Screenwriter, playwright, novelist and Hollywood historian, Michael B. Druxman, is the author of thirteen books. His works include biographies, film histories, two novels and a book on writing that has been used as a textbook in several colleges. Michael has written several feature films, episodic television and documentaries. “The Hollywood Legends” is a series of one-person, two-act plays and musicals by Michael that explore the life and times of some of filmdom’s most glittering personalities. Michael is currently writing a book of memoirs about his years in Hollywood. Michael and his wife, Sandy, have recently moved from Los Angeles to Austin, Texas. Today, Michael is here to talk about his new book, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood: From the Secret Files of Harry Pennypacker.”
Tyler: Welcome, Michael. I’m excited to talk to you today about your new book, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood: From the Secret Files of Harry Pennypacker.” To begin, will you tell us, for those readers who don’t know, just who Harry Pennypacker was?
Michael: Harry Pennypacker was one of the most revered newspaper columnists of his day. He was a colleague of Walter Winchell, Louella Parsons, Hedda Hopper and other legendary columnists who covered Hollywood and the world of celebrities.
Tyler: If he was so “revered,” why haven’t we ever heard of him?
Michael: Good question. Pennypacker had a knack for ferreting out sensational stories. By “sensational,” I mean that these were stories that could destroy lives…re-write history. His stories were so shocking that his editors were afraid of the legal ramifications and refused to print them.
Since Pennypacker had an iron-clad contract, he couldn’t be fired, so the editors just buried the stories and gave him “busy work” to do.
Tyler: That must have been frustrating for him?
Michael: It drove him to drink. In fact, he got a lot of his material from people he met in bars.
Tyler: How did you come across Pennypacker’s stories?
Michael: A wannabe filmmaker named Stuart Blumberg, who worked in the “morgue” of a major newspaper, stumbled across a box filled with Pennypacker’s unpublished columns in a storage room. He was convinced that they would make a good movie, but he also felt that, in order to get financing, a book had to come out first.
A friend of a friend of an acquaintance of mine told him about me, so Stuart brought me the material, and I read it.
Tyler: And, what did you think?
Michael: I thought these stories were…amazing. Everybody knows that Hollywood is, essentially, a facade. However, if these stories were true, then the facade is also a facade.
My problem was verification. In all the books I’ve written, I’ve been a stickler for accuracy. I check out the smallest detail. Unfortunately, in the case of Pennypacker, all of his sources were deceased, as was he. All I had were the columns.
Tyler: Yet, you went ahead with the book?
Michael: At the end of the day, I’m a storyteller. As I say in the book, I can’t guarantee that these stories are true, but they are damn good stories. Believe them or not, you decide.
Tyler: Without giving away all the insider secrets from the book, who are some of the movie stars whose lives offer surprises in the book?
Michael: The book contains previously untold stories about John Wayne, Elvis Presley, James Dean, Clark Gable, W.C. Fields, Mae West, The Marx Brothers, Marilyn Monroe and even a story about Judy Garland and “The Wizard of Oz.”
Tyler: Without giving away the story, Michael, can you give us a hint about what Pennypacker says about Judy Garland and “The Wizard of Oz”?
Michael: According to Harry Pennypacker, the movie was not shot in the studio, but on the actual location, which was destroyed by the U.S. Government near the end of World War II.
Tyler: I always did suspect Oz was a real place. Which of the stories would you consider the most surprising or unexpected?
Michael: They’re all pretty shocking, but what I found out about Harpo Marx and his relationship to F.B.I. Director J. Edgar Hoover really surprised me.
Also, I think that all the guys in Hollywood who claim to have bedded Marilyn Monroe are going to be pretty stunned when they read what Pennypacker learned about her.
Tyler: Michael, will you tell us a little about your own interest in Hollywood? What initially made you interested in Hollywood history?
Michael: I’ve been a movie buff all my life. When I was four-years-old, my mother took me to see “Pinocchio.” He sang “Hey, diddly-dee, an actor’s life for me,” and I was hooked. From that point on, I wanted to be a part of show business and that desire never wavered. As I grew older, I became even more fascinated with Hollywood’s history, its legends and its scandals.
I moved from Seattle to Los Angeles right after I graduated from college. Within a couple of years, I had opened my own public relations agency, representing many prominent actors, directors, producers, composers and other entertainment industry folk. I also started writing books about Hollywood and its people, then 1-person stage plays about legendary stars (e.g. Clark Gable, Carole Lombard, Al Jolson, etc.) and, finally, I started selling screenplays. Thus far, seven of my scripts have been turned into films.
