Richard Rush is the celebrated director of THE STUNT MAN (1980, Academy Award nominations for Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Actor: Peter O'Toole) and FREEBIE AND THE BEAN (1974). A true cinematic rebel, Rush broke his teeth directing exploitation pictures for American International Pictures in the 60s, and began exploring characters who are multi-faceted and capable of being different things at different times, and live on the outside of conventional society. His debut TOO SOON TO LOVE (1960) was described as the first American New Wave film, and featured one of Jack Nicholson's earliest appearances. In films like HELL'S ANGELS ON WHEELS (1967) and PSYCH-OUT (1968), Rush helped to develop the persona that made Nicholson one of Hollywood's most iconic and acclaimed actors. Rush also directed the counterculture comedy drama GETTING STRAIGHT (1970) with Elliott Gould, and the erotic thriller COLOR OF NIGHT (1994) with Bruce Willis and Jane March. In the final part of a four-part interview, I spoke to Rush about casting and working with Peter O'Toole on THE STUNT MAN; Stanley Kubrick's love of the film; his experience writing and developing the film that became 1990's AIR AMERICA, and working with Sean Connery; his not yet filmed screenplay The Fat Lady, which has parallels to the Tom Cruise movie AMERICAN MADE (2017) and covers the Iran-Contra scandal; making COLOR OF NIGHT and working with Bruce Willis, and how he feels about his legacy. 

Parts one, two and three

Did the experience of working with Peter O'Toole change your life in any way? 
Peter O'Toole was the best thing that ever happened to me. Having your favorite actor in the world play the best character you have ever written is almost too much to ask for.

And not only that, he really wanted to play the role of Eli! 
That's right. Once he read the script he called me from London and said ''Richard, I've just read the screenplay and if you don't let me play the part, I'll kill you!'' It was about the best response you could get.

I read that you finaigled an invite to a Hollywood party becaue you knew he'd be there and it would be your chance to give him the script, but you were too nervous to bring up the film.Yes, I was too chickenshit. It was ridiculous. But luckily fate intervened, and he quickly came back after leaving the party and had started walking to his car. He came up to me and said ''Somebody told me you did the movie FREEBIE AND THE BEAN. I really liked that picture. '' So I said ''Well, I've got a screenplay for you. '' I finally found the courage to bring it up.

Stanley Kubrick also loved FREEBIE AND THE BEAN. Did you ever have much interaction with him? 
I never met him but he sent me a message telling me how much he liked the film. He was quoted as saying it was his favorite film that year and I really appreciated that immensely. I'm a huge Kubrick fan.

You were the original writer and director on AIR AMERICA, which was eventually made by Roger Spottiswoode with Mel Gibson and Robert Downey Jr. How different was your vision for the film? 
I knew how to do biker movies. I knew how to treat gangs. A motorcycle club is a gang. Air America was a gang of roughnecks in airplanes rather than on motorcycles. I know how to do these kinds of movies so that they are fun. My main character was on the other side. He was a Vietnamese spy who had infiltrated Air America. At the end he got to give a great speech where he says ''Wait a minute. This is my country. I was born here. That's the river where I used to jump in and swim as a kid. Don't act as if you own my land. '' It was a very powerful speech. As a third act climax it was magnificent, and was certainly the best piece of writing I had ever done, even better to my mind than THE STUNT MAN, which I love.

I enjoyed AIR AMERICA but I felt the filmmakers worked very hard to try and reconcile whether the American characters were good guys or bad guys, when having characters who have duality is something you can convey very easily. 
Yes. My script is very different but there are still the same major incidents. They still drop counterfeit money over the country to try and destroy the economy. They dropped oversized rubbers as well to try and convince the Vietnamese that they had bigger dicks.

Was the final movie more action-packed than your script? 
No, I think my version would have had even more action, since I can do that in my sleep!

How did you feel about the Vietnam War yourself? 
There was no logic to the War. We were killing and napalming these people, but they weren't really our enemies. The people who were fighting on our side that we were supplying arms to weren't necessarily our friends, just enemies of our enemies. It was all arbitrary political strategies that were deciding if a War should be fought. It wasn't based on any real animosities or angers.

Sean Connery was going to star in your version of the movie. What was it like working with him? 
It was heavenly. My way of casting people is to read with the actor and try and determine what their character could be like in the movie. It was a surefire way to cast actors for me, but you're not allowed to do it this way with stars. You're supposed to go by their former work and reputation to gauge what they can do. When I first met with Sean and he said to me ''Richard, can you sit down with me and read the script with me out loud?'', my jaw dropped and I said ''Hell, yes!'' He would come over twice a week to my house and we would sit for an hour or two and read the script together. He was brilliant because I'm not just auditioning him, he was auditioning me! He was finding out what it would be like to work with me. It was ingenious and unexpected for him to do that. Sean was wonderful. When they kicked me off the project, he immediately resigned. I'm sure nobody anticipated that.

Who were some of your choices for Connery's co-stars in Air America? 
My first choice for Connery's co-star was Kevin Costner, and he wanted to do it, badly. The company wouldn't accept him. I also wanted at one point, to do it with Patrick Swayze. And, although I had never met him, that almost happened.

