A comedy-action star stretches to take on a daringly different dramatic role. 1,705 words. Part Two. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Brendan Forsyth was a green-light machine. Ever since he shot to stardom opposite Ryan Howson in Gangsters Two, the pair playing two lovable rogues, he had become one of those rare Hollywood commodities popular with both public and critics. He was also smart. He had a social conscience and supported many causes and charities, but he kept a low donor profile. His marriage was stable and the press treated him and his wife, Barbara, with respect. He was selective with interviews.
His ability to choose projects was equally remarkable. He famously passed on the starring role as the ship builder who rescues all the passengers in the disaster picture Sea Doom because it was the builder’s flawed design that put everybody in jeopardy in the first place. Rather, he wanted to play the captain of the rescue liner because that was the only guiltless character in the script. Interestingly, Howson had no qualms playing the ship builder, and the re-teaming scored a box office record.
Forsyth would even take a supporting role if he thought it could help a picture get made. That garnered him a lot of good press, but it also made his fellow actors wary of him. And yet the guy was just so likable that they had to forgive him. What other big star would have played the fireman for barely ten minutes in the children’s movie, Cathy’s Kitten? Because his daughter loved the books, that’s why. Or the voice of a paranoid caller on the TV series Shrink Rap? Because the sitcom was his guilty pleasure, and it set off a trend of celebrity cameos.
So when Forsyth agreed to play the hotly contended role of Dr. Bob Doherty, an alcoholic surgeon who climbs on the wagon to save the U.S. President’s life in the medical thriller Operation Death, it was seen as another daring decision by the iconoclastic star. Producers Adam Hoffman and Charlie Greene were thrilled; Larry Cooper, the retired surgeon who’d written the bestselling novel, was honored; and screenwriter-director Allan Spanner was eager to work with his friend of twenty years dating back to when they were both struggling actors.
It was a demanding role, no question about it. The character was bright, handsome, personable, skilled, and dedicated. The trouble was that, when he drank, and he drank a lot, he became dull, dumb, argumentative, and dangerous. At a certain point on a binge, he could drink himself sober. One moment he’d be slurring his words and falling against the furniture, and then he’d throw back another vodka shot and act like a teetotaler.
In the story, he was in the latter state when the Secret Service ordered him, against his protests, to remove a piece of shrapnel from an old Vietnam War injury that had shifted in President Mason Anderson’s spine and threatened to kill him. In the long and complex operation, the surgeon relives his tormented past as the alcohol in his system starts to wear off and he cannot distinguish between the past and present. He has to have another drink, quick, but he can’t leave the operating room. In the tense climax, the President’s life hangs in the balance.
The book was widely considered to be autobiographical, although the author, a recovering alcoholic, insisted he had never operated while drunk. Not only did Operation Death top The New York Times bestseller chart for three months, it inspired public discourse on physician substance abuse.
The film’s scripter-helmer was excited about the project. “Brendan and I did summer stock back in Illinois,” Spanner told an interviewer. “It was immediately apparent that he was a better actor than I was. But it was also clear that I was a better director than the one we had at the Springfield Melody Tent, and that’s where our career trajectories separated. Can you believe it’s taken us two decades to find a project to work on together?”
Producers Hoffman and Greene shared Spanner’s sentiments. The pair already had an enviable string of action films to their credit and were looking to add this dramatic credential. “It’s taken us years to find just the right property to attract Brendan,” they enthused to the trades. “And when he accepted this complex and rewarding part, we knew it would be remarkable.”
For his part, Forsyth was silent, even though everyone in charge of the movie begged him to attend the kickoff press conference. He sent his regrets from Tennessee where he was doing a charity reading of “Inherit The Wind” as a fundraiser to fight the encroachment of creationism into public schools.
But he did send notes on the book for Spanner to take into account while adapting it. “Dr. Doherty is basically a good man,” Forsyth wrote in a perceptive six-page memo. “The book makes it clear that he descended into alcoholism as a response to his powerlessness to save his daughter from leukemia. People cope with tragedy in different ways. Dr. Doherty did it with a bottle. Moreover, he is both a perpetrator and a victim of the surgeon‘s ‘God complex.’ But it cuts both ways. How can God save other people’s lives when he can’t even save his own child? This is complicated by his unusual ability to appear sober during a bender.”
