From the moment years ago when the producer with whom he was lunching on nothing but margaritas, chips and salsa mentioned the original version of "Kiss Of Death," Kaplan was hooked. Long enamored of the film, and even more of Richard Widmark as Tommy Udo, who carved a special niche for himself in film noir history by pushing an elderly woman in a wheel chair down a flight of stairs, the young screenwriter was stunned to learn that it was Verlaine, in drag, who had done the stunt. Even more astonishing was that Verlaine had arrived on the set that day not in a professional capacity, but simply to visit his girlfriend, an actress who had landed a small role in the movie. Only when every professional stunt man on the shoot balked at what was known, in their parlance, as a far too dangerous gag, did Verlaine, who had been searching for a way to make a name for himself in the business, volunteer. Though Verlaine's romance with the would-be starlet ended well before production was completed, his career in the film world, which would carry him through several decades, was suddenly under way. Ironically, the largely alcohol-based lunch, which was set up by an agent attempting to steer Kaplan away from feature films and into episodic TV, professionally was in many ways a mistake, coming on a day when Verlaine, after being deluged with an ever-increasing series of what he considered to be ridiculous network notes, received one that was a deal-breaker. "A Martian wouldn't say that," a humorless VP named Jonathan Schecter remarked about a line of dialogue that Verlaine considered particularly clever. "How in hell would you know?" Verlaine fired back. "But don't even bother answering, 'cause I quit!" It was while Verlaine was cleaning out his desk that Kaplan, oblivious to what had transpired, arrived. Twenty minutes later, instead of eating tacos, tamales, or tostadas, he found himself downing more tequila in one afternoon than he had consumed, cumulatively, in the previous year-and-a-half. Kaplan had fun listening to the Hollywood history that Verlaine shared, beginning with an anecdote about a disreputable producer named Charlie Goldsmith, who at one point booked weekly sessions with two different psychiatrists, just in case one or the other was lying to him. Even more fascinating was the saga of Verlaine's unlikely journey from stunt man to screenwriter, then further up the food chain to producer, and finally director, until as the years began to catch up with him he settled back into producing hour shows for television. But what tickled Kaplan's fancy most was learning that his lunch companion spent several years under exclusive contract as Humphrey Bogart's stunt double. By the time that bit of information was proffered, however, the fourth round of margaritas had rendered Kaplan too sleepy to ask appropriate questions. Still, when Verlaine suggested that the two of them reconvene at some point in the days ahead Kaplan, though surprised, was elated.
In the weeks that followed, Kaplan's heightened awareness of the phone not ringing gave way to a growing sense of disappointment, until he ultimately gave up any hope of hearing from Verlaine again. Then one Tuesday at noon, after nearly three hours spent struggling with what's known in the movie biz as a spec screenplay, he was torn between wandering over to a nearby park to shoot baskets and or simply feeding his face at an Ethiopian restaurant with a lunchtime buffet when a call came in. "How about instead of attacking our livers we mainline some cholesterol?" asked a familiar voice. "Unless, that is, you've got a lunch with Meryl Streep or Eastwood." "You mean instead of Bogart?" "If you're supposed to meet him, you're in serious trouble. Every hear of Langer's?" "Downtown somewhere?" "7th and Alvarado. The pastrami's on me."
That began a series of lunches in which Verlaine regaled Kaplan with more and more whoppers from Hollywood once-upon-a-time. Several were about the only horse in the world named Ruderman – a trickster whose moniker was a reference to the westerns on which both the stallion and his stuntman owner were hired by a producer known for spouting tons and tons of horseshit. Other tales involved Verlaine's fling with a wonderful singer named Sister Rosetta Tharpe, while there were several dealing with the productions Verlaine worked on together with the likes of John Huston, Robert Mitchum, and Tuesday Weld. But whenever possible, Kaplan swung the conversation to Bogart. One of the gems that emerged, which scored big points when re-told to friends, stemmed from when Verlaine discovered that Bogie, during his Broadway days, had lived in Manhattan's famed Algonquin Hotel. Surprisingly well versed in the work – and lore – of Dorothy Parker, George S. Kaufman, Robert Benchley, and their fellow members of the Round Table, the stunt man promptly asked if his boss ever had lunch there. When Bogart replied, "Sure, kid," Verlaine was thrilled. "So what was it like?" he asked, expecting to hear about the sources of legendary quips. "Great hobo steak," was the response he got from the star. Another highlight came one day when the two were wandering around Beverly Hills after a lunch at another celebrated deli. To Kaplan's dismay, an elderly man cringed at the sight of Verlaine, then risked life and limb by dashing through traffic to get to the other side of the street. Seeing the perplexed look on Kaplan's face, Verlaine grinned. "Bet you're wondering what that's about." "Who me?" "Ever heard of Nick Ray?" "He directed 'Rebel Without A Cause,' 'Johnny Guitar' –" "And with Bogie?" "'In A Lonely Place.'" "Let's grab a coffee, and I'll fill you in."
