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Paul Bogart: Shooting From The Hip

From The Grindhouse Cinema Database

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Paul Bogart’s long and esteemed career began in television. His directorial debut came in 1956 with an episode of The Kaiser Aluminum Hour and from that point on he continued working in the medium, often on some of TV’s most popular shows. His long list of credits includes “Get Smart,” “Way Out,” “All in the Family,” (for which he won one of his five Emmy Awards) “Alice,” “The Golden Girls,” “The Heide Chronicles,” and over forty TV specials, Movies of The Week and television mini-series.

Bogart’s first feature film was 1970’s contemporary-minded Halls of Anger, an ambitious story that dealt with current racially charged challenges: in particular the controversial issue of busing suburban white students into inner city black schools. A hit with black audiences, Bogart quickly followed the astutely-titled Halls of Anger with 1971’s The Skin Game, the story of two con men; one black; one white, and the race-centric situations that influenced and shaped their “separate but equal” relationship. Mr. Ricco, a 1975 detective drama whose African American subplot served as the film’s centerpiece, has been lost to time but remains a definitive period piece. It not only serves as a star vehicle for an established white Hollywood performer, Dean Martin, it balances the story of white angst with the concurrent, often unpredictable Black Power Movement.

Throughout the 1980s and 90s Bogart continued to work in television, only occasionally accepting film work. 1984’s Oh, God! You Devil, was a comedy vehicle for veteran comedian George Burns. 1988’s critically acclaimed Torch Song Trilogy marked a turning point for the director. Though he was now in more demand than ever as a big candidate, he decided the time had come: he wanted to go out on top. Torch Song Trilogy was Paul Bogart’s final directing assignment.

When I interviewed Mr. Bogart for my book Blaxploitation Cinema: The Essential Reference Guide he caught me off guard: I was completely surprised by his candor. A working professional in the industry for more than forty years, I thought he would be restrained and careful: not willing to share stories that were unflattering to the film industry or himself. I was wrong. Bogart had no problem dealing with the facts of life. He spoke frankly about trouble with actors, his dislike of the way his films were re-edited and re-presented, and his inability to transform “sub-par” product.

My conversations with Paul Bogart marked me. He changed my idea about what Hollywood directors might say during an interview. I also was confounded by his early awareness: he was passionately concerned about issues of injustice, exclusion and misrepresentation. Mr. Paul Bogart died on April 15, 2012 at the age of 92. His son Peter continues to be a constantly working craftsman behind the scenes in the entertainment industry.

Josiah Howard interviews Paul Bogart


Halls of Anger was your first blaxploitation film. How did you come to direct it?

I was invited to do so by producer Walter Mirisch.

Did the project come to you because you had enjoyed so much success in television?

I don’t know why he picked me. I must say that I didn’t think much of the script. The first time it was offered to me I read it and then I turned it down. They kept calling and asking if I would reconsider: they really wanted me. So, I figured ‘it’s good money just take the job.’ I told myself that I could work with it, make the script better, make the story stronger. That didn’t happen; but I really wanted it to. I worked on it forever. Sometimes it’s not about how much work you put into a thing. It’s going to work or it’s not going to work.

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Jeff Bridges and Calvin Lockhart in the civil rights drama HALLS OF ANGER (1970)

What was it about the script that didn’t appeal to you?

I was very interested in the idea of the script—the whole controversial bussing issue that was going on at the time in America. People were divided on the issue and people were talking about it. But I felt that the point of the story was missing in the actual script. Walter Mirisch, on the other hand, was very excited about the project. He wanted to do the movie and do it fast because it had contemporary news value, and it was a starring vehicle for someone who he was representing: Calvin Lockhart. He had a contract with Lockhart—he though Lockhart was going to be the next Sidney Poitier. The film was a vehicle for Lockhart because Mirisch saw Lockhart as a star that was going to be a longstanding commodity.

I take it that you’re not a fan of the film today.

