Mel Shavelson has worked in Hollywood long enough to be unsentimental about most everything.
So he has a pretty good idea why I’ve come to his house off Ventura Boulevard, the one he’s lived in so long that it still has remnants of an old Valley orange grove at one end of his 3-acre backyard.
“When people want to talk to me or invite me to something these days, it’s usually because I’m 90 years old,” he says, pausing for an artful beat, his timing immaculately honed after writing comedy for nearly 70 years. “I don’t want to be loved just for being 90, although I guess you can’t prevent it.”
Not exactly a household name today, Shavelson doesn’t have the big-league reputation of a Billy Wilder or a Preston Sturges. But when you dig into his writing and directing credits, which include films with Cary Grant, Henry Fonda, Lucille Ball, Kirk Douglas, Sophia Loren, Clark Gable, Paul Newman, Bob Hope and Danny Kaye, you understand why it’s such a nice surprise to realize that he’s still around.
He’s wise-crack sharp and spry enough to lead me on a ramble around his sprawling compound before settling in at his desk to reminisce about the ups and downs of a career that began in the 1930s as a gag writer for Bob Hope and includes Oscar-nominated films, Emmy-winning TV series and three terms as president of the Writers Guild of America West.
Though he has a delightful new book out, called “How to Succeed in Hollywood Without Really Trying: P.S. — You Can’t!,” I got to know him in the modern way. For the last couple of years, we’ve corresponded via e-mail, which has largely taken the form of Shavelson playing the storyteller and me the eager listener.
When producer Carlo Ponti died in January, Shavelson noted that when he was making “Houseboat” with Grant and Loren, the movie was nearly capsized by Grant’s unrequited ardor for Loren.
As Shavelson recalls, Loren rebuffed Grant by telling him “she was in love with Carlo, even though he was a married man, as was Cary. While the film was shooting, Cary returned to pursuing Sophia until, in desperation, Sophia married Carlo by proxy in Mexico City the very day we were shooting her marriage to Cary aboard the houseboat on the set. And that’s how you make a successful family comedy in Hollywood.”
Shavelson’s tales are more timely than they might seem, since they illustrate how, when it comes to the power equation of Hollywood, star behavior today is no more fickle or mysterious than it was in Shavelson’s heyday. Arriving here in 1938 as a writer on Bob Hope’s radio show, Shavelson had much the same experience as writers today — the paycheck was good, but the Earth revolved around the star.
Hope had a regular writers meeting at 8:30 p.m. at the home of one of the writers. “Sometimes he’d show up, and sometimes he wouldn’t,” Shavelson recalls.
It took me a minute to catch on. Hope, who was married, was out with a girl. “No, he was in with a girl,” Shavelson corrects me. “The meeting was his alibi.”
Hope always made it clear who was boss. Once a week, on payday, the writers would show up at Hope’s house, which had a circular stairway leading to his upstairs office. Hope would stand out on the balcony, fashion the paychecks into paper airplanes and toss them down.
“We were indignant, but it was real money,” Shavelson recalls. “Bob used to say that us jumping around for the checks was the only exercise we got all week.”
From Alec Baldwin to Jim Carrey to Britney Spears, there is no shortage of bizarre star antics today. But it would be hard to top the icons of old Hollywood. Shavelson says Grant, who gave him an ulcer making “Houseboat,” was the strangest of all.
“He experimented with everything — sex, meditation, psychiatry,” he recalls. “And he was president of the LSD Society of California. He told me he learned French by listening [to French lessons] on a tape recorder under his bed when he was asleep.”
Grant had a carbuncle on his forehead before he began work on “Houseboat.” “He said, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll think it well.’ And when he showed up to start filming it was gone. He was convinced your mind controlled your body.”
In Shavelson’s day, as today, movies were often made for reasons entirely unrelated to the presence of a good script. James Cagney played a bit part in “The Seven Little Foys” free because the picture’s real-life subject, vaudevillian Eddie Foy, had given him free meals when Cagney was a starving chorus boy. Frank Sinatra signed on for a supporting role in “Cast a Giant Shadow,” a 1966 Shavelson biopic about an early Arab-Israeli war hero, because “he wanted to spend time with the girls at the nightclubs in Tel Aviv.”
Other actors took work because the script offered them an opportunity to change their image. Joanne Woodward, who starred with Paul Newman in “A New Kind of Love,” wanted to shed her girl-next-door reputation. The part cast her as a quasi-prostitute. When Shavelson showed her the first act of the script, he says, she told him, “I love it. It’s the dirtiest script I’ve ever read.”
Newman auditioned for his part by stopping by the director’s house, downing a few beers and taking him on the back of his motorcycle for a ride along Mulholland Drive. Not every actor was such good company. As with stars today, the conflicts were almost always about control.
Shavelson and Kirk Douglas fought so incessantly during the making of “Cast a Giant Shadow” that Shavelson at one point walked off the set, letting his assistant shoot the film for a day. After the film was released, Douglas sent Shavelson a letter, which still hangs on the wall of his office. “Mel, I think it was a good picture,” it reads. “It could have been better if I had paid more attention to you.”
Shavelson says he shares blame for their clashes. “It was very tough to argue with Kirk because he was very intelligent and very often he was right. He had to be the boss and I had to be the director, and there’s no in-between ground.”
A similar struggle marked the making of “Yours, Mine and Ours,” a comedy Shavelson did with Lucille Ball and Henry Fonda that was remade in 2005. (Shavelson hated the remake.) Like many of today’s comedians, Ball felt she knew her comic strengths so well that she should be the de facto director.
The movie, about a couple whose second marriage creates a family of 18 children, was a hit. But the shoot was fraught with tension. After they finished the final scene, Ball asked Shavelson how he enjoyed working with her. The man who wrote hundreds of gags for Bob Hope was not at a loss for words. “Lucy,” he replied, “this is the first time I ever made a film with 19 children.”
Ball burst into tears and wouldn’t speak to Shavelson for a year.
Millions of words have been written about why filmmakers are ultimately better judges of material than movie stars, but no one puts it better than the 90-year-old veteran.
“There’s a difference between being the performer and being outside, watching the performer do the performance,” Shavelson says. “It just makes it easier for you to judge what’s going on. It’s not that you’re trying to control the actor. You’re just trying to do what you can to help get the best performance.”
So what advice would he give to today’s directors who find themselves working with a prickly star? “Study psychoanalysis,” he promptly replies.
Even though he hasn’t made a film in years and is now retired from teaching at USC, Shavelson remains a man curious about the world. He’s currently reading Walter Isaacson’s new biography of Albert Einstein. He’s also eager to boast about his children’s — and his grandchildren’s — accomplishments. But I felt obligated to ask him what he missed most about his days in Hollywood. Was it the artistic camaraderie? The social whirl? The creative tumult?
“That’s easy,” he says. “I miss being young.”
The Big Picture runs every Tuesday in Calendar. If you have questions or criticism, e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.