Producer Albert Zugsmith on making TOUCH OF EVIL with Orson Welles
Orson is primarily an artist — a great one.
One of the great unsung heroes behind the making of Touch of Evil has to be Universal staff producer Albert Zugsmith. As can be seen in Zugsmith's comments below, he and Welles had a wonderful working relationship on the two pictures they made together and it was most probably due to Zugsmith that Welles got to shoot Touch of Evil with so little studio interference.
Unfortunately, Zugsmith had left Universal and moved over to MGM by the time Welles began editing Touch of Evil, so Zugsmith was no longer around to protect Welles from the meddling of studio executives. In fact, given Welles own comments about how much he looked forward to continue making films at Universal, one wonders if he may have been thinking about his talks with Zugsmith, who probably represented Universal to him. For his own part, Zugsmith was eager to continue making films with Welles.
The following interview with Zugsmith is taken from Todd McCarthy and Charles Flynn's wonderful 1975 book King of the Bs.
ALBERT ZUGSMITH: The story on Orson is: I became sort of a troubleshooter and a script doctor at Universal. They’d throw me all the properties they were having difficulties with. There were also certain people I could handle, and work with. Jeff Chandler was becoming a bit difficult and he was their second biggest star at that time. I guess one of the reasons he was difficult was that he was the biggest, and then Rock Hudson came along! So they had me make some pictures with Jeff. They also had me make Westerns, which I'd kind of duck and avoid; they even made Ross Hunter make a Western, which was a terrible flop! It was the last picture Ann Sheridan ever made!
Anyway, I was assigned to a picture called Man in the Shadow. Jeff Chandler was in it and we had $600,000. to make it with. With studio overhead, that means you get about $375,000 on the screen. Jeff Chandler played the sheriff, and we had a new girl under contract, Colleen Miller, a beautiful girl, as the female lead. We were trying to cast the heavy, the girl's father, the rich rancher who oppresses the Mexicans, and so forth. We were pretty much sold on Robert Middleton who did such a great job for me before (in The Tarnished Angels.) So then I got a call from the William Morris office. Evidently they knew this part was open, and Jack Baur (Universal's casting director) asked me, "How would you like Orson Welles to play the heavy?" "You're kidding," I said. He had been out of this country for some time. He was back, and he needed $60,000 very badly for taxes, and he'd play the heavy. "Has he read the script?" I said. "I don't think so. But he's got to pay his taxes or he'll be in big trouble."
I had never met Orson Welles—didn't know him at all. I knew his work. So I said, "Let's go down and talk to (studio head) Eddie Muhl." We talked to Eddie, Eddie called New York, and New York said, "Terrific." They were going to take a lousy little $600,000 Jeff Chandler picture and were going to make it a big, big picture by paying another $60,000—which they cut out of the budget somewhere else—so let's do it. So I made a deal with the William Morris office for Orson Welles and I gave them a wardrobe call... I think it was on a Monday at one o'clock. When I got in my office that Monday morning, there was a message. Orson Welles's secretary had called and notified us that we were to hire a certain makeup man (Maurice Siederman) who got double scale by one o'clock, or Mr. Welles would not be in for wardrobe. I took this message over to Eddie Muhl's office and they were worried to death, knowing Welles's past history and background, as reported by the other studios.
I never saw Eddie nervous before in my life—a very calm man; but he was nervous, he was shaking. He didn't like this. He was worried about it. Universal, up to that point, hadn't had as many big, outside stars as the other studios, and whenever they brought one in, they had trouble. "What are we going to do?" They called New York. They said, "What does Zugsmith say?" "Zugsmith feels that if he gives in to a threat, he can't be responsible for the picture." New York said, "We'll go with Zugsmith."
We sent word to the William Morris office—who didn't know a thing about this—that we'd gotten this note, read them the note, and said that we're sorry, but Zugsmith won't operate with a gun at his back and Universal won't replace Zugsmith as producer.
