Learning not to kid a kidder

It took two wily Hungarians to finally turn the tables on inveterate practical joker Richard Donner, otherwise known as the clown prince of one-upmanship. But first, a few examples of Dickfoolery:

Screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz’s shoes were hurting his feet as he and Donner scouted Manhattan locations in 1977 for the first “Superman” picture. “I found myself in front of Florsheim’s in Times Square,” Mankiewicz says.

“And we were ready to go to lunch. I said to Dick, ‘Go on ahead, I need to get a pair of shoes.’ And he said, ‘You’re not going to buy Florsheims, are you?’

“I said, ‘Dick, my feet hurt. I need some shoes.’ And he put up this fuss. I finally said, ‘I’ll see you at lunch.’ I get to the restaurant and the waiter comes up and says, ‘By the way, are those Florsheims?’ And I said, ‘Why, yes.’ Then later at the hotel, the elevator operator says, ‘Oh, are those Florsheims?’ And then it dawned on me.

“He had called ahead. And this went on through the whole picture for months. He will go to great lengths for any kind of joke. Months later, we’re on a soundstage with Marlon Brando, getting ready to shoot. And Brando’s looking at the script and he’s mumbling and grumbling. And this goes on for a bit.

“I’m getting embarrassed. Here’s Brando, displeased with my script and he’s grumbling around. And suddenly, Brando looks down and says, ‘Are those Florsheims?’ ”

Donner tries to pull fast ones on every picture, cast and crew members say. But he messed around with the wrong Hungarians too many times. Laszlo Kovacs and Vilmos Zsigmond both are Hungarian-born, speak with accents, are noted for highly stylized approaches to their craft and for confusing even film buffs as to which pictures which one of them shot. Kovacs shot “Inside Moves,” “The Toy” and “Radio Flyer” for Donner. Zsigmond lensed Donner’s “Maverick” and “Assassins.”

“Dick kept calling Laszlo ‘Vilmos’ on one picture and Laszlo didn’t correct him,” Zsigmond recalls. “Finally, the AD went to Dick and said, ‘This is Laszlo Kovacs.’ And Dick roared, ‘God! They gave me the wrong Hungarian!’ ”

On the set of “Inside Moves,” Zsigmond visited Kovacs on the set and Donner secretly had T-shirts printed up for them. He presented Zsigmond with one that said, “My name is not Laszlo,” and Kovacs’ read, “My name is not Vilmos.”

“Later, we exchanged shirts and confused everybody,” Kovacs says. But the coup de grace for the Hungarians came on the Lone Pine set of “Maverick.” Zsigmond and Kovacs planned ahead and had gotten the cooperation of Mel Gibson and the rest of the cast and crew.

Kovacs then sneaked onto the set and donned Zsigmond’s familiar boots and hat and other clothes for a scene with Gibson and some rattlesnakes, to be done with mechanized snakes. With Kovacs’ back to the camera and Zsigmond out of view, the call was made for Donner to come to the set.

“His voice booms, you hear him for miles,” Kovacs says. “I’m standing with my back to him in the scene, complaining about the mechanical snakes. He says, ‘Come on! Let’s go, Vilmos!’ I say, ‘Dick, something is wrong here with these snakes.’ He’s getting frustrated. Then I turned around.

“His mouth fell open and there was such a look on his face I’ve never seen before. And he laughed and laughed and laughed, and everybody laughed. “He likes to top everybody’s joke, but we finally got him.”

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