Your passion project is The Fat Lady, which is about Barry Seal, who is also the topic of the Tom Cruise film AMERICAN MADE. The story is definitely in the vein of AIR AMERICA. I'm guessing the Air America story has never left your blood? 
Yes, the story attracted me because I never got to do Air America. The same people that ran Air America on the ground and in Washington D.C. ran the Contra supply program for Reagan in the 80s, and the same people that flew for Air America flew for the cartels afterwards.

What has the closest you have gotten to getting The Fat Lady made? What have been some of the stumbling blocks to getting it made? 
I was rarely present during the negative decision making on The Fat Lady. However, in one case a powerful producer told me, "In your second act climax, you lose the leading man. The picture can not survive the loss. " I took him seriously and did a re-write. Unexpectedly, it came out brilliantly. The story is about an airplane that avenges the death of it's owner by going after the people who caused his death. The Fat Lady crashes in Nicaragua and sings out loud and clear, causing the Iran Contra scandal and almost toppling the Reagan government. There is a magical or supernatural element to the story. I increased this element of the story and brought back the leading man in an unexpected and delightful way. At the same time I picked up more loose ends.

AMERICAN MADE is really entertaining but I'd love to see your version of the story, which I expect is more political. 
I was completely surprised by AMERICAN MADE. They are telling a completely different part of the same true story. They cover the major events of my story as sort of a throw away at the end. Somebody probably told them to stay away from the Iran Contra Scandal, too political. Otherwise, Tom Cruise is captivating as always. The story is sort of fun to watch, but in no way extraordinary like The Fat Lady, which has a weight to it and is also very political. The true story of what happened is the best story I have ever heard. The script is what I usually do – it's an action comedy, against the background of a political mystery.

What attracted you to COLOR OF NIGHT? Was your vision significantly different from that of Matthew Chapman and Billy Ray? 
It was never a contest. I was given a project, COLOR OF NIGHT, and I did it my way. A story about a boy who seduces every member of a therapy group regardless of gender without anybody knowing that they were not the only one. But it turns out that the seducer is a girl. At the same time it's a murder mystery. It was a fantastic idea to try and make work, and I think I did it.

How do you feel about the poor critical reception that the film originally received? 
People who say it's a terrible film only saw the theatrical cut. The film was cut to the bone by a crazy producer and the theatrical cut was not a good picture. I have a tendency to shoot scenes like they were shaggy dog stories. My films are long stories with a punchline at the end that changes where the story is going. The producer went through the movie and cut out all the punchlines from the jokes, so that it was just one big shaggy dog story. I can understand why the critics didn't like that version of the film. I'm very happy with the director's cut that went out on home video. I even got to put back all the dirty stuff in the sex scenes that the MPAA wouldn't let us keep in. I had who I consider to be the top three critics in the country see the director's cut when it came out on home video, and all three of them gave it rave reviews, which was gratifying for me but it was too late.

I feel the film was misunderstood. People took the film much too seriously, perhaps because they didn't know how to respond to the sexuality. 
Yes, the picture hopefully is a comedy, which is my forte.

What was Bruce Willis like to work with? 
Much better than I expected. He's a good actor, and was very serious about his acting. I was very happy with the performance that we developed. He did have some idiosyncracies that he had developed, which are almost mandatory if you've been the star of a television series that has run for four years. He also had a tendency to secretly try and direct the other actors in ways that would have been good for him, but not the movie.

You had a heart attack around the time of the film. What did it teach you about the way you were living your life and approaching your work? 
While lying in a hospital bed, a heart attack clearly taught me the true meaning of final cut. It's the one they make in your chest for the bypass surgery.

Tennessee Williams
Looking back at your career and your legacy, do you have any regrets? 
I have a couple. Both are because I wasn't smart enough to stay in the deal. One is that I didn't get to do AIR AMERICA, and the other is that I didn't get to do THIS PROPERTY IS CONDEMNED (1966). Before I directed my first picture, TOO SOON TO LOVE, some of the last things I directed were one-act plays of Tennessee Williams in a little theater in an alley behind Melrose Boulevard. They were very significant for me because secretly, and I didn't know it at the time, directing these plays made me realise I could direct pictures. After I made TOO SOON TO LOVE I took one of these plays, This Property is Condemned, and expanded it into a three-part structure. I got it to Tennessee Williams and he liked it. He gave the play to me as a present, which was impossible, him being the toast of Broadway at that time, with Cat on a Hot Tin Roof running on Broadway and already having had the success of A Streetcar Named Desire, and me meanwhile, having only made one picture! Anyway, I was smart enought to get a movie version packaged and get a studio deal with it. I had been put together with Kim Novak for the leading role because she was part of my Agency, but there was another young director, Sydney Pollack, who wanted to do the film with Natalie Wood, even though it was my picture. Sydney had the office next to me at Columbia, and we were friendly with each other. The studio decided they wanted to do it with him, and I wasn't clever enough or worldly enough at that point to stay in the deal.

If a line of dialogue from one of your own films could sum your approach to film or life, what would it be? 
''Probably all that we know is that we shall die ... of nothing more important than wrinkles. And it makes us so scared, so crazy, we'll do anything – fight wars, fight windmills, go off bridges, anything. '' Said by Eli Cross in THE STUNT MAN. 

Rush's THE STUNT MAN site. 

Interview by Paul Rowlands. Copyright © Paul Rowlands, 2017. All rights reserved.

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