Thursday 21 August 2014

Brian G. Hutton, 79, Director of Where Eagles Dare and Kelly's Heroes - A Tribute

I was going to put a small tribute together, but my friend Lee Pfeiffer did such a wonderful job, I’ve reproduced it here. Thanks Lee.

It is with profound sadness that we must announce the passing of director Brian G. Hutton, a long-time friend of and contributor to Cinema Retro. Brian was one of the most unique talents in the film business. Born in New York City, he never lost his hard-scrabble, irascible attitude which extended to resenting having to take orders from the studio "suits" who employed him. He walked away from a great and lucrative career in the industry decades ago and kept out of the public eye, granting precious few interviews in the intervening decades. He remains primarily known for his two big budget WWII MGM films, "Where Eagles Dare" and "Kelly's Heroes", both starring Clint Eastwood. The films were difficult to make and the latter resulted in a major conflict with Hutton and Eastwood and MGM when the studio exercised its rights to dramatically cut the film prior to its release. Hutton also made a number of lesser-known films but each of them proved to be enduring and worthy of praise.

When Cinema Retro was preparing its first Movie Classics edition devoted entirely to "Where Eagles Dare" in 2009, we made every effort to contact Hutton for an interview, but we were unsuccessful. However, shortly after the issue appeared, I was startled to receive a phone call from a gentleman named Bill Tasgal who said he was sitting in a coffee shop in L.A. with his friend Brian Hutton and they were both perusing the Where Eagles Dare issue. He said Hutton wanted to speak with me. A few seconds later an unmistakably New York accent growled, “Is this Lee Pfeiffer?” When I said it was, he said “I’m looking at your magazine and I’m going to sue you for using such an ugly photo of me!” To which I replied, “As a director, you should know the camera never lies!” So began a friendship that saw Brian contribute extensively to our Movie Classics Kelly's Heroes issue as well as our revised updated edition of the Eagles Dare issue that was published in 2012.

Last October, Dave Worrall and I travelled to L.A. to finally meet Brian in the flesh. We managed to arrange a wonderful lunch date that saw him reunited with his old friend, director John Landis, who Brian gave a break to when he hired John as a "go for" on Kelly's Heroes. Brian saw great promise in the young film enthusiast and, of course, Landis made good on the faith shown in him by becoming an internationally respected director himself. Over lunch, we were privileged to hear some amazing and truly hilarious stories about their adventures filming in Yugoslavia (not all of them are suitable for publication). It was a wonderful day in every respect.

Brian Hutton suffered a heart attack a couple of weeks ago and struggled valiantly against the odds. An original tough guy, he managed to hang in there a lot longer than anyone would have predicted but finally the battle was lost. He is survived by his loving wife Victoria and his devoted friend and colleague, Bill Tasgal, who was played a crucial role in making Brian's later years so rewarding and enjoyable.  However, Brian had many other "friends" that he never knew personally- namely, everyone who ever saw one of his films. Although he was loathe to lavish praise on his own work, he was very grateful to the loyal fans who kept his films in the spotlight long after he went into self-imposed retirement. He was particularly moved by the fact that so many people around the globe held Where Eagles Dare and Kelly's Heroes in such esteem. He was always lavish in his praise of Clint Eastwood, with whom he continued to maintain a close friendship over the decades.

Brian G. Hutton remained an enigma among successful directors who came to prominence in the 1960s. Despite a promising career, Hutton was to go into self-imposed exile, retiring from the motion picture business altogether. Hutton started off as an aspiring actor and landed supporting roles in major TV series such as Rawhide, Wagon Train, Perry Mason, Have Gun, Will Travel, Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Rifleman. He also had small roles in theatrical features such as The Interns, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, Fear Strikes Out, Last Train From Gun Hill and King Creole. However, by 1965, Hutton was more enamoured of trying his hand at directing. His first effort was the little-seen Wild Seed which was made for Marlon Brando’s Pennebaker Productions and released through Universal in 1965. The film starred Celia Kaye as a 17 year-old runaway in search of her biological father. She is befriended and protected by a young drifter (Michael Parks) whom she meets during her journey. Among the top craftsmen who worked on the movie were cinematographer Conrad Hall and cameraman William A. Fraker. The film didn’t get much attention from either critics or the public, but Hutton displayed competence behind the camera and this afforded him other opportunities.

