Actor-turned-Producer Jack Larson talks with Justin Bozung for TV Store Online about the 1984 Warner Brother's maudit MIKE'S MURDER as well as the real-life inspiration for the film.
|Larson & Bridges
TV STORE ONLINE: Mr. Larson, can we talk about the origins of MIKE'S MURDER? I was wondering if you could shed some light on the real Mike, Mark Bernalack, and his relationship with Paul Winfield as it's portrayed in the film?
LARSON: Mark was a terrific, eager, and dedicated young man. I think he may have been from Baltimore originally. Paul Winfield, years prior, had met Mark while he was in Baltimore shooting a film. They met, and Mark expressed an interest in working in films to Paul, but not as an actor. Both Jim [Bridges] and I knew Paul well, because he had been around town for many years, he had done a play that I had written, and also a play that Jim had written prior to the shooting of MIKE'S MURDER. So both Jim and I knew him fairly well, and through Paul, we both got to know Mark Bernalack. Paul had brought Mark out to Los Angeles from Baltimore, and he moved into Paul's house. Mark was extraordinarily handsome, and indeed, he did start to get jobs on films as a crew member after he came out here. He stayed with Paul for a while, and after he had enough money to get on his feet, he moved out of Paul's house and took an apartment in Brentwood--where Jim and I lived. It was in the heart of Brentwood near Sunset and Barrington. There was a tennis court around there, and when Jim and I would drive down Barrington we would often see Mark teaching tennis at those particular courts. In fact, those courts on Barrington are the same courts that we used to shoot the scenes with Mark [Keyloun] and Debra [Winger] in MIKE'S MURDER. Mark was a great tennis player. He was an ace. And he was obviously a locale Lothario to all the single girls in that area. And he would often have a bandana around his head while he was playing. He was very gallant looking.
One day, Jim was driving to Paramount Studios and Mark hailed him. It was at Sunset and Barrington, and he asked Jim for a lift down into West Hollywood. Jim did give him a lift, and on that drive, Mark mentioned to Jim that he was having some trouble with some guys and that they were looking for him. They were threatening him, and he told Jim that he was going to hide out for while. But he said, that he'd be in touch with us to have dinner in a few weeks, because we often had dinner with Mark. So Jim dropped him off at a house in West Hollywood. Mark told Jim that he was going to hide out there but also paint the house. The next thing we heard, was that Mark had been savagely murdered at his apartment in Brentwood. It was all over the papers and on the television. It was a horror. Everyone that knew Mark, liked him. We were all stunned. The newspapers said that he was a drug dealer. He wasn't. I mean, Mark didn't ever have enough money at one time to buy himself a car. He wasn't a drug dealer, but there were two guys, who were African-Americans, who I guess, were drug dealers--they confronted him at his apartment and Mark was murdered.
|D. Winger in Urban Cowboy (1980)
Jim was very haunted by it. It was because of how Mark was called a drug dealer in the newspapers. That was very sad to him. The papers portrayed Mark's murder as if it was a good thing because he was a drug dealer. At the same time, Jim was dealing with Debra Winger. They had shot URBAN COWBOY (1980) together and it was a success. It made Debra a star. Debra would often quit acting . She quit after URBAN COWBOY. She didn't like anyone in Los Angeles except for Jim, so she packed up and moved to Cleveland where she said that she was going to: "fry in her own fat." Jim wasn't having any of that. So, Jim wrote MIKE'S MURDER for Debra Winger. It was about this girl who was haunted by the murder of this young man who she--every so often--would see and have sex with.
To get the film made, Jim and I took a meeting with the Alan Ladd Company. We originally had gone in to discuss another project. I was going to write a script about Jane Goodall in Africa. We went in to make a deal on that film and another, and while we were in there, Jim started telling Alan Ladd Jr., about the idea for MIKE'S MURDER. Right away, Alan Ladd liked it, and said that he'd green light it. Jim was already calling it MIKE'S MURDER, and Alan Ladd liked the title. Jim didn't even have a finished script yet at that point. Alan Ladd asked Jim how much he thought that he would need to make MIKE'S MURDER. Jim spit-balled him an answer. He told Alan Ladd that he could make it for just over one million dollars. So Alan Ladd gave the green light for MIKE'S MURDER, and then Jim went to Debra to convince her to come back to shoot the film.
