Tracking HAL's Odyssey

Times Staff Writer

He vaulted to screen stardom a generation ago in Stanley Kubrick's science fiction epic "2001: A Space Odyssey," stealing scenes with his mesmerizing stare, tranquil voice and neurotic behavior.

He had no face, but he had a name: HAL 9000. He had a birthplace: the HAL plant in Urbana, Ill. And a birth date: Jan. 12, 1992 (although the novel "2001" claims it was 1997).

He was never nominated for an Academy Award for best actor, but the American Film Institute voted him the 13th-greatest Hollywood screen villain of all time.

Not bad ... for a camera lens.

Now, a Georgia man named Kirk Wooster claims to own the famous movie prop that was used as HAL, the murderous computer depicted in Kubrick's landmark 1968 film, and is offering it for sale at $250,000.

But is the large Fairchild-Curtis 160-degree F2 ultra-wide-angle lens really HAL, or another lens posing as HAL? Opinions vary -- even among crew members who worked on the movie with Kubrick in England. Complicating matters is the fact that Kubrick, cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth and John Alcott, who provided additional photography, are dead.

And the lens isn't talking.

The debate over HAL comes at a time when the popularity of movie and TV memorabilia auctions is soaring. Yet, in a market flooded with knockoffs, determining authenticity can be difficult.

In Wooster's case, witness evidence and other materials suggest that a Fairchild-Curtis lens was indeed used by Kubrick on the set of "2001." But was it HAL?

Wooster surmises that after production ended, the lens was returned to the United States and stored in a box for 30 years without people giving much thought to its potential worth until he purchased it in 1999 and began his research. Wooster said he was always interested in Kubrick's film and bought the lens when a friend offered to sell it to him.

"This is a piece of cinema history that would have vanished if I hadn't taken an interest in it," said Wooster, a 65-year-old commercial helicopter pilot and producer of large-format films who lives in Woodstock, Ga., about 30 miles north of Atlanta. He says he has turned down offers of $100,000 for his lens.

Not exactly small change, but serious fans, no longer satisfied with a celebrity's scribbled autograph on an 8-by-10 glossy, are spending huge sums for props and costumes that were part of classic movies and TV shows.

In recent years, private collectors have paid $666,000 for a pair of ruby slippers worn by Judy Garland in "The Wizard of Oz"; $306,000 for Capt. Kirk's command chair from the starship Enterprise on the TV series "Star Trek"; $92,000 for a resin statuette of the falcon from the Humphrey Bogart detective yarn "The Maltese Falcon"; and $15,000 for a genie's bottle used in the 1960s sitcom "I Dream of Jeannie." And dealers still are buzzing over the $1.54 million that pop star Michael Jackson reportedly shelled out in 1999 for producer David O. Selznick's best-picture Oscar from "Gone With the Wind."

"Everybody has a movie they love, or a famous line from a film they remember, or a television show episode that sticks in their mind," said Joseph Maddalena, who owns Profiles in History, a Beverly Hills document and movie memorabilia auction house.

Prices soared in the mid-1990s, dealers say, when Planet Hollywood and the Hard Rock Cafe displayed show biz memorabilia in their restaurants. The public's appetite for props and costumes took off, and soon even some of the most common props, if part of a classic film, were going for a small fortune.

Today, some movie studios also are getting into the act. On New Line Cinema's Web site this month, for instance, Will Ferrell's costume from the holiday comedy "Elf" sold for $2,755. In previous auctions, the studio sold Jim Carrey's yellow suit from "The Mask" for $16,001, Wesley Snipes' outfit from "Blade" for $8,999 and Mike Myers' maroon vertical-striped suit from "Austin Powers in Goldmember" for $3,005. A portion of each sale goes to charity, a studio official said.

Buying props directly from a studio helps resolve one issue: proving authenticity. But on the open market, let the buyer beware.

Marcia Tysseling, co-owner of Star Wares Collectibles in Agoura Hills, said she recently paid $20,000 to a private party on EBay for a red-beaded dress and a sheer pastel dress with a pink coat said to have been worn by Kate Winslet in the Oscar-winning 1997 film "Titanic." But after taking the dresses to 20th Century Fox and comparing them with costumes known to have been from the movie, she realized the dresses she had purchased were bogus and got her money back.

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For fans of "2001: A Space Odyssey," almost anything that comes onto the market would be a potential treasure, because it is believed most of the props and sets were destroyed in the early 1970s, a time when cash-starved MGM was auctioning off many of its props.

Why were the items junked? Con Pederson, a special photographic effects supervisor on the film who built the scale model of the Discovery spacecraft, explained: "I talked to Stanley [afterward]. I know that he really wanted to get rid of everything.... His policy was always to destroy sets."

Anthony Frewin, who for many years was Kubrick's personal assistant, notes that aside from research and paper materials, all that remains today with the director's family from "2001" are a sculpture of the "star child" seen at the end of the film, an ape costume or two from the film's "Dawn of Man" sequences and some camera equipment.

Wooster, who has roots in Hollywood (he had a cinematography credit on the 1969 Charlton Heston football drama "Number One"), gives the following history of the lens he calls HAL:

It once was the property of Film Effects of Hollywood, a company owned by the late Linwood Dunn, a pioneering optical effects expert. The lens was provided to another company called Graphic Films to make specialty films for the 1964 New York World's Fair. Kubrick happened to see one of those films, "To the Moon and Beyond," and invited crew members from Graphic Films to join him in England on "2001."

"All the shots of HAL looking at the astronauts were filmed with this lens and then put in a housing, and they called it HAL," Wooster said.

