Friday, December 24, 2021

A ‘Christmas’ series of British horror films that can be watched any time of the year

"Lost Hearts" (1973.)
One of the finest filmic discoveries I had this year came thanks to a festival at the invaluable Anthology Film Archives, which finally reopened its doors after many months of being closed — the posters for a “Satanic panic” festival that I had attended several times in Feb of 2020 were on display outside the theater for a long 17 months. 

AFA is a paradise for those who enjoy avant-garde films and deep-dives into underseen auteurs from Europe and elsewhere. But it also has featured some very enlightening programs of genre films. This past Halloween the theater did a festival of “folk horror” spawned by the documentary Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror by Kier-La Janisse. 

The doc is terrific but takes the concept of folk horror in several different directions, meaning it actually should be a lot longer than its 195 minutes (which one should go through with a notebook in hand to write down the titles of intriguing films that are mentioned quickly and impress via startling images). In this era of unnaturally bloated docs, Woodlands is rare in that regard; one hopes that there is more of it to be seen when it is released by Severin Films on disc next month. 

"The Wicker Man" (1973).
The doc is broken down into different segments, but it primarily covers three areas: The first is English folk horror films ignited by the fan favorite trio of The Witchfinder General (1968), Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971), and the seminal folk horror film, The Wicker Man (1973). Wicker Man certainly sets up the classic folk horror contrasts: old vs new, city vs country, and the most potent for a nasty little debate, Christian vs. Pagan. 

That model applies to many of the films mentioned below, because I’m going to focus on this first and most complete of the segments of Janisse’s film. The second big segment involves American folk horror in film, which is primarily tied up in the familiar “horrors emerge when a new building is built on a Native American burial ground” plot. Add to this theme similar happenings in Australian films, where something new has been built on Aboriginal burial grounds. 

The third overarching theme of the doc are films that present folk horror from different countries/continents, containing little or no Wicker Man-style conflict with the present. A number of these films are going to be released next month in a folk horror box set from Severin Films (called “All the Haunts Be Ours”) that includes restored versions of 19 films mentioned in the Woodlands doc, which is also contained in the box. 

Staying with the first theme, though, one comes across a proliferation of British telefilms that presented folk horror tales — either of the Wicker Man stripe, pitting the “old ways” against Sixties/Seventies morality, or more traditional horror tales about introverted characters discovering weird relics of a past era, primarily those written by the scholar-author M.R. James. 

"Whistle and I'll Come to You" (1968).

James’ tales are very low-key and usually involve the protagonist losing their mind. An absolutely perfect example of innovative TV horror filmmaking is based on a classic James tale, “Whistle and I’ll Come to You.” This 1968 film serves as the perfect introduction to his work and to the U.K. TV treatment of folk horror. 

The only horror film directed by the renaissance man of the “Beyond the Fringe” troupe, Dr. Jonathan Miller, “Whistle” contains a wonderful streak of low-key comedy, as its protagonist, an old professor (Michael Hordern) mutters to himself as he discovers an ancient whistle while he is on a seaside vacation. Like many James protagonists he loses his mind as he ponders the whistle and starts having delusions. “Whistle” was one of a bunch of earlier James adaptations for TV that led to the James-centric series of telefilms in the 1970s called “A Ghost Story for Christmas.”

 

Although it has a bit of the talky quality common to many teleplays, “Robin Redbreast” (a 1970 episode of the series Play for Today; also to be found on the forthcoming folk horror box) effectively communicates the culture-clash aspect of folk horror that was later honed to perfection in Wicker Man

"Robin Redbreast" (1970).
The plot offers us a city woman (who just happens to work for the BBC editing scripts!) who journeys to a country house she bought in the South of England. There she encounters strange occurrences but has a champion — a young handyman whom she has sex with one wayward night. She becomes pregnant as a result of the encounter but soon realizes that she was preordained to couple with the young handyman to fulfill an old tradition. The final image is wonderfully creepy, especially coming after such a dialogue-centric work.

 

Penda’s Fen (1974) is the most complex of any of the films included here, because it is a coming of age tale that involves history, fantasy, religious prohibitions, budding sexuality, and the music of Elgar (one of “Unkle Ken” Russell’s favorite musical titans). It also will be included on the “All the Haunts Be Ours” box set. 

Penda's Fen (1974).
Another presentation from the Play for Today Series, it’s a quite incredible film that has a folk horror aspect relating to an ancient Anglo-Saxon king but is primarily about a boy dealing with his fear of growing up and defining himself. The copy uploaded to YouTube looks bad for the last few minutes, but that won’t ruin your viewing of this essential work, written by David Rudkin and directed by the usually more grounded-in-urban-reality master, Alan Clarke.