Making that film was an excruciating experience for me. There was enormous friction on the set, especially between me and Calvin Lockhart. I had the feeling that Mr. Lockhart just didn’t want to be there. He didn’t care about the film, he didn’t like it, he was more concerned with the way he looked. Mirisch thought he was the next thing to God and Lockhart believed it. it was difficult to deal with someone who had been so praised by the producers. Lockhart was told that the only reason the film was being made was because of him. That wasn’t true of course. The film was being made because there was a market for it.

Would you say that Lockhart felt the project was beneath his capabilities?

Very much so. There were a lot of arched eyebrows on his part, a lot of looking at people through side glances. Calvin Lockhart made my life absolutely miserable on the set of the Halls of Anger.

In what way?

Here’s an example: on the very first day, when we were having our first reading, he came in an hour and a half late. When he entered the conference room he sat down and demanded that someone in the room bring him a hot cup of coffee: “make sure it’s hot.” This immediately alienated him from all the other actors who were working on the film: and it progressed from there.

How?

Mr. Calvin Lockhart was late for almost every single day of shooting. Every day we shot the entire cast and crew were waiting for him to show up. The disdain he expressed toward others was palpable. I guess Lockhart was only doing the film because he had to: he had a contract with Walter Mirisch. I really don’t know. What I do know is that no one who worked on the film would have anything positive to say about Calvin Lockhart.

Was your approach to making Halls of Anger very different than your approach to your work in television?

No. My interest has always been to present the truth of the event, the truth of the story, the truth of the characters. With Halls of Anger there was an essential truth to be told: racism in America is real, black people are treated differently, and the issue has to be addressed. The fact that the film presented the issue from the perspective of high school students was useful: no one had ever told that story from their point of view before.

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Brenda Sykes and Louis Gossett Jr. in the slavery era western adventure SKIN GAME (1971)

What was your experience like working on The Skin Game?

I’d say that The Skin Game is my favorite project from the period. It was done in a very warm atmosphere in which all of us were very much on the same page. It’s a good film, a good story. I did what I set out to do on that one.

The story idea—that of a black man taking part in his sale as a slave, is controversial.

Yes, it is. What I found interesting about the white character played by James Gardner was that even though he is highly likeable and not a racist, he is not above taking advantage of the black character played by Louis Gossett. That’s why we must always be aware of racism; it is often cloaked in pleasant distractions. For instance, even though both the black and white characters in the Skin Game are working together as successful scam artists, the white man doesn’t mind taking a comfortable room at the hotel while his black friend and business partner is forced to sleep in the stable. Yes, they are friends and equals but as the black character makes clear near the end of the picture: there’s a disturbing major difference. The black man can be bought and sold like a horse, a thing; he can be considered someone’s property. The white man can’t—and it’s only because of the different color of their skin; hence the title of the film.

Mr. Ricco was released in 1975. How did it come about?

Well that’s a very minor piece of work. I don’t believe anyone has ever asked me to talk about that film before.

Has it even been put out on video? I saw it on a bootleg copy recorded from television.

Ah, I thought so!

I think it’s a very entertaining film, Dean Martin is charming and San Francisco never looked so beautiful.

Well, I enjoyed doing it because I really liked working with Dean. That picture came about because Dean had a contract with the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas—where he was always performing. Part of his contract stipulated that they had to finance at least one picture for him to star in. It almost seems like it can’t be true now, but I believe we did the film for $1,000,000. I treated the film as lavishly as I could under the circumstances, but I remember that I was sorry that I didn’t have enough time to further develop the script. I just had to go ahead and do it as it was. Dean was only available at certain times so I took what I was give, worked it around his schedule and we made a film out of it.

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Dean Martin and Eugene Roche in the crime thriller MR. RICCO (1975)

No one ever refences this picture and it really was modern. The whole black subplot is clever: black revolutionaries in a ‘white’ American film!

Like so many other films it didn’t leave a mark and it still hasn’t. It came and went without notice. I’m going to admit something to you: I totally forgot I made Mr. Ricco until you asked me about it! If I forgot about it—and I worked on it, it is part of my career; it’s pretty safe to say that others must have too.

Why do you think it didn’t connect with audiences?

I couldn’t tell you but perhaps in 1975, young people weren’t going to movies to see a film starring Dean Martin. He was a star from a different era. His popularity in Vegas, which was huge—thus his movie contract, didn’t necessarily translate to movie theaters at that time.

