Director With 'Class' Act

June 22, 1986|RODERICK MANN

Make a hit picture, one that everyone enjoys, and its success tends to follow you around like a stray dog, hungry for more attention.

You may make other movies, good ones, but all you hear from people is: When are you going to make another one like that ?

Ask Mel Frank. He knows. He's the man who produced, directed and co-wrote "A Touch of Class," starring George Segal and Glenda Jackson. That was 13 years ago, but he's never been allowed to forget it.

He's made lots of movies--among them "Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House," "That Certain Feeling" and "The Prisoner of Second Avenue"--but people will keep going on about "Touch of Class."

"That's because people identified with it, I suppose," said Frank the other morning in his office at MGM. "And it was very funny." (The story concerned a philandering married man who philandered very badly.)

But today's comedy classic is often yesterday's problem picture. When Frank came to try to finance "Touch of Class" (which he co-wrote with Jack Rose), the chorus of "No's" from studio heads was deafening. Everyone thought it old-fashioned.

Frank has kept a tape of all the turndowns he received and plays it occasionally just to remind himself that William Goldman's oft-repeated maxim is true: Nobody knows. (The movie finally became a Joe Levine-Brut Productions presentation.)

Frank, a prolific and cheerful 72-year-old, hopes to make a sequel to "A Touch of Class" one day. But meantime he's busy finishing work on "Bobo," starring Howie Mandel, Christopher Lloyd and Cloris Leachman.

A hyphenate (producer-director-writer) years before they ever dreamed up the term, this is Frank's first-ever venture solely as a director.

"I've always wanted to do that," he said, "have someone else write the script. And now I've finally done it."

Produced by Leonard Kroll and written by Robert Klane ("Where's Poppa"), "Bobo" is about an older boy who hates his young brother. Returning home on a sleigh during a snowstorm after his parents have been prospecting for gold in the Pacific Northwest, he pushes the 2-year-old child off the sleigh.

Along come wolves who make him their own.

"And our story begins 28 years later," said Frank. "In his will, the father has stated that unless the boy (Howie Mandel) shows up before he's 30, the fortune goes to his older brother (Christopher Lloyd).

"Well, he does show up. But now he's a dog. When a fire engine goes by and a bunch of dogs sets off in pursuit he joins them. It's really a send-up of the 'Greystoke' story about a child reared in the wilds who returns to civilization.

"And Howie Mandel is just wonderful. He trained hard for this role. He even looks at you like a dog."

Frank says he hopes the movie will prove "solid entertainment--for all ages."

"I know it's a young person's medium today," he said. "But I still think we old poops have got something to offer. It took John Schlesinger to come from London to make 'Midnight Cowboy' here and put in things we Americans take so much for granted we don't even notice them. In the same way, I think we older movie makers can provide a better perspective on the young than a lot of youthful directors. At least I hope so. Personally, I'd still use Billy Wilder if it needed three men to carry him on the set each day."

Like all writers, Frank listens. When he hears something interesting, he files it away. When he was living in London (where he resided for 13 years), he was told a story by the late Peter Finch about how an English actor in New York, warned not to venture into Central Park at night, finally determined to do so. And was mugged.

Finding his wallet gone he gave chase, overpowered the mugger and grabbed the wallet back. Then when he got home he found his own wallet where he'd left it--on the table. He'd mugged the mugger.

"I told that story to Neil Simon when we were about to make 'The Prisoner of Second Avenue' together," said Frank. (The movie starred Jack Lemmon and Anne Bancroft.) "And we decided to incorporate it in our movie.

"We needed someone agile for the mugger, someone who could jump over things while getting away. A friend of my secretary, who'd just made a movie called 'The Lords of Flatbush,' said: 'I know someone. Sly Stallone. He can jump over anything.'

"So we had him come to see us and he just said: 'What do you want me to jump over?' I told him and he did it. He had just one line in the picture. That was 11 years ago. The rest is history.

"I've seen him just once since then. I met him near my home when I was living in Pacific Palisades. 'Bet you never thought I'd be living just down the street from you,' he said."

Frank is now talking to Cannon about his next project--a movie called "Who's in the Closet" that would star George Segal.

"I've worked with him three times," said Frank ("A Touch of Class," "The Duchess and the Dirtwater Fox," "Lost and Found"), "and he has a quite unique quality--the ability to do the broadest comedy and still keep his sexuality. I really want to work with him again."

Then, perhaps, there'll be that sequel to "A Touch of Class." He'd like to do it. And he has some ideas already. He thinks it would do well.

"Among the rejections I taped on the telephone--I won't give you his name because what I did was illegal--was one top executive who turned the script down flat. Seven years later, I found myself sitting next to him on the Concorde, and in the course of the conversation 'A Touch of Class' came up. He raved about it, said how terrific it was.

"There's only one 'Touch of Class,' " he said. "I was so tempted to say: 'Why don't you drop 'round sometime? I'll play you the tape where you turned it down.' But I didn't. I just nodded. But it made me smile."

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