Calder Willingham and the Meaning of Life
February 19, 2006
I woke up this morning with a notion to Google my favorite author, Calder Willingham, who in his later years had also become a mentor, client and friend. Being an internet hound, it was surprising I’d never thought to do it before, though if you believe in the Jungian idea of synchronicity, it turns out he died eleven years ago today.
My brother Dick and I occasionally talk books. When I was 23, he told me about one his boss had turned him onto, Eternal Fire. At the time, I was out of college making a go of it as a guitar player. A friend had given me a break letting me play in the orchestra for "Knight Rider," and I was also writing songs, recording, helping friends record, teaching, playing around the state in a band called Ridin’ High (we played both kinds of music, Country and Western) and doing whatever else musical I could to make ends meet. My dream was to produce – I was at my best in the studio, but I was a long way off from making a dime at it.
I went to the UCLA library which had every Calder Willingham book but Eternal Fire. They ordered it from Berkeley, and in the meantime, I checked out one of the others, Rambling Rose. I’m not a good reader, very slow, about 40 pages an hour, and while the experience is occasionally vivid, generally, I have bad comprehension. But Rambling Rose was different, something about the voice. People have described having this with other authors, a strange sensation, feeling like the book was written just for them. I raced through it, feeling like I’d made a new friend, a funny one, who wrote about sex and love and life in a way I understood. I returned the book and took out another, then another, enjoying each the same way, and it worked out that just as I’d finished all nine, Eternal Fire arrived from Berkeley. It lived up to its billing, too. I once read a review from Newsweek which described it as among the dozen or so novels that must be mentioned if one is to speak of greatness in American fiction, or there was Shelby Foote’s comment, how the book confirmed his view that Calder was perhaps the only American writer qualified to hold Dostoevsky’s coat in a street fight. I hadn’t enough literary perspective to make any pronouncements, I just knew I loved it.
A year later, I came to a crossroads. It was disturbing how many musicians I knew had drinking and marital problems. My letters and calls to record companies to get on their producing ladder had gone unanswered. It was dawning on me that no matter now much I practiced, there were always going to be better guitar players around, Los Angeles is teeming with them. I’d kept meticulous records of every dollar earned, my best year came to a little over $9,000. I’d also come to a crossroads in my songwriting. A lot of what I’d written and was recording had been inspired by a relationship now long gone. The songs didn’t represent how I felt anymore, not just emotionally but philosophically, and rather than being inspired to write new ones, I felt discouraged about starting over. With no new story I was burning to tell, not feeling especially virtuoso, without confidence I’d make a good living or have a good life, without a prayer of getting into producing any time soon, I got restless and eventually decided to hang it up.
After a stint organized by a musician friend going door-to-door in the San Fernando Valley dressed up as a gas station attendant in a blue jump suit with a phony name patch selling discounts on auto service (lube jobs, tune ups, brake jobs, etc.), then another answering complaints at a mail order company who sold plastic recipe organizers in red, green and blue, I decided to try for a job in movies. There was no way I wanted to work in the music business, facilitating others doing what I’d once wanted to. So with no idea if my skills might apply, I dove in, with all abandon.
In various bands and through volunteer work I’d done raising money to help a program for youth-at-risk, I’d been an effective organizer and promoter but also wanted to keep being creative. At first, I thought I’d try to combine these by working as a “creative executive.” Sounded about right. I figured since I was twenty-four, not twenty-two, and had had these real-world experiences, I was entitled to skip being an assistant and just start right in. I got a meeting at one studio through a family friend, but he was on the business side and said how to get anywhere, I needed to go to graduate school. No way I was doing that. I nudged my nose in the door at a few others on my own, and with a confidence now embarrassing, explained how, sure, other candidates knew agents and writers, but anyone could read scripts and learn the good names, that was just a matter of time, what couldn’t be taught was creativity. No one laughed in my face outright, they should have, but the meetings didn’t last long. Before they showed me the door, though, I always asked how they got their start, and almost all said the same thing, they’d started in the mailroom of an agency, like David Geffen and other titans.
