Jeff Pearlman

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John Herzfeld

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The director of Days in the Valley and HBO's Don King: Only in America explains what it's like to stand behind a camera and create cinema genius. POSTED November 30, 2011

We live in a strange world, and an even stranger country. Though we love when people succeed, we devote an equal—if not greater—passion to failure. Sure, it’s fun when Tom Cruise stars in Rainman, but it’s even better when he bombs in Knight and Day. Why? Well, I suppose because setbacks help reduce the elite to our level. From afar, we take our sports superstars and cinematic and musical icons as untouchable beacons of light. When they fall short … when they trip, well, they’re back with us. On the ground. Dirty. We dig that. It’s not cool, but we do.

John Herzfeld knows whereof I speak. In 1983, he had the opportunity to direct Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta in Two of a Kind—their first partnership since Grease. The film, as you probably know, bombed, and along with the two stars, Herzfeld took much of the heat. Was it solely his fault? Hardly. Just like a magazine, a book, a concert, a CD—films are collaborative efforts. But, to a certain degree, John was attached at the hip to Two of a Kind. It would, inevitably, be his legacy.

Only, it wasn’t. In the ensuing three decades, John has done some absolutely fantastic work, including 2 Days in the Valley, HBO’s Don King: Only in America and the unforgettable TV film, The Ryan White Story. He is an Emmy winner, a former member (well, for an episode) of the Dukes of Hazard cast and the husband of Rebekah Chaney, the actress/director.

Here, John talks Two of a Kind, Ryan White, Don King, Rex Grossman, Sly Stallone and fighting through the kidney stone from hell in the name of cinematic purpose.

John Herzfeld, Quaz away …

JEFF PEARLMAN: Back in 1999, I wrote a story for Sports Illustrated about John Rocker. The piece included a bunch of Rocker’s racist world viewpoints, and sorta blew up. Some 12 years later, I’m still remember, first and foremost, as “the Rocker guy”—and I’m sick of it. You’ve had a wonderful career in TV and movies, yet it’s hard to find an article about your career that doesn’t mention Two of a Kind, your 1983 feature film directorial debut (starring John Travolta and Olivia Newton John) that, well, flopped. This obviously happens to a lot of people—folks seem to focus on the setbacks more than the successes. But have you come to terms with it? Does it irk you? And (I’m asking this as someone who honestly liked Two of a Kind,), do you consider it a better piece of work than people give credit for?

JOHN HERZFELD: Have I come to terms with it? You have to. Does it irk me? Yes, because—as I’m sure I’m not the first filmmaker to say it—the final product was very different from the movie I made. My version was much darker and all the heaven scenes were re-shot. In my version God had become fed up with the world and had decided to flood it again. Between the Holocaust, Vietnam War, Elvis dying and other disappointments he decided to end civilization. Only until the angels convinced him to show that man was still inherently good—did he decide to give civilization a second chance. Which, by the way, was the name of the movie—Second Chance. Until it was re-titled.

God was also in the eye of the beholder. When Charles Durning looked at him he was white, when Beartrice Straight looked at him—God was a woman, when Scatman Crothers looked at him he was black and when Castulo Guerra looked at him he was Spanish. In the end the studio felt that this could anger some religious groups and this subplot was expunged. But the original voice of God was done by Orson Welles. What a thrill it was to work with him.

Bottom line, though it put me in movie jail, it’s all part of the journey. I made great friends on that movie—Scatman and I were close until the day he passed away.

J.P.: You grew up in West Orange, N.J. … the son of Henry Herzfeld, a World War II veteran and appliance company owner. So how did this happen? Literally, what was your path from kid to Hollywood?

J.H.: I was an extremely lucky kid. In the second grade I realized I wanted to be in the movie business and I never wavered (except for a brief time from 13-to-14 when I wanted to become a gangster). Throughout all my years at school I had but one goal—to make it in the movies. On weekends I would see eight movies. Back then they had double features and I would see two Friday night, a Saturday matinee, two more Saturday night and two more Sunday. Sometimes I’d cut school in West Orange, take the bus down Newark, see two movies, jump back on the bus, go home—and my mother would never know I didn’t go to school.  Movies were my film school.

