In the 1960s, one of the guys who worked for Bill Maley’s Film Producers Services in San Rafael, California, was a young Midwesterner named James Theodore Mansen. Bill Maley was ten years older than Jim. Jim was Bill’s protege, then his producer, and later his soundman.
If truth be told, Bill Maley had acquired a reputation for being a somewhat unscrupulous businessman. I’d heard reports that Bill’s insurance was often substandard, or that he was uninsured – or that he sometimes didn’t report his jobs to local 16, so he could pocket the pension and welfare contribution.
One crew member described Bill Maley’s business habits as “screwy” and “suspect.” Others confided that he “didn’t pay his bills.” When people were hired to work on a job and they learned that Bill Maley was handling the payroll, they sometimes asked to be paid in advance. His reputation preceded him. “You never knew if Bill was going to pay you or not,” one crew member admitted.
Bill was abrasive at a time in the industry when it was still acceptable to be abrasive. And Jim Mansen forgave Bill for everything, probably on a daily basis – for Jim Mansen believed that Bill Maley could do no wrong.
Bill Maley was Jim’s mentor and sort of a second father to him. In some ways, Jim and Bill were cut from the same cloth. There dwelt within each of them, the penchant for mischief and pranksmanship. Jim was pathologically impatient and had a tendency toward the excessive, as if he believed – like an Animal House frat boy – that anything worth doing was worth overdoing.
But the difference between the two men could be found in their attitude. Simply put: Jim Mansen had a great attitude and Bill Maley didn’t. Attitude makes a big difference – it’s really important in the film industry. As freelancers, we are often hired again, simply because of our good attitude.
“Jim Mansen was an entity to himself,” Dick Dova told me. Jim was confident but he wasn’t fierce, though often he was fearless to the point of being reckless. He was a real master of details. He always seemed in control, even when he was not, and he was seemingly always in a good mood. His ego was of a manageable size: he took the work seriously, but not himself.
That’s why Bill Maley let Jim Mansen deal with the clients and the advertising agency. Jim was a better producer than Bill – and Bill had the wisdom to recognize this.
The truth was that Bill was simply too transparent. He was prone to look somebody in the eye and tell them emphatically, “You’re dumber than dirt.” Bill had a short fuse and didn’t tolerate, what he called, “assholes.”
“A lot of times Bill Maley worked alone with Jim Mansen, just the two of them,” Dick Dova explained. “This allowed Bill to bid the job very low. Because Bill didn’t need a whole crew – he knew exactly what he wanted to do. He was on top of it. He came from the Opera House. A lot of cameramen would light a product shot for two hours. Bill would achieve the same effect in thirty minutes. This is something that Bill taught me how to do.”
As a teenager, I was apprenticed to William Armstrong Lewis (1933-1991), the technical director of the Childrens’ Experimental Theater in Carmel, California. Bill Lewis encouraged me to learn every job backstage: front office, make-up, scenic painting, wardrobe, lighting design, stage management, and set construction. “Someday, when you’re the producer, how will you know if the people on your crew really know their stuff?”
“Below-the-line” is an expression referring to the line in the film’s budget that separates the creative expenses (stars, directors, screenwriters) from the rank-and-file film crew and production costs. The best producers usually come from below-the-line and work their way up through the crew to a position of leadership.
As a producer, Jim Mansen is remembered for his fairness, his empathy, and for the fact that his deeds and his words were in alignment. He understood, better than most producers, just how much time each department would need to get ready for the next shot. Jim had a moral structure that he never violated, perhaps due in part to the fact that he was the son of the son of a minister. He wasn’t afraid of the clients, or the advertising agency people, and he had a natural ability to handle them a lot better than Bill Maley ever did.
Jim Mansen told me that one of the hardest commercials he and Maley ever produced involved a full-sized jeep sitting one top of a giant egg. When the egg hatches, out drives a baby jeep. They had to build the giant egg at Bill’s shop at 34 DeLuca Place in San Rafael. The egg was twenty-four feet long and had to be cut into four sections, so it be transported with a police escort, up Highway 101.
Lou Yates was the boom man on George Lucas’ THX 1138 (1971) and Jim Mansen – still wet behind the ears and just learning the job – was the sound mixer . Bill Maley was the gaffer and Ken Phelps was the key grip.
In 1971, Jim worked as the soundman on a car commercial for the 1972 Ford LTD. To demonstrate the soundproofing inside the cab, they used it as a recording studio. San Francisco Symphony Orchestra Concertmaster, Stuart Canin, sat in the back seat of the car, playing his violin, and soundman Jim Mansen sat in the passenger seat with his Narga tape recorder and headphones, recording the violin solo. At one point in the sixty second spot, you can clearly see young Jim Mansen sitting there, recording live sound in a moving vehicle, as it drives past San Francisco’s most iconic locations. The commercial is now on YouTube.
Jim Mansen worked as the sound mixer on Apocalypse Now (1979) for about ten days of the eventual 230-day of shooting. He did a lot of documentaries, television programs, and television commercials.
Jim was a gadget-friendly guy. A CB radio enthusiast, in the early 1960s, he joined the California Citizen’s Band Association, becoming the secretary for the club. Back in 1974, a decade and a half before the cellular phone became commonplace, Jim had a radio phone – like a walkie-talkie – in his van. When it came to new technology, he was what Silicon Valley marketers now refer to as an “early adapter.”
The production sound department is one of the smallest departments on the set, often consisting of just two people – one who wrangles a boom pole and microphone, and another who operates what in those days was still a quarter-inch reel-to-reel Nagra tape recorder. The sound mixer and boom man are the only people on the set who are carefully listening to all of the audio, through headphones, in real time. These jobs require a very attentive and decisive individual. When the soundman tells you he’d like another take, it’s a good idea to do exactly as he asks.
“Jim Mansen didn’t like cheap sound,” Dick Dova told me. “He would always ask for more sound blankets.” Sound waves bounce off of hard surfaces, resulting in a lot of loud, harsh noise. Sound blankets (furniture pads), stocked on the grip truck, dampen and muffle harsh noises. Good sound men like Jim, use way too many sound blankets.
* * *
In the mid-1980s, one of Jim’s clients was James Productions, a television commercial production company founded in 1982 and headquartered in Minneapolis, Minnesota. They loved working with Jim as a soundman and, as they got to know him better, came to understand that he was also an experienced producer.
Jim had been working as a production sound mixer for a decade and a half. He had “seen the elephant” and was somewhat tired of the work. Jim Lund, the director at James Productions, suggested that Jim Mansen try his hand as a producer. Mansen spent some time working at James Productions in Minneapolis, as part of his job training. Jim was a Midwesterner and got along affably with the gang of usual suspects in Minneapolis.
In 1987, James Productions signed Boyd Jacobson, their first west-coast based director and they opened offices in San Francisco. And Jim Mansen was their west coast executive producer.
Jim Mansen and Boyd Jacobson both lived in Marin County. Their offices were across the Golden Gate Bridge, up on the third floor of a brick building at 139 Townsend Street in San Francisco. It had a sweeping 180-degree north-facing view of the city and the north and east bay, beyond. It was walking distance to our favorite soundstage, King Street, which was next-door to Lee Utterbach’s, our favorite motion picture camera rental house, and just a block from One Pass, the facility where we did practically all of our post-production. And it was around the corner from the Bay City Bar and Grill, where we ate lunch (and often dinner) so frequently, it became our second home.
It was, for a few brief and memorable years, a film production neighborhood. This entire area and many of these buildings were later raised in the construction of the stadium now called Oracle Park.
* * *
Jim Mansen was in his element in a fancy restaurant, hosting out-of-town clients to an expensive meal. It is worth noting that the expensive meal was ironically paid for by the production company and then billed back to the advertising agency (plus markup) who, in turn, billed it back to their client (after adding their own mark-up). That’s show business.
In those days, out-of-towners wanted to have dinner at Stars, or Kuleto in San Francisco, or Chez Panisse in Berkeley, or The French Laundry in Yountville – it was terribly predictable, and always very expensive.
Jim had certain innate qualities that made him a good executive producer – he was cheerful, humorous, and non-confrontational. He had good people skills. Jim instinctively knew how to create the required comfort zone with the representatives of the advertising agency and their client, the sponsor. The importance of such a bedside manner cannot be over emphasized in the television commercial production racket. He was a never-ending source of amusing tales, motion picture war stories, and jokes, and an all-around good storyteller.
If Jim picked the restaurant where we were going to have lunch, it was usually a sushi bar. There, he was feted and waited upon as if he were an honored guest. He’d befriended the best sushi chefs in the San Francisco Bay Area, and they gave him the royal treatment. Although he knew all the Japanese words for sushi and sashimi dishes, he usually didn’t even look at the menu, or even order anything. Rather, he and his guests would just sit back and relax while the sushi chefs would bring out plate after plate of their finest offerings – a parade of exotic and unfamiliar delicacies prepared only for special guests.
As a former freelance crew member, Jim had realistic expectations about how much time a given job would take, or whether any of the departments on the set were shorthanded. He knew how to lightheartedly joke and jive with the crew on set, maintaining a high state of morale so the work was done as efficiently and thoughtfully as possible. It is true on every film shoot: you only have one opportunity to lose the morale of the crew. And once you’ve lost it, it’s a crapshoot whether you’ll ever actually get it back again.
When it came to producing television commercials, to his credit, Jim lacked a certain predatory cunning in matters of money. Jim had the good sense to hire someone like me to bring the current production in on-time and on-budget, while he was busy bidding on the next job.
He had a humorous and non-threatening way of managing the agency representatives and clients and keeping them wined, dined, and safely confined in director’s chairs, in the “video village” set up away from the camera. This allowed them to observe the shoot day via a television monitor, while they phoned their home offices and nibbled snacks from the craft services table, and made passes at the young female productions assistants, in such a way that their presence on the set did not impede or inhibit the filmmaking process.
On a location shoot, the ad agency folks and client are often far away from their homes, sleeping in unfamiliar, albeit often luxurious hotel rooms, and eating in the best available restaurants. Jim considered it part of his job to ensure that their personal experience on location was also a vacation. On the weekends he would take them sightseeing, or to Fisherman’s Wharf, or to the theater to see Beach Blanket Babylon.