I got interviews, my intention being to skip the mailroom and start as an assistant. They asked why I wanted to be an agent, and I said I didn’t, I couldn’t get a job as a creative executive, and the ones I’d met had all said they’d started at agencies. I didn’t get the gig. But I kept at it until I got another interview, this time to be in ICM’s training program, a nice name for the mailroom, and this time, I was ready. So, why do you want to be an agent? Well, I really admire artists, writers, directors, actors, all kinds of artists, and I can’t think of a more worthwhile career than going to work every day trying to help them realize their artistic and financial hopes and dreams. At the time, I thought that was a lie, but I got the job, two-sixty a week, which didn’t leave much once you paid your taxes.
One of the jobs in the mailroom is script copying, there were two giant machines, loud, churning out hundreds of pages per minute, morning, noon and night, though in that windowless fluorescent dungeon, you needed a watch to tell which. My second day on the job, I spotted a script titled Rambling Rose, picked it up, and sure enough, it said "by Calder Willingham, based on his novel." I hadn’t realized he wrote screenplays, but it turns out he’d written many, Paths of Glory, The Vikings, One-Eyed Jacks, The Graduate, Little Big Man, Thieves Like Us as well as the film version of his first novel End As A Man, retitled The Strange One. I’d seen The Graduate and also Little Big Man but none of the others. Over the next few months, I went back to see those two again and also the rest, several were really good. It was the damndest thing, too, I could hear his voice through the din, lines and moments in each which were unmistakably his. Like Faye Dunaway’s thick Southern drawl, luring young Little Big Man, Dustin Hoffman, into a bath, “Of course I will avert my eyes… at the proper moments.”
The screenplay of Rambling Rose was wonderful, and it gave me an idea. They called the mailroom the Training Program, but all we did was make copies and deliver mail. So I went to a kind older agent, supervisor of the Program, who confirmed my suspicion, the script was just laying fallow, so I told him I wanted to try to find it a director and stars. He supported me, but I soon ran onto a brick wall, because my first choice was Mike Nichols, and when I went to the ICM agent in L.A. I thought could speak to him (I later learned no one but Sam Cohn in New York spoke to him during these years), my spunk was deemed too much, he said, “Cease and desist, at once!”
The mailroom was dreary and I wanted out, so I became the eager beaver. By the end of my first week, I’d gone into every agent’s office offering to read scripts and do write-ups overnight. Even Chairman, Jeff Berg, though with him, just through his assistants. That first Friday, a call came down to the mailroom, Jeff Berg wanted to see me. Heads turned. Fired -- so soon? I went to his office, was shown inside, and before I could blink, he said, hey, you know who Tom Wolfe is? I hadn’t read any but my brother had, so I knew enough to say, “of course, ‘Acid Test,’ The Right Stuff, From Our Bauhaus To Our House, Pump-House Gang…” He reached behind and pulled out the fattest sheaf I’d ever seen, well over a thousand pages, a manuscript, Wolfe’s new novel. He wanted a full plot summary and a list of director and cast suggestions by first thing Monday morning. I looked at the cover, it was to be published the following year, Bonfire of the Vanities.
I got home and soon realized how daunting 500 pages per day was, being a slow reader was going to be the end of me. Rather than panic, I stopped to make a chart of what page I needed to be on by what time, in two-hour intervals, in order to finish the book, do the write up and come up with the suggestions by Monday morning. I budgeted three hours sleep per night and with confidence in the plan, got back to work.
By midday Sunday, I was right on schedule, though barely. Still, my anxiety settling, I decided to celebrate by reading on the roof of my apartment building while taking some sun. Unfortunately, about a half hour in, a big gust of wind came along and sent the manuscript every which way. I was running around, stomping on pages and trying to grab them up off of the cement roof, which was proving hard. You know how that is? When you can’t get a piece of paper off the sidewalk, it just sticks? That was happening in spades at the worst possible time, as the wind wreaked havoc. It was carrying pages up into the air and off the roof, down into the street. In a few minutes, it died down, and eventually, crumpled, dirty and out of order as they were, I’d gathered them off the roof and went down to the street for the rest. Some were easily had, but a few pages had gotten stuck in a tree, which, shirtless, I began climbing. I did it angrily and ended up with nasty scratches on my shoulders, arms and chest, but finally, the job was done. I put the pages in order and got back to work, a precious hour behind.
