The Old Master – Chapter Twelve

Bill Maley

I had the pleasure of working with Bill Maley late in his career, after he had been in the film business for more than three decades. I started hiring him as a gaffer in the late 1980s, when he was approaching the age of sixty.

With a twinkle in his eye and a cigarette between his thin lips, Bill Maley was a veritable leprechaun of a man – of almost stereotypical Irish American extraction, and practically a caricature of himself.

At this time, Bill wasn’t getting called for as many jobs as he had in the old days. A younger generation of gaffers (including his own son, Mike) were getting those calls now – largely because Bill Maley was, simply put, a “high-maintenance” crew member.

“Bill Maley was as hard as friggin’ nails,” one local freelance cameraman admitted. “He had a real edge to him. And he was simply vicious when he got drunk.”

It was all true.

Consequently, not everyone could deal with his temperament. For instance, Bill Maley once made racist and homophobic comments like Archie Bunker from All In The Family– a kind of congenital old-world prejudice more common in his generation than in mine, and very out of step with integrated, LGBQT-friendly San Francisco . Ironically, his youngest son was gay and this softened him and he became more accepting, for he loved his children.

Bill was also a perfectionist, which may have rubbed some people the wrong way. “Many people didn’t appreciate this,” Dick Dova explained. “Yes, he had a short fuse. But he had a real gift for reading people – he could tell right away if you knew what you were doing or if you didn’t.”

Bill was wary of the many less-than-scrupulous producers in the industry. He would work for you only if, as he put it, “You weren’t an asshole.” I was half his age. I was at the beginning of my career, and he was nearing the end of his. It was the highest form of compliment when he told me that I was, “dumber than dirt.”

An encyclopedic source of jokes, tales, and motion picture “war stories,” he was a never-ending fount of educational and entertaining storytelling – he could do all the voices and had a superb gift for mimicry. In my time, Bill was usually the most seasoned veteran on every film crew of which he was a member, often a generation older than the rest of us.

Doug Freeman remembered being on one particularly hard shoot at San Francisco State College with Bill Maley. Nothing was going right that day and Bill was depressed. He looked up and saw an airplane flying overhead and said despondently, “I wish I was on that plane.”

Filmmaking is a slow and deliberate process, with its own peculiar rhythms, with many long, boring hours spent standing-by, ever vigilant, waiting to be needed on the set. These film-set doldrums are punctuated by moments of intense, often frantic action. As the cinematographer Allen Daviau once told me, “If you’re going to be bored on a movie set, do it as close to the camera as possible.”

Bill enjoyed the down-time in between set-ups. Clad in a Mole-Richardson baseball cap, blue jeans, sneakers, and a Hawaiian shirt, with a cigarette in one hand and a cardboard cup of coffee in the other, he’d stand around swapping jokes with the grips and electricians. When younger members of the crew grew anxious, awaiting the moment when they would finally be needed on the set, Bill would tell them to “cool their heels.”

“You get the same money, marching or fighting,” he’d say. It was a fundamental concept in the industry in which we all worked. It became my mantra.

When I drafted a call sheet for the following day for filming on a distant location, I would review the grip and electric call times with Bill. “I want my guys here at 6:00 am, watered and fed,” he’d tell me –meaning with their breakfasts in their bellies and ready to work – like horses or oxen.

Bill loved to tell stories, just to entertain the crew – he couldn’t resist an audience. He’d take a phone call from his wife Jill – holding the receiver at arm’s length from his ear, never hearing a single word she said, answering patronizingly in a singsong tone, “Yes, dear, of course dear, yes dear,” over and over, again, for the amusement of the crew members within earshot.

Sometimes, when Bill was absent from the set, you’d find him in the shadows, curled up in the middle of a great big coil of black electrical cable, fast asleep taking a catnap, like a kitten in a basket. He looked so petite and peaceful it seemed a shame to wake him.

