STUNTMAN, ACTOR & DIRECTOR WORKED AS UNIT PRODUCTION MANAGER ON 'PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE'
Gary Kent, the legendary stuntman who worked as unit production manager on Phantom Of The Paradise, died this past Thursday at Onion Creek Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Austin, Texas, according to The Los Angeles Times. He was 89.
Kent was an inspiration for Brad Pitt's character in Quentin Tarantino's Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood (stuntman Hal Needham was also an inspiration for the character). According to Emily St. Martin's Los Angeles Times obit:
Just like Cliff Booth, Brad Pitt’s character in “Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood,” Kent had a run-in with Charles Manson and the “family” at Spahn Movie Ranch. A dune buggy that production was using as a camera car broke down on set, and Manson offered to repair it, but asked for a $70 advance. Kent paid up, but Manson reneged on his end of the deal until Kent threatened him.
“Charles got under the dune buggy and fixed it right away,” Kent said.
According to Joe O’Connell, the filmmaker behind “Danger God,” Quentin Tarantino interviewed Kent while working on the script for “Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood.” Stuntman and director Hal Needham has also been noted as an inspiration for the character of Booth.
Kent often portrayed thugs, rapists, outlaws and scoundrels in his films, but according to those who worked closely with him, his off-screen persona couldn’t be further from such “bad guy” roles. O’Connell became friends with the stuntman while filming his documentary, and they remained close for years. He told The Times, “Gary is the guy that guys wanted to hang out with. And women wanted to be near. Even as an old guy, he was just great. He just radiated a joy of life.”
In the 1970s, Kent traveled to Dallas to direct a film, but the funding fell through. He decided to stay anyway and went on to write and direct the dramatic 1976 film “The Pyramid,” which was recently included in the book “TCM Underground: 50 Must-See Films From the World of Classic Cult and Late-Night Cinema.”
Writing about the early stages of making The Pyramid in his book, Shadows & Light: Journeys With Outlaws in Revolutionary Hollywood, Kent says that he "was able to assemble a small army of dedicated individuals anxious to see the film become a reality." This soon leads into Kent getting the call to work on Phantom Of The Paradise:
We would often gather, my Pyramiders and I, at Jeff's workshop, my apartment, or the park to exchange ideas and bolster our offense. We formed an athletic team, and after think-tank sessions, would adjourn to a swimming pool for water polo or to a local baseball diamond for a softball duke-out. This would all be lowed by my cranking out a tub of homemade ice cream for the lot of us, an art anches I had inherited from my father and generations of Kents before him. Hopes were high, humor was splendid, days were long and magical. In the evenings I would continue to write the screenplay. It was all very cozy, very enjoyable. "Except." Boo reminds me, "you are quickly running out of money."
Albert Camus, the great French writer/philosopher and Noble Laureate, said in his acceptance speech that the noble cause of the writer is "the service of truth and of freedom." I had just gotten off the phone with Shirley Willeford. She and I both shared an admiration for Mr. Camus and his works. In fact, she had written her college thesis at Stevens on Camus. His The Plague and The Stranger are easily two of my favorite reads. I was trying to channel Camus' clarity of thought and enormous personal integrity as I returned to my own writing. "Truth." "Freedom." Yes, yes, I hear you, Albert, but much easier said than written. One immediately confronts the lofty Albert Einstein and the intensive Werner Heisenberg.
Is truth relative? Relative to what? And what sort of freedom are we talking about here? Anarchy? Is it truth that the sun will always rise? I think not. So then, "faith" enters into the equation. It was getting to be a bit sticky, a bit muddy, really. I was writing a scene where my lead character, a South Texas news reporter, esses a Shiner Bock and some bar olives. His mind is struggling with the problem of how to get his therapist into the sack and where in town to get the best chicken fried steak. I would be better served researching Erskine Caldwell (God's Little Acre) than an austere French existentialist. I closed the tablet and turned on the television.
This was a mistake. Every channel was carrying something depressing. Mostly counts of increased slaughter in Vietnam or another foray into the twisted psyche of Tricky Dick Nixon. I was reminded that this was exactly the problem that our protagonist in The Pyramid faces-an ever-increasing appetite of the public for violence and sensationalism. I felt my own, personal angst beginning to gather its darker forces like a street gang in Cabrini-Green. I turned off the television.
It was just beginning to turn dark outside the big picture window. Lights were popping on, children were called in from play, the dogs assumed their positions as family sentries. I sat in the lavender light of a summer's evening in Texas, absorbing the moment. Well, one thing was becoming increasingly clear and that was the dire situation of my finances. Rent, child-support, food, utilities: Their specter chipped away at my confidence until writing about getting laid and having a chilled long-neck became difficult to consider as either "truth" or "freedom/1 thought briefly about the rose in the vase in the bedroom. Surely it was dead by now, in need of replacing. Then, as if on cue, the phone rang. It was Paul Lewis calling from Hollywood.
"Hi. Gar. Listen, I'm coming down to Dallas with a director named Brian De Palma. We're doing a movie for Fox called Phantom of the Paradise. It's a pretty big production. I'm going to need an assistant. You interested?"
