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)

Sunday, December 4, 2022


While discussing his most recent film in an interview on NPR, Steven Spielberg admitted that the first movie he saw in a theater terrified him to the point that he shrank down into the seat trying to block the screen from view, begging his parents to take him home. They didn't, of course, and after a while he started watching again -- and it seems that's when die was cast that would drive him on a journey to the top of the heap in Hollywood.

What movie, you might wonder, could have frightened, entranced, and inspired the young Spielberg?  

Cecil B. DeMille's The Greatest Show on Earth -- and no, I didn't see that coming either, which makes me wonder what films little Steven might have made as an adult had his cinematic baptism come via another circus film, Todd Browning's Freaks.  Viewing a scene like this might be enough to doom any six year old to life in therapy.  That said, the movie-going experience in one's early years is different for everyone, and Spielberg's youthful trauma at the hands of CB DeMille paid off for him, Hollywood, and the rest of us in the form of so many great movies. 

From that interview:   

Steven Spielberg still remembers the first time he went to the movies. His parents took him to see The Greatest Show on Earth Cecil B. DeMille's 1952 drama set in the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, but there was a misunderstanding.

"I had never been to a motion picture," Spielberg recalls. "And ... I actually thought they were saying to me, 'We're taking you to a circus.' "

Settling into his seat in the theater, Spielberg felt betrayed. Where was the big tent? Where were the circus animals he had been expecting? But then the red curtain opened and the film began and it didn't take him long to fall under become enchanted.

"I didn't understand the story, didn't understand what they were saying, but the imagery was amazing," he says. 

The first movie I recall seeing in my local theater was a matinee of one of the many Lassie epics, followed -- if memory serves me well -- by "Bambi," "Old Yeller," and "The Yearling."  I don't recall much about the Lassie flick, but the others taught me one of life's great lessons: anything you fall in love with is doomed to be killed by a heartlessly cruel world -- and worse, you just might have to be the one who pulls the trigger for the greater good of your family.

Gee, thanks Hollywood.  So it seems Spielberg and I have at least one thing in common -- a heavy dose of early-childhood cinematic trauma -- but while he surfed that wave of existential anxiety with enough skill to become one of the most successful directors in the history of cinema, I became ... a juicer.  

Ah well, we each walk our own path, and so it goes.*


Many years ago -- very late 70s or very early 80s -- I got a call to work a freebie shoot down in Long Beach.  With nothing else going on at the time, I said yes, but the caller (I can't recall who it was) wanted me to be the gaffer, and in no way was I ready for that. 

"I'll best boy anything," I told him, "but I'm not a gaffer."

I wasn't much of a best boy either, truth be told, but given that I wouldn't be paid a dime, I was ready to fake my way through it.  I recommended a slightly more experienced friend for the gaffer slot, and so we arrived on location bright and early the following Saturday morning, an abandoned building overlooking the harbor in San Pedro. There, with our crew of two neophyte juicers, we lugged three 10Ks, two 5Ks, several 2Ks, and way too much 4/0 cable up seven flights of stairs to the set because  -- of course -- the elevator was out of order. This, along with a DP fond of declaring "I paint with light,"   was a harbinger of how the next two days would go.  It was memorable shoot for many reasons, not many of them good, during which we all busted our collective asses ... but I learned a lot.

I flashed back to this while reading about the life, career, and death of Clu Gulager, an actor whose name might not mean much to the current generation in Hollywood, but who loomed large in my cinematic world. Clu was in lot of TV back in the day, then played a small but memorable role in The Last Picture Show, a film that was a very big deal to my generation.  The connection here is that our two day shoot in San Pedro was part of a film called John and Norma Novak, a short film Clu financed, directed, and starred in, along with much of his family.*

                           Clu Gulager as "Abeline" in The Last Picture Show

Nearly ten years later, more or less a real best boy now, I flew down to North Carolina to do a feature called Summer Heat starring Lori Singer and the young Anthony Edwards, fresh off his star-making role as the doomed "Goose" in Top Gun -- and lo and behold, there in the cast was Clu Gulager for a few days of filming.  He even remembered me, or pretended to, with a nod, a smile, and "You're a good man" as he shook my hand.  It was a small moment, but small moments tend to loom large as the years pile on.  

I never saw Clu again in person, only up on the silver screen, and was pleasantly surprised to see his role in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, an aging thespian once again answering the call and delivering the goods.  Father Time has picked off too many cinematic icons of my youth the past few years, and Clu was the latest.  So thanks for the memories, Clu Gulager, and may you rest in peace.


Last, in what passes for tradition here at Blood, Sweat, and Tedium, the great Robert Earl Keene's rendition of his yuletide classic, "Christmas with the Family."

But wait, there's more! As a special Christmas treat, here's a short but revealing clip featuring the one, the only, the unforgettable Leslie Nielson.  When he passed (ahem...) we lost a good one.

To each and every one of you, I wish a wonderful holiday season.

* Clu directed a number of indy projects, one of one of which -- a 30 minute short described as "a violent rock opera that stars Clu’s younger son Tom" -- was John and Norma Novak.