The Hollywood Bad Boy

This post may seem a little bit odd, but trust me, there is a Disney connection. When you work in the entertainment industry you’re sure to cross paths with a few celebrities. I’ve had more than my share. Here’s one you might find interesting. for a number of years, I’ve had this odd relationship with Hollywood bad-boy, Dennis Hopper. No, It’s not what you think. The former star of teen age rebel movies and counter culture films of the sixties eventually grew into a grizzled old timer and amazingly enough he managed to stick around for quite a few years. Dennis Hopper continued to appear in films and television commercials with his usual roguish charm.  However, back in the fifties Dennis Hopper and I were just young kids having arrived in Hollywood to begin our careers in the film business. Hopper was a contract player at Warner Bros. and I was a young animation apprentice at the Walt Disney Studio. If you weren’t around during those days you probably wouldn’t know how it felt to be a kid in this crazy business. Because we were all pretty much the same age I truly identified with talented young kids like James Dean, Sal Mineo, Natalie Wood, Nick Adams and Dennis Hopper. Warner Bros. had just released, “Rebel Without a Cause,” and James Dean was quickly becoming a teen idol. However, young Dean seemed uncomfortable with the  “movie star” label and I still remember the Burbank apartment where the reclusive actor lived during his early days in movie biz.

After James Dean’s tragic death in 1955, the young group of actors continued with their careers. Yet, it would appear that their colleague’s early demise would eventually haunt their lives as well. In the years that followed, each of them died tragically - and all of them died young. Even lesser known actors who had appeared in the fifties teen movies would have their careers cut short as well. Talented actors such as Tom Pittman and Corey Allen, the tough kid who fought Dean with a switchblade in Rebel Without a Cause, would meet an early end. It almost makes you wonder if these kids were somehow under a Hollywood curse. All were young and showed so much potential. Now, all were gone. All, except for Dennis Hopper.

I continued to follow the career of Dennis Hopper as we moved through our film careers. It’s almost as if our careers though very different, were somehow linked together. Back in the fifties, I lived in Los Angeles and I had to drive over Barham Blvd to the Disney Studios in Burbank. I assumed Dennis Hopper must have lived in Hollywood because he made the drive over the hill as well. I still remember Hopper driving his little sports car as we moved ever so slowly in the thick morning traffic. Since we made this trek day after day, Dennis Hopper would sometimes glance over at me as if he was thinking, “There’s that guy again!”

The sixties ushered in the Counter Culture and films like “Easy Rider” grabbed the attention of the moviegoing public. The teen rebels of the fifties may have been gone but protesting was just beginning. “Easy Rider” became a Hippie anthem as Peter Fonda, Jack Nicholson and Dennis Hopper stormed their choppers across America changing our perceptions forever.    Dennis Hopper continued to work and even garnered glowing reviews from critics on occasion. Hopper seemed to enjoy playing weirdos and his turn in David Lynch’s “Blue Velvet” still makes my skin crawl.

By the early eighties, I was back working at Walt Disney and the studio had a new science fiction movie in production. The time travel special effects epic would take place in a local high school where a group of students would battle monsters, mutants and a T-Rex on the campus grounds. Their science instructor was a slightly spaced out former Hippie played by - you guessed it - Dennis Hopper. The writer/director, Jonathan Betuel must have had a sense of humor when casting Hopper as the burnout sixties science instructor, Bob Roberts. The freaky teacher even drove a hippie van with a peace symbol emblazoned on the side. Once again our paths had crossed and I headed out to stage three on the Walt Disney studio lot to see Dennis Hopper in action. Not surprisingly, Hopper glared at me and I was sure he was thinking, “There’s that guy again!”

