Lorenzo Semple, Jr. The screenwriter Fans Love to Hate - Part 2
The man who returned Sean Connery to cinema service in "Never Say Never Again" spills the secrets of his camp career creating heroics for Batman, Flash Cordon and King Kong.
If screenwriter Lorenzo Semple, Jr. had his way, James Bond would have been a woman.
Almost 30 years before he was hired by producer Jack Schwartzman to script Sean Connery's long-awaited 007 encore vehicle Never Say Never Again, Semple collaborated with the late Russian actor/director Gregory Ratoff on a screen adaptation of Ian Fleming's first Bond novel, Casino Royale.
"Gregory was one of the most flamboyant characters who ever lived," Semple declares in his home in Aspen, Colorado, publicly discussing his association with the aborted project for the first time. "He had been in Egypt acting in a terrible picture called The Royal Bed, which was about King Farouk. It was a huge rip-off. Everyone was trying to rob as much money as possible from the Italian backers, who weren't allowed into the country.
"Gregory—god bless him—stole 10,000 pounds in cash, and needed a way to get it out of Egypt. He got down on his knees at the Cairo airport and prayed: 'As God is my witness, if I get through with this cash, I'm going to buy Time magazine when we land in Athens, and use the money to purchase film rights to the first book I read a review of.' The book turned out to be Casino Royale.
"I was a bright young guy fresh out of college, and Gregory hired me to write the screenplay. I worked without pay, but it was a great deal of fun. We traveled around the world while he gambled in casinos, supposedly doing research. He was too old-fashioned to work, so I would sit at the typewriter for four or five hours a day in whatever hotel we were staying in, and just turn out pages and pages of scenes. I probably wrote several scripts during a year of traveling throughout Europe.
"Comics are like primitive art. They should be read for fun. To pretend they're anything more is gross exploitation of people who don't know any better."
"Gregory thought the story was much too silly. He said: 'Nobody believe this James Bond, so we make him into woman. Then, we make great movie.' The idea was to write it as a vehicle for Susan Hayward. That was his prescription for success.
"Darryl Zanuck [then-head of 20th Century-Fox] and [agent-turned-producer] Charles Feldman were lending him money, and it was all charged off against the project. Gregory died in 1960, and Feldman got the film rights. He eventually produced the picture himself [in 1967 with Peter Sellers, David Niven, Peter O'Toole and Woody Allen]. I thought his version was a real mess."
Photo: Screenwriter Lorenzo Semple, Jr.
The "Batman" camp
As detailed in STARLOG #74, Semple's involvement with Never Say Never Again also led to a messy situation. Indeed, all of his genre assignments have produced more than their share of confusion and disappointment.
Although he had been a Broadway playwright earlier in his career, Semple first gained national attention in 1966, when he wrote the pilot episode of the Batman TV series. "I had been hacking around writing horrible pilots which didn't sell for producer William Dozier," he recalls. "Then, Bill made a deal with ABC to do a Charlie Chan -series called Number One Son.
Photo: Sean Connery, returning as Bond, gets some munitions advice from his ace weapons-master, "The Armorer" (Alex McCowen).
"I wrote the script in Spain, where I was living at the time. The network liked it, except they said, 'There's only one thing wrong. We've decided that we don't want anything with a Chinaman in it.' They felt rather guilty, so they told Bill: 'If you like, you and Lorenzo can do Batman.'
"Some viewers actually thought Batman was meant to be terribly serious, but was written by some hack who didn't realize he was being funny."
"Bill came to see me in Madrid, and was pretty embarrassed. He pulled out a comic book saying, 'They would like us to do this, instead. What do you think?' I thought it was a sensational idea. I never doubted it would be enormous fun and a big success." Semple's pilot script, "Hi Diddle Riddle/Smack In The Riddle, which featured the nefarious supervillain The Riddler, established the unique format of two-part episodes linked by a cliffhanger finale. ABC's reaction was so enthusiastic that they ordered the series into immediate production to serve as a mid-season replacement, without even waiting for the pilot to be shot. Semple returned to Los Angeles to work with Dozier in developing the show. To aid the other writers involved, he prepared a "Bat Bible."
