The 2016 Oscar Awards fue un desmadre—a disaster, not the Chris Rock show: the Awards. I had thought about going to the Oscar Awards event this year to protest the paucity (near absence) of minority Oscar awardees this year —I am after all a member of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG).
I don’t have a long list of screen credits—in fact my screen credits are nominal. I had a featured role as the high school principal in the 1998 film Dancer, Texas: Population 81 with Brecken Meyer and Eddie Jones directed by Tim McCanliss.
In the 1986 film Nadine with Jeff Bridges and Kim Basinger I was an Extra as the Sandwich Board Man. No Oscar Award role there. Watching the Oscars in 2011 I wasn’t surprised when the Oscar for Best Actor went to Jeff Bridges, after 4 previous nominations.
There he was, 60 years old and looking every bit the part of the grizzly washed-up character he played in Crazy Heart. This was not the Jeff Bridges I knew in 1986 when I played an extra character (The Sandwich Board Man) in Nadine (1987) directed by Robert Benton, starring Jeff Bridges, Kim Basinger, and Rip Torn. In the movie, Nadine (Kim Basinger) “trying to recover sexy photos of herself and divorce her husband (Jeff Bridges), witnesses a murder and uncovers corrupt land dealings.” The tagline is: “The cops want her. The killers want him. They want a divorce.”
I had just come to back to Texas in August of 1986, after a 4 year stint in Washington, DC with The Hispanic Foundation and a consulting appointment in the Reagan administration with the U.S. Trade Representative (Office of the President of the United States), when I came across an ad in the Austin American Statesman for actors in the film Nadine set in 1950s Austin.
Gilda (my wife now—we were married in December of 1986) encouraged me to try out for a part. Much to our surprise, I was selected. I had loads of theater experience, but this was my first effort in movies, though I was a script consultant and narrator of the documentary film North From Mexico (1971) based on Carey McWilliams book of the same name, distributed by Greenwood Press.
The first day on location on 6th Street in Austin, I got a sloppy 1950s haircut and my beard shaved off. Wardrobe then gave me a costume and a Sandwich Board advertising the lunch of a local 6th Street eatery of the time. I was told to pick a hat from a box of hats nearby.
It turns out that Jeff Bridges was also looking for a hat at that moment. He began rummaging through the hat box looking for a hat when he spotted me looking into a mirror to see how the hat I picked fit me.
Bridges says, “Hey, that’s a great hat. Lemme try it.”
I gave it to him and towering over my shoulder he looked in the mirror to see how the hat fit on him
“This is great,” he said. “Wanna trade?”
“Sure I said. Whereupon he slapped on my head the hat he had chosen, giving me that great Jeff Bridges grin and asking “What’s your name?”
“Felipe,” I said.
“Thanks, Felipe,” he said, trotting away.
That day I was in the first scene of the movie wherein the Kim Basinger’s character (Nadine) is rifling through the office files of a sleazy photographer trying to retrieve fotos for which she posed when the photographer is murdered. The rest of the film is a slap-stick comedy in which Vernon (Jeff Bridges) and Nadine try to outrun the bad guys of a real-estate scam which Nadine and Vernon have unwittingly uncovered. Rip Torn is the bad guy, black hat dude.
The setup for the scene is that I’m on the sidewalk with my sandwich board walking away from the storefront where inside on the second floor the murder has taken place. Nadine runs out the back door in a panic and makes her way to 6th street where she runs smack into me on her way to her car which is angle-parked in front of where the murder takes place.
Benton shoots this scene for 2 days—this or that isn’t right. Basinger isn’t in the scene until she thinks it’s right for her. A stand-in does the run-throughs. In the meantime across the street, Gilda stands, at times leaning against the building, watching the scene time after time.
A dolly-track has been laid down on the street to pick up Nadine when she rounds the corner onto 6th street and her encounter with me. During all this time, Kim Basinger is not to be seen.
