The actor: For much of the ’70s, Richard Benjamin was one of American cinema’s favorite tormented Jewish intellectuals, thanks to his performances in films such as Goodbye, Columbus; Diary Of A Mad Housewife; and Portnoy’s Complaint. Throughout the decade, the actor appeared in cult classics and smash hits—1970’s Catch-22, 1973’s Westworld, the clever 1973 mystery The Last Of Sheila, 1975’s The Sunshine Boys, and 1979’s Love At First Bite—in addition to landing a lead role on Buck Henry’s science-fiction television comedy Quark. After making his feature-length directorial debut with 1982’s much-loved My Favorite Year (which scored another Oscar nomination for Peter O’Toole), Benjamin focused on his directing career, though he has popped up occasionally with supporting roles in such films as 1997’s Deconstructing Harry and 2003’s Marci X, which he also directed. The A.V. Club recently spoke with Benjamin in connection with the DVD releases of Portnoy’s Complaint and The Last Of Sheila, both of which are available from Warner Archive.
Portnoy’s Complaint (1972)—“Alexander Portnoy”
Richard Benjamin: I was making Goodbye, Columbus, which was the first movie I was in, and the excerpts of the book [Portnoy’s Complaint] were coming out while we were making that movie. So we were actually reading them on the set, reading it to each other and laughing a lot, and I thought, “This thing is really great.” Same author: Philip Roth. Then some years went by, and I heard they were going to do a movie, and I wanted to do it. I lobbied for it and tried to get to see Ernie Lehman, who was directing and had written the screenplay. We met, and they cast me. I did want to do it; there was something in it. That time in the ’70s was all about analysis and all that kind of stuff. I thought the book was so funny that that’s the main reason I wanted to do it.
The A.V. Club: Did you identify strongly with the character? He’s such an iconic figure of Jewish masculinity.
RB: I think I lived on the same planet, but it wasn’t totally me. I didn’t have that kind of relationship with my mother or my father, but I certainly knew people like that. It was everywhere at that time, around me and around psychoanalysis. So it certainly was a territory I thought I knew.
AVC: Did the success of Goodbye, Columbus help you get the lead in Portnoy’s Complaint?
RB: Maybe it did, but I just thought it was in a moment in time. It was kind of an iconic moment in the culture, all about exploring yourself and the world.
AVC: The book definitely captured the cultural zeitgeist.
RB: It was very head-oriented, and also sexy with the Jewish guy and the prize shiksa girl. I lived that myself, because I’m married to Paula Prentiss, so that worked out. I think for Jewish guys in New York, the target was one of those long-legged, gorgeous shiksa girls.
AVC: In the ’70s you were the cinematic face of tormented Jewish intellectuals, you and Woody Allen.
RB: Yeah, yeah. I’m realizing now that that may have been a complete waste of time. The torment was absolutely unnecessary, this racket that was in your head. Now you could just say, “Don’t do that anymore.” I was doing a play in Chicago, and when I sucked in some air onto my teeth, it hurt. And I went to a dentist there, and he said, “Why are you here?” I said, “See, when I do this, it hurts.” And he said, “Don’t do that anymore.” So it’s like, just don’t think like that anymore, and it’ll go away! I think there was such self-involvement and such investigation of self, and looking back, I think you could put your time to better things.
AVC: That was the “me” decade, as opposed to all the decades that were all about selflessly serving others.
RB: It was. It was. All of that analysis. Parts of it were good, I have to say. But all that exploring yourself and everything—I don’t know.
AVC: Portnoy’s Complaint is the only film ever directed by Ernest Lehman, who was legendary as a screenwriter. What was he like as a first-time director?
RB: Because he had worked with Hitchcock and because he had some of the same crew and everything—Phil Lathrop was a DP—Ernie had drawn everything. He had storyboarded everything. Working with actors wasn’t his strong suit. Because he had drawn everything and he had visualized all of it, he would show us the drawings. There was a scene with Karen Black and me, and he said, “See? You’re here, and Karen is here,” and I’d say, “Ernie, the human body can’t get into that position. The drawing is really nice, but let me show you.” It was on a sofa or something; I was on the back of the sofa, but I was draped over it, or she was. I said, “It’s not possible! You’d just fall off! You can’t be up here.” He said, “I know, but look at the drawing.”
