What’s wrong with this picture? I was an unproduced screenwriter standing at the threshold to my antique, valley domicile. It was my tiny, first-timer bungalow measuring barely eleven hundred square feet. Across from me, standing on my front stoop, was none other than movie director, John Frankenheimer. You don’t know his name? Maybe you’ve heard of some of his movies. The Birdman of Alcatraz, The Manchurian Candidate, Black Sunday to name just a few. At almost six foot four, the directing great filled the frame of my front door. I couldn’t help but ask myself, “What the hell is he doing here?”

But maybe I should add little context first. Rewind six or seven months. My friend and producer (not-to-mention the War Department’s former boss), Gary Foster (Sleepless in Seattle, Ghostrider), and I had developed a kick-ass thriller written by a veteran TV scribe. We’d sold it to the studio as a pitch, developed draft upon draft of the thriller until it was so tight it squeaked, and now we were in the enviable position of the studio showing enough spark in the project to ask us to bring them a suitable director. If we found one they liked, they would make an offer. A tell-tale precursor to a green light.

Once the net had been cast for a director, the agencies kicked into gear, offering up their clients in the usual, shotgun-any-of-them-against-the-wall-and-see-if-they-stick routine. Since the film was to take place in Europe and the Middle East, we looked for somebody with that kind of flair. As we sorted through our options, Gary fielded a call from an agent who wanted us to consider his iconic client.

“What do you think of John Frankenheimer?” Gary asked me.

My mind instantly replayed scenes from his classic films. I was especially a big fan of Black Sunday, recalling a high school rainy day where I played hooky and parked myself in a movie multiplex for back to back to back showings.

“I love him,” I blurted. After the two of us babbled about him for awhile like a pair of college movie geeks, I asked, “So is he still making movies?”

“TV films,” said Gary, flat and not impressed. Not that fine work wasn’t being performed in the made for television world of cinema. But even I knew the platform was primarily the land of the C-listers. Former movie directors who couldn’t get arrested in features and TV helmers looking to bridge their way into the theatrical market.

“The great John Frankenheimer directing TV movies?” I said sadly. “That’s just wrong.”

“He read our script,” said Gary. “Agent says he loves it and wants to meet us.”

“Hell yeah,” I said. “I’m dying to meet him!”

“Even if we can’t sell him to the studio?” asked Gary. “I don’t want to waste his time.”

“Do we know for sure that the studio won’t make a deal with him?”

“Not for sure,” said Gary. “But when they said go out and get a director, I don’t think they were talking about some washed up old guy.”

“Some washed up old guy? We’re talking John Frankenheimer, man.”

“I know, I know.”

“He read it and wants to do it,” I said. “So let’s give him a chance.”

“Alright, why not,” agreed my partner. “At least this way we get to shake his hand.”

As keen as my memory is with these trench tales, I can’t at all access how we arrived at choosing to have our meeting with John Frankenheimer at my little valley casita. Especially when Gary’s Century City digs were more than comfortable and certainly more professional.

Yet there he stood. The one and only John Frankenheimer on my humble porch, offering a gargantuan hand along with a movie star smile.

“John Frankenheimer,” he introduced himself in a basement baritone, as if he needed to show some kind of ID.

We all parked in my postage-stamp of a living room and, before we buckled down to the subject of our movie, Gary and I instinctively flipped our fanboy switches. For thirty or so minutes the two of us acted like film school brats, thirsty for stories of the filmmaker’s Hollywood adventures.

Frankenheimer didn’t disappoint. He freely waxed about working with Burt Lancaster in The Birdman of Alcatraz, the politics in making both Seven Days in May and The Manchurian Candidate, and guerilla-filming much of Black Sunday’s thrilling, terrorist foot chase through the streets of Miami.

More importantly, nothing about the director appeared old, lamed, or close to washed up. He was vibrant, imbued with the kinetic energy of man who relished every second he could spend on a movie set. As far as Gary and I were concerned, the man had the job, despite not having spoken a single word about our nascent motion picture.

“John,” I added at one point in our fan fest, “I gotta talk to you about your movie The Train.”

I went on to describe the screenplay I’d co-written with my former agent Rick Jaffa and sold to Disney for big bucks (read A Million Dollar View). Our script about a sticky-fingered crew of WWII misfits on the hunt to re-steal a trainload of Nazi-looted Italian treasure featured sequences inspired by Frankenheimer’s brilliant second world war picture about the French resistance.

“Before we wrote it,” I went on to say, “We must’ve re-watched all our favorite World War Two movies. And in our third act, we have this really cool homage to The Train.”

