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Elliott Kastner (1930-2010)

They don’t make Hollywood producers like him any more.

I had known Elliott Kastner a little over the years, by way of phone calls. He had tracked me down once and called, and I had wondered why, and it was just to say he had enjoyed some things I had written. Without any strain, I told him I was very fond of some of his pictures. So we agreed we should meet some time, but nothing ever developed until a couple of years ago. He was coming to San Francisco, where I live—let’s have dinner. He had a plan.

That’s where he broke it to me, at Post Trio. He was a character, he said, but he was not in the best of health. He had had a crowded, crazy, and very enjoyable life, and he believed he deserved a book. I urged him to write it, but he backed off. He wasn’t a writer. He wanted to talk the book, to tell it to me, and I would write if—if I was interested.

What was not to be interested in? Elliott Kastner by then was in his mid-seventies, out of New York, the Army, and the William Morris Agency. He was the way producers were once supposed to be—showily cynical yet deeply attached to his projects; absolutely aware that a producer had to make a lot of pictures before the trash and the triumphs got sorted out; belligerent but sensitive, tough-mouthed sometimes; arrogant and Cagneyesque, but very well read; devoted to writers and alert to children—his and mine. He admitted he had been a scoundrel sometimes—you had to be—but he knew there was good work to show for it. He knew or had known everyone, he said, and did he have stories for his book!

He told me some of the stories—confrontations with Brando, Eastwood, Burton, Sinatra, Mitchum, Newman—one-word names. It was true that Elliott generally came out of these stories like a battered hero, but they all rang true. There are battered heroes in life.

So we agreed that we both wanted to do this book, and we talked about plans. Elliott wanted the two of us to sit down for a few weeks, with nothing else to do, and then he would tell me the stories. We discussed where we could do it—he lived in London a lot of the time, but he roamed around. He asked me how much I would want. He had told me, in a helpful way, that he was a tough negotiator. I believed it. Sometimes at lunch he’d take a business call—he still had a lot of projects on the go—and he could be spectacularly abrupt and final. But then he’d tell me, “It’ll get worked out.”

I named a figure for listening to him and writing it out so that he could publish the book with full copyright. “That’s a number,” he said. He didn’t say it was ridiculous. After all, it was his life that we were rating. But he talked to publishers and swallowed the way some of them said, “Who is Elliott Kastner and who cares?” So he came back to me with a quarter of my number. I had to tell him he was worth more—and he was bound to agree. But he did not budge.

So we were in negotiation.

He told me he had cancer. But he said he was all right for a while. We both of us kept the matter open, but we knew that the “while” is never certain. It was something we were going to do, because the book would be a knockout.

Then on the last day of June, in London, aged eighty, Elliott died.

He was a short man with big plans. I wanted to fill pages with his racy way of talking, because I felt it was a voice he had honed, the voice of a Hollywood that hardly exists now. I’m sorry we never settled, Elliott, for it would have been six weeks to remember.

So, you say, well who was Elliott Kastner, and who cares? He was a movie producer for 40 years. He did plenty of bad films, silly pictures, pretentious things. But he had filmed Nabokov and Iris Murdoch—can you imagine a Hollywood person risking that today? On the other hand, he produced some movies I cherish, pictures you can watch over and over again, because they’re wild. Now, I know Elliott didn’t do all the wildness himself. But it’s a great art running wildness without killing it. What did he produce? Farewell My Lovely, 92 in the Shade, Where Eagles Dare, The Missouri Breaks and The Long Goodbye, the one with Elliott Gould as Marlowe, and Altman directing. The Long Goodbye, in my opinion, is a picture out of the blue and into the dark. It gets better every year.

I wish that this could be a longer goodbye. And I wish you were here still, Elliott, to snarl and be kissed.

David Thomson is the author of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film and The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder.

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