"I made 'Bat Notes' with my 'Bat Pen' on my 'Bat Pad,"' Semple laughs. "Bill'was 'Bat Chief,' and I was 'Bat Boy.' We desperately looked for writers, but could only find a few who were really able to get the right style. As with the Bond movies, there was a great tendency to become silly."
Of the 120 episodes aired during three seasons, Semple wrote a total of 16, and was also credited as script consultant. "Without ay, I might add, even though I rewrote every script for the first season. Things were very informal back then. It wouldn't happen that way today. Now, I would get a 'created for television' credit. I don't want to make a big issue out of it, though. I was just anxious to see the show succeed.
"I actually served as story editor for the first few episodes while living in Spain. We did it by mail, which is absolutely unimaginable in television now. The scripts would arrive every three days. I would go over them, do the rewrites and send them back."
Semple willingly accepts responsiblity for the program's distinctive "camp" approach, in which the Caped Crusader and his sidekick Robin, the Boy Wonder, were portrayed as ridiculously straight-laced heroes facing ludicrously larger-than-life perils concocted by unbelievably vile villains. "It never crossed my mind to do it any other way," he says. "The comic books were 'camp' in themselves. They were treated totally straight, yet were deliciously absurd. The dialogue was sensational. I tried to mimic as much as possible the sort of stuff in the word balloons.
"I understood the style. It was a certain type of outrageously deadpan, theater-of-the-absurd humor. I could have written those scripts on an endless roll and just snipped them off. It's too bad the show never had a laugh track, because many people were confused about what to make of it.
I was amazed that some viewers actually thought Batman was meant to be terribly serious, but was written by some hack who didn't realize he was being funny."
It was precisely the "camp" approach which offended many comic book fans, who felt Semple and Dozier were belittling a popular culture hero deserving of more respect. "I never thought of that before, but I do feel guilty about it," Semple admits. "What the fans thought was very serious, / found deliciously funny. I can see how they would have been outraged by what I did. However, I wasn't consciously making fun of the Batman legends. I intended my work to be much like the spirit of the comic books, but it probably was patronizing." Nevertheless, Semple doesn't feel he owes fans an apology. "I have moderately short shrift for serious comic book fans," he states. "It depends on how 'serious' they are. Collecting comics is one thing. Reading them on a serious le- el is quite another. Collecting comics isn't tnat much different from collecting old orange crate labels, it's part of American pop culture.
"But to think that comics books are a legitimate form of artistic expression is utter nonsense! Nobody involved in the field in the early days looked on it as such. Comics are like primitive art. They should be read for fun. To pretend they're anything more is gross exploitation of people who don't know any better.
"Being a comic book fan is a harmless neurosis, but it /5one. As for those who live comic books, and would coin the term 'panelology' to describe their study of the form, you need say very little more to me about their intellectual tastes."
Photo: Holy Typewriter Ribbons! Semple brought the Caped Crusaders (Adam West and Burt Ward) and their comic combat to TV camp.
Photo: Connery considers a new course of superspy action penned by Semple.
Photo: In hindsight, Semple regrets Flash Gordon—especially the casting of Sam J. Jones in the title role.
So successful was the Batman TV series, that, in 1967, William Dozier produced a feature-film version. Once again, Semple scripted. "It took me about two weeks, and I really enjoyed writing it," he comments. "I saw the movie again a couple of years ago. Some of it is incredibly funny, but it falls apart. It was poorly done, if I may say. Nobody realized it at the time, but if they had had any sense, they would have done the picture first, then spun off the series—and it would have made a fortune."
He is equally critical of the series itself. "Some early episodes had some terribly funny stuff in them," he notes. "But, eventually, the show became extremely silly. Most segments were very shoddily produced. There was every effort made to save money on them."
"The original King Kong is extremely crude. I don't mean it's not wonderful. It was remarkable for its time."
Semple is more generous in his assessment of Adam West's performance in the title role. "Adam was the perfect Batman," the writer remarks. "He was also a very decent fellow. At the moment of the show's greatest success, when he would be mobbed by kids in the supermarket, he would still sign autographs for everybody. He enjoyed it so much. That was probably his problem, because he has never recovered from the experience.
"Burt [Robin] Ward wasn't as noble a human being. Whenever he would misbehave, Bill Dozier would threaten him: 'I found you as a box boy, and I can make you one again!'
