Larry A. Thompson has long been fascinated with celebrity couples who “fly so close to the sun.” Sonny and Cher, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor are duos featured in several television movies developed by the veteran producer.
For years, he’s wanted to create a movie around one of Hollywood’s most famous and scandalous couples, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. He contends — and who could argue? — that the volcanic emotions fueling the courtship, marriages and breakups of the on- and off-screen couple gave birth to the obsessive celebrity culture that blossomed into the tsunami of today’s tabloids, paparazzi and gossip websites: “They were the first Brangelina.”
Thompson has finally realized his dream with “Liz & Dick,” which premieres Sunday night on Lifetime 20 months after Taylor’s death at 79. But dreams can have nightmare elements.
The executive producer of the film discovered the hard way that those developing projects about celebrities flying close to the sun can wind up getting a bit burned themselves — especially if their wingman is Lindsay Lohan, the troubled actress he cast to step into Taylor’s shoes and jewelry. “Liz & Dick” is being touted as Lohan’s comeback vehicle after years of substance abuse, run-ins with the law, rehab stints and antics that have all but shattered her once-promising career.
“It sort of exploded in my face,” the 68-year-old Thompson said quietly in his fashionable West Los Angeles home, his voice echoing the drawl he acquired growing up in the Mississippi Delta.
Some early reviews have roasted “Lindsay as Liz.” The Hollywood Reporter called Lohan “woeful from start to finish.” The Los Angeles Times’ Mary McNamara called the movie “a wildly graceless biopic.” Other critics have been more forgiving.
Lohan’s notoriety and the concept of her portraying one of the most beloved actresses in film history are the X factors that Lifetime hopes will bring a massive audience to the film, which costars Grant Bowler as Richard Burton. The cable network, jointly owned by Disney and Hearst, has struck gold in previous years with female-oriented low-budget films about fashion maven Coco Chanel and “American Idol” winner Fantasia Barrino and has been heavily promoting the biopic.
“Liz & Dick” starts from the perspective of Burton during the days before his death in 1984, as the actor reflects on his fiery relationship with Taylor. Their affair ignited on the set of “Cleopatra,” the expensive 1963 epic that was a critical and financial disaster for 20th Century Fox. Both were major movie stars married to other people when the affair started, and their infidelity set off an international scandal.
Thompson’s mother, who shared Taylor’s birthday, Feb. 27, would tell him every year as he grew up that Taylor was special, “the most beautiful woman in the world.” “I think my mother would be proud,” he said of the TV project, choking up a bit.
But he acknowledged that he is reeling from how his vision collided with the seemingly constant chaos of Lohan’s three-ring-circus life.While Lohan, 26, promised him before filming that she would not let him down, she did not totally keep her word.
“As a producer, there were times that I would think to myself, ‘Larry, you made the right decision to run this risk for this potential,’” he said. “But sometimes living with the right decision is more difficult than making it. Lindsay was living up to 100% of what she had promised me — I was never concerned about the level or depth of her performance. But some of her bad habits were harder to break, and that increased the level of challenge for both of us. There were certain behavior patterns that made the production problematic.”
He was cautious about specific details of misconduct. Though they are on good terms, Thompson added with a chuckle, “We don’t hang out together.”
One low point came during a June 8 incident when Lohan’s Porsche collided with the rear of a dump truck on Pacific Coast Highway. Although Lohan told authorities at the time that she was not driving, police say they have recently uncovered evidence that indicates she was lying.
Thompson sighed: “We had a contract that we would make a car and driver available to her every day and that she was required to use that car and driver. Then one morning she refused to get into the limo and drove her own car. She got into an accident, and paramedics were called to the set when she was unresponsive.”
The shenanigans recall previous professional difficulties in Lohan’s career. Her reputation began to fray in 2007 when a letter from producer James Robinson blasted her for “heavy partying” and behaving like a “spoiled child” during the making of his “Georgia Rule.” She was fired from her lead role in “The Other Side” in 2010 because investors were concerned that her wild lifestyle as well as her physical and mental health were problematic.
The actress, who has not starred in a theatrical film since the flop slasher film “I Know Who Killed Me” in 2007 and whose last lead role was 2009’s ABC Family movie “Labor Pains,” has not exactly been the best ambassador for her comeback. Her longtime publicist Steve Honig quit in frustration. And industry eyebrows were raised this month when she abruptly pulled out of a planned “20/20" interview with Barbara Walters.
She and her new publicist, Tej Bhatia Herring of Rogers & Cowan, opted for presumably less probing interviews. Appearing nervous on “The Tonight Show” last week, Lohan told host Jay Leno that “the timing wasn’t right right now” for the Walters interview.
On a recent edition of “Good Morning America,” Lohan subtly alluded to her personal troubles while noting “how incredibly cool” it was to portray Taylor: “I hope my love for acting comes through. I’m in a great place and want to move forward.” Herring and Lohan did not respond to requests from The Times for comment
Talent and risk
Thompson has patiently endured the melodrama. “While it’s historically believed that any press is good press, I’m praying that that adage continues to be true. I set out to make a movie about Liz and Dick, and I don’t want that to get lost.”
Lloyd Kramer, the director, said Lohan was getting a bad rap. “I know the snark that’s out there,” he said. “But when you do a movie like this with so many budget and time restraints, it’s very taxing. There were days when she was stressed out, but that’s understandable. When I look at it objectively, she delivered. She never phoned it in. Lindsay has incredible talent.”
Like most television movies based on major public figures, “Liz & Dick” is an unauthorized project and does not involve any family members or representatives of the major characters. The film, written by Christopher Monger (“Temple Grandin”), marks the second big TV project about Taylor; Sherilyn Fenn (“Twin Peaks”) starred in 1995’s NBC miniseries “Liz: The Elizabeth Taylor Story.”
The short list of actresses Thompson considered for Taylor included Megan Fox, Kate Beckinsale and Olivia Wilde. But Lohan had something extra: “Her excitement was infectious. After meeting with her, it reconfirmed my suspicion that she could bring the magical reward I was looking for.”
Lohan was on probation for DUI when negotiations commenced, and plans to film in Vancouver were shelved so the film could be made in Los Angeles. Because of her previous problems, the actress was covered by multiple insurance policies, which were paid for by Thompson.
“Lindsay Lohan was the most insured actress to ever set foot on a Hollywood soundstage,” said Thompson, whose company owns the film and will share in the revenues.
When difficulties arose on the set, Thompson said he drew on his experience of 40 years as a professional talent manager, guiding the careers of 200 stars including William Shatner and Joan Rivers, to handle Lohan. “Having represented all that talent prepared me to deal with my leading lady that maybe another executive producer might not have been skilled to handle.”
But he added, “I’m not sure representing anyone could have prepared me for the experience of working with Lindsay.” Still, asked whether he would ever work with her again, Thompson was silent for almost a minute before giving his answer. “Absolutely.”