* * *
They say you can’t cheat and honest man. In an industry full of swindlers and sociopaths, Jim was that rare honest man. His basic business philosophy as an executive producer was that it didn’t matter how much you made or lost on an individual job, but rather what was important was whether you could keep the client happy and under contract for years to come. These concepts would serve me well throughout my career.
In short: I learned a great deal from Jim Mansen.
For example, in the course of producing a single thirty-second television commercial, it is not uncommon to go through thousands of dollars in petty-cash expenses. It becomes second nature to ask for a receipt for each, and every purchase, no matter how small or insignificant. Each receipt is stuffed into a petty-cash envelope, so they are not lost. When the job is over, you sit down with your envelope and write out a petty-cash reconciliation, itemizing every expense, and attaching the corresponding receipt. Occasionally, in the roll and tumble of production, a receipt is lost – or was never obtained in the first place.
Jim Mansen had developed a technique for dealing with this problem.
He’d print his own version of a cash register receipt, using an accountant’s adding machine, carefully tearing the bottom and top of the bogus paper “receipt” across the serrated metal blade attached to the Saran Wrap dispenser. Then he’d place the bogus receipt on the floor and stomp upon it several times with the heel of his shoe.
“That,” he’d say, brandishing the now trampled scrap of adding machine paper tape, “will make it past the auditors.”
* * *
Jim preferred to drive himself to the set. It was commonplace for Jim to habitually run stop signs and red lights.
When travelling to a distant location, he liked driving better than flying – always driving thirty (or more) miles-per-hour above the posted speed limit, much to the terror and dismay of his passengers. To Jim’s way of seeing things, it was simply a waste of time to travel at 65 miles an hour, when he could travel at 100 miles an hour and shorten the duration of the trip.
“If you get in the fast lane, you’ve got to go fast,” Jim would explain. “Don’t change lanes. Don’t weave in and out. Just go, balls out, as fast as you can.”
Jim would tailgate the car in front of him, so aggressively and with such righteous menace – coming within inches of the bumper of the car before him, at ninety-miles-per-hour – unapologetically forcing other cars out of the number one lane.
Jim was always thinking, “fast, fast, fast – gotta’ go now,” which is an appropriate and required mode of operation in episodic television when you’re shooting a schedule and not a show. However, if one gets the opportunity to work with a crew in the United Kingdom, they like to tease Americans for their always being in a rush. They simply won’t buy into the American frenzy.
Once, when we were working on a film crew together, our unflappable key grip, Jon Guterres, saw me racing across the sound stage. In a fatherly way, he placed his hand gently on my shoulder and said to me with genuine concern, “You know, when you feel like speeding up, that’s when you know you really need to slow down.”
His perceptive words stopped me in my tracks. Of course, he was right. His words stayed with me forever and served me well – even saving my life on a few occasions. Decades later, I sent Jon Guterres a letter, thanking him for these particular words of wisdom.
As an itinerant twenty-first century storyteller and folksinger, I traveled two million miles alone in an automobile, from the Everglades to the Arctic Circle. And I never exceeded the speed limit. I couldn’t afford to have my insurance rates go up, and I didn’t want to deal with cops far from home. So, I never got a ticket, and never had a collision, thanks in no small part to Jon Guterres’s credo: when you feel like speeding up, that’s when you know you really need to slow down.
But Jim Mansen was forever consumed by an obsessive compulsion to race as fast as possible to the next destination. This kind of destination addiction – a version of running away from home – is rampant among film crew members and traveling musicians alike.
It wasn’t until the COVID-19 pandemic grounded me for a couple of years, that I became aware of my own issues with this destination addiction phenomena – the compulsive certainty that the immediate future is always more interesting (and always took precedence over) the present.
With Jim at the wheel, we’d be in the number one lane of the freeway, traveling at 100 miles an hour, speeding past all the other cars, while listening to cassette recordings John Williams’ Star Wars motion picture soundtracks – which only served to heighten the feelings of angst I experienced as his passenger. I soon contrived reasons to meet him at the destination, traveling in my own car or attempting to persuade him to be my passenger.
As one of his fellow crew members put it, Jim was the original “Get ‘er Done” guy. And he was going to “Get ‘er Done” faster than anybody else on the crew.
Jim set the unofficial record for driving too fast, making the non-stop trip from his place in Marin County to Burbank – a distance of just under four-hundred miles – in an astounding four hours and fifty-one minutes. And this was not accomplished in a BMW or a Mercedes, but rather in an old green Dodge cargo van.
It was a little crazy, but those who knew Jim Mansen well, knew that he could be a little crazy – usually not in a predatory way.
But heaven help you if you got into a crazy contest with Jim. He was always going to win. He saw no limits on crazy– and not just in how he drove a car or drank alcohol. I pity the fool who tried to get Jim Mansen to do something on a dare – unwittingly opening the Pandora’s box that was Jim’s wild side.
Jim would just say, “Hold my beer…”
Perhaps it was simply arrested development. Perhaps in his teenage or college years, some trauma had occurred which he never outgrew. Perhaps it was simply a genetic metabolic defect that had plagued his ancestors as it plagued him.
It was an intense, almost juvenile impatience that he could not quench. The quest for increased velocity seemed to know no bounds. Invariably, his better judgment was overwhelmed by his lack of impulse control.
* * *
Stewart Barbee, a combat veteran of the war in Vietnam, offered some insight into this aspect of Jim’s personality. Born in Portsmouth, Virginia, in 1946, his father died when he was fourteen. Stewart discovered his dad’s cameras, enlarger, film projector, and developing equipment in the garage. Stewart studied photography in high school and college.
Like many cinematographers before him, in 1967, he joined the U.S. Army as a shortcut to becoming a professional cameraman. He worked for the Department of the Army Special Photographic Office. His most difficult assignment was at the U.S. Army Mortuary, in Saigon, making training films for the mortician’s school in Fort Lee, Virginia, in 1969, unzipping body bags and photographing their contents for a study of ballistic wounds.
“I worked at the mortuary in Saigon and CuChi and Chu Lai,” Stewart remembered. “It was pretty tough duty. I remember, my routine: the first thing I do when I got back to the villa – I was fastidious about taking care of my equipment – I would clean my camera equipment. I ‘d get it completely back into shape and immaculate, get it packed away, and then I would take a full set of clothes and go across the street to the old French bathhouse. I would take a huge tub and get all scrubbed clean then get in the steam cabinet, then have a full massage, and put on clean clothes, and then come back to the villa to the paperwork and ship the film. To me it was like a ritual – kind of a physical, spiritual, and emotional cleansing that I had to go through.”
His experiences as a soldier left him with severe posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
One of the few things that mitigated Stewart’s PTSD was the adrenaline rush of being in Jim Mansen’s fast lane. As a veteran with PTSD, Stewart was an adrenaline junkie, forever trying to recreate what’s the soldiers called, “the razor’s edge.” Alcohol and narcotics helped.
“On ‘the razor’s edge,’ the fear disappears and you’re at peace,” Stewart explained. “It’s a familiar feeling. You’re so alert – you know you can survive. This brings a sense of calm. But without the adrenalin rush, you just don’t feel right.”
What would have been terrifying for the average person, provided solace for a veteran with PTSD. For Stewart, blasting down the freeway at one-hundred and ten miles per hour in Jim Mansen’s van, with an open can of beer, was actually quite comforting. And the faster the better.
As a former combat cameraman, when photographing scenes of violence – fights or explosions – Stewart experienced that familiar and comforting “razor’s edge.” Where other cameramen shied away, he was happy to operate the camera that was dangerously close to the action, making him an invaluable player at ILM in Marin County, where explosions are a specialty.
He craved daredevil opportunities on the job: hanging out of helicopters to get the shot or placing his camera close enough to the explosion to feel the blast or shooting sadistically violent fight scenes.
Stewart Barbee lacked the temperament required for the predictable regimen of a staff news cameraman, or the long commitment of a feature motion picture. Working as a freelance cameraman, practically every week you were at a different location, working on a different project, which kept things from getting boring. And as all freelancers know, you can work with almost anyone, if it’s only for five or six days, no matter how big an asshole they may be.
Jim Mansen had his own PTSD, perhaps from somewhere in his own private past. So, Stewart and Jim shared this peculiar predisposition for adrenaline addiction. For it is a well understood that PTSD only exacerbates what’s already present in the psyche.
* * *
From his mentor, Bill Maley, Jim had learned the following definition of emergency preparedness: always carry a fire extinguisher and forty-eight-inch, eight-pound bolt cutters. This is how Jim approached his work, literally and metaphorically – with the biggest bolt cutters available. The bolt cutters served as a universal passkey to any locked gate on any Marin County fire road or trail – making it possible to steal a shot whether one had a filming permit or not.
Cigarette smoking and gum-chewing Jan D’Alquen, the least “Hollywood” cinematographer with whom I ever worked, was a very genuine and kind man, with a permanently furrowed brow. Jan and Ron Eveslage were the cinematographers on George Lucas’ American Graffiti (1973). Jan was married to one of our favorite wardrobe stylists, Judy Feil. He was one of the first cameramen in town to specialize in aerial photography – it didn’t phase him to have to dangle from a helicopter to get the shot.
Jan always called me “Kiddo.” He called everybody “Kiddo.” Jan was frequently the cameraman on jobs with Bill Maley and Jim Mansen. Working with the “bolt-cutter” crew, with Maley and Mansen, Jan had mastered the art of shooting without a film permit.
Thomas C. Miller, the Emmy Award winning aerial cinematographer, shared the following story describing Jan’s gift for stealing the shot.
Thirty years ago, Thomas was working as Jan’s camera assistant for a one-day, second unit shoot on a TV movie-of-the-week. They prepped the Panavision G2 camera at Cine Rent West on one of those opaquely foggy San Francisco days. They had a shot list of iconic, almost cliche romantic images, including an airplane flying in front of the full moon. Thanks to the weather, they didn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of getting anything on their shot list.
They went up to Mel’s Diner on Lombard Street, but it was so overcast and misty, they didn’t get any useable footage. Despite the steel-wool thick fog, Jan – chewing gum and smoking cigarettes – remained optimistic and persistent.
