CHAPTER 11

Countdown

*

Countdown (1968)

Howard Thompson review in The New York Times, May 2, 1968: Say one thing for “Countdown,” a limp spaceflight drama that landed at neighborhood theaters yesterday. It makes the moon seem just as dull as Mother Earth. This color package from Warner Brothers-Seven Arts is simply stultifying. The bulk of it is a slack, cliché-ridden prelude to the climactic space ride, as we see the conditioning of three astronauts at a simulated Cape Kennedy. … Finally, one of the men buckles in and roars aloft, thanks to some documentary footage, as the music rumbles ominously and the rest of the cast hang around a winking control board. By then slow death has already set in, since Robert Altman’s direction is almost as listless as the acting of a dreary cast. The space rider is played by a squinting chap named James Caan.

Robert Altman, to Professor William Parrill, at Southeastern Louisiana University, April 14, 1974: Countdown was a book called The Pilgrim Project that I tried to option, and the Warner brothers got it. They had a low-budget program, and they had called me about doing three or four films, which I had turned down, and I accepted that. We had a very low budget. Jack Warner was still at Warner Brothers, and he saw a television program I had made in Chicago, and it infuriated him, and he said, “You can’t hire that person.” Bill Conrad, who was the producer of that program—he plays Cannon, the fat guy—he was the executive producer on this thing, and he said, well, he was going to hire me.

Robert Duvall handing a flag to James Caan in Countdown

LORING MANDEL: Countdown was my first produced screenplay. The first phone call that I received from Bob, he introduced himself as the director and said he had some questions about the script. He asked me about the overlapping dialogue. I had been doing overlapping dialogue in all my shows going back to the mid-1950s. I said, “I’ve been in Houston, I’ve been at the Cape, to the real space program. What’s in there is as close as I can write to the way it was happening.” In those complicated scenes where people are talking at the same time, it gives it a sense of reality. Obviously, he liked it. In later films he took it steps farther than I did, but that’s where it came from.

Pauline Kael, critic, from unused footage from a Fox Movie Channel documentary, Robert Altman: On His Own Terms: Altman brought some kind of realism and spontaneity into movies, by overlapping the dialogue. It had been done in the theater by McArthur and Hecht in The Front Page. It had been done in almost every good American work, and he simply carried it further. Made it more of a group overlap. And it was wonderful because you heard exactly every line you needed to hear. People who complained weren’t really listening…. They were used to the Broadway sound where you get a line and then a dead space. What Altman did was get rid of the dead spaces.

MICHAEL MURPHY: Bob figured he could do something interesting with it. It was Jimmy Caan and Bob Duvall and myself. We were three astronauts. The Russians had gone to the moon—you’ve got to remember, we were in the middle of the Cold War at this point—and Bob was already talking about the futility of it all. So Jimmy, being the biggest name, gets to go to the moon. And Duvall wants to go, he’s like the military guy, and I’m a civilian astronaut who says, “I’m not going to go, they’re not ready.”

ROBERT DUVALL (actor): There are directors who want to control it. I remember one old-time director said, “When I say, ‘Action!’ I expect you to tense up, goddamn it!” Can you imagine what that does to the work? What do you think would happen if a coach told that quarterback up in New England that every time you get hiked the ball, you better tense up?

It was always a very relaxed scene with Bob. We shot one of those scenes out at his house at Mandeville Canyon, a party scene, and there was drinking but nobody served food. I ended up eating one of their kids’ lunch. Kathryn never let me forget that.

MICHAEL MURPHY: What Bob did that was interesting was he focused a lot on the wives. They all drink too much. They all live in their husbands’ shadows. The guys are outside showing each other the engines in their Corvettes, and they’re kind of adolescent in a way. And the women are more mature and half of them are whacked by noon. That’s what interested him. He shifted it off the action of the space shot into the sociological thing of being married to one of those guys. What it does to your soul to live on one of those bases.

Something happened on Countdown that had a real impact on me. I went out to Hollywood and I thought, “Well, you know, I’ll be Dr. Kildare or somebody like that.” I knew I had a look that they used. Then I got to know Bob. I mean, suddenly I thought, “Whoa, this is interesting. What the hell is going on here? This is great.” So while we’re doing Countdown an offer came in for me to be in some movie with an elephant. They wanted some young guy to go on a safari or something. Bob was laughing about it. He said, “You know, you’ll make some money if you do that kind of stuff. But if you use your head and make good choices, you’ll do interesting work. You’ll never be a movie star, but you’ll lead a more interesting life.” And I went in and turned it down.