A week later, I was at the old Dallas Airport. Love Field, waiting for Paul and Brian De Palma to arrive from Los Angeles. They were coming in early to scout locations for Phantom of the Paradise. They were accompanied by cinematographer Larry Pizer (The Proprietor, Isadora) and art director Jack Fisk (Raggedy Man, There Will Be Blood, husband of actress Sissy Spacek). I had signed on as unit production manager. I had with me Dan Dusek, a senior film student from Southern Methodist University, who would work as a location scout for the film.
Paul and the group arrived with much of the hurly-burly of Hollywood spilling out of their baggage. It was going to take some time to get them on Texas time. In the finality of it all, we reached a sort of compromise. Phantom of the Paradise required getting much of Dallas to pass itself off as New York-damn near an impossibility. This particular illusion fell into the oeuvre of art director Fisk and me and my Pyramiders (which by now included the energetic Dan Dusek). We were charged with getting the locals to appear more cosmopolitan, less like hunter gatherers, as Brian insisted on using masses of them to fill out the empty spaces in his movie.
After several rounds of location looking, we all adjourned to my apartment for a welcoming party. There was much good fellowship in sway. Unusual, since half of the crew was from New York and the other half from Los Angeles, and the twain did not fancy each other. The bonding agent turned out to be copious amounts of good Scotch and vodka, a little weed, the southern charm of a Pyramiders, and the naturally wholesome beauty of Ms. Willeford and Morris.
Paul Lewis, of course, was a dear friend. I was also familiar with the personalities and idiosyncrasies of movie crews. Brian De Palma was a different sort of bloke altogether mostly aloof, perhaps a bit shy, not a huggy-feely fellow in the least. an auteur to be sure, hard on the success of two cinematic coup d'état: Greetings and Sisters. I was delighted, therefore, when I observed him sitting cross-legged on the floor, comfortably involved in the workings of a Ouija board with one of my female Pyramiders. Cinematographer Larry Pizer had been co-opted by a local beauty, a friend of Jeff Alexander's, and spent the evening in a corner of the apartment, locked into some intimate and perhaps racy conversation.
The crew, the hard-hearted New Yorkers and the cynical Angelenos, were enjoying a mutual disdain for all things Texan, especially Dallas. Boo and I observed the scene from our vantage point behind the makeshift bar. We smiled. "It was good!" I predicted an enjoyable shoot. I was wrong.
From the opening day of filming, things on Phantom took on a whirly, anxious, uncontrollable energy all their own. The logistics, the schedule, the production board, for some reason were considered a secret. "Perhaps," Boo suggested, "they simply had not been completed." Jack Fisk and his construction crew were hard at work, slamming those eight-pennies and slopping paint onto flat-walls for twelve to fourteen hours a day. As they were behind schedule, they had little time to explain to the rest of us what was going on or what they needed in the way of supplies and materials. After all, they were morphing Dallas into New York City at warp speed.
The costume department was buzzing with the sound of little fingers sewing. folding, ironing, inventing the bizarre, colorful plumage needed to fulfill Brian's vision. They had even enlisted the services of the marvelous actress Sissy Spacek (Carrie, Coal Miner's Daughter) as, being married to art director Fisk, she was already on location. In spite of being hailed by the Hollywood moguls as a promising new actress for her work in Badlands, Sissy was more than willing to help in any way she could. In this case, that involved a needle, thread, thimble, and the fortitude of a mongoose.
The local teamsters were grumbling, the caterers overworked, the multitudes of extras unsure of what the hell they were supposed to be and do. Paul Lewis and producer Edward R. Pressman (American Psycho, Hoffa, a Christopher Award and multi-other nominations) were barely speaking to one another. Whatever the disagreement, Paul soon had enough. After putting his heart and soul into the project, he suddenly grabbed his return ticket and bid us all adieu. It happened so fast! "Paul, wait, please, just a sec, ok?" But he was gone.
That night we received word that the choreographer had balked at La Guardia airport in New York and would not be joining us. Two members of the crew got into a fistfight and the intestinal flu had stricken Gerritt Graham (Greetings, Pretty Baby). one of our lead actors. Racetrack touts were giving ten to one on complete failure of the project. Phantom of the Paradise turned out to be a tremendous success, though, becoming a classic horror/musical/farce with the impact and staying power of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. It also would garner multiple awards, including an Oscar nomination for Best Original Song and Best Musical Score.
The sheer amount of talent assembled for Brian's movie was staggering For openers, there was De Palma himself, a graduate of Sarah Lawrence, a private liberal arts college cloistered on top of a rocky promontory overlooking the Bronx River in Yonkers. De Palma entered the foray of filmmaking well prepared by at excellent education, impressive contacts, and a group of uber-talented pals forged on the Sarah Lawrence campus. Most of them appeared in Phantom, along with other of Brian's films, and continue to work with him to the present day.
Brian became a leader of "The New Hollywood" in the 1970s, along with Oliver Stone, Peter Bogdanovich, Paul Schrader, Dennis Hopper, Martin Scorsese, Richard Rush, Francis Ford Coppola, and others. His work on Phantom of the Paradise resulted in several major awards, including a nomination for Best Original Comedy Screenplay from the WGA.