They shot all day and all night, hobbled by the overcast weather, without getting anything they could use. Finally, after all the bars were closed, at 4:00 am, the clouds parted. They drove halfway across the bay bridge to a “well-known” location of Treasure Island – so well know that the municipality has even posted a metal sign there stating, “You Cannot Film Here.”
Jan and Thomas had no film permit. It was still several hours before sunrise. Ever watchful for police, they sat in the van staking out the location. Jan waited patiently for the right moment and, when he finally arrived at that place of internal consensus, he turned to Thomas and told him, “OK, Kiddo – I’m going over the fence.”
When Jan had determined that the coast was clear, he signaled Thomas to quickly start throwing the Panavision cases over the fence. Thomas climbed back into the van and proceeded to drive around, nonchalantly, until Jan got the shot and gave Thomas the high sign. Then they threw the cases over the fence, quickly loaded everything into the van, and made a b-line for Monaco Labs on Ninth Street in San Francisco, without ever being detected.
When the client saw the footage, they were utterly amazed and used Jan’s shot for the ending credits: a gorgeous silhouette of the full moon with an airplane flying in the foreground, framed by the Bay Bridge, with the San Francisco skyline in the background – just what the doctor ordered.
That’s why they call it “work.” It was just another day at work in the film trade.
* * *
Jim Mansen became an expert at removing the “speed governor” – a limiter which rental car companies install in trucks and vans to prevent them from being driven at too high a speed and overtaxing the engine. It was an awful lot of work and required a fair amount of automotive capability. For most of us, it would have just been too much trouble. But not for Jim. He was happy to expend the time and effort necessary to allow him to drive a rented van or truck at 100 (or more) miles per hour down the freeway, even for a one-day rental. It was his way.
For Jim, safety didn’t seem to be part of his concern, only getting there as fast as was humanly possible, regardless of risk or consequence.
How many speeding tickets did he get in his million miles of driving? (I hesitate to speculate.)
It was as if he was in such a hurry to race away from the present to get to the future as quickly as he could – but neither the destination nor the journey seemed important as the very acceleration itself.
Like bluegrass instrumentalists who play everything too fast, Jim seemed to belong to that Cult of Velocity, propelled by a powerful momentum deep within his psyche that drove him forcefully forward in time and space, addicted to the sheer thrill of the trajectory.
* * *
Like his mentor, Bill Maley, Jim Mansen was an orthodox and confirmed alcoholic.
By the time I worked with Jim – unlike Bill – Jim had somehow managed to dry himself, restricting his alcohol intake exclusively to six-packs of so-called non-alcoholic beer.
I saw him drink so many twelve-ounce bottles of non-alcoholic beer, I suspected he could feel the effect of the miniscule alcohol content, if he just swallowed it fast enough. The non-alcoholic beer contained approximately 0.5% alcohol. (Do the math.)
I had heard all the wild stories from the days before Jim Mansen achieved sobriety, when he worked as a freelance soundman in the motion picture industry – stories of cocaine and alcohol, used in excess.
People who met Jim on the set, back in the 1970s described him as “a full-blown juicer.”
Jim drank even when he was on the job. He even had a special battery-operated device that kept a can of beer cold. Crew members remembered him arriving on the set each morning with a cooler full of ice and cans of cold Coors beer. He was already drinking beer before sunrise. He brought enough for himself and for anyone else on the crew who cared to join him. A few young crewmembers remember the first thing Jim said to them when they walked on the set at 6:00 am – before even introducing himself – was, “Hey man, do you want a beer?”
Jim valued his freedom to drink beer, so much so that he employed an ingenuity to this end that took things to another level – for he was the Albert Einstein of Pranksmanship.
He’d carefully sawed off the bottom half-inch of a 12-ounce can of Coca-Cola with a hacksaw. This now-bottomless metal Coca-Cola sleeve slid easily and fitted snugly over the top of a standard 12-ounce aluminum Coors beer can, effectively disguising a can of beer as soda pop – allowing him to drink beer on the job all through the day, without anyone knowing.
The 12-ounce cans used for Coors beer in those days, were of a diameter one or two millimeters narrower than a standard beer or soda can. One wonders how many hours of careful measurement and planning were involved devising this ingenious invention. Soon, Jim was making identical sawed-off Coca-Cola can sleeves for other crew members who also clandestinely drank beer on the set.
“Yes, the beer can in a soda liner worked really well for years,” Jim told me, in 2015. “Then I gave up drinking and they changed the sizes of the cans.”
Ken Phelps, who lived over in Mill Valley, built an air cannon that could fire a tennis ball, a distance of a mile. He discovered that the diameter of a Coors beer can was the same as that of a standard tennis ball, and soon was firing Coors beer cans from his air cannon.
* * *
Although Jim was drinking morning, noon, and night, fellow crew members rarely reported that he was “drunk” on the job. He seemed to handle his liquor surprisingly well and somehow was able to perform his duties as soundman without errors. Occasionally, someone on the crew might have to awaken him from a nap, but that was about it.
In truth, Jim could easily outdrink anyone on the crew. And heaven help anyone who challenged him to a drinking contest. Jim embodied the “hold my beer” attitude, decades before the phrase was popular.
Early on Friday morning, August 21, 1965, days before his twenty-fifth birthday, Jim crashed his sports car into a tree on Sir Francis Drake Boulevard in Kentfield, in Marin County. He was treated for cuts on his chin and forehead, at Marin General Hospital. Jim told the California Highway Patrol officers who came to his rescue that he had just finished working twenty-one-hours straight and had fallen asleep at the wheel.
It’s not uncommon to work a twenty-one-hour day in the film business. It’s also not uncommon to fall asleep at the wheel driving home from such a long workday – several of my constituents ended their lives that way.
But many of his friends assumed Jim must have been pretty loaded when he hit that tree.
* * *
Jim’s paternal grandfather, Reverend Folkert B. Mansen, was born in Vlagtwedde, a village in the province of Groningen, in the Netherlands, in 1879. The oldest of five sons, the boys were orphaned when Folkert was twelve. At the age of sixteen, he immigrated to America and worked as a carpenter in Chicago, until he “saw the light.”
He graduated from Hope College and the Western Theological Seminary, in the Dutch American community of Holland, Michigan. He served as a minister for fifty-three years in Protestant reformed churches in Illinois, Kansas, and Iowa. He married Johanna Testrake, of Muscatine County, Iowa, the daughter of Dutch immigrants, and they raised one daughter and three sons.
Two of his sons followed in his footsteps and became reformed protestant ministers.
Jim’s father, the Reverend Theodore Albert Mansen, was born in Pella, Iowa, in 1905. He graduated the Central College of Iowa in 1928, and his father’s alma mater, Hope College at the Western Theological Seminary, in Holland, Michigan, in 1933. After graduation, during one of the worst years of the Great Depression, he married Mildred C. Straks.
The Mansen’s lived in Davis, in southeastern South Dakota, where Rev. Mansen pastored at the Bethel Reformed Church. Their first child, Marie, was born in 1935. Their son, James Theodore, was born in August of 1940.
Shortly after Jim’s birth, his father became the pastor of the Wilton Presbyterian Church in Muscatine, Iowa. Reverend Theodore Mansen served as a chaplain in the US Army from 1943-1947. He was stationed with the 2nd Army Air Forces at Fort George Wright, in Spokane, Washington, rising to the rank of Lt. Colonel after the war.
Returning home from service, Rev. Mansen pastored at the Associated Church in Hawarden, in western Iowa, in 1948. In the summer of 1955, the family relocated to the western edge of Des Moines, Iowa. where Rev. Mansen pastored at the First Presbyterian Church.
Jim graduated from Valley High School in Des Moines, in 1958. He was a musical teenager. He participated in high school band, small groups, chorus, and swing band, and performed in the cast of the high school Caribbean Carnival varieties show.
Beneath his photograph in the 1958 high school yearbook, it says, “Like father, like son, they always say keep your eye on this boy – he’s on his way!”
A geek at heart and forever partial to gadgets and electronics, he was already interested in audio and recording. After high school, Jim attended the Davenport Institute in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and Ferris State College in Big Rapids, Michigan.
In the early 1960s, Jim followed his older sister Marie west to the San Francisco Theological Seminary in San Anselmo, California. They say Jim’s intention was to become a minister like his father and uncle. After all, he was the son of the son of a pastor.
One wonders if it was simply assumed that he too, would enter the ministry, like his father and his uncle and his grandfather, before him. Did Jim spend his whole childhood rebelling against this certain destiny?
Was becoming a minister Jim’s fantasy or his father’s?
* * *
In sixth grade, I used to ride the Monterey Peninsula Rapid Transit public bus to my school, several miles away in Del Rey Oaks, California. There were many pretty girls on the bus, dressed in their plaid skirts, bound for the Santa Catalina Academy, the local Catholic grade school. How I fantasized about those fetching Catholic girls in their tartan skirts.
Later in life I would discover that many of these girls, when they came of age, acted out wildly in rebellion against their Catholic education – the rules, the restrictions, the repression, and the righteousness. Consequently, they were exceptionally good company in a cabin in a blizzard over a three-day weekend.
Perhaps a similar phenomenon occurred in Jim’s life.
His parents, his aunt and his uncle, his grandmother and his grandfather had dedicated themselves to the life of the pastor and the pastor’s wife. Probably from the time he was old enough to reason, he was aware that, on the path of least resistance, he was destined for a similar life of religious service.
As a seminary student, I imagine Jim may have experienced an inner conflict, like a character in a Warner Brothers cartoon, with the “good angel” (his father) on one shoulder, whispering in his ear, and the “bad angel” (Bill Maley) on the other shoulder, whispering in his other ear.
I suspect he’d been carefully plotting his escape for years, so that when he finally saw a way out, he seized onto it with all his might and never let go.
* * *
After a lifetime in the flat, conservative, and frigid Midwest, San Anselmo, California, in the early 1960s, seemed a paradise to Jim. First of all – it never snowed. The terrain was mountainous, forested, and verdant. The crisp ocean breeze was invigorating. The views of the San Francisco Bay were simply stunning. Each trip across the Golden Gate Bridge was an E-Ticket ride.
At that time, the San Francisco Bay Area was a very liberated and liberating place to be – a veritable Sin City, then approaching its Summer of Love – a marked contrast from the more repressed culture found in the Midwest. Marin County became Jim’s permanent home.