At noon of the first day of shooting, the director breaks us up for lunch which is in the building Gilda has been leaning against. I amble towards her and she back away not recognizing me without the beard and mustache, the bad haircut, and the early 50’s costume. We both laugh when she finally realizes it’s me. She is surprised at what I look like without the beard and mustache. This surprise will be a topic of conversation many times over the following years.
When Kim Basinger actually appears in the first scene she’s cold with me (as is expected because of her fright at being thought of as the murderer of the photographer. However after the shot, Basinger is still cold with me and with everybody else in the scene. Afterwards I refer to her as the “Ice Princess.” A lot of that first scene was cut, especially my line of “Something about a murder” when someone from the crowd in front of the storefront asks “What did he say” in response to a character shouting “Somebody call the police. There’s been a murder up here” from the second-story open window when the murder is discovered.
When the film was edited, other scenes in which I appeared were cut. Only the first scene was spared—though not all of it. During the various lunch breaks, Jeff Bridges joined the cast and crew, always warm and smiling, calling out, “How’s everybody?” That’s the Jeff Bridges I came to know during the filming of Nadine. And that’s the Jeff Bridges I saw accepting the Oscar on Oscar night.
Though not a film, for Harper & Row I was a discussant with Margaret Meade, Roy Wilkins, and others on the audiocassette series Why People Hate: The Origins of Discrimination, produced by Sumner Glimcher for Harper & Row. I’ve done scores of TV commercials for various markets.
1971, however, I played a singular role in Sumner Glimcher’s documentary film North from Mexico based on long-time The Nation editor Carey McWilliams’ book with the same title. That January I received a call from Sumner Glimscher, producer of documentary films, from his home base in Westport, Connecticut, explaining that Carey McWilliams, editor of The Nation had suggested my name to him as script consultant for the film he was in the process of shooting, a film based on Carey McWilliams’ seminal work North From Mexico, published in 1949, a history of the great Mexican migration from Mexico to the United States from 1910 to 1940, and still a key work in the field.
I was then Director of the fledgling Chicano Studies Program at the University of Texas at El Paso and strenuously involved in trying to get an intransigent university administration to be more supportive of the Chicano Studies Program (first in the state) I had organized in 1970 as Founding Director.
I was pleasantly surprised that McWilliams had suggested my name to Glimcher as a consultant for the film based on North From Mexico. McWilliams was, of course, well aware of my work on Mexican Americans. Since 1967 I had been writing for The Nation as a Stringer, covering Hispanic events in the borderlands, starting with President Johnson’s 1967 Cabinet Committee Conference in El Paso, Texas, on Mexican Americans. That was the first federal effort to acknowledge the presence and plight of Mexican Americans. Other pieces followed. Carey McWilliams had taken three budding Mexican American writers/journalists under his wing: (1) John Rechy, author of City of Night; (2) Hank Lopez, author of “Shootout at the Silver Dollar Saloon” about the murder of Ruben Salazar at the 1970 Chicano War Moratorium in Los Angeles; (3) and me.
I had just that year completed Backgrounds of Mexican American Literature, first study in the field. And the year before, in 1970, the John Maynard Hutchins Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions had featured my piece on “Montezuma’s Children” as a cover story in its Center Magazine (November/December 1970).The piece was read into the Congressional Record (116 No. 189, November 25, 1970, S 18961–S 18965) by Senator Ralph Yarbrough of Texas who recommended it for a Pulitzer. As a piece of investigative journalism “Montezuma’s Children” exposed the shameful neglect and continued discrimination toward Mexican American children in the schools of the Hispanic Southwest—especially Texas.
Glimcher arrived in El Paso with his film crew in April of 1971 and we got right to work. Among the crew was Harold Flender, the scriptwriter whose job was to capture the essence of North From Mexico in a documentary film. Flender had solid credentials as a scriptwriter, having penned the script for the film Paris Blues which starred Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward . Via Flender’s connection to Paul Newman, Glimcher had received a provisional nod from Newman that he would narrate the documentary. Moreover, Glimcher and Newman were acquaintances, both were residents of Westport, Connecticut.
