William Norton was a prolific screenwriter during the late '60s and the '70s. He wrote for both big-budget and low-budget pictures. Some of the big-budget pictures include The Scalphunters with Burt Lancaster, The Hunting Party with Gene Hackman(a personal favorite of this interviewer,) and several action vehicles starring Burt Reynolds. His low-budget pictures include cult classics I Dismember Mama, Day of the Animals with Leslie Nielsen, and Big Bad Mama with Angie Dickinson. These films have received much commentary, but very little has been written on the man who wrote them.
As I conducted my interview with William Norton, I came to realize the screenwriting days were a middle chapter of this man’s extraordinary life. Before writing screenplays, William Norton had served in World War II, fighting with General Patton’s army. (William would tell me that his adventures with Patton would give him the experience he needed to write action films for Burt Reynolds and John Wayne.) In the '50s, he was asked to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee for his support of Henry Wallace, a 3rd Party candidate. William was a park ranger and the HUAC was suspicious of civil service employees’ political activities. Then, we come to his screenplay career. After his screenplay days, the story doesn’t end. William Norton was sympathetic to the struggle in Ireland and smuggled guns to help the Irish cause. In this candid conversation, we cover all these fascinating segments of his life.
William’s family is no stranger to the entertainment industry either. His son Bill is a successful director of TV shows as The Unit and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. His grandson Ace is a successful music video director. Ace has directed videos for Norah Jones, Mandy Moore, and The Fray. I want to thank Joan Norton for helping me get the interview with William, but most of all, I want to thank William himself.
Jeff Cramer: Where were you born?
William Norton: In Ogden, Utah. I’m an escapee from the Mormon folks.
JC: I see.
WN: When I was, oh, I guess six or seven years old, I heard from the Mormon Sunday School that the Mormons were God’s chosen people and God was going to send them to heaven and everybody else was going to hell, unfortunately. And in my school geography book, I saw that the size of Utah was this little tiny speck within the United States, and there were also the vast areas of the world, China and so on. And I concluded that God was not that stupid, so that formed my approach to all religions, which is a toleration and interest, but not joining in their belief.
JC: What happened before you went to fight in World War II?
WN: Well, my father and mother and I moved from Berkley, California because of the depression. My father had lost his job, moved back to the home state of Utah, in order to run a store. It was difficult, depression years. One time, my father used to say that he had only five cents in his pocket, and no job and three children. So that consciousness of unemployment is an issue, which set my direction and my character. The fact that . . .Where did all the jobs go? The land is still here, the trees are still here, everything is – and all the sudden, this disaster, economic disaster. And eventually, it led me to accepting a pamphlet or a leaflet from a socialist party origin. I began to study all those theories. Anyhow, that shaped my relationship to other folks. I couldn’t see any sense at all in the economic blight that is caused by competition of rival capitalists who break the market and make money by it. We’re in one of those things right now, unfortunately.
Also, of course, as I became a reader, and most intelligent people are, artists and so on were disillusioned with World War I. My father had fought in World War I, and he would tell me stories about it, and he suffered nightmares and so on. So I formed a notion when I was very young that war was a racket, and it was a bad thing, and so on. But when I turned 18, I was drafted into the Army. After a while, I volunteered for the infantry and went to Ft. Benning, Georgia to join the 71st Division. I went overseas and went into combat in Patton’s Third Army. We walked all the way across Germany, fighting battles in different places.
I had holes shot through my clothes, and then in Austria, with our unit, the Fifth Infantry Regiment, liberated the Mauthausen Concentration Camp. It was simply a shock. Some of the prisoners were standing beside the road at the camp while we kept marching down the road, going after the German Army. Medics and people like that were taking and doing the necessary things in the camp. But it was simply and unbelievable shock that human beings could do that to other human beings.
JC: What’s interesting is that you mentioned your father suffered nightmares from World War I. You think war is a bad thing but here you are, fighting in World War II. What made you go?
WN: From various readings, I understood that fascism was paid and supported and came into being through capitalist financiers. It was the capitalist method of controlling an unruly social situation, as we later did in Chile, when General Pinochet was the wrong man to stop the socialist-oriented president that had been elected. So I was totally anti-fascist, and I was, what would you say, I was not only a dutiful soldier, but I was a volunteering kind of soldier. I was not opposed to the war in any way.
JC: How did you feel fighting for General Patton?
WN: Well, my impression, after the war ended . . . We paraded for General Patton, I think it was three times, and he spoke to us and so on. My impression and analysis of him was great admiration because he was a winner. He didn’t fiddle around; he gained more territory for the allies ‘cause he killed more Germans than any other commander, and in doing so, he lost fewer men. He was just a gifted military leader, and I have great admiration for him.
