On the occasion of the UCLA Film and Television Archives Don Siegel
retrospective, L.A. Weekly asked several of Siegels former friends
and collaborators to reminisce about the late director, who died of cancer in
1991 at the age of 78.
Don was a real pro. He did what a director should do, which is to make decisions and stand by those decisions for better or worse. When youre directing a film, youre making hundreds of decisions all day long, whether its what prop to use or what color some fabric should be. Youve really got to be on your toes, and he was that kind of guy. I think he came up with the same mentality as Wellman or Hawks or Ford, but sometimes guys are so good at what they do, theyre sort of kept in that category thats what happened to Don at Warners, and thats probably what happened at Universal too. He was so well-regarded as a B-movie director certainly, Invasion of the Body Snatchers is one of the greatest B-movies ever made they figured: Why promote him?
Don always encouraged me, so one day, in 1970, I told about this little tiny script, Play Misty for Me, that Id optioned and wanted to direct. He said, Let me sign your Directors Guild card. Id be proud to do that. Then I asked him if he wanted to play a small part in it, and I think he was very flattered. But as we got closer to the shoot, he started telling me I was being irresponsible, that I should hire a good solid supporting actor to do the role. And I said, Yeah, but you should do it. Itll make you much more sympathetic to actors, just as this whole experience is going to make me a lot more sympathetic to directors. I had Don playing a bartender and he was afraid he couldnt remember anything, so he had his lines placed all around the bar. Finally I went in behind the bar and I picked up all the lines that he had pasted on the walls and threw it in the wastebasket. I said, Okay, Don. Were not going to worry about anything thats in the script. Were just going to say what were going to say and thats all. Whatever comes to mind. You know what the game is, we all know what our objectives are, and thats all we need. And so we just sort of improvised it. It was a great collaboration.
Clint Eastwood starred in five films
directed by Don Siegel and returned
the favor by casting Siegel as the
bartender in his own directorial
debut, Play Misty For Me.
In looking at Dons movies, I feel a masterly touch. Every shot is the kind of filmmaking that I respect the most. Its not just a jumbled shot for the sake of the action. Its a concise shot that guides the viewers eyes specifically to what the filmmaker feels the viewer needs to know. And by that I dont mean just where the camera is, but the lengths of shots and the angles the way you feel when you read Hemingway that he was writing with a little stubby pencil and putting strong periods on his taut sentences. I guess taut would be a good word for Don too. As a person and as a filmmaker, he was a guy who didnt wax flowery or waste a lot of words. He was very direct and specific in what he said, and you could always count on him.
In the 1970s, at Universal, there was a bunch of us, either in the same bungalow or within a few steps of each other: Abraham Polonsky Don and myself. I remember having read the Time magazine article about Dirty Harry hot of the presses, so to speak and when Don came driving onto the lot I said, Hey, you got this great review. And he just sort of looked to me in this really rough way and said, Where were they when I needed them? A few years after that, a producer named Bob Solo had developed this Invasion of the Body Snatchers remake and I wasnt totally sure that I wanted to do it. So I went over to Dons office and, just as we were talking, Kevin McCarthy popped in the door and I got the idea that Kevin should be in our film, running as if hed been running for 20 years. He would be like Paul Revere, trying to warn us about the pods instead of the Brits. And, I also thought: Hey, that guy across the table there with the ascot and the moustache who Ive always thought was kind of a great character why dont I put him in the movie too? It was an homage to Don to publicly let people know that I was indebted to him.
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