 

Murrain (1975) is a less talky exploration of the city/country, old/new culture-clash that informed “Robin Redbreast.” In this telefilm written by Nigel Kneale (best known for the “Quatermass” series) a veterinarian is told by the inhabitants of a small country town that a local woman is a witch and she is causing their animals to die. 

"Murrain" (1975).
One of the joys here is seeing James Bond’s boss “M” (Bernard Lee) as one of the menacing townspeople. But the tale is very well told and the denouement is especially chilling, as it proves that one side of the old/new argument is very definitely correct.

 

The popularity of subdued-but-still-menacing horror on British TV spawned a wonderful series of telefilms, all of which aired on an evening just prior to Xmas. “A Ghost Story for Christmas,” which ran for eight years in its initial incarnation (a current reboot of the series is now airing thanks to one-man-horror-factory Mark Gatiss), produced some terrific films, all of which are worth viewing and qualify as classic horror TV. There are many elements at play here, but one of the most impressive is the use of locations in the British countryside in every one of the films.

The director of the whole “strand” of films (as they say in the U.K.), Lawrence Gordon Clark, is looked upon as a modern master of low-key but still very creepy chills and thrills, always arriving as part of a character study about a solitary protagonist. And the best part of this whole experiment in reviving ghost stories for Christmas? The films can be watched all year round, as the stories are not set at Xmas and are not at all “seasonal” in nature. 

The first film was “The Stalls of Barchester” (1971). A suitably minor-key item adapted from M.R. James, it presents horror of a kind that remains mostly offstage. We follow a scholar who happens upon information about an archdeacon’s death and a mysterious curse.

 

“A Warning to the Curious” (1972) is the longest of the bunch (at 50 minutes) and builds upon a legend about three crowns. An antiquarian travels to a seaside town to find one of the crowns and immediately begins seeing an apparition of an ominous figure. The piece moves slowly but decisively toward a nasty ending, but as always, Gordon masterfully sketches characters and thereby depicts the eroding of a “proper” man’s mind.

 

The ghosts appear in the very first scene of the period piece “Lost Hearts” (1973), as our boy hero (an orphan, naturally) is brought to a mansion in the country. The boy’s host, an oddball adult distant cousin, “hosted” two children who are now “gone” — and if there’s one thing that’s scarier than a weird apparition on the beach (as in “Warning” and “Whistle”), it’s creepy child ghosts. The strand began to truly hit its stride here.

 

“The Treasure of Abbot Thomas” (1974) is testimony to the fact that Clark distinguished each of the films and made each one especially memorable, even though James’ plots repeat certain elements. Here two skeptics about spiritualism — a young man and a theologian — begin to believe that there is lost treasure to be found, hidden away by an Abbot who also was an alchemist and a magician.

 

“The Ash Tree” (1975) is the most overtly scary in the series. It begins with another arrival at a haunted abode. This time it’s a nobleman who has inherited a giant mansion that is haunted by the specter of a witch trial that the nobleman’s ancestor presided over. 

Here the horrors invade our antihero’s mind early in his stay at the house. We move between past and present in a fluid fashion (as was done in the brilliant teleplays of Dennis Potter) and are heading inexorably toward the scariest end in any of the James adaptations. The secret? The jarring scene involving the titular ash tree takes place late at night and Gordon wisely kept the play’s creepiest element in the dark.

 

While “Ash Tree” is the most overtly scary entry in the series, “The Signalman” (1976) is without a doubt the most compact and best acted. The first of the films not to be adapted from M.R. James (its source is a short story by Charles Dickens), it features Denholm Elliott as the title character, a railroad switchman who is terrified that there is going to be a massive crash of trains that he can’t possibly prevent. 

The format of “discovery” is the same here, as a traveler on foot finds the switchman and then hears his story. But, as in “Ash Tree,” we are without doubt dwelling in Elliott’s mind at key moments. This entry emphasizes the character study aspect of these stories, while also offering an absolutely sublime lead performance.

 

The first original script in the series, “Stigma” (1977) deals with a family that has moved to a remote country house. The mother wants to have a large stone removed from the backyard. As a construction crew struggles to remove it, she begins to bleed (yes, this should’ve been titled “stigmata,” but that would’ve blown some of the weirdness). 

"Stigma."

