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Thy kingdom come: Richard Dooling’s TV teaming with Stephen King

August 16, 2012 4 comments

I have only read two things by Stephen King and I thoroughly enjoyed them both:  his celebrated novel The Shining and his equally well-regarded book for aspiring and emerging writers called On Writing.  I’ve read much more from author Richard Dooling and have thoroughly enjoyed his work, too, including the novels White Man’s Grave and Brainstorm and the cautionary  of the singularity, Rapture for the Geeks.  So when I learned that these two had combined talents to collaborate on writing the miniseries, Kingdom Hospital, I jumped on it.  I interviewed Dooling about the project but never landed my hoped-for interview with King.  The result is the following story I did for The Reader (www.thereader.com) just as the series was about to air.  I don’t believe I watched more than a few bits and pieces of the series because I find most horror dramatizations done for television don’t much work for me.  This wasn’t the last time Dooling and King collaborated. Dooling, an Omaha native and resident, also adapted King’s short story Dolan’s Cadillac into a feature film.  In my story I try to give some insights into how these two writers work together and apart.

 
Thy kingdom come: Richard Dooling’s TV teaming with Stephen King  

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Omaha author Richard Dooling has collaborated with the Master of Fright, Stephen King, in creating the new prime time television miniseries Kingdom Hospital, a darkly comic supernatural fable The Horrormeister himself calls a cross between ER and The Shining. Dooling, whose novel White Man’s Grave was a National Book Award finalist, said comparing the show to the venerable NBC series and King’s own classic horror novel “would be a good way to describe it because…in the same way the Overlook Hotel (in The Shining) was haunted by things that happened there in the past, the setting for our show, Kingdom Hospital, is haunted by spirits from the past, and…there’s a lot of medical stuff going on, hence the reference to ER.”

The fictional one-hour drama is inspired by the acclaimed Danish miniseries Riget (The Kingdom) from director Lars von Trier (Breaking the Waves). Consistent with the new prime time TV trend of limited run series, Kingdom is slated for a straight 13-week run. The opening and closing episodes are two hours apiece.

It may be a surprise that Dooling, the social satirist, has teamed with King in writing this original 15-hour miniseries debuting March 3 on ABC. Then again, Dooling, who came to literary prominence from legal-medical careers, has made a name for himself exploring the moral-ethical quandaries facing protagonists caught up in the foreboding, labyrinthian maelstroms of: the law (Brain StormWhite Man’s Grave); medicine (Critical Care); and insurance (Bet Your Life); three strange, intimidating fields and fraternities built on people’s fear of the unknown and of losing control.

In Brain Storm, a lawyer struggles with the Genie-out-of-the-bottle implications of constructing a biomedical defense for a virulent racist murderer, whose violent outbursts may or may not be triggered by faulty brain chemistry. In White Man’s Grave, a young American goes missing in the charm-filled Sierra Leone bush and his father’s well-ordered life back home comes undone when totems sent from Africa unleash malevolent forces that pull him to their source. Critical Care essays the inexorable, by turns absurd dance of death in an intensive care unit. Bet Your Life examines the elaborate insurance fraud schemes computer savvy scam artists use to bilk people of their money and, in so doing, to turn victims’ lives upside down.

Dooling was unsure himself how his work meshed with the horror genre until, he said, King reassured him with, “You don’t think you write horror, but you do.’ In White Man’s Grave…there would certainly be some elements of horror and there’s a little medical horror in Bet Your Life, especially towards the end. So, I’ll trust him, I guess.” Dooling said a horror pedigree doesn’t matter much as Kingdom Hospital is “all over the place and is so many different things,” not the least of which is its taking wicked, scatological aim at such solemn subjects as faith, life and death, thereby displaying the satiric sensibility shared by both authors.

“I never really thought he was scary, but that he always had his tongue in his cheek,” Dooling said of King. “His Misery is one of the best books ever written. I mean, it’s gruesome and everything, but it’s a very funny book. He’s a great writer, especially of slang, which I really like.” A book of essays by Dooling, Blue Streak, makes the case for colorful, colloquial language of the offensive kind. If there’s anything that connects the two men, Dooling said, it is their penchant for “black comedy. I think most of what I did with this series was black comedy, which is what I always do. So, it’s satire with some horror. And he’s funny, too.”

Ultimately, Dooling was sold on the show by a promise from King, who is its executive producer. “He said from the very beginning, ‘We can do whatever we want to.’ Since I’d never worked with him before, I didn’t know whether to believe him…I mean, I was afraid that might mean he could do whatever HE wanted. But he was telling the truth. Besides, it’s not like he’s doing it for the money, right? Steve’s in a position where he can get done what he wants…within reasonable limits. He has total control. It was important to me we could do what we wanted because I didn’t want people saying, ‘Oh, you can’t do that.’ I wanted to be able to show open brain surgery, for instance, and I didn’t want somebody telling me, ‘No’.” All that creative freedom, he added, will either have been “a blessing or a curse. I won’t know which until the Nielsen ratings.”

Such dramatic license, he said, resulted in a non-linear narrative, some of it occurring inside the heads of characters, that combines disparate elements, themes and styles. “I don’t know whether it will succeed or not, but you’ve never seen anything else like it on television, I can guarantee you. I mean, I’ve never seen drama, black comedy, spiritualism, psychics, ghosts…everything. In 30 seconds, you can go from one scene where you feel like you’re going to cry because you’re so involved with this character who’s been injured in a car accident over to slapstick or black humor and then to some appearance by a ghost during surgery.”

ABC, which has struggled finding a prime time drama hit, is eager to try something different. “Television executives are not stupid. They know they’re losing viewers,” Dooling said, “and so they’re looking for new stuff.”

Kingdom Hospital is set in arch, eccentric, God-fearing King Country — Lewiston, Maine. The well-spring for the apparitions and disturbances at the hospital is the unsettled grounds upon which the facility is built — the long destroyed Gates Falls Mill, a terrible 19th century imagined sweatshop where, the story goes, many child laborers died in an 1869 fire. The children’s restless spirits seem to inhabit the place, variously bringing peril and relief to those they encounter.

 

Dooling said the show’s premise — strange goings-on in “a wild place” — and its structure — episodes opening outside the hospital — encouraged he and King to “write about almost anything. You can bring almost anybody in there you want. All you have to do is make them a patient. For example, I have an earthquake scientist who gets admitted. And that’s the beauty of a series. You can bring in a character and you can either kill them right away or keep them around if they work out.”

The prospect of maintaining dramatic cohesion within such a sprawling story and among many recurring characters worried Dooling at first, but to his surprise it proved manageable. “I was afraid it would be hard, but by the time you spend so much time with the characters, you feel like it writes itself in a way because you already know them so well and you know what they would do. You have a large story that spans the whole season and then you try and make short stories that fit within that large story…and I think we held it together.” Accenting the story, he said, is the series “beautiful” cinematography and “spectacular” production design.

The staff and patients at Kingdom Hospital are as odd as the incidents befalling them. A paraplegic artist, Peter Rickman (Jack Coleman), is miraculously cured. The brilliant surgeon Dr. Hook (Andrew McCarthy) lives in the hospital’s basement, tending to his collection of medical equipment. The cynical Dr. Stegman (Bruce Davison) is the arrogant face of medicine. The addled Dr. Ehrlich (Ed Begley, Jr.) is oblivious to the crazy events around him. The heart of the series is the psychic hypochondriac Eleanor Druse (Diane Ladd), the older mother of a hospital orderlie, and the unstable link to a tormented girl trying to reach her from the other side.

“The driving force is Mrs. Druse,” he said, “and her attempts to contact the little ghost girl she hears crying in the elevators. Mrs. Druse tries to find out why the little girl’s spirit is stuck between the here and hereafter and how she can find rest. I really like Mrs. Druse. Everybody will. She’s a great character.”

The Druse character is lifted from Lars von Trier’s The Kingdom, a series both King and Dooling admire. “It’s a little slow for American audiences, but it’s funny and it’s creepy. I recommend it,” Dooling said. “We added a lot of characters and stories and stuff of our own, but we got the main characters basically from there and we just kind of Americanized their concerns and endeavors and Steve, of course, added the whole” back story and subtext.

A lifelong New Englander, King’s fiction often takes stock of locals’ stoic, enigmatic determination even in the face of bizarre goings-on. In episode one, he dramatizes his own well-publicized brush with death in the scene of an artist, Peter Rickman, walking on a rural road and being struck by a van, which happened to King near his home in Maine. The incident places Rickman in Kingdom Hospital, where he’s left open to its many wonders and dangers. King’s own weeks-long stays in hospitals were enough to convince him, Dooling said, “that hospitals are scary places.”

When King conceived the series, he wanted a collaborator with a medical background and Dooling, who worked as a respiratory therapist in the ICU at Omaha’s Clarkson Hospital, fit the bill. Long before enlisting him as a medical consultant and writer-producer, the literary superstar had his eye on Dooling, whose work he is a fan of. King quoted from Dooling’s Brain Storm in his own book, On Writing. King also contributed a glowing back cover tribute for Dooling’s Bet Your Life, calling him “one of the finest novelists now working in America” and describing the book as “by turns horrifying, suspenseful and howlingly funny.”

In his ongoing role as consultant, Dooling ensures the accuracy of all things medical in scripts, even tweaking King’s work as needed. To do this, Dooling draws on his and others’ expertise. “If I don’t know, I have to find out. I have a lot of friends that are doctors and nurses and I call them and ask them questions.” A med tech on the set acts as another check and balance, even training actors to draw blood gases, to intubate, to hold surgical instruments, et cetera.

After consulting in the series’ early preproduction stage, Dooling began writing episodes, first in concert with King, then by himself, in the winter of 2002. The two worked intensively through March 2003. Although the scripts are long finished, “it’s never done,” Dooling said. “Things happen. They can’t get a set, they lose an actor, an actor insists their character wouldn’t say a line. Or, trying to save money, the producers change locations. That stuff goes on all the time…up until the day it’s actually shot. There’s always something to do. I’m still doing a lot of work on Kingdom Hospital, and they’re 120 days into a 140-day shooting schedule.”

King-Dooling are hardly ever in the same physical space and rarely communicate by phone. Instead, they share work and comments via cyberspace.