I’ve since misplaced it, but I remember writing the plot summary in imitation of Wolfe and feeling proud of the mimicry. My suggestion was for Mike Nichols to direct it, thinking of its quintessential New Yorkness and also the challenge of capturing a unique comic voice, something he’d shown a knack for in his adaptations of Catch-22, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Graduate. Also, having just seen and really liked Children of a Lesser God, I suggested William Hurt to play Sherman McCoy. I finished the memo at exactly eight-thirty, and Jeff’s assistants allowed me into the inner sanctum to place my masterpiece on his chair so he’d see it when he got in. At eighty-forty five, another call to the mailroom, Jeff Berg wants to see me. Heads turned again, this time, envious, they’d all seen my work. It’d been a huge book, my write-up captured its plot and tone, and my suggestions were solid. I went upstairs where once again, Jeff’s assistants ushered me in. Like the actor who starts to stand up for the Oscar right before the envelope is opened, I was two steps into the room before seeing how mad he was. What is this?! I was stunned. What do you mean? He was waving papers in the air — page 3, then page 2, then page 4? Bring it back when it’s right!
I scurried downstairs and carefully unstapled it, whited out the holes, then re-stapled it. This time when I went back up, I wasn’t shown in, his assistants accepted the corrected document, and I never heard mention of it again.
When I had a moment to catch my breath, I had to admit I admired the novel, the epic architecture, great characters, its readable style. It reminded me of Eternal Fire in its scope and ambition and how funny it was, but somehow, I liked Eternal Fire better, for all the delirious excess of both, it had warmer blood in its veins and moved me in a way “Bonfire” didn’t. A year later, when reviews poured in and Wolfe’s book became a phenomenon, deservedly so, I wondered why Calder’s wasn’t more celebrated, too.
There was another mystery about Calder, too, what had happened to him? He was sixty-four, hadn’t published in twelve years, nor written any screenplays. So I wrote him care of Donald I. Fine, the publisher who’d recently reissued Eternal Fire and End As A Man, a two page letter explaining who I was, how much I’d enjoyed his work and asking why he wasn’t publishing these days.
The idea of becoming a producer occurred to me around this time, too. It happened one night. I had tickets to see Guns and Roses and The Stones, the Steel Wheels Tour. I wondered if Guns and Roses, fresh off Welcome to the Jungle, might actually blow the aging Stones off the stage with a blast of rock and roll energy. I’d predicted they would.
Their set turned out to be a blast, Live and Let Die felt epic. I was sure the Stones, who I’d only seen in old films or on Saturday Night Live, couldn’t top them. But then they came out and made the opening act seem like, well, an opening act.
I asked myself, what made The Stones so great? One obvious difference was the songs. Great song after great song after great song, probably only The Beatles could match them. I also noticed what an incredible time Mick and the gang were having, so much fun. Sure, in between gigs they had to deal with tour meetings, business managers, rehearsals, fights, tons of travel, bad nights, corporate sponsors, all sorts of crap. But right in front of my eyes, they were having more fun, reaching a high I could never hope to come close to if I worked as a literary agent the rest of my life. They were out there doing it, I was on the sidelines. I also thought about the songs, how for long after they’re gone, people will still be listening to these songs, dozens of them, what they’re leaving behind. What would a literary agent leave behind? A warehouse full of file cabinets filled with contracts symbolizing all of the fun they’d facilitated other people having.
I’d once believed passionately in my creative instincts, at least as a music producer. By now, I was hooked on film. I knew I couldn’t write, couldn’t act, and it was my sense the great directors, the Scorceses and such, had been making movies in their backyards since they were kids, so the technique of telling stories through moving images had become second nature to them, their conscious minds thus free to focus exclusively on the problems of each particular film. Like skiing or tennis or golf, impossible to excel if learned late. Still, I was sure I could be not only a valuable participant in the creative process, but a principal, choosing ideas, working on scripts and casting and all of the decisions that go into it. So that was it. I set my course, I’d become a producer. I’d bide my time, learn the business, develop skills and relationships and wait for the moment to arrive. Ok, I thought, that’s settled, back to the show.
