A unique motion picture studio is dying in the same way it came to life, amid piles of twisted automotive debris.
Filmmaker Henry B. (Toby) Halicki used his unnamed Gardena studio, and often the city's streets and sidewalks, to film epic car-crash movies that thrilled gearheads worldwide and made him a wealthy man. He was killed at age 48 in an accident on the set while filming the sequel to his hit "Gone in 60 Seconds."
The 1989 accident halted the studio's operations and led to its recent purchase by U Pick U Save, a salvage company that itself specializes in junking cars. The business planned to begin remodeling the studio's buildings this week.
"(Halicki) was constantly bucking the system," said Chip Giannettino, former general manager of the studio. "He didn't have the acceptance of the Hollywood Establishment."
The five-acre Gardena studio destroyed several hundred cars in the three movies it released during the 1970s and '80s. It housed not only its own working junkyard and a movie set of a Western ghost town but also Halicki's collection of 150 classic cars and an antique toy collection valued at $3 million to $5 million.
Halicki even installed a concealed door in his office that allowed him to pull in his favorite car of the moment and park it next to his desk.
"The place (reflected) his personality," said his widow, Denice Shakarian Halicki, who has been in the public eye recently as the fiancee of O.J. Simpson's friend, attorney Robert Kardashian. "It lived and breathed Toby. Somebody even told me it should have been a landmark."
The studio property had been tied up for years in Denice's long and bitter legal battle over the estate with her former husband's brothers, Ronald and Felix. In November, a court ruled in Denice's favor, although she says the litigation has depleted the estate, initially valued at $14.7 million, to the point that a court-appointed administrator has said it could end up insolvent once debts are paid.
"Gone in 60 Seconds," which was released in 1974, jump-started the studio by wrecking 97 cars in its 93 minutes and grossing $40 million worldwide on a $300,000 investment, Giannettino said. In the film, about a professional car thief, Toby Halicki did everything from acting the lead role and doing stunts to car maintenance and any other aspect of film production.
Halicki's subsequent, less-profitable movies, "The Junkman" and "Deadline Auto Thief," showed no sign of a diminished thirst for trashed cars. "It was like we were going for some kind of record," Giannettino said.
The auto-wreck auteur began to find other markets for crumpled cars, making his expertise and his studio available for other TV and film directors. His stunts appeared in such shows as "The Fall Guy," a Lee Majors TV show about a stuntman.
Halicki often staged his elaborate smash-up scenes on streets near the studio without much hassle from the locals. "They would just say, 'Try to avoid Vermont Avenue, Toby's got some cars on fire out there,' " Giannettino said. "The local people seemed unfazed by that sort of thing."
Halicki set up his studio in town because he was down to earth and had no taste for Hollywood's method of filmmaking, Giannettino said. Halicki's last film, "Gone in 60 Seconds II," was to have been the biggest demolition derby ever filmed. Halicki, increasingly leery of doing his own stunts, brought in the top stuntmen in the business and prepared for the planned chaos.
And, of course, he scoured local auto auctions for the necessary cars. "They had about 300 in stock for that one," Giannettino said.
But Halicki died while preparing a stunt sequence in which a water tower would collapse. The tower tumbled down earlier than expected, crushing Halicki beneath one of its supports.
His death meant the end of "the last true independent studio," as Giannettino described the operation. "Toby was a one-man wrecking crew. He did everything."