Snapshots of a Friendship

January 24th, 2017 by Max Allan Collins

I met Miguel Ferrer in 1987 at the San Diego Comic Con. I approached his friend Bill Mumy as a fan – not so much of Lost in Space as of his band, Barnes & Barnes, of “Fish Heads” infamy. Knowing he was guest of the con, I had brought copies of several CDs for Bill’s autograph, and – in line for something and being lucky enough to be right ahead of Bill and Miguel – I got the CD inserts signed. We chatted. Turned out Bill and Miguel were hardcore comics fans, in particular of the Golden Age, and collected the heavy-duty, expensive stuff – early Batman, Superman and Captain America, among many others. They had hung out with Jack Kirby, Bob Kane and Stan Lee.

I was enough of a comics celebrity, as writer of Dick Tracy and Ms. Tree, to gain immediate acceptance, and we went together to a dance in the ballroom of the Hotel Cortez (later Miguel did memorable location work for Traffic at this fleabag). The band was nothing special. In talking about Barnes & Barnes with Bill, I’d mentioned that I was a longtime rock musician myself, and somebody – probably me – said, “We could go up there right now and do better, cold.” (I’d gathered that Miguel was a drummer.) We’d been standing with the enormously tall and talented (and tall) Steve Leialoha, who said, “Well, I play bass.” I said, “Guitar, keyboards, drums, bass.” Bill said immediately that he would talk to con organizer Jackie Estrada about having us play next year. But of course we needed a name.

Miguel, like any good drummer, did not miss a beat. He said, “Seduction of the Innocent.”

Seduction of the Innocent, circa 1988

That very night Bill pitched us and got a commitment for the 1988 San Diego Comic Con. During the year that followed, Bill and I swapped song lists. We used my band Crusin’s song list as a jumping off point, picking the things that seemed to make sense, and Bill added some hipper tunes. So we knew what to work on before we gathered for our first practice.

A few days before the con, we assembled in Bill’s living room in his very cool Laurel Canyon house, and played through his stereo speakers, which were very powerful. And of course we fried them. In the future we would be either in a rehearsal hall or some other room the con provided, and amps would be rented to our specs.

I’m not sure whether we played “King Jack” that first year (Bill’s tribute to Jack Kirby) but we certainly did it by our second performance. And there was a second performance, because we killed at the first. The dance floor was packed, many of the dancers in costume decades before the term “cosplay” was coined. “Pussy Whipped,” another Bill original, was delivered in Miguel’s distinctive growl and was a big favorite. The ‘60s covers we did included “Mr. Soul,” “Cinnamon Girl,” “You Can’t Do That” and “We Gotta Get Outa This Place.” Also, “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” – Miguel again, assuming a singular poignance now.

At our first meeting, I didn’t really know who Miguel was. He’d done some TV and had a small role in Star Trek 3: The Search for Spock, and he’d filmed his breakout role in Robocop, but it hadn’t been released yet. During the year leading up to Seduction’s debut, Miguel got very hot and stayed that way through the ‘80s and ‘90s (and beyond). But he was always the most lovable, loving guy to his fellow band members. No attitude. Just great big smiles and wry humor.

We played half a dozen times at San Diego Con, with Chris Christensen – whose small label, Beat Brothers, issued our original material CD, The Golden Age – joining us around the third appearance. Chris was another hardcore comics fan and a versatile “casual” musician, meaning he played all kinds of music with all sorts of bands. When Miguel was drumming, he’d play rhythm guitar for Bill’s lead; when Miguel was singing, he’d play drums.

Seduction of the Innocent, Santa Monica Pier

My friendship with Miguel doesn’t exist in a linear way in my mind. I remember how much we connected – he was the first guy to call me “brother,” and he meant it. I heard some California expressions from him before they got into the national vernacular: “He’s toast,” and “Sweeeeet.” He was a mystery reader and both he and Bill became Nate Heller fans in a major way (Bill wrote a song called “True Detective” for the Golden Age CD). Chris was, too, and probably Steve…but Steve always looked like he loved everybody and everything.

Once Miguel was in Chicago for a shoot on a Scott Bakula movie – In the Shadow of a Killer – around 1991. I was in the city promoting something or other, and Miguel and I spent several evenings together, with late-night conversations on everything from how good Diana Krall was to what it was like playing drums for Bing Crosby (which he had on Crosby’s final tour)(he also played drums on Keith Moon’s solo album). His famous father, Jose, was a big mystery fan too, and Mig got his dad on the phone to introduce me to him – that’s right me to him. Mr. Ferrer was impressed that I was friends with Mickey Spillane – can’t remember much else, just how wonderful it was having that warm, familiar voice in my ear.

Miguel had an afternoon off from the Bakula shoot and I had arranged a tour for us through the secret rooms beneath the Green Mill Café. The latter looked then as it did decades before (and probably does now) – a green-hued deco den of iniquity. As it happened, a comic book shop was next door and the eccentric owner, whose name I will not divulge (though he’s now deceased), had promised the tour. It had been set up weeks in advance.

