How to Succeed in the Movies Without Really Trying : Cartoonist Ron Cobb's Strange Trip From the '60s to 'E.T.'

Paul Ciotti is a staff writer at this magazine.

EVERYONE IN HOLLYWOOD is waiting for the phone call that will change his life," says artist Ron Cobb. In Cobb's case, the call came eight years ago. It was from Steven Spielberg, who asked Cobb to direct a feature film. "How many people does that happen to?" says Cobb. "Steven Spielberg wants me to direct a movie. I've never directed a movie in my life, and Steven Spielberg wants me to direct a movie.

"I said, 'Steven, I don't know if I can direct.' "

Spielberg didn't care, says Cobb--if people with half Cobb's talent could direct, Cobb could do it too. " 'Get yourself an agent,' he said.

" 'Get yourself an agent,' " repeats Cobb in wonderment. "That's a real Hollywood story. People are just dying to get into the film business, and I'm saying, 'Well, OK.' "

That film turned out to be the mega-hit "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial," which Spielberg directed, though Cobb, to his surprise, got rich from it anyway.

Cobb is talking in the study of his big, arched, tiled and patioed house in a quiet corner of northwest Santa Monica. There's a large spiked and brightly painted Mexican lizard inside the front foyer, a spaceship model on a table in the living room and, in the middle of the kitchen, a cafe-sized espresso maker on a butcher-block island.

At 50, Cobb is bulky, bearded and adolescently enthusiastic--a guy who, back in high school, was more excited by monster comics and the idea of a Mars landing than football rallies or Friday-night dances. This morning Cobb's graying hair is still damp from the shower, but his mind is racing full tilt. He laughs, talks, gestures wildly and jokes nonstop.

Actually, it's a good thing that Cobb has so much energy, because at the moment he's stretched to the limit. He's started the set design on director James Cameron's "The Abyss," an underwater epic for Fox. Warner Bros. has optioned his screenplay for "Atoll," a science-fiction comedy. He just finished designing some tiger-striped dinosaurs for the proposed time-travel tour at Disney's Florida studios.

In whatever spare time remains, he's working with a small group of computer, film and music people who have volunteered their services to make an inspirational short film promoting world peace through a joint Soviet-American mission to Mars. MCA is considering showing it in Universal movie theaters and on videocassettes to win public support for the mission. A major computer company may donate $250,000 worth of Cray computer time for the project.

Cobb is "exceedingly intelligent," says his old friend Mitchell Harding, operations director at radio station KCRW, but he never went to college and only had C grades in high school. Although this saved Cobb from being "crammed into the acceptable boxes," Harding says, it also for a long time prevented him from making a living as an artist, a field in which he had no formal training.

Instead, after graduation from Burbank High School in 1955, Cobb supported himself building movie props, delivering mail and working in assorted factories. Then, after a brief detour to Vietnam with the Army in 1963, Cobb rented a house on Franklin Avenue in Hollywood for $45 a month. "All these strange people were moving in around me," he says. "I noticed something was happening. I guess it was the '60s."

Trying to eke out a living, Cobb began doing monster-magazine covers and painting bizarre beasts, such as amputee lizards with prosthetic arms, alien astronomers, "asymmetrical abominations," mythic figures and wondrous castle-like structures unlike anything ever seen on earth.

At the same time, he also began doing realistic landscapes, such as "Man on Lizard Crossing Over," showing a swordsman riding a huge dinosaur-like lizard through a Western background of barren mesas, cobalt skies and fleecy white clouds. Years later, when George Lucas saw the painting on director John Milius' wall, he appropriated the lizard for "Star Wars." (Cobb later created five aliens for the famous cantina scene in "Star Wars.")

"I'm very impressed by the act of creation," says Cobb. "I like myth making. Film offers me an opportunity to do all these things. I can do the architecture. I can do the sets. I can express my interest in technology. I can express my interest in story, plot and character, the psychology of the characters. Film is very satisfying."

Cobb's first brush with fame came not from film, however, but from the sharp-edged political cartoons he did for the Los Angeles Free Press in the mid-'60s. Although Cobb made hardly any money from them, they were reprinted in counterculture and underground newspapers throughout the country and the world--all of which failed to prevent Cobb from going into a terrible two-year decline at the end of the '60s. "I couldn't paint or draw or think straight," he says. "I couldn't snap out of it. I couldn't finish anything. I was taking amphetamines. It was really an awful time. And I didn't know what it was. The only thing that broke it was that my (future) wife called me from Australia: 'Hello. I'm Robin Love. This is the Aquarius Foundation here in Sydney. Your cartoons are very well known here. We wonder if you would be interested in coming to Australia?'