By the end moment where the daughter in the family “explains” what has been going on in a few lines of dialogue, we are fully aware that the removal of that stone was, in effect, tampering with dark forces. Clark did a wonderful job here of “updating” the series by following characters who exist entirely in the present but are indeed haunted by the past. The use of Christian imagery as the “curse” (yes, that’s a pun) that befalls our heroine as she tampers with a Pagan artifact is quite brilliant, especially because we remain tethered in the present and never see Pagan worshippers or any historical figures.

The film can be seen here.

The last in the original strand of films, “The Ice House” (1978), is another wonderfully weird concoction that features (nearly as jarring as scary child ghosts) an uncommonly good-looking and uncommonly creepy adult brother and sister who run an upper-crusty spa housed in an old mansion. Our hero in this tale (again, an original script) is a logical chap who discovers the secrets of the resort and is both attracted to and disturbed by the brother and sister. 

"The Ice House."

Here again, the past is never openly on view — there are simply emblems of the evil perpetrated at the resort. As in “Stigma,” this play is quite well-written and implies more than it ever shows.

 

As noted above, this strand of telefilms has been revived by Mark Gatiss, and so there are ghost stories for Christmas once again. I can’t vouch for the recent films, as those are (per Sarris) “subjects for further research.” But this original group of films and its four precursors listed above, have no specific ties to the holiday or to anything about the Christmas season in general. 

Like all good horror, they could be linked more properly to Halloween (that most blest of unholy holidays), but in fact are highly watchable entertainment all year long.

Thursday, December 16, 2021

The pitchman as scene-stealer: an interview with Robert Staats

The absolute joy of scene-stealing performers is that they redirect our attention even when we’re enjoying the film in question. It’s easy to be a scene-stealer in a bad movie (in that case there isn’t very much to be stolen), but in a great movie the character person has achieved something wonderful when we still remember their small turn after the movie is over.

Robert Staats served just that purpose in a number of cult films that are great to begin with; he also walked away with some great moments in films that are not quite up to snuff. And the most intriguing thing about this is that Staats has never considered himself to be an actor, didn’t want to be an actor, and firmly maintains to this day that his parts in movies came about because he was fine with “doing a favor for a friend.” What goes unsaid here is the filmmakers in question — Harry Hurwitz, Jonathan Kaplan, Robert Downey Sr., and others — knew that Staats could give a memorable performance and they wanted him to brighten up their movie with his cinematic alter-ego: a carny pitchman who is both your best friend and a guy whose hand is reaching in your pocket.

I had the rare pleasure of interviewing Mr. Staats a few weeks ago and am very happy to share some of his history, his wonderful anecdotes, and his not-too-positive view of major-studio Hollywood (countered by his friendly devotion to Hurwitz and the filmmakers who knew how to use him as a “secret weapon” to keep their films moving along perfectly). He’s a no-nonsense sort of guy who, at 89, is happy that he has fans who enjoyed his movie work, but he’s far prouder of his military service and his work as a seaman over the years. 

“I have no interest in any aspect of show business,” he says now. “I was not interested in soliciting any acting work. I had no agent, although I got a lot of offers from agencies. I wanted no part of it. I would answer the phone and someone would introduce themselves, ‘Could you do this or that?’ ” That was the extent of his work in show business, although he clearly got a number of those phone calls from 1969 through the early Eighties. 

Winning over a rube in
Fairy Tales (1978).
He “backed into” work as a comic actor because of his experience as a “front-talker” at state fairs and other events. This began after his first stint in the Army (1952-55). Staats still speaks the language of the “carny,” discussing how important it is not to “blow the tip” (lose your audience). “You gotta work them and work them,” Staats says of the “tip.” “I was pretty good at layin’ it down.” 

One of his initial forays into show-biz was investing in a traveling show that would honor James Dean, who had recently died. The show contained a facsimile of Dean’s “death car” and was to feature a lifelike wax figure of the movie idol. When it arrived, however, it was a dummy of Elvis Presley — the man who made the figure thought that Presley was Dean and had no idea what the real Dean looked like. 

Despite that screw-up, the attraction did fairly well and Staats ended up selling it (and the giant semi-trailer the car was kept in). He was then asked by a producer of tent shows if he could step in as a front-talker. “I did very well — stayed there and made quite a bit of money.” He did spiels at large events. “Some of these state fairs had 100,000 people on the midway in one day. These were huge things, the Calgary Stampede, the Texas State Fair.” He would entice the public to see attractions like “the Alligator Boy.” He admits that being a front talker is certainly an art, but not a nice one — “painting is a nice art. I was screwing people out of their money.” 

“By the way, every game in the carnival is rigged. Every one. I know how they’re all rigged. I know so many ways...” 

