the basic format from typing five or six scripts. And came up with an idea. I don’t remember much about that first idea, except that it did have its origins in the south. Back there chickens had bands around the chicken’s leg, and somehow that figured into the murder plot. That was one of the murder clues.
Then you did a second Burke’s Law, “Who Killed Wimbledon Hastings?”
Oh, okay, that was the exploding tennis ball. You know, I just sit down and kind of go, what if? This was funny. I was doing research: can you make a tennis ball explode? But when somebody’s serving, they bounce it. So how could you rig this? So I called some firm in downtown Los Angeles and started asking questions about explosives, and somehow convinced them that I legitimately was a writer and was not going to use this for any nefarious purposes. They told me how I could concoct a tennis ball that would do that. So that’s all I remember about that show.
Some of your earliest work was done for MGM and Arena Productions – obviously as an actress on The Man From U.N.C.L.E., but also in Norman Felton’s other show, Dr. Kildare. Did you have a connection there, or was that a coincidence?
I think I was in an acting class at MGM for a little while, but no, it was strictly a coincidence. If you ask me did I ever date Robert Vaughn, yes. But that was after, after, I was off the show.
And you also wrote for Dr. Kildare.
I don’t think it got shot. It was a two-person thing. I decided to pull Kildare out of the hospital and put him in some remote place, with somebody in jeopardy. I think that that’s when Kildare was actually about to go off the air.
The producer of Dr. Kildare, Douglas Benton, said in an interview, “Leigh Chapman writes very hip dialogue.”
Oh, that was always my strong suit. Plot, or structure, really, is my weakness. But dialogue is my strong suit.
Chapman thought The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (1965-66) made her look better in black and white than in color.
Did you ever try to write for The Man From U.N.C.L.E.?
No. It hadn’t occurred to me at that point.
But you would have been writing professionally by the time you were appearing on The Man From U.N.C.L.E., right?
I don’t know. Look, I’m not trying to be coy, but – I didn’t even wear a watch until I was in my thirties. So I have no dates [in my memory]. I only did the show for a year. Then – and this is very sweet of Vaughn, because he protested – another producer came in, and that producer had a girlfriend, so I got replaced.
By his girlfriend?
Yeah. Whoever that was, and I don’t know. I never met her.
Well, that’s a shame. And of course I wish you could remember her name, and the producer’s.
All I know is, they went from black and white to color, and I looked much better in black and white than I did in color. Somebody who was very, very into Man From U.N.C.L.E., and wrote a book about it, did what you did, and asked me if I would do an interview. I didn’t watch the shows, but he had video clips. When I saw what I looked like in black and white, that was a lot of makeup and false eyelashes and stuff, and I thought, “Holy shit, I looked pretty good.” Then when the color ones came on, I thought, “Oh, I’m not as dramatic.”
Tell me what you remember about being on the set of The Man From U.N.C.L.E..
I was Napoleon Solo’s secretary. Sometimes Vaughn would be in the shot, or I think once in a while he was kind enough to be off-camera to deliver his lines. But I don’t know how to explain this, because I don’t exactly know – I was good at cold readings. But once the camera was on me, I hit my mark and I did what I was supposed to do, but I had no concept of how close the camera was. Basically I kind of went into shock. Logic says I should remember being on the set. I don’t. Not in ANY of the shows I was in. I was on overload and went into auto-pilot. (No trouble remembering lines or hitting my mark or taking direction…but it wasn’t I who was doing that. It was this creature called Leigh Chapman.) I didn’t notice my surroundings. I wish I had. Or do I wish I had? No, because I don’t want to be an actress. I don’t want to share myself. I can’t think of anything worse than being famous. I never wanted that.
When did you start dating Robert Vaughn?
After I was no longer on The Man From U.N.C.L.E.. There was a guy that I had worked for some at William Morris named Peter [Allan] Fields. He became a writer also. Peter and Vaughn became close friends. Except for one situation, my business life was always entirely separate from my private life.
Was Fields the lawyer you had worked for at William Morris?
He’s not the first one I worked for, he was the second one. Peter quit the law job and I think he was writing some Man From U.N.C.L.E.s, and he and Vaughn became friends. And Peter and I remained friends. I remember it was Peter who told me Robert tried very hard to keep me on the show, but, you know, what do you do? And I thought, well, that’s very nice. So at some point after that, I was around Vaughn and he asked me out. His face has such a stern persona. Off camera, he was very funny. Peter used to call him Porky Pig, which delighted him.
I always lived in rented houses, houses I should have bought, but I didn’t want to be tied down. But he and Peter were over at my house one night, in the kitchen, and I remember Vaughn saying, “Today I became a millionaire.” And then I dated him a few times and I realized what it was like. I mean, he couldn’t get through dinner without somebody wanting an autograph. He was just besieged. And while I enjoyed him – I enjoyed dating him – but before I dated him, I had one really obsessive love affair. I remember I was in San Francisco with him, and I had to say, “Robert, I’m in love with somebody else.” I had to end it.
Peter Allan Fields also described you as his “lady friend” at the time of The Man From U.N.C.L.E.
We were friends. I dated Peter a few times somewhere in there. But I was never – it wasn’t what I would have called a serious relationship. He said I was his “lady friend”? Well, that’s basically right. I was never formally his girlfriend, but I went out with him a few times. And then we stayed friends for some years after that. On an occasional basis, we would see each other, but it was just a platonic thing.
As long as we’re talking about relationships, you also dated Harlan Ellison.
I happened to be at WGA HQ one day at the same time Harlan was there and he asked me out. I had a personal relationship with him for … three months? six months? Harlan is one of the most intelligent/well-read, high-energy people I’ve ever met. We had a lot of fun. At the time I was with him, he was working on “A Boy And His Dog,” which is probably one of my favorite things he ever wrote. (Geez, his titles were stunning). So why did I break up with him? I think I wasn’t ready to be a “grownup” and concern myself with whether or not I closed a kitchen cabinet … or used a silicone wax (horrors) on his cherrywood kitchen table (in an effort to help him get ready for some party he was having). Did he ever treat me badly or yell at me or something? No, but he sure was upset over that table. And I’m thinking, “Dude … it’s not as if I ruined it.” What I’m trying to say is that it was just little tiny things where our habits didn’t mesh. I do not regret one moment of the time I spent with him and … I hope he isn’t upset with me for the circumstances under which I pulled an adios. I did not handle that in a graceful way. Mea culpa.
