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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.

Cobb's first brush with fame came not from film, however, but from the sharp-edged political cartoons he did for the Los Angeles Free Press in the mid-'60s. Although Cobb made hardly any money from them, they were reprinted in counterculture and underground newspapers throughout the country and the world--all of which failed to prevent Cobb from going into a terrible two-year decline at the end of the '60s. "I couldn't paint or draw or think straight," he says. "I couldn't snap out of it. I couldn't finish anything. I was taking amphetamines. It was really an awful time. And I didn't know what it was. The only thing that broke it was that my (future) wife called me from Australia: 'Hello. I'm Robin Love. This is the Aquarius Foundation here in Sydney. Your cartoons are very well known here. We wonder if you would be interested in coming to Australia?'

"I said, 'Yes, I'll come! I'll come!' "

At the end of his Australian tour, Cobb remained in Sydney and moved in with Love. After getting married, they moved to Los Angeles in 1973, where, for the next five years, Love supported Cobb. "I never expected Ron to make any money," says Love, who is now a screenwriter. "Ron could have been doing everything he wanted to do a lot sooner if he had hustled. But he is not an ambitious person."

Cobb didn't earn a living from his art until he was over 40 and screenwriter Dan O'Bannon hired him to design the earthship for "Alien." "He was paid $400 a week," says Love. "We thought it was wonderful. It was the first regular money Ron had ever earned since (working in the post office nearly 20 years before)." Even now, she says, money means so little to him "he doesn't even know how much money he made last year." Which, she says, "is one of the nice things about him." If he lost everything, he would be content to live in a one-room apartment again as long as he could have his artist's tools, his wine and his cats. Cobb is crazy about the cats, says Love. One of the reasons he doesn't want children is that "they don't purr."

"I distinctly remember accepting the idea that I would never have money," says Cobb. "I would always be poor. I didn't have any training. I would never be a big success." Now that he has money, life is easier than before and he doesn't have to make so many compromises. But the basic issues haven't changed. In the final analysis, says Cobb, "I'm like everyone else. I want attention. I want to be noticed. I want friends. I'm lonely. I still waste a lot of time feeling inadequate about my work. But I'm at peace with that."

Although it was Cobb's share of "E.T.'s" profits that finally made him financially secure, Cobb not only didn't get to direct "E.T.," he had virtually nothing to do with the film. He was working as production designer on John Milius' "Conan the Barbarian" at a time when Spielberg was down the hall working on "Raiders of the Lost Ark." When Cobb didn't have anything else to do, he'd go talk storyboarding with Spielberg. "I would suggest angles, ideas, verbalize the act of directing--'Let's do this and do that, and we could shoot over his shoulder and then a close-up of the shadow.' Steven used a lot of my suggestions. I was very flattered." And one day, says Cobb, Spielberg told him, "I think you can direct. I want to back a film for you."

At the time, Spielberg was planning to make a film about the Kelly-Hopkinsville Incident, the true story of a farm family that claimed to have been terrorized by five little glowing aliens. The family, however, didn't want any more notoriety and threatened to sue. To avoid a possible lawsuit, Cobb offered to make up an equivalent story. "So while I was working on 'Conan' (in Europe), they flew me to Paris and I told Steven the story. John Sayles was hired to write the script." The name was "Night Skies." But the film never got off the ground, says Cobb--the $3.5 million needed to do the special effects for five aliens would wreck the budget.

Spielberg reduced the number of aliens from five to one, completely abandoned the old script and brought in screenwriter Melissa Mathison to do a new one. "Then the rumors started coming. I realized that Steven had changed the script a lot. He went back to a story he had told me about years before: An alien is abandoned and protected by a little boy. It wasn't scary anymore. It was kind of sweet." A year passed. Cobb was unavailable in Spain, working on "Conan." "Finally, (Spielberg producer) Kathleen Kennedy called to say, 'Steven doesn't know how to tell you this, but "E.T." is very close to his heart, and he wants to make that his picture next year, and he's decided to direct it himself. So what we would like to do when you get back is work out another picture for you. Because Steven really wants to back your career.' "

Kennedy remembers it somewhat differently: It was always Spielberg's plan to direct "E.T.," she says; she only called Cobb as a friendly gesture to inform him of the progress of the film.

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