Hutton’s follow-up effort, again for Universal, was far more successful: The Pad (and How to Use It), produced by Ross Hunter.. This was a hip, sexually provocative comedy about a swinging bachelor. Starring Brian Bedford, Julie Sommars and James Farantino, the film boasted a screenplay by Peter Shaffer, who would go on to write the plays Equus and Amadeus. Released in 1966, the film was a hit with critics and Hutton was deemed an “up-and-coming” hot property. In 1967, Hutton began a working relationship with established producer Elliott Kastner when he directed the thriller Sol Madrid. The film’s marketing campaign was bungled by MGM and the movie never made much of an impact with audiences or critics. However, Hutton turned out a reasonably suspenseful, highly entertaining film that allowed him to work with a cast of big name actors including David McCallum, Stella Stevens and Telly Savalas. Although the film wasn’t a notable box-office hit, Kastner saw great potential in Hutton, who had come from the same New York neighbourhood he had grown up in.

Where Eagles Dare, a big budget WWII film was a project initiated by Richard Burton, who had promised his sons that he would star in an old-fashioned, rip-roaring action movie. Getting Burton to approve of the relatively young director with a thin resume was not easy but Elliott Kastner was undeterred. He would later say, “I persevered. I said ‘Brian Hutton had a lamp in his gut like a beacon: just put him in a room and Flash! Sparks on the screen!’”. Hutton recalled that key selling point in getting Burton to approve him was his ethnic background. In a 1994 phone interview with writer Phil Masheter: “I was brought into it because I am of Welsh descent – my parents were Welsh – and he was a Welshman. I speak a little Welsh. He and I used to sing Welsh songs together; he used to laugh because my Welsh was actually very bad!” It was Hutton who suggested that Clint Eastwood be signed as Burton’s co-star. Considering the major logistics of making the film, Burton and MGM had every reason to be concerned whether the young director could handle the challenge. Yet, Hutton came through with flying colours, managing not only the action on screen, but keeping Burton disciplined enough to not allow his drinking habits to negatively affect the production – something that had occurred a few years before on The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. On that film, even veteran director Martin Ritt could not keep Burton’s excesses in check and the two ended up not speaking to one another off the set. The film proved to be a smash hit and Hutton was suddenly as in-demand as any other hot director.
His next film, Kelly’s Heroes (shot under the title The Warriors) reunited him with Clint Eastwood in another big budget, large-scale WWII film. Hutton would later tell Phil Masheter, ““I did that [Kelly’s Heroes] with Clint too, who I must say was very gracious. They wanted Clint for the picture and since I brought him into Eagles he brought me into Kelly’s. And that was all nice.” Hutton brought some of his crew from Where Eagles Dare onto the new film, including Alf Joint, Dennis Fraser, H.A.R. Thomson, Jonathan Bates, and John Jympson. He also hired a young aspiring director named John Landis to handle the second unit. However, the film’s post-production period was a nightmare.. Eastwood and Hutton protested against MGM chief James Aubrey’s decision to drastically cut the film, thus removing many pivotal expository scenes that were deemed essential to character development. Although the film was a major hit, Eastwood protested by never making another film for the studio again. 
Hutton recalled where his career went after this, telling Masheter, “And then I did a couple of pictures with Elizabeth Taylor ( X,Y and Zee (aka Zee and Co) and Nightwatch) and then I quit. It wasn’t something I wanted to do to begin with – not my life’s work. I just fell into the whole thing like birdshit out of the sky hits your fucking hand. And in 1972, when I finished the second Elizabeth Taylor picture, I thought, ‘Well, what am I wasting my life doing this for?’ I mean, a gorilla could have made those movies: Elizabeth Taylor does what she’s got to do and Laurence Harvey does what he’s got to do. It was good fun, but all I had to do was yell ‘Action’ and ‘Cut-Print’ because everybody was doing what they had to do anyway. It was a play and I’m a fucking gorilla sitting there saying, ‘How was that for everybody? Fine, okay, let’s go somewhere else and do something else.’ So I stopped at that time.”

Indeed, Hutton would not make another film for seven years. In 1980, he reunited with Elliott Kastner to bring author Lawrence Sanders’ best-selling thriller The First Deadly Sin to the screen. The film was primarily distinguished by providing Frank Sinatra with his final leading role in a motion picture, though it was not a box-office hit. His final film to date was the 1983 Tom Selleck adventure High Road to China, which was a moderate success. By this point, he was happy being far removed from the motion picture industry.
Recalling his experience on Where Eagles Dare, Hutton told Phil Masheter, “I’ve got to tell you, I look at it and I think to myself, ‘Gee, I wonder who did that?’ It’s so far removed now that I can’t remember doing it and I’ve seen it so many times and there are so many cock-ups in the picture – it’s always enjoyable. And then after that, of course, I got offers to make fifty other action pictures, but I didn’t want to make any. I made two, and that was enough.”

Despite Hutton’s penchant for self-deprecation, his work on Where Eagles Dare and Kelly’s Heroes has earned him a place in Hollywood history. He proved that a young, relatively untested director could meet the challenge of bringing major action epics to the screen – and seeing their popularity only increase over the decades. Brian G. Hutton did not miss the motion picture industry, but the industry certainly missed him.