A showbiz memoir masquerading as a sociological treatise, “Not So Quiet on the Set” makes much of Robert Relyea’s alliance with Steve McQueen. Too much, in fact. Relyea’s five-year partnership with McQueen may have been his closest brush with celebrity, but it was far from his first or last interaction with a larger-than-life showbiz character. Their partnership, which frames the book, seems almost anti-climatic after all the amusing anecdotes that come between. Too bad Relyea and his co-author son Craig, didn’t trust his tales to stand on their own.
Relyea started his 55 year showbiz career as a second assistant to the director in 1955, when his Uncle Harve pulled some strings to get him into the union. He lucked his way onto a one-day “Oklahoma!” reshoot before landing gigs on Vincente Minnelli’s “Kismet” and “The Teahouse of August Moon” with Marlon Brando and “Jailhouse Rock” with a young Elvis Presley.
Fired after mouthing off to an MGM exec, he was quickly hired by John Wayne to assist on “The Alamo,” Wayne’s directorial debut, soon segueing to “The Magnificent Seven,” “West Side Story” and “The Great Escape,” among other pics.
Relyea casually dishes about on-set dalliances and “boys will be boys” hijinks on location, with son Craig interjecting occasional asides about the impact his father’s absences had on his parent’s marriage and his childhood.
It’s a compelling look at moviemaking as the studio system unraveled: Cinephileswill surely relish the stories about June Allyson’s on-set antics, so at odds with her wholesome image, and quiver nervously while reading about shooting “House of Numbers” at San Quentin. Relyea paints an especially chaotic picture of “The Great Escape” production, what with Charles Bronson’s affair with co-star David McCallum’s wife, Jill Ireland (whom Bronson subsequently married); McQueen’s refusal to show up onset until his part was rewritten; assorted boozing; and his own misadventures flying an authentic Nazi plane in the movie.
By the time Relyea and McQueen landed their six picture deal at Warners in 1966, the biz has already changed considerably. And unbeknownst to them, Jack Warner was about to sell his stake in the studio; he exited weeks after greenlighting “Bullitt.”
Relyea and McQueen quickly butted heads with their new studio bosses, who expected to play a much morehands-on role in the filmmaking process. The pair eventually parted ways during the troubled production of “Le Mans,” McQueen’s pet racing project; they never reconciled.
With that breakup, Relyea brings the tome to a close. He doesn’t delve into his post-McQueen career, which included producing duties on “The Last Action Hero” and culminated in his 1997 promotion to prexy of worldwide production at MGM/United Artists, the very studio he started at all those years earlier. An epilogue briefly addresses some of the changes in the biz since he started out, but doesn’t really advance his thinly developed premise about moviemaking in Hollywood’s macho era.
Indeed, Relyea’s own stories from that era belie the tome’s subtitle: Thesps cussed, fooled around and told ribald stories, but they also pouted and schemed, screaming bloody murder when they thought their lives were in danger. Helmers sometimes threw hissy fits.
Relyea’s final words about his last meeting with McQueen could serve as an epitaph for this book: “No clever twist,” he wrote. “That’s the thing about Hollywood — the script is never perfect.”
Robert Relyea will appear 7 p.m.-9 p.m., Sept. 10, at Book Soup in West Hollywood, Calif.