It’s not every day you get a call from one of the most prolific writer-directors in Hollywood’s history. But the call I received early one morning in the summer of 1991, when Samuel Fuller and his family were living in Paris, was a call that changed my life, and perhaps even affected how we all remember this remarkable moviemaker.
“How’re you doing, handsome?” Fuller asked. Though he was going on 80 at the time, there was an incredible vigor in Sam’s raspy, cigar-cured voice. In the seven years that I had known Fuller and his wife, Christa, we had become like family. I had learned that Sam rarely “gibble-gabbled on the horn,” as he described chatting on the telephone. Christa was always his spokesperson, fielding calls day and night from around the world—the personal ones from their legions of friends as well as the professional ones from journalists who wanted interviews, festival directors organizing Fuller retrospectives, solicitous directors and wheeler-dealer producers, not to mention all the graduate film students writing their theses on Sam’s work. Christa dealt magnanimously with everyone, but Sam refused to go near the receiver, insisting that he wanted to spend his time exclusively on his writing.
“Sam?” I asked, alarmed at hearing his voice on the other end of the line. “Is something the matter?”
“My boy,” he said, “did you mean it when you invited me to come down and stay at your place?”
“Of course I meant it, Sam.”
“I’m trying to finish this goddamned novel,” he said, “and it’s got me by the balls. I need a place to hole up for a while. I’ve gotta get out of Paris. The Fuller girls, God love ‘em, are driving me crazy with all the gibble-gabble.”
“You’re on. When are you coming?”
“Christa will set it all up.”
Before I could say “Okay,” he’d hung up.
I had met Samuel and Christa Fuller at a dinner at the Deauville Film Festival in the early 1980s where the other VIP guests that evening were Dustin Hoffman, Robert Wise and Debbie Reynolds, among others. But I only had ears for Sam; we talked the entire night away.
Wearing a white suit with a white vest, he regaled me with his rapid-fire, jaw-dropping stories and billowing clouds of cigar smoke, laughing outrageously, punctuating sentences with a wave of his long Camacho. A couple of times his cascading cigar ashes almost burned a hole through the pants of my suit; I would have been duly honored.
I was invited to visit the Fullers in Paris when I came through town. It was the start of a beautiful friendship, not only with Sam, but also with Christa and their daughter, Samantha.
Each Summer, the Fullers made a pilgrimage to Avignon, France to participate in my little festival, the Avignon Film Festival (though in those days it was known as the French-American Film Workshop; the name was changed in 2000), where Sam ran into old friends like Louis Malle, Agnès Varda and Paul Mazursky and made new ones like Paul Schrader, Cédric Klapisch and Quentin Tarantino. One night on the rooftop terrace of an Avignon hotel (where I am now persona non grata), Sam, Quentin, Alex Rockwell, Maria de Medeiros and a group of other young moviemakers had a private party, emptying all the little bottles of whiskey and vodka they’d brought up from the refrigerators in their rooms, throwing the empties over the building’s edge and into the alleyway three stories below. Every time I said that was a no-no, they laughed uproariously, drained another little bottle and tossed it into the night. That was when Sam asked Quentin how he got Harvey Keitel to do Reservoir Dogs.
“My acting teacher gave Harvey the script,” Tarantino told him. “I figured a star wouldn’t hurt.”
“My boy,” said Sam, waving his cigar at Quentin, “you didn’t get a star—you got a galaxy!”
By the summer of 1991, the Fuller family was hunkered down in a modest, walk-up apartment on rue de Reuilly, not far from the Gare de Lyon. Money was tight. Offers for Sam’s scripts and directing talents were few and far between. I had recently helped them move to this solidly working-class neighborhood from the 8th Arrondissement where Sam, Christa and Samantha had been residing in a spacious but exorbitantly expensive pad since their arrival in Paris. Their cozy new place on Reuilly was more in keeping with a limited budget and, though as charming as old Parisian dwellings can be, still tiny.
Ever considerate of her husband’s needs, Christa had fashioned a little writer’s niche in the back corner of their bedroom, giving Sam and his Royal typewriter some makeshift privacy. There was even a folding Chinese screen to create the illusion of solitude. But the phone never stopped ringing and Samantha, then a teenager, liked to turn the stereo up loud.
So one bright morning that summer, Sam Fuller stepped off the Paris-Marseille TGV bullet train at the Avignon station, hundreds of miles from his home in Paris, with a big grin and a small leather handbag strapped over his shoulder.
“Hello, handsome!” he said when he saw me waiting on the platform. He then turned his attention to relighting a half-smoked cigar that he had to extinguish four hours before when Christa had put him on the train in Paris.
Christa had given the conductor a healthy tip to make sure that Sam’s suitcase and beloved Royal typewriter were delivered safely to me in Avignon. The suitcase was a heavy little devil. As I discovered later, it was packed with the novel-in-progress along with a couple of reams of typing paper. Sam refused to let me carry the handbag strapped over his shoulder. I couldn’t understand why he wouldn’t part with it until we got into my Peugeot station wagon for the short drive home. He unzipped the handbag to retrieve some wooden matches and I saw the three boxes of Camacho Havanas stashed inside. I had never asked how long Sam planned on staying with me, but now I could figure it out for myself. The math was easy: Sam averaged about two cigars a day, so at 20 to a box, his Camacho reserves would keep him in smokes for about 30 days. He’d never let that bag out of his sight throughout his month-long stay with me.