I’m just crazy about the guy. In ways that have nothing to do with the movies, he was probably the biggest influence in my life. Yeah, I really think he was. I was just at the right age, I was interested, I was naïve, I didn’t know much about these things, about politics and how everything works. And he just led me.

JAMES CAAN (actor): Bob was great. He was a wild man, but he was so far ahead of his time. He drove the sound department nuts. Everybody was wired. He was basically the first guy to do this—you would be at a party and hear three, four conversations at once. It was like real life, by God.

So one night we’re working all night. We have a lunch break around midnight or one in the morning. He wanted to show us this little movie he did—The Party. They put up this stand-up screen, we sit down and we’re eating and it starts. Maybe halfway through it there is a shot of a girl coming in with a tray—she kind of turns to the camera and then she walks out. Five seconds go by—I scream, “Back that fucker up!”

Bob goes, “What?”

I say, “Just stop it, stop it!”

“What’s the matter with you?”

“Just stop it, back it up. Please! Stop!”

He does, and I go, “Who the fuck is that? Oh my God, is she gorgeous.”

And he goes, “It’s my daughter.” “Oh God, I had no idea.”

Well, it was his stepdaughter, Konni. We started dating. She was a really great girl.

KONNI CORRIERE: Jimmy was wonderful, just so sweet. He would pick me up at UCLA—he would wear a letterman’s jacket and he would have a piece of licorice for me. He’d open up my textbooks and read in different dialects. He was just as charming as could be. We dated quite a while, both before and after my marriage.

MICHAEL MURPHY: So in the movie we have a way we figure we can get Jimmy to the moon, but we haven’t got a way to get him back. So they shoot a shelter up on the lunar surface, they send Jim up, and he has to find the shelter and stay in it until we can get him down [laughs]. That was the idea of the movie. So Bob shoots all this, and at the end of the movie you see James Caan arrive on the face of the moon and he’s walking around and he finds the three Russians and they’re dead, the cosmonauts. And there’s a Russian flag there. So Jimmy takes out the American flag, he’s got it in his pack. Jimmy put the American flag under it or beneath it or to the side of it. And you see him start to walk off, and the camera pulls back, and you see the shelter, and he’s walking in the wrong direction, and that’s the end of the movie.

Well, Jack Warner thought it was a Communist plot [laughs].

Robert Altman, to Professor William Parrill, at Southeastern Louisiana University, April 14, 1974: I had a meeting with Mr. Warner, and he said, “I don’t like what you do. I call it fog on the lake.” Not understanding that, I accepted it. We shot the film, and we really tried to talk about this astronaut program in terms of real people rather than heroes. The film was shot on that level and to underplay the hardware and the suspense. Warner never saw it until about the time that it was finished and the film was just getting into assembly, first cut, and one night—I had gone home—and he, which he did quite a bit of, he called to look at the film. And then I got a call which said, “Don’t come in tomorrow because the guards won’t let you in the gate.” And he said, the quote was, “That fool has actors talking at the same time.”

LORING MANDEL: As Bob was working on it, the talk about the film was very positive. I remember Bob calling me once and saying, “I’m getting invited to parties I never got invited to before. Everybody thinks this is going to be a terrific picture.” But Jack Warner was furious about the overlapping dialogue. So Bob was off the picture and Bill Conrad came on. Conrad did a little rewriting of the last part of the movie and reshot a little of it, and that’s the movie that came out. Before the movie was released I was brought to Hollywood to see a screening of it. I was really appalled at what happened at the end. I wanted to take my name off it but my agent convinced me that was a disastrous thing to do on a first solo-credit screenplay.

MICHAEL MURPHY: So they take the picture away from Bob and they reshoot the ending. And Jimmy is walking towards the shelter and now the American flag is positioned above the Commie flag! [Laughs] I remember going to a screening of it. Bob wasn’t there. For a young guy, Jimmy Caan took no prisoners. He was a tough guy. And he stood up at the end of the thing, he said, “Well, you cut Altman right out of the goddamn movie.” He just really let them have it. Everybody sort of sat there in shocked silence. I thought it was great. Because that’s exactly what they had done. But nobody knew, of course, at the time, that M*A*S*H was crouching in the wings.