"I said, 'Yes, I'll come! I'll come!' "

At the end of his Australian tour, Cobb remained in Sydney and moved in with Love. After getting married, they moved to Los Angeles in 1973, where, for the next five years, Love supported Cobb. "I never expected Ron to make any money," says Love, who is now a screenwriter. "Ron could have been doing everything he wanted to do a lot sooner if he had hustled. But he is not an ambitious person."

Cobb didn't earn a living from his art until he was over 40 and screenwriter Dan O'Bannon hired him to design the earthship for "Alien." "He was paid $400 a week," says Love. "We thought it was wonderful. It was the first regular money Ron had ever earned since (working in the post office nearly 20 years before)." Even now, she says, money means so little to him "he doesn't even know how much money he made last year." Which, she says, "is one of the nice things about him." If he lost everything, he would be content to live in a one-room apartment again as long as he could have his artist's tools, his wine and his cats. Cobb is crazy about the cats, says Love. One of the reasons he doesn't want children is that "they don't purr."

"I distinctly remember accepting the idea that I would never have money," says Cobb. "I would always be poor. I didn't have any training. I would never be a big success." Now that he has money, life is easier than before and he doesn't have to make so many compromises. But the basic issues haven't changed. In the final analysis, says Cobb, "I'm like everyone else. I want attention. I want to be noticed. I want friends. I'm lonely. I still waste a lot of time feeling inadequate about my work. But I'm at peace with that."

Although it was Cobb's share of "E.T.'s" profits that finally made him financially secure, Cobb not only didn't get to direct "E.T.," he had virtually nothing to do with the film. He was working as production designer on John Milius' "Conan the Barbarian" at a time when Spielberg was down the hall working on "Raiders of the Lost Ark." When Cobb didn't have anything else to do, he'd go talk storyboarding with Spielberg. "I would suggest angles, ideas, verbalize the act of directing--'Let's do this and do that, and we could shoot over his shoulder and then a close-up of the shadow.' Steven used a lot of my suggestions. I was very flattered." And one day, says Cobb, Spielberg told him, "I think you can direct. I want to back a film for you."

At the time, Spielberg was planning to make a film about the Kelly-Hopkinsville Incident, the true story of a farm family that claimed to have been terrorized by five little glowing aliens. The family, however, didn't want any more notoriety and threatened to sue. To avoid a possible lawsuit, Cobb offered to make up an equivalent story. "So while I was working on 'Conan' (in Europe), they flew me to Paris and I told Steven the story. John Sayles was hired to write the script." The name was "Night Skies." But the film never got off the ground, says Cobb--the $3.5 million needed to do the special effects for five aliens would wreck the budget.

Spielberg reduced the number of aliens from five to one, completely abandoned the old script and brought in screenwriter Melissa Mathison to do a new one. "Then the rumors started coming. I realized that Steven had changed the script a lot. He went back to a story he had told me about years before: An alien is abandoned and protected by a little boy. It wasn't scary anymore. It was kind of sweet." A year passed. Cobb was unavailable in Spain, working on "Conan." "Finally, (Spielberg producer) Kathleen Kennedy called to say, 'Steven doesn't know how to tell you this, but "E.T." is very close to his heart, and he wants to make that his picture next year, and he's decided to direct it himself. So what we would like to do when you get back is work out another picture for you. Because Steven really wants to back your career.' "

Kennedy remembers it somewhat differently: It was always Spielberg's plan to direct "E.T.," she says; she only called Cobb as a friendly gesture to inform him of the progress of the film.

In any case, says Cobb, he was sort of relieved. From what he could tell from Spain, the new script was too cutesy for his taste anyway. When Cobb returned, Kennedy let him play one of E.T.'s doctors as a welcome-home present. "I got to carry the little tyke out," he says.

Cobb and Love went to see "E.T." when it opened, but they didn't care for it. "A banal retelling of the Christ story," Cobb says; "sentimental and self-indulgent, a pathetic lost-puppy kind of story."

Cobb's assessment notwithstanding, it rapidly became clear that "E.T." was going to be far more successful than anyone had ever dreamed. Love, meanwhile, had looked into the fine print of Cobb's contract and discovered that they would get a $7,500 kill fee if for any reason Cobb didn't get to direct the film, plus a consolation prize of one point (1% of the net profits).

Love says she really didn't have high hopes of getting any money. "All I had was a deal memo." But she typed up an invoice and sent it to Universal. One day a big manila envelope with a pre-printed label arrived. "I thought it was junk mail," she says. But inside was a check for more than $400,000.

"E.T." went on to become the highest-grossing movie in history, earning more than $700 million worldwide so far. Checks have been arriving ever since. "I guess it will keep going forever and ever," says Love, which to her is a kind of ironic justice. "Ron spent all those years doing cartoons and not getting paid, and then he gets a million for not doing anything. Friends from Australia always ask, "What did you do on 'E.T.'?" And Ron says, 'I didn't direct it.' "

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