Entry dated :: September 11,1960
Athens, Greece   
The Iliad :
The Opening Debacle

      Today I justified the “movie producer” title on my business card. The movie is  the Iliad. The production has a cast of 1200 extras. The crew from Munich– Cameraman Werner Kurz, Special effects supervisor Karl Baumgartner and Script girl Pia Arnold– actually began shooting the film two days ago at Tolon, a beach about 120 miles from Athens. I left my collaborator Susan Brockman in charge in Tolon and I am back in Athens to look at the rushes.
     The shooting script, by Mario Puzo, the civilian administrator of the 442nd Army Reserve unit in New York, opens with a huge battle around the Greeks’ beached ships.      For that spectacular scene, Susan and I had meticulously assembled the ships, shields, costumes and other requisites. The Greek government had been most cooperative. For ships, the port of Piraeus had contributed 6 water-logged hulls long sunk in a caique graveyard outside the harbor. Then shipping tycoon Stavros Niarchos contributed a floating crane to raise and load them on to a LST landing craft--the L188-- supplied by the Greek Navy. The L188 then ferried them to the location. ( Unfortunately the LST broke its propeller unloading the cargo in shallow water.)


The local authorities then supplied a work gang of prisoners to reconstruct the ships. For masts, I had the cooperative prisoners borrow telephone poles from the surrounding area ( temporarily interrupting local telephone service.) And the Greek Army, at the request of the Ministry of the Interior, supplied 1,200 extras, who were outfitted in loincloths and sandals by student interns attracted by the illusionary rumor that Marlon Brando would be arriving.

      Despite all these efforts, the new director, Desmond O’Donovan, claimed that it was too cloudy to shoot battle scenes. Instead, he wrote a"weather contingency" scene in which a dog snatches a piece of meat from a pot at a campfire. He said it would provide a “cinematic metaphor” to depict the hard times the Greeks were suffering in their siege of Troy.

     Now, in the aptly-named Apollo screening room in Athens, I watch the results of this contingency with horror. There are 37 retakes of the mangy dog . Meanwhile, I am billed daily for the cases of orangeade and mounds of sis kebab the 1,200 hungry extras consume while they wait for the sun, draining a significant portion of my $36,000 production budget.
      Watching the rushes with me are three visitors from Hollywood: Polish-born Rudy Mate, Russian-born George St. George, and Italian born Maria. Rudy had been a legendary cinematographer-- photographing Dryer's classic The Passion Of Joan of Arc-- before becoming a Hollywood hack director. He is now in Athens to scout locations for his next film, The Lion of Sparta. St. George, who had escaped the Russian revolution via Shanghai and wound up in Hollywood, is his producer and sidekick. Maria, a barely-legal actress, is Rudy's lover. I had met them earlier in the day in the lobby of the Grand Bretagne hotel and invited them to the screening.

“Interesting ,” Rudy Mate says, after the dog’s 20th lunge at the bone. (I later learn from Maria that “Interesting” is Mate codeword for “awful”). “I’m not sure I am familiar with this director O’Donovan..”
“It is his first film,” I reply.
      I add that the script is also by a first-time writer, Mario Puzo.

     St. George, intrigued by the cooperation I am getting from the Greek government, asks "How did you get the Greek Army?"

     More to the point, Maria asks, “How did you get in this mess?”
Over dessert in the Cafe Floca, I explained how what had began as a love story had turned into an organized flight from reality (with me as tour leader). 

     The adventure traced back to my temporarily suspension from Cornell. As my penance, I read Richmond Lattimore's translation of the Iliad. This effort might have ended in no more than the usual cerebral exercise if not for two coincidences. First, Susan Brockman, a Cornell coed I fancied, on seeing my conspicuously-toted Iliad, said that it was her life’s ambition--at least that week-- to play Helen of Troy in a movie. Second, I read a New York Times story that Zervos Pictures in Athens and Mosfilms in Moscow had tentatively agreed to make a Russian-Greek coproduction of the Iliad.
I could not send it immediately because I was concerned about my return address. I was living at my parents’ home in Rockville Center and feared that asking Zervos to reply to Ed Epstein, c/o Betty&Lou Epstein might cast my credibility as a producer in question. Susan’s sorority house at Cornell, Alpha Epsilon Phi, had a similar problem, but Susan found the solution: her father.

