Archive for May 2012
George Reeves, Barry Nelson, DeForest Kelley and Betty White were Don Hanmer’s “co-stars” in his first film role.
Don Hanmer (1918-2003)(1) was introduced to me by Ralph Senensky at our very first Dinosaur Club meeting. He had the voice and face of someone who entertained me countless times in the movies, and especially on television…but I just couldn’t place the name. I suppose that’s one of the hazards of being a character actor. He told me that it wasn’t a big deal to him when people didn’t know his name, and told a funny story about how he and some other actors met with a producer in the hope of landing a role in a major television movie; the producer, for some reason not recognizing him, said, “Thank you all for coming, but we’re looking for a Don Hanmer type”!
Don acted in scores of scores of television shows, and a few movies [most notably as the butterfly trader in “Papillon” (1973)]. Years before he had acted under the direction of two other members of the club, directors Ralph Senensky and Lamont Johnson. Between the three of them not one question of mine about the golden age of television went unanswered.
I haven’t been able to find any meaningfully biographical information on Don, but he told me he served in the U.S. Army Air Forces during World War II, appeared as an extra in both the stage and movie versions of Moss Hart’s “Winged Victory” (1944), and the following year had his first performance as an actor in “Time to Kill”(2) a 23 minute WWII U.S. Navy morale booster, with George Reeves, Barry Nelson, Jimmy Lydon, Don Taylor, and also in their first film roles, DeForest Kelley and Betty White. Don said it was filmed in a couple of days at the Motion Picture Unit U.S. Army Airforces, First Motion Picture Unit, dubbed “Fort Roach,” because it was located at the Hal Roach studios in Culver City, CA.
After the war, Don joined the famed Actor’s Studio in New York, where he honed his craft, which soon turned into a busy career in live television. He also met and married his first wife, Marlon Brando’s sister, Jocelyn, with whom they had two sons.
Ralph Senensky(2) reminded me of two stories Don shared at one of our lunches…which Ralph articulated them far better than I.
Don was a member of the famed Actors’ Studio. He told me of an incident years before in one of his classes. The assignment was to perform an activity using sense memory. Don chose to eat a banana. Seated in his chair in the classroom he pantomimed picking up a banana and slowly starting to peel it. At this moment Cloris Leachman arrived late. She quietly slipped in and took a seat directly behind Don and took a banana out of a sack for her late lunch. Don, engrossed in his pantomime suddenly looked up and said to Lee Strasberg, “I’m so into this, I can actually smell the banana.”
Also, on THE BULL ROARER, an episode of the television series BREAKING POINT, Don played a trainer at the Guide Dogs for The Blind school. The head of the school, Bill Johns, came to Hollywood from San Rafael and served as a technical advisor during our filming. He brought with him one of the trainers from San Rafael to help tend to their seeing eye dogs.. At one point I asked Bill if what Don as doing on film was correct. He responded that the only thing wrong with his performance was that since the dog trainers did a tremendous amount of walking as they first trained the dogs and then trained the blind people how to use the dogs, Don’s appearance was quite a bit more rotund than those of the San Rafael trainers!
“Time to Kill” (1945)
“Tales of Tomorrow” (1952)
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In his 80s he still had that amazing voice…
One of the members of our “club” was Lamont Johnson (1922-2010)(1)(2), who used his dynamic bass radio voice on network radio while still in his teens. He enjoyed a long and successful career as an actor (radio, stage, screen, television) and director (I can’t begin to list all of his credits).
One time we were talking about overcoming difficult situations, and he gave me three examples he experienced, one serious, and two humorous:
Lamont Johnson was a sickly and painfully shy child who was an invalid until age 10 because of suffering TB of his leg. He said his voice helped him get good parts in school plays, and that plus years of psychoanalysis, brought him out of his shell.
