How a Canadian wonder boy "tamed" Sinatra

ALAN EDMONDS November 5 1966

How a Canadian wonder boy "tamed" Sinatra

ALAN EDMONDS November 5 1966
LONDON: A FRENCH WRITER recently described Sidney Furie, the Canadian film director. as "a man who looks and talks like a tiger.” The Gallic hyperbole is forgivable because Furie, after all. has snarled boldly at such high-ranking members of film royalty as Marlon Brando and Harry Saltzman, the fabulously successful Canadian producer who came here to make those James Bond movies (among others) that he couldn't make in Canada. Furie himself describes his work with a different figure of speech, though the meaning comes down to much the same thing. “Making a movie.” he says, “is like waging a war.”

The war Furie has been waging here lately is a film called The Naked Runner, which stars Frank Sinatra and represents Furie's greatest test so far as a big-time movie director. Furie got the job almost in spite of such low-budget accomplishments as Dr. Blood's Coffin, which wasn’t much better than it sounds, and directly because of another called The Ipcress File. which was magnificent. Furie walks into every assignment with the same frame of mind: this is his film, and he’s the boss. He spelled it out for Harry Saltzman, the producer, as he walked off the set of Ipcress during a row they later patched up: “If you want a yes-man, you’ve got the wrong boy!” And on other occasions he has said, “I won't stand for some of the stars' behavior that other directors put up with.”

Furie says such things with the quiet confidence of a boss who knows what he's doing and intends to go ahead and do it. As a man who won't budge from any position where his integrity is at stake. Furie had already established himself on other film sets as an almost-classic example of the Immovable Object. And now, with the cameras about to start rolling on The Naked Runner, he seemed a cinch to collide with the Irresistible Force.

The Force, of course, had to be Frank Sinatra. Unless you’ve spent the past decade on some distant planet, you already know that Sinatra is The King - the Great Emancipated One who can do, and does, just about anything he pleases, including terrorizing directors who have the audacity to want to direct him. In Hollywood, Sinatra is notorious as a one-take man: if the director wants a scene reshot and Sinatra doesn't, the scene doesn’t get reshot. If the director tries to insist. Sinatra simply walks off the set. Or clobbers him. Or both.

And so, on the day the Lion of Hollywood turned up for scene one, take one of The Naked Runner, Sidney Furie directing, everyone involved felt pretty anxious. (Only later did Furie admit to anyone, " I was very, very nervous about what was going to happen.”)

What did happen was the surprise of the film-making season: as Furie steeled himself to begin waging the most important war of his career, peace broke out.

The first day's shooting was scheduled at a newly finished apartment building in Chelsea. and the Sinatra who turned up there wasn't the ogre everyone half expected: for one thing, he sported a pipe —a personal prop that wasn't exactly in keeping with his Rabelaisian image. He got out of his Jaguar Mark 10, fitted with smoked-glass windows so no one can see the passengers, and led his business associate and producer, Brad Dexter, and his latest bodyguard, a giant English bit-part player named Frank Harper, up to the penthouse apartment. For this scene, this apartment was the home of Sam Laker, an American expatriate furniture designer living in London. Laker, or Sinatra, is the Naked Runner: he goes to the Leipzig trade fair with his son; the son is kidnapped by East German agents to force Laker, a crack shot, to kill for them. Laker fails in his assigned assassination . . . But go see for yourself when the film is released, probably next summer.

On the set, Sinatra shook hands with Furie, whom he had met on three previous occasions, and said. “Hi, Sidney.” He favored the crew with a grin and a, “Hi, fellows,’’ then talked man-to-man with 14-year-old Michael Newport. who plays his son. In this scene. Laker is at a drawing board while his son plays on the balcony. They rehearsed once, then shot it. And then they shot it again - and again.

Each time Sinatra nodded his approval. Everyone relaxed. Old one-shot Sinatra was a changed man.

Furie shot the sequence from different angles, usually asking for two takes, sometimes more. While cameras and lights were set up. Sinatra, bespectacled, read the New York Times, a newspaper he reveres (“I’ll talk to the New York Times man over here - and no one else,” he told Brad Dexter), or he talked with Furie or Dexter or Michael Newport.