Flender was great to work with. When Glimcher’s crew got settled in El Paso as their base for shooting the documentary, Flender quickly pulled me into the project, asking me to review his script for historical accuracy. Per my suggestions, Flender made extensive emendations to the script which was replete with errors about Mexican Americans. I understood why Mc-Williams had suggested me as consultant to the project.
Shooting the script took Glimcher’s crew all over New Mexico, Arizona, and California where the documentary covers an overview of César Chávez’ work then, as well as an interview. The scenery is spectacular. And the documentary did indeed capture the essence of McWilliams’ North From Mexico, no small task, considering the sweep of the work.
The fluke by which I became narrator of Glimcher’s documentary North From Mexico came about when by October all associated with the project gathered at Columbia University’s Center for Mass Communication for the narration to the film. My contributions to the script were substantial, mostly with factual data about the Spanish entradas into what is now the Hispanic Southwest and assuring fidelity to McWilliams’ history.
Newman’s presence was palpable. But he expressed to Glimcher once more his reluctance to narrate the film, feeling that perhaps it would be best if it were narrated by an Hispanic. Glimcher had considered Newman’s reluctance when he had first voiced it earlier in the year and had sought out Ricardo Montalban as a prospective Hispanic narrator. Montalban had been, however, unavailable. To allay Newman’s sentiments in the matter, Harold Flender offered: “Why not Felipe?” After a voice test, Glimscher assented and I narrated the film. Paul Newman was satisfied. Adding humor for emphasis, I’ve often commented about the project that I beat out Paul Newman for narrator of the film. Of course, that was not the case.
There’s no doubt that Paul Newman was an icon of American cinema. I remember how impressed I was with his role in Hud with Patricia Neal in 1963. This was among his early films. I also remember how impressed I was with his roles in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting, both with Robert Redford. I was fortunate to have met Paul Newman at Columbia University that day. I’ve never forgotten that meeting; it was momentous. I admired Newman for his stance on the documentary.
Memorably, toward the end of the voice-over taping, the script had a line about “half” of the students at the University of Texas at El Paso being Mexican Americans. From the control booth, Glimcher interrupted and asked me read the line again. When I did, I thought I heard muffled laughter from the control booth. Glimcher explained that my mid-western pronunciation of the word “half” sounded a bit odd. Change it to “hawf” he said, in the British style still audible in New England. Despite protests, reluctantly, I agreed.
At the preview of the documentary I was bowled over to hear me saying “hawf the students at the University of Texas at El Paso are Mexican Americans.” The documentary was a success, distributed by Greenwood Press. No doubt it would have been a greater success with Paul Newman as the narrator. The film went on to garnish a pastiche of awards.
Thanks to Paul Newman’s social conscience, I lucked out as narrator of the documentary North From Mexico. Of course, Ricardo Montalban figured in my selection, as well as Harold Flender’s suggestion. But hearing the news about Paul Newman’s death, I remembered with heartfelt emotion how Paul Newman had affected a part of my life. QEPD.
My next most memorable flirtation with film occurred in 1960 when I wrote, directed, and produced my teleplay New Jerusalem for KERA-13 the public television station in Abilene, Texas. That was an experience that taught me a lot.
Principally an academic (Ph.D. in English—British Renaissance Studies), I was drawn to the theater while I was an undergraduate at the University of Pittsburgh (1948-1952). With the Pitt Players for 3 years I learned the craft of the theater from the ground up (scene design, construction, lights, prompts, costumes, the works) moving on to the Pittsburgh Playhouse before earning a role on stage.
Despite a thin resume in film, over the years I’ve participated in scores of theatrical productions as actor—more than 100 roles on stage—director, and author of a score of plays for the theater. My play Elsinore, musical version of Hamlet (with Mark Medoff, Tony-Award author of Children of a Lesser God) premiered in 1968.
Medoff and I met in 1966 when Medoff, fresh from Stanford with a Master’s in Creative Writing, joined the English Department at New Mexico State University. I had been with the English Department since 1964 after a stint as a high-school teacher of French at Jefferson high school in El Paso, Texas. Despite a significant difference in age, both of us hit it off with each other. I was 40 then; Medoff was 26.