Lamont played Tarzan in “Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle”(3) on Mutual Radio in the early 1950s, which was sponsored by Post Cereals. On one occasion Post asked him to perform the Tarzan yell while saying the words “P-o-s-t R-a-i-s-i-n B-r-a-n,” a difficult job to do under any circumstances, but he had to do it live, and with only an hour to rehearse. He succeeded, and gave me a spot-on rendition 50 years after the fact…muted so as not to disturb the other restaurant patrons!
Lamont’s first feature film as a director was “A Covenant with Death” (1967)(4). The famous Mexican actor Emilio Fernández(5), notorious as a loose cannon on the set (and everywhere else), played the role of Ignacio. The evening before the first day of shooting Lamont was up late obsessing about his first effort for the big screen. Around 2:00 AM he got a phone call from the local police…Emilio was in jail; he got into a bar fight and knifed someone! Lamont rushed to the jail, where Emilio, still woozy, was in tears, “I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry, Mr. Johnson, for causing you this trouble!” Much to Lamont’s relief, the police brought the remorseful actor to the set in handcuffs, let him play his scenes. They put the cuffs on him and brought him back to jail…a scenario repeated until the filming ended.
Lamont was blacklisted during the McCarthy era, and throughout his life aligned himself with progressive causes. He told me he worked extensively as a director of made for television movies, because that medium, rather than the big screen, was much more receptive to portraying controversial subjects. Lamont wrote the screenplay as well as directed what he told me was his favorite TV movie, “The Execution of Private Slovik” (1974)(6), the story of the only American soldier executed (since the Civil War) for desertion during World War II.
Into his 80s he never tired of answering my questions, and especially articulating his ideas for future movies dealing with social causes.
With that booming voice of his I would have been happy to listen if he simply read from the phone book.
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I saw my first DVD and knew it was all over…
The former Kit Parker Films building in Sand City,CA
Kit Parker Films continued humming along throughout the 1990s. Videotape shut down most of the non-theatrical distributors, but we held steady because the majority of our customers demanded the clarity that film provided…and from day one we were Ninja about print quality. The acquisition of the “The Classic Collection” (a joint venture between Films Incorporated and Janus Films) helped, because this added many international classics to our library. But by that time, our theatrical division was our mainstay…However, starting in 1997, we started losing our studio contracts…not because they weren’t happy with our work, it was…corporate politics.
We had just completed a successful revival of classic 1970s blaxploitation movies called “Blaxploitation, Baby,” that helped Orion sell tens of thousands of VHS tapes of the individual movies. Then we got the word that MGM/UA bought Orion Pictures, and they wanted their own “classics” division, which meant taking all of the prints back from us. In addition, they placed someone in charge who knew nothing about classics distribution.
The writing was on the wall…
In the mid-1980s some very savvy executives took over and turned the floundering Republic Pictures into a very successful Home Video company. However, in 1994, Aaron Spelling purchased the company, and Republic’s former brain trust left, and a new regime was put in charge who wasn’t in the league of the former management. (An exception was a lawyer by the name of Margie Pacacha, who was both smart and decent…someone destined for much bigger things.) We grew concerned because KPF had the entire Republic library on an exclusive basis for both theatrical and non-theatrical use. I knew from experience that when a successful company changes hands it often meant trouble for me, and we certainly didn’t want to lose evergreen titles like “High Noon,” “It’s a Wonderful Life,” and “Johnny Guitar.” Fortunately life moved along on a fairly even keel (we had released a very successful compilation of Max Fleischer cartoons, called “Betty Boop Confidential”). Then in 1999 Viacom (Paramount) bought Spelling Entertainment, and it was all over for us. As with MGM/UA, the studio decided they’d distribute the films themselves, so we sent all of the films to Paramount, and once again the library was under the control of a studio’s so-called classic division.
