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$200,000 'Zabu' Joins High-price Laugh Derby

July 20, 1986|DONALD CHASE

ANNANDALE-ON-HUDSON, N.Y. — "Comedy teams!"

Zack Norman--who was Danny DeVito's mustachioed, crocodile-crazed sidekick in "Romancing the Stone"--was musing on the resurgence in screen comedy buddies. He was especially aware of high-profile pairings like DeVito and Joe Piscopo in the recent $10 million-or-so "Wise Guys" and Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman in the upcoming $30 million-or-so "Ishtar."

That's because Norman's recently wrapped "Chief Zabu" creates another comedy team--Norman and Allen Garfield. But "Chief Zabu" is very low profile: It's directed by unknowns Howard Zuker and Neil Cohen, from a script Cohen wrote with yet another unknown, Nancy Zuker. It has no distributor yet. And it came in for under $200,000.

Still, Norman is betting there's no relationship between cost and mirth.

"I'm wondering--quite seriously--if 'Zabu' won't end up being every bit as funny as the higher-priced pictures," he said.

The answer to that question will come, as they say, in the fullness of time. Some questions that can be answered right now are:

Who are these people and what is "Chief Zabu"?

Why has it been headquartered at Bard College, the 750-student artsy-craftsy Hudson Valley alma mater of Chevy Chase and Blythe Danner that Mary McCarthy satirized in "The Groves of Academe"?

And how can a film full of high-priced character actors--Ed Lauter ("Raw Deal"), Allan Arbus (the "MASH" series' shrink), Shirley Stoler ("Seven Beauties") and Ferdinand Mayne ("Pirates") in addition to Garfield ("The Cotton Club") and Norman--be made for less than $200,000? Or, if you must know the truth, $187,996.

Howard Zuker is the name--his real one--that Zack Norman uses when he's doing the New York and Florida real-estate deals that have subsidized his acting career. Norman also used it when he and his "Sitting Ducks" director, Henry Jaglom, "presented" (i.e., arranged financing for) "Hearts and Minds," the Oscar-winning 1974 Vietnam-themed documentary. And he's using it now for his film-directing debut with "Chief Zabu."

"A few years back," Norman recounted the genesis of the new film, "one of the hustlers I know came to me and said, 'Mergers and acquisitions aren't where it's at anymore; where it's at is countries .' He suggested I look into the commercial possibilities in Namibia, an area in South West Africa that was trying to achieve independence of South Africa, and had just applied for membership in the U.N.

"I went to a press conference, at the Sherry Netherland Hotel in New York, for the leader of the independence movement, Chief Clement Kapu, a press conference that for some reason was attended by Elizabeth Taylor." Taylor had earlier focused her interest and beneficence on Botswana. "Well, Namibia was not admitted to the U.N., but I was convinced that what I saw that day was a springboard for a zany satirical comedy which could also be--with the right characters--a comedy with a lot of heart."

So convinced that he and Neil Cohen, an ex-agent and off-Broadway playwright ("Rat's Nest"), dropped the domestic drama they were scripting together and invited Nancy Zuker, Norman's wife, to develop the new idea with them.

Namibia became the fictional Polynesian island of Tiburaku, Norman said, "because nothing to do with Africa, and particularly South Africa, is funny. And Kapu, who I'm sorry to say died under possibly suspicious circumstances in Namibia not long after his visit to New York, became Zabu." Neil Cohen said that, as played by Manu Tupou of "A Man Called Horse" and "Hurricane," Zabu "is emerging as a character with a great and touching dignity."

The other principals are decidedly less dignified but, the film makers hope, are touching in their scrambling desperation. They include: Norman's manic, percentage-spouting realtor and his woebegone boss-friend (Garfield); Arbus' where-it's-at-is-countries promoter; Stoler's culture-vulture hotel credit manager; Lauter's ne'er-do-well millionaire's son, his libidinous wife (model Lucienne Buchanan) and their quite literally closet-gay butler (Mayne); and a do-gooding actress, now more Fonda than Taylor (Marianna Hill of "Medium Cool").

How the actors happened to come together to shoot "Chief Zabu" at Bard College has a lot to do with Screen Actors Guild, and with Neil Cohen, Allen Garfield and producer Norman Leigh.

Leigh, who has worked as a high-budget cinematographer ("The Brink's Job") and a low-budget director ("Schizoid"), took one look at the $200,000 Zack Norman had raised for "Zabu" and mentally translated it into a different movie from the one that Norman and Neil Cohen envisioned.

"Zack and I," Cohen admitted, "saw a guy with a camera strapped to his back and a sound man following the actors around."

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