Here’s how I made my transition: The day after I graduated high school I got on a plane and flew to Los Angeles.  I hitchhiked up to the Sunset Strip because that was supposed to be where it was at.  When I got out of the car it was like a sign from heaven.  A movie was filming. There was a line of extras outside the Whiskey a Go-Go.  I hid my little suitcase in the back of the building, went around front and snuck into the line of extras.  In the scene they were shooting an actor was chasing a girl out of Whiskey a Go-Go, stopped her and started apologizing. I wormed my way to the front of the line to be right behind the scene. The AD asked me, “Hey kid, do you smoke?” I answered quickly “Me? Of course. I’m a chain smoker.” He said, “You watch him argue with her, light your cigarette, be amused by it and react. Can you do that?”  “Absolutely” I said.  When he walked away the extra standing next to me enviously said, “You’re not with us. You sneaked in.” This was my big break. I threatened him, “If you bust me, I’ll kill ya!” They did the scene several times and I smoked a few cigarettes and watched. After it was over the AD asked for my voucher cause he was gonna upgrade me to special business. I told him I snuck in. He said “Please don’t tell anybody, just leave.” I asked what was the name of the movie.  He said, I thought, High School Graduation. I asked who the star was. He said “Dirt something.”  At the end of the summer I went home and told everybody I was in a movie about high school starring Dirt something. The movie came out and there I was on the big screen. The movie was called The Graduate.

J.P.: In a 1996 interview with the MetroWest Jewish News, you said that, after World War II (and, specifically, your father’s part in liberating Dachau”), your dad became a “real fatalist.” What did you mean by that? And how did that impact your life and your world view?

J.H.: Man, you do your homework. My father saw a lot of action in World War II.  He actually stayed on after the war for almost two years. And was made the military governor of Bavaria and was in charge of de-Nazifying that section of Germany.

During a firefight in Germany, on their way to Dachau, my father and the Captain of his platoon dove into a foxhole taking cover from enemy fire. A sniper shot my father in the helmet, the bullet ricochet off and killed the captain. He then took charge of the platoon. That moment made him a fatalist.

J.P.: Years ago you visited Auschwitz and called the experience “the most profound day of my entire life.” How so? And, specifically, how did that impact your approach to 2 Days in the Valley?

J.H.: Anyone who has taken a tour of Auschwitz or any of the other camps will tell you that it was a profoundly horrifying experience. It shakes you to the very core of your being. I had never really believed in the, quote-unquote, devil. But when I left there I believed Hitler was the devil. Those camps were the pinnacle of evil.

J.P.: You became known in the 1980s for directing two ABC Afterschool Specials—which were, without question, staples of my youth. In particular, you’re responsible for the 1980 film Stoned, which stars Scott Baio as a kid who became involved in marijuana. You were later given the “Scott Newman Drug Abuse Prevention Award” for the film. I’m wondering a few things: A. Did you enjoy doing the Afterschool programs? B. Marijuana use is sort of a joke in many circles—as in, “Uh, it’s just pot.” Were you a strident anti-marijuana advocate, or was a gig a gig?

J.H.: I had written a love story called Voices which MGM made with Michael Ontkean and Amy Irvin. It was about a singer who falls in love with a deaf girl. A producer named Linda Gottlieb (of Dirty Dancing fame) made me an offer: If you write an after school special, I’ll get you approved to direct it.  Which is what I wanted to do—direct. I came up for the idea for Stoned not because I was a “strident anti-marijuana advocate”—remember I’m a child of the sixties—but because I thought it was a good morality tale. I never anticipated it would have the legs it did. It was actually shown, not only after school, but on Sunday night as an one hour dramatic special. And I ended up winning an Emmy for my first directing job. We were nominated for five Emmy’s and I will be forever grateful to Linda Gottlieb who gave me my shot.

J.P.: In 1989 you directed The Ryan White Story, one of the most profound television movies of the last couple of decades. I sometimes get the feeling that doing a movie isn’t especially impactful or moving. You come in, do your work, film things out of sequence, take lunch breaks, etc. I’m guessing this experience was somewhat different, considering the topic and all. Am I wrong?

J.H.: Making The Ryan White Story was, without a doubt, the most profound filmmaking experience I have ever had in my life. Not just because it was the first movie to deal with AIDS, but because of the personal experience of making this movie.  One of which I have never shared.

