ROBERT RELYEA'S AUTOBIOGRAPHY: BEHIND THE ... Celebrating Films of the 1960s & 1970s
When I first moved to Los Angeles about a dozen years ago, the one person I wanted to meet was Robert Relyea. Now, this may seem like an odd choice since his is hardly a household name, but Bob Relyea’s credit was on just about every one of my favorite movies growing up. And if you’re reading Cinema Retro, the odds are these films are favorites of yours as well - “The Alamo,” “The Magnificent Seven,” “West Side Story,” “The Great Escape,” and “Bullitt,” to name a few of the classic movies he worked on.
His nominal title on a picture like “The Great Escape” was assistant to the producer but this hardly begins to describe what he actually contributed to that film. He scouted locations, he was the production manager, directed all the night scenes (because John Sturges didn’t like working nights), he even flew the plane that James Garner piloted in the film and was courageous enough to take on the hazardous job of stunt pilot when the plane needed to crash. Oh, and that immortal shot of Steve McQueen jumping the barbed wire fence on his motorcycle? Yup, Bob Relyea directed that.
They say it’s best not to meet your heroes, that they will only let you down. Well, as usual “they” are wrong. I finally got to meet Mr. Relyea and it has been one of the great pleasures of my life to be able to call him my friend. A finer, more decent man I have never met and he is also one of the best storytellers I have ever had the pleasure of knowing. Now, with the publication of his memoirs of a life in the motion picture industry, “Not So Quiet on the Set,” you, too, have the opportunity to meet Robert Relyea and I urge you to do yourself a great favor and read one of the funniest and most moving books about the movie industry I have ever read. The style of the book perfectly captures the voice of the man I know - understated, honest, slightly amazed at the things he has seen and been a part of, and full of a puckish wit that infuses the incredible goings on.
And what a cast of characters! Grace Kelly, Marlon Brando, Elvis, John Wayne, Richard Widmark, Frank Sinatra, Steve McQueen, Audrey Hepburn, Shirley MacLaine, James Garner, June Allyson, Yul Brynner, Burt Lancaster, Charles Bronson, James Coburn, Cliff Robertson, David McCallum and Peter Sellers, even the Beatles make an appearance.
And the directors he’s worked with are here as well - Vincente Minnelli, William Wyler, Robert Wise, Blake Edwards, Peter Yates, Mark Rydell and his mentor, the great John Sturges. In fact, the story about how Sturges happened to make “Bad Day at Black Rock” is worth the price of admission alone, as they used to say. It’s hard to pick out a favorite anecdote, they are all so well told, but there are a couple of stories about the making of “The Alamo” that are priceless, including one about Relyea having a conversation with John Wayne as a horse proceeded to bite the Duke on the ass. Wayne turned around and socked his equine attacker squarely on the snout without missing a beat in the conversation with Relyea. And this was years before Mongo in “Blazing Saddles!” “I realized then,” Bob once told me, “He wasn’t acting. He really WAS John Wayne!”
John Wayne with director John Ford, who visited the set“The Alamo” provides the book with some of its funniest moments as well as one of the most dramatic. During the long, arduous shoot, Relyea developed a bleeding ulcer that came within minutes of killing him. Thanks to the blood transfusions of the many stuntmen on the film, he survived, thanks to the massive infusions of stuntmen’s blood, almost all of it laced with copious amounts of tequila, Jack Daniels and Scotch. In fact, there’s a funny story that Bob Relyea once told me about that film, that isn’t in the book so I won’t be giving anything away if I recount it here.
“On the first day of shooting, one of my responsibilities was to watch Duke play the scene, since they didn’t have video monitors in those days for him to look at after the shot was completed. Well, I got so pre-occupied with the set-up and and everything that I didn’t notice until we all saw the dailies that because he had lived so long with this project, Duke not only knew his lines, but knew every other actor’s lines in the scene as well. And when we saw the dailies, there he was, silently mouthing the other actor’s lines as they were delivering them. I was so focused on everything else, I missed it, and I can assure you that I caught hell for that one!”
Relyea was such a consummate professional that top directors like Sturges and Wise and Wyler clamored for his assistance on their films. In fact, one of the dramatic highlights of the book is when he is forced to choose whose company he will become a part of - Wise, who offered him a signed contract to become partner of his production company, or an identical proposal from John Sturges, his mentor. He had agreed to both men’s requests, figuring that it was unlikely that either proposal would pan out and yet when offers arrived on the same day from both directors, Relyea was forced to choose. It goes to show how a good man can find himself in an untenable position and I know that Bob Relyea still smarts over his own perceived shortcoming in the affair. In a highly charged scene in the book, he visits the man he is forced to turn down and receives a devastating dismissal. It just goes to show that the choices that the business forces to make can test the moral resolution of even the most upright man. I think that Relyea is too hard on himself in the matter but his own moral code doesn’t let himself off the hook any easier than it does anyone else in the book.
One of the interesting concepts of the book is the twin narrative than flows through the pages. Relyea’s son Craig introduces many of the chapters by placing the films in a social and familial context and though it is a concept that is fraught with hazards, Craig Relyea pulls it off superbly. His introductions are concise, well-written and illuminate the innate decency of his father. The book is a tremendously entertaining read and more knowledge on the inner workings of the American movie industry can be found between its covers than that in any undergraduate film school.
The petty politics, the logistical challenges, the studio machinations, the human emotions that all go into making a motion picture are delineated here with utmost precision.
Steve McQueen in "The Great Escape" I have had the great pleasure over the years to interview and in many cases, befriend, great directors like Frank Capra, Billy WIlder, Robert Wise, Martin Scorsese and Oliver Stone, to name a few, but I have learned more about filmmaking from Robert Relyea than the lot of them combined. There is wisdom here aplenty but it is never didactic; simply the hard-earned truths of a man who has done it all. The last section has an elegiac quality to it, starting with the sale of Warner Bros. just as “Bullitt” was commencing principal photography. And if I had any nitpicking's about the book, it is that stops in 1971, after the debacle of “Le Mans,” and the dissolution of Relyea’s partnership and friendship with Steve McQueen. I understand his reason for doing so, but ending such a wonderful tale on such a sour note felt a bit awkward. Would that he had continued a few more years to the wild tales of “Day of the Dolphin” with Mike Nichols and George C. Scott, or how Relyea chose Michael Cimino to direct his production of a Vietnam script that became “The Deer Hunter,” only to walk away from the project in a bitter dispute with the young director.
Bob Relyea understands the old show biz maxim of always wanting to leave the audience wanting more and this book certainly does that. Alas, he has said there will be no sequel, this is the story he wanted to tell and I urge you not to miss it. This is a book, rich in anecdotes and wisdom, so do yourself a favor and buy a copy and then do your friends a favor and buy them copies. To borrow a couple of adjectives from the two classic John Sturges movies he worked on, this is a MAGNIFICENT book, written by a very GREAT man. - Mike Thomas
To order a copy of "Not So Quiet On The Set," visit http://www.notsoquietontheset.com/ or http://www.amazon.com/.