If you were aware that you didn’t like acting, why did you go along with being groomed as a starlet? You were under contract for a brief time at Screen Gems, which put you in shows like The Monkees and Occasional Wife.
It was just one of those spontaneous moves that I made. My life was full of these good and bad spontaneous decisions. There was a screen test, and . . . I didn’t realize what it was going to entail. They thought that I was going to be the next Katharine Hepburn. My screen test was from The Philadelphia Story. Of course, they weren’t doing any sitcoms that had anything to do with Katharine Hepburn. And furthermore, I had to go to an acting class at the studio. Well, I mean, I felt like I was in high school all over again. It was like, wait a fucking minute, I’m a grown-up. But I had to go to these acting classes. Yeah, I did those parts, and I was glad – the contract lasted, what, six months or something, and I was glad when it got dropped.
During that period you were the primary guest star in an episode of Iron Horse.
Yes. You know, that was the one moment when I really, really understood what I was going to have to do in front of the camera. There was some brief moment when I wasn’t even certain when the camera was running, . . . and I remember I turned and it was a close-up. I was caught off-guard. Because I didn’t even think there was film in the camera. I just turned, as me. Then for some reason I did see that show afterwards, watched that show, and I looked at that and I thought, “Uh-oh. That’s the one true moment that exists [of me] on film. And this is what I will have to do. I will have to drop all the guards in order to be a truly successful actress.”
Before we leave your acting career behind, you also did some TV commercials.
I do remember shooting a hair commercial (Toni Home Permanent?) because the cinematographer was James Wong Howe and that’s when my hair was cut short and dyed platinum (without my being forewarned). Also, during what I assume was that time frame, I remember a Tareyton cig[arette] commercial and a car commercial. (Chevy?) I remember the latter because I asked the director why he hired me, because I thought the girl who auditioned right before me was prettier. His reply: “Because when you smile, your mouth turns up at the corners.” The kicker? He never shot a closeup.
Chapman played a movie star on The Monkees (1966) – a role she had no interest in in real life.
The ingenue-slash-writer angle was novel. I found five or six magazine profiles of you that were published in the sixties.
Were there that many? I remember the one in TV Guide.
Let me check a few facts from those clippings, if I may. Were you in fact a tomboy as a child?
Yes. It was very hard to be a tomboy, because my father didn’t approve of that kind of stuff. I was supposed to be very ladylike, and that just wasn’t me. Hey, I’m an adrenaline junkie. Give me something exciting to do, where I can risk life and limb, and I’m happy. I lived for sports, basketball. There was one girls’ football game, and I remember there was this whole big thing in my house. My father was like, “Girls don’t do that!” “I’m playing!” It was a whole mess. However: it was supposed to be like touch football? But this was the highlight of everything. As much as I loved basketball, this was still the highlight. It was a charity game, and we trained and had the varsity helmets and all that shit. And I was the quarterback. We were playing the girls from Clemson College, which was five miles away, and we hated those chicks. So it sort of evolved into tackling and things like that. And I remember I threw the winning pass to my best girlfriend, and we won, six to nothing.
You make that sound like that might be your proudest accomplishment.
In high school, yes. I’m trying to think of how that ranks along scuba diving. I’m not sure, let’s swing with that, okay?
Did you in fact break your nose four times?
Yeah. The first time was by accident, in grammar school. I was riding piggyback or something, and again it involved my best friend. I don’t know, we got slammed, and I just remember my nose was bleeding, and I go home and say, “Mom, I think I broke my nose. Look at this bump.” You must understand, we didn’t exactly have money to spend on doctors. And she [said], “Oh, no, that’s just . . . .” She wasn’t uncaring, it’s just, oh, that’ll go away. Then through basketball and so forth I managed to break it a couple more times. Oh, yeah, you know, I didn’t get voted regional all-star my senior year because the coaches thought I was too mean. But I was a much better player my senior year, and I never, ever started a fight. If somebody else played dirty or started one, I was going to finish it. If at all possible. But I never played dirty. My mother would come down at halftime and say, “Leigh, you look angry. Take that expression off your face.” And I’d go, “Mother, I’m trying to win a game here.”
And you had plastic surgery to fix your nose when you first came to Los Angeles?
Oh, yeah. Well, I had this like witch’s hump. I had a high school teacher – well, two of them, actually – who said, “Oh, you should enter the Miss America contest.” This was when I was going off to college. I’m going, “Have you looked at my nose? Do you realize what this thing looks like?” And it led to – maybe it was just an excuse, I don’t know. But it led to a pretty long period of low self-esteem. Because even if you have your nose fixed, you still have a residual memory of what you looked like with that nose. And yes, I won all these kind of stupid contests – I say stupid now; they were important to me at the time. Class president, homecoming queen, beauty queen, all those things. But I think that it had to do more with my personality than it did really with the way I looked.
Kannapolis, North Carolina is your birthplace?
Yes. It’s like 25 miles from Charlotte, and then we moved to central South Carolina. But my grandfather was the chief of police in Kannapolis, so I spent some summers there, and life was wonderful. He loaned me his car, and I could drive it in the street and nobody was going to bust me because he was the chief of police.
I’ve read articles where you described it as an idyllic southern childhood out of To Kill a Mockingbird.
Oh, I did. That is one of my favorite films. No, it wasn’t a happy childhood, but the part of Atticus Finch that was tall and shot the mangy rabid dog, that was my father. I have only a few good memories of my father. He used to take me quail hunting. But then, I don’t know how old I was, about the time I could have had a rifle, but all of a sudden all that went away and I had to be a girl. I can’t give you the age at which that happened, but he no longer took me hunting. I remember one time, there was a steep mountain thing, and some stream that I was not capable of crossing by myself. I don’t know why that would be, considering the things I do, but I was just too young. He had to carry me across this river, stream, whatever. I don’t know whether that was an imposition to him, I don’t know whether it was a key moment – “Let’s leave this thing behind.” You know, she’s a burden. Or just that he decided I was too old to be a tomboy and I had to become a girl. I don’t know.