But there were no explosions, no walkouts, not even a mild difference of opinion.

When Sinatra had left the building, pausing on the sidewalk to sign perhaps two dozen autographs, a lighting man on the set observed, “That Sinatra - he’s not what they paint him, is he? Must be that Mia Farrow . . .”

(To the British public he must have seemed like the Sinatra they’d always read about, even if he did have Mia Farrow along as his bride. Frank and Mia had flown in from Prestwick in a rented executive jet, not to London airport where the paparazzi were waiting, but to Northolt RAF station just outside London. That prompted questions in the House of Commons. “Why,” a backbencher asked, “was this - uh - film star permitted to use military facilities in a manner which we expect royalty to be permitted to do . . . ?” The parliamentary Undersecretary of State of Defense for the RAF, Merlyn Rees, solemnly explained that private aircraft often land there quite legitimately — though he did concede that Sinatra’s plane had exceeded the limit set for those runways.

(A month later, the papers were to find Sinatra guilty of a second outrage against the British nation: Frank and Mia, slipping away for weekends in southern France, were getting through customs and immigration without luggage inspection or any of the other customary examinations or delays. When this matter came up in the House, a government spokesman promised that in future Frank and Mia would have to wait in line just like ordinary folk.)

The “new” Sinatra was barely out of earshot after that first day of shooting before Furie was enthusing, “Fantastic! When that man gets in front of the camera he’s turned on. It’s a sort of magic. He’s a real professional, and I’m a professional and I doubt whether you’ll see us fight.”

By now it was clear that as long as Furie’s integrity wasn’t in jeopardy, he would have every reason in the world to keep peace on the set. People who had hoped to see Furie and Sinatra goad each other into tantrums, or maybe even a little exchange of fisticuffs, hadn’t taken all of Furie’s work record into account. The Naked Runner is Furie’s third major film (Ipcress being his first). His second, the just-released western, The Appaloosa, can already be recorded as a triumph for Furie, at least in one respect, for in making it he proved, in the face of predictions to the contrary, that he could work harmoniously with that other most-difficult screen star, Marlon Brando. Now Furie was predicting, “If The Naked Runner is a good film, then it’s a big thing for me. It will show I can get on with two of the most difficult actors in the business, the two men who demand most from their directors. Then other stars and producers will be wanting me, and it’ll make financing easier because people will feel a Furie film is a safe investment.”

On the other hand, as Brad Dexter explained it, Sinatra had no good reason not to co-operate happily throughout that first day’s shooting - or, for that matter, during any other day. “Sure, they say he’ll only shoot a scene once,” he said, “but that’s when he's got a lousy story and is surrounded with fools. Sidney isn’t that. He’s tremendous. He lives movies.

He’s one strip of film from his little toe down here” - he paused to touch his shoe - “to the top of his head.”

It went on like that. They began filming a scene in the ancient Lyric Theatre in Hammersmith, which will, in the film, be a puppet theatre in Leipzig. Sinatra appears for perhaps a minute, and says one line. But he scorned the use of a stand-in and stood patiently for 30 minutes while cameras and lights were adjusted, and Toby Robins, the Canadian actress - one of the better ones - who left Canada to try her luck in London two years ago, tried hard to look as though she knew how to handle a multi-stringed puppet. Even so, Furie handled Sinatra more delicately than his other actors. After Sinatra left at midday, Furie wished he’d shot the scene from the orchestra seats as well as from the stage. “But I can't call him back for the afternoon just to film the back of his head,” he said.

Furie was harder on Toby Robins and British actor Peter Vaughan, who plays a British agent. He shot their theatre scene six times - and then went back to do it again later in the week. Toby’s Canadian background did not, it seems, have anything to do with her getting the part: it wasn't until after she was cast that she and Furie recalled that once, 20 years ago, they’d both been members of radio’s Children’s Theatre Of The Air.

