Samuel Fuller and Sergeant Zack Caricatures by Jim Hummel

Me and Sammy: Personal Reflections of a Hollywood Hellcat

20081211-190129-pic-559450080I will never forget Samuel Fuller. He will always remain one of the most unusual personalities I’ve ever met, even though I only knew him for a brief period. I would also describe him as a unique writer-producer-director when compared to most film makers. Much of his work was controversial, and this would often have a negative impact on his career. While a provocative soul in the heart of Hollywood, he was a beloved American figure to the European set, especially in France where he would often be compared to that country’s leading directors.
(Eventually, because of events outlined later in this profile, Fuller moved to Europe and lived there for many years.)

Our initial encounter was in the summer of 1963 at his home in Hollywood. The first thing I noticed as I rang his doorbell was a mat spread at my feet which read GO AWAY! The second thing I noticed was that the man who answered the door was wearing just two things: (1) a pair of white shorts and (2) a cigar that protruded from his mouth. My wife Erica, standing next to me, gasped. I just stared for a moment, then explained who we were. The man introduced himself as “Sammy” Fuller.

We were meeting because I had written about Fuller’s World War II epic Merrill’s Marauders in the San Francisco Chronicle the summer before. He had responded with a warm thank-you letter and invited me to one day pay him a visit . . . and now there I was, meeting the writer-producer-director I had admired since I was 11 years old, since the night I first saw The Steel Helmet at the Uptown Theater in Napa, CA. That was followed by a great appreciation for Run of the Arrow, Fuller’s 1957 Western that I still consider one of the oddest of its genre, given that its hero is a Southern soldier (Rod Steiger) with a hatred for what his country is turning into after war’s end so that in 1865 he turns his back on American ideals and rides west to live with an Indian tribe (led by none other than Charles Bronson).

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Lee Marvin as The Sergeant in The Big Red One.

Our meeting would lead to unexpected twists and turns in the months to come. It started that same weekend when Sam seated us in the front room of his home and removed a script from a locked safe in his library. He began acting out a scene in which an American soldier wandering across a World War I battlefield is suddenly attacked by a horse, which apparently has been driven wild by artillery fire. Sam explained it was the opening scene from his screenplay The Big Red One, a history of the First Infantry Division, the famous military unit with which he fought during World War II. (Little did any of us expect that Lee Marvin would end up playing the soldier, but that wouldn’t happen for many years.)

That same weekend Sam took my wife Erica and I to dinner at a classy restaurant in Hollywood, telling us that there would be a “special dessert” after we finished our meal. Not far away, he explained, was Joe Shore’s, a screening room where we were going to see his latest film Shock Corridor, an independent production made under his Globe Enterprises imprint, not yet released to theaters but scheduled for a fall opening.

shockcorridor-posterThat was a private screening to remember, as Fuller’s director of photography Stanley Cortez (brother of actor Ricardo Cortez) was also there that evening. They sat side by side, with Fuller occasionally leaning over to tell Cortez how much he loved the lighting or the camera angle of a certain scene. Sitting behind them, I kept leaning forward to eavesdrop each time they exchanged comments. Shock Corridor is the eerie story of a newspaperman (Peter Breck, who would later star on the Barbara Stanwyck TV series The Big Valley) who feigns mental illness so he can search for a murderer in the confines of a hospital for the insane.

Sexy Constance Towers plays a stripper who is Breck’s girlfriend and Hari Rhodes portrays a black man who believes he’s a member of the Ku Klux Klan. Plus, there are other crazed personalities introduced that make it a very bizarre experience. And there is a group of nymphomaniac women patients who stage an attack on the undercover journalist. A bizarre movie, to say the least.

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Constance Towers as Cathy the stripper in Shock Corridor.

Erica and I would return to the environs of Fuller later that year while he was making what was then called The Steel Kiss at Samuel Goldwyn Studios, using some of the sets still standing that had been used in the Dean Martin melodrama, Toys in the Attic. It was a memorable two days during which I had lunch with, and interviewed, Betty Bronson, who was still vividly remembered for playing the title role in the 1924 silent version of Peter Pan.

stanley-fuller-bronsonOn that first memorable afternoon, the opportunity arose to have my picture taken with Sammy and Betty Bronson. Betty and I stood with a mannequin prop being used in the film. Sammy knelt on the floor between us.

