Friday, 5 July 2013

interview: Richard Gordon

I interviewed producer Richard Gordon three and a half times. First, in his hotel room at the 1997 Festival of Fantastic Films (Richard flew over to Manchester from New York for the FFF every year while he was still fit enough to do so). In 1999 I submitted this on spec to Tim Lucas at Video Watchdog who said he had been thinking for sometime of a career piece on Richard and asked me to expand the feature with questions about some of the more esoteric aspects of Richard Gordon’s career. This second interview was done over the phone, with some additional material faxed over afterwards.

The combined interview ran to 14,000 words and is the longest magazine piece I ever had published. It ran over 20 pages of VW55 in January 2000. One year later I did another phone interview with Richard specifically about his memories of Bela Lugosi and an edited version of this was published in that year’s SFX Vampire Special. What you see here is the full transcript of this third intervew.

Richard Gordon passed away on Halloween 2011 at the age of 85. He was a sweet, fascinating, enthusiastic, delightful, warm, supportive, busy, loyal gentleman and I never heard a bad word said about him. He spent his life doing what he loved, and who can ask for more than that? RIP, dear friend.

Before you met Bela Lugosi, what was your image of him?
"I thought he would probably be a rather difficult person to get to know, not only from his image on the screen but also because one read interviews and articles that said he was a very private person and that he didn’t mix much with people during the productions. And also he had a language problem, particularly early in his career. In fact it’s always been maintained by many people that when he was doing Dracula on the stage on Broadway he didn’t have full command of the English language and spoke much of his lines phonetically. So I thought that was the sort of person that we were going to meet."

How different was he when you met him?
"He was completely different. He was very warm, he was very friendly. He immediately expressed his appreciation that we had come to see him and that we were going to do an interview, particularly for an English publication. He extended himself in the friendliest possible manner. We went backstage to see him and within minutes he suggested that he and his wife would like to take us out to dinner, and he whisked us off to a rather posh restaurant in the area - the kind of restaurant which certainly at that time in our lives Alex and I would never have come to on our own! And he spent a whole evening with us."

How did you approach him in the first place?
"We saw the advertising in the newspapers that he was coming to the theatre. We telephoned him at the theatre, a day or two before the production was due to open, leaving a message explaining our interest and what we would like to do. And we got a call back - I think it was from his wife - suggesting that we come by on that evening and come backstage to see him."

You did a full interview with him?
"Over the course of the evening, yes."

Were you able to sell that to a British magazine?
"We sent it to a British magazine. There were several British magazines - not the well-known ones like Picturegoer and Picture Show and those - but monthly magazines dealing with films, that were being published right after the war. We had some experience with them in England. Honestly I have to admit that I don’t remember the names. They suggested that we could do some interviews and articles and send them back to London for publication - they would pay us and they would be happy to consider them on a freelance basis."

Presumably this was just after Bela had made Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein?
"I think it must have been. You know, it’s a long time ago!"

Was he still a popular figure who could draw a crowd?
"Yes, he was. Not only to a production like Arsenic and Old Lace but also to the Monogram pictures and serials and old films of his that were still playing around. Because after the Frankenstein/Dracula revival success he, like Boris, had come back into the limelight."

Did he discuss the films he had done for Monogram, which were very cheap?
"He expressed some regret that during a certain period in time those were the only films that were being offered to him. But at the same time, he was grateful to be working and he did his best in all of them. He didn’t brush them off and sleepwalk through them or telephone in his roles. He was one of those people, being the professional that he was since his early days on the stage - and in this respect he was very similar to Boris Karloff - that once he accepted to do something, he went at it with the same enthusiasm and the same care as if it were a major production. He never sloughed off anything he was doing."

A lot of critics say the only good thing in most of the Monograms is Bela.
"Exactly. He realised that by giving it his all he could make something more out of the pictures than just another Monogram film because naturally they would trade on his name and it was his presence in the films that made them more successful than the run of the mill Monogram product."

Was he a bit of an extrovert and a showman, especially regarding the Dracula persona?
"He was really always on stage, and he loved it. Even when we went to a restaurant. Over a period of a couple of years we spent a lot of time with him in New York. He was always Bela Lugosi, if you know what I mean - and I mean that in a good sense, not a derogatory sense. He was maintaining his image. He was enjoying it. He felt that was what the public expected from him and he was going to live up to their expectations."

He would have been in his sixties. Was he still good-looking and distinguished?
"He was very distinguished looking. For a man of his age, he was also still very impressive and handsome. The women all went for him and young girls were also extremely attracted to him. He was aware of that and he capitalised on that!"

How good was his command of English?
"By that time, when we met him, he spoke English very well. He had the strong accent which he had till the day he died but he was fully fluent in the English language by then."

Did he consider himself Hungarian or a naturalised American?
"He considered himself a naturalised American. He was very pro-America and felt that was where his career really came to a head and that was his home."

