In Otto Preminger’s 1968 film SKIDOO, actor Austin Pendleton talks Jackie Gleason through an LSD trip and smokes pot with Groucho Marx.
What a mind-blowing way to start his film career.
“Here’s a movie that was made all those years ago, and it’s still controversial and being talked about. That’s sort of amazing,” Pendleton said in a recent interivew with HOME PROJECTIONIST.
“I mean, the majority of movies you make are just forgotten. People don’t even know what you’re talking about when you bring one up.”
Madeline Kahn with Pendleton in What’s Up, Doc? (1972), Warner Bros. Photo: movieactors.com
If you bring up Pendleton’s name, some moviegoers will respond, “Oh, I loved him in WHAT’S UP, DOC?” — or fill in the blank with another title in the long list of his films.
Others will say, “Austin who?”
“Oh, that’s all right,” Pendleton said in his self-deprecating style.
Over the years, it would have been hard to miss seeing Austin Pendleton on the silver screen. He’s brought his distinctive presence and talent to more than 40 feature films — plus stage and television — during a prolific career that’s still going strong. He’s kind of a national treasure. (See below for more on Pendelton’s career.)
AN INAUSPICIOUS BEGINNING
Photo: Steppenwolf Theatre
As soon as Pendleton settled in at his dreary motel near Paramount Studios to start work on SKIDOO, all he wanted to do was turn around and go back to the stage in New York.
“SKIDOO was the first time I ever played a part of any size at all in a film,” Pendleton said.
“When we first began to shoot, I thought, ‘Oh, I don’t know how to do this.’ I mean, for the first week I would call my agent in New York and I would say, ‘I gotta get outta here. I don’t know what I’m doing. I don’t know how to function in front of a camera.’ And my agent would say, ‘Well, dear, you just can’t get out of a film.’”
With no easy escape route, Pendleton continued to endure Preminger’s demands and tirades. “You’re an amateur,” Preminger railed to the struggling actor one day.
“We were about a week into filming,” said Pendleton, “and at that point, I just agreed with him. I said, ‘Yes, I know I’m inexperienced, Mr. Preminger. I really don’t know what to do.’”
Pendleton’s words of resignation instantly transformed the difficult director. “From then on, Otto took me under his wing,” Pendleton said. “He taught me just about everything I know about film acting. “
“He was very kind and patient. Before each scene was shot, he would talk to me, mainly about how every take was like an opening night in the theatre, and I found that very helpful, since that was what I was most familiar with. He talked about how important simplicity was. He told me to just keep it small, to talk and listen, essentially, not to act too theatrically.
“He would repeat these things over and over to get them into me. And it meant so much that he was taking the time to do that. As an actor, I still call upon what Otto taught me.”
With Preminger’s coaching and support, Pendleton created the memorable SKIDOO character of Fred the Professor, an endearing, low-key, mastermind hippie whose stash of LSD changes everyone’s lives…for the better.
A LOVE IT OR HATE IT THING
Critics and movie fans have called SKIDOO all things scathing — a train wreck, a hot mess, a hatchet job.
It’s also been praised by its evangelists as being one of the most delightful, must-see films of all time.
“You know,” Pendleton said, “I sort of still don’t know what I feel about it. I certainly am happy I made it because I got to know Otto Preminger. That was wonderful. But there are two schools of thought about SKIDOO. One is that it’s a total disaster, an embarrassment, infamous, and all of that.
“On the other hand, there are a lot of people, either I know or know of, and who I’ve read on the subject who seem to be very intelligent, who just love that movie. It has a real following.”
Once you see SKIDOO, you can’t ever forget it. It’s a comedy that’s not a comedy, a spoof that’s not a spoof. Literally, it’s a “trip” — enigmatic, to be sure, blundering and odd, yet also rich with well crafted and executed scenes that will feed your head for a long time.
You’ll be asking yourself: “Did I really just see Carol Channing dancing in her underpants and see-through bra? Did I really just watch Jackie Gleason ingest LSD and hallucinate a vision of mathematics?”