Once, to the surprise of the women on the crew, Bill unzipped his fly, reached inside as if to whip out his penis – producing instead his shirttail, exclaiming, “Ladies, have you ever seen anything like this for fifty-nine cents a yard?”

He was, as they said in the twentieth century, “a card.”

*                                    *                                  *

I produced a lot of commercials for restaurants and beverage manufacturers. Shooting food commercials is a very specialized field, and if you get good at it, kind of like The Monkey’s Paw, you may find yourself working on nothing but food spots.

After so many years in the industry, Bill’s experience was vast. His duty bag of tools and tricks never ceased to amaze – imagine sort of a cross between “Q” from the James Bond films and MacGyver.

One of the tricks used in food photography to increase appetite appeal, is to show steam emanating from freshly cooked items. Water heated to a temperature hotter than two-hundred and twelve degrees produces steam so ethereal and translucent, under the bright lights used in motion picture photography, it barely shows up on film.

So, there were various techniques used to create the effect of visible, photographable steam, but some were terribly toxic. A soundman named Lee Shamburger, one of the few African American crew members on the set, told me that he remembered how, in the 1970s, the chemical smoke cookies used on film sets were so noxious that crew members would find themselves coughing up blood the next morning.

Draeger air current test kit

Bill Maley had a little tool specifically for making small, tiny, discrete, non-toxic puffs of cool white smoke that appeared as steam on film. It was commercially marketed air current detection kit, designed to emit a highly visible, non-irritating dense white smoke so you could find leaks in mines and around heating and venting systems, by determining the airflow direction. The kit consisted of a series of glass tubes containing several chemicals. You’d snip off the two ends the glass tube and attach a rubber bubble to one end, like an eyedropper. If you lightly squeezed the bubble a visible puff of smoke emanated from the end of the tube, without heat, electricity, or the slightest sound. When the end of the glass tube was inserted directly into the center of a muffin and the rubber bubble was squeezed, it looked quite convincing on camera when the hand model pulled freshly baked muffin apart and you could see the steam rising.

For food close-ups, this was the perfect tool. None of us had ever seen it before. We found that we were unable to work without it, thereafter. For all I know it’s still used in commercial food photography.

*                                    *                                  *

In the 1980s and 90s, there was a lot of film work in the San Francisco Bay Area shooting corporate communications – videos manufactured strictly for compulsory viewing by employees – “industrials” as they were politely called. These were the kind of dreadful, dry, and droll corporate instructional or promotional videos that no one in their right mind would ever sit through, unless it was mandated by their employer.

Many of these videos were actually painful to watch. So genuinely forgettable were these videos that I have yet to summon the courage to check and see if any of them are on YouTube.

Often these terribly boring, highly technical “bad industrial videos” (BIV’s) were directed by inexperienced or just plain bad directors. Bill Maley was invaluable in these instances. BIV’s didn’t pay the crew as well as television commercials, but at that point in his career Bill didn’t mind working for the lower rate, as long as we could deal with the idiosyncrasies inherent in his jaded and curmudgeonly persona.

One of these unexceptional directors was Randy Orr, who had a small office behind the turquoise wooden gate at 11 Zoe Street, just south of Bryant Street, in San Francisco. Randy had a talent for schmoozing corporate clients into awarding him their BIV jobs. Randy was a likeable fellow whose expensive tastes left him perpetually insolvent. Each time he hired me, I’d find myself on the phone with one of our regular grip and electric suppliers, having the same conversation we had on the last Randy Orr job: “We’d love to work with you again. Really, we’d love to – except Randy hasn’t paid us the $3,500 he owes us for the job we did for him two months ago.”

I made my reputation by making sure everybody was paid in full and in a timely manner. Randy had a reputation for always being behind in his accounts payable. When I would discuss the situation with Randy, he would feign sincere concern. My eyes would drift from his $250 haircut to his tailored, hand-stitched shirt, to his thousand-dollar wool slacks and two-hundred dollar leather belt, down to the Bally shoes that were made in Switzerland. His big eyes wet with indifference, he looked like a scolded puppy. Ironically, Randy’s combined attire cost more than the $3,500 he owed the grip and electric supplier. He was insolvent the way an alcoholic is drunk – in other words, most of the time.