JC: Was the George C. Scott movie an accurate film on him?
WN: Well, I enjoyed it and thought it was a heck of a good movie and there were things in it that I wasn’t aware of. I wasn’t in the campaign in Italy, and so on. His political statements, which kind of vaguely drifted ‘round: “Well, let’s go fight the Russians.” I’m not sure he said that. But I would have classified it as utter nonsense. The Russians defeated the German Army, and if that hadn’t happened, we, as Americans, wouldn’t have been able to defeat the German Army. So I never believed in hostility, from a practical point of view. The Cold War was utter nonsense.
JC: You would go on to support Henry Wallace, a third party candidate, running against Truman. It was your support of Wallace that would later cause you to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Can you talk about your support?
WN: I thought Truman was an asshole and a murderer because, well, I was still in Germany (I hadn’t come home yet) when I read in Stars and Stripes of the nuclear weapon, the atomic bomb. It was just shattering that I’d seen airplanes and bombs that had devastated cities and so on, that this mass killing of civilians was just unspeakable. I read from various places that the Japanese had tried to negotiate surrender before. So it was an ugly, murderous crime. There was no reason; that’s my feeling. I thought that Truman was a, you know, he was a patriotic idiot, and some patriots are idiots. Nuclear weapons just are unthinkable to an infantry soldier because the German cities were like piles of bricks, piles of rubble, one after another. That’s what came just from the amount of bombing that we did. It’s a horror to murder civilians through bombing. And ultimately, it just is unthinkable for a nuclear war.
I became a red through association with people in that movement. And that was the anti-war movement, of that time, which was, “Hey, let’s not nuke the Russians. We don’t have to do that and have them nuke us, etc., etc.” That guided the course of my life and my reactions since that time.
JC: And of course, we ended up not doing that, in the end.
WN: Yes, and thank God for that. It worked itself out because it’s practical. The human species should improve and continue the experimentation of human life. And so we hope for the best.
God did not make the world in seven days. He made it in an infinite number of millions of years. It is unknown, and the unknown something that we give that folk name to is God. We are a species in transition and evolving ourselves from being cannibals, from being murderous, terribly murderous. We’re trying to get to be better, folks. I feel content about my life and I will when I go to the big sleep because I really have tried to do the best I could, even though it’s nothing, but towards this sense of a better humanity and a better world.
JC: What happened after the war?
WN: My son was born when I was 18, and it was a high school love affair. I was student body president, my wife was secretary of the student body, and I was an in-love person. And lo and behold, out of it came marriage and the birth of my son. I have felt great joy in him, to this time. We’re good friends and kid each other and so on. So when I returned home from the war, I experimented around at different jobs. I always vaguely wanted to be a writer because of the influence of my high school journalism teacher, Bennett Patterson. He had encouraged me toward writing.
So I went to work at a small, hometown weekly newspaper. I enjoyed that, for a while, but, I kind of became uninterested in it because of the trivial nature of what small-town journalism is about. The town was Del Monte, east of Los Angeles, and the Chamber of Commerce and the concerns about this and that, and so on. And near the office, where I would pass, there was a telephone building being constructed. Here are these working men, doing this and doing that, and it was sort of like a Whitman poem about the labor class. So I decided that that was what I was going to do.
So I went into construction work, which took a lot of out of you. You’d be on one job, and then that’s finished, and another one and another one. After surviving at that noble experiment for several years . . . And by then, we had two daughters, so there were three children. Then, I read an item in the newspaper about a civil service examination for the California State Park Service. So I took the exam, and then, anyhow, so I spent 11 years in the State Park Service, still trying to be a writer, making all those attempts and then acted with a little theater group, where new plays were performed, and that was a wonderful thing.
JC: It was during that time as a park ranger you were called before the House Un-American Activities Committee.
WN: James Moulder was the Chairman of the festivities. So I went and took a tranquilizer and went down there. This was the first time I met a lady named Dorothy Healey, who was Chairman of the Southern California Communist Party. I had read about her in things, so it was nice to meet her.
I had figured out a line of approach to the situation. When I was questioned, I asked, “Well, with what crime am I charged?”
Chairman Moulder said, “Well, no crime. Just tell us about evil associates.”
I just said, “Well, I’m very pleased that Chairman Moulder and the House Un-American Activities Committee and the United States Government have declared that I have not violated any laws. I would be happy to write a 10,000 word analysis of what I have seen of the socialist and radical movement in the United States. But as far as telling the names of individual people that I saw at the meetings, I’m just not gonna do that.”
