20,000 Stories to Tell : Richard Fleischer’s ‘Just Tell Me When to Cry’ Recalls His 46 Years in Film and ‘Stars, Moguls, Monsters of All Sorts’

Share via

Richard Fleischer has a kind word for everybody.

Consider what he says about “Tyrannosaurus” Rex Harrison, who quit and rejoined the cast of “Doctor Dolittle” about five times before filming started: “I found him to be the most wonderful actor that I’ve ever had to work with. He was just great. . . . All our difficulties with Rex were before the picture.”

Or, Kirk Douglas, who insisted on being in the very center of every shot of “The Vikings”: “He’s difficult because he’s challenging. . . . It’s because he’s trying to get the very best that he can out of whatever he’s doing. He’s a perfectionist.”

Fleischer’s name may not be as quickly recognized as Alfred Hitchcock or Frank Capra, but the director’s 48 films garnered 25 Academy Award nominations and won eight Oscars. And in his recently published memoirs, “Just Tell Me When to Cry,” Fleischer offers these kind (and not-so-kind) recollections of his 46 years in Hollywood.


His accounts from the sets of “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” and “Compulsion” have the style and flow of tales told over cocktails.

“I tried to keep myself out as much as possible,” Fleischer says. “I took my cue from the David Niven books, which I greatly admire. In the preface of the second book, ‘Bring on the Empty Horses,’ he says he tries to . . . keep himself out of center stage and let all the other people take over.

“Really I don’t think that anybody’s very interested in my autobiography, except some students. The average person isn’t. But what they are interested in, I hope, is the people that I’ve worked with, because I’ve had this great opportunity through the years to work with so many famous and well-known people--stars, moguls, monsters of all sorts.”

Sitting in his office in his Brentwood home, Fleischer is not entirely the model of a Hollywood director. He’s dressed for the part: khakis, blue chambray shirt, tennis shoes. But he’s so soft-spoken that it’s nearly impossible to imagine him telling Arnold Schwarzenegger what to do on the set of “Conan the Destroyer,” which he directed in 1984.

But soft-spoken seems to be his style. Throughout the 350 pages of his book, Fleischer talks about finessing such temperamental actors as Orson Welles and Robert Mitchum, or such studio heads as Darryl Zanuck and Howard Hughes.

“I know the material so well, and I didn’t have to do that much research,” he says with a laugh. “I didn’t have to invent anything. The thing that took a long time was the writing, the phrasing, the telling of the story.”


Behind his desk are two shelves full of wire-bound diaries, each one recording the events of one year. They came in handy confirming times and dates, but Fleischer depended largely on his memory.

“All the dialogue in the book is as close as I remember it. Most of it is exact. And most of it is from memory. But I remember what people said, and how they said it. And it’s in the character of the people because that’s the way they spoke,” he says.

His bookshelves run from floor to ceiling, filled with video tapes, books used for research, the unabridged Oxford English Dictionary (all 20 volumes) and a sole Oscar statuette--which he won for a documentary made during his first year in Hollywood, 1947.

The day he won the Oscar, his father--animation pioneer Max Fleischer--sent him a telegram that said, “What took you so long?”

He started under the tutelage of Sid Rogell, head of RKO’s B-picture unit. He made such movies as “Banjo” and “Child of Divorce” with Sharyn Moffett, who was supposed to become the next Shirley Temple--but didn’t. Eventually he was ready to break through to the first half of the double-bill, after successes with the comedy “The Happy Time” and the film noir “The Narrow Margin” in 1952.

He got assigned to do a 3-D bullfighting movie called “Arena.” It was a disaster. The animal Fleischer picked out to play the killer Brahma bull was really a pussycat. Then, halfway through filming, it died. The 3-D craze had done the same by the time the film hit the theaters.

Then Fleischer got the biggest break of his career. Walt Disney, having seen “The Happy Time,” asked him to direct “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,” adapted from the Jules Verne novel.


The film was, in a sense, the “Jurassic Park” of its day. In the book, Fleischer compares their first attempt at a giant squid to a sponge. Whole tentacles would fall off, so waterlogged they would snap the wires that were supposed to move them. Disney eventually called in some of his Disneyland “geniuses” to build the complex mechanical creature used in the film.

“It wasn’t until much later that I began to get any recognition for having made that picture. The Disney name just overpowered everything, as it does now. But since Walt isn’t around, other people are getting credit,” he says. “But it was a more naive time, too, when we made that picture. People really thought that Walt did everything.”

A few years later Fleischer had his next big success with “Compulsion,” the courtroom drama based on the Leopold-Loeb child-murder case. Orson Welles signed on to play lawyer Clarence Darrow, who saved the young men from the gallows.

As Fleischer tells it, Welles had a lot of idiosyncrasies. When they filmed part of Darrow’s closing speech--which runs 18 minutes altogether--Welles had all the actors he was facing close their eyes. He was apparently distracted by eye contact.

But Fleischer says there were almost no problems with the head-strong Welles on “Compulsion” or “Crack in the Mirror,” although he was known to be bitter because no studio would let him direct anymore.

“We had a fight on each picture, and that was it. Just one blow-up and he was all settled down.”


Heated exchanges and bruised egos are some of the occupational hazards of filmmaking. As is . . .

“Skin cancer,” Fleischer says, fingering the bandage on his nose. “This is from having to be in the weather so much. Over the years, I’ve done so many outdoor pictures, in the desert, on the ocean, on the snow. Everything outdoors. Eventually something’s going to happen to you.”

He’s taking it a little more easy now. He’s taught directing classes at UCLA Extension. He’s promoting his book. And he’s producing an upcoming animated film featuring Betty Boop, a character created by his father.

“I’d love to make pictures, sure,” he says about directing again. “But I haven’t found anything I like, and I’m not getting the offers anymore. I’m not as young as I used to be. Not that I’m incapable of making pictures, but I think other people think that I am. . . . There’s an age line. After you cross that age line you can’t do anything: You can’t walk, you can’t direct, you can’t hold a megaphone, yell at actors.”

But yelling still doesn’t seem to be his style. Take the time he got to direct Sylvia Sidney, a screen legend during the ‘30s, known for her deeply emotional scenes. When she took a small part in “Violent Saturday” in 1955, Fleischer was beside himself. When he met her, he explained all about her character, her psychological motivations, where she stood in the community. Sidney just sat there, knitting. He thought he wasn’t delving deep enough for her, so he invented her parents and grandparents. He talked on and on until he ran out of steam.

“That was very interesting, Mr. Fleischer,” Sidney said, and smiled. “I’ll tell you what, though. When we get on the set, you just tell me where to stand, and I’ll be there.” And then as he got up to leave, she added, “Oh, and by the way, whenever you need tears . . . just tell me when to cry.”


Fleischer still laughs when he tells the story from which he drew his title.

“It seemed to have a double meaning to it . . . there are so many things to cry about as well as laugh about, that sometimes a disaster is happening to you and you don’t know enough to cry about it. I think that’s a sub-strata in the whole book. There is an underlying feeling of sadness, even though it is, I hope, a very funny book.”