'In the Company of Legends' recalls their documentary career with stars

'In the Company of Legends' recalls their documentary career with stars
David Heeley with Katharine Hepburn on the MGM lot in 1985. (Beaufort Books)

When they were looking for a host for their 1987 PBS documentary "Jimmy Stewart: A Wonderful Life," producer Joan Kramer and director David Heeley decided to approach Johnny Carson.

The host of "The Tonight Show" was a big fan of the Oscar-winner and frequently had the beloved actor on the late-night NBC show.


Though Carson had a reputation for being aloof, the filmmaking team found him warm and enthusiastic.

"We kept waiting to see the difficult Johnny Carson," Heeley said. "We didn't see that. When we met him, it was at his house. What a way to meet somebody like that."

Kramer believed that Carson was eager to host the documentary because of his admiration for Stewart and the fact that just the year before they made the PBS documentary "The Spencer Tracy Legacy: A Tribute by Katharine Hepburn."

"He knew that Kate Hepburn hosting a show about Spencer Tracy was extremely unusual," Kramer said. "We came with credentials."

As lovely and forthcoming as Stewart was in the documentary, they were warned "not to mess" with the actor. "He knew what's right for him and he knows how to dig in his heels when he feels he doesn't want to do something," Kramer said. "The man flew over 25 bombing missions as the lead pilot over Germany. He has got a backbone, and he can be tough."

And in their new book, "In the Company of Legends," published in April, Heeley recalled the time when he did exactly that.

" 'Mr. Stewart, can you describe for me a typical day when you were the lead pilot in a bombing mission?'

"He looked directly at me without smiling and said, 'No.'

"That was it. No explanation. Just one word: 'No.' "

Kramer and Heeley, who are now retired, earned five Emmy Awards and 20 Emmy nominations for their acclaimed documentaries for PBS and Turner, including 1980's "Fred Astaire: Puttin' On His Top Hat" and "Fred Astaire: Change Partners and Dance"; 1981's "Starring Katharine Hepburn"; 1988's "Bogart on Bogart"; 1992's "Fonda on Fonda"; 1993's "Katharine Hepburn: All About Me"; and 2005's "The Adventures of Errol Flynn."

The two were on staff at PBS' WNET in New York when they were assigned to work together in 1979 on the station's weekly culture and arts series "Skyline."

Though they had very different backgrounds — Heeley began as an engineer at the BBC in London and moved into production, and Kramer was a ballet dancer who had been an assistant talent co-coordinator on ABC's "The Dick Cavett Show" — the two "have interests in common," Heeley said. "We bring different strengths."

"In the Company of Legends" is a charming, entertaining chronicling of their encounters with Hepburn, Carson, Stewart, Fred Astaire, Frank Sinatra, President Reagan, Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward and Audrey Hepburn.

"Writing the book has been a revelation to us — realizing how many amazing people we have met and all of these things that have happened to us over the years," said Heeley, who was also the executive producer of PBS' "Nature" series for several years.


They were able to develop strong, trusting relationships even with subjects like Hepburn, who shied away from publicity.

"I don't think we ever came across as sycophants," Kramer said. "We acted professionally. I think they felt our respect. And, in turn, I realize how much they respected us, which is really quite thrilling. We were very proud of it."

But they could feel a little star struck — as they did with Hepburn.

"There is that first time I pick up the phone, dial her number and she answers the phone," Heeley said. "You hear that voice, and for a moment you are thrown — that is Katharine Hepburn talking to you. But once that initial shock disappears, you have a job to do."

One day Hepburn called Kramer suggesting they work together on a documentary about Tracy, her longtime on- and off-screen partner.

"When the call came, my mouth dropped open," Kramer said. "She never before talked publicly about Spencer Tracy. When you call her, it's one thing, but when she calls you and you hear that voice!"