First surface mirror

Frequently, on BIV filmmaking endeavors, we would spend days photographing a new and improved, groundbreaking black electronic component, that looked exactly like the new and improved, groundbreaking black electronic component we photographed last year: dark, rectangular, and boring. More often than not, we’d find ourselves, cinematically speaking, “painted into a corner,” trying to get the lens in a position where we could both illuminate and photograph the contours and crevices of the otherwise featureless black box.

When we got into this kind of a jam, Bill would produce from his duty bag of tricks, a first surface mirror. Standard mirrors have the coating on the back side which, if you look very closely, creates a double image. But a first surface (or front surface) mirror is an optical glass that provides a true reflection with no double image – offering superior accuracy in photographic applications.

We’d set up the lens to shoot directly into the first surface mirror, which provided a reflection of the target that we were previously unable to film. Again, this solution hadn’t occurred to any of us until Bill suggested it. He was definitely worth his salt.

*                                    *                                  *

Bill Maley’s wife, Jill, regularly confiscated his stash of liquor bottles. So, Bill would go down to Doug Freeman’s studio in San Rafael and hide his booze there. Doug told me he once turned on the clothes dryer and heard the glass rattling, only to find a few pints of Bill’s liquor hidden, therein.

Doug Freeman remembered working on a job with cameraman Lawrence Gruenberg at the King Street Stage in San Francisco, filming a hot dog exploding inside a microwave oven. There wasn’t enough illumination inside of the microwave to see what was going on and they were having trouble with the lighting set up. Doug happened to return to his studio in San Rafael and ran into Bill, who was retrieving a stashed bottle of liquor. Doug explained the problem they were having lighting the microwave. Bill Maley had done it all before. “It’s simple,” he told Doug. “Put an eighteen-inch fluorescent lightbulb inside the microwave and tape it to the top with gaffer’s tape. The microwaves will excite the electrons and illuminate the bulb. You can only do this for about 30 seconds before the bubble break, so do short takes.” And of course, it worked exactly as Bill described.

*                                    *                                  *

Human beings are complicated creatures, full of contradictions. Bill Maley was a dyed-in-the-wool alcoholic. So, we made sure we always had cold beer for him to enjoy after lunch. On location, we’d have dinner – where Bill provided the entertainment with his jokes and storytelling. We would then repair to the hotel bar for cocktails where Bill, usually well-behaved, mellow, and cherubic, sat smoking cigarettes and enjoying a series of martinis until it was time for me to walk him to his hotel room and see that he was safely retired for the night.

In June of 1988, we took Bill Maley to shoot a big budget 35mm BIV for Sprint, at their headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia. We were there for a week without a day off. On Sunday, I sent a production assistant out to get beer for Bill’s lunch, only to learn that State “blue laws” prohibited the sale of beer, wine, and liquor on “the Lord’s Day.” As W.C. Fields would say, “that’s carrying democracy too far!”

Ultimately, one of our local production assistants, managed somehow to procure several bottles of cold beer for Bill’s Sunday afternoon “teatime.”  As the son of an attorney, I knew better than to ask how this was obtained.

*                                    *                                  *

A month later I was back in Los Angeles, working on a spot for Van Camp’s Beanee-Weenee – a wholly unappetizing combination of white beans, hot dogs, hi-fructose corn syrup, and tomatoes, served ready-to-eat in a pull-top steel can. I had read soldiers’ memoirs in which they claim that Beanee-Weenee was the C-ration of choice, preferable to other canned offerings. I found the product to be particularly loathsome.

In August 1960, a sixteen-year-old pop singer named Bryan Hyland recorded a novelty song called, Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini, written by Lee Pockriss and Paul Vance. There’s no accounting for popular taste – the record reached number one on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and sold almost a million copies in sixty days.

