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JACK MATHEWS

Eloping To Screen, After 43 Years

September 28, 1987|JACK MATHEWS

"Out of the headlines, onto the screen!"

That enticing old advertising pitch has never had a more likely candidate than Ellsworth Sonny Wisecarver, the subject of the current film "In the Mood." But the leap from newspapers to theaters usually takes a little less than 43 years.

"I like to think of it as a story that was so hot, it took 40 years to cool down," says "In the Mood" writer/director Phil Alden Robinson. "The story never really went away. It has stayed in the news."

If you drift back 43 years, you end up in the stretch run of World War II, a time when women were on assembly lines, rationing was the daily grumble and a Japanese invasion of Southern California--by sea or by air--was a common fear.

There was an itch for diversion that even the jitterbug couldn't scratch, and the press grabbed any good home-grown yarn and squeezed it like a wet tea bag.

Enter Sonny Wisecarver.

"Woman Who Eloped With Boy Hunted," read the Page 1 headline in the Los Angeles Times on May 4, 1944, followed by this two-line deck: "Mother of Two Faces Charge of Stealing Neighbor's Son, 14."

The lean, lanky teen-ager from Willowbrook wasn't exactly stolen. He had wooed and won 21-year-old Elaine Monfredi, and the two had run off in her common-law husband's car and gotten married.

Wisecarver's parents objected, and the marriage was interrupted one week into the honeymoon and annulled. But 18 months later, he was at it again, running off with a 25-year-old soldier's wife named Eleanor Deveny. She also had two children.

The authorities were no more amused than Wisecarver's parents. A judge ruled him incorrigible and sent him to a youth camp, from which he escaped.

"Wisecarver Still at Large," the headlines said, as if warning men to get their wives off the street.

Later, there were photos of a sad-faced Sonny peering through the bars of a jail.

The media pinned him with a lot of labels--the "L.A. Lothario," the "Compton Casanova," the "Love Bandit." But Life magazine came up with the one that stuck, describing him as "The Woo Woo Boy, the world's greatest lover."

If Hollywood had been as efficiently exploitative 40 years ago as it is today, Sonny Wisecarver would have had four agents, book and movie deals and more TV commercials than Donna Rice could dream of. As it was, he got only one offer, and Sonny's parents turned it down.

"When it happened, someone approached my parents (about a movie) and they said, 'No way, we don't want nothing to do with it,' " recalls Wisecarver, now 58 and a confirmed single. "They were talking about Eddie Albert playing me."

Wisecarver has spent 40 of the last 43 years in Las Vegas, installing telephones or driving tour buses and taxis. He now lives near Redlands, where he and a partner have a struggling 6-month-old telephone installation company of their own.

He says his life has been generally uneventful since he gave up older women. He got married for the second time when he was 17--to Betty Reber, also 17--and he was with her for 22 years. He left her when he was 40 to marry his third wife, a child bride of 20.

When that wife was 32 and he was 52, she dumped him.

"She grew up and said, 'What do I want with this old man?,' " Wisecarver says, without a note of irony in his voice. "I didn't handle that too well."

Wisecarver may believe he "just drifted through life" without accomplishing anything, but the press begged to differ. Whenever anyone wrote a "Whatever happened to. . . ?" story, Wisecarver's name seemed to come up. It was inevitable that someone would read one of these stories and revive the idea of making a movie about him.

Bob Kosberg and David Simon, a novice screenwriting team just out of UCLA, read about Wisecarver in a Times update in 1977 and started the chain of events that finally brought the story to the screen.

"We didn't know what we were doing, we just read the story about Sonny and said, 'This is great,' " says Kosberg, who is now a producer on contract with DEG Entertainment. "We called him up and said we'd like to buy the rights to his story. He said, 'Come on over.' "

Wisecarver didn't know what he was doing, either. After spending two days with Kosberg and Simon, recalling details from his "Woo Woo" days, he sold the rights to them for $500, plus 7% of whatever they made on the film.

"We found ourselves the proud owners of Sonny Wisecarver," Kosberg laughs. "I never owned a person before."

Kosberg and Simon, who is now a comedy writer on staff at Embassy Television, shopped Wisecarver's story all over Hollywood and finally made a deal with Lorimar's Peter Bart. They were paid to write a treatment and a script. In return, they conveyed Wisecarver's story rights to the studio.

That made Lorimar the proud owner of Sonny Wisecarver.

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