Sam Fuller might have cackled, sucked on his cigar and enjoyed the action. But he would have wanted to be the one telling the stories.
When a few hundred of Fuller’s friends and colleagues gathered Saturday morning at the Directors Guild of America to honor the late writer and director, who died Oct. 30, the tales came thick and fast, full of affection and even amazement. There were stories about his legendary gruffness, his instantaneous casting decisions, his fondness for guns and stogies, his brave filmed forays into the delicate territories of racial prejudice and marital madness. Time and again, however, Fuller’s eulogists came back to his irrepressible need to spin a tale, of buttonholing his listeners to the point of exhausting them.
There was a recurring lament about what an unsung genius Fuller was, but no auditorium would have been filled with so many well-known names for someone who had not made an indelible mark.
“People who say he carried a loaded gun were wrong — it was a cannon,” said Gene Barry, who starred in “China Gate” (1957), one of Fuller’s few commercially successful films. Barry was alluding to the most notorious of Fuller’s eccentricities — that instead of shouting “Action!” at the beginning of a take, he would sometimes fire a pistol. Barry also told the story of how he was once having trouble with a line and appealed to his director for help. Fuller advised him to consult with the screenwriter.
“But Sam, you’re the writer,” Barry recalled saying.
“Well, you’d better speak to the producer,” Fuller replied.
Barry, exasperated, said, “But you’re the producer, too, Sam.”
With a mischievous grin, Fuller concluded, “Well, you’re screwed, aren’t ya?”
“Except he didn’t use the word ‘screwed,'” Barry told the DGA audience.
Neyle Morrow, who made a dozen films with Fuller, said that when the director started scenes in the Korean War picture “Fixed Bayonets” (1951) by firing a gun, “it gave Sam the startled effect and the frightened effect that he wanted for us, going through the experience of that war.”
Robert Stack remembered speaking with Fuller in the 1940s about a part in a movie that was to be shot in Japan. “Promise me you won’t,” Fuller commanded.
“Won’t what?” Stack asked.
“Won’t act,” Fuller replied. “With my direction, you won’t have to.”
Stack admitted he was baffled. “But after a couple of days, I knew exactly what he was talking about,” the actor said, to knowing laughter. Fuller did not take kindly to improvisation from actors; they did what they were told.
The three-hour tribute — perhaps the attendees were getting back at Fuller for all the hours they’d listened to him — was interspersed with clips from some of his movies, including “The Big Red One,” “China Gate,” “Crimson Kimono,” “Forty Guns,” “Naked Kiss,” “Park Row,” “Pickup on South Street” and “Shock Corridor.”
“He was probably the first director-hero I’d ever had a chance to meet,” said Quentin Tarantino, recalling the Avignon Film Festival at which the young director premiered “Reservoir Dogs.” Fuller asked Tarantino about his movie, and when informed that Harvey Keitel was in it, the old man exploded: “Harvey Keitel! Who are you to make your first picture with Harvey Keitel! He’s not a star — he’s a planet!”
Peter Bogdanovich, who optioned and produced Fuller’s opus “The Big Red One” (1980), said that as a fledgling writer in 1964 he got some advice from Fuller about how to put together a movie: “When you’re writing a script, never worry about money. Save your money for the finish, kid.” Fuller also told Bogdanovich that it’s hard to get rich on a movie, and that the studios don’t make it any easier.
“They’ve got to make so much money that finally they give you some!” Fuller reportedly said. “They’re embarrassed!”
Another fellow director, Walter Hill, said Fuller “turned the art of conversation into a series of explosions.”
“I think it’s safe to say his creative angels were dark,” Hill added. Actor Tim Robbins, who produced a documentary on Fuller’s life, seemed to agree, but put it in a more positive light.
“Sam had heart — it beat through his eyes,” Robbins said. “His films beat us to our senses.”