I got a call from the agent.
“You’ve been offered a part in a feature called,……. lemme see…..ah, yes…..UWBP. Interested?”
“What’s it about?”
“What does UWBP stand for?”
“For what part?”
“They haven’t decided yet.”
“Can I get a script?”
“Are they paying?”
“Should I take it?”
“There’s a rumor that Warren Beatty is involved.’ “Doing what?”
“They won’t say.”
“So is that a yes or a no?”
After a little sleuthing, I found out that Warren Beatty was indeed involved! He was the “WB” in UWBP. But should I accept this? It was the sketchiest deal I had ever been offered. Yet it somehow involved Warren Beatty. And he’s a Hollywood legend. Years ago, when he first appeared on the silver screen, audiences gasped. Had there ever been such a luscious, male beauty? He looked like the ripest peach on the highest branch of the furthest tree… desirable yet utterly unattainable. As a star (and he was that on Day One) he seemed remote and almost passive, certainly compared to the other male stars of his day…not gay, by any means, but certainly never “macho”. Then the press dropped the bombshell that he was Shirley MacLaine’s brother, and that they HATED each other. Well, that did it! The rumor mill shot into action.
His private life soon became more famous than his on screen work. When he made THE ROMAN SPRING OF MRS. STONE, apparently Vivien Leigh was so smitten with him that she threw away her entire performance, leaving Lotte Lenya in a smaller part, to walk away with the reviews. Since the beginning of his acting career, Mr. Beatty has been linked to numerous co-stars and other celebrities. He had a romance with Natalie Wood, whom he’d met while filming SLENDOR IN THE GRASS. Mr. Beatty himself was engaged to actress Joan Collins around this time, and Natalie Wood had just been divorced. He later had long-term relationships with actresses Julie Christie and Diane Keaton. Celebrated Divas, such as Carly Simon, Barbra Streisand and even Madonna, also succumbed to his raffish charms. In fact Carly Simon’s big hit, YOU’RE SO VAIN, was rumored to be about him. (I’ll bet you think this song is about you. Don’t you?)
Then there was his infamous penthouse suite atop the Wilshire Hotel at the bottom of Rodeo Drive. Apparently there was a special elevator available only to Mr. Beatty, to be enjoyed solely by him and a steady stream of beautiful women eager to add a notch to their own proverbial belts. But that all came to a screeching halt in 1992 when he married Annette Bening.
Overwhelmed by all that movie lore, I said, “Yes” to the offer and turned up at a church in Alta Dena at 6 AM a few weeks later. I was assigned a tiny room in a Honeywagon, where I waited all day. I finally got on set at 6 PM, where I was asked if I had enjoyed Mr. Beatty’s guest trailer. I allowed as to how I had not been invited, and a truculent production assistant was admonished. I was then handed a few pages of dialogue, which seemed to be passages from the Bible. The first Assistant Director (the AD) directed me to stand in the pulpit. “And ACTION,” whispered Warren Beatty, somewhere out there, sitting in a group of men. It was at this point that I realized that Mr. Beatty was directing UWBP. This entire project was veiled in a secrecy so Byzantine that it would have put the Pentagon to shame.
Needless to say, since I had never seen the script, I did not know my lines, nor why my character was speaking scripture. Or indeed to whom. I was preaching to an empty church! I hesitated for a second too long. “Cut!” shouted the first AD, sensing there was a problem. There was a long pause while the group conferred. And suddenly Warren Beatty was up in the pulpit beside me! “What seems to be the problem, Bruce?” Bruce! He called me Bruce! And there he was, standing right next to me, high up in a pulpit in a church in Alta Dena, California. I was an uncomfortable few inches away from a Hollywood Legend. And under the scrutiny of the entire crew. I doubt if anyone would have been, could have been, prepared for such a circumstance. But there I was right up next to Warren Beatty; albeit, Warren Beatty at 78. I hasten to add that I was 79 at the time. So there we were, two actors teetering on the brink of 80, and yet whose careers had taken such widely divergent paths.
But instead of behaving like a self-absorbed movie star, he seemed instead to be a rather sweet and slightly eccentric character…a little slim, almost gaunt, with a full head of suspiciously darkened grey hair. (I later on found that it was dyed for the part of Howard Hughes. But at this point I did not know he was also IN the movie.) But he was lovely and kind and concerned. “What’s the problem?” he repeated.
“Well, Warren,” I said (deciding for no apparent reason that he and I were on a first name basis), “I just got these pages 2 minutes ago. And it’s Scripture, and I also just discovered I am playing a Baptist minister. And I feel I must quote these verses correctly. Right? Can I actually read this stuff from a real Bible?” “Harry!” shouted Mr. Beatty to the first AD, “Get me a real Bible!” And the AD picked one up in a nearby pew and tossed it up. Unfortunately the script called for passages from the King James Version, and this particular church had succumbed to a more parochial version of Biblical verse. When I pointed this out, Mr. Beatty said, “Can we send someone to get a King James Bible?” “I’m on it,” said the First AD. “Let’s take a break,” said Mr. Beatty, and quickly disappeared.
I finally had a moment to absorb all this. I was being directed by Warren Beatty, who seemed very sympathetic to my situation. And who had apparently wanted me to use his personal trailer. I gazed around the church. And way down in the audience I saw a lone parishioner, who turned out to be actress Lilly Collins, the star of the movie. Indeed, after I finished my scene, the camera turned around for the money shot: Miss Collin’s reaction to the preacher.
But it was a glorious day. I was acting. I was being paid to act. I was being directed by Warren Beatty. Who turned out to be a sweet, almost elfin-like creature, and a very sympathetic director. I had asked for and gotten the prop I needed. And at the end of the day, I shook hands with Mr. Beatty, and said “Thank you, Warren.” Later on I learned that UWBP was an acronym for the Untitled Warren Beatty Project. And Mr. Beatty was actually playing another legend “Howard Hughes.” The movie was much, much later renamed: RULES DON’T APPLY.
(Which opened last week)