Homage,” grumbled Frankenheimer. “Love the French. Big fan of the country. Their wine. I used to live there, you know. But that fucking word isn’t one of their best creations.”

Homage?” I repeated, proudly remembering my college French classes and pronouncing the word with a silent H.

“Lemme tell you something about that word ‘homage,’” continued Frankenheimer. “I ran into Steven Spielberg some time ago. He was all a twitter, excited to tell me out his ‘homage’ to The Train he stuck in that Raiders movie.”

Raiders of the Los Ark?” clarified Gary.

“Yeah,” said Frankenheimer. “That one. So after Spielberg goes on and on about his ‘homage’, I look him right in the eye and say and ‘Stevie? Funny thing about this French idea of homage. Back in my day? We called it ripping off a fellow director.”

“Oh my God,” I think I said.

“What did Steven say?” asked Gary.

“That was pretty much the end of the conversation,” guffawed Frankenheimer.

I must say, I was both entertained and gobsmacked at the legendary director’s retelling of his in-your-face moment with the world’s most successful moviemaker.

But having clearly crested with the Spielberg story, it was time to downshift into our well-developed screenplay that Frankenheimer wanted to direct. The tenor shift in the meeting was stark. After the grizzled helmer launched into his daring and inspiring take on our film, he quickly devolved into some rather desperate groveling. Though he didn’t exactly beg for the gig, he was clearly not beyond humbling himself to the point of making both Gary and I feel a sudden and strange discomfort. The director appeared to understand far-too-well the distance he’d descended in Moviedom’s myopic food chain. Gary and I were young and on the cusp whilst he was aging and considered by too many as a film history footnote.

The meeting ended. Hands were shaken. And we said our goodbyes. As the filmmaker ambled out my driveway and into his vintage, Italian sports car, Gary and I were already finishing each other’s sentences. Strange as the encounter had ended, we were both huge fans and intent on being part of the great John Frankenheimer’s Hollywood comeback. As much as we loved his tales, we were stoked by how underneath our movie he was. He were convinced he’d direct and daylights out of the film.

The studio, unfortunately, was not as impressed. As we met with the studio head, we were struck by witnessing one of the great showbiz clichés. The production president was so unschooled in modern cinema, he actually asked Frankenheimer what kind of experience he possessed that made him the right director for the job.

I’m not sure John Frankenheimer ever recovered from the insult.

God Bless Gary Foster. He rolled up his sleeves and ground the studio hard in defense of our choice. And though they eventually coughed up a decent offer, Frankenheimer couldn’t get past feeling slighted by the studio chief, asked for more money than they were willing to part with, and sadly we all parted ways.

Damn.

As for our movie, it eventually got made. But that’s another story. Until then, there’s this…

Like anything, entertainment careers have cycles. Updrafts and defeats. The ocassional resurgence and that slow ever-so-slow creep into irrelevancy. Frankenheimer came back briefly with a mild hit in the very excellent Ronin. I pray he relished his last moment in the Hollywood sun the way I relish the memory of his gracing my doorway.

Find reading my blog enjoyable, then please pick up the my thriller BLOOD MONEY that sports an average Amazon rating of 4½ stars and costs less than decent pair of socks. Available in ebook and trade paperback.

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Doug Richardson
Doug Richardson
Author and screenwriter. Books: THE LUCKY DEY THRILLERS: BLOOD MONEY, 99 PERCENT KILL, AND REAPER, THE SAFETY EXPERT, AND THE SMOKING GUN. Movies: HOSTAGE, BAD BOYS, DIE HARD 2.
  • Always a great read. I’ve gotten in the habit of reading a post or two before digging back into my spec.
    Though I fear I will soon run out of old posts to read.

    Thanks for the great blog Doug!

    Best,

    • You’re welcome, Timothy. You might have to soon deal with just one blog before your spec.

  • As usual you don’t disappoint. It’s amazing to me that films get made considering some of the personalities and egos involved.

    Has your opinioned changed about T.V being C-listers in terms of writers, directors etc?

    • My opinion has changed a lot about TV. Much of it because TV has changed. There’s loads better work being done on TV than in features. Thank God for cable.

  • Mac McSharry

    Massive Frankenheimer fan and I envy you meeting him. He still had it and I suggested him for a Bond film in the mid-90’s and was told “he’s past it.”

    Interesting his shooting of Ronin and the BMW commercials are still studied by directors looking to shoot car chases today.

    Would love to know what the project was, Doug. Must have been better than Reindeer Games.

