SAMUEL FULLER, WHO DIED on Oct. 30 at the age of 86, and will be honored at the Directors Guild of America tomorrow, was the first film director I got to know well, and one of the last of the great, tough originals who at one time typified the profession.
When I met Sam and his wife Christa at “the shack” on Woodrow Wilson Drive in the early ’70s, Sam was in the middle of a long fallow period of virtual unemployability, several years before he finally managed to realize his lifelong dream project, “The Big Red One.” Sam, who was without doubt the most intense and ferocious storyteller in town, routinely and obsessively would corner visitors and friendly buffs, often grabbing them by the shirt or the arm, and relate to them long sections of the autobiographical World War II story he so dearly wanted to put on the screen.
So often, I felt, much of the great military detail he invested in the tale was lost on the Vietnam-era anti-military-minded types to whom he addressed himself. But at least one time it was not so.
At a point when I had heard Sam recite the entirety of “The Big Red One” at least twice, my Chicago businessman father came out for a first-hand look at how his son was getting on in Hollywood. Skeptical at best and dismissive at worst of the film industry, he didn’t have the first inkling of what could attract anyone to a life in the movies, of the hard work that went into making them or of the sorts of people responsible for them.
ON A BEAUTIFUL AUTUMN Saturday morning, I decided to take him for a drive around town, into the hills and up along Mulholland. At Laurel Canyon, I made the right onto Woodrow Wilson and wound around until we approached Sam’s house, where whom should I see standing out in the street, collecting the mail with cigar in hand, but Sam himself.
When I quickly pulled into the driveway and hailed Sam, he responded with the usual, “Hello, my boy.” Introducing my father, I carefully added that he was a World War II vet himself, whereupon they — or should I say, Sam — started yakking, while I was paged inside by Christa for coffee.
At least 90 minutes, or perhaps two hours, later, we decided we’d better check on Sam and my father. As we approached the end of the driveway, I could hear Sam reciting what I knew to be the final scene of “The Big Red One.” Five minutes after meeting my father — mail in one hand, cigar in the other — Sam had launched into a complete retelling of the script, and for once he had an audience who could appreciate its every last military nuance.
Needless to say, my father was bowled over by Sam. As soon as we drove away, my father said, “If he’s what a movie director is like, then it’s OK with me.” So I have Sam to thank for my father at least partially beginning to understand, and approve of, what drew me to the film world.
Sam was, truly, one of the last of the indestructibles, one of the so-called tough guys who represented, for a period that roughly embraced the 1940s to the 1960s, the macho image of Hollywood film directors — John Huston, Howard Hawks, John Ford, Richard Brooks, Budd Boetticher, Henry Hathaway, Nicholas Ray, Sam Peckinpah.
Notoriously, Sam was known for firing a gun to signal “Action,” and during the politically polarized periods of the ’50s and ’60s, he managed to offend both the left and right with his non-conformist views, which I believe can only be described as anarchist libertarian.
INEXHAUSTIBLY CREATIVE, Sam probably had a bigger backlog of unproduced scripts and stories than anyone else in town, and even into his 80s he could outlast any interlocutor or dinner companion, carrying on virtual monologues of storytelling for hours into the night.
Sam also became a hero to many young directors, American and foreign, beginning, I suppose, with Jean-Luc Godard, who immortalized him onscreen in “Pierrot le Fou,” and continuing with Dennis Hopper, Steven Spielberg and Wim Wenders, among many others, for whom Sam represented something uniquely American — brash, uncompromising, smart, creative and resilient, the epitome of the generation that won World War II.
Years ago, I spoke with Wenders about Sam and men of his ilk, who incessantly smoked, drank, caroused until all hours, worked like hell and still managed to live into their 80s, and wondered aloud how they managed to do it. Wim thought about it for a minute and finally said, “They were all born before the surgeon general.”