There was a hotel scene and there was a corridor, and he said, “How do I know this is a hotel?” And somebody said, “What?” He took out his drawings, and in the drawings, you could see all the doorknobs down the corridor. So you knew there were a line of doors. He said, “I can’t see these.” And they said, “Of course you can’t see them, because this is real life. Someone drew those knobs sticking out of there.” So there were some particular things. What was nice is, he was very prepared. But some of the preparation, we had to say, “Let’s just try and figure this out. We can’t always do this.”
He was using his experiences with Hitchcock, who did a lot of storyboarding. As people have said, Hitchcock had shot the movie already before he shot the movie. So [Lehman] was brought up in that kind of thing. But for actors and stuff, you’ve got to be looser than that. What he did do, we had long single takes of things, which I don’t see a lot of today, where it’s just acting. And there’s something really good about that. There’s so much fast cutting and pieces of things today. But in those days, there basically were only two things: There was acting, and there was script. There wasn’t anything else. I mean, you could make pretty pictures, but that’s all you were looking at. But today with CGI and all that, there’s a lot of other stuff was going on. So that part of it was good, that he did let us just act.
The Steagle (1971)—“Harold Weiss, B.A., M.A., Ph.D.”
AVC: The Steagle was another film directed by a first-timer with a lot of experience in other aspects of filmmaking. In this case, it was legendary production designer Paul Sylbert.
RB: [Paul] wrote a book about it called Final Cut, not to be confused with the other book about filmmaking called Final Cut [by Steven Bach]. His book is really fascinating, because it was a lesson in dancing and dealing with a studio at that time. The film was made by AVCO Embassy, which doesn’t exist today. But that was a dance he had to do with them to get that picture made, and it’s a lesson in how to get it done and how not to get it done, and also in how to deal with studios. Paul confronted them, and confrontation with them turned out not to be a good idea, because they took the picture away from him at the end. The very reason that I did that picture was the ending of that movie—of course they twisted it and turned it around and changed the ending to make it the exact opposite of what I wanted, what he wanted. And so that was painful. Not in the making of it—because Paul was making it the way he wanted to make it. But the outcome of it was really painful. I remember when I saw an ad, the first ad in the newspaper, I went completely crazy, because they had taken my head and put it on my body upside-down. It was their idea of funny or something. And it was infuriating, because the book and the movie are really about something, and that was the reason I wanted to do it. I’m glad you brought it up, because not many people even know about it, and it’s such an interesting thing, I think.
AVC: What’s the film like? The premise seems promising.
RB: It’s set during the Cuban missile crisis, and I’m a professor who listens to President Kennedy’s speech about the embargo and believes the worst. So this guy was a teacher, and kind of an intellectual, mild-mannered, regular, family-man kind of guy, but he thinks the world is going to end. And he goes kind of crazy. He starts on an odyssey across the country, becomes all these other people, and lives burning the candle at both ends. Because he figures, “Why not just burn out everything, since the world is coming to an end?”
So he does all of these things, and where you first see him go kind of nuts is when he’s doing this speech to his class about Willie Mays, but in kind of pidgin English. The title is—because he knows all these obscure things—the Steagles were the Pittsburgh Stealers and the Philadelphia Eagles. During World War II, there weren’t enough men to make up the football league. So the Stealers and the Eagles combined for a season and became the Steagles. They had two coaches, and—anyway, he knows all that kind of stuff. That’s where the title comes from, these bizarre, obscure things. Finally, he goes off across the whole country, and there’s a big scene that I had with Chill Wills in the back lot of Warner Bros., where the world was coming to an end. All of a sudden, it’s all over, and he deflates, realizing that the world is going to stay whole, and he should try to get home. He gets on the Long Island Railroad going back to his wife, Cloris Leachman, and the train goes into a tunnel, and when it comes out of the tunnel, he’s gone. And that’s it. You never see him again. What happened to him? Did he disappear? Did he burn himself out? Did he jump off the train? You never know. So that ending was the whole reason I wanted to do it.
Well, of course the studio would have none of that—that’s not a happy ending—and they re-cut it. I embraced Cloris in some scene somewhere. They cut that into the ending like I had gotten home. It was the exact opposite of the book and my reason for doing it! But that was just an example of what happens when you can’t control the thing. And it didn’t do any business that way anyway. So you might as well just leave the unusual thing that it was supposed to be, but no, no, no. They can’t keep their hands off of it. But Paul wrote a book about it, and it’s too bad, because he was a really good director. He should have done more stuff.
