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In a Hollywood era of mucho machismo

Coming up through the ranks, Robert E. Relyea mixed with the likes of Wayne and McQueen -- grist for a new memoir.

October 09, 2008|Susan King | Times Staff Writer

Robert E. Relyea witnessed an odd exchange between John Wayne and his horse Alamo while working as a first assistant director on the Duke's 1960 directorial debut called, appropriately enough, "The Alamo."

The epic was in the pre-production stage when Wayne was discussing with Relyea where the sets would be constructed.

"About that time, Alamo bit him on the butt," says Relyea. "Without breaking his thought, he hit the horse with a John Wayne cross, right between the eyes, and down the horse went. Its front legs collapsed, but its hind legs stayed up so its butt was up in the air. Then he reached over while he was still talking to me and helped the horse back on its feet. We didn't discuss [the incident] further."

It's no wonder that Relyea's memoir "Not So Quiet on the Set," written with his son Craig Relyea, is subtitled: "My Life in Movies During Hollywood's Macho Era."

Wayne, thankfully, treated Relyea a lot better than he did his horse. "Technically, he was the best director I ever worked with," he said.

"He really knew lenses, cutting. He knew how to handle crowds," Relyea recalled. "His communication with actors was a little bit wanting, but he was always great with me. We would meet every night after shooting and we would have a drink and discuss tomorrow's work while he would get a massage. If anything, he was overorganized."

Relyea, 78, began his movie career as a second assistant director for a one-scene retake on 1955's "Oklahoma!" The next year, he was the second assistant on "The Teahouse of the August Moon" with Marlon Brando and was promoted to first on the 1957 Elvis Presley musical "Jailhouse Rock."

Over the years, he worked as a first assistant on such classics as "The Magnificent Seven" and "West Side Story," a second-unit director on "The Great Escape" and associate producer and second-unit director on "The Hallelujah Trail."

In 1966, he formed Solar Productions with Steve Mc- Queen, with whom Relyea had worked on numerous films. Solar's first film was the 1968 police classic "Bullitt," which Relyea executive produced. But their next film, the 1971 racing film "Le Mans" not only ended their production company but also their friendship.

The initial problem was settling on a script. "There were Quonset huts filled with three writers individually writing [separate scripts]," he noted. Finally, Cinema Center, the studio making the movie, told Relyea to pick one and start production.

McQueen lost interest in the project. Instead of sticking around while the final script was polished, he took his family to Morocco. John Sturges, who had planned to direct, decided to leave. "He was the smart one: He just went home," said Relyea.

So Cinema Center brought in Lee H. Katzin, primarily known for his TV directing.

"The first day was wonderful," Relyea said sarcastically. "Steve was back from Morocco. He couldn't care less about anything and he was really pouting.

"So he goes on the set for the first shot and Katzin says, 'You are going to stand there. We made a little hole for [the leading lady] to stand in and a little mound for you to stand on.' [McQueen, at 5-foot-9, was sensitive about his height.] He said that in front of the whole crew. Steve said, 'You will be very lucky if I don't kill you.' And goes back to the dressing room."

The film was a critical and commercial diaster. Relyea and McQueen didn't talk again until in 1977, when Relyea got a call from the actor inviting him to dinner the next night at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel.

Relyea didn't recognize his old friend because he not only had put on weight but also was sporting a bushy beard for his role in "Enemy of the People."

"It was the longest night of my life," recalls Relyea, who still doesn't know why Mc- Queen wanted to reunite. "When I met him he looked like Smokey the Bear and I thought, what the hell happened?"

--

susan.king@latimes.com

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