It was churned out in a way that caused the audience to laugh. The left wing militants, at that time, had their lawyers say, “Oh, we refuse to answer on the grounds of the Fifth Amendment.”
The way I approached it was, “I’m not gonna try to be a Philadelphia lawyer and split up the U.S. Constitution, but I’m not gonna give these names, on the basis of the whole Constitution.” That caused the audience to laugh and by that time, the people, nobody was angry at me. They just let it go, and that was the end of that.
The people in the Park Service were, let’s see, they were a little embarrassed by it, but it happened that the Assistant District Superintendent, his name maybe was Griffith or something like that, he came down to see me, and I was at Los Encinos State Historical Monument, an old adobe, and it was preserved as a state thing. He came down to see me. I explained the whole process, that I was a would-be writer with curiosity and this and this and this, and he, in effect, said, “Well, that sounds reasonable. That’s okay with me.” The official State Park Service never bothered me any way on that question, so I respected him very much for that.
JC: Talk about your writing attempts during this time.
WN: I’d go down to Los Angeles to be friends with this theater group. Then my friend, Paul Leder, who had directed one of my plays at the little theater, he had the notion that we were gonna make a movie out of it. He scratched up the small amount of investment and organized people, and low and behold, they made a movie that was never really distributed.
But it’s interesting, Rue McClanahan, who became a very successful star in The Golden Girls, was the woman or the girl in the story. I haven’t seen Rue since those days, but my son directed a TV movie not too long ago that she and Ed Asner were in. So anyhow, out of it emerged a conversation about those theater days and she sent along good wishes and everything.
JC: When Rue McClanahan became famous, they reissued one of the movies you did with her called The Rotten Apple.
WN: The Rotten Apple was one of them. Another of them was The Marigold Man. That had been a play, and the notion was that in order to correct depression and unemployment, this fellow believed that we should plant a field of marigolds all the way across the country and make a park out of it.
JC: Another film I saw that you did with Paul Leder was The Farmer’s Other Daughter.
WN: Yeah. Paul was kind of the deal maker, and he came across a distributor of nudie films and various things. So he put up the money for Paul and me to make a comedy film in which there would be a mild bit of nudity. And I think the nudity –
JC: Yeah, I’ve seen it, and it’s very tame for that day, or now.
WN: But anyhow, that’s how that came about. I think it made a little bit of money for the distributor, but Paul and I worked for nothing. The crew was paid, but we . . . Well that was one of those ill-formed attempts at the fringes of the movie business.
JC: The most famous of the films that you and Paul did is the one called Poor Albert and Little Annie. The movie became more famous when it was reissued under the name I Dismember Mama. This title confuses most people, because mom is never hurt or even in danger in that movie. I’m sure you and Paul didn’t really think of that title. [Readers can watch the trailer for I Dismember Mama by clicking here.]
WN: No. Essentially, the story was a play that I wrote at one time at the little theater. Albert’s the son of a wealthy family, and he’s crazy, and so on. And so he’s so goofy, he’s going to fall in love with a little nine-year old girl, and it’s something like that. It was an innocuous sort of literary attempt, and that’s why Leon Roth got interested in it. He had found the money and organized the whole thing. He was a very nice guy, and his wife, Mimi Roth, was a very nice person. She worked at UA.
The film came out in the era of Deep Throat. A distributor came along and changed the title to I Dismember Mama. The guy who felt worse about the whole thing, undoubtedly, was Leon Roth.
If someone had come along and offered me a meager amount of money to write a film called I Dismember Mama¸ I would have come up with some sort of plot.
JC: Well, the film remains a cult film precisely because of that title. But during this time, while you were doing all these Leder films, what led to The Scalphunters, starring Burt Lancaster?
WN: I wrote a spec script called The Scalphunters, which dealt with two phenomena in the western period; one, the fur trapper era, and two, the government, the state government of the territory of Arizona, actually, offered fifty dollars apiece for Indian scalps. I learned this from a history professor friend. This seemed to me to be a shocking kind of a thing that an element of the U.S. Government would offer to pay $50.00 for an Indian scalp.
So I wrote a spec script interested in the idea of an escaped slave, and the confrontation, because I loved Shaw. Shaw would . . . He, in a talented, intelligent way, would play games with ideas-two sides or three sides or whatever of a social question. I was trying to do that with this spec script, where the fur trapper is illiterate, but the escaped slave can read and write. So the script kicked around Hollywood for five years.