“A lot of it is just passing files back and forth,” Dooling said. “We do it episode by episode. We attach notes. You say, ‘Tell me what you think of this. If you like it, add some more. If you don’t, cut it.’ Or, you say something like, ‘It might be funny if we did this.’ Or, ‘What if Mrs. Druse said that?…Blah, blah, blah.’ It’s just like talking. I didn’t really mess around with his stories, except to add or fix medical dialog and medical procedures, and he really didn’t mess with my stories either. We did get together once (at King’s winter home in Florida), shortly after episode nine or ten, to figure out what to do about the end because, you know, there was still four hours left and the last episode was a two-hour segment.”

Working with the prolific King proved exhilarating and taxing. “When you work with him, it’s night and day. It was night and day for three-four months. He just works all the time. He’s working right now, I’m sure,” said Dooling, who soon found there was no point in trying to keep pace. “Well, there’s no way you can keep up. A couple times, he just passed me. He would start episode nine while I was starting eight. He just got tired of waiting, I’m sure. I mean, he never said that, but that’s probably what happened. When he gets an idea, he’s not going to sit around and wait while I catch up. He’s really a fast, fast, highly-productive, laser-beam concentration type of guy. It’s been a good experience. A definite collaboration-synergy and all the good things you want to have working with somebody.”

Dooling, who periodically goes to Vancouver, British Columbia, where the series is shooting, loves the “cosmopolitan” city but loathes visiting the set.

“I don’t really like being on the set all that much. You don’t really have much to offer there. The script is done and, you know, the director is the person who decides how the scene plays. As a writer, I feel about this teleplay the way a famous screenwriter once described screenplays: It’s not a work of art, but it’s an invitation to a bunch of other people to make a work of art. Once you have the words on the paper you have every right to complain if they’re not saying the words, but once you let go of the script an actor who’s being well-paid and who’s well-qualified is going to render those lines in collaboration with the director. And, really, to have a writer there injecting their opinion into something where it really doesn’t belong, doesn’t make sense.

“However, that said, there are times they ask the writer to come down because they have a question about the way a word is pronounced or emphasized or they ask, ‘Why did you write that she had a tissue in her hand — was that because she was crying?’ or something like that. That’s a legitimate question.”

Otherwise, the set gets to be a drag as set-ups and takes mount. “They have to do things over and over. I don’t know, I suppose it’s like rewriting a sentence.”

The buzz is that if Kingdom Hospital hits big, ABC may pick it up for the fall season. In that event, Dooling, who expects to stay with the gig, has been brainstorming story ideas with King for a new slate of episodes. “Yeah, very vague type what-might-we-do-if-there-were-another-season conversations. And then we have things we didn’t really use, because there wasn’t time, that we could use.”

Even if the show isn’t renewed, Dooling may do more TV, a medium he entered with reservations. “I was skeptical of television. But this experience has made me more accepting of it and I could see myself working in it again if I find a show I like that’s funny and dark.” Unlike film, where not one of his several screenplays has yet to be produced, he said, “the nice thing about television is, you write it, and it gets shot. So, this has been fun. There’s not the big hold up there is with feature films, where you write it and you wait three years and maybe it’ll get shot, maybe they’ll ask you to rewrite it, maybe another director will pick it up. Maybe.”

When Omaha independent filmmaking took a new turn or did it?

August 15, 2012 7 comments

 

A decade ago I fairly called out the Nebraska independent filmmaking scene with this story that bemoaned the lack of home-grown feature filmmaking here.  I used the example of locally based Oberon Entertainment completing a feature of some size, Full Ride, and with a distribution channel in place as being a great depature from what had been happening and what was happening at the time.  Sadly though, with the exception of Nik Fackler taking things one step further with his Lovely, Still, in 2008, nothing much has changed.  Oberon hasn’t made another feature.  And whatever features Nebraskans have made here have apparently not gained much traction.  No Omaha native filmmaker has yet broken out the way Alexander Payne has.  Fackler’s come closest and I would still bet he’s the best candidate of the filmmakers who’ve emerged here the last decade to do so.  Charles Fairbanks may be another.  That’s not to say there aren’t some terrifically talented folks making shorts and even features here or that one or more them couldn’t break out.  I just don’t know about them.  I hope someone does if for no other reason then I’d like to write about them and their work being discovered and embraced by the masses.  I must add though that the prospects for this happening have brightened because the film culture here has much become richer since this story was first published in 2012.  The Omaha Film Festival and Film Streams are longer overdue and welcome additions to growing the film culture.

 

 

 

When Omaha independent filmmaking took a new turn of did it?

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Filmmaking is a lot like sex. There are the wannabes who mainly talk about doing it and those who really get it on. With the exception of Alexander Payne, whose Hollywood-financed films place him in a special category, Omaha has had its share of cinema wet-dreamers. A few, like Steve Lustgarten, Dan Mirvish, Dana Altman and Shawn Prouse, managed scraping together tens of thousands of dollars from local investors and, by hook or crook, realized their grassroots indie aspirations using almost entirely local casts and crews. Until recently, though, no one succeeded in raising really serious money for a native-born production. That is until Oberon Entertainment Properties hit the scene.

An Omaha film production company formed in 2000 by Mark Hoeger, Andy Anderson and Thompson Rogers, Oberon’s partners quickly separated themselves from the local cinema pack by not only setting ambitious production and distribution goals but by doing enough homework and opening enough doors to actually reach some of those lofty goals. In researching the biz, including such centers of indie filmmaking as Austin, Texas and Charlotte, N.C., Oberon’s principal players say they found plenty of data to support their contention that homegrown movie-making could be a going concern.

Displaying a business acumen unseen before among area filmmakers, the three men went about doing exactly what they set out to do, including acquiring a marketable script and hot lead actors, lining-up investors to bankroll the $1.84 million project, securing a major distributor for the property before filming even commenced, completing their teen romance film, The Full Ride, without incident and attracting major players to represent their product around the world. Now, they are in the midst of raising a film financing pool, which they hope will total between $10 and $40 million, to help fund future Oberon projects.

While the company is still “pushing” to net a theatrical release for Full Ride, that prospect dims as time goes by, meaning the film will likely find exclusive distribution via home market venues (cable, video, network TV). With one major foreign TV sale already inked and other overseas-domestic sales in the works, Oberon has leverage on its side. The only thing left unproved is whether it returns a profit to investors and has any legs or staying power as a boutique film business. While Oberon seeks to avoid being a flash-in-the-pan, it should be noted no Omaha filmmaking venture (other than Payne’s) has followed-up a first pic with anything more than unfulfilled promise.

“When we started putting this company together it wasn’t to make a film, it was to create a film business. We don’t want to play at this — we’re too old,” said Anderson who, along with Hoeger, headed Full Ride’s 40-something creative team, with Anderson serving as cinematographer and Hoeger as director. It may be Oberon that is part of a Nebraska New Wave given that indie hit My Big Fat Greek Wedding was financed by Gold Circle Films, a division of Omaha-based Waitt Media.

The story of Oberon offers an insider’s-look at how things work in an industry predicated on gumption, guile and glad-handing, but also bottom lines. In an unprecedented move for local filmmakers, Oberon sold itself and its dream, in the form of a well-articulated business plan, to deep-pocket money-men. The journey began when Hoeger, former executive director of the Omaha Theater Company for Young People, was approached by Omaha author and ex-UNL football player George Mills with an original film story. The story concerned a troubled star high school football player, Matt, who is pressured by an ambitious coach and smitten by a small town girl, Amy, whose perfect facade hides an ugly truth.

 

 

 

 

Mark Hoeger

 

With Mills bringing the project’s first investor aboard along with him, Hoeger agreed to film an 18-minute “pilot” or teaser to test the investment waters. Needing someone to shoot the pilot, Hoeger collaborated with Anderson, the maker of scores of TV commercials via his Anderson Productions. Each man had flirted with the movies before, Hoeger as a sometime filmmaker and film instructor and Anderson as a second-unit cinematographer on Hollywood export pics (including Payne’s Citizen Ruth andElection) and as cinematographer for omaha: the Movie.

The pair next approached Thompson Rogers, an Omaha entrepreneur and investor. It turned out their timing was right, as Rogers had already begun looking at film as a business opportunity. Rogers joined the team, but demanded his partners gather more facts and figures. “The great thing about having Tom on board is he put us through our paces in getting us to prove that we had a good idea and that we had the capacity for doing it,” Hoeger said. Anderson said the process “helped build our credibility in the business world because we approached it from a business standpoint rather than as, ‘Oh, we’ve got a great idea for a movie.’ We looked at the independent filmmaking business…at what independent films are doing domestically and internationally through all the different distribution venues.”

Hoeger said, “One of the pieces of data we found showed that films that get released are profitable overall, especially over their lifetime, but that the number of films released compared to the number of films that get made is very small. Because what we figured out was it’s easy to make a movie — it’s harder to get it out there. Now, one strategy is you make a film and then you try to get it into the Sundance Film Festival, where you hope to get a distribution deal. But out of the literally thousands of entries to Sundance, maybe only 50 films get shown and of those 50 maybe five end up in distribution. So, that’s a very high risk operation…it’s sort of the lottery theory of a business plan. We realized it was going to be hard to pitch that. We wanted something with better odds, which meant not starting production until we had some distribution channel in place.”

He said it turned out many of the 14 investors who signed on with Oberon have invested in films before or been approached to. He feels what aided Oberon in getting their support is the sober way it wooed potential backers. “I think the main thing is we didn’t oversell what the potential was. Most of the investors have been around the block enough times to know that if it sounds impossible, it probably is. It seemed the more honest we were…the more interested people got because then they began to take us seriously. Plus, it helped that Andy and I had a track record in the community. That opened the door for us.”

It didn’t hurt, either, that Oberon knew how the game was played and brought in some bona fide players on its side. In a classic case of it’s-who-you-know-in-Hollywood, Hoeger got an old college roommate, novelist-screenwriter-producer Don Winslow to rewrite Mills’s treatment for Full Ride. Winslow then pitched the script to Porchlight Entertainment’s Bruce Johnson, who bit on it. Winslow also led Oberon to former Universal executive Peter Heller to produce Full Ride and to prestigious Creative Artists Agency (CAA) to represent Oberon. “Don’s very well connected,” is how Hoeger describes Winslow’s influence. Rounding out the creative team were production designer Sandy Veneziano (Father of the Bride) and Oscar-winning editor Mike Hill (Apollo 13).

