As a veteran screenwriter, Bill Norton has specialized in action pictures about tough guys (Burt Lancaster in "The Scalphunters," Burt Reynolds in "White Lightning" and "Gator," John Wayne in "Brannigan") and tough gals (Angie Dickinson in "Big Bad Mama").
It's doubtful, though, that Norton ever expected to find himself in the kind of dramatic real-life scenario in which he's now trapped.
Since his arrest last June on arms trafficking charges, the 61-year-old Norton has been held incommunicado in prison in Le Havre in northwestern France. Numerous trial dates have been postponed and bail's been denied (customary in France).
Ellie Norton, 47, told us that her husband had been in solitary confinement for nine months until earlier this month. Imprisoned herself for nearly five months in the French prison in Rouen--three in solitary--she said she's been out on bail since late fall because of medical problems.
Speaking by phone from her hospital bed in Rouen, Ellie Norton said that she and her husband retired from screenwriting several years ago (they sometimes worked together) and moved to Ireland with their 12-year-old adopted Mexican daughter Teresa. (She is being cared for by friends in Ireland.)
"I can't go into a lot of details for obvious reasons," said Ellie. But she admitted that the move to Ireland led them to take up the cause of Northern Ireland's Catholics against British rule. "We were deeply and profoundly shocked by what we saw. We both began to feel some very serious things about the movement--the cause. We feel it is eminently just. This is a question of common decency."
She added that neither she nor her husband are Protestant or Catholic, English or Irish--"but we are humanists." (The Nortons have done support work for El Salvador and other causes, according to Ellie Norton.)
The Nortons' beliefs took them to the French port of Le Havre last June. Accompanied by several Irish friends, they attempted to claim a shipment from America.
Ellie Norton acknowledged it contained some three dozen handguns and rifles.
The French police, who had already inspected the shipment, were waiting to see who claimed it.
"We got there and, wham! There were cops swarming all over us," said Ellie Norton. She said the group was interrogated, separated and imprisoned. It wasn't until Ellie Norton was released from prison that she was able to see her husband again. She visited him twice weekly prior to her hospitalization.
Norton also corresponds, by mail, with his writer-director son, B.W.L. Norton (also known as Bill Norton Jr.).
According to the son, his father's spirits and sense of humor are intact.
"You know, he's a guy who specialized in action-adventure stories and he was a soldier in World War II," Norton Jr. said. "There's a part of him that may have wanted to live out those things he wrote about."
Norton Jr., who directed the just-opened film "Three for the Road" starring Charlie Sheen and just finished directing a CBS-TV pilot about Vietnam, "Tour of Duty," also expressed concern for his father's safety. "The fact is, he's over there, and nothing we do seems to help. We've written letters to the French authorities and to lawyers. . . ."
Added Norton Jr.: "The bottom line is that my father is a decent and good man. The motivation for his having done what he did is very complex--it goes beyond his political beliefs.
"You know, in his career my father made a great deal of money. He put it all toward various causes--he barely has a dime left. There aren't many people like him."
Norton Jrs.' sentiments were echoed by Mike Wise, now a producer with Chartoff-Winkler Prods., who describes himself as "Bill Norton's lifelong friend--and his agent for 15 years." Said Wise: "This man is a screenwriter. He's not a terrorist or a revolutionary. But he is a man who \o7 cares\f7 . He does not deserve to go through what he's going through."
Both Ellie Norton and her husband face not only the prospect of French prison terms (a trial is now set for summer) but possible extradition back to the U.S. (The FBI has reportedly made several unsuccessful attempts to question the Nortons.) Nonetheless, Ellie retains her sense of humor.
"It's not my favorite thing," she said of her predicament, laughing. "I'd rather go to Club Med. But it's better than the Jane Fonda Workout."
But she also said somberly: "We have no regrets about the life choices we have made in an overall sense. We would not have wanted to live our lives any other way. Our philosophy is that you lend a hand wherever you can to help push the state of mankind forward.
"You try to make a difference."
The only regret: "That we got caught."