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The day Rock Hudson came to town

The 50th anniversary of the filming of cult classic ‘Seconds’

By ANDY BASS
Photos used with permission by Paramount Pictures

Rock Hudson in a scene on Lockwood Road

 

The dog days of August. In Scarsdale, it’s a time typically characterized by increased tranquility. A time of exodus to vacation destinations. A time when sleepy neighborhood blocks become even sleepier.

But for a three-day period 50 years ago this month, the normal August slumber in Scarsdale was interrupted by extraordinary commotion. Not the level of pandemonium present at Shea Stadium a few days earlier courtesy of the Beatles, but quite a hubbub by Scarsdale standards. The source was a Paramount Pictures film crew in town for a shoot that included a scene with one of Hollywood’s most popular leading men, Rock Hudson. And while the 39-year-old actor was the primary focus of attention of the public and the media, the shoot also brought two other cinema legends to the village — John Frankenheimer, the pre-eminent director, and James Wong Howe, one of the most influential cinematographers in the history of film.

The shoot was for “Seconds,” a motion picture described by Leonard Maltin as “one of the most outstanding films of the 1960s, and one of the most brilliantly photographed films of all time.”

A chilling science fiction drama, “Seconds” is the third film in what has come to be known as Frankenheimer’s paranoia trilogy. (“The Manchurian Candidate” and “Seven Days in May” are the others.)

Described by some as the ultimate midlife crisis movie, “Seconds” is the story of Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph), a New York banker who lives in Scarsdale. While he has a prestigious and well-paying job, he lives an unhappy and meaningless life. He is lured into becoming a client of an underground corporation that promises him a new life. It offers to fake his death, give him an unrecognizable and youthful appearance through surgery, provide him with a new identity, and relocate him to a new area where he can begin a second life free of responsibility. He agrees to the procedure and takes on the alias of Tony Wilson (Rock Hudson).

“Seconds” is based on the 1963 novel of the same name by David Ely. But in Ely’s book, the protagonist lives in Connecticut, and Scarsdale is never mentioned. The introduction of Scarsdale as a setting in the film is solely attributable to one man — the film’s screenwriter, Lewis John Carlino. “My gosh, I hadn’t realized a half a century had gone by,” laughed Carlino, 83, when reached by phone last month from his home in Washington’s Puget Sound.

Carlino said he was asked to adapt the novel for the big screen by Frankenheimer and producer Edward Lewis after the two had seen an off-Broadway play he had written called “Cages.” He had not previously met either man. Perhaps best known as the director of the 1979 film, “The Great Santini,” at the time Carlino was exclusively a playwright. “It was quite a leap of faith since I hadn’t written a film prior to this,” he admitted.

Carlino said he chose Scarsdale as a setting for its symbolism. “At the time, Scarsdale represented a bedroom community to executives in New York who would take that commuter train. It was a way of life that people settled into at an executive level. It represented in my mind a symbolic structure of a man’s life — you work in the city and then you go to Scarsdale and that’s the routine.”  And while there may have been other communities similar to Scarsdale in that regard, Carlino said he never considered any alternatives. “Scarsdale just seemed more prominent in the collective New York executive psyche of the time,” he explained.

Filming the Scarsdale scenes anywhere else was never considered, he said.  “Once the name of the place had been embedded in the script and in the minds of the producer and the director, [filming in Scarsdale] was just a natural choice to give it the authenticity that we were trying to give it,” Carlino explained.  “It was John Frankenheimer’s decision to do that.”

Frankenheimer and Howe both felt that a film with as bizarre a plot as “Seconds” required an unusual type of photography. Howe came up with the idea of using an extreme wide-angle 9.7-millimeter lens. Filmed in black and white, the movie also featured other unorthodox techniques like extreme low-angle camera positions and hand-held shots. 

Most of “Seconds” was filmed in southern California. The production crew headed east to finish filming in New York in August of 1965. After shooting scenes in a lower Manhattan tailor shop and Grand Central Terminal, the crew spent a day filming a scene with Randolph aboard real New York Central Harlem Line trains, going back and forth multiple times between the terminal and Westchester. Using a hand-held camera, Howe did all of the filming on the trains himself. It is from this sequence that the first image of Scarsdale appears in the film — a view of Depot Place as seen from the interior of a fast-moving southbound train.