"The "Kong" Retread
After successfully launching Batman, producer Dozier also turned The Green Hornet into an ABC series starring Van Williams and Bruce Lee, playing things straight. Naturally, he had Semple pen the pilot episode. "I had a very bizarre meeting in Bill's office with George Trendle, who created The Green Hornet as a radio series, ' ' Semple remembers. "He was then about 80, and still quite vigorous.
"I asked him how Britt Reid, the Hornet's alter ego, became a crime fighter. Trendle looked at me as if I was a moron, and said, 'Don't you realize that Britt's father was The Lone Ranger's nephew?' I was absolutely stunned. He said, 'Don't you know there's a picture of The Lone Ranger on Britt's office wall?' Since it had been a radio show, I was bewildered. I decided his company was too fast for me."
Several years later, Lorenzo Semple traveled in even faster company when he wrote the notorious 1977 remake of King Kong for producer Dino DeLaurentiis. "That's the only film I've ever worked on which I feel was unfairly treated by most people," Semple maintains. "We made a very deliberate attempt not to be anything like the original movie in tone or mood. Dino wanted it to be light and amusing, rather than portentous. I don't think the original was meant to be mythic."
Photo: Semple calls the King Kong remake with Jessica Lange a "doomed venture" with a big mechanical ape which was "almost a joke."
According to Semple, a remake was justified because "it was still a good story. The original King Kong is extremely crude. I don't mean it's not wonderful. It was remarkable for its time, but it was a very small back-lot picture. We thought times had changed so much that audiences were more sophisticated. Dino felt we could have more fun with it. We hoped to do sensational things with advanced special effects on a big screen."
Semple believes he wasn't being presumptuous in attempting to rework what many people consider a motion picture classic. "That's only true among film buffs," he observers. "An enormous number of people have never seen the original. They don't look on it as a classic. We felt there was a whole new audience around the world who hadn't seen the ape story."
Coincidentally, King Kong encountered legal complications similar to those which plagued Never Say Never Again (STARLOG #71). In this case, Universal Pictures claimed ownership of the property. "The problem was that the original copyright was in doubt," Semple explains. "Universal owned the screen rights to a novelization which had originally been' published in a magazine. Dino decided the simplest way to resolve this matter was to make his picture first.
"Universal was extremely pissed off at him for charging ahead, because they really intended to make their own version [entitled The Legend of King Kong]. They had a very classy script by Bo (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest) Goldman. Joseph (Colossus: the Forbin Project) Sargent was going to direct, and Peter Falk was supposed to play Carl Denham."
Because of threatened legal action from Universal and a guaranteed Christmas release date, DeLaurentiis was forced to start shooting before his production was fully prepared. "I realize now King Kong was probably a doomed venture," Semple acknowledges. "But that's also the fun of working with Dino. No studio could possibly do what he did. For example, millions of dollars were wasted in constructing a 40-foot tall mechanical ape. That was Dino's grandiose dream, but it was technically impossible to execute. It became almost a joke to watch these unbelievably complicated hydraulic devices which plainly wouldn't function. The mechanical Kong ended up being used in only one brief scene, and looked particularly feeble even then.
"To tell you the truth, I don't think it would have been worthwhile even if it had worked. But Dino is very childlike. He was determined to do it. Of course, there are always people who will tell you it can be done, if you pay them enough."
The "Flash" Flop
Undiscouraged by the giant ape fiasco, Semple accepted another genre assignment from DeLaurentiis and scripted the subsequent remake of Flash Gordon (STARLOG #41,42). It, too, turned out to be somewhat less than a cinematic milestone.
"I blame much of the total confusion of that movie on the great leeway given to the art director, Danilo Donati," Semple charges. "He was a crazed Italian who literally never read the script, but instead went off on his own. The stuff he designed was fantastic, but it had nothing to do with the story, and would actually be un-shootable. For instance, he spent $1 million on the Arboria set, which was used in one shot. It was really disorganization carried to the ultimate degree. Still, Dino reveres him as a genius—which he is, but only when he's working with Federico Fellini."
Once more, Semple spoofed the original material with a 'camp' approach. "Dino wanted to make Flash Gordon humorous," he relates. "At the time, I thought that was a possible way to go, but, in hindsight, I realize it was a terrible mistake. We kept fiddling around with the script, trying to decide whether to be funny or realistic. That was a catastrophic thing to do, with so much money involved.
