Saturday, March 28, 2009

Chapter I: The Early Years(Acting-Directing TV Commericals)

There is very limited history on Danny Steinmann. Just about all the biographical information have indicated that his career started with the hard core pornographic High Rise. Actually, Danny’s career began long before High Rise. In this chapter, Danny discusses the very beginning of his career as an actor and TV commercial director.

Jeff Cramer: Just for the record, when and where you were born?

Danny Steinmann: 1-7-42, New York City. That would make me 67 years old. It's hard to believe. I never thought I'd live this long: James Dean/ 24, Buddy Holly/ 25, Marilyn Monroe/ 37, Martin Luther King/ 38, Elvis/42, JFK/ 44, Bobby Berglass/ 25. Bobby was my best friend who died from a heroin overdose in 1966. Knew me better than anyone and I still think of him often. It’s all gone so fast.

JC: When did you decide entertainment was your calling?

DS: As a young boy, I was often taken to plays, movies, concerts and operas by my parents. In school, I acted in as many plays as I could. I was a pretty rebellious kid and was kicked out of quite a few schools, for fighting mostly. I never liked to take shit from anyone. Still don't. How I graduated from high school and college, I have no idea. I always loved to read and still do. Maybe that's how I sneaked by.

I had an older sister who became an accomplished author and screenwriter. She wrote many of the Cagney & Lacey scripts. My older brother, who has always been there for me, is a brilliant lawyer with a beautiful family. I am the youngest and was bitten by the entertainment bug at an early age. I acted in many plays in summer stock with names you will not recognize, but I'll list a few anyway: Pat O'Brien, Dody Goodman, Faye Emerson, Eddie Bracken and Joe E. Brown. I feel so fucking old.

JC: How'd you get started in the industry?

DS: Okay. My mother was a psychologist who lectured and did studies around the world. My father dabbled in the movie business after selling his pharmaceutical company. He would go to the Cannes Film Festival each year to buy a foreign film for US distribution. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg was his most profitable acquisition.

A group of film investors asked him if he would care to participate in a very low budget movie to be shot in Spain. The script was called Hallucination Generation. He told them about me, that I might be right for a part in the movie. A few days later, I made a screen test for a fine director, Ed Mann. I guess it was okay and off I went to Madrid to shoot the film. While there, I was told that the picture was not fully financed and it might be a while before principal photography began.

I met a few Americans who told me that they were part of a stock company that acted in the many films being shot in and around Madrid. Spain had become a little Hollywood because of the much lower costs to shoot a movie compared to the States. I became part of this group of actors and was cast in a few films. In Beyond the Mountains, I played a Russian officer tracking down Maximilian Schell. In The Battle of the Bulge, I was a German one day and a GI the next.

JC: In the Savage Streets commentary, you mentioned you were friends with Charles Bronson and Telly Savalas. Tell me about them.

DS: One night, I noticed that a decent sized poker game was going on. I had played poker all of my life. And though I'm my own worst critic, I've always felt very comfortable about my abilities at a poker table. On second glance, most of the players looked familiar. Henry Fonda, Telly Savalas, Charles Bronson, Alain Delon, Robert Ryan, Ty Hardin, a cowboy actor and an empty seat.

I asked if I could get in the game and for the next month and a half, a game was on at the Hilton Hotel in Madrid. This was decades before Texas Hold 'em. We played Jacks or better or low ball. Luck and a bit of skill made me the dominant player at the table. I would not have lasted more than one night if I had lost that first night.

I became good friends with Telly and Charles. Life was good. Never felt so alive. Girls, great food, money, bullfights, youth, and a picture to shoot. On top of the world Ma!

Finally Hallucination Generation was fully financed. George Montgomery, a pretty famous Western movie star was cast in the lead. The story was basically about a young guy trying to find himself. He gets talked into taking acid and comes apart. George played the heavy. His character was loosely based on Timothy Leary, the man who preached the wonder of LSD and told the youth of the '60s to "drop out."

The film was shot in black and white in Barcelona and a tiny island off the coast of Spain named Ibitha, which supposedly gave birth to the hippie movement. Although I was in a relationship back in the States, I was thunderstruck by the leading lady who was cast as my love interest, a German actress named Renata. We immediately were lovers and suddenly life became extraordinarily wondrous.

During the filming, a tall, thin man would hang around the set; drink in hand. He would show up faithfully every day. He spoke to the director about his experience as an actor and tried in vain to have George Montgomery fired so that he could replace him. He was finally ushered off the set and warned not to come back. This man was Clifford Irving, soon to be the guy who claimed to be Howard Hughes’ biographer-the ultimate conman.

Principal photography was almost over. Renata and I went back to Madrid and found ourselves unable to get a hotel room. The city was packed solid for some reason. I bumped into Charles Bronson and told him about our situation. He told me to take over his suite at the Ritz hotel. I said I couldn't do that to him, but he insisted. He had an apartment that he could use.

Three weeks later when I went to pay the bill, the concierge told me it had already been paid by Mr. Bronson. Most people think that Bronson must have been this hard, fuck you type of guy. But in fact, he was one of the nicest, sweetest men I've ever known. He would get me an agent back in LA and always insisted on picking up the restaurant bills when we and our wives would dine out. When his wife Jill Ireland was dying of cancer, no words exist to describe his agony.

Finally, the film was completed. Renata and I had to leave each other. We promised to write and call often and planned to get together in two months. The separation would be brutal, but I would never see Renata again.