A few months later, having now graduated from the mailroom to assistant, the phone rang. Hello, Jeremy Zimmer’s office. A thick, aristocratic Southern accent greeted me, is this Barry Mendel? Yes, who’s this? This is Calder Willingham, would you like to be my agent? I was tongue-tied. Well, Mr. Willingham, it’s a pleasure to meet you. I don’t know what to say. The problem is, I’m not an agent, I’m just an assistant to one… so I’m afraid I’m not qualified. You wrote that letter, didn’t you? You’re at a reputable agency, and you seem to understand my work. I’ve just fired my previous agent, and I’m offering you the job. You understand — I’m just an assistant, right? Yes, you already said that. Okay, I’ll try, I mean, I’ll do it. Well, okay then. Here’s my phone number, let’s talk soon.
In the next conversation, I said I was ready to get going. You’ve worked with Mike Nichols, Arthur Penn, Stanley Kubrick, Robert Altman, Richard Fleischer, Marlon Brando, and I’m sure lots of others. Who was your favorite? He paused to think for a spell. I don’t know, maybe David Lean, I worked with him on Bridge On The River Kwai, and he was very polite. But Lean’s retired now. I know, he said. I didn’t know Calder well enough yet to know if he was joking. In fact, in his writing and in person, Calder was often so dry you couldn’t tell. “Do you find me undesirable?” “Oh no Mrs. Robinson, I think you’re the most attractive of all my parents’ friends.”
As we talked more, I learned Calder had not had good experiences in Hollywood but was nonetheless still enthused about the medium of film, which in years past, he’d regarded as gun-for-hire. It’d paid the bills, put his six children through school and allowed him to focus on his more serious writing. He had a publishing deal for a new book, too, but felt his time writing novels was over and was planning on returning the advance, including interest. He talked about the end of his novel-writing, a dark period in the late 70’s when he was drinking and had written a trashy science fiction novel in a haze, an embarrassment, and on a bogus contract to boot. He hit bottom in a cataclysm, his house burned down, he lost all of his manuscripts, personal papers, everything. He said he had come through it quite a while ago and had spent much of the previous ten years reading and thinking and playing golf and enjoying his life up in New Hampton, the small New Hampshire town where he’d lived for twenty-five years.
One change he’d gone through as a result was to move from what he described as a fashionable way of thinking, certainly one very much his own but which had nevertheless been formed while living amongst the intellectual set in literary New York right after the War (which was generally left, atheistic and cynical), to seeking a deeper, more personal intellectual and spiritual truth. He told me about a philosopher he’d been learning from the past ten years, and often referenced him in letters and phone conversations, Eric Voegelin, whose writings he studied. At one point, I tracked down one of Voegelin’s books, Science, Politics and Gnosticism, but it required knowledge of philosophy and Gnosticism in particular, and I couldn’t penetrate it. I bought a big encyclopedia of philosophy figuring that when I came across a term I didn’t understand, I could look it up and even find further reading if necessary, but it was useless.
After first putting word out that Calder was interested to write, I fielded offers of novels for him to adapt, remakes to consider, scripts to rewrite, none of which interested him, though he’d always have a thoughtful, funny, polite letter in response. I learned a lot from them. This had been good for my career, too, people calling me directly, as I juggled my assistant duties. Once I got promoted from assistant to actual literary agent, I made a pilgrimage to New Hampshire to meet him in the flesh and also to try to jump-start the process of getting him back in the game. When I arrived at his house, I was met by a spry, tall, athletic sixty-five year old, a full shock of red hair, freckles, energy and spirit. He had a large house, and as we talked, he smoked a pipe and kept taking the perfect amount of water from the tap into a saucepan for his instant coffee, over and over. Every time, perfect. I revived my idea to get Rambling Rose made, he was supportive, and after a brief stay, he saw me off, our sights set on that.