An actor friend of Paul’s named Alex Nichol was trying to get Sidney Poitier and somebody to do a production of it. Then finally, another friend of Alex’s named Dan Barton gave it to an agent that he knew named Mike Wise. Mike, nice guy, I worked with him for many years . . . Mike gave it to television producers, Levy-Gardner-Laven, who had done a western series called The Rifleman, with Chuck Connors, who was a baseball player. They wanted to do a feature film and they got it to United Artists in New York. I can’t remember the name of the guy, but he became interested in it, and he sent it to Burt Lancaster, who had a production company. When Lancaster said he’d like to do it, then, all of the sudden, I had a movie career, where I was actually paid for my work. And off I went, and I was very grateful for it. I found the ups and the downs of it.
JC: That was also the beginning of Sydney Pollack’s directing career as well. He hadn’t done many films by that point.
WN: He had done some live TV, and Lancaster had, and I don’t know what that contact had been, but he had wanted to have a talented young TV director do the project. So that’s how that came about. And Lancaster was an influential star, so UA gave him what he wanted.
JC: Ossie Davis did a fine job of playing the escaped slave.
WN: Oh, now, that was Lancaster’s choice. Now, interesting about that, I had exchanged letters with Ossie Davis before, but never met him. I got a short story published, and he had also, in a left wing magazine, quarterly magazine, called Masses and Mainstream. So I knew Ossie a little bit, just by exchanging the letters with him. I was very delighted when it turns out he’s the guy that was gonna be in the film.
JC: After The Scalphunters, this would begin a long relationship with Levy-Gardner-Laven. You had also written for The Big Valley.
WN: Yes, that was their series. Mike Wise sold the contract that included The Scalphunters movie script, and then I worked with them for a monthly salary. Then also, I would do whatever the hell Levy-Gardner-Laven wanted me to do. So they had me do, I think I did three of them, or something like that, or maybe it was four. I found them good guys to work for.
The only sharp words that I ever had was when Art Gardner, Jules Levy and I were talking about the rewrites from the first draft of the White Lightning script; Joe Sargent was the director. I was listening to what they said. Jules’s son-a young man that I’d seen around the office, a nice pleasant young guy started to misbehave in this story conference, and I said, “Sit down and shut up!” which I was thinking, as a father, was a discourteous thing to say to him. But it’s the only conflict that I ever had. They were nice people to work for. Art has now died; he was the oldest. I have exchanged pleasant phone calls with him in the last couple of years.
JC: White Lightning was one of several Levy-Gardner-Laven productions with Burt Reynolds that you would write. [The trailer for White Lightning can be found here.]
WN: Yes. I had done Sam Whiskey with Burt before White Lightning. Because of reading about his work or meeting with him or something, they wanted to cast him, and UA said fine, and so that was the reason for that. And then after Sam Whiskey, then they cast him for White Lightning, and then another kind of picture, Gator.
JC: Gator would be the sequel to White Lightning, which would be Burt’s directing debut. What was your relationship with Burt?
WN: Pleasant. Robert-Jules Levy’s son that I had told him to sit down and shut up, became the boss on Gator. Part of his boss-hood was to not invite me to come on the shoot to locations and participate with the director, which was Burt. Now, I got along fine with Burt, never did have any arguments with him, and he seemed like a well-motivated human being. But I blame Robert for not permitting me to work more closely with him.
It’s interesting how my relationships with various people go. Raquel Welch once invited me to go home with her after I finished a story conference with her, and I, as a gentleman, declined. I did a film with John Wayne called Brannigan and never said a word to him. He walked through the office, and that was it. [Editor’s note: Branningan’s trailer can be viewed here.] With Burt Lancaster, he took a hands-on participation in the rewrites and so on. That’s the movie business.
JC: One rumor was that on one Burt Reynolds movie, this western called The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing, for which you’re not credited, Burt brought you along to rewrite it.
WN: Yes. That’s an interesting story. I think the script had had troubles, a couple of good writers, and there was a woman author of the book. The director was a guy named Richard Sarafian. The project was kind of floundering around. I was hired to do a rewrite, which I did. I had a pleasant relationship with the woman writer of the book. With Sarafian, I had an argument with him over a scene in the movie where the lady was lost or wandering around, and I had the western movie star give her a blanket and be nice to her. Dick Sarafian had said, “No he’s not gonna give this blanket. He’s gonna treat her very mean.” So I tried my best to persuade him that that it wouldn’t be a kind of a weakling psychological projection. So that was all of my participation with it. And I did, indeed, do a rewrite of it.
JC: How much did you rewrite?
WN: Oh, a hell of a lot, I don’t know how much ended up on the screen. I don’t think I ever saw the film.