But those were the only good times I remember with my father, because to tell you the truth, I can see now why my father and I couldn’t possibly get along. Religion was a big factor, but he was a loner. He was a handsome man, but he didn’t talk, you know. So his word was law. My mother was the one who was genteel and nourishing and wanted me to be a lady and get married and be a schoolteacher and lead a safe life. They were very responsible. But there was nothing touchy-feely. You just didn’t do that. It’s just the religion; everything was so strict. You can’t do this, you can’t do that. I couldn’t go swimming on Sundays. Sunday was the Lord’s day. Shit, you know? They were parents of their time, and because our town was so small, my every move was watched. And no voices were ever raised in our house. All my mother had to do was to raise her eyebrow of disapproval and all of us would go, “[Uh-oh].” So that’s why I say it wasn’t happy. Because I didn’t fit in. Just because of my nature, I always felt so suffocated. I had to make a choice: do I want to be who I am, or who they want me to be?
Is your real name in fact Rosa Lee Chapman?
[Shudders.] I mean, where in the south, do you come up with Rosa? That’s not a southern name.
Lee is a southern name, of course.
Well, yeah, and because I was writing all this macho stuff, I spelled it in a slightly more feminine fashion. It was an attempt to be more female. My bad joke was, I don’t want to be confused with Lee Marvin. So I spell it L-E-I-G-H.
You wrote more for The Wild Wild West than anything else. What do you remember about that show?
Oh, I loved doing Wild Wild West, because it was outrageous. The guy I always had the story conferences with, Henry Sharp, he was so much fun, and lively. A number of those, I think, were rewrites. One that won an Emmy for Agnes Moorehead, although, let’s face it, Agnes Moorehead did not win an Emmy for Wild Wild West; she won an Emmy because she hadn’t won one for Bewitched. I remember that one because it took place at a Valentine greeting card factory. That one stuck in my mind.
What was your process for writing a Wild Wild West script? What were the requirements for an episode of that show?
Jeez, I don’t remember. I mean, there had to be an interesting villain. Several of these were rewrites, so somebody else had already conceived of the original story. I know that the Valentine card factory was definitely my original idea. I’m not sure about the others. Even if you tell me the titles, I wouldn’t remember. I didn’t get to do the Dr. Loveless ones. Those were like the property of Henry Sharp.
Somebody sent me a script to autograph in the last couple of years. It was a Wild Wild West, and I don’t remember writing it at all, but I saw the name Oconee in there – I think it had to do with an Indian – and I thought, I had to write it, because Oconee was the lake we went to when I was a kid. You know, I worked very hard, but writing – look, there are people who live to write, like Stephen King, and there are people who write to live. Which is why you’d have to call me a Hollywood hack.
So you took a very pragmatic attitude toward screenwriting?
When I watched my first filmed script, I wanted to kick in the TV. “…But that’s not what I meant, not what I meant at all.” I instantly realized that if I continued to accept money for my work, I also had to accept the fact that I had no control over it. (I assure you I was never one of those writers who thought every word was sacrosanct … but when truly critical scenes were not even filmed, it was like a stake through my heart). Dirty Mary was an example of that. Yes, it was entertainment…not Paddy Chayefsky stuff … but it could’ve/should’ve had a shred of meaning.
And, yes, there were times I refused the money, if it truly went against my deepest beliefs. Nonetheless, I continued to play the Hollywood game … for the money. And the freedom that goes with having those FU $$$s. Do I regret it? No, not really … because becoming a playwright was the only way to have control of my work … and I never came up with subject matter that I felt (a) had enough depth and/or (b) would successfully translate into a play.
One more area of clarification: … I write with a certain cadence. Brief digression: I knew, and was a big fan, of John Milius’ work. (I spent time with Milius but never as his girlfriend). Anyway, if you read [The Life and Times of] Judge Roy Bean it was, to me, glorious dialogue. The movie, however, was a flop because the actors couldn’t adjust to the dialogue (What? Paul Newman couldn’t adjust? No. Stacy Keach, as I recall, “got it.”) Second Milius example: Apocalypse Now. Without having read the script I knew exactly what had been written by Milius and what had been rewritten by Coppola. The section containing the classic “I love the smell of napalm in the morning” was pure Milius. Very little of the rest of the script has that tone. I make no good or bad judgments, just trying to establish that some writers have a voice which is distinctive and others have a “flexible voice.” For better or worse, I belong to the former category.
What do you remember about writing for about Mission: Impossible?
That was Bruce Lansbury. We had a lot of story conferences. He was a very subdued gentleman. It took a lot of story conferences to work out that plot to his satisfaction. I just remember that, at the end, the, quote, clever thing was that the villains were at point A and trying to get to point B, and you wanted them to go to point C, and so you just switched the road signs and they ended up at point C.
Do you remember writing a Mod Squad?
I remember I did it. I was taking dexedrine to write, okay? If you really want to analyze.
What is dexedrine? Is that an “upper”?
It’s an amphetamine. It made me focus in, and I just became a brain, and I wrote. I would focus in my writing. For somebody else, it’s a party drug. It’s a lower version of ecstasy or crystal meth or all those things. I really don’t want to use this as an excuse [for not remembering old scripts], but I’m trying very hard to not seem evasive.
I guess it was around this time that you abruptly left Hollywood for a while.
That sounds about right. Yes, because the National Guard got my brother, and that was ’68 or ’69. So that was when I dropped out.
Is that what triggered it?
No, I was – it’s so silly, this unhappy love affair. And also, I was burned out. I was just frigging burned out, you know? I went over for a holiday to visit him and said, “Oh, man, I like this.” Came home, got rid of my furniture, shipped my motorcycle over, and dropped out for a year. Then I got island fever and came home.
What was your life in Los Angeles like before that? Were you part of the Hollywood scene, the music scene, the hippie scene?
I wasn’t doing anything. I was just writing. That’s what I mean about being burned out . . . . Okay, here I am in high school and everything and then I come and I start writing, but writing takes all that I have. I didn’t go to the gym, I didn’t – during that period, no social life. It just took it out of me. And it wasn’t until later on – in Hawaii, I realize now, I didn’t even read a book when I was over there. I just laid on the beach. I totally vegged out. When I say I did drugs, I just mean acid and shit like that. That was interesting. I mean, I’m glad I did it. It was fun. But I now look back at it, and since my brain is unruly, I try to understand the things I do. And I can now say that all those years of taking the amphetamines, they just finally took a toll. Because all I cared about was if the sun came out and I could lie out in the sun. I would go swimming in the ocean, but I didn’t learn how to scuba dive. I didn’t read any books. I was just a total vegetable for a year.
