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The Nation | COLUMN ONE

Tracking HAL's Odyssey

The evil camera lens from '2001' is alive and well and living with a memorabilia collector in Georgia -- maybe. But the plot thickens.

November 27, 2003|Robert W. Welkos | Times Staff Writer

He vaulted to screen stardom a generation ago in Stanley Kubrick's science fiction epic "2001: A Space Odyssey," stealing scenes with his mesmerizing stare, tranquil voice and neurotic behavior.

He had no face, but he had a name: HAL 9000. He had a birthplace: the HAL plant in Urbana, Ill. And a birth date: Jan. 12, 1992 (although the novel "2001" claims it was 1997).

He was never nominated for an Academy Award for best actor, but the American Film Institute voted him the 13th-greatest Hollywood screen villain of all time.

Not bad ... for a camera lens.

Now, a Georgia man named Kirk Wooster claims to own the famous movie prop that was used as HAL, the murderous computer depicted in Kubrick's landmark 1968 film, and is offering it for sale at $250,000.

But is the large Fairchild-Curtis 160-degree F2 ultra-wide-angle lens really HAL, or another lens posing as HAL? Opinions vary -- even among crew members who worked on the movie with Kubrick in England. Complicating matters is the fact that Kubrick, cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth and John Alcott, who provided additional photography, are dead.

And the lens isn't talking.

The debate over HAL comes at a time when the popularity of movie and TV memorabilia auctions is soaring. Yet, in a market flooded with knockoffs, determining authenticity can be difficult.

In Wooster's case, witness evidence and other materials suggest that a Fairchild-Curtis lens was indeed used by Kubrick on the set of "2001." But was it HAL?

Wooster surmises that after production ended, the lens was returned to the United States and stored in a box for 30 years without people giving much thought to its potential worth until he purchased it in 1999 and began his research. Wooster said he was always interested in Kubrick's film and bought the lens when a friend offered to sell it to him.

"This is a piece of cinema history that would have vanished if I hadn't taken an interest in it," said Wooster, a 65-year-old commercial helicopter pilot and producer of large-format films who lives in Woodstock, Ga., about 30 miles north of Atlanta. He says he has turned down offers of $100,000 for his lens.

Not exactly small change, but serious fans, no longer satisfied with a celebrity's scribbled autograph on an 8-by-10 glossy, are spending huge sums for props and costumes that were part of classic movies and TV shows.

In recent years, private collectors have paid $666,000 for a pair of ruby slippers worn by Judy Garland in "The Wizard of Oz"; $306,000 for Capt. Kirk's command chair from the starship Enterprise on the TV series "Star Trek"; $92,000 for a resin statuette of the falcon from the Humphrey Bogart detective yarn "The Maltese Falcon"; and $15,000 for a genie's bottle used in the 1960s sitcom "I Dream of Jeannie." And dealers still are buzzing over the $1.54 million that pop star Michael Jackson reportedly shelled out in 1999 for producer David O. Selznick's best-picture Oscar from "Gone With the Wind."

"Everybody has a movie they love, or a famous line from a film they remember, or a television show episode that sticks in their mind," said Joseph Maddalena, who owns Profiles in History, a Beverly Hills document and movie memorabilia auction house.

Prices soared in the mid-1990s, dealers say, when Planet Hollywood and the Hard Rock Cafe displayed show biz memorabilia in their restaurants. The public's appetite for props and costumes took off, and soon even some of the most common props, if part of a classic film, were going for a small fortune.

Today, some movie studios also are getting into the act. On New Line Cinema's Web site this month, for instance, Will Ferrell's costume from the holiday comedy "Elf" sold for $2,755. In previous auctions, the studio sold Jim Carrey's yellow suit from "The Mask" for $16,001, Wesley Snipes' outfit from "Blade" for $8,999 and Mike Myers' maroon vertical-striped suit from "Austin Powers in Goldmember" for $3,005. A portion of each sale goes to charity, a studio official said.

Buying props directly from a studio helps resolve one issue: proving authenticity. But on the open market, let the buyer beware.

Marcia Tysseling, co-owner of Star Wares Collectibles in Agoura Hills, said she recently paid $20,000 to a private party on EBay for a red-beaded dress and a sheer pastel dress with a pink coat said to have been worn by Kate Winslet in the Oscar-winning 1997 film "Titanic." But after taking the dresses to 20th Century Fox and comparing them with costumes known to have been from the movie, she realized the dresses she had purchased were bogus and got her money back.

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For fans of "2001: A Space Odyssey," almost anything that comes onto the market would be a potential treasure, because it is believed most of the props and sets were destroyed in the early 1970s, a time when cash-starved MGM was auctioning off many of its props.

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