JC: I’d like to talk about the two other Levy-Gardner-Laven projects you did. The first one is The McKenzie Break.
WN: Well The McKenzie Break was based on a book by a well-known writer. He wrote about this prison camp of German U-Boat officers in Canada. In the movie, it takes places in Ireland. I read the book and wrote the thing centered on a movie star here. Brian Keith was the actor. The director was Lamont Johnson. I had, maybe, one meeting with him. He didn’t want me to go over and participate. He had a notion that he was going to humanize the prisoners, whereas my attitude was, “Oh, these are Nazi guys, so our hero movie star is going to handle them.” He brought another dimension of depth to it, which he . . . Or people told me that it kind of portrayed with more sympathy the feelings and so on of the prisoners, themselves. I don’t think I ever saw the film.
JC: The next one is The Hunting Party.
WN: My relationship with Don Medford, who directed The Hunting Party, was the best coworker relationship I had.
JC: The Hunting Party is a very unusual film. People get shot in this film, but not in the way they are in a John Wayne or Clint Eastwood film. It feels they are really dying in this film. Many people have talked about the really “downer” ending of that movie. [The Hunting Party’s trailer can be watched here.]
WN: Lou Morheim was the story editor for The Big Valley series. I had dealings with him, briefly, on one of those Big Valley scripts. Jules Levy probably told Lou, “Hey, why don’t you have this story where there’s this school teacher, and along come the outlaws and they kidnap her?” Jules’s gimmick story was that the teacher’s husband can get some sort of long range rifle, so the business guys are going to defeat these outlaws. Jules used to have different guns sometimes in the trunk of his car. He was like a guy who never fought in the Army, but he sort of wished that he had, and he also would like to see business guys prove to be effective with their special new gimmick rifle.
Lou took his best shot at that subject matter. Then, for some reason, Jules wanted me to do a rewrite. So anyhow, I did, and to me, the outlaws were the hero guys, the role later played by the British actor, Oliver Reed. Reed is interesting. When I met him in Spain, when they were shooting it, Don Medford introduced me to him and we had a little chat. I said a few things: “Well, Jules Levy is a good guy. He has the uncomfortable job of haggling over contracts with people all the time, and that’s a tough – “ Reed got pissed off at me. So I felt that he really was angry at producers.
Medford was an unusually nice guy. He decided he was going to, sort of, make it a Peckinpah tough film. I’d liked him, and he would tell me to do rewrites, and I would do them, and I felt comfortable with it. The only thing I ever suggested to him or talked with him . . .At some stage, I said, “Well, there aren’t any palm trees in the west.” But he put in palm trees anyhow. I think he did a hell of a good job when I saw the thing on TV. I felt it was downbeat, as you said. Now, the curious thing was that the critic for The LA Times, Charles Champlin, who was an okay guy, hated the film, and he especially hated the attempted rape scene of Candice Bergen.
JC: In today’s political climate, you couldn’t have done that. You would go on to do one of your most well known films, Big Bad Mama, with Angie Dickinson and William Shatner. [To watch the trailer for Big Bad Mama, click here.]
WN: Oh, yes. That was Roger Corman. Roger Corman was a nice guy to work with. His wife was a nice person. My wife and I had lunch with them here in Santa Barbara. There was a lady who worked for him, Frances Doel. I had a pleasant relationship with her. She was the office person. Frances gave me the copy of this story, which was, as she later used the terminology, on the road, on the run movie. The story was that, and I didn’t know she had done it, but she had promoted the story with Roger, and so that became a project. So I turned that into a screenplay. When things were over, I talked with Frances and with Roger Corman, saying that the story for this, I didn’t invent the story, and therefore, the credit should be a story by so-and-so, whoever he is, and then the screenplay by Bill Norton. Well, it turned out that Frances was the writer of it. I felt happy about that, that I had done, what would you say, is kind of a morally correct thing, which is to credit another writer for what they have done. We became kind of mildly friendly off and on. She felt grateful for it because she’d never had a screen credit of any kind, and she liked that. So she was the writer of the story and I wrote the screenplay and Steve Carver directed it. He seemed like a nice, talented, good guy. I don’t recall being involved with rewrites on the set, or any of that kind of stuff.
Roger was a nice guy, and I see him every once in a while. And then, when he had people shoot films, it was efficiently done. I did two other films with him: A Small Town in Texas, produced by his wife Julie and directed by Jack Starrett, and Moving Violation.
JC: Now, we come to Day of the Animals with Leslie Nielsen. [To watch the trailer for Day of the Animals, click here.]