Even with this power package in place, Hoeger found the labyrinthian Hollywood system made it difficult to know whether their film was ever green-lighted “until we started shooting.”  “You get yessed to death. The suits never want to say ‘No’ because nobody wants to be the jerk that passes up the next Blair Witch Project. So, you always get, ‘Yes, but…’ or ‘Yes, come back to me…’ It’s an odd thing to deal with.” If anything finally sold the film, Oberon’s partners say, it was the script. “What George (Mills) was really great at was an authentic rendering of the football experience. What Don did is he filled out the characters of Matt and Amy and their romance,” Hoeger said. In his hands, Anderson said, “the story became one of overcoming adversity or misfortune, which is sort of a universal theme, and the football aspect became the backdrop.” In turn, the meatier story of redemption and the solid parts attracted a top casting director and rising young stars in Riley Smith (Matt) and Meredith Monroe (Amy).

The May 2001 shoot, which unfolded largely in and around the Dana College campus in Blair, Neb., weathered the usual production burps, including rainy weather not called for in the script. “I thing the biggest challenge was staying on schedule and on budget,” Anderson said. “We were very diligent those two things happened and despite some hiccups we came in under budget and on time.” He equated filmmaking’s high stakes pressure to “being an artist with a gun to your head,” always ready to improvise when problems arise. Hoeger feels the process promotes more creativity, saying, “In some ways, the best stuff comes out of that problem solving.” Hoeger added it was not until post-production at the Gower Studios in Hollywood when he had an epiphany signifying his and Oberon’s arrival. “After working there awhile I’d drive on the lot and the guard would give me a little wave and the valet would get my car. One day, walking back from the commissary, there were wardrobe racks rolling by, film crew members sitting on cranes and stars walking around when I looked up at the big Hollywood sign on the hill and I thought, ‘Oh, wow, cool…It’s like we’re making a movie.’”

Hoeger said Oberon’s success in steering a film through financing, production and distribution has established the company in Hollywood circles. “That’s considered quite an accomplishment in L.A. because there are so many people who want to get that done but never do. To actually pull that off puts you in an amazingly elite club…” Interestingly enough, he said, in the entire three-year process Oberon has met no L.A. snobbery about its Omaha roots. “The industry is now so much decentralized — it’s moved all across the country and into Canada — that as far as they’re concerned Omaha might as well be Austin or Charlotte or Minneapolis or Vancouver. It’s all the same to them — it’s not L.A.”

The company is now weighing its second feature project. “We have boxes and boxes of new scripts that people have sent us, but we haven’t optioned any at this point. The next project will probably be a property owned by one of the production companies that have proposed doing a co-production with us,” he said, adding Oberon may one day be in a position to directly acquire scripts.” He said Oberon doesn’t so much pick scripts as pitch them. “When we go out to L.A. it’s with an armful of scripts and it’s up to the distributor to decide ‘This is the one.’”

Would-be filmmakers now come to Oberon in droves asking, How do you do it? The dreamers are told it takes preparation, knowledge, talent, guts and patience, lots and lots of patience. Hoeger said, “Anybody who dreams of becoming a filmmaker has to be prepared for the fact that it’s a pretty slow go.” Or, as Anderson likes to say, “sometimes you have to wait for the stars to align.”

Documentary considers Omaha’s changing face since World War II

August 15, 2012 4 comments

Omaha, my Omaha.  I have something of a love-hate relationship with my city, which is to say I have strong feelings about it and I always want it to be better than it thinks it can, though the attitude problem or more specifically inferiority complex it suffered from for so long has been largely replaced by a bold new, I-can-do confidence.  That metamorphosis is part of what drew me to a documentary some years back that took the measure of Omaha by charting the changing face ofrcityscape since World War II, and what a marked difference a half-century has made.  In truth, and as the doc makes clear, the most dramatic changes have only occurred in the last decade or two, when the city poured immense dollars into transforming parts of downtown, the riverfront, midtown, and South Omaha.  Left mostly untouched has been North Omaha, where the city’s major revitalization focus is now aimed.  The film also deals with one of the city’s biggest missteps – the razing of the Jobbers Canyon warehouse district to appease a corporate fat cat who wanted to put his headquarters there in place of what he called the area’s “big ugly red brick buildings.”  Those buildings were historic treasures dating back a century and today they would be home to well-established retail, residential, commercial developments that would be employing people and generating commerce, thus pouring money back into the city’s coffers.

Documentary considers Omaha’s changing face since World War II

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Omaha’s evolution into a homey yet cosmo metropolis that’s discarded, for better or worse, its gritty industrial-frontier heritage is the subject of a new documentary premiering statewide on the NETV network. Omaha Since World War II — The Changing Face of the City is a UNO Television production  and a companion piece to UNO-TV’s popular 1994 If These Walls Could Speak.

What the new film does particularly well is frame the growth of Omaha over the past 60 years within a social, cultural and political context. Instead of settling for a Chamber of Commerce paean to development, the film makes a balanced effort at showing not only the dynamic explosion in Omaha’s ever-expanding boundaries and emerging 21st century cityscape but also some of the real tensions and costs that have come with that change. Using soaring, sweeping aerial footage shot from a helicopter video mount, the film provides insightful glimpses of Omaha’s famous sprawl and, even more tellingly, of the riverfront renaissance that’s remaking the city’s traditional gateway into a stunning new vista. Like the fits-and-starts pace of most Omaha development, major pieces in the Return to the River movement have taken decades to coalesce, but now that the new riverfront is emerging, it’s shaping up as a dramatic statement about the sleek, modern Omaha of the future.

While most of this period has seen real progress, valid concerns are raised about  one neglected area and a pattern of disregarding history. For example, the film focuses on the decline of north Omaha in the wake of the devastating 1960s riots there and the equally hurtful severing of that community by the North Freeway several years later. News footage of burning stores and marching civil rights demonstrators, along with residents’ personal anecdotes of urban ruin, reveal a community in upheaval.

The late Preston Love Sr., ex-Omaha educator Wilda Stephenson and Omaha World-Herald photographer Rudy Smith paint vivid pictures of the jumping place that once was North 24th Street and of the despairing symbol it came to represent. As the $1.8 billion in downtown-riverfront revival continues (development dollars spent in the last six years, according to Omaha Chamber of Commerce figures), it’s apparent north Omaha’s been left behind. Unlike South Omaha, which remakes itself every few decades as an immigrant haven and finds new uses for old landmarks like the former stockyards site, North Omaha still searches for a new identity.

The film also examines how city/state leaders sacrificed the nationally historic Jobber’s Canyon district to the whims of corporate giant ConAgra in the 1980s. A man-made canyon of 22 massive, architecturally unique warehouse buildings closely tied to early Omaha’s booming river-rail economy, all but one Jobbers structure — the former McKesson-Robbins Building, now the Greenhouse Apartments — was razed when ConAgra decided the “eye-sore” must go if it was to keep its headquarters downtown. After seeing homegrown Enron uproot to Houston, Omaha caved to ConAgra’s demands rather than lose another Fortune 1000 company. The canyon was an incalculable loss but, as the film makes clear, the resulting corporate campus served as a catalyst for development.

The filmmakers rightly reference Omaha’s penchant for tearing down its history, as in the old post office, the original Woodmen of the World building, the Fontenelle Hotel and the Indian Hills Theater. Spinning the story in all its permutations are, notably, former Omaha city planning directors Alden Aust and Marty Shukert, architect and preservationist George Haecker, historians Harl Dalstrom, Thomas Kuhlman, Bill Pratt and Garneth Peterson, developers Sam and Mark Mercer and entrepreneur Frankie Pane.

Warehouse district street scene. Omaha - NARA - 283718.tif

Jobbers Canyon before

 ConAgra campus that replaced Jobbers Canyon

The Jobbers Canyon debacle came at a time when downtown was reeling and in danger of being an empty shell. If not for major investments by a few key players. it may never have come back from the mass retail exodus to the suburbs it witnessed in the 1960s and ‘70s. In a real coup, the film features Old Market pioneers Sam and Mark Mercer, who describe the organic growth of this historic district into a cultural oasis — one that’s served as an anchor of stability.

The longest ongoing story of Omaha’s growth is its westward push. The film explains how this has been achieved by a liberal annexation policy that’s added subdivisions and even entire small communities to the tax rolls. The film touches on the fact that, outside a few developments, this sprawl has created a formless, characterless prairie of concrete and glass. The film also alludes to Omaha’s old neighborhoods, but only highlights one, Dundee, as an example of design and lifestyle merging.

Where the film doesn’t fare so well is in offering any real sense for the personality of the city. To be fair, filmmakers B.J. Huchtemann and Carl Milone didn’t intend to do that. Still, it would have been useful to try and take the measure of Omaha beyond its physical landscape. The only hint we get of this is via the many on-camera commentators who weigh in with their perspectives on Omaha’s changing face. And, to producer-director Huchtemann’s and co-producer-editor Milone’s credit, they’ve chosen these interpretive figures well. They’re an eclectic, eloquent, opinionated bunch and, as such, they reflect Omahans’ fierce independence and intelligence, which is at odds with the boring, white bread image the city often engenders. They are the film’s engaging storytellers.

Still, a film about the city’s changing face begs for an analysis of Omaha’s identity crisis. Mention the name, and outsiders draw a blank or recall a creaky remnant from its past or ascribe a boring blandness to it all. That’s before it had any “Wow” features. Now, with its gleaming new facade, Omaha’s poised to spark postcard worthy images in people’s minds. What is Omaha? What do we project to the world? The answers all converge on the riverfront. That’s where Omaha began and that’s where its makeover is unfolding. The monumental, sculptural pedestrian bridge may be the coup de grace. Interestingly, the film explains how much of what’s taking place was envisioned by planners 30 years ago. It’s all come together, in piecemeal fashion, to make the water’s edge development Omaha’s new signature and face.

So, what does it say about us? It speaks to Omahans’ desire to forge ahead and be counted as a premier Midwest city. No mention’s made of Hal Daub, the former mayor whose assertive energy drove Omaha, kicking and screaming, into the big time. He gave Omaha attitude. The film suggests this bold new city is here to stay.

‘West Side Story,’ An American Classic

August 15, 2012 1 comment

I have been fortunate enough to interview several film legends and with this story I landed a biggie in the person of the late Robert Wise, the Oscar-winning producer-director who made two of the greatest screen musicals in West Side Story and The Sound of Music, though as my piece points out he was a versatile enough filmmaker that he made memorable movies of all different genres, including horror, crime, Western, and science fiction.  My story appeared on the eve of a revival screening of West Side Story at the restored Orpheum Theater in Omaha some eight or nine years ago.  The event was organized by local impresario Bruce Crawford.  For the story I interviewed Wise, co-star Russ Tamblyn, who came to the showing, and Crawford.  Though Wise was not a great filmmaker or auteur he was certainly one of the most commercially successful prodcuer-directors of his era.  His career also spanned an incredibly long period, from the Golden Age of 1930s-1940s Hollywood well into the 1980s, and intersected with scores of great talents.  It was a distinct privilege to speak with him.  Flm lovers should note that this blog is full of my stories from my work as a film journalist.