With Debra back in Los Angeles for the shooting, Jim and I set out to find a young male actor who could play the role of Mark Bernaleck or "Mike" in the film. It wasn't an easy task. There was a young British actor who Jim really wanted to cast in the part, but the problem was that he had a British accent. We couldn't find the right person for the role of Mike. When we found someone who Jim thought was good, it would turn out that they were tied up on something else or they were too old. My agent, had alerted Jim and I about Mark Keyloun. We had heard about him, because he had just done something on television I believe, and we had also found out that he had done some theater in New York, and that he had just finished working with Paul Morrissey [of the Andy Warhol crowd] on a film called FORTY-DEUCE (1981). We saw that FORTY-DEUCE was playing in town here at a midnight screening at the Film Expo, so Jim and I decided to go and see Mark in that. Jim was very displeased about this, because he liked to go to bed early. (laughing) When we spoke to Paul Morrissey about Mark Keyloun--Paul was very high on him. So to make sure that Mark would be the best fit for the role of Mike--Jim and I took he and Debra out to dinner to see if they had chemistry. And it turned out that they did. We started shooting the film right away. Paul Winfield played himself in MIKE'S MURDER, after all, it was his story.
TV STORE ONLINE: How long did MIKE'S MURDER shoot for?
|Director of Mike's Murder Jim Bridges
LARSON: Jim shot the film very quickly. Then there was a misfortune with the film. Everyone was very high on the film. Jim had done a first cut of the film, but it didn't have the score in place on it yet. The Alan Ladd company was very happy with the film, but Warner Brothers was more reserved about it. They wanted another URBAN COWBOY from Jim. When it came time to preview the film, we took the film up to San Francisco. The preview was a disaster. For some reason, the preview was advertised. It was advertised as being another film by James Bridges and Debra Winger from URBAN COWBOY. It was shown just outside of San Francisco in a very chic area, and these people were the wrong audience for the film. I think they all expected it to be a romantic movie, and MIKE'S MURDER is not a date movie. I mean, there were lines around the block to see the film for the preview in San Francisco. There were enough people in line to fill this theater three times over. Before the screening started, I was speaking with the Warner Brothers preview guy, and he had mentioned that in the month prior they had tried to sneak-preview a new Jon Voight film in that same theater and the house was only half-filled.
During the preview, people were screaming at the screen. (laughing) People were walking out. Jim would never sit at a preview screening. I was sitting next to Dede Allen, the editor of the MIKE'S MURDER, and I looked back at Jim and he was pacing back and forth. I remember, one guy in the audience, stood up in the middle of the film and screamed: "This is the worst fucking movie I've ever seen!" It was a wild and chaotic preview. People were very upset by the film, and it is an upsetting film. When it was over, I couldn't find Jim. I looked all over and I couldn't find him. I made my way out to the lobby and I asked the usher if he had seen Jim. He told me that Jim had gone up to the projection booth. I went up to the booth, walked in, and Jim was sitting in the corner of the room, just pale as a ghost. He said, "This could get serious..." And indeed, it was very serious. After that, Jim went back into the editing room to make modifications to the ghastly murder sequence of Mike in the film--and in how Debra imagines that she sees them together in his apartment after he's been murdered. Originally, Debra imagined them nude together in his apartment. In Jim's mind, he said that Debra wouldn't have been able to imagine what the two characters would have been wearing.
|Paul Winfield and Debra Winger in Mike's Murder
Jim also made modifications to the big scene in the film between Paul Winfield and Debra's character. Jim took out a speech that Paul delivered which talked about how Paul's character and Mike first met, and the first time that they had sex together. When Jim did these modifications, and we changed the score--John Barry came in and gave us an wonderful score--Warner Brothers took the film out for a second preview. But on the second preview, Jim refused to see it again with an audience. (laughing) I went to the second preview, and then another preview that Warner Brothers did for the film up in Seattle. That Seattle preview was triumphant. It had many good audience preview cards--almost all of them raved about the film. I brought them back for Jim to read, and because of that screening, Warner Brothers decided to release the film, but grudgingly. They gave us almost no newspaper advertisements and zero television ads.
TV STORE ONLINE: Why do you think that Warner Brothers refused to get behind the film in the marketing of it?
