CLOSE TO THE STARS

Long before unpaid interns became the backbone of the American economy, I served in that capacity. It was 1979, and I had just completed the first year of law school. I had a vague sense of being interested in entertainment law and a vaguer sense of being interested in writing. I had a factual sense of having arranged no summer employment whatsoever.
I do not know exactly how it came to pass, but my brother lived in Beverly Hills and he knew somebody who knew somebody, and I was offered the opportunity to read scripts for a small company on the far periphery of the Hollywood dream machine.
In those pre-internet and cellphone days it was possible to complete such arrangements in a couple of hurried, long-distance phone calls, followed by a one-sentence postcard from the story editor saying: “Hope to see you at the end of June.”
It was not entirely surprising, therefore, that the day of my arrival seemed to have been entirely forgotten by my “boss.” Apparently, she was accustomed to the West Coast movie industry mentality, not the East Coast law student mentality. Thus, she had no expectation that I would actually show up.
Sharon was a pixie-like blonde, bubbling with energy. After being reminded of who I was and why I was there, she gave me a brief tour of Tony Bill Productions at 73 Market Street in Venice Beach. The facility consisted of a set of ten rooms on the second floor of a squat building, accessed by a steep stairway. The ground floor of the building contained the more-than-a-little-seedy Venice mix of that era: a used book store, a vitamin and supplement store, a liquor store, a pornographic video store, and several empty spaces.
The only notable office belonged to the owner, Tony Bill. He was an actor in the early 1960’s who had become a director in the 1970’s. His best-known directorial success was the 1978 movie, “My Bodyguard.” A huge, larger-than-king-sized bed took up much of his space, though Sharon was quick to address my unspoken, but obvious, supposition about the purpose of that bed.
“Tony’s separated from his wife. He sleeps at the office most nights.”
Finally, she brought me to my “office.” It was a corner of a windowless store-room that contained a small desk piled high with scripts. Few publishers or movie studios are now willing to read unsolicited manuscripts, whether type-written or electronic. To the extent that a few are still willing to read a paper manuscript, however, the process likely approximates Tony Bill’s procedure in 1979, namely: a lowly intern skims through as much of the “slush pile” as possible and notes the general theme of each submission on a 3 X 5 card which may or may not be skimmed at some point by the story editor. The peon then places the manuscript on an out-going mail pile. Before the out-going mail is taken to the post office, he inserts a pre-printed card that indicates something along the lines of: “Thank you so much for submitting your work. I’m afraid, however, that I am going to have to pass on it. I do wish you the best of luck.”
Just as the present-day culture is inundated with tales of vampires and the super-natural, the ubiquitous theme in 1979 was talking mannequins. It seems that every department store clerk in the English-speaking world was spending his or her evenings imagining what happens in the store after closing time. Some imagined lifeless, brainless figures with impossibly perfect bodies and cheekbones leading their peers in worldwide dominance and other fantastic feats. There may be no connection whatsoever, but in 1980, Ronald Reagan was elected president.
My days passed uneventfully, with Sharon displaying no particular interest in my tiny corner of the operation. I would peruse and summarize a few scripts, often after just a few pages, then take a stroll around the hallway or outside at Venice Beach. After lunch, I would return and review several more.
I rarely saw Tony, and never exchanged words with him, but there was occasionally a buzz in the hallway when a known Hollywood luminary was visiting him in his office. One day, I gathered he was talking with an actress and her agent about a possible project but I did not think anything of it. I had promised to take my young nephew to a ballgame, so when the end of the day arrived, I headed out to the parking lot. I found my rented Corolla hemmed in by a double-parked, white Jaguar. It was not unusual to see a luxury automobile in Los Angeles. Until the introduction of the Prius, it seemed that everyone who had ever acted in a movie, or even ATTENDED a movie, drove one.
When I went back upstairs to find out whose car it was, no one was around. The only muffled voices I heard came from behind Tony’s closed door. I paced in the hallway for several minutes trying to decide whether to knock. Various thoughts ran through my head. “What if the car does not belong to Tony’s visitors? What if I am interrupting a crucial meeting? What if I am interrupting ANYTHING pertaining to that monster-sized bed?”
”This is silly,” I finally told myself. “No one else is here. The car has to belong to Tony’s visitor. And whoever owns that car should actually be apologizing to me. They are at fault, not me. They are just another person, nothing special. There is no point in being intimidated just because someone might have appeared in a commercial or a sitcom. My nephew is waiting. I’ve worked all day, for no pay. I am entitled to leave.”
Duly fortified, I knocked decisively on the door. The voices inside stilled and I heard footsteps. The door opened, and peering out at me, was a very familiar-looking face; it was the girl from “Love Story,”(see note at end) only about ten years older.
“Yes?” she asked.
“Ummm,” I responded. “Ummm,” I repeated, even more assertively.
“Oh,” she said. “Did I block your car?”
I was so relieved she guessed my purpose that I was able to form an intelligible word. “Yes,” I said. But seeing Tony Bill and the agent sitting at his desk in the background, I hastened to add: “I can wait. It’s no problem at all.” In the face of actual fame, my resolve melted like an ice cream cone in the Mojave Desert.
“Oh, no,” she said, cheerfully. “I’ll come out and move it.”
The familiar and quite splendid-looking woman strode out, carrying her keys.
“I’m Ali McGraw,” she said, extending her hand.
“Yes, you are,” I replied, nonsensically.
We walked together down to the parking lot. I failed completely to think of anything intelligent to say. I suppose, in retrospect, that she was used to tongue-tied reactions, but I certainly felt like an idiot.
When we arrived at our cars, she flashed the most luminous smile I had ever seen in person, hopped into her Jaguar, and backed up. I climbed into my Toyota, thanked her again, and nearly drove forward into a pole. Finally, I composed myself, and eased out of the parking lot.
You know how people are sometimes described as having “movie star” looks? Yet, in reality, they are really an overweight insurance agent with a good head of hair, or a five-foot-three lifeguard with a nice smile? I can attest, without hesitation, that Ali McGraw really had “movie-star” looks.

     Explanatory note for readers under 40:  “Love Story” was the Oscar-nominated sensation of the 1970 movie year.  It featured Ali McGraw and Ryan O’Neal.  Both were expected to become Hollywood royalty as a result.  While neither was launched to the extent of lasting cinematic fame, both were still solid movie stars throughout the 1970’s and into the 1980’s.  Ali McGraw is now an animal-rights activist but was still appearing in “Top 50 Most Beautiful Women Lists” into the 1990’s.  According to Wikipedia, she was treated for sex addiction following her divorce from Steve McQueen.  Little did I know this could have become such a more interesting story!

Advertisements