     David Brockman, was a successful financier, with a large office, and impressive cable address: GILESACT NEW YORK, which I used as my return address.
     About a week later David Brockman received a telegram from George Zervos, the President of Zervos Pictures . “I AM WILLING TO PUT UP 7 MILLION DOLLARS FOR BELOW-THE-LINE PRODUCTION STOP PREFER TO DO THE ILIAD WITH EPSTEIN’S COMPANY INSTEAD OF THE RUSSIANS.” As David Brockman had not seen my original telegram offering to provide Marlon Brando, he was impressed that someone would offer a friend of his daughter $7 million. He asked Susan to arrange for me to meet him and Arnold Krakower, a successful NY divorce lawyer.  The meeting then expanded to include another of Brockman's associates, Ben Javits. Ben was the brother, eminence grise and law partner (Javits & Javits) of New York Senator Jacob Javits.  It turned out he reveled in influencing world events, or at least Grecian ones.  He especially liked the idea of blocking a Russian coproduction and offered to have his brother write letters to everyone who mattered in Greece.
      Even though I had not previously conceived of my adventure as part of the Cold War, I accepted his offer. Why not block the Russians? At Krakower's suggestion, we formed a partnership– Iliad Productions, Inc– in which he and Brockman and Krakower would provide the initial money for preproduction. “You have to go to Athens right away,” Javits said, adding urgency.

     A few days later, September 15,1959, Susan and I made our initial trip to Greece. Her father, who owned among many industrial companies a travel agency, provided us with first class tickets to Athens on a KLM “sleeper” flight. As he had promised, Javits had opened all the doors for us. Over the next week we met government ministers, shipping magnates, and others in the Athens power elite that responded to Javits' letter.  And we had a great time being wined and dined in tavernas.


      The first deal I made was with Spyros D. Skouras, the namesake nephew of Spyros Skouras, the Chairman of 20th Century Fox.  Skouras owned a local film studio in Athens (Skouras Films) as well as the lucrative Eastman Kodak film franchise for all of Greece.    After he listened to my plan for the Iliad, he asked who would play Achilles.  When he heard Brando’s name, he became so excited that he wanted to sign a contract that day.  “Forget Zervos, forget the Russians, I will be your partner – but you must get Brando.” I told him Brando had not yet agreed. “He will,” Skouras said. Two days later, Skouras and I signed a “memorandum of understanding” in which I would supply Brando, the script and the director, and Skouras would pay for the production in Greece.
      Next, Minister of Industry Nicholas Martis, moved by Javits’s letter, offered a battalion of soldiers from the Greek army, horses from the King’s guards, and whatever else I needed for the Iliad. He then said he would also like to host a small dinner at his home for Brando. “When will Marlon arrive?” I explained Brando would need to approve the script.
“Just give him Homer’s Iliad to read,” Minister Martis suggested. He wrote a letter stating “I will do everything in my power to ensure that every reasonable facility is provided by the authorities.”