[As I was clarifying the parameters of a related point that Chapman chose not to discuss on the record, I asked if she wished to omit her dexedrine use as well.]
I’m not ashamed of anything that I experimented with, including PCP, angel dust, quaaludes. You want to put all that on the record? Because it seems that so many kids are into the methamphetamine stuff now, and I’m not into kids. I’m not into kids, and I’m not into all that shit.
So you never had children?
No, no. Never wanted them. My biological clock was digital, okay? It manifested itself for a hot five minutes one day. I remember sitting on the end of the bed thinking, “Wonder if my biological clock is ticking?” I remember where I was, living with somebody in Bel Air. When I got married, my ex-husband didn’t want children and I didn’t want children, so that wasn’t an issue [then]. And I sat on the end of the bed and I did this soul-searching: “Am I going to regret this? Am I going to think that I missed out on something?” And I thought, “No.” End of subject. And to this day, I never felt that it was my destiny to have a child. I never saw it in my future. I didn’t find it necessary to leave some remnant of myself behind. So, no kids. I mean, once they become sentient human beings, then they’re fun. But babies gross me out.
Chapman (far left) played a postulant nun on Combat (1964).
For a while you were doing both acting and writing, before you chose the latter for good.
Yeah. I remember calling up William Morris one day and saying, “Listen, television is having its hiatus, and I’m like really bored. Would you get me an acting job?” They did, and it was for a pilot. It was my one really miserable experience. I don’t think it would be appropriate, maybe, to go into the details.
The pilot, was that Land’s End? That was shot on location in Mexico.
What made it miserable?
Desi Arnaz, that fucking drunk.
Did he come on to you?
Worse. I was emotionally abused, and physically. He came into my room – you want to hear the story? Fine, I’ll tell you the story. First of all, I didn’t even know – my sense of geography sucks. I thought Cabo San Lucas was – I thought that I could commute. I thought that it was, oh, Tijuana or something, and I could commute and still be a writer. And yes, it was a running part. So we went down. At that time, it was so many years ago, there were only several resorts, and there was no commercial airliner that flew in there. So I couldn’t get out. So there I am . . . . I mean, I had sort of [a] warning as to what Desi was like, William Morris had promised me that [he] wouldn’t bug me. And his second wife was going to be on location, so I figured, hey, I’m cool. Wrong. The first was, the verbal drug abuse, which at least it happened inside my room, in Spanish, so I didn’t know what the fuck he was talking about.
“Verbal drug abuse”?
Verbal abuse. He was accusing me of doing drugs. The drugs, which were sitting on the table, were antibiotics, because I almost caught pneumonia going down on the plane. And I had to do a sequence in a swimsuit the next day, in a freezing cold pool, and I knew my own body. I had to have some antibiotics. There really wasn’t a resident doctor, so one of the staff at the hotel got me penicillin or something. And [Arnaz was] drunk as a lord, and pointing at this bottle and swearing at me in Spanish. The only thing he said in English was, “I wish I’d never hired you.” I’m thinking, “I wish you’d never hired me, too,” and took a Seconal and went to sleep.
Then I did my stuff and we moved to another location. And I’m thinking – you have to understand how naive I was. Just, truly, because of my background. Just not street smart at all. So I remember the crew and the cast were doubling up and tripling up, and I had the biggest room in the place and there was no lock on the door. I thought: well, that’s really odd. And then I dismissed it. The next thing I know, I’m asleep and there’s Desi Arnaz on the side of my bed, drunk, and I’m trying to push him away. He manages to bite me on my left boob before I can push him away. Then I do, I shove really hard, because that hurt, man! What did he think, that’s a turn on? Is he nuts? So I managed to get him over toward the door. And this is so classic, and so just B- or C-movie, I can’t believe it: he grabbed me by my hair and pulled my head back and said, “When we get back to Los Angeles, I’m going to fuck you.” And I thought, good luck!
So, [I] get back to Los Angeles, I call up Jerry Zeitman at the William Morris Agency. Now, I just have this running part in this bloody pilot, right? I call Jerry: “Look, this is what happened, and I want to tell you something. If that pilot sells, I don’t care if he sues me. I am not getting near that man ever again in my life.” I mean, that was the way I felt, but who cared about me? You know, I was the girl in the show. Anyway, Desi was also a client at William Morris, and Zeitman said, “Hey, don’t worry about it. We’ll take care of you.” And the pilot didn’t sell and that’s the end of the story. But, I mean, how tacky. How really, really, tacky, don’t you think?
Well, I was going to ask: As a young actress at that time, were you invited onto the casting couch often?
No. Well, look: I don’t know how to flirt. I think that’s numero uno. But secondly, the guys at William Morris knew how ignorant I was, and I think that they kind of took care of me. I think that they kind of said to whomever, “Don’t mess with her.” I think that was part of it. There was only one person – oh, this was another sleazeball. Marty – he was a producer. He put Sharon Tate under contract.
Ransohoff! That pig. I don’t know how I ended up with an interview with Ransohoff, because I am overlapping these things, and I don’t want to be an actress any more. But I had an interview with Ransohoff, and did a screen test. I mean, who knows if the film was really rolling. It was on the set of some movie. But I got paid for it. Then he said, “I’ll let you know in a week whether or not I want to put you under contract.” So I went into his office, and I remember he was wearing a white t-shirt, and it was all sweaty under the armpits. There was a sofa, and I had to sit on the sofa beside him. I don’t remember what he did, but he either put his hand on my knee or started to inch closer or something. Because he said, “Okay, I’m interested in putting you under contract,” blah, blah, blah. Nudge, nudge. Then I go, “Um, no, thank you, Mr. Ransohoff.” Because I got that game instantly. And he said, quote: “Oh, so you’re going to do it the hard way, huh?” I said, “Yes, Mr. Ransohoff,” and walked out the door.
One of the underlying themes of this interview is how unusual it was to be a young, female screenwriter in the sixies. How did men in the film industry react to you as a writer?
