Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollectionsEditors

Calendar Goes to the OSCARS : A Lifetime of Achievements but Only a Tiny Pension : Movies: Film editor Gene Ruggiero's monthly check is $242.71. But he claims he deserves about $1,250 a month.

March 21, 1994|JANE GALBRAITH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

All the happy talk that surrounds Oscar season is met with some bitterness at Gene Ruggiero's temporary home.

On the mantle is his tarnished statuette earned in 1956 for co-editing "Around the World in 80 Days"--now a mottled color more copper than gold. In his glory era that also included an Oscar nomination for "Oklahoma!," he sent it out to be cleaned, and it came back instead stripped of its thin electroplated veneer.

In the years he could afford to have it replated, he didn't. And today, at 83 and nearly destitute, it'll never happen.

But sell it at auction to raise needed cash? Never.

"My best work. My favorite film--still," he said, nestling it in the crook of his arm as he moves over to the couch to sit for a photograph.

In the Motion Picture Guide, Ruggiero recounts how he and "80 Days" co-editor Paul Weatherwax were handed countless reels of film by producer Mike Todd: "I told (Todd) to go away for two weeks and leave us alone. And then we cut the monster down to something that made sense."

*

All these decades later, missing nearly all his front teeth and suffering from shingles, Ruggiero is in a strange place. He has just collected another trophy, the American Cinema Editors' Career Achievement Award, which was given out a week ago Saturday by Martin Scorsese--yet his monthly check from the Motion Picture Industry Pension Plan is a mere $242.71.

After his lifetime of working in the film business, he believes he is owed a higher amount.

"This is no ordinary business . . . it's a crazy business," he said, lucid but flummoxed when asked to fully explain his situation. After all, he has worked and survived nearly everyone he's known since he moved to Hollywood in the late 1920s at the express wishes of Loews Inc. President Nicholas Schenck, worked at MGM for 31 years, owned and sold production companies, owned screenplay properties and story rights, worked well into his 70s--and still is broke.

Several failed marriages (he'd rather not discuss the exact number) may have had something to do with it. (One ex-wife, Eva, has kindly taken him back in.)

Some would say it is an oft-told tale, the flip side to the glittery life in and around the star factories. Usually, it's the higher-profile actors and actresses whose checkered careers are written about--rarely the fate of below-the-line technicians.

Ruggiero, however, believes his story is more than just a recap of fanciful tales about the rich, famous and infamous. Given a rare moment's pause in the conversation, he will go on about his regular morning round of golf at Hillcrest Country Club with Louis B. Mayer (Ruggiero, a scratch golfer, toyed once with turning pro), or how he bested Douglas Fairbanks Sr. in a tournament, or how Mario Lanza wouldn't make a picture unless he, Ruggiero, cut it. He'll even tell (off the record) a few salacious tidbits about Bugsy Siegal's mistress, Virginia Hill, and the real facts of Siegal's gory ambush in his Beverly Hills living room--and it's not the Warren Beatty version seen in "Bugsy." John Ford was a "cheapskate" in the salary department, he says, as well as a creative gift-giver. Ford's idea of mollifying Ruggiero on "The Wings of Eagles" came in the offer of a new putter.

What's really on Ruggiero's mind, though, is getting the MPIPP to pay him some heed.

And helping him are two screenwriter-producers, Cary Solomon and Chuck Konzelman, who met Ruggiero three years ago when he helped them negotiate rights on a spec script.

"You always read about old Hollywood, and he was old Hollywood," said Solomon. "He helped us out, and we thought helping him out was the right thing to do."

Ruggiero believes he banked enough hours as an editor to earn a pension equal to that which 30-year editors get, about $1,250 a month. He says that he could prove it but that the documents that could do so have long since been lost or thrown out. He claims moving to Rome in the '60s to work for offshore production companies interrupted payments into the fund. Upon his return to Hollywood, he worked on such pictures as "Cast a Giant Shadow" and "Moonshine Country Express" while running his own company, Post Production Inc., where he believes his employees were awarded hours he was not.

What he needs is for his former employers--the Hollywood studios and production companies--to provide documentation for the number of hours he worked for them. Problems arise when those same employers, some of them independent, are either out of business or never were signatory to the editors guild, Local 776.

MPIPP Administrative Director Harley B. Blakenship said the inch-thick file on Ruggiero shows that the editor has initiated two prior inquiries "represented by legal counsel . . . neither of which would show a basis for additional pension entitlement." Ruggiero, he says, could try again.

Meanwhile, Ruggiero is sitting on a number of story rights he's entertaining offers to sell. One is about the Big Bopper, the '50s novelty hit-maker J. P. Richardson, whom the late John Candy had expressed interest in portraying not so long ago.

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|