AVC: He didn’t get a lot of chances to direct after that.
RB: Well, no, because he’d burned these bridges. And it didn’t have to be like that, but in a way, it did. They were forcing him to do things he didn’t want to do. And the only people who saw his cut of the movie were me and my wife Paula and a press guy from AVCO Embassy at Dartmouth, in a giant screening. And I said to Paul, “You’ve got to go there and see it! Because you may never see it like this again.” And he said, “No, no, those people—” They wouldn’t fly him there, they wouldn’t get him there, they wouldn’t do anything. He was at war with them by that time. But I was trying to hang in there, so we went and saw it. Before the screening—it was in a big auditorium—someone got up and said, “We have these screenings, but don’t be upset if people leave. They have classes. They have to go.” Well, nobody left. And as each segment ended, there was wild applause in there. They loved it. We called Paul [and the studio] and said, “The way this played here was incredible.” Nope. They didn’t care. So that’s one of those things I think everybody has as they go through this business.
Catch-22 (1970)—“Major Danby”
RB: That was amazing. Mike Nichols and Buck Henry, Buck wrote the screenplay, and the book was from Joseph Heller. Way before I was ever in any movies or anything, my wife, Paula, was already under contract at MGM, and I was just trying to get a job. But I used to grab books and read them. I liked airplanes; I always read stuff about airplanes. I liked reading about World War II fighters, and I saw a book with an airplane on the front. Well, it was Catch-22. [Laughs.] So I’m reading the book, and I say to Paula, “This isn’t about airplanes. What is this?!” I had no knowledge of it, and I couldn’t put it down. I said, “This thing is incredible! It’s not about the armament on a P-51 fighter. This is about everything.” So years go by, and Mike Nichols and Buck Henry ask me and all these other people to be in this movie. You were so blessed to be asked, and then to go down there and shoot this thing with all these people, it was just incredible. A lot of them are friends to this day, Alan Arkin and Jon Voight and people like that. And Marty Sheen was there with these tiny children. They turned out to be Charlie Sheen and Emilio Estevez. [Laughs.] And Art Garfunkel and [Anthony] Perkins. It was incredible. Bob Newhart. We had the best time.
AVC: Did the profile and reputation of the project put any additional pressure on the production?
RB: No, because Nichols is a great director, but he’s also really funny. So he kept the set light and all of that. But there were amazing shots and things in there. On the plane going down, Voight kept saying his dialogue from a scene in the movie. And I said, “What’s he doing? He’s saying it over and over and over again.” He would say it to anybody who would go near him. And it was the scene—because it was all in one take—where he and Marty Balsam are walking away from this control tower and getting in this Jeep when these planes are landing, and one of them blows up. One of them comes in on fire and then goes past them, blows up, and the concussion from blowing up blows their hats off in the Jeep. It’s all one shot. I said, “Oh. That’s why.” Because if he blew any of that dialogue, how the hell were they ever going to do this again? All of that was in the shot.
So Voight knew they were going to do it that way, so he made sure that he knew that thing backward and forward. And when you see that shot today, it’s incredible. That shot with Voight, the formation of planes were casting shadows over Voight and Marty Balsam at the same time, they were real shadows from the planes. They weren’t somebody passing something in front of a light or something. So that was another reason that he couldn’t mess that up, because if they said, “We’re going to do take two,” those airplanes took, I don’t know, 45 minutes for 18 of them to go and turn around. And they’d be in a different position to line up for these shadows, because the earth was moving. [Laughs.] You worked on Catch-22 in terms of the airplanes. There were 18 B-25s there. So it was beyond.
But the airplanes, if they flew against the blue sky, they looked like models. Mike came to me one day and he said, “Well, this is interesting. We have 18 airplanes, but they don’t look real. They’re actually flying in the sky, and they don’t look real. They have to be near clouds for them to look like what they are: real airplanes.” So everybody worked in terms of the airplanes. When you got up in the morning, there was a sheet posted in the dark. It was black night, but early, I don’t know, 5 o’clock in the morning, and everybody went to look and see who worked that day. So everybody had to get up every day and say, “Okay, if it’s cloudy-bright, Newhart, Marty Balsam, and Paula Prentiss work; if it’s dull-bright, then Benjamin, Arkin, and Perkins.” But we were standing there in the dark. So there were arguments about who was working. Everybody had to get up until the sun came up and we knew what kind of day it was. But it was a great experience to be with everybody and to be in this situation and know that you were making an iconic book.