With the passing of years, Dennis Hopper and I were soon old guys in our seventies. I’ve had the opportunity to meet a lot of actors in my career, yet I’ve never met Dennis Hopper. While I’ve seen him around town and on movie sets, I’m reluctant to engage the actor in conversation. As much as I admire Hopper as an actor, I’d hate to be seen as another annoying fan. Many of our colleagues have since passed on, yet Dennis Hopper and I continued to practice our craft. Both of us looked back on a long film career even though they had little in common. Yet, I still remember the fifties and the early morning drive over Barham Boulevard. A time when two kids in their twenties chased the perennial California dream. We knew if we worked long enough and hard enough we just might make it big in Hollywood. Though Dennis Hopper could be described as the “weirdest of weirdos” he’s always been kind of a hero to me. With his passing, Hopper will now become a Hollywood icon. Who can forget the image of Dennis Hopper, Jack Nicholson and Peter Fonda on their choppers with their long hair flowing in the wind. Dennis Hopper’s bold, brash motion picture forever changed Hollywood and a good portion of America as well.

Of course, our lives couldn’t have been more different. While Dennis Hopper’s journey was often self-destructive - marred by drugs and alcohol, I remained at my drawing board drawing cute princesses and bunny rabbits. When I received word that Dennis Hopper had suddenly passed away I realized I hadn’t even finished the piece I was writing on the actor. I had put the story aside because I didn’t have an ending. Sadly, now I do.

Each day Dennis Hopper and I drove over Barham Blvd to Burbank. Each headed to  our respective jobs in the wacky movie business.

Each day Dennis Hopper and I drove over Barham Blvd to Burbank. Each headed to  our respective jobs in the wacky movie business.

The Amazing Film Editor

I was finally in post production on the educational film I was directing. The all important task of editing was now at hand and I considered myself lucky to have a guy like Dom editing my film. Dom already had a real job in big time Hollywood cutting serious movies. Getting this talented film editor to work on my little project was a pretty big deal. However, this experience introduced me to an incredible young film editor who would one day have a major impact on Hollywood film making. However, we’ll get to that interesting story in a moment.

I usually avoided director’s duties at our little motion picture production house. I left that often sought after assignment for the more ambitious to squabble over. However, this time around I found myself in the director’s chair simply because no one else was available. I’ve always had a theory that film directing is not the job you seek. It’s the job you get stuck with. Luckily this time around, the task proved less a hassle than expected and with all the shooting completed we were finally moving toward post production. If you know anything about movie making you’ll know that movies are often made in the editorial phase of production. This is where all the random bits and pieces you’ve photographed are given structure and hopefully a compelling narrative begins to take shape. This particular film was a documentary on the life of jazz legend, W.C. Handy. We had finally been granted permission by the Handy estate to produce the educational motion picture and we wanted to honor the life of the famous musician. The Handy family hated the Hollywood version of the composer’s life starring Nat “King” Cole and Eartha Kitt. The shabby, sorry screenplay was the usual Tinsel Town fabrication and a sad insult to the jazz musician.

Because work on other projects took all our daylight hours, Dom and I put in long nights at the studio. Fortified by coffee and donuts we often spent the night in the edit bay. On occasion we would drive north to Dom’s Hollywood office and on one such stop he invited me in for a brief tour. Dom’s office was on the first level of a lovely Spanish Mediterranean building near Melrose Avenue. This evening, he took me upstairs to proudly show me his editorial department. Keep in mind this was back in the old days when motion pictures were edited on noisy, ancient machines called Moviolas. It was here I observed the rows and rows of film editors working away on their machines. There was the usual clatter of the metal machines as motion picture film rolled back and forth through the film gate. Todays’ movie editing is totally silent as virtual film rolls through a computer and the entire process is digital. However in the sixties the editorial process had changed little since Hollywood in the twenties and thirties and cutting film was very much a hands on process. When film was cut, the physical media was literally sliced through. The butt end of one piece of film was joined to the next by strip of adhesive tape. It might appear to simply be an arduous task of cutting and splicing but it was creative as well. The narrative and the emotional content of a motion picture would be affected by how well these strips of film were put together.

