by: Jim Snowden
A theatrical production’s make believe racism comes face to face with its real-world counterpart, spilling off the screen with deadly results…
Excerpted From Persons of Many Parts Interview #318: Jack Renner, August 4th, 2016. Keith Schmidt, Interviewer
KS: So let’s talk about Howard Zeleznick.
JR: Howard. Yeah, he was quite the character.
KS: How did you get hooked up with him?
JR: Well, I’d gone back to Canada after we’d wrapped up filming The Agitator…
KS: Oh, yes, The Agitator, we need to talk about that one.
JR: Yes, we do. Actually, the stories kind of overlap, but if I start digressing, we’ll never get to the end. Anyway, I went back to Ottawa for the Shakespeare Festival and had a great run of shows. In the meantime, The Agitator’s release date kept getting postponed, which disappointed me because I’d made this film at some risk. I was the lead, and I wanted people to see it. Barry Corgan had turned a lot of fresh faces into working Hollywood actors with his pictures, and I wanted to be one of them. But the movie kept getting delayed, and I figured if I waited for its release to launch my career in pictures, I’d be waiting forever. So in 1968, I packed up the old Nash and drove back to Hollywood.
KS: Was the money or security not enough for you up in Canada?
JR: It was all right, but it was getting to the point where I knew it was either stay in Canada forever, or make one more run at Hollywood, or maybe Broadway, while I still had the courage. Courage is a finite resource. Once you use it up, it’s gone forever. So back to Los Angeles I go, and the first movie I land is one of Howard Zez’s, Dope Dealers From Outer Space.
KS: Yes, the film, where you played Tleary, the Alien Drug Pusher.
JR: That was me, in that stupid V-neck sweater Howard had made me, Frank, and Tony wear.
KS: You guys looked like The Four Preps. Well, three of them, anyway.
JR: Funny you should mention that. I think there’s actually a reel of us somewhere singing “Twenty-Six Miles.”
KS: They put it on the DVD.
JR: You’re kidding.
JR: Miles of film stock go bad every day, but that survives? [Laughs] Anyway, we were shooting Dope Dealers when Barry called to talk to me about The Agitator. Turns out the reason he hadn’t released it was that he ran out of money, so he made six or seven creature features to get enough bread together to pay for The Agitator’s duplicating and promotion.
KS: He made six pictures just for that?
JR: Yeah. It was a passion project of his and David’s.
KS: David Freem. Wasn’t he the Dope Dealers screenwriter?
JR: Yes. That film was decidedly not a passion project of his.
KS: What was it to him?
JR: If he were still around, you could ask him, but I’m guessing it was cigarette and gas money to him. The man was a chimney. After we wrapped the shooting on Dope Dealers, I couldn’t get the smell of his cancer sticks out of my V-neck.
KS: So what happened next when Barry called you?
JR: He told me that he was having a premiere for The Agitator. He asked me and Cliff [Diaz] and Shelly [Mantooth] to come, and he was flying in a couple of the black actors from East Prairie [Missouri], where we shot it.
KS: Which actors?
JR: Ann and Stanny Chisholm. They were mother and son.
KS: They were first time actors, weren’t they?
JR: They weren’t really actors at all. They were real townspeople. We had a lot of those in the picture, though only the black actors were told what kind of movie it was.
KS: Why the secrecy?
JR: We didn’t want word to get out to anyone who’d kick us out of town or kill us. So the townspeople thought we were a documentary crew and that I was “the real McCoy” of right-wing racial agitators.
KS: Why use black townspeople who’d never acted before?
JR: I’m sure Barry’s talked about this elsewhere, but as I remember there were two reasons. The first was that no black actors wanted to go on the shoot. They knew they’d be taking their lives in their hands doing it. Major studios didn’t film stories with black actors on location in the South back then. Hell, even In the Heat of the Night was shot in, what was it, Indiana?
KS: Illinois, I think.
JR: Right. Not the South. And if the studios didn’t have enough money to pay Sidney Poitier to go down South, there was no way Barry had the cash to get any L.A. actor to do it. But there was another reason I found out about later.