Diary Of A Mad Housewife (1970)—“Jonathan Balser”
RB: I didn’t know anything about the woman’s movement. [Laughs.] All I did was this: Somebody sends a script and I like it, and I’m glad someone’s offering me things, and I think, “Oh, this is funny. This guy’s funny.” He’s so self-involved, he names things by their brand names, and he’s a social climber. That also was reminiscent of New York at that time. But I didn’t know anything about any movement. So I’m just going along with it, thinking I’m just making this comedy.
AVC: As opposed to something timely that would get a lot of attention.
RB: Yeah. Again, these movies are at a time something was going on that they’re exploring. I mean, they aren’t just cartoons: They’re really about something. Once in a while, today, they are. But at that time, they were really exploring social scenes and situations. Diary Of A Mad Housewife cost $900,000. I think some titles cost that now. You know, it opens in only a few theaters and then gets word of mouth and spreads out. It was an entirely different kind of business.
The Last Of Sheila (1973)—“Tom”
RB: That was written by friends of mine like Tony Perkins, who we had known before this. In fact, I was in a play with him way before that. But he and [co-writer] Stephen Sondheim were known in New York at the time as game-players. In fact, the first time we met Stephen Sondheim at someone’s house, he had a board game that he made. It was unheard of to me—I knew about Monopoly, I knew about Clue, but I didn’t know any person who made a game. And it was a board game about Hollywood. It was so funny and clever, but he made it! There was only one of them.
[Perkins and Sondheim] also did these treasure hunts around New York. If you were invited, you’d be broken up into teams and given these clues throughout the city. It would be something like, “She’s a lady, but her skirts might get wet.” What? “Oh! It’s the Statue of Liberty.” So you’d go out to the Statue of Liberty, and there’d be another clue there. You’d have to get back on the ferry—it was like that. That was their kind of party. Teams of people running all over the city.
So they were these great game-players, and they said that mystery movies were fine and everything, but what happens is, the detective at the end gets everybody in the drawing room and says, “Okay. I’ve got the answer. So-and-so couldn’t have done it, because he was really over here, and so-and-so did it because she had this poison pill, blah blah blah.” And that’s the end of that. So they said you can’t really play along with the detective. You can’t play the game of finding out who the killer is. So they wrote this screenplay. Stephen Sondheim and Tony Perkins wrote The Last Of Sheila where you can actually play the game. It’s really clever. The answer is actually in the title. I’m not going to give it away, but the answer to the killer is in the title itself. So right from the get-go, you can figure this thing out if you play along with it. So that was intriguing, and then a neat byproduct of that is we were in the south of France for four months. That wasn’t a bad location.
Westworld (1973)—“Peter Martin”
RB: Oh yeah. Westworld was a lot of fun. That was the first time I met Michael Crichton, and I got to be good friends with him, which is another great byproduct of this business. Michael was one of those people, when he came into a room, you knew someone smarter than you is in the room. He was so nice, but brilliant, completely brilliant. It brings your game up, just being around him. And that was the beginning of this kind of thing of the machines going nuts, including his own Jurassic Park, where everything goes wrong. We got to know Yul Brynner, who was just the best and taught me how to fire a gun in a movie and not blink. He said, “You look at the biggest Western stars, and I’ll show you that they blink when the gun goes off.” He was a pretty amazing person, kind of legendary. You’d say, “I don’t believe some of this,” and then it turns out it’s true. So he was a larger-than-life person.
AVC: Westworld was relatively unusual for you at the time, in that it was a genre movie.
RB: Well, it probably was the only way I was ever going to get into a Western, and certainly into a science-fiction Western. It’s that old thing when actors come out here from New York. They say, “Can you ride a horse?” And you say, “Oh, sure,” and then they’ve got to go out quick and learn how to ride a horse. But I did know how to ride a horse! So you get to do stuff that’s like you’re 12 years old. All of the reasons you went to the movies in the first place. You’re out there firing a six-shooter, riding a horse, being chased by a gunman, and all of that. It’s the best! [Laughs.]
