Going back to ‘Back To The Future’ with Michael J. Fox

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By Ray Bennett

LONDON – As “Back to the Future” marks its 30th anniversary, here’s a version of a story I wrote in 1985 for the Los Angeles Herald Examiner.

In 1984, Canadian actor Michael J. Fox (pictured with Christopher Lloyd) was starring in a struggling US TV sitcom titled “Family Ties” and taking what movie roles he could get including a cheap exploitation picture called “Teen Wolf”.

He was busy on that film on a street in Los Angeles when some location scouts came by to check out the same place. Fox told me back then: “We’re in the trenches, so to speak, trying to knock out this very low-budget movie, trying to do the best we can, and here are these guys from some big Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis film. We’re all sitting around with big saucer eyes, going ‘Jeez, wouldn’t it be nice … ’”

Suddenly, everything changed. Half-hour comedies were not big on US TV in those days, so few expected that “The Cosby Show” would rocket to No. 1 and turn the industry around. NBC scheduled it on Thursday evenings ahead of “Family Ties” and after two seasons, Fox’s show turned into a massive hit.

Spielberg and Zemeckis began to make their big film, a futuristic comedy about the past called “Back to the Future” with Eric Stolz as boyish time-traveller Marty McFly.

Stolz had become a star opposite Cher in “The Mask” but Zemeckis told me that he came to the awful realisation that “I had made a very serious casting error”. He faced what he said was “the worst possible disaster outside of having an actor die”.

backtothefuture x325Suddenly, Stolz was out, and the director needed a replacement fast. Busy with “Family Ties”, Fox went one Friday afternoon to visit the series’ producer Gary David Goldberg.

The young actor told me, “Gary said, ‘I’ve been looking for you all over.’ I thought he wanted to talk about another project we’d been kicking around. I got up to his office and he handed me a script: ‘Back to the Future’. He said, ‘I just got a call from Steven Spielberg. They want you to start Monday. I said, ‘Wait a minute, they’ve already got a guy.’ Gary explained that they had creative differences — which is all I’ve ever known about that — and they wanted me. I said, ‘No, no way. I don’t want to do it.’”

Of course he didn’t. In the middle of the night, he phoned Goldberg: “You’ve gotta phone Spielberg. Don’t let him change his mind.” On the Monday, after a full day on “Family Ties”, Fox reported for work on “Back to the Future”.

It would be like that for seven weeks. By the end, Fox’s driver would practically tuck him in at night and arrive in the morning to throw him into the shower. “It got kind of surrealistic,” Fox admitted.

“Back To The Future” was a smash hit in 1985 and generated $381 million in theatres worldwide. The 1989 sequel took $331 million and the third one in 1990 made $245 million.

Fox went on to make pictures such as “Bright Lights, Big City” and “Casualties of War” and then returned to TV in 1996 in the hit series “Spin City”. In 1998, he announced he was suffering from Parkinson’s disease but he has continued his career on series including “Boston Legal”, “Rescue Me”, “The Michael J. Fox Show” and “The Good Wife”.

Back in 1985, Zemeckis said Fox’s energy and professionalism saved “Back yo the Future”. He called Fox “the Jimmy Cagney of the Eighties. We know he’s a TV star, but he turned in a wonderfully measured film performance —now he’s a movie star.”

Which pleased the youthful, 5ft 5inch actor no end. “If people say I remind them of Cagney or Mickey Rooney, obviously I’m very flattered. But I like it,” he said. “There are enough guys trying real hard to be Robert DeNiro or Al Pacino. I’ll be the guy who’s maybe like Cagney. I like that great line in ‘My Favourite Year’ when Peter O’Toole says, ‘I’m not an actor. I’m a movie star!’”

Universal Pictures has “Back to the Future” and its two sequels on  Blu-ray Disc. The franchise made close to $1 billion at the box office.

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What Jackie Collins discovered about men in Hollywood

Jackie Collins

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – Jackie Collins, who died on Sept. 19 of breast cancer aged 77, was a far more thoughtful person than her raunchy writing might suggest and not at all the diva that older sister Joan Collins became.

Collins is known for sexy blockbusters such as “The Stud”, “Rock Star”, “Lovers & Players” and her Hollywood series that includes “Hollywood Wives”, “Hollywood Husbands” and “Hollywood Divorces”.

From the time her first book, “The World is Full of Married Men” raised the ante on 1960s romantic novels with its sexual content, she grew to a level of fame that exceeded Joan’s until her older sister was cast in the hit 1980s primetime soap “Dynasty”.

Jackie spent her summers in Los Angeles as a young woman and moved there with her second husband, Oscar Lerman, owner of nightclub Tramp, who died of prostate cancer in 1992, in the early Eighties.

