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Los Angeles Times
May 4, 1989, Thursday, Home Edition
SECTION: Calendar; Part 6; Page 1; Column 2; Entertainment Desk
LENGTH: 1453 words


BANGOR, Me. — Like a creature from one of his horror novels, he is both Stephen King and Stephen King Kong.

Each of his 21 novels and three anthologies has been a best seller. There have been 17 movies in 13 years; at least five more are in the works. And even after three film flops in a row — "Firestarter," "Cat's Eye," "Silver Bullet" — King still had enough clout that he was allowed to direct "Maximum Overdrive."

At his office here, King, who seems on maximum overdrive himself, grabs a couch and prepares to chat up "Pet Sematary," the new film he adapted from his 1983 novel. It has grossed more than $24 million since its opening two weeks ago, and has led the box-office during that time, enjoying the biggest opening weekend ever for a spring film.

Despite his gangly slouch, his blue jeans and his battered, camouflage-colored sneakers, the interview has all the trappings of a papal audience — strict time limits, nervous handlers and orchestrated replies that thankfully devolve into the kind of spontaneity that drives speech writers mad. When King loudly denounces the interview itself as "a Paramount publicity gambit!" the handlers look as if they have just seen Cujo, or Christine, or It.

The effect is calculated. The 41-year-old King is not the down-home Yankee bumpkin he often presents himself as, but a media-savvy master of sound bites. "Anybody who's ever worked making a horror film," he says, "knows that the real bogyman is Jack Valenti," head of the Motion Picture Assn. of America, with which King has clashed over the nature of film horror. (Valenti's office declined to comment.)

King later calls fellow horror novelist John Saul "schlocky — the Roger Corman of print."

Some would grumble about the pot calling the kettle black. Yet King — himself often labeled "the McDonald's of horror" — is more rambunctious than malevolent. Part of this is due to the comfort of his income: According to Forbes magazine, he earned $15 million in 1987 alone. But the rest is from giddiness over "Pet Sematary."

While King has adapted his own stories before, this latest script was shot closest to the source — both literally and figuratively. "Twenty-four miles from my front door," King says with a smile. "Twenty-four-point-two, actually."

That was the distance to Blue Hill, Me., which stood in for the fictitious town of Ludlow, where a supernatural graveyard brings the dead back to life — though as an old local (Fred Gwynne) warns a newcomer (Dale Midkiff): "Sometimes, dead is better." Directed by Mary Lambert ("Siesta"), the film is as horrific and genuinely disturbing as the book itself, which can be succinctly described as a parent's primal nightmare.

King is pleased. "You get the feeling a lot of times that [film makers] don't want you around," he says, lighting one in a chain of cigarettes. "It's kind of like: 'You know how to write novels; we know how to make pictures. They're oil and water and they don't mix.' But with 'Pet Sematary,' it was shot up the road and I got to know Mary Lambert and it was great! I was able to sit down with her and say, 'Look, I don't want to [mess] you up, I don't want to hang over you. Just look on me as Mr. Goodwrench.' "

King's conception of fix-it was to push for "the half-humorous spirit in the books. There's always been a lot of funny stuff that's played off the horror, because they're just different aspects of the same thing."

But film makers, he says, "want to concentrate on the scare element, on the gross-out element, on the suspense element. There are moments in 'Pet Sematary' I had to fight to keep in, and there are things in the rough cut that are not in the finished product."

He describes, for instance, a scene where the newcomer's 8-year-old daughter (Blaze Berdahl) talks about her departed younger brother (Miko Hughes). "In the final cut she says, 'I have to keep his things ready for him; I'm gonna carry his picture and sit in his chair.' But originally, she also said, 'And I'm gonna eat his breakfast cereal even though it tastes like boogers,' and, 'God can bring him back if he wants to — God's just like Inspector Gadget, he can do anything he wants to.' I thought they were good lines," King says energetically. "They were funny, and they gave it a kind of interesting jig-jaggy quality, where you don't know whether to laugh or not."

Actually, that has been an element of most of the King movies, though not intentionally. After the huge success of the first — director Brian De Palma's 1976 adaptation of "Carrie," budgeted at $1.8 million and earning more than $15 million in domestic rentals — Hollywood began optioning King's novels almost automatically. Yet after Tobe Hooper's well-received TV-movie "Salem's Lot" (1979) and Stanley Kubrick's prestigious but erratic adaptation of "The Shining" (1980), the trend turned toward King as sausage rather than steak.

