“It scared the s–t out of me, when Frank Sinatra announced that there would be no autobiography of his life.
The television show would be it,” recalls William Mastrosimone, the playwright credited with the script of CBS’s five-hour miniseries.
The motivation behind “Sinatra” is beyond argument. Great forests had already been chopped down to supply the paper pulp for the newsprint, magazines articles and unauthorized biographies exploiting the Sinatra story.
Now in the autumn of his life, Sinatra wanted to tell it his way. But a literary biography would exclude the most important element, the very essence of his magic, the key to it all–his music.
Yet the script dramatizes all the controversy of Sinatra’s life–the adulterous affairs, the brawls with the press, his associations with mobsters.
“We always strove for beyond accuracy to absolute, ironclad truth,” insists Sinatra’s daughter Tina. She is executive producer of the miniseries, which airs Sunday, 8 to 11 p.m., and Tuesday, 9 to 11 p.m. on CBS, and she has been de-veloping the project since 1984.
Mastrosimone and Tina spent hours with Sinatra. “We got to the bottom of things. He answered all my questions,” says the writer.
“But it was the magnitude of what we discussed. Sometimes, if the subject was painful, he was very succinct. For instance, when I asked him about his suicide attempt, he got very pensive. Then he said, ‘I did not want to die; I only wanted the pain to go away.’ You could hear the semicolon in his voice. This work came from him; I was only the secretary, the vessel.”
Mastrosimone has written the plays “Extremities” and “The Beast,” in addition to screenplays. “They hired a dramatist, because it was a character piece. Also, I’m from New Jersey and from a Sicilian background.”
“Tina was absolutely indispensable,” Mastrosimone notes. “She dogged him. She’d read what I’d written and say, ‘You’re creating a monument. I can hear the marble being set up.’ We wanted it to be as hard as if Kitty Kelley had written it.” Each scene was documented with two sources. “If we only had one, we cut it.”
Under the Freedom of Information Act, the writer and Sinatra’s attorney, Mickey Rudin, went through the FBI files, including wire taps on Chicago mob boss Sam Giancana, the source for a scene in which killing Sinatra as a lesson to President Kennedy is discussed.
“I wanted to know the truth,” Mastrosimone states. “This was not a jazz composition, where I did a riff on my imagination.”
By the time “Sinatra” airs, Tina Sinatra will have been working on the project for eight years. Before that, there had been a theatrical movie in the works for four or five years.
“It didn’t work out for all very valid reasons,” remembers Tina. “I just hinted that maybe he should think about television. He knew what miniseries were , and he thought that was a very good idea. ‘Yeah, I could have more hours.”‘
Oscar and Emmy-winner Abbey Mann was the first writer on the project.
Sinatra read each of the many drafts of the script. “He never had much to say about them,” Tina recalls. “But his comments were always consistent. He was interested in where I had gotten certain information, because he knew he wasnot the source.
“An instance was a story about my mother and their early marriage. He said, ‘I didn’t tell you that, did I?’ I said, ‘No, Mom did.’ He was kind of surprised and said, ‘Oh, okay.”‘
Except for being the key source material, Sinatra kept his hands off the production. “It was important from his point of view and for how I work that he not have any part in it.”
The director, James Sadwith, and the actor who plays Sinatra, Philip Casnoff, only met with Sinatra once and for a few minutes during a publicity shot. “I shook his hand, and we exchanged maybe four words, and that was it,” recalls Sadwith.
“I figured I’d be spending a long period of time with the guy, getting into his head, understanding who he is, but I had to work from the script.”
And Tina Sinatra. “She was so fixed on detail. We had a scene where Philip just had to get out of bed and answer the door. We had already shot a take. And she said he would never get up without putting his slippers on. I wasn’t even sure if the slippers were in the shot or not. But we had to get slippers. Amazing details like that. But I’ve got to tell you when you’re shooting on a TV movie schedule, they really wear a little thin.”
Sadwith’s previous TV movie credits include Emmy-nominated “Baby M,” which he also wrote, and “In Broad Daylight.”
When he was being interviewed for the assignment, he told Tina that he did not want to make a glitzy tribute to Ol’ Blue Eyes. He wanted to make a film more like “Raging Bull” than “The Jolson Story.””I had to lay down very strongly the only way I was willing to make the picture, within the constraints of TV.”
And yet now Sadwith regrets that they did not have more about Sinatra’s loyalty to his friends and his generosity and charity work.
“I feel we didn’t get into any of that. That’s not drama. This wasn’t meant to be an ode. And yet you feel bad. We presented a very complex guy, who comes off being a bastard, but a remarkable one.
“Coming into the project, I would have never said this, but having learned so much about the guy, I regret that you can’t tell all that good stuff and still have a drama.”
Spans 50 years
The five-hour, $ 18.5-million production covers 50 years, from Sinatra’s Hoboken boyhood in 1925 to 1974, his Madison Square Garden concert when he ends his “retirement.”
“It was mammoth,” exclaims the director. There were over 140 characters, 131 sets and the Los Angeles riots.