I soon learned of a parallel effort being made by Laura Dern. Her plan was to do it with her mother and Valley Girl director, Martha Coolidge. I admit my initial ideas about who might direct it were grander, but my more immediate problem was that the rights to the script were owned by a well-known producer, Edgar Scherick, who’d commissioned it, but Calder owned the book, and Calder wouldn’t speak to Edgar ever since doing him a favor writing on a miniseries and being replaced behind his back, or so he said. I went to see Edgar to see if he might step aside, and it soon became clear Edgar wasn’t emotional about it, a check could solve everything. Then Laura won Best Actress in Cannes for Wild At Heart, so I decided to meet her. She let me know that Martha had given her the script, in other words, the idea of doing it without Martha was unthinkable. She also insisted the mother role, the real hero of the story be played by her mother, Diane Ladd. I wanted to be able to speak frankly with Laura about it, to at least talk about getting a bigger name, so I asked if I could meet just her, not her mother, and she agreed. We met at Junior’s Deli in Westwood, and went over ways of getting money, which mostly including finding a famous director to be its shepherd, a big name that would vouch for Martha and the project, people like Coppola, Redford, etc. Then Laura, somewhat sheepishly said, what about my boyfriend (a Finnish action director, Renny Harlin, who had apparently just given her the expensive leather coat she was wearing)? I made no bones, he was very big at the time, and said sure, if he can help us, great. And then, as the meeting ended, sure enough, in danced Laura’s mother, Diane, practically in character. She seemed nice.
Laura gave Renny the script, and he said he stayed up that night, read it and broke down and cried. Having just made a hit, Cliffhanger for a now-defunct company called Carolco, he went right to the owners. They were a small outfit who’d made the Rambo movies, Total Recall, Terminator II, Basic Instinct, mostly hits and then went under, though why and where all that money went always eluded me. Renny went to them at Cannes and said he wouldn’t leave their yacht until they said yes to Rambling Rose. And lo and behold, they did! Within a month, they paid off Edgar Scherick who agreed to Calder’s condition that he have nothing whatsoever to do with the creative content of the movie, hired Calder to gussy up the script, gave them cheap space at their studio in North Carolina, and off they went. The main challenge was casting, Martha cast Lukas Haas as the boy and wanted Robert Duvall for the father, but he said no, twice. He was off to Russia to play Stalin in a big miniseries, but we got a tip, his flight number, and Calder wrote him a long letter beseeching him to play the part, which a friend of ours delivered to him at the gate as he boarded the plane. We waited for him to return, and when he did, he said yes, and the movie had lift-off. Letters. It’s how I’d met Calder, how he’d turned Duvall around, note to self.
Calder got along okay, everyone was deferential and very nice to him, he enjoyed his visits to the set and the care the art department took in creating the environments. He thought Laura was a wonderful Rose and Robert Duvall a very good Daddy and he liked Lukas Haas and everyone else, too. He was grateful, nervous, hopeful, I’d say. When the shoot wrapped and it came time to choose a composer, having very strong ideas about music, Calder pushed hard for Elmer Bernstein, who had done such a beautiful score for To Kill A Mockingbird, among many others, most recently to all this, one I loved, his score for The Grifters. Martha liked the idea and Elmer said yes.
I don’t know how it came to be, but I must say, I really don’t like the Rambling Rose score. It’s soured me on the flute in a way I’m only now, fifteen years later, getting over, and I was amazed how much it affected my enjoyment of the film. Which taught me two very valuable lessons. First, that film composers can do a good score, then a far lesser one (though obviously these things are subjective), it’s not like they find a groove for a few years. Every project is different, and no composer is immune. The other was that films end up being only as good as their weakest link. Most often, it’s the basic story idea or script or leading performances or direction, but it can also be score or cinematography or editing or a supporting performance, too. Whatever its worst component, the film can be no better. Sadly, I’ve never loved that movie, and I think with a different score, I would have. I love the book, and Martha and all of the actors did a wonderful job. The fact that Laura was nominated for an Oscar for Best Actress and Diane for Best Supporting Actress, which was both exciting and deserved, did little to blunt my disappointment, and for his own set of reasons, I think Calder felt the same, grateful, happy, but disappointed, too. A sun shower.
Soon after, Kevin Costner and his producing partner, Jim Wilson, having just won Best Picture for Dances With Wolves, scored the coup of Steinbeck’s widow entrusting them with the rights to Travels With Charly, and they approached Calder about adapting it. Calder had his doubts, but Jim was persistent, and finally, Calder came up with an idea. He’d conduct what he called a “feasibility study.” He’d spend a month working, every day, analyzing the notion filming the book. At the end of a month, one of two things would happen. Either having figured out how and why to do it, he’d embark on writing the screenplay, obviously, this was his goal or he wouldn’t have wasted the time. But in the event he couldn’t crack it, he’d leave them with a lengthy analysis, the product of a full month of work, which he felt certain would be useful as they proceeded with another writer. They’d pay him for his time, a fraction of what he’d have been paid to write the script, half at the start and half at the end, a down payment should he proceed to doing the job. They found the idea strange, unprecedented, but convinced of his good faith, went ahead.