JAMES CAAN: Bill Conrad took the picture away from him at the end. It was so comic book, so corny, and Bob is anything but corny. The original ending, you don’t know if he sees the beacon or if he’s going off the wrong way. Conrad said, “No, we can’t do that.” There was this whole bullshit with this toy mouse in my pocket. I spin the mouse and I head off in the direction of its ass or its nose or whatever it shows—obviously toward the beacon. I think they called us back without Bob, and that fat bastard Conrad called us back to do a day of shooting, with that spinning mouse thing. I remember that screening. They said, “Oh, we probably won’t use that ending.” You know how they say “Fuck you” in Hollywood, right? “Trust me.” I remember thinking about Bob when I saw what they did. It was his first real movie, so what is he going to do? I sent Conrad a ten-pound box of chocolates. He was such a big, fat guy. I think he got the message: “Here, have another chocolate.”

Bob and I kind of stayed friends. Then Bob had this book he wanted to option. We got to talking, drinking of course, and I think he needed some stupid little amount of money—to buy a book was like seventy-five hundred bucks. I haven’t the faintest idea what the book was—I knew he liked it, and that was enough. Anyway, I loaned it to him. I gave it to him. Then this terrible thing happened. He was in between jobs, he was broke, and consequently when he saw me it was awkward. It was an unspoken thing. He never mentioned it again. Neither did I. His friendship was worth more than that. As time went on he started avoiding me because of the embarrassment of it. I never said a word about it until the day he died. After that when we saw each other we were friends, but it put something between us.

Robert Altman, to David Thompson, from Altman on Altman: Actually, being fired from Countdown was great for me, because each time something like that happens, you get a battle scar and you know how to protect yourself in that situation again. It was the choice I had to make at that time in my career. Was I going to try to keep going in television? Why was I staying inside this bubble? Am I the artist here? And I made the only choice that was really available to me, because I would never have survived inside the system. I would have been chewed up and spat out.

*   *   *

That Cold Day in the Park (1969)

Charles Champlin, review headlined “A Sick Character Gets Sicker,” the Los Angeles Times, June 26, 1969: Perish forbid every movie should have a message. But the movie which has nothing to convey to us beyond the sequence of its own events had better concoct some pretty special events or generate a very special atmosphere or else it is in trouble. Which brings us, shivering, to “That Cold Day in the Park”… a small, well-directed but still unsuccessful movie….[Sandy] Dennis is a sex-starved spinster who rescues [Michael] Burns from a rainswept park bench and sets him up in her spacious Vancouver apartment.

Sandy Dennis searches for a prostitute for the boy she holds captive in her apartment in That Cold Day in the Park. At far left is Michael Murphy, playing the Rounder, who supplies girls for hire.

GEORGE LITTO (agent): Everything was fine with me—everything was fine and flying. Then I heard from a social friend of mine. His name was Don Factor; he was the son of Max Factor. He told me he wanted to be in the movie business. And before Waldo Salt wrote Midnight Cowboy, I got Don to advance Waldo twenty-five thousand dollars, which was not a small amount of money in those days. Don wanted to do more things, and I went to a restaurant one night called Dolce Vita. I went to my booth and I looked over, and there were Bob and Kathryn and a group of people. I hadn’t seen him, it must be for over a year. I walked up behind him and I kissed him on the cheek.

I said, “How are you?”

He turned. “George,” he said, “I’m lousy.”

I said, “Come on, how are things going?”

He said, “Terrible.”

I said, “You need an agent?”

He said, “Yeah.”

I said, “I’d like to be your agent.”

The next day, he said he’s got this book called That Cold Day in the Park. He sent me the project and I said, “This is good.” I told him, “I want you to meet a friend of mine who wants to be in the film business. He’s a good guy, his name is Don Factor.”

I put them together in a company called Factor Altman. Later on, I brought in a business-affairs guy to be their partner, to take care of the business because otherwise they bothered me too much. And I owned a piece of the company too, but I didn’t put my name on it. So we got going with Cold Day in the Park.

