208. We Love You, Pacific Ocean Blue

MalibuThe Tales From the Crypt producers talked the still-infant Fox netwok into paying for a four episode pilot of a new series. This one would be named Two-Fisted Tales, and like its HBO big brother each episode would be based on an old EC comic. Rather than the horror and science fiction titles, though, this new series would reimagine action stories.

The first one we shot was some kind of hot rod story. I don’t remember the plot, just cool cars and a pretty boy drag racer who flicked his tongue in one scene. The shot was oddly menacing and predictably sexy. All the women on the set and in the Tales production office could talk about how hot the kid was.

“God, have you seen him?”

“He’s gorgeous.”

“Who is he?”

“I don’t know. I think he’s done some TV.”

“Who are you guys talking about?”

“That actor.”

“Oh my God, he’s so hot.”

“Do you know his name?”

“Brad Pitt.”

One of the executive producers, Richard Donner, directed another of the episodes. His was a western about a gunfighter who was being confronted by the ghosts of his victims. Like Brad from the hot rod episode, the kid playing the gunfighter was an unknown, but he was intense. He looked like a gritty, mean son of a bitch. He sounded like his diet consisted of dust and whiskey. Of all the actors who came through the Tales camp while I was there, he may have been the best. Watching his episode come together, I believed he was the toughest, meanest, cold-hearted bastard ever to face his demons.

His episode was fully cut and it was time for ADR, or automated dialogue replacement. This is when an actor goes into a studio and rerecords lines for whatever reason — a helicopter flew overhead during the take, somebody offstage screamed at the craft service lady for running out of Bugles, another actor stepped on his line, the director’s directions could be heard in the background, that kind of thing.

“James, you’re going to have to drive out to Malibu and pick Neil up. He doesn’t have a ride,” John said.


I dropped the top on my MG and headed out to Malibu, where I wound my way up the canyon roads until I found Neil’s house. He ran out to meet me, took one look at my rattletrap red sports car and said, “This thing safe?”

“Yeah, no problem. Jump in,” I said.

“Should I open the door or just crawl over?”

“Whatever, dude. It’s cool.”

He dropped into the passenger seat and fumbled around for a moment. “Where’s the seat belt?”

“Don’t have any. Built before they were required.” I stabbed the gas pedal and we took off down the canyon.

“How’s the show look?” Neil asked.

“Looks great, man. You’re fantastic.”

“Thanks. Shit, slow down a little.”

“Sorry, dude, we’re running late.”

“Take it easy on these turns. They come up faster than you think.”

“You been acting long?” I asked.

“Couple years. I’m more interested in investing. You smell gas?”

“Probably got some on my hands when I filled up. What do you invest in?”

He grabbed the top of the passenger door and jammed his feet hard against the firewall. “Goddammit, you’re going to kill us. Pork bellies.”

“No shit? There’s money in that?”

“Oh yeah. Big money,” he said, and he covered his face as I pushed the little two-seater through a turn.

We drove and talked, and he held on for dear life the whole way. A reasonable person may have slowed down, but I was a 23 year-old kid who without trying was scaring the hell out of the toughest gunfighter in the west. So I did what any unreasonable kid would do: I tried harder. The more he reacted the faster I took the corners, downshifting at the last possible moment and laying into turns with my tires barely clinging to the pavement. I thought about flicking my tongue at him like that Brad guy did, but with no camera to capture the moment the gesture felt meaningless.

I got him to his ADR session on time, and when he was done I drove him home in a much more reasonable manner. He was a nice guy, and I felt a little guilty about terrifying him.

After I dropped the gunfighter off I turned off my pager (“Sorry, John, I didn’t notice my battery died”) and messed around on Malibu’s Zuma Beach until late afternoon. Hanging out in Malibu was one of those things I dreamed about as a kid stuck in small town South Carolina: the waves lapping at the shore, the blue of the Pacific Ocean.

I drove along the coast on my way back into town. The smell of gasoline filled the cabin until it was too hard to ignore, even with the top down. I pulled over and popped the hood, engine idling. Smoke rolled out of the engine compartment. Gas poured out of one of the MG’s twin carburetors and splashed onto the hot, cast iron exhaust manifold. I shut off the engine and pulled off my shirt, using it to soak up any more gas before it could reach the hot manifold.

“You piece of junk,” I said, and I slapped the car’s fender on my way to fetch my tool roll from the trunk. Every MG owner lives by two rules: 1) Never drive farther than you can afford to be towed; 2) Always carry tools.  I cursed and howled and swore and bargained, all while dismantling the leaking carburetor on the shoulder of the Pacific Coast Highway. Why did God hate me? Why was my life so miserable? Why did all of the bad things happen to me?

And then I looked up from the engine compartment. The sun was setting — bright streaks of orange exploding above the Pacific Ocean blue. The small town boy from South Carolina stood next to his bright red convertible, watching a Malibu sunset. I felt like the luckiest man alive.

photo Megan Westerby /Flickr Creative Commons

Categories: Memoir

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