At one of the rare non-Starbucks coffee spots in the vicinity, Verlaine explained that the classic film was shot on location, primarily on a street just south of Sunset lined with two-story Spanish-style apartment houses. One of them, midway down the block, served as the film residences of each of the two stars, while another, a few doors south, was the real-life abode of Bogart's stunt double. One afternoon, Verlaine went on, during the filming of a particularly trying and emotional scene, the leading lady, who was married to the celebrated director, had a very public disagreement with her husband. That led to an even more heated argument later, then to Gloria Grahame storming away. But instead of heading home to the Malibu house the couple shared, she instead moved in with a guy with whom she had done some flirting on set: Verlaine. The result was a couple of days of excruciating tension at work, until at last Nick Ray confronted Bogart, whose company was producing. "This is too much for me," Verlaine quoted Ray as saying. "I can't keep directing with the knowledge that my wife is banging the goddamn stunt double. One of us will have to go." "Well, nice knowing you," Bogie replied. "Y-you mean you'll keep him over me?" "At this point he's almost family. And loyalty starts at home." When Verlaine explained that Nick Ray unhappily bit the bullet and stayed on the picture, Kaplan beamed. "Great story!" "But the best was yet to come," Verlaine insisted. One evening several months later, as luck would have it, he was in a bar frequented by stunt men when suddenly there was a hush that invariably meant one thing, and one thing alone: a star had just entered. It turned out to be Bogie, who approached Verlaine. "I need you, kid," he said. "They're sneaking that turkey we made." "But, Bogie," Verlaine protested, "I'm half in the bag." "No big deal. We'll take my car." Aware that he had no real say in the matter, Verlaine followed his boss outside, where the star's Cadillac convertible was waiting. "You drive," Bogart announced, tossing Verlaine the keys. "If you insist." "I insist." "So where are we headed?" "Santa Barbara," Bogart responded before shutting his eyes and falling asleep. By the time they arrived at their far-from-around-the-corner destination, everyone – audience and studio execs alike – was waiting inside the theater. Everyone, that is, except for the director, who winced at the sight of Verlaine. Then in the three of them went. A little over ninety minutes later, as the paying customers were departing, a seasick-looking Bogart turned to Verlaine. "I'm ruined," he said in a stage whisper. "Thanks to that little prick, I'll lose my shirt." "I disagree." "You think this mess is decent?" "Look, there's not a single cell in my body that wants to say something nice about Nick Ray," Verlaine stated. "But credit where credit's due, the movie's terrific." Bogart shook his head, then led the way outside, where the anxious director was waiting. "So, Bogie," Nick Ray said tentatively, "what do you think?" "Well personally, I kind of like it," Bogart stated to Verlaine's dismay. "But my sidekick here, he's got real problems with it." Hearing more and more stories about Hollywood in its heyday, Kaplan often found himself musing about how much he had missed. Not that his life had been boring or circumscribed, coming as he did from an industrial town in New Jersey where he had been a part of worlds never seen by kids from suburbia. In that blighted but interesting part blue-collar environment, he grew up with sons of the local Mafia, was one of only two white kids on the high school basketball team, and by the age of 16 was financing excursions into Lower Manhattan by selling bags of oregano, catnip, and twigs to rich kids who had come in from places like Long Island. Then later he became the only impoverished American in France with both an expense account and a mandate to do as much as possible, thanks to a gig he hustled writing the Paris section of a travel guide for the youth market. But the Hollywood Kaplan went on to encounter was run by guys with MBA's rather than moguls, and populated by "bankable" actors who seemed more like the flavor-of-the-month than the stars of yesteryear.
Not quite a month later, Kaplan and his girlfriend, to whom he had repeated many of Verlaine's stories, were invited to a dinner at his mentor's house. There they became part of a group that included an aging country singer, a packager of Yugoslavian co-productions, a grumpy Brooklyn-born-agent who feigned a British accent, and their significant others. After an evening of much food, and even more alcohol, Kaplan and Amy climbed into his somewhat dented Volvo. "So what did you think?" Kaplan inquired as they headed home. "You mean other than that we lowered the average age by about a half?" replied Amy, who was just starting to make a name for herself in the world of young adult novels. "Well, I liked Verlaine's wife a lot." "Darlene seems really down to earth." "And the people were interesting, in a bizarre kind of way." "Very bizarre." "But your buddy –" "Yeah?" "He just may be the best storyteller on the face of the earth." "Told you." "Which begs one question, if you don't mind." "Fire away." "I'm not going to ask if they're true or not –" "But –" "Go on –" "Do you ever get the sense that his tales are – how do I say this –? "Embroidered a little bit?" "Or... umm... exaggerated? "Maybe," Kaplan acknowledged. "But I hope not."
