Repaying My Debt to the Industry

Allen Daviau (1942-2020)

Forty years ago, just out of my teenage years, I moved to Los Angeles to break into the motion picture industry. Through sheer coincidence, my aunt’s husband happened to be the childhood friend of Allen Daviau, a  professional cinematographer.

Shortly after my arrival in Southern California, Allen Daviau, told me something that I’ll never forget. Emphasizing the importance of punctuality in the motion picture profession, he told me: “If you’re fifteen minutes early for call time – you’re twenty minutes late.”

In an industry where the milk of human kindness is in short supply, Allen Daviau (rhymes with Flavio) displayed a generosity of spirit that has never been equaled. At first, I believed that this was because he thought I was special. But as the years went by, I spoke to many others in the trade and discovered it was just his way of handling people. Everybody had their own story about the unprecedented kindness Allen Daviau had shown them – and I mean everybody. They called him, “The Gentle Giant.”

Allen explained it this way, “It’s my debt to the industry. When it’s your turn, you may repay your debt to the industry by returning phone calls and offering encouragement to the people who call you.”

The Brown Derby restaurant on North Vine Street in Hollywood, California.

I remember how, in the autumn of 1982, shortly after “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial” was released, Allen invited me to the old Brown Derby in Hollywood, for cocktails and counsel. We took seats at the bar – me, dressed in my rumpled, awful, three-piece “Men’s Wearhouse” grey and brown pinstripe suit – a hand-me-down from my brother; Allen, with his trimmed beard and curly hair immaculately styled; his shirt open at the collar, his beige explorer’s jacket, replete with epaulets, a light meter, and the American Cinematographer Manual bulging in his pocket.

Seamlessly, without interrupting his stream of reassuring patter, he ordered the first of several rounds of drinks, telling me, “Please don’t try to keep up with me.

Encouraging me to seek an entry-level position in the film industry, he assured me that, as a production assistant, “You’ll starve in good company.”

I looked deep into the dancing eyes of this forty-year-old man who had actually fulfilled his childhood fantasy: he was now shooting A-list features for some of the best directors in the business. His love of film and film craft was heartfelt and infectious. Allen Daviau made the nearly impossible appear within grasp.

He also told me, “If you’re going to be bored on a film set, be bored as close to the camera as possible.”

Unemployed, broke, and a cultural fish-out-of-water, for more than a year I unsuccessfully pursued employment as a fifty-dollar-a-day production assistant. In desperation, I volunteered to work on student films at the American Film Institute, just to get hands-on experience.

During the long months of unemployment, my spirits would sink. Despondent, I would phone Allen and leave a message with the woman at his answering service. No matter how busy he was, he never failed to return my every call, even if he was on location, shooting a picture in Africa.

If Los Angeles County were a state, it would be the eighth largest state in America. LA is one of the few cities in the country that cannot be navigated via public transportation. Sooner or later, you have get a license and an automobile.

Allen Daviau, who lived up Beachwood Canyon Drive in Hollywood, was a very odd duck. In the vast, expansive asphalt wasteland of Los Angeles, he didn’t even own (or know how to drive) a car!

Somehow, this anomaly did not prevent him from achieving great success in his chosen profession. When I would mention his name to someone on a film crew, they would usually respond facetiously, “Oh, you know Daviau?  What do you do, drive him around?”

The week I moved to Los Angeles, in June of 1982, the Steven Spielberg film “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial,” opened nationwide. Soon, Allen Daviau, who so beautifully photographed the movie, became a star cameraman, in his own right. He was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Cinematography five times, for “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial,” “The Color Purple,” “Empire of the Sun,” “Avalon,” and “Bugsy.” The financial freedom engendered by his success allowed him to indulge in two of his greatest loves, food and drink. Never a thin man, and a lifelong gourmet, Allen began to put on weight.

In an industry that worships youth and beauty, and prejudices are many, there are no obese cinematographers. Being a person-of-size became an obstacle to Allen’s career. Though everyone acknowledged his considerable talent and mastery of his craft, producers were justifiably reluctant to hire a fat cameraman. The job of the cinematographer is very physical, involving the climbing of ladders and stairs, lying on the ground to look through a low-angle lens, and straddling camera dollies and cranes. In time, people stopped hiring Allen.