It was in those days that Furie decided he wanted to be a director because the director was the creator, the boss, and the actors were puppets. Furie, son of a Toronto dental technician, didn’t like being a puppet. At 15, he directed the school play at Vaughan Road Collegiate. It was The Hasty Heart, and on opening night the leading-man’s parents kept him home because he had mumps. Furie played the part instead. Later, he studied drama at university in Pittsburgh, then returned to the CBC to be a staff writer in the Public Affairs Department, and to write three plays for television. They wouldn't let him be a trainee TV director - he's still bitter about that - so he screened 300 feature films to choose the CBC’s late-night movies. Next he worked as what he calls an assistant’s assistant at the National Film Board, then decided it was time he made his own film. After all, Sid Furie was now an aging 23 (he’s 33 now). So he borrowed $19,000 from family and friends and made A Dangerous Age with Toronto actors who, he recalls in anger, were so contemptuous of the upstart Furie that when he drove them to the set (he couldn’t afford a driver) they rode in the back and he “sat up front like a bloody chauffeur—me, the director, the writer and the producer who was paying them. God, those snotty actors who treated me like I was Joe Nobody . . .”

A Dangerous Age was never released in Canada, but it was shown in Britain. And so Furie borrowed more money and made A CooI Sound From Hell, which flopped everywhere and left him $60,000 in debt. It took a long time to pay off. In 1960 he left for England “because Canada doesn’t have a film industry, and with Hollywood serving English North America, it doesn’t need one any more than Denver or New York.” In England he made Dr. Blood’s Coffin and a few other quickies, and then graduated to a moderately successful musical, Wonderful Life. Next, Harry Saltzman hired him to direct The Ipcress File, and when that became so successful he was engaged to make the Brando western for Hollywood. When that was completed, Furie finished paying off the $60,000 debt. He was by now able to make somewhere around $200,000 a picture, and to afford the luxury of saying, “Money’s nothing, except for the freedom it provides. All you need is two years’ cash in the bank so you can tell the world where to go.”

Furie had just reached that happy state when Brad Dexter, as a vice-president of Sinatra Enterprises, finished reading the publisher’s proofs of The Naked Runner, had bought the film rights and was looking around for a director. “I saw Ipcress,” Dexter says, “and I said, ‘That Furie - that’s my director!’ I met Sid and we communicated, then Frank met Sid and he said, ‘Sign him. The kid’s great.’ ”

Now, on the set, Furie was apparently performing every bit as well as Dexter and Sinatra had hoped - though you could hardly say everything went off without a hitch. There was the Wapping incident, for instance.

A cramped third-floor apartment in an old house in Wapping. in east London overlooking the Thames, was chosen to represent the room above the theatre where Sinatra and Toby Robins were to talk. The house, set among grimy warehouses and London slums, is officially an historic monument because of its 16th-century origins, but it houses a two-man plant manufacturing rubber bladders for fountain pens and the apartment is normally occupied by five students.

Sinatra, by now in the habit of bouncing onto the set each day with a joke and a smile for everyone, climbed the stairs, saw the apartment furnished with the rejects from a used-furniture store, tripped over a hole in the carpet and said. “It's fabulous. I’ll take it for the whole summer.” And then Brad Dexter - burly, expansive, cigar-chomping, occasionally blustering Brad Dexter who is Hollywood abroad - found himself faced with Mrs. Augusta Woodward-Fisher no less.

Mrs. Woodward-Fisher owns the building; her nephew is one of the tenants with whom the production company had arranged to use the apartment and its view. But no one had told Mrs. Woodward-Fisher. And so, swathed in tweeds and wearing sensible shoes, she came to town from the country, marched up to the apartment, and when Dexter tried to tell her to go away, she snapped, “And who may you be, young man?” Dexter, cowed, said he was the producer. And Mrs. Woodward-Fisher rather heatedly pointed out that it was her house and she thought even Americans would know better than to deal only with boys and that all she had expected was a little consideration. Dexter shifted his weight uncomfortably from one leg to the other and said. “I’m sorry, ma’am. We didn’t know . . .” And Mrs. Woodward-Fisher, still smoldering, left, saying that it really wasn’t good enough and that all she expected was a little consideration.

And then there was the day that Sid Furie had a cold. They were filming in the library of London’s Reform Club, one of the cloisters of the British Establishment, which for the occasion had become a shooting gallery located in a state-confiscated nobleman's mansion in East Germany. Furie prowled around the set, looking anxious and mopping his nose, until Harry Haines, the props man, produced a bottle of brandy and began dosing the director with doubles “for medicinal purposes.”