"Dino said: 'If we make it realistic, we have to throw out all the sets and costumes.' I thought they should have been thrown out, because they gave the movie the look of a comic opera. Unfortunately, in the long run, Danilo prevailed. Dino even got mad at me when I kept complaining that Danilo was actually running the picture."
Semple is candid enough to also fault his own contributions. "I never thought the character of Flash in the script was particularly good," he concedes. "But there was no pressure to make it any better. Dino had a vision of a comic-strip character treated in a comic style. That was silly, because Flash Gordon was never intended to be funny. The entire film got way out of control.
"To make matters worse," Semple says, offering his opinion of the movie's hero, "Sam Jones was absolutely abominable as Flash. He was so awful in everything he did, that it didn't encourage one to make improvements. It would be fun to write Flash Gordon again, and approach it more seriously this time."
Despite the double debacle, Semple retains warm feelings towards DeLaurentiis. "I like Dino a lot," he chuckles. "He's very simple and honest, and it's great fun to work with him. His enthusiasm is enormous. If he decides to do a project, he goes and does it—right or wrong. There are no committees with Dino DeLaurentiis."
Further disappointments befell Semple on his latest forays into the genre. His superheroic experiences with Flash Gordon and Batman made him an obvious choice to write a proposed Dick Tracy feature for producer Art (Where the Buffalo Roam) Lin-son and director Floyd (American Hot Wax) Mutrux. "I started it with a great deal of en-
thusiasm," he recounts, "but it totally defeated me. I could never figure out how to do it, so I didn't finish the script.
"Dick Tracy was supposed to be a period piece, but I couldn't work out the right tone of how seriously it should be played. Maybe I was just too tired. Linson and Mutrux were mad at me, since I didn't complete the work, so they sued me. I gave back what I was paid, except for a few dollars, and then, they had a falling-out." (For more on Dick Tracy, see COMICS SCENE #3, 6).
He completed his screenplay of The Destroyer—based on the popular Pinnacle paperback series of SF-flavored pulp adventure novels by Richard Sapir and Warren Murphy—for producer Dick Clark, but "we couldn't get a studio to do it," Semple laments. "It would have been very expensive. The bottom line was that The Destroyer was essentially a 'chop socky' flick and there is only a limited market for those movies.
"I read about a dozen of the novels, and kind of liked them. They're quite amusing, but politically horrible—extremely right-wing. The authors do have a certain knack, vile as it is. I understand they didn't like my script at all. They've even written one of their own, which is a real mess. Their screenplay contains nothing but killing people. Mine was much more serious. It wasn't just going around dismembering left-wingers."
Perhaps as more successful future awaits his most recent project. Right now, Semple is putting the finishing touches on his second-draft screen adaptation of Alfred Bester's classic science-fiction novel The Stars My Destination, for producer Jack Schwartzman. The writer won't learn its fate, however, until after Never Say Never Again premieres.
Regardless of such uncertainties, and despite the confusion and disappointment which have marked his professional life, Semple still finds satisfaction in his work at the typewriter. "Unlike most screenwriters. I've never wanted to become a director," he claims. "An honest director will tell you that directing is basically highly uncreative. The physical problems are staggering. The pressures of making a movie are absurd.
"On the other hand, when you've finished writing a script, you've done a perfect job in your head. You've seen the movie, and you think you've solved the problems. Film isn't a writer's medium anyway, so you can't take it too seriously. I enjoy the experience for what it is—a game. It's an exciting journey, with many pitfalls, many turns and many minefields."
Lest he be judged too harshly for his genre adaptation work by disgruntled comic book and fantasy film fans, Lorenzo Semple, Jr. insists they all have the wrong idea about him.»"l don't blame them, because they can only judge me by what they've seen," he reflects. "But these projects are most unlike me. I'm entirely a serious person. I'm really a sophisticated intellectual. I only do these things for fun.
By STEVE SWIRES. A veteran STARLOG correspondent, Swires has also written for Headliner, Prevue and Genesis. Part one of his interview with Lorenzo Semple, Jr. appeared in STARLOG #74.
[Source: Starlog #75, October 1983 P.45-47,54]