Sunshine Boys (1975)—“Ben Clark”
RB: Oh yeah, what was great about that—aside from the fact that it’s really, really funny—was that I got to know and become friends with Walter Matthau and George Burns. When I was growing up, my folks and I would listen to Burns and Allen and Jack Benny and Phil Harris and Alice Faye. I thought that they were like—they were all friends, and so I thought they were kind of like my friends, too. My folks had passed away by that time, but I was working with George Burns, and I thought, “God, if my folks could only know this, that I’m actually working with him here.” That was just the best. I mean, the fact that he asked me to go to lunch with him every day. I couldn’t believe this was actually happening.
AVC: You were very busy in the early part of the ’70s, but didn’t appear in any films in 1976 or 1977. Why take a break then?
RB: I don’t think you ever are taking a break. I don’t think there’s any such thing. Sometimes show business is giving you a break, whether you want it or not. I can’t remember what happened after that. Maybe Love At First Bite was in there somewhere.
AVC: Love At First Bite was 1979.
RB: I have no idea why. I probably wasn’t offered anything that I wanted to do, or maybe I wasn’t offered anything at all, for all I know. But yeah, you know, it’s like a roller coaster. It kind of goes up and down.
AVC: It’s a famously cyclical business.
RB: It is. And I think it’s true for every actor. My agent—a wonderful agent who has passed away, Phil Gersh—was Humphrey Bogart’s agent. And he used to tell me, when Bogart would finish a film, they’d meet to have lunch, and he’d say, “So, do you got anything for me? Does anybody want me?” I mean, that was Humphrey Bogart! So I think it’s the actor’s thing, you know? Every job is the last job, no matter who or what, I think it feels like that.
AVC: Do you think the unpredictability of acting helped nudge you toward directing?
RB: Well, I always wanted to do it. I came out of school doing it, and I had directed early on in the theater. In fact, when Walter and I were making House Calls, and I had a supporting part in that, he used to say to me, “This isn’t enough for you, is it?” I didn’t like it when an assistant director would come up and say, “Okay! You’re off the hook for the rest of the day!” Like that was a good thing. “You can go home now.” One day on Westworld, Yul was there. And he wasn’t called that day. And the assistant directors went nuts, because they thought they’d made a mistake and somebody had called him in when he wasn’t meant to be there. Finally one of them said, “Mr. Brynner, I hope we haven’t made a mistake. Were you called today?” He said, “No.” They said, “Well, then why are you here?” And he said, “Can you think of a better place to be?” He just liked being there. And I think it’s true of anybody.
That’s why I don’t get anybody complaining. There’s no complaint here. Anybody who complains, “Ohh, they called me too early, why aren’t they here, I don’t have a big enough trailer, blah, blah, blah,” it’s like, “Get real. Look around you.” There are people who know that that’s a pretty rare thing, to be working steadily in this business. But the directing, I always wanted to do. And that same agent said, “I thought you wanted to do this. Let me work on it.” So I got some television pilots, so people could see that I had done some film, and then I got sent My Favorite Year, and met with Michael Gruskoff and Mel Brooks, and they asked me to do it. So it was just one of those things where I was really fortunate. It was really fortunate that it came my way.
AVC: What was it like directing Peter O’Toole in My Favorite Year?
RB: [Laughs.] In the beginning, I said to myself that by making this movie, I would discover who I really was. That’s what directing is: It’s your will. You have some idea of what you want this to be, and you gotta get everybody lined up in that way. And on the first day of shooting in Central Park, I was rehearsing, and I only had a few minutes, because it was meant to be right at sunrise, and that light would only last a little while. So [O’Toole] and Mark Linn-Baker rehearsed, and I thought, “Oh, there’s not enough energy here; it’s a little slow.” Mark was fine, but it was Peter. And I thought, “Okay, I have to go direct him now.” You know? I’m thinking, “Here it is! It’s the first shot in your first movie and it’s O’Toole, and I have to go tell him things.”
So I’m starting to walk toward him, and what I see in front of me is Lawrence Of Arabia and Lord Jim and Lion In Winter. I’m going to tell him that this has got to come up. So I’m hemming and hawing and, “Peter, it’s really good, it’s all good, but—” He said, “You want it faster and funnier, is that it?” And I said, “That’s it. You’ve got it!” Then I saw how this works: Just say it. Just go and say it. And from that time on, we were fine. But he was quite something. I don’t ever think we did more than three takes with him, ever. He knew everything backward and forward; it made everybody come up to him. The only thing you had to know is, do not call him out of his dressing room until you’re absolutely ready. That’s all he ever asked me. He said, “Don’t call me unless you’re really ready.” There was one time with the DP, the cinematographer, said, “Okay, we’re set.” I said, “Are you sure?” “Yep.” So I said, “Okay, go get Peter.” So they go to get him, and there’s, “Uh-oh, wait a minute. A light just blew out, and I’ve gotta go up.” I said, “No, no! He’s coming!”—[O’Toole had] said, “I don’t want to see any ladder.”—“Oh no, a ladder, a big ladder is coming out. No!”
