“Your Meals In Life Are Numbered:” On Trying (and Failing) in Hollywood

Literature

Not long after I moved to Los Angeles from the East Coast to pursue a career in movies, my wife Pam and I moved into a Hollywood neighborhood where it seemed everything in and out of sight ultimately would get stolen, and most everything did, including Pam’s car, which was parked directly in front of our duplex apartment.

The duplex itself was broken into and robbed less than a week after we moved in, with Pam asleep in our bedroom while the burglars went through the house, including lifting her jewelry from the dresser not five feet from the bed she was sleeping in.

It was 1984, and a traumatic beginning for our time there, but the apartment was large, comfortable, and most important, affordable, with a spare bedroom exclusively for writing. I was looking for a fairly obscure but strong novel to adapt for the screen, and began poring over books and articles that I had found interesting and cinematic. While doing so, I rediscovered my fondness for the stories of Michigan author Jim Harrison.

Harrison was a highly distinctive writer, poet and person. For some time, I had been determined to ultimately track him down and get the film rights to one of his books, realizing the potential in his body of work. I decided to focus on his 1973 novel A Good Day to Die, which Harrison claimed was “the first real book about Vietnam” though the story doesn’t take place in the war-ravaged country.

It’s the story of a young, damaged Vietnam vet who can’t keep away from pills regardless of which direction they take him, his young and spirited girlfriend whose thirst for adventure is both intoxicating and dangerous for the men around her, and an older, hard drinking poet who “longs for the life unlived.”

Jim’s books stayed with me because of the heart, humor, originality and insight they offered.

The three set out on a road trip from Key West, destined for the Grand Canyon to sabotage what they believe to be the construction of a hydroelectric dam which would create an environmental catastrophe. In addition to the three travelers, the car includes boxes of uppers, downers, weed, beer—and a large case of dynamite. A triangle develops, culminating in the inevitable disaster, involving drugs, love and of course the dynamite.

I outlined the book as a screenplay and began to write it out, figuring when it was finished, I could approach the publisher and find a way to secure the film rights.

While working on this outline, a friend invited me to attend a Lakers game. While there, my friend mentioned that Jack Nicholson had seats on the other side of the court near the visiting team’s bench. Peter pointed to the courtside seats, disappointed that “he’s not there tonight. Don’t recognize anybody in those seats.”

When I glanced down across the court, I thought I recognized at least one of the two occupants of Nicholson’s seats. I asked to borrow Peter’s binoculars to take a closer look.

As I suspected, the man on the end was Lou Adler, who, as a former musician, I instantly recognized as the famous producer of Carole King and the Mamas and the Papas. I knew him for his notable cap, colorful clothes, and signature white beard.

Next to him, also easily recognized from any of his books’ dust jackets, sat Jim Harrison, wearing one of his trademark Hawaiian shirts.

At halftime, on Peter’s suggestion, I stepped down to the courtside area where Harrison was wandering about by himself. I called out his name and gestured to him. Since my tickets didn’t allow me on the court, he walked over.

As I later learned was his nature, Harrison was charmingly accessible. I introduced myself and told him I was a director who was a big fan, and very interested in making a movie out of A Good Day to Die. He listened and told me I would have to talk to his agent about the money part, but he would be happy to get together to talk about the proposed film.

So, a friendship was struck, and I went to see him the next day at the Westwood Marquis, a hotel he liked because he could walk around the nearby arboretum, which we did.

Harrison’s physique seemed to match his larger-than-life literature. He was solidly built, though he appeared heavy with a rounded, hard torso like a medicine ball. He had exceptionally muscular shoulders and arms normally garbed in colorful Hawaiian shirts of the kind he was wearing at the ball game. His neck was round and dense as a tree trunk. He sported an overgrown dark, drooping moustache reaching below his chin, thin, brown anarchic hair that, although straight, managed to grow in every direction, and eyebrows that angled in the same fashion over a wandering left eye that never matched the sight path of his right.

Harrison lost the eye when he was seven, he told me, to a neighbor girl while they were playing with a stick. Harrison himself said this gave him an advantage—because no one knew exactly who or what he was looking at while talking. As he put it in his uniquely midwestern nasal growl, “one eye looks for fish, the other watches for birds.”

