A Summer Treat For Sanibel Sunset Detective Readers

The Sanibel Sunset Detective Goes to Londoncvr(Aug.15,2015)


I want to say a heartfelt thank you to readers all over the world who have embraced the Sanibel Sunset Detective novels with such enthusiasm. It severely understates the case to say I could not do it without you. Your passion for Tree Callister and his various misadventures keeps me going.

There will be a new Sanibel Sunset Detective novel in November—The Heart of the Sanibel Sunset Detective.


 In the meantime, though, in response to readers who tell me the books just don’t come out fast enough, a summer special, something a little different, a short e-book set in London titled The Sanibel Sunset Detective Goes to London…


Big Ben Tree and his wife Freddie are in London, England, to attend the wedding of Freddie’s nephew. It promises to be a relaxing time, visiting family, seeing London’s historic sites.

So then how does Tree end up following a mysterious young woman? Why are tattooed thugs banging him across the head and throwing him into the back of a van? In a city where no one has a gun, why is everyone pointing a gun at Tree?

From the markets along Portobello Road to the royal digs at Kensington Palace, from lively Piccadilly Circus to an ancient castle deep in the English countryside, Sanibel Island’s most famous detective encounters brutal English gangsters, questionable Scotland Yard investigators, blackmail, and murder.

It’s enough to make a private detective wonder why he ever left home.


 Intrigued? I hope so. If you’d like to read The Sanibel Sunset Detective Goes to London simply click HERE to download your copy at Amazon for only $2.99.


And please, keep in touch. Let me know what you think of The Sanibel Sunset Detective Goes to London. E-mail me at ronbase@ronbase.com.




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Cannes, El Sid, and Six Green Beans

Cannes Film Festival

Every year about this time I think of Cannes, El Sid, and six green beans.

El Sid was my nick-name for Sid Adilman, the legendary Toronto Star entertainment reporter. For years in May, El Sid and I would head for the Cannes International Film Festival, the longest-running, biggest, and most glamorous of movie gatherings.

Cannes had something no other festival will ever be able to match: the Mediterranean and the French Riviera. When I was growing up, the Côte d’Azur bespoke the ultimate in sophistication, personified, to my mind, by Cary Grant and Grace Kelly in Alfred Hitchcock’s classic To Catch A Thief. Once I saw Cary and Grace against that breath-taking backdrop, I had to get there, somehow.

To my surprise, when I finally did arrive, the reality of Cannes more or less lived up to my childhood fantasy.

In 1981 the festival was still a somewhat intimate affair, although I’m not sure I realized it at the time. You could become stranded at Charles De Gaulle airport in Paris with Norman Mailer. Jerry Lewis would stroll past you on the Croisette and nod good morning.

At a reception a tall stranger would walk over and it would take a moment to realize with a start you were chatting to Gore Vidal, a friend of Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward who would arrive a few moments later.

The main festival was still housed in the Palais next door to the Hotel Carlton, tiny compared to the monstrosity being constructed further along the Croisette overlooking the Bay of Cannes.

The life of the festival was more or less defined between the Hotel Carlton to the east and the Hotel Majestic to the west.

The terrace at the Carlton constituted the festival epicenter in those days. Anyone who was anyone sat there, mingling with lots of people who were nobodies, but then the terrace was a fairly democratic place. If you were there, you might be somebody. And if you weren’t, well, who was to know?

Sid and I always stayed at the Hotel du Century up the street from the Carlton on the rue d’Antibes. Not a luxury hotel by any stretch, but the rooms were good-sized and fairly reasonably priced–if there was such a thing as reasonable in Cannes during the festival.

This was our headquarters each year. This is where we drove each other crazy.

It was often said that El Sid and I were an odd couple. He was a small, slim, intense man, always impeccably dressed, always on the hunt for a double espresso, forever staring into patisserie windows at sweets he would never eat.