At 15, she had been expelled from school in England due to boredom that led to misbehaviour and her talent agent father Joseph Collins and her mother Elsa sent her to live with Joan in Hollywood.

“Joan told them, ‘Oh, you can send her over. I’ll look after her.’ She met me at the airport with the keys to her apartment, a list of people I should know, and a crisp, ‘Learn to drive’, and went off on location for a year,” Jackie told me when I interviewed her in 1988.

She had always wanted to write, even as a child: “I think when I was about 9 or 10, I started to write stories. When I was about 11, I discovered Henry Miller’s ‘Tropic of Capricorn’ in a brown paper wrapped beside my father’s bed. It seemed to me there was no other way to live one’s life than to write stories, tell stories about other people.”

Jackie returned to England but when she went back to Los Angeles , she made her own friends who pumped gas and parked cars, and she tried acting for a while. She discovered that Hollywood was a mix of glamorous people and lots of struggling actors and actresses that she wrote about in “Hollywood Wives”.

“There was also this middle line of fat old men saying, ‘Well, do you want the role? Pull up your skirt, let’s see your legs, let’s have dinner tonight – that sort of thing. Because I was an out-of-work writer trying to be an actress with no enthusiasm whatsoever for about a year, I got this wonderful insight into the way men treated women.”

She came to a conclusion about the opposite gender. “Most men,” she told me, “I’m sure you’re the exception and so is my husband but I found most men to be completely predictable. It’s the same in any business. Publishing is full of men in their 50s and 60s who hit on every little 22-year-old college graduate who comes to work.”

The 1970s explosion in pornography, Collins suggested, was in direct response to the women’s movement as it gathered strength. “In the Seventies, that’s when porno magazines got really, really bad. I’m not talking about Playboy and Penthouse but the really sleazy ones that were sold under the counter. It’s like men said, ‘OK, baby. You want freedom, we’ll give you freedom.’ I think men had a problem with the fact that women wanted to be strong.

“When it came to Women’s Lib, men just didn’t know what to do. It’s all very subliminal, of course. If you remember, when Women’s Lib really came to the fore, that’s when they started to make all those slasher movies. It was always young, beautiful girls out in the forest with some guy who would come along and kill 10 or 20 college girls. They were very successful because men wanted their women to see these films to give them the subliminal message, ‘If you get out of hand, baby, this is what’s going to happen.’”

What she aimed to show in her books, Collins told me, was to show the unfairness of the double standard and that a lot of women would like a more equal sexuality: “A lot of men have been frightened by the whole thing and become womanisers. What I like to do is show a guy who’s an asshole and turn him around during the course of a book so he’s a prince at the end of it.”

Her reputation was for writing big raunchy blockbusters, but she said, “I think they’re very moral tales. If a man plays around on his wife, he’s not going to end up the hero in my book.”

“The World is Full of Married Men, published in 1969, dealt with a man who cheated on his wife and everyone thought it was acceptable but when the wife finally took a young lover, he was furious.

“How dare she do this to him? Society went crazy in England when it was published. It went to No. 1 and everyone was shocked and horrified. There wasn’t a four-letter word in it. Women loved it as nobody had done this before. The Margaret Drabbles and Edna O’Briens were writing about going off and having nervous breakdowns in the Cotswolds, and here’s Jackie Collins writing about a woman who actually turns around and does something about it.”

Collins enjoyed her life in the film capital despite all the sex and sin she wrote about, she told me, because she had a secure background with a terrific husband, three kids and assorted dogs: “It sounds corny, but it’s true. I lead a very domesticated life most of the time and then I go out to lots of parties and hear all the stories people want to tell me. ‘You’re just not going to believe this!’ And sometimes I don’t, but I hate the vicious gossip I sometimes hear.”

She cherished the fact that she did not rely on Hollywood for work: “I don’t have to answer to anybody here. I don’t want  a job from anybody here so I can live a very independent life. I don’t need to get involved in the rat race. I can sit back and enjoy it and watch everybody. I have the best of both worlds.”

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When Topol stood me up to go off to war

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By Ray Bennett

LONDON – “Fiddler on the Roof’ star Chaim Topol cancelled my interview with him in June 1967 but he had a very good reason. He left his starring role of Tevye in the West End hit production to return to Israel to fight in the Six-Day War.

The Israeli actor, who turns 80 today, had made tickets for the show at Her Majesty’s Theatre in London’s Haymarket almost impossible to find, but when his country faced peril, he didn’t hesitate.

Right in the middle of his record-breaking run in the biggest hit the West End had seen in years, he took off to join his countrymen. Only when an uneasy peace was obtained did he return to the role of Sholem Aleichem’s rascally Jewish milkman whose family is forced to emigrate from Tsarist Russia in 1905.

