I will shortly continue my “Story of a Writer” series with my moving from Universal Studios to Paramount, where I’d been once before and now I was back. For those who enjoy “Story of a Writer”, I apologize for the long gap between postings. For those who don’t enjoy it, how ‘bout that long gap between postings?
A memory of my Paramount experience recently fluttered into my mind. It involves my first tour of duty, specifically when I was serving as the “Warm-Up Man” on the second season of Cheers. You may recall my relating that my newborn daughter, Anna, was a marathon crier, and I’d asked (Cheers creators) the Charles Brothers to help get me out of the house. My pleadings led to the “Warm-Up” assignment, where, ironically, I frequently regaled the audience with anecdotes about my newborn daughter, Anna. My affection for the kid was commensurate with my distance from the crying.
As part of my “Warm-Up” arrangement, I was provided transportation from and back to my house. The Cheers filmings ended late, and my night driving was a danger, to myself, and to anyone unfortunate enough to be traveling the same road. (Before my “transportation arrangement”, at the end of each Warm-Up, I would actually tell the audience which route I’d be taking, to allow them the opportunity of going another way. If the audience had been unresponsive, I deleted those safety recommendations. You had to earn them.)
Let me be clear. We are not talking “limo” treatment here. Every TV show has an allotment of drivers assigned, who were responsible for pickups and deliveries of whatever was needed. During the second season of Cheers, a regular pickup and delivery was me. I was driven around in a not very new station wagon.
One night, after the show, I climbed into my “transportation”, and, as usual, I engaged in some casual chitchat with the driver. It turns out my driver that night had been a “teamster” (It just means driver; there are oxen involved.) for quite some time. And with longevity, come stories.
“You see this street?” he began, gesturing to the street directly alongside the Cheers soundstage. “Back in ’56, this was totally made over to look like the Chinese capital for the John Wayne movie, The Conqueror.
I was genuinely intrigued. I had seen The Conqueror as a kid. It was one of the worst movies ever. “Duke” Wayne playing Ghengis Khan. Terrible.
I also knew something else about The Conqueror. Numerous people who’d worked on the movie had later died of cancer, including Wayne, Susan Hayward, Agnes Moorehead, Pedro Armandariz, and the director of the movie, Dick Powell.
There’s a strong suspicion that the reason for this disproportionate number of cancer fatalities was that the film had been shot in Utah, not far from a Nevada Test Site, where experimenting was being done on above ground nuclear weapons. The prevailing winds had apparently blown radioactive fallout directly onto The Conquerors’ location.
“Did you work on The Conqueror”? I inquired.
“Yup. On location and here on the lot.” (Research tells me that producer Howard Hughes brought back sixty tons of Utah dirt for “re-shoots.”)
“You know about the ‘cancer story’, I suppose.”
“Yeah. I don’t think there’s anything to it.”
“Nah. It’s pure coincidence.”
Well, you know me. I can’t leave anything alone. And I have to be funny.
“How are you feeling?” I chucklingly inquire.
“I’m fine,” he replied. “I mean, I’ve got leukemia. But it has nothing to do with that.”
We passed the rest of the trip in silence.
I don’t know how people do that.