He came out of his dressing room onto the set, he saw that ladder moving to that light, and he just made a U-turn. He was gone! He’d been on enough sets. I heard a story that he was making this Masada—in wherever that is, somewhere in the Middle East—and they called him to come to the set. And he came out, driven out from his hotel, and got out there, and then all kinds of stuff had happened, and they said, “Well, it looks like we’re going to be a while. Sorry!” And he said, “That’s all right, I’ll just go home.” So he got in the car and left. By the afternoon, they said, “Okay, we’re ready.” And they went to look for him. Well, he went home, all right—he went to Ireland. [Laughs.]
AVC: It sounds like he’s particular in his ways.
RB: Yes. But he just wanted you to be ready. And boy, he’d come out there, and it was like howitzer shells. He was so good. But he loved Mark, and he loved that he had been on the stage. And all the other people, because they knew they were playing on a high level there.
Quark (1977-1978)—“Adam Quark”
RB: There were a couple of people—Buck Henry, Elaine May, Neil Simon, and some other people—that if I see they’re doing something, first of all, I say, “Why am I not in that?” or, “How can I get in that?” I saw that Buck was doing this science-fiction satire, and so I called and said, “How can I get in this?” He said, “Well, we don’t have the money for someone like you,” and I said, “Whoa, wait a minute. Let’s see about that.” Because I just wanted to be in good things. I mean, that’s all I want to do anyway. Or what I think are good things. So I said, “Okay.” That’s kind of how that happened. I just went and talked my way into that thing, even though initially, they couldn’t pay me what I was supposed to get or whatever. But I didn’t care, because it was Buck. This thing was so unusual. It took a while—people didn’t get it at first. Some people got it, and NBC didn’t quite know what it was. We got fan mail from physicists, and that’s a small group of people, you know? And some people said, “What is that? Should that be on Saturday morning? Is that a children’s—no, no, they’re talking about black holes, and they’re talking about people switching genes and stuff. What the hell?” So we only did eight of them, but by the end, people really were beginning to see what it was. It’s just too bad it didn’t go on longer. But it’s out in DVD, and there are real fans of that thing, because it was so unusual.
First Family (1980)—“Press Secretary Bunthorne”
AVC: When we talked to Austin Pendleton, he talked about how excited he was about the film, only to watch it die onscreen. Did you also get a sense that the film had gone off-course?
RB: I don’t know. I’m only there for the making of a film, so there’s no way of knowing. I mean, everybody starts out just wanting it to be good, and then there’s some mysterious chemical business that gets in there. There’s nothing you can control. It just is. It’s a living thing. But I knew we were certainly having a good time making it. That isn’t always the thing that leads to success, but I don’t know. The outcomes are out of your hands. What I love, for example—I directed a movie with Clint Eastwood [City Heat]. Clint has got a wonderful philosophy, because he says, “If they come, they come. If they don’t come, they don’t come. You’re doing the best you can.” As long as you set out to do the best you can—not that you say, “I’m going to make something, it’s not very good, but it’s the right demographic or something.” That’s nonsense. Then you did it for the wrong reasons. But when you do it for the right reasons, which what I think First Family is, that’s all you need to do, really. And then it’s off into its life.
AVC: Do you see your films after they come out?
RB: Not really. The ones I’ve directed, I have to see a lot while we’re doing it, and in screenings and all of that. Ones I’ve acted in, I don’t. I probably see them one time or something. But I don’t look for them. I don’t look too much into the past. I mean, I’m glad they’re there and people like them, but I don’t tend to go and look and watch them.
Saturday The 14th (1981)—“John” RB:
Julie Corman, Roger’s wife, produced that—so that was in the Corman school of doing things, which is quite something. We had a lot of fun doing that, but it was so crazy, because they just shot like 24 hours. Some of the crew just fell over, went to sleep, and later on, they’d get up and keep shooting. We would actually say, “Because we’re SAG, we can’t work more than 12 hours. And then you’ll have to give us 12 hours before we come back again.” Not that anyone ever brought it up. We had to bring it up. “We have to go home now. We’re tired.” But we did have a good time doing that. I mean, to work in a low-budget, fun thing like that, it’s got a lot of energy and creativity, and we had fun.