A commitment to another project prevented Carlino from joining the crew of 225 as filming in Scarsdale commenced the following day at the train station. The first scene features a low-angle shot from a hidden camera placed on the then ground-level platform. With the station building in view, a northbound train pulls into the station and real commuters disembark.

The film then cuts to a high-angle shot from the west side of the station of Randolph walking amongst real commuters from the platform to a station wagon in the parking lot where his wife (Frances Reid) awaits.

Frankenheimer employed a novel approach in filming the next scene with Randolph and Reid having a lengthy conversation in the car as they drive home from the station. It was standard practice in Hollywood at the time for interior car scenes to be filmed in a studio against a rear projection screen. But Frankenheimer, in a quest for authenticity, tried something different. He hired Bill Frick, an innovative racecar builder, to construct camera mounts on the station wagon. The technique allowed the actors to be filmed inside the car as they were actually driving along village streets.

While the shoot at the station went off without a hitch, filming at the other village location presented a number of unforeseen problems for Paramount. The first issue, reported at the time by Vincent Canby of The New York Times, involved the use of a private home as the main character’s residence. Three months prior, a Paramount production manager had scouted the village for a suitable home to use in the film. A house owned by an empty-nest couple on Lockwood Road between Popham Road and School Lane was selected and a contract signed for its use. For $100, Paramount was permitted to film on the exterior of the home and inside in the foyer.

With an agreement in hand, Paramount had an extensive replica built on a Hollywood set to match the interior of the home as seen from the foyer. They also arranged to have Hudson flown out from the West Coast for what would be his only day of filming in the New York area.

But just two weeks before the scheduled shoot, the couple told Paramount they had changed their mind. They didn’t want the hassle, the attention, or the potential property damage that might result from the filming. Furthermore, they decided they were going on vacation the week of the scheduled shoot.  Producer Edward Lewis was alarmed, as the abrupt change of plans was likely to cost the studio thousands of dollars. Lewis told the couple he would pay for their vacation if they would agree to postpone it and allow the filming to proceed as planned. The couple accepted the offer and received an additional sum of $500.

Another problem arose the day of the Hudson shoot when another resident on the block was informed by the film crew that a car belonging to his visiting family member could not be parked in his own driveway. Incensed, the man took out his gas-powered lawnmower, began running it over his front lawn, and refused to stop. With the roar of the mower making it impossible for Frankenheimer to communicate with his cast and crew, and with the Scarsdale man and his mower in camera range of planned scenes, filming could not proceed. But Lewis soon resolved the conflict in the same manner as the previous incident. A financial offer was made to the resident and he agreed to cease and desist.

With the issues with the adults all settled, Lewis and company found themselves with one final group to contend with — the neighborhood children. At the time, the stretch of Lockwood Road was inhabited by an unusually high number of young baby boomers, and the block was their playground. Fearing the children could disrupt the filming by running through scenes, Lewis made one final payout. He instructed his crew to hand each of the children $2 bills in exchange for them each agreeing to play elsewhere.

Hudson’s appearance in Scarsdale on Aug. 19, 1965 was big news locally. The White Plains-based Reporter Dispatch sent two reporters to the village to write two separate articles on the filming. The Scarsdale Inquirer, meanwhile, ran an above-the-fold front-page story that came out the day of Hudson’s visit. To protect Lockwood Road residents from unwanted sightseers, the Inquirer did not report the location of the shoot. But news spread through word of mouth and The Reporter Dispatch reported 400 onlookers present for the filming. Adding to the commotion on the block was a WNBC television crew on hand to film the filming for a documentary on motion picture shoots in the Hudson Valley titled, “Hollywood on the Hudson.”

One of The Reporter Dispatch reporters assigned to the story was Barbara Strollo Gardella, now wife of former village attorney Richard Gardella. (The two met when both were reporters at the paper.) She was tasked by her editor with one not-so-simple mission: get an interview with Rock Hudson.

