We went down to the dam in the middle of Uxbridge today. It was relatively warm and there’s a lot of melting going on. Still, it’s supposed to snow tonight. Not a lot of snow. A mere couple of inches, but with temperatures dropping, it’s likely to stick. Maybe this will be winter’s last gasp — or blast.
I don’t remember the exact date, but it was warm. We shot in shirtsleeves in the lobby of the TV station. I couldn’t get a studio and was being urged to get the shoot finished as quickly as possible. The “suits” were unimpressed with Richard Jaeckel. James Coburn was the hot interview on the circuit as “Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid” was being pushed by publicists. Richard Jaeckel was very pleasant and friendly even before we rolled the camera.
He asked about what I did. I gave him a snapshot biography back to my radio days and shooting my own film at a previous TV station. He grinned and said it was good to be working with a “grunt”. The rapport was established.
I mentioned having interviewed Gregory Peck a decade earlier, how well we got along. Jaeckel segued into working with Peck in one of his earliest films, “The Gunfighter” (1950).
As Jaeckel talked, I nodded for my cameraman to begin shooting. He smiled. He’d been shooting since Jaeckel and I began swapping war stories. The interview flowed smoothly.
It was more like a conversation between friends than an interview to promote a film. We chatted more than 10 minutes before I mentioned “Pat Garrett” and Jaeckel again smiled, saying he’d forgotten he was supposed to be promoting the film.
He discussed working with the quirky Sam Peckinpah and scene-stealers like Chill Wills. I asked about Bob Dylan, also in the film. Jaeckel’s smile got bigger as he recalled the folk singer’s kid-like behavior working with “movie stars”.
About 20 minutes later, we wrapped the interview. I asked Jaeckel what was next on his schedule. He said he was free for the afternoon. I suggested a pub near the station might be fine for lunch. He quickly agreed.
Drinks and meals ordered, Jaeckel and I began a three-hour conversation touching on family, movie making and the business of promoting movies. We found a common thread in our roots in New York, in our frustration with management and “the suits.”
I mentioned how I was always “the kid” at every stop in my career. He nodded and jumped in with stories about working with Richard Widmark, John Wayne, Karl Malden and Richard Boone in some of his very early movies. He said they all treated him well but he was always called “the kid”.
Jaeckel broke into guffaws when I asked about working with character actors like Jack Elam, Lee Van Cleef and Jack Lambert — all well established screen villains. He said they were the easiest and nicest people to work “jobs” (films) in the business. Jaeckel slid into a brief note about his son, Barry who was a rising tennis player. I quoted some stats which prompted a very pleased grin and a final round of drinks. We ended the afternoon with him picking up the tab, saying he had really enjoyed the day and would check me out on the tube before leaving Boston.
The next evening, just after the 6 pm newscast, I got a call. It was Richard Jaeckel. He’d caught me doing a news piece.
“Good job, Kid”, he said.
“Thanks, Kid”, I replied. We both laughed and wished each other well.
“Chisum” is a goodie directed by Vic McLaglen’s son, Andrew. Jaeckel had made it 3 years before “Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid.” It was, he said, fun working with Wayne and a many from the John Ford stock company.
During our lunch, Jaeckel recounted the off-camera sparring between vets like Bruce Cabot, Ben Johnson, Forrest Tucker and Duke Wayne versus “kids” like Andrew Prine, Geoff Duel and Christopher George. There were drinking contests with the old guys daring the younger guys to match them shot-for-shot of the hard stuff. The old guys won.
Jaeckel said by the time he made “Chisum” he was regarded as a “tweener” by Wayne and his buddies. He wasn’t harassed like “the kids” but wasn’t quite accepted by the old guys.
Jaeckel said Bruce Cabot was a mean drunk and was reprimanded by Wayne, who himself wasn’t always friendly when he was loaded. Ben Johnson was a friendly, easy-going guy who wasn’t intimated by Wayne who tried to goad his old pal. Christopher George who I met on another occasion confirmed Jaeckel’s stories.
The second meeting with Richard Jaeckel occurred when “Banacek” was shooting in Boston. We used to have a charity softball game on Boston Common. This time, it was the media all-stars versus George Peppard, the “Banacek” crew and the Playboy Bunnies.
Kegs of beer were set up for both benches. The drinking began before the game and never stopped. Before the first game, the flacks were introducing Peppard to media folks. Jaeckel was a guest star on the “Banacek” series. He pulled Peppard over and introduced me as his buddy, a “grunt” who knew his stuff a holdover from our initial meeting.
Peppard grinned broadly, shook hands and led us behind the bench where he had a carton of his private stock of “the good stuff.” I don’t remember much about the game. I do recall we did justice to the carton of the good stuff. The following day, Peppard –notoriously difficult with the press — turned up for an interview I hadn’t scheduled.
Richard Jaeckel was his driver.
A distant then close perspective of a tiny historic church yields entirely different experiences.
“Just imagine how awful we’d feel,” I told Betty one day, “if we got to the end of our lives and never produced our play. Especially if we really could have. We’d always regret it.”
That’s how I convinced Betty to produce Liberation. We’d update the story. Tell it as a flashback. I knew she wasn’t entirely convinced, but that was her way. She was critical, skeptical of everything. It was her strength.
Twenty years earlier we had been in summer stock together. After rehearsals, we’d adjourn to Betty’s apartment to tell jokes, sing songs and laugh our way to midnight. Those summers doing our best to entertain an audience and ourselves would become our “good old days.”