At the end of a month, having concluded he didn’t see a way to write it himself, he submitted the results of his work – Steinbeck’s Travels With Charly: A Feasability Study by Calder Willingam. Thirty-seven pages, not including the Table of Contents. He talked about characters, themes and ideas, which were the most dramatically interesting events and locales and various other topics, a thorough analysis of the opportunities of adapting the book to screen. They were stunned. They’d assumed that all that mumbo jumbo was just an odd way of Calder wading into getting going, never imagining he’d accept money for turning them down. Jim refused to make the second payment, and now Calder was mad, too, not about the money, that they didn’t value his memo, and moreso that they’d failed to understand what we’d all agreed to, after all, he’d called it a feasibility study. When the dust settled, everyone just moved on, there was no way they were paying and no way we could make them short of suing, and it wasn’t worth the trouble.
Soon thereafter, Sally Field’s then husband Alan Greisman called saying the two of them and Steven Spielberg wanting to talk to Calder about something. A meeting was arranged in Los Angeles. One thing I always admired about Calder, he always insisted his wife Jane, chair of the English Department at a private school in their home town, join him in all meetings. She was intelligent and analytical and he trusted her judgment. So they went. It turned out they wanted to work with Calder to come up with a story about life on the Oregon Trail. They threw around some ideas, each promised to do some reading and planned a second meeting for a month later in New York.
Calder read mostly about Native Americans, he’d been embarrassed by the broad comedic take Arthur Penn had used in Little Big Man and wanted another crack, but didn’t really get anywhere. Until the night before the second meeting, when he called in a sweat. All the sudden, in a single burst, he’d written a twenty page story called Julie’s Valley. A family leaves their Tennessee home to head west, and as they go, they name their former home Julie’s Valley, after their daughter. The trip is rough and along the way, their wagon-train gets attacked by Natives, almost everyone is killed, including their son. The father is shot and falls off a cliff, and the mother and daughter Julie are taken captive. The Natives treat the mother roughly but make Julie one of their own, as is their custom. But over several weeks, Julie gets sick and in spite of everything the medicine man does, begins to die. The mother watches helpless but stoic, and the leader of the tribe, impressed, takes pity on her and invites her to his shelter, where he slowly begins to court her, against the wishes of the rest of the tribe. Her husband had not died, however, he was found wounded by a black female fur trapper at the base of the cliff and taken in, though back in those remote woods, far from civilization, getting better takes a long time. So much time that Julie eventually dies, is given an Native burial, after which the mother, who has lost hope of ever being rescued, finally sleeps with the leader of the Natives, who by now has fallen in love, satisfied he has found a wife of strength and courage. For the mother, given the alternatives, it’s not a bad life, she’s grateful for the leader taking a stand against the rest of the tribe, who were rough and wished her dead. Eventually she gets pregnant by him. And eventually the husband gets strong enough to make it to a cavalry outpost, finds out Julie’s died and where his wife is and organizes a raid to rescue her. In the final battle, we see the Native leader get shot through the chest, and the husband first sees his wife’s pregnant form weeping at the Native leader’s feet. The smoke clears, and reunited, childless, with heavy hearts, they begin the long journey back to Julie’s Valley to raise the baby together.
He asked me to fax it to the gang in hopes they could read it before the meeting, and they all loved it. The meeting went well, we made a deal, and off they went.
The first draft was received well, they wanted it fleshed out even further even though it was long, which I’ve since learned, is not unusual. But just as he was nearing the end of the second draft, Calder caught a bad cold and things slowed down.
Soon thereafter, he called and told me he’d been diagnosed with lung cancer. He didn’t ever inhale his pipe, hadn’t smoked a cigarette in twenty years, and the type of lung cancer wasn’t even associated with smoking. He said he had to undergo chemotherapy and didn’t know what his prospects were. It was shocking, a week earlier, he seemed in the prime of life, writing, playing golf, shooting in the low eighties, few signs of aging, none of ill health.
