The House of Harryhausen, or a Day with Ray
On one of my trips to London, during which I had made plans to get together with Michael Winner to check on his progress developing the Captain America movie, I was privileged to be invited to his home. It was in Knightsbridge, I believe.
Winner lived in a very nice home. I recall that he had a fine collection of Arthur Rackham illustrations on display in the hall as you entered. Wow.
We spoke about his ongoing development of a screenplay. He wouldn’t tell me much about it, except how brilliant it was going to be. He had acquired a vast collection of Captain America comic books. And, he had hired an assistant to advise him, an “expert” on comic books.
Winner introduced me to the guy. In a few minutes of conversation I sussed out that the guy had utter contempt for me—he was a Shooter-is-Satan Kool-Aid drinker. Worse he had a total misconception of Captain America, who he saw as Captain Yankee A**hole.
Worse still, Winner seemed to weight this benighted fool’s observations at least the same as mine.Good grief.
Let’s say I was doing a new comic book story about Death Wish protagonist Paul Kersey, and I had brought in an “expert” whose chief qualification was that he had seen a lot of movies. Let’s say also that the guy was a Labour Party supporter who hated Michael Winner. Say I weighted that guy’s opinion the same as Winner’s. What do you think Winner would have thought?
I doubt it. More like, “You bloody, @#$%∓*^#@ wanker!”
What could I do? Nothing, until I saw the screenplay.
Winner had made lunch reservations at a nearby, upscale place. He asked me whether or not I would mind if one of his neighbors joined us. Ray Harryhausen. No. I didn’t mind at all.
We met Harryhausen at the restaurant. It was one of the greatest lunches of my life. I think there was food, but I don’t remember that. I was focused on everything Harryhausen said, and I had a zillion questions for him.
Surely you know of Ray Harryhausen, but if you don’t, basic info is here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ray_Harryhausen
After lunch, Harryhausen asked me if I’d like to come and see some of his work at his house, a short walk away. You betcha.
I got to meet Harryhausen’s lovely wife. Harryhausen gave Winner and I the house tour (though I’m certain Winner had seen it all before). Throughout the house—four floors, if I remember correctly—were display cases full of models from Harryhausen’s films: The Mighty Joe Young, The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, Jason and the Argonauts, Clash of the Titans, and the rest. Wow.
What a great day.
Many years later, I was at the San Diego Comic-con. I was walking down a hallway in the Marriott Hotel, fresh from drinks and a chat with Dean Devlin, and who should be approaching from the other direction but Harryhausen, his wife and entourage. Harryhausen recognized me! And called me over. I spoke briefly with the Harryhausens, honored that they remembered me.
Years later, I was at an I-CON at Stony Brook on Long Island where Harryhausen was a guest and speaker. I was in the audience for one of his presentations, but he was so mobbed afterwards, I couldn’t get near him to say hello.
At some point during my dealings with Winner, I had a trip planned to London. The usual place to stay for Marvel execs was the London Hilton on Park Lane. I was booked there for a week or so. I had business with the London office and a meeting with Winner scheduled. As it happened, Marvel President Jim Galton was also going to be in London at the same time.
The day I left, Bob Layton was hanging around the office bewailing his need for a vacation and lamenting the fact that he couldn’t afford one.
Maybe he was expecting the Bullpen to take up a collection.
I went to London and checked into the Hilton. I spent the first few days working at Marvel’s London office.
Then one evening, when I came back to the hotel, there was Bob Layton in the lobby, sitting atop his suitcase.
Bob had scraped together the money for a one-way airfare to London. He had no money and no ticket home. Not even a credit card. That’s why he was in the lobby. He couldn’t check in there or anywhere. He was counting on me to loan him the money to pay for his “vacation” and return fare. No worries, said he, he had huge royalties coming from the two issues of Secret Wars he’d butchered, and he’d pay me back out of that money.
My first instinct was to tell him to swim home.
But, I calmed down. All right. He was there. Fait accompli. He was a friend (or so I thought at the time). And, I guess I’m a sucker.
As long as he paid me back before the Amex bill came….
The Park Lane Hilton is very nice, by the way. If you want a look:
Sometime during the course of the next few days, Winner was giving a lecture at the University of Cambridge, and invited me. I told him one of our artists was in town and he said Bob was welcome to come. Winner sent a chauffeured car for us. A Jaguar Saloon, in fact. Nice.
We arrived in the early afternoon with plenty of time to look around. Winner had equipped us with a map and a note telling us what to be sure to see.
Before the lecture, we had dinner with Winner his girlfriend and a group of students. Bob later told me Winner’s girlfriend was one of the Benny Hill girls. I don’t know. She was very pretty.
Winner’s lecture was about his career, filmmaking and The Wicked Lady in particular. Very interesting. The lecture hall—a big one—was packed. One thing Winner said, explaining the way he worked was: “A team effort is a group of people doing exactly what I tell them.”
And people think I’m strict.
Bob and I had been seated in the front row. At one point, Winner asked us to stand and gave us a very flattering introduction which brought a hearty round of applause. He made us sound like visiting dignitaries/brilliant creators.
I wonder what they thought of us before that? A couple of ugly Americans rumpled from the long car trip and a few hours tramping around Cambridge, gawking at the 15th and 16th Century buildings and the punters on the Cam. We definitely stood out in that pressed and proper crowd. Plus, in those days, Bob deliberately went for outrageous. His own description of his sartorial style was “game show host from Hell.”
Possibly that was part of the reason Winner privately referred to Bob as a wanker. It wasn’t hard to make Winner’s wanker list. I’m probably on it now, too. See below.
Anyway…that day was quite an experience.
So finally, in early December, by messenger, Winner sent me the Captain America screenplay. Here’s the cover letter:
It was awful. Campy-to-ridiculous. Not Captain America. Way off.
There was one good scene in it. After awakening from suspended animation for forty years, Captain America is in a car, being driven through the streets of New York, on his way somewhere. Out the window he sees run down and abandoned buildings. Offensive graffiti. Streets strewn with garbage. Hookers, pimps, homeless people, punks, thugs, drug dealers…. He turns to the government official next to him and says, words to the effect, “Who won the war?!”
I wrote Winner the most polite response I could. I tried to be as upbeat as possible. Difficult under the circumstances. Like, “Gee, there are some fun things in this, but it really doesn’t represent Cap very well.” That sort of approach.
Here is Winner’s response:
I never saw or heard from Winner again. The project was abandoned, I believe. Not because of me, mind you. I think Marvel and Winner wanted my involvement and would have appreciated my opinion—if it had been a rave. It wasn’t, so it was ignored.
But for some reason, the project went into limbo for a while.
Some other director/producer eventually inherited the screenplay and the project. The film was made and released in 1990. I don’t know if any rewriting was done. I’ve never seen it. From what I’ve heard, it’s not good. It might be worth seeing just because Billy Mumy is in it. I like Bill. Great guy.
P.S. Bob eventually paid me back most of what he owed me, but not for a long time and not without drama.
NEXT, since Captain America is on my mind: A Review: Captain America and Bucky #624