I think the picture was scheduled to go in about a week. And they said, "We'll try to reach him—we don't know if we can reach him." At five minutes to one, I got a call from wardrobe: "Mr. Welles is here."
I went up there and he was charming, very, very nice; strangely enough, he knew of my films and knew of my work and was very well researched on it. He had some very good suggestions about his clothes and so forth, most of which we adopted. Didn't mention a word about the make-up man. Well, that was that.
Before I went to the office the next day, I got a note. Hand delivered from Orson, written by Orson. In which he explained the reasons for his request for the makeup man. His real nose is never shown in a film, he claimed, because it's so "ridiculous looking," in his words, and if he were not so poor and could afford it, he would pay for the makeup man himself. The request that we please get this makeup man—which we might get for less than double scale—I took to Eddie Muhl. "What do we do now?" he said. "We give him his makeup man, you buy him for as little as possible. He's requested it, and that's different!" "All our troubles are over," Eddie said. "No, all our troubles aren't over. Gene Coon has never written a script before. Welles is probably the reigning genius of the business and he's won an Academy Award for writing—you know goddamn well he's going to rewrite his part, if not the whole script!"
We hear nothing from Orson until it's his turn to shoot. I'm waiting in Eddie Muhl's office, I get a call from the set, they're in the mobile dressing room there and Mr. Welles has rewritten the scene.
TODD McCARTHY & CHARLES FLYNN: Only his own scene?
ALBERT ZUGSMITH: Yes, only his own scene. Of course, it involved others. So I jumped in my car and went down to the location on the lot. When they finished shooting the scene, I said, "Excellent." Welles said, "Did you like it?" like a little boy—there's a lot of the little boy in him. I said, "It's very, very good. Great improvement. Of course, you'd be doing the actors and myself a great favor if we could get these rewrites that obviously you're going to do, at least on your own scenes, prior to the day of shooting, because it's quite a burden on some of these actors, who aren't quite as experienced as you are, to learn the new scenes." He said, "What do you suggest we do?" I said, "Why don't you come down to the office. I have some vodka—left over from Joan Crawford (Zug had produced Female on the Beach with Crawford), and Welles said. "How do you know I like to drink vodka?" "Oh, I've been told," I said. "I have a box of your favorite cigars, and we could do it right now and have it sent out by messenger to the actors. The director likes to look at the script, too, you know." "OK, let's go," he said.
So every night from then on we'd go to my bungalow at the end of the day's shooting, we'd do the rewrite together, and never once did I have an argument with Orson Welles. He was amazed that a producer knew how to write or rewrite with a sense of dramaturgy, and we really built on each other as collaborators, what they can do if they're really collaborating.
On the last day of shooting, I was on the set and he said, "I guess I can't come down tonight?" I said, "My bungalow is always open to you." He came down there and we really tied one on. He said, "Goddamn it, you're the feistiest son of a bitch I've ever met and I love you. I would like to direct a picture for you." I said, "There's nothing I'd like better, Orson." He said, "Have you got anything I can direct?" In those days I had a shelf full of scripts in back of my desk and I said, "You can have any one you want." He said, "Which is the worst one?" I said, "Right here," and pulled out a script Paul Monash had written from a novel in four weeks on a flat deal, called Badge of Evil. I threw it over to Orson, and he said, "Can I have two weeks to write it?" I said, "You can have it."
TODD McCARTHY & CHARLES FLYNN: He then wrote an actual screenplay?
ALBERT ZUGSMITH: Completely.
TODD McCARTHY & CHARLES FLYNN: In screenplay form, so that it could be read by any producer?
ALBERT ZUGSMITH: Sure. We shot his first draft. We spent a whole day cutting it down to proper size, eliminating things. I've never had a fight with the man. He's a genius. Great man. Great talent.
TODD McCARTHY & CHARLES FLYNN: Touch of Evil was his first American film in quite a few years. Was there any problem with the studio?
