James Greene on His Association with Robert Downey Sr.

Andersonville trialI met the filmmaker Robert Downey Sr., (A Prince) in 1959. We were in the Broadway production of the Civil War drama “The Andersonville Trial,” which featured George C. Scott and Albert Dekker as opposing attorneys and Herbert Berghof as the ex-commandant of the infamous Civil War prison camp. I played one of several witnesses at the trial, an ex-prisoner of the confederate camp. The cast of about 15 included to non-speaking roles, two guards in uniform carrying muskets standing by the entrance to the trial room over at stage left. The young tall gangly one was Robert, whose vision even then was not so much to act but to write and direct movies, films that would bring to cinematic life his jumbled, oddball, comedic observations of life.

Watching “The Andersonville Trial” night after night during its six-month run he conceived his own Civil War story: a Yankee soldier is shot and wounded and when he wakes he finds himself wandering in present-day Manhattan.  He stops passersby asking directions to get off this strange island and back to his base camp. Bob told me he borrowed someone’s camera and stole some film. He sneaked his Andersonville Trial costume and the musket out of the theater and the next day with a couple of pals following him with camera and mic he set out to accost perfect strangers with his personal dilemma and and seek their advice. He was making his first movie.

Most of the people he interviewed didn’t give him the time of day, of course, quickly moving away from this nut with the funny looking gun. But surprisingly there were others who were intrigued by his predicament and even offered their advice. Nuns he approached were quick to express their concern for his plight and offer him their sympathies.

Ball's BluffIn his wanderings around the various boroughs he came upon Grant’s Tomb and stared at it in shock and consternation. “They got Ulysses” he seems to be saying. And in the Bronx he does a giddy jig in front of Yankee Stadium, believing he’s found his company headquarters.

I got a phone call from Bob the night before he shot that scene: Moose Skowron“I’m going to walk onto the field during the game tomorrow and have a scene with Moose Skowron at first base.” “Oh my God, Bob, whatever you do don’t take the musket with you. You’ll get shot!”

Happy to say, he heeded my advice. But he got his shot and Moose Skowron lives on in “Balls Bluff.”

Babo 73

Taylor Mead as The President of the United Status and James Greene as Chester Kittylitter from “Babo ’73”

Shortly after completing his Civil War fantasy, he started work on another short film, a political satire called, for some obscure reason, “Babo  ’73.” He phoned to tell me he had lined up the eccentric Greenwich Village actor/writer Taylor Mead to play the lead part -the President of the United Status – and asked me to play his left wing advisor, Chester Kittylitter. By this time I had seen and enjoyed a cut of his first film so I happily agreed to join on. I figured if nothing else, it would be a barrel of laughs and of course it was. It was a romp.

Robert continued making short films and later-but not that much later – he got the backing to make his first feature film. By this time he was married and had a son named Robert Downey Jr.

This film – a clever satire of the black – white dichotomy in America as seen through the prism of Madison Avenue advertising world – was called “Putney Swope.” It opened at a first run the movie theater on Third Avenue and, much to everyone’s surprise, including Bob’s, was an immediate hit. Bob phoned me shortly after the movie opened. “Jimmie, I can’t believe it. They’re lining up for blocks to see my movie!” He sounded both thrilled and bewildered at this sudden change in his life, this new appreciation of what he was doing, not only by the film industry but by movie fans as well.Putney Swope Poster

The success of “Putney Swope” led to more financial backing for Bob and spurred him to write and eventually film his second feature, a comedy called “Pound.”

“Pound,” which was shot all around town, but primarily in the west side of Greenwich Village, opens with a shot of a variety of stray dogs being rounded up by the authorities and take into a cold, prison-like facility which fills them with dread and stirs them to make their escape.

Bob shot actual dogs being led through the entrance to the pound, but once inside (Voilà!) they were real people, actors who could physically reflect the disparate qualities of the various breeds – a bald Chihuahua, a sexy female poodle, a shepherd with a German accent, a tall and lean greyhound, and so on.

Bob even had a role for his son, now about four years old and cute as a button. Robert Downey Je. made his film debut playing an adorable puppy. His one line in the film is a question posed to the Chihuahua (a very bald Larry Wolf )- “Do you have hair on your balls?” Robert Downey Jr. Pound Puppy

Bob, probably realizing he shouldn’t stay within the confines of an ugly dog pound for the entire movie, added a sub-plot featuring a sexually frustrated young white man who roamed the city murdering amorous young white couples and then taunting the police by phoning them pretending to be black. He became known in the media (and in Bob’s screenplay) as The Honky Killer.