Tyler: Unfortunately, the movie stars are better known than the screenplay writers. Would you tell us the names of some of your scripts that have been turned into films?
Michael: “Cheyenne Warrior” with Kelly Preston, “Dillinger and Capone” with Martin Sheen and F. Murray Abraham, and “The Doorway” with Roy Scheider, which I also directed.
Tyler: Since you are a Hollywood historian, you already had a great deal of knowledge before finding the Pennypacker files. What do you feel these files add to our understanding of Hollywood movie stars and the film industry?
Tyler: Would you say that makes the stars appear human, less than iconic?
Michael: Stars are human beings that the public has placed upon pedestals. Frankly, I think that most of them would trade some of that idolatry if they could regain their privacy. How would you like having photographers stalking you every day, photographing your every move?
As Gable once said, “I eat, sleep and go to the bathroom, just like everybody else.”
Tyler: While we have plenty of movie stars today, do you think we have any on the same level as John Wayne, Marilyn Monroe, or James Dean? Why, half a century later, are these figures still so iconic to us?
Michael: Which of today’s stars will equal the legends of the Hollywood’s Golden Era?
Ask me that question in fifty years, and I’ll tell you.
Seriously, not that they weren’t talented, but I think that Wayne, Monroe, Gable, Bogart and the other stars who have become “legends” have become so because of their on-screen personas, rather than their talent. None of these people were great, versatile actors. They were very good actors, but they were always playing different aspects of the same persona…because that’s what the public wanted to see.
On the other hand, truly great actors like Laurence Olivier and Paul Muni, who virtually lost themselves in their roles and were seldom (if ever) the same, are almost forgotten by the general public, as are such one-time major stars as Robert Taylor and Alan Ladd, who never really developed strong on-screen personas.
You also have to remember that back then, we had the studio system. Stars were huge assets to the studios, and they protected their reputations from public scrutiny and even sordid scandals. Not so today when every aspect of a star’s behavior winds up in the “National Enquirer.”
To answer your original question: From a persona standpoint, I certainly think that Clint Eastwood will definitely be remembered in decades to come. To a lesser extent, also Meryl Streep, Gene Hackman, Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino and Barbra Streisand.
Tyler: Since Pennypacker wrote all these columns that reveal truths about the movie stars, would you say he wasn’t enamored with the Hollywood façade, or is his tearing that façade down a reflection of his fascination with it?
Michael: Pennypacker could care less about the Hollywood façade. He was a member of the tabloid press. A good story was a good story, no matter who it was about. As the book reveals, Pennypacker’s first big story involved Charles Lindbergh.
Tyler: Do we know if Pennypacker had a favorite movie star?
Michael: He had been a devoted fan of John Wayne…until that fateful day in the men’s room at Warner Brothers.
Tyler: What do you think Harry Pennypacker would say today if he knew his columns were finally being published?
Michael: “It’s about time. I just wish I was there to collect the royalties.”
Tyler: Michael, we’ve been talking a lot about Pennypacker and movie stars. But tell us more about yourself. As a writer, and director, what perspective do you have about Hollywood that might be different from that of the fans or the stars?
Michael: Hollywood is a young person’s town. I moved there during the first half of the 1960s when the studios were still being run by “movie people” (e.g. Jack Warner). Today, the major studios are merely a division of multi-national corporations. They’re run by people with a corporate mind-set who make their artistic decisions based on scientific surveys, rather than their gut instincts.
That’s why we get so many lousy sequels and remakes in movie theaters these days, rather than something truly original.
You’ve noticed, I’m sure, that most of the important Academy Awards the past several years have gone to independent, rather than studio films.
The legendary studio moguls like Warner, Louis B. Mayer and Harry Cohn instinctively knew what audiences wanted. They didn’t need surveys. I think it was Cohn who said (paraphrasing), “If my ass starts to itch during a screening, I know we’re in trouble.”
If you’re a writer or director in Hollywood, and your name isn’t Eastwood, Scorsese or Ron Howard, finding assignments after you hit fifty is very difficult. Most of the film and television producers are younger than you, and they are uncomfortable hiring “their fathers.”
I was a lucky exception. I made my first screenplay sale (to an independent producer) when I was forty-nine. That film was made (not very well) and released. Then, a couple of years later, I sold two scripts to Roger Corman, who subsequently started giving me one writing assignment after another. I made a very good living from him (and other independent producers) over the next ten to twelve years, and when I was fifty-eight, Roger gave me the opportunity to direct a feature, which we shot in Ireland.