 

George Chakiris, middle, leads the Sharks

‘West Side Story,’ An American Classic

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the New Horizons

Before becoming the home of Omaha’s performing arts in the 1970s, the Orpheum Theater reigned as the grandest movie palace in the city. It’s only fitting then the newly renovated downtown Orpheum will, for one night only, on Monday, November 11, showcase a national cinema treasure — West Side Story — in a special screening benefiting the St. Vincent DePaul Society of Omaha

The event is the latest in local impresario Bruce Crawford’s series of annual film revivals presented in the manner of Hollywood premieres. This time, he’s arranged personal appearances by three West Side Story notables — its Oscar-winning producer-director Robert Wise, co-star Russ Tamblyn and vocalist Marni Nixon, who provided the singing voice for Natalie Wood. Also, a choreographed work by Robin Welch of the Omaha Theater Ballet will pay homage to the dance numbers in the film. Wise, Tamblyn and Nixon will speak prior to the film and sign autographs afterwards.

Crawford said he’s secured “an archival print” for the showing, which will offer audiences a rare chance to see the film in all its 70 millimeter Super Panavision glory on the big screen. In the opinion of Crawford, a devotee of film music, West Side Story “broke the mold” as far as the American musical is concerned. “I consider it a modern opera. Maria,TonightIn America — these are not just show tunes, these are almost operatic arias,” he said. “I think it transcends the musical genre and is the most unique of all film musicals, hands-down.”

Released by United Artists in 1961, West Side Story became a huge box-office hit and one of the most honored films in Academy Award history, winning 10 Oscars, including for Best Picture, Best Director (Wise and co-director Jerome Robbins), Best Supporting Actor (George Chakiris) and Best Supporting Actress (Rita Moreno). As successful as the film was, it owed everything to the original stage production upon which it was based. Boldly transposing the forbidden romance of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet to the New York gang milieu and exchanging the Montague-Capulet feud for the gang warfare between the Caucasian Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks, playwright Arthur Laurents, lyricist Stephen Sondheim, composer Leonard Bernstein and director-choreographer Jerome Robbins covered new ground in American musical theater with their honest depiction of racial issues.

The modern, socially-conscious drama became a Broadway phenomenon soon after opening at New York’s Winter Garden Theater in 1957. Brimming with an urgent passion and intellect, the show ran more than 700 performances before going on tour. Sensing a hot property when they saw one, producers ponied-up to buy the film rights. In the changing landscape of American cinema then, old-line Hollywood studios were giving way to brash new independent film companies, one of which — Mirisch Pictures — acquired the rights to the play and, in association with Seven Arts Productions, launched the much-anticipated screen version.

To helm the film, veteran Robert Wise (Somebody Up There Likes Me) was signed and, in an unusual arrangement, Broadway’s Robbins was given co-directorial responsibilities. The plan was for Wise to direct the dramatic scenes and to shape the overall story for the camera and for Robbins to develop the demanding dance and music numbers. Screenwriter Ernest Lehman (SabrinaThe King and ISweet Smell of SuccessNorth By Northwest) wrote the film adaptation. Bernstein and Sondheim again provided the powerful music and lyrics around which the entire spine of West Side is built. In preparing the film, Wise-Robbins elected not to use any leads from the Broadway show and instead cast five fresh-faced young players under contract to various studios.

As the souful, starcrossed lovers whose romance defies family, ethnic and gang codes of honor, Richard Beymer was cast as Tony, the Polish-American boy, and Natalie Wood as Maria, the Chicano girl. Newcomer George Chakiris took the showy part of Bernardo, the charismatic leader of the Sharks. Plucked from the obscurity of previously decorative bit parts, Rita Moreno won the role of Anita, the fire brand mate of Bernardo. And, finally, for the cocky role of Riff, the leader of the Jets, Russ Tamblyn got the call.

In recent phone interviews from their California homes, Wise and Tamblyn spoke about making the film and the artists they collaborated with. After 56 years directing some of the most famous features in movie history, 88-year-old Robert Wise is finally retired from picture-making, although movies are always on his mind. The venerable Wise is the last of the old guard of Hollywood filmmakers. In a distinguished career that saw him transition from the editing room at RKO, where he cut such classics as Citizen Kane, to assuming the director’s chair, from which he oversaw dozens of popular films of every conceivable genre, Wise earned a reputation as a fine craftsman. His fluid, incisive, unadorned work exudes a sober integrity reflective of his own character. In preparing a film a director is like a reporter and Wise, who intended to be a journalist, anchors his work in research. “When I go into any project I research every aspect of it thoroughly, so I can tell all the truth and reality I can up on the screen,” he said.

By the time Wise joined the West Side creative team, he was a bankable, versatile director adept at making suspense films (The Curse of the Cat People), horror films (The Body Snatcher), film noirs (The Set-Up), crime thrillers (Odds Against Tomorrow), Westerns (Blood on the Moon), science fiction flicks (The Day the Earth Stood Still), high dramas (Executive Suite), biopics (I Want to Live) and war films (Run Silent, Run Deep). Despite never directing a musical, he worked as an assistant editor on Astaire-Rogers pictures, an experience, he said, that helped him know “the form” of the musical. Four years after West Side, he struck gold with another Broadway adaptation — The Sound of Music —which broke all box office records.

 west-side-story

Wise knew the challenge in making a film from a play, any play, was in finding ways to open the story up in cinematic terms that liberated the action from the constraints of the stage. So that he could capture the grit, vitality and scope of West Side’s New York City setting, he realized he must get dynamic shots of the Big Apple and thus fix the story’s urban location in people’s minds. To do that, he came up with the novel idea for the signature opening — a sweeping helicopter pan looking straight down at the looming cityscape. The resulting images offer arresting views of the city and serve to heighten the reality and poetry of the stylized drama. The filmmaker had to fight reluctant, penny-pinching executives to do the opening his way.

“Well, they were not too happy about it because it was going to cost a lot more money to shoot that, but that was the only way to do it,” he said. “I didn’t want to fake that out here in Los Angeles. I wanted to deliver New York and I didn’t want to do it with that same old shot across the river of the bridge and the skyline. I got to wondering what it would look like just straight down — a New York most people have never seen. I didn’t actually shoot that myself. A second-unit man did it for me. I think we had about a half-hour’s worth of film, which we cut down into what’s in the movie.” The montage rythmically leads into the first pulsating shots of gang members moving in the streets and breaking into dance.

 

Richard Beymer and Natalie Wood as the star-crossed lovers, Tony and Maria

Aside from his own contributions, Wise felt secure knowing he had a brilliant book, sublime lyrics and memorable music to work with. In his mind, a film is only as good as its screenplay. He said, “We had a marvelous script by a writer-friend of mine, Ernest Lehman, who’s done several of my other things. The foundation of any film is the script, and if it’s not on the page, you’re not going to get it up there (on the screen). If you’ve got it on the page and if you get the right cast together and the right crew, then away you go and you let the chips fall where they may.”

Russ Tamblyn said West Side was a project where “all the ingredients clicked.” Among the big egos and talents behind it, he said, it was the cool, calm, quiet Wise who held it all together. “He was quite different from Jerome Robbins. Jerry was very passionate and out front. He would get mad at dancers if they couldn’t remember steps and he wanted actors to keep doing stuff over and over and over again. On the set, boy, he was a demon. Whereas Robert Wise was more laid-back. He was the kind of director I really like — that’s more self-assured and would point you in the right direction and leave it up to you to go there. That’s the thing I loved about him. He just is really sweet. You can call him at his office, and he answers the phone. There aren’t many people in his position that do that.”

When, more than half-way through production, the film fell behind schedule and went over-budget, the fiery Robbins was fired and assistant Tony Mordente, who also played one of the Jets, Action, assumed the choreography. Ironically, Robbins won Oscars for his energetic, sexually-charged choreography and co-direction.

Behind-the-scenes intrigue or not, Tamblyn enjoyed the shoot and felt lucky to be part of the film at all. He was “on loan” to the producers from MGM, where he was a contract player. He actually tested for the role of Tony, but ended up playing Riff over the objections of studio head Bennie Thau, who felt the part projected the wrong image for a young star being groomed as a clean-cut boy-next-door type. West Side was not the first or last musical for Tamblyn, who displayed his acrobatic style, replete with his trademark back flip, in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Tom Thumb and Hit the Deck. While lacking formal training, the former Los Angeles youth tumbling champ got the equal of a graduate-level dance education from such master choreographers as Robbins, Michael Kidd and Hermes Pan. Although “extremely intimidated” by the dances required in West Side, he gained confidence during months of rehearsal and from being in the company of fellow former child actors Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer, whom Tamblyn later co-starred with in David Lynch’s cult TV series Twin Peaks.

Tamblyn, who considers West Side Story “the peak” of his career, enjoys attending revivals of the film. “Last year we did a cast and crew reunion in New York at Radio City Music Hall,” he said. “It was completely sold out. It was right after 9/11 and we didn’t even want to go, but Mayor Giuliani asked us to, and it was one of the best trips I ever had there.” Robert Wise was there too and said the film “played like gangbusters.” For his Omaha screening, Bruce Crawford is “thrilled” to have the combination of “a legendary filmmaker, a classic film and the Orpheum Theater.”

 

Russ Tamblyn, leaping the highest, leads the Jets

James Caan Interview

August 12, 2012 1 comment

I am developing a film story-event project that’s piecing together what happened when a confluence of remarkable talents came together to make a low budget road movie in the late 1960s and their production journey brought them to western Nebraska. The road pic was Francis Ford Coppola’s art house special, The Rain People, starring Shirley Knight. That production cemented a relationship between Coppola and a young protege, George Lucas, who was along as a production associate and to document the making of the film.  The project also connected Coppola with two actors who would go on to play prominent roles in his future pics: James Caan and Robert Duvall.  That’s not all.  The Rain People additionally led to Duvall starring in Lucas’ first feature, THX-1138and to the actor directing his first film, the documentary We’re Not the Jet Set, which profiles an Ogallala, Neb. area ranch-rodeo family, the Petersons, whom Duvall became very close to.  As I make progress on the story I will be posting interviews I’ve conducted with many of the principles involved in the films.  What follows is an interview I did with James Caan.  Look for upcoming interviews I did with Robert Duvall, Francis Ford Coppola, cinematographers Bill Butler (Rain People) and Joseph Friedman (Jet Set) and editor Stephen Mack.