Everyone in show business read Sid’s daily Eye On Entertainment column in the Toronto Star. He was Canada’s premier show business reporter (the fact that he was also the Canadian editor of Variety, the Hollywood trade publication, only added to his influence).

No one took their beat more seriously than El Sid. He lived and breathed entertainment. I had been reading him since high school in the days when he was at the old Toronto Telegram. When we first met, I was somewhat in awe–and secretly thrilled to be sharing reporting duties at the festival.

At least I was the first year. After that, I decided that life on the Mediterranean was too short to spend sitting in a movie theatre.

The great Dusty Cohl, one of the founders of what is now the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), daily held court on the Carlton terrace  wearing his trademark black cowboy hat.How could you resist him? The  soupe de poisson in the Old Town was delicious, the Kir Royales late at night at the Majestic, irresistible.

The fun of Cannes was not, alas, in the movie theatres. It was at the Hotel du Cap at Eden Roc in Antibes, not far from Cannes. The really rich and the very famous were housed in the one hundred rooms of this converted mansion (built by a Russian prince).

Here, one could inhale the sweet fragrance of the hotel’s roses while lounging near the pool with the actress Mary Steenburgen and her then-husband Malcolm McDowell, sweating from an afternoon tennis match.

The fun was at Le Petit Carlton on the rue d’Antibes, the anthesis of the Carlton terrace, where the press and the indie filmmakers hung out, and where you could end up drinking (fairly cheap) beer with Terry Jones of Monty Python or rubbing shoulders at the bar with director Jim Jarmusch.

It was dining at the Moulin des Mougins, the first Michelin three star restaurant I ever visited, where the diner sitting next to you could turn out to be the great actor James Mason. And it was dancing late at night to a live Chet Baker concert in a ballroom at the Hotel Majestic.

The movies at Cannes could always be screened back in Toronto, but the experience of Cannes, I decided, would never be repeated, and so I had better enjoy it. This attitude infuriated Sid. He was there to work. If I missed the screening of Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence–which I did–he became apoplectic.

Each year, without fail, he stopped talking to me. I would line up for a screening (yes, I did go to them on occasion), and there would be El Sid standing not ten feet away. Ignoring me.

But Sid was nothing if not basically good-hearted, and no matter how angry he got with me, he always came around in the end, and, as unlikely as we were together, we remained friends. But he was a character. Of all the stories I can tell about Sid, this is my favorite:

On the Air Canada flight bound for Paris, I settled back in my seat, relieved to finally be off to the festival, looking forward to ten days on the Côte d’Azur. I ordered a nice glass of Merlot from the flight attendant. Dinner arrived (in those days Air Canada still served a pretty decent meal on its transcontinental flights). I glanced over at Sid, who was sitting next to me. He wasn’t eating anything.

Eventually, he produced a tin foil-wrapped package and placed it on his lowered chair back table. He then proceeded to unwrap the tin foil.There, laid out in a neat row, were six green beans.

“My dinner,” he announced testily when I asked him about the beans.


Sid proceeded to eat four of the beans, picking up one at a time, placing it in his mouth, chewing it thoroughly, before attacking the next one.

With two green beans left, he abruptly stopped eating, carefully refolded the foil, and put it away. I looked at him. “What was wrong with those two?” I asked.

“I’m saving them for later,” he snapped.


Since those days, I’ve been back to the South of France many times and even returned to Cannes on a few occasions. The original Palais has long since closed and the new, much more grand version across from the Majestic has shifted the festival focus away from the Carlton.

The Hotel du Century where Sid and I stayed was closed for years, serving as a drab, deserted repository for my fading Cannes memories. Now it has been renovated into a fashionable boutique hotel and made unrecognizable.

The Carlton also has undergone a facelift that has robbed it of its former Old World charm or any sense that Grace Kelly and Cary Grant might stroll through the lobby. Le Petit Carlton closed in 2008, and the space it occupied is now just another one of the many high-end boutiques lining rue d’Antibes.

The Moulin des Mougins famously lost one of its stars and much of its luster. The Hotel du Cap still attracts the very famous who these days must be really, really rich to stay there (and you still pay in cash).