The movies, from a variety of studios, became ever more marginal and silly, with genre directors such as George Romero, John Carpenter and David Cronenberg, and feature-film newcomers such as Fritz Kiersch, Daniel Attias and King himself generally working with budgets of $8 million or less. Some of the films turned profits — the critically castigated "Children of the Corn," for instance, had a budget of $3 million and reaped $6.9 million in domestic rentals — but most were critical and commercial duds. The only hit was director Rob Reiner's "Stand By Me" (1986), adapted from King's non-horror novella "The Body."

Still, producers keep coming back to King, knowing that the brand name brings in a pre-sold cult audience.

The novelist has mixed feelings about that: "Horror pictures are traditionally seen, and rightly so, as exploitation vehicles. They're supposed to go out there, make the large percentage of whatever they'll gross — word used advisedly — that first weekend. It's a quick, dirty buck. They're gonna do it on a shoestring. They're gonna make what they can. It's gonna drop 50% the second week. Three weeks later it's gone. Four months later it's on videocassette and we're out, we're home free."

He doesn't like it, but he understands it.

What King understands less so is the MPAA and its ratings board. A few seconds had to be trimmed from "Pet Sematary" in order to stave off an X rating: A scene where a demonic child chows down on the neck of a prone victim. "That's, OK, I can understand," says King. "But they made us change the poster."

"We had an advertising campaign that the MPAA would not let us use," says producer Richard Rubinstein. "It was a painting of the child, coupled with the line, 'Sometimes, dead is better.' We were told that this violates the core of the MPAA code relating to portraying or connoting kids in jeopardy — which is the core of this picture." They substituted, says King, an adult character "with his brains hanging out. That was more acceptable!"

Bethlyn Hand, vice president of the MPAA's Advertising Administration office, says that in the original poster, "the child's eyes are rolled up. His mouth is open. He's standing, but he looks dead." In the approved one, the man "looks like he may have been hit on the side of the head, and there's dried blood, but no gore.

"And," she adds fervently, "saying that about a child: 'Sometimes, dead is better.' When? I want to know. When is dead better?"

Hand isn't alone in her feelings; ABC-TV similarly objected to the novel "It," which the network had planned to run as a fall 1987 miniseries. But as King says, accurately enough, "The whole book is about kids getting eaten by monsters!" Both "It" and "The Talisman," which Steven Spielberg had at one point wanted to direct, are being developed as miniseries elsewhere.

"The Stand," King's pet epic about a futuristic plague, has been in development as a film for about six years. "The book's going to be reissued next year," he says. "Unexpurgated — 400 pages longer. As far as the script, I've tried three or four drafts of it. It wasn't working for me." Screenwriter Rospo Pallenberg ("The Emerald Forest") is now giving it a shot. The next definite King adaptation will be the $14-million "Misery," with director/co-producer Rob Reiner rolling this summer from a William Goldman script.

That seems centuries away, on this spring morning. King is fidgeting, anxious to hop into his Blazer and get back to wife Tabitha and kids Owen, Naomi and Joe, to the converted loft where he does his writing, in the two-story Victorian home that is a Bangor landmark.

"What can I do?" he pleads near the top of his lungs. "I'm in such demand, man!" His tone is one of playful good humor. Like he says, that and horror may be different faces of the same thing.

GRAPHIC: Photo, Author Stephen King: "Horror pictures are traditionally seen, and rightly so, as exploitation vehicles." GARY GRUISINGER; Photo, Denise Crosby in a scene from Stephen King's "Pet Sematary," which has grossed more than $24 million since its opening.


Los Angeles Times
September 17, 1989, Sunday, Home Edition
SECTION: Calendar; Page 20; Calendar Desk
LENGTH: 1366 words



NEW YORK — So there was Al Pacino on "Wheel of Fortune." Not the one with Vanna White; the one on CBS in the early 1950s that rewarded good deeds. Someone had called the show's attention to an incident involving young Al and his 12-year-old buddy, Brucie Cohen.

