Two for the Road

Mel Shavelson, a writer for radio, TV and film, described his experiences with Sinatra in "How to Make a Jewish Movie" (Prentice Hall, 1971)

'In 10 minutes," Fredric March said to us, "you're going to see one wop nailed to the wall."

It was Friday, the Twentieth of January, One Thousand Nine Hundred and Sixty-one, according to the inscription on the silver cigarette box engraved with the invitation to the inauguration of John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Sinatra had given one to each of us who had worked on the Democratic Gala the night before, designed by Frank to pull the party out of the $3-million financial hole it had dug for itself in the election campaign. It was second only to the financial hole Sinatra himself was in at the time. We all knew Frank couldn't afford the cigarette cases, any more than he could afford the table full of caviar and champagne before dinner, the one he was throwing to thank us for the large egg we had all laid the previous evening when the gala was performed. (The talk around town was that Frank was going to have the Democratic party, but he might not be able to save himself, financially.)

Washington had been hit by the biggest blizzard in its history, and the snowbound audience, including the president-elect and Jackie, couldn't reach the auditorium until after 11 p.m. By 2 a.m., as the performance by every Democratic star in the Hollywood firmament wearily groaned to its close, most of the audience had turned Republican.

But Frank wanted us to know he appreciated our efforts, even if it resulted in his temporary bankruptcy. My Way, I think it's called.

At that point, Peter Lawford hurried into the upstairs Statler private dining room and told Frank that the new president had arrived at the Inaugural Ball and would like all of us connected with the ill-fated show to come downstairs so he could shake our hands and thank us personally.

Sinatra looked up from his soup and said, "Tell him we're eating." Lawford blanched slightly.

"I'm only his brother-in-law," he said. "You tell him."

"OK," declared Mr. Sinatra, getting to his feet, "I'll tell him."

And he walked casually out of the banquet room. Or as casually as anyone could who was immediately surrounded by five brawny Secret Service men.

They escorted him downstairs.

That was when Freddie March issued his dire prediction of the coming Italian crucifixion. A few moments later, Frank returned.

"Ladies and gentlemen," he announced, "the president of the United States."

And Kennedy entered, smiling. "I'm sorry," he apologized, "I didn't know you were eating."

There is much more to a story that says a great deal about two men who overcame backgrounds as different as night and day, or Hoboken and Hyannisport, and yet were so much alike in so many ways.

Both of them were entertainers.

Both of them were living legends.

Both of them were involved with the Mafia.

Both of them had affairs with Marilyn Monroe and Judith Exner.

But only one of them could sing.

If you were making a movie called "Cast a Giant Shadow" in 1966 in the heart of beleaguered little Israel, and you needed an actor to play the two-day role of a Texas aviator in the Israeli Air Force, whom would you cast?

Right the first time. Frank Sinatra.

That is, if the chumsin blowing in from the Negev Desert had gotten to your brain. The lore of the Middle East declares emphatically that during the period of this incessant, searing wind and dust storm, the human mind is not responsible for its actions. Even murder is forgiven as a pleasant distraction from the heat.

I could be excused, then, in my unhinged state, for thinking that the Living Legend would give up tens of thousands of dollars in nightclub and concert engagements to fly halfway around the world for a bit part in a movie about the Jewish general Mickey Marcus no studio in Hollywood had wanted to produce. The studio heads insisted they had already given to the United Jewish Appeal.

But after my previous experiences with Frank, I knew that there was no simple explanation for Sinatra's reaction to anything. He was a complicated man whose public image was largely an act.

His private images I never learned, although this time, I took a chance. There was a mystique, in those days, in the fate of the tiny, impossible nation in the act of prolonging its impossibility in the heart of its mortal enemies. Actors, including Kirk Douglas, John Wayne and Yul Brynner, had actually gone out of their way to secure roles in this film about Israel's incredible war of independence. United Artists had finally gone along, figuring that John Wayne's appearance would make the film Gentile by association, and with that cast, the picture couldn't fail even if I shot the telephone book instead of my script.

The mistake was that we shot my script, but that's another story.

I didn't know where Frank's private sympathies lay, and I wasn't sure he did, either. But I knew it wouldn't be what anyone expected. Was he secretly anti-Semitic? There was one way to find out.

At the moment, he and I were both represented by the Iceman, as our agent Herman Citron was known in the trade. Herman was a quiet-spoken man. So, I understand, was Attila the Hun. Citron's reputation in a cutthroat business passed belief. He represented a large percentage of Hollywood's top stars, and his handshake could be deposited in the Bank of America and draw interest.

I cabled Herman my inspired casting notion from Tel Aviv. Herman called Sinatra, who was in New York at the time, to laugh at this crazy offer.

Frank told him to mail him the screenplay.

Shortly afterward, I received a shocked cable from the Iceman. Frank had read the script, was delighted with the part, and would be in Israel to start shooting the morning of June 25. The money involved? It was not to be paid to Frank. End of cable.

