Anyone who’s spent an idle hour clicking around the Internet Movie Database knows that the average substantial yet less-than-A-list filmography is full of unpredictable digressions. An idiosyncratic, collage-style look at one such career, Michael Almereyda’s “Escapes,” examines the films of Hampton Fancher, whose moderately successful acting career over nearly 20 years would ultimately be eclipsed by his first foray into screenwriting: He wrote the original drafts adapting Philip K. Dick’s “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” into what became “Blade Runner,” sharing credit in the end with David Webb Peoples. (Fancher was also an executive producer on the film, and his involvement in its forthcoming long-awaited sequel should help expand the audience for “Escapes.”)
The tale of how Fancher came to play a key role developing one of the great sci-fi movie classics emerges almost as an afterthought late in his voiceover narration, which has the feel of a master cocktail-fete raconteur on a merely average night. (One has little doubt Fancher could spill starrier, more lurid tales upon request than he does here.) After a while, we see him as an occasional, now nearly-octogenarian talking head. But mostly his wayward, anecdotal narrative unfolds on the soundtrack alone, “illustrated” by cleverly selected and edited excerpts not only from his own resume of vintage TV and film appearances, but those of his friends and lovers at the time — the latter including Sue Lyon, Teri Garr, and Barbara Hershey.
There’s a quick sketch of his formative years as an L.A. wild child, one whose parents were hapless to stop him dropping out of school at 11, running off to Europe at 15, or jumping into a brief first marriage a couple years later. Literally plucked off the street for a bit part in the 1958 horror cheapie “The Brain Eaters,” the classically tall, dark, and handsome young man quickly became a TV regular, appearing on myriad western series (“Gunsmoke,” “Bonanza,” etc.), then later cop/detective ones (“Mannix,” “Adam-12”), many as a contract player for Fox.
He also scored the odd feature gig, none odder than a 1970 German comedy with American “stars” (notably, future Hugh Hefner squeeze and “Hee-Haw” eye candy Barbi Benton) known as “The Naughty Cheerleader,” among other titles. When that was finally given a U.S. release some years later, Fancher agreed to do an onerous heartland PR tour that fuels a long anecdote involving his one night stand with a Pennsylvania promoter’s assistant.
It’s clear Fancher took ample advantage of the Sexual Revolution. But even he admits his conquests paled beside the world-class womanizing of close pal Brian Kelly, famous from TV’s “Flipper.” Kelly’s his stardom was cut short by a motorcycle accident that left him partly paralyzed, and for which Fancher felt some guilt — it was his borrowed motorcycle Kelly drove. Kelly figured he’d move behind the camera into producing, and as Fancher’s acting gigs were drying up by the mid/late-’70s, they looked for projects to work on together. It was Hershey who insisted her then-companion write a screenplay adaptation of a work he felt had solid commercial potential, but initially had scant personal enthusiasm for.
As presented here, the somewhat random nature of Fancher’s reminiscences aren’t meant to form anything like a definitive oral history — if they were, we’d surely learn why he realized his dream of directing only once (on 1999’s “The Minus Man”), or had only one other screenplay produced (“The Mighty Quinn”) after “Blade Runner.” Instead, one gleans that Almereyda simply wants to celebrate an entertaining personality who happens to be a classic Hollywood type: the actor who got by mostly on looks he still clearly takes pains to preserve, and whose charm is as effective as it is carefully honed.
What “Escapes” illustrates is the nature of a journeyman career in the twilight years of the old studio system, as we see Fancher play innumerable playboys, best buddies, suspects, con men, cads and so forth — characters invariably put in their place before the last commercial break. The documentary is also a reminder how much of screen acting consists of nuts-and-bolts drudgework: shots of people listening, walking, driving, opening doors, and so forth, which cinematic glue is reshaped into this collage narrative.
The variably black-and-white and color archival excerpts are mostly in surprisingly excellent condition (though that German comedy’s lingering obscurity is reflected in its nth-generation-VHS-dupe clip). The result — an odd departure for the recently prolific Almereyda, his profile newly boosted by narrative sleeper “Experimenter” — is a unique, breezy pastiche that’s as nostalgic as a TV Land binge-watch, and as intimate as having one’s ear pleasurably bent by a garrulous “man of the world” at a dinner party.