That was the first and last thing Morty said to me.
“Whatever you do. Don’t make us known for that.”
“Why would I kill him, he’s a national treasure.”
“Well, he weighs as much as that. And if he were to topple over it’d bring down half the chandeliers in Tom Morrow’s Goatfuck Casino. So just don’t do it. Be careful. Very careful. Just don’t kill Orson Welles.”
“I won’t. Promise. Don’t even know the guy.”
“You will. You’ll have to meet him to direct him. That’s how it works.”
“Why will I direct him?”
“Markers, I think. Anyway, somebody’s got to do it. We got the gig from Grifter’s Palace. And you said you were a director, so you’re it.”
“He’s a genius, or Ex-Fucking Genius, gone to seed. And fat.
“I know.” nodded Morty.
“But the other show. I’ve got to coach Cherie.”
“Is that what they call it now?”
“No. Seriously. I have to work with her.”
“Don’t let Paul catch you.”
“Look, we have to have someone on camera who is not under indictment, wouldn’t you agree?”
“Yeah, good idea. But first this. And remember…”
“Yeah, I know. Don’t kill Orson Welles.”
Hah, easier said than done! Welles was tottering on the bar stool at 400 pounds and wide as the Missouri River. He had finally showed up at the casino and we were to shoot a segment for the show. But what the fuck were all these people doing here?
“It’s a talking head, Morty. And some inserts of playing cards. I could shoot it on a Bolex.”
“It’s billed cost plus,” said Morty.
“It's a single on a fat guy. And some playing cards. I don't think I need a forty-foot mobile television truck to shoot that, let alone two!”
“It's how we do things.”
“Not very efficient. I can’t even get them to stop tape.”
“What’s that mean?”
“We roll at eight in the morning and go ‘til five.”
“You record everything?”
“Might as well. Much easier than all that stopping and starting…that just confuses everybody.”
And like, I thought, if Law and Order want to keep an eye on stuff, or alibis need to be established, why it's all there in the truck. Replete with timecode.
And I can only think of about a million point seven reasons why that's not a good idea. But I am shouted down. Not shouted exactly, more like just ignored. Ignored and maybe… wandered off on. So there I am.. not with one, but with two 40-foot trucks full of teamsters and IA…I look out into the pre-sunbaked parking lot and it looks like the Third Armored Division’s logistic train.
“Do you have a question?” says Morty.
“Is it so wrong to collect naked pictures of the Pope?”
“About the production?”
“Oh that. Yeah, yeah, I do.”
And this for a talking head. I mean he was like 400 pounds, he wasn't gonna be dancing around. Move. He wasn't gonna move. Not at all, not an inch. Bar Stools! We propped him up with barstools and flanked him with pretty girls trained in engineering, in levers and stress points, hired to be flying buttresses to Orson.
Should he start to topple they' be the first line of defense. Then teamsters would dive at his feet with sperm whale-sized pillows. And as a last resort the cue card guy was to throw himself under the toppling mass to break the fall. His health and retirement had been picked up by the Casino and his survivors, if any, would be pretty well off.
There was no doubt about it. We were not gonna kill Orson Welles. Now, if we could only stop him eating. In fact if he would just open his mouth to say lines, and close it at all times after that, it would be good.
It’s not that he wasn't a good conversationalist, because he was. He knew more about cards and magic than anybody in the room. And these were some of the worst bust-out gamblers the world had seen. And top Casino Executives!
Of course the cue card guy was going crazy. First thing he did, Orson threw out the whole script. Right there, on the spot. In front of everybody. And rewrote the whole thing. Of course the writer disappeared. Couldn't find him. Chickenshit writer…leaving me with a full crew and Welles.
“Oh, no. The Jack of Diamonds wasn't invented until the year 1533.”
”Who gives a fuck!” I was thinking, but was he wrong? I couldn't say.