Tyler: Michael, will you tell us a little about the books or films you are currently working on?
Michael: I spent forty-five years in Hollywood, and I have a lot of fun stories to tell. I’m working on a book of memoirs.
Tyler: What is one of your personal favorite stories to tell that you’ll share in your memoirs?
Michael: My “professional” motion picture career began in 1962, during the summer between my junior and senior years at the University of Washington.
That was the summer of the Seattle World’s Fair; the year that Elvis Presley came to town to make a movie.
Elvis and company spent about three weeks in Seattle, filming scenes on and around the Space Needle and other key fairground sites. Extras were being hired locally, so one morning, having nothing better to do, I went down to the location, applied…and was immediately hired.
Hot digity! I was going to be in a movie…produced by MGM, the one-time home of Gable, Garbo, Spencer Tracy, Lana Turner, Lassie, Tarzan, The Marx Brothers and all the other film icons I worshipped.
Me and Elvis! Immortalized on screen together!
Okay, wait. Don’t worry. I’m kidding.
I was never that big of a putz.
Even back then, I knew enough about movies to know what it was like to work as an extra.
I knew that I wouldn’t get billing over Elvis.
Seriously though, I didn’t really care about the ten dollars and the box lunch I was getting for the day. All I wanted out of this experience was, when the movie was finally released, to be able to see myself up on the big screen.
Easier said than done.
I was astute enough to know that, if I was going to accomplish my goal, I would have to stick close to Elvis. After all, the camera would be following him…not the extras.
The 3rd assistant director, who was in charge of the extras, certainly wasn’t any help. He kept placing me way in the background, so that in the final film, I would appear as just another “human ant.”
Luckily, this guy didn’t hang around after he’d positioned us. He went off and took care of his other duties…and I put my plan into motion.
While the director and crew were setting up the rest of the shot, I started working my way up to the front of the crowd…right behind where the main action of the scene was to take place.
I did this all day. Nobody noticed. In fact, at one point, I got to stand right next to Elvis himself and we were having a nice friendly chat…until Colonel Parker, his manager, noticed that a “lowly extra” was talking to “His Highness,” and told the assistant director to tell me to stop bothering Mr. Presley.
The a.d. looked at me for a moment, and said, “Don’t I know you?”
“I don’t think so,” I said, trying to look totally innocent.
“Look, kid,” the guy said with a wink, “I know what you’re doing. Just be a bit cooler about it.” Then, he walked off.
Did I accomplish my goal?
Did Elvis have a pair of “Blue Suede Shoes”?
Of course, I did.
The name of the movie is “It Happened at the World’s Fair,” and if you ever catch it on television or DVD, look for the scene where Elvis asks the little boy (Kurt Russell, by the way) to kick him in the shins.
During that brief moment, a twenty-one year old version of me walks behind them…twice.
I just had to take an encore.
Tyler: What do you plan to title your memoirs, and when do you expect them to be published?
Michael: I have to finish writing them first, and the manuscript has been on the shelf for a few months while I’ve been selling my Los Angeles home and moving to Austin. Once I get back to them, I should be able to complete the first draft in six months or so.
The working title is “Writing, Flacking and Roger Corman, or My 45 Years in Hollywood and How I Escaped Alive.”
To answer your next question: “Flacking” is a show biz term for doing publicity.
Tyler: We talked a lot, earlier, about the façade of Hollywood, but as far as filmmaking goes, whether it’s acting, directing, or writing, what about films has kept you in this business all these years? Don’t tell me it’s just the paycheck?
Michael: The paycheck certainly helps. One tends to write a lot quicker and stay more focused when getting paid.
But, at the end of the day, you have to love what you are doing. The money, the applause (hopefully) and the various perks that come your way are all great, but if you really don’t enjoy doing the work itself, you shouldn’t be here.
I get off on writing.
Tyler: Thank you for the opportunity to interview you today, Michael. Before we go, will you tell us about your website and what additional information our readers may find there?
Michael: The site currently needs some updating to reflect my recent move to Austin, but if you visit www.druxmanworks.com, you will be able to read my five-day per week blog, plus find a complete list of my writing credits, photographs of myself with various show biz friends, a list of my stage plays that are available for licensing and a list of completed screenplays that are available for purchase.
Tyler: Thank you again, Michael, and best of luck with all your many writing and film making projects.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood: From the Secret Files of Harry Pennypacker
Michael B. Druxman
Reviewed by Irene Watson for Reader Views (5/09)