But when we arrived, the comics shop owner – let’s call him Joe – was not to be seen. It took some talking, but the clerk revealed Joe was downstairs, where he’d been for over a week on a bender. Miguel and I exchanged glances, but gave each other what-the-hell shrugs. We found Joe slumped over a table with a glass and a whiskey bottle and a magnum revolver on it. There was a cot and a little refrigerator, but mostly bare cement.

Joe snapped awake, recognized me, remembered the promised tour, bolted to his feet and, issuing us orders, went quickly through a doorway into the basement’s nether reaches. Miguel and I exchanged glances and followed. After all, the gun had been left behind.

Through several chambers we went, including an ancient men’s restroom with urinals lined up St. Valentine’s Day Massacre style, while Joe turned on hanging bulbs along the way, leaving them swinging in memory of Psycho. He babbled about this being where Capone’s boys went during mob wars and did so while moving very quickly. We could hardly keep up. At one point, Miguel whispered, “Are we going to die down here, Al?” I said, “Maybe. But don’t worry – with the rats, they’ll never find us.”

Somehow the tour ended, and our lives did not. Anyway, we were back above ground.

One of Seduction’s most memorable early gigs was at the Santa Monica Pier in the building with the famous merry-go-round (another was when Wildman Fisher sang “Merry-Go-Round” with us at a San Diego con appearance, but that’s another story). We were joined on some tunes by Shaun Cassidy, who was a nice guy and strong performer.

Prior to rehearsing in LA for the gig, Barb and I were invited by Miguel to stay at his mother’s house. His mother – Rosemary Clooney – would not be home; she, too, was gigging. We had the big house in Beverly Hills to ourselves, and we gingerly peeked into an expansive living room with a picture of Bing on the piano and the ghosts of Sinatra and how many others lingering among expensive furnishings that dated back decades. There was admittedly a Norma Desmond feel to the place. We’d been asked to answer the phone, and Barb did – taking a message from Rosie’s friend Linda Ronstadt.

Before our stay ended, Rosemary came home and, with Miguel at her arm, gave us a tour, including the living room. Oh, yes, all those famous people had been here many times, sometimes singing around the piano. She was as sweet and down-to-earth as my own mom, giving us copies of her latest records. Later, she was at the stove making marinara sauce, and my Lord it smelled good. But Miguel and Barb and I were on our way to a comic-shop gig.

In late night hotel-room conversations, the topic of working together often came up. We each said to the other, “If at the end of our days, we haven’t done a film or movie together, we should kick ourselves.”

Miguel and I talked seriously about having him play Heller in a movie – my novella, “Dying in the Post-war World,” was written for him in lieu of a screen treatment. Miggie was friends with a screenwriter who’d had a big success and wanted to move into directing, and – on a trip to LA specifically for this purpose – I took an afternoon meeting with him in Miguel’s little Studio City bungalow. But after we’d talked for an hour or so about Heller, the screenwriter said suddenly, “You know what we should make? A western.”

Miguel and I traded glances – his seemed to speak volumes about the disappointments and absurdities that he dealt with day-to-day in that town. Back to Iowa.

Which is where Miguel almost appeared in Mommy as Lt. March. He accepted the role on the proviso that if a big-paying gig came along, he could bow out with just two weeks notice. I was fine with that, and he allowed me to use his name and picture in our preproduction publicity, and gave us a letter of intent for fund-raising. A major film came along, and Miguel had to bow out, but he paved the way for Mark Hamill to take the role. Mark was another hardcore comics guy and very close to Bill and Miguel, and I’d spent some time with him at a couple of comic cons – a smart, funny man. (As it happened, Mark dropped out a week from the start of the shoot because of a conflict with voiceover work. We were able to secure Jason Miller for the role.)

At the risk of further name-dropping, I have to mention Miguel’s good friend, Brandon Lee. Brandon loved being around Seduction of the Innocent, and he played roadie for us at several gigs, and partied with us afterward. He seemed to take to me and we got along great. Miguel turned him onto the Quarry novels and Brandon loved them – called me on the phone to rave, once. I asked Miguel, “Why has Brandon taken to me so? There are those who can resist my charms.” Miguel grunted a laugh and said, “Simple, Al. It’s ‘cause you never ask him about his father.”

Only later did I realize that with Miguel any interaction or talk about his famous parents had come from his end, not mine.

Seduction shot a video of “The Truth Hurts” for the Golden Age CD release, and Brandon was in it. Not sure that still exists – it was good.

Just days before we were scheduled to play at WonderCon, Brandon died tragically on the set of The Crow. Bill and Miguel had to cancel because they were to be pallbearers. Steve, Chris and I appeared with Crusin’ guitarist, Paul Thomas, as “Reduction of the Innocent.”

I had a small falling-out with Miguel when we hadn’t gigged for a while. He and Bill had a more serious, real band going – the Jenerators – and in an interview, Miggie jokingly dismissed Seduction, and said something like, “Max Allan Collins is lucky he’s a great mystery writer, ‘cause he couldn’t make a living as a musician.” I didn’t like that – I had in fact made a living as a musician for a while – and I called him on the phone about it. He heard me out and we had a typically warm, laughter-filled conversation.