JC: Was Hallucination Generation ever released? Were you happy with the product?

DS: It was bought by AIP and shelved. They were producing a film called The Trip starring Peter Fonda and Bruce Dern. The story was about a troubled youth who was talked into taking acid. AIP didn't want any competition. Hallucination Generation made a modest profit, but was never seen. I saw a trailer for the film recently on the internet 45 years later. Thank God the film was never released. I'm totally embarrassed and profoundly apologetic.

JC: What did you do after Spain?

DS: Back in New York City, 1967. I and a few million other guys had a real problem, Vietnam. My parents explained that any day I could receive a draft notice from the army. I was thrown out of two military schools and knew that army life wasn't for me. My parents strongly suggested that I marry either Susie, my girlfriend in the city, or Renata. I told them I didn't want to marry anyone for any reason.

Luckily, a friend of mine was able to hook me up with an army recruiting officer who got me into the reserves. I was sent to basic training in South Carolina. Surprisingly, I did well and enjoyed the experience. After basic, I only had to be a soldier a weekend a month and two weeks in the summer. My unit was never called up, and thankfully, I never went to Vietnam. If I didn't have money or connections, I certainly would have gone.

My relationship in New York was over. Renata and I had not kept up with each other. The adage that there is only one person in the world who you are meant to be with is bullshit. I've been in love many times with many different women. Go figure.

Anyway, it was time to go to LA; time to become a true actor. I stayed at a hotel called the Sunset Marquis where many film people stayed. And there were many women. So many incredible women. I got an agent and worked on a few films and a TV series. George Montgomery and I became the best of friends. We went out to different clubs and strip bars all the time.

One night, we were eating in a restaurant on the strip and a guy comes over to our table and says to me, "Don't I know you from somewhere?" It was Sal Mineo, a solid actor. It turns out that he had seen Hallucination Generation at a screening and thought I was pretty good. George and I talked to him for a while. After he left, George said, "That kid's time is running out."

The next night, same restaurant, we were seated opposite Roman Polanski and his wife Sharon Tate who was incredibly gorgeous and pregnant. Sadly, her time was almost over.

I also hung out with Telly. I got off on his bigger than life persona. He travelled with an entourage and enjoyed his newly acquired fame. Truthfully, this man was not close to handsome, but I've never met anyone who was as successful with women as Telly. He would meet a waitress, a secretary or an actress and five minutes later, he would excuse himself and take her into a backroom or a vacant office and return with her fifteen minutes later, the scent of sex on both of them. I witnessed this many times. Hard to believe, but true.

We went to Vegas quite often. He wouldn't fly; always drove. He invariably lost or broke even. Never won, at least when I was with him. His brother, George, constantly complained that Telly wouldn't help him until Kojak came along and Telly proved his brother wrong.

Years later, I saw Telly a month before he died. He was barely recognizable. As I was leaving, he said to me, "Who loves you, Danny?" I answered, "You, Tel. Only you."

I worked off and on, but never exerted or prepared myself for an interview or a part that I wanted. I was having too good a time. LA was like Disneyland to me -- always something going on: parties, women, gambling, golf, more women, and glorious weather. I should have studied, gotten serious, and committed myself to succeed, but I didn't. Truth was I really didn't think I was any good as an actor. I didn't really know this, but I felt it.

One night, I went to a party and met my first wife. Paula was breathtaking. We hit it off right away. She came from Brooklyn and was going to college. We had a lot of things in common and she was so damn sexy. We spent each day and night together. I was 27, and she was 20.

She went back to New York. I stayed in LA and became a basket case. I missed her so much. While talking to her on the phone one night, I asked her to marry me. She said yes and I considered myself a very lucky man.

We were soon married and living in New York City. I gave up acting and had to find an occupation that would support us.

JC: Talk about your transition from acting to direction.

DS: I was offered a job in Puerto Rico. I was hired by a small production company that shot commercials. They needed someone to help beef up the company and attract business. I would see what life was like behind the camera and start to learn the rudiments of the film business.

The company had a 10 year tax-free status. Their cost was about half the price compared to the States. We took an apartment in the heart of San Juan. The country was like Shangra-La; paradise on Earth. We lived very well for very little money.

I was enjoying the experience and working hard. After about 4 months, the head of the company felt that I could handle the job of directing commercials. I dove right in. I filmed spots for Fargo Trucks, Goya Food, Chase Manhattan Bank, Wesson Oil, and many others. I was shooting from the hip but doing OK. A good friend of mine was the head of marketing for the House of Pancakes. He came down, and I shot two 60-second spots for him. Later that year, they were both seen on the Super Bowl telecast(1971).

Unfortunately, my wife, being very pretty and sexy, would walk down the streets of San Juan and was aggressively accosted. We lived in Puerto Rico for over a year, and it was time to move on.

We moved back to New York and into a new apartment. I took a job in the Bronx working for a production company that only shot toy commercials. Kenner, Whitman, Mattel, Remco, and others were all clients. It was a smooth operation that produced quality commercials. It was to become my next film school.

The owner, Andre Durona was a crazy person and I loved him. He allowed me free access to learn and evolve as a filmmaker. His crew was wonderful. They gracefully answered my many questions. I was pretty much on my own. I worked and studied where I chose; with the DP, sound, lighting-all departments. I spent over two months in the editing room and a great deal of time at film labs. They shouldn't have paid me a salary. I should have paid them.

1 comment:

Jean said...

Sounds like a really interesting guy.