In the off-season, he started pitching merchandise, but he felt that he “didn’t have a very good resume” at the age of 30, so he and his wife both re-enlisted in the service so he could get a commission. When his second stint (1959-62) in the Army was over, he made a crucial connection that propelled him into the advertising business and ultimately into a film career he never asked for, but that he excelled at. A photographer named Ray Porter that Staats knew from the Army was then working for Seventeen magazine. He had gone to art school with an animator named Len Glasser. Porter introduced Glasser to Staats without knowing he was introducing future business partners who would change the face of advertising with their unconventional approach to industrial films and TV commercials. 

Animation from "Safety Shoes."
Glasser recruited Staats for his advertising firm, Stars and Stripes Forever. Staats, an independently minded guy no matter what the situation, agreed to work for him on commission and stayed with the firm from 1962 to 1971. The first important thing the two made together is a short film that is considered a classic in advertising circles. “Safety Shoes” (1965) was made for the Lehigh Safety Shoe Company and plays like a spoof of TV commercials. It is only in the last three minutes (of 18) when you find that you’ve been pranked in an unusual way — the comedy film you’ve been watching is indeed an industrial film for a very real product. 

Staats “backed into” the film for an interesting reason — it simply wasn’t long enough. The sponsor wanted a 20-minute short and the film was running under. Glasser had hired doubletalk expert Al Kelly to provide a very funny and incomprehensible intro, and had created a cartoon about safety shoes (which features, among others, the [uncredited] voice of future Hurwitz star and Staats cohort Chuck McCann). 

He needed to fill out the spoof section of the film, and so Robert Staats became a film actor, playing his alter ego, later named “E. Eddie Edwards.” Staats says he chose that name for a specific reason: “It just struck me. There are a lot of shitty guys who always try to make themselves look good with a nice name. So E. Eddie is this shitty pitchman, this dishonest carny who wants to be something else. He was like a number of guys that I knew that were that way.” 

Staats wrote his own lines and both sold the product and made fun of hard-sell con men whom every consumer has come in contact with. The character blossomed later, especially in the films of Harry Hurwitz, but here he comes on strong and is a memorable creation. In other words, Staats stole his very first film. 

“Safety Shoes" was up online on Vimeo, posted by a noted advertising filmmaker. And it's now gone! All we have left is this screengrab of Bob as E. Eddie.


and this credit for Staats:


and this production credit for the Big RS:


Glasser’s company ended up having ancillary offices in Chicago and Toronto, and doing films for big clients like the Ford Motor company, General Mills, and Hostess. Staats appeared as a TV-friendly version of his E. Eddie character in a string of TV commercials for New England Telephone. (Staats notes his pitchman character was family-friendly in these spots — “I would clean it up.”)

The first great independent filmmaker that Staats worked as an actor for (albeit briefly) was Robert Downey Sr. (My recent tribute to Downey Sr. can be found here.) Again, happenstance and blind luck took a hand — “Downey and I lived in the same building in Forest Hills. My son and Robert Downey Jr., and my wife and Downey’s wife, would meet all the time. [Downey Sr] wanted to be in the film business and I was in the film business. I told him about this crazy filmmaker in the same office building as Stars and Stripes, a millionaire who was pumping a lot of money to build up a commercial film business called Filmex.”

The man who ran Filmex was an heir to a very profitable business, American Home Products. His family was wealthy and he was “wiping them out financially” since nothing was coming of the film projects he invested in (which included commercials). He hired Robert Downey Sr, who wound up sitting around and writing his own films, including a spoof of advertising that was to become Putney Swope (1969). 

Downey’s ideas came to nothing at Filmex, but his experience working at the firm did inform part of Putney Swope, and so the man who connected him with the film biz, none other than Staats, was hired to play a small part in the film. (An executive, called “Mr. War Toys” in the credits, who is told he has bad breath by Arnold Johnson as Putney; the scene can be found here.) Staats remembers the shoot well, as it took place in an office building at night.

Staats in Putney Swope.
The film became a major hit for Downey Sr and propelled him out of the “underground,” but it did nothing for Staats. Around the same time, however, he made friends with filmmaker Jonathan Kaplan, who introduced him to the man that used Staats to best advantage as E. Eddie, Harry Hurwitz.

But before we get around to Staats’ awesome scene-stealing in Hurwitz’s best known (and best in general) film, let’s turn to a different medium. Staats’ work in Len Glassman’s advertising films attracted the attention TV producer George Schlatter, who was cresting in 1968-69 on the incredible success of “Laugh-In.” After a nice luncheon at the Russian Tea Room, Schlatter hired Staats to appear in and write for his new series, “Turn-on.”