In a nutshell, the plot is wacky. Tony (Jackie Gleason) is full of existential angst because he’s wondering if his wife Flo (Carol Channing) has been untrue and if he is really the father of his daughter Darlene (Alexandra Hay).
He’s also been called upon by God (Groucho Marx), the head of his old mob outfit, to knock off Blue Chips (Mickey Rooney) in Alcatraz because of an upcoming investigation in which Chips is going to testify. Tony doesn’t want to do the hit, but he finally agrees after discovering his friend Harry (Arnold Stang) in a car wash with a bullet hole right through his head.
How’s that for a comedic setup?
Tony has other trouble brewing as well. The hippies have come to town, and daughter Darlene has taken up with Stash (John Phillip Law) and his crew of dope-smoking, body-painting anarchists.
As an incognito prisoner, Tony sneaks into Alcatraz to do the hit. He befriends his cellmate, Fred the Professor (Austin Pendleton), a long-haired draft dodger. When Tony realizes he won’t be able to get to Blue Chips because of tight prison security, he and the Professor devise a scheme to escape from prison in a makeshift hot air balloon, oh yes, while all of the guards and the other convicts are happily hallucinating.
In the meantime, Carol Channing, dressed in a Napoleonic admiral suit, bugaloos and breaks into the SKIDOO theme song (by Harry Nilsson), leading a flotilla of hippies to rescue her daughter from God, who is hiding out on his yacht in the Pacific Ocean.
Most hilarious — and historic — is the closing shot where we find Pendleton and Groucho, now serene as Hare Krishnas, making their getaway in a psychedelic sail boat. After Groucho takes a hit off a joint, he utters what will end up being his last line ever in a movie: “Mmmm…pumpkin.”
“Doing that scene,” Pendleton said, laughing, “was one of the most delicious parts of the whole experience, you know?
“We were on location, by the ocean. We had dinner the night before, and everything Groucho said was funny, in a relaxed and inviting way. We talked about all kinds of things, mostly related to the acting profession.
“Looking back, I guess I was relieved that the last scene was being shot. But more than that, I was having a wonderful time at dawn with Groucho Marx. It was heaven, actually, exactly what you’d think it would be like.
“As soon as I got back to New York, I told everybody about that scene. In fact, I still tell everybody about it.”
CHANGING SCRIPTS & VISIONS
Preminger needed a film in 1968. He was facing a contractual obligation to get a movie completed by the end of the year. He chose the SKIDOO script, which was written by screenwriter Doran William “Bill” Cannon. Cannon asked the director to cast his friend Pendleton in the role of Fred because he had written the part specifically for him. Preminger met Pendleton and agreed.
“I think the script of that movie was pretty good,” Pendleton recalled. “I think Otto was not exactly the right director for it. It should have been somebody like Brian DePalma, who was very young then and who was making those counterculture movies. It should have been directed by somebody like that. On the other hand, Otto is a very original director, you know. What he does is very striking.”
Script changes were relentless. Cannon had written a “love, peace, and sunshine” script, and Preminger ended up making it something else, something still indefinable. He contributed to the jumble himself with his own script changes and brought in other writers as well, including Mel Brooks, Rob Reiner, Elliott Baker, and Stanley Ralph Ross, who was the writer for the BEACH PARTY movies and several episodes for “The Monkees” and “Batman” television series. The film certainly shows his influence.
[Trivia buffs like to note that the SKIDOO cast includes Batman villains The Riddler (Frank Gorshin); The Penguin (Burgess Meredith); and The Joker (Cesar Romero). Otto Preminger himself played Mr. Freeze.]
Once Preminger established a relationship with Pendleton, he expanded his role as Fred the Professor. “That kind of knocked me out,” Pendleton said. “I wanted to be done with the whole thing. Although Otto was brilliant, there was this sense of despair on the set. What was happening didn’t seem to be really igniting.”
Pendleton said he learned from his later film experiences that there is often a sense of anxiety and fear during filming, and it doesn’t necessarily impact the success of a movie.
“I mean, it was true of the first few films that I did after SKIDOO. CATCH-22 and WHAT’S UP, DOC? are both terrific films, but difficult in the making. On the other hand, sometimes the set is heaven and the film just sits there in the end.”