And the  festival endures of course, but one has the impression, viewing it from afar, that it is much bigger, more regimented, and certainly less intimate than it was when I was there. But maybe that’s just me.

El Sid, wonderful, exasperating Sid, died too soon in 2006 at the age of sixty-eight. But each year as the film festival gets under way, I sit and remember those wild, silly years when we traveled together, and fought together, and, on more than a few occasions, laughed together.

And I smile.

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Don Francks: A Star Was Born Again, and Again–and Again

With Petula Clark in Finian's Rainbow

When I finally met Don Francks it was on the set of a movie I wrote titled First Degree. Not that I had much influence, but as one of the producers, I lobbied hard to cast Don in the role of a powerful entrepreneur confronting the movie’s conniving detective played by Rob Lowe.

It wasn’t a large part, but to my delight Don accepted. He had fascinated me since I was a kid growing up in a small Ontario town, yearning to break out. Don Francks was Canadian, a charismatic performer, blessed with an impressive jaw, an impish smile, a raspy, easy singing voice, dancing ability, and great presence.

Don Francks was going to be a star.

His star was to be born on Broadway in a lavish musical production called Kelly, about a man who jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge and survived. Backed by big name producers David Susskind and Joseph Levine, directed by Herbert Ross, the musical was one of the most expensive productions in Broadway history when it opened in 1965. Don had never appeared on a Broadway stage, but as soon as the producers auditioned him, he was immediately signed for the lead.

Less than a year later, Kelly closed after a single performance; a colossal failure of  legendary proportions.

But Don Francks was going to be a star.

In JerichoHe was going to be a star on television in a big-budget Mission Impossible-inspired series, called Jericho, about an elite intelligence team operating behind German lines during World War II. Don was the team leader. The series lasted sixteen episodes before it was cancelled.

He was going to be a star in Finian’s Rainbow, director Francis Ford Coppola’s lavish adaptation of the Broadway hit that co-starred British pop star Petula Clark and Fred Astaire, in what turned out to be his last movie musical. Don played Woody, the movie’s necessary love interest. He and Petula Clark had great onscreen chemistry, particularly when they sang “Old Devil Moon.”

But Finian’s Rainbow bombed at the box office, one of the great musical failures of the era. That was all right. Don Francks was going to be a star…

Except he wasn’t.

Don retreated north, back to his native Canada with his wife, Lili. For a time, he left show business altogether and became Iron Buffalo, living on a First Nations reserve, a long, long way from Broadway and Hollywood. He said he was fed up with American politics and the Vietnam War—and maybe, just maybe, tired of the struggle to become something for which he had little taste.


I watched all this from a distance, a kid avidly reading about Don, watching with delight his appearances on Johnny Carson’s Tonight show, Johnny’s go-to counterculture guy, reading inspired musings from his journals. I rooted for his success, certain that the failures had nothing to do with his talent, which no one ever doubted, but were the result of extraordinary bad luck, the gods merrily playing games with Don’s destiny, allowing him tantalizingly close to stardom then pulling it away at the last moment.

By the time I encountered him on the set of First Degree, the years of his American stardom were faded memory. He was known as a hard-working Canadian actor, accomplished jazz musician (I had seen him perform several times at George’s Spaghetti House in Toronto), a voice-over artist (for many cartoon shows)—in short, a jack-of-all-artistic trades.

I imagine his role in First Degree was just another gig for him, a few days’ work before going on to something else.

He certainly wasn’t all that happy when I found him in his trailer and nervously presented him with the totally rewritten monologue he was to deliver in a couple of hours. After we shook hands, and I showed him the rewritten pages, he gave me a dark look that suggested what he was probably thinking: “What kind of a##hole are you that you can’t get it right?”

He quickly pulled himself together, his hard eyes softened somewhat, and he said he would do his best. He certainly did.