"I've got good news," Kaplan announced to Amy a couple of nights later over a dinner of sole dumplings and baby bok choy at their favorite Shandong restaurant. "Somebody optioned that thriller of yours that I like so much?" "I wish. But I've been doing some searching –" "Searching?" "For what cop shows call corroborating evidence." "And?" "All the Verlaine stories seem to check out. Make you feel better?" "More importantly, how does it make you feel?" "In a funny way, relieved."
At their next lunch, which took place at a Yemenite restaurant that Verlaine wanted to try, Kaplan mentioned a sight he'd seen that amazed him. While crossing the street on their way to school that morning, two fourteen-year-old girls – Angie, who lived three doors down from him, and her best friend Kimberly – were so caught up in conversation that they were oblivious to the havoc they created. A Porsche had been forced to swerve to keep from hitting them, a UPS truck needed to slam on its brakes, a Harley nearly jumped the curb to keep from being sideswiped, and a moving van almost crashed into a fire hydrant. Yet onward went the girls, still yakking and totally oblivious to what had transpired. "That's a half-hour comedy!" Verlaine proclaimed. "What do you mean?" "The world as seen through the eyes of two sweet but completely self-absorbed fourteen-year-old girls. And you and I are going to write it." "But I've never done anything like that." "Yet. Since we like to have lunch anyway, that's how we'll do it." "We'll write at lunch?" "No, we'll talk it through. Characters... story... potential scenes.... whatever. Then you'll see." "See what?" "How the script writes itself."
To Kaplan's dismay, Verlaine's prediction came true. Meeting twice a week at a variety of places – a Cantonese joint, a Salvadorean spot, a burger stand, an Indian buffet, plus one that featured Thai street food – the two of them talked, ate, then gabbed some more. Much, but not all, of the chatter involved the work-in-progress, which at a certain point they dubbed "Missy & Me." The rest revolved around Verlaine's storytelling, with tales of his time in the army largely supplanting the Hollywood yarns. One by one, Kaplan learned about characters like Billy Beagle, an albino who originally hailed from Poughkeepsie; Dub Hotchkiss III, who later inherited his father's nationwide trucking company; Greasy Borowiek, who wound up running a brothel in Hong Kong; and Bill "Big Train" Tranovitch, the drill sergeant who became a legendary high school football coach in New Jersey. More importantly, he was regaled with their raucous exploits from basic training through their time spent in Okinawa, then on through their paths as civilians. The accounts of those adventures over a period of many years reinforced Kaplan's feelings that Verlaine, in a way that he himself could never possibly match, had led a life that was incredibly well lived.
In person, Kaplan got to meet a different set of Verlaine's cronies, the self-dubbed LostSouls who gathered for coffee most afternoons at an Italian joint whose clientele otherwise was otherwise divided between hustlers and Eurotrash. There was Vinny, the personal trainer and bed mate of an aging TV comedienne... Sidney, an ex-jailbird who was executive producer on a number of high-budget flops... Irwin, whose experience on international co-productions owed to his ability to speak several languages, plus the fact that he seemed to know the key Maitre D, hotel manager, and upscale madam in every European and Asian capital... Don, who had been the star in an early TV show called "Bwana Bill"... and Artie, who claimed he could not fully retire from his agency job for fear of never again getting a reservation at one of his favorite restaurants. Except on days when he and his ad hoc writing partner had been singularly productive, Kaplan rarely partook of the nostalgia shared by the Caffe Roma crew, choosing instead to say a quick hello before bidding farewell to Verlaine, who invariably stayed on to schmooze.
The result of the four weeks of story-related lunches, which Kaplan eventually transcribed, wound up being forty-one pages about two adorable girls. Though sweet, delightful, and in many ways "God's innocents," they also inadvertently wreaked havoc and mayhem everywhere they went, leaving chaos in their wake. That kind of devastation, in the pilot episode, manifested itself not merely in a vivid – and to Verlaine and Kaplan – hilarious reenactment of Angie and Kimberly crossing the street, but also in the way their screen counterparts misconstrued a moment in which they spotted Missy's dad with another woman, in the process nearly capsizing a marriage.
