I received an email from a reader who saw me in an old movie, White Dog, with Kristy McNichol. It was a polite note, nothing out of the ordinary, but it brought back memories of people and a sequence of events I haven’t thought about for many years, all of which are probably more relevant today than they were in 1980.
I got a call from my agent on a Sunday—not the norm—asking if I’d be willing to meet right away, that day, with the acclaimed (in Europe; underappreciated in America) director Sam Fuller. If the meeting went well, I would pick up the script from Mr. Fuller because I would need to start work the next morning on a film that had already begun production. I was to replace another actor Sam Fuller felt wasn’t right for the role. The other actor was John Friedrich.
It’s an odd feeling, being asked to replace someone else, particularly if you have worked with the someone else, and most especially if you know the someone else is a far better actor than you’ll ever be. John Friedrich, along with Brad Davis, was one of the actors in A Small Circle of Friends who made me feel so out of my league. These days it’s called “imposter syndrome.” I know that because someone I love very much struggles with it and with its frequent concomitant, depression, and we have talked about it in relationship to his work and to mine. But back in 1980, when all this occurred, there was no such thing as imposter syndrome; there was only the perceived difference between the truly gifted (John Friedrich) and those of us who were faking our way through life. Today, when I think about John Friedrich I see him as I saw him one night on a street in Boston when I got into a fight with some teenaged boys who were molesting a girl: watchful, wary, and concerned, as was I. It’s that look I remember more than any moment in the film we made, but he was so incredibly talented. The idea that I was to replace John Friedrich made me very uncomfortable, partly as if stepping into his shoes were somehow unkind or disloyal to him, and partly because it seemed an act of o’erweening hubris on my part.
My agent had little patience with such niceties. He told me in no uncertain terms that this was an unparalleled chance for me to keep my movie career going, that to not take a meeting with Sam Fuller would be tantamount to moronic stupidity on my part, that there was nothing else on the horizon at the moment, that I was hardly in a position to turn down a meeting with an acclaimed director, that… I agreed to call Sam Fuller.
Hollywood has a reputation for being packed to the gills with colorful characters. It is a reputation that sometimes owes more to ill-manners than to genuine singularity or even eccentricity, but Sam Fuller was truly colorful and truly unique, brilliant, complex, singular in both attitude and expression, a kind Hollywood is unlikely ever to see again.
He asked me to drive up to his house on Mulholland Drive and said we would talk about the movie, about the role he wanted me to play, and how he saw me fitting into those two things. It was a perfectly mundane telephone conversation, the kind any actor might have with any director with a gruff, hoarse voice and an idiosyncratic, New York way of expressing himself. I drove up.
His wife, Christa Lang, opened the door and walked me into Sam’s office. And we’ll stop right there to meet Sam Fuller as I knew him.
His office had been the garage. It had been converted to an office by the simple expedient of sealing up the garage door and building bookcases on all four walls. There were no windows, just the door from the house into the office and bookcases from floor to ceiling, bookcases jammed tight with books, with more lying on their sides on top of the upright ones, and if you pulled a book out, there was a second row of books behind the first. The only way to circumnavigate the room was by a narrow pathway around the four sides because the entire middle section was taken up with… Well, I’m not sure. There may have been a very large table covered with stacks of books and with more books piled up underneath, but there was so much random stuff—stuff—that the table may be something real I remember accurately, or it may be something I imagined. I know there were stacks and stacks of papers and scripts (and books), boxes, some kind of military flags—as in Army flags and battalion guidons or things along those lines—a sword, many other miscellaneous items I have now forgotten. In a small space in one corner there was a desk with a chair where Mr. Fuller sat smoking a cigar almost as big as he was.
“Sit down. Thanks for coming, kid. Sit down, sit down.”
I looked around but couldn’t see any place to sit.
“Oh! Sorry about that.” He jumped up and picked up a great armful of stuff—stuff—revealing a chair and threw the armful onto the pile in the center of the room. “There you go. Want a drink?”
He waved an almost full bottle of Jack Daniels at me. Since I was feeling a little dazed, and since he had a partially full glass in front of him, and since it was getting close to the cocktail hour anyway, and since I wanted to be polite, and since I never miss a chance to have a glass of good whiskey or whisky, I thanked him. He poured a healthy portion into a lowball and handed it to me. Fortunately, I like my whiskey and my whisky straight, because there was no mention of ice or water.
“So, where’re you from, kid?”