 

 

James Caan Interview: From My Film Connections Project (An In-Progress Film Story-Event Project)

©by Leo Adam Biga

LAB: When did you and Robert Duvall first meet? Was it during Robert Altman‘s Countdown or before that?

JC: “Bobby’s older than me. We first met in ’68 when we did a picture called The Rain People for Francis (Ford Coppola). That’s when we met the Petersons. That was first, I believe.”

LB: Except that IMDB shows Countdown was released in ’68, the same year The Rain People, a ’69 releasewas in production, and so I’m thinking you two made Countdown first.

JC: “Oh yeah, you can’t argue with those fuckers. We had a lot of fun on Countdown. That was one of Bob Altman’s first features.

LAB: I thought perhaps you and Duvall might have met before that, like through New York acting circles.

JC: “No, no, because I came out here (L.A.) when I was like 21. I studied in New York. We didn’t study together. I did like an off-Broadway play there for eight months and then I did whatever television was available then. There was one called Playhouse 90. It was a three-camera show. It was like a play they put on live television. And then there was Naked City, which was a series. And then there was that Route 66, which I did in Philadelphia. But then that was pretty much it in New York.

“And then I got called out to California. But I had to know Bobby before that (CountdownRain People) because we were already goofing on each other. That’s weird though – I thought I knew Bobby before that, for what reason I don’t know. Is it age, what is it, Jesus Christ?!

LAB: So what is it that accounts for your enduring friendship?

JC: “Just kind of a blatant honesty I think. I mean, it’s not like I don’t like actors or something, but I don’t just much travel in those circles, and Bobby’s not one of those either. I mean, I know made him laugh a little bit and I like that because I like making people laugh and I guess he likes laughing or something. And Bobby’s obviously a terrific actor and really easy to work with. From day one till today I dont think there’s anyone more giving than him working on camera. Some actors are terribly selfish and they think the worse you are the better they look, so they don’t give a shit when you’re on camera, which is a horrible principle because there’s no such thing as bad acting in a good scene.

“And then I think horses. I don’t know if I was into horses. I think it was a kind of freedom and not so involved in being all withdrawn and letting the job overtake your entire life. It didn’t mean we didn’t work but we had a lot of fun. And he was a terrible practical joker. He couldn’t hold a goddamned secret for nothing. I mean, if you had something you really didn’t want out there and you whispered it to your best friend, he’d wait till there were 500 people in the room and blurt it out. That’s Bobby.”

LAB: If I’m not mistaken you were attached to The Rain People project from the beginning whereas Duvall joined the company some time later, and, that in fact he may have replaced another actor.

JC: “I think Rip Torn or somebody.”

LAB: What did you make of the young Francis Ford Coppola?

JC: “Francis at that time was very aesthetic. And he wrote the thing as a play I think, and we did it somewhere up in Columbia or somewhere. We did it as a play. It was sort of like a rehearsal thing that Francis did.”

LAB: How did the two of you meet?

JC: “I met Francis when he came out here. I guess he had seen one or two things I had done. I obviously hadn’t done too many. I think by that time he had written Patton. I think he stayed at my house. I had a little guest house, so he stayed there for awhile. We got to be friendly. Having come from the Neighborhood Playhouse with (Lee) Strasburg and all those people, he was a young guy – I think Francis is like a year older than me. He was from New York (by way of Detroit). As a matter of fact his grandmother lived around the corner from me in Sunnyside.”

LAB: What about The Rain People got you interested in doing the part of Killer Kilgannon?

JC: “It was a great opportunity, a great character. Just from talking to him (Coppola) I knew he knew actors and he had already received some notoriety with You’re a Big Boy Now and obviously having written Patton at the age of 23 (24 actually) or whatever the hell he was. But obviously when I started working with him I knew he was     something special. The guy pretty much knew about everything. When you look from there to The Godfather and all the guys Francis hired…if you look at every department head, the biggest today in their departments, whether Walter Murch in sound, Gordy Willis, Dean Tavalouris, they were all pretty much found by Francis.

“There was one Francis at that time. He was the best. I don’t know how many films I’ve done but Francis is still the best.”

LAB: Duvall told me a funny anecdote about Coppola, who apparently confided he was scared of the Petersons. That struck Duvall as funny too since Coppola went on to make films about mafia killers.

JC: “Francis wasn’t a Brooklyn Italian, he was Mediterranean Italian. All art. And, well they’re (the mafia) from New York. He understood them. He never understood what my love for rodeo was by the way.”

LAB: What kind of experience was The Rain People shoot for you?

JC: “I was like depressed through that whole picture, mostly because of this character I played. I was playing this guy with this brain damage, and I’m traveling and my community was not out there with a bunch of aesthetic, ethereal actors and actresses and cameramen. We were on the road, God, for that whole picture. We started out in Long Island and ended up in Ogallala out there. I had really no idea where we were going from day to day. From there (Long Island) we went to Virginia, we went down to Chattanooga and then across the country and wound up, as I’m sure he had scouted and everything, over in Ogallala.

“There was like 18 of us, the crew and the actors. It was just me and Shirley Knight, so every night I’d go to a different Holiday Inn and play with the light switches. I didn’t know what to do, I was a New Yorker. It was tough but it was a good picture I think. It’s really a nice picture. It was critically acclaimed. It won the San Sebastian Film Festival.”

LAB: Were you satisfied with how the script’s story was realized on screen?

JC: “That got a little mixed up,…the whole story kind of took a turn. That’s some personal stuff. People were supposed to be concerned about Shirley’s problem (her character’s problem). In other words here’s a woman who had all this responsibility, not only was she married but she had a baby, it all got too much and so she decided to take this ride and then she picks up some young guy who played college football. The whole idea of the picture is he in a sense becomes the embryo she’s carrying because she had to care for him and so forth. So it was all set up. Shirley played her a little mean and tough. I think what happened with the audience and Francis is they became more concerned with me than they did with her. She was the one you were supposed to worry about.

“Some of the choices were on the mean side, so they (the audience) became more involved with what happened to me.”

LAB: How was it working with Shirley Knight?

JC: “Shirley was a little tough. I like her but she was a little tough. And then by the way when Bobby showed up we started having fun. He’s the funniest son of a bitch. He was playing this motorcycle cop and he told me, “I’ve got two kids and everything, I don’t ride no goddamned motorcycle.’ ‘Fuck it, Bobby, goddamnit you’ve gotta ride the motorcycle, you’re a motorcycle cop on the highway. It ain’t nothin’, I’ll teach you in three minutes.’ So I had to get my brother to come out and double him. Oh, man, we laughed our asses off.

“He had that one scene at night with Shirley on the bike, going literally two miles an hour before I have that fight with him. ‘OK, action,’ and the thing would sputter out. (After multiple takes) finally he made it around the corner and came to a stop. Shirley got off and he threw the kick stand down and got off and he took three steps and the son of a bitch fell over, and he just yelled out, ‘Fuck you!’ Oh, my God…(laughing). Bobby was amazing. When he’d blow up, there was nothing like it.”

LAB: What about the very young George Lucas?

JC: “George was there all the time filming. He did a documentary The Making of The Rain People. He wore a big harness and had a 16 mm camera strapped to his chest. I thought he was born with it or something because I never saw him without it.

 

 

 

LAB: Part of the fun that came with Duvall’s arrival on location in Ogallala was the two of you meeting up with the Petersons.

JC: “B.A. (the late patriarch of the Peterson clan and the ostensible star of We’re Not the Jet Set) “Yeah, they were a wild group. They would fight in the middle of the        living room, and oh boy I mean fist fight, and he’s (B.A.) sitting back in a chair saying, ‘Now, no hitting in the face, no hitting in the face.’ Those were the rules. With Denny Peterson I got my nose into (branding and roping).”

LAB: You were already into horses by the time you met the Petersons.

JC: “When I came from New York I got a horse right away because I think that was the thing to do. (Growing up) I always played make believe in the streets – it was Roy Rogers or whatever the hell it was. After hanging around with Denny and those guys he took me to my first branding which was at the Haythorn ranch in Brule (Neb.).  They have a huge ranch out there. I think I had a week off for a little stretch and rather than go home I went to this branding, and then from there it got in my blood.

“Denny picked me up at four in the morning, threw me in a trailer and we drove out there. I didn’t know any of these guys and I tried to look as western as I could, you know. I even had chew in my mouth. I didn’t want to stick out like some idiot from Hollywood on this big branding. Denny and I got amongst some guys, we saddled up and rode out, they were pushing some huge herd and I just fell behind ’em yelling ‘Ha, ha, ha…’ The first few days I just wrestled these calves. One of the Haythorns said, ‘You guys keep a pushing on this herd’ – toward this water hole. They were going to top these other hills. So a bunch of them ran off and Denny left with them and left me alone with these other guys.

“I was dressed in my jeans and the oldest ranch hat. I never said a word, which for me is really difficult. I just kept spittin’ and yellin’ and pushin’ the herd, and we finally got ’em to this water hole, and all of a sudden these two or three calves just bolted and ran up this steep old hill, so I whirled around with these old boys looking and I just took off up the hill. A herd or one is not bad but two is near impossible. So I got myself in a sweat chasing one. I’d get ’em together and one would break to the left. Finally I got the two of ’em and I started driving ’em down the hill and I saw those old boys still sitting down at the water hole and one of ’em looked up and said, ‘Hey,   Hollywood (laughs),’ and I swallowed my chew and I went, ‘Yeah?’ He said, ‘You can leave them go.’ I said, ‘What’s that?’ He said, ‘They’ve already been branded (laughs). So that’s the way I gave myself up I guess.

“But boy that was some experience. Goddamned, the work. It’s a great tradition actually. These guys come from all over, the neighboring ranchers, like the Petersons.  And then all the wives, boy what a feast they put out. A spread for all the hands. They’d have all these homemade pies. You name it. By four o’clock, you talk about sleep and sore. I was done, I was hurtin’ boy. It was great.

“These range calves weigh 300 or some pounds, so I got shit on and kicked and pissed on. It was the hardest work. But it was really a big honor. Like on the fourth day they build these big catch pens in different sections and run these cattle from the different sections. And on the last day old Waldo Haythorn, who was the grandpa, gave me the honor of roping. I remember there were guys coming up from Texas, some great ropers. Everett Shaw, who was a big time roper from Texas, came up and roped for old Waldo. They do that, they invite ’em up to be some of the ropers.

