"Zebra Killer" is one of Bill's most interesting films. You star as Marty, Austin Stoker's wisecracking partner. What was it like working with Austin Stoker?
Working with Austin was a walk in the park. He was a really nice guy, a rather conservative, gentleman. Nothing at all like Detective Savage in the film. I find that character rather repellant, to be honest, but that's no knock on Austin. Bill tried to write dialogue similar to that spoken by Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry, and it just didn't work for Austin. I'm sure you've realized by now that Zebra is a knockoff of Dirty Harry. Anyway, Savage's dialogue wouldn't have worked for anybody, really. Austin and I remained friends for awhile after I moved to Hollywood, but eventually lost touch. I believe Bill got Austin for Zebra because of Austin's association with an earlier film by a budding film maker named John Carpenter, who was sort of on the same "creative" track as Billy. I didn't go to Hollywood with Billy for casting of Zebra, so I'm not sure about how he cast D'Urville Martin. I assume he just worked with an agent. Remember, this was a time when black actors were getting a lot of work in such movies as Zebra, work that hadn't been available to them before the advent of "blaxploitation." I hate that word, but there it is.
(Hugh and Austin discuss the hazards of smoking. My favorite "Hugh" scene from Zebra Killer. Mpeg movie: 1.3 MB.)
What else do you recall about the making of "Zebra Killer?"
I don't remember how long it took to make Zebra, but it was an intensive shooting schedule and couldn't have taken very long. The mood on the set was mostly good. I can't remember any problems with actors or crew. I was assistant director on the film, so I was behind the scenes all the time except when I was on camera. I can remember that Pickett really didn't want to dive into the Ohio River, and who could blame him? But he did it, and when he did it was about three in the morning at the end of a very long day and a half of shooting. We had special effects to deal with, always a problem, and a crew that was sometimes unhappy with the meals we provided. These were often from a fast food restaurant that donated the food for a chance to see their restaurant featured in a "drive-by". Burgers, basically.
Where did Zebra Killer premiere? What was your impression of the finished film?
As for a premiere of Zebra, I never knew of one. Billy didn't want to talk about how the film had been pulled out of its initial release after something like a week or two. If you know about the political mood in the early 'seventies, you can probably draw some reasonable assumptions about what went wrong. The movie is rather heedless, aggressive, clumsy and facile in its treatment of racial themes, and this might have frightened off exhibitors and distributors. What would viewers at the time have made of a white killer who does his killing in blackface and an afro wig? The banter between a black cop, in the leading role, and a white sidekick? The treatment of black pimps and whores by the ever-callous Detective Savage? The two black lovers in bed? A black cop with so little regard for procedure and the well being of the people in his life? I'm just guessing, of course, but I wouldn't be surprised to learn that something along those lines affected the distribution of Zebra.
(An edited segment from Zebra Killer featuring David Roster dying a gruesome death. Mpeg movie: 4.7 MB.)
Charles Kissinger plays your boss in "Zebra Killer." What do you remember about Charlie?
Charlie Kissinger was in all respects the funniest, cleverest, warmest comedian and human being it has ever been my pleasure to know. When we reconnected at the corner of Hollywood and Vine, after I sold my stock in MAP and moved to Hollywood to dedicate myself to screenwriting, he was bringing his humane and loving humor to Hollywood for the first time and Hollywood was finding Charlie wanting. Hollywood's loss. I miss him greatly.
He used to show up frequently at our offices when we were set up in (I think) the St. Matthews area of Louisville, where he would tell stories about this friend of his that were bizarre and witty. We never knew if this friend was real or just part of a long comic monologue that Charlie was working on. As a side note, the actor who plays the other desk cop (the Police Chief?) was said to be the brother of Foster Brooks (the standup comic who became famous for his drunk routine). I think that's true.
You worked behind-the-scenes on "Abby?" In what capacity did you contribute to that film?
Oh boy. Let's see, I did stunt work, flying through the air in a cave and getting bashed against the cave wall; I did most of the local casting of extras and bit players; conducted some rehearsals; stood in for Bill on second unit photography; was assistant director, in charge of, among other things, getting the actors to the set or location when they were supposed to be there, overseeing wardrobe continuity, helping to manage some of the confusion that resulted from the tornado, working with the Hollywood union stunt people and trying to keep them from draining our budget with overtime charges. You name it.