He was very easy to talk to, a man with a quicksilver mind and a rough, gruff way of expressing himself that disguised real intelligence and real curiosity about the world, and we covered a lot of ground. Somehow, after a long period of casual, albeit fascinating conversation, just as I was trying for the second or third time to bring the conversation around to the project at hand—“Yeah, yeah, we’ll talk about that later.”—it came out that he had started his life as a newspaperman. (What he did not mention is that he had started working fulltime as a copyboy at the age of twelve, and graduated to real, full-fledged, honest-to-God crime reporter by the time he was seventeen.) I made some comment about my grandfather having been a newspaper man, and I think it was my use of that workingman’s term instead of the more high-falutin’ “journalist” that caught his attention.
“Yeah? Who was your grandfather?”
“Well, you probably don’t know him. It was a long time ago, but he was pretty well known back in his day. His name was Mark Sullivan—”
Lord have mercy. If I had told him my grandfather was Johannes Gutenberg he couldn’t have been more excited.
“Mark Sullivan? Mark Sullivan! Your grandfather was Mark Sullivan?! Why, your grandfather and I…”
It appeared that as a teenaged newspaperman Sam Fuller had written a letter to another newspaperman who had gotten his start as a teenager, and that my grandfather, being courtly in his manners and every bit as curious about his fellow travelers through this veil of tears as Sam Fuller, had written back a very encouraging letter that had evolved into a decades-long correspondence.
“I got letters! I got lots of letters!” He jumped up and looked around the sea of clutter. “Well, I don’t know exactly where they are right now, but I got letters!”
And off he went into a long and fascinating and meandering account of his years as a reporter, his correspondence with my grandfather, stories he had written that had been influenced by something my grandfather wrote in his own column or perhaps to him, and from there on to novels he had written, his transition to Hollywood and finally to World War Two. Like so many other courageous Jews of that era, Sam Fuller had served with great distinction (Silver Star, Bronze Star, Purple Heart), in his case with the First Infantry Division of the Sixteenth Infantry Regiment, the Division that was nicknamed The Big Red One, which became the title of one of his most successful films. And like so many courageous veterans of that most horrible war, a part of him was still and would always be back in Italy and Africa, France and Germany, talking of it with humor and a boy’s lightheartedness, but underneath it all was the sense of a man still trying to come to grips with things no man should ever have to see or do.
And every now and then I would make feeble attempts to bring him back on track—“Yeah, yeah, we’ll get to that. Have another drink. So we landed in Sicily,”—until sometime late that night, the Jack Daniels bottle completely empty, I cautiously put my truck in first gear and crawled home. I started filming White Dog at seven the next morning, without ever having even read the script, the most hungover actor in Hollywood and possibly west of the Mississippi.
White Dog. It was the English translation of Chien Blanc, an autobiographical novel written by one of the more intriguing, most accomplished, and somewhat mysterious figures of the twentieth century. Romain Gary, whose real name was probably Roman Kacew, but might have been Émile Ajar, or any one of half a dozen pseudonyms, was a Jewish, Lithuanian-born, French resistance fighter, bomber pilot (decorated many times for bravery, including the Légion d’Honneur), diplomat (Consul General in Los Angeles), novelist (over thirty novels and memoirs), script writer (The Longest Day), director, and the only man ever to have won the prestigious French-language literary award, the Prix Goncourt, twice under different names. He was married first to a British journalist and Vogue editor, and then to the actress Jean Seberg, beautiful, fragile, vulnerable, naïve Jean Seberg, who should be remembered not just for some of her work (Breathless, Saint Joan, The Mouse that Roared, A Fine Madness, Lilith, Paint Your Wagon, among others) but as an example of why it is never a good idea, gentle reader, to trust your government.
Jean Seberg, who was well-intentioned, if naïve, donated money to a variety of charitable causes and civil rights groups; one of the latter was the Black Panthers. You or I might or might not disapprove of her choice, but that does not excuse what happened to her. She became one of the victims of the FBI’s notorious COINTELPRO (Counter Intelligence Program) attentions, attentions that included not only surveillance, but also harassment, intimidation, break-ins, burglary, smear campaigns, psychological warfare, and possibly murder (e.g.: Fred Hampton of the Black Panthers). These completely illegal and unconstitutional attentions were directed against anyone the government decided they did not like, including such dangerously radical people and organizations as Jean Seberg, Martin Luther King, the NAACP, Barry Goldwater, the American Indian Movement, some of those oh so notoriously violent and dangerous feminist organizations, along with many others. And just in case you think, as most people do these days, that such charming activities were restricted to Richard Nixon’s tenure, remember, gentle reader, that COINTELPRO was started in a mild version by Franklin Roosevelt, continued under Presidents Truman, and Eisenhower, and galloped into full and filthy swing under the revered Kennedy administration (with no less than the iconic Robert Kennedy signing the authorization for wiretaps of Martin Luther King) and continued under Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, only possibly grinding to halt after his resignation, though possibly not, when you consider some of the DOJ and IRS activities under Barack Hussein Obama. There is a reason why we have a Second Amendment, and it ain’t duck hunting.
