For those who slogged through Gone in 60 Seconds wondering exactly what Jerry Bruckheimer had in mind, the answer is on imminent display as part of LACMA‘s ongoing ”Cars ’n‘ Stars“ road-film series. The original Gone in 60 Seconds, released in 1974, was produced, directed, written, financed and stunt-doubled by its star, 23-year-old H.B. ”Toby“ Halicki, a Gardena junkyard owner, a world-class toy and classic-car collector, and a kind of four-wheel Evel Knievel. Made post-Bullitt and pre–French Connection II, the fiercely independent production managed to destroy 93 cars in as many minutes, many of them entirely by accident, and featured one long, unbroken 40-minute car chase at the end that as much as invented a new genre: gearhead porno. Rather than the slick stunt gags of the remake, the original is closer in tone to the cautionary carnage of driver’s-ed films like Death on the Highway, or something the twisted denizens of Crash might watch in their spare time.
After two less successful follow-ups (Junkman and Deadline Autotheft), Halicki was preparing a Gone in 60 Seconds sequel in 1989 when freak winds collapsed a 160-foot water tower moments before the film‘s main stunt, knocking a wooden light pole directly on top of him, killing him. But one of the unforeseeable consequences of that disaster is that Halicki’s longtime girlfriend, bride of just three months and the film‘s co-star — Denice Shakarian Halicki, who was mere feet from him when he died — rose to the challenge of carrying on his legacy.
”I started to walk away, and I heard a voice say, ’Denice, run, the tower‘s falling!’“ the widow Halicki recalls today at Todd-AO Studios in Hollywood, where she is overseeing the sound remastering of a new 35mm print, to screen at LACMA on Saturday, August 12. Still professionally beautiful, she exhibits a combination of studied poise and steely resolve perhaps reminiscent of Jacqueline Kennedy. ”I immediately went into shock. I couldn‘t drive. I couldn’t do anything. But there was a moment, within a very short time of his death, when I realized that if I didn‘t do something, everything he had worked for would be gone. So I had to put dealing with his death on the shelf, and deal instead with what he had worked his whole life for — never dreaming at the time it would go on this long, or be such a brutal battle.“
For the better part of the past decade, Halicki has been enmeshed in an ongoing struggle over the disposition of her late husband’s estate. Despite handwritten instructions in the margin of his will advising his heirs to ”split it fast and dirty and have a good time . . . no probate,“ contentious in-fighting among family members forced the $14.7 million estate into the hands of a court-appointed administrator, on whose watch it has dwindled to virtually nothing. After half a dozen trials, Halicki has filed a civil suit against the special administrator, on which she is understandably reticent to comment.
For the new print, Halicki and co-producer Michael Leone rented the Willow Springs racetrack, where they recorded the same make and model cars seen in the film, as well as Toby‘s beloved ”Eleanor,“ the 1973 Mustang Mach 1 that is the virtual star of the original. In the course of recording 360-degree power slides at speeds of 100 miles per hour, they burned four sets of tires in two days. A wealth of footage is also being restored for the proposed DVD release, including behind-the-scenes footage from Junkman in which a dazed Halicki staggers from his Cadillac Eldorado moments after a stunt plane has crashed head-on into it, and manages to ad-lib, ”This is independent film. This will happen sometimes.“
”Throughout his life,“ Denice Halicki says wistfully, ”he did have various people that passed on at an early age. But he himself was almost fearless. It was like he was going to live forever.“