DONALD FACTOR (producer): Before I made the deal with Bob I talked to a friend of my father’s who was an old-time agent. He said, “He’s a big talent, but keep away from him; he’s trouble.” That was the kind of advice I wouldn’t listen to in those days. Bob wasn’t very popular until he became a superstar himself.

The two of us went off to England. I took him—Bob was broke. No one wanted to hire him. What had happened was, he wasn’t working, so we agreed we would make a little short together. It was called Pot au Feu. It was a jokey film about smoking pot, and it was a takeoff of a cooking show, only it explained rolling a joint instead of making a meal. It was a piece of therapy for us. It was great fun because it was still rather daring to admit you did that kind of thing. We shot it in sixteen millimeter and took a print of that with us to London and used that as a calling card. We hired a screening room in London and called everyone in the industry who might be of value to us. We had drinks and hors d’oeuvres and we kept running it over and over again, but we didn’t succeed in putting a deal together.

We got along great, but I can remember one argument in London. I had rented a service flat in Mayfair, a two-bedroom affair. My girlfriend at the time, Vanessa Mitchell, and I were in one bedroom and he was in the other. One night he was rather drunk and we got into an argument and we were both rather pissed. It was a terrible argument and he ordered me out of the apartment. Of course I went, and when I got out into the street I realized, “Hey, I’m renting this place!” But most of our time together was very good. He fell out with almost everybody, but we never did fall out.

ROBERT ALTMAN: One thing I remember about Don Factor is one of the great pot-smoking stories of all time. We were in Palm Springs.

DONALD FACTOR: We came to an intersection with a red light. Bob was driving and we stopped. Chatting away, chatting away, and I said, “Why doesn’t that light change?”

KATHRYN REED ALTMAN: Bob says, “God, that’s a long signal. Is it broken?” Finally, Don Factor says, “That’s not the signal! The signal is over there on the corner, and it’s green.”

ROBERT ALTMAN: I’d been looking at a red light on the dashboard, thinking it was a traffic signal.

DONALD FACTOR: It was the battery light. That was really being stoned. I don’t know how long we sat there, but it was wonderful.

GEORGE LITTO: Factor and Altman were two very different guys, but they got along famously. Don Factor was very low-key, very intelligent, very sensitive, very unassuming, very wealthy, loved the adventure of being in the film business and he really had a high I.Q. for talent and taste. And he really liked Bob’s work. I got him together with Bob, and he could identify. He had the sensitivity and the brains. What he didn’t have is the backbone to put up with all the bullshit you have to put up with. That’s another side of the business; you got to be like Teflon to survive. But he was a terrific guy. So they got on great.

Bob got Sandy Dennis interested in doing the movie. And Gillian Freeman was the writer. She had a reputation for The Leather Boys, a film that Sidney Furie did which got some distinction.

GILLIAN FREEMAN (writer): I had a phone call sometime in March 1967 and a voice said, “You won’t know me, my name is Robert Altman, and I’m here with Donald Factor looking for a writer. Are you free to have lunch with us today?” Of course I said yes, and we met at L’Escargot, a restaurant in Soho that was—still is—a popular place for writers, publishers, film and TV producers, and various celebrities to meet. I felt that there was an immediate rapport between the three of us; both men were very laid-back and easy to talk to. Looking back, sartorially we epitomized the sixties. I was wearing a very short black coat cut like a man’s, with a velvet collar, and a black-and-white-check flat cap. Don Factor was in a turtleneck sweater and sports jacket and Bob was wearing a leather bomber jacket and also a rather British flat cap. They outlined to me the story of a novel, entitled That Cold Day in the Park, by Richard Miles, and seemed full of imaginative ideas, and I very much wanted to work with them. The story was about a lonely woman who, from her window overlooking a park, sees a boy sitting alone on a bench on a cold day. The boy appears mute and never speaks. She takes him in and becomes possessive about her “captive,” who sneaks out at night. Bob and Don appeared to look no further for a writer, and within two weeks I and my two daughters, Harriet and Matilda, aged nine and six, were on our way to L.A.