Right on the heels of that loss, we took our final blow. I went to Warner Bros. to meet with distribution executive Jeff Goldstein to hopefully make a deal to acquire theatrical rights to “The Wizard of Oz,” which had been recently restored and had a brief theatrical run after which there were hundreds of unused prints I could certainly put to good use. Warner Bros. was by far my most important client, and Jeff told me that everyone at Warner Bros. Distribution, knew I was doing a great job, but they had to take their pictures back. I was never told straight-up, but it was whispered by others in the company that the decision was political; by then WB had acquired Ted Turner’s library of classics, which included all of the pre-1986 MGM, and pre-1948 Warner Bros. titles, as well, and no one wanted to take the chance of getting on Ted Turner’s bad side for fear he would go to Warner’s CEO and say, “Why is someone else distributing my films, when we have our own distribution company?”
Of course, the logical answer would have been that not only would they have made much more money with me doing it with no effort whatsoever on their part. Jeff made it clear that even if I distributed their films for free, they still would have taken them back. Once again, a studio hired someone with no experience to handle their classics. Jeff was a good guy, as were Barry Reardon and Dan Fellman above him.…they even bought the bookings I had already taken…something they were under no obligation to do. The Warner Bros. people were always good to me.
However, I was reeling after that disappointment, and although we were still profitable, I was wondering what I would be doing for the years to come. It was not a good feeling.
Then I got a call from Peter Becker of Janus Films/The Criterion Collection, who asked me to reissue the restored version of “Gimme Shelter,” originally released in 1970. Their goal was to generate publicity for Criterion’s subsequent DVD release of the classic rock movie…a job all of us at KPF were well equipped to do. (We had worked with them earlier on “Picnic at Hanging Rock” and “The Last Wave,” to good success.)
I declined, as by then I was tired of all of the work that went into distributing a multi-city reissue. But, Peter, and my long-time friend at Janus, Jonathan Turell, persisted…so it was one more reissue for Kit Parker Films! Janus Films, I might add, was and is the epitome of class. Becker and Turell were happy with the job we did on distribution/marketing because it generated ink in major city, and national press. After my work was done, a package arrived with a note in it, “Thank you. Peter.” It was a DVD player…the first I’d ever seen. I tried it out that night…took one look at the beautiful image, and had mixed emotions because I knew film would be dead in a few years, and that was sad for a life-long “film guy,” but the quality of the DVD suggested that maybe there was something in it for me to pursue.
The next day, 29 years after forming my company, I announced the closing of our film distribution business…it took a year to wrap things up because we had to honor all of the future bookings. It was heartbreaking to see the KPF team go, but it was time to reinvent myself…
“Today we are engaged in a great Civil ‘Wah’”
— Maury Dexter, from the 3 Stooges short, “Uncivil Warriors” (1946)
Maury Dexter(1)(2) is one of the most interesting individuals I’ve ever seen in the motion picture industry, and he’s put his amazing rags to riches life into words in a well-written, page-turning, autobiography, “Road to Hollywood – the hard way.”
Maury was born into dirt-poor poverty during the Depression in Paris, Arkansas. Early on, he developed a love of acting, which he parlayed into a successful career as an actor, producer, director of feature films and television programs and, of particular interest to me, head of production for Robert L. Lippert’s Associated Producers, Inc.
Without the thought of having it published, Maury Dexter wrote his life story to fulfill a personal goal of putting his life story on paper. Tom Weaver, who interviewed Maury in his book, “I Talked With a Zombie” (McFarland, 2008)(3), couldn’t persuade the usual movie book publishers to take it because they felt their readers might find fault with the first part of the book which covers Maury’s life before becoming involved in the motion picture business. I suggested to Maury that he release it as an ebook, and after explaining what “email,” “Internet,” and “downloads” meant (He’s just fine with knowing absolutely nothing about computers), he agreed, but didn’t want to make money on it.
Hat’s off to one of my favorite movie bloggers, Toby Roan, who produced the ebook, and Jim Briggs for designing it. Here’s the link to Toby’s terrific blog, which includes the link to Maury’s autobiography.
P.S. As I write this I’m laughing to myself about Maury’s challenges of producing movies on the meager budgets demanded by his penurious boss, Robert L. Lippert…and especially about how he once achieved the goal of producing two low budget westerns for the price of one. Then there’s the story about how Samuel Fuller who shot the windows out of….