Friday, October 23, 2020

A conversation with Robert Campbell - Part One

You may not know Robert Campbell's name, but chances are you know his work. A prolific novelist and screenwriter, he penned more than two dozen books, and almost as many films, including a number for legendary producer/director Roger Corman. Campbell's screenplay for the 1957 Lon Chaney biopic MAN OF A THOUSAND FACES earned him an Academy Award nomination.

He also acted in several films, sometimes alongside his brother, veteran actor William Campbell (for a time, his sister-in-law was Judith Campbell Exner, best known for claiming to have had affairs with both JFK and Chicago mobster Sam Giancana). This interview was the first of a number I did with Campbell, a Newark, N.J., native, for various publications. We stayed in touch off-and-on until his death in 2000.

At the time of this interview, he'd just released his novel ALICE IN LA_LA-LAND, the second in his series about a quirky not-quite-official Hollywood private detective named Whistler. He had two other series under way at the same time, one about Chicago ward boss and neighborhood troubleshooter Jimmy Flannery, and another featuring railroad detective Jake Hatch. The first Flannery book, THE JUNKYARD DOG. won the 1986 Edgar Award for Best Paperback Original. (His 1975 novel THE SPY WHO SAT AND WAITED, was a finalist for the National Book Award that year).

This interview was conducted by phone from his home in Carmel, Calif., in November 1987, with an in-person follow-up at the Wyndham Hotel in NYC not long afterward.

WALLACE STROBY: First of all, I enjoyed the new book a lot.

ROBERT CAMPBELL: Which one was that?

STROBY: ALICE IN LA-LA LAND. Is there something else you have out that could be construed as new?

CAMPBELL: Yeah, I have the third book in the Jimmy Flannery series, called HIP DEEP IN ALLIGATORS. That was out the month before ALICE IN LA-LA LAND. And then I have another book, which I still consider a new book, that was out about two months before that, under the name “R. Wright Campbell,” called HONOR.

STROBY: That was your screenwriting name, wasn’t it?

CAMPBELL: Yes, I wrote as R. Wright Campbell as a screenwriter for many years, but I also used (that name) for my first six novels. Then I started writing under Robert Campbell, but R. Wright Campbell was put on HONOR because it was not quite this kind of urban streets voice that I’m speaking with now in the Robert Campbell books. (Those books) are a little bit more in the argot.

STROBY: How many books have you written altogether?

CAMPBELL: Well, let me see ... There were seven as R. Wright Campbell. I wrote one book as “F. G. Clinton” called THE TIN COP. I’ve published three Flannerys so far, but there are two more Flannerys that are already written that will be out soon.
I’ve published two LA-LA-LAND books so far, and the third one I’m working on right now (SWEET LA-LA LAND), and that’ll soon be completed. And then I have a book coming out from Pocket Books, another detective named Jake Hatch, who is a railroad detective working the Burlington-Northern line between Denver and Chicago. He works out of Omaha. The first book in that series is called PLUGGED NICKEL, and that’ll be coming out in March. That’ll be (under) Robert Campbell too. And then I’ve got a contract (for) another book in that same series called RED CENT that’s coming out.

And then I just sold a book to Simon & Schuster – through Pocket Books, which is under the Simon & Schuster umbrella. for a book called JUICE, which is one of these urban crime novels, but is not in any series. It’s not the beginning of any series either. It’s just a standalone crime novel.

STROBY: Have the novels been something you’ve been doing mainly in the latter part of your career or were you writing books while you were doing screenplays?

CAMPBELL: No, what happened was in – I’m probably not too clear on these dates – in 1971 or ’72 there was a major strike with the screenwriters guild down in Hollywood. At that time, I turned to the novel.

I always wanted to write a novel. I think a lot of screenwriters do. They’d like to either write a play or a novel. Not so much that it’s more substantial, but certainly they have greater control over it.

I’ve had some absurd things happen to me as a screenwriter, but I took the attitude that what I wrote in my original draft was my contribution to my own sense of achievement, and that whatever they did with it afterward (was up to them). If they said to me, “Hey, we’d like to change this from five cowboys to five Orientals on a raft,” I’d say “Sure, what the hell? Why not? Let’s go for it.” That can drive you really mad.

So I finally sat down and I wrote THE SPY WHO SAT AND WAITED (1975) and made some inquiries in New York and got an agent, and it gave me at least the courage (to pursue writing novels). I wrote a couple of books after that before I finally made the move.