That friendship blossomed into a high regard for each other’s talents and interests. At the time I was Entertainment Editor for the Las Cruces Sun News. In 1967, the Las Cruces Community Theater announced an Ides of March competition for one-act plays, the winning selection to be staged by the Community Theater. Encouraged by me, Medoff submitted a one-act play entitled The Wager selected as winner of the competition. I was on the selection committee but recused myself in the voting for “best play.” I reviewed the play in the Las Cruces Sun News (March 19, 1967). That was the beginning of Mark’s career as a playwright.
In one of those chance moments, I mentioned in conversation with Medoff an idea for a musical version of Hamlet. After considerable deliberation Medoff signed on to the project. We would need a music partner—George Fellows happened to be near. Thus Medoff, Fellows, and I began crafting Elsinore, the musical version of Shakespeare’s benighted Prince. At this point in the 60’s we were inspired by such musicals as Man of La Mancha and Camelot.
Medoff brought creativity and energy to the task, Fellows brought vision and light; I brought experience as actor, director, and playwright—as well as knowledge about Hamlet being author of The Stamp of One Defect: A Study of Hamlet. Medoff and I wrote the book and lyrics for Elsinore; Fellows produced the music, bringing Hollywood musical experience to the project.
The play was mounted by the Las Cruces Community Theater Guild at La Mesilla Fountain Theater with Arlene Belkin as director. The British theater critic Joan Quarm, teaching at the University of Texas at El Paso, reviewed the play for the El Paso Herald Post (November 23, 1968) with these words:
“A large opening night audience received Elsinore with enthusiasm. It is deserving of high praise, for I have reviewed it not as a work of amateurs—which it is not—but of fully qualified professional playwrights and composer—which it is. The music is delightful . . . worthy of big time. It may travel very far for its strengths are remarkable,” adding, “It took courage to tamper with Shakespeare’s Hamlet, but the immortal bard himself would have been the first to admit that alteration is the heart of drama, for his own plots were adjustments of others, and his version of English history has given many a historian a severe headache.”
After its run in the fall of 1968, the three of us returned to our respective pursuits. Ely Wallach’s wife, Anne Jackson, was visiting kin in El Paso, liked Elsinore and brought it to Joseph Papp’s attention as a possibility for his Shakespeare in the Park (New York Central Park) series. Lukewarm to the project, Papp suggested turning the play into a rock musical, a popular genre at the time. That dashed our hopes.
For Medoff and me all was not serene in Academe. The tumultuous anti-war surge of the 60’s did not escape New Mexico State University. As president of the campus chapter of the American Association of University Professors and Medoff as vice-president, we weathered the political travails of the time. Coming to our aid was Clyde Tombaugh, NMSU astronomer and discoverer of the planet Pluto.
In the meantime, Medoff was busy writing. One of the plays he penned was When you Comin’ back Red Ryder, turned into a movie with Lee Grant and Hal Linden. A skit of the play in gestation was presented in one of my English classes. Giving rein to his creative impulse, Medoff sought a venue for that creativity by opening The Comedy Cantina in Old Mesilla near Las Cruces. For the Comedy Cantina he wrote steadily, among the most memorable was a skit Good Guys/Bad Guys and a skit about Lenny Bruce. I contributed bits and pieces now and then.
Medoff’s career as playwright soared. I found my métier as essayist forging literary redoubts in Chicano literature and as Associate Publisher of La Luz Magazine in Denver, first national public affairs magazine in English for American Hispanics. A decade later, I would be working in the Reagan White House. I have cherished memories of my literary efforts with Mark Medoff as colleagues almost half a century ago at New Mexico State University during the days when the earth was moiling and aspirations green.
