Sunday, February 19, 2012

Death's a Bitch, But We've Got to Keep Living

George Furth, the playwright most well known for Company, who co-starred as art critic Gerald Lucas in Airport '77, died in August 2008 at 75 years old. No family.

Producer Ross Hunter, who found Airport to be the most satisfying experience of his career, had a life partner in set decorator/producer Jacques Mapes, a relationship that lasted 40 years. Mapes was an associate producer on Airport. Hunter died in 1996, Mapes in 2002. No family from either of them, and there couldn't have been anyway, not at that time. The DeGolyer Library at Southern Methodist University in Dallas has the Ronald Davis Oral History Collection, hundreds of interviews Professor Davis conducted with actors, directors, screenwriters, playwrights and others, of which Hunter was one and talks about Airport. The head of public services at that library is looking into it for me, and it's the only way I'll know directly about Hunter's involvement. Anything else I can find out about Hunter and Airport has to come from those still alive who were involved in the production, or biographies of those long gone, or their families, if they have any.

I've no complaints because this is the biggest puzzle I've ever had to put together, and I love it. I love figuring out the chronology of the making of each movie, and which insights will fit where.

But it's sobering. I called the phone number of Michael D. Moore, the second unit director on Airport '77. I spoke to a very old man who I couldn't understand very well. Age is catching up rapidly. Here's a man who was the second unit director on Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and Ghostbusters II, among such a long, long list of credits, and who knows how much longer he'll be here? I could only gather that he can't do an interview with me. He didn't sound well, and I wasn't going to press for another time. He's entitled to whatever dignity remains.

I know it happens to all of us. One day, we simply won't be here anymore. When I found out that George Furth left behind no family, it felt like I was looking into a gaping black hole that absolutely could not be illuminated. Nothing could be made clear. This was it. What Furth was is what he left behind in his plays and in his acting career. There's nothing else but that to glean from him.

But when I got off the phone after talking to Moore and trying to understand what he was saying, I was shaken. How much longer will he be here? It doesn't sound very long. What haunts me more is that the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress chooses 25 films each year to be preserved forever, yet there's nothing like that for people like Moore. The films will remain, and Raiders of the Lost Ark is in that registry, but what about Moore? Couldn't someone or some ambitious group, for the sake of history, have interviewed him about his career, learn about his part in the films he contributed to? Raiders was Spielberg and George Lucas, and also screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan, and the cast, and director of photography Douglas Slocombe, and the editors and the casting people and the special effects artists and the set designers and the carpenters and so many others.

This is where it gets into murky territory, because different films are important to different people. But I mean Hollywood entirely. There should be more of an effort made not only to preserve the movies themselves, but also the history behind those movies and other movies too. There are many great historians making exactly that kind of effort, but thinking about people like Moore, it feels like it's not enough.

The Academy of TV Arts and Sciences seems to be doing this for their industry through the Archive of American Television. And maybe there is a concerted effort brewing to do the same for the movie industry that I don't know about.

I don't know. Maybe I'm overreacting. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has the Margaret Herrick Library after all, without which I would not have been able to make great progress from the start on research for Mayday! Mayday!: The Making of the Airport Movies. But on the Archive of American Television website, I'm looking at a list of professions that include designers, directors, sound professionals, stylists, on-set/location professionals, film and video post-production professionals, and many others. Movie history should be as accessible as this, especially as technology becomes more advanced. But then, those resources are reserved strictly for researchers such as myself. Not the public at large. There's also audio commentaries, but those are selective, depending on how a studio feels about a certain movie, how likely a hit it will be, and other factors.

Ironically, I can't do what I'm calling for. None of the books I want to write after this one are about movies. I was toying with the idea of a biography about a charismatic actor who's not one of my favorites, but who I admire, but I don't think I want to pursue that right after this book.

I know that most people aren't as interested as I am in this history. They go to the movies, they have favorite movies, but they don't dig into them like I do. They don't have an obsession with a movie series they've watched since they were 11 that's led them to write a book about the making of those movies.

I'll do my part, though. I'll dig through the history I can find of the Airport movies through books I've read and still have to read, interviews I've conducted and still have to do (I got a few e-mails today from people who worked on Airport and people who worked on Airport '77 who agreed to interviews), files I've looked through and still have to look through, and newspaper articles I've read and still have to read, and work my hardest to make sure these stories are known. Those who worked on these movies, who are long gone, should live on. This is my attempt at that, besides all the other reasons I've previously mentioned for writing this book.


  1. It is quite a noble quest. Honestly, I have to admit I've never seen any of the Airport movies... I suppose, in a way, I'm your target audience. Although if it is a celebration of the series for those that are familiar with it, that's one thing... if it's a showcase to demonstrate to people like me (who have never seen the films) why they should see them, that another thing...

    Either way, I'm sure at some point I'll watch them... whereas I may never have had reason to before hearing of this book project.

    Good luck in finding what you need.

  2. For me, it's more like saying through this book, "Hey! The first movie is what caused all the star-studded disaster movies you know so well, and it also single-handedly pulled Universal from the brink of bankruptcy! The sequels simply cruised alongside the first film's progeny, including "The Poseidon Adventure," and "The Towering Inferno," but were no less impressive in certain sequences."

    My major interest in this book is to get what Universal didn't give me on the DVD set in the way of audio commentaries and documentaries, and so far, I'm getting it, especially considering the technically complex stunts in "Airport '77" and the Concorde turning upside down to avoid a missile in "The Concorde: Airport '79," (From my research so far, it seems that the cabin actually did turn upside down on stage 12 at Universal. That wasn't faked. Couldn't be. Not in 1978), as well as just what it took to make these productions happen.

  3. Is there any way you can visit Moore? Sometimes elderly people are much easier to understand -- and they understand you better -- when you speak face to face. I encourage people to take advantage of the opportunity to gather oral history whenever possible. My daughter wrote an essay for her high school American history class about the flu pandemic of 1918. She interviewed people at the nursing home where I worked who actually remembered it. One of these days, no one who remembers that flu or who lived through WWI will be around to talk about it. Even our WWII vets are dying off every day. Gather ye history while ye may.

    1. He lives in Malibu, and from what I heard on the phone, I shouldn't press the matter further.

      I am in touch with a second second assistant director from the same movie (I think they're called third assistant directors today, and they may still be called "second second," but generally they're the assistant to the second assistant director. Don't you just love Hollywood?), and he's agreed to a phone interview on Thursday or Friday, so hopefully I can get what I need. I have to contact the agency again that represents the director in some matters, and express my wish again to interview him. The other directors of the series are long gone. He's it.

      Just a small bump in the road.

    2. I have faith it will all work out.