But Hollywood at that stage of the game was becoming – not only the profession but the city itself – was becoming so extraordinary ... Everything was based upon money, everything was based upon greed. Listen, money is okay, we all need money. But sometimes in certain professions an odd line is crossed where people who were pretty decent and with some integrity in practically any given situation, suddenly turned from simply ambitious people to greedy people, and then all bets are off. They would sell you down the river for a nickel. And it became such a terrible atmosphere that I hate to even go down there.

STROBY: How long have you lived in Carmel?

CAMPBELL: Ten years.

STROBY: How many screenplays have you done, do you remember?

CAMPBELL: I did about a dozen, maybe a little more. Early in the game, many times you do things and you don’t take credit for it, for one reason or another. Either because your contribution you feel isn’t great enough, or sometimes you’re asked to come in and save a picture, and you don’t even want to bother. Then, of course, I did a lot of television. When the business started to change, it was almost a requirement.

STROBY: How did you get hooked up with Roger Corman?

CAMPBELL: Roger is, as you know, sort of an odd sort of a guy. He’s got a reputation for having discovered people. The way he discovered people – and this is not a criticism of him, it was actually a wise way of going about it – was that he didn’t pay (them) anything. What he did do was give young writers or newcomers to the business opportunities they wouldn’t otherwise get. Unfortunately, Roger never allowed any of the writers to grow with him. When he got better opportunities, he very rarely called upon the writers that had more or less worked with him in the beginning.

But frankly, that’s another matter altogether. To me, it’s almost as if my movie career was a separate life and, from my point of view, has no bearing upon the novels that I write.

STROBY: The LA-LA LAND books seem to indicate a love/hate relationship with Hollywood that eventually seem to fade to simple disgust. Would that be an accurate evaluation?

CAMPBELL: (Sighs) Yeah, yeah, yeah. When I first went to Hollywood years ago, my brother had just gone out there to go under contract to Warners. I was an artist back in New York. He came back east to buy a new Chevy convertible, because my father had contacts at some big car joint and it would save my brother several hundred dollars. Anyway, my brother asked me to help him drive his car back to California.

At that time, Bill was living in a furnished room behind Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, and around Hollywood and Vine it was like a small town. It was extraordinary. Remember, I came from a big industrial city – Newark, New Jersey – so this really seemed like hicksville to me. People would stroll along Hollywood Boulevard at night doing window shopping.

The thing that really knocked me out was that they had these juice stands on the street where you could get any fresh juice you wanted. Strawberry juice by the glassful, who could believe it? Bill and I would drive around in his open Chevy, which he was very proud of, and then stop at one of those big circular diners they had at the time, those great drive-in diners.

STROBY: How did you end up a screenwriter?

CAMPBELL: I first went to Hollywood in 1952, when I was 25 years old, but then I got my draft notice and had to go into the Korean War for two years. I had come home on leave at the same time Bill was back from Hollywood to visit our folks at Christmas. He had a script with him that he was about to do called BATTLE CRY. I read the script and asked him, “How much does somebody get for writing something like this, Billy?” “(He said) Oh, he probably got $50,000.” I said, “God, Billy, anybody can write this kind of stuff.” Billy laughed, and told me that it wasn’t as easy as it looked.

After the war, I returned to Hollywood. I used to hang around, like everybody did, at either Schwabs, the drugstore, or a coffee shop named Googies that was right next door. We’d sit around and chat, and there would be all kinds of people there – actors, directors, writers, people that were trying to make it.

There was a guy named Jackie (Jonathan) Haze that I knew, and Jackie was a young actor who had some kind of connection with Roger Corman. I think he had worked as a grip or something on one of Roger’s pictures, just to pick up the extra dough. And Jackie had a cousin, Red Hershon, who was an agent. So what happened was that Jackie told me that Roger was looking for somebody to write this western (FIVE GUNS WEST, his directorial debut) for very small money, and I said “Well, hell, I’ll do it.”

I only got $200 for the script, but that was the first real movie sale I made. I said to Roger, “Jesus, Roger, that’s not a hell of a lot of money to live on.” I told him I noticed that all the actors, because they were in the Guild, made more money than I did, even the bit players. He said, “You want to play a part?” and I said “Why the hell not?” So the next thing you know, I was acting in my own picture.

PART TWO: FIVE GUNS WEST, working for Roger Corman, and an encounter with Lon Chaney Jr.

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