“How the hell is one of the world’s great directors, a man be-knighted in Cahiers du Cinema doing a gambling industrial for Grifter’s Palace?” I asked Donny.
“Why does anyone in their right mind work here?” he responded.
“Good point, but not too much help.”
“He owes markers.”
“He's a gambling man?”
“You kidding? Have you seen his movies?”
“... I don't know. Could be gambling. Could be eating. He could have eaten up everything in the hotel. I've seen him do it. Well not the hotel but that restaurant in Hollywood. He’s run them out of lobsters multiple times.”
“He drained the wine cellar at the Gay Paree,” said Donny, “and scarfed down a month’s supply of foie gras like shit through a goose. They named a whole menu after him. And a tugboat, I think.”
“Where do you get this stuff from?”
“Pansy, the makeup girl. I may have also got the crabs.”
Teamster talk goes on like this. And stagehands and grips are basically teamsters. You walk around swinging a big hammer and you'd get like that, too. They were in awe of Orson, like he, himself, was. And some of the rest of us, too.
“The Queen of Spades,” he went on…”is believed to be based on Ava Gardner.”
I knew I hadn't heard that right, but I had to get a move on. I knew we only had him for a day, and if he could keep us fucking around he'd have what he wanted, a payoff on his marker, with absolutely no tape on him anybody could use. So, I said…
“You know we're rolling?”
“That's the way it works, Vegas!” Like don't blame me, and I'm not taking the blame for this. An Understanding! Of Sorts. When he realized we were rolling tape, and he was in it, he started yelling about the lights.
“What do you call that, up there?”
“That would be your key light, Mr. Welles.”
“What is the key light doing up there?”
“Just hanging there, throwing light on your face. Why?”
“You can't put a key light there! Not in the Northern Hemisphere!”
“Works like toilets, huh?”
“I beg your…”
“Light swirls opposite, like water? Cool. Didn't know that.”
First thing a director has to do is establish authority. And it works best if you can do it without being armed. Some like to start off by firing somebody, anybody. Doesn’t matter, just shows who’s boss. Some like to sit down and cry, but that only works on musicals. And stuff for the Hallmark Channel. I decided to take the bull by the whores.
“Kill that light!” I said in that voice I learned from the cops.
“Just take it off. Mr. Welles doesn't like that.”
And he went dark.
“Wait, now how am I lit?”, he murmured to his left, as if asking for someone half capable of finding someone competent. He turned back and seemed to search our side of the room. Yeah, without that modeling light he looked even bigger in black…like an old steam locomotive chugging out of the fog. And he knew it.
“Can't relight the whole set, Mr. Welles. Don't have time. We'll just shoot it like it is.”
He was stuck. He needed that light.
“Ah, never mind. Turn it back on. I'll manage somehow…to play to it. Now about this script…”
“This line here.”
“You cannot say that.” he sparked, pointing to the verbiage. “Those words don't appear in that order anywhere in the English language.”
“Really,” I said, “I did not know that. Well, okay.”
“Say anything you want. We're rolling so say it right into this camera.”
“You're the expert on gambling, Mr. Welles. I don't know a thing about it. If you say this is not right or that is all wrong, I'm not gonna argue. Who am I to do that?”
It was a test of wills; who was less interested in this project, and I wanted to project it was me. I smiled big and phony at Orson Welles.
“So just…go ahead. Whenever you're ready. You gamble. You like to gamble. You think it’s fun, kind of like magic, so just tell the people what it is and how to do it.”
So I just stood there, and he stood there, and the cameras rolled. And people looked at me and people looked at him. And he said something. Don't know what it was. What it was, was, I wasn't listening. I was looking at the camera monitors and the counters going around, knowing I wasn't probably going to kill Orson Welles. And I'd be through with him in a day.
Little did I know.
"If I could just have a chamois, a damp chamois, not a wet chamois, a damp one,” Welles asked…
“..the fuck is a chamois?” the grip asked.