Script sessions proceeded at Bob’s rented offices at 1334 Westwood Boulevard. We would talk each section of the story through in general terms, then in detail, before breaking for lunch at restaurants in Westwood. Then I would go off to my apartment for a couple of days and write up each scene we had discussed. Then we’d go through it, make any necessary changes, and discuss the next section. Don sat in on most meetings, occasionally making suggestions. Much of the money for the film came from his cosmetic inheritance from Max Factor. Bob ran showings of his previous films and TV work for me and I was impressed with the way he used the camera, with his atmospheric night shots, and by the way he made one conscious of the weather and general mise-en-scène. He was an easy and stimulating man to work with, and his concern with each scene was whether it seemed right for the story rather than what the film might gross.

ROBERT ALTMAN: I sent that script to Ingrid Bergman, and she sent me back a note—she was rather insulted by that part. And I sent it also to Vanessa Redgrave. That’s how Sandy Dennis came up. She said, “Try her.” She read it and agreed to do it. It was just this story of this woman and this younger guy. I’ll tell you who I turned down for that part—Jack Nicholson. Jack wanted it—he came to my office and we talked about it. And I said, “Jack, I think you’re too old for it.”

GEORGE LITTO: So we got Columbia interested. The film was supposed to take place in London originally. The park was Hyde Park. Again, they were close to a deal but couldn’t get it together. I flew over with Bob to try to get the deal made, and after several meetings with Columbia and other things, I said, “Bob, this isn’t going to work. I’ve been here for, whatever, ten days. I can’t spend any more time on this, and these guys are screwing you around. They’re screwing us around. They can’t make a decision. We’ve got to leave.”

He said to me, “Well, I can’t pay my bills. I need five thousand dollars to get out of here.”

I gave him the five thousand. And that night we went out to dinner. We ended up at the Colony Club, a gambling place. George Raft, I was very friendly with him, he was the maître d’ there, the “Mr. Lucky” of the Colony Club. Bob says, “I’m going to throw a little craps.” I told him to be careful. I’m talking, we’re drinking, we’re all having a good time, and I see a crowd at the table, and I look over and I see Bob rolling the dice. And I hear the crowd roar. I go over there and what I find out is he got permission to put five thousand dollars on the line and he crapped out. And I said, “I’m going to fucking kill you.”

DONALD FACTOR: After London, Bob flew up to Canada and rang me up and said, “You’ve got to get up here right away.”

GEORGE LITTO: We came back here and Bob had this idea of going to Vancouver, where they had no unions and the atmosphere was good. He could make the picture for a price, three hundred fifty thousand or four hundred thousand. That movie would have cost a million in London, let’s say, with Sandy Dennis. She went along and we were able to get the deal made with her.

DANFORD GREENE (film editor): When we did Cold Day, Bob found this wonderful house in West Vancouver, which I shared with Bob and Bob Eggenweiler, who we called Egg, who was a producer. We had a cook, a big Prussian woman. Anyway, it was a very family-oriented situation and we would talk about the picture at night and this woman would make dinner along with Egg, who loved to cook.

One time, I had this girl over, and she got up and left early. I’m in the bedroom doing push-ups. Bob walks by, looks in, and says, “Danny, your girl is gone.” We had that kind of fun.

They built this set on a big soundstage in West Vancouver, and Leon Ericksen built it. It was a set that was a whole interior of a very large apartment. He made it extra large so that Bob could get a camera into every place in that set. I learned so much from Bob—knowledge just fell off him onto me. I always loved the way he could walk into a set that he’d never been in, a place where you were going to shoot, and look around and in thirty seconds, if that, he’d say, “Okay, the camera goes here and we’ll put the tracks over there.” He just laid that shot out so fast.

We used to watch a lot of the pro games and he would bet—you know, in those days he was betting five hundred dollars a game. That was a lot of dough then. He liked to gamble. He liked to live. Liked his Scotch and grass and good food.

Dialogue from A Wedding:

REVEREND DAVID RUTELEDGE (Played by Gerald Busby): Dr. Meecham, as a physician you should know the body is the temple of the Holy Spirit.

Dr. JULES MEECHAM (Played by Howard Duff): You mean you don’t drink?

REVEREND DAVID RUTELEDGE: No.

Dr. JULES MEECHAM: In other words, when you get up in the morning that’s as good as you’re gonna feel all day.