The onlookers on Lockwood Road were fairly well behaved, following instructions from the Scarsdale police to move aside when scenes were about to begin. Gardella reported that the filming was in between takes when Frankenheimer informed the onlookers that they could move in close enough to take a few pictures of “Mr. Hudson.” Sensing an opportunity, she pleaded with the director for a chance to ask his star a few questions. Frankenheimer consented and ushered her to Hudson’s side as he leaned against a car in the street. With the moment at hand, the young reporter began her impromptu interview with the man of the hour.

How did he like Scarsdale? “Well, I haven’t seen it,” he replied with a smile. How would he describe the film? “Suspenseful, something a little different,” he explained. Did he prefer working in a comedy or a drama? “Either one, as long as it’s good,” he answered. Hudson also provided Gardella one unsolicited comment. “It’s been a rough morning. The weather here is just like it is in Chicago,” he complained, in comparing the heat and humidity to that of his hometown. And that was it. The crowd surrounding the two had begun to swell and Hudson quickly escaped into his haven for the day, the Lockwood Road house.

Hudson’s scenes in Scarsdale occur at a point in the film when his character is having trouble adjusting to his new life on the West Coast. He decides to fly back to Scarsdale to visit his wife. Now unrecognizable to her, he poses as a friend of her “late husband” in order to see how she’s doing without him and to try to figure out where he went wrong in his life. The sequence begins with Hudson standing in the street staring at the house. After a moment of hesitation, he marches across the front lawn to the front door. He’s greeted at the door by a maid and proceeds to enter and walk through the foyer. The film then cuts to the Hollywood set where the living room conversation between Hudson and Reid takes place.

Following the meeting, the film cuts back to Scarsdale as Hudson is seen leaving the house. He walks down the front walkway holding a memento his wife had given him wrapped in newspaper. He turns to walk up the street and stops to unwrap the item, which he discovers is one of his old tennis trophies. Sensing something beside him, he turns to discover a limousine. Out pops John (Wesley Addy), a member of the underground corporation who, unbeknownst to Hudson’s character, had followed him across the country. The two enter the chauffeured limousine and the car drives off. Another interior car scene ensues with yet another car mount.

The official shooting schedule lists only the station and Lockwood Road as filming locations in the village. But The Scarsdale Inquirer article provides a possible clue as to the area where the two village driving scenes may have been shot when it refers to a member of the film crew eating lunch “on the shore of the Duck Pond.”

When asked in the WNBC documentary if it was worth flying across the country for just a single day of filming, Hudson responded affirmatively. “To re-create the Scarsdale area, I don’t think one could in Los Angeles,” he explained.

Carlino, like others associated with “Seconds,” was pleased with the final cut of the film. The various camera techniques, along with eerie opening titles by Saul Bass and a haunting score by Jerry Goldsmith, helped to create an aura of disorientation and surrealism. Carlino was certain the sophisticated French audience would respond favorably to the film when it debuted as the American entry at the 1966 Cannes Festival. But Carlino and his colleagues received a rude awakening. “It was booed and whistled,” he recalled. “We were just shocked.”

The American reaction was no better when “Seconds” premiered in the U.S. that October, and the film soon became a box office bomb. In retrospect, Carlino believes he understands why. “I think it was too icky and too cutting edge for people,” he surmised. “The photography, the surrealistic elements in it, I don’t think audiences were ready for it.”

Neither were they ready to see Rock Hudson in a role like he had in “Seconds,” said Carlino. While one of Hollywood’s leading men at the time, Hudson had developed his fan base primarily around his roles in a series of light-hearted comedies with Doris Day. “Seconds,” in contrast, was a dark cautionary tale. It was not the type of film that most Hudson fans would ever go to see. Paramount didn’t help matters when it promoted the film in advertisements with a creepy image of Hudson with a completely bandaged face. It was not how Hudson fans wanted to see their beloved idol depicted, and they stayed home in large numbers.

Carlino also believes that the wretched life of the protagonist hit a little too close to home for some. “I remember a friend of mine who was like the John Randolph character,” he recalled. “I took him to the opening in New York and he watched about a third of the film and then got up and left. I followed him to the lobby and he was so disturbed by the film and what it was saying about his own life that he said, ‘Please don’t do me any favors and invite me to see films like this anymore.’”

