You continued to work in the film industry after your departure from Mid America Pictures. What happened once you moved to Hollywood?
In brief, it was equally horrific and wonderful. Behind the camera, I did another stint as assistant director for a picture I wrote that was produced in Thailand which was released as Night Creature. It starred Donald Pleasence and was about a big game hunter (ala Hemingway, sort of) who obsesses about a black panther that almost killed him and robbed him of his courage.
I wrote on assignment a lot, which basically consisted of turning producers' pet ideas into screenplays, rewriting other writers' screenplays, doing story treatments, adapting novels, and doing a bit of ghost writing for established writers ( TV's Baretta, for one). Several were produced and distributed, many never got that far. I wrote constantly. At one point I was writing screenplays for three different producers at the same time. Most of this work was done on a contingency basis. That is, I was paid a certain amount up front to produce the work, with other amounts deferred, to be paid only upon completion of principle photography. It was a gamble every time. At times I was flush, but long periods of near destitution put a strain on my ability to keep a roof over my head.
I wrote for producers and would-be producers for about ten years, across a wide spectrum of good-to-bad taste. Ted V. Mikels (The Corpse Grinders) was at one end of the spectrum. Ted gave me a lot of work (bless his quirky soul) and bought my first screenplay, later produced by somebody else. That was Black Oak Conspiracy. Black Oak starred Jesse Vint. It's about a Hollywood stunt man who returns to his hometown and uncovers a scheme to bilk old people of their life savings.
I'll never forget my first encounter with Ed Carlin, the producer, who told me he had a sure-fire concept for movies that made money: Three Girls Inherit Something. His most recent movie based on that concept was about three girls who inherit a massage parlor. So I pitched an idea based on his concept: Three Girls Inherit a Moonshine Still. He wrote a check for an advance on the spot and sent me off to write the screenplay, subject to working occasionally with the director that Ed wanted to use. That was Gus Trikonis, the ex-husband of Goldie Hawn. Ed's admonishment as I left his office was something like this: Just remember, Hugh, I want entertainment value on every tenth page. That's part of the formula. You know what I mean. Every ten pages, either tits and ass, violence, or humor. It don't matter about what's happening with the plot. Every ten pages, entertainment value!"
Moonshine County Express (the title of the completed project) did quite well at the box office and aired on network TV. "Monday Night Movies" I believe. Starred John Saxon, Susan Howard, and William Conrad. One of my sweet moments in the history of that endeavor was going to the editing room, after the shoot, and finding my old friend Gene Ruggiero cutting the film. Gene also tried to revive interest in one of my first screenplays, Black Tarzan. I let him run with it without telling him that Bill had already sold my screenplay under his own name and pocketed the money for himself. I figured if Gene got anything going he would be glad to help me sue Bill for the rights. Nothing ever came of it. My last image of Gene is in a shabby office working on an edit, a small bottle of whiskey stuck into his hip pocket. I was very fond of the old galoot.
Years later, I ran into Ed at a watering hole on The Strip, where I went to hear Vaughn Meader perform (an old friend), and Ed told me I should get out of screenwriting and become a producer. When I averred that I really wouldn't know how to be one, he told me a story that you might find entertaining. On his most recent picture, he had had an executive producer who was so abysmally ignorant, he actually thought that Eastman and Kodak were separate companies.
His point was that producers get (fill in the blank) without having to know anything, whereas screenwriters get shit no matter what they know. To make his point he told me an old Hollywood joke. He said, "Have you heard the one about the stupidest starlet in Hollywood? No? She slept with the screenwriter!"
Good old Ed. It's funny how you can become friendly with people like Ed. Actually come to be fond of them. This man had actually gone toe to toe with the Writer's Guild to defend himself from charges of underpaying me, and successfully defended his position, and I still liked him. How could I not? The man gave me work. Before Moonshine County Express, he hired me to write The Student Body, the first work I did that actually made it to the screen. Another professional benefit I gained from working for Ed was a reputation for writing screenplays that attracted money and got produced. It proved to be useful, as I started getting more work than I could handle.
At some early point in my Hollywood career, Billy Girdler contacted me and asked me to hold down his General Service Studios office while he went to the Philippines to direct and produce a movie (Project Kill). I was basically the liaison between the production overseas and the Hollywood film lab, coordinating information between the lab and Pat Kelly.
