In the last 2 days, two of my idols in filmmaking left us with a legacy that will remain for decades.
George Clayton Johnson wrote two seminal sci-fi novels, Logan’s Run
and Ocean’s Eleven (both were made into movies), as well as the premiere episode of TV’s The Twilight Zone.
George was a full-blooded Cherokee, stood five feet tall, weighed about a hundred pounds, and had shoulder-length white hair.
He wanted me to edit a teaser for a documentary about a convening of futurists. It was his idea to assemble and sequester a dozen people, each of a different discipline—military, scientific, literary, educational, athletic, artistic, even con artistic—in a room beneath Las Vegas. He had an affinity for Vegas because it was the setting for Ocean’s Eleven.
George’s idea for his futurists would be to assign them the task of running Las Vegas, as a microcosm of the nation, in all facets of traffic, education, crime prevention, poverty eradication, real estate development—the works. One of the reasons he thought our collaboration pre-ordained, was that, as he told me, “I also grew up in Cheyenne—lived in the doorway of the Plains Hotel.”
While editing George’s film, I “dialed for dollars” to get directing work. But before I found a gig, I returned to editing tv commercials because I was given an expensive ad campaign, for Standard Oil, which became the behemoth, Exxon.
The ad agency for Standard Oil, BBDO, San Francisco, had to fly down to see the cuts. In between assembling cuts to be seen by the agency, I’d work on George’s teaser. While I edited, George sat on the side wall of our driveway, adjacent my garage editing room, dressed in red corduroys and an orange T-shirt with a plastic portable radio hanging around his neck. I’d go out there once in a while to check to see if he was receiving transmissions from WKRP in Andromeda.
One day there was a potential conflict of interest. My wife rushed out and said, “There’s a bunch of guys from BBDO, at the door!” I looked at George. He was listening to a headset plugged into his portable radio. I made sure he was stoned and lost in Good Morning Mars and then told Laurel, “Bring ’em on.”
I quickly put George’s film away and put the Standard Oil spots up. The ad guys were ecstatic. They slapped each other on the back and said, “Now where’re we having lunch?”
then they walked out, never acknowledging George, one of the most innovative minds of our generation. To them, if they even registered his presence, he looked like our landscaper taking a lunch break
Though I lovingly gest about George, there was never any doubt in my mind that he was one of the finest examples of man’s ability to fantasize about the future and write it as science fiction.
Haskell Wexler was not only one of the finest cinematographers of history, he was also a determined idealist, unafraid to tackle controverial issues.
When I came to Hollywood, I had a lot of hope but little help. I befriended an assistant cameraman to Haskell. Politically savvy, Wexler directed the movie Medium Cool, an inside look at the rebellious anti-war movement in the late 1960s, and he won an academy award for One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest
and Bound for Glory, also an academy award winner, which, using the first steadicam/crane, established the seamless 4 minute travelling shot that set the bar for cinematography on such recent films as Birdmanand the opening on the latest James Bond film, Spectre.
I had written my first screenplay, a political thriller and the aforementioned assistant cameraman gave my screenplay to Haskell, who phoned me and said, “Come visit me on the set. I like your script.” With eyes agape, I entered the Land of Giants; I was invited to the set of Coming Home,
directed by Hal Ashby, who directed Harold and Maude and The Landlord.
Haskell was terse and to the point: “I don’t know if or when I can get your film made. But I want to option it.” I didn’t know what the term meant. I just said, “Sure!” He went back to work. The star of the film, Jane Fonda, the direcor, Hal Ashby, and Haskell Wexler were well respected but, at that time, Coming Home, an anti-war film about crippled vets coming back from Vietnam, was not on the top of the “picks to pop” in Hollywood. It was only produced because it was conceived by Jane Fonda, who was inspired by Ron Kovic, a paraplegic Vietnam War veteran, who wrote Born on the Fourth of July, an Oscar-winning motion picture. As far as she was concerned, making the film was do-or-die.
I will always relish meeting Haskell, Ashby, and Jane—mavericks who stood for what they believed in and made a beautiful film.
Haskell Wexler was one of the most intelligent, committed activists I’d encountered in a world where controversy is avoided like the plague.
R.I.P. George and Haskell. As the song says, “I’m glad I knew ye.”