When our interview finally took place, fresh from the the conflict he had seen in Israel, the actor, who was 31 at the time, was filled with emotion about immigration, refugees and old traditions.

“They are subjects close to the heart of anyone who is not ignoring the problems now in the world,” he told me backstage at Her Majesty’s. “It’s like ‘Fiddler’ – the problems faced by Tevye are not only Jewish problems – we suffered from them and we have had to find solutions. I hope we have. But they are world problems.”

Why, then, did he choose to treat those problems in the show in such a humorous way?

“Because,” he said, “they are such sad things and to digest them you need a spoonful of humour. Anyhow, I don’t know another way.”

Topol had come to London with the show after he starred in “Fiddler on the Roof” in Tel Aviv and he has continued to play Tevye around the world for much of his life including a stint on Broadway in 1990. The show won a Tony Award as best revival and he was nominated as best actor in a musical.

He told me, though, that he had not intended to become an actor. “When I was called up for the Israeli Army, people found me amusing in my camp. The officers thought I could be funny in other camps so they put me in the army theatre. I didn’t want to go. I didn’t want to be an actor. But, eventually, it seemed they were right and when I thought they were right, I decided to learn all I could about acting. They gave me a private teacher and I studied hard.”

In 1971, when Canadian filmmaker Norman Jewison accepted an offer from United Artists to make a film of “Fiddler on the Roof”, he accepted right away. He told me later, “I think I was more moved than I have ever been by any musical comedy form.”

Jewison had seen Topol’s 1967 film “Sallah” and saw him play Tevye in London. For three months he kept an open mind on casting, he said, before he decided that Topol was the man he wanted.

“Topol gives to Tevye a dignity I thought was lacking in certain other interpretations,” Jewison told me. “But I must say that choosing was very difficult because I happen to think that Zero Mostel [who originated the role on Broadway] is a brilliantly creative actor and there were so many others, too.”

The studio left the producer-director to make the call. It was never suggested that it might be a problem that Topol was little known outside of London and Tel Aviv. “No one told me not to cast him because of that. I feel to this day that no one in the world could have played Tevye as well was Topol does.”

The film won three Academy Awards and Topol was nominated as best actor, losing to Gene Hackman for “The French Connection”. He was named best actor in a motion picture musical or comedy at the Golden Globes.

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When Sean Connery offered me a Scotch …

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By Ray Bennett

LONDON – Sean Connery nudged my arm as a waiter hovered with a tray of champagne, and said, “They have Scotch, you know.”

We were on the terrace on Elton John’s house on the cornish that overlooks Nice in the South of France. The pop star’s film company, Rocket Pictures, was hosting a fancy spread for a mix of top-liners and mid-level film people during the Festival de Cannes in 1999. A handful of trade reporters was invited to, and I was one of them.

Connery was the first familiar face I spotted when I emerged from the elegant home onto the terrace with its fabulous view of the Côte d’Azur, so I joined him and two men I did not recognise.

“Did you see the goals?” I asked.

“The golf?” the Scotsman said.

“No, the goals.”

I explained that I had just watched an English football game in which Manchester United had beaten Tottenham Hotspur to win the Premier League.

He was all ears. When the other two men strolled off, I offered my hand and introduced myself. The actor has an infamous dislike of the press so I decided immediately to reveal that I worked for the editorial department of The Hollywood Reporter.

“They asked us not to write about this event,” I said, “but I thought you would like to be aware that’s who I am.”

Connery gave me that James Bond stare and took my hand. “There are not many who would have said that,” he said. “Where are you from?”

We chatted for a while as the crowd grew larger with more famous faces including Catherine Zeta Jones, who was there with Connery for “Entrapment”.

After he alerted me to the Scotch, Connery and I shared when the whisky arrived and he took my arm to introduce me to a newcomer: “Ray, have you met Pedro Almodovar?”

The Spanish filmmaker, who was there with “All About My Mother”, joined us in a conversation about Terry Gilliam’s ambitions to make a film of “Don Quixote”.

“You should make it,” Connery told Almodovar.”

“If you’ll play Don Quixote,” the filmmaker said. “But I heard there was a project with you in the works. With Robin Williams as Sancho Panza.”

Connery looked fit to burst. “No! No! No!” he exclaimed.

I didn’t meet the star, who turns 85 today, again until 2010 during the Edinburgh Film Festival when he unveiled a plaque on the site of his Fountainbridge home to mark his 80th birthday.

Like the place I grew up in Ashford, Kent, his building was demolished years ago. Like me, though, he grew up in circumstances in which a bath was a weekly event.

When I was very young, our bathtub was in the kitchen and we had to fill it with water heated on an old-fashioned Edwardian coal-fired copper ladle by ladle. Connery’s family did much the same. He had a younger brother, so he was the third one into the bathwater. I had an older brother, so I came last.