At the San Francisco Theological Seminary, Jim got involved with the A/V (audio and visual) department. Lou and June Yates lived two blocks away from the seminary, at 117 Ross Avenue. In those days, Lou Yates was one of the few soundmen in the Bay Area. At that time, the northern California film production community was tiny. Through Lou Yates, Jim met Bill Maley. When Maley put together a film crew, he hired Lou Yates as his sound mixer. When Lou needed an assistant, he used Jim Mansen.
Jim learned a lot about the sound department working with Lou Yates, at a time when Lou was approaching the end of his career. When the feature film Fools was shot in the San Francisco Bay Area in 1970, Lou Yates was hired as the sound mixer and Jim Mansen was his boom operator. And that was Dick Dova’s first feature as a key grip.
A few years later, Lou Yates retired.
* * *
In the mid 1960s, Bill Maley had a shop on Irwin Street in San Rafael. More often than not, it was the same crew: Jan D’Alquen was the cameraman, Steve Collins drove the truck, Jim Mansen was the soundman, Dick Dova was the key grip, and Bill was the gaffer.
“We had one rule,” Dick Dova told me, “It was that nobody drank on the job.”
Confused, I asked Dick about Jim Mansen’s cooler full of cold beer on the set every morning at 6:00 a.m. and Bill Maley’s beer at lunchtime.
Dick’s response was pure poetry.
“Beer doesn’t count,” he explained, concisely defining one of the cultural norms that changed in the decades between his generation and mine. It was a different time with different values and standards.
“In those days, if you got pulled over and you were a little loaded, the cop would ask you if you needed a ride home.”
In truth, Dick wasn’t being entirely honest. It is a fact that they were a hard-working, hard-drinking crew. Jan D’Alquen’s young camera assistant remembered how they’d order double Manhattans on their lunch break and then go back to the set to finish the shoot day.
“Once, I was on an out-of-town job with them,” he told me. “The night before the shoot, they were all drinking in the bar in the hotel. The following morning, nobody was up for the 5:00 a.m. call time. I had to wake them up.”
Doug Freemen remembered Jim Mansen walking the halls of the hotel room early in the morning of a location shoot day, with a tray of cups of hot coffee, knocking on each crew member’s door, an hour before call time.
* * *
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, crews for documentary films were hired out of either New York or San Francisco, but not out of Southern California. Later, as video began to overtake 16 mm film, documentary producers stopped flying crew members across the country, and began the practice of hiring local crews wherever they happened to be working.
As a sound mixer, Jim worked on numerous documentaries, features, television commercials, and sports TV. In the summer of 1980, Wolfgang Hans Gunther Kopke, a professional stunt diver from Stunts Unlimited in Hamburg, Germany, came to the United States to set a free-fall high diving record, leaping off the Golden Gate Bridge. Although he had been rebuffed by stunt TV shows like “Games People Play,” Kopke went ahead with his plan anyway.
An experienced diver, Kopke knew he had to enter the water feet-first, with his body in a vertical orientation the surface of the water, to survive the fall. Dressed in a white jogging suit pulled over a diver’s suit, a water ski jacket, a life preserver, and heavy wrestling shoes, he had his chest, stomach, wrists, and ankles taped for further protection.
On Tuesday, August 26, 1980 – his thirty-fourth birthday – Kopke climbed over the rail and stepped off the bridge midway between the south tower and the center span, at a point about 260 feet above the channel, shortly after 3:00 pm. He’d underestimated the strength of the winds that batter the steel bridge 260-feet above the mile-wide Golden Gate Straight. During his ten second fall, the gusty winds changed his physical orientation to the water. During the final sixty feet, he was thrashing his legs wildly, “Like he was trying to climb back up that invisible ladder,” Don Olson told a reporter.
Kopke hit the water flat on his back, traveling at a speed of ninety miles per hour, and was killed on impact. His lifeless body was pulled out of the sea by the crew of a small motorboat piloted by Don Olsen.
Kopke’s associates had chartered a boat and hired four-man motion picture crew to capture film Kopke’s stunt from a boat below the bridge. Jim Mansen was the sound mixer on that boat.
The Thursday, August 28, 1980, issue of the San Francisco Examiner reported:
Prosecution may await some of those who watched and filmed from boats as Wolfgang Hans-Gunther Kopke, who billed himself as ‘Kid Courage,’ jumped to his death Tuesday … But the film crew has disappeared and others who participated in the stunt or were friends of the stuntmen claimed to know little … California Highway Patrol spokesman Roland Miller said officers were still trying to catch up with a four-member film crew which reportedly looked on from the deck of a chartered 36-foot trawler as Kopke plunged 250 feet to his death.
Don Olsen, who piloted the boat that came to Kopke’s rescue, told the Examiner, “‘Sure I had second thoughts about it. But I looked at it this way: the guy was a stuntman, he makes his living off that. He’s going to need someone to pick him up. We’ve got high divers who dive from a 90-foot platform here at Pier 39.” The San Francisco Examiner continued:
Olsen said the entire mission was kept secret from the time he met Kopke and two other Germans on Monday … But that same day, Kopke dropped off a business card at a Pier 39 clothing store. Showing him casually dressed and smiling on one side and engulfed in flames on the other, it billed him as “Kid Courage” of Stunts Unlimited, Hamburg Germany … He told the clerk in the store he was in San Francisco to do a stunt – to jump off the Golden Gate bridge. The clerk didn’t believe him…
Ray Alfson, who runs a charter service, said … “It was a terrible thing to witness.” … McKeever said he and the other coast guardsmen … quickly spotted the cabin cruiser approaching and behind it a sailing vessel with about five persons aboard … “Everything seemed fishy. No one wanted to give his name.” McKeever recalled …
“We’re kind of at a dead end – we can’t find the film company,” Officer Roland Miller told the Berkeley Gazette later that day.
Only four stuntmen are known to have tried to jump from the Golden Gate Bridge, three with fatal results. Stuntmen Ernest Lee Christian of Oregon survived a leap from the bridge on Halloween night 1978, wearing handcuffs. Since it opened in 1937, the Golden Gate Bridge has been the final destination for more than seven hundred souls – the suicide rate exceeds one per month.
* * *
Greg Von Buchau grew up in the seaside village of Sausalito, California. Although Greg graduated from San Francisco State University with a degree in film, he was making his living pulling transmissions out of Volkswagens in a repair shop on Woodland Avenue and Irwin Street in San Rafael. Fatefully, Bill Maley’s Film Producers Services happened to be right next door. One day Greg saw Bill’s crew loading lamps and stands onto the grip truck in the parking lot.
Greg approached them and asked, “If I wanted to work in film production in the bay area, what department should I go into?”
One of the grips told him: “The sound department,” and gave him Jim Mansen’s name and phone number.
Greg phoned Jim and they went out to lunch. They were the same age and of a very compatible temperament. Soon, Greg became Jim’s boom man. Jim’s mentor, Lou Yates, had retired from the industry some years before and Greg bought some of his sound gear. A couple of years later, Greg got his own Nagra and began working as a production sound mixer.
The sound mixer and boom operator have an intimate relationship on the set, involving a lot of quiet conversation throughout the shoot day, via their mics and headphones, that only the two of them can hear.
“Jim was like a brother to me,” Greg told me. “He was the best friend I ever had.”
* * *
Stewart Barbee joined the army in 1967, as a shortcut to becoming a cinematographer. After attending photography school at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, he was assigned to the Army Pictorial Center to apprentice in the camera department of the production branch. This was at the old Famous Players-Lasky Studio – then the Paramount Studio – at 34-12 Thirty-Sixth Street in Queens, New York. Today, it’s the Kaufman Astoria Studios. This is where the Marx Brothers filmed The Coconuts (1929) and Animal Crackers (1930).
So little had changed there in terms of the personnel and culture, since the days of silent film, that the men on the stage crew still wore flat caps, sweaters, and knickers. “They look like the kids in the Bowery Boys or the Our Gang comedies!” Stewart remembered.
“These men had worked with Mary Pickford! They still used nose grease instead of silicone. In those days, if you were not born into it, you really had to know something to be on the crew. Today, you don’t have to be an I.A. local apprentice and come up through the ranks.”
Out on the back lot, they still had the enormous New York City Street set, as well as the old turntable that predated motion picture stages. The turntable – ostensibly a gigantic lazy Susan, large enough to accommodate a 2,000 square foot building – was designed so that it could be turned incrementally every thirty minutes, to follow the sun as it traveled across the sky, in the days before motion picture lighting.
* * *
Jim Mansen and Stewart Barbee were on dozens of jobs together between 1970 and 1983 – Jim as the soundman and Stewart as the cameraman. Stewart told me that one of his happiest memories was staying at the Sunset Marquis hotel in West Hollywood with Jim Mansen, around 1973, and discovering the very first electronic game machine, Pong, in the lobby of the hotel. The two men sat around drinking beer and playing Pong until midnight, when the management finally had to kick them out for “having too much fun.”
Jim had a remarkable attitude toward the work they were doing. He never seemed to lose sight of privilege of making one’s living in the film business. When Stewart would complain to Jim about the producer that they were working for, Jim Mansen would say to him, “Who signs your check? Do you want to give the producer what he wants or what you want?”
For a freelance motion picture crew member, these were words to live by.
Once, when Jim Mansen and Stewart Barbee were flying on an airplane together to a distant location, Stewart worried aloud about the anxiety he experienced during the periods of unemployment between freelance jobs – a worry felt by many freelance workers.
Jim simply asked to him, “What do you do?”
A bit confused, Stewart replied, “I’m a cameraman.”
Jim repeated the same question several times, asking emphatically over and over, “What do you do? What do you do?” until Stewart finally qualified his answer.
“I’m a freelance cameraman!” Stewart exclaimed.
“Exactly!” Jim exclaimed. “And as a freelance cameraman, you can never unemployed because you’re only between jobs!”
This succinct homily proved a breakthrough moment for Stewart. The conversation was more than therapeutic. Stewart never forgot it. It was such a relief. After that, Stewart never again felt that angst about being unemployed between freelance gigs – the angst that still keeps so many freelancers awake at night.