JR: Well, I was in studio filming Dope Dealers –I think it’s the scene where I tried to hook Patricia’s character on my product — when Barry called, just sobbing. “He’s gone” he kept saying “He’s gone”. I asked him who was gone. He said, “Stanny.” And at first it didn’t register to me who that was. Then I remembered the day we shot the scene where I lead the lynch mob to get Stanny. He was a skinny kid, tall, bony with really delicate, feminine features. It really helped him look vulnerable in the lynching scene, like we’d snap him in half before we even had the opportunity to string him up. I suddenly felt sick to my stomach thinking of Stanny dead. I asked what happened but Barry was too overwrought to answer. He hung up. I wanted to get over there right away, but I still had a job to do, so I finished up my scenes for the day, then drove back to L.A. to see Barry. I found him sitting alone at Musso and Franks. The skin around his eyes looked like raw steak. So I sat with him, and he just bawled. When he finished and could talk, he told me what happened. Stanny, he said, had been involved in some demonstrations in St. Louis, and he disappeared on the drive back. Police found his car burned, with him dead at the wheel.
JR: Yeah. Barry said he was still flying Ann in, because she wanted to see the picture and he was damned if he wasn’t going to bring her to the premiere.
KS: So she came?
JR: She did.
KS: What happened?
JR: Well, it would’ve been an easier day if Howard hadn’t insisted on coming to “show his support.”
KS: Did Howard know Barry Corgan?
JR: I don’t think so. When I told Barry I was making a Howard Zez picture, Barry didn’t act like he’d heard of him. I got the idea that Howard thought showing up at the premiere would put him next to people who could do him good in the business. So he showed up with his wife and daughter—who ended up editing the picture. Man, she got to be bigger than all of us, didn’t she? Anyway, Howard and his wife show up looking like Ozzie and Harriet, while his daughter wore a tie dye dress, beads, and a headband. Typical American family of the time. And it got really awkward when Ann showed up with Barry.
JR: Well, Ann was wearing all black, funeral colors, you know. And she was on Barry’s arm when he walked in. And Howard made this face as if someone had farted on him. Barry brings Ann over to me and introduces me. I tell her how sorry I am to hear about Stanny and how great it was to have worked with him for that one morning. I could see the tension in her face. She looked like she was barely holding it together. Barry then asked me a disastrous favor.
JR: He said, “Why don’t you introduce me to your friends?” So I introduced the Zeleznicks. Molly and her mom shook hands right away, but Howard was shaking. I wouldn’t have been surprised if he’d hissed at us. His wife had to elbow him. Then he put on this seasick smile and shook my hand and Barry’s hand and stopped there.
KS: He didn’t shake Ann’s hand?
JR: Didn’t even make a move that way. Neither did she. Sad to say, but I think Ann had a lot of experience with people like Howard, and knew not to try.
KS: Did you know Howard was a racist?
JR: Not at all, but I didn’t know him that well. It wasn’t until David’s book came out back in the ‘90s that I learned he was in the John Birch Society and shit like that. I guess what surprised me was how visceral his reaction was. I mean, it was one thing to see it from the East Prairie townsfolk. Everyone knew about the South. But we were in Los Angeles, which seemed a lot more like home.
KS: You weren’t there when the Watts Riots happened?
JR: No. No I wasn’t. I was in East Prairie at the time and probably too focused on what was going on around me. I’d never been down to Watts. Didn’t know anyone from there. There’s probably an irony in there somewhere. Maybe several layers now that I think about it.
KS: What happened next at the movie premiere?
JR: Well, we all went in to watch the picture. Good seats were easy to get. The theater was only maybe half to two-thirds full.
KS: Small crowd, huh?
JR: Barry didn’t know how to market this kind of movie. It didn’t have monsters or cowboys or maniacs in it. The poster art was my face, with an enraged expression, with one of those little thought balloons above it, and in the thought-balloon is Shelly’s character. It’s confusing, really. I mean, is the movie about me being mad at Shelly? Worst poster art I’ve ever seen. If this had been one of Barry’s monster pictures, people would have been lining up out the door. Anyway, Howard’s in the row behind Barry, Ann, Shelly and me. And the picture gets going, and I have to say I thought it looked great. I usually don’t like watching movies or shows I’m in. I spend too much time thinking about how goofy I look. But I was surprised at how well shot and edited it was. Barry really took his time crafting the film and in the end made it sing.