As reported on the show, Al and Brucie were playing around at a construction site in the Bronx when Brucie, showing off near the edge of a building, toppled over and clung to the edge until Al, at the risk of his own neck, pulled him back. The next thing Al knew, the TV show was handing him a check and calling him a hero. And if he didn't know it already, he was suddenly aware of the difference between stupid risks and good ones.

"You have to be able to really define what a risk is," Pacino muses on this Dante's Inferno day, with the air-conditioning at producer Martin Bregman's office no match for New York's Oscar-winning humidity. Here to talk up the erotic mystery-thriller "Sea of Love," which opened Friday, Pacino is nonetheless draped in funereal black — part Bela Lugosi, part bella Armani. Sweaty-eyed and weary, starting sentences four different ways before he latches onto the words he wants, Pacino gamely explains how risk-management has kept an actor deemed one of the four or five post-Brando gods away from movies for almost half a decade.

"Doing a picture when you're not prepared to is not a good risk," Pacino says slowly, in a voice like charred gravel. "I mean, jumping off a building and seeing if you're gonna make it when you fall . . . 'Hey, maybe I'll just break a couple of legs!' " he jokes. "So much has to do with where you are, your timing and stuff. When you start to feel you wanna make a movie again, then whatever (script) is there, available, you start to look at a little bit differently. Because it's a reality — you're gonna do it."

That's a relief, because he hasn't done it in quite a while. We're talking about an actor who had rolled through five Academy Award-nominated performances in seven years — "The Godfather" (1972), "Serpico" (1973), "The Godfather, Part II" (1974), "Dog Day Afternoon" (1975), " . . . And Justice for All" (1979) — and co-starred in a 1973 Cannes Grand Prix winner ("Scarecrow") to boot. There was the popular, controversial "Scarface" (1983), followed by a successful Broadway revival of David Mamet's "American Buffalo." Yet, ever since the virtually nonexistent, $28-million dud "Revolution" (1985), Pacino has been in what you might call his John-Lennon-bread-baking phase.

Fortunately, like Lennon upon his re-emergence, the 49-year-old Pacino still has his chops. His burnt-out "Sea of Love" detective, Frank Keller, is another of his quintessential New York cop characters, the man Frank Serpico might have become had he given in and stayed on the force 20 years, treading in a sea of booze. With John Goodman as his partner investigating the serial murders of personals-ad Casanovas, and Ellen Barkin as the suspect he falls for in a typically crackling script by Richard Price, Pacino is, as he puts it, "in and around territory I've been around before."

Pacino, like Keller, has hit his own 20-year mark, dating from his movie debut in the minor drug drama "Me, Natalie" (1969). Pacino, like Keller, has had serious bouts with the bottle, and has known his way around the dark side of the street, losing friends to the needle. Pacino, like Keller, is one of the best at what he does, which still doesn't mitigate the angst around the eyes.

"I don't feel I'm that close to that guy," Pacino insists. "You just try to feed into the part things in your life that coincide with the character you're playing. A guy like Frank, who doesn't have the love in his life, has the work. And now he's about to lose the work," since he's expected after 20 years to retire on half-pay. Pacino's take: "If you can still work, if you still enjoy the work, it's only time to retire when you no longer wanna do it.

"I guess playing the part now, as opposed to playing it 10 years ago, I have a closer understanding, a more tactile understanding of the character," he says, "because of my age and I understand that situation he's in. I'll look at parts now sometimes, and I'll know it would have excited me to do that five years ago, and now another kind of thing will excite me. It really comes down to what you want to address at this point in your life — the things you start to find are relevant to you."

Pacino has that luxury. At the same time, like Hamlet, the Melancholoy Italian doesn't give the impression of someone who knows what he wants. "That's probably the reason I got into acting," he reflects. "So I don't have to think. I think the reason I act is for a relief from thinking." Yet even considering the leeway rightly accorded artists, Pacino's choices over the last few years have been puzzling. He's kept busy. He just hasn't kept busy with anything any of us can actually go see.

There were workshop productions of "Crystal Clear," "National Anthems" and other plays, including a current Manhattan project he's not ready to talk about. There was "Julius Caesar" for Joseph Papp last year. There was "Carlito's Way," if you go by Elliot Kastner's lawsuit alleging that Pacino committed to the film last April for $4 million plus a profit percentage. And most time-consuming, there is "The Local Stigmatic," a play Pacino had starred in Off Broadway in 1969 then re-mounted in 1985 with director David Wheeler and the Theater Company of Boston to film a 50-minute movie version that may become his "Unfinished Symphony."

