The Angel of Death has been making his grim rounds in Hollywood again, stopping at the doors of two Industry icons. I’m not sure you could come up with two people as different as Ed McMahon and David Carradine, but each managed to carve out his own unique niche in our shared cultural landscape. I worked with each of them back in my low budget feature years, and although our encounters were brief, both men made an impression that lingers to this day.
Given the currently fractured state of late night television (an audience split between Leno, O’brien, Letterman, and Craig Fergusson), it’s not easy to grasp just how big The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson* really was, and Ed McMahon played a major part of that success. Johnny Carson was light years ahead of all his competitors (and his successors, IMHO), with big Ed right by his side every step of the way. Ed McMahon was the first real Hollywood celebrity I met in my nascent career.
Ed appeared in movies from time to time, including Full Moon High (1981), a hopelessly cheesy low budget werewolf comedy starring a very young Adam Arkin, with cameos by Pat Morita and Adam’s real-life dad, Alan. Ed McMahon played Adam’s father, and was with us on and off for maybe two weeks of filming altogether. Two of those days were spent two shooting in an underground bomb shelter beneath the back yard of a sprawling ranch-style house in Ladera Heights. To reach the set, we had to enter a big closet, pull up a well-hidden door under the carpet, then climb down a long row of metal stairs to a concrete chamber secured by a steel submarine door. Inside the shelter were bunk bed cots and shelves for supplies to wait out the nuclear attack so many Americans viewed as inevitable during the 1960’s. But by 1980, much of that paranoia had evaporated, to the point where the family who owned this home was willing to rent out their bomb shelter as a movie set.
The bare concrete walls of that cramped bomb shelter made for a very noisy location that must have driven the sound guys crazy – I can still hear Ed’s big booming laugh echoing up that stairway. Although the script was terminally ludicrous (writer/director Larry Cohen apparently fancied himself as the next Woody Allen -- but in that was sadly mistaken), Ed took the job seriously, arriving on set having learned his lines, then hitting his marks every time. A solid professional, he never complained about the long hours or crappy working conditions. More important (from my perspective), he was unfailingly gracious to the entire crew – not always the case with Hollywood celebrities – who never played the pompous Hollywood big shot. Ed McMahon was a very likable guy.
The last I heard, he was doing rap videos and commercials in an attempt to extricate himself from an avalanche of financial disasters. Whether he succeeded or not is unclear, but I don’t suppose any of that matters now. His earthly troubles are over.
I pulled out my VHS copy of “Full Moon High” the other night, and there was Ed, hale and hearty in his late 50’s. It’s a truly awful movie – an incomprehensible mash-mash of lame clichés and over-the-top acting – but amid the chaos, Ed McMahon and Adam Arkin keep swimming against the tide, trying to make the movie work in spite of itself. Unfortunately, the script kills Ed off in the first half hour, abandoning the viewer to another sixty-five minutes of misguidedly manic confusion masquerading as comedy. This is not the cinematic monument Ed McMahon (or any actor) would have hoped for. Still, it was good to see him in his vigorous prime – and that’s how I’ll remember him, with his jovial, bigger-than-life presence of set, that famously big laugh, and of course, his thirty years with Johnny Carson. Sure, his career was mostly playing second banana, but that’s not as easy as it looks – and Ed McMahon made it look very easy indeed.
My experience with David Carradine was very brief – a single day shooting pickups for yet another Larry Cohen epic, Q, a horror movie about a giant winged serpent terrorizing New York City. Like most of Larry Cohen’s films, this one ended up filming pick-ups at his sprawling home up in Benedict Canyon, which is where we spent a long day shooting scenes with Carradine and two police detectives (one played by Ron Cey, the LA Dodgers third basemen on the DL with a broken wrist). While we worked inside, a production assistant was busy rolling several coats of blue paint on a twelve-by-twelve sheet of white canvas in the back yard. Near the end of the day – the paint finally dry – we hung this home-made blue screen up between two stands, lit it, then filmed David Carradine blasting away with a machine gun at the phantom flying reptile.
On stage, shooting a scene this would be no big deal -- but we were outdoors in a very tony section of Beverly Hills, an area not accustomed to long bursts of machine gun fire echoing through the canyons.** This didn’t faze Larry Cohen in the least, who ordered take after noisy take until he got what he wanted. That was our final scene with David, after which he and a lovely young woman – apparently one of his companions at the time – quietly left. We kept working late into the night, cranking out lots of simple shots required to properly edit the film, and by the time we were done, Larry Cohen had disappeared. The cameraman made out our checks from Larry’s checkbook. After he handed me mine ($125 for the day, as I recall), he took a look through the checkbook, then looked up with a smile.
“You know how much David Carradine made today? Four thousand dollars.”
That was my first lesson in the economics of Hollywood -- in a single day, he'd made a quarter of what I would earn for working the entire year. But hey, he was David Carradine, Mr. Kung Fu himself, and wthout him, the movie would probably never get made, which means I woudn’t have had day of work shooting pickups. That’s just the way Hollywood works. If that's going to get your knickers in a knot, you may as well complain about the ocean being wet.
You can read the details of his life, career, and death somewhere else: suffice it to say that even at 72, David Carradine was too young to die. In person, he was a very impressive guy, possessing a powerful presence that went way beyond mere confidence. Whatever it was, this mysteriously serene strength served him well through his long career. That’s how I’ll remember him – squinting into the wild blue-screen yonder while blasting away with a machine gun in defense of civilization against cinematic predators of all kinds. In his own way, David Carradine was something special.
*I never had the chance to meet Johnny Carson, but saw him once (at Schatzi on Main, Arnold Swartzenegger’s restaurant out in Venice), while on a lunch break from filming digital effects for “The Fifth Element.” There, in a secluded corner of the restaurant, was the man himself, having a quiet lunch with a friend. I’m not sure what I’d have said to him anyway -- nothing he hadn’t heard a thousand times before -- but a burly plainclothes security man stood guard (CIA-style earphone in place), discouraging anyone with a notion to approach. What the hell -– after living such a hugely public life, Johnny Carson deserved to have lunch in peace.
** Maybe the neighbors (and local authorities) were used to such outlandish goings on in Larry Cohen’s back yard -- the swarm of cop cars I expected to descend upon us never appeared