There was just one bright spot for the film in the immediate aftermath of its release. Howe received an Oscar nomination for best black and white cinematography.

As a result of its limited theatrical run, “Seconds” was largely forgotten for many years after its release. But those who knew and appreciated the film continued to talk about it and awareness slowly began to spread. By the 1990s, showings on late-night television and in revival houses had provided enough exposure for “Seconds” to have developed a cult following. “I began receiving expressions from younger friends surprised to discover I had written the adaptation of a ‘cult classic,’ and how ‘cool’ they thought the film was,” Carlino recalled.

The film’s first release on home video in 1997 and first DVD release in 2002 exposed the film to an even wider audience. But interest in the film has really spiked within the past two years following its 2013 release on DVD and Blu-ray by The Criterion Collection, a company specializing in the distribution of “important classic and contemporary films.” (Among the bonus material included in the Criterion release is the four-minute segment from “Hollywood on the Hudson” filmed in Scarsdale.)

Today, “Seconds” is the subject of podcasts, blogs and daily posts on social media by aficionados from around the world, many of whom were not yet born when the film was made. Among the film’s under-50 enthusiasts is Peter Avellino, a 1989 graduate of Scarsdale High School who writes about films on his blog, Mr. Peel’s Sardine Liqueur. Avellino first saw “Seconds” while in college in the form of a 16-millimeter print. He’s been a fan ever since. “The craft behind it is truly inspirational,” he said. “There really isn’t any other film like it.” Avellino attributes the increased enthusiasm for “Seconds” to several factors, including the popularity of the science fiction and horror genres, the interest in the work of Frankenheimer, and the critical reputation of the film.

Much of that critical reputation has centered on the cinematography of Howe. But in recent years, there has been an increased appreciation for the stellar acting of the entire cast, particularly the performance of the film’s leading man. “‘Seconds’ should've brought Rock Hudson his second best actor Oscar nomination,” tweeted film reviewer Bobby Rivers earlier this year. Carlino also looks back fondly on Hudson’s performance, describing it as “fantastic.”  Hudson himself took great pride in his work in the movie. A month before his death in 1985, he listed “Seconds” among his four best films.

Hudson’s performance will soon be accessible to an even wider audience. The British company Eureka Entertainment announced this month that it will release “Seconds” in the U.K. on DVD and Blu-ray this October as part of its Masters of Cinema series.

For Carlino, the ever-increasing popularity of the film he wrote half a century ago has been a source of great personal pride. “‘Seconds’ was my first feature film. As such, it's had a particular relevance in my life, especially as I've watched audiences catch up with it over the years. Witnessing its very long life and seeing it emerge as a cult classic has been very gratifying,” he confessed.

Asked what he sees as the moral of the story, Carlino replied, “Don't make deals with the devil if you're trying to find your life's purpose. And, perhaps, don't let anyone talk you into discarding your watercolors and your crayons too early in life.” But he’s not sure if the moral is as relevant today as it was when the film was released in 1966. “I doubt if social and career structures are as rigid,” he said.

Carlino feels the film’s metamorphosis from failure to classic also provides an important lesson to artists, no matter what the field. “Just do what you believe in,” he advised. “It doesn’t matter the time or the culture, just follow your vision.”

Fifty years later, Hudson, Frankenheimer, Howe, Lewis, Randolph, Reid and Addy are all gone. The Lockwood Road house, while still standing, has had its façade significantly altered. Even the front walkway traversed by Hudson has been uprooted and a new one routed through another part of the lawn.

But with “Seconds” strong critical reputation and ever-widening accessibility, it’s an awe-inspiring thought to realize that the images of Scarsdale captured on film 50 years ago this month will eventually — if they haven’t already — be seen by more people not alive at the time of their recording than by those who were. “That’s the wonderful thing about film,” Carlino observed. “It survives.”


Andy Bass is on Twitter at @AndyBassNY and can be reached by email at andy_bass@aol.com.


Read more local coverage of your hometown in this week’s issue of The Scarsdale Inquirer. Newsstand copies are available at several locations listed above, or subscribe today for convenient home delivery.

 

August 21, 2015