Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Ed Montefusco and the path to 'Bums' (1971)

The Great Imaginary Film Blogathon is an event in which participants are inspired to create fictitious classic films with either original stories; established stories, past or present, with different casts; or other similar changes, hosted by Silver Scenes. For a list of participating bloggers, visit the host site at the link.

Earlier this year, the Writers Guild of America hosted a luncheon honoring several notable television writers from the 70s and 80s. Among those honored were Emmy and Golden Globe winner Ed Montefusco, best known for the short-lived but fondly-remembered 80s dramedies Louie's Restaurant and Beat Cop. Montefusco's shows were distinctive for their lively characters who embodied a savvy mix of comedy and drama, a talent he honed during the 70s as a screenwriter. According to his liner notes from the Louie's Restaurant Season 1 DVD box set, switching to television from film gave him an opportunity to expand on the lives of the characters he enjoyed creating, which often involved crafting rich and detailed histories.

Montefusco wrote or co-wrote four films from 1971-80, most of them little remembered by general audiences today. The one exception is his 1971 feature debut Bums, co-written and directed by Paul Mazursky from a story by Montefusco. Bums is noteworthy not only for its warmth, humor, and humanity, but because the seeds of Montefusco's distinctive writing style can be found here.

Ed Montefusco (r), from the off-Broadway play
Papa's Birthday Party (1965)
Bums is a fond look back at the Brooklyn Dodgers baseball team during the 1950s, though the emphasis is on the irrepressible, rambunctious, colorful Brooklyn fans that defined the team as much as the players themselves. The movie doesn't depict a specific season, though popular players such as Jackie Robinson, Pee Wee Reese, Duke Snider and Roy Campanella are talked about. We see the Dodgers through the eyes of the fans, young and old, black and white, native-born and immigrant, as well as the Flatbush neighborhood they all live in.

Montefusco drew heavily from his childhood as a Dodger fan growing up in Ozone Park, Queens. A keen observer of human behavior even as a child, Ed was known in the neighborhood for his impressions of neighbors, movie stars, and ballplayers. In the audio commentary for the Bums 30th Anniversary DVD, he talks about how between the ages of six and thirteen, his father Frank would drive him and his younger brother Anthony to Ebbets Field nine or ten times a summer to see the Dodgers play. 

Frank had a dark side, however; he was a heavy gambler, especially on horses - he frequented nearby Aqueduct Racetrack on a regular basis - and his debts led to constant fights with his wife Lorraine and a growing estrangement with his sons. In 1957, Lorraine took the kids and left Frank, moving to Chicago to live with her aunt - ironically, the same year that the Dodgers left Brooklyn for Los Angeles. 


Elaine May
As Montefusco finished high school in Chicago, he started thinking about pursuing an acting career. He never lost his love of impressions; indeed, he began creating original characters inspired by the people in his Ozone Park neighborhood and thought he could make a living this way. In 1962, he joined the Second City troupe to study improvisational acting, and appeared in several plays.

Over time, he slowly found himself also drawn to writing. He was particularly fascinated by the work of Second City co-founder Elaine May, who was beginning her career as a playwright and director, separate from her former partner Mike Nichols. She was in New York at this time, and he wrote to her in care of the Broadway and off-Broadway theaters where her plays showed. May was impressed by his moxie, and they struck up a regular correspondence in which she encouraged him to pursue writing. Montefusco wrote a couple of one-act plays, but his perfectionist streak, coupled with a burning desire to write like his mentor May, left him unsatisfied. His plays were never performed.

He kept up with acting, though, and in 1967 he moved out to Los Angeles to find some television work. Instead of the larger, more substantial supporting roles he was accustomed to from the stage, however, he was offered small parts in variety shows and sitcoms. Casting directors saw him in a similar mold as comedic big men like Dom DeLuise and Jonathan Winters, but Montefusco chafed at this. Being young and perhaps a little arrogant, he thought of himself as having greater range and didn't want to be pigeon-holed as just one more fat comic. He switched to movie auditions, and in early 1969, he tried out for a small role in the film Bob & Carol & Ted & Alicedirected by Paul Mazursky, another Second City alum. The two hit it off well, and he got the part. 


Paul Mazursky
Despite this minor success, Montefusco believed he faced long odds making it in Hollywood, and he contemplated returning to the stage. His unperformed plays haunted him whenever he re-read May's letters, and he thought perhaps he could write plays for himself to star in. He learned about Mazursky's writing work for television, and as a result, he constantly picked Mazursky's brain for advice during production on Bob & Carol, while making friends with stars Elliott Gould and Robert Culp. The success of the movie, as well as his conversations with Mazursky, finally prompted Montefusco to take a chance on his own material.

In 1970, he dusted off one of his one-act plays, an ensemble about growing up a Brooklyn Dodgers fan in his old neighborhood. It contained several of his favorite original improvisation characters. He wrote out complex, sprawling histories for them, rooted in his childhood experiences and memories of Ozone Park as well as Ebbets Field. He also worked out some of his childhood issues with his father.


Montefusco expanded the story into what he hoped would be a feature-length play, which he now called Bums. His inhibiting perfectionism, however, kept him re-writing and re-writing it. He wrote to May for advice, but she was busy working on her film debut A New Leaf, and didn't have time for him. Montefusco was disappointed. He had hoped she would direct his play.


