There really are parallel realities. They are: Hollywood — and everywhere else. While I was in Vietnam with the Marines, sometimes I mused about going to Hollywood and writing the Great American Screenplay. Then — when I actually was in the glitzy blitz of Hollywood — I sometimes pondered how simple, how ironically comfortable, it had been in a hole on a hilltop in Vietnam.
I got a preview of this parallel reality by returning to the States for my final few months, attached to Camp Pendleton. I obviously had one foot out the door, so the Marines there had no earthly use for me. I reported in each morning, and left to explore the area. I learned to sail a small sailboat on base. I took up English riding at the base stables from an wiry old woman in jodhpurs, tough as nails with her riding whip, who started in World War One training young cavalry officers to ride – back when there were cavalry officers. Neither of us had much to do these days, so she taught me to ride bareback on a galloping horse and do jumps up to four feet – which I remember as one of my life’s glowing achievements. I lived off base in Fallbrook, a California avocado-growing community, in a cottage in a tree-lined canyon with a friendly hippie commune down the gulley. In Fallbrook, I met and went out with the great granddaughter of Susan B. Anthony. When they came out with that Susan B. Anthony dollar I swear it looked just like her. I tried to call, but had long since lost her number.
It seemed an obvious thing to buy a motorcycle. Because I was now certifiably invincible, and thinking in the back of my mind that Hollywood always needed stunt men, I learned to jump the motorcycle in the sandy canyons to the East. That glorious flying fantasy lasted a few days until one nearly straight up jump runway made the front wheel rise — and rise — in the air, until I was 10 feet above the ground riding a my flying motorcycle upside down. It was coming down fast now, with me underneath, somehow I guided it over to my left and the hot exhaust nearly burned through the leg of my jeans, as I smashed down on my back. The motorcycle came down a millisecond later a foot from me. Lying there windless, astounded that I was alive, I decided Vietnam was no proof that every bullet would avoid me. Thereafter, in most things physical at least, I was not even tempted to jaywalk. And certainly not to jump horses over four-foot high fences.
From that location Camp Pendleton location, about an hour South of Hollywood, I visited my friend Dale and got my Volkswagen bus he had been keeping, and I started growing back some hair. He had finished the UCLA film school and was working on a laser-movie called Death of the Red Planet. (That little movie was eventually a star attraction at the Griffith Park Planetarium.) After a few months sojourn sailing in the Bahamas and cleaning boat bottoms and falling for Brenda, who worked there in Barclay’s bank, I decided to go back to Hollywood to seek my fortune.
Not actor or director material, I started turning out screenplays. I had done a couple of screenplays before I found out it was bad form to write a full screenplay, but was a much better strategy to have the nucleus of an idea and then find big time producers to smoke dope with and flesh out the actual script and characters in their Bel Air homes by the pool. You got partners around an idea, and then hoped they were not smart enough to finish it with their names on it and steal it. But there’s the rub. You had to meet them and attract them to you and the idea, without actually giving it away. That’s why I finished stuff and registered it and then gave pitches. Of course that did not work at all, but it’s my style. Everyone else just did ten-page treatments and then made pitches. So I fashioned treatments out of my already completed Great American Screenplays but never learned to do a truly Great American Treatment. But at least my treatments would occasionally get me pitches. And the pitches led to all sorts of meetings and agents and the possibility of options and little adventures which led to generally nothing at all in that smoky cloud that was Hollywood of the late 1960s.
I had done one screenplay called The Watermelon Seeds, named for the sailing principle where the oncoming wind creates pressure at an angle on the sail and down into the keel, and pushes the boat forward like squeezing a watermelon seed between two fingers. Brenda actually typed that screenplay for me and, knowing even less about Hollywood that I did, thought it was going to be a movie. It was based on two guys who had been in Vietnam getting out and taking off on a sailboat to various harrowing adventures. But it was loathed at first sight in Hollywood. In this time of peace marches, absolutely no one in Hollywood wanted to see anything about Vietnam. And that boycott lasted at least 10 years, I think. It was also one of the reasons I needed to grow more hair quickly.
I did another screenplay called The Lone Angel, a satire about a masked guy on a white Harley who roams the West with his black sidekick Tonto, who rode a Honda 50. They have all sorts of misadventures where they try to do good in communities, and their misplaced efforts are roundly condemned, and they are run out of towns, unappreciated, throughout the New West.
And then there was Foster, a modern Faust who learned that by taking increasing doses of strychnine he could become faster on the draw than any gunslinger around. Through the story he becomes dependent on strychnine highs to heighten his speed and killing efficiency. Just at the time Foster is about to meet the current fastest gunslinger, the accumulated strychnine catches up with him. The other gunslinger and the townspeople watch with horror, as Foster dies a gruesome death at high noon on a dusty Kansas street, with all his muscles contracting and pulling against each other.
The Catador Mandate was a Wag the Dog story, years before that popular movie defined the term for political distraction from actual malfeasance. While WWII had absolutely everyone’s attention, two dictators in South America struck an odd bargain. One of them lost so much at the gambling tables he was bound to give the other a sizable amount of his country. To do this, they decided they must create a war or their displaced people would displace them. They commissioned a Madison Avenue ad agency to stage this war, and specified when the war would end and the number to be killed and the amount of territory to be seized. A rogue reporter discovers this and tries to get the news to the rest of the world. This story had the dubious merit of being entirely true. (See “Conference of Rio de Janeiro”, which after WWII redrew totally new borders between Peru and Ecuador and gave half of Ecuador — including the Amazon River city of Iquitos — to Peru.)