The lead actress in Phantom of the Paradise was lovely, dedicated Jessica Harper. She was also a Sarah Lawrence grad and a personal friend of Brian's. Jessica was flirtatious in a professional kind of way, just enough to endear her to the crew and the folks doing the heavy lifting. She had a way of turning her head suddenly and looking one directly in the eyes, and then she would break into the most delicious of smiles. Just as quickly, she would turn away, back to business. This left one to believe she had meant the smile especially for them, and was making a point to bestow it on them secretly, before any more of the day slipped away. Of course every grip, every gopher, P.A., and juicer believed "the smile" was a signal that she found them alone especially appealing. This effective ploy earned Ms. Harper easy access to just about anything she wanted, movie set-wise.
Jessica Harper writes music, and possessing the most unique, husky contralto, performed all of her own singing in Phantom. Ever the lady, I was somewhat surprised when she later appeared in the X-rated Inserts, wherein Oscar-winning actor Richard Dreyfuss sucked on her breast for several scorching minutes of screen time. Arguably, it was the first time an American actress of note had actually allowed a sexual act to be performed on her for the sake of cinema.
Another Sarah Lawrence pal who came to Texas for the Phantom shoot was William Finley (The Black Dablia, Sisters). Finley played the part of Winslow Leach, a nerdish songwriter, who sells his soul and his songs for a chance at love with his dream girl, Phoenix (Harper). He is subsequently disfigured in a to accident involving a record printing press, and from then on assumes the mask and the identity of "The Phantom of the Paradise."
The part of the devilish record producer, Swan, went to one of my absolute favorite songwriters, the diminutive, energetic, brilliantly prolific Paul Williams. Paul not only starred as the evil Swan, but also wrote the lyrics and music for this bizarre operetta. For this, he would receive his second Oscar nomination for Best Song. So far, in his eclectic career, Paul has won one Oscar, received four other Oscar nominations, won two ASCAP Awards, one Golden Globe with three nominations, nominated for two Grammys, is a member of the Songwriter's Hall of Fame and he's just getting started.
Shirley Willeford and I went through our favorite list of Paul's songs. "We've Only Just Begun," "Rainy Days and Mondays," "(Just An) Old Fashioned Love Song "The Rainbow Connection," "The Family of Man," and what eventually became our song, the haunting and naturally uplifting ballad, "Evergreen"
When a bunch of teenyboppers in bikinis were scheduled to dance for the hilarious rock group. The Juicy Fruits, and the original choreographer didn't show up, I volunteered Shirley as her replacement. So, then, Shirley Willeford, ex-warehouse foreman, ended up choreographing all of the beach bunny dance moves and doing a special close-up camera gag with a Juicy Fruiter. Kim Russell and Adrian Cumming were totally into the project, and Adrian even received credit on the film as a production assistant.
It is rumored that a very wise person once said. "To carry money without spending it is a sign of maturity." During the first weeks of Phantom filming, the picture company was headquartered at the old Majestic Theater in downtown Dallas. The Majestic sat mid-block, in a rundown section of the metroplex. One day, producer Ed Pressman sent Dan Dusek and me to an uptown bank to pick up a satchel of money and return it to him at the theater. Ed didn't specify how much money we would be transporting, but we assumed it was probably going to be a couple of thousand or more. Otherwise, why send two of us?
It was a walk of several blocks through scruffy territory, littered with refuse both human and debatable. We asked Police Sergeant Dave Biddleman, who was working security on the film, to accompany us. At the bank, a senior officer approached with a satchel, opened it, and counted out a hundred and fifty thousand friggin' dollars! I signed a receipt, then stuffed the moolah into the satchel. I handed it to Dusek. "I don't want it." Dan bawled. "Here, Dave, you carry it." He handed the satchel to Biddleman, who in turn handed it back to me.
"Come on, Gary, you're the senior member of this squad."
That being true, I considered pulling rank and forcing Dusek into taking the satchel along with its flinty responsibility. Dan had already started walking off, however, so, summoning up a spot of bravado, I stuck the money under my arm and began a casual saunter out of the bank. The walk back to the theater, a twenty- minute mosey at best, seemed to take about an hour and a half, during which time the satchel was passed between the three of us like a bag of molding body parts. So much, then, for the vastly overrated importance of "$" per se. None of us wanted the damn money.
We filmed Phantom of the Paradise over Christmas holidays, 1974. Everyone was homesick and/or sick literally, as stomach flu was spreading like Cheese Whiz through cast and crew. I hired a doctor to come to the set daily to give shots of B12, tabs of Vicodin, and hand out chewable vitamin C tablets. The crew gobbled up the pain pills like holiday candy.
We were scheduled to film on Christmas Eve. Paul Williams decided to surprise everyone by having a gourmet meal catered to the set. Roast turkey, beef tenderloin, asparagus, mashed potatoes smothered in creamery butter, grapes, avocados, yams, chocolate mousse, and caramel ice cream. Everyone was too sick to eat. We tried to show our appreciation, but could only sit at the perfectly coiffed dining tables, hunched and taciturn as illegals at a border bust.