Friday, February 10, 2006

Hooray for Hollyweird Part 2: Electric Boogaloo

If you haven't read the last entry already, you might wanna do so, just to get caught up.

Done? Good.

Some of the best stories came from some of the most unexpected sources. Bug-eyed character fixture Don Calfa contributed engaging bits in everything from Scorsese's New York, New York to the eighties comedy, Weekend at Bernie's. But he enthused most amusingly about the role that's insured him eternal horror movie cultdom, Ernie the Mortician in Dan O' Bannon's zombie spoof, Return of the Living Dead. A real salt-of-the-earth New York guy, Calfa genially chatted about what a tyrant O'Bannon was (though Calfa himself enjoyed a good working relationship with the volatile writer/director), and the folicular decline of good friend and fellow character actor Frank Sivero.

Boyish-looking Kenny Miller enjoyed a career that spanned fifty years, and shoulder-rubbing with some real giants. In typical six-degrees-of-horror-movie-separation fashion, I only knew Miller from brief-but-entertaining turns in the fun 50's shockers I Was a Teenage Werewolf and Attack of the Puppet People. But the curly-haired character actor appeared in Cecil B. DeMille-directed The Buccaneer opposite Charlton Heston (Miller was General Jackson's young scout in the film), and was one of the thugs who menaced Janet Leigh in Orson Welles' Touch of Evil. Miller talked of joining Welles on casting calls for the film, and painted a portrait of a brilliant but beaten-down man who transcended the simplistic notion of Artist-as-Tyrant. Miller recently wrote an autobiography, and I'll bet it's a pip.

Miller said that he was going to be attending the Monster Bash Convention in June 2006, and then blew my mind when he said that Bert I. Gordon--director of Attack of the Puppet People and many, many other beloved B classics--would be a guest of honor. Very impressive, since more than a few sources (including Entertainment Weekly) listed Gordon as deceased about two years ago. Talk about rumors of one's death being greatly exaggerated.

Norman Alexander Gibbs and Al White made one hell of an impression on the world as the two jive talking passengers in Airplane, and like Don Calfa they were a surprising fount of great stories. White's had a good run of character roles in movies like Red Scorpion (opposite Dolph Lundgren, "a nice guy," according to White) and Russkies, and he also appeared onstage opposite Lawrence Fishburne and Roscoe Lee Browne in August Wilson's Two Trains Running in 1992. Gibbs, for his own part, has worked bit parts in Fatal Vision and Runaway Train, among others, and most recently found success in the catering business. Second death-greatly-exaggerated revelation; White was just a day away from going to visit Browne, another actor reported as deceased in recent press sources.

Like Richard Chamberlain and Joanna Cassidy, Dean Stockwell wasn't much of a talker. Unlike the former two thespians, however, the David Lynch favorite (check out his sublime bits in Blue Velvet and Dune)and Quantum Leap scene-stealer just seemed genuinely shy in person. After a minute or two of talking (and some sincere flattery on Rita's and my part), Stockwell's guarded demeanor thawed some; he even cracked a smile by the end of our encounter (too bad Rita missed capturing it on camera).

Speaking of David Lynch, try this surreal connection on for size; Charlotte Stewart was playing Miss Beadle, the quaint and caring school teacher in the TV series Little House on the Prairie, by day--at the same time that she was portraying the spastic Mary X in David Lynch's bizarre feature debut Eraserhead at night. Friendly and open, Stewart admitted that she didn't 'get' Lynch's twisted vision (filmed in pieces over a period of several years) until she saw the film for the first time, and she obviously enjoyed the challenges entailed with playing these polar-opposite characters.

Shortly after talking to Stewart, Rita headed back to the lobby for a quick break, and I went to talk to Candy Clark. When I first approached her table, Clark was living a unique form of Celebrity Convention Guest Hell, as a security guard regaled her--in excruciating detail--with stories of how his relative invented Post-It glue. She was a terrific sport, though, and I'm sure my showbiz-related questions were just as inane.

Clark lent a sunny unpretentiousness to her many roles in the '70's. Her character for the ages: sweet-natured party girl Debbie from George Lucas' American Graffiti. Clark spoke with justifiable pride about the role, and the movie's lasting place in screen history. She also registered strongly in the '78 remake of The Big Sleep (opposite Robert Mitchum), and as David Bowie's leading lady in Nicholas Roeg's The Man Who Fell to Earth. She was just wrapping up insights on Bowie's intense focus and concentration as an actor, when my cel phone unceremoniously buzzed. I ignored the damned thing for several seconds, then finally gave in, and picked it up.


"Hon, it's me," My wife announced on the other end. "What are you doing?"

"Um, talking to Candy Clark about David Bowie," I replied. There's no way, I reasoned, that Rita--a huge Bowie fan herself--would interrupt me now, unless it was something really good.

"Well, you really should get over here. NOW," My wife stated in poised-but-urgent tones before she hung up.

Ever-courteous guy that I was, I dovetailed my conversation with Candy Clark to a quick but graceful conclusion, getting a picture with her, then heading in Rita's direction. What the hell was up, I pondered? Was Rita witnessing a bank robbery in progress? Had Jesus Christ shown up in a yellow silk jogging suit?

The answer came to me with another vibration of my cel phone. Again, Rita: this time, a text message--just two words:

Ron Jeremy.

Needless to say, adult filmdom's most famous male star was not on the card as a guest. But I rendevoused with the missus at the opposite end of the massive convention hall and there the man was, just walking around and checking out memorabilia like any of us regular schlubs with normal-sized tackle equipment.

Rita actually greeted the hirsute adult-film star just before I got there, reporting him as pleasant and happy to sign autographs (she obtained the guy's John Hancock for a friend of ours). She also overheard him telling another guy, "Follow me into the bathroom, I've gotta show you something." Was he about to put a skeptic's doubts to rest by dropping trou? Come to think of it, let's not speculate too much.

Surreal Life appearance aside, I'm no authority on Jeremy's filmic output, but he represents a fascinating pop-culture icon: the closest thing to a character actor that the appearance-obsessed adult film genre will likely ever see. I decided to ask him for an autograph myself.

In real life, Ron Jeremy looked much as he did on The Surreal Life, down to the non-descript black T-shirt. He was talking to two kids in their early twenties--a guy and a girl, both of whom were gifted with alabaster skin and dyed jet-black goth hair--when I arrived. The porn vet was extolling the praises of a mutual director acquaintance of theirs. "She's a total sweetie," he stated in his distinctive New York clip. "She just won an Adult Video Award for Best Big T**ty Video." Only in Hollywood would you hear such small talk.

I was stymied as to a good conversation opener ("Gee, Mr. Jeremy, you were great in 21 Hump Street,", maybe?), so all I could think to say to him was (Christ in a ketchup bottle, this is embarrassing), "You the man!" like some Bud-chugging frat boy. Hell, he probably thought I was some Bud-chugging frat boy. Despite my utter idiocy, Ron Jeremy smiled politely, signed a note card for me, and even posed for a picture.

Thus marked the end of my summit with the Ernest Borgnine of hardcore, but not the end of Rita's and my adventures. Not by a long shot.

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