On the set of a dinner party scene his character was hosting, Don, who, with his trademark headband and ponytail was the personification of Old Hippy, this day looked every inch the rich, powerful mogul he was portraying. Berating Rob Lowe as the detective who would stop at nothing to rise above his social status, Don delivered the rewritten lines flawlessly, making them sound a whole lot better than they ever would have had anyone else said them.

Between takes, we sat and talked, and he warmed considerably, perhaps understanding I was genuinely interested in where he had been and how he had gotten from there to here.

A year or so later, trying to get another production off the ground, I again insisted on Don for a co-starring role. He agreed to drop around to the production office for a chat about the part he was to play. When he got there, he recognized me from our last encounter, gave a rather cynical smile and said, “Are you going to pay me this time?”

I joked that he probably got more for First Degree than I did. Again, he softened and we sat around for an hour or so, relaxed, shooting the breeze, talking about the role. He drifted away and that was that. The movie, as is so often the case, never got made. I never saw Don again.

The news of his death at the age of eighty-four, hit me harder than I expected. I went looking for his obituary in the New York Times. He was at least a fascinating bit of unlikely American cultural history; the Times surely would take note. There were a couple of familiar names in the obit section. The paper reported the death of Fred Hayman, the Rodeo Drive boutique owner who, when I came calling, wondered aloud why I didn’t consider getting a haircut.

Anne Jackson, dead at ninety, rated final words., the actress-wife of the late Eli Wallach, who once told me that she wished her husband hadn’t taken all those roles in spaghetti westerns.

But there was nothing about Don Francks. The Toronto Star didn’t run anything that I could see, either (although the Globe and Mail, thanks to the wonderful Susan Ferrier MacKay, published a long remembrance).

The star who was born again, and again—and again, had died little remembered, except by a few of us who cherished his talent and remembered how well, at the last moment, he learned his lines.

Youn Don



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Ali MacGraw and Ryan O’Neal: Falling in Love Letters

Ali and Ryan

Before the other night, the last time I saw Ryan O’Neal was on an elevator at Toronto’s Park Plaza Hotel. He was accompanied by his daughter, Tatum O’Neal, Helga Stephenson, at the time the Toronto film festival’s director of communications, and longtime pal, Lee Majors, television’s Six Million Dollar Man.

As the elevator reached the ground floor, Lee turned to Ryan to say goodbye. “By the way,” he said, “when you get to L.A., do me a favor and look up Farrah. Make sure she’s all right.”

Farrah, of course, was Farrah Fawcett-Majors, at the time Lee’s wife. Ryan did as his pal asked. Farrah and Ryan promptly fell in love, and the rest is a certain amount of tabloid-fed show business history.

erichsegal[1]Until then, Ryan O’Neal’s central claim to fame was Love Story, the literary and movie phenomenon of 1970. The film and the subsequent bestselling novel were both written by a Harvard professor, Erich Segal. I got to know Toronto author and journalist Merle Shain who had once dated Segal. She told me that at one point in their relationship, before he wrote the book, they had a terrible fight. Segal phoned to apologize. “Erich,” Merle responded, “love means never having to say you’re sorry.”

The rest is, well, more show business history.

In my life as a journalist, I never encountered Ali MacGraw. She blazed so brightly and was extinguished so quickly, but she left a generation of young men, myself included, slightly dazed and not a little lovesick in the wake of her appearances in Goodbye, Columbus and Love Story.

So when it was announced that O’Neal and his Love Story co-star were appearing in a road show production of Love Letters, A.R. Gurney’s enduring two-hander, I had more than passing interest.

Hand-in-hand on a recent Saturday night, Ali MacGraw and Ryan O’Neal came onto the stage at the Barbara B. Mann Performing Arts Hall in Fort Myers, Florida. Iconic Jenny and Oliver are long gone.  She is seventy-seven (her birthday is April 1); on April 20 he turns seventy-five.

The coltish beauty who married movie mogul Robert Evans and then ran off with Steve McQueen when they made The Getaway together, resembles someone’s elegant grandmother, still slim, her gray-streaked hair pulled back into a bun.

