When Fritz said he could call in the Marines for a movie, he meant it
Actually, to say that Fritz Manes was a friend of mine would be untrue — he was a compatriot, patriot, boon companion and drinking buddy.
But that was all years ago — I was sorry to read of his passing in the New York Times this week (the Los Angeles Times seems to have forgotten his story!)
Many years ago Fritz and I spent, oh, a year or so together working on a movie that (like so many!) never happened. It wasn’t Sony Pictures’ fault — it had spent almost $1.5 million just prepping the movie. Maybe it wasn’t anyone’s fault — these things just happen in Hollywood. But I’ll tell you the story and let you decide…
In the early ‘80s, I’d been, among other things, Newsweek Magazine’s defense correspondent. A cool job, considering that the “Reagan Defense Buildup” was in its infancy and I got to cover hot new stuff like the F/A-18 attack fighter, the AH-61 Apache attack helicopter and numerous other top-secret programs like the Predator drone (believe me, it goes back that far!)
Now, everyone knew the billions the Republicans’ were spending on defense (driving us deeper into a deficit only Clinton could bring us out of!) would end up making great movies — you may recall some of the hits like “Navy Seals” (starring Charlie Sheen), “Iron Eagle I, II & III,” “Firebirds” (starring Academy Award-winner Tommy Lee Jones) and, of course, the legendary “Top Gun.”
Ironically, “Top Gun” director Tony Scott’s assistant at the time, Catalaine Knell, was my then-wife’s former assistant and, after my first divorce, one of his producer’s became my second wife.
Hey, Tony always had good taste in women!
Shortly after, however, I was called from Newsweek to become a vice president of the Walt Disney Company and, knowing that studio head Jeffrey Katzenberg had been one of the movers behind “Top Gun,” I pitched him another idea — “Top Gun II,” only without Scott, Tom Cruise or Paramount, his former employer.
How could I do that, he pondered? I explained that, as Newsweek’s defense writer, I had an “in” with the Marines. If he could see what these wild, new fighters, the AV-8B Harrier jumpjets could do, hovering in midair and backing out of caves, it’d make “Top Gun” look like WWI’s “Wings.”
Katzenberg never believed me; my new boss, Academy Award-winning producer Michael Douglas and his partner, ex-HBO president Rick Bieber did. Apparently, Rick had been trying for years to make a movie about the ravages the Thai pirates were inflicting upon the “boat people” of Vietnam. Graft a secret squadron of Harriers assigned to protect the boat people and you have a “Top Gun” II-like winner!
Anyway, my then girlfriend “CSI” producer Cyndy Chvatal and I found a writer named Tim McCanlies to put our vision in a script called “Thai Pirates” (later changed to “Flyby” by studio head Michael Nathanson).
With script in hand and the Marines my friend, the only problem (and I emphasis, “then”) was budgeting such a big, effects-laden movie. That day, I got a call from Gary Martin, head of physical production at Sony. He asked me to meet a friend of his, Fritz Manes, an ex-Marine who’d worked with Clint Eastwood as “line producer” about “Pirates.”
I did — and truth in advertising, I enjoyed him precisely because he’d been my hero Clint Eastwood’s aide-de-camp for so many years. It never occurred to me to ask why he and Clint weren’t working anymore. (Just as it never occurred to me to ask why Sondra Locke, Clint’s longtime paramour, would be hitting on me and/or my girlfriend Cyndy’s client William L. Petersen, at the same time!)
Turns out that Clint tends to go through housecleanings every so often — and Fritz and Sondra (who later sued Clint) had been swept up in it. That was nevermind to me — I was a huge Eastwood fan, long before “The Unforgiven,” the awards and the acclaim. In fact, the last cover I’d worked on at Newsweek prior to leaving for Disney was on Clint with legendary critic David Ansen.
Within weeks, Fritz had us flying to Washington, D.C., to meet with the Marine Corps. (There’s a nice picture of us at one of those “foggy bottom” hotels in D.C.)
By the time we were done, he’d worked his Corps magic (“Once a Marine; always a Marine”) and we were winging our way to the West Coast headquarters of the Marines’ legendary “Black Sheep” squadron (remember the Robert Conrad fighter’ series of years ago?) There I got to meet an equally legendary Marine aviator, Lt. Col. Russ Stromberg, the only man ever have been selected to lead the “Black Sheep” twice!
Fritz was good to his word — within weeks, the Marines had instructed McDonnell-Douglas, the American contractor for the British Harrier, to forward us the blueprints so we could begin production immediately. Studio head Dawn Steel, who had overseen “Top Gun,” got personally involved and she and I came up with the idea of having a Harrier pick up 10 Pizza Hut pizzas from the backlot at Columbia to deliver to the refugees (a scene from the script)—and the Marines agreed!
Unfortunately, between his good work and the start of production, a little Japanese company Sony managed to take over Columbia Pictures. What’s the first thing a new boss does? Get rid of the old projects. So, even though we’d spent the aforementioned $1.5 million in Thailand (the village our Harriers would blow up via special effects), they didn’t care.
Despite losing, according to reports, more than $2 billion on the takeover, “little” movie was cannon fodderl. Dawn had pushed it, Nathanson never gave a crap and the Japanese just wanted out. Actually, they let us hang till they fired Dawn, but Fritz and I knew what was up.
There was another meeting after the Japanese decided to write off the $1.5 million — and that was between Rick Bieber, Michael Nathanson and myself on the eve of the first Gulf War. “Hell,” pronounced Nathanson, “the damn planes probably won’t work anyway, so we’re better off not investing in the movie!”
Of course, not only were the Harriers the stars of Desert Storm (the first strikes were led by them), but on the way over they happened to use their vertical takeoff-and-landing capability to rescue refugees in West Africa. But, as Fritz would say, who cares about the Marines? Except a “minor” director (as Nathonson called him!) named James Cameron.
With Sony swinging us in the breeze, Fritz and I approached Cameron and showed him a video that Cyndy and I had produced about the Harrier. For about “30 seconds he was our director, until Nathanson killed the whole project. I didn’t think much more of it until, half-a-dozen years later when Cameron made a huge hit film for Fox with Arnold Schwarzeneggar called “True Lies.” The star of the movie? The hovering jump jet that Arnold flies to rescue his daughter, Eliza Dushku.
True truth: To this day, if I call Gary Martin at Columbia, he’ll always ask me why I didn’t get 5 percent of “True Lies” for teaching Cameron about the Harrier. But, heck, then I’d have to give Fritz 2.5 percent — and by the time Cameron ever paid up, well, it’d be the 12th of never.
So enjoy your rest Fritz. We remember what you did, even if the L.A. Times doesn’t.