A first-time producer is caught in the middle when a famous actor creates problems in the middle of filming. 2,443 words. Part One. Part Two. Part Four. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
It began with the coffee. Hollywood’s most famous movie star Douglas Troy would show up at the Unfinished Business production offices at odd times and always unexpectedly. He’d sit in on meetings with the production or location manager, coiled and silent, as inconspicuous as a boa constrictor on a bed sheet. The first time he appeared, it interrupted a meeting about the costume designer’s preliminary sketches. The PA hadn’t known he was coming and didn’t have the right coffee on hand.
“This isn’t Starbucks’ Breakfast Blend,” he said to the young woman.
“It’s not? I didn’t – “
“No. It’s not. And it was brewed in some sort of drip coffeemaker.”
“Is that a problem? Because I can –“
“Yes, it’s a problem. My coffee has to be made with a Chemex. What’s your name?”
“Do you have a last name, Alice?”
“Was that a question?”
“No, no, it’s… I’m… my name is Alice Bendetson.”
“There’s skim milk in this coffee, Alice Bendetson. I take half and half. Not cream, not milk, and certainly not skim milk.” From his tone of voice, Troy could have said “dog piss.”
He had everyone’s attention now.
Mike Garth, the film’s first-time producer, set aside the costume designer’s sketch with the three-piece pinstripe suit and called across the room to Troy. “Hey, Doug, give her a break. No one knew you were coming in today.”
“Fire her,” Troy told him.
“Fire her. I don’t want to see her around here again.”
“Wait a second, I can’t just – “
“Yes you can. Fire her. Right now.”
Every eye in the room was on Mike. Alice was pleading with him silently — either to keep her job or just to end this insane humiliation of her. Troy watched him. The moment went on and on. Someone stronger or smarter would have known what to do and how to turn this situation around. Mike knew he looked weak and stupid. He despised himself.
“You’re fired,” he told the PA.
“And you might as well move back to Wisconsin, or wherever you’re from, Alice Bendetson,” Troy added softly. “Because I’ll remember your name.”
Alice looked from Troy to Mike, saw no help and fled the room. Troy stood up in the brittle silence after the door closed behind her. “Next time, Mike? Find someone who knows how to make a simple cup of coffee. That’s the minimum requirement on my pictures.”
Then he was gone too, the door slamming behind him. And awkwardly, absurdly, as if nothing had happened, the co-conspirators in the silent shame of the status quo started looking at the sketches again.
They all agreed later it had been a very productive morning.
It didn’t stop. Troy circled above the entire production process like a gull over a garbage dump, plunging down from time to time to pick off something. Troy was feral like that. There were other casualties. The hot young Director of Photography was one of the first ones. Big, intense and pony-tailed, Rafe had drawn comic books before he went to film school. His storyboards were detailed and exciting, often more so than the finished films. The last film he had worked on with Troy, he had made the star look bad. Or so Troy was claiming now in an argument with Mike.
“You were playing a filthy, homeless, alcoholic, albino psychopath who’d been disfigured by a mine explosion in Somalia, Doug,” Mike pointed out. “You weren’t supposed to look good.”
“That’s where you’re wrong. I’m always supposed to look good.”
And that was the end of Rafe. When Mike broke the news, he was surprised to see that Rafe didn’t mind. “I would have killed the guy eventually,” he opined.
Troy also made casting more difficult. He wouldn’t read with the young actress finally chosen to play the lead. But after one day of rehearsal Mike could see there was going to be a problem. Troy stopped in the middle of a scene, glared at the girl and said, “You’re giving me nothing.”
“That’s why I wanted you to read with her six weeks ago, Doug,” Mike reminded Troy afterward. “That’s why I wanted you to do a screen test with her. So we could find this stuff out before it was too late.”
Troy smiled. “It’s never too late, Mike.”
So they got rid of the girl and paid off her pay-or-play contract and hired a much more expensive actress that Troy had worked with before.