It was while I did this task for Bill that I met Ross Hagen, who was to become very helpful to me in many ways. I should mention here that Billy and I were scarcely speaking, because of the ugliness of my departure from MAP, but he needed somebody he knew he could trust, and I needed a day job. I might as well mention that I was seriously pissed off that Billy had hired another screenwriter for that project, when he could have hired me and made up for a lot of damage to our relationship. But he did that after Manitou, which I'll get to later.
Craig Rumar, the agent that I mentioned earlier, introduced me to Lee Madden who, together with Ross Hagen, were responsible for producing two more movies that I wrote. Lee directed and produced, with Ross, Night Creature, the movie we filmed in Thailand. While we made that movie, Thailand underwent a surge of university student communist sentiment that resulted in a bloody military coup. One of our young crew members electrocuted himself while playing grab-ass around an open electrical junction box filled with water. Those of us "above the line" had to attend a Buddhist funeral for the unfortunate boy, pay obeisance to the monks and contribute money, while drinking whiskey and supping chicken soup to the accompaniment of a wild, frantic bunch of Thai percussionists. Our Thai co-producers stole the negative from the lab and held it hostage, demanding a ransom. They drove the negative around in the trunk of a car during negotiations (in hundred-plus temperatures), effectively ruining much of the negative and seriously limiting what could be edited together to make a coherent movie.
I wrote The Glove for Ross Hagen later, and though it is a pretty bad movie, in my judgment, I still get pleasure watching the very good cast of character actors perform: John Saxon, Rosey Grier, Joan Blondell, Keenan Wynn, Aldo Raye, etc.
(The famous 'Meat Fight' scene from The Glove. Mpg movie: 2.5 MB)
You say you and Billy reconciled a few weeks before he died. How did that come about?
I had been aware of Billy's work following my departure from MAP, his successes with Grizzly and Day of the Animals particularly. But I had gone on with my own life and career and never expected to see Billy or hear from him again.
In any event, one day when I was fairly well established in Hollywood, Billy called me and asked me if I would attend a screening of The Manitou. After that screening, Bill invited me to a dinner at his house. He had just moved out of Leslie Nielsen's guest house and had a rental of his own, complete with swimming pool, in Studio City. At that dinner I met his new wife, Avis, and Bill and I had a one-on-one, during which he told me how sorry he was for what he had done to me, and that he wanted to "make it up" to me. He also mentioned that he had not been able to find a screenwriter that he "could work with."
What he laid before me was this: I was to take the newspaper research he had done about a mysterious serial killer back east and turn it into a screenplay, which I was to direct. He had the movie to do in the Philippines and he wanted to start a low-budget division of his new company. I was to be the director of the movies produced by the low-budget division. In other words, I was meant to step into the role that Billy had been performing while he moved on to greater things. A short time later, I learned that Billy had been killed scouting locations in the Philippines.
When I took the work that I had done based on the research that Billy had given me to his new partner at the offices in Studio City, the man (who Billy had introduced me to) took the position that he didn't know me and that he had no knowledge of the work that Bill had given me to do or the plans that Bill had made with me about my future. I was given to understand that there was a company in existence which had no knowledge of me or any use for my services. I later heard rumors to the effect that Avis was deprived of any revenue resulting from Bill's interest in that company.
Did you attend his funeral?
I attended his Hollywood funeral, along with Gordon Layne, one of my former full-time partners in MAP. Gordon slept on a pallet in my West Hollywood living room in order to afford to pay his respects to Bill. The place was packed. I estimate there must have been at least a hundred people in attendance. I remember thinking, "Who are all these people?!"
I continued working as a screenwriter for Fred Williamson, Jack O'Halloran, and others until about 1983. By then, most independent moviemakers had sought shelter under the umbrella of the major studios and didn't take me with them.
I have no regrets, none whatsoever. Jim Pickett was my entre to the movie business (by way of Billy Girdler) and I will be grateful for as long as I live. Billy was a wonderful provider of opportunities and a sometime close friend. I still remember him with fondness and sadness. Those years when we all tried so hard to elevate ourselves into the rarified atmosphere of institutional Hollywood remain with me as a perpetual source of pride: Strange as it may seem to viewers of these awful movies we made.