The advertising agency for the Beanie-Weenie commercial, Barry-Brown, had licensed the rights to this song and rewritten the lyric. So, all day long on the shoot day, for ten hours, we listened to playback of the soundtrack of the thirty-second commercial – a chorus of grade school children singing: “I love those itsy-bitsy, teenie-weenie cans of Van Camps’ Beanee-Weenee…” to the tune of the popular song. By mid-afternoon, it was almost unbearable. It would be months before I could get the earworm to stop repeating in my brain.

A dozen elementary school age boys and girls had been cast in this commercial. They sat at a table, in a state of much jollification, mouthing along to the playback of the insipid song and eating spoonful after spoonful of Beanie-Weenie.

When you do a casting session for a Coca-Cola commercial, each prospective performer not only reads their lines while being videotaped during the audition, they actually have to chug a 12 ounce can of Coke. Not everyone can do it, as it makes a lot of people gag. They won’t cast you in a Coke commercial unless you can chug a can of the sponsor’s product without gagging

Similarly, for the Beanie-Weenie casting session, the kids who auditioned were required to eat the product on camera, to winnow out the talent that couldn’t stomach the stuff. I was filled with empathy.

Nevertheless, what I remember three decades later is that during the Beanie-Weenie shoot, whenever the camera cut, several of the child actors – stalwart professionals one and all – would stoically vomit into brightly colored plastic buckets held beneath their chins by their overbearing stage mothers, doing their best not to get any upchuck on their wardrobe. The kids would then rinse their mouths with Evian water and spit it out in the bucket. Donning their phoniest smile, they then marshaled themselves for the next take.

That’s why they call it “work.” The commercial can be viewed on YouTube.

That was the last day of my last job as a freelance film crew worker in Los Angeles. The next time I worked in southern California, it would be as a producer bringing my own jobs from the Bay Area to shoot in Hollywood.

*                                    *                                  *

Bill Maley

Back in San Francisco, I continued to work with Bill Maley whenever he was available. But he began making seemingly small, careless mistakes in scheduling his jobs and managing his calendar. There may have been problems going on at home of which I was not aware. He or his wife may have been sick. Perhaps he was simply having a “senior moment.” Who knows?

One morning in late January of 1990, Bill failed to show up for work on a shoot day at a small stage on Bryant Street, south of Market, where we were shooting a table-top spot for Kraft cheese. This was odd, as I had spoken to Bill on the phone the previous evening, confirming his 7:00 am call time.

Suspecting the worst, I phoned his house, only to learn from his wife, Jill, that he was not only alive and well – he was already off working on another stage across town. Unwittingly or deliberately, Bill had somehow double-booked himself and left us in the lurch, putting us behind schedule, which resulted in overtime that wasn’t in my budget.

Incredulous, I phoned several other gaffers at home, awakening Frank Strzalkowski on the morning of his day off. Frank was one of the best gaffers in Northern California. Accustomed, at this time in his career, to working on jobs with larger crews and larger budgets. He was now getting the A+ jobs that, a decade or so earlier, would have been offered to Bill Maley.

I apologized for waking him up and told Frank what had happened. Bill was older than Frank. I imagine that Frank had very likely worked for Bill when he was coming up through the ranks. Frank and most of his peers had the greatest respect for Bill Maley, despite his idiosyncrasies.

Frank said, without hesitation, “For Bill, I’ll do anything you need. I’ll be there in an hour.” He didn’t even ask me how much the job paid. He just grabbed his duty bag, jumped in his truck, and raced across the Golden Gate Bridge to our rescue.

When I hired Bill and he performed his lighting magic, I looked like a hero. When I hired him and he didn’t show up, I looked like a chump.

This experience left me reluctant to book him again. He could be a high-maintenance crew member. His mercurial personality could be a source of anxiety. In hindsight, I recognize that we were all fortunate for every day that we worked in his company. He really was one of the Old Masters.

