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, July 2, 2023

July: the Golden Month


I don't suppose it makes much sense to be surprised when an 89-year-old man passes away -- nine decades is a long time to walk this earth -- but the death of Alan Arkin still came as a shock.  I don't know why, but he just seemed to be eternal in a way -- not like some comic book superhero, but as a good man and wonderful actor who found so many ways to remain relevant while doing terrific work over a sixty-plus year professional career.  

I first noticed him in The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming! back in the mid-60s, then again as "Yossarian" in Catch 22 a few years later.  He went on to appear in dozens of movies I only half-remember at this point, and I last saw him in the Netflix comedy The Kominsky Method, in which he portrays an elderly agent and old pal of an equally long-in-the-tooth acting teacher played by Michael Douglas. Arken played all sorts of roles, but his wheelhouse was portraying a flawed but essentially decent man trying, while often failing, to do the right thing amid very difficult situations: a guy whose heart was always in the right place.  That he'd been around forever and was still working gave me the sense that he'd always be turning up on screen in yet another memorable role ... but life doesn't work like that -- instead, it giveth then taketh away -- and now it's taken Alan Arkin.

I only worked with him once, on a low-budget feature called Full Moon High, written and directed by the inimitable Larry Cohen back in the very early 80s.  As my first full feature working with a crew of ex-pat University of Texas grads led by DP Daniel Pearl (who'd cut his cinematic teeth shooting The Texas Chainsaw Massacre before coming to Hollywood), this movie was a big deal to me at the time. After doing two features as a production assistant and two more as a grip -- all woefully micro-budget gigs that paid peanuts -- I'd finally landed a spot on a solid crew at a decent rate of pay.  I was the low man on the totem pole, of course, but had found my first tribe in Hollywood.  It was a memorable shoot in so many ways -- a true learning experience.  The movie itself is something of a mess, but those lingering few of you who've been reading this blog from the early days might be surprised how many of the stories here came from Full Moon High.   

Alan Arkin had just a small role (his son Adam was the lead), but for a young man just getting started in Hollywood, being on set with a star I'd watched and admired for so long was a real thrill.  Plus, he was a nice guy, which goes a long way with film crews.  Truth be told, we were all lucky to have him for so long, but I hate to see the good ones go -- and Alan Arkin was one of the really good ones.


Hollywood took another loss this week with the passing of Freddie Forrest, who appeared to be on the very cusp of stardom back when I was just getting started, with solid roles in Apocalypse NowThe ConversationHammet, and One From the Heart, among other notable films of that era ... but for some reason never managed to break through.  He was a solid actor who kept working and had a decent career, mostly in television over the latter half of his career, but never elbowed his way into the full heat of the spotlight. He died this past week something of a forgotten man, which had to be rough for someone with that resum√©.  Then again, who knows? I hope he didn't have many regrets as the end neared, but maybe none of that matters when you're lingering on death's door.

I guess he finally got off the boat after all.  So long, Freddie. May you rest in peace -- and thanks.


Turning away from death, loss, and all that depressing stuff ... one of this blog's strongest supporters from way the early days -- key grip, dolly grip, and steadicam operator Sanjay Sami -- was recently highlighted in a New York Times piece that described the crucial role he plays in crafting the films of Wes Anderson.  

As the opening paragraph tells it:  

"Sanjay Sami, a native of Mumbai, India, got his start on Bollywood movies and has been working with Anderson since 2006, mostly as a dolly grip. It's a rough job, pushing and pulling a camera mounted on a dolly -- a setup weighing up to 900 pounds -- along hundreds of feet of track built for a scene, and Sami has engineered, invented, and refined it into an art form. On a typical move, a dolly might move the camera left to right or back and forth. In the Wesiverse it goes in all those directions -- and sometimes up and down, too -- in a single tracking shot, allowing, Anderson said, for unbroken expression."

"It means the actors can stay in real time, and you can create something that really exists, in front of the camera."

"Equal parts ingenious designer, D.I.Y. repair guru, rail engineer, cineaste and athlete, Sami is, according to many cast and crew members, Anderson's secret weapon." 

There's a lot more good stuff in that piece, so I hope the link will smuggle you in past the NYT paywall ... but if not, e-mail me at the address up there on the right-- just under the gloves photo -- and I'll send it to you.  The thing is, reading about the Sanjay/Anderson camera moves is a pale substitute for seeing them in action -- which you can do right here -- and if you want more on the magic of Sanjay Sami, here's an excellent print interview from the keyboard of Darryl Humber, a veteran dolly grip who writes with a fluid-but-punchy grace that matches his skill at pushing dolly on set.

One last note: the Variety piece on Alan Arkin I linked to is by long-time film critic Joe Leydon, who also runs The Moving Picture Blog.  Joe is a great writer and it's an excellent blog, so check it out. 

That's it for July, kiddos. Yes, the strike goes on as I sit here at this keyboard -- with SAG kicking their Big Decision can down the road for a couple of weeks -- but I hope you find a way to ignore all that and get out to enjoy this most golden month of the summer.  

Life is short, so get it while you can.


Anonymous said...

Always a great read. Thank you for the links.

Michael Taylor said...


Glad you liked it, and thanks for tuning in!

Debra Rowe said...

It’s beginning to feel like there are more cool people on the other side, and that maybe I could be looking forward to passing over. But no, that feeling quickly changes into a renewed intention to get the most out of life I can. Fabulous to get some insights from Sanjay’s world. I remember wondering why the big, strong guys pushing cameras up and down rails didn’t get bored to tears. Now I know!

Michael Taylor said...

Deb --

Yeah, it's getting crowded over there on the other side, but I too can wait a while before joining them. All in good time... The videos Sanjay has posted on a private FB group (for dolly grips and other on-set crew) show how he sets up the long, complicated tracks for those dazzling dolly moves in Wes Anderson's movies and others, and they're jaw-dropping. He's part engineer and part grip. One very smart guy.

Thanks for tuning in!

k4kafka said...

Still a few more great one’s waiting to go, Eastwood(93),Nicholson(86),Dern(87),Coppola(84)…

Michael Taylor said...

Kafka --

Indeed, along with Donald Sutherland, who just turned 88. Sooner or later, time runs us all off the cliff into the abyss.