It's not often that plays originally produced in one of Los Angeles' smaller theaters wind up as theatrical films. That's a long shot too far-fetched for even the most die-hard theatrical dreamers. But MGM last weekend released "Daddy's Dyin' . . . Who's Got the Will?," a down-home family comedy that L.A. theatergoers will remember as a production that ran nearly two years in 1987-88 at Hollywood's Theater/Theatre.
In a rare transition, "Daddy's Dyin' " went straight from a 99-seat house (formerly known as Equity Waiver) to an independent film with well-known actors. The film's cast, in a rare instance, includes two not-so-familiar performers whom film director Jack ("Raggedy Man") Fisk plucked from the stage play: Molly McClure as the God-fearing head of a warring Texas clan and Patrika Darbo as a chubby, lovable muffin of a downtrodden wife, who plays several scenes opposite Judge Reinhold's displaced hippie.
"Daddy's Dyin' " also serves as playwright Del Shores' ticket to the ranks of writers in Hollywood who make money. The Texas native, 32, who roared into town 10 years ago in a battered Mustang to become an actor, landed a writing job with Warners TV after the success of his play. Then, during the '88 Writers Guild strike, "with nothing better to do, I sat down with my laptop word processor and turned my play into a movie script."
"I was lucky because things came together. My manager (Bobbie Edrick) went to work packaging a low-budget deal with some name performers and Propaganda Films (a major music video producer) agreed to shoot the movie because they wanted to work with the director. And once the film was made, MGM--they ironically had earlier turned down the chance to produce it--bought it as a negative pickup with the strong support of (MGM production president) John Goldwyn."
The movie was made, said Shores, for a remarkably conservative sum of $4 million to $5 million with a mixed union and non-union crew in the right-to-work state of Texas. But none of this would have happened, emphasized Shores, "if there hadn't been a play first. I estimated that more than 21,000 people saw the play in that tiny Theater/Theatre on Cahuenga between February '87, when we opened, and late November '88, when we finally closed."
The production's reviews and word of mouth made it that rare small theater phenomenon--the cast was paid, at a time when actors in such theaters rarely saw a dime.
Thus, "Daddy's Dyin' . . . Who's Got the Will?" (a title that deceptively sounds like a dumb vaudeville skit) joins a select club of L.A. stage plays that have jumped from tiny houses to the big screen. Other plays premiered in small theaters here in recent years that became theatrical movies include John Cassavetes' "Love Streams," "Ginger Ale Afternoon" (first seen at the Cast), "Casual Sex" (from the Groundlings) and the most well-known of the bunch, "Nuts" (staged at the Beverly Hills Playhouse before it went to Broadway). Currently, another small theater production, "Scorchers" (from the Whitefire Theatre in Sherman Oaks) is in pre-production as a feature film.
MGM, sensing that "Daddy's Dyin' . . . Who's Got the Will?" was a Southwestern "Moonstruck," premiered the movie May 1 in Dallas at the USA Dallas Film Festival. The movie had tested strongly in Dallas--in contrast to Chicago, where it tested poorly.
Other audience pre-screenings, said MGM executive vice president of marketing Barry Lorie, indicated that the movie "tested better in rural areas and so we are platforming the release in the Southwest to see how far and wide we can move it."
Los Angeles landed a release, said Lorie, "strictly because of the success of the play here. We did a direct mailing about the movie to thousands of people who saw the play in Hollywood with names supplied to us by the theater."
So a movie that palpably speaks to a mid-American, Southwestern sensibility is simultaneously being distributed as a speciality film here, where the hope is that the story's metaphor of sibling rivalry will speak to urban audiences. Its box-office performance here will directly influence the movie's future distribution in other big cities. The L.A. campaign is strictly print ads, while the studio is promoting the production with TV time in Texas.
It's a long way from a dank, cramped little theater to the big time, momentary as it may be. When MGM flew the cast back to Dallas for the movie's premiere, the stars were met by a stretch limo. Shores remembers McClure "bowling me over with a genuine memory."
McClure, the play and movie's raspy, tough-talking matron, turned to co-star Beau Bridges during the drive to the premiere and said: "I can't forget the roots of this picture. We may be in the lap of luxury now, but all I can remember is those damn terrible toilets backstage at Theater/Theatre."