Bob cast me in the part and for one summer back in the early 60s I raced around Manhattan with both the rifle and revolver popping off young amorous couples – young amorous white couples, that is.

Soon after my scenes were shot, the film was completed and edited (Bob told me the editing, not the shooting was the fun part of filmmaking for him) and opened over on third avenue movie house where it had a moderately successful run.

Greaser's Palace PosterAfter that Bob went West to shoot his epic western “Greaser’s Palace,” and I went to Spain to shoot my Western, a Frank Perry film called “Doc” starring Stacy Keach and Faye Dunaway. Our careers had suddenly diverged, and Bob and I not only did not work together again; we didn’t even see each other for many, many years.

Then, about two weeks ago, I opened the Calendar section of the LA Times and there was a picture of Robert Downey Sr. and Robert Downey Jr.  with an accompanying article about an upcoming retrospective showing of Robert Downey Sr’s films.

On Saturday night of that week they would be showing both “Pound” and “Greaser’s Palace.”  I hadn’t seen either movie in over 40 years. My wife, Els, had never seen them.

I called her at work with my exciting news, and she immediately set about getting us tickets for the two films: “Pound” for obvious reasons, and “Greaser’s Palace” because a very dear friend of ours, Allan Arbus, who died this year, had a featured role in that film.

Above all it was a chance to meet up again with my old pal and colleague, the inimitable Robert Downey Sr.

In the crush of fans and acolytes that wasn’t easy, but it came to be thanks to the efforts of my beautiful dear wife, Legs Collins.

I Wear The Legs In This Family

 

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It occurred to me this week after a few events out with my husband, a life-long actor of outstanding repute and with a CV for days, that because of my long life with him, I have had many interesting and life-enhancing experiences. I have lunched with television comedy writers on a wisteria-enclosed porch in Williamstown; I have dined in New York with the former co-star of the same TV show. There have been many special moments.

And I have provided a few of the same events for him, where work has immersed me into heady collaborations with some famous people, both those with very big egos, the VBEs and those who are not, but are just VFPs, very famous people. We can eschew chummy companionship with VBEs because they don’t need us anyway, and breathe a more rarified air than we do.

The problem is, that when one sees a VFP, you can’t know if he or she will be a VBE. I am shy about approaching celebrities to tell them how much I enjoyed their work on such and such. First because I don’t think they care, and lately, because those such and suches are harder to extrude from my brain in a way that makes a dignified approach plausible or timely.

The one exception was the night that I was standing on the corner of Hope and 9th St., waiting to cross from the park. I think it was the night of the SAG Awards. A black shiny SUV pulled up to the red light, and the passenger window was down. Tom Hanks was in the front seat; I knew from  having stage managed a few events with him, that he was a really nice guy. I caught his eye and he smiled. I had just seen him do a reading of “Twelfth Night, Or What you Will” at the Geffen Playhouse, a fund-raiser for The Shakespeare Center, and so, I said to him, “I just saw you do that reading of Twelfth Night at the Geffen last week. You were wonderful.”  He beamed, because it was a completely unexpected reference. His shiny SUV pulled away, leaving me satisfied with the encounter. But I digress.

As my husband has aged, he’s lost mobility from pain in his knees. Whether from the many thousands of miles he logged as a marathoner, or arthritis, his walking has become very labored and painful. He recently graduated from a cane to a walker, so we don’t worry about how long he will have to stand. It’s been a great improvement, if the need for such a contraption can be seen in positive terms at all.

Last Friday,  we attended a screening of two films by Robert Downey, Sr. at the Silent Movie Theatre on Fairfax. Jimmie had called me earlier in the week to ask me to look into tickets for the screening of “Greaser’s Palace” and “Pound.” Jimmie has talked about “Pound” for years, and I knew that he played “The Honky Killer” in the film. I had previously looked online to see about renting or buying the film, and had never been able to find it on DVD, so I was as pleased as he about the screenings, and secured two tickets for that night.

We arrived at the theatre at about 6:00PM; the theatre doors were to open at 6:30 and the film started at 7:00PM. There were already a number of people lined up when we arrived. We got into the line, and Jimmie had a seat on his walker.

