Dear Cary Grant

Dear Mr. Grant,

You may not remember me, but then again, I think you probably would. We spent part of an evening together in the spring of 1974, just a few days after I attended my first Academy Awards. I was only 33, and my filmmaking career was barely 5 years old.

A friend had called to ask a favor. She was in charge of the world premiere of "The Great Gatsby," a charity event. Would I loan a few cars for the evening? Organizers would use them to deliver their most important celebrities to the theater, a one-way trip to the red carpet, lights and cameras. "Sure," I said.

I had a small collection of cars from the '20s and '30s, and three of them would suit the occasion just fine. In fact, I said, I was happy to offer my services as a chauffeur for the night. That way, I'd have to teach only two drivers how to deal with each car's idiosyncrasies. My friend was thrilled and said I'd get a call in a few days with my assigned passenger.

I could hardly believe it when I discovered whom my "passenger" would be--that was you, Mr. Grant. And when I called to get directions to your house, you picked up the phone yourself. You couldn't have been more polite, or more flattering.

"Hello, Mr. Grant, my name is Tony Bill and I'll be your driver for the 'Gatsby' premiere, and I'm just calling to get your address and arrange for . . . ."

"Ah, yes, I saw you on the television the other night. Good for you. I thought you looked smashing in your double-breasted tuxedo. And that wing-collar shirt was very smart. Why do you suppose they don't wear them anymore? I think they should make a comeback. Don't you?"

(I'll tell you a secret here: The double-breasted tuxedo was rented from Western Costume, from which we had rented a lot of the wardrobe for "The Sting." So was the wingtip collar. I didn't own a tux; besides, I thought it would be fun to dress for the Oscars in the same period as the movie. I also drove my little '34 Buick coupe to the awards. We had used it in the movie, so I figured it was in keeping with the spirit of the night and might auger well for our chances. I guess it did. My producing partners and I lucked out, as you saw, and we received the Oscar for Best Picture. I had no idea you'd be sitting at home watching, much less that you'd notice and remember me . . . and my clothes.)

"Now just go up Benedict Canyon, and when you get to my house you'll want to be sure to put it in low because my driveway is rather steep, and I know how those older cars don't like to go uphill in second. Just park right in front. I'll look forward to meeting you. And congratulations on your Academy Award."

*

i did just as you told me that late afternoon, driving my modest little midnight-blue Buick up Benedict Canyon, dropping it into low (you were right), snaking up the driveway and, at 7 p.m. sharp, parking in front of your door. The Buick looked as if it belonged there; your one-story house was as modest and cozy as the car itself. And, like the coupe, it was built for just two . . . maybe three in a pinch.

I had hardly taken my finger off the bell when you opened the door. It was, as we say in our business, a movie-star entrance. A big-screen moment. One second, an ordinary white door, the next, well . . . Cary Grant. But that was from my POV. For you it was some kid whom you had treated as a total equal. You showed me in, took my coat and offered me a glass of wine as if I were the important person in the room.

"Let me show you around. We don't have to be right on time, now, do we? Isn't it a lovely evening? Look at that view, how pleasant it is this time of day."

You showed me around the house as if I were a prospective buyer and you the charming, understated broker. Pleased with the chance to show it. Proud of one particular room. "And this is my little daughter's room. Isn't it lovely? These are pictures of her. She isn't home right now, and I'm so sorry you couldn't meet her. She's the light of my life." As you said all these things, you sounded exactly like Cary Grant. But you weren't acting--and you were saying them to me.

The premiere was in Westwood, only a few minutes away, so we dawdled a bit. Somehow we'd started talking about magic, and you told me to give you a call and you'd get me into the Magic Castle. (I've always been sorry I never took you up on that.) Then we walked out into the sunset to my car. I remember how much you liked it. I liked it, too. In fact, for several years it had been my only, my daily, transportation. I had bought it from the original owner, the proverbial little old lady who, newly wed, had driven it to Los Angeles from Chicago. She had promised her late husband (and then her car itself) never to sell it. But 40 years later she was going blind and could no longer drive. She had named it Seabiscuit after the famous racehorse, a horse that I imagined you, Mr. Grant, sitting in your box at Santa Anita or Hollywood Park, had probably once bet on. She made me promise not to let anyone else drive it. And I kept that promise for a long time.

As we opened our doors to get into the car, you noticed the original mohair seats, the gearshift, the clock in the rearview mirror, the necker's knob on the steering wheel. "Ah, I love these old cars. I remember when I used to have a Duesenberg." (And you pronounced each syllable of that hallowed name as only Cary Grant could.) "I used to drive it on weekends to Boston to visit a lady friend. I drove it in the winter with the top down, wearing my raccoon coat."

And as we coasted down the curves of Benedict Canyon, you regaled me with memories of a time and a car I could only imagine. In its day, that elegant Duesy would have cost as much as a new house; it would be worth a million today. I bought the Buick for a grand. There was more than that dividing us, of course. There were years, generations, your life as an icon, your wealth and fame. But in the long shadows of the evening, in the luster at day's end that we directors know as the "Golden Hour," we were just two guys. Two guys talking about cars and girls.

There was something else that divided us that night. And I'm going to come clean about it now.

I took it slow going down the canyon, mostly in second, trying to make our time stand still. And as we turned gently right and left I heard--and I've always wondered if you did, too--what sounded like a bottle rolling from side to side under our seat, a full one, because it thunked rather than clinked. I wasn't able to retrieve it, so I pretended to ignore it, waiting for it to stop when we hit the straightaway of Wilshire. It wasn't until just before we pulled up at the theater, that last right turn, that final thunk, that I figured out what it was. That's the other little secret I have from that evening.

It was my Academy Award.

It had been there since Oscar night. When you win one, you have to give it back to get it inscribed, since, obviously, no one knows if you're going to win. (You know that, but I thought I'd mention it because I know you never got yours.)

That's why I remember that evening: that unlikely scene--a run-by, two overs and two close-ups--of the callow, upstart producer, lucky enough to be your driver, lucky enough to be known by you, with his barely earned Oscar rolling around unattended and forgotten, while the guy who never got one sits talking about the best of his own times.

I'd have traded it to you for the Duesy and the coat, straight across.

Yours truly, Tony Bill

*

Tony Bill is the director of "My Bodyguard," "Five Corners" and "Untamed Heart," among other films. His production credits include "The Sting," "Taxi Driver" and "Going in Style."

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