ALBERT ZUGSMITH: No. I didn't have any problems with the studio. The studio had problems with Orson after I left. I consulted with Orson about the MGM offer and he thought I should take it. So I left for MGM. Orson couldn't make up his mind on a lot of different ways in cutting. He cuts himself, you know, and he got into fights with an editor there (at Universal). I was at MGM by then—during the cutting. I saw a version of it that he cut and I thought it was pretty good. Then he re-cut it anyway. I made some suggestions; as I recall, he took some of my suggestions. As director, it was his first cut; his first cut kept going on and going on. Orson kind of takes off, you know, he lacks discipline. He took off to Mexico and was staying in his favorite place, Caesar's. I don't know whether his liver started bothering him, or what, but he got in some beefs with the studio. Of course, the very fact that he had to talk to the studio was scary to him. He gets very nervous at times. They had some disagreements. But I don't know, I wasn't at the studio then.
TODD McCARTHY & CHARLES FLYNN: Would you say the final cut is more or less what he wanted in the first place, or has it been changed?
ALBERT ZUGSMITH: They re-shot, I think, one scene. They didn't think it was clear enough. They were old-fashioned in that respect. Orson was forward looking. I think Orson's version of it was possibly a bit ambiguous, but it was not a serious thing. It was not a big weakness. I think Orson's version was very good, but they re-shot... I think Harry Keller directed it and they showed me the rewrite. The rewrite wasn't bad. And the acting of it wasn't bad. But it wasn't Orson Welles.
TODD McCARTHY & CHARLES FLYNN: Can you identify the scene?
ALBERT ZUGSMITH: It was on the road, I believe. I think Chuck Heston was in it. I don't remember the exact portion of it. I don't think there's a big, big difference, but some people would say that the style clashes. Harry Keller isn't Orson Welles. The studio attitude—and that's always a group of faceless men—was that it was unclear, at least to the level of audience they thought they were catering to. And the studio did not push the picture.
TODD McCARTHY & CHARLES FLYNN: What is your analysis of why Welles hasn't made another picture in America since Touch of Evil?
ALBERT ZUGSMITH: I would love to have him as a director.
TODD McCARTHY & CHARLES FLYNN: Why doesn't anyone else?
ALBERT ZUGSMITH: I think they're afraid of him: great talent threatens. I have found out that there are certain people in this business, certain talents that need some sort of help. Many of the talents that I have helped develop or worked with have suffered by not continuing with me. And I have suffered by not continuing with them.
TODD McCARTHY & CHARLES FLYNN: You don't think there's anyone in Hollywood now, at any studio that would even dare to ask Welles to direct a film for them?
ALBERT ZUGSMITH: I don't know. I'm not that close to what the studios think today. I think the studios are prepackaged, mostly, and I'm really not playing that sort of game nowadays; but if you ask me to guess, to surmise, I’d say they don’t know of any producer who can handle Orson Welles so they can get a commercial product out of him. The studios certainly aren’t interested in artistic product. Orson is primarily an artist, a great one.
TODD McCARTHY & CHARLES FLYNN: That’s a real tragedy.
ALBERT ZUGSMITH: No question about it. The only two directors I would want to work with as a producer are seemingly not available: Welles and Sirk.
…When I went over to MGM, they promised me that I could direct one picture a year myself. And Orson Welles would direct one a year and Douglas Sirk would direct one a year. It was a three-picture-a-year program. The first thing they did was to call Orson on the phone, and Orson doesn't speak on the telephone. Orson said he would go with me as long as he didn't have to have any contact with the studio. You know, he's mortally afraid of the studio brass, and I can't blame him in too many cases, because of the things that have happened to him. He doesn't know how to handle a studio. He knows how to handle me, he knows that I know my dramaturgy; and we have our consultations and we don't have any fights. He doesn't feel threatened by me. But the studio: no! So I lost Orson Welles and then I lost Douglas Sirk.