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I met Richard Donner on the set of LETHAL WEAPON 4 while they were shooting an action scene with Jet Li. An elderly guy with graying hair discusses the shot with a friend. When they started talking about Jet I interjected telling them I've seen his films. He strains his neck around and with raised eyebrows, jovially asks, "Who the hell are you?" I apologize, introduce myself and share my background in Chinese film. Taken aback, he calls over stunt coordinator Mic Rogers and says, "Why the hell didn't you hire this Dr. Reid to work on my film?" The elderly guy was Dick Donner. I didn't work on the film, but it was a totally cool way to meet such a great director. So when I called to speak to him about THE WILD, WILD WEST, he remembered our stint and gleefully shares with us what he can recall.
"Craig," he forcibly quips, "I got to tell you, I don't remember too much of what I did way back then. But you can describe the episodes to me and hopefully that might snap something in my memory."
Naturally the first thing I want to find out about is if he did anything on the pilot. When I casually ask how did he get involved in the show he speedily replies, "They brought me in to redo the pilot. Back then I was known as a pilot doctor. Around that time had redone about five pilots, like GILLIGAN'S ISLAND. I got along with everyone and enjoyed working on the show and I thought it was a clever show. I remember there was a big battle scene to do, they gave me a good two weeks to do it."
Although he came back on the show "The Night of the Bars of Hell" where we see the first electric chair and West being its first victim, Donner recalls that it was produced by Gene Coon. "Sorry, vaguely remember that one but I remember that Coon was a wonderful man, good producer and writer, very creative and inventive and really gave me free rein on my work."
The pilot's credited director, Richard Sarafian, apparently didn't get along with Conrad, so what was Donner's view?
"We had met before socially and had a good time but I'd get upset at him because he wanted to do all of his own stunts himself. As a matter of fact... ah yes, now I remember, in that prison show ("Bars of Hell"), he went up stairs or something then came down or ran down a corridor and flew through this wall smashing it to pieces and landed on a card table with a bunch of guys playing cards and he landed too far. He got carried out."
One of the other shows Donner did was "TNot Murderous" Spring", fourth in the Dr. Loveless saga. It was the first without Loveless' giant sidekick Voltaire, but his new sidekick was instead a very large lady named Kitty Twitty (Jenie Jackson) and a mute attendant played by Conrad's father, Leonard Falk. Donner reminisces, "Michael Dunn, ah, he was a delightful, stimulating and charming guy. I'm six foot one but in a sense he was much taller than I, and back then he knew nothing of his size. I remember that Bob and his boys were very protective of him and to make sure he didn't exceed his bounds but he was a tough kid but he was also pretty fragile.
"We did the end scene first where Dunn had to come running out of a chicken coop or something, although the show was about him using ducks? (I mumble "Yes.") Well he tripped over the coop and hurt his leg so we had to rewrite all the other scenes with him on a wheelchair. So in the beginning the big, fat lady, a wonderful woman, he would hide between her legs and we had him hidden in her carrying bag also. Did that show at Radford, just off of Ventura Boulevard. It was a tiny lot, had a little Western street, and that's where we did GILLIGAN'S ISLAND there because where Loveless tripped was near the lake. That was also with Gene Coon."
The last show Donner directed was "TNot Returning Dead" which starred Sammy Davis, Jr., and Peter Lawford. As I explain the show's premise and story line he frankly admits that he recalls very little about the episode except for the goings on after the show. "What I do remember is that after the show, Peter and Sammy and I became good friends the three of us, and they asked me to come up with a movie for the two of them to do together. I came up with SALT AND PEPPER (about Soho nightclub owners find trouble when two baddies enter their club). We got Michael Pertwee (author brother of Jon Pertwee, DOCTOR WHO) to write it and we shot it in England. After that we started, with Paul Newman, Pierce Salinger and a few others, our own disco-tech in LA called "The Factory." It was world renown and the most exclusive one in LA. But with the picture, I had a terrible falling out with Lawford and Sammy. It was years ago. They fired me from the final cut. There was a lot of drugs and alcohol in those days and I didn't get along. Then Jerry Lewis directed a sequel and I was sequelized on the second picture of my life. Later on, we kept a "Hello" friendship after it. But being involved with THE WILD, WILD WEST really helped my career along as becoming a filmmaker."
The show's last producer Bruce Lansbury adds, "I remember when I came on, I really tried to get Donner to come back and do a few episodes but he was already launched into doing films. He was a commercial director but he obviously moved up."
Donner closes with a few memories on WWW creator and producer Michael Garrison. "I had a lot of fun working on the show and Garrison was a wonderful, flamboyant and crazy producer. He was gay but it wasn't too tough for him to handle it back then. I remember once we went to a big dinner party at his house and my date was very upset because he was dressed in a prettier dress than she. I'll never forget that, he was very outgoing about it and he was just delightful."
"I was very saddened when I heard that he died. It was weird. My girlfriend at the time and I were at his new home and we noticed that under a rug on a flight of stairs he had these incredible Spanish tiles. I remember that only too well. He removed the rug. So when he fell down those stairs, you wonder if the rug had still been there, he might not have broken his neck. Very sad. He made working on the show delightful and I don't ever remember any problems with working on the show."
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