KS: It is well put together.
JR: You couldn’t say that about all Barry’s pictures, that’s for sure. But this…yeah. Anyway, we get to my big speech in the town square…
KS: Those were real townspeople there, right?
JR: Most of them. And they didn’t know I was a character in a movie. They were just listening. That’s the scary thing. The way they’re absorbing all the racist rhetoric and applauding it. That was real.
KS: Did it scare you while you were doing it?
JR: I felt terrible. I mean, I didn’t know what these people were going to do with my words. Were they going to hurt someone that night? Were they going to find out I was an actor and hurt me? But I kept going because we had to get it in one take.
KS: You were eventually kicked out of town.
JR: That’s right. The last scene with Stanny, we had to do that in one take too, guerrilla style, because we shot it after the sheriff had kicked us out. And we had to shoot fast and early in the morning, not just for fear of the law, but also because we figured if any white townspeople saw a white crowd lynching a black kid, they’d jump in to help kill him.
KS: How was Ann reacting to the picture?
JR: It seemed painful for her to endure, like it was striking a nerve. She never said a word, but whenever I looked at her, she was stone faced. Anyway, it was during my big speech that I heard Howard grousing behind me. “This makes us all look like bigots. We’re not all bigots.” His wife shushed him, but he kept going until Barry, Shelly, and me turned around.
KS: Did he stop?
JR: For a while, but it escalated again when I was giving orders to the Klan to ride through the black neighborhood. Howard stood up, shouting, “This is communism! This is communist propaganda! We don’t hate blacks! We just don’t want to mix with them! That doesn’t make me a Ku Kluxer!” The usher came. Howard got up and shouted, “Let’s go” but his wife and Molly didn’t move, so finally he stormed out of the theater by himself.
KS: Did it spoil your relationship with Howard?
JR: I didn’t care. He was a director on a crap picture, not my friend. He never brought it up again for the rest of the Dope Dealers shoot, which was almost over by then anyway. So the picture goes on. We get to the end. And Ann just has to excuse herself. In the projector light, I could see her tears.
KS: What happened?
JR: She couldn’t watch her son get brutalized by a mob.
KS: That’s understandable.
JR: Yeah. I went after her, not to bring her back, but because I honestly didn’t want to watch either. I got out to the lobby, and she was sobbing by the popcorn machine. The manager was standing there, not sure what to do. So I asked if we could have his office for a few minutes. He let us in and handed us a Kleenex box. Ann sat there and cried while I passed her tissues. It wasn’t too long before she got ahold of herself. Maybe crying in front of the actor who’d been saying and doing the worst things a person could do for a couple of hours wasn’t something she’d wanted to do.
KS: Did you talk at all?
JR: We did. Actually she did most of the talking and I did most of the listening, which was probably the best way for it to go. “It was Stanny’s idea for us to do the picture, you know.” she told me. “He wanted us to be in it so the world could see what we have to live through.” I asked her if we got it right. She said “Yeah. The fear you saw in us, the pain. You showed it. You and Stanny told the world.” I thought but didn’t say, not much of it.
KS: Yeah. It took a long time for The Agitator to find an audience.
JR: That’s right. It took the home video release and a Village Voice article to revive interest. I don’t think Ann lived to see either.
KS: She passed away in 1979.
JR: Right. Anyway, I told Ann she did her part too, and that she looked great on screen. She said “Hush.” She told me about Stanny’s school days, his college life, how scared she was that he’d joined SNCC. Stanny’s murder shocked us, but Ann had been living with the possibility of it every day. Finally, I apologized for Howard, and she asked me something I won’t forget, “Did his hate surprise you?” I said “Yeah.” Her eyes caught mine, and for a moment I felt like I could see her whole life in them, her whole history rushing out of them, straight at me. Her next words were, “Don’t you ever let it surprise you again.” And that was it. We went back out. There were people in the lobby and pictures to take.
KS: Quite a day.
JR: Damn right.