Over the years, Calder had often joked about becoming a drooling, senile old fool, almost as if he looked forward to it, the possibility of life being cut short never seemed to occur to him. He also dreaded chemotherapy, the humiliation of being helpless and weak. Nonetheless, he remained eager to finish the script, he was proud of the work, which indeed was good, and in spite of the chaos, he did. I spoke to him a couple times after his first treatments, he sounded like a different person, weak and fading, and he died the day after our last call. As I said, that was eleven years ago today, well before his time.
I went to to the funeral in New Hampton where the whole community came out to pay their respects to one of the great men of the town. It was a sad occasion, but also, as it should be, a celebration of an extraordinary person who’d inspired countless others.
I did research for an obituary I gave the Hollywood trade papers and the main scholarly articles I found were entitled "Calder Willingham: The Forgotten Writer" and such. People asking why in much the same way today, people feel John O’Hara is underappreciated. Writers admired him, the New Yorker said he’d helped father modern black comedy (I defy you to read “The Record of a Man” and keep a straight face). I’d heard of his influencing writers from Crews to Wolfe, all across that generation, among whom he was known as a writers’ writer, though he didn’t hang out with writers and counted very few among his friends. One was Nabakov, and Calder once told me a story involving Lolita.
Nabakov was up at Cornell, broke, and considering leaving America, and Calder thought he could maybe get him some money by selling the book to Hollywood. Calder was friendly with Kubrick after Paths of Glory -- later, they’d written a script together called The Burning Secret based on a story by Stefan Zweig (who also wrote Letter From An Unknown Woman) and Calder had worked on Spartacus once Kubrick took over from Anthony Mann. They’d also spent a year together with Marlon Brando in a house in Beverly Hills trying to cook up a story for One-Eyed Jacks, which Brando eventually directed himself after firing Kubrick. He told me two great stories about the three of them at that house, too, neither of which I can ever repeat! Anyway, Calder showed Lolita to Kubrick and his producer, James Harris, and the three decided to collaborate on the film, the idea was to be partners. But when the agents got involved, Calder ended up with the short end of the stick and bowed out after writing one or two drafts, suggesting that Nabakov write the script instead (and make a little more money, too).
I once asked his publisher, Donald Fine, why he thought Calder’s place in the firmament seemed so unfitting. He blamed a newspaper strike unluckily coinciding with the publication of his best book, Eternal Fire. Not that his books didn’t sell, they did, End As A Man, Geraldine Bradshaw, Eternal Fire and Providence Island were all best-sellers, but they’ve been in and out of print and haven’t been taken as seriously as they should. A note about Geraldine Bradshaw. Calder’s first novel, End As A Man provoked a scandal for suggesting the existence of hazing and homosexuality in American military schools. It was banned and became the subject of decency hearings until Studs Lonigan author James T. Farrell and others famously rallied to its defense. Calder subsequently wrote a theatrical version which started off-Broadway and featured a young James Dean. All of which led to big sales and big praise for a young writer who wasn’t ready for it. As such, Calder was wracked with what to do for an encore, what could live up to the praise, and so he took a few years over-thinking it and finally conceived of a trilogy beginning with “Geraldine.” The book was long, filled with references which readers were supposed to only be able to appreciate when the other books came around. Actually, fourteen years later, after he finished Eternal Fire, Calder went back and edited out the references to the later books which had fattened and dulled the original story, leaving a svelt version for posterity. He eventually wrote the two other books, too. The original “Geraldine” was reviewed disparately, called everything from pornography to a masterpiece, and I’ve had many interesting conversations with writers about it, most memorably Larry McMurtry. William Styron, supposedly a fan of Calder’s, reported seeing it on the desk during a visit with Faulkner.
But why isn’t Calder better known? For one, he shunned the spotlight. Once he moved to New Hampshire in the early 60s, he ceased all interviews for any of his books and films and rarely went down to New York. He did agree to a New York Times interview for Rambling Rose, his first in almost forty years. It was thoroughly flattering, though he was mystified by the journalist describing him as loquacious. Barry, can you believe it? Me? Loquacious?