Because it wasn't another URBAN COWBOY. Jim and I had many meetings at Warner Brothers just before the film came out, and we hated taking these meetings, but they really shed no light on why they refused to get behind the film. They only released the film into a handful of theaters across the United States. It only played for one week and then it was pulled. During that one week--it got really great reviews by the critics. It was yanked after that, and then Warner Brothers did a new advertising campaign for the film. And then there were problems with the Joe Jackson music for the film. The record company was upset because the record was coming out but the movie wasn't in theaters! So, it was marketed as more of a Joe Jackson record then the soundtrack to MIKE'S MURDER.
TV STORE ONLINE: How many drafts of the script for the film did Jim write prior to shooting the film?
LARSON: Only a couple.
TV STORE ONLINE: In a early draft of the script, there's much of what you've mentioned regarding the scenes that Jim modified after that San Francisco test screening... In particular, we can see how Jim modified the phone masturbation sequence. In the script, and in that first cut of the film, Mike is seen laying by a pool at night talking to Debra Winger's character 'Betty Parrish" on the phone, where he then proceeds to masturbate while they're talking. In the version of the film that was eventually released, this is only hinted at in Mark Keyloun's reflections in his dialogue delivery and that entire conversation is changed from two conjoining scenes to one singular one of Debra alone on the phone talking to Mike and we hear all of this happening through the telephone instead of seeing it occur in the film..
LARSON: That's right, and that pool masturbation sequence was the scene that caused the uproar at the preview screening up in San Francisco. When that scene came on the screen, you could see the girls pulling away from their boyfriends in the theater. (laughing) It got very uncomfortable. Again, I think people thought it was going to be a date movie like URBAN COWBOY. So when that sequence came on the screen at the test screening, you could see girls who had been holding hands with their boyfriends as they were walking into the theater quickly pull their hands back. (laughing)
TV STORE ONLINE: In my research and other interviews for this series about the film, I've been told about the first cut of the film--and about how graphic the actual murder scene of Mike was in Jim first cut. I've read that it was so intense to Debra Winger that during the shooting of it she had to leave the set...
LARSON: Yes, I believe you're right about that. She got physically ill. I wasn't there, but I do recall Jim telling me about that when it happened. I had a cousin, who was a Los Angeles homicide detective. I have a lot of cops in my family. They would talk about how murder scenes were never portrayed properly in Hollywood movies. There's always a lot of blood, and you don't always see that in the movies. As is most often the case, you see just a little blood. That's not what happens. Usually, the room is filled with blood. There is blood everywhere. So, Jim knew about that from having conversations with my family. Jim took a lot of care to give that scene the specific accuracy that he felt it needed. He wanted that to be very ghastly.
TV STORE ONLINE: In Jim's early script, the Mike character comes across, to me, at least, as a guy that's very cocky or arrogant. But that's not how he's portrayed in MIKE'S MURDER...How close do you think Jim came with his interpretation of Mark Bernalack, or--to go a step farther--how close does Mark Keyloun, in his performance, come to bringing the real Mark Bernalack to life on the screen in your opinion?
Well, I've always seen Mark's performance in the film as being very gutsy. I guess, you could say that the real Mark Bernalack, in his way, was a argumentative person. I had a lot to do with the casting of Mark Keyloun in the film, and I think he did a wonderful job in the character. People that knew the real Mark Bernaleck were upset after the film was released that the actor we chose to play him in the film wasn't truly drop-dead handsome though.
TV STORE ONLINE: I'm just thinking back for a second, about what you mentioned to me earlier, about how the real Mark Bernalack hailed Jim down that one day and asked him for a ride--that's how the film opens as we know it....
LARSON: You're right.
TV STORE ONLINE: What strikes me as interesting about that, and about the film is how Jim blends the light and dark side...Debra Winger's character, is traversing into the dark side of human nature to explore this mystery...
Yes, and Debra was interested in that aspect of the character. We talked often about that idea, which, in my ways, is what the film is about. The film is about a girl who endangers herself. Mark's story is very much a classic Hollywood story. The beautiful girls and boys come to Hollywood because they think that they look like a movie star, but that wasn't the case with Mark Bernaleck. But, the film is a true story. Jim was completely haunted by the memory of Mark, and of the girl--Betty Parrish. Jim often considered about what the girls thought about Mark, or if they thought about him after he was gone? What would their response be to Mark's death? Mark was a bisexual, and he slept with many girls. Now, I'm not sure if he was a good lay, but he must have been because he went around with many women in Brentwood, who he also taught how to play tennis.