Certainly Preminger wasn’t trying to fail or crank out a meaningless throwaway piece of work. In addition to the star-studded “old school” Hollywood cast of Gleason, Channing, Rooney, and Marx, Preminger added Frankie Avalon, Fred Clark, Michael Constantine, Peter Lawford, Slim Pickens, Richard Kiel, and George Raft. For cinematographer, he opted for Leon Shamroy, an 18-time Oscar nominee. He chose avant-garde designer Rudi Gernreich for costumes, newcomer Harry Nilsson for original music, and renowned Saul Bass for titles.
But what in the world was he trying to do?
“One of the most interesting things about SKIDOO,” said Pendleton, “is that it’s a comedy with a dark, even sad, pull under it. Jackie’s got a comic persona and everything, but he’s depressed. So these comic and serious qualities are pulling against each other and pulling together. That’s what creates something distinctive to Preminger, I think. He was no fool, you know. A different director would have emphasized the comedy.
“That’s Otto’s specific contribution to it. I think that combination of feelings is what gives SKIDOO a quality all of its own and why people want to see it again and again and again.”
A YEAR LACED WITH ACID AND UPHEAVAL
Preminger produced SKIDOO during a monumental crossroads in time. Old Hollywood was still hanging on while it tried to figure out what to do with the growing influence of the counterculture on everyone’s daily lives and the film business itself.
“It’s important to remember that SKIDOO was filmed in that momentous spring of 1968,” Pendleton said, setting the stage for the film’s place in history. “In the middle of our shoot, Martin Luther King was assassinated, and before that was the withdrawal of LBJ from the presidential race and the primaries and all of the Viet Nam protests.
“We shot on the Paramount lot, and at the end of each day Otto would invite a few of us to his office and pour some vodka, and we would talk politics. Otto would lead the discussions; he was a famous liberal. Well, everyone there was a liberal, and that spring of 1968 was at once exhilarating and sobering, a mixture strongly reflected in Otto’s office on those evenings.”
That same mixture of exhilaration and sobriety is apparent in the film. While there were riots in the streets from Memphis to Paris, there was also an emerging counterculture of hope and new horizons.
The hippies intrigued Preminger. He was a 63-year-old classic Hollywood director turned hipster in a Nehru suit, and he was sympathetic to their cause. Straddling a cultural divide, Preminger had one foot grounded in his own history and generation while the other struggled to find a place in a groovy and cool world gone crazy with change.
Maybe he could find a bridge with lysergic acid diethylamide.
LSD’s appearance as a driving force in a movie certainly wasn’t strange in 1968. As TCM’s Millie de Chirico summarized in The Gist, “1968 in fact was a big year for acid movies. PSYCH-OUT, WILD IN THE STREETS, ALICE IN ACIDLAND, MANTIS IN LACE and others were released in the wake of Roger Corman’s THE TRIP (1967) and EASY RIDER (1969) was just around the corner.”
SKIDOO was created in the middle of them all. In preparation for the film, Preminger dropped acid with Timothy Leary (who appeared in the movie’s trailer). Likewise, Groucho Marx enjoyed a trip with Paul Krassner. All accounts tell of wondrous rides. (See reference links below.)
What made SKIDOO so different from the other acid movies of its time is that Preminger portrayed the LSD experience as a positive, liberating, empowering, and cathartic experience.
The movie still seemed “square.”
THE WILL TO SURVIVE
Paramount released SKIDOO in 1968 as part of a double bill with UP-TIGHT!
“On the set, even though I thought the film wasn’t quite working, I didn’t think it would be a catastrophe,” Pendleton said.
Nonetheless, due to scathing reviews and lackluster box office receipts, the film disappeared within weeks of its Miami premiere, sunk, buried, its memory erased, and it appeared that Paramount and the Preminger estate liked it that way. The film stayed out of view for many, many years.
“Oh, I remember the premiere very vividly,” Pendleton said. “People were walking out. And I remember thinking that they were wrong. I thought, ‘No way, it’s not a film you walk out on.’ We’ve all been in those and we’ve all seen those. It’s just not right.”