Jim was the rebound master. He possessed this marvelous bedside manner – this great intuition for human interpersonal development. His path into the film business was a terrible loss for the clergy. Aside from his wild and crazy side, Jim had a lot of the so-called “God-given” skills and talents that would have made him a hell of a good minister.
Whenever someone had a death in the family or had a loved one was in the hospital, Jim – the son of the son of a pastor – instinctively knew what to do and what to say, and what their relatives would need. He was a very sensitive guy and had great intuition about people. Perhaps this capacity for empathy came from personal experience. Jim had lived through some heartbreaking tragedies of his own.
* * *
Jim and his wife Bettie lived on Angela Avenue in a quiet neighborhood of San Anselmo. Their first child, James Jr., was born in 1970. Their second child, Mathew, was born in 1973.
On a Sunday afternoon, August of 1983, Jim took the boys to Ocean Beach in San Francisco to ride their bikes. Bettie stayed home. The boys piled their bicycles into the trunk of the car, and they drove across the Golden Gate Bridge and down the Great Highway along Ocean Beach, running red lights all the way. They found a parking place several blocks from the beach, off Sloat Boulevard, near the zoo.
The boys pulled their bikes out of the trunk. The wind was blowing hard, as it often does at Ocean Beach, making a great whooshing sound, and blowing small particles of sand through the air. They had to cross the Great Highway to get to the beach.
Running red lights had become second nature to Jim. He was attempting to discern whether there was enough room for all three of them on that narrow island between the lanes of the highway.
He waited until a passing car slowed down to make a left-hand turn and then, instead of waiting for the stoplight to cycle back to green, Jim sprinted alone across the northbound lane of the highway to the island.
When he reached the safety of the island, he turned around and saw automobiles zipping by at fifty-five miles an hour – he had misjudged the traffic. He saw that his son Jimmy. was just a few steps behind, following him across the busy highway. Jim’s youngest son, Mathew, who was ten years old and pushing his bicycle, was the last to cross when he was struck by an oncoming pickup truck.
Jim and Jimmy rode in the ambulance with the injured boy to Mission Emergency Hospital at 23rd Street and Potrero Avenue, where Mathew was pronounced dead. What was Jim going to tell his wife?
His first call was to his boom man and confidant, Greg Von Buchau.
Jim never forgave himself. And he quit drinking. But was the end of his marriage.
* * *
By the time I started working for Jim Mansen in the winter of 1987, he was forty-seven years old. Having heard all those stories about the days when Jim was drinking heavily, his unwavering sobriety seemed, in and of itself, a remarkable accomplishment.
He never talked about how he pulled it off. Did he join Alcoholics Anonymous? Did he check himself into a hospital or clinic? Nobody seems to know. Those who knew him best believe that he did it by himself, on sheer strength of willpower – he just “Got ‘er Done.”
Jim was a very ambitious guy and wasn’t afraid of hard work. Having spent so many years in the industry, he’d developed a kind of sixth sense and could anticipate problems before they occurred. His mind was already on the next camera set up while we were working on the present one. He was figuring out problems at the next location while we were working on this one. With that producer’s gift of foresight, he had more solutions up his sleeve than the average bear.
Jim was the first person to hire me as a production manager when I moved from Los Angeles to San Francisco. In our first interview Jim shared his description of the job for which he was hiring. He looked me in the eye and told me something I had already learned on-the-job: “A production manager is someone who doesn’t take no for an answer.”
* * *
Jim would occasionally arrive late at a location, or for a screening, or a meeting, somewhere in San Francisco. One of our location scouts told to me in confidence that apparently, while driving to his destination, Jim would occasionally find himself behind the wheel, unconsciously retracing the route the ambulance drove on the day Mathew died: Sloat eastbound to Santa Clara Avenue, then onto Monterey Boulevard, which merges with San Jose Avenue, which becomes Guerrero Street, then right on Army Street…
There was nothing to be said. Some wounds heal very slowly. How many times did Jim drive that route alone or with a passenger, working through the trauma that had changed his life?
In February of 1998, Jim Mansen, Thomas Small, and I worked on a little job for James Productions – a thirty-second tv commercial for WCCO, a popular news talk radio station in Minneapolis. The star of the picture was a brand-new rented Ford cargo van that had a large, colorful applique of the radio station’s logo applied to both sides of the vehicle. We photographed the van at a bunch of different locations in and around San Francisco. The van was in every shot on the storyboard.
But, before all of the photography was completed, Thomas and I discovered, to our unpleasant surprise, that van was nowhere to be found – Jim had mistakenly returned the “picture vehicle” to the rental car company at the airport early, before we were actually done taking pictures of it. His instinctual impatience had gotten the better of him and he “Got ‘er Done” prematurely.
Jim was usually such a buttoned-up guy, this was out of character for him. Furthermore, this put us in a very awkward position. We all understood Jim was going through a hard time. However, I was quite concerned that Jim’s carelessness might cost us a client.
When I started working in film production in 1982, it was a common practice to have an ice chest full of cold beer ready to serve to the crew at the end of the shoot day. But within a decade, it became politically incorrect (and a legal liability) to serve beer to independent contractors and employees, on an empty stomach, and then make them drive home inebriated, in rush-hour traffic.
It was inevitable: ultimately, one crew member had a few beers after work, drove home, crashed, and sued the production company. And suddenly, there was no more beer on the set after work.
In the 1980s and early 1990s, cocaine was still very popular in the motion picture industry. On many grip trucks, one would find a drawer in the cabinetry containing a small mirror, a single-edged razor blade, and a three-inch section of plastic soda straw.
In 1991, Stephen Spielberg was shooting Hook over on Stage 30 at Paramount, in Los Angeles. Every Friday, one of the grips on this shoot could not be found on the set. Friday was collection day, and this grip would go around to the various soundstages to collect the drug money from crew members who’d purchased cocaine on credit, during the week. What was most surprising to the other crew members was how blatant it all was.
There was a lot of cocaine usage in the film production community and advertising industry, and James Productions was not exempt from this pathological narcotic fad.
Soon, those of us who were working with Jim, began to notice he was sleepy in the middle of the workday. We began encouraging him to take naps during business hours while we covered for him. I observed that he started making a few uncustomary unwise business decisions. We started fielding his phone calls for him. We kept him off the set and sometimes out-of-the-loop. I felt a lot of empathy for Jim; it wasn’t an easy time for him.
* * *
In 1971, the legendary underground comic book illustrator Robert Crumb published “Whiteman Meets Bigfoot” in Home Grown Funnies #1. A few years later, Boyd Jacobson paid the legendary cartoonist one dollar a year for an option on the motion picture rights to the “Whiteman Meets Bigfoot” story.
Boyd developed a screenplay for a feature film that he planned to direct himself. They say that Boyd had signed Rick Moranis to play the part of Whiteman. When Boyd’s option eventually expired, Terry Zwigoff, who would later direct the remarkable documentary, Crumb (1995), and Crumb himself, developed their own screenplay, only to shelve the project when the studio feature film Harry and the Hendersons (1987) single-handedly exhausted the bigfoot feature film genre.
In 1990, Boyd Jacobson became my meal ticket. I was only twenty-nine years old, but there I was, a successful television commercial producer with a director who adored me and wanted to work with me. And I had gotten myself out of Los Angeles.
Boyd’s years of experience in print advertising had left him obsessively compulsive about small details. Once, in a $1,000 an hour online edit suite, while we were inserting text titles into a television commercial, I watched him minutely adjust the position of a period at the end of a sentence – “Just a smidge to the right – too much! Now a just a hair to the left” – for a full seven minutes.
Once, in a large corporate conference room, high atop a San Francisco skyscraper, I watched Boyd pitch an idea for a tv commercial at client meeting. Everyone at the long conference table, to a man, hated Boyd’s idea – we flopped. It was the worst reception to a pitch I’d ever witnessed. Everyone was talking at the same time about why Boyd’s concept was so perfectly wrong. When the rhubarb finally subsided, Boyd said calmly, to no one in particular, “I guess we’re not going to the prom.”
Boyd and John van der Zee had worked as a creative team at the McCann-Erickson and Ogilvy-Mather agencies in San Francisco and were known for their Wells Fargo Bank “Stagecoach” television commercials. Boyd was a gifted art director who had managed to cross over into directing commercials. So, he had a lot of ad agency contacts, and thus, we had a lot of jobs.
* * *
When dining in a restaurant, Boyd enjoyed eating food from other people’s plates (especially mine), cajoling me into ordering anything on the menu that he wanted to taste.
Boyd and I bought the brand-new Motorola flip phones and fancy fax machines. We never even had time to open our own production offices, but rather rented space wherever and whenever we needed.
Soon, James Productions closed their San Francisco offices. Jim Mansen was now not only out of work – he was also out of favor. Despite his brief tenure as an executive producer at James Productions, nobody in town was hiring him as a producer. Ironically, most people in the industry remembered him as a production sound mixer.
* * *
When I was in grade school, I saw a rather grown-up movie called, The Last Picture Show (1971). In the movie, a beautiful but inexperienced teenage girl is attracted to a handsome boy. He tells her he isn’t interested in sleeping with virgins and instructs her to come back after she has already tried sexual intercourse. Somehow, he knew he didn’t want to be her first lover. But as a twelve-year-old, I couldn’t understand why.
A decade later, I slept with a beautiful young woman whom I had known for many years, and we made love. It was her first time, but not mine. I became emotionally involved with her, but my feelings were never reciprocated.
I was reminded of The Last Picture Show. I was her first, but I wished I had been her second. For, no matter what I did or said, I was forever after associated with the self-conscious inexperience of youthful experimentation. All of her subsequent lovers would be associated with her experiences as a woman.
By being her first lover, I had unwittingly disqualified myself from ever being a candidate for an interpersonal relationship, as I was forever part of her past. In the ensuing years, I made several attempts to date her, but the die was cast, and I could not undo what had already been done.
There is a similar phenomenon that occurs in the motion picture industry.
Back in the days when I was a production assistant, I was very good at my job. Although the work was menial, and at times degrading, I strove to be the best production assistant in town. At Harmony Pictures in Burbank, I worked with another production assistant named Abel Martinez, who was about my age. Kathleen Hughes, the prop woman whom we both assisted, would joke rather tellingly, “Adam is more willing than Abel.” And it was true.