"I don't think people relate to that kind of private work," he says. "Because [acting] is such a visible profession that if you're not real visible in it, they assume you're not working.

"I remember back when everything was happening, '74, '75, doing ["The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui"] on stage and reading that the reason I'd gone back to the stage was that my movie career was waning! That's been the kind of ethos, the way in which theater's perceived, unfortunately. My big problem has been that I've been trying to ride both rails. And I can tell that some of my work has been affected by that. I wish I was able to have gone into both media with more focus."

He's trying, and the $16-million "Sea of Love" required all the focus he could give it. Producer Bregman let the original director go days before shooting was to begin, bringing in Harold Becker ("The Onion Field," "The Boost") for a long, grueling shoot that lasted from about May through September of last year. Pacino did a cameo in Warren Beatty's "Dick Tracy," playing Big Boy, "the world's largest dwarf." He dabbled with "Three Thousand," reading with Julia Roberts for the role being played by Richard Gere. And in November, he begins production on "The Godfather, Part III." "It's that movie to do, so you sorta gotta do it," he says smiling.

"You know, I wish, in some ways, the government forced me to make a movie once a year," he adds, with a laugh. "There would be a sort of regularity, a kind of consistency in the output so that your movies don't become blown all out of proportion — it turns a simple movie into an epic kind of thing, if you make them only every few years. I've decided not to go as long between them. The idea of going two years between pictures, I'd rather not."

Then again, a few years of that might remind him why he slowed down.

"When it was all happening to me," he says of his firecracker string in the '70s, "I don't think I was aware of it. I knew around me things were going on. But I kept trying to focus on the next play or movie I was gonna do. And when I looked up it was five years later."

The thought brings him in mind of a story:

"We were doing 'Richard III' in Philadelphia one winter, and first we're in this sort of marathon rehearsal and then playing night after night there. And I remember one day finally getting in the car to drive back to New York, and we stopped at a light and I looked out and thought, 'What are these people doing, they don't have coats on, they're just walking without a coat?' And my friend says, 'It's spring, Al.' "


Los Angeles Times
December 13, 1989, Wednesday, Home Edition
SECTION: Calendar; Part F; Page 1; Column 2; Entertainment Desk
LENGTH: 1144 words



ELDERSBURG, Md. — The real Blaze was a real star. Gypsy Rose Lee, Sally Rand, Ann Corio, Blaze Starr — these were the MVPs and VIPs of the strip-joint runways. In her prime in '59, when she met and fell in love with Louisiana Gov. Earl K. Long, Blaze Starr was commanding a then-queenly $1,500 a week.

"That was a lot more money," she recalls, "than Gov. Long was making on the up and up with his salary."

Starr, still disconcertingly sexy at 57, still possessed of measurements she gives — cueing no debate — as 38DD-24-37, gave up stripping six years ago to become a gemologist and make and sell jewelry. Each holiday season, at the Carrolltowne Mall here in the Baltimore suburbs, she is a local celebrity selling earrings, bracelets and necklaces fashioned from the gemstones and crystals she collects the rest of the year.

In the Touchstone film based on her affair with Long, Starr herself is a shooting Starr. She says Playboy is about to publish a photo spread of her, and Las Vegas wants her to strip again. She even appears in the movie, doing a cameo as one of the strippers backstage when Long goes hunting for Starr ("Hello, Governor," she says when Paul Newman plants a familiar kiss on her shoulder.)

Starr hasn't ridden such a whirlwind of publicity since her autobiography — "Blaze Starr: My Life as Told to Huey Perry" — was published in 1974. In that book, her romance with Long takes up only a couple of chapters. "Blaze" writer-director Ron Shelton, who optioned the biography in 1983, "told me I had 20 movies in there," Starr proudly announces in her thick, magnolia-scented accent. She says that there had even been talk once of doing a full-length stage musical about her.

But now, there is the movie, and it's a big one — done by a major studio with a major star (Newman as Long) and a highly touted newcomer (Lolita Davidovich) portraying her. The movie takes Starr from her midteens at home in the hills of West Virginia to about age 30, when Long died.