He said the lens was returned to Film Effects of Hollywood and eventually sold along with other equipment to a friend of his who worked at another Hollywood optical company. Wooster bought the lens from him in late 1999.

Wooster has a letter from Jimmy Dickson, a technical animation specialist on "2001" who also worked for Graphic Films on "To the Moon and Beyond," that states that Wooster's lens was the one used as HAL on "2001."

But in a recent interview, Dickson indicated he now has doubts. He recalled that the Fairchild-Curtis lens was used on the set of "2001," but whether it was for HAL's point-of-view shots is not clear. His uncertainty grew after he discussed the matter with Douglas Trumbull, who was one of four special photographic effects supervisors on the film.

In a detailed e-mail on the subject, Trumbull said, "Any claim by Kirk that the Fairchild-Curtis lens was used for the HAL [point-of-view] shots is just not true." He contended that the Fairchild-Curtis image would fill the entire frame of Kubrick's 70-mm movie, whereas the point-of-view shots of HAL are round and have vignetted dark spaces to the left and right of the 70-mm frame. Therefore the point-of-view lens would have to have been smaller.

But Wooster counters with a June 1968 article in American Cinematographer magazine that shows a photo of HAL looking at an astronaut. This shot, the article said, was achieved "with [a] Fairchild 'bug-eye' type extreme wide-angle lens covering a field of almost 180 degrees."

Though not taking sides, Frewin, Kubrick's assistant, recalls that the director used a 160-degree "mapping lens" borrowed from Fairchild-Curtis for HAL's point-of-view shots and later returned to the optical company. Frewin said Kubrick also used a "normal, commercially available Nikon fish-eye lens" for other HAL shots. The debate underscores not only the respect experts long have held for Kubrick's filmmaking techniques but also the enduring fascination moviegoers have had with HAL.

Keir Dullea, who starred as astronaut Dave Bowman in the film, said HAL, who came before the era of personal computers, was unnerving to people at the time because many wanted to believe that technology was subservient to human beings.

HAL "was given a double message, which you find out at the end of the film," Dullea said in a recent interview. "You find out he was supposed to lie. He was causing things to go wrong. He was a machine that goes psychotic."

In the film, Dullea and actor Gary Lockwood, who portrays Dr. Frank Poole, are aboard the space ship Discovery. Their mission: Search for extraterrestrial life around Jupiter. Three other astronauts we never meet are resting in a deep, induced sleep for the long voyage through space.

It is here that we see HAL, who stares out at us with his evil red "eye." HAL is programmed to talk and think like humans. HAL runs the ship. HAL plays chess with the crew. HAL monitors the men in hibernation and even wishes the astronauts a happy birthday. But when Bowman and Poole become concerned that HAL's programming has failed, they go off by themselves in the space pod to discuss disconnecting HAL's "brain." Unbeknownst to them, HAL is reading their lips and soon begins murdering the crew.

In one tense scene well into the movie, Bowman commands the computer to open the pod bay doors, to which HAL delivers his signature line: "I'm sorry, Dave, I'm afraid I can't do that."

HAL's distinctive voice was supplied by Canadian-born actor Douglas Rain.

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David Larson, who has interviewed more than 30 cast and crew members from the movie for a proposed book entitled "2001: Behind the Scenes," believes most of the sets -- such as the modules from the centrifuge and the spaceship cockpits -- were broken up and junked in the 1970s.

"I don't think they were destroyed at first," he said. "They were housed in storage somewhere northwest of London, where MGM operated the Borehamwood studio, where Kubrick shot the movie. When the film premiered in 1968, there was talk of using the sets and props for a tour in America along with the film. Had those sets survived, they would be worth a small fortune today."

Larson said that in 1974, a student at an art college in St. Albans, near Kubrick's London-area estate, saw two crates containing scale models from the film left unguarded just outside the gate of a municipal dump. One was the model used for the film's Space Station 5 and the other for the spaceship Discovery's pod. When the student returned with his camera the next day, the pod had disappeared and the space station was in a state of disrepair.

But a few props and costumes have survived.

One of the more recognizable is the red space helmet worn by Dullea and owned by Northrop Grumman Corp. engineer Dennis Gilliam of Redlands, who also owns a pair of boots worn by Lockwood, a neck ring off one of the white helmets used in the lunar landscape sequences and a pair of blue-gray flight overalls Dullea wore when he was not in the spacesuit. Gilliam said he acquired the helmet in 1986 from a Hollywood museum that was going out of business.

And, Gilliam said, he knows of three other spacesuits now in the hands of private collectors.

"Right now I'm trying to restore a complete [space] suit," he said. "The only part I don't have is the chest pack, the front part that Keir is wearing." Gilliam said he had no intention of selling the memorabilia but has offered to lend the helmet to Kubrick's heirs, who are planning a world tour of Kubrick memorabilia next year.

Convinced he has the real HAL, Wooster has built a housing for the lens that replicates the housing in the pod bay that appears in the film. He has rigged up a red lightbulb behind HAL's solitary "eye" to simulate the eerie reddish glow seen in the movie. Every Friday, he invites people to a screening room he has built inside an aircraft hangar at the Woodstock airport to watch a DVD, eat a potluck dinner and gaze at the large lens.

"People don't look at it as an inanimate object," Wooster explained. "They look at it as HAL. Everybody has pictures taken with him. It's like a living person.... It's alive."

When not on display, the lens is kept at a storage facility near Wooster's residence.

"I went there a couple weeks ago, and HAL wouldn't let me in," Wooster joked. "I said, 'Open the storage bay door, HAL,' and I swear I heard a voice say, 'I'm sorry, Kirk, I'm afraid I can't do that.' "

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