Larry Dane, or Lawrence of the Dane, as I dubbed him, was always a bit of a renegade in the Canadian film industry.
Over the years I knew him, I often thought Larry (actually, Lawrence Zahab) never got the credit he deserved for his contributions to the business.
Not only was he a fine, hard-working character actor who appeared in some of Canadian television’s earliest productions (RCMP, Wayne and Shuster’s comedy specials), kick-started John Candy’s film career (co-starring with him in the comedy, It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time) and produced Gordon Pinsent’s groundbreaking and much loved, The Rowdyman.
Although I doubt he realized it at the time, and it’s largely forgotten now, Larry was also responsible for one of the country’s most improbable international movie successes, Heavenly Bodies. I played a small part in what became one of the most unusual stories in the history of Canadian film. Certainly it’s a story that has not been repeated.
I thought about Heavenly Bodies this week, in shock as I heard the news of Larry’s death from pancreatic cancer.
In those days, I was a freelance magazine writer yearning to write for the movies. My friend Larry Dane was an actor with aspirations to be – what else? – a director.
Over lunch we decided to collaborate on an idea Larry had about a ruthless paparazzi photographer who gets mixed up with celebrity and murder. To my surprise, we almost immediately optioned the resulting screenplay to a young producer named Robert Lantos, recently relocated from Montreal to Toronto.
We no sooner optioned that script, than Larry had another idea: a movie about three young women trying to start up their own workout club, and fighting the big corporate club down the street out to destroy them.
Flashdance, concerning a young woman determined to be a dancer, had become a huge box office hit that was originally written by another Toronto writer, Tom Hedley, a guy we both knew. I thought Larry was nuts– a Flashdance rip-off? Who in the world would be interested in that?
I should have known better.
Despite my best efforts to deter him, Larry pitched the idea to Robert Lantos. Since then, I have sat through countless meetings and lunches with many producers, but to this day I have never seen a producer react to a pitch the way Robert reacted to that one. It was the only time in my life I almost literally saw the light bulb go on over someone’s head.
Soon enough, Larry and I were writing his workout movie together. He had named it Heavenly Bodies, and, for better or worse, that title never changed. What’s more, he convinced Robert to allow him to direct. I could hardly believe what was happening. Every time I turned around, Robert seemed to bring in more co-producers. We met a German who demanded the young women in the film work out with hula hoops. We managed to avoid the hula hoops.
I’m not sure how I felt about any of this other than to feel like an outsider staring in wonder at these strange scenes unfolding before me, certain of one thing – this was never going to get made into a movie. Hula hoops or no hula hoops. We were, after all, a couple of guys who barely had been inside a workout club trying to make a movie about young women running a workout club.
I should have known better.
The next thing I knew, I was inside a converted warehouse full of Spandex-clad women in leg-warmers, Larry behind the camera yelling “Action!” Not only was Heavenly Bodies in production but the tiny TV movie soon began to take on big-budget trappings.
Playboy became involved, and then Hollywood über producers Peter Guber and Jon Peters. Giorgio Moroder, who had done the score for Flashdance, oversaw creation of the music. Fabled MGM, home to the likes of Clark Gable, Elizabeth Taylor, and Judy Garland, decided to release the picture at over one thousand movie theatres in North America.
Music scenes were reshot to provide more production value (Larry swore only one additional sequence was actually filmed). Robert spoke of Heavenly Bodies as a “Cinderella story.” There were predictions the movie would do twelve million dollars on its opening weekend–a huge figure at the time.
There was only one problem with all these high-powered producers and big studios and growing expectations–at the end of it all there was still only this minuscule TV movie shot on a shoestring budget (Robert said it was $900,000). All the talk in the world could not transform the sow’s ear into a silk purse.
That became evident when Heavenly Bodies, starring a then-unknown Cynthia Dale (the best thing about the movie, a star in the making who went on to much better things), opened in the midst of a howling blizzard in February, 1984.
Robert, who had so artfully created something out of not much of anything, and pushed the movie higher than anyone ever expected it could go, could not in the end convince an audience to see the movie in a theatre. But then a sort of minor miracle occurred. In the fledgling days of VHS video tapes, with everyone desperate for product, Heavenly Bodies became the hit movie at the Cannes Film Festival market. Vindication of sorts.
I’m not sure about Larry, but I’ve never been quite able to shake off Heavenly Bodies. It seems every time I try to escape it, someone somewhere is showing the darned thing. Larry probably deserved another shot at directing but he never got it. He continued life as a fine actor, married wonderful Laurel, and settled down in Niagara-on-the-Lake. This week, after a 17-month fight with cancer, decided enough was enough and slipped away.
We had a tempestuous relationship to say the least back in the day, but thankfully we ended up where we started—as friends. Thinking about Larry with great fondness, I can only imagine that wherever he is, not far away they’re showing Heavenly Bodies.
My very first movie role! I played “Joel”, Samantha’s son, and have only great memories of the experience. I too will never escape it, but I’m ok with that. It’s a classic and this story just solidifies that even more. RIP
Apologies for not getting back to you sooner, Stu…but delighted you have such fond memories of acting in Heavenly Bodies,,,and you’re right, we won’t escape it, but that’s just fine…thanks so much for your note…