An inability to lock up rights to portray Dee's ex-husband Bobby Darin deep-sixed the ABC project about the troubled former ingenue
When it broke as a People magazine cover story, it should have been a slam dunk at all three networks. But only ABC showed interest in making a two-hour movie of the week from "Look at Me, It's Sandra Dee," the cover story revealing Sandra Dee's miserable Hollywood life.
Allen Sabinson, the ABC movie boss, was enthused. "I also love the idea of finally being able to depict Bobby Darin, and I want you to see about getting synch rights for some of his hit songs. You know there are at least two major features competing to get a Bobby Darin story made, and I can win this battle by doing it from Sandra Dee's point of view. Incredible."
I had special interest, as I first met Dee's former husband when at age 11, visiting the Popham Avenue, Bronx home of my cousin David. His best friend was this 18-year-old singer-drummer-comic Walden Cassatto who worked as a double act in the Catskills with my trumpeter cousin.
I thought he looked like Huntz Hall from the "Dead End Kids" and I told him so. I should say triple act as their third responsibility was waiting on tables.
Yes, Walden briefly became Bobby Walden, and then Bobby Darin, but that's another tale yet to be told.
So Darin was not only a family friend, but a lifelong hero. We met again a year later at "American Bandstand," and again in Philly, backstage at the Orpheum Theater, Jim Warren's "Rock and Shock Spooktacular" (where he was on the bottom of the bill), and again when I turned 14 and a regular on "Hy Lit's Block Party" on WCAU-TV the summer of '58.
He even married the tiny blonde all Jewish boys lusted after. Did she ever have a story to tell!
She was madly in love with Darin, with his manic personality, incredible talent and magical humor, but there were also spurts of abuse as she became madly in love with booze as well. Bobby could not resist the availability and aggression of gorgeous women, not groupies who he disdained, but famous stars who were older, glamorous and appealing to the kid from the Bronx streets who threw themselves at him (and boy did he ever "catch").
So Darin and Dee split. She did not respond well, becoming one of the first agoraphobic personalities, locked in her little home — anorexic, alcoholic and clinically depressed. Bouts of alcoholism destroyed her health and there were days when her son, Dodd, found her on the floor, 76 pounds soaking wet. She was actually not in great shape when I attempted to track her down.
I got instead the presence of Steve Blauner.
Blauner had been a major and feared force in '60's and '70's music and television. A partner in BBS, whose management clients included Nat Cole, George Burns, Jack Nicholson, Peggy Lee, Dennis Hopper as well as Sammy Davis and Darin. But now, in 1991, he was a self-described "dinosaur" at 56, off the radar and forgotten. He was managing Sandra Dee out of memory of Bobby.
The most unforgettable trait of Blauner is how he revolutionized the image of the manager in Hollywood. He was the first and original "screamer." He screamed at everyone, his partners, his assistants, other performers not handled by him, journalists and especially agents.
Inspired by screamers in the military (or was it General Artists Agency), he believed that was the only way he could protect his clients, and especially Darin with the heart murmur. As his clients enjoyed greater success, younger managers adopted Blauner's battering style using obscenities and death threats. The screaming, irrational, abusive "talent manager" evolved into an industry cliche. Many of them died young.
I learned early that each day we totally controlled how that day would turn out — urgency, crisis, misery or joy. Each of us set the mood and ambience of our office environment. In my two decades with the agency, I would never deal with a screamer.
But Steve was now very mellow and happy to discuss the early Darin. There was a question I had for decades about the Bobby I remembered hanging with me at Hy Lit's show that no one seemed to know the answer. Dick Clark, a close Darin friend, didn't know. Agents who claimed to know him well didn't know. Did Blauner know?
When Bobby came over to me to look at the cuffs on the sleeves of my Bar Mitzvah suit (a very unusual design choice) I saw his hands closeup, and they were red, raw — cut and sliced like he had been in a gang fight with knife wielding assailants.
"What was I seeing?" I asked the closest man in the world to Darin.
Blauner immediately said, "Bobby had psoriasis and it was especially bad in his hands. What a memory, Axelman, you were what, 11? No, 14."
I had given the People story to a young and wildly ambitious producer Stan Brooks, who saw the merits and said he was in.
I told Blauner of Brooks and that he would also be some kind of producer and that ABC had interest, but the exec there, our friend Sabinson, wanted to see what she looks like.