I had reorganized my upstairs guest room as a study for Sam. There were a couple of tables made from wooden planks propped up on sawhorses, a couch where he could nap and plenty of ashtrays. Sam happily set up shop. The Royal was positioned in the center of one table, with his chair facing the big window that overlooked my delicious little corner of Provence. There, Sam would sit, puff on his cigar and type away all day.
On the other table, he arranged his finished chapters into little stacks that meandered all over the place in some kind of secret filing system. The only noise came from the Mistral blowing down from the Alps, rustling the cypress and pine trees outside. When the wind stopped, you could hear cicadas and birds chirping away. Sam was happy.
We quickly settled into a daily routine. First thing in the morning, we took a brisk walk down to the little village square below and had café au lait and hot croissants at one of the little marble tables at the Bar de l’Univers. We bought one copy of the Herald Tribune and shared it. Then there was some shopping on the way back to my place, as we discussed the morning’s headlines. Sam loved newspapers because he had been a journalist himself. He told me that his secret dream had always been to become a newspaper editor.
By 8:30 a.m., Sam had closed the door to his study and begun typing away energetically. I usually worked out back in my vegetable garden while it was still cool, harvesting a basket of fresh tomatoes, eggplants, green peppers and zucchini every day. By noon, with Sam still banging away on his Royal, I had prepared lunch.
By 1:00 p.m. I had served the meal at my little wooden kitchen table. I knocked on Sam’s door and had to cajole him to stop writing long enough to eat. After lunch, with the summer heat at its peak, Sam would take a siesta. I’d retire to the master bedroom to do the same. An hour or so later, we were both refreshed. I ground coffee beans and brewed us espresso. Then Sam went back to his Royal and I went to work in my downstairs office, just beneath him. I could hear Sam tapping away upstairs, occasionally talking to himself, laughing, mumbling dialogue.
As the sun started to set, I’d get dinner ready, many times grilling chicken, meat or fish over an open fire on the backyard barbecue. We’d eat downstairs on the terrace under the vine arbor, where a cool breeze made its daily appearance at dusk. Over cheese and fruit salad, Sam would recount fabulous stories about his early days in Hollywood in the late 1930s. While he was still a reporter in New York, Sam had decided to take a crack at screenwriting and went out West.
As an avid film buff, I was a hungry listener. I had only known moviemakers like John Ford, Howard Hawks, Raoul Walsh, Leo McCarey, Tod Browning, Frank Borzage and Otto Preminger through their movies; Sam had known them personally. What a masterful storyteller he was, weaving together enthralling anecdotes, disparate events and film plots, always keeping you on the edge of your seat until somehow he’d miraculously find the common thread, neatly tying up all the loose ends.
I was so captivated that only later, in retrospect, did I realize that here at my table was a man who’d been schooled in moviemaking by a generation that worked directly with the likes of D.W. Griffith, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and Charlie Chaplin (a much older Chaplin supposedly flirted openly with Sam’s first wife, Martha, at a Beverly Hills restaurant in the 1950s, infuriating Sam to the point of insulting Chaplin to his face). Sam was a direct descendant of the people who’d made the very first movies—a man who carried on high a torch passed on to him by the pioneers of the Seventh Art.
The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor put an end to the first phase of Sam’s life in Hollywood. He joined the Army’s First Division (famously known as the “Big Red One”) not long after finishing his award-winning fourth novel, The Dark Page. He explained that “soldiering didn’t give me a hard one,” but that World War II was a hell of an opportunity to cover the biggest crime story of the 20th century and nothing was going to stop him from being on the front lines.
After having survived the Allied invasions in North Africa, Sicily and at Omaha Beach, then battling the Nazis back across the Siegfield Line, Sam returned to civilian life and resumed his career, this time aiming to write and direct. He told me how, on a handshake deal with his first producer, he’d written and directed The Steel Helmet on a shoestring budget, made a bundle of cash and been accepted into the Hollywood establishment.
He talked a great deal about his affection for Darryl Zanuck, the 20th Century Fox mogul who became an employer, co-conspirator and friend during Sam’s golden years in Hollywood.
Every night after dinner, Sam kept his stories coming until I couldn’t keep my head up anymore. The man had more energy than any human being I had ever encountered. I went to bed as the moon rose high in the east, serenaded by a mischievous nightingale in the pine forest behind my house. Sam retired too, but not before making more manuscript corrections. The next morning, we’d get up and start our daily routine all over again.
About a week into Sam’s stay with me, our little bachelor party took an unexpected turn. First, Sam had some pain in his lower back because of the nonstop sitting and typing. I called up a doctor pal from Avignon who came over that evening, had a glass of wine with us and gave Sam a shot that made the pain go away. (I have no idea what the injection was, nor did I ask. Neither did Sam.) Though he didn’t say much to me about the incident, Sam was grateful that I was “taking good care of him,” as he explained to Christa during one of their regular phone calls. He went back to his writing with a fervor that would make a man half his age jealous.
