Don Siegel and Me
The following is excerpted from the afterword to the 1974 book Don Siegel: Director, by Stuart Kaminsky. Copyright 1974, Film Fan Monthly. It is reprinted here by permission of Leonard Maltin.
Some years ago, I was waiting in Walter Wanger’s office (the third of three shabby bungalows that used to flank Allied Artists) for the eighth hour in three days, until persistence, main strength, awkwardness, and a phone call from the attorney general of California got me an interview. By that time, I had memorized Wanger’s honorary degree from Dartmouth, which was interesting since I was reading Budd Schulberg’s The Disenchanted while I waited. In any case, two days later I met Don Siegel and was employed as the gopher (go for this, go for that) and walked into my first picture, Riot in Cell Block 11, and ended up learning how little I knew about pictures, human nature, and survival.
I did six pictures with Mr. Siegel as a dialogue director, and because of this and because of his patience (he couldn’t hire anyone cheaper), I learned.
Brutally honest, he would haul me to the office of a complaining production manager and then find the truth of the matter in question and proceed to chew ass—usually mine. Don has a great anger, a great sense of irony, and a great, warm sense of humor. (I know about the first—I have heard about the latter qualities.) But I must say that usually he was kind enough not to laugh openly while watching me run about with both of my feet in my mouth and my thumb up my ass. (This is not easy.)
In those days (Riot), he was full of anger at every aspect of the production, his personal life, and his associates. But he kept everyone moving with humor and kept us all together and made a superb motion picture (if you freak out on prisons).
I remember the time I was caught sitting down (Private Hell 36) and was told that dialogue directors were a dime a dozen, “and if I wanted to sit on my ass, I could drag it off the set,” and then some time later, he read the pages of a scene I had rewritten; he dragged me to Wanger’s home and fought until I got my first opportunity to work as a screenwriter (a week’s polish on Invasion of the Body Snatchers).
A dedicated, painstaking craftsman, Don was maniacal in his continuing battle against stupid studio authority. He was and is constantly amazed at the idiocy of our industry, while still being delighted by its competence and professionalism. I realized that I might be considered in the latter category when, upon seeing one of my earlier TV shows, he turned away muttering, “You’re not that good!”
When my Quonset hut burnt down in one of the earlier Malibu fires, I sent my kids back to Fresno and moved in with Don and his mother. I was in a complete state of shock. For three weeks, completely flat broke, I was provided with clothing, shelter, and warm understanding. Years later, when a similar tragedy happened to Don, I refused to accept the fact, or even acknowledge that it had even happened, or that it could. I still don’t believe it. He wouldn’t let it—not ever.
If this is beginning to sound like an accolade to a talented filmmaker and close friend, it is and is not. He was my “patron,” and he made me work and made me mad and made me think. Finally, he asked me what his next setup should be on a picture, and for once I was ready, and he used it. I guess that was the beginning.
I was lucky.