“Big fucking sheep,” Donny said. “or like an antelope or something.”
“He wants a wet sheep?” The grips pretended to look for some.
“I'm not that kind of girl,” said the AD.
“Shut up, Darlene. It's not always about you!”
“It’s okay. He doesn't want the whole thing.”
“He wants part of a sheep?”
“He wants some skin, with some kind of sheep fur on it, to wipe his brow.”
“Whynd’t he say so,” said the grip. He turned to Orson, “Wipe this!”
“No. Now just get him what he wants. Ask a makeup girl or something. Okay, where did he go?”
Because he had disappeared during our talk, leaving a vaporous hole in our visual universe.
“Yes, Operator. Could you please page Orson Welles!”
“And you two.” I said to the nearest assistants, “Find him.”
“How? It’s a big hotel.”
“I don’t know. See if he left a trail of bread crumbs or something…” Then it occurred to me.
“Lunch. Ohmygod!” I’d forgot about lunch.
The tape was still rolling on an empty set when they found him at last.
“He's in the Noshorium,” they said. “You better come quick.”
“Are you sure?”
“He's four hundred pounds of wheezing white man. Kind of hard to miss. He's taken over three tables and he's ordering off the menu. Says it’s all comped.”
“That's right, it is.. Wait. Off the menu? How far off?”
“Would you believe Tehran!”
“Several pounds of Caspian Sevruga, to start! He's shoveling it in with a serving spoon. You better get down here.”
“Oh, Jesus Fuck!” I was on the way. “Slow him down. Rolls and butter. Salad, Soup. Anything! I don't care what it is, just keep bringing it until he weakens.”
I didn't care about the caviar. I didn't care about the cost. I just knew that a skip loader full of highly intense salt-laden protoplasm could throw even a healthy half-tonner into Sudden Cardiac Arrest. I was just trying to keep him alive through coffee, and maybe dessert.
“Wait, is he drinking?” I garbled on the half-run.
“Gulping would be more to the point.”
“Oh shit, what is it?”
“Top of the Line… Pouilly Fuisse!”
“Wine, ah Jesus. He'll be comatose.”
“Just prop him up and animate his mouth.” The TD was old school and full of Television Advice. “If you threw things at him from off camera, small chunks of foie gras, perhaps…he'd open his mouth to catch them and then he'd chew. Keep the shot wide enough, you could slip any kind of monologue you want in there. We used to do that with Rin Tin Tin and President Reagan.”
I sensed desperation. He was down there, scarfing up as much as he could, just like anybody'd do when it was all comped. I mean, maybe it was all about that in the first place. Comped into The Vicious Tyrant Suite and all you can eat, and with Welles, that's a very scary thought. I thought he could bring down a bison by chomping their back leg.
In school we studied Citizen Kane for a whole semester. And here he was, in the flesh, and plenty of it, too. And all I wished for was for him to go away, even if he had to roll.
We got him back by dropping pork chops in trail through the midget casino and back up the stairs. He saw these and spun, toppling back and, guided by rolling carts, was vectored into the freight elevator with a tubby thubbump and cranked up outta sight.
When I caught up he was regaling the girls.
“No, really. I can dance. A lot of heavy men are light on their feet. And it’s such a surprise!” He took a step and started to lean. Four grips caught him with the Luma Crane and cranked him upright again. He waved them away.
“I’m fine. Just a small chamois…”
One teamster snaked in and announced, to all…“Sometimes I like to stick a milk dud up my ass and go sit on a gopher hole, but that's just me.”
That brought the crew back in line, and even Orson started to fall back on the script. Exhaustion and two bottles of Pouilly Fuisse had set in. And the crew stopped fidgeting and turned to him. Everyone did. He took over. He played his scene, and sold his story. He’d been worn down by standing and apparently decided he'd just do the job and get the fuck out of there.