WN: Oh, okay. Day of the Animals was with a fellow named Bill Girdler, who was a nice guy. He was killed in The Philippines in a helicopter that hit the power lines. Now, I don’t know the origin of it, but I met Bill Girdler, and then he introduced me to his money raiser producer guy. The money raiser producer guy’s idea was that the air goes all wrong, and then, so it drives all the animals crazy. So I think it was, sort of, they were thinking of, “Oh, Jaws was a big hit, so we’re gonna do all these animals driven crazy by the contaminated air.”
It was a pleasant relationship. Bill Girdler shot the film, and my wife Ellie worked with me on the script. When I finally saw it, I didn’t care for it because it didn’t really work. I felt disappointed in it, but I never said that to Bill.
JC: There are two last films I want to talk about. The first one is Dirty Tricks with Elliott Gould.
WN: Elliott Gould, I met him riding on an airplane up to Canada to do rewrites on an existing script. He was a nice guy to talk to. I enjoyed it. The director was Alvin Rakoff. I don’t think I ever saw the film.
JC: The second one is Night of the Juggler .
WN: Night of the Juggler was based on a book, with Sidney Furie to direct and Jay Weston to produce. I was hired to do rewrites on the script. That felt okay, and then I went to New York with Sidney. He wanted me to stay with him through all of it because he was afraid of the violence. But I didn’t want to stay all that time, and also, Ellie wanted me to come home.
Jim Brolin was the actor, and we became good friends. I respect him very much. Sidney Furie broke his leg, and so Sidney quit. Then, a cameraman finished the shooting.
JC: Okay. Now we come to the next chapter in your life, the gun smuggling days. Talk about that.
WN: Ellie and I had been in support groups for the Central American people and Guatemala. Anyhow, a woman came to the door, and just looking at her and talking briefly with her, I got the impression that she was an ex-nun, or she was a nun wearing civilian clothes. So I assumed from this lady that she just had the look and attitude that she came from that religious kind of background.
Anyhow, she asked me if I would help in the purchase and shipment of arms for Guatemala. She told me the name of the group and I’ve forgotten it. But anyhow, it was the Guatemala revolutionary group. So we went out in the backyard, and I said, “Let’s go talk out here.” So that was the first time I purchased guns.
The way you do it, you got to one of these gun shows and she was the one who had the suggestion where you look in the newspaper for guns for sale, and if it seems logical, then you purchase it and put it in the trunk of your car and so on. You go to the gun show out at Pomona, where there’s a big fairgrounds building, and there’s a whole bunch of people with tables, and they’re all selling guns to each other- hunters and whatever, shotguns and rifles and pistols, etc. The groups will have a certain small number of weapons that they wish to purchase. They don’t want just random things. They liked the AR-15, which is an American automatic. It’s a semi-automatic, meaning you pull the trigger, and you get one shot. Then you pull the trigger again and you get another one. A full automatic weapon is one where you pull the trigger and it keeps shooting in automatic fire. Well, this AR-15 and AR-16 are American weapons that American people would sell to each other and buy, and so on. They would just pull the trigger once and it shoots once. But they, then, did some kind of small amount of work, and they would convert it into a fully automatic one. The Latin American groups wanted just a few, let’s see, like a revolver pistol instead of an automatic because the revolver doesn’t jam as much. The same thing, ultimately, was true of the Irish; they would have a certain specified type of weapons that they would want and not others.
Anyhow, I started doing it a bit, going to the gun shows, and then I would meet in a certain parking lot where a guy in a pickup truck would be, and I would recognize him because he’s got fishing poles and so on. And the reason he had that was that pickup truck would then have weapons concealed in the sides of the truck body or the bottom of the truck body. And the fellow’s name was John. He seemed like a school teacher kind of guy. (But this is interesting, he was a Basque, and the Basque people have a revolutionary tradition. They had an arms struggle in their own country against the Spanish government, so that the Basque region would be independent.) So this fellow that I knew, that I’d seen, met every once in a while in a parking lot of a certain restaurant or a certain place, I’d take the four or five guns out of the trunk, my trunk, and then he’d put them in his pickup and they’d be out of sight under fishing gear. Anyhow, I did that, or Ellie and I both did that, for Guatemala, Nicaragua, and El Salvador, supplied weapons and also money.
And then, in our travels, we participated with the hunger striker people of the Irish movement, and one time I was taken to a prison as a relative to visit a prisoner. The prisoner comes in; he’s all long haired and clothed in a blanket. That was a spectacular visual. We became involved in the Irish struggle for equal rights for people in Ireland and civil rights and housing.