No one even talked about the movie at the gloomy after party. “It was so awkward and unpleasant,” said Pendleton. “I thought they were underrating the movie, but it was just the way it went.
“I put it behind me, flew back to New York, and kind of forgot about it. And it wasn’t too long after that that I did CATCH-22. The SKIDOO premiere was in late 1968, and I was shooting CATCH-22 in early 1969.”
SKIDOO was out of distribution for decades, a scarcity that increased demand and created a kind of mythology and mystery around it. It was a movie of its time whose time didn’t come until appropriately aged on the shelf.
Movie buffs coveted and shared bootlegs of it. In the late ’70s, it periodically showed up on cable and special screenings. New audiences appeared when TCM featured it, along with THE LOVE-INS, as part of its 2008 Underground Series.
At last, in July 2011 SKIDOO was released on DVD by Olive Films, followed by the Blu-Ray release of The Otto Preminger Collection in November 2012. The collection includes SKIDOO, SUCH GOOD FRIENDS (1971), and HURRY SUNDOWN (1967), which claims a spot in the book, The Fifty Worst Films of All Time.
PENDLETON AND SKIDOO: TOTAL ORIGINALS
“I saw SKIDOO again recently, ” Pendleton said. “I hadn’t seen it since it came out essentially, except once in 1997 at the Dallas Film Festival where they were going to have a midnight screening of it and they invited me down. I was in Los Angeles so I went there. SKIDOO was in a category called “Films You Love to Hate,” and I thought, ‘Wait a minute. I’ve flown all the way down here for that?!’
“They had me do a Q&A before it started. I told the audience, ‘Well, I haven’t seen the movie in years, and I’m looking forward to seeing it again.’ I said that I thought Otto was one of the great film directors, and they thought I was joking.
“Now that’s ridiculous. I mean the man made several classic movies, LAURA, ANATOMY OF A MURDER. Even the ones that aren’t classics, there are a lot of them that are, you know, very well made. Otto was much admired by a lot of people who are knowledgeable about the movies. A lot of actors do some of their best work in his movies. He’s very supportive and thorough with actors and he’s also difficult, so you get the pull of those two things.”
The festival audience still had to be convinced that Preminger was one of the greats.
“But then as I watched SKIDOO that night, after the Q&A,” Pendleton said, “I thought, ‘God, no, it doesn’t work.’
“But what’s good about the movie is that there isn’t anything else like it. It’s totally original. I just don’t think it works, that’s all. I don’t think it’s either this undiscovered classic or a disaster. I just think it’s this weird thing that doesn’t work.”
Pendleton paused and thought for a moment about the crazy movie that launched his film career. “And although SKIDOO‘s this ‘weird thing,’” he said, “it’s a film that still has its moments.
“That’s what I kind of love about it.”
Postscript: Even the harshest critics of SKIDOO give high marks for Nilsson’s singing of the closing credits. It’s good in the movie, but it’s even better when Nilsson does it with an introduction by Otto Preminger in a “Playboy After Dark” segment.
MORE ON PENDLETON’S PROLIFIC CAREER
Pendleton has brought his inimitable presence to more than 40 feature films, including THE FRONT PAGE (1974); THE MUPPET MOVIE (1979); MR. & MRS. BRIDGE (1990); A BEAUTIFUL MIND (2001); and BAD CITY (2009) aka DIRTY CITY. His voice-over work includes Gurgle in FINDING NEMO (2003).
A long, long list of television appearances includes “Tales from the Crypt,” HBO’s “Oz,” “Law & Order,” “The Cosby Show,” “The West Wing,” and going way back, “Love, American Style.”
“I also direct,” Pendleton said,”so that keeps me busy a lot of the time. I do plays in attics. I’m kind of like a moving target,” he said.
That’s a bit of an understatement. In the world of theatre, Pendleton is a well-respected and award-winning actor, playwright, and director whose presence is vast and still going strong.
In 1964, he originated the role of Motel the Tailor, singing the wonderful “Miracle of Miracle” in FIDDLER ON THE ROOF with Zero Mostel. He was nominated for a Tony for directing Elizabeth Taylor and Maureen Stapleton in the THE LITTLE FOXES.