As an example, Forsyth repeated a joke told by David Niven to British chat show host Michael Parkinson. A male crab wants to marry a female prawn but her parents prevent it because he walks sideways. That night the crab visits the prawn’s family and, to her astonishment, he’s walking perfectly straight. The prawn runs to him and gushes, “Crab, you’re wonderful. You’re going straight!” And the crab answers, “Shut up. I’m drunk.”
For Forsyth, the role would be a stretch for him. He starred in light comedies and action pictures; no one ever thought of offering Him textured dramatic roles. That’s why Operation Death was drawing so much interest months before cameras were scheduled to roll. Everybody knew Forsyth could handle the material. The question was whether he knew it.
“The hardest part to play is drunk,” Spanner told a USC acting seminar. “Look at Ray Milland in The Lost Weekend. That’s one kind of drunk. Look at Charlie Chaplin in One A.M. That’s another. They’re both wonderful performances, and Milland even won an Oscar, but if you met either man in a bar you wouldn’t buy it. If you want to see a realistic drunk scene, watch any cop’s dashboard camera when they pull somebody over for DUI. The more people who are drunk act like they’re not drunk, the more drunk they are. It’s all about trying to be in control of being out of control.”
Spanner showed the class a three-page scene from Operation Death. It was taken from early in the script when the surgeon has had one too many and his daughter drops by the house unexpectedly to tell him that she is pregnant.
“There’s a disconnect I’ll reveal to you after we’ve run it once,” Spanner explained. “She’s happy about the news and wants her father to share in her excitement. But his joy is dulled by drink so he internalizes it. Now let’s act it out.”
Spanner seemed pleased afterward. “That’s the text of the scene. Now let’s work on the subtext. What do we know from watching it?”
A young woman in the back raised her hand. “He’s too drunk to know what he’s saying to her.
A young man raised his hand. “And the daughter sees he’s drunk and starts to lean on him.”
Spanner turned to the actor who’d played the doctor. “How did you feel?”
“Confused,” he said. “I played it for nostalgia, like a sentimental drunk.” The class laughed. “But it felt wrong.”
“Good,” Spanner told him. “I’ll tell you why in a minute.” He then turned to the actress. “And you?”
“I was holding my father accountable,” she said. “It’s hard talking to someone who’s drunk.”
“Both of you are right, as far as you know,” Spanner explained. “Now let me give you the context, which contains the subtext. In this story, the daughter died when she was a young child and her father — remember, he’s a doctor — was powerless to help. What I wrote was a hallucination that he has while operating drunk. Now I want you to do the scene again right now.”
The young man and woman ran the scene again. But the class watched it devolve in front of their eyes. When it was over, Spanner chirped, “Train wreck?”
“No kidding,” said the actor. “Knowing the backstory, that’s all I could think of.”
“What about you?” Spanner asked the actress.
“You took my life away. I realized that my only function was to support the actor. I was just mouthing the words this time.”
Spanner nodded for the pair to return to their seats, took back the pages, and addressed the room.
“Now you know how important the alliance is between director, writer and actors,” he said. “Actors have to play the moment even though they know what’s coming. Directors have to make sure they don’t tip their hands. And writers have to create full characters without making them servants to the story.”
“And you expect Brendan Forsyth to pull this off?” somebody asked from the middle of the room.
“Of course,” Spanner said quickly. “I know he can do it. My job is to give him fuel for his creative engine. We’ve talked about how tough it is to play a convincing drunk. Now add to it the details of love, loss, and pride.” He smiled. “Thank you for making my words sound better than they looked on the computer.”
“Are we going to get invited to a casting call?” a voice asked.
“Why not?” Spanner said. “Just be sure to show up sober.”
The screenwriter-director left the seminar to applause. In truth, he knew the scene worked before he’d brought it in. His real mission had been to start a rumor around town that the script was a winner and to use the buzz to short circuit any power plays Forsyth might use to change it. It was a strategic move.
Because Spanner had a good memory.