At that point, he was at retirement age. Did he intend to ever retire, or did he expect something big to be around the corner?
"It was a combination of factors. He didn’t want to retire because acting was his life. We felt he couldn’t afford to retire because he’d been through some pretty tough times. When he was doing well he lived very lavishly; I don’t think he ever thought much of the future. He was married quite a few times. I don’t think he could afford to retire and also I don’t think he had the desire to retire. He enjoyed the spotlight and he was determined to get back into the spotlight.

“The thing that triggered our representation, you might say, was that right from the start he talked about doing a revival tour of Dracula on the stage. He felt and he thought that if it could be set up in England this might be an entry back to Broadway, because if he went to England and did it on the stage in London and it was a success, there was every possibility that it would then be brought to Broadway and he would come to full circle. I think that from the beginning, his interest in Alex and me - and again I don’t mean this in a derogatory sense - was that, being that we were from England and had connections in England, he saw possibilities that we might be able to accomplish something that the other people around him couldn’t do.

“He didn’t have an agent at the time. He had a manager, a young man we met who was also at Seacliff, who was always around him. The manager wasn’t able to do very much for him, in particular not with regard to anything like setting up a tour overseas, and that’s what prompted Bela at a certain point to suggest to us that if we would take over, so to speak, the management of his career while he was in New York, we might be able to accomplish something."

He had been to England twice before, to make The Mystery of the Marie Celeste and Dark Eyes of London. Did he have fond memories of those?
"He had very fond memories of working in England, particularly Dark Eyes of London which he felt was one of the best things he had done. It had offered him a very good dual role and of course the picture was very well regarded at the time. The Mystery of the Marie Celeste was a bit of a disappointment for him because before he went over there and started making the film, they had promised a much grander production which in the end it wasn’t. But he enjoyed being in England. He was always very well received there, very well liked there, and he felt very comfortable working in England."

What was Lilian Lugosi like?
"She was completely devoted to him, certainly at the time that we spent with him. She looked after him in every possible way, she never left his side. She protected him from and against any kind of criticism and hostility and problems which could arise otherwise. She also acted, in some respects, as a nurse, looking after him with his illnesses and his health problems and everything else."

What was his health like at that time?
"His health was good but he suffered from these pains that came from, I think originally, his injuries in the First World War. At least he always maintained that was where it started, He would have attacks of pain which would make it extremely difficult for him to function and she would take care of him with medication and injections and so on."

Were there areas of his life that he wouldn’t talk about?
"Not that I recollect, no."

What were his favourite topics to talk about?
"About his success as a romantic leading man in Hungary and all the great roles he had played there. He did Hamlet, he did Romeo. He was really a highly regarded classical actor. Then he had some success in Germany too, both in films and on the stage, before he came to America. He talked a lot about his years overseas."

You set up two TV shows at this time, Suspense and The Milton Berle Show. How did those come about?
"Those were actually people who approached Bela and wanted him. We helped to negotiate the terms."

So people were actively seeking him out?
"People were seeking him out, particularly while he was living in New York, because of which he wasn’t so much in demand in Hollywood. They knew he was available in the East."

Was he approached about any other work?
"He did a couple of plays with the hope that they might come into New York, but nothing happened like that. He did some personal appearance tours in movie theatres along with showings of his films. Generally he was busy but not doing anything really important which is what he was looking for."

What did Bela think of Boris Karloff and what did Boris think of Bela?
"I have always said - and it’s a fact - that this rivalry between Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi and the feud between them was a myth that was perpetrated by Universal in order to promote the films in which they appeared together, like The Raven and The Black Cat. They didn’t have much in common so they didn’t socialise, but they were on perfectly friendly terms when they worked together. Boris actually felt sorry for Bela that Bela’s career had gone downhill the way it did, and felt that a lot of it was Bela’s own fault because he didn’t make the effort to learn the English language and reduce his accent sufficiently to be thought of in Hollywood as an actor who could play other kinds of roles.

“He was sorry that Bela had not had the success that, after playing in Dracula, he should have enjoyed. He often asked about Bela and said, ‘Poor Bela, I’m sorry that things went wrong for him the way they did.’ Bela was a little envious of Karloff’s success but not in a hostile way because although he didn’t talk about it much later, the fact is that, as you know, he was asked to do the Frankenstein film but he turned it down. So sometimes he would say, ‘If it was not for me there would be no Boris Karloff,’ but of course that’s not an accurate appraisal of the situation."

You set up the British tour of Dracula which was long regarded as a disaster but is now known to have played successfully in 22 venues. There was a book about it.
"I contributed to the book and collaborated on the book."

To what extent was it a success or failure?
"It was a failure because it didn’t accomplish what the grand plan was, which was for it to come into London and have a West End production. The whole idea of doing the tour was to create interest and hopefully establish that it was a money-making proposition and enable it to come into London where, if it had a successful run in the West End, one could then have tried to revive it in New York. When I have said in the past that it was a flop, in the overall scheme of things, that’s what it was.