We talked about the book and the film possibilities. I told him about my approach to his book, my outline for the story, and we discussed some of my casting and music ideas. These were all concepts he had never considered, but he liked them and wanted to talk further. After I’d settled the financial side of the deal with his agent, Jim and I began a series of nightly phone calls originally designed to discuss progress on the script, but I soon realized Jim was a voluble soul who just liked to talk.

He lived in Lake Leelanau, Michigan, close to Traverse City on the banks of Lake Michigan, but also owned a cabin outside of Grand Marais, a seaside town at the top of the upper peninsula nestled on the banks of Lake Superior. The cabin was his writing retreat, where he would spend weeks at a time while working on a book.

While staying at the cabin, Jim would drive into town after dinner and spend evenings perched at the bar of the Dunes Saloon, a local hangout with a few tables and chairs, stools and pool tables hosting pretty much the same clientele every night.

Later in our relationship, I spent time with Jim at his cabin while working on an adaptation of his book Sundog for director Hal Ashby, and accompanied him to the Dunes Saloon each night, where I quickly learned that the bar was pretty much Jim’s clubhouse and office. He and I consumed a full hotel’s share of the local specialty, Lake Superior whitefish, during our nightly visits.

The day we were scheduled to return to Lake Leelanau, an early November blizzard hit the upper peninsula in which six deer hunters died. We started across the peninsula at the height of the storm, with visibility not much further than the front bumper of Jim’s Subaru. We were essentially driving blind, but Jim carried on because “We said we were leaving today, so we’re leaving today!” He explained it is Midwestern tradition to always follow the plans you lay. Changing plans creates confusion.

Certain we would end up stranded and probably dead in the bleak landscape, I begged him to turn around because I didn’t want to die in this god forsaken terrain littered with scraggly pine and timber wolves. Either that or let me drive. Not only was he blind in one eye, Jim wasn’t a particularly gifted driver, either. Finally, after he admitted that he had no idea where the road was, he asked me “We’ve already locked up the cabin. Where would we go if we turned around?”

The answer was simple. “Dunes Saloon. We’ll wait it out all week if we have to.”

So, he turned around and we made it back to the bar, which harbored an animated crowd of frustrated deer hunters locked into the same plan. Jim and I found rooms to rent at a small hotel at the end of the block by the shoreline, and when not gorging on saloon whitefish and bourbon, we spent the next day and night listening to the fierce and relentless roar of gale-force winds and crashing waves pounding the rocky cliffs beneath us. I had been in ocean storms on sailboats, though never a hurricane, but this was a unique sound of power unleashed, alarming yet mesmerizing, somehow otherworldly. The volume and intensity made it hard to conceive that all this noise emanated from a lake, even one called Superior. In the last verse of The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, Gordon Lightfoot wrote, “Superior it is said never gives up her dead, when the gales of November come early.” Understood. When the weather eased, we drove home.

Jim was becoming a revered author in Hollywood, but at the Dunes Saloon, no one cared, which is how Jim liked it. He called from the saloon most nights while he was writing at his cabin. The bar phone had a long cord, and the bartender normally perched it right next to Jim’s reserved seat so he could talk to his friends around the country.

Jim was one of the more entertaining people you could hope to talk with, and at least during the get to know phase, a phone call with Jim would at minimum educate you about at least two topics you knew very little about, make you laugh several times, and leave you with at least one memorable insight locked into your brain.

His knowledge was extensive, his memory beyond anything I had previously been exposed to, and his humor, humanity, and ability to spontaneously concoct fresh and laser-accurate metaphors—these were like sitting down to the perfect meal.

I finished the script and was proud of it. I could see this film from start to finish, convinced it was one I would love to see in a theater, which was the gold standard. It had a good pace, the characters were interesting and original, and the parts strong enough to attract some excellent actors—stars I hoped.

An investor in Chicago, the owner of a broadcasting company, agreed to pay for the film, with a budget ceiling of $5 million.

That was plenty as far as I was concerned, if the stars didn’t ask for too much. That turned out to be more than wishful thinking.

I first approached Sue Mengers, who was a notoriously tough agent for filmmakers to negotiate with. I was interested in Nick Nolte to play the poet and John Malkovich the young vet, and was able to get Mengers on the phone, who gave me an early lesson in Hollywood powerbroking.

“Okay Tuy-rell, I read your script. You want Nick for the mopey guy?”

“I believe he’s perfect,” I replied.  “If anyone can elevate that part, he can.”

“Well, does he fuck the girl or not?”