Dom’s editors were certainly capable, but one editor excelled at her task and had a particular eye for effective cutting. She also had a keen interest in Hollywood’s film classics and the brilliance of movie making techniques long since past. Her boy friend was also a film buff having attended the USC film school and hoped to earn his screenwriting credentials on a big time feature film one day. However, the road to Hollywood fame and fortune is not an easy one and having a good day job was nothing to sneeze at. Better yet, if that job happen to be on the periphery of the film business that was even better. In any case, Dom was lucky to have the talented film editor on his staff. 

In time, I completed my documentary and my associate, Dom went back to his Hollywood day job editing motion pictures. However, he was about to lose one of his finest film editors. It seems the editors boy friend (now her husband) had finally gotten financing for his little science fiction movie. Naturally, she would join the editorial team assigned to work on the film. And, it’s a good thing she did because the early cuts of the movie sure didn’t play well. Things for the movie looked iffy until a recut by the young woman suddenly turned things around and the film took on a new life. Now, the movie felt epic in scale and the scenes crackled with energy. After hearing some advance buzz about the motion picture I decided it might be worth taking a look. I headed to Hollywood and Grauman’s Chinese Theater to find a long line wrapping around the block. This was clearly unusual for a week night screening. What was the big deal, I wondered?

Oh by the way, the big deal turned out to be a little film called, “Star Wars,” and the young woman’s former spouse probably deserves some credit as well. You see, he wrote and directed the movie that would knock Hollywood back on its heels and his was a motion picture that would ultimately have considerable impact on the movie industry. One would have to wonder if any of this would have happened had it not been for the recut by his wife. In any case, the young writer director eventually made a few bucks as a film producer and is fairly well known in film circles today. Unfortunately, the marriage eventually ended and I have no idea what Dom’s former film editor is doing today. However, she made her mark in the movie business as well and even has a film school building named after her on the USC campus. You already know her husband’s name but, hers is a name you should probably know as well. That talented film editor known as Marcia Lucas.

George ... perhaps I should say, Marcia Lucas took us on a ride I'll never forget.

George ... perhaps I should say, Marcia Lucas took us on a ride I'll never forget.

Don Ferguson

Those of you familiar with my career know I worked in Disney’s comic strip department for a number of years. I’ve always had a love for comics having become an avid reader during my kid years growing up in Santa Barbara. My first job was for a local cartoonist, so comics have been a part of my life for a good number of years. Once joining Walt Disney’s animation team I put comics aside. However, due to an odd twist of fate I found myself back in the comic book and strip business in the early eighties. I was delighted to join a talented group of comic book writers and artists who created Disney magic for the printed page. I actually had so much fun I found I didn’t miss the world of film production all that much. I not only had the opportunity to work with amazing individuals, I can honestly say I learned a good deal more about story telling while working in this department than I ever did working on movies.

One of my story mentors was this amazing gentleman. His name is Don Ferguson and I knew very little about him when I joined the department in the early eighties. Don was tasked with scripting the “Winnie the Pooh” comic strip and I’ll have to confess it was one of the funniest strips I ever read. Don Ferguson had a unique sense of humor. It was not surprising since his previous job was working with Jay Ward, a zany animation production company that thrived during the early sixties. You’re probably familiar with “Rocky and Bullwinkle,” Dudley Doright” and many of the other Jay Ward creations. How we manage to get Don to migrate to Disney I’ll never know. I do know that he brought a very special cartoon sensibility to the Walt Disney Publishing Department and we were all the better for having him here. One would imagine that writing a comic strip about the silly ‘ol bear would be pretty tame stuff. After all, “Winnie the Pooh” could hardly be called irreverent. It was usually considered pretty namby pamby stuff targeted at young children. However, Don managed to bring a degree of audaciousness to the “Winnie the Pooh” comic strip that was totally unexpected. It was Don’s cheeky sensibility that made the comic strip such a joy to read. Unfortunately, I doubted most adults bothered to read “Winnie the Pooh” because on the surface it appeared to be simply another strip aimed at kids. Not so, in this case. The level of sophisticated humor was totally unexpected and that’s made reading the Disney comic such a joy. I confess it was one of the few Disney comic strips that made me laugh out loud.