They were far more interested in the pages than anything else, and I’d throw around a few polysyllabic words and a few quotes. Just, I was one of the guys. They wanted the product of my brain, and no, I never felt that – I mean, I’m told that other women were not writing action-adventure at that point. I don’t know. I don’t know what other women were doing. Women don’t interest me. But no, I was always treated with respect.
See, in the interim – it’s not on there; the movie never got made – I worked for Howard Hawks.
Yeah. I thought that might interest you. Somewhere in there, I can’t tell you the year, I went for an acting interview [for Red Line 7000, 1965], and he said my voice was terrible. He told me my voice was dreadful, but something came up about writing, and he said, “I’d like to read one of your scripts.” I said okay. And I go back in and he gave me some voice lessons to do, to turn me into Lauren Bacall. Well, it didn’t work.
That’s right, Hawks had that fixation on deep-voiced women.
Yes. He had me go home and take the ironing board, and as I spoke, I was supposed to press my stomach into the ironing board, to make my voice lower. Well, it only lasted as long as I was pushing myself into the ironing board. So I went back in and Hawks said, “Your voice really hasn’t improved and you’re probably a lousy actress anyway, but I like the way you write. You want to do a script for me?”
See, I knew that he was a legendary director, but – now I have to backtrack again. My hometown was like a humid green version of The Last Picture Show. Three blocks long on one side of the street and train tracks on the other side. The movie theater was only open a couple months a year. My father became this fundamentalist Southern Baptist. I was not allowed to go to movies. Once in a while, he would maybe take me to a John Wayne movie. So I have no background in movies. And so therefore, I mean, Hawks was older by then, and I was young and ignorant and feisty. In my mind he was over the hill.
Hawks was then living in Palm Springs, and I had to go down every weekend and take my pages. Oh, I’m grateful to him for this: he taught me how to ride dirtbikes. I ended up buying a motorcycle. But the reason Hawks and I got along, and there are three phases to the story, we got along because I would argue with him. As far as I was concerned, he was an over-the-hill director. I’m the young hip person who knows what’s going on here. I didn’t know at that time that I was the prototypical Hawks woman, who would talk back to him. And so we got along famously.
What was the script you were writing for him?
Something that didn’t get made. I don’t remember the title and I don’t have a copy of it. It was about two guys and a female, in Vietnam, during the Vietnam war, going from point A to point B. Supposedly he couldn’t get the military to cooperate because it wasn’t “hawkish” enough. (Not my pun … somebody else’s.) Dunno if that’s true but that was the reason given and also, apparently, John Wayne had The Green Berets in the works and that got made instead.
And then he wanted me to write – what was his last movie?
Okay, he wanted me to write Rio Lobo. But at that point I decided I was burned out and I just wanted to drop out. And I did drop out, and lived in Hawaii for a year, so I didn’t write Rio Lobo. [Someone] later told me, “Oh, Hawks, really, he’s so bummed. He thinks that you did something stupid like run off and get married.” No, Mr. Hawks, I dropped out and I was in Hawaii doing drugs, as to why I did not do Rio Lobo. So ours was a successful working relationship, but I just wanted out for a while.
I have to ask, since he saw you in the Lauren Bacall mold, whether Hawks’s interest in you was entirely professional?
Here’s the funny thing. He would tell me stories. He said that he could cook better than I could, so thank god, I didn’t have to cook. He had a son, a young son by somebody named Dee Hartford. Sometimes I would take the son down [from Los Angeles] for the weekend. And I do remember, this is a horrible thought, but I do remember thinking, “Oh, god, I’m down here like every weekend. I hope he doesn’t stroke out. I mean, shit, somebody will think I’m screwing him.” And I did always call him Mr. Hawks, and he was always a perfect gentleman. There was one tentative little move one night, and I said, “Mr. Hawks . . . .” And that was the end of it. He had much too much pride [to persist].
But he would tell me stories about Bogart and Bacall, and all these people. And Hemingway. And I’m sitting there thinking: I despise Hemingway. He’d tell me about this movie called Bringing Up Baby, and it sounded so stupid. And sometime in the last, what, ten or twelve years, I’ve caught it on cable, and I’m going, Holy shit. Likewise Red River. His range – I mean, I had no idea. So it worked out really well that I had no idea, because I just argued with him.
But, interestingly enough, he told me about a script called Pursuit. The first draft was written by a writer whose work I respect, Leigh Brackett. Now, it became Dirty Mary Crazy Larry, but [at least five years earlier] Hawks told me about this project. He owned it, apparently, for a while.
So, dissolve, and I drop out and I’m in Hawaii for a year, and then I come back. I was doing the same thing I was in Hawaii. I was just hanging out here. Latent hippie phase or whatever, until the money ran out. Then I decided: Well, hey, I’m going to go for the brass ring and I’m only going to write features. I did one test script that didn’t sell, but it fell into the hands of Norman Herman, who produced Dirty Mary, and he hired me to rewrite Leigh Brackett, who I knew about from Hawks on [Pursuit]. But when it came time for the credits, there is a name – I don’t know who this person is. I expected to share credit with Leigh Brackett. Fine; I respect her work. [But] this crops up, “Written by Antonio Santean and Leigh Chapman,” completely bypassing Leigh Brackett, forgetting that Howard Hawks owned it. I have no earthly idea who that person is. But apparently that book had a long history of ownership, so all of a sudden I had to share [credit, i.e. with someone who had written an earlier, discarded draft].
And what’s the story on Truck Turner, which is probably your other best-remembered film today?
I wrote a script about a caucasian bounty hunter. (The research was an interesting story). Freddie Weintraub owned it [and] I think he partnered with Larry Gordon. I remember going into the office and, with my usual insouciance? arrogance? announced that, in that case, I wasn’t going to do any freebie re-writes. The response? That’s OK. He doesn’t want you on the project anyway. Pretty funny. And then, it became a blaxloitation film … about pimps and whores, right? I don’t think any of that was in my script and I’m not sure why I even received a story credit. I used Jerry Wilkes [as a pseudonym. That’s part of my ex-husband’s name, but not the entire name. I was invited to the screening and recall telling Freddie that there was so little left of what I wrote that they could still do my script and no one would recognize it.
Why did you end up specializing in action-adventure? Was it something you were drawn to, or did you just get typed with those kinds of projects?