Things seemed to settle down for a while. Mike liked the fifteen-hour days. He felt free and happy, almost single again. A week later he was flying to New York City to start the location work. He was grateful for this little break. A few months of hard work in a distant city would focus him.
But, of course, he didn’t get a few months. He had been in New York for less than two weeks when Troy arrived and the incident happened.
Meeting his plane at the airport, Mike could see that something was seriously off-kilter with the star. Troy looked rumpled and confused and obviously drunk. Mike also suspected the actor had been using cocaine to balance the sedative effects of the vodka. He obviously hadn’t slept for days. He abused the Lincoln Town Car driver and forced the man to get out in the middle of nowhere on the Van Wyck Expressway and decided to drive into the city himself. With Mike along for the ride in the front.
“I’m not sure this is a good idea, Doug” Mike began, cautiously. “Maybe you should just let – “
“I’m driving. Ride or walk.”
Mike gritted his teeth. In a moment they left in a cloud of exhaust. It was as bad as Mike thought. Troy drove too fast, cut cars off, changed lanes without signaling, and almost lost control on the curve of an on-ramp. A cop pulled them over at 96th Street. Mike saw the flashing lights and felt the bottom fall out of his stomach. He knew everyone would blame him if Troy was arrested. But the patrolman recognized the movie star and started gibbering like a chimp at feeding time. Troy autographed the cop’s ticket book. NYPD’s finest stumbled back to his car in a daze ten minutes later. Troy was laughing. Then he gunned the engine and dry-skidded back onto the FDR Drive.
It got worse. Troy expected to stay in a Park View suite at the luxury boutique The Sherry Netherland and was furious to find Mike had booked him and everyone else into the Waldorf Astoria. “I will not stay for one minute in this grotesque Holiday Inn pretending to be a grand hotel,” Troy complained. So Mike got him his Sherry suite.
The first day of shooting, Troy’s town car was late. Mike was stuck in a taxi crawling in traffic when he got the call. “I see no limo,” Troy was saying to both Mike and the concierge. “I asked for a limo. A limo was promised. And yet I see no limo.”
“It’s on the way, sir,” the concierge said.
“Don’t make excuses. Get me my limo.” Troy lifted a copy of The New York Times off the desk and set it on fire with his cigarette lighter. He held the burning newsprint for a moment and threw it at the concierge.
Mike and the concierge stamped out the smoking mess. But Troy was already lighting another paper. “I want my limousine now,” he said again, tossing the new bundle of flames at the concierge. He was lighting the third paper when the limo pulled up outside. “I knew I could persuade you,” Troy said, and walked out to the car.
The concierge turned to Mike. “This man is a lunatic.”
“You know? Then why don’t you stop him?”
“Because all five of his last pictures had $80 million opening weekends.”
Both men smiled bitterly. They knew that by the time an actor like Douglas Troy was vulnerable enough to defy, he was usually so pathetic that it wasn’t worth the effort.
Then, at the racetrack location in the Bronx, Troy was refusing to leave his trailer. The production only had the facility for three days and many complex shots had to be set up. Troy hadn’t caused too much damage yet. But soon the delay would become critical.
Mike walked over to the big silver Airstream and knocked. “Doug, can I come in?”
“You better.” Troy’s voice was slurred.
The place smelled of old tobacco and dirty socks. It was messy inside, with clothes and bedding dumped on the floor, and empty bottles of Wild Turkey bourbon strewn everywhere. Troy sat spread-eagled on a chair wearing a white terry Sherry Netherland bathrobe.
“What’s the problem, Doug?”
“What is this? Diplomacy now? Walking on eggshells with the pscyho movie star?” Troy laughed a short grunt of genuine amusement. Then his eyes narrowed. “Look around. Are you blind? You ordered these trailers. Just think. If you’re capable of it.”
