All this may be news of sorts to Mel Brooks and author Speed Vogel, though,
because they always thought that, well, you know, they were the inspiration for the The Odd Couple.
Not that either Vogel or Brooks is making any kind of comic claim to fame, but back in the early '50s, when Brooks left his first wife, he moved into a studio apartment with his friend Speed. Speed was tidy, Mel was not. Speed was sane, Mel was borderline.
At the time, Brooks was telling tales at work - he was a writer on TV's Your Show of Shows (1950-1954), as was Neil Simon - about the odd relationship, and years later, in 1965, when The Odd Couple hit Broadway, the two thought: "Hey! Maybe?"
Sorry, guys. Danny Simon has the royalty payments, continuing to this day, to prove that he was the original inspiration. Inspiration is a tricky thing. Danny Simon is almost gleeful about the fact that he is a continuing source of inspiration for his brother's plays. (At last count, he was featured in six of Simon's works.) "I've had more plays written about me than Abraham Lincoln, Julius Caesar and Joan of Arc," he gloats.
But because Danny Simon exists within a coterie of comedy writers, it is not likely that his being repeatedly immortalized has profoundly affected his life. Others, though, people from more ordinary walks of life who have also served as the original inspiration for a major piece of entertainment, report that for better or worse, the experience has affected them. Sometimes incidentally; more often dramatically.
On the fourth floor of the Metropolitan Correction Center in lower Manhattan is a conference room, and as the door opens, a voice can be heard: ''Sorry, but John Wojtowicz is not available. You'll just have to settle for Al Pacino instead."
It's a joke, you see. Wojtowicz, now 41, attempted to rob a bank in Brooklyn one day in 1972 and botched it, badly. So badly they made a movie about the incident, Dog Day Afternoon (1975), starring Pacino. The scriptwriter, Frank Pierson, won an Academy Award for best original screenplay, while Wojtowicz claims some of the finer lines in the movie as his. But a fat lot of good being a celebrity by association has done him. In life, as in the movie, Wojtowicz robbed the bank to finance a sex-change operation for his male bride, Ernie. Wojtowicz finally did get his hands on the money. Legally. The filmmakers made an initial payment of $15,000. Ernie
went under the knife to emerge as Liz, then dumped Wojtowicz for a younger man.
More was to come. When the movie was shown at the federal prison in Lewisburg, Pa., it developed that Wojtowicz's prison colleagues were some tough critics. Reacting to the homosexuality portrayed by Pacino on screen, and to the intimation in the script that Wojtowicz was prepared to sell out his partner in crime (who was shot dead by the FBI), they firebombed his cell. Wojtowicz also says he was raped three times.
Then in 1977, Wojtowicz, his luck holding, became the very first criminal to have his movie money (the remaining payment amounted to $40,000) seized by the state of New York's Crime Victims Compensation Board, even though both the crime had been committed, and the movie made, before the passage of the Son of Sam law the same year. "They're violating my property rights, which are very sacred rights," the bank robber said in anguish at the time.
Finally, and most aggrievedly, Wojtowicz doesn't even like the movie. The movie, he feels, lacks the right perspective - his perspective. There was a reason he picked up a gun (or two) that day, and he believes the means justified the end. Well, not the factual end of the story, where he goes to prison, but the end he had in mind, where he flies Ernie to Denmark to have the operation.
"I robbed a bank to save the life of the person I loved," he says, referring to his belief that Ernie would have committed suicide if he had not taken action. "I never felt I committed any crime. . . . I was forced into the hostage-taking situation when they surrounded the bank. And none of the hostages was ever killed, because I kept them alive." Paroled in 1978, Wojtowicz is back in prison for parole violation.
By contrast, the movie Marie finally cleared the air for Marie Ragghianti back in Nashville, Tenn. Not a few local citizens failed to take kindly to the woman who played an instrumental role in exposing the clemency-abuse scandal that led to the 1984 imprisonment of Tennessee Gov. Ray Blanton for an unrelated conspiracy conviction. Even when the book by Peter Maas, Marie: A True Story, came out, the home-town team was waiting, ready to rip into it, and her. But the movie changed all that.
"In the city of Nashville, I was a controversial figure. The book just stirred up a hornet's nest," says Ragghianti, 41, who now lives in Manhattan. ''But on the other hand, I've discovered everybody loves a movie star. And in Nashville, I'm the closest you can get to it without being the real thing."
Ragghianti was very much involved in the making of the movie. She was on the set daily, and Sissy Spacek, who played Ragghianti, would routinely run dialogue by her. "It got to be funny. She'd come and say, 'Marie, is this the way you would have said it?' " Ragghianti recalls, "and I'd tell her what I might have said. She'd go flying back to the set and say it our way."
Aside from a tendency she has developed of referring to herself in the third person ("But only when I'm talking about the movie character, Marie"), Ragghianti says the experience was strictly positive. In fact, she just saw the movie again recently, and "it is much more profound than just watching a movie. It is always emotionally disturbing. . . . But then there are the good scenes. Even now, when I see the courtroom scene, I remember how I felt, and it's like the first time. Some of the scenes I just thrill to living over."
Crystal Lee Sutton loved the movie about her, too, but the former textile worker who was fired for union activity was a little taken aback by the tagline to Norma Rae (1979) that read: "The events, characters and firms depicted in this photoplay are fictitious. Any similarity to actual persons living or dead or to actual events or firms is purely coincidental."
It took "some lawyers from New York" to wrest a modest financial settlement - star Sally Field publicly contended that the movie was based on the life stories of five women - for the woman who was then working as a chambermaid in Burlington, N.C. She was quickly taken up by the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union as a spokeswoman, which was also, ultimately, a disillusioning experience.
"Now don't get me wrong, I'm still a firm believer in unions. They are the only thing the working person has going for them," says the plain-speaking woman, who now runs a day-care center in her home in Burlington. "But I'm also not the kind of person who is going to have words put into her mouth to lie to the working people. So when they (the union) learned they couldn't use me, well, I eventually resigned."
Years after the movie, Sutton, who is now 45, a grandmother and married to a textile worker, finds herself with the reputation as a "wild woman," a legacy of a script over which she exercised no control. In the movie, Norma Rae divided her leisure hours between motel liaisons and bars before she discovered labor organizing.
"A lot of people are shocked that I do not drink," says Sutton, running down a checklist of things Norma Rae did that she did not. "I don't hang around bars and that sort of thing, although I do like to go out and dance. And I've never been a sloppy person. I've always tried to carry myself neat. The men I've been with in my life, I have been in control and not them. And I don't use a lot of profanity."
Yet, despite all this, Sutton considers the movie to be realistic in the main. "As far as the union struggle goes, it was as near to life as it could be." Norma Rae is her contribution to history, she says, and then, as if fearing the mere suggestion of grandiosity, cuts her own statement down to
size. "It makes the grandchildren proud. And everybody needs something to brag on. I'm thankful I could give them that."