You must understand the circumstances. Ryan White was 17 and dying of AIDS.  When I flew to Kokomo, Indiana to meet with Ryan a script had already been written which he was very unhappy with. This wasn’t just a movie, but this would become his legacy and he looked me in the eye and said “John, I probably won’t be alive when this movie is shown on TV  So I really wanna make it right …” I re-wrote the script and went down to North Carolina to film it. The day before I got on the plane, I was driving down Santa Monica Boulevard and got an excruciating pain in my stomach. I was driven to the emergency room and was told I had a kidney stone.  But it wasn’t going to pass easily …  I told the doctor I was getting on a plane the next day to go to North Carolina to film a movie.  He said, “No you’re not.”  Bottom line: I couldn’t tell the network because they would have replaced me… I hid the fact that I was slowly passing a kidney stone while we filmed. After takes, I’d walk behind a house and sweat it out in private. The only way I was able to do this was because I was looking at a 17-year-old young man who was looking in the face of death and never blinked. I’d survive a kidney stone, he wouldn’t. Ryan was the most courageous person, kid or adult, I have ever personally met. But most importantly, actually all importantly—Ryan White was proud of the film.  He was buried with the clapboard on his chest.

J.P.: Don King: Only in America was absolutely fantastic, and scored you an Emmy. I’m curious if you ever heard from Don King, or Don King’s people, or if he ever sent Mike Tyson to try and kill you?

J.H.: The answer is yes.  Right after I signed on to do the movie I got a call in my office.  My assistant said it was Don King.  I picked up the phone. The voice boomed, “John Herzfeld, I heard you were a man of integrity, but obviously you have none!”

“Who is this?”  I asked, believing it was a friend playing a joke.

The booming voice continued, “This script is a piece of shit. How would you like it if somebody wrote a movie about you, but never interviewed you? This is HBO’s revenge on me for taking Tyson to Showtime.”

I went to see Don in Vegas.  He said, “How much are they paying you?  I’ll pay you twice as much to do the real Don King story.”  I asked him what parts of the script were untrue.  He said the manslaughter charge, which he did time for, was bullshit and he did not bribe Ali. I went on a quest to talk to every person alive, who would speak to me, who was portrayed in that script. It started with me meeting Muhammad Ali in the kitchen of Caesar’s Palace where he was having dinner with Kris Kristofferson. By a stroke of luck, Muhammad Ali’s daughter had loved 2 Days In The Valley and told her Dad to invite me to sit down. I asked Muhammad Ali about the bribe and he didn’t answer me directly but said if I wanted to know about his life—“Ask my good friend, Gene Kilroy.” Gene opened the door to the world of boxing and I spoke to just about everyone portrayed in that movie. Annotating every conversation on tape. The scene where Jeremiah Shabazz delivers $50,000 to Ali in the hospital room was based on my conversation with Jeremiah Shabazz. I spoke to him the day before he died in a Philadelphia hospital room. As for the scene where Don is arrested for stomping a man to death, I tracked down the arresting officer who was now the mayor of Brentwood, Ill. I flew him out and he played himself in the movie. It didn’t matter that he was 20-some years older because he set the scene and set the eyewitness account. I did that with every scene I could … put a lot of the real people in the roles so the truth would be told.

HBO is a great place to make movies not by accident. They even let me put in the line where Don turns to the camera and says “This movie is bullshit, it’s HBO’s revenge on me for taking Tyson to Showtime.”  After we won the Emmy and other awards, Ving told me that Don called him to tell him how much he enjoyed his performance. Ving was brilliant.

J.P.: Greatest moment in your work? Lowest moment?

J.H.: Winning the DGA award for Don King: Only In America was definitely a high point.  Holding my award and standing next to James Cameron for Titanic was pretty cool.

Lowest moment?  I think I’ve answered that.

J.P.: It seems as if your world/work is one of much surface bullshit. Everyone loves your work … everyone thinks you’ll be just perfect for this part—then they ignore you or, behind your back, shit all over your stuff. Am I right? And how have you survived so long in such an environment?

J.H.: I don’t think the entertainment business is anymore cutthroat than any other. It’s just more public. Your successes and failures are exhibited on a broad canvas.