*   *   *

DANFORD GREENE: There was another side of him, too. There was this girl, a hairdresser, married, and really a dynamite sex-looking thing. So I put that together one night and borrowed the car. The next morning he’s grilling me about what I did, and I didn’t have a good story made up. I didn’t want to tell him what happened. Anyway, he finally gets me to say who it is. And I say, “Jesus, it’s really touchy, so please don’t say anything.” Well, the next day this girl comes up to me and just lays me out. That prick just went up to her and said, “Oh, you got fucked last night by my editor,” or something like that. I was so embarrassed. That’s a terrible situation. But he liked to do things like that, embarrass people that he shouldn’t put on the spot, because they were part of him, you know? I’ve thought about all the things it might be—control? envy?—but he had all of that stuff. He didn’t need to do that at all. I don’t know. I talked to guys that he kind of got rid of or bounced out, and they’ve all said the same thing, that he kind of likes to hurt the people he loves.

He could be a prick sometimes, but he had too much good in him. It’s Kansas City or something. There’s no Hollywood horseshit. That’s one of the reasons I liked him so much. We were two Kansas City boys playing Hollywood. Playing movies.

MICHAEL MURPHY: Cold Day in the Park is an example of Bob just picking himself off the ground. To me that was his major, major virtue. I mean this guy, I’d seen him just flattened by studios and no money, and he just gets up and starts casting, you know? Which is exactly what he did with that movie. And there was a time when the money fell out. He had a little billfold together, and then that fell out, and he just pushed ahead.

GRAEME CLIFFORD (assistant director): He had a preproduction speech at the beginning of the movie that just captured his whole approach. He said, “Anybody can come up to me at any time and give me any ideas they have or discuss anything they want. Sometimes I’ll use them and sometimes I won’t. I may not always have time to tell you why I’m not going to use your idea, but I’ll always listen.” I didn’t work for anybody else for the next five years, and I just assumed everybody worked this way—the way he treated the crew, the way he treated actors. I stole that speech and I use it on any movie I make, but you think many directors say that?

DONALD FACTOR: Everyone came to rushes every evening to watch each other’s work. That became a trademark of Bob’s—getting everyone together, letting them know they were all in it together. Bob would have a bottle of whiskey and a few joints and we’d have a party until Bob was out and had to be carried off to bed. The next morning, we’d all be dragging and Bob would be full of energy and raring to go.

I saw how talented Bob was in the scene where Michael Burns’s character, who’s called The Boy, sneaks out of the apartment and Sandy Dennis’s character finally gets her nerve up to make a pitch to him, except it’s to an empty bed. Sandy objected. She said, “I would know there was no one there.” Bob took her aside and said, “Look, Sandy, let’s just try it my way, and if it doesn’t work, we’ll try it another way.” She couldn’t say no to that. She went in and it was a long monologue to an empty bed with pillows stuffed into it. It was a single take and Bob said cut. Even the crew in the scaffolding was applauding. That was it. It was Altman magic.

GILLIAN FREEMAN: The next thing I knew was a phone call from Canada at two in the morning. Bob’s voice said, “You know that picture we worked on, well, we just finished it five minutes ago.” Don Factor had put up more of his money, half a million dollars on a budget of one-point-two million dollars.

I liked the film a lot. It had a lot of those qualities that made so many of Bob’s films marvelous and memorable, although I have to admit that Bob’s habit of letting the actors skip the written dialogue I found irritating, thinking that their ad-libbing was less succinct, less illuminating of their characters, than the dialogue I had written.

A year or two later Bob outlined another story idea of his own to me and gave me permission to flesh it out as a novel, which I did. Entitled An Easter Egg Hunt, it was set during the first World War and involved the mysterious disappearance of a young French teacher. It proved to be one of my most successful novels, going into several editions. For many years Bob talked about developing it as a film, but there was always another project that he wanted to do first.

GEORGE LITTO: So he made Cold Day and I sold it to this new company, Commonwealth United. It was well regarded and liked, and it was a very well made, good film. But it was no hit. It was a small company and they were new and they didn’t know how to promote a hit, you know?

DONALD FACTOR: It wasn’t very successful. Critics didn’t think much of it until Bob became Bob. Then they discovered things to like about it.

GEORGE LITTO: After Cold Day, one night I was having a party at my house. I said, “Bob, before you go home I want to give you a script to read.”

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