O’Neal, the California kid who started out as a boxer before movie stardom and a whole lot of unpleasant headlines involving children on drugs and the death of Farrah Fawcett, has put on weight and a pair of glasses. Now he could play the Ray Milland part of the wealthy father in Love Story.

On Stage

 This night they are Melissa and Andrew, not so far from Jenny and Oliver, except this time she is rich and he is not so rich. Seated at a table on a bare stage they face the audience and read the letters addressed to each other over a tempestuous fifty-year friendship. MacGraw is still the free spirit, goading and poking at the preppy O’Neal through two lives swerving from childhood to college and careers, marriages and divorces, success and failures, the two of them alternately fighting to be together and to stay apart. Are they friends or lovers—or both?

Gurney’s play inhabits a stylish fantasy land wherein the participants have money, go to Ivy League schools, pursue interesting careers, and in an age when no one writes such things, manage to write letters that are often more like smart volleys in an ongoing tennis match.

Reading back and forth seated on a stage is not generally regarded as the way to keep modern audiences mesmerized. But somehow Love Letters works a certain magic, aided by Gurney’s wit and restrained sense of pathos and also by surprisingly fine performances from the two stars. As much as we all loved Ali MacGraw in her brief heyday, she was never much of an actress. By the time the producers of Love Letters came knocking, she had long since retired to Santa Fe, New Mexico to pursue her interest in yoga and put acting behind her.

However, on stage in Fort Myers she delivers a delightfully natural and nuanced performance as a brittle, witty young women spinning into middle age and beyond, battered along the way by alcohol abuse and bad marriages.

O’Neal, as he did in Love Story, must carry much of the emotional load, and he does this exceedingly well as the conservative college jock growing into prosperity, the law, and, eventually, the U.S. senate, all the while trying to put the love of his life behind him—discovering he can’t quite do it. He must forever write her one more letter.

As Love Letters unfolds over the course of an hour and a half, it evokes a series of emotions and memories, thoughts of loves won and lost, of time passing—the young man encountering the movie star on an elevator; a fragile Merle Shain fondly recalling how she inadvertently provided the catch phrase that has long outlived her.

At the end, there is a damnable but unavoidable catch in the throat, the emotion you swear you are going to avoid, but that you can’t as Ali and Ryan take their bows and then, shamelessly playing to audience expectations, kiss before exiting, wrapped in each other’s arms.

You leave the theatre, walking into a cooling Florida night, hugging the co-star of your own love story a little more closely.

Ali and Ryan (2)





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The Four Wives Book Tour Continues…

four Wives

A new year, a new Sanibel Sunset Detective mystery…The Four Wives of the Sanibel Sunset Detective Book Tour 2016 is off and running. Here are a few of the locations where author Ron Base will be appearing. Check ronbase.com for more updates.

Franklin Shops—Friday, Feb. 5, 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. 2200 First St., Fort Myers.

Bailey’s General Store—Sunday, Feb. 7. From 10 a.m. 2477 Periwinkle Way, Sanibel Island.

Fort Myers International Airport—Monday and Tuesday, Feb. 8 and 9. From 10 a.m. At Coastal News on the main concourse.

Annette’s Book Nook—Wednesday and Thursday, Feb. 10 and 11, 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Santini Mall, Estero Blvd., Fort Myers Beach.

Adventures in Paradise—Friday, Feb. 12. From 11 a.m. 2019 Periwinkle Way, Sanibel Island.

Bailey’s General Store—Saturday, Feb. 13. From 10 a.m. 2477 Periwinkle Way, Sanibel Island.

Annette’s Book Nook—Wednesday and Thursday, Feb. 17 and 18, 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Santini Mall, Estero Blvd. Fort Myers Beach.

MacIntosh Books—Friday, Feb. 19. From 10 a.m. 2330Palm Ridge Road, Sanibel Island.