"Turn-on"
Photo by S. Kaufman.
Over the years “Turn-on” has become famous as “the show that was cancelled while it was airing.” This is indeed true — the first episode of the series aired on Feb. 5, 1969, and was cancelled by the network after it played on the East Coast and was making its way to the West Coast. A station manager in Cleveland pulled the show as it was airing and went to a live presentation of organ music (!).

 

Staats is very frank about the experience of working on “Turn-on.” He was hired for 14 shows and claims that many of his segments for that season were shot. (One other complete episode, in addition to the infamous first show, is in the library of The Paley Center.) He says he performed as three characters: his pitchman alter-ego E. Eddie, a “Modren Bride” [spelling correct] who gave advice to the lovelorn, and “the Magic Housewife” who dispensed cooking tips. He wrote his own material and maintains that at no time was it said by anyone associated with the series (including reps from the network, ABC, or the sponsor, Colgate Palmolive, who were on the set) that the show was objectionable. 

"Turn-on"
Photo by S. Kaufman.
He admits to having had fun creating those characters and acting them out, but he is very honest about the experience, noting that he wasn’t quite aligned with Schlatter’s Liberal politics. He also notes that the producer (who still had a massive hit running at the time, with “Laugh-In” killing in the ratings) “came to me, crying poor mouth, ‘oh, woe is me,’ I’m takin’ some bath on this. Do you mind if I don’t pay you the rest of the contract?' I had a contract for quite a few thousand dollars, you know! I said, ‘Don’t worry about it, George, I’m paid in full.’ So I just waived it off. That’s Hollywood….” 

 

He admits his sketches were “slightly smutty” for 1969, but he was encouraged in that by Schlatter. He also looks back on it as a lessons of sorts, since he came out of the experience feeling that “Hollywood is a dishonest sewer” that he was happy to be away from. (And, aside from one very well-budgeted film he appeared in as a favor to director Jonathan Kaplan, Staats never worked in mainstream show biz again.)

Staats also notes that, after the first “Turn-on” episode aired, he was more than surprised to see the “Art Fern” character on Carson’s “Tonight Show.” The character had many aspects of the E. Eddie Edwards character and Carson worked with Carol Wayne, who had played Staats' sidekick on Schlatter’s show.

"Turn-on"
Photo by S. Kaufman.
When I asked Staats about writing his own dialogue in most of his film appearances, he replied with a saying he’s fond of — that he “was in it, but not of it.” He used the phrase in our interview more than once to describe both himself and the filmmakers he liked the most (Hurwitz, Kaplan). That carny phrase means that these people could work within the system but never were corrupted by it; they retained their personality in their work, made films according to certain rules set by producers, but never succumbed to the general greed and backstabbing that runs the movie industry. 

We move on to the point where Staats first worked with the filmmaker he is most identified with, the late and very great Harry Hurwitz. Staats has nothing but praise for Hurwitz, declaring that Harry “was a wonderful guy — there was no artifice about him.” As Staats remembers it, he was introduced to Hurwitz by Kaplan (who studied at NYU in the 1960s, with Scorsese as his tutor). Other directors might’ve used Staats to good advantage in bit parts, but Hurwitz constructed entire scenes around the E. Eddie Edwards character and cast Staats in his only starring role (in The Comeback Trail). 

McCann and Hurwitz.
One of the reasons that Hurwitz’s great film The Projectionist (1970) is so memorable is that he threw the kitchen sink into it. It has a central plot — in which projectionist Chuck McCann fantasizes about being a superhero — but it also veers off the rails wonderfully with scenes that find Chuck interacting with old movie clips (in a way that was later done in many features, including Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid), moments of the projectionist’s daily life (which show the Deuce off to good advantage), and random elements, like a late-night commercial the projectionist watches on his TV, featuring none other than E. Eddie Edwards. 

Hurwitz realized that to get the best out of Staats he should give him an outline and let him create his own dialogue. But, Staats emphasizes, this was within “parameters” — “I made it a pitch, but I made it his pitch. Some of the key lines were Harry’s. You can’t write a pitch. I can write a pitch because I was a talker. There’s a singsong rhythm to it — if you don’t do that, it doesn’t come across. All that stuff I did [in movies], I had to be the writer completely or rewrite it, so that it fit E. Eddie’s pitch.” 