“You’d be tied onto your saddle and just rope these big old calves out of the herd and drag ’em by the pit. I was flanking ’em and spread eagling for two or three days. They doctor them and do whatever they do. And they (the Haythorns) bought me a hat as a thank you gift, a nice black stetson.”

LAB: You were a ‘made man’ after that.

JC: ‘Oh, yeah, that was it. I was done right then and there. Yeah, that was pretty good.”

 

 Academy Of Motion Picture Arts And Sciences' 2nd Annual Governors Awards
LAB: Rodeo became a big part of your life after that.
JC: “I had a friend in Vegas named Dean Shendal (one-time professional steer wrestler and rodeo star and a fixture on the Vegas social scene; he opened his Green Valley ranch and practice arena to celebrities and competitors). All the rodeo champs used to train there and practice there before all the finals in Oklahoma City. I guess that’s how I got into rodeoing. Well, listen, from that point on I became an amateur and I filled my card in a year. I became a pro. It was just in my blood. When I started doing these bigger films, I was the first guy they had put in his contracts that I couldn’t rodeo, which is understandable. I could understand why they didn’t want me rodeoing on the weekends.”

 

James Caan

 

 

LAB: You were heavy into your pro rodeo career when you worked on Funny Lady.

JC: “That’s a funny story. There was an incident where…there was about four weeks left on the picture and my lawyer at the time called me and said, ‘Jimmy, a week from next Wednesday I’m going to ask you to walk off the picture.’ I said, ‘What? What are you talking about?’ He said, ‘Well, they still haven’t signed the contract.’ Mind you, I’d been on it for two months already. I said, ‘What do you mean?’ Well, it turned out they agreed to the same deal I had on Cinderella Liberty and whatever and then they discovered, you’re not going to participate in the music rights, and they weren’t going to add that, which they usually do, to the gross of the picture – whatever little percentage I had. So they were arguing back and forth.

“Ray Stark (the film’s producer) was a tough guy and his lawyer was tough. I was sneaking out anyway (to rodeo). I was roping with a kid named H.P. Evens, who was a world champion at that time. And before that Wednesday I snuck out with H.P. and entered this rodeo in Palm Springs and as luck or whatever had it I roped this steer and I think as I sat back down to (?) it the horse threw me over the front of that saddle horn and that rope just ran through my hands. I wouldn’t let it go because I won like $86 or some bullshit. I could have lost a finger.

“It finally kicked up and dallied but it literally took all the hide off between my thumb and my forefinger. Just ran down to the bone. Oh my God, I remember some guy pouring some new skin in there. I had to go to work Monday. How the hell you going to keep that from the makeup people? I move my hands a lot in this picture, I’ll wrap it up, they’ll never notice it. So I do this scene with Barbra (Streisand). Nobody saw nothing. The minute I came off I headed to my trailer and I started putting some gauze on my hand and there was this guy standing there watching me. It was Ray Stark. He came over and said, ‘Goddamnit, you’ve been rodeoing again.’ I didn’t say nothing. And he said, ‘Didn’t you read your goddamned contract?’ And I said, ‘I don’t believe I’ve got one, Ray, and there’s another rodeo coming up this next week.’ Well, that afternoon the contract got signed.

“They took away my motorcycle from me and my right to enter rodeos.”

 Classic: James Caan, Marlon Brando, Al Pacino and John Cazale in The Godfather

 

 

LAB: The Haythorns have quite a legacy.

JC: “I knew they were huge ranchers. I think there was some trail they blazed…”

NOTE: In 1890 Harry Haythorn, Waldo’s grandfather, and helpers drove 700 horses from eastern Oregon to the family’s ranch north of Ogallala, Neb., and then to the Rosebud Indian Reservation in south-central South Dakota, and this became the basis for the Duval-starring mini-series Broken Trail.

“So I became friendly with them (as did Duvall, who’s been to the Haythorn ranch several times).”

LAB: Of course Duvall got to know the Petersons intimately when he made his documentary about them.

JC: “I know he stayed close to them, and you know Rex (Peterson) along with Shelly (Peterson) are both out here, they both work in the industry (as horse trainers-wranglers). I haven’t heard from Denny. Shelly, I think she works in the Teamsters Union. Rex is training horses out here. He’s the most like his dad I guess of the guys I know. He’s a tough old sonofabitch. He ain’t got time for a lot of how ya’ doins and stuff.”

LAB: Duvall told me his experiences with the Petersons and the Haythorns informed his portrayals of the western characters he’s played. Is the same true of you?

JC: “My interest in ranching and all that, certainly that was a foundation for Comes a Horseman. And that was a complete fucking mess. I’ll get into that because Alan Pakula (the director), may be rest in peace, I wasn’t very fond of him, but two or three out of a hundred aint bad. But he didn’t know which end of a horse ate and he was the guy I got. I put the whole picture together and I’m not one of those guys that do all that stuff. I’m kind of lazy. I go in my trailer, say my words and go back in my trailer. When that picture was first conceived I went and got Jane Fonda. It was just a story about ranch life in 1945 in Montana. Montana was the last unfenced range in the country in ’45. And this guy (his character) comes back. It was just about the ranch life,. He joins forces with this girl.

“There was no Jason Robards character. There was none of that Bonanza bullshit. And Richard Farnsworth, I gave him his first acting job. He was great. And that’s what it was. I wanted to do a semi-documentary small picture. I went and spoke to Terrence Malick, who I wanted to do it and Terry said, ‘I know I’m going to shoot myself but I only do my own stuff…’and da-da-da. So then my agent got Alan Pakula. I was about to go off and do some picture with Claude LeLouch and I spent three or four hours with him (Pakula) telling him,’ Look, here’s what it is.’ And, of course, I had the best ropers in the world out there, and some of that roping in there was pretty hairy and wicked, 1,200 pounders. I just wanted to see these two people doing their work, trying to round these cattle up and all the stuff that’s entailed, and in the middle of the story, to put it in its simplest form, I wanted somebody from some oil company to come and offer them some silly money for the right to drill a hole where they found some oil on their property, and they say no, at which point I wanted the audience to go, ‘This is bullshit, this is nonsense, they’re working their ass off, who wouldn’t take $2 million?’

“And then when they finish driving the cattle to the station at the end of the picture I wanted the audience to realize that the only reason to ranch in my mind is that you love it, it’s for the right to do it again the next year, like the Haythorns and the Petersons. The idea that most of the people in the audience don’t really love what they do and they realize that instead of that being baloney, they get it. That’s what I wanted to happen. And then I came back from France and I read this thing (Pakula’s revised script) and went to the studio and said, ‘I’m not doing this – people hanging and rape. What are you talking about?’ And one of our guys got killed doing some stunt that was added to the end of the picture. It was a horror. But Jane was great.”

LAB: The way you describe what you were after on Comes a Horseman reminds me of what Duvall captured in We’re Not the Jet Set. You’ve seen his film, right?

JC: “No, what’s so funny, I speak to him three times a week, I mean he’s my best friend, you know. He tells me what he ate the night before (he does a dead-on impression of Duvall intoning, ‘the best steak I ever had…’ I called and said, ‘Bobby, send me a copy, I haven’t seen it.’ I knew all about it. Well, so you’d think he’d have it. He told me to call his assistant but she couldn’t find a DVD copy.”

 

James Caan
©Warner Brothers

 

 

LAB: He said the two of you have been looking a long time to do another project together.

JC: “Well, there’s this one project I found called Old Timers. It’s owned by this one company and for some reason they won’t turn it loose. It’s been out there for four or five years.”

NOTE: The project is being made with different actors under the new title Standup Guys.

“Yeah, I’d sure like to find something for me and Bobby. Yeah, there’s nothing I’d like better, you know. I just have fun when I’m working with Bobby. He’s at the point where he doesn’t want to do pictures with too many words anymore.”

NOTE: Caan says he has a Western he’s trying to get off the ground, but he runs into resistance from young suits who don’t know his rodeo and riding background.

JC: “‘What the hell does Jimmy know about horses?’ So I fight that all the time. I’m always Sonny Corleone. These people can’t get it out of their mind. For the first 20 years after The Godfather if there weren’t 12 people dead by page 20 on a picture I never got it. Then all of a sudden I sang and danced (in Harold and Walter Go to New York and Funny Lady) and they said, ‘Well, geez, we didn’t know you sing and dance.’ Well, shit, no one ever asked me. ‘Well, we didn’t know you were a cowboy.’ Well, no one ever asked me. (To me) Talk to some of your friends who can write – time ain’t getting any shorter, you know.”

The Boxers – Sweet Scientists from The Hood (from my Omaha Black Sports Legends series – Out to Win Series: The Roots of Greatness)

August 11, 2012 1 comment

Omaha has never been much of a boxing hotbed.  Oh, there’s been the occasional fighter worth following from here who’s shown well in the amateur ranks at, say, the national golden gloves (though I’m not sure any native Nebraskan has made it to the Olympic Games in boxing) and in the pro ranks.  Precious few have ever fought for a championship or even in the prelims of a title card. Unless you’re from Nebraska or live here or you have a strong rooting interest in or connection to Omaha boxers chances are you can’t name more than two or three ring worthies to ever come out of the state and do something memorialized in the boxing annals or the sport’s bible, Ring Magazine.  The following story from my Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness series about Omaha’s Black Sports Legends does highlight a few of the better fighters Omaha’s produced though it’s by no means a comprehensive list.  You’ll find the rest of my Out to Win installments by going to the Categories drop down menu or typing the title in the Search box.

The Boxers – Sweet Scientists from The Hood (from my Omaha Black Sports Legends series:  Out to Win Series: The Roots of Greatness

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Harley Cooper

If any Omaha inner city boxing legend had most of the prized fighting attributes, it was Harley Cooper, a two-time national Golden Gloves champion and 1964 Olympic qualifier. A tough Savannah, Ga. native, Cooper grew up fighting in the hood, but learned to box in the military. After he won the second of his Gloves titles while based at Offutt Air Force Base, he then became the U.S. Olympic light heavyweight entry. In peak form and riding an unbeaten streak, he was primed to bust heads in Tokyo. But on the eve of leaving for Japan, he was medically disqualified.