He ran through the script top to bottom and nailed every line, every word, every comma. He gave you multiple reads, emphasis on every word in the sentence, each change slightly tweaking and tworking the meaning, making more or less of the moment. And each word in each sentence somehow connecting in a better, truer way. And this crap was all about gambling, not even Shakespeare or something…just like fine directions to most rapidly losing the old homestead. And the tape ran on and on, and the timecode pushed forward. And with each sentence the work became more complex, with more choices: Take three from sentence one, with phrase two from take seventeen? Or maybe not. I sensed what he was trying to do. It would take forever to edit, and he'd be long gone, And being it was for a big corporate client they'd be arguing over every little point.
He came to the end in sort of a gagging throttle, like he had a roast condor caught in his throat, and wobbled there throwing off suet breath.
“Great, Mr. Welles,” I said. “Now, if they knew how to cut, I’d say it, but for you, the day is over. We’ll take it from here. Would you like an ambulance or anything?”
“And who are you?” he said.
“I am the director. Perhaps you didn’t notice, since I do it in a very low key way.”
He just stared. Like he was wondering if there was anything else to eat.
“I think you knew my father,…back in the day.”
And he stared down his snoot as I told him my name.
“If I could just have a damp chamois,” is all he said.
And he started to go over. Karen hit him at the shoulder like a linebacker and stiffened him right up. Just as he was getting jelly leg, Tricia slammed in with a barstool right in the pit of his back, and a grip went over the roulette table to steady him while he settled like a quivering mass of jellyfish into the stools, wedged squeaking tight against the tables, and the tables smashed hard against the wall.
I didn't want him to sit. I had an idea on his eating co-opting his breathing… And the paramedics, if called into play, would surely try to sell the story to the tabloids, just like the one of Fletcher and the light bulb. And that was a kind of publicity that no one would need.
We got him out the back in one of those rolling hospital beds. As we cut through the kitchen he made a lurch for the rib roast and nearly toppled the cart. He grabbed at room service wine as we passed. A few of the help lofted roast quails at him and he nabbed one or two.
The door to his limo was too small. He probably fit before lunch. He was wedged halfway in and his color was not too good. Now was the time to panic. Not only was I gonna kill Orson Welles and have Roger Ebert on my ass forever, but he would die stuck in a limo. There’d be police. What if rigor mortis set in? What if his body swelled up after death. It would have to be a limo/Welles burial, with Orson half-in. A Viking funeral. Put the whole thing on a flatbed, crane it onto the Grifter’s Palace boat. Torch it up and set it adrift down the Colorado. Let Laughlin deal with that shit, cause with that fat content it would burn forever.
I may have been getting overstressed. Thank God the Room Service Chef had a history with the problem.
“Ya butter him up,” he contributed. “Hose him down with non-stick solution, one of those things.”
You may laugh but it worked. Both arms and thighs coated with triple A creamery and a double blast of spray-on PAM, and four teamsters pushing, BaaBork! He popped right in.
“Roast Beef,” he slobbered as they tried to right the limo. I think that’s what he said. I didn’t breathe well until I got his assistant to sign off on a receipt: ‘One Orson Welles, in as-is condition.’ And then I called Mom.
“When I told you I was directing Orson Welles, you could have said something, you could have helped out a bit. I sensed something when I told him my name.”
“Your father, when he had the Copa. Welles would come in after the girls.”
This must have been when he was a wunderkind, always a difficult stage.
“Peter Lynde Hayes and Mary Healy were friends of your father,” she continued, “and it was the war and Peter had to go into the army. Welles took that as a cue to get beside Mary. Peter called your father and, as a favor, your father offered Mr. Welles the choice of which leg he wanted broken. It was never the same after that.”
“Oh, great. At least it wasn't my personality, as usual.”
And he was gone. Leaving a big whole in my heart where some of the ventricles used to be. Gone but not forgotten, or really gone in that final way you like with people who really irritate the shit out of you.