I implored my boss, Hope Grossman, to give me a chance to move up to being a production coordinator, a management position in the production department that paid twice as much money and involved a lot less physical labor. I had ably demonstrated that I could be the best production assistant on the set, but I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life dumping garbage cans and filling ice chests.
As a production assistant, Hope was paying me $125 a day. Instead of giving me a chance to work as a production coordinator, she offered me $250 a day – double my rate – if I would just continue being the best production assistant on the set. I adored Hope and was quite devoted to her, but her proposition broke my heart. I really wanted to be a production coordinator and that was never going to happen, as long as I was working for her. For I knew that Hope would forever think of me as the production assistant who did a great job dumping trash cans, but who probably couldn’t be trusted with any real responsibilities.
When I finally did become a production coordinator, I found that none of the people who used to hire me as a production assistant would not hire me as management. They were forever burdened with the memory of me as that greenhorn kid who dumped the garbage. I had to find an entirely new roster of clients.
The Dalai Lama says, “When you lose, try not to lose the lesson.”
* * *
Worried about Jim’s livelihood, I lobbied Boyd to let me to hire him as our soundman. Now, I had never actually worked with Jim as a sound mixer. He was an executive producer by the time I came on the scene. We agreed to hire Jim on a temporary basis and try working with him for a couple of shoots. However, though Jim was a great soundman, it was soon apparent that arrangement was awkward for all parties involved.
As an executive producer, Jim successfully kept the Animal House frat-boy aspect of his personality well contained. Although Jim was a conscientious and hard-working soundman, his instinctual impatience and lack of impulse control often got the better of him. Boyd was the first among us to run out of patience for Jim’s antics, calling Jim a buffoon, and would whine to me about hiring a different soundman.
For the other crew members, this arrangement flew in the face of the traditional hierarchy of film production. The man who once ran the company as the above-the-line executive producer, was now the below-the-line crewmember. For the clients and the advertising agency folks, having the former executive producer working as the sound mixer, was more a problem of class distinction. As the sound mixer, Jim would no longer be invited for drinks and dinner with the client after the shoot. Jim was a sensitive guy, so he was well-aware of all of this, which only served to heighten the awkwardness of the situation.
Sometimes the good you do doesn’t do any good at all. I was the one who hired Jim as a sound mixer and put him in this somewhat untenable position. I felt responsible for everyone’s uncomfortableness.
I was very ambitious at the time. I was not yet thirty years old. My star was quickly rising and, for better or worse, I had hitched that star to Boyd Jacobson’s wagon.
Jim’s loss was my gain. Boyd and I were enjoying surprisingly sudden success and, try as I might, I couldn’t seem to take Jim Mansen with us. This left me with an uneasy feeling that I could not shake.
* * *
Jim, like his mentor Bill Maley, was well-known for his penchant for jokes and stories. He was a genuine trickster, like Coyote in the traditional stories of the American Indians. Somebody once said that they’d watched Jim exchange punchlines with another joker for a full hour. Jim specialized in dirty, politically incorrect jokes. He was a puckish and enthusiastic prankster and an excellent storyteller.
When I’d introduce him to an executive from the advertising agency, I would say something like, “Jim, I’d like you to meet Steve, the Creative Director from McCann-Erickson. Steve – this is Jim Mansen, our esteemed soundman.”
Jim would shake the executive’s hand and pantomime being hard-of-hearing. Cupping his ear, and melodramatically feigning deafness, he would squint and stammer, “Eh? What? I’m sorry – I didn’t catch that – could you please speak up?”
Jim thought this was funnier than a rubber crutch. But in this, he was alone. Sometimes the advertising agency executives were so obtuse, they didn’t even understand that he was joking. After paying us half a million dollars to film their tv commercial, they found precious little humor in the prospect of a partially deaf soundman.
There was an instinctual impatience deep-seated in Jim’s character that he sometimes could not contain. I recently heard a story about how this this “Get ‘er Done” philosophy got him into trouble during his second career as a soundman.
In 2008, Jim was working on a music video filmed at the iconic Capitol Records building at 1750 Vine Street in Hollywood. They’d arranged an interview with a corporate vice-president whose offices were on one of the top floors.
Jim went upstairs to set up for the interview. But the executive’s door was locked, and Jim had to wait until security came and unlocked the door. It is not known whether security took two minutes or twenty to arrive, but Jim fell victim to his considerable impatience. He knew exactly what he needed to do to “Get er Done.”
With a credit card and a paper clip, he easily picked the lock to the executive’s office door, let himself in, and began setting up his recording equipment.
Jim was sixty-eight years old. But like an Animal House frat boy on a dare, his ability to foresee the natural consequences of his actions was overwhelmed by his lack of impulse control and his sense of entitlement. When the security guards arrived with the key and found Jim already inside the executive’s locked office, unfolding his sound blankets, they were not amused: it meant paperwork, for they had to file a breaking and entering report. And security guards hate paperwork.
Jim didn’t see it coming.
* * *
Jim Mansen used to say, “They never say anything in this business. They just write your name down on a list – and draw a red line through it.”
After he sold Stage A to Gregg Snazelle, Al Niggemeyer worked with Republican political strategist and advertising veteran Hal Larson. Hal specialized in defeating ballot propositions – propositions that would have done a lot of good for citizens, had they passed.
Proposition 11 was on the California ballot in 1980. Targeted at oil companies, Prop. 11 levied a ten-percent tax on business income derived from the energy business. The oil companies hired Hal’s public relations firm Woodruff, McDowell & Larson. Although Al Niggemeyer wasn’t part of the Woodruff-McDowell firm, he was so much a part of their team, he had his own offices in their suite.
Hal Larson knew it was always a long shot to try to get people to vote yes on practically anything. His specialty was they placing of doubt in the voter’s mind. His radio and television campaign premise (as always) was that Prop. 11 was “misleading, deceptive, and factually inaccurate.” Al directed the commercials and Hal wrote the scripts. They both made piles of money.
In 1962, Hal Larson was the assistant creative director at the J. Walter Thompson agency, when his team created the legendary “Oh, I Wish I Were an Oscar Meyer Wiener!” campaign. In the 197o’s his team created the highly successful, “When it says Libby’s Libby’s Libby’s on the label, label, label, you will like it, like it, like it, on your table, table, table,” campaign.
Hal Larson once flew a B-25 bomber underneath the San Francisco Bay Bridge. Hal Larson was renowned for his part in springing Hal Riney from an ad agency mailroom. Hal Larson was married to a much younger woman (who looked like one of the Cabbage Patch dolls) and was fathering babies well into his sixties. He swam laps in the swimming pool every day, until he died at the age of 93.
Hal Larson enjoyed a long career in advertising in the Bay Area and had a lot of experience in the world of political campaigns. In this unsavory realm, he was one of the masters.
“It’s much easier to convince people to vote no,” Hal explained to me, “by telling them that the ballot proposition in question doesn’t do what it says it’s going to do.”
Hal’s trademark format was the thirty-second broadcast commercial that never “blinked” – shot in a single take with no edits, with a solitary “real person” spokesperson speaking directly into the lens. One of the political tv commercials we made featured a middle aged African American actress seated in an elementary school room, portraying the part a public-school teacher. “Remember all that lottery money for schools?” she began. “I wonder where it all went? Now, they’re trying to do it again with Proposition 134…”
As mundane as this may appear, this is an extremely effective and timeless formula in political television advertising.
In the summer of 1990, I produced a series of political commercials to defeat Proposition 134 in California. The campaign was written by Hal Larson. As part of the contractual agreement, I was to pay Hal Larson a $4,000 fee out of the production company budget, for every thirty-second script he wrote. I knew Hal was also getting paid out of the client’s budget, too – he was a smooth operator. After all, Hal had gotten us the account, lobbying the client to hire Boyd Jacobson to direct these commercials.
Ironically, we were working for the wrong team – the ballot proposition in question would have done a lot of good had the voters passed it. Unfortunately, Anheuser-Busch and Gallo had each put millions of dollars to defeat a proposed nickel-per-drink state alcohol tax, the revenue from which would have funded a dozen excellent social programs combatting drunk driving. But that’s one of the tradeoffs you often make when you agree to make political commercials.
The client on this campaign was Bob Nelson of Nelson Ralston Robb, a public relations firm in notoriously Republican Orange County, southern California. Bob Nelson was a large, loud, and menacing man, who reminded me of Bluto in the Popeye cartoons. – or Eric Campbell, the Goliath of a Scotsman who played Charles Chaplin’s nemesis in the comedies he made for the Mutual Film Company in 1917.
I remember how Bob Nelson showed up on the set for the first shoot day, in a three-piece suit, waving a loaded handgun, and scaring the be-Jesus out the neighbors. I found our frightened make-up artist and wardrobe stylist hiding in the back of the motorhome.
Shortly thereafter the police arrived and tried to arrest my client, Mr. Nelson. I did my best to try to explain the situation, however Mr. Nelson’s behavior was frequently inexplicable. If you looked up “loose cannon” in the dictionary, you’d find Bob Nelson’s picture.
Somewhat astoundingly, two years later, Bob Nelson phoned me from the White House, where he was working with the Clinton administration. This development made me shudder, like Lurch on The Addams Family.
One of these political commercials was filmed down by the San Francisco Bayshore, south of the city, near Oyster Point. The location was thirty feet below the roadbed, down a boulder-strewn slope that descended to the foul and filthy waters of the bay. These breakwater boulders were as big as Volkswagens, and were densely covered with slick, slippery moss, and seaweed, making for a very dangerous situation.
So, the grips quickly built a wooden walkway out of 2 x 12” lumber, creating a safe path over the boulders and down to the Bayshore. The crew patiently waited until the construction was completed. The last thing we wanted was to have to take somebody to the hospital.
But before the wooden walkway was completed, Jim Mansen’s instinctual impatience got the best of him. Out-of-shape, overweight, and almost fifty years old, Jim Mansen was dressed in topsiders, Bermuda shorts, and Hawaiian shirt. His better judgement thrown under the bus by his deep-seated lack of impulse control, he inexplicably began climbing down the enormous and slippery boulders, all alone.
Moments later, right in front of the client, the advertising agency, and everybody on the crew, Jim slipped on one of the slick boulders and fell – thwack – landing hard on the rock on his buttocks.
