Actor's Big Screen 'Splash' Evaporates in Cutting Room

Times Staff Writer

A star turn it's not.

He plays the butler in "Flowers in the Attic," a Gothic-style movie adaptation of V.C. Andrews' best-selling 1979 novel about greed and child abuse currently at neighborhood theaters.

Blink, and you'll miss him. He's never on screen for more than a few seconds at a time, clocking in at perhaps three minutes all told.

So how can longtime Orange County actor Alex Koba possibly be "making a splash on the big screen," as his Los Angeles agent puts it?

He can't. In fact, he's not. The splash is not even a ripple.

Somewhat abashed by his agent's hyperbolic claim, Koba sat in his Westminster living room recently, petting the family dog Pepper and making a valiant effort to fight off the old cliche that there are no small roles, only small actors.

But he couldn't help admitting sadly: "They cut me down to ribbons."

Koba no more plays "the male lead" in "Flowers in the Attic," as his press releases also tout, than Lassie. He has a single, eminently forgettable line: "Good evening Mr. Winthrop."

The butler is a major character in Andrews' novel and in the original script had been strongly featured as a brooding presence from beginning to end, Koba explained. The character also was the key to a surprise twist in the plot.

By the "umpteenth rewrite," Koba said, the butler had become little more than a gloomy figure in black who wheels a serving cart back and forth across the screen. And the plot twist was gone.

"They had three different endings for that movie, and they picked the worst one--the one you're seeing now," he said.

The ending hasn't discouraged moviegoers, however.

In the Los Angeles multiple market, which includes Orange County, "Flowers in the Attic" grossed $695,000 at 85 theaters on its opening weekend for an $8,176 per-screen average--"the highest in company history," according to a spokesperson for New World Entertainment, which produced and distributed the movie.

"Flowers in the Attic" has done just as well across the nation, grossing $9.84 million in 2 1/2 weeks.

Still, Koba's wife, Jean, herself an actress, was appalled by what she saw. His role had not only been shredded but his billing was a virtual insult, she said. Koba's name in the screen credits appears far down the list, after the flower girl's.

"When my wife saw that, she asked me: 'What did they do to you?' " the distinguished-looking actor said. "Well, unless you spell it out in your contract, you have to take what they give you."

Besides, all the bit players are listed alphabetically.

"At least they paid me pretty nicely," Koba said. "And they treated me like I was the star. First-class accommodations. Fruit baskets in the room. That sort of thing."

A graduate of the Pasadena Playhouse during its heyday in the '40s, the tall, gray-haired Elizabeth, N.J., native remembers attending the legendary acting school with the likes of Lloyd Nolan and Victor Mature, Dana Andrews and Victor Jory.

After marrying Jean, also a Playhouse graduate, Koba went East to take up a stage career in New York and Chicago, before settling in Westminster 17 years ago. But as financially uncertain as that profession can be, they both decided not to depend on acting for a livelihood.

"We figured that to have a family we needed a base of operations," Koba, the father of two grown children, said. "So I always worked in business."

For the last 15 years he has run a burglar alarm company, Sentry Security Systems, out of his home. In the meantime, the Kobas have remained active in local theater and founded Showcase Productions Inc. in 1980.

Although Showcase built the sort of reputation at Westminster Auditorium that enabled it to cast many working Hollywood actors in its productions--among them "Seven Days in May," "Little Foxes," "Stalag 17," "Death of a Salesman," "Command Decision"--the community theater company folded in 1985.

"The city intended to demolish the auditorium," Koba explained. "In the end they didn't, partly because we protested. But we packed it in anyway. The trouble was we were getting repetitive. You need talent up there on the stage, and we kept coming back to the same actors again and again because they knew what they were doing."

Koba paused and regarded the mementos on the wall opposite him. Next to a large production shot of his wife from "The Lion in Winter" were signed photos of Chita Rivera and Gregory Peck.

"You know," he said, "just about anybody who tries can get into acting these days. But unless you can handle rejection you have a problem."

Apparently that is one problem Koba has solved.

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