Monday, February 6, 2012

Returning to the Love of the Work

Today I returned to my research full force. I'm nearly done with Burt Lancaster: An American Life by Kate Buford, and though I'm still questioning if I need to read all the pages of all the books I bought for research, I'm beginning to see the value in certain circumstances, such as it is with lead roles, like Lancaster's in Airport.

I decided to read the entire book not because of the research, but because I wrote an essay about the 1968 masterpiece The Swimmer for a collective Online Film Critics Society book that never happened. That was my first time doing research for anything of mine that was going to be put into print, even though it didn't happen, so being completely new to researching for a purpose way beyond getting a good grade in a history class, I overresearched. I tried to watch all of Lancaster's movies, and read all of John Cheever's works. I checked out a collection of Cheever's letters, and also watched every other film directed by Frank Perry, who directed The Swimmer. I had no idea what I was doing, but I thought this was the way to do it. I ended up framing the essay as a memory of when I first saw the movie in 2002 on Turner Classic Movies not long before I graduated high school, and how it affected me so, looking at a life so clearly squandered when I was just getting ready to figure out what I wanted to do with mine.

Having seen a lot of Lancaster's movies for that essay (which I still have and am deciding what to do with it, either find another outlet for it or post it all here), I wanted to see what Buford had written about them, because when I first checked this out from the library, I only went into the section about The Swimmer, nothing else. Ironic, considering what I had done for research, but this was only an essay.

The keyword that comes to mind a lot for Mayday! Mayday!: The Making of the Airport Movies is "context." I can't just say that Ross Hunter bought the rights to Arthur Hailey's novel, then hired George Seaton, hired the actors, hired the crew, and then they made the movie. I have to know what interested Hunter enough to turn Airport into a movie. I have to know what made him want to hire George Seaton to adapt the novel and direct it. I have to know why these particular actors were cast and if there was anyone else considered for Lancaster's role of Mel Bakersfeld, Dean Martin's role of Vernon Demerest, Jacqueline Bisset's role as Gwen Meighen, and so on. Moreso, why did Dean Martin, Burt Lancaster, Jacqueline Bisset, and all the others want to do it? To give just a little bit, I found out on my research visit to the Margaret Herrick Library that Bisset was under contract to Fox at the time and was loaned out to Universal for this. From the Q&A transcript of the screening that the Academy had in 2006 as part of its "Great to be Nominated" series, I also learned that Bisset doesn't remember much about the production. Actors' lives are indeed very busy.

In Buford's biography, I found out that the cinematographer of Airport had worked with Lancaster on two previous movies, one his directorial debut, The Kentuckian, and the other a six-week stint for Judgment at Nuremberg, though it doesn't sound like Lancaster had spearheaded that project as he did with The Kentuckian. He was fulfilling an obligation. So I wondered: Was that cinematographer suggested by Lancaster for Airport, or was that producer Ross Hunter's decision? Furthermore, Hunter wanted to have the major actors wrapped in three weeks' time, so perhaps Hunter was the one who had decided on Laszlo. Lancaster didn't sound all that involved, particularly because he didn't like the movie, calling it "the biggest piece of junk ever made." And yet, Hunter's power at Universal had severely dwindled because of costly failures like Sweet Charity that found Universal spiraling toward bankruptcy. So either he had decided on Laszlo and had to seek the approval of higher-up executives, or one of those executives thought of Laszlo, though that seems doubtful. But wouldn't you know it, Airport became the biggest hit of 1970 and saved Universal from ruin.

Then there's Whit Bissell, who worked with Lancaster on Brute Force, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, and The Birdman of Alcatraz, who was in the Airport cast, yet didn't work with Lancaster. He was the passenger seated next to Helen Hayes' Ada Quonsett on the fateful Trans Global Flight 2. Was Bissell put forth by Lancaster or was this Hunter again? I'm inclined to believe this was Hunter because Buford gives barely three paragraphs over to Airport, and if Lancaster had been slightly more involved, I think Buford would have found it because this is a very thorough, meticulous, detailed biography of Lancaster.