Allen died of complications from COVID-19, on Wednesday, April 15, 2020, at his home at the Motion Picture & Television Country House and Hospital in Woodland Hills, California.

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139 Townsend Street, San Francisco, California.

In 1988, I left Los Angeles and moved to the north Santa Cruz Mountains, hoping to break into producing television commercials in the bay area. I had my first job interview in San Francisco, at the offices of James Productions, at 139 Townsend Street. The executive producer, James Mansen, wanted me to meet his west coast director, Boyd Jacobson, and asked me to wait in Boyd’s office until he returned from his lunch meeting.

I’d never heard of Boyd Jacobson. I soon learned that he was not very punctual. I had ample time to loiter in his office, taking in the breathtaking view of the city and the San Francisco Bay. Nonchalantly, I scanned the brick walls behind the desk, examining a number of framed photographs of Boyd posing with various industry notables. And among them was a black-and-white photograph of Boyd on a film set, standing with his arm around Allen Daviau, looking very chummy.

I stood before this framed photo for several minutes. I smiled and took a deep breath. I was “in like Flynn.” A year later, I was Boyd Jacobson’s producer.

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Boyd Jacobson (1944-1991)

In 1989, Boyd Jacobson became my meal ticket. I was only 30 years old, but there I was, a successful television commercial producer. I had a director who adored me and wanted to work with me. And I had gotten myself out of Los Angeles.

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 recently managed to cross over into directing commercials. So, he had a lot of ad agency contacts and was getting a lot of jobs in those days. We were making good money.

With success comes responsibility. Now it was my turn to field the phone calls and resumes from prospective production assistants trying to break into the film industry. I would take each hopeful want-to-be out to lunch, pick up the tab, and tell the story about going to the Brown Derby with Allen Daviau, and about paying my debt to the industry.

When dining in a restaurant, Boyd enjoyed eating food from other people’s plates (especially mine), going so far as to try to badger me to order anything on the menu that he wanted to taste.

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.”

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Many of the advertisers for whom we made television commercials, at that time, were based in the Midwest. It was an ongoing chore, job after job, driving around in Boyd’s white Jeep Cherokee, searching the San Francisco bay area for filming locations that “read” as being in the Midwest. But Boyd so hated long drives and sitting in traffic, he developed a remarkable knack for selecting locations north of the Golden Gate Bridge, close to his home in San Rafael.

A day of scouting locations with Boyd was so routine that a number of location scouts we hired told me stories that corroborated my own personal experiences. The day would invariably go something like this:

The morning was spent driving around, visiting prospective locations, with Boyd finding insurmountable problems with every site they visited. Around one o’clock, they’d take a lunch break at an overpriced seafood restaurant. The meal was billed to the job. I have never forgotten Boyd’s heartfelt advice: “When the client is paying for dinner, always order the wild salmon.”

The afternoon location scouting elapsed much like the morning – each location they visited just didn’t work.

Exasperated and feeling a little desperate, around four o’clock in the afternoon, they’d pull the Jeep Cherokee over to the side of the road and Boyd would roll a joint. In that era before legalization, first checking to be certain that there were no cops around, he’d open the windows. Removing a small box of stick matches that he’d pocketed at the seafood restaurant, he’d light the joint and spend several minutes enjoying a smoke.

The resulting cannabinol-instigated change of attitude invariably had a significant effect. Boyd would gaze out the open window, seemingly in contemplative silence.

A few minutes later he would suddenly become quite animated, fumbling for his 35 mm camera. Leaping out of the vehicle, he would exclaim, “There it is! That’s it! It’s perfect!” Holding up two hands to suggest frame lines, he would declare, “This is the master set-up, here. And we get the close-up over here…”

This predictable location-scouting routine occurred with surprising regularity. We always found our location by 5:00 pm. Boyd would place the unsmoked half a joint inside the box of stick matches from the restaurant and put it back in his pocket.

