In 1981 I was offered a role in Some Kind of Hero, which starred Richard Pryor. He was a god as far as I’m concerned. Nobody ever made me laugh more or connected to my sense of humor as completely as Richard. And of all the actors I’ve ever worked with, Richard and Ned Beatty were my two closest friends.
Some Kind of Hero was Richard’s first film after a horrifying accident in June 1980 when he suffered serious burns. High out of his head, he had somehow managed to set himself on fire. He was rushed to Sherman Oaks Hospital and doctors didn’t expect him to live, but somehow miraculously he survived.
Richard was, obviously, in a very vulnerable state when we were making Some Kind of Hero. He confided in me that he was really nervous about doing the film, mainly because it was taking him out of his comfort zone as an actor. It didn’t have a lot of comedy for him to fall back on.
I’m a little sheepish in confessing this: Richard’s view of my work was embarrassing to me. It sounds egotistical and I really don’t want to come across as bigheaded, but Richard told me he admired my work so much that he was nervous about being in a film with me! I still can’t get my head around that… here’s Richard Pryor, a huge star and he’s nervous about being in a film with me?
During filming, the producer, Howard Koch, and director, Michael Pressman became aware that in Richard’s fragile state, he was more relaxed and focused if I was on the set and the two of us were palling around. So, they arbitrarily arranged to write me into a couple of scenes to have me on the set more often. (In the beginning of the film, when Richard’s character is in a prisoner of war camp in Vietnam… if you look closely you might be able to make out that I’m in that scene as one of the extras).
We also did something that I’m not sure had ever happened before… You see, if there’s a telephone scene in a movie, they film the conversation as if they were two separate scenes. You film one end of the conversation, with the other actor on the other end of the line speaking from just off the set. Occasionally the actor on the other end of the conversation is not available for the “off-camera” dialogue, in which case the script supervisor reads the off-camera lines. I’m not trying to be mean, but acting opposite a script supervisor is challenging at best. Well… after we had completed my half of a phone scene with Richard, my character was wrapped on the film, but this was before they were ready to film the other side. (In fact, I was already in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania shooting Taps with Timothy Hutton, Sean Penn, and George C. Scott). Neither of us wanted him to play his phone conversation to the script supervisor, so Richard and I stayed in touch and we arranged for me to be available on the day they were gonna shoot Richard’s half of the conversation. The production company in LA called me at Valley Forge Military Academy and he and I played the scene over the phone. Between takes, we visited with each other and then when they slated the camera for a new take, and the assistant director called “action”… we would slip back into our characters.
On the call sheet, in big bold letters, of just about every film or tv show I’ve been involved with is the admonition: “NO FORCED CALLS”. For those who don’t know what that means, here’s a quick explanation: when you’re shooting a movie, union rules dictate that you must have a 12-hour turnaround before they’re allowed to call you back to work. Let’s say they wrap you at 9 pm… they can’t call you before 9 am the next morning. And…if you don’t get those 12 hours, then you are on “forced call” and you come back at an immediate overtime salary… it’s as though you had never gone home. It can cost the company a LOT OF MONEY! It’s a hard and fast rule because it can ruin a movie’s budget.
One night, Richard and I were shooting a scene with just the two of us, and we were scheduled for scenes in the same location the following morning. We shot until about 10 pm and when we wrapped the production manager came to us and said they wanted to start with us the next day. He explained that our scenes were all they had to shoot at this location. He asked Richard, “Would you be willing to waive the ‘forced call’…” Richard took me aside and said “I’ll do it for $500… how about you?” I said, “Okay.”
The next morning, when we arrived back on the set, Richard took me aside and said… “Let’s have some fun”… and then he went up to the production manager and said,…”OK, Where’s my $500?”
“Richard, since we shot so late last night we haven’t had time to get the money! As soon as the banks open, we’ll get your money.”
“Uh-uh. I’m not working ‘til I get my money.”
Needless to say, he was dumbfounded and he scrambled around… ended up taking up a collection from the crew. I had to fight to keep a straight face as he frantically tried to rustle up the cash. When the production manager came to me with a pleading look, I quickly agreed that they could pay me when the banks opened. Later, Richard teased me unmercifully for my cowardice!
It’s not uncommon in the film business for actors to forge strong bonds on the set. And then we drift apart once the film is finished. Several years after we worked together I was at a screening in Hollywood. As I was walking down the aisle, I heard a gentle voice call my name. It was an incredibly emotional moment for me. He was very frail at the time.