After transferring to Omaha, his new training ground became Hawk’s Gym, where his sparring partners included future pro heavyweight Lou Bailey. He shot up the amateur ranks by sweeping his first Golden Gloves. But he was no rookie, having compiled hundreds of hours in the ring and dozens of military bouts, winning service titles wherever he was assigned, including Japan and Europe.

“Everybody wanted him to fight for them,” said Omaha boxing historian Tom Lovgren, a former prize fight matchmaker and longtime local observer. “The first time anybody saw him in the gym they knew this guy was going to be a national champion. He could punch. He could box. He could do it all. He was the most complete fighter I ever saw from around here. I never saw Harley Cooper lose a round in amateur fights in Omaha. He was that dominant.”

Cooper twice won the Gloves Trinity when he took the Omaha, Midwest and National tournaments in both ’63 and ’64. His first title run came, unexpectedly, as aheavyweight and culminated at the ’64 Chicago finals.

Cooper was a natural light-heavyweight, but after an overseas transfer to Nebraska he didn’t meet the weight requirements before the local Gloves tourney. Over the light-heavyweight limit, his handlers convinced him, against his better judgment, to compete as a heavyweight. He was an undersized 183 pounds. Even after he won the local-regional heavyweight titles, he wanted to move back to light-heavy, where he was more comfortable. “They wouldn’t let me move down,” he said of his trainers. “They kept saying, ‘Well, let’s see how far you can go.'” He went all the way. The underdog used superior quickness to offset his opponents’ size and power advantages to win just the second national Gloves title by a Nebraskan since the 1930s. In ’64, Cooper fought at his accustomed light-heavy spot and plowed through to the Nationals in Nashville. Cooper’s win in Nashville put him into the Olympic Trials box-off in New York, which he won.

Despite attractive offers, he never turned pro. First, there was his Air Force career. Second, he had a big family to feed, and a sure thing was better than a dream. Since retiring in ’73, his life has centered on kids at the North Omaha Boys Club, Glenwood State School and the Cornhusker Striders track program. But the pull of boxing never left, and so for 30 years he’s volunteered with the Great Plains Amateur Boxing Association. That body organizes and sanctions local-regional boxing cards like the Golden Gloves.  He recently announced Omaha will host the 2006 national Gloves tournament.

“I love boxing. I’m lucky I have a wife that understands it’s such a big part of me.”

Occasional what-might-have-beens creep into his conversation. “There’s still some times when I kind of wish I had of (turned pro),” he said. “I was better than I realized I was at the time. I see these guys now and they just don’t look that good to me, man.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Joey Parks

An earlier Golden Gloves star who did go pro is Joey Parks, a lightweight contender in the late ’50s-early ’60s. A Kansas native, Parks moved to Omaha in 1950. Back home, he competed in football, basketball and baseball and always listened to the Friday night fights on the radio. His late brother, Jerry Parks, was a fine baseball player and longtime Omaha Parks and Recreation director.

Joey trained at the old City Mission Boxing Club at 22nd and Cass under legendary trainer Leonard Hawkins, who later became his father-in-law. Parks’ amateur career began slowly – he lost his first Gloves bout. He developed his skills during an Army hitch in South Korea and, when he returned, dominated. He won City and Midwest Gloves titles in ’55 and ’56, and advanced to the national finals the first year and to the semi-finals the next.

Parks went pro in ’57 and once held a No. 9 world ranking. His career highlights include three close, 10-round, non-title bouts with all-time lightweight champion Joe “Old Bones” Brown. Their first tussle, fought at the State Fair Coliseum in Albuquerque, NM, ended in a disputed draw that cost Parks a title shot. Parks opened a cut over Brown’s eye and dropped him for a one-count in the final round.

Parks lost the rematches by decisions. As great as Brown was, Parks said his toughest foe was future welterweight champ Curtis Cokes, who stopped him.

“He hit like a mule,” he said.

Parks took pride in being a busy, crowd-pleasing favorite. “I had the type of style where I pressed the fight. I kept going forward all the way. I always carried the fight to my opponent. I wouldn’t short change nobody. They got their money’s worth.” The Omahan relied on superb conditioning. “I stayed in tip-top shape. I did my road work every morning. I chopped wood. I sparred.”

He quit the ring in ’63 after a rope gave way in a fight down in Santa Fe, NM and he was sent sprawling, head first, into the ring apron. He was out cold for three minutes. Weeks of double vision later, he hung up his gloves. “A cat has nine lives, but I only have one.” Now 71, he stays fit walking and dancing. Long gone is the popularity that meant people stopped him on the street and treated him to meals, but he remembers his boxing career with pleasure. “It was sweet.”

Lamont Kirkland

One of the most devastating Omaha punchers is Lamont Kirkland. From 1975 to 1980 he won a record-tying six Midwest Golden Gloves titles by simply pummeling people into submission. After coming close, including a loss to future light-heavy champ Michael Spinks, Kirkland finally won a national championship – at 165-pounds – in 1980. He’s the last local fighter to win a national Gloves title. He enjoyed a good pro career that climaxed in a 1987 USBA super middleweight title fight against Lindell Holmes that Kirkland lost by TKO. “I never saw anybody give him a tough fight here,” local boxing expert Tom Lovgren said.

More Fighters and Some Coaches/Trainers

Midge Minor won multiple Omaha and Midwest Golden Gloves titles in the 1950s. Reggie Hughes and Willie “Boots” Washington were among other good boxers from that era’s inner city. Illinois-native Lou Bailey moved to Omaha and had a pro heavyweight career that saw him fight a future champ in George Foreman and many contenders. His son, Lou Bailey, Jr. won three light-heavy Midwest amateur titles.

Heavyweight Morris Jackson was the main rival of Ron “Bluffs Butcher” Stander, whom he met five times as an amateur and pro. “Yeah, we had some knockdown-dragouts,” said Jackson, who once beat the British Commonwealth champ.

After a run-in with the law (for armed robbery) that saw him do 29 months in jail, Jackson turned his life around and, in ’88, was ordained a minister in the Independent Assemblies of God Church. Now the chaplain at the Douglas County Correctional Center, he finds satisfaction in “being able to see men take responsibility for their lives and become better citizens, husbands, fathers. You can’t go through life without believing.” He received a full pardon from then-Gov. Ben Nelson in 1995.

Among Midwest champs, a trio of three-time titlists stands out: Sammy Cribbs was a ferocious puncherin the early ’80s; Kenny Friday was a sharp boxer in the early ’90s; and Bernard Davis was the class of 1998-2001. These and other champion boxers came out of Omaha’s CW Boxing Club. Carl Washington, the CW’s founder, director and namesake, coached with great success before assembling staffers like Midge Minor to continue training champions.

The late Leonard Hawkins was a trainer and coach for scores of amateur champions. His teams won numerous city titles. Based out of a series of gyms over the years, Hawkins also trained a talented stable of pros, most notably at the Fox Hole Gym, where he worked with Art Hernandez, Ron Stander and Lamont Kirkland, among others.

 

Midge Minor, left, fighting as an amateur

 

Related articles

The Wrestlers – Masters in the Way of the Mat (from my Omaha Black Sports Legends series, Out to Win Series: The Roots of Greatness)

August 11, 2012 Leave a comment

This post about wrestling and another post today about boxing may be the final two installments from my Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness series about Omaha’s Black Sports Legends to make it to my blog.  The series originally ran in 2004-2005 in The Reader (www.thereader.com) and I’ve been looking for ways to reporpose the work ever since.  Presenting the stories on this blog is the first attempt to find a new audience.  The next goal is to package the stories, along with new ones, in a book I plan to publish by 2015.  The Olympic wrestling gold medal won over the weekend by American Jordan Burroughs, a former University of  Nebraska mat great, is what motivated me to post this wrestling installment.  I encourage you to check out the other stories from the series. You can find the Out to Win series stories in the Categories drop down menu or by typing the title in the Search box.

 

The Wrestlers – Masters in the Way of the Mat (from my Omaha Black Sports Legends series, Out to Win Series: The Roots of Greatness)

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

In Nebraska, one family stands apart in wrestling: the Olivers of Omaha. Masters of the grappling art, they form a two-generation mat dynasty whose story is still being written.

First there are the accomplishments of brothers Roye, Marshall and Ray, each a prep stud and college All-American in his day. Then the ongoing achievements of Ray’s son, Chris. Victorious in 568 straight matches in Nebraska dating back to the fourth grade, Chris capped his amazing run at Omaha Creighton Prep, where he was coached by his father, by winning a fourth state title this past season. In the process, he became only the third Nebraska schoolboy to go unbeaten in a four-year career. The prized Nebraska recruit is wrestling at 157 pounds for No. 3 rated NU and appears poised to surpass his father’s and uncles’ own impressive records.

But the story doesn’t end there. Five brothers in all wrestled. Roye, Marshall and Ray all competed overseas. Roye was an alternate on the 1984 U.S. Olympic team and now, at age 47, he’s made a dramatic comeback from double knee surgery to win the U.S. Veterans Nationals title at 187.4 pounds in Las Vegas this past April. He qualified for the September world championships in Prague, Czechoslovakia but was unable to attend.

Roye also coaches. He assisted Mike Denney with the perennial Division II power University of Nebraska at Omaha program. He coached with USA Wrestling. He’s worked with select junior national teams in Nebraska and California, where he recently moved. Ray, co-head coach at Prep, started working with Chris when he was 4 and he now schools a nephew, Malcomb McGruder, who’s a highly-regarded junior-to-be at Prep. And the word is a promising new generation of Olivers is developing their moves on the mat at the bantam-cadet levels.

This past summer, the Oliver clan was inducted in the Nebraska Scholastic Wrestling Coaches Association Hall of Fame for their many wrestling feats.

Wrestling for the Olivers is more than tradition. It’s a way of life and an act of faith that got its start, aptly enough, with their own prophet, Ecclesiastes, the oldest brother and, like his siblings, the son of a preacher man. Originally from Brewton, Ala., the family migrated to Omaha in 1962 when their minister-father felt called to come here.

Ecclesiastes took up wrestling at the north Omaha boys club, where Ron McGruder was the coach.

“He came home and demonstrated some of the techniques to my older brothers Roye and Marshall,” said Ray, “and later on when I got old enough, at about five years of age, they demonstrated the techniques to me and my younger brother Bobby. And that started off a milestone and legacy of us becoming great wrestlers in the state of Nebraska and around the nation.”

Just because their daddy preached didn’t make the Oliver boys immune to the less savory elements around the Pleasantview housing projects, where they lived, which is why their parents approved of wrestling’s structure and discipline.

