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Hackett Revisits That 'Mad, Mad World'

March 29, 2001|PAUL BROWNFIELD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Director Stanley Kramer's comedy smorgasbord, "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World," will be shown Saturday at the Warner Grand Theatre in San Pedro.

"Mad," released in 1963, was the late director's extravagant, slapstick caper movie featuring a who's who of comedians, including Milton Berle, Phil Silvers, Jonathan Winters, Buddy Hackett, Sid Caesar, Dick Shawn and Mickey Rooney, part of a ragtag bunch chasing after a bank robber's buried cash. Spencer Tracy also stars as Captain C.G. Culpeper. The final sequence, which included characters suspended in midair on a fire engine ladder, was filmed in Long Beach, San Pedro and the Palos Verdes Peninsula.

Reached at his Beverly Hills home, Hackett, 76, prefaced his comments by saying his memory isn't what it once was ("I'm an elderly chap, I keep petting a dog that died 24 years ago."), but he did reminisce about Kramer, who died in February and who will be honored at a tribute Saturday at the Directors Guild of America, and the making of a comedy cult classic.

On Stanley Kramer: [Before filming, Kramer] took us to dinner at the Luau. This was the principals. [After dinner] he took us to a theater in Beverly Hills and there we saw [film of] all the second-unit stuff. All the car chases, all the things that [were] unbelievable in the picture. . . . I guess we were all of one thought, thinking, 'What'ya need me for?" I really believe they could have put that [footage] out, just the way it is.

. . . Later on we did more stunt work, but we had masks made of our faces, for those of us who were going to be up 150 feet. There was one ladder that was 40 feet, and only three of us would go up there, and that was me and Mickey [Rooney] and Eddie Anderson.

One day we were working very hard, and we were on golden time. It was a Saturday, and [Kramer] says, "All right, we're going to scrap all this stuff today. . . . And we'll shoot it fresh Monday. I was a poor kid, and I was enjoying the fruits of my labor, never knowing how long it would last, and when he said that, we're talking half a million dollars a day, something like that, and I kept thinking until Monday morning, "I hope none of this was my fault. . . . We became such fast friends that when he went to dub "Ship of Fools" [in France] I went with him.

On Spencer Tracy: We didn't know how sick Spencer Tracy was. But he came in late the first day. We had broken for lunch when he came in. Now we're sitting around after lunch, talking like comics do, and Spencer Tracy said, "Well, are we going to get started?" And Phil [Silvers], who had never known him, said, "Spence, you've never worked with guys like these. They're all richer than you are." Nowadays, Jim Carrey earns in one movie what I earned in my entire career. . . . So we all went out, did the first shot, then afterward we found out he was ill. Even though he was ill, he'd show up on days he didn't have a call. I'd sit down at his feet and he'd ask questions about how we started.

On acting in the film: I'd done quite a few movies before that, maybe five [features] and two shorts, so I knew what I was doing pretty well. But I was acting like them other guys, and especially the other actors, I let them discover how wonderful I was. Peter Falk, he'd be off in the corner, and he'd be communicating with himself, method acting, you know. And he'd be doing all these things, pretty much like De Niro in the mirror in "Taxi Driver."

On Jonathan Winters: He gets there in the morning, 7, 7:30. and he'd walk along and there would be some old grip carrying a lamp. Winters would say, "Hey, is that your lion? . . . They're nasty buggers there, aren't they?" . . . And guys would gather around and [Winters] would do 25 minutes with the lamp being a lion. And then he'd start to whistle and walk away.

On Milton Berle: He tried to stick his face in every shot, and try to be the last guy in the scene. But if you know Milton, he's the nicest man on the face of the Earth, until you're onstage with him. He has supported people, he has done things, but once you're onstage with him, his mother is still directing him.

* "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World" screens at 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday (8 p.m. screening hosted by Michael Schlesinger, vice president of repertory sales at Sony) at the Warner Grand Theatre, 478 W. 6th St., San Pedro. Tickets are $5 ($4 for seniors and children) for the 2 p.m. show, and $9 for the 8 p.m. show. Call (310) 548-7466.

* Hackett will be among many celebrities taking part in the memorial tribute to Stanley Kramer at 10 a.m. Saturday at the DGA, 7920 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood. Reservations: (310) 289-5318.

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