That’s just my temperament. I couldn’t write a romantic comedy or a chick flick or a love story if my life [depended on it]. I mean, I could write a love story, but it would have to be like a Casablanca type of love story, and some people would have to die. I mean, I daresay, if I analyze this – and I have – growing up the way I did, that my alter ego is male. Because I decided very early on that guys got to have all the fun. I mean, women, what did they do? They fall in love, they get married, they have kids. There are exceptional women in this world, yes there are. But when I was growing up, they were just totally boring.
All right, here’s an example. I was working for Bob Cort. He was at Twentieth Century-Fox, and he wanted to do the first X-rated film that a major studio had ever produced. I remember, I’m with his assistant, David Fields and we’re sitting in this screening room, and we’re watching these porn flicks. It was, you know, Behind the Green Door and Debbie Does Dallas, and they’re frigging dying, and I’m laughing because it reminds me of a visit to a gynecologist’s office, you know what I mean? We’re doing our research. Anyway, I decided, the only way this is going to fly is if you do it as a soap opera. I thought, okay, let’s take Princess Caroline of Monaco and that first husband of hers. Let’s make it larger than life, and then insert all the sex stuff and maybe it’ll work that way. So I’m writing this. Here I have this heroine whose goal is to marry this dude, and I actually called up one of my sisters, who’s married, and I said, “Morgan, what does it mean to love somebody?”
Being in love – I’m very good at being in love, but that’s passionate and short-lived and [a] fantasy. What does it mean to love somebody? Why is that important? I can’t write this script if I don’t figure out why that’s [important]. She said, “Well, it means that you want to be most important person in the world to another person.” And I thought, “Oh. Thank you!” It gave me a bead on it, because that’s not how I view things. I was never interested in that. I wouldn’t want that responsibility. No, I don’t want that kind of closeness. But I think that her answer was quite a good answer, and probably why most people know how to get married and stay in relationships, and that that is the driving force in their lives, that they want that. I don’t want that. So, I told you that story to tell you how incapable I am of understanding [female melodrama]. I’m just incapable of understanding why anybody would write those movies or go to them. I can’t do it. Look, I would rather be waterboarded than locked into a room to watch The Sound of Music. I like larger-than-life characters who do dangerous, heroic things. And that, to me, means men.
I guess I’m not surprised that you never remarried.
No, not tempted ever again. Because I understood myself by then. I understood that my thing is to be in love with love. That’s very different from loving someone and wanting a lasting relationship. Besides, particularly when I’m writing, which has been most of my life, I’m completely emotionally inaccessible. You’d have to be insane to want to be married to me. I’m just not there. And there’s just a critical difference between love and loving somebody. I don’t want somebody saying, “Where have you been? I was worried about you. What do you want for dinner? I don’t know, what do you want to have, Marty? Did you call the plumber?” You know, I know how to take care of myself. I’m a loner by nature. I don’t want somebody underfoot. Men – you’re going to hate this – men belong in the bedroom.
And yet I found articles from the seventies in which you expressed some scorn for the feminist movement.
I lived the life of a feminist, but I am not in favor of what feminists want to do. I think that feminists want to emasculate men. I don’t want to emasculate them. When I say something like they belong in the bedroom, I just mean, hey, I’m out for the fun, romantic, passionate part of things. But I don’t want somebody – I mean, nobody’s ever paid my bills. I took care of myself. Women who are trophy wives – shit, that’s just socially acceptable prostitution.
But I want men to be men, and do manly things. I mean, I see these men getting turned into not exactly house-husbands, but, “Did you take out the trash?” I would never do that to a guy. You lead your life and I will lead mine, and let’s get together, preferably on some romantic excursion or in the bedroom or whatever, and totally get into each other. But knowing that it’s going to stop and that you are going to conduct your life on your own, and I’m going to conduct my life on my own.
Though she had a relationship with her Man From U.N.C.L.E. co-star Robert Vaughn, and several other powerful Hollywood figures (two of whom she declined to name on the record, at least while certain parties are still alive), Chapman insisted on charting her career without their help.
So you turned down television offers after you returned from Hawaii? That’s why there are no more episodic credits at that point?
Yeah, for the most part. There were a few lapses. A mini-series that I did – actually, two of them. For different reasons, neither one got made. I’m truly glad one of them didn’t get made, because it was off of a novel that I wrote, Southern Exposure, and it was personal.
A published novel?
Yeah. Well, no, it was supposed to be published. Random House bought it. Basically, it was The Fountainhead with solar energy. Then the editor who bought it either left or got fired. I said, “Well, now I’ve learned enough to know what happens. It’ll just be another book that . . . won’t get promoted. It’s just a matter of filling up rack space. And I don’t want that to happen, and I want my book back.” So I’m getting these calls from, who was the head of Random House? His last name was Jaffe. From Europe, saying, “Why do you want to take this book back?” And I’m thinking, “Because I know that you haven’t read it and the only reason you’re calling me is you can’t believe some frigging first-time author wants to take her book back. The effrontery of this intrigues you, so you’re asking me to please not take it back.” But I did, and I still had the television rights.
So there was a conference over at CBS, and I did not realize, at that point, even though I had done a lot of scripts, that people would buy a novel without having read the novel. So then I do the bible, and maybe even go beyond that. I think I went beyond that into – it was to be a four-hour miniseries, and I did the first two hours. I warned them at the beginning. It was a female lead. I said, “Look, this character is my best version of myself, so for once, I warn you, I’m going to be a bit touchy about this.”
So they start screwing around, and I remember standing up and saying, “Look, guys, if you want to do it this way, I’ve already told you that for once, I have an emotional interest in this. If you want to do it that way, fine, but I don’t want to do it. Just keep the rest of the money and hire somebody else.” And I’m watching faces drop, like, “Huh?” Then all of a sudden it’s, “No, no, no, we didn’t mean that.” So then I believed them, but I shouldn’t have. It was like Chinese water torture.
Oh, and after I stood up and said that in that story conference, you know what Renee Valente did? Renee Valente was the producer. Boy, what a hypocrite she is. She called me up and she said, “Leigh, were you out of your mind? Don’t you understand a woman can’t do that?” The big fucking feminist, and she tells me a woman can’t do that.
