by Bernard Gordon
In London, Ben Fisz had cast two highly regarded stars of the Hammer horror films, Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. He had also made a deal for Telly Savalas to return to Madrid briefly for a truncated role. It was creative casting, and so was the deal made with Telly, who was, predictably, broke again. They had agreed to purchase a seven-year lease on a West End apartment, which would be his gift to the lovely lady with whom he was living. The added inducement - the gift was tax-free. I understood the cost was $22,000, which was a bargain for his services.
Christopher Lee was the first star scheduled to work. He showed up on time and conducted himself professionally. Tall, well-built, with strong, handsome features, he looked more like a leading man than a creature from the bog, but this suited his role in our film splendidly. He was pleased with his role and with the script. We worked out his wardrobe, he reported to the set promptly and knew his lines. He was cordial with me, with Eugenio, with everyone. When he wasn't working on the set, he roamed the hall of our dressing-room building where my office was located and sang arias from Boris Godunov at the top of his excellent baritone.
After the first week of shooting, Peter Cushing was due to start. I went to the airport to welcome the actor, whom I had never met, never even seen on screen, since I was not a fan of horror films. I had no trouble spotting Cushing: a refined looking English gentleman in a perfect British tweed suit, handmade London boots, proper necktie. He was slender, not tall, very fair, with delicate features - not what I had expected from one of the world's leading actors of horror films. No Frankenstein monster he.
My admiration for him faltered from the moment we got into the car for the drive to the studio. In quiet but insistent tones he made a startling announcement. "You know, Mr. Gordon, I don't intend to work in your film." He was not a man who was making a rude joke.
I tried to digest this. "Then why are you here?"
"Mr. Fisz in London explained that I had to report and explain matters to you. I agreed to do the film on the basis of having read the first draft of the script, but when I read the final one, the one we're shooting, I told Mr. Fisz that I didn't care to work in the film."
"You could have called and told me that from London. I would have arranged for another actor. You're supposed to start working tomorrow."
Cushing was genuinely contrite. "I entirely agree. That's what I told Mr. Fisz, but he insisted that I come here and report directly to you."
Since the studio property virtually adjoined the airport, we had arrived by the time we had concluded our brief conversation. I settled Cushing somewhere while I grabbed a telephone and called London.
"What in the hell is going on?" I demanded of Fisz and reported my conversation with Cushing. "I'm supposed to start shooting with this man tomorrow."
Fisz's attitude was that he had provided the actor and the problem was now mine. "You're the producer," he virtually sneered. "So produce."
My shouting accomplished nothing except to entertain the considerable gathering that had assembled outside my office door to listen to my very loud and angry epithets. Completely at a loss, I sought out Christopher Lee, who was an old colleague of Cushing's.
Lee smiled. "That doesn't mean a thing. Peter is always like this at the start of every film."
"What am I supposed to do about it?"
"We'll meet with him at the hotel after work," Lee said, "and everything will be fine."
We met outside Cushing's room at the Eurobuilding in a small public area, where the three of us sat in easy chairs, away from any other guests. I had no notion what to say or how to begin, but my efforts were not needed. Voluble under any circumstances, Christopher started to talk, a virtual filibuster of anecdotes and irrelevant remarks. Neither Cushing nor I could get a word in. No mention was made of Cushing's refusal to come to work, and if Cushing had any notion of voicing his intentions, he never had a chance. The whole performance was cleverly designed to keep Cushing from opening his mouth.
After about forty minutes of nonstop monologue, Christopher stood up. "All right, Peter, see you at work tomorrow."
If Cushing was surprised, he didn't betray it. I was dumbfounded, but Cushing reported to work the next day.
After a week, Peter, who was a truly gentle and decent man, serious about his work, dropped into my office. "I want to tell you, Mr. Gordon, how sorry I am for the way I behaved the day I arrived. I want you to know that I've studied the script again, and I really like it. I like the way the work is going, too."
I learned that Peter's wife, with whom he had been very close for almost fifty years, had died not long before, that this was his first venture outside of Britain since her death, that he was feeling devastated and alone in a foreign clime. Apart from his usual resistance to starting a film, Christopher believed that Cushing's intense sense of loss may have contributed to his initial feelings.