Back in the early ’70s, a 21-year-old came to producer Jack L. Harris with his first feature film, made in 12 days. The novice director had worked on more than 70 movies but this was his own and he put his life savings, plus a borrowed $30,000, into it. Harris screened the film and liked it. But at 87 minutes, he deemed it too short and offered some story ideas. With $10,000 from Harris, an additional day’s shooting and three new scenes added, Harris had a new property to shop: John Landis’ “Schlock.”
“Jack’s a classic Hollywood type and one of the great movie mavericks,” Landis says of Harris, who’s being honored Feb. 4 with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. “He put ‘Schlock’ out but it wasn’t until years later that I learned how much money it made.
“I was in Italy, showing ‘Animal House,’ when they told me that ‘Schlock’ had won the Asteroide d’Oro award at the Trieste Science Fiction Film Festival. I’ve won a lot of awards over the years, but that one is the only one I have on display because it’s so meaningful to me.”
Harris, best known as the producer of “The Blob” (1958), is an old-school movie mogul. The 95-year-old has marketed, distributed, produced, directed and written more movies than anyone has accurately tallied.
But it was “The Blob,” his moviemaking debut, that underscored the qualities that would mark Harris’ career: gut instincts and hard-won experience that taught him how to give the public what it wants. The B-movie smash marked Steve McQueen’s first starring role, as a teenager who battled an undulating, man-eating mass from a crashed asteroid. Harris persuaded a sleepy Christian-themed film company in Pennsylvania to put its trained technicians to work on the movie, which was shot in three weeks at a cost of $110,000. Composer Ralph Carmichael wrote the score and a young Burt Bacharach penned the theme.
Harris landed a distribution deal with Paramount, opening for “I Married a Monster From Outer Space.” “The Blob” grossed more than $3 million. It spawned a sequel (“Beware! The Blob” in ’72), and a remake in ’88. Harris has never revealed how the sticky red ooze was made, but that’s part of the fun and lore of his colorful legacy, just like his Hitchcockian cameos in his own movies.
Call him a B-movie maven, a huckster, an exploitation king or a schlockmeister, but Harris has made millions, and given work to countless film people. Many of them went on to greater glory, like Landis and five-time Oscar-winner and special effects creator Dennis Muren, whose first film credit, “Equinox” (1970), was a Harris production.
Harris’ entry into show business was dancing on the vaudeville stage as a child. After working as a theater usher, he ascended to movie publicity, before opening his own office. From there he moved into distribution, the bare-knuckles trade of promoting and supplying movies to theater owners, and then collecting on them. Before “The Blob,” Harris had distributed over a thousand movies. Tired of selling poor-quality films, he had the know-how and vision to produce, direct or write his own, and then get the movies to their audiences.
Larry Cohen was a prolific screenwriter who sought out Harris for a movie that he’d already shot, a sardonic meditation on interracial sex that he called “Bone,” with Yaphet Kotto and Joyce Van Patten. The movie had been shown but didn’t do well. When Harris refashioned it into “Housewife,” “the blackest black comedy of the year,” it latched onto the early ’70s wave of blaxploitation movies.
“Jack’s a showman,” Cohen says emphatically. “He was always independent, with only his instincts to guide him. He was a smaller scale version of L.B. Mayer or Samuel Goldwyn — he called all the shots.”