Stephen Verona’s Boardwalk is another ’70s cult film you wrote, which recently got a home video release.
My recollection of the film is that it’s amateurish? boring? Strasberg [was] a dreadful actor… I give V[erona] credit for tenacity. I cannot, for the life of me, recall the name of the British investor who put up the money for the film. He was one of those “commoner” Brits who created a travel agency and made a lot of money. I don’t know how Verona met him or conned him into putting up the money … this despite having spent a day [at] his home in Penn, Buckhamshire and having been sent on a research trip to a bunch of ski resorts because he wanted me to come up with a James Bond type action script.
That never happened because I lost touch with him because I split with V[erona]. (I lived with him for over a year.) Also, I was insanely busy, finishing an edit of [the] novel I sold to Random House, [and] on [the] day it went into the mail, a “help” call [came] from producers on a film in Kentucky (I think it’s now called Look Down and Die [also known as Steel, 1979]). I got on a plane for Kentucky that same afternoon, then, another 911 [came] call from NY from George [Willoughby] (lovely man, line producer) to get to NY to “rescue”/rewrite part of Boardwalk because V[erona] was screwing up … got on a plane for NY the day I was scheduled to leave Kentucky.
Did you work much as a script doctor?
No, not really. I mean, I would have considered myself a script doctor on a lot of The Wild Wild West. There was one – Robert Aldrich was the director. I knew going in that I was script doctoring and I wasn’t going to get any credit, on something called All the Marbles…
That was Aldrich’s last movie, the one about the lady wrestlers.
Yeah, his last movie. It was just making the dialogue better. I spent a week doing it. I got along well with Aldrich. See, I got along well with all these people [about whom] everybody else said, “Oh, they’re a nightmare.”
Albert S. Ruddy, the producer of The Godfather, is someone you worked for several times.
The second time I worked for Ruddy was Impulse, which was Sondra Locke directed. The third time I worked for Ruddy was Walker, Texas Ranger. If you look up who wrote the pilot for Walker, Texas Ranger, you’ll find the name Louise McCarn. That is my mother’s name. That was Al Ruddy and Leslie Greif. I love working for Ruddy. Ruddy makes me laugh. That was the second or third time I worked for Ruddy. But then they asked me if I wanted to be a showrunner and stuff. I don’t. I don’t want to move to Dallas and be a showrunner. I turned down, oh, all those jobs that would give me a lot more money than what I have. But I can’t do it. I can’t do the same thing everyday.
Oh, by the way, I think Paul Haggis did the original one-hour script that I read. I technically was doing a rewrite, because it was a one-hour pilot that they’d been trying to get off the ground. For some reason, CBS said that they wanted it to be two hours and they wanted change the story.
So anyway, I did the pilot, and I promised Ruddy and Greif that I would do three episodes. [But] I did not like the showrunner. He and I were not at all on the same page. So I did one episode and then I said, “I’m out of here.” Because Ruddy and Leslie were dismissed. I don’t know the details of how that happened, or how it worked out for them. But they were why I would have been willing to do even three episodes. Because the story conferences were fun; I liked them. I thought that it became very saccharine. It wasn’t what Ruddy, Greif, and I had written. And I just thought, I don’t want a career in television, so this isn’t going to do my name any good. I don’t like what happened to the pilot, so why put my name on it?
The last thing that I did was with Sherry Lansing. This one really pissed me off. I was adapting a book. I thought it was a very well-written book. The author [Erika Holzer], her husband was the attorney for Ayn Rand, so that Randian philosophy which I grew up with was in there. Michael Levy was the producer, and I refused to talk to his partner, [Michael] Gruskoff. Gruskoff was a rude asshole, so I just said, “Not if Gruskoff’s [there].” I don’t remember how many people were in the office with Sherry, and Sherry wanted to turn this book – which I thought [had] enormous potential; it raised important questions – She wanted to turn it into The Star Chamber. Without thinking, I did exactly what I did when Renee Valente said, “Oh, women can’t do that.” I stood up and did ten minutes on, “Sherry, if you do Star Chamber, it’s not going to make a dime, because you’re going to turn [the protagonist] into like a female Charlie Bronson.” Well, once again, the jaws dropped. Anyway, I did my first draft, and I modeled the pace of it after the good John Grisham thing, The Firm, and called it Victims Anonymous. I sort of saw it coming, but that was the first time that basically I was fired. It turned into something starring Sally Field. The only thing that was left [from] that book was a woman on the freeway in traffic overhearing her daughter get raped and murdered.
Oh, was that John Schlesinger’s An Eye for an Eye?
Yes. I had the satisfaction of having read a review that said, “Sally Field is acting like Charlie Bronson, and it doesn’t fly.” I remember laughing and saying, “Up yours, Sherry.” [Chapman’s draft was written in 1993; the film came out in 1996.]
Are you retired now?
I don’t want to use that word. Such an awful word. One day I woke up and just said, “If I write another script, I’ll puke.” That was eight, nine years ago. And then I decided to momentum trade. Trading, stock market trading. I was part of that wonderful internet bubble. Give me a new thing to do, and I’m [fascinated]. So that was cool, until the bubble burst. Now it’s underwater photography. I just started taking photographs four years ago [with] a point-and-shoot camera. Now I’ve got a twenty-pound rig. It’s glorious down there. It’s a different kind of a rush than skiing. I hate everything about skiing except those first few moments when you’re going [downhill]. I hate the cold, I hate the dry air. So that’s a true adrenaline rush. This is a whole different kind of – it’s an adrenaline rush, and then it’s the most serene I will ever get. Which is not very. It’s gorgeous. You’re weightless, you’re actually weightless. You’re not completely weightless even on the moon, but you are underwater. I love it.
“Lotsa teeth” was how Leigh captioned this photo (from circa 2010) when she emailed it to me.
SIDEBAR: THIRTEEN UNPRODUCED SCREENPLAYS BY LEIGH CHAPMAN
20,000 Bikinis Under the Sea; That Loving Feeling; and It’s a Tuf Life (all 1965). On the heels of her first produced screenplay, the youth movie That Swingin’ Summer (1965), Chapman was signed to pen three features for writer-producer Norman Maurer’s unit at Columbia. That Loving Feeling (which, like It’s a Tuf Life, was a co-production with Dick Clark’s company) would have been a vehicle for The Righteous Brothers, who had appeared in A Swingin’ Summer. The abrupt collapse of the beach party fad spiked all of these projects, probably before any of the scripts were completed and likely to Chapman’s relief.