Accustomed to slow (and all too often tepid) responses to his work, Kaplan was stunned by the speedy kudos the script received first from Verlaine's agent, then from his own. And he was even more shocked when the pilot was optioned the day after it went out – and by a highly regarded production company. But what surprised him above all was seeing the signature line of the contract that was generated, which bore two names: Len Kaplan and Ronald Vercelli aka Ron Verlaine. Kaplan was well aware of the show biz tradition thanks to which Anthony Dominick Bennedeto became Tony Bennett, Louis Szekely became Louis C.K., Allen Konigsberg became Woody Allen, Margaret Mary Hyra turned into Meg Ryan, Caryn Johnson morphed into Whoopi Goldberg, and Declan Patrick McManus wound up Elvis Costello. He also knew about non-entertainers who, whether to hide their religion or ethnicity, or simply to make life simpler, also changed their monikers, such as famed architect Frank Goldberg, who became Frank Gehry. Or former Vice President, who was born Spiro Agnostopolous. Plus Samuel Langhorne Clemens, who chose thenom de plume Mark Twain, and baseball legend Connie Mack, whose birth certificate read Cornelius McGillicuddy. There was even the leader of the band Television, who also honored the Frenchauthor of "Les Fleurs Du Mal" by changing his name from Thomas Miller to Tom Verlaine. But to the best of Kaplan's knowledge, those celebrated folks never flaunted their authenticity. Nor, as far as he knew, did they dwell emphatically on their past. Unsettled by the revelation, and far from sure as to how to react, Kaplan ruminated for a while, then reached out to one of the members of Caffe Roma crew. "How exactly does a guy with the last name of a French poet turn out to be Italian?" he asked Irwin. "Not just Italian." "What's that mean?" "Ever heard of the director who made "Battle Of Algiers?" "Gillo Pontecorvo." "Well, like Pontecorvo, Schiano, Frascati, Russo, and a bunch of other Italian-sounding names, Vercelli is decidedly Jewish." Seeing the look on Kaplan's face, Irwin chuckled. "Somebody looks like he swallowed a goldfish." Kaplan had all he could do to muster a nod. "And now you're wondering what else is true," Irwin went on. "And what, possibly, is not." Again Kaplan nodded. "Well, the Hollywood stories, especially the ones about Bogart and that great black singer whose name I always blank on –" "Sister Rosetta Tharpe –" "As far as I know are the real thing. And did he tell you any tales about growing up in what became Spanish Harlem?" "A couple." "Those, also, are largely on the level. "Largely?" "Mainly. And the whoppers about his Army cohorts?" "You mean Beagle and Hotchkiss –" "And Greasy something-or-other and Big Train?" Irwin's response was a frown. "Not real?" Kaplan asked. "For want of a better term, appropriated." "Which means?" "Borrowed, shall we say, from his cousin Steve." "Steve Verlaine?" "Steve Verlucci." "But why?" "Why what?" "Why any of it? Why all of it?" "Kid, having known him for close to forty years, I could give you fifteen or twenty answers. But you know what?" "What?" "At the end of the day, all of 'em put together wouldn't provide a satisfactory explanation. What you have to understand is that though our friend's a wonderful, smart, fascinating guy –" "Yeah?" "He's – how shall I say this? – peculiar." "So I gather."
Kaplan considered approaching Verlaine about all the revelations, not in an angry or off-putting way, but in the hope of gaining some insight, or at least some measure of understanding. To do so, however, seemed frightfully awkward, and worse, confrontational. Torn, he dawdled, never even broaching his dilemma with Amy. So he said nothing about his confusion when he and Verlaine had lunch with the heads of the production company, who announced their intention to use the pilot – and, hopefully, the subsequent series – as a means of getting one of their heroes of the small screen... Verlaine... back to directing. Nor did Kaplan broach the subject when he and Verlaine, together with Amy and Darlene, went out for a celebratory dinner with their respective agents. With conversations going on about casting, and attempts being made to convince a reluctant Verlaine to helm the pilot, Kaplan found himself lying awake night after night with his mind racing. Until, that is, at 4 AM on a Thursday, with a full moon illuminating his bedroom, he finally mustered the courage to make a decision. At a reasonable hour, after a three-mile run and breakfast, he would at last make the call he had been postponing. But that plan was short-circuited when the phone range just as he was trying to decide what he would say. "Ron –" he heard Verlaine's wife Darlene stammer. "What about him?" "His heart –"
Bio: Alan Swyer is an award-winning filmmaker whose recent documentaries have dealt with Eastern spirituality in the Western world, the criminal justice, diabetes, and boxing. His novel "The Beard" was recently published by Harvard Square Editions.