*                                          *                                              *

In those days, Boyd, by then twice divorced, lived in a ranch house in Marin County with his elderly mother and his teenage daughter from his first marriage. Every night at sunset, he’d go out into the backyard and wave his hand, hollering at the western sky, “Goodnight Mr. Sun!”

As a child, Boyd had a bone disease called rickets, which left one of his legs a few millimeters shorter than the other. Rickets is often caused by a childhood vitamin D deficiency. In adulthood, this condition caused him some pain playing sports.

Boyd’s best friend was a surgeon. This man convinced Boyd to let him perform a surgery that would correct the problem. This would make both of his legs the same length and it would no longer hurt to shoot baskets with his friends.

When Boyd phoned me and told me of his decision to have this elective surgery, I tried to talk him out of it. “What if the surgery isn’t successful?” I told argued. “Who’s going to hire a director in a wheelchair?”

*                                          *                                              *

 

Thirty years ago today, on Monday afternoon, February 4, 1991, I was working as a production coordinator on television commercial advertising Miracle Whip salad dressing. The director, David Wild, wanted to shoot on a particular tree-lined suburban street in Palo Alto, California. To this end, we had collected signatures from every neighbor, obtaining their permission to do so, as mandated by the police department.

I was sitting in the Palo Alto police station negotiating the terms of a filing permit for the production company, when my Motorola flip-phone began ringing. Excusing myself and stepping into the hallway, I answered the phone. Before I could speak, a grieving voice on the other end blurted out, “Boyd’s dead! Boyd’s dead!”

Somehow, when filling out the paperwork for his admission at the surgery center, Boyd had inexplicably forgotten to disclose that he was taking a prescription medication that thinned the blood. Consequently, he bled to death on the operating table, with his daughter and his girlfriend holding his hands and singing softly by his side, and his best friend, the surgeon, holding the scalpel. He was forty-seven years old.

It was discovered that Boyd had never updated his will. As far as I know, his estate went to his second ex-wife, Diane, a local actress, whom he professed to dislike, and had divorced in December of 1988. I don’t think his daughter or elderly mother got any money. I imagine there ensued an ugly malpractice suit, but I really don’t know.

Boyd identified himself with birds. After his memorial, his heartbroken girlfriend scattered his ashes at a special location on his favorite mountain bike trail. A few months later, she brought a few friends to visit the place where his ashes were strewn and a white dove was sitting there among the boulders. The bird flew into Boyd’s girlfriend’s lap and enjoyed being stroked, like a cat. “Is that you?” she  asked.

Hours later, when they stood up to leave, instead of flying away, the bird alighted on the girlfriend’s shoulder as they walked back to the car. She open the door and the bird flew in. She took the bird home and it became her pet, riding around on her shoulder when took walks in the neighborhood. She never clipped his wings and he never flew away.

*                                          *                                              *

Although I didn’t know it at the time, my career in the motion picture industry died with Boyd Jacobson, thirty years ago, today.

After his death, like a widower who is certain he can replace his beloved partner, I proceeded to work with a series of directors hoping to find another good fit. It never happened for me. I never found another director with whom I had the kind of rapport I had with Boyd, no matter how many times I tried. A few years later, unable to find a director with whom to partner, I got out of the business for good.

In those days, like most commercial producers, my life was mostly about attending to my director’s wants, whims, and concerns, leaving little time for myself.

There were many things about working with Boyd that, at the time, I complained about. Boyd was a hedonist. He was lazy. Rather than attend to our business, he preferred to drink or get high, or play music, or make love with his girlfriend, or soak in the hot tub. His job wasn’t the biggest priority in his life.

If you had told me, thirty years ago, that I was a lot like Boyd, I wouldn’t have believed you. But now, decades later, I observe with irony that I have evolved into a lazy hedonist who’d rather play or party than work. I guess he was a good influence, after all.

When we die, we usually leave a lot of unfinished business for our friends and family to clean up. I did my best to help Boyd’s family deal with the aftermath. I remember sitting in the office in his home, searching through the desk drawers and file boxes, for specific financial and legal documents, most of which I never found.

What I did find were dozens and dozens of small boxes of stick matches from a wide array of expensive restaurants, each containing the remaining half of a long-ago smoked joint.

 

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