So you see how unlucky Hollywood was that they never discovered my screenplays at all. These screenplays rarely got even a partial reading by anyone with the ability to make a movie. There are Hollywood legends about how successful screenwriters got producers to read their scripts. One guy stood outside the gates of one producer’s mansion with copies of his scripts and everyday threw them on the hood of the producer’s car when he slowed to remotely open the gate to his estate. Finally, he read one, made a movie of it, and the rest is history. I remember the story but I’ve forgotten the names. …
This is not unusual because everybody in Hollywood has a story about how they almost got a script read. I have at least two instances. One started in the Bahamas when a Mafia don for whom I’d cleaned his large boat offered to provide me with his Hollywood lawyer – whose call no one ever refused. But I slipped out of that kind offer, ever so politely, not wanting that kind of strings around my neck. Another time I scored dinner in Beverly Hills with a director of TV commercials and his family, and his 15 year-old-daughter decided she liked me…a lot. To my surprise, he was wholly in accord and offered us the use of the apartment behind his pool. I guess he rarely denied her anything she wanted, but I managed to decline and leave with my screenplays tucked under my arm, unread of course.
The California days were full of phone calls to people who were out and visits to people who said they knew people with money for movies. If you walked on Venice beach it was easy to meet girls, but if you asked them if they wanted a soda they asked back, “Can I have the money instead?” Everyone who had been in Hollywood a while had jobs they could slip away from to get to meetings or auditions. The restaurants had rotating chefs and bus boys, and when people were finally fired, they just made movie contacts while standing in line at the world-famous Unemployment Office in Santa Monica. (I rarely smoked dope because it made me reflective and angry that I was not working harder to make a success of Hollywood. )
There is a certain strand of artistic toughness in Hollywood, where these part time actors and writers and film editors and all manner of craftsmen do not have jobs for parts of the year. But eventually many have families for all of the year. Waiting for the next movie, the next friend to call about auditions, waiting for the next union seniority slot to open, waiting and perfecting skills and friendships calls for an incredible toughness to weather insecurity throughout all of their lives. I’d seen toughness in the Marines, but maybe psychologically the Hollywood people are the toughest I’ve ever seen. I’ll admit that eventually I was not tough enough for Hollywood.
Occasionally I would drive down to La Jolla, near San Diego, where my second cousin John Hunt was Director of the Salk Institute. It was a great location and he had Nobel Prize winners from all over the globe playing on the beach and having good old sabbaticals. I asked John how he, an English major and occasional novelist (once winning honorable mention for the National Book Award), could supervise all of these great minds from technically demanding disciplines. “Well,” he said, “the skill I’ve developed was not to supervise anything, but to create the climate in which these people can do their best work.” He did that, too, later at the Aspen Institute and the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton, where Einstein spend most of his American years. John also had to be a special breed of fundraiser, who convinced the very rich that if they were lucky he could help them associate their money with sponsoring these great minds.
It was at one of the parties where some of these geniuses brought their families that someone asked what I had been doing. I said digging holes with the Marines in Vietnam. No one thought it was funny. As a matter of fact all conversation then stopped while one young French woman fluttered her eyelashes at me and asked me how I liked napalming babies. I’d pretty much avoided the subject up in Hollywood after some curt rejections, but here it slipped up on me. In those late 1960’s, it was just not acceptable in polite society to have had anything to do with Vietnam. Young people were very sure of what they believed about what they felt they knew and there was not much complexity allowed.
Then I had headed back from La Jolla to L.A. and got bummed out in other ways. The next night on the beach a crowd of adolescents were smoking dope and invited me into their circle. One guy wanted someone to put him on his motorcycle. He was apparently on heroin and he thought he just needed to be put on the motorcycle and aimed out toward the freeway. I was off motorcycles and had no interest in assisting this impending disaster. No one in our small group wanted to do it, and he moved on down the beach. One of the high teenagers in our group was all excited. She said a guy sitting stoned on the beach had just killed someone. Everyone seemed to think that was cool. They had never met anyone who killed people. They asked me if I had ever met someone who killed people. I said I had. I’ll never know if that would have made me cool because just then the heroin guy walking his motorcycle down the street some distance from us was apparently paying some money for a kid to put him on his motorcycle. We all watched as the kid took the money and helped him start it and the guy weaved away through the night toward the freeway. So this was Hollywood. Though each episode was newly bizarre, this sort of edgy tedium was tiring to me. I was maybe getting too old for it.
It was all so different from Brenda at her British bank in the Bahamas, another parallel reality. I think I made a choice around then, which reality to live in. One small film producer, Zoltan, told me that if I got photo stories in South American he could bundle them and produce them as filmstrip travelogues. That was about as close to success as I’d ever come. Actually, it was enough of a quest to marry Brenda and whisk her off to South America. I always thought I would come back to Hollywood, but aside from a few short forays with equally fruitless screenplays, I never did.