But I learned through the Seduction grapevine that I was “in the cornfield,” where banished friends of Bill and Miguel went (a reference to Bill’s famous Twilight Zone episode, “It’s a Good Life”). The two friends would refer to those who’d got on their bad side by saying they were in the cornfield. I understood what had happened. Miguel was very non-confrontational, while I was and am somebody who has to deal with things right now or they’ll eat me alive. Also, Miguel was a star, and while he never played that card, I had stepped over a line.

When we got offered another San Diego con gig, I was afraid I’d jinxed it. Bill didn’t want to play without Miguel, even though we had done so once when Miguel again got a last-minute movie role. But Miguel said he was in. And when we rehearsed for the gig, it was clear all was forgiven. After the first rehearsal, I apologized, embarrassedly, and Miguel said “Forget it, brother,” with a grin and a shrug.

I had a habit, stepping down off the stage after a night that felt particularly good with the band, of quoting my late friend Paul Thomas: “Rock ‘n’ roll happened.” Bill and Miggie always kind of laughed at that, good-naturedly. But I to this day say it after a good Crusin’ gig. Seduction blew the roof off the dump at the San Diego con appearance. And as we came down off the stage, Miguel came over and put his arm around me and said, “Al! Rock ‘n’ roll did happen.” And he grinned that wonderful grin. It was a kind of apology, but it was much more than that. It was love, brother.



Tags: ,

13 Responses to “Snapshots of a Friendship”

  1. Jackie Estrada says:

    Wonderful reminiscences, Al! Just one thing: That opening sentence should refer to the SAN DIEGO Comic-Con, not Chicago ComiCon.

  2. Bev Larkin says:

    Loved the memories – I still have my Seduction of the Innocent CD. Would have loved to see y’all perform live. My Miguel Ferrer memory is that I made some Laura Palmer dolls in 1990 and I sent some to Peter David asking him to give one to Miguel – Miguel called me and we have a lovely geek chat. Such a gracious and sweet man and fan.

  3. Joe McClean says:

    Rosemary Clooney? You MET Rosemary Clooney? Incredible! No snark or irony here, Al, really! Her version of “But Not For Me” absolutely destroys me….., along with nearly everything else she did….thanks, Al, for this vignette. Ciao, Baby!

  4. Linda Donaldson Grim says:

    Thank you for the memories.

  5. Susanne Stiward says:

    Absolutely beautiful story. I love the SOTI CD as well as the Jenerators CDs, Bill Mumy and Barnes & Barnes CDs. I have seen Jenerators in concert with and without Miguel plus the later version of Bill Mumy and Band. Never got to see SOTI or Barnes & Barnes live in concert. B&B live is rarer than the finest cheese and I didn’t know SOTI at the time like in Oakland and I live here. I loved reading your memories. Thank you for sharing.

  6. Jim Powers says:

    terrific and entertaining read, Max……I kept waiting for a “2 degrees of separation” moment regarding Miguel’s famous dad Jose directing Bobby Darin in “State Fair”…..also…hope you are doing well Max…..

  7. Donald Clifton says:

    Thank you.

  8. Stephanie says:

    Hi Max, saw this through Bill with whom I am still in touch via Facebook. We recently communicated our sorrow regarding Mig’s passing, but also noted that he joins several others of their ‘rat pack’ from those days – Brandon, Bernie Pock, and my husband, Mike Vendrell. In reading this, realizing you were hanging out with some of these guys back then, I wondered whether you remembered Mike. I am still collecting stories about him for a book I am writing – Bill “Slim” Allen has a great one in his recent book. I too met Rosemary in that big house at a party many years ago, and have fond memories of Miguel. Mike taught him, and his boys, kung fu, and I am still in touch with Lukas who is doing very well. Condolences on this loss and great to read what great things you are doing. -Stephanie

  9. Max Allan Collins says:

    Jackie, that’s been corrected.

    Joe, it does not surprise me that a man of your impeccable taste (despite limited political rationality) would appreciate the coolness of meeting Rosemary Clooney.

    Jim, I did talk about Bobby Darin with Miguel in terms of his dad having directed him. All Miguel knew was that his father admired BD, and Miguel himself thought Darin was great.

    Stephanie, I never met Mike, sorry to say. Many of the Mumy/Ferrer Rat Pack I only knew of because of their references in conversations.

    Thanks for these kind words, everybody. it’s a heart-felt piece, though it still doesn’t do this unique individual his due.

  10. Rick says:

    Thank you for posting and sharing those lovely memories.

  11. Lois Buhalis says:

    Thanks for sharing your memories. I still have my copy of The Golden Age, and still enjoy it from time to time. I loved your live performances. I lived in the same building as Steve Leialoha (he and Trina were my landlords) and heard all the baselines drifting down through the heating ducts as he rehearsed.

  12. Aaron Hilton says:

    Great post. Thanks for sharing the memories and the snapshots. I shared them with a co-worker who’s a crime fiction and rock n’ roll enthusiast also, and she enjoyed it. Now, every time I re-read a Heller novel, or pick up a new one, I’m going to picture Miguel Ferrer as Nate. Glad you’re feeling better. Very respectfully-Aaron