Demonstrating proper behavior in
The Projectionist.
“As a front talker, I was used to talking for prolonged amounts of time. The mob in front of you at the carnival, which could be a couple of hundred people, they’re called ‘the tip.’ You gotta work them and work them, until you get where you know you can turn it — until you get there you have to keep going. So I was pretty good at layin’ it down real fast, and getting it in one take or two at the most. Carnival talkers are good at that. You don’t have a script, you’re winging it.” 

The result in Projectionist is a sequence that is very well-remembered, not only for its un-p.c. jokes and spot-on spoof of late-night scam-product commercials but because it stands as a little mini-film within the larger film. In her review of the film, Judith Christ singled out Staats for praise. This short segment showcases the full-tilt version of E. Eddie, and while The Projectionist is a modern comedy classic (and nostalgia-fan’s wet dream), the film is indeed stolen by Staats for the mere three minutes that he’s onscreen:

 

Staats next appeared in Jonathan Kaplan’s Night Call Nurses (1972) at Kaplan’s request. Staats had no agent and, again, appeared in films simply because the filmmakers (Downey Sr, Hurwitz, Kaplan, Alan Abel) would call him up. Here again Staats ad-libs for a few minutes as E. Eddie, lending some verbal humor to a “soft” T&A drama-comedy (and stealing the film in the process). His bit in the film begins at 18:54; the film is here.

In Night Call Nurses.
I wrote about Harry Hurwitz’s The Comeback Trail back in 2017 — you can find that piece here. In that blog entry, I outlined how the film was remade and changed by Hurwitz. There was one complete initial version of the film, but he felt it needed more work, so he continued to work on it for several years, adding additional scenes shot in New York and L.A.

This means that there are two different versions floating around the “underside” of the Internet (there has never been a DVD or even a VHS release of the picture). The first one contains more of the main plotline, while the second ends up exploring the fictional film company that is at the center of the plot. 

I actually “found” Mr. Staats because of that piece. I had asked the public for any info regarding his status — who was he? Where had he come from? Was he still with us? This lead to the interview I’m writing about here. In the meantime, a remake of the Hurwitz film has been finished and awaits a major release — it stars Robert De Niro in the Chuck McCann role (I’m not making this up; check out the trailer), Tommy Lee Jones in the Buster Crabbe role, Morgan Freeman in newly created gangster role, and Zach Braff of TV’s “Scrubs” in the role played by Staats (this time as “E. Eddie Eastman”). 

McCann and Staats in
The Comeback Trail.
The Hurwitz film was shot from 1971 to 1979 (!) and got its first theatrical showings at the Thalia in Manhattan in 1982. Staats clarified that, again, he did the role at Hurwitz’s request and there was indeed an initial shoot in New Mexico for a few weeks in 1971 and then the shoots for the additional material took place in NYC and L.A. over the next eight years. 

He also noted about the film’s plot — about two low-rent producers trying to kill the senior-citizen star of their latest film (Crabbe) in order to get his life insurance — that “anybody who saw The Producers would recognize it in Harry’s outline.” He noted that McCann and he ad-libbed their own dialogue throughout the shoots. “Harry gave us a few minutes of direction,” he emphasizes, with “no time estimation” given for the scenes but with the caution “don’t run away with it. You could say we were script writers,” he clarifies. “We wrote dialogue — we were dialogue writers.”

He denies the story that was in my original blog entry (courtesy of an associate producer on the film) concerning Buster Crabbe getting drunk and beating someone up on the set. Staats does confirm that Buster was fond of “beverages.” (“I’m fond of beverages myself,” adds Staats.) But he didn’t beat anyone up on the set. 

Crabbe in
The Comeback Trail.
Staats remembers instead what they did do together. As for the ripe language, remember that Bob Staats considers himself first and foremost as a seaman. “We would have drinks — not excessively. Believe it or not, down the road from where we were shooting in New Mexico, there was a tent show. It was a striptease artist, a sex show, in a tent on the highway. The star, a stripper — you could imagine what the strippers would look like in this fuckin’ joint – had one leg. She had an artificial leg. So Buster and I went down here a couple of times. Of all the people I hung out with on that set, it was Buster I hung out with the most. 

“A couple of years later Buster was giving a talk to a bunch of film students at a college. He called me and asked me to come and help him out with the talk. He liked me and I liked him.” As for Crabbe beating people up, Staats declares it never happened on the Hurwitz film. He says, “I knew him well — not quite well – enough to judge his character. I mean one of the things carnies do is figure out people… so we can take their money. ” 

I was surprised to see that Hurwitz’s film is back “in public view.” This is the original edit of the material, with more of the plot than the later version:

 

A 1976 film that Staats appeared in has disappeared over the years. Alan Abel’s The Faking of the President is present only on the Net as a listing of a handful of cast members, including Staats as G. Gordon Liddy and the infamous “Richard M. Dixon” as Nixon. The info we can go on is Staats’ vague memory of the picture: His character name was “G. Gordon. He was a pitchman; he sold a line of weaponry.” 