I was working at Disney on contract to do whatever the hell they wanted me to do. Yet Ellie and I were gonna retire because by that time, I was sixty, and I could get a Writers Guild pension of a meager sort, but enough to live on. We were going to move to Belfast and participate in that struggle over there, which we did. When we were over there, a fellow that we had known there wanted us to purchase and transport arms for, not for the IRA, but for the Irish National Liberation Army, as a project for self defense.
JC: I’m sorry, what’s the difference between the IRA and them?
WN: They are related, actually. The origin of the INLA was a socialist guy named Costello. The IRA, Irish Republican Army, was non-political. They did not want to get mixed up in this socialism.
The fellow that wanted us to buy arms for the INLA came over and was in charge. He told us to purchase a pickup camper, and then arrange in the compartments of the back of the pickup, a narrow space, 15 rifles and 20 pistols. You would ship that by boat over to France or to Holland. The first load we did went to Holland and then, we’d go over there as vacationers, and we were going to travel around Europe and go to Ireland. That was our story, that we were American vacationers, and then the guns would be unloaded in Ireland at some specific place out in the boondocks. So when we unloaded the weapons, it was a little dodgy because the wrong guy showed up when we were supposed to unload them. Then, another guy got into our vehicle, and he was giving us directions where to go. But we finished that first shipment successfully.
After a while, we were asked to do it again. We had questions about him, but we went on the second trip. On the second trip, we were to pick up the vehicle, with its hidden guns on it, in France, this time. When we walked into the shipping office, there is the cops. So that was the end of our career as gun runners.
We were in prison and waited around for the trial. There was a women’s part of the prison, where Ellie was, and the men’s part. I began a project where I wrote letters to the Pope and everyone- the president and senators and congressmen and government officials all over hell- trying to talk about the right of self defense of the republican people in the north of Ireland. I had traced the origins of the Catholic right to self defense doctrine, and it was this guy that I’ve forgotten the name of, and he replied, “Well, yeah, I can see your religious point of view here, but that does not give you the right to smuggle guns to the IRA.” The response that I got from a variety of letters in many countries was respectful and reasonable and so on.
JC: But none of them came to your defense?
WN: No, no. Well, I didn’t really want them to do that because I pitched all of this not because we were in prison, but rather in support of the principles of Irish self-determination and I didn’t want to say, “Oh, I’m in jail.” I never thought in that area, but I wrote to all kinds of countries and all kinds of religious people.
Ellie and I were sentenced to four years. Then, on an appeal, it was reduced to two years. My son had come over to see the trial, and it was wonderful to see him. We did our best to center around this question of self-determination and the right to self-determination, which I believe in.
When we were released, we were going to be sent back to Chicago, where the FBI was going to try us for having purchased the guns in the United States. By that time, one of the other ladies that was arrested with us, Susan had gone to the embassies or the consulates of Nicaragua in Ireland, and also in Paris, and finally, at the last moment, the permission came through that we could get visas to go to Nicaragua rather than being deported to Chicago and the FBI. So we were very happy about that.
When we lived there in Nicaragua, there would be the Contra movement, who’d be shooting around at night around different places. You’d just hear it. We purchased a house there that the El Salvador movement used to store food for their activist movement. Eventually, we gave it to the El Salvador people; they were going to use it as an orphanage for refugees.
People would come around to the house and set fires. Ellie and I would alternate being on guard at night, just keeping watch. One night, three guys came to the door with what looked like petitions, and they were talking to me, and boom, they pulled out guns and robbed me. Ellie was away at the market or something. But there, I’m tied up on the floor with these guys with guns, and I’m thinking, “How in the hell did I wind up here?” But they didn’t do any violence; they just robbed the house and then left.
Then, another time, Ellie was keeping watch; she told me that there was a noise outside. I took out a Kalashnikov, which is like an AR-50. I went into a bedroom that had been a guest room. I opened the door and I saw a guy, a shadow of a figure at the window, starting to come in there. It was a Contra. Just like a reflex action, I put one in him, and hit him right in the head, and that was the end of that Contra. Then the police came, and our El Salvador friend intervened, so there were no consequences to it.
After Ortega lost the election, and the Contras had full sway, I thought, “We ought to get out of Nicaragua.” Through our El Salvador friend, we got permission to go to Cuba, where I thought there wouldn’t be Contras roaming around and breaking into your house. I spent a couple of years there in comfortable circumstances, meeting many people that were interesting. One of the people I met there was Sydney Pollack, when he came down for some sort of film conference.
JC: So you saw him after all these years in Cuba?