Even with The Graduate — he told me the story. Mike Nichols asked him to write the script and Calder agreed, on the basis they’d work closely together and that it was to be Nichols’s directorial debut. Then Nichols was given the opportunity to direct the film version of Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Nichols flew the coop and wasn’t around to collaborate with Calder, but Calder found the adaptation relatively easy because the dialogue was so good in Charles Webb’s book. By the time Nichols was ready to focus, he had been to France and discovered the New Wave and wanted to work with Buck Henry who was in swing with him on how to do the rewrite. So Calder went away. When the film was done, they proposed to have the credits read: screenplay by Buck Henry and Mike Nichols. Calder read their script, which he felt closely resembled his, so he asked the Writer's Guild to arbitrate the credit, and after reading the scripts, the arbitrators changed it to screenplay by Calder Willingham and Buck Henry. He also remembered seeing Buck Henry on Dick Cavett and other talk shows, acting as if he was the author of the movie, which Calder thought was a stretch given how closely the movie followed the book. Read it some time, it’s great. When it came to the Oscars (they were up for seven including Best Screenplay, and Nichols won for Best Director), Calder stayed home.
Another reason he wasn’t more highly regarded as a novelist is because of his subject matter. To sum it up, I’d say his original work came from the point of view that the mysteries of the universe, at least those worth exploring, could best be glimpsed through the prism of the erotic desire of a man for a woman and woman for a man. After his sabbatical, in Julie’s Valley for example, while sex was still a part of the fun, more fun than a barrel of monkeys I can still hear him saying, the mysteries were explored more directly, but those works were never seen. His books confused the public and reviewers, who knew that many a bright teenager had them hidden in their bedrooms. Was it literature or pulp? How to characterize it? Was it worthy of Calder’s obvious talents? Many critics said he was wasting them on smut, not a problem Philip Roth seemed to have, nor the whole next generation — maybe he was just ten years too soon.
He also won no literary awards, though why Eternal Fire was overlooked is a mystery, and his books were never memorably adapted to screen and made permanent in this way. Yet perhaps this oversight can still be rectified. Perhaps teachers and students and readers of American fiction of the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s will seek him out, and if perchance they do, they’re in for a good time.
Fortunately for me, in addition to the novels and screenplays he left behind, some of his legacy is also preserved in our correspondence, hundreds of pages of letters we wrote each other, always about the business at hand, but also always also more. It was my master class in filmmaking and life. I’d tear into those envelopes, knowing at the very least, there was a good laugh to be had. The large circle of people he corresponded with know what I’m talking about, we’d all likely agree he was the most lively letter writer any of us have met. Jane worries I’ll want to publish them, but she shouldn’t, those are private, they’ll never see the light of day.
Six weeks after the funeral, I was in Southernmost Tunisia on a camel, past the final town, Tozeur, out in the middle of the Sahara, marching forward, shielded from a chilly Spring wind by a black wool robe, a checked keffiyeh covering my head. As the sun set, I thought back to the Rolling Stones concert. I realized the reason for me to continue being a literary agent was gone — the moment had come. Sure, I had other clients, good ones, some were even my friends. I’d been living the exact lie I’d told my interviewers back when I was conning my way into the mailroom, enjoying a challenging, rewarding career helping talented artists realize their artistic and financial hopes and dreams. I was just starting to make some money at it, too. But the deepest satisfaction had come from working with Calder — that was more than a job, it was a calling. Without him, it was time to pursue a new calling, trying to produce films, and thusly, I began.
A short time before he died, when he was very sick and knew he wouldn’t live much longer, he was mainly concerned to finish the script and to tie up loose ends, to make sure everything was in order before he went. Those phone conversations were heavy -- fraught and sad. In one of them, though, calmly and without much fanfare, he told me he wanted to convey to me the meaning of life, the understanding he’d developed, maybe in those ten rich years of private contemplation, though maybe he’d always known, and he did so very simply. He said that it’s love. That nothing else matters.
It made an impact, not a huge one, it being so seemingly self-evident, still an impact all the same. As years go by, his words have reverberated and changed shape and color as I’ve gone about navigating the kinds of decisions in life and work we all have to make. It’s like he posed a question, one with many possible answers, more compelling today than it was then, and I won’t be surprised to feel more so eleven hears hence. Such words only matter when they come from someone who has lived as if they fully understood them, and in my life thus far, Calder was that rare soul.