Abacus: Small Enough to Jail
A remarkable tale of immigrant success, wrapped around a crime story.
The phone rang a week ago and the guy on the other end said he was a movie producer. He was home for Thanksgiving to visit his folks in Evanston, he said, and he thought he'd give me a call. His name was Rick Herland.
Hardly a week passes without someone calling up who is, or was, or would like to be a producer. Mostly they want to know where they can raise $400,000 fast, because they have this great idea for a movie...So I was blunt and said I'd never heard of any movie producer named Rick Herland from Evanston. And then I unleashed the crusher: What movies have you produced? "Well," Herland said, I own the rights to Herman Hesse's 'Steppenwolf,' which is a big novel on the campuses right now. But I can't talk about that because the deal is still very much up in the air." Sounds good, I said. Have you, ah, actually produced an actual movie, though?
"Only a couple," Herland said. "I produced The Mini Affair, which starred Georgie Fame and the Bee Gees, but that was only distributed in England. And then I've just completed producing an Italian Western, which stars Orson Welles...Orson Welles? I said.
"Yeah," he said.
An Italian Western?
"Right. Orson plays a Mexican revolutionary named Colonel Casorro."
Rick Herland, the movie producer from Evanston, was sounding more interesting. It turned out he was going to New York the next day, and so was I, and so we made plans to have lunch. And last Tuesday we did have lunch, in the Harvard Club, where Herland's relatively long hair and moderately mod clothes drew a cool stare from two old grads who were playing checkers.
"I think I'll produce 'Steppenwolf' entirely from the Harvard Club," Herland said.
"I'll have all my meetings here, and we'll hold interviews here. What do you think?"
But Herland said that was all he could say about "Steppenwolf." After two years of negotiating, he succeeded in buying the rights to the Hesse novel from the author's relatives. Hesse said he never wanted any of his novels made into movies, Herland said: "That would be like translating them into Esperanto. But I convinced them..." Herland is currently negotiating with a famous European director (whose name can't be revealed) and has hired a brilliant 24-year-old Polish mathematician (who studied mysticism in India) to ponder the book and help prepare an approach for the film.
"But the project has to remain quiet until we sign the director, which I hope we do," Herland said. "So just say I'm working on it."
By this time we were through the lobby, had inspected the towering beams in the reading room, had climbed the stairs to the second floor, had looked solemnly into the library ("No Ladies Permitted") and were eating oysters and cheese in the second-floor dining room.
How, I finally asked Herland, did a kid from Evanston wind up producing an Italian Western starring Orson Welles?
"Well," he said stirring an oyster around in the hot sauce; "in a way it was because I like Italy so much. I went there the summer of my junior year, and when I graduated from Harvard in 1958, I wanted to go back. But there was a money thing. And l figured that, at 22, nobody would pay me to do what I wanted to do, which was to travel, and learn languages, and decide what I wanted to do.
"So I came back to Evanston and, to raise money, I started this sandwich service at Northwestern. We went around to the dorms at night, peddling sandwiches. I figured the best way to make money was to go into business for myself, and I was right. In no time at all we were selling 2,000 sandwiches a week.
"After the first year, my partner, a guy named Jim Snider, willed his half of the business to me and went off to Washington with his wife to be a free-lance correspondent. He had an article in Parade last week. Anyway, business got so good that I was working too hard. The second year I made all the sandwiches myself. I figure I have personally made 100,000 meagerly stuffed sandwiches in my life. "So I brought in a couple of other guys, Harvard drop-outs, and we divided the 30-week school year into two halves of 15 weeks each. I'd work for 15 weeks and then take the other 37 weeks off. That was good, because my goal was to minimize work and maximize travel. I'd hitch to California, or drive someplace in a driveaway car. Then, one summer in Italy, I discovered this run-down old villa outside Genoa. I rented it for $40 a month.