Reading a healthy chunk of Buford's biography wasn't all I did today. I spent some time in happy disbelief of what I was doing. David Warner played flight engineer Peter O'Neill in The Concorde: Airport '79, so I contacted the L.A.-based management company that oversees him, requesting an interview, figuring also that he might be surprised to find someone not interested in talking about Titanic, as it might very well be for him when the 3D rerelease comes out in April, being that he played Billy Zane's henchman.

I also contacted The Gage Group, which handles Stefanie Zimbalist's career, to confirm that she received my phone number as was requested. I need to interview her father, Efrem Zimbalist, Jr., about his role as Captain Stacy in Airport 1975, so I thought it best to contact that agency and seek her out, since her father has no contact information online.

Then came one of the biggest steps I will ever take for my book, one of the two most crucial: I contacted the publicist at Hal Leonard who oversaw the release of Trust Me, George Kennedy's memoir, requesting an extensive interview with Kennedy. I need an extensive interview since he was in all four movies and I have a lot I want to cover, especially about producer Ross Hunter and director George Seaton since they're long gone, as well as director Jack Smight of Airport 1975 (Tomorrow I'll contact the company that manages director Alec Smight, his son, but many perspectives are always interesting), and countless others. He's as important to me as Monica Lewis, who's the widow of the late Universal executive Jennings Lang, who shepherded the three Airport sequels, and I learned while skimming the pertinent parts of Lewis's memoir that Lang was thinking about a made-for-cable-TV Airport sequel, but that never panned out. I have to know if he left behind any records that indicated what that would have been about. I think that would be as much a revelation to me as it was to read the ultimately rejected Airport 1976 script at the Academy's Margaret Herrick Library. I also really really need to compliment Monica Lewis on her performances in Airport '77 and The Concorde: Airport '79. It didn't matter that her husband was the executive producer on '77 and the producer on '79. She fashioned two completely different roles, one as the caring flight attendant and the other as a well-known jazz singer going back to Moscow for a homecoming concert, acting opposite Jimmie Walker. She's been a singer since the 1940s, so she knew how to make that voice float, brief as her singing was in that one.

I've still got so many more people to contact, including Erik Estrada and Walker, who I found out has a website, so that'll make it easier. And there's the Vizcaya in Miami, which served as the exterior of the Stevens' mansion at the beginning of Airport '77, that I have to contact to see if they have any historical records of that particular shoot, and I've also got to contact the American Airlines C.R. Smith Museum in Fort Worth, Texas because I didn't get an answer from them via e-mail about whether they have historical records of Charlton Heston and Jack Lemmon training on the 747 simulators for their roles in '75 and '77, respectively. I know that both of them did it (Heston talked about it in his published journals, and Lemmon talked about it in a featurette made to promote '77 at the time of its release, the script of which I read at the Herrick Library), but I'm hoping to find more details. Oh, and Boeing too! I've got to contact them because producer William Frye went to them before '75 and '77 went into production, asking for advice and insight. They told him, before production on '75, that the mid-air transfer was crazy, but Frye, Smight, and company did it. He went back to them before '77, and they asked him, "What are you doing this time?," prefacing that by saying, "I'm not sure Boeing is always happy with me."

That I have to contact the manufacturer of the 747, my favorite plane, is a huge honor and one that still stuns me, which is probably why I haven't done it yet, also because I've got other calls to make first. I was reminded constantly today of why I want to write this book, why I'm doing all this research. It's pure love of the work, of delving more deeply into what still fascinates me after all these years. And to think that this all started from renting the first Airport on videotape (Yes, VIDEOTAPE, young ones) from a Blockbuster in Coral Springs on a rainy night when I was 11, which led to owning all four in a four-tape set with its own box to house all of them. This just makes the movies even better for me.

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