“The day the riots hit we were at the Palladium in Hollywood. The next day they trashed that area. We had people who were dressing the Orpheum downtown, and they had to be moved out. We couldn’t get permission to go down there. So the Paramount Theater we had to shoot at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium, which looks nothing like an old New York theater.”
But the greatest problem was the casting. “The audience could be watching our Sinatra on TV and just walk over to their record shelves, pull out an album cover, and there was the real Sinatra,” says Sadwith.
“The decision that we made was that we needed someone who embodied the essence of Frank–this is true of all the casting,” says Sadwith. “We didn’t want to go for caricatures. I would pass by somebody who would look more like the character for somebody who would give us a better performance.
“We had been considering people who were so much further away from Frank physically but who had an essence and could pull this off. And then at the 11th hour, we got this picture from Philip Casnoff, and you can see the uncanny resemblance in many of the scenes.”
Casnoff dubbed the casting marathon “the search for Scarlett. And the screen test was the burning of Atlanta.”
Casnoff is primarily a stage actor who had starred in the Broadway production of “Shogun” and received Theater World Awards for “Chess” and “Grease,” although he had a major role in the miniseries “North and South.”
When asked if he was intimidated by the role, Casnoff, 38, inadvertently sums up the attitude of Baby Boomers, “I never thought about the intimidation factor. He wasn’t my idol. He was my dad’s idol. He’s someone whose music I appreciated at a distance, although I thought some of his albums were great make-out music back in college.”
Like Sadwith, Casnoff only met Sinatra for a few minutes. But heplunged into deep research, reading, watching old movies.
“There was something very specific about the way he spoke, and I wanted to get the flavor of it. I went to Hoboken to speak to people, and they said whenever he came to Hoboken and went to the Italian social clubs, he’d fall right back into that very heavy Hobokenese, none of which would have been comprehensible on the screen.”
A trained stage actor and singer, Casnoff analyzed Sinatra’s films, “I don’t think he’s 100 percent himself on the screen, but there are things about himself he couldn’t disguise in his roles.
“If he thinks he didn’t do a good job in those films with Gene Kelly, he’s crazy. He did a phenomenal job. He played the naive kid to Kelly’s wolf, which was very useful for me for the young period.
“You read the good, the bad and the ugly. You read Kitty Kelly and ‘My Father’ by Nancy Sinatra, and you try to meld the two together. His character in the Gene Kelly films was a key to playing him as a young man.”
Tina Sinatra was “an encyclopedic source of things,” according to Casnoff, but there were the inevitable creative clashes.
“If she said, ‘Dad wouldn’t have yelled in a scene like that.’ I’d say, ‘Yes, he would have. You don’tremember. You weren’t there.’ It can’t be one thing. It has to vary for the dramatic purpose of the piece. I was very concerned with shaping the piece, and I really wanted the character to have an arc.
“I thought of him as a character. I guess that’s why I didn’t get intimidated. I didn’t think of him as Frank, capital letters, Sinatra. I thought of him as this fascinating complex character.
“One of the first jobs I had was playing King Philip in ‘Lion in Winter’ opposite Fritz Weaver. And I thought, I’m playing the king, and I’ve got this scene with Weaver. I was a kid, and I’ve got to stand up to the guy. If I worry about this is somebody whose work I tremendously admire, I’m going to be dead in the water.”
Casnoff lip-synched all the Sinatra songs. “I’m never going to be satisfied watching his voice coming out of my mouth,” he admits.
“What I did was a duet with the tapes. I was constantly asking them to bring the tape down, so the audience could hear me singing. His style of singing changed so much.
“It was sometimes so extroverted. Sometimes very introspective. The only way to get that is to perform the piece–to sing it and feel it as much as possible. You’ve got to go for eight hours in a room and keep listening to these songs, because his phrasing was so tricky. Even the way he moved his mouth.”
Actually, in the earliest scene with the Hoboken Four, the first clubs, even the first recording hits with Tommy Dorsey like, “I’ll Never Smile Again,” or later when his voice breaks, the voice is not vintage Sinatra but sound-alikes–the Australian Tom Burlinson and even Frank Jr.
“We don’t have recordings of them, or they were unusable. The old recordings were not good enough. ‘Without a Song’ was the breaking point,” Tina explains.
“We matched everything. That was the gift of Arty Butler. He could replicate anything musically. We took all the old masters, and we overlaid added instrumentation, beefed it up.”
Her father had not seen a frame of film until after its screening. “He didn’t even want to see Philip’s screen test. He said, ‘No, I don’t want to know. I want to be surprised.’ I wanted to show him dailies. He said, ‘No, I’ll wait.’
When he finally viewed it in Palm Springs recently, “he was very moved,” Tina reports.
“Mom took it real well. The first viewing was just the cassette of the rough cut, and it threw her. But she was very enamored of the talent involved. Her words, her transcripts are involved in this too… She went to the screening and loved it. Dad will get a hoot out of it. I think it’s a little painful for them both. It certainly is for me.”