    With this impressive-looking letter from Minister Martis and the agreement with Skouras Films, Susan and I triumphantly returned to New York. A telegram was waiting from Skouras: “DEAR ED, IT HAS BECOME AN OBSESSION WITH ME. WE MUST GET BRANDO FOR OUR PICTURE..SPYROS.”
      By this time, Arnold Krakower had taken a direct hand in the search for the director. As a top divorce lawyer, he had dealt with the director Sidney Lumet, whose divorce from Gloria Vanderbilt he was handling.
To accommodate Krakower, Lumet invited me for breakfast at his penthouse at 10 Gracie Square, which overlooked the Mayor’s mansion.  Lumet, though only 36, was no amateur. The son of an actor and dancer, he had made his stage debut at the age of 4 in 1928 at the Yiddish Art Theater. He had been nominated for an academy award for directing 12 Angry Men. After selecting my breakfast from a plate of smoked salmon, I asked him about Brando, whom he had just directed wearing a snakeskin jacket in The Fugitive Kind.
      He said Brando would be perfect, and he would be “keenly interested” in directing it once Brando signed on. He then asked, “Do you have a script?”
“I’m still working on it.” Actually, all I had was a 30 page treatment written on spec by a very talented playwright, Sloane Elliott.  Sloane, who was also a classicist, was an aficionado of Homer-- and had travelled to almost all the Greek islands.  He was not, however, interested in writing a shooting script.
A script was not my only problem.  “Once you have a script, you will need to put $500,000 in an escrow account before Brando’s agent, Audrey Woods, will allow him to read a page of it.”
     I had neither a script nor $500,000.  Having made these cold facts of the conventional movie business clear to me, Lumet politely ended the breakfast, and walked me to the elevator.
While awaiting it, I told him that the Greek government was providing its Army for the battle scenes, and that Spyros Skouras was willing to finance the shooting of those scenes.
“I guess you could shoot the battle scenes with a second-unit,” he said, as the elevator doors opened.
“With Achilles wearing a mask?” I asked. “So Brando could still be used by the first unit?”
“Lets see how they turn out, bye .”
     As my vertical chariot whisked me down from the penthouse, I grasped a new strategy: To first shoot the battle scenes in Greece with a second unit and then get Lumet to direct Brando in a studio in America. But I still would need a script.
      A second problem was the American draft. Being suspended from Cornell, I could be drafted at any moment by the U.S. Army and that might provide unwanted experience in non-Homeric battle scenes. The alternative to the draft was joining a reserve unit but, given the number of men with the same idea, all the reserve units had long waiting lists. As it happened, my cousin had a means to jump the cue. He steered me to a very influencable civilian administrator at the 442nd Bagel-baking reserve, Mario Puzo. Puzo, though only 39, looked like an overweight wreck. When he told me he was a writer– even if for magazines with names like Stag– I told him I needed a screen writer for the Iliad. A deal was instantly struck to kill two birds with a single stone : Mario would slip me in a reserve unit in such a way that it would not interfere with my activities as a movie producer; I would pay Mario $400 for a 40 page shooting script for the battle scenes. After I brought Puzo to meet Krakower, he said “I’ll give him the $400 and a contract, but no one will ever believe this guy is a writer.” Puzo did deliver, however, the promised script.
      Krakower showed no enthusiasm for a bifurcated movie. “You need a single director,” he said authoritatively and found a candidate: Lewis Milestone. Milestone was an old timer par excellence. In 1927, he had won the first (and only) academy award given for Best Comedy Director. When Krakower had recently met Milestone at a Hollywood dinner, Milestone had complained that because of age discrimination he could not get a picture to direct. So Krakower proposed the Iliad and Milestone showed “real interest in getting back in the game,” as Krakower put it. After our initial meeting, where I gave him Puzo’s script, we then carried on a month long correspondence about Homer. It ended abruptly when he found out I could not pay his fee– or any fee– in advance.
     Returning to the idea of splitting the movie, I found Gregg Tallas. Born Grigoris Thalassinos in Athens, Tallas was down on his luck in America–and broke– and wanted to go back to Greece. His directorial experience had been limited to two films Prehistoric Women and Sirens of Atlantis he did ten years ago, both of which failed at the box office. Although Tallas claimed to have directed the Second Unit on Gone With The Wind, he received no credit for it.
      Despite his lack of credentials, he had one real advantage: he was willing to defer his compensation until the film was finished. All he asked for was a first class ticket to Athens. Since I could get the first class ticket gratis from Brockman’s travel agency, and desperately needed a director, I hired him for the 2nd Unit (hoping, without any real basis, Lumet might later take over the First unit.) 

       On July 15th, I returned to Greece with Susan and Tallas-- and $50,000 raised from Brockman, Krakower, Sloane Elliott and my father. We moved into the King George Hotel, where the owner, George Calcannis, anticipating the arrival of Marlon Brando, had given us the bridal suite.
     Finding the right location for the Iliad proved much more time consuming than I had anticipated. In late July, the Greek Navy provided us with a spare gunboat, the BB36, to scout locations on various Greek islands. We saw almost as many islands as Odysseus– Skiros, Andros, Hydra, Patmos, Lesbos, and Thera– with beautiful beaches, but none had the requisite electricity, hotels, or airport connection. Fortunately, by the time we returned from our futile search, Minister Martis had found the ideal location: a not-yet-occupied hotel on a deserted beach at Tolon that the Ministry of Tourist would provide free. He added “Brando will be the first guest.”
      Meanwhile, director Tallas had become a problem. He also refused to work from Puzo’s shooting script, saying it was “unprofessional.” More damaging, he added to Skouras’ angst by telling him “Hell will freeze over before Brando comes to Greece.” But matters really came to a head when he told Colonel Cactemilitus, our liaison with the Greek Army, that the call sheets I had given him specifying how many extras were needed each day were “Plucked out of thin air.” In the midst of his subversive conversation with the Colonel en route to Tolon, I maneuvered him out of the car, took him a small café in the middle of nowhere, fired him, and then proceeded with the Colonel to inspect the location.
      At this point, with shooting scheduled to commence in two weeks, I had to fill the directorial gap. So I cabled the London talent agency that was supplying me with 3 stunt men in September. Could it also supply a Second Unit Director? Enter on September 7th Desmond O’Donovan, an ebullient Irishman with a great gift of gab. He told me he had produced a British TV show about a dog called, Whirligig, when he was just a teenager and, more recently, worked (uncredited) with his half-brother Kevin McClory on 80 Days Around the World . With just five days to go before shooting, I was in no position to challenge even these scant credentials. So I sent him, along with the 3 stuntmen– Joe Powell, Pat Crane and Frank Haydon– directly from the airport in Athens by taxi to the free Hotel in Tolon.

    "That's how we got the dog scene,” I concluded.
     "Fascinating," Mate said, as he and his associates rose in unison to leave the Floca. "By the way, I wouldn't want to contradict your director, but the best battle scenes I've shot were in cloudy weather."


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