We worked on a variety of projects and developed a talented circle of friends. Betty was 2 years my senior, always the stage manager and sergeant-at-arms. She kept us in line during our silliest youthful moments.
We decided it would be a great idea to write our own musical, a big production like those we had been part of in the past. Betty and I would write the book. Michael, who had overwhelmed us with a beautiful original song about our group called “Friends,” would compose the music. I had already worked on a Christmas song with Michael and thought I could write the lyrics.
Maybe in a year or two, we thought, it could become our very own summer theater production. What a terrific idea it seemed. All we needed was the right story. It didn’t take long to come up with what we thought was a good one.
It was the middle of the Women’s Liberation era and we decided to use the movement as the setting. We did not envision a drama but rather a lighter treatment, the story of a strong woman being kept from advancement because she was a woman. In our minds “Jackie” was like Mary from the Mary Tyler Moore Show. Not quite as outspoken as the leaders of the women’s movement, but determined to succeed.
Betty and I went to work on our outline. We needed the “who, what, where, when, how.” ”Why” was easy. We wanted to do it and didn’t need a better reason. You can guess who crafted the strong-willed women in the story. Of course we used people we knew as models for some characters, but I can never reveal that information unless we win a Tony. Then we can do whatever we want.
As we wrote the story, I handed off lyrics to Michael for various songs we wanted. We weren’t sure how all the songs would fit — or even if they would fit, but we knew what we wanted to say. After seven months of working on the story, with more than half a dozen songs in hand, Betty and I dumped everything and started over. It had become a complete muddle.
Starting over, we knew what we wanted. We defined each character and his or her role in the story. We had the setting, the conflict, the resolution. No phony Hollywood love-story ending with characters living happily ever after, but nonetheless a happy ending — differently happy.
Soon we were writing scenes in order. The title tune became a collaborative effort as Betty and I tossed ideas back and forth, then threw them at Michael while he pounded out chords on Betty’s piano. A second act song was written first. A comedy song was a labor of love. The song we envisioned for the main character was Betty’s favorite. At a critical juncture in the first act, the main character declares alone on stage, “I Believe.” It took over a year to write but when it was finished, we were proud of the book and its songs. It was what we wanted.
Sadly, when it came to marketing, we fizzled. We showed the book to a few people we thought might help us, but nothing came of it.
It had been a labor of love for all of us, but for Betty, it was real labor. She was a fast typist. While I thought out the story and we talked through it, Betty typed out the drafts. This was before personal computers, so she typed and retyped copies using carbon paper (look it up!). I have no idea how many times she retyped scenes to incorporate changes. I will never in my life spend as much time typing as Betty did on Liberation.
Twenty years later, I told Betty the play would not be dated if we told it as a flashback. The main character would have again hit the glass ceiling and would be inspired to move forward by remembering what had happened twenty years before. We needed a new opening, ending and one more song.
She agreed to give it a go. We had developed relationships with people we thought might help us. Betty and I toured theaters, met with theater companies, brainstormed strategies to raise money. We wrote new material, polished old material. We went to plays and worked as ushers.
Michael had moved on and was reluctant to revisit the show, but we needed him. We not only wanted him to write a new song, but to score the show. That meant arrangements, scene change music, an overture. We worked hard on convincing him. He eventually gave in to constant nagging reminders about “the good old days.”
Betty, as always, was fueled by cigarettes and diet cola. Again she typed all the drafts and burned up hours on the phone with me discussing the new material. When I finished crafting an original speech for the main character, in true Betty fashion, she said, “Richard, that’s a great speech. No women would ever say that, but it’s a great speech.”
“OK”, I replied, a little deflated, “What would she say?” Betty again gave voice to the main character and hero of our story. In the end we were more than pleased.
The story of the Liberation’s production by a local theater company on a large stage with an orchestra is a sad story you’ve heard before. We had no control of the final show. The company mounted a political drama with music. It wasn’t the musical comedy we’d written. On my own, I agreed with the theater company to scale back the musicians for the third weekend and cancel the fourth and final weekend. I didn’t consult my colleagues; we were losing money we didn’t have.
It had taken a couple of years from when I revived the idea to getting it produced. The work we did the second time around was just plain work.
Betty and I drifted apart after the show closed. She was terribly disappointed that my salesmanship did not put her dream on stage. She had dedicated a big part of her life to a youthful dream and it had come to nothing.
A few years ago I learned Betty had emphysema. No surprise really. She had been a long time chain smoker. Recently, I got an email from Michael. He told me Betty passed away. He had read the news in an alumni newsletter and was crushed no one had informed us.
I was stunned. Somewhere in the back of my mind I always believed I’d give Betty her show, the show we originally envisioned. I imagined I’d drag her away from her typewriter and give her the spotlight she’d never shared when we performed.
Maybe now she’s been liberated from her suffering, but it is not the Liberation she deserved.
Find the lyric to the song today on Sunday Night Blog here.
Along the river’s edge are still ponds that become swamps. These are the places that nurture babies … baby fish and birds and other small creatures that live in and along the river. Rich in insect life, it’s a perfect nursery for the young. Plenty of stuff to eat and relatively save from human intrusion.
And it’s surprisingly beautiful. It often reminds me of Japanese block prints. This particular piece of swamp is at an intersection where the river creates a pond and a little beach (you can swim there), the green pools, a small waterfall and rapids leading to a creek and then the river. Pretty. And hard to find!