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.
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 todays 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 didnt had, theyd 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 didnt 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 didnt 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 didnt he have it when he was 23?
"Well, Eastwood had that hit by the SKIN OF HIS TEETH (and its 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. Im 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 wouldnt 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 didnt 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, Dont 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 dont you hire Nicholson for the part of the lawyer?
"Hopper said, Absolutely not.
"Look, Dennis, Ive given you everything youve wanted on this movie. Im 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. Thats all I ask.
"Okay. Ill hire Nicholson. But Im telling you. Youve 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 dont hate the rich. Ive 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 Grodins book It Would Be So Nice If You Werent Here, and the Nicholson story I got from a Dennis Hopper interview on Bob Costas old 1:30 a.m. interview show.)"
Arent those fun stories? (This is me writing again.) I do think that somehow talents like Hoffmans and Eastwoods and Nicholsons 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 Lucass American Graffiti. But he was still a full-time carpenter who was about to leave town for good since he wasnt amounting to anything in L.A. But he was called for a carpentry job at Francis Ford Coppolas office. And so he went there and was working on the outside of the office when Lucas happened along. Lucas was borrowing Coppolas 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 wasnt 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 couldnt borrow it? Lucky.
"And even after Star Wars, Ford wasnt 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 wouldnt 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 wouldnt allow it. So, because of this CBS brick wall, they had to cast Harrison Ford instead. Lucky. Luck aint all it takes. But it is part of what it takes."
Thanks, Stuart. I think youre right. Luck and, in the movie business, great teeth.
Heres wishing you all a very merry Christmas and lots of luck in the New Year. (Dont forget to floss.)
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History is a vast early warning system.~Norman Cousins
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