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How to Succeed in the Movies Without Really Trying : Cartoonist Ron Cobb's Strange Trip From the '60s to 'E.T.'

May 01, 1988|PAUL CIOTTI | Paul Ciotti is a staff writer at this magazine.

EVERYONE IN HOLLYWOOD is waiting for the phone call that will change his life," says artist Ron Cobb. In Cobb's case, the call came eight years ago. It was from Steven Spielberg, who asked Cobb to direct a feature film. "How many people does that happen to?" says Cobb. "Steven Spielberg wants me to direct a movie. I've never directed a movie in my life, and Steven Spielberg wants me to direct a movie.

"I said, 'Steven, I don't know if I can direct.' "

Spielberg didn't care, says Cobb--if people with half Cobb's talent could direct, Cobb could do it too. " 'Get yourself an agent,' he said.

" 'Get yourself an agent,' " repeats Cobb in wonderment. "That's a real Hollywood story. People are just dying to get into the film business, and I'm saying, 'Well, OK.' "

That film turned out to be the mega-hit "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial," which Spielberg directed, though Cobb, to his surprise, got rich from it anyway.

Cobb is talking in the study of his big, arched, tiled and patioed house in a quiet corner of northwest Santa Monica. There's a large spiked and brightly painted Mexican lizard inside the front foyer, a spaceship model on a table in the living room and, in the middle of the kitchen, a cafe-sized espresso maker on a butcher-block island.

At 50, Cobb is bulky, bearded and adolescently enthusiastic--a guy who, back in high school, was more excited by monster comics and the idea of a Mars landing than football rallies or Friday-night dances. This morning Cobb's graying hair is still damp from the shower, but his mind is racing full tilt. He laughs, talks, gestures wildly and jokes nonstop.

Actually, it's a good thing that Cobb has so much energy, because at the moment he's stretched to the limit. He's started the set design on director James Cameron's "The Abyss," an underwater epic for Fox. Warner Bros. has optioned his screenplay for "Atoll," a science-fiction comedy. He just finished designing some tiger-striped dinosaurs for the proposed time-travel tour at Disney's Florida studios.

In whatever spare time remains, he's working with a small group of computer, film and music people who have volunteered their services to make an inspirational short film promoting world peace through a joint Soviet-American mission to Mars. MCA is considering showing it in Universal movie theaters and on videocassettes to win public support for the mission. A major computer company may donate $250,000 worth of Cray computer time for the project.

Cobb is "exceedingly intelligent," says his old friend Mitchell Harding, operations director at radio station KCRW, but he never went to college and only had C grades in high school. Although this saved Cobb from being "crammed into the acceptable boxes," Harding says, it also for a long time prevented him from making a living as an artist, a field in which he had no formal training.

Instead, after graduation from Burbank High School in 1955, Cobb supported himself building movie props, delivering mail and working in assorted factories. Then, after a brief detour to Vietnam with the Army in 1963, Cobb rented a house on Franklin Avenue in Hollywood for $45 a month. "All these strange people were moving in around me," he says. "I noticed something was happening. I guess it was the '60s."

Trying to eke out a living, Cobb began doing monster-magazine covers and painting bizarre beasts, such as amputee lizards with prosthetic arms, alien astronomers, "asymmetrical abominations," mythic figures and wondrous castle-like structures unlike anything ever seen on earth.

At the same time, he also began doing realistic landscapes, such as "Man on Lizard Crossing Over," showing a swordsman riding a huge dinosaur-like lizard through a Western background of barren mesas, cobalt skies and fleecy white clouds. Years later, when George Lucas saw the painting on director John Milius' wall, he appropriated the lizard for "Star Wars." (Cobb later created five aliens for the famous cantina scene in "Star Wars.")

"I'm very impressed by the act of creation," says Cobb. "I like myth making. Film offers me an opportunity to do all these things. I can do the architecture. I can do the sets. I can express my interest in technology. I can express my interest in story, plot and character, the psychology of the characters. Film is very satisfying."

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