To me, your films seem perfectly cast. Did you put a great deal of effort into to finding the right actors for your films?

That’s a compliment and thank you. As far as the supporting players go, most definitely yes. But each of the films we are discussing came to me with stars already attached to them: that’s why they were being financed by big studios. Halls of Anger came with Calvin Lockhart; The Skin Game came with James Garner; and Mr. Ricco came with Dean Martin. I had a free hand filling out supporting roles but the movies were already designed as vehicles for a pre-arranged star.

You worked at all the major studios: United Artists, Warner Bros., and MGM. How were they different?

My experience with the studios depended on my relationship with the producer of the film I was hired to direct. A good producer played the role of buffer between the director and the studio. At the time I wasn’t a very powerful director in Hollywood, so having a good producer was a great help to me. Moviemaking presents many challenges and my experience with those three studios was that they supported me by having producers who could present the case for whatever I needed to make the best film that I possibly could. I didn’t have a lot of direct contact with any of the studios and that was good thing. They believed I could do the job and I could. I gave them what they payed me to give them.

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George Burns and Ted Wass in the comedy OH GOD, YOU DEVIL (1984)

Several directors I’ve talked to have spoken about racism behind the scenes in Hollywood. Did you experience any of this?

I think that by the time I did my films they were very sensitive about that issue and if there was any racism—and, yes, I guess there must have been, they sat on it. when I was working for them the people in charge at the studios made sure that they didn’t put themselves in a position where they could be exposed. Although no one really talks about it Hollywood is reactionary town. And, it’s largely republican. The news stories don’t tell you that but the town’s decisionmakers are millionaires who want to continue being millionaires. Its’ not hard to figure out where they are really coming from and what they really care about.

What did you think of other blaxploitation films like Shaft and Super Fly?”

I never saw them. They seemed, for the most part, focused on violence and that did not interest me in the least. I was happy that black films were popular but I wasn’t so sure that they were presenting a positive image of blacks. I certainly felt that they knew what they were doing but what they were doing I knew I wouldn’t be doing. I didn’t want to have my hand in anything that I thought was negative—not if I could help it.

Why do you believe the black action movie boom came to such an abrupt end?

Maybe because they weren’t very good. I really can’t tell you because I didn’t go to see any of them. Everything has a cycle. Public taste changes all the time.

Why do you believe blaxploitation films remain popular today?

I’m not really sure. I know that The Skin Game has been treated very badly—it looks awful. It was a beautiful wide-screen movie and it’s been cut apart, panned and scanned and totally ruined. It’s just so painful for me to watch now—that I never do. I wish someone would release it in its original wide screen splendor. It’s a good film with great acting and a seldom presented story. It deserves to be reconsidered.

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Matthew Broderick and Harvey Fierstein in the film adaptation of the stage play TORCH SONG TRILOGY (1988)

You’ve been recognized as one of televisions most prolific directors. Are you proudest of your TV work or film work?

No one has ever asked me that before; it’s a very good question. I must say that I think I’ve done more significant, more meaningful work in the television medium. I love working: period. I made it a point to give my all to any project that I took on and I believe that’s one of the reasons I continued to be able to work as much as I did in both television and film. I had the reputation of a hard, committed worker and that was pleasing to me. It was also the truth.

As far as your creative contribution to television and film goes, how would you like to be remembered?

Well I think you can burn most of the stuff! Entertainments are transient: some last and some don’t. I would say that I’d like to be remembered as a good director; someone who did the best they could with the often sub-standard material at hand. If anything, I’ve done is good it’s because I wanted it to be good. I thought it was my job to make it good and as long as I was the one in charge I was going to work very hard to make whatever it was the very best that it could be.
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Josiah Howard is the author of four books including the seminal Blaxploitation Cinema: The Essential Reference Guide. His writing credits include articles for The New York Times, Reader’s Digest and The Village Voice. A veteran of more than 100 radio broadcasts he is a regular contributor to Grindhouse Cinema Database and in 2014-15 made regular appearances on TV One’s award-winning documentary series Unsung. Visit his Official Website.
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