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A High And Mighty Guy

Remembering a Wild Man Named Bill

May 05, 1996|Charles Champlin | Charles Champlin is an occasional contributor to Calendar

When he went in person to bid on a property for sale on Barrington Avenue in Brentwood, William Wellman once told me, the conversation began smoothly enough until the woman who was selling the place asked, "What business are you in?" When Wellman said, "Motion pictures," she slammed the door in his face.

That was a long time ago, when proper old Los Angeles still regarded movie people as parvenus, gypsies and, if possible, worse. Wellman thought the story hilarious, not least because it had a happy ending. He sent along a secretary, who exuded good breeding and gentility, to negotiate in his place, without reference to the dreaded movie trade. It is still the Wellman family homestead, and Wild Bill, as he was called (with some justice), lived there until he died at the end of 1975.

Earlier that year, I called on Wellman, who is the subject of a documentary, "Wild Bill," which opens Saturday and runs for a week at the Nuart in West Los Angeles. We talked about the extraordinary autobiography, "A Short Time for Insanity" (Hawthorn), he had published not long before. He was 79 and beginning to be frail (he died of leukemia), but he somehow looked lean and leathery and his mind was sharp. He seemed the foxy grandpa, with traces of a curmudgeonliness that had mellowed a good deal.

His book was unique among tales of Hollywood because he wrote it over a 10-year period, and in some of those years he was, with an amazing show of will, weaning himself off an addiction to codeine-heavy pills--giant tablets he called "green hornets"--he had begun taking for back pain.

He'd broken his back when he was shot down during the World War I, flying a Nieuport as a member of the Black Cat squadron of the famous Lafayette Escadrille. (He always gave it the French pronunciation, "Escadree.") The old injury flared up again, with complications, when he was in his 60s, and it was maddeningly painful.

The book has a wonderful, sometimes hallucinatory stream-of-consciousness quality that is as far as you can get from "And then I directed. . . . " He was an inspired talker, vivid, original, profane when it served, eloquent when required, and his jottings sound exactly like Wellman talking. He wrote very well indeed, and his only Oscar was as the co-author of the original "A Star Is Born," which he directed.

"Things way out of my past would go off in my head like firecrackers," Wellman remembered, "and they'd sputter out and something else would go off. I got to thinking it might be fun to try to write some of it down."

Fun to read it certainly is. Memories of old pals, like his fellow flier Tommy Hitchcock who later became a world-famous polo star, rush forward from deep in the past with strange immediacy, changing as in a kaleidoscope into bedside visits from his wife, Dottie, and their seven children and the first of their grandchildren. (There are now 26 grandchildren and great-grandchildren.)

Wellman had been married four times--about as swiftly as he could get in and out of divorce court, he told me. "For a while I had the impression the world was populated entirely by mothers-in-law. I had got to be one of the world's great experts on mothers-in-law." Wellman shook his head and added, "There were times when I used to think I'd been born with a bride. And I have to say that 90% of the reasons that the marriages went wrong was me."

Then in 1933 he met Dorothy Coonan, one of Busby Berkeley's dancers, a lovely woman not yet out of her teens (and justly wary of his matrimonial history, not to say the legends of his beveraging and fighting).

He courted her on best behavior and they stayed married for more than 40 years, until he died. "She housebroke me," Wellman said, "and I mean fast. She saved my life."

Their life together was as adventurous as his alone had been. Their daughter Celia (Cissy) remembers that they both loved motorcycles. "Mother had a little Harley of her own, and they went riding with Howard and Slim Hawks, Robert Taylor and Barbara Stanwyck, Keenan Wynn, Ward Bond and Andy Devine." Bill Wellman Jr. remembers that they called themselves the Moraga Spit and Polish Club, after Moraga Drive, where Hawks lived.

"He and Mother once cycled all the way to Las Vegas and back," Cissy adds. "Crazy!"

Wellman was as independent a spirit as Hollywood has ever known, Marlon Brando not excluded. He told me proudly he'd only had one producer to dinner in his life, but didn't say who it was, although he admired Irving Thalberg and David O. Selznick. He admitted he and Spencer Tracy hated each other, and he once had a fistfight with Darryl Zanuck in a Vancouver hotel lobby, one of several conspicuous brawls in Wellman's Wild Bill days.

His story was the stuff of movies: a kid on probation for car theft, kicked out of prep school for a prank, then, hardly old enough to vote, an honored flier. His Hollywood career began when, in uniform, he landed his plane on Douglas Fairbanks' polo field at Pickfair. Wellman acted in one Fairbanks film, hated it, and, realizing the directors had all the fun, worked to become one.

He paid his ironic tribute to himself and Hollywood in his book: " . . . movies, that big nest of hits and flops, with so many broken dreams wiggling out from it, from which come the few hitters and the many floppers. And through it all occasionally stumbles a bum with a crown on his head. I am that bum."

He wasn't, of course, although the bit about the crown is right. He was one of those originals who helped create the ways the movies tell their stories, and I am glad to have met him, if only at twilight. Better late than never.

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