The next filmic adventure for Staats was a bit part in Jonathan Kapan’s first mainstream production, Mr. Billion (1977), made as an American vehicle for Italian star Terence Hill. Staats appears in the film as railway train conductor who is (of course) running a side hustle in cheap watches.

In Mr. Billion.
Staats remembers the shoot well, because he wound up hanging out with the film’s American “name,” Jackie Gleason. The Great One liked his “beverages,” and since Staats was by no means an abstainer when it came to said beverages, he joined him for a few. Among other things they talked about their youth — Gleason was raised in Bushwick, while Staats grew up in the adjoining Queens nabe of Ridgewood.

Staats’ memory of the film extends to the fact that it was the only film he was in that had a big premiere — the film played as the Easter show at the Radio City Music Hall. “Jesus, that stunk!” Staats reflects on his friend Kaplan’s first big-budgeted film. (Kaplan did better with later items like Heart Like a Wheel and The Accused.) His scene in Mr. Billion can be found here at 18:45. 

In Fairy Tales.
Harry Hurwitz gave Staats a lovely supporting part in the softcore feature Fairy Tales (1978), which he made under the nom du erotica “Harry Tampa.” There’s no question that Staats is the best thing in the film (and this in a feature that gave Linnea Quigley her debut role). He steals the show as “Tommy Tucker,” who is given the job of persuading rubes to go into the (not so) Old Lady Who Lives in a Shoe’s house of ill repute. 

He got the part in the usual way — Hurwitz called him up and offered it to him. Staats was once again “doing whatever Harry wanted me to” and he made the role his own by ad-libbing carny pitches to rubes who wander by the shoe. His tagline from his previous E. Eddie appearances comes in early on. (“Isn’t that wonderful? Say yes, it makes me feel good. I couldn’t help but notice... ”) 

He returns throughout the film to instigate the vignettes, with wonderfully worded enticements. (“20 dollars for sex, 30 if you want to touch the sides.”) At the end, he closes things out with an exhortation to see the film again, with your family: “It’s a family picture, friends. Mom and the kids can come for the music and dancing, and Dad will enjoy the meat.” 

In Fairy Tales.
“I winged that whole thing,” says Staats. “Harry didn’t have any input in that…. I would tell the different guy to ask me this or say that, to give me a feed line…. That was all my smut. Harry wasn’t smutty at all.” 

One can only be grateful to the YouTube poster who boiled down Staats’ scenes in the film to one glorious 10-minute edit. The man himself notes that he doesn’t keep copies of his acting work around, but he was amused when a relative stumbled onto Fairy Tales and was surprised that he had been in a “porn” movie. (It's actually a softcore picture.) Staats’ take on the movie? “I thought it was funny — I love that kinda crap!” 

 

Hurwitz’s second softcore film as “Harry Tampa” was Auditions (1978). The premise for this one is tissue-thin: We watch people audition for the sequel to Fairy Tales. The participants are mostly porn stars who perform for the camera solo or in groups. There is comic relief every so often — Staats wanders through, of course, and gets two really good scenes (and a bit toward the end). This time his E. Eddie Edwards character is a sleazy agent (for “ASU — the Agency for the Strange and Unusual”), but that’s sort of like being a pitchman anyway, isn’t it? 

In Auditions.
This incarnation of E. Eddie is not as high-energy as before, but he’s still a master bullshit artist. Staats scenes in the film can be found at 14:30, 20:20, 102:00, and 114:00. The film is viewable here with the proviso that this is, most certainly, an NSFW video. 

The last sequence that Staats appeared in for Hurwitz that was released appears in That’s Adequate (1989). The first 45 minutes or so of this pic is an absolute joy, as Tony Randall hosts a journey through the productions of “Adequate Pictures,” the same firm that was responsible for the ridiculous films in Comeback Trail. The cast of this part of the movie is a rogues’ gallery of great NYC talent: James Coco, Stiller and Meara, Professor Irwin Corey, Lenny Schultz, Brother Theodore, and Joe Franklin. 