TV STORE ONLINE: What about the city of Los Angeles? The city is very important to the film. In fact, in Jim's early script, he's quite specific about the locations for scenes, even specifying actual street addresses where scenes are to take place in the film..
That was all very important to him. And all of the locations in the film are completely accurate in support of Mark Bernalack. Every place Jim shot at was the actual location as it was related to Mark's life and time in Brentwood.
TV STORE ONLINE: How about the casting of actor Darrell Larson in the role of "Pete"?
LARSON: I had seen Darrell in the theater. When I quit acting myself, I started writing plays and became involved with the Rockefeller Foundation. In fact, I'm the only serving member on the Rockefeller Foundation living west of the Mississippi. I was give away these grants through the foundation, and I saw Darrell through a group of actors that had come out of the University of Southern California. Darrell is a terrific actor. Darrell did one of Jim's plays, and maybe one of mine even. Jim and I saw him in a quite a few things down at U.S.C. Jim thought that he'd be wonderful in MIKE'S MURDER. Originally, Pete's role was a bit smaller in the first cut of the film, but Jim expanded the role when he re-cut it after that San Francisco test screening. Plus, Jim did some re-shoots for the film after the test screening. So that expanded Pete's character in the film as well.
TV STORE ONLINE: What was Jim's approach to directing actors?
He loved actors, because Jim had once been an actor. In fact, we first met back when he had been acting. We were both in a film together. It was the last film of Ethel Barrymore at Warner Brothers. We were in it with Stuart Whitman and Carolyn Jones. The film was called JOHNNY TROUBLE . Jim was cast in the film as one of the young college men who lived in a dorm. We met on the film and we were both thrilled to be working with Miss Ethel Barrymore.
TV STORE ONLINE: One would think, considering how closely-related actor Paul Winfield was to this story line that it would have been something very difficult for him to be a part of...
LARSON: No, he wanted to do it. Paul was a terrific actor.
TV STORE ONLINE: One critic who reviewed MIKE'S MURDER when it was released suggested that the film was Jim Bridges's love-letter to Debra Winger...What do you think Jim saw in Debra as an actress? Obviously, she's completely brilliant, but what do you think captivated Jim when it came to Debra Winger?
LARSON: What I can say, is that Jim adored her, and Debra wasn't easy. She loved Jim, and he loved Debra. Debra, was a very determined actress. She wanted to know everything and do everything. I remember, when they were shooting URBAN COWBOY...There was one scene that Jim had wanted to shoot one way, but Debra was determined to do it a different way, and Jim said something like, "You're going to do it the way that I want you to do it, and after that you'll never have to speak to me again..."
TV STORE ONLINE: What was Jim's relationship like on MIKE'S MURDER with editor Dede Allen?
LARSON: Jim was mad about her. He loved her, and he was excited to work with her. She put together the first cut of the film. But there was a problem. According to the Guild rules, the editor can put together the first cut of the film. Debra Winger was the same age at the time as Dede's daughter. For some reason, Dede identified Debra's character with her own daughter, and Jim and I were aghast with Dede's first cut because Dede had done it with too many close-ups on Debra's face. Jim didn't shoot the film that way, and Jim had to re-edit the film severely to get where he had intended with it.
TV STORE ONLINE: Jim and Debra Winger never worked together again after MIKE'S MURDER...Yet it wasn't for a lack of effort...I've read about projects that Jim tried to get off the ground in subsequent years with Debra. One script that comes to mind: The Dear Season?
LARSON: Yes, of course. That was a wonderful script. Jim was originally from Arkansas. He would go back from time-and-time to stay because he was never able to shake off the culture there. Nor did he ever want to. The premise of the script had to do with the deer hunting season in Arkansas. All the local married men would go off into the woods to hunt dear in Arkansas, and have prostitutes come in via trailers to earn money off of the deer hunters while they were out hunting. Jim spent a lot of time researching these women that did this for a living. But the script was too much for the studios. They were interested, but they were afraid of it. Because it was completely open sexually. And it was at a time when Hollywood was being criticized for being too sexual.