Elliott Gould
Instead, he showed it to Mazursky, who was just coming off the failure of his Bob & Carol follow-up Alex in Wonderland. Mazursky, a baseball fan as well, loved the concept, and he not only offered to help Montefusco with a script polish, but he wanted to turn it into his next film. Montefusco was thrilled. He gladly accepted, and once they hammered out a finished screenplay, they set up a deal at Columbia Pictures.

Gould, hot off of the tremendous success of M*A*S*H, was quickly snatched up by Mazursky to play Freddy, the die-hard Dodgers fan with the crazy love life. At Montefusco's urging, Mazursky himself played Michael, the stand-in for Montefusco's father Frank. (Montefusco has said that he sees Michael as an early draft of Beat Cop's Officer Tedeschi.) Montefusco cast himself as Bobo, Freddy's gameday partner and wingman with the ladies. The jewel in the crown, though, was Ruth Gordon as legendary uber-fan Hilda Chester, the only real-life character depicted in the film besides the Dodgers themselves. A minor league ballpark in Nevada doubled as Ebbets Field.

Mazursky also recruited from television and the stage for key roles. Margot Kidder, two years before her breakthrough role in Brian DePalma's Sisters, took on the role of Theresa, Freddy's on-again, off-again girlfriend. Ronny Howard, making the transition from child star to adult star, played Michael's teenage son Joey. Clarence Williams III took time out from The Mod Squad to play Rufus, Jackie Robinson's number-one booster, while Nichelle Nichols, two years removed from Star Trek, appeared as his wife Rosie. And an Actors Studio alum from New York named Al Pacino took on the role of wild child Benny, a character film historians such as David Bordwell have compared to Robert De Niro's Johnny Boy in Mean Streets.


Montefusco at the 1984 Emmy Awards
Bums was a commercial hit. Montefusco finally got to meet May in person at the New York premiere and according to him, she loved it. Critics had a mixed reaction. Pauline Kael liked it overall, but panned Gould for what she considered a rehash of Trapper John from M*A*S*H. On the Bums DVD commentary, Montefusco speculates that Kael probably would've preferred to have seen Warren Beatty as Freddy instead. Vincent Canby was harsher, calling Kidder "shrill" and the film in general as "drenched in rosy-colored nostalgia for the post-war generation." Roger Ebert was kinder, however, saving his best praise for the young Pacino, whom he called "electric."

Heady from the success of Bums, Montefusco experienced a humbling comedown with his next screenplay, Angelo Got a New Chevy (1974), written solo. He butted heads with Columbia and the director, and the film was unceremoniously dumped in the winter to tepid reviews. His 1978 crime caper, 86'ed, did marginally better, but it wasn't until he teamed up with Sheldon Blume for the romantic comedy She Ain't The One (1980) that Montefusco felt like he regained what he had with Bums, with added depth. The two, of course, would go on to greatness in the 80s with the TV show Louie's Restaurant... but that is another story.

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Many thanks to the one and only Ivan G. Shreve Jr. for "playing" the role of Ed Montefusco!

12 comments:

  1. Rich, your review of BUMS feels so true to life as it was in that era, I wished I could find a box set of it! You really got the feel of it down pat. Kudos to Ivan's performance, too! :-D

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  2. Coming from you, that means a great deal. Thanks. This was a great challenge to put together, and who knows? If Ivan's willing, I may have more stories to tell about Ed in the future!

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  3. I don't usually agree with Canby, but he was bang on about Kidder. The one false note for me in casting. Surprising, since I'm not Gould's biggest fan, he won me over here. It's movies like "Bums" that draw me back into the baseball world that I pretty much abandoned after the last strike.

    (Rich, you're a wonder!)

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  4. If you mean the '94 strike that canceled the World Series, yeah, that was the turning point for me too. I can still watch a game, but I'm no longer as big a fan as I was. I've seen more minor league games since then - in three different states!

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  5. How fascinating! I love movies about baseball, and if they're based on true stories, all the better. You've imagined an intriguing movie here!

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  6. Thanks. I knew I wanted something more than just actors playing ballplayers, hence the focus on the fans instead. And Dodger fans were unique in all of baseball.

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  7. Your movie sounds great! I especially like the idea of Ruth Gordon as Hilda Chester.

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  8. Couldn't make a movie about the Dodgers and their fans without the cowbell lady.

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  9. Rich,
    I had to stop by and see what you've been up to over here when not mucking it up with our friend, Ivan.

    I must confess that I haven't seen Ed's TV shows although I'm familiar with Bob & Carol then of course, Elliott Guild. He's in one of my new favorite shows on Showtime, Ray Donovan. Have you seen it?

    A very nice write up and tribute to Montefusco.

    See ya around!
    Page

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  10. Haven't seen it but I hear it's not bad.

    Many thanks for stopping by.

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  11. Rich, we really can feel everything in this post, and even have a connection with Ed Montefusco. You made a great job with creating this character.
    Since I saw Mazursky's Next Stop: Greenwich Village recently, I believe they would be a great duo!
    Don't forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! :)
    Greetings!

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  12. Finding the right director for this movie was tricky. I think I lucked out with Mazursky.

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