On the second afternoon a turning point in Sam’s life occurred while I just happened to be standing next to him, watching him film a scene. Suddenly the film’s executive producer, Leon Fromkess, arrived on the set and Sam called for a break. For many years Fromkess had overseen the low-budget studio known as Producers Releasing Corporation (PRC), turning out the noir classic Detour, among many low-budget black-and-white thrillers. Now, as the one sharing producer credits with Sam Firks, Fromkess informed Sam that they were going to have to change the title of the film because he and Firks had decided that “Steel” made it sound like a swashbuckling pirate movie. The kind that once starred the likes of Errol Flynn and Louis Hayward.

nakedkiss-towers&wigFuller immediately disagreed, explaining that “Steel Kiss” was a phrase that traditionally described the behavior of a sexual pervert. Fromkess continued the argument by proclaiming that a better title would be The Naked Kiss because “naked” was appropriate to Fuller’s story of a prostitute who beats up her pimp and then moves to a small town where she becomes involved with a child molester (Michael Dante) and meets local whores played by Virginia Grey and Edy Williams.

Fuller would eventually lose his argument and no longer would his movie be called The Steel Kiss. In early 1964 it was released through Allied Artists as The Naked Kiss.

nakedkiss-posterAlthough I would not see Fuller again after our two days on the set, months later I received a personal letter from the woman who had worked as a publicist on The Naked Kiss. She informed me she had been fired shortly after the film’s completion and went on to explain that Sam had bitterly contested the title change before and after the film’s release.

According to her, Fromkess went on a rampage, telling everyone he knew in Hollywood how awful it had been to work with Fuller. That he was too difficult a film maker for anyone to endure. To avoid him like the plague. And thus was Samuel Fuller blackballed from Hollywood. And so it was that after the film’s release there were no further offers for Sam to make movies in Hollywood. He would spend many years in France before finally making The Big Red One in Israel in 1979.

Suddenly, one day in June, 1980, I received a phone call from Sam who told me he was resettled in Hollywood, eagerly awaiting the release of The Big Red One. And he was working on a new project. A few days later he sent me a paperback copy of the book version of the film, dated June 23, ‘80, and wonderfully autographed: “John. A blood, ink, film survivor.”

big_red_oneBecause I was then doing a weekly TV series, Creature Features, I thought this would be a wonderful time to have Sam as a guest. So I wrote a script entitled Creature Features Meets the Steel Helmet, in which Sam and I would meet at the Golden Gate National Cemetery in San Bruno, just on the outskirts of San Francisco. We would stand under the U.S. flag atop a hillock visible from nearby Highway 280, and converse about his war experiences on Omaha Beach on D-Day in 1944, and the making of The Big Red One, which was opening soon.

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Gene Evans as Sgt. Zack in Steel Helmet.

My script was full of the slang terms Sam loved to use, many of which he had introduced in The Steel Helmet. Of course, there was “dogface,” describing G. I. Joe. There was “jackass” to describe human movement of heavy equipment. You didn’t march across Europe during World War II, you “bellied.” “Beetle-crushing” was what a soldier did hiking across a battlefield. It was never “helmet,” it was “steel hat.” Sam didn’t write stories or scripts. He wrote “yarns.” When he finished shooting a scene he liked he didn’t yell “Cut!” but shouted “Forget it!” A producer he didn’t like was a “bananahead,” no doubt the term he used to describe Fromkess.

fuller-samuel-cigar2Unfortunately, Sam had to turn down my invitation because he was busy making his next film White Dog, which would prove to be, like so many of his other films, controversial.

The plot involved the training of a dog to attack only blacks, and this theme was declared “racist” by many critics and the film received only limited distribution. And Sam had to endure another form of movieland hell. Except for a few scripts off and on for the rest of his life, for movies made in Europe and not Hollywood, White Dog marked the end of full-scale production for him.

Yep, Sam Fuller was one of a kind, an individual during every waking moment of his life. A type-A personality who was always striving for originality in an industry that often depended on cliches and copycatism to earn decent box office. Money was the least concern for Fuller – he wanted you to know the truth as he saw it, and that was reflected in almost all the films he made during his struggling up-and-down career.

He’s one “dogface” I’ll never forget.

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