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Two for the Road

A veteran filmmaker recalls the moments when he glimpsed Sinatra the man, not the image.

June 21, 1998|Mel Shavelson | Mel Shavelson, a writer for radio, TV and film, described his experiences with Sinatra in "How to Make a Jewish Movie" (Prentice Hall, 1971)

'In 10 minutes," Fredric March said to us, "you're going to see one wop nailed to the wall."

It was Friday, the Twentieth of January, One Thousand Nine Hundred and Sixty-one, according to the inscription on the silver cigarette box engraved with the invitation to the inauguration of John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Sinatra had given one to each of us who had worked on the Democratic Gala the night before, designed by Frank to pull the party out of the $3-million financial hole it had dug for itself in the election campaign. It was second only to the financial hole Sinatra himself was in at the time. We all knew Frank couldn't afford the cigarette cases, any more than he could afford the table full of caviar and champagne before dinner, the one he was throwing to thank us for the large egg we had all laid the previous evening when the gala was performed. (The talk around town was that Frank was going to have the Democratic party, but he might not be able to save himself, financially.)

Washington had been hit by the biggest blizzard in its history, and the snowbound audience, including the president-elect and Jackie, couldn't reach the auditorium until after 11 p.m. By 2 a.m., as the performance by every Democratic star in the Hollywood firmament wearily groaned to its close, most of the audience had turned Republican.

But Frank wanted us to know he appreciated our efforts, even if it resulted in his temporary bankruptcy. My Way, I think it's called.

At that point, Peter Lawford hurried into the upstairs Statler private dining room and told Frank that the new president had arrived at the Inaugural Ball and would like all of us connected with the ill-fated show to come downstairs so he could shake our hands and thank us personally.

Sinatra looked up from his soup and said, "Tell him we're eating." Lawford blanched slightly.

"I'm only his brother-in-law," he said. "You tell him."

"OK," declared Mr. Sinatra, getting to his feet, "I'll tell him."

And he walked casually out of the banquet room. Or as casually as anyone could who was immediately surrounded by five brawny Secret Service men.

They escorted him downstairs.

That was when Freddie March issued his dire prediction of the coming Italian crucifixion. A few moments later, Frank returned.

"Ladies and gentlemen," he announced, "the president of the United States."

And Kennedy entered, smiling. "I'm sorry," he apologized, "I didn't know you were eating."

There is much more to a story that says a great deal about two men who overcame backgrounds as different as night and day, or Hoboken and Hyannisport, and yet were so much alike in so many ways.

Both of them were entertainers.

Both of them were living legends.

Both of them were involved with the Mafia.

Both of them had affairs with Marilyn Monroe and Judith Exner.

But only one of them could sing.

If you were making a movie called "Cast a Giant Shadow" in 1966 in the heart of beleaguered little Israel, and you needed an actor to play the two-day role of a Texas aviator in the Israeli Air Force, whom would you cast?

Right the first time. Frank Sinatra.

That is, if the chumsin blowing in from the Negev Desert had gotten to your brain. The lore of the Middle East declares emphatically that during the period of this incessant, searing wind and dust storm, the human mind is not responsible for its actions. Even murder is forgiven as a pleasant distraction from the heat.

I could be excused, then, in my unhinged state, for thinking that the Living Legend would give up tens of thousands of dollars in nightclub and concert engagements to fly halfway around the world for a bit part in a movie about the Jewish general Mickey Marcus no studio in Hollywood had wanted to produce. The studio heads insisted they had already given to the United Jewish Appeal.

But after my previous experiences with Frank, I knew that there was no simple explanation for Sinatra's reaction to anything. He was a complicated man whose public image was largely an act.

His private images I never learned, although this time, I took a chance. There was a mystique, in those days, in the fate of the tiny, impossible nation in the act of prolonging its impossibility in the heart of its mortal enemies. Actors, including Kirk Douglas, John Wayne and Yul Brynner, had actually gone out of their way to secure roles in this film about Israel's incredible war of independence. United Artists had finally gone along, figuring that John Wayne's appearance would make the film Gentile by association, and with that cast, the picture couldn't fail even if I shot the telephone book instead of my script.

The mistake was that we shot my script, but that's another story.

I didn't know where Frank's private sympathies lay, and I wasn't sure he did, either. But I knew it wouldn't be what anyone expected. Was he secretly anti-Semitic? There was one way to find out.

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