I immediately wired Sinatra my heartfelt thanks, and told him we would be finishing the picture in Rome, and could postpone his role until then so he didn't have to travel so far and give up more than a minimum of club dates.

The cable came back that unless he was to work in Israel, he wasn't interested.

June 24, Frank landed at Lydda Airport near Tel Aviv in the first private Learjet with a piano and cocktail bar to arrive that morning. He was in a happy mood, a kid on vacation.

The first scene to be photographed with Sinatra was a wartime incident in which an American pilot in a lone Piper Cub--about one-third of the entire Israeli Air Force at that time--attacked a group of Egyptian tanks. There were no aerial bombs in the army's arsenal at that time, so the pilot's tiny plane was equipped with seltzer bottles. The bottles, he was told, would explode dramatically, and since Egyptians were unfamiliar with seltzer in any form, they might imagine these were truly explosives, and that the little air force was a legitimate threat.

The incident was a historical fact. It didn't occur to me that having Frank Sinatra live it onscreen would tinge the entire film with an aura of Hollywood imbecility it never overcame.

Sinatra climbed into the cockpit of the tiny plane on the runway of Dov Airport, a military field near Tel Aviv. There was to be some dialogue with a waiter carrying the bottles before Frank gunned the plane down the runway. I was surprised when he told me we could play it all the way through the takeoff in a single shot, as he held a pilot's license and would take the plane off the ground himself. Pure Sinatra. No other actor would have risked it.

Then we started to rehearse the dialogue, and to my amazement, I couldn't understand a word the Living Legend was saying. "Y'all sho yo no thayss a wurron?" he repeated. (Translation: "Y'all sure you know there's a war on?")

It took me a while to realize Frank was speaking with what he firmly believed was a Texas accent, as the role had originally been written. It took a great deal of tact for me to explain carefully we had prudently changed the pilot's home town from Houston to Hoboken, and the character's name from "Tex" to "Vince." Frank was disappointed, having worked on the Texas accent for fully five minutes, but finally agreed to switch back to himself, a character he played to perfection.

The cameras rolled. Frank exchanged dialogue with the actor playing the waiter who was loading seltzer bottles into the Piper Cub, then swung the plane onto the runway and raced the motor expertly for the takeoff.

Just as the tiny plane was to become airborne, it whipped into a sharp turn on the tarmac and gunned its way back to the camera.

"Hey!" Frank called out, "I just remembered, my insurance doesn't cover me if I don't have a co-pilot."

And carefree Frank Sinatra, saloon singer, actor, swinger and businessman, got out of the plane and made way for his double, an Israeli Air Force pilot.

Frank, as mentioned, was a highly complex individual, whose public image was only a fraction of the man. I'm sure I didn't understand him; neither have three or more wives; and I have a suspicion Frank was always a little confused himself.

Some of my own confusion was straightened out when arrangements were made for payment of his salary. It was all assigned to the Frank Sinatra Arab-Israeli Youth Center in the ancient city of Nazareth. Neither I nor any of my Hollywood acquaintances had heard of that Youth Center before. We were a little amazed that Frank had heard of Nazareth.

He proudly invited us all to the dedication of the center, on which construction had just been finished. This, obviously, was why he had insisted on a June starting date in Israel.

The Youth Center, established by the Histadrut, the Israeli Labor Union, is a sort of YMHA for both Arab and Israeli children. It is an experiment in unlikely togetherness.

Sinatra, in a little speech before the audience of shirt-sleeved Arabs and their Jewish neighbors in the center's auditorium, said simply, "I never grew up enough to really understand adults, but I think I understand kids. If we can get them to play together when they're young enough, maybe when they get big they'll be smarter than we have been."

It was translated into Hebrew and Arabic for an audience that was touched and appreciative. Sinatra sat down, and the children came out onstage and started to present an entertainment they had prepared for this big occasion. Immediately, Sinatra was back in his own bag. Amateur night he doesn't need. The star of the show was apparently a 12-year-old boy who launched into a lengthy comedy monologue in Hebrew. Or maybe Arabic. He wasn't getting many laughs in either language. I could feel Frank squirming in the seat next to me.

Finally, he nudged me and said, "Let's get the hell outta here."

I said, "Frank! This is your building! This whole thing is in your honor!"

"The Israeli Army," he informed me, "has lined up some broads for a party in Tel Aviv. They got a plane waiting at the airport here. Don't get shut out."

I shook my head. I had to shoot part of the picture in this historic city. I had to remain on good terms with the parents of the monologuist. Moishe Berle, I think his name was. I had to stay.

Frank slipped quietly out of his seat and left the city of Nazareth where Jesus Christ attended synagogue as a young man, and flew back to Tel Aviv and some Nice Jewish Girls.

I guess he wasn't anti-Semitic after all.

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