Don Ferguson was a remarkable writer and I considered him one of my favorite story mentors. Whenever I had a problem I would take it to Don. He was extremely gracious with his time and his storytelling gifts were always on target. When the Walt Disney Company decided to restructure its publishing department in the early nineties, Don Ferguson was sent packing along with a number of other gifted Disney writers and artists. Guys like Don Ferguson, Tom Yakutis and others were considered “old” and ready for retirement. However, these guys were brilliant and still at the top of their game. Unfortunately, corporate hardly values talent and creativity. Sadly, they’re more focused on a balance sheet. However, that’s another story. For now I’ll simply say how much I enjoyed being continually surprised at the clever, irreverent humor of a quiet little comic called “Winnie the Pooh.” And, how much I appreciated the delightful work of a humor writer named Don Ferguson.

Don "Fergie" Ferguson  at his writing and drawing board at the Walt Disney Studio. Don's "Winnie the Pooh" comic strip was a constant delight.

Don "Fergie" Ferguson  at his writing and drawing board at the Walt Disney Studio. Don's "Winnie the Pooh" comic strip was a constant delight.

Magical Tinkerbell

Clearly this particular animation drawing is not from the Walt Disney feature film. Peter Pan was completed long before this original Disney drawing was sketched back in the fifties. Of course the little sprite Tinkerbell remains one of my favorite Disney characters. I still remember seeing the motion picture “Peter Pan” as a kid and being impressed by the work of animators, Marc Davis, Clair Weeks and the many other talented artists who created the delightful animation.

By the time I arrived at Disney in the late fifties the little animated pixie was still finding work. Tinkerbell had been called out of retirement and was now appearing in the opening credits of Walt Disney’s weekly television show, “Disneyland.” However, the little fairy’s chores did not end there. She even appeared in a series of television commercials designed by the talented Tom Oreb. I remember working on the Tinkerbell commercials with animator Freddy Hellmich. It appears Tink was now selling yummy peanut butter and she was as delightful as ever. In one scene the little fairy struts across the screen clapping her hands. Tinker bell model, Margaret Kerry informs us she was called back to do photo reference for that particular scene. Even better, Margaret performed that scene for us here at Disney a few years ago and she didn’t miss a beat. Because I worked on the little pixie I was able to get my hands on one of the coveted Tinkerbell model sheets. The original sheets created for the feature film Peter Pan. I still find it amusing that every Disney model sheet was stamped with a warning that the item was the property of Walt Disney Productions and should not be removed from the facility. Naturally, these model sheets continued to be “removed from the facility” over the years. And, that brings me to current day film making and the cute little “plastic dolls” that pass for animation these days. Sure, the CGI pixies are sorta cute, but they certainly don’t have the appeal of a charming old fashioned hand drawing by a Disney master such as Marc Davis. Even the sparkly pixie dust once created by Disney effects artists Josh Meador, Dan McManus and Jack Buckley are no longer in view these days. The glittering dust is now created by a program in the computer and I suppose it’s very effective and efficient when it comes to production. Yet having said that, can you begin to call this digital stuff magical? I don’t think so.

Maybe that’s why I’ve kept these rough Tinkerbell sketches all these years. It’s a reminder of the Walt Disney Studio and a time long past when animated art was created by artists instead of machines. A time when Disney animated filmmaking involved nothing more than pencils and paper and was a truly magical endeavor.

When animating Tinkerbell we often worked with an orange Prismacolor pencil. Our Tinkerbell was a little more stylized than the Marc Davis original but the little pixie retained her charm.

When animating Tinkerbell we often worked with an orange Prismacolor pencil. Our Tinkerbell was a little more stylized than the Marc Davis original but the little pixie retained her charm.