Connery said that when he became successful and travelled the world, whenever he checked into a luxury hotel, the first thing he did was take a luxurious bath. From the first time I went on a movie junket to New York, that’s been my habit too.

On my first trip to Cannes in January 1999 for the MIDEM music event, I checked into the Hotel Martinez at the top of La Croisette, poured a bubble bath, opened a split of champagne, and sank into the suds.

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Why Omar Sharif liked playing bridge more than making movies

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By Ray Bennett

LONDON – Omar Sharif, who has died of a heart attack in Cairo aged 83, was an international movie star who was always rather embarrassed about the way he earned a living.

He said, “The things going on in the world are so important, it becomes sort of silly to be merely an actor.”

And so the star of “Dr. Zhivago” played bridge.

He was on tour with a team of crack European bridge players when I met him in Detroit in 1970. His team played local groups with a side bet going to charity if they lost.

“There is nothing more significant about playing bridge than making movies,” he said, “but bridge is a game of the mind. There is a general ethical rule that no matter where you go other people are forced to cut you into a game.

“It’s a game that has a very great gentle human relationship to it. If people have a passion in their lives, something innocuous like bridge or golf or fishing, you rarely find them yelling their prejudice, hating, and so on. The sour-pusses, the ones with nothing in their lives, they are the ones who hate. People with a passion don’t have time for this nonsense.”

After he devastated the women of the western world when he rode out of the desert in his first English-speaking movie, “Lawrence of Arabia” a decade earlier, Sharif made more than one mediocre film. He said, “I don’t like very much what I’ve done. I can’t forget ‘Dr. Zhivago’ because it was the most important but I don’t have a favourite. In order to keep the excitement, you have to believe that the last film was the best and the next film will be better.”

His latest film had been the title role of “Che!” about which he said he was bitter: “They made changes and I was fighting something bigger than myself. In the end, I gave up the fight. I never saw the picture.”

His next film, “The Last Valley”, based on a story that happens during the Thirty Years War and co-starring Michael Caine, was due for release in the fall.

An Egyptian citizen, Sharif was light-hearted about the banning of his films in his homeland: “‘Dr. Zhivago’ was banned out of courtesy to the Russians, who didn’t like it. “Funny Girl” was banned because they don’t approve of Miss Streisand.”

Of Funny Girl Barbra herself, he said, “I’m very fond of her. I think the world of her. We had a very good relationship and we are good friends. For her, work is everything. She is selfish I guess, when she’s working, but then one should be. But I always fall in love with my leading ladies. It’s very difficult not to.”

Long black hair streaked with red dye from his role in “The Last Valley”, sideburns down to his chin and looking spry in a fit 5-foot-11 frame, Sharif said he liked to play bridge “because since I was a kid I have liked puzzles. Bridge is a series of little puzzles.”

This story appeared in The Windsor Star on Feb. 18 1970

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‘The Play That Goes Wrong’ does right by LAMDA

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By Ray Bennett

LONDON – A fund-raiser for LAMDA, the London Academy of Music & Dramatic Art, attracted a packed house to a performance of hit West End show “The Play That Goes Wrong” on Tuesday. Continue reading

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How James Horner came to write the ‘Titanic’ song

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By Ray Bennett

LONDON – American composer James Horner, who has died in a plane crash aged 61, won an Academy Award along with lyricist Will Jennings for “My Heart Will Go On” sung by Celine Dion in “Titanic”, and it sold millions, but the song was a complete afterthought.

James Cameron’s movie has grossed almost $2.2 billion worldwide and won 11 Oscars including best picture and best score for Horner. The soundtrack album has reported sales of around 28 million and the single was No. 1 around the world.

It almost didn’t happen. Continue reading

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The look on Anne Murray’s face was one of sheer terror

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By Ray Bennett

LONDON – One of Canada’s most successful singers, Anne Murray, who turns 70 today, became a huge international entertainer but she told me two things had made her nervous – performing in Las Vegas and at the Quebec Winter Carnival. Continue reading

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Ready with a zippo for Elizabeth Hurley

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By Ray Bennett

LONDON – Happy birthday to Elizabeth Hurley, who turns 50 today.

I met her at a party during the Festival de Cannes several years ago. I turned on the terrace and there she was in a white dress lit up suddenly from behind by a bright light and to all intents and purposes she appeared to be naked. Continue reading

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When US TV censored hip-swinging Tom Jones

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By Ray Bennett

LONDON – Fans of “The Voice” might not suspect that the venerable Sir Tom Jones, who turns 75 today, was censored on American television when he was younger.

His show “This is Tom Jones” aired on the ABC network for three seasons until 1971 and his electrifying performances made him a huge sex symbol that terrified his network TV bosses. Continue reading

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