There are a lot of things I could wish you for Christmas (or whatever holiday you celebrate). Indeed, I do wish you good health and peace, which I guess certainly top the list. But for the purposes of this column, I wish you two second-tier blessings: First, access to a speedy Internet connection of some kind — may your neighborhood get wired soon. Second, good luck.

Ah, luck.

I know I am supposed to be writing these columns myself, but quite often you send me messages that are much more interesting than what I had planned to write. So today’s column is by Stuart Altman, in Los Angeles. And luck is its topic. He writes:

"There is often an attitude — especially among the rich — that the rich deserve their wealth because they put one foot in front of the other, and if the lazy bums who didn’t had, they’d be rich, too. Which is certainly true some of the time. But luck seems to be the sine qua non a lot of the time, too. Especially in the world of movie stars (which certainly is a rarefied world, but nonetheless, I think they can be an example of luck changing lives).

"Critics often discuss movie stars who didn’t make their successes at 21 with an attitude of ‘Why did it take so long?’ As though these movie stars were an inevitable part of the cultural landscape, like volcanoes that were destined to erupt … and why didn’t they erupt sooner?

"One article in Esquire on Clint Eastwood said (more or less) ‘Eastwood was 33 when he had Fist Full [sic] Of Dollars as his first hit’ … as in, Why didn’t he have it when he was 23?

"Well, Eastwood had that hit by the SKIN OF HIS TEETH (and it’s that first hit that makes all the subsequent hits possible). Consider: Eastwood had a supporting part in the weekly TV western Rawhide. His agent said, ‘Want to do a western movie?’ He said, ‘I do a western every week for TV. I’m sick of westerns. No.’ He almost turned down Fist Full Of Dollars right then and there. But his agent said, ‘Just look at the script.’ He read the script, saw it was a rip-off of a Japanese movie he admired called Yojimbo, so decided to do it. So he flies to Italy to make the movie, and instant movie stardom follows, right? Not so fast.

"Sergio Leone, the director, thought that Fist Full Of Dollars was such a bad movie, he wanted to shelve it. He thought releasing it would ruin his reputation! But the Italian government helped finance the movie, and there was a law on the books that said that if the Italian government helped finance a movie, it had to be released in some capacity. So Leone reluctantly released the movie. He released it in Florence, far away from the Naples and Rome movie critics, who he was sure would butcher him if they saw it. He only planned to release it for a week, after which he planned to shelve it permanently. But the audience got bigger and bigger during the week, and it seemed only prudent to give it a wider release, that it got, making Eastwood a movie star. (But only a B movie star, really. And if Frank Sinatra had said yes to the lead in Dirty Harry, instead of no, Eastwood probably wouldn’t have been catapulted to legend status).

"The unknown Charles Grodin was cast in the part of Benjamin in The Graduate. He was on the set, and the cameras were all ready to roll. But he didn’t really hit it off with the director, Mike Nichols. So, out of pique … GRODIN ASKED FOR A RAISE. Grodin had been turned down for thousands of parts at this point, and here he FINALLY had a lead in a film with potential. But he asked for that raise. They told him no. He was warned, ‘Don’t blow your chance here.’ But he insisted on the raise. So they fired him — and hired the unknown Dustin Hoffman, who shortly after that was no longer unknown. Because The Graduate became at that point one of the few films to take in over $100 million. Making Dustin Hoffman a movie star … by a hair.

"Jack Nicholson had starred in some movies prior to Easy Rider. But they were the equivalent of what today would be straight-to-video junk. He was by no means a movie star. He was actually still debating whether to pursue writing, directing or acting, since nothing had clicked for him. Nicholson was asked for some advice by the producer of Easy Rider about some technical matters regarding the movie. Only then did the producer consider hiring Nicholson for the part of the boozy lawyer. So instant stardom followed? Not so fast.

"The producer called Dennis Hopper to his office and said, ‘Why don’t you hire Nicholson for the part of the lawyer?’

"Hopper said, ‘Absolutely not.’

"‘Look, Dennis, I’ve given you everything you’ve wanted on this movie. I’m just asking you this one favor. Hire Nicholson.’

"‘If I cast Nicholson, he will ruin my movie! Absolutely not!’

"‘Just do me this one favor. That’s all I ask.’

"‘Okay. I’ll hire Nicholson. But I’m telling you. You’ve ruined my movie.’

"Nicholson got hired. Easy Rider became a hit, and Nicholson became a star … barely.

"These stars all subsequently became filthy rich, have likely had dinner at the White House, and have had many other goodies lavished upon them.

"I don’t hate the rich. I’ve actually got a decent sized chunk of change myself. But when rich people act as though they earned their money, and they deserve it ONLY, and that luck had NOTHING to do with it … well, sometimes I bristle, and think of the above examples. (The Eastwood Fist Full Of Dollars story I got from an issue of ‘Premiere.’ The Hoffman Graduate story I got from Charles Grodin’s book It Would Be So Nice If You Weren’t Here, and the Nicholson story I got from a Dennis Hopper interview on Bob Costas’ old 1:30 a.m. interview show.)"

Aren’t those fun stories? (This is me writing again.) I do think that somehow talents like Hoffman’s and Eastwood’s and Nicholson’s would have emerged sooner or later, but you never know. Anyway, just as I was about to click the SEND button, this postscript arrived:

"Wait! I forgot my favorite dumb-luck-movie-star story:

"Harrison Ford was a carpenter and had done a small part in George Lucas’s American Graffiti. But he was still a full-time carpenter who was about to leave town for good since he wasn’t amounting to anything in L.A. But he was called for a carpentry job at Francis Ford Coppola’s office. And so he went there and was working on the outside of the office when Lucas happened along. Lucas was borrowing Coppola’s office that day to audition actors for Star Wars. Lucas remembered Ford from Graffiti, and said, ‘Harrison, come in the office and help me audition these actors.’ He wasn’t even considering auditioning Ford himself. He just wanted Ford to read opposite the actors who were auditioning, after which Ford could go back to his carpentry.

"So Ford goes inside, helps these actors along. And Lucas likes how Ford read his lines. So he has him read for the part of Han Solo. And he got the part of Han Solo. A part in the biggest movie in history until Titanic.

"Now, L.A. is a big city. Think of all the addresses Ford could have been called to to do carpentry work. Even if he happened to be working on an office 30 feet away, Lucas might not have seen him, and there would go one of the biggest movie careers ever (Ford has acted in more top grossing movies than any other actor or actress). Or what if Coppola had needed his office that day, and Lucas couldn’t borrow it? Lucky.

"And even after Star Wars, Ford wasn’t a star. (Han Solo was a supporting part.) It took Indiana Jones to make him a star. And Tom Selleck was cast as Indiana Jones. But CBS wouldn’t let him out of his contract for the new series Magnum P.I. Speilberg and Lucas pleaded with CBS for them to let Selleck play Indiana Jones. But CBS wouldn’t allow it. So, because of this CBS brick wall, they had to cast Harrison Ford instead. Lucky. Luck ain’t all it takes. But it is part of what it takes."

Thanks, Stuart. I think you’re right. Luck — and, in the movie business, great teeth.

Here’s wishing you all a very merry Christmas and lots of luck in the New Year. (Don’t forget to floss.)


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