The second part of the film was shot in L.A. and it’s very different in tone. (And much less funny.) The latter-day productions of Adequate Pictures includes a “where did this come from?” charity-single music video sketch that is clearly a riff on “We Are the World.” In this part of the film the cast includes a young Bruce Willis, Robert Downey Jr, Richard Lewis, and many other L.A. standup comics. 

Staats’ turn as E. Eddie finds him as the MC of a movie premiere where he sings the praises of the studio’s output, including “Singin’ in the Synagogue.” His bit is at 10:29.

 

One of Staats oddest credits was a very mainstream cartoon assignment — doing a voice for the syndicated show “Drawing Power” in 1980, which was half-live and half-animation, and was a spinoff of the popular “Schoolhouse Rock” series. “George Newall and Tom Yohe worked for executives at an ad agency called McCaffrey & McCall (which I wrote two live trade shows for, and I appeared in the shows). They were potential clients I called on. So I got to know George very well, and they had this very successful show they owned called ‘Schoolhouse Rock.’ Periodically they would call me up to do voiceovers.”


I must, again, bless the fans on YouTube who upload everything they love. A VHS video of “Drawing Power” has been uploaded and looks to be shot off a TV set. Staats does the voice of “Professor Rutabaga” who is, you guessed it, a carny pitchman! The character appears at 10:49 and 39:01, as the Professor lectures us on the joys of vegetables and our imagination. He even says “Say yes — it makes me feel good...”

 

The last time we were lucky enough to see Staats steal a picture was in Kenny Hotz and Spencer Rice’s mockumentary Pitch (1997). As Staats tells it, “Two young guys up in Toronto wanted me to do the film. I didn’t know them. I agreed to do it, if they had refreshing beverages on the set… and some sandwiches.” (Mr. Staats never specified which beverages he was looking for, but one can sure it wasn’t a seltzer or a Coke.)

Staats appears at 11:06, 28:30, and 51:34:

For those who are Hurwitz completists (tell me, where is his own Nixon film, Richard?), Staats brought up another collaboration he had with Harry and Chuck McCann, which evidently was never edited together (or sits in a vault somewhere). “Chuck was in the film; he had the lead. He plays a homeless guy who gets a credit card and uses it to buy food or something. He’s a very simple guy. He then gets a second credit card — you know, how they mail them out to people? So when he gets the bill for the first one, he pays it off with the second one, and back and forth. It was shot on Long Island; Harry was a hired hand directing it.” 

Another Hurwitz fragment with Staats sounds like it would’ve possibly been woven into another Hurwitz “omnibus” pic like That’s Adequate: “Harry asked me to do a pitch in an amusement park in Long Beach, California. And it had to do, I think, with politics. I don’t know what became of it. It was dark — it was like an evil pitchman luring you into a tunnel ride. This was near the end of Harry’s life.” 

Making a point in Auditions.
One of the most touching moments in my talk with Mr. Staats was the moment where he talked about how he thinks of himself. “The American merchant navy is known as ‘the hooligan navy’ — hard-drinking guys, terrific guys. I identify with them forever. To this day, many people know me only as a merchant seaman. I’ve had neighbors in this building for years — they only know me as a merchant seaman. I tell people I’m a seaman. I don’t talk about anything else. At heart I’m a seaman. Those were the happiest days of my life. 

“Merchant seamen are roughnecks, hard-drinking guys. But they’re also very intellectual, believe it or not. They’re readers. I knew two millionaires who went to sea — they had a million dollars and they’re shipping out as seamen, not just once, that was their life. It has its appeal… 

“It isn’t romantic — they love the sea! The sea wants to kill you, every fucking day. And it does, frequently. Seamen have a very high rate of dying or getting injured. That goes with the territory. Ships blow up, collide, shoal up, burn out at a rapid rate. It’s the nature of the thing. Nature is a powerhouse.” 

At different points in our interview, Staats pointed out that he was only a director because “people called me up.” He did note, more than once, that he had the best working relationship with Hurwitz: “Harry was very gentle, but also very strong. He knew what he wanted, and he got it out of us.” 

Hurwitz and Staats, working on
The Comeback Trail.
(Photo by S. Kaufman.)
Toward the end of or interview I asked Mr. Staats if Hurwitz paid his airfare to come out to L.A. and do small scenes for him. He replied that sometimes that was the case, but there was a time or two that Bob paid for his own air fare and charged it to whatever agency he was working for at the time. 

“I really liked Harry,” he reflects. “All of the directors I met through Harry, they were genuinely nice people — they weren’t the Hollywood types. They were like Harry, that’s why they liked Harry. They were followers of Harry because they were like him. *I* was a follower of Harry, in a sense. He was with it, but not of it.”