Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Another Great Comeback Story

A few nights ago, Mickey Rourke won a Golden Globe for his performance in The Wrestler. Once again, Hollywood has provided us with a great comeback story.

About ten years ago, I took an Amtrak train from Chicago to Tampa. I had never ridden on a train before and it seemed romantic, steeped in history. Somewhere around Baltimore I started talking to the man next to me. He was dressed in a suit, the hair he had left was neatly combed. I guessed he was probably a little older than my grandfather. He told me his name was Berl Sanders.

Berl used to live in Hollywood. He had been a producer and director for forty-five years, beginning in the last years of the silent era. He never hit it big. Mostly B-movies for no name studios, forgotten companies. Later on, it was exploitation films, then finally porn. He told me he'd made more money from porn than anything he'd done before, combined.

Berl and I talked for hours. He had a thousand stories. One that comes to mind is a story he told me about the very early days of Hollywood. Years before he got there.

In the early days of Hollywood, actors and actresses were not permitted to bomb at the box office numerous times, then fade into obscurity, like they do today. These unfortunate people whose careers were all but over, were all taken over to the newly built MGM Studios and fed to the lions. The heads of the other studios had to pay a "disposal" fee, of course.

There was once a particulary cruel day when an actor named Al Wallace, a once upon a time B-movie romeo, had the audacity to fornicate out of wedlock with the daughter of the head of the studio that had him under contract. For a small fortune, somebody at MGM sent over a circus wagon and a very large lion. Al was tossed into the cage and as the lion devoured him, the wagon was pulled behind a truck all over the lot for everyone to see.

According to Berl, none of the studio heads endorsed this practice, they just pretended it was just another Hollywood folktale. After a couple of years it stopped all together because of a guy named Henry Verdonk. He was a handsome Belgian who'd been in Hollywood for years as a silent leading man. After a great run, his next few films flopped due to him being paired with young, talentless starlets the studio heads had taken a liking to. His contract was to be terminated after he finished his final film, a low budget comedy.

Henry knew his career was over and that his life was on the line. Right after he finished shooting the picture he fled the U.S., first stopping in Belgium, then to the Congo, where his brother was doing missionary work. Five years passed and Henry had changed a lot both physically and mentally. Under an alias, he returned to Hollywood and signed a contract with MGM.

His first two films were box office gold. It was then that he gathered the Hollywood press together and revealed his true identity. Henry was now a hot commodity. The studio execs immediately jumped on the story spinning the whole thing as a publicity stunt created by them. It was then that the light bulb went off. It had never occured to the studio heads that these actors and actresses could make "comebacks". No longer would they have to die for their failures. If there career didn't work out, they could go off and be forgotten about, then make a big comeback that both they and the studio could profit from. And from that day forward, studio execs went back to focusing on the casting couch instead of the lions den.

Berl had gotten off the train sometime while I was asleep. He left a short note, scrawled in pencil, on the inside cover of the book I was reading.
If a story is told enough times, it becomes true.

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