WN: Yeah. I saw him at this conference. He, later, made a film about Cuba, Havana. Then, Ellie suffered illness and she was in the hospital in Cuba. Her father was a lawyer, and he had arranged things so that she could come back to a hospital here in Los Angeles. I thought at the airport that she was so ill that I would never see her again, but the hospital was excellent and she recovered. I continued to stay down there.
JC: So you were in Cuba while she was back in the U.S?
JC: And I take it, you weren’t Cuban, because I know you can’t leave the country if you’re a citizen.
WN: Actually, we were Nicaraguan citizens. The Nicaraguans had given us passports. I wanted to come back to the states and so the Cubans were fine with it. So I went on a plane to Nicaragua with the Nicaraguan passport. I intended to go up to Mexico, and then, get up to the border in Tijuana, where you can just drive over.
Of course, I was nervous, and I thought it would turn into a disaster, but it didn’t. I took a plane up to Mexico City, and then, from there, to Tijuana. My daughters came down and picked me up and drove across the border, and that was it for foreign travels.
JC: Were you able to become a U.S. citizen?
WN: Well, see, when you’re a citizen, you’re a citizen and they can’t cancel your citizenship. The only thing they could do is arrest you for some crime that you’ve done and have a trial, and then have proof of it in the course of a trial. Ellie’s father, as a lawyer, was very aware of the specifics. Also, her brother, is a lawyer and worked for the district attorney’s office, so their research showed that the government did not intend to or were unable to bring specific charges of purchasing these weapons at that time, and putting them on this pickup truck, and loading that pickup truck to go to Holland. They didn’t have that specific paperwork. They didn’t put out an arrest warrant on me. So it just kind of dwindled away.
JC: What did you do back in the US?
WN: My son said, “Well, pop, you’re retired. Why don’t you do something?” He had an art gallery friend. So I did paintings, a hell a lot of paintings, and there was a show of them at the Santa Monica gallery place. It got a good review for the LA Times and some art magazine also gave a good review, far better than the painting deserved. However, nobody has wanted to buy them, so I got rid of my hobby.
The guy from the little theater where I did my plays, named Phil Mishkin, had heard I was back, and he called up and he talked to Mike Wise who had been my agent. Mike talked to me about two different projects.
First, he put together a deal where I went to see a producer, I’ve forgotten his name, and they had a story about three over the hill western characters who are hired by a lady they used to know because a bad guy was gonna extort money out of her and kill her or something like that. So from the point of view that westerns are sort of action-packed tough things, I had formed a little story outline. So I went to the meeting, and I sat in the office. And there was a film called Grumpy Old Men with Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau which had been successful. The producer began trying to switch this around to kind of the cutes. He thought it was funny that these old duffers are hired by this lady. So I said, “Well, I think you guys want a different writer, not me.” So I got up and left. I apologized later to Mike for the fact that he tried to get a paying job for me and I just screwed it up with my opinions.
Second, Phil, from the little theater, and Mike, my agent, thought I should do a screenplay of the whole adventure in Ireland, Nicaragua and Cuba. Phil was good friends and worked with Rob Reiner. Rob, before he got to be successful in television, acted in the little theater where Phil and I had done work before. Phil talked to Rob Reiner, and eventually he was trying to get a production going. He was going to get Richard Dreyfuss to play the role of me. Mary Steenburgen would play Ellie. Richard Dreyfuss said, “Okay, I’ll do it.” Rob Reiner said, “No, I don’t like anything to do with guns.” So that was the end of that.
I never felt right about it. In fact, I just didn’t want to do it. But Mike talked me into it, and it never went any place. But all right, that’s enough sad stories. Here’s one story I’ll end on just for fun.
Here’s the idea here. What if there’s this fur trapper, and he’s got this load of furs and he’s going to take them in and sell them? He runs into a guy who’s got a pedal sewing machine in the back of his wagon. He’s making pants out of old canvas- canvas sails and canvas wagon covers.This is related to Levi Strauss, the historic figure, who did that in San Francisco. He started making pants out of old sails. Now, there’s a lady that’s driving this wagon for him. It’s a Mormon lady, and she’s on the run. She was the seventh wife of this bearded old guffer. Then, the African American slave, who’s escaped, comes into the story when he wants the fur trapper to teach him how to cheat at cards.
Then, the scalphunters, the bad guys, and some confederate deserters are encountered. The confederate deserters say, “Why the hell should we be fighting this war for rich plantation owners? They never owned any slaves, and the land was too steep to plow.” There was a Northern Louisiana movement that I’ve read about who were anti-war confederate people. That’s who these deserters would be based on. So out of that, episodic western event, I would try to do Scalphunters II.