He did his best to make light of his fall, trying to contain his pain so we wouldn’t know how badly he’d hurt himself. When I saw the fourteen-inch wide black-and blue bruise on Jim’s buttocks, I winced again. It appeared that he may have cracked his coccyx. Poor Jim! As soon as we were done recording sound, one of the production assistants drove him to the emergency room at San Francisco General Hospital for x-rays.
Everyone on the crew, including the director, was so distracted, and distressed by Jim’s accident, we proceeded carelessly.
The least expensive time to fix any problem in motion picture is before you say, “that’s a wrap,” and move to the next location. Later that week, when we were editing the commercial, we discovered some of the recorded sound was not usable. We’d been so distracted that none of us noticed until it was too late. The actress’ diction and the ambient noise of the wind at the bay shore made it difficult to understand what she was saying.
Her line was, “I’ve been deceived!” – a rare instance of really dreadful writing on Hal Larson’s part – and it sounded like she was saying, “I’ve been to sea!”
The misunderstanding of her line reading was exacerbated by the fact that you saw nothing but the briny water of the bay behind her. We had to book time in the recording studio and bring the actress back to re-record her lines.
A couple weeks later, we were on a sound stage in San Francisco, filming yet another in this series of political commercials. Everybody on the crew was a little frazzled from working six or seven days a week, for a month or more. It was almost like being on a feature film: nobody even had time to wash their laundry. We all really needed a couple days off. When a producer doesn’t give the crew sufficient days off, people inadvertently make mistakes and that usually costs money.
We went through so much petty-cash on that campaign, I wore a special money pouch around my waist, stuffed with hundred-dollar bills. One afternoon on the sound stage, I was counting out petty-cash to one of our crackerjack production assistants, when for no apparent reason, Jim Mansen snuck up behind me and, with an almost comically large pair of scissors, and like Harpo Marx, impishly snipped off the end of the money pouch belt.
At a distance of three decades, it’s a rather amusing anecdote.
But somehow it wasn’t funny at the time. When I removed the money belt from my waist to change into a clean shirt, I discovered that the belt was now too short to reinsert into the buckle. This small and seemingly insignificant incident was for me, the last straw.
Boyd and our clients, Hal Larson and Bob Nelson, had grown increasingly intolerant of Jim’s puckish antics on the set. Because Jim felt uncomfortable, consciously, or unconsciously, his natural propensity for pranksmanship was only exacerbated in response to the situation.
Like George, in John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, I had seen this coming for some time. I knew I had no option but to take the bull by the horns and face the situation.
Three decades later I still have the money pouch; for some reason I never threw it away – a relic from that day long ago, when I recognized that I had to replace my friend and mentor, Jim Mansen.
Situations of this kind gave me ulcers. Many directors and producers in the industry just hired their friends, regardless of skill level or experience. I had built my reputation as a producer on only hiring the very best people in every category. This created an awkwardness between me and many of my friends who worked in the industry, and I could have hired on my crew – but did not.
“All some producers do is just hire the best people in town,” Dick Dova told me. “That’s their only claim to fame.”
His words made me feel self-conscious, for in truth, that was my only claim to fame. I firmly believed that it was imperative to hire the best person available, for each, and every job on the crew – even the production assistants – even the caterer.
The American lyricist Arthur Freed produced the most memorable of the MGM movie musicals. During the Great Depression, Freed convinced MGM to purchase the film rights to Lyman Frank Baum’s book, the Wizard of Oz, and, although credited as an assistant producer, he was largely responsible for the making of this now classic motion picture.
One night in Paris, in 1958, during the filming of the musical Gigi, members of producer Arthur Freed’s cast and crew were sitting in a bistro talking about Mr. Freed, when someone said, “I don’t understand Freed. Why do you all think he’s such a great producer?”
The composer of the score, Fritz Lowe leveled his eyes at the speaker. Gesturing around the table to demonstrate the obvious, he replied: “We’re all here, aren’t we?
* * *
In truth, I was too thin-skinned to be a really great producer. One must have just so many parts-per-million, of sociopathy in their bloodstream, to stay emotionally detached enough to remain unaffected by the slings and arrows of film production. Otherwise, it’ll just break your heart. Too much of the milk-of-human-kindness in veins and you’ll be up at night, feeling bad that someone got the short end of the deal. And in the film business, someone always gets the short end of the deal.
On the next shoot, I booked a different sound mixer. Although nothing was said about this change, Jim’s absence relieved the unspoken tensions on the set. Sometimes one’s job involves making hard, or unpopular decisions. Although I understood this intellectually, I felt a little guilty.
At the time, some of our constituents felt that I had betrayed Jim. After all, I owed so much to him.
When I left Los Angeles and moved to San Francisco and didn’t know anybody in town – when I couldn’t get anyone to return my phone calls – Jim Mansen was the first person to hire me as a production manager. Jim had placed a lot of faith in me and I was deeply indebted to him for his trust and support. He’d given me every opportunity. He freely shared his knowledge. He had mentored me and mentored me well. We’d been through so many projects and jobs together.
As a Macintosh computer enthusiast, Jim generously shared his FileMakerPro rolodex of contacts and his Excel AICP spreadsheet estimation software, both of which were revolutionary production tools at the time, and which, for years, gave me a competitive edge in the business.
Shortly thereafter, Jim’s old friend, the assistant director Lope Yap, Jr., visited me on a soundstage where we were shooting a commercial for Sizzler Steakhouses. I remember that he was pretty upset with me for, as he put it, “turning my back on Jim.” I didn’t know what to say because in a way, he was right.
* * *
At the age of forty-six, the outstanding American songwriter Cole Porter suffered a terrible accident when a horse he was riding fell, shattering the bones in Porter’s legs. This left Porter in constant pain for the rest of his life. They say he had a throw pillow on his couch, made by his grandmother, with the following credo embroidered onto the fabric: Never Complain, Never Explain. I have embraced this philosophy, throughout my career.
Boyd and I had plenty of work that summer, not just for ourselves, but for many freelancers in the San Francisco Bay Area. There wasn’t a lot of time for reflection. We rented production office space downstairs from Nancy Hayes Casting on fashionable Union Street. We ate all our meals a few blocks away at an Italian restaurant called Prego. It seemed like the work was never going to stop. And the political campaign on which we worked was successful – the ballot proposition was defeated.
And then, just a few months later, in February 1991, during an elective surgery, suddenly and unexpectedly Boyd Jacobson died. He was forty-seven years old.
What I remember vividly, three decades later, is how Jim Mansen was so emotionally present, distinguishing himself as the most helpful, most supportive, and generous of friends, in a time of genuine crisis.
Boyd’s teenage daughter, his elderly mother, and his young girlfriend had their lives turned upside down. Those of us who worked with Boyd were all in shock.
But Jim Mansen was the son of the son of a preacher. He knew exactly what to do – and what to say – when tragedy struck. It seemed that Jim was at his best in matters of the heart – in the real life and death of it all. In this, Jim was unfailingly generous. Boy, was he a lifesaver!
I was just thirty years old. Although I was not very aware of it at the time, I was in shock for quite a while after Boyd died. In a knee-jerk reaction, I purchased life insurance, joined the Neptune Society, became an organ-donor, and hired an estate lawyer to open a living trust (even though I did not yet own any property).
And of course, all of the work on my calendar – and my relationships with all those loyal clients – and my future plans, died with Boyd Jacobson.
I can’t remember the last time I saw Jim Mansen. I only know that I wasn’t around when he hit rock bottom.
* * *
Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “I once thought that there were no second acts in American lives.”
In the early 1990s, sound mixers in the motion picture industry were abandoning the traditional quarter-inch reel-to-reel tape, and the old Nagra recorder, in exchange for digital audio tapes (DAT) and digital audio recording equipment. It scared a lot of people, but Jim Mansen never had any trouble learning new technologies.
Ted Macklin, one particularly stalwart member of our crew, who worked with us on practically every shoot, discreetly loaned Jim $30,000 to buy a digital sound system and to help him get back on his feet.
Jim paid back every dime with interest and on time. And he didn’t waste a minute.
Like the proverbial phoenix rising from the ashes, Jim Mansen was back in business. He moved into a home in Pasadena, large enough to serve as a boarding house. There were so many out-of-town crew members working in Los Angeles, living in cheap motel rooms, that Jim bought a couple of dozen cots and invited them all to stay instead, at his place. Jim offered free lodging to those who weren’t working and charged $25 a night to those with freelance employment. “It was a sea of cots,” aerial cinematography Thomas C. Miller remembered.
Just months after Boyd Jacobson’s death, Jim began working on a popular television series called Unsolved Mysteries. The program used a small crew: producer, director, cameraman, camera assistant, gaffer, and soundman.
Jim Mansen, the soundman, was frequently on the road with camera assistant John Malvino. Jim was ten years older than John and had a lot more experience. So, John often let Jim lead – which was just fine with Jim, who had learned early in his career to get as much control of a situation as possible, believing that if you want something done right, you do it yourself.
“I feel lucky to have known him and to appreciate what he was about. Jim was very consistent – his code of behavior didn’t waiver. Jim was into living vicariously and he didn’t care what anyone thought. Yes, sometimes it got him into trouble, and sometimes he was called on the carpet for his actions. But Jim never had to convince me to do anything. Rather, he won me with camaraderie and superior leadership. It was a real privilege to be a junior partner to Jim Mansen.”
Jim would take seemingly colossal risks – and pull them off.
* * *
On Unsolved Mysteries, Jim Mansen and John Malvino travelled with NBC television credentials, stayed in good hotels, and flew almost exclusively on United Airlines, to take full advantage of their MileagePlus rewards program. They were on the payroll as well-paid freelancers, but they were not technically on staff.
The two men worked on Unsolved Mysteries for nine years, forty-six weeks a year. Although they were admittedly, at times insubordinate, they had figured out the rules and consequently never got fired. And program after program, Jim delivered broadcast quality sound for what was then one of the top five shows on television.
Their schedule on Unsolved Mysteries was so compressed, there was never a moment to spare, resulting in a few memorable close calls.
