Famous Players

Who’d have guessed a couple a also-rans from Berwyn, PA, would run into each other on the Paramount back lot in Hollywood, CA, some twenty years on.

I was trying to catch up with my buddy James all week, but late nights at work and poor planning on both of our parts sabotaged our efforts. So this morning we’re making plans to hook up when he rolls through New York next week, when I say, ‘Yunno’ what? I’ll be at Paramount ’til about 6:30 or so, and my flight’s not ’til 10:30. Maybe we can catch a drink somewhere in between.’ He writes back, ‘I happen to have a screening on the lot. I’ll meet you there at 6:30.’

Done, and done.

James was (forgive me, bro) something of a meathead in high school. Which is to say, he played rugby, and I played, well, I didn’t play anything. I was the editor of the newspaper and front man of Underground (my b-rate REM/Rush cover band). James was quiet and stern, known for his fiery disposition. And me, well, I’m not sure what I was known for. I thought of myself (as I still do, I guess) the sensitive artsy type. Neither of us was a stellar student, and didn’t show the academic promise of our friends Sibby (UPenn) or Matt (Harvard), but we did ok (Syracuse and Pitt, respectively). Still, had you asked our friends who amongst us was most likely to succeed, well, their money — and mine — would have been on Sibby and Matt.

Success, of course, is a matter of perspective. But seeing James step out of his Mercedes in a grey pin striped suit and blue sunglasses chattering into his cell phone, well, he painted a fair portrait. Me? Well I looked every bit The MTV: green cords, white dress shirt, suede bucks, and jean jacket. Still, there we were, hugging in the Paramount parking lot (which doubles, as it were, as a eight foot deep water tank for shooting aquatic scenes) as the sun set over the not-so-distant Pacific. And I thought, a la David Byrne (as I so often do), “How … how did I get here?”

The last stop in my long week in Los Angeles was a meeting with the Paramount Pictures interactive marketing team to discuss their forthcoming slate of films, and MTV News & Movies coverage there of. I sat in a boardroom with a few young publicists (marketing executives, I imagine, would be their preferred titles) watching clips and teasers from “The Longest Yard” (saw it already, not bad), “The Honeymooners” (eh), “Aeon Flux” (awesome, awesome, awesome), and my personally most-anticipated film of 2005, Cameron Crowe’s “Elizabethtown.” The latter was an 18-minute rough cut of the Orlando Bloom and Kirsten Dunst love story that left me grateful that someone’s still giving Cameron money to make his intimate, charming, little movies regardless of the return on their investment.

Afterwards, I walked across the lot with one of the young pr women to return the “Elizabethtown” DVD (they watch those things like hawks on account of internet bootlegging and such), then continued to show myself around the back lot while waiting for James. Of course, Paramount Security frowns on interlopers (even if they are members of the mighty Viacom family), and especially interlopers with digital cameras. But there wasn’t much going on Friday night at six o’clock, nor was I sneaking onto sound stages. I wandered around all of the exteriors, the most famous of which, of course, is the New York street set, complete with cabs (I’m pretty sure the fare prices were accurate) and NYPD cars. One part of the set looked just like my neighborhood, all brownstones and stoops, save for the Paramount water tower looming overhead and the unlikely cleanliness (which I’m sure they remedy when actually shooting).

I called my father on my cell phone (Who could resist? “Dad, you’ll never guess where I’m calling from …”), then found a nice, sunny bench to wait on James. And then I saw his silver E500 slip through the Melrose security gate.

Ends up, as the fates would have it, James was on the lot to screen “Elvis,” which his client, James Sadwith, directed. After glad-handing and hobnobbing with a few suits (me looking fresh from a Soul Asylum video), we settled into our seats just behind Randy Quaid (Colonel Tom Parker) and Robert Patrick (Vernon Presley).

Now, what even James may not know (or remember), is that I have a bit of a thing for Elvis. It’s not so much his music that moves me (though Smith Family fans know that I end every set with “It’s All Right Mama”), it’s his remarkable but tragic story. Here was a poor kid from the rural south who lost his twin brother at birth, had a classically domineering father and mother who loved him more than what might be considered natural, or healthy. Mix in a dose of unbridled ambition and optimism, some quirky dance moves, and facial expressions that made women weak at the knees … and then add drugs, depression, megalomania, and a crushing case of the Oedipal complex and, well, you have yourself quite a dynamic story arc. It’s the kind of fascinating piece of Americana that driven me to take not one but two pilgrimages to Graceland, and read at least a half dozen Elvis biographies (including Peter Guralnick’s seminal two-part work, “Last Train To Memphis” and “Careless Love”).

Yeah, so there I was watching a movie premiere at a major Hollywood film studio with the cast and crew of the film and on of my best friends from high school. And I’m sitting there, three seats in from the aisle, checking my watch as not to miss my flight, when I decide to go. I shake James’ hand and whisper into his ear, “Thanks bro, see you in a few,” and step out across Randy Quaid just as he says, “Rocknroll stars fade away, Elvis, but managers last forever.” And as I turn toward the screen to grab one last glimpse of the film before stepping out into the cool California dusk, I see Elvis and the Colonel standing before the famed Paramount Pictures arched entrance that I myself was soon to driving under of and point my rental car towards home… again… finally.

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