Ms. Mengers had intentionally butchered my name to gain some immediate leverage, and Nolte’s character certainly didn’t seduce the young woman in the script, but fantasized about it, which was a significant contribution to the character. It was, after all, the life unlived, and consummation here would have been some serious living for our depressed character.

“Not in the script, he doesn’t. No.”

“Listen, Tuy-rell. Let’s not jerk each other off, okay? You want Nick, he’s gonna fuck the girl.”

We all decided to move on with the casting.

As we collected quotes from stars we were interested in, it became clear soon enough that the parts needed name actors, but our budget wouldn’t afford it, so we had to look for more money.

For the next year, I tried unsuccessfully to raise money for Good Day to Die while working as a contract writer for Universal television. During this time, Harrison would come to L.A. to meet with producers over various projects and we would meet for dinner whenever he was in town.

A better dinner companion one could not ask for, because Jim was not only entertaining to dine with, but he always had a very generous studio expense account, and he wasn’t shy about testing its limit. Over the next several years, we ate at some of the best restaurants in L.A.

I clearly remember my first dining experience with Jim, at an exclusive French bistro on Westwood Boulevard. He had the studio make the reservation for us, and as soon as we were seated, Jim took out a cassette recorder (which he did at every restaurant,) and sat it upright on the table. He then called over the waiter for questions about the entrees.

A lesson in priorities that, if we’re lucky, or maybe unlucky, we all get at least one opportunity to learn.

Noticing the recorder and the open menu, the waiter leaned over to Jim, careful to keep clear of the starched white tablecloth. “Would you like another menu to take with you, to refer to our offerings?”

“Why don’t you just bring us all your appetizers, and these six entrees. I’ll make notes as we go.”

“Absolutely, sir. May I ask what publication you are with?”

Jim arched his chaotic eyebrows as he looked up at the waiter. “Most all of them. New York Times, LA Times, Esquire, Paris Review, New Yorker. I write a lot about food.”

“Very good, sir! Would you like a larger table for your dishes?”

Indeed, we would. We were immediately moved to a table for six, which could hold all that we ordered.

Dinner with Jim was an adventure in not only a gastronomic sense, but with intellectual and emotional discovery. His New Yorker essay titled A Really Big Lunch detailed a meal prepared by French chef Marc Meneau that Harrison shared with Mario Batali and several other guests. It included 37 courses consumed over a period of 11 hours. That was extreme, but the man liked to eat, then talk about it. As Jim mentioned in his essay: “Your meals in life are numbered, and the number is diminishing. Get at it.”

The critic Ann Levin wrote of Jim Harrison’s essays, “Nearly every piece has a saying wise enough to carry in your wallet.”

That was true of meals shared with Jim as well. He also enjoyed driving around drinking beer and talking, a pastime I had developed a fondness for as soon as I owned a driver’s license, but hard to describe the appeal to the uninitiated.

A destination spoils the adventure. The goal is to drive, drink and talk, with an occasional pit stop, until the nuggets appear, like mining for gold. To find it, all you need is beer, time, country and a car, in an era when even a teenager could afford all of those. Jim understood this, which is part of what made him so prized among those of us who shared this love of aimless expedition with a storyteller and a six-pack.

I did this regularly throughout my youth and beyond. The popularity of this pastime faded by the end of the twentieth century, of course, and rightfully so, but I had no friends in Hollywood who shared my fondness for beer and bonhomie in a car. Jim did, and I was richer for it.

After eighteen months, the option I carried on A Good Day to Die expired.

Unable to raise the money to renew, I let it go and like so many projects and people in Hollywood, its shelf life expired. I moved on, ultimately adapting four of Jim Harrison’s works for the screen, written for three notable directors including two Oscar winners. But for various reasons common in Hollywood, none related to story or script content, no movies were made.

That was a lasting disappointment, and not just because of what I could have earned or how they would have boosted my career. Jim’s books stayed with me because of the heart, humor, originality and insight they offered. I believed that, if properly made, the films they could have become had the potential to be not only profound, but timeless. This is the touchstone for any serious filmmaker.

Like the contents of our first apartment in Hollywood, what I once held I held no more, and life continued as it was before. A lesson in priorities that, if we’re lucky, or maybe unlucky, we all get at least one opportunity to learn. We sleep under the constant threat of loss.

Jim Harrison died in 2016, but what his art brought to my life held a value beyond physical measure. They were times to put in my wallet.

Terrell Tannen

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