Jim and John finished shooting a job in Tennessee and had to catch the last flight of the day to Omaha, Nebraska, where they were filming the following day. Jim was driving the rented five-ton truck and John was in the passenger seat, bound for the airport. In the back of the truck were thirty-five camera cases, twenty lighting cases, all of Jim’s sound cases, and several cases of props. A production assistant was going to meet them at the airport to pick up the empty five-ton truck and return it to the rental company.
The sun was setting. They knew they had reserved first class seats on the last departing flight of the evening. But it was apparent that they were seriously behind schedule, despite Jim’s driving as fast as possible.
When they finally reached the airport, John alerted Jim that he couldn’t park the rented truck in front of the terminal because the vehicle was taller than the posted clearance at the airport. Undeterred, and without actually saying, “Hold my beer,” Jim carefully and painstakingly weaseled the big truck against the curb, right in front of the ticketing area – the aluminum roof of the vehicle just millimeters from the bottom of the overpass.
Jim turned to John and looked him directly in the eye. “You stay here,” he said methodically. Concerned that the security personnel would make him move the truck, John remained inside the vehicle. He had seen Jim Mansen work his magic and walk on water, in more desperate situations than this one. That said, it appeared they were going to miss their plane – the last flight of the night.
Customarily fearless and confident, Jim was overweight, middle aged, and non-athletic. With the adrenalin coursing through his veins, he speed-waddled into the terminal, politely but diplomatically cutting ahead of other passengers waiting in line at the first-class counter. The plane was scheduled to depart in about fifteen minutes.
Now at the head of the line, Jim placed his elbows on the counter and flashed his NBC television credentials and their first-class tickets.
Jim was “the closer.”
He was fond of quoting the catchphrase from Star Wars (1977),”These aren’t the droids you’re looking for…” He casually informed the uniformed airline employee behind the counter, “Ummm – we’ve got a few bags to check,”
Without looking up from her computer terminal, she asked routinely, “How many bags?”
“Oh … about seventy bags,” said Jim, trying to make it sound as normal as possible. He was poised and ready to employ all his considerable powers of persuasion to win her over.
So, he was a bit taken aback when she replied nonchalantly, “OK.”
Jim came racing out of the terminal yelling to John, “Get the tailgate up!” Jim jumped into the driver’s seat and the next thing John knew, Jim was inching the truck under the low clearance, past the terminal, right past security and out on the jetway. John expected the police to arrive at any moment with sirens blaring.
Jim proceeded fearlessly until he had the tailgate of the truck aligned with the edge of the wing of the 737. The baggage handlers had already finished loading the cargo hold; this was the last flight of the night, and they were headed off-shift.
Jim dropped the tailgate. When the baggage handlers saw the mountain of cases in the back of the truck, they were visibly unhappy. One of them shouted incredulously, “WHAT?!?
Jim smiled and said in a supportive tone, “We’ll help load bags!” John could hardly believe Jim’s bravado.
“OK,” said one of the tired baggage handlers. “Put your baggage in that empty space in the middle.” And the baggage handlers went home.
If at first you do succeed, try and hide your astonishment.
John began rapidly unloading cases out of the back of the truck while Jim humped them up the ramp and into the cargo hold of the 737. In fifteen minutes, the truck was empty.
Not even bothering to return to the terminal, Jim led John around to the side of the aircraft, ascending the stairs that lead to the passenger boarding bridge, just outside the cabin door. This stair unit is usually used to carry strollers and oversized carry-on bags from the aircraft exit, down to the cargo hold.
Jim and John had bypassed security and simply walked onto the aircraft like nothing happened, taking their comfortable seats in the first-class cabin, just as the complimentary beverages were being served.
* * *
At the beginning of April 1995, John Malvino and Jim Mansen were on yet another shoot for Unsolved Mysteries, in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. They were there to film an interview with the head of the FBI, downtown at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. They wrapped the shoot in two hours and headed for the airport to catch a flight to Denver.
Two weeks later, an ex-army soldier and security guard named Timothy McVeigh parked a rented Ryder truck in front of that federal building and blew it up. It was the worst act of homegrown terrorism in the nation’s history. McVeigh was trying to kill the very FBI director Jim and John had interviewed two weeks before.
John Malvino received a phone call from the Unsolved Mysteries production office. “Are you sitting down?” the production coordinator asked gravely. “We’ve just given all your information to the FBI,” she explained. “They want to talk to you. Now.”
When John shared the news with Jim Mansen, Jim said, “This ought to be fun.” Jim didn’t seem scared or anxious: he was laughing. But John was not laughing at all. He didn’t find anything funny about the situation and prepared himself to be on his very best behavior.
Later that day, they were contacted by an FBI field agent. John and Jim were interrogated in person and on the phone. Then there was a third interview with the FBI.
Four months later, on August 10, 1995, Timothy McVeigh was indicted on eleven federal counts, including conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction, use of a weapon of mass destruction, destruction with the use of explosives, and eight counts of first-degree murder for the deaths of law enforcement officers.
Jim and John were seemingly off the hook. Although they were never arrested or detained, the FBI agents considered Jim and John’s activities at the Federal Building two weeks prior the bombing, to be “highly suspicious.”
* * *
On yet another Unsolved Mysteries production, Jim and John were shooting at an enormous and very busy lumberyard in Wichita, Kansas, during business hours. Jim Mansen made it a point to be involved in every location scout, to ensure that the shoot day would go smoothly. But for some reason, there hadn’t been a location scout at this lumberyard location. The Unsolved Mysteries crew worked an unbelievably tight schedule, arriving on location with cameras built and magazines loaded with film, ready to roll.
However, when they got to the lumberyard, it was apparent they were unprepared. Having never scouted the location, the director wanted to look around and try to find his shot.
This very busy lumberyard had palates of twenty-foot boards, stacked three or four palates high. In the yard were several enormous forklifts – the biggest any of them had ever seen.
It was “magic hour” – the sun was setting and there was little time to get the shot before the light was gone. The gaffer, the director of photography, the producer, and the camera assistant were impatiently waiting while the director held his palms before his eyes, making a frame with his thumbs and index fingers, in that cliched manner so frequently employed by young directors, unable to decide on a camera position.
It was about this time that someone noticed that Jim Mansen, their soundman, was conspicuously absent. He had arrived with the crew in the van, but now was nowhere to be seen.
Just then, one of the enormous forklift’s engines started and it began rearranging the positions of the towering palates of twenty-foot timbers, stacked three or four palates high. Then the forklift departed, only to return with more lumber, which was placed strategically at the edges of the frame.
“It’s Mansen!!” Kenny Peterson, the director of photography, exclaimed. “He’s driving the heavy loader!!”
Like the Cat in the Hat, Jim Mansen was rapidly reorganizing the thirty and forty-foot-tall stacks of lumber. How did he know where it was all is supposed to go? How did he know how to drive a giant forklift? And how did he know how to move the enormous palates of lumber, stacked precariously high, without tipping any of them over or breaking anything?
Five minutes later Jim walked up casually and asked, “Is it gonna work? Are we good?”
Of course, another production company might have read him the riot act for the insurance liability he’d created and for operating another company’s equipment without permission.
But Jim took the risk. He couldn’t wait. He knew what to do to solve the problem and he didn’t hesitate. He saved the day.
Whatever it was that Jim Mansen did, he’d done it again.
* * *
The soundman’s job is to hear to every sound, no matter how small. Decades of listening carefully to amplified audio through headphones, take after take, day after day, on hundreds of film productions, has its consequences. Habitually turning up the volume to discern the absence of background noise and other audio interference had taken its toll on Jim’s hearing. Unfortunately, this occupational hazard deafens a lot of veteran production sound mixers. Consequently, in his later years, Jim wore extra-large hearing aids.
In this customary, fast lane, “Get ‘er Done” manner, Jim Mansen launched an impressive second career as a production sound mixer in Los Angeles, working on a series of popular television shows including Paradise Cove and The Amazing Race.
Everybody loved working with him. And he could fix anything on the set that broke. One of the propmen who worked with Jim remembered, “He was far more than an excellent soundman. He was the MacGyver on every set he worked on.”
“Jim could figure anything out,” retired sound mixer Greg Von Buchau explained. “If something isn’t working: start at the beginning and work backwards. Rewind.”
Friends who visited Jim in Los Angeles reported that Jim had again befriended the best Sushi chefs in L.A., just as he had in the Bay Area. They all seemed to know him and served him and his guests the best of the house.
Soon he met a woman he really liked, and they got married.
From 1998-2000, he did three seasons – forty-seven grueling episodes – of Beverly Hills 90210 and made enough money to buy himself a small airplane. The aircraft became a money pit and nearly bankrupted him when he had to have the engine rebuilt.
Dave Lezynski, a cameraman, soundman, and all-around video genius, was an old friend of Jim ‘s. Jim and Dave shared in common the propensity for never beginning road trip without at least one bald tire.
In the final months of the twentieth century, Dave was driving his BMW motorcycle from the San Francisco Bay Area to Los Angeles for a job. Jim decided to fly up from Burbank to San Luis Obispo to meet Dave for lunch, in his Grumman Tiger four-seater airplane.
Dave was a pilot. He’d once been married to a professional 747 pilot. Dave watched Jim land his plane at the airfield in San Luis Obispo: it was the worst landing he’d ever witnessed. Jim was having trouble with the plane’s air flaps, which he laboriously pounded with a rubber mallet, both before and after lunch.
Mostly in jest, Dave said, “I’ll bet I could beat you back to Burbank,” – realizing seconds after the words escape his lips that he had unwittingly forgotten about Jim’s inability to back away from a dare.
As it was with the legend of John Henry and the steam drill, the race was on – Jim in the air, in his Grumman Tiger airplane and Dave on the ground, on his big BMW motorcycle. Jim was delayed by his need to fill his gas tank and hammer away at his air flaps and Dave easily made it to Burbank before Jim.
Not unlike the tortoise and the hare in the proverbial folktale, this is the only story I remember hearing in which Jim Mansen was bested in a contest of speed.
* * *
In my mind’s eye, we’re all downstairs at the Bay City Bar and Grill on Third Street, around the corner from the old James Productions offices. Jim Mansen is seated at the head of the table, presiding over yet another memorable meal, with several bottles of Clausthaler non-alcoholic beer before him. He catches the waiter’s eye and orders four more orders of deep-fried calamari for everyone at the table.
Those were the days.