Furie leaned over the balustrade of the first-floor balcony and told me, “Yes, we’ll finish this sequence today. Most other young directors would take two days, maybe more, but I’m always ready to take a chance and so’s Sinatra, so we'll finish today. The thing is, I know what I want on the screen before I begin. I don’t shoot lots of footage and then try to decide later.”

Sinatra arrived, gazed around at the cavernous, mosaic-paved lobby lined with Ionic columns, and said, “Jeez . . . the train now departing from platform eight . . Everyone roared with laughter. Everyone, that is. but the secretary of the Reform Club, a retired naval commander, who shuddered and gazed in dismay at a bust of Herbert Asquith. In the library. Furie suddenly announced, “I’ve got a crazy idea. Crazy. It may not work, but let’s try it. I like doing something unsafe and I’m half drunk and it’s a crazy idea. So let’s try it.”

It was crazy only to the cognoscenti. It involved having Derren Nesbitt, playing an East German secret-police chief, walk the 100-yard length of the library, then return to the shooting pit at which, originally, it had been intended to shoot the whole scene. Furie’s new concept involved an hour’s wait while fresh lighting was installed. Sinatra sat talking with the still photographer, then went back to the previous day’s New York Times. Brad Dexter talked to Derren Nesbitt, telling him, “This’ll do your career a lot of good, Derren. A lot of good.”

Furie went back to leaning over the balcony, saying that he thought Sinatra liked the story because it was about a man whose son had been kidnapped and was being forced to do things he didn’t want to do to save the boy. “Remember. Sinatra’s son was kidnapped not so long ago,” he said. “He knows what he’s talking about when he says this is a credible story. He says all he can remember now is the awful confusion and sense of panic when it happened."

Furie returned to the library to shoot the scene, with Sinatra firing an automatic rifle that ejected cartridge cases so brutally they flew across the room, ricocheted off the Reform Club’s first edition of Samuel Pepys’ Diary and landed in a shower on the heads of the cowering sound crew. Sinatra pointed out that Nesbitt, as the secret-police chief, would have to have binoculars to see where the bullets were supposedly landing at the other end of the room. Furie sent someone out to buy a pair, and said delightedly, “He’s tremendous. We work so well together it’s like telepathy.”

Mia Farrow, making one of her rare visits to the set (she was reluctant to leave their apartment in Grosvenor Square and brave the London newspapers’ paparazzi), sat quietly smiling, looking rather like a 16-year-old, not a mature married woman of 21. Stanley Mann, the Canadian writer who left Montreal 14 years ago and who wrote The Naked Runner film script, greeted Gordon Milligan, an old friend of Furie’s from Toronto who was visiting briefly, with, “I’ve got news for you: this boy is just great.” Then, wearing his habitual air of melancholy, he went back to revising the script to put more romance into a scene between Sinatra and Nadia Gray, who was to appear later as an East German girl Sam Laker had once known.

Brad Dexter said, “Eve never known a movie go so smoothly. It’s great. It’s fantastic. I’ve never known an actor so secure as Frank, or a director as secure as Sid - that’s the reason.” Toby Robins, more soberly, agreed. “Everybody gets along so well,” she said.

Film crewmen who had worked with Furie before said they had never seen him so well organized. “This time,” said one, “everything’s being done in double-quick time. I suppose he doesn’t want to give The Great Man an excuse to blow his top.”

Whatever the reason, Furie’s pace was showing results. By the end of the second week, the film was already four days ahead of schedule, and Furie was hopeful he could finish the picture in 28 shooting days, instead of the 40 it had been expected to take.

“It’s bloody marvelous,” said Freddie Slark, the gnome of a Cockney who is Furie’s production manager.

A contrary opinion came from another Cockney on the set. a hand who has spent his life shifting lights and props. “All this lovey-dovey talk makes you sick.” he said, “and it’s too good to last.”

But right up to the end of my visits to the set, the Lion of Hollywood and the Man Who Talks Like A Tiger were getting along like a couple of pussycats. ★