*                                    *                                  *

Debra Bassett has worked in San Francisco film production through five decades. She began production coordinating at the age of seventeen and first worked with Bill Maley, back in 1974.

In those days, the production company producers were almost always men, but there were some women producers working on the advertising agency side. This was no obstacle for Debra, a very competent and confident “tough broad” from Waterbury, Connecticut. Dick Dova considers her one of the best producers in the Bay Area.

A loyal friend to the end, Debra enjoyed taking eighty-year-old Bill Maley out to lunch at one of his favorite spots, Sam’s Anchor Cafe on the waterfront, in Tiburon. Bill, old and sick, lugging his oxygen tank in and out of her car, would sit in the shade of the umbrella, enjoying the ocean breeze and the cry of the seagulls. And he’d recount his favorite “war stories” while drinking as many martinis as he desired. I have no doubt that it gave him immense pleasure.

Bill was embittered, it’s true – but I suspect that a lot of people didn’t recognize that Bill’s apparent bitterness was well earned.

For decades, he had generously shared his genius with anybody who could pay his rate – and invariably, they would receive the credit for his often-groundbreaking work. While others got the awards, the accolades, and the glory – Bill got a paycheck. He was a very creative problem solver, but he rarely got credit for his ingenuity.

Debra Bassett summed it up succinctly: “They were very few awards or rewards.”

That’s the gaffer’s lot. It was all in the course of a day’s work, the magic he would perform, the solutions he would devise, the “wheels” he would invent. If confronted, he would never have admitted it, but I have no doubt that Bill longed for the recognition often lauded upon directors, producers, cinematographers, and advertising agencies.

Debra Bassett had the sensitivity to recognize this and created a local award for which Bill Maley was the recipient – the Northern California Film Pioneer Award.

The nice thing about roses is to get ’em while you can still smell ’em.

Debra told me a story, probably from around 2009. She was working on an Energizer Bunny commercial for Lucasfilm, at the old main stage at 3210 Kerner Boulevard in San Rafael. She brought Bill – who was by then too old to work and tethered to an oxygen tank – and Dick Dova, who was also retired, to the stage, just to have them around as “insurance markers,” and to see the two Old Masters working together, one last time.

“There’s nobody like those guys today,” camera assistant John Malvino said of Bill Maley and Dick Dova. “They are a dying breed.”

*                                    *                                  *

There was an ancient, traditional Irish, self-destructive capacity for unforgiveness in Bill Maley that was always simmering unemerged, just beneath the surface.

Mike Maley

Occasionally it would rear its ugly head on the set, for all of us to see: Bill fiercely screaming at his son or yelling at his wife on the phone. It made one wonder if it was a family-of-origin issue. Had Bill’s own father had screamed at him similarly? It was painful to witness.

Bill’s and Jill’s three children attended Marin Catholic High School. Their son, Mike, began working as a stagehand at the San Francisco Opera House while still in his teens and became a successful gaffer and later a cameraman. Like his dad, some people found Mike to be aloof and opinionated. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

When Bill retired, he gave the grip truck and all his motion picture gear to his eldest son, Mike, with the understanding that he’d get a percentage every time Mike rented the equipment. Mike agreed to the terms but didn’t send his parents any money. His mother called him and asked him why they were receiving any checks. Mike said there wasn’t any work and that nothing was being rented out. So, Jill picked up the phone and called the bank and found out that the company account had a balance $38,000.

Like father like son, with the Maleys, it always seemed to be about money. The transgression activated the old traditional Irish unforgiveness, like the Kracken in Greek mythology, awakened from its slumber deep beneath the ocean.

Bill Maley, Jr.

For a long time, Mike and his parents didn’t speak to one another. Jill Maley went to her grave without ever reconciling or speaking with Mike. Mike attended his dad’s memorial service. I don’t know if he went to his mom’s.

Jill Maley bore Bill two sons, Michael and Sean, and a daughter, Patti, all by cesarian delivery.

But Bill had a son before he met Jill.

