I read two books by famous show business personalities this weekend. One was a first novel by Sidney Poitier, Montaro Caine, while the other was a memoir, The Friedkin Connection, by film director William Friedkin.
For various reasons, I have chosen to do a full review of only one of them, Sidney's novel, although I am also recommending Billy's searingly honest memoir, if only for its depiction of how he managed to make two of the most enduring films of our time, The French Connection and The Exorcist.
I have had two incidents working with him of films not getting made (Judgement Day with Gregory Peck and The Hostages), which I might have had to recount in detail if I did a review, so I took the advice of a dear friend and deferred in that respect. After all, he is happily married to one of the great women of our world, the beautiful Sherry Lansing. (And I happened to have been at Richard Cohen's Oscar-viewing party where they met some 25 years ago. She said to him, 'You are too young to be Billy Friedkin,' and he stammered a reply, 'And you are too young to be Sherry Lansing.' I by chance I saw them having breakfast at 2 Rodeo the next morning and wondered how they became friends so quickly. It has lasted 23 years and they seem blissful.)Actually, I cannot recall a memoir I have read in recent years which was as frank as to its protagonist's deficiencies as his. He sums it up in his last chapter:
That's the kind of unwavering honesty which warrants a read of this amazing autobiography.
Harold Pinter told me a wonderful line, 'The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there. In many ways I'm still the same insecure kid I was in high school; my emotions are flammable and can be set off by a random spark. My failures line up before me each day like soldiers at attention while my successes play hide-and-seek like fireflies. I embody arrogance, insecurity, and ambition that spur me on as they hold me back. And while I've been healed of physical wounds, my character flaws remain for the most part present.
I have known Sidney Poitier for many years, since the early '60s, when I had optioned the film rights to my friend Howard Fast's historical novel, Revolutionary Road, and approached the pre-Oscar Poitier about starring in it as Gideon Jackson. He didn't think it was for him, but we stayed in touch. In 1965 a literary agent friend named Henry Morrison (who later went on to rep Robert Ludlum) gave me a free six-week film option on his client John Ball's novel, In the Heat of the Night. I gave it to Sidney and he read it overnight, then called me to say that he really liked it but had a problem. He was under exclusive contract to Harold and Marvin Mirisch for his next film. I then gave it to Harry Belfonte's agent, Mike Merrick, but never got a reply, The day after my option expired, the Mirisch Bros. picked up the film rights to it and it went on to be a huge award-winning blockbuster in 1967. Years later I got to produce films with its two stars. Rod Steiger played comic W.C. Fields in my biofilm,"W.C. Fields & Me, with Valerie Perrine as the mistress Carlotta Monti., a very good and sadly neglected film.
Poster of the film, "For Love of Ivy," which I produced with Sidney.
And in the mid-sixties my business partner, Ed Scherick, and I were asked by Leonard Goldenson, chairman of the ABC network, if we would run a new motion picture company called Palomar Pictures/ABC -- even though neither of us had ever actually made a movie. We went on to have a pretty great success with They Shoot Horses, Don't They, The Killing of Sister George and Harold Pinter's The Birthday Party, directed by the aforementioned Mr. Friedkin. (Coincidentally, Friedkin will be directing that Pinter work at the Geffen Playhouse next February.)
One day in the late sixties, as I was about to get on a plane for the coast, Sidney's agent Marty Baum sent me a 19-page treatment that Poitier had written and in which he wanted to star. When I got off the flight, I called Baum and said we would develop it.
It was the story of a polished hustler who owned a gambling truck in Manhattan, who picked up affluent gamblers each night on Park Avenue and drive around while they wagered. His daytime front is as a trucking company for Carroll O'Connor's department store, and his son (Beau Bridges) blackmails the guy into dating their lovely, lonely maid, We hired an experienced writer, Robert Alan Aurthur, and ended up shooting the film with singer Abbey Lincoln as co-star, the first major studio film to have two black leads. It was a solid success, and Sidney went on to make many other wonderful pictures. Shortly thereafter I ran into him at a screening with his then friend, Diahann Carroll, and offered her the lead in my Billie Holiday film, Lady Sings the Blues, but she was doing a TV series and was unavailable, which is how the former Supreme Diana Ross ended up starring in the film, which received five Academy Award nominations.
Sidney at a conference which I also attended.
I remember that shortly after our film, Sidney was shooting in Philadelphia and met and married a beautiful young actress, Joanna Shimkus. I have seen them over the next four decades and it is a delightful marriage of equals. Over the years when I run into Sidney, usually on Friday at Spago lunch, we smile, nod and shake hands. I now have read all four of his books and was thrilled with the skill of the writing and the moving true story of courage the first three autobiographical works enfolded. A fine, great man whom I feel lucky to know.
Which is why I ordered an Amazon copy of his first novel, Montaro Caine, the moment I heard he had written it and it was being published. I write every day for a living and for my intense pleasure but I admit I am lost when it comes to writing imaginative dialogue and intricate fictional storylines. Not the 86-year-old Mr. Poitier. He has mastered the art oƒ writing pithy believable dialogue and detailed, fascinating storylines of great originality. I guess genius is its own reward.
Cover of Sidney's autobiography.
This is a wonderful thriller with science fiction overtones. Loved the portrait of the lead character, Montaro Caine, the head of a large international company with problems with his teen-age daughter. The mystery really begins when a man and a women appear at his office with a coin of unknown provenance composed of a metal unknown on earth. (He had seen a similar coin once before when he was a young scientist at MIT.) See what I mean by being a thriller with sci-fi aspects?
A baby is born with a coin in her hand. An orphan crafts a mysterious wooden object. The CEO of a large corporation finds himself under extraordinary pressure at work and at home. And on a remote hilltop on a Caribbean island, a medicine man seems to understand the meaning of all these events and to hold the key to the future.
But I also like that Sidney has brought in some spiritual elements about the nature of man, right and wrong, and the need for faith. When the interviewer on CBS Sunday Morning asked him why he wrote this book, he replied that he wanted to find out who he was! Poitier takes us on a wild journey from New York to Europe to a small Caribbean island (not unlike the Bahamas, where he grew up). It's an elegant book, like the man who wrote it. I urge you to read it soon. I know you will enjoy this novel as much as I did.