That night at dinner, I asked Sam to tell me about the novel he was writing. He had never discussed it with me before. He nodded his head silently, re-lit his cigar and puffed out a cloud of smoke. I had taken care of him so he was going to do the same for me by sharing his tale: Paul is a bagman, see, a tight-lipped mob employee who delivers cash to blackmail judges, politicians and police officials. Paul falls for a dragon lady. They run off to Europe with a big bag of mob money. A cold-blooded hitman relentlessly tracks them down. But Paul has an even bigger problem: He gets unpredictable seizures, hence the title of the book, Brainquake.
Smoking away on his Camacho, Sam talked about his novel with the enthusiasm and passion of an adolescent.
The next morning Sam called me into his writing room, which had remained off-limits to me until then. His desk was covered with scraps of paper where he had scribbled story ideas and plot twists that came to him day and night. The typing paper he’d brought with him turned out to be glossy yellow flyers that had already been printed on one side. Ecologically-minded long before it was fashionable, Sam had no qualms about typing his eleventh novel on the reverse side of what some Paris print shop must have put out on the sidewalk for the garbage men to take away.
“My boy,” he said, handing me some typed pages, “read the first chapter and tell me what you think!”
I was thrilled that Sam was asking me for some input. Just like Sam’s movies, his novel opened with a pisscutter of a first scene: “Sixty seconds before the baby shot its father, leaves fell lazily in Central Park. Sparrow-weight with bulging jugular, the balloon peddler’s face appeared coated in white ashes of cow dung used against flies, but the pallor was really from his anemia…”
Sam’s prose was terrific yet reading the manuscript was difficult because he’d made scores of cross-outs and underlinings with a felt-tip pen. The margins were full of arrows, circles and notes. I doubted even Sam could follow the flow of the text with all those alterations. So I sat down at my own desk, re-typed the first page of his manuscript on a word processor, and printed it out in 14-point type.
I showed it to Sam and he was momentarily speechless.
“Isn’t this easier to read?” I asked him.
“For Chrissakes,” he said, “I love it! Can you keep going?”
So I did, re-typing every chapter in that 400-plus-page manuscript. As I did, I began to correct Sam’s spelling and grammar, even suggesting how he could improve certain passages. He was delighted. The nature of our relationship changed. I began to work with Sam as his editor and he relied more and more on my judgment, many times handing me a new chapter, full of his scribbled notes with arrows and circles, with the simple marching orders: “Clean it up, handsome.”
Sam’s month-long stay came to an end. I packed him up and put him back on the train up to Paris. The manuscript for Brainquake remained behind. He asked me to finish my polish and bring him the clean printout as soon as possible. He was entrusting me with what would turn out to be his last literary work. It took me until late that autumn to finish the job, which was truly a labor of love.
When I hand-delivered the manuscript to the Fuller apartment, Sam leafed through the laser-printed pages with a smile from one ear to the other. Then he grabbed my hand enthusiastically: “Great job, my boy!” he said. It was all the compensation I needed.
Years later, after Sam’s second stroke and following his death in 1997, Christa and I would put all of Sam’s memoirs into his book, A Third Face. It stands as a crusty, no-bullshit testament to this marvelous man. We wanted to make sure Sam got a chance to tell the inspiring story of his life in his own voice. I was buoyed by the experience of having already worked with him on a book at my house.
Over the many meals Sam and I shared, I had heard from the horse’s mouth all those fascinating tales. Most of them found their way into his book: The stories about his first job selling newspapers on the streets of Manhattan, about being a copyboy to one of William Randolph Hearst’s most powerful editors, about becoming a crime reporter at age 17, about hitchhiking around the U.S. during the Great Depression, about ghostwriting novels and screenplays until he wrote them under his own name, about going off to Hollywood, about fighting with the Big Red One in WWII. Sam was brutally honest about the ups and downs of his career as a writer-director. So was his autobiography.
One book critic wrote: “A Third Face will stand as Fuller’s single greatest artistic achievement.” As kind as that assessment is, I think Sam’s films, like The Steel Helmet, Run of the Arrow, The Big Red One, Shock Corridor, Pickup on South Street, Forty Guns and The Naked Kiss, remain his crowning accomplishment. Not to mention his novels like The Dark Page and Brainquake (which, although it has appeared in many languages in many countries, remains unpublished in the United States). What I’m most proud of is that A Third Face showed what a profoundly ethical man Samuel Fuller was and how he remained true to his hardboiled ideals right to the end.
Living with Sam was one of the most memorable and invigorating times of my life. The flame he lit in me will always be there. Hopefully, his legacy will also continue to burn bright. mm
Founder and president of both the 24-year-old Avignon Film Festival and the 13-year-old Avignon/New York Film Festival, Jerome Henry Rudes is co-author of Samuel Fuller’s memoirs, A Third Face, and a consultant to LVT Laser Subtitling in Paris and New York. E-mail him your comments or questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.