Any good stories?
Two good stories. And Carol Speed is probably going to sue me. Well, everybody on the cast and crew knew about this, so why not tell it? I just hope Carol has a good sense of humor. So, when we were filming on the set where Carol had to crawl around on the bed, possessed, there was a rather delicate problem. I recall that part of the shoot lasting at least two, maybe three, days. Each time Carol came to the set, she insisted that she couldn't move around on the bed the way Billy wanted her to, because she might expose her nether regions and it was her stated habit of never wearing panties. Carol, if you read this, I want you to know that I admired your acting skills and thought you were a terrific person. Anyway, she wouldn't do the scene until the wardrobe person went to the store and bought her some temporary panties to use. After a couple of days of this, Billy or Mike Henry decided to get SAG to intervene, as the problem was delaying the production. I was told later that somebody at SAG spoke with Carol about the matter and that it was resolved in favor of the production company. I love you Carol, I really do, but I just couldn't resist telling this story.
The other story is about William Marshall and our cinematographer, Bill Asman. You may remember that part of William's costume consisted of a sort of necklace with a big pendant hanging from it. Marshall wanted to take that with him back to Hollywood as a keepsake. Bill Asman wanted it just as badly. I think Bill had had something to do with designing it. Things got very tense and awkward the day this happened, right at the end of the shoot. A big loud silence took over the set as this mano a mano routine played itself out. In the end, I believe Bill Asman got to keep the trinket. Me? I would have given it to Marshall. This was a gifted Shakespearean actor, after all, and we were lucky to have him in the movie. Anyway, his fondness for the pendant spoke well of his feelings about working in the movie. He should have been able to take it with him.
What else do you remember about the Asmans?
The Asmans were very much a part of the scene throughout Billy's years in Louisville. They made quite a contribution to everything, bringing as they did, in one package, a cinematographer, editor, and sound man. Bill was very tall, wore a back brace, had a rather commanding presence. Bubba, the editor, was as short as I am, was always quick to joke around and share a laugh. John Asman was a rather reserved, self-composed guy. Here I can belatedly thank John for his kindness when I was down and out once in Hollywood. John was working in Hollywood at the time, and we were occasionally in touch. I long ago lost track of the Asmans, but I remember them as real journeymen, dedicated professionals.
I'm interested in Bill's relationship with his actors. How would you describe his directorial style?
Bill's directorial style was focused almost entirely on the sound and image business of directing. Very involved in setting up shots, keeping things moving, etc. He was good at logistical problems. He left any rehearsal issues for me to deal with because Bill didn't really understand actors. My memory may be deficient, but I don't remember him talking to the actors a great deal.
I understand you left Mid America Pictures after "Abby." Why did you break off from Billy?
When I left Mid America Pictures, shortly after the wrap party for Abby, I sold my stock to one of my partners (not Bill), and went to Hollywood to find writing work. During my time at MAP, I wrote a screenplay on my own, no rights owing to MAP. I asked our secretary Clare to send a copy for registration at Writers Guild. Billy, an old friend of Clare's, had her put his name on the title page of the script instead of mine, and then sold the screenplay and pocketed the money. I found out what he had done when I discovered the receipt from the Guild in a file in Clare's desk, with Billy's name on the receipt. Subsequent steps revealed that he had used the receipt from the Guild to sell the screenplay to a producer in Cincinnati.
On the last night that I spoke to Bill before selling my stock and leaving for Hollywood, I had information that could have put him in prison. In fact, I still believe that I would have been justified in beating him to death. His excuse was that he needed the money and that he couldn't help himself. He begged my forgiveness from his knees in the parking lot of our offices, asking me to understand that he couldn't help himself in this regard because of the terrible things that had happened to him in military school. His argument, simply put, was that he had had to lie so much at that school that he couldn't conduct himself in an honorable fashion anymore. He wept. I left him there on his knees in that parking lot. I didn't bring charges against him, desperate as I was financially at that point. Strange to say, I loved him. And still do.