Today he is still garnering rave reviews, currently starring in and directing the off-Broadway premiere of THE LAST WILL, by Robert Brustein. He recently directed Harold Pinter’s THE BIRTHDAY PARTY for Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre, where he’s been a member of the ensemble since 1987, and concurrently, a New York Mississippi Mudd production of SUDDENLY, LAST SUMMER. He’ll be back at Steppenwolf next season to direct TRIBES.
In addition to all of that, he teaches acting and directing at The New School in New York.
“Well, I do a whole lot of things,” Pendleton said. “I take a lot of work, and so that kind of keeps me going, and I try not to worry whether a role is going to promote my career or destroy it because you just simply can’t ever tell. But sometimes you can’t help worrying.”
Pendleton attributes his longevity and success to always being available and open to new work. ”I think you have to follow your instincts and just go. That opens you up to a lot more things than if you tried to figure everything out. I guess thick-skinned and curious are the words I’d pick to describe myself. Sometimes I don’t pull off the thick-skinned part, though. I think everybody falls down with that one in this business sometimes.”
With support from an Indiegogo fundraising campaign, his students are producing a tribute to the man and his work with a new documentary, THE AUSTIN PENDLETON PROJECT: WHERE THE WORK IS. Set to be released this year, it’s described as Pendleton’s “five-decade journey…the colorful and dramatic life of this unsung artist…a portrait of the most famous actor you have never heard of.”
“You know,” he said, “I don’t know that much about it. It started out when two students of mine wanted to tape some of my classes. I sort of said ‘O.K.,’ although I got kind of nervous about it, but then it turned into this thing where they interview people.”
So far, the film includes interviews with the likes of Meryl Streep, Natalie Portman, and Laurie Metcalf, to name a few of Pendleton’s colleagues and biggest fans.
“I haven’t really seen any of it. I don’t think I should interfere with it because I would start trying to shape it in ways. I would start even if I resisted it,” he said, laughing.
IN THE QUEUE
Of all his movie performances, Pendleton’s favorites include:
MR. AND MRS. BRIDGE (1990) with Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman and
BAD CITY (2009), aka DIRTY WORK, where,
Pendleton said, “I play the worst human being you can imagine.”
A special thanks to Austin Pendleton
for his time, kindness, and attention
and to Jeffrey Fauver of Steppenwolf Theatre
for making it happen.
Nathan Rabin, 2010, My Year of Flops
Chris Fujiwara, 2009, The World and Its Double: The Life and Work of Otto Preminger
Foster Hirsch, 2007, Otto Preminger: The Man Who Would Be King
Articles and blogs:
Nathan Rabin,2009,Random Roles,interview with Austin Pendleton, A.V. Club
Jonathan Rosenbaum, 2011, Acid Test, Museum of the Moving Image
Stuart Galbraith IV, 2012, The Otto Preminger Collection, DVD Talk
Dave Kehr, 2011, Gleason as Tripster, Groucho as God, The New York Times
Phil Hall, 2005, The Bootleg Files: Skidoo, Film Threat
Paul Krassner, 1981, My Acid Trip with Groucho, High Times Magazine, The Psychedelic Shakespeare Solution
Richard von Busack, 2008, RvB’s After Images: Skidoo, Cinematical, Moviefone
Christian Divine on Skidoo
Provinces of Ivanlandia
Millie de Chirico, The Gist, TCM
Vincent Canby,1969, New York Times
Roger Ebert, 1968, Chicago Sun-Times
Robert Ebert, 2005, On the Skidoo Set with Otto Preminger, Chicago Sun-Times
Melissa Anderson, 2011, Acid Reign, ArtForum.com
The Ultimate Dancing Machine, 2003, Skidoesn’t, EFilmCritic.com
The Internet Movie Database (IMDb):
Gloria Bowman is a writer, storyteller, blogger, movie lover, freelance editor,
and author of the novel, Human Slices.
Access her blog at www.gloriabowman.com; on Twitter @GloriaBow.