If you watch that film, the day before we started to shoot, Paula broke her arm. She broke it here in the house, and we went to the hospital. I had decided it was not broken, because we’re making a movie starting tomorrow. Her arm cannot. Be. Broken. I don’t care what anybody says. So we go there, and she gets an X-ray, and this orthopedic guy comes down the hall waving an X-ray, and says, “Where’s the broken arm? Who’s the broken arm?” Paula’s arm is now swelled up, and I’m looking around like it must be somebody else, and he said, “Oh, it’s you.”
So I said to him, “No. Because we’re making a movie tomorrow. She can’t have—“ He said, “I don’t care what you’re doing, we have to put her arm in a cast.” She has a scene where she’s sleepwalking and her arms are meant to be straight out, walking like a zombie or something, so I say to him, “Can you do it so her arm isn’t bent from her shoulder to—“ He said, “Who are you?” So I said, “I’m her husband. She has this scene—“ He said, “Look. I don’t care who you are or what you’re talking about. I’m putting the cast on her, and this is the way it’s going to be. Her arm is broken. If you want it to heal correctly, it’s going to be from the shoulder down.” It’s bent, like, 90 degrees!
So we show up on the set, but it’s a Corman production; it’s all going to be fine. If you look at the movie, she’s carrying something in every single scene. She’s carrying groceries. She’s carrying the kids’ toys—in one arm, of course. And then in the scene, one arm is straight out, and the other one is half straight out. I mean, she made that whole movie with a broken arm. [Laughs.] It’s nuts. It’s just nuts. No one ever thought of it, no one cared, and it didn’t affect anything.
Deconstructing Harry (1997)—“Ken”
RB: We had known Woody for years. Paula made What’s New Pussycat with him years before, so we’d known and been friends with him over the years. Then I heard about this movie, and that he was interested in me, but you have to wait. I kept calling, “Is he really interested? Are they really going to—?” “Yes, yes, yes.” Well, finally yes. And everybody, what’s great is, it’s a tremendous cast, Robin Williams and Judy Davis and everybody, but everybody’s the same. Everybody gets the same salary, which is like minimum; everybody gets the same little camper thing. Nobody’s any different. And it’s great. There’s no kind of star stuff. Oh, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who I have one of my scenes with. But you only get your pages. You don’t know what this movie is. Here’s what happens: When you go into makeup, everyone exchanges pages. So you’re starting to try to figure this out. You haven’t got everybody’s pages, because not everybody’s all working at the same time, but you begin to figure this out. You only get your scenes, and no other scenes. But it’s the most fun, and the thing about him where anybody thinks he’s not fun and not funny, that’s not true. He’s a delight on the set, and really funny. He doesn’t say a lot, but what he does is meaningful and funny.
It’s just a great set to be on. Oh, and he says to me, and I guess he said it to other people, “You don’t have to say anything that’s in the script. You can say whatever you want.” [Laughs.] What?! “Yeah, you don’t have to say it.” I said, “You wrote this. I’m saying every single word that’s in here. I’m not saying other things! I’m saying what you wrote.” He said, “Well, okay. If you want to, that’s fine, too.” [Laughs.] It’s quite something. And then I had scenes with him, which are really fun. It was broken up over two days. And I’m noticing he has a white T-shirt under his suit and stuff on the second day. But our first day, he didn’t.
So we’re all back; we’re all dressed in exactly the same thing because it was the same place and all that. And I notice he doesn’t have the T-shirt on. So I don’t want to say to him, “Hey, Woody, where’s that shirt?’ So I went to the script supervisor and I said, “Maybe it’s none of my business, but didn’t he have that other thing, if we’re going to match these?” He said, “No, no, no, he had that yesterday.” So I said, “Well, he doesn’t have one today, how come?” He said [matter-of-factly], “Well, he was cold yesterday. He’s not cold today.” I said, “Uhh, okay. So it doesn’t matter?” “Nah, it doesn’t matter.” [Laughs.] So you see that scene cut back and forth, sometimes the shirt’s there, sometimes it’s not there. It doesn’t really matter.