Sandman Book Store—Saturday, Feb. 20. From 11 a.m. 16480 Burnt Store Road, Punta Gorda, Fl.


More dates to be announced soon


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Hello Sweetheart…Get Me Val Sears

val sears

Hello, sweetheart. Yeah, get me rewrite will you? One of the giants has fallen, Val Sears, a newspaper legend out of a time of newspaper legends.

Whaddya mean you don’t know who Val Sears is. Val wrote features and covered politics in Ottawa, Washington, and London for the old Toronto Telegram and later for the Toronto Star. He wrote the great Canadian memoir about the Toronto newspaper wars of the 1950s, Hello Sweetheart…Get Me Rewrite.

 Val was class, let me tell you; elegance and grace personified, both in print and in life. He was sort of the Scaramouche of newspapermen, blessed with the gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad.

Yeah, hold on a minute, will you, sweetheart, while I brush away a tear. This is one of the tough ones. I loved the guy. When I grow up, I want to be a newspaperman like Val Sears. He was tall, laconic, with snowy hair pushed back from a smooth face, mouth turned at an angle as if he knew instinctively that whatever words came out of it were going to be laced with acid, and he was already savoring them.

Val moved slowly when he came into a newsroom or a bar or a cocktail party, taking in the world at his leisure. If he didn’t already know everyone in the joint, he soon would. Val was on the press plane when U.S. presidential candidate Ronald Reagan insisted a female reporter run her fingers through his hair to demonstrate that he didn’t dye it. Val still didn’t believe him, of course. Val never believed much of anything that a politician ever said.

The first time I met him, it was at a press reception then-Opposition leader Joe Clark threw in the garden of his Stornoway residence. I was in Ottawa doing a magazine piece on a controversial Progressive Conservative member of Parliament named Tom Cossitt. Cossitt is forgotten now, but at the time he had caused the Conservatives considerable embarrassment with his outbursts against bilingualism.Joe Clark

I wanted to talk to Clark about Cossitt. However, the people around their leader didn’t want anything to do with the story. They told me I could come to the reception but to stay away from Clark.

I was standing there wondering what to do when Val entered, lazily taking in his surroundings and then sauntering over. We introduced ourselves; he wondered what I was doing in town. I told him I was writing about Cossitt, but they wouldn’t let me talk to his boss.

“Joe?” Val said with that crooked, sardonic grin of his. “Hold on a minute.” He immediately went over to Clark spoke to him, nodded in my direction, and the next thing I knew I was talking to the Conservative leader, getting the quotes I needed for the story.

After that, Val and I became friends—or I liked to think of him as a friend. I was dazzled by him, his intelligence, his humor, the way he carried himself, the way nothing seemed to faze him, certainly not politicians, newspaper editors or women.

Okay, hold on, sweetheart. Maybe women could shake him up a bit. After all, he was human.

I always looked forward to our encounters, listening to that easy patrician drawl as it declaimed about the politics of the day in Ottawa, Washington, and in that particularly scabrous hotbed of gossip and rumor, the Star newsroom.

The homages to Val all pointed to the time in 1962 when Prime Minister John Diefenbaker called an election, and Val strolled into the press gallery—he never would have hurried—and announced, “To work, gentlemen, we have a government to bring down.”

But my favorite Val aphorism was “I’ve been around since the earth cooled.” Well, you got that right, sweetheart, I’ve now been around long enough to use the phrase myself, and I always think of Val when I do.

Yeah, I guess I am a little choked up. When I heard about Val’s death at the age of eighty-eight, I sat alone for a few minutes and let the tears flow. Yes, of course for Val, sweetheart, but also for the era that’s gone with him.

It’s probably mostly in my imagination at this point, but in those days newspapermen—a few women back then, but mostly men—were colorful, larger-than-life characters, livelier than most of the people they covered, world-weary, cynical, not taking guff from anyone. I was a kid then, freshly escaped from small town Ontario, newly arrived in this enthralling newspaper world, totally in awe of these guys.

