Posts Tagged ‘Mommy’

Mike Cornelison 1952-2011

Tuesday, November 8th, 2011

I’ve written here before about my friendship and collaboration with Michael Cornelison – who starred in my four indie features, three short films and narrated both of my documentaries – but this weekend I spoke about in public, at the venue where he acted so often, the mainstage of the Des Moines Playhouse. We presented (and filmed) ELIOT NESS: AN UNTOUCHABLE LIFE at the Playhouse, but in the “black box” theater downstairs.

My son Nathan and his girl Abby spent the weekend with us, mostly in Des Moines. It was Nate’s 29th birthday and he chose to spend part of at Mike’s wake-like memorial. Nate knew Mike well, having worked on all of those film projects mentioned above. Mike’s son Nick is a very gifted young actor, and Mike was an incredible dad to Nick – and always warm toward Nathan, showing an interest in him that reflected his own positive parenting.


Nathan (and Abby) celebrate his 29th birthday, which he chose to in part celebrate by attending Mike Cornelison’s memorial in Des Moines with his mom and dad.

I won’t repeat what I said on stage, because I have no idea what that was. A few years ago, when Paul Thomas – also one of my best friends, my musical collaborator since 1968 – died unexpectedly, I was asked to speak. Public speaking is no big deal for me; it comes easily, and I always do it extemporaneously. But when I had to speak about Paul, I came unglued. I was washed off the stage in a tidal wave of tears and snot and sobbing, a tough guy just like Nate Heller and Mike Hammer. Sunday night, my goal was to get through speaking about Mike without it dissolving into a sentimental sob fest. I made it. Just barely. Dick Choate, Mike’s good friend and a great actor (and incredibly funny guy), went on before me (there were four speakers) and, presenting a warm, sometimes hilarious tribute to Mike, broke down about half-way through…I turned to Barb and said, “I’m screwed.” Not only was Choate great, he had stirred my own emotions. I figured I would do a repeat of the melting man routine I did for Paul, but I think I managed to serve Mike better.


I speak at Mike Cornelison’s memorial (on stage at the Playhouse in Des Moines) and manage to just get through it without dissolving into a puddle of goo.

Nick had asked me to talk about the man, not the actor, but the truth was, you couldn’t separate them. Mike barely scratched out a living most of his last twenty years (he’d made good money out in Hollywood) but he insisted on making that living, however meager it sometimes was, by exercising his craft and his art. He also wanted to live in Iowa near his son. That was one of the main connections between us – we were, each in our way, professional storytellers who preferred to live in Iowa, to raise our sons there. Being a professional actor working in (and out of) Des Moines is a rough road. But Mike travelled that road bravely and well.

He left behind an incredible body of work. If you are an ‘80s TV fan with DVD sets in your collection, Mike lives in your house. He was a guest star on HUNTER, HILL STREET BLUES, WHITE SHADOW, HARDCASTLE & McCORMACK, DALLAS, REMINGTON STEELE, GREATEST AMERICAN HERO, and a boatload more. He was in a lot of films, too, possibly most memorably as the hotel clerk in LOST IN AMERICA who Albert Brooks hilariously bribed. I think his performance as Mark in MOMMY shows him at the top of his considerable gifts, at what I consider his specialty – the flawed leading man. And when Patty McCormack, who had so enjoyed working with Mike on the MOMMY movies, saw ELIOT NESS, she said, “That Mike…what a wonderful actor.” As you might guess, Patty is no pushover where it comes to rating actors.


At Mike Cornelison’s memorial (actually a celebration of his life) with his actor son Nick and two of Mike’s best friends (and very talented actors themselves), Richard Choate and Greg Anderson. Greg was there when Mike and I wrote our first (unproduced) screen treatment together in my house on Lord Avenue in Muscatine.

It just goes on and on, the body of work he created (some of it ephemeral, because he loved the stage above all else). His last major project with me was playing Pat Chambers to Stacy Keach on the two NEW ADVENTURES OF MIKE HAMMER audio novels – hearing of Mike’s passing, Stacy said to me, “He was a fine Pat Chambers.” For those of you interested enough in my work to read this update, you know what that simple tribute means.

There is perhaps no greater joy in the creative process than working with a talented artist who you admire and to then receive admiration and devotion in return. His nickname for me was “Captain.” If Captain Chambers considers me his equal, I am a happy man. Now if you’ll excuse me, I am going to finally break the fuck down….

M.A.C.


The lovely picture of Mike during the production of the one-man show DARROW, which preceded ELIOT NESS by a few months.

Eliot Ness, Pat Chambers, R.I.P.

Tuesday, October 18th, 2011

Someone on my Facebook page suggested that at my age I shouldn’t be surprised by the passings of friends. But I have lost two of my best friends, both artistic collaborators, in under a week. It feels like the Apocalypse, one drop at a time. We joined Chuck Bunn’s family and friends Sunday afternoon for a celebration of his life…a lovely event, really, but for me it was in the shadow of a second death, the day before.

Michael Cornelison was my friend. No question. But beyond that