Then Mike realized what Troy was talking about and felt an instant’s flutter of anxiety. Troy and Haigley were supposed to have identical trailers. But Mike hadn’t been able to find two of the same exact models on such short notice so one of the trailers was a year older and six inches shorter. Troy was in the lesser trailer. Haigley, Mike’s odious half-brother, would have bragged about it just to get Mike in trouble with the older actor. Now Troy was fuming. Haigley would enjoy that. Mike’s Mom had married Rick’s Dad even though there’d been bad blood between the families for a long time. Rick’s grandfather named names at the McCarthy hearings. Mike’s grandfather, a successful screenwriter at the time, was one of the names and went to jail when he refused to rat out his friends. And Mike’s mother never had the guts or the good sense to blow off Haigley even after he’d mercilessly treated Mike so badly when they were children. Because she was a recovering alcoholic. Then she was a cancer patient. And then she was dead.
Troy, of course, didn’t care about any of this.
Mike sighed. “You got the small trailer. I’m sorry, Doug. I shouldn’t have let this happen.”
“Good. Now fix it.”
Mike nodded and backed out. He had never felt less like a true leader of men than he did half an hour later confronting Haigley in what was an inevitable showdown given their family history with the Hollywood Blacklist. Mike had thought himself decades past letting Haigley manipulate him into yet another mortifying situation. But here they were again. And now Mike was negotiating over trailer inches with multi-millionaires. Haigley knew exactly why Mike was there. And the actor was waiting with that unhelpful smirk for Mike to start begging.
No time like the present. "Rick, there was a mix-up and now we have a problem. It’s not really your problem, but you could be part of the solution and I’d appreciate it.”
“That’s it? That’s your speech? And I’m supposed to give up the good trailer, move all my stuff out and into that cramped little shit-box — ”
“It’s only six inches shorter, Rick.”
“ –- Stinking of Doug’s booze and overflowing ashtrays — ”
“I’ll make sure to have it cleaned professionally — ”
“ — Because it would ‘mean a lot to you.’ You’ve gotta be kidding.”
“Doug is holding up the shoot over this. It’s costing a lot of money.”
“And this is what you came up with? Evicting me?”
“He’s old. He’s jealous of all the attention you’re getting. These symbolic details are important to him, Rick. They don’t matter to you. You’ve got everything. You’re right at the start of a great career. The girls are screaming for you. There are hundreds of websites about you. You’re making more money than Doug on this picture and don’t think he’s not aware of that. Six inches of trailer is a small price to pay to keep him happy. Don’t you want him happy? Isn’t he like a Dad to you.”
“So I’d be saving your ass.”
“What do I get? If this is so important to you, prove it. With your comic book collection, Mike.”
“What about it? With one phone call, your assistant could get you mint condition copies of every comic book I own by tomorrow afternoon.”
“But not the autographed issues. Not the Fantastic Four that Jack Kirby signed. Or the Spiderman #5 that Steve Ditko wrote you a note on the back? And how about that letter John Romita sent you with all those sketches? You can’t buy stuff like that from a comic book store or an auction house. I was at Sotheby’s the last time they auctioned off some comics. You could have made a fortune if you’d parted with your stuff.”
“Those are mine. I’d never sell them. I don’t even know what they’re worth.”
“Well, that’s what we’re about to find out.”
“It’s not negotiable. Give me your collection and I’ll give Doug the trailer and leave a bottle of champagne in the fridge for him. As you pointed out, time is running out so stop pretending you have a choice. Just get me the comics and be grateful I didn’t ask for anything else – “
“Rick. Please … ”
“Everything is still in your safe deposit box at the Citibank on 86th Street with the Sandy Koufax baseball cards and your stupid stamp collection. I want those comics delivered today, Mike. So you better get moving.”
“You don’t even want them, Rick. You just want me not to have them.”
Mike heard his half-brother laughing as the producer headed for the street and for Manhattan. By the time he was retrieving the comics from his safe deposit box, he had stiffened himself to the task. If he ever had kids, and if they were even interested, maybe he could get Haigley to show them the collection. In any case, those yellowing pages in their glassine envelopes had bailed him out of a bad situation today.
The comics had served their purpose. There would be peace on the set now. The worst was over. That thought cheered him as he drove back to the Bronx. But, in fact, the worst was just beginning.