“It was very hard on Bela, travelling the way he had to, doing the performances the way he had to, the conditions under which he had to work. At that stage of his life and at that stage of his health. He persevered with it. It made money in some locations and flopped in others. Overall, we considered it a failure."

Did you use the Hamilton Deane script that Bela performed in 1927?

Did it have to be updated?
"No, it wasn’t updated. It was played in period and as it was originally."

Did you come over and see it?
"I was still in America at that point, when it opened in Brighton. I did not actually see it during the tour, no."

Did you ever see the Broadway revival with Frank Langella in the late 1970s?
"Yes I did. It was a completely different version of Dracula, just like some of the films that have been made since. As far as I’m concerned, Dracula was Bela Lugosi and Dracula was the film that Universal made. All the other variations of it I don’t have that much respect or feeling for."

Why didn’t Dracula make it into the West End?
"I think what was wrong was the management was under-financed and had agreed to do this whole thing in the belief that all they had to do was put Bela Lugosi’s name in front of the theatre and that’s all that was necessary. But there was nothing to back it up. From all accounts I’ve heard, and from the many letters I got from Lillian at the time, it was very second-rate. The whole production was done on the cheap and it just didn’t back up Lugosi’s performance."

Was there much press interest in Lugosi’s visit to England?
"There was considerable interest when he arrived and there was considerable interest when the production opened, but - except for the local papers of course - the press didn’t follow it around."

When it finished...
"It wasn’t really that it was finished. It was that the management ran out of money and decided they couldn’t continue with it. Nothing had happened with regard to a West End production up to that point - and they just shut it down."

How did that lead into Mother Riley Meets the Vampire?
"It left Bela stranded in England with very little money and no plans for the future because it was unexpected. It was at that point that I came to London and tried to do something to help him financially and also to get him back to the United States. George Minter was doing the Mother Riley series; I was representing George Minter and Renown Pictures in America at the time, on the distribution of his pictures. George and I reached an agreement to do this film, which was almost ready to go anyway, although it wasn’t quite the picture that it became when Lugosi joined it. But it was a film that was very close to starting production, so it was a great opportunity for Bela to get some work immediately, and also to use the money to return to the United States."

What did the backers of the film think when the idea of Bela being in it was raised?
"There was really only George Minter who had to make the decision, although he must have discussed it with Arthur Lucan at the time. George had the rights to the Mother Riley series. He had already made two or three of the pictures, and I don’t think he had to consult anybody else."

How did Bela and Arthur Lucan get on together?
"They really never understood each other! Arthur Lucan was always Old Mother Riley - on stage or off - and always behaved accordingly. You never saw him at the studios when he was working except in the Old Mother Riley get-up. He used to arrive at the studio already fully dressed and made-up and he would leave the studio the same way. They came from two such totally different backgrounds and two totally different personalities and never quite understood each other.

“The biggest problem was that Bela, with his stage training and years of experience, would take a script and very quickly learn it until he knew it off by heart and stick to it absolutely during the filming; and Lucan was used to ad-libbing and going off the script and doing all kinds of things when shooting started that weren’t in the original screenplay. This was something that Bela found very hard to cope with. This was the problem when he was on the Milton Berle television show - that Berle started ad-libbing and Bela couldn’t follow it. He wasn’t prepared for it."

Ad-libbing aside, did Bela enjoy doing comedy?
"Yes, he did. He enjoyed it very much. For instance, he was very pleased with his role in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, which was after all a take-off on his own characterisation. I think he would gladly have done more comedy if it had been offered to him. But he couldn’t really cope with Lucan."

That was his first film for three or four years - was he glad to be in front of a camera again?
"I think he was glad to be working. Let’s put it that way."

Did he prefer stage or film work?
"He preferred stage work, if he could get something worthwhile."

Did he go back to America after Mother Riley?
"He went straight back to America as soon as the shooting was finished and the studio released him. He immediately went back to America and he went directly back to Hollywood. He didn’t stay in New York any longer. At that point, my brother took over the taking care of him and I was really sent out of the picture. That was the last time I saw him."

Did you follow the last few years of his life?
"I followed it from a distance. But I was then busy in New York with my own production plans and we drifted apart."

How do you think Bela wanted to be remembered?
"He never really talked about anything like that in those terms, but I’m sure he wanted to be remembered as the star of Dracula."

What’s your most abiding memory of Bela?
"My most abiding memory of him is the extreme loyalty he had towards anybody who either did something for him or was making a genuine effort to try and do something for him. He was a very generous man, very warm-hearted. I think as a result of that a lot of people tried to take advantage of him also, and that’s where Lillian came in and tried to keep a very strict control over things. But he was a very warm and outgoing personality.”

interview originally posted 3rd November 2011

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