Life in Hollywood, below-the-line

Life in Hollywood, below-the-line
Work gloves at the end of the 2006/2007 television season (photo by Richard Blair)

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Last Tycoon

Dino De Laurentiis receiving the Thalberg Award in 2001.

(Photo by Mike Blake, of Reuters)

Dino DeLaurentiis died last week. Although he hadn’t done much lately – hardly surprising, given his age – he was a major presence in Hollywood and beyond for a very long time. As the first line of his obituary in the NY Times testifies, his body of work spanned an astonishingly wide spectrum:

“Dino De Laurentiis, the high-flying Italian film producer and entrepreneur whose movies ranged from some of Federico Fellini’s earliest works to “Serpico,” “Death Wish” and the 1976 remake of “King Kong,” died on Wednesday at his home in Beverly Hills, Calif. He was 91.”

That his portfolio included such cultural landmarks as “Barbarella, “Blue Velvet,” and “Mandingo” – each notable for very different reasons – only serves to underline the protean nature of his drive and talents.

I did a feature in North Carolina during the heyday of his low budget studio operation in Wilmington. Our production wasn’t affiliated with him or his studio, but over the course of the shoot I got to know some of the local grips, juicers, and camera people who had learned their craft thanks to Dino De Laurentiis. Largely because of him, Wilmington morphed from a sleepy little coastal city into a very happening place in the feature world for a while, and planting the seed for the runaway production that would later hit Hollywood so hard.

The good times down there didn’t last, of course, but such is the nature of life: at first it’s all sunshine and smiles, later comes the weeping in the dark...

I only saw the man once, while doing a week of pick-ups for the Kurt Russell drama Breakdown.* We were filming on some god-forsaken location in the hinterlands north of LA when he paid a visit to the set, pulling up in a limo accompanied by one of his production lackeys.** I was surprised at how small he really was, but with that great big smile, he projected a presence that far overshadowed his physical size. He seemed genial and friendly, a man utterly at home in -- and in charge of -- this world of cinematic make-believe. Nothing much happened, really. He just sat in a high director's chair and watched us work for an hour or so, but he's the only thing I still remember about that day. In a world that even then was increasingly ruled by faceless corporate executives who know nothing but the bottom line, here was a man who ran with his instincts and made things happen.

De Laurentiss was behind so many movies that never would have happened without his involvement, and if they weren’t all great, at least they got made. That's nothing to sneeze at -- after all, they call it "Show Business," not "Art Business," and he got the business done. There’s nobody quite like him these days, when so many movies are either monster-budget comic books/blown-up video games produced by soulless corporate droids, or micro-budget horror films made by one or two truly obsessed individuals. Whatever you think of him or his movies, it will be a long time (if ever) before we see another Dino De Laurentiis. In all the ways that matter, he really was the last tycoon.

* There’s a great story I wish I could tell you about Russell on that shoot – but to spill the beans would violate the code of this blog...

** As it turned out, I'd worked with this guy many years before, when he was still pretending to be a juicer. Actually, he was the Best Boy of the low budget piece of junk we were filming, a role that required acting talent far beyond his level of skill or knowledge. Example: On our very first day of production, he asked me -- the juicer working under him -- which end of the cable went towards the generator and which went to the set. I couldn't believe my ears. He wasn’t a bad fellow, just a guy in way over his head.

Good thing he went into production...


D said...

Great post. I did quite a bit of work at the old DeLaurentis Studios in Wilmington back in the day. I remember that King Kong's head used to be in a field behind the back lot along with assorted other junk. I used to eat my lunch inside it. The studios were later bought by Carolco and then Screen Gems and still have a good amount of work, I think. We probably know a few of the same juicers if you remember any of them.

Michael Taylor said...

D --

What a spectacularly great image -- eating lunch inside King Kong's head. I sure hope you've got a photo of THAT.

I worked down there almost 25 years ago, so most of the names have slipped away, but I do remember a (then) young grip named Eric, and a great dolly grip (great guy, too) named Gene Pool. Something tells me you just might know him too.

Hope you're getting some sleep these days...