Val, well, he loomed larger than any of his contemporaries. He was certainly more colorful, a little more world-weary and a lot more cynical and funny, with an added dash of sophistication thrown in for good measure. In his heyday, Cary Grant could have played Val. Or maybe it was Val who was playing a variation on Cary Grant. Hard to tell.

So that’s it, sweetheart, let’s dry the tears and put 30 on this. Whaddya mean you don’t know what “30” means? That’s the newspaper term for the end of the story. When you saw 30 back in the day, you knew it was over. Finished.

So you put “30” on Val’s life, will you? Hate to do it. Hate to think he’s not around anymore.

If I still drank, I’d lift a glass to Val Sears and the lost newspaper era in which he flowered. As it is, I think I’ll just sit here for a while and remember the guy who’d been around since the earth cooled. That earth is a little duller today.

Yeah, thanks, sweetheart. Tell you what? Why don’t we get together later at the press club for a drink? Listen, if my mother calls, don’t tell her I’m a newspaperman, okay?

She still thinks I’m a piano player in a whorehouse.



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At Lunch With Orson Welles


Unlike most of the people writing about him on the hundredth anniversary of his life, I actually met Orson Welles.

As I stood to shake his hand, I do remember thinking, Wow, here I am shaking the hand of the man who made Citizen Kane.

I had seen Welles a couple of times before, lunching on the patio at Ma Maison, sitting alone, a great, bearded Buddha in all his vast magnificence glaring out at the other patrons. At the time, Ma Maison on Melrose Avenue, was the hottest restaurant in Hollywood. Watching him, I thought, here was the genius who made what even then was generally regarded as the greatest American movie in the history of cinema, surrounded by the town’s most powerful movers and shakers. Yet he was not making Hollywood movies. Everyone was basically ignoring him. He certainly didn’t look happy, on display for all to see. Here I am, he seemed to say—what are you going to do about me?

CITIZEN KANE, Orson Welles, 1941, astride stacks of newspaper

CITIZEN KANE, Orson Welles, 1941, astride stacks of newspaper

This is the paradox of Orson Welles discussed endlessly over the course of his centenary year, the enigma of the boy wonder who could create Kane and then do—well, what did he do? Did he make more masterpieces or did he roam the world, illusive, unable or unwilling to repeat that early ground-breaking greatness? That’s the ongoing dispute, isn’t it?

It’s been played out constantly this year in new biographies, documentaries, as well as an exhaustive article in a recent issue of New Yorker magazine (The Shadow: A Hundred Years of Orson Welles).

There is even talk of another Orson Welles movie, The Other Side of the Wind, a feature he shot over many years with a cast that included directors John Huston (also long gone) and Peter Bogdanovich. Unlike so many Welles projects, this one was actually finished, but unedited and mired for decades in legal entanglements. It was supposed to have been released this year, but like so much about Welles, that promise was never fulfilled. Even in death, Orson somehow never quite shows up.

In the days when I wrote about movies, Welles fascinated me—how could anyone interested in film not be fascinated? I could never walk through the vaulted archways along Windward Avenue in Venice Beach without thinking that this is where Welles shot the famous opening border sequence for Touch of Evil, the last Hollywood studio picture he ever made (click HERE to  view the opening sequence).

John HousemanI drove into the hills of Malibu to interview John Houseman who had played such a pivotal role in Welles’s early career. Houseman hired him to direct a landmark all-black production of Macbeth for the Federal Theatre Project in the thirties, produced Welles’s controversial radio version of The War of the Worlds, and was also involved in the production of Citizen Kane, an involvement that had led to the dissolution of their partnership.

Two things I remember about my encounter with Houseman, who by that time had made The Paper Chase, won an Oscar for the role, and was best known to the world as an elderly, rather patrician character actor.

The living room of the hilltop house in which he and his wife lived was dominated by a huge indoor swimming pool. The furniture where we sat was arranged on the deck surrounding the pool. I’d never seen anything like it. The couple loved it, they said, and swam every morning in their living room-pool.