“Instead of hanging out, my brothers and I would go to the boys club and wrestle,” said Ray. “It offered an outlet.”

Ecclesiastes didn’t so much sell the sport for its character-building attributes, as he later did, but rather as a means “to get tough and to win trophies,” Ray said. “He’d come home with trophies and we’d go, ‘Whoa, we want to do that.’ Winning trophies was the most important thing.” At home and at the club the Olivers often tangled, brother on brother, in a ritual of honing skills and testing limits. Wrestling each other helped to forge the Brothers Oliver into the hard-edged competitors they became. “It pushed us,” Ray said. “It helped us strive for higher heights and to learn how to refuse to accept losing as motivation to improve.” Naturally, the brothers developed a signature style.

“We had a lot of similarities with respect to position and stance and maneuvers and techniques,” Ray said. “I’d say we scored more on our feet than we did anywhere else, but we knew how to pin on top using the different pinning combinations, as we were all excited about using the cradle and the three-quarters. And we knew how to escape on the bottom using switches and stunts and stand-ups.”

The brothers came of age in the 1970s at Omaha Technical High School. Roye and Marshall made the Olivers’ first big splash by winning individual state titles in 1973 under head coach Milt Hearn and top assistant Curlee Alexander, a former Tech wrestler and UNO national champion. Ray won an individual title and served as captain for Tech’s 1978 state championship team coached by Alexander.

In the 1970s, the brothers made several memorable trips behind the Iron Curtain — Roye and Marshall in Bulgaria and Roye and Ray in Poland. Only in their mid-teens at the time, the Olivers squared-off with grown men in their 20s and 30s.

“Back in our day, if you were even 15-, 16-, 17-years-old, you wrestled everybody, regardless of how old they were,” Ray said. “That’s not like the way they have it structured today, where they have junior world and cadet divisions. Still, I was 8-0 over in Europe. We went to these great, unique places. It was a great cultural and wrestling experience.”

Roye and Marshall went on to Arizona State University, with Roye earning All-America honors three times and Marshall once. Ray followed his big brothers to ASU, but after only a few months the homesick wrestler transferred to Nebraska, where he wrestled four years. After a slow start that saw him qualify for nationals once out of his first two years, Ray hit his stride as a junior, when he was 32-7 and ranked third nationally. But an ankle injury suffered in the Big 8 championships prevented him from competing in the NCAA tourney.

Determined “to prove to all my competitors I was just as successful as they were,” Ray said, “I came back with a strong attitude and a good regimen, and bounced back my senior year to excel.” He went 34-5 in qualifying for nationals, where he finally joined his brothers in making All-American.

After college, Roye became a world-class freestyle wrestler with the U.S. national team at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. Yet he couldn’t dislodge the men ahead of him at 163 pounds, the legendary Lee Kemp and Dave Schultz. He hoped the veterans world championships would finally net him his first world title, but he couldn’t get enough time off to go compete.

This fall and winter, the Olivers have their collective eyes trained on Chris as he tries to add to his niche inthe family’s elite wrestling heritage. The Oliver he’ll most likely be compared to is his dad, who notched a name for himself in Husker wrestling lore. For his part, Ray hopes his son surpasses him.

“My picture hangs on the conference champions wall down at the Bob Devaney Sports Center,” Ray said, “and I’m pretty excited about that. Hopefully, my son will make his mark and get his picture up there, too, only on the national champions wall.”

Ray said his son is humble about his emerging place in the Oliver wrestling tradition.

“He knows the things we’ve done, and the things he’s done so far are a great achievement, but he’s learned to put it in the right perspective.” For his part, Chris has no interest in competing with his family’s legends. “I mean, I would love to be an All-American,” he said, “but as I enter into wrestling in college, my own personal set of goals are to not really worry about what my relatives did, but just try to go out there and make my own home there.” Beyond admiring their wrestling props, Chris learned from his father and uncles by going one-on-one with them on the mat to soak up some hard-earned wisdom. “It’s been really great to have a chance to pick and choose and learn from all of them,” he said, “because they know a lot.”

Ray feels Chris is well beyond where he or any of his brothers were at a comparable age. “On a scale of one to 10, we were probably a seven and he’s probably a 10. He’s got the ability to be a great one,” he said. The father said he knew Chris was gifted early because even at age four or five he showed a knack for the sport’s intricacies and its heart-of-a-warrior mentality. “I saw his learning ability as far as picking up moves and techniques and as far as being combative. He didn’t mind getting in there and just mixing things up and being physical.”

Chris first stamped himself a top prospect when, at age 6, he finished second in the Tulsa Nationals, a prestigious youth tournament that he won the next year. As he’s evolved into the consummate, dominating wrestler he is today, when he routinely breaks his opponent’s will in the first period, his passion for the sport remains strong.

“I just love the sport of wrestling and all the competition and camaraderie that comes with it,” he said. “I love going out there and having fun. It’s a really tough sport and you gotta be disciplined. You gotta work hard at it. But I think probably the main thing for me is having fun.”

Having fun. That’s what his uncle Roye also referred to ashe continues competing as a middle-aged man in the demanding sport. “It’s still fun,” Roye said.

And so the Oliver wrestling saga marches on. “Our family has paved the way for the sport of wrestling in Neraska,” said Roye, who expects great things from Chris and his younger nephews. “You ain’t heard the last of us yet.”

 

 

 

Roye Oliver

 

Chris Oliver, ©huskers.com

 

More Notable Wrestlers

The Olivers are among many inner city wrestling legends.There was Tech High’s Fred Brown, one of only a few four-time state champions in Nebraska prep history. South High’s Richard Brown (no relation) was a four-time Nebraska state finalist and three-time champion in the late 1950s. A promising collegiate career was cut shortwhen Richard Brown dropped out of school to start a family. He’s been active as a youth wrestling coach the past 35 years.

North High has produced several multiple champions, including Dick Davis in the ‘60s, Antoine Parker, Duaine Martin and Darrious Hill in the ‘80s, and Chauncey Parker, Willie Hill, Eric Hill and Curlee Alexander, Jr. in the ‘90s. A former Northern Iowa University All-American, Martin still competes internationally at age 36. He recently vied for a berth on the U.S. Olympic Greco Roman Wrestling team.

Creighton Prep’s Ben Perkins won three state titles and made All-America at Iowa State. Dante Lewis won a title at Omaha Benson and two at Bryan. Two-time state champs include Tech’s Joe Crawford and David Washington and Central’s Pernell Gatson. Prep’s Brauman Creighton never won a state title but won a pair of Division II national titles as a UNO Maverick.

The Coaches

Many of the area’s finest coaches have hailed from the inner city.

Charles Bryant was a tenacious, tough-as-nails football-wrestling standout at South High. Bryant’s life has been one long fight against exclusion. He found an unwelcome climate at NU but he persevered and helped change attitudes, earning All-Big Seven honors in the process. When denied a teaching-coaching job with the Omaha Public Schools, he made his own success in the Bluffs public school system, where he was the architect of a 1960s mat dynasty at Thomas Jefferson High School. He took satisfaction in his T.J. teams regularly thumping Metro Conference squads from OPS. He ended up with OPS, on his own terms, as an administrator and athletic director. A fine sculptor, the retired Bryant pursues his art while battling cancer.

Similarly, Don Benning has never said no to a challenge. Growing up in a white east Omaha neighborhood, he was the target of racial slurs that prompted him to fight. Proving himself almost daily with his brains and brawn, he became a top student and gridiron-mat star at North High and UNO. A bright young teaching candidate who was unable to break through the OPS color barrier, Benning was ready to leave for Chicago when he was convinced to take a graduate fellowship and assistant coaching job at UNO in the early 1960s. When asked to take over the school’s struggling wrestling program, he became the first black head coach at a mostly white university. By decade’s end, he led his team to an NAIA national title before he embarked on an OPS administrative career distinguished by his integrity.

When he began wrestling in the early ‘60s, Curlee Alexander, Sr. showed such little promise that his assignment in high school duals was to avoid getting pinned, thus saving his team points. A hard worker, Alexander got better and by his senior year at Tech he finished second at state. It was in college that he really blossomed. Competing for Don Benning at UNO, he was a four-time All-American, and as a senior he helped UNO claim the 1969 NAIA team title by winning the 115-pound championship at nationals.

Alexander then followed his mentor, Benning, to become a top educator and coach. He led his alma mater, Tech, to a state championship and added six more team titles as North High’s head coach. The retired teacher now serves as North’s associate head coach. He remains the only black head coach to guide a school to a Nebraska team state wrestling title.

And then there was Joe Edmonson. They called him Little Joe, but his presence loomed large. Confined to a wheelchair his entire adult life after a trampoline accident at age 17 that left him paralyzed from the neck down, Little Joe stood figuratively tall. Whether pitching his gruff voice to instruct or squirming in his chair to demonstrate a hold, he held the rapt attention of the many youths who came to learn life and wrestling lessons from him. They always looked up to him.

By the time he died at age 54 in 2002, Edmonson’s Exploradories wrestling club, which got its start in the laundry room at old Immanuel Hospital, had been transformed into the Edmonson Youth Outreach Center in the Fontenelle Park Pavilion. Recognized in 1991 with a Daily Point of Light award from then-President George Bush, one of many honors Joe and his work received, the YMCA-affiliated center offers children athletics, reading enrichment and computer training.

A former wrestler at Tech, where he was a city and state champion at 95 pounds, Joe used wrestling and his own perseverance to deliver a message about enduranceand achieving against all odds.

In the preface of one of his clinic brochures, he spelled out his philosophy: “Everyone, no matter who he is, has potential. While teaching the techniques of wrestling to him, we are also instilling in him the plain simple truth that he is somebody.”

Edmonson produced winners. Scores of his wrestlers earned medals in local, regional, national and international competitions. Perhaps the highlight of his coaching life came as head coach of the USA School Boys Wrestling Team that competed in Mexico City in 1978 and 1980, when he led his charges to third and first place finishes, respectively. Making this showing even more impressive was the fact his teams were community-based squads comprised solely of his own club wrestlers, who more than held their own with opponents drawn from select state and national teams. In 1983, he guided the World USA Greco School Boy Wrestling Team to the World Greco Team championship.

Dozens of state high school champions and collegiate All-Americans came out of his program, including Duane Martin and Ben Perkins. Former North head coach Curlee Alexander said Little Joe’s prodigies were “tough. Whenever I got one, I didn’t have to worry about him folding on me.”

 

 
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