"That really set us up, as far as the sandwich business was concerned. Fifteen weeks on, 37 weeks off. The people who weren't selling sandwiches were in the villa."
Herland finished the last of his oysters and went to work on a slab of Roquefort cheese. The way he told his story, it sounded perfectly natural. What could be simpler than graduating from Harvard (in history) and opening a sandwich service in Evanston so you could spend 37 weeks a year in an Italian villa?
"But after four years of that," he said probably reading my mind, "I decided it was time to think about a career. So I came to New York City and got this job with a bank from Nassau, in the Bahamas. I was supposed to look for loans and investments they could make. After about 8 or 9 months on commission, during which I made almost no money because I found almost no loans or investments, I found a TV company that needed $500,000. And that was a turning point, I guess..."The company was owned by an enfant terrible, Ed Graham, who became famous doing those Harry and Bert Piel ads for Piel's beer. The ads with the voices by Bob and Ray.
"Anyway, Graham was out in L. A., and his company was making an animated cartoon show for kids, 'Linus the Lionhearted.' I began to follow his progress, and I realized he was so unorganized he might not be able to make his network air dates. "So I told him that, and he said, okay, why don't you come out and run the studio? So I did, I drove a car to L. A., got a house in Malibu, and in about 18 months we produced about $3,500,000 worth of animation for TV. Graham bought an airplane and moved the studio next to an airport, and things went along nicely until he wrecked the plane and almost wrecked himself.
"So we dissolved the studio, and I came back to New York. By this time I was supposed to know something about production. Well, I DID know something about production. Some New York people hired me to run United Screen Arts, a small production and distribution firm. Small enough that I became president. "I decided to concentrate on production, and of course Europe was the only inexpensive place to shoot a film. So I went to London, and we made 'The Mini Affair,' with Georgie Fame and the Bee Gees. It had a couple of hit songs in it, 'Words' and 'Massachusetts,' but it never got U.S. distribution.
"But in the meantime I started working on 'Viva la Revolution,' which is the European title for the Orson Welles Western. It was written by Franco Solinas, who wrote 'The Battle of Algiers,' and directed by Giullo Petroni, who directed 'Death Rides A Horse.' And it also stars Tomas Milian, a Cuban whose mother lives in Chicago. He's gotten to be a pretty big star in Italian Westerns...
"Death Rides A Horse" was a lousy movie, I said, but Franco Solinas is a great screenwriter, and very politically oriented. Will your Western have any political significance?
"Some," he said. "It's indirectly political. You know: How the little guy gets screwed by the 'big guy. It's about the betrayal of the Mexican Revolution in 1913." How did you get Welles?
"He needed the money. He's running ahead of the bill collector, the tax man, the alimony payments. We got him cheap, $75,000 for a little more than three week's work. Mike Nichols paid him $100,000 for only two weeks for 'Catch-22.'
"Of course, the danger is that Welles will capture your film. He's such a great director and actor that he has a tendency to move in and the next thing you know he's rewriting everything and the director is threatening to quit.
"But we got along pretty well. I found out he was from Kenosha, Wis., and I told him that once on a bet I walked from Evanston to Kenosha in the middle of the winter...Anyway, the movie has been released in Italy, where it was a big success. So we have our money back, and now we're negotiating to sell the American rights. It was entirely acted in English, which should help."
And then "Steppenwolf" is next?
"I can't talk about it though," he said. "We're handling it very carefully. It's a great novel, and we don't want to screw it up."
And with "Steppenwolf" you'll become an independent producer?
"Right. I'm not working for the New York outfit on this one. I'm on my own."
And what advice, I asked, do you have for kids from Evanston who don't have any money but want to grow up to become independent movie producers?
Herland paused for a second, and scraped for the rest of the Roquefort on his plate. He spread it on a cracker, popped it in his mouth, washed it down with some coffee, and finally said, not unthoughtfully: "There is something about peddling sandwiches at 5 below zero to a lot of college kids that is not unlike being a movie producer."
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