By her account, Starr was born Fannie Belle Fleming in the tiny southwest West Virginia community of Twelvepole Creek.

"We lived two miles from the car road," Starr says. "There was the car road, and the horse road and the cattle path. And this was a dirt road; it was like 15 miles to the hardtop road, where there was a bus."

At 15, Starr left home to start a career as a country singer, getting as far as a strip joint called the Quonset Hut in the nation's capital. In the movie, she is a sweet young thing who goes on stage meaning to sing, then discovers the audience is there to see her strip. In real life, the club's owner had first taken her to a club where the well-known stripper Pat Amber Halliday performed. Starr was star-struck.

"I liked what I saw. And I thought, 'My God, to be on stage! And you're not naked.' Back then, you wore a thick, net bra with great big beaded parts on the end. Today, you see more on the beach! So I looked in the mirror and checked out my measurements."

She was still underage, but, she says, matter-of-factly, "I had these boobs when I was 14. That's how I could pass for 18 so easy."

Her assets made her a natural, but when the owner put the moves on her, she made a dramatic escape that the movie fairly accurately depicts. Other events were dramatized, of course; though with Starr, some of the more unbelievable things turn out to be true.

"I wanted to be a star," Starr says, "and I wanted something different undressing me. Everything was used by then: snakes, birds, monkeys. I figured, 'What hasn't been done?' "

Answer: panthers. So, for a while, Starr worked with a big jungle cat, which was trained to undo a ribbon tied behind her and allow her costume to fall to the floor. (Years later, she says, one of the cats turned on her and she realized "why nobody used 'em.")

Curiously, one of the most visual and exciting moments of her life became much less dramatic in the movie: Her first meeting with Earl Long.

In the film, as in reality, Long is smitten at the first sight of Starr performing in a New Orleans club. The first thing Long saw her do on stage was her trademark "exploding couch" number.

"I had finally got my gimmick, a comedy thing," she says, "where I'm supposed to be getting so worked up that I stretch out on the couch, and — when I push a secret button — smoke starts coming out from like between my legs. Then a fan and a floodlight come on, and you see all these red silk streamers blowing, shaped just like flames, so it looked like the couch had just burst into fire."

Long was impressed and began pursuing the stripper. The 62-year-old politician and the 20-something stripper had little in common, except heartache. She was divorcing her husband, club owner Carroll Glorioso, and Long was reportedly living alone in a separate wing of the governor's mansion, away from his wife, "Miz Blanche."

Blanche Long was a very public figure at the time, but she did not want her name and likeness used in the movie, so the film makers did not include her. Starr refuses to even utter the former Louisiana First Lady's name.

"There was an agreement," Starr says when pressed. "Disney don't need any flak about being sued and all that, even though she couldn't get nothin', 'cause it's the truth."

The absence of a wife waters down the scandal in the film. In 1950s Louisiana, it was one thing for a politician to cavort with a striptease star, but to do it with a wife at home was even more disconcerting to constituents. "Blaze" is much more a straight-ahead love story than the story of an affair that rocked the South.

And what of that romance? Was it Long's power that attracted Starr?

"No, that didn't faze me," she says. "Because I had my own power in my own little world. Earl was sweet, he was nice. I dated him, we'd go to dinner, to the race track — all this for about three months before he even kissed me. And then I just started kind of leaning on him and depending on him."

Their relationship was physical, but not right away, she says.

"At first, when I met him I was grieving because I was goin' through a divorce. But he was very protective of me when the news media started hounding me. He would put his arm around me and stand right there and say, 'I love her and that's that.' I'm like, 'Gee nobody's ever done this for me.'

"So, here's this older man who wants to marry me. I'd only been intimate with him two or three times, when my divorce was gonna be final. But then he started talkin' divorce to Miz . . . to his wife. And she didn't wanna hear it. She blew her mind: 'You're throwing away everything the Longs have fought for!' "

It turned out not to matter. After a few months out of politics, Earl won the 1960 Democratic nomination for his district's congressional seat, and died a few days later. Starr assures us he would have loved the movie.

GRAPHIC: Photo, Blaze Starr gave up stripping six years ago and now sells jewelry in suburban Baltimore during Christmas.