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Times Arts Editor

It is a keystone of Hollywood commercial wisdom that you don’t put your own money into your productions.

The risks are outrageously high, no matter how many legends there are of the films that returned millions on an investment of $2.47. The tales of the legal larcenies of cost accounting, the break-even points never achieved, the dreams of participation in profits never, alas, realized all conspire to keep the capital of creators locked up.

There are exceptions. Once he was able to, Sam Goldwyn financed his own films, thus assuring himself total creative control and eternal ownership, for which his heirs have had reason to be grateful.


The Goldwyn example is potent, especially as it involves total creative autonomy, from choice of material to how you do it. Violating the larger tradition of leaving the financing to others, the producer and director Bud Yorkin has opted for Goldwyn’s way and has just finished a film he made with his own and some money he recruited himself.

The movie is called “Twice in a Lifetime,” was written by the English actor-turned-author Colin Welland (“Yanks,” “Chariots of Fire”) and stars Gene Hackman, Ann-Margret and Ellen Burstyn. Amy Madigan, Steve Lang and Brian Dennehy have supporting roles.

The setting is Seattle and environs and Hackman, as a steelworker long married to Burstyn, falls in love with Ann-Margret, with unpredictable consequences and surprising changes.

“No one worked for anything like their usual salaries,” Yorkin said the other day. His stars were drawn to the material and, it seems clear, to Yorkin’s own dedication, financial and creative. They also gave him three weeks of rehearsal, free. “We sat around and discussed it like a play,” Yorkin said, “a luxury you never enjoy often enough.

“I’d told everybody going in that this wasn’t a picture about dressing rooms and limos, all the usual perks. It was down-to-basics time, and they responded. We were a company of 40, not 70, and we brought the picture in for $3 million less than it would have cost as a studio production.”

Yorkin, who was born in Washington, Pa., and attended Carnegie Tech’s first-rate drama school, went to work at NBC in New York, in the heady early days of big-time television. He ended up directing the now legendary “Colgate Comedy Hour,” which gave Martin and Lewis their finest hours. His producing partner on the show was Norman Lear. They came west to do the “Comedy Hour” here, and in 1959 formed Tandem Productions.


“At that time, we had no heart to go on doing 39 shows a year,” Yorkin said. “It’s a killer.” They shifted their gaze to the big screen and did several films, including the memorably hard-edged social comedy, “Divorce American Style,” with Dick Van Dyke, Debbie Reynolds and some acute observations about the miseries of the process. Yorkin directed it. (“Twice in a Lifetime” is not unrelated spiritually.) Yorkin in 1970 produced and directed the delicious “Start the Revolution Without Me,” a farcical remake of “The Corsican Brothers,” which has just been released in videocassette form.

Then “All in the Family” came along and Tandem was heavily back into television, although Yorkin was still impatient to do films. He was producing a black comedy about the armaments business, “Deal of the Century,” for director William Friedkin (it sank without trace) at Warner Bros., when a copy of the script of what became “Twice in a Lifetime” fell on his desk by mistake.

“I glanced at the first page and it said the place was Aliquippa. I was hooked. That’s 20 miles from where I grew up.”

Colin Welland had spent time in Aliquippa absorbing local color and was developing the script for director Michael Apted and the Ladd Co., which finally put it in turnaround--offering it to anyone who would buy it for what the company had already invested in it.

“It had been around,” Yorkin admits. But he liked it and bought it, despite the negative aura. He moved it to Seattle, to avoid the context of depression that overwhelms any story set in contemporary Pittsburgh. Seattle offered blue-collar possibilities and has a pro football team, a story element.

“I still say comedy is harder,” Yorkin remarks. “There’s only one right way to read comedy lines. In drama you’ve got two or three options at least.” “Twice in a Lifetime” is a romantic drama into which, Yorkin says, he has tried to infuse as much comedy as he can.


Now, of course, the hard part begins. Yorkin has started showing the film to major distributors, in effect holding an auction, as for a hot literary property, for his film. He made an early deal with NBC, on the basis of the script and cast, for commercial-television showings. “But that’s way down the line.” He has held onto all the other rights and he means, he says, to keep control, in any deal, of the things he knows are crucially important, such as when the film will be released, and how.

“I figured I’ve gone this far, I’ll go all the way. Right now, whatever happens from here on, I know I’ll never have a better creative experience than I’ve had with this cast and this production.”

For all the risks involved, the satisfactions of total creative control, of being able to relocate and reshoot a major scene on the hunch it might just work better, as Yorkin did (“It was my dollar, wasn’t it?”), would seem so alluring, as against all the Hollywood horror stories of frustration and inept interference, that you do wonder that Yorkin’s ploy isn’t tried more often.

What is true already is that independent production is providing a transfusion of energy and fresh and untrammeled ideas that the film medium desperately requires. The fortunes of the Yorkin film will be closely watched, as a possible role model.