My father was in the maintenance business, floor waxing and window washing. He had a company down in Newark. He had a shot at the big time … Made a bid on a project that would have changed his life. But the Mafia threatened him—a couple of goons visited me at school—and my father never got that shot. The movie business ain’t nothing compared to the real world.  ’ve been in this business a long time—and it’s a phenomenal business. You don’t need a diploma to make it, you don’t need to know somebody … all you need is talent and a break. And I have always believed that talent is like a bubble under water. It will rise to the surface and eventually pop. I am very lucky to be working in Hollywood and every day I’m on the set I’m grateful.

J.P.: In 2009 you directed Inferno: The Making Of The Expendables for your pal, Sylvester Stallone. It’s one thing to have, oh, The Making of The Godfather or The Making of Forrest Gump. But, uh … The Expendables?

J.H.: First of all, have you seen it, Jeff? (Writer’s note: No, but now I will) I think it really shows Sly’s struggle to mount this movie. It’s a real backstage look at him fighting for his comeback. Originally it was gonna be a documentary about Sly … I’ve know him since I’m 18 and there is about another 60 or 70 hours of film. At one point we discussed making it a series. I documented the entire process from his first meeting with Mickey Rourke (who wanted to recite an Edgar Allen Poe poem in Expendables) to all the actors who came and went during casting, the myriad of script revisions, the plethora of problems that plagued the production in Brazil and New Orleans and the multitude of injuries Stallone suffered during production. The original doc was also filled with Sly reminiscing about his other movies from Rambo, when Kirk Douglas was in it to the ones that went straight to video. Because of my long and complicated relationship with Sly—when you know somebody that long and have grown up together, through thick and thin—there’s a lot of compelling insights one can provide. If he is up for it, I’d love one day to release a director’s cut.  I know people have heard this before, but Sly is much more than meets the eye. He’s razor sharp, extremely funny, and I know this may sound bizarre, but the man I know is actually scholarly. Did you know his favorite movie is The Lion In Winter?  He can recite the dialogue from beginning to end.

QUAZ EXPRESS WITH JOHN HERZFELD

• Five greatest actors of your lifetime?: Kirk Douglas. Of course Marlon Brando. The forgotten Montgomery Clift (the greatest listener in movies besides James Dean). Burt Lancaster for pure grit (he also did the greatest stunt any actor has done himself in John Frankenheimer’s The Train). Robert De Niro. Dustin Hoffman (for unparalleled versatility). William Holden (never given his due). Leonardo DiCaprio. Tom Cruise. Robert Duvall.  Michael Douglas (for War Of The Roses alone—talk about great physical comedy) and Brad Pitt among many others …

• Mitt Romney approaches you with $5 million and the opportunity to direct, Mitt: American Legend. Do you take it?: He’s not a legend yet.

• Have you ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, please tell …: Yes.  In a hellacious storm descending into Berlin, on my way to punch out a piece of the Berlin wall as it was falling.

• Rex Grossman or John Beck?: Rex Grossman

• I’d like a role in your next project. How about it?: Done, but I don’t know if you’ll have dialogue… show me what you got. (Writer’s note: Here you go, John. Got my SAG Card ready to go …)

• The best sports move of all time is …: Spartacus with Kirk Douglas. Gladiators were sport then.

• Would you rather listen to Celine Dion’s greatest hits on a nonstop spool for the next 78 days or agree to direct a trilogy of Olsen Twin life lesson documentaries?: I’ll go with the Olsen twin’s younger sister, Elizabeth, in Marcy May Marlene.

• My armpits have been smelling awful lately. Advice?: Not my forte.

• Best place to eat in LA that nobody talks about?: Peppone’s in Brentwood.

• Rank the Rocky movies: I believe we live on in the memories of those who love us.  Sounds clichéd, but that’s what I believe.

  • Andy

    Really enjoyed this one.

    Armpit tip – trim the hair, won’t trap as much stink. It made a difference for me.

  • Dale Heller

    It’s been 40 years …..wanted to touch base w/you and hear all about how you life has been. BTW, I’m Stan’s sister…remember me?

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Once again, Jeff Pearlman has produced an exhaustively researched, elegantly written book that re-creates one of the most colorful and memorable teams of the modern era. No basketball fan's bookshelf will be complete without it.

— Seth Davis, author of Wooden: A Coach's Life