We were surrounded by young, very hip looking people. Two hipsters with cameras soon emerged from the theatre and interviewed two young men at the front of the line, who were now eating pizza. “How long have you been waiting in line to see this film?” They responded as they continued to munch their pizza on camera. I tried to look blasé, but really wanted to say, “PSSST… Hey, back here! This is James Greene, who plays ‘the Honky Killer’ in “Pound.” But I didn’t. Jimmie is roughly the same age as the filmmaker, Robert Downey, Sr.; it surprised me a bit that they didn’t have the least bit of curiosity about him.

Older people are invisible to young people. Something about achieving the age of 80 plus, or even 50 plus, suddenly negates all your achievements as an artist. Your audience diminishes as you age, and unless someone guides the younger audience to awareness of your work, so does your relevance. In addition to losing your mobility, you also lose your street cred, in spite of the fact that you are sharp mentally, and your skills haven’t diminished just because the vessel that holds them has.  This is very frustrating and saddening.

In the past few years, I have become the legs in the family, not an entirely comfortable position for me. When we went into the theatre, it became clear because of the way the chairs in the aisles, that Jimmie’s walker was not going to be able to pass. I took his arm and guided him slowly to our seats in the back of the theatre. The theatre was extremely  dim, with  light at the front;  a DJ spun a record with music from “Pound” for the audience. There were a few directors’ chairs set up for a brief interview with Robert Downey Jr. and Sr. before the movie.

A tall, well dressed and sophisticated looking man entered the front of the theatre from a space off to the house right side. Jimmie perked up and had it not been for his damned legs, he would have sprinted to the front of the theatre. “That’s Bob, I think,” he said to me. “I’d really like to see him tonight.” And just as he said that, the man turned and made his way up the house right aisle to the lobby. I sprung into action.

“I’ll let him know that you are here,” I said.

Jimmie beamed gratefully. I leapt to my feet, nervous,  as I readied myself  to accost the evening’s celebrity honoree. I found him in the lobby outside the men’s room, at the front of the line, ceded this place no doubt by the young acolytes who respectfully waited behind him.

“Excuse me, Mr. Downey?” I stood at his feet, tilting my head back to take in his 6’5” frame, and feeling very small indeed. I was smack dab in that moment of not knowing if I had approached a VBE.

He swiveled his gaze down at me, implacable, no smile on his face. I braved on.

“I’m married to Jimmie Greene, the honky killer in Pound?” I paused, feeling slightly nauseous as he continued to gaze down at me. Silence. I was starting to break a sweat.

“He’s here tonight, and would love to see you, but has some mobility issues that will prevent his coming to the front.”

And then, just the hint of a smile, and “James Greene. I would love to see him.”

“Great!” I said, scuttling away from him and the front of the men’s room line and hurrying back to our seats.

This is what I mean by wearing the legs in the family. Often, Jimmie has the fervent desire to see and talk with someone but not the mobility and it falls to me, to my legs and my screwed up courage, to leave behind my ego and approach someone whom I would never approach in a hundred years were it not for my husband.

We watched the panel  of Bob Downey and several of his colleagues, director Paul Thomas Anderson, and actors Lawrence Wolf, Don Calfa and Pablo Ferro, who played The Indian in “Greaser’s Palace” talk about some funny stories related to the making of these two films.

Then we watched “Greaser’s Palace,” which starred among others, our dear recently-departed friend, Allan Arbus, as the Jesus figure. It is an amazing film, especially in the newly restored version, which was vibrant in it’s colors. Never having seen a Robert Downey film, I was pleasantly surprised at the soulful weirdness of the film.

Intermission came, and the entire audience (save us legless ones) moved to the reception area while we waited for the reason we had come. “Pound.”

I will cede this territory to Jimmie’s recall in a future guest post because it will be more relevant. But I will just say that after “Pound” ended, and we made our way up to speak to Robert Downey, after he and Jimmie had talked, Robert Downey looked at me and said “Thank you for making sure we got to talk tonight.” Which made it all worthwhile.

Other festivities  this week took us to the wrap party for Parks and Recreation, at a nightclub in Hollywood called “The Colony.” Again, were it not for my husband, I would not be spending time in nightclubs.

We snagged a great table right near the door, so were able to see as people arrived for the party. Before long, some of the other councilmen from the show, Jon Glaser and Kevin Symons gravitated to our table and were happy to speak with Jimmie.  I worked up my courage again and shot this photo of the three of them. After shooting it, Jon Glaser handed me his cell phone to shoot one for him.

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Three of Pawnee’s Councilmen; Kevin Symons (Councilman Dexhart), James Greene (Councilman Milton), Jon Glaser(Councilman Jamm)

 

See, normal people, people. Not VBEs. And I was there because I wear the legs in this family.