Remembering Don Siegel | Film | Los Angeles | Los Angeles News and Events | LA Weekly

Remembering Don Siegel 

Thursday, Jul 21 2005

On the occasion of the UCLA Film and Television Archive’s Don Siegel retrospective, L.A. Weekly asked several of Siegel’s 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 you’re directing a film, you’re making hundreds of decisions all day long, whether it’s what prop to use or what color some fabric should be. You’ve 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, they’re sort of kept in that category — that’s what happened to Don at Warners, and that’s 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 I’d optioned and wanted to direct. He said, “Let me sign your Director’s Guild card. I’d 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. It’ll 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 couldn’t 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. We’re not going to worry about anything that’s in the script. We’re just going to say what we’re going to say and that’s all. Whatever comes to mind. You know what the game is, we all know what our objectives are, and that’s 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
Play Misty For Me.

In looking at Don’s movies, I feel a masterly touch. Every shot is the kind of filmmaking that I respect the most. It’s not just a jumbled shot for the sake of the action. It’s a concise shot that guides the viewer’s eyes specifically to what the filmmaker feels the viewer needs to know. And by that I don’t 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 didn’t 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 wasn’t totally sure that I wanted to do it. So I went over to Don’s 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 he’d 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 I’ve always thought was kind of a great character — why don’t 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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