Can we set a date?
"No," she won't go into a network for a meeting.
He has to see her somewhere else. I suppose I could set a lunch or dinner. Then, something hit me: Down the block was the Canon Theater. It had been presenting A.J. Gurney's "Love Letters" for months, alternating stars. A great gig for an actor, all you had to do was read, not memorize, so the names from film and TV were overflowing.
"This is the perfect venue for Sandra Dee as she only has to sit in a chair and read."
It was obvious to me.
"We sell it to them with Sandra and Troy Donahue." They were the romantic teenage stars of Universal's "A Summer Place" the 1959 "Twilight."
"Great idea, but I'm going to need her therapist's approval for her to expose herself."
"Get it. ABC wants to do it but Allen Sabinson needs to see her in the flesh."
Steve casually added "… and if it goes well you get your office to sign her for more work …"
ABC also needed the synch rights for at least two songs identified to Darin and the ability to depict his story. These, I was told, were tied up with a guy in partnership with Barry Levinson. I was unsure they could ever be delivered but I thought Sandy's story alone would be enough for Allen and ABC.
I couldn't wait for the shrink's OK — I called Susan Dietz who brilliantly ran the Canon Theater for an eternity and pitched my idea. She absolutely screamed with delight.
"Perfect. You really have her? I was told you'd have better luck getting Garbo. And I hear Troy Donahue looks wonderful. Here's your week."
She gave me a date in June.
"If it overflows we might want to extend an additional week or more! Exciting."
Now I had to track down Donahue. What if he didn't want to do it? I found his agent who got very excited when I mentioned the interest and offer. She said she would call back after she spoke to him. He lived in Topanga and was a full time carpenter.
She called back at the end of the day.
"It was an emotional call. He always had a crush on Sandy. And he was dying to work. I must tell you on the Q.T….. he cried … he was so excited."
I told her I would get back with full details and firm offer.
I broke the news to Blauner. He calmly stated: "She loves the 'Love Letters' idea, however, she does not want Troy Donahue. James Darren, George Hamilton, Cliff Robertson …." he mentioned several other names.
I checked them all out. They all passed. One name, John Saxon, wanted very much to do the gig. She rejected him. Meanwhile Canon's theater was getting antsy.
"It's Dee and Saxon or let's forget it" was the message.
I conveyed it to Blauner who said: "Let's do it. I will take care of Sandy."
Andrea and I had dinner before the opening night, which was rare for me. It was never restful. I worried for Dee to (a) show up (b) be able to get through the show and (c) sell it to an audience.
She did all and did it very well. Saxon, who had been playing villains for the past 20 years, was warm and funny and the audience liked him. Dee looked fabulous. If you didn't know the truth you would think she had had a great life.
I didn't feel well enough to visit backstage, a mistake I regretted as ABC had sent a group and she was, I was told, overwhelmed.
In the office, Allen called me and said, "She was fine, but I'm having trouble getting Stoddard to see the picture. Yes I know it's the perfect followup to "Call Me Anna," but I need his blessing on this one.
"And you can't get me Darin's synch and life rights, what are we going to do, call him Arty Axelman?"
Ultimately ABC was out. I had to break the news to Steve Blauner. Also the office's talent department had no interest in signing Dee. This gave him the perfect opportunity to resuscitate the old screaming manager. OK, I got what I may well have deserved. I couldn't deliver what Allen said he most needed, and I couldn't deliver what Blauner was promised. But I didn't deserve what Dodd Darin (or his ghost) wrote in his bio of his parents, Dream Lovers.
"Meanwhile, John Saxon had a big idea. A two person play called Love Letters. John Saxon called my mother's agent and, in a short time, the two of them signed to do the show." Really?
Which only goes to demonstrate that you should never believe anything, not a word, written in a biography or non-fiction book.
As for the race to get a Darin-Dee picture made, there were indeed at least two Bobby Darin features competing, Kevin Spacey's and Barry Levinson's. Spacey got German financing and, in 2004, "Beyond the Sea," with Spacey directing and starring, was released.
Fanatical devotion over many years that compels the making of an artist's life story is that vocal uniqueness that makes the artist like no one else. Why then substitute an impressionist's interpretation of his performing gifts with an actor many years past the age of Darin's brief life?
Blauner and Dodd Darin had sold out to get any movie made and we didn't even get to hear the real Bobby Cassatto.