Black Jack. That's what John's friend Terry Southern, the "Dr. Strangelove" screenwriter, called him.
The renegade producer. The executive outsider. Not quite true but close enough. If you were in a room with John Calley and Southern it was often impossible to tell which one was speaking; John had picked up Terry's lingo and rhythm perfectly: a mix of hipster, marijuana farmer and showbiz double-talk, to which John added a strain of his own: used car salesman.
"Let me put you in this unit" was one of his favorite phrases, the "unit" being, depending on circumstances, a car, a suit or a movie. John came by this particular jargon courtesy of a childhood in New Jersey with a family-owned used car lot. He had many colorful anecdotes about those days and I believed about half of them.
John liked beautiful cars and yachts and owned lots of them. As we speak there's a new Talbo in his garage that's never been driven. He bought it on impulse a few weeks ago knowing that he probably never would sit in it. John would spend hours leafing through thick glossy yachting magazines; he knew the names and locations of every "important" yacht in the world.
"There's a yacht in Hamburg," he said one day. "Let's go look at it." So we flew to Hamburg. We stayed a couple of days, long enough to allow us an evening on the infamous Reeperbahn where we heard that one of their nightclubs featured some -- uh -- experimental dancers who did a routine with a popular barnyard animal. Not wanting to waste time sitting through lesser entertainments, John walked up to the scary doorkeeper and asked:
"What time does the donkey go on?"
John liked making movies with people whose talent he admired. He had no agenda, culturally or politically, as far as I could tell. His interest was in helping to tell a story that was different and often difficult. Directors trusted him because he trusted them and they wanted to work with him because he had made so many films as an independent producer and as head of three different studios that there were almost no problems that he hadn't faced.
And because he was so damned entertaining.
Calley, Mike Nichols and I went to London for a few days to ask Stanley Kubrick about a front screen projection system that he had developed and that Mike thought might be useful in "Catch-22." A British producer invited us to a private screening of a film he had just completed. We joined him and his wife and some of their friends in a small plush screening room in a hotel. The film was very hard to take and threatened to go on for a long time. John and I exchanged a look of despair. I bent over and groaned. John immediately said in a nice loud voice: "Bucky -- is it your ulcer again?" I clutched my side. "I think it's my appendix." John lifted me off the seat and half-carried, half-dragged me up the aisle and out of the theater while mumbling about a nearby clinic. In an emergency John was very good at improvisation.
There were daily emergencies during the "Catch-22" shoot. We were in the middle of the Mexican desert on Dick Sylbert's huge set of an American air base complete with a fleet of planes and our group of pilots and mechanics. It had taken months to collect the planes and their World War II pilots from all over. It was said that we had the seventh or eighth largest air force in the world. John and I often discussed the possibility of our invading a nearby country just for the fun of it.
One day John got an emergency call from one of our perimeter guard posts. The guards were big tough Mexican cops who were there primarily to see that our guns and special effects explosives were safe from young Mexican rebels who were making trouble around the country. It was 1968 and there were stories of students being shot and buried in the desert.
When we got to the perimeter we were greeted by a bunch of cops surrounding a car containing four or five very nervous young men. The head cop who had a big gold tooth just like the bandit's gold tooth in "Treasure of Sierra Madre" explained that apparently some of our flight crew guys had gone into town the night before and tried to hustle some of the local girls. The young men had driven out to our base to teach them a lesson. They had brought a few knives with them. The head cop told John that the driver refused to get out of the car. John said, "Well, maybe he'll roll down the window so we can talk." The head cop signaled the driver to roll down his window and smiled the big smile that in a movie almost always signals broken bones and lots of blood. The driver rolled down the window about six inches and the cop reached in, grabbed the driver's head and pulled it and his entire body through the opening, scraping off most of his clothes and a layer or two of his skin.
"So, Mr. Calley," the cop said, "how about we take them up there," he pointed to the hills at the horizon, "and kill them." I didn't think he was kidding. The guys in the car were shaking. I think one of them was crying -- but it could have been me. John nodded. "Well, maybe that's going too far. In Hollywood when this kind of thing happens we usually just spank them and send them home." The head cop looked severely disappointed.
John said: "What about a severe warning and we kill them next time?"
John was the least social animal in the Hollywood jungle. He never went out to restaurants, rarely visited friends' houses and most certainly never set foot in a club where important and/or fashionable people hung out. He went to bed early and sometimes -- sorry, John -- wore a white nightcap. I think it had a tassel. It looked great on him.