My play Madre del Sol / Mother of the Sun (story of Cortez, Moctezuma, and Our Lady of Guadalupe) featuring Jesse Borrego and directed by Ozzie Rodriguez of La Mama Theater in New York City, premiered in 1981 in San Antonio, Texas, with productions in Mexico City in 1982, Dallas in 1983, and New York in 1984 at the La Mama. In 1982 my stage adaptation of Brazilian Jorge Amado’s novel Quinqas: King of the Vagabonds was staged at Incarnate Word University in San Antonio, Texas, directed by Oswaldo Rodriguez. In 1993 my play Voces de Mujeres / Voices of Women was presented at the University of San Jose in Costa Rica for the 5th International Conference of Women.
While a member of the Gaslight Theater Group in 1987 in Mesa, Arizona, I was nominated for the Best Actor Award for my role as Archie in Joanne Glass’ play Artichoke directed by Marlene Saenz. In 1992, as a cast member (Schmuel) in Arthur Miller’s Playing for Time directed by Charles Harrell for Texas Woman’s University, the cast was named “Best Ensemble” and received the Critic’s Choice Award at the American College Theater Regional Competition hosted by the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. I’ve played lead roles in The Glass Menagerie (Tennessee Williams), Gigi (Anita Loos), Sabrina Fair (Samuel Taylor), The Business of Good Government (John Arden).
Since then I’ve appeared and directed a number of plays in various places. In Alpine, Texas, my wife, Gilda, and I appeared together in Joseph Kesselring”s play Arsenic and Old Lace. Gilda was Aunt Martha and I was Doctor Einstein—the role made famous by Peter Lorre. While trying to maintain a sort of German accent my fellow actors informed me I was saying “si, si” instead of “ya, ya.”
Over my acting career I stayed away from “type-cast” roles—that is playing Latinos with fake accents. The one exception was my role as Papa Gonzalez in Tennessee Williams’ Summer and Smoke set in Glorious Hill, Mississippi. In the story, Papa Gonzales is distressed that his daughter Rosa has taken up with a sybaritic Anglo American, John Buchanan, Jr. In an effort to forestall the further development of his daughter’s relationship with John, Papa Gonzales has decided to murder John, Jr. in his bed.
Waiting in the wings for my cue the prop man brings a pistol to me. My back should have been to the wall instead I was facing the wall. This was opening night of the play. Taking the pistol with my right hand I turned to the right, the pistol in my hand brushed against the wall and slipped out of my hand sliding across the apron of the stage toward the steps where it plopped down heavily, step by step. A titter rose up from the audience. I’m on stage pretending to be drunk making my way toward the bed where I think John Jr. is sleeping. In a stage whisper I say: “I was going to shoot you with my gun but I gonna stab you with my knife”—in an effort to rescue the scene. As I approach the bed two shots ring out. No one has told the sound-effects person about the gun. The audience roars with laughter, remembering the incident withe gun. The audience gives me a standing ovation; the reviews praised me.
I’ve maintained membership in Actors Equity, and the National Association of Latino Independent Producers (NALIP). Recently I founded as Managing Director Teatro Cienega at Western New Mexico University, Silver City, New Mexico, where I’ve taught a playwriting class and a class on Chicanos in Film and Drama.
My interest has once more turned to the theater. I’m finishing up a Samuel Beckett style play entitled Dead Reckoning about two dead characters who re-examine their lives in an effort to determine the meaning and value of their lives. I’m resuscitating a play about The Grand Inquisitor that has lain dormant in my filing cabinet far too long. I’m envisioning a musical version of El Cid to be called Rodrigo, the music keeps swirling around in my head. And finally, perhaps Mark Medoff and I can in our dotage work on the play we talked about in our heyday—Yankee Doodle Boy, the story oaf a Jewish peddler trekking throughout the Hispanic Southwest with his daughter. Eventually he opens a mercantile company and prospers.
A ver como sale?
Copyright 2016 by Philip de Ortego y Gasca. Don Felpe is Scholar in Residence (Cultural Studies, Critical Theory, Public Policy); Distinguished Professor Emeritus of English and Comparative Literature, Texas State University System—Sul Ross. Photos of actors Nadine movie poster and Paris Blues book cover used under the “fair use” proviso of the copyright law. All other photos are in the public domain. THIS BLOG ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON APRIL 4, 2016.