Kings X (1967). This was Chapman’s first assignment for producer Albert S. Ruddy, then best known as the co-creator of Hogan’s Heroes. Chapman: “‘X’ as in chess and pawn. There was the Howard Hawks thing, and then I did a movie for Ruddy. He was over at CBS, and Clint Eastwood was in and out of the office, and Eastwood was supposed to do Kings X.” According to Variety, the film was to have been produced by CBS Films in 1968, with Brian Hutton directing, Eastwood and Claudia Cardinale starring, and 77 Sunset Strip star Roger Smith credited with the screenplay, under the pseudonym “John Jordan.” Hutton and Eastwood ended up making Where Eagles Dare (1969) together instead.
Occam’s Razor (1969). A “youth-oriented picture with a heavy musical emphasis,” announced in December 1969 with a start date the following March. The film was to be the initial outing of Chapman and music producer Harley Hatcher’s independent company Har-Leigh Enterprises. Chapman wrote the screenplay, while Hatcher would have produced and scored the film. Chapman never mentioned him by name, and he didn’t respond to an e-mail inquiry last year, but I have a hunch that Hatcher may have been the “obsessive love affair” she described in the interview.
Blackfather (1974). Written for producer Norman T. Herman prior to Dirty Mary Crazy Larry, this was a “black version of The Godfather,” according to Tadhg Taylor’s Masters of the Shoot ’Em-Up (McFarland, 2015). Taylor’s interview with Chapman, conducted after this one, has some good stories that she didn’t tell me.
Detroit Boogie (1974) and The Tin Walls (1975). The first was a spec script that Chapman sold to Dino De Laurentiis, the second a prison picture, based on a letter written by a minimum security inmate to director Robert Ellis Miller (The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter), who would have produced the film.
The Laconia Incident (1977). An epic-scaled dramatization of a convoluted true story that was hushed up in 1942 because it managed to embarrass both Axis and Allied powers: an American bomber strafed survivors (mainly Italian POWs) from a British ship as they were being rescued by the U-boat that had just torpedoed them. Chapman: “I was hired to write a World War II script called The Laconia Incident for Ruddy’s then-roommate, the director Brian Hutton, to be produced by Patrick Wachsberger, specifically because Hutton wanted Hawks’s style [of] male-female repartee. It was heavily advertised at Cannes but W[achsberger] never came up with enough money to get it made.” Chapman revised a script by Robert and Laurie Dillon (The French Connection II) for an independent company run by Wachsberger and his father, Nat Wachsberger (the producer of Jerry Lewis’s legendary, unreleased The Day the Clown Cried). The Laconia Incident was to have been shot in Malta and came close enough to happening that the Wachsbergers sprang for full-page ads in the trade papers. Unfortunately for Chapman, the film immediately ahead of hers on their slate was the underfinanced megaturkey Starcrash.
Felonious Laughter (1978). An original teleplay by Chapman, described by producer Maurice Singer as the story of a middle-class woman in prison, to have been done as a made-for-TV movie for NBC. (Singer’s company also produced Boardwalk, then titled Brighton Beach.) Other Chapman-scripted telefilms that were announced but never made included an untitled 1982 Pam Dawber vehicle and Southern Exposure (1983), described above.
Motordrome Project (circa 1980). Chapman’s week on All the Marbles… was a byproduct of an unproduced script about motordrome racing that she wrote, against her better judgment, with a collaborator who was more familiar with the sport than she was. Chapman’s agent sent the script to Robert Aldrich, who met with her and wanted to make the film. But, without her knowledge, Chapman’s collaborator had sent the script simultaneously to Steve McQueen – a serious breach of Hollywood etiquette. After McQueen died of cancer, Chapman smoothed things over with Aldrich, who set the film up at Universal. It fell apart again because Chapman’s collaborator wouldn’t sell the script unless he could also produce the film, but Aldrich insisted on hiring his son, William Aldrich (who had produced All the Marbles…), instead.
Rhinestone Heights (circa 1980). The original writer on this story of seedy 42nd Street life was the cult actress Helena Kallianotes (Chapman: “…best known for her performance in Five Easy Pieces … particularly hysterical if you know Helena, which I did”). This was the first project to which Jon Voight and Andrei Konchalovsky (who later collaborated on 1985’s Runaway Train) were attached after Voight sponsored the Russian director’s emigration to the United States in 1979. Chapman: “I was hired by [Voight] to re-write a script and spent four hours a day, seven days a week (I think) for three months in a home he’d rented in Coldwater Canyon. It was grueling because I went there every day, knowing he was going to try to make me wrong about totally insignificant things. There were times when I’d arrive and he say the kids (Angelina and Jamie) were there and he had to put them to bed. Curiously, he never introduced me to them. And he never came onto me … just played mind-fuck games. My ‘victory’ was not letting him get to me …. Voight was supposedly going to direct the script in order to put his then gf [girlfriend] in one of the title roles. Based on my experience with him … the indecisiveness … don’t think it would’ve worked out … and perhaps was no more than something to hang onto the gf.” The girlfriend was probably Stacey Pickren, an aspiring actress Voight dated in the late seventies and early eighties.
Jean-Claude Van Damme Project (circa 1992). Chapman: “I was supposed to do Double Impact for Jean-Claude Van Damme. There were about ten people involved in that. Jean-Claude and I got along fine, but there was a guy named Peter McAlevey, who somehow was involved with Michael Douglas [their company produced Double Impact], and I could tell that McAlevey just didn’t want me on that project. So, as the deal memo was coming through for close to mid-six figures, I call up David Wirtshafter, who was then my agent, and said, ‘David, I don’t want to do it.’ And of course he was not pleased. But then Jean-Claude had an idea; he wanted to do Papillon. So I came up with Papillon, on an island, but what happens is gladiatorial combat. I was hired by Columbia – he had a deal with Columbia – but it never got made, because that was the period when Jean-Claude like, lost it with Wife #3 or whatever. They apparently couldn’t get him to commit to the picture, couldn’t control him.”
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.”
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 Jaguar, 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).