In 1979, Jean Seberg’s beautiful body, hidden under a blanket and partially decomposed, was found in the back seat of her car in Paris’s sixteenth arrondissement. There was a bottle of barbiturates and a suicide note addressed to her son. The Paris police initially ruled her death a suicide, but they subsequently changed the ruling and brought charges against a person or persons unknown because there was no liquor found with her in the car, yet there was so much alcohol in her system that they said it would have been impossible for her to get into the car unassisted.
Was it murder? If so, by whom? The man she was living with at the time, who may have had financial reasons for wanting her dead? The FBI? Someone else? No one knows. Was it suicide? If so, why? Because of the loss of Romain Gary? Because of the Fury-like harassment of her by the FBI? Because of the resultant ruining of her reputation and career? Because of some other, more personal demon or demons? No one knows. And after all these years (to quote a politician who has been known to use COINTELPRO techniques herself), What difference, at this point, does it make?
One year later, Romain Gary followed her lead and put a bullet through his head.
According to Sam Fuller, it was while Romain Gary and Jean Seberg were married and living in Los Angeles that the inspiration came for White Dog. Apparently they were driving home one night on Mulholland Drive and Gary hit a German shepherd. They took the dog back to their house, got a vet, and cared for it. Beyond that incident, the primary theme of White Dog owes its inspiration to the federal government’s delicate attentions toward Jean Seberg, and that theme is the evil of racism. And it was that theme that caused the movie we made to be banned.
It’s a long and dreary story hardly worth the telling, but the Cliff Notes version is that the NAACP, a black journalist who was member of the Black Anti-Defamation Coalition, and various other civil rights leaders all condemned the movie before filming even began, on the grounds that it might spur racist violence. This not only before a day’s shooting had been done, but in spite of the fact that Paramount had specifically decided to buy the rights to Gary’s book because it contained the message that racism is a learned evil, and in spite of the fact that Sam Fuller had a well-deserved reputation for confronting racism for his entire career, and in spite of the fact that Fuller had convinced Paramount CEO Michael Eisner and producer Jon Davison that it would be an anti-racism movie, but possibly because the message was that racism is evil no matter which way it goes. In any event, the NAACP condemned the movie without ever seeing it and threatened boycotts, Paramount decided not to release it, Sam Fuller moved to France in disgust and never made another movie in America, and for many years a movie that may be a great statement (or perhaps not; I’ve never seen the film) against the evil of racism in any of its forms was buried in Paramount’s vaults.
If that story sounds at all familiar, perhaps you’re thinking of the old joke about the lady who refuses to read a book because somebody said someone said the minister said he had heard it might be pornographic. Don’t ever let yourself be confused by reality and God forbid we should do our own homework and make up our own minds. Or maybe it sounds familiar, gentle reader, because you’re old enough to have read 1984 and can recognize the Thought Police at work.
As far as I can remember (this all happened almost forty years ago) I only worked with Kristy McNichol. Two things struck me about her.
I had met her briefly once before when I did an episode of Family, and she was very nice and very professional, but I was struck by how ill at ease she was with her own talent and success. She had just finished filming Only When I Laugh, with Marsha Mason, and when I told her my agent had seen a preview and been blown away by her work and thought she should be nominated for an Oscar, she was clearly embarrassed and uncomfortable with both the praise and the attention, immediately deflecting all credit onto Marsha Mason. It came as no surprise to me later when Kristy vanished from the Business almost as completely as I did. I understand she lives now, as she has for the last twenty-odd years, quietly and privately with her long-time partner.
The other thing that struck me was that she had a great, if quirky, sense of humor. At least, she laughed at some of my jokes, so clearly she must have had a great sense of humor. I hope she is happy, and I wish her well.
If he were alive today, I wonder what Sam Fuller would think of the Black Lives Matter movement.