  • Aaron

    Ronin is still one of my all-time favorite films. It’s not perfect, of course, but it’s a great — er, — homage to even his earlier films. And no one has managed to create more kinetic (yes, I borrowed another word from your article) car chase scenes since. Every time I see a movie with car chase scenes now, I can’t help but think there is something missing, and that’s solely because Frankenheimer showed us how awesome they can be.

    • In our movie that Frankenheimer wanted to direct, he wanted to add a car chase scene – the same one that ended up in Ronin. He was just aching to direct such a chase. He pretty much described the Ronin chase and how to film it in my living room that day. So I was thrilled to see he had the chance to finally put that chase on film. Thanks Aaron.

      • Twitter follower Todd Gordon just directed me to this youtube clip of Frankenheimer’s last work. A 7up spot.http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TAfuFaK1NMs&feature=youtu.be

        • Aaron

          Wow. Thanks for sharing that! Wonder what the budget was?

          And how cool that you had a glimpse into what he would eventually do with Ronin. Again, thanks for sharing your stories with us.

  • Milo

    There is this famous story about Fred Zinnemann, you probably heard it. In early ’80s Mr. Zinnemann walks intro one major movie studio for a meeting with studio exec. Studio exec, young and fresh, slick and immaculate asks: “So, mister, tell about about yourself, what movies you helmed”. Mr. Zinnemann answers:”You go first, it’ll be shorter.
    Funny and sad in same time.

    • Milo. I hadn’t heard the Zinnemann story only after I’d been so annoyed by the studio meeting with John F. That’s why I refer to it as a cliche in that it has happened way more often than we’d like to imagine.

  • paul

    Homage equaling ripping off another director…, ha! As usual, thanks for the levity, Doug. And on another, not so humorous note, something in here reminds me of visiting a client one day, a painter, he’d known all the beat poets, taught at that college in North Carolina ( I think ) they all hung out at. But at the time he was all busted up from arthritis and taking the kind of drugs that had him asking me if there were little people hanging out in his car or whether they were just a hallucination. A cleaning woman comes in and begins dusting the room where a lot of his original work hung. She goes up right up to the print that wasn’t his and says oh John, this is the one I really love! Kind of a hugely sad moment, actually. For me more than for him it seemed actually.

  • Steven Axelrod

    My Dad was a great friend of Frankenheimer’s, after working together on the Manchurian Candidate. I’ve always liked Dad’s definition of ‘homage’: “Un-actionable plagiarism”.

  • Great Story, Doug. Went to the Director’s Guild memorial for Frankenheimer, and the roster of speakers was a who’s who 60’s Hollywood and D.C. I remember Doris Kearns-Goodwin relating a story about how it was John who was waiting in his car behind the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel for Bobby Kennedy to emerge so he could drive him up to his house in Malibu. He was supposed to stay with John for the night after his victory speech. Eerie. John also supposedly had nitrous outfits installed on a couple of his cars, and anyone that road with him came away jelly-legged and/or catatonic.

    • Erich Anderson! I can definitely see you and Frankenheimer getting on quite well. In another life, eh?

      • By the way, the “road”/”rode” was intentional, not typo. Halfway through “Blood Money” and loving it. Perfect segments for my commute.

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  • James Hornsby

    “cycles. Updrafts and defeats. The occasional resurgence and that slow ever-so-slow creep into irrelevancy.” That line speaks volumes of the tragedy in that reality of the volatility in this business than any other. And kudos to John for calling homage what it truly is.

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  • I *love* THE TRAIN. So much tension; such a great use of the sound made by the steam engines to simulate a racing heartbeat and rising tension like increaded respiration. You’re the only other person I’ve ever heard reference it! You’ll be waxing lyrical next about SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS! Now there’s a movie ripe for a reboot. Maybe that would be an ‘omage! 🙂

    Cheers, Doug.

    Doug.

  • Alex Simon

    Amazing story, Doug. I got to be friendly with John toward the end of his life, after interviewing him for Venice Magazine in conjunction with the release of “Ronin.” He had me to his office a few times to watch his old kinescopes from the ’50s. He also told me of his friendship with Bobby Kennedy and that it was he who drove RFK to the Ambassador Hotel that fateful night in June of ’68. It’s criminal how great filmmakers like Frankenheimer are tossed on the scrap heap by Hollywood after making some of the truly great films. During our last conversation, days before the surgery that killed him, I bemoaned the state of my career, saying “I just need one break.” I heard a soft chuckle on the other end of the phone: “Alex, I just need a break, and I directed ‘The Manchurian Candidate.’ This is the only election you’ll ever win by one vote. Never give up.” And I never have. RIP John, and thanks again for this and the other great anecdotes of your time in the trenches, Doug!