The January 29, 1952, San Francisco Examiner reported in the Births column: “To the wife of William E. Maley, 739 Judah St., January 19, a son.”

Bill Jr. – William Raymond Maley – was born on January 19, 1952. His mother’s last name was Napoletano. In 1975, he moved to England. He studied law at the University of Warwick. Bill Jr., who spoke fluent Portuguese, worked a barrister at 25 Bedford Row in London, England, for thirty-one years. He flew “across the pond” for Jill’s memorial in 2005 and attended the family dinner party at Original Joe’s in Marin. Bill Jr. died in April 2021. That’s all I know.

Jill Maley was a pretty tough cookie. No doubt she had to be, to weather nearly half a century of marriage to Bill Maley. Many’s the night she’d go to a neighbors house, clad in her bathrobe, declaring that she was “leaving him for good.” She never did. She died on the Sunday after Thanksgiving, in 2005. Bill never took down the Christmas tree.

 *                                    *                                  *

Alone in his grief, Bill would phone Debra Bassett, often in the middle of the night, right up to the end of his life. She would sit there in bed talking to him, patiently listening to his troubles, committed to remaining present for her aging mentor.

Cooper

“I didn’t forget about him,” she told me emphatically.

Bill had two white dogs. One of them, Cooper, was with him when he died on St. Valentine’s Day in 2013. Sean, Bill’s youngest son, found him in his home, with a loyal Cooper by his side. Shortly thereafter, Sean located a family to adopt Cooper, who lived happily ever after.

For decades, each springtime Bill and Jill, and sometimes their children and friends, vacationed in Kaanapali, on the western shore of Maui. In 2014, Sean transported his parents cremated remains and had them interred together at Valley Isle Memorial Park on Maui’s north shore.

Bill loved Hawaii and he loved whales. He always wore a necklace with a gold whale’s tail– his Maui talisman.

*                                    *                                  *

Marin County Fair

The last time I saw Bill Maley was around 1993, on the Saturday night of the July fourth weekend at the Marin County Fair. I was single at the time and had gone to the fair by myself, just for fun. The place was packed, and the midway was lit up like the Las Vegas strip, and the meandering crowd, noisy and boisterous. I started off with a box of Karmelkorn, figuring I’d work up to the harder stuff.

While meandering down the midway, navigating a path among the multitude of strangers, much to my surprise, I ran into Bill and Jill Maley and a passel of their small grandchildren. They were enjoying the fine summer evening and sampling on the county fair cuisine – cotton candy, ice cream, and corndogs for the kids, and a large red plastic cup of beer for Bill.

It was the first time I’d ever seen the Old Master with his family. Whether we were working on the set, or I was taking him out to lunch, Bill always played the part of the wizened and cantankerous, but nevertheless beloved veteran filmmaker.

That night, clad in a black Panavision baseball cap, baggy blue jeans, and a Hawaiian shirt, he was just “Grandpa.”

Bill, no doubt, had already had several beers and probably a few martinis before that. He was feeling no pain. Every muscle in his face was relaxed in a way that I remembered from the evenings we spent together downing martinis in that hotel saloon in Atlanta. He was smiling broadly, delighting in the company of his grandchildren and the overstimulation of the crowded fairgrounds on a Saturday night.

The Zero Gravity ride

At the insistence of the children, we all got into the line for one of the carnival rides together – The Zero Gravity – a huge circular metal cage, that spun like a turntable, fast enough that the centrifugal force held us firmly against the inside wall. It was thrilling, as the wheel spun faster and faster and the floor dropped beneath our feet, our backs remained pinned to the wall by the powerful force of the spinning cage.

In my mind’s eye, I can see Bill’s smiling face across from me, his scrawny frame pinned bodily to the opposite wall of the cage – the Old Master – his eyes closed and his cheeks all aglow, with joy emanating from his very being, laughing and shrieking along with his grandchildren.

That’s how I like to remember him.

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Categories: I Am the Light, He is the Shadow.