Another script that they wanted to do together had to do with the torch singer Libby Hollman. That fell apart on Jim, and he had really wanted to do that with Debra. Debra was going to do her own singing in the role even. [Producer] Ray Stark, who had produced Funny Girl
on Broadway, and had done the film--he had really wanted to do another FUNNY GIRL , but that wasn't Libby's story. Jim had gotten to know Libby Hollman very well through me. We had spent a lot of time with her at her home in Connecticut. Libby was part of the one of the biggest scandals of the '30s. John Houseman once said to me, "Libby Hollman is the sexiest thing I've ever seen on the stage
..." The guy who was the heir to the great Smith-Reynold's tobacco fortune of North Carolina, he was completely smitten with Libby in the '30s. He was something like twenty-four years old, and Libby, at that time, was in her early or mid 30's. He pursued her like mad, and he eventually married her. In the end the marriage didn't work out, as he had taken her from Broadway and moved her down to North Carolina. He had a young man who he was close to down there. He was the son of a local gas station owner.
|Actor Darrell Larson in Mike's Murder
Reynolds would have these swimming parties at his estate. His friend, this son of the local gas station owner--Libby was suspicious of him. This gentleman was down by the river one afternoon on the Reynold's estate, and Libby went down to talk with him. They were both wearing their swimming suits, but apparently, something happened, and a romantic hug and a kiss occurred between them. Reynolds saw this happen, and later on he confronted his friend after the party was over. There was a lot of confusion, and a big argument happened between Reynolds and the young man. Libby, left, went to the master bedroom, took off her clothes, and got into bed to go to sleep. She told me this story before she passed away. Libby, at the time was pregnant with Reynold's child, and as she was sleeping, Reynolds came into the bedroom, said her name, and as she woke up, he put a gun to his head and shot himself in front of her. It was a big scandal, and there have been books written about it. As I've just told you the story, it was the premise for the Hollman script that Jim and Debra tried to get off the group, but Ray Starkey just didn't see the story as Jim and Debra did, and after arguments and meetings Starkey and Jim and Debra parted ways.
TV STORE ONLINE: I've seen you mention in various print pieces over the years about how you've been wanting to get Jim's first cut of MIKE'S MURDER released onto DVD...
That's right. I have Jim's first cut in my possession. Over the years, Jim just wanted to let the whole thing go, but I don't think I can do that. I think MIKE'S MURDER is a marvelous film. I think it's Jim's best film. He made big films and personal films, and I think MIKE'S MURDER is the best of his personal films.
TV STORE ONLINE: So is Jim's first cut "better" than the cut of the film that was released by Warner Brothers?
LARSON: You know, Jim always stood by the cut of the film that Warner Brothers released, but I think that if Jim's first cut were released today--it would be a great success. Pauline Kael of The New York Times was stunned by the film when she saw it, but the truth of the matter is that Warner Brothers wouldn't have ever released the film if Jim would have put his foot down. Plus, Jim felt responsible for Debra. Because he had pushed her to come back to acting after she had quit. He had coaxed her back from Cleveland. Debra was a star, and you could certainly finance a film on her name, but Jim did feel responsible for her. He was worried about how it would reflect on her career, if he chose to just sit on the film. He was worried that an unreleased film would be detrimental to Debra's career. Debra claimed to not care about that, but I know that Jim was worried about it. I don't think the film, as it was released by Warner Brothers, is a heavily damaged version of the film. I think Jim's first cut is more sensational however. In particular, with the inclusion of that big scene between Paul Winfield and Debra. Jim really modified that scene. I still remember the scene as it was originally written and shot. In the original scene, before Jim cut it down, Paul talks with Debra about his first sexual encounter with Mike. Paul's character tells Debra that they met on a warm day, and about how he kept giving Mike Scotch to drink. And Paul's last line in the scene was: "Before I knew it, he was was in my arms, and my cock was up his ass..." This didn't go over well at the San Francisco preview! (laughing) But that was the scene. There was a close-up on Debra as she just stands there listening, very stunned. Debra really was wonderful in the film.
Interview Conducted By: Justin Bozung