The other thing I remember is the otherwise affable and welcoming Houseman’s reluctance to talk about Welles. “That was all a long time ago,” he said, more or less closing down the subject. He had not seen his old friend and colleague for many years.

Heston, Leigh in T of E

Charlton Heston with Janet Leigh in “Touch of Evil”.

Charlton Heston was much more willing to talk. I spoke to him a number of times, always proud that he had persuaded Universal Studios to hire Welles to not only appear in but also direct Touch of Evil.

I also spoke at length to Robert Wise who had directed a few classics of his own, including West Side Story and The Sound of Music. Wise was the middle-class, no-nonsense antithesis of the flamboyant Welles. He had started his career as a film editor and while at RKO worked on the editing of Citizen Kane and then, notoriously, it was Wise who was assigned to do reshoots and edit Welles’s next film, The Magnificent Ambersons, after Welles disappeared to South America in order to make a documentary.

This was a pivotal moment in Welles’s career, the beginning of the perceived self-destructiveness that was to haunt him for the rest of his life. Wise, sitting in his office on South Beverly Drive, still couldn’t believe Welles had so callously abandoned his own movie at a crucial stage.

He was defensive about taking over the production. “We did the best we could with what we had,” was the way he put it with a shrug. The result, while containing hints of greatness, is generally considered a mess and was a box office failure (Kane had not been a hit at the time, either), pretty much ending the freedom Welles had enjoyed working inside the studio system. (View the restored Ambersons opening HERE).Welles

When I finally met Orson Welles, it was at Ma Maison. I was having lunch with a publicist named Michael Maslansky. “There’s Orson,” Maslansky said with a wave in the direction of where Welles was seated at his usual table.

A few minutes later, Welles abruptly appeared at our table, a great lumbering figure of truly enormous proportions. The only person I’ve ever met who could match Welles’s girth was the actor Raymond Burr.

I stumbled to my feet, flustered at meeting the Great Man. We shook hands, I mumbled something inane about how much I admired him. He nodded vaguely, and then brusquely turned to Maslansky who by now was also on his feet. Welles wondered if he could speak to him for a minute. The two of them walked a few feet away, engaged in a short, hushed conversation before Maslansky returned to our table and we finished lunch. We didn’t discuss what they talked about. The last I saw of him, Welles was back at his table, keeping a malevolent eye on the people who would no longer hire him.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will present ÒLinwood Dunn: Celebrating a Visual Effects Pioneer,Ó a program exploring the contributions of Linwood Dunn and the techniques he used in creating optical effects for Orson WellesÕs ÒCitizen Kane,Ó on Friday, October 9, at 8 p.m. at the Linwood Dunn Theater in Hollywood. The evening also will feature a screening of a newly struck print of ÒCitizen KaneÓ from the Academy Film Archive. This event is sold out, but standby tickets may become available. Pictured: CITIZEN KANE, 1941.

At the end of all the arguments and speculation over Welles’s career and life, we are left with Citizen Kane. It remains, despite various attempts to knock it off its perch, everyone’s go-to choice as the greatest film ever made.

If it were not for Kane, it’s doubtful Welles would get the attention he has been receiving lately. His other films have their ardent defenders, but generally no one much remembers Magificent Ambersons or The Lady from Shanghai or The Stranger (his most commercial film), his Macbeth or Chimes at Midnight. Even the most famous of the Welles films that he didn’t direct, Carol Reed’s The Third Man, right up there when it comes to the greatest films ever made, is mostly forgotten.

Is Kane the greatest movie? Whatever your view, it remains a shimmering black and white feat of filmmaking, innovative, edgy, and cynical, refusing to give into the typical Hollywood happy ending of the time, and therefore timeless.

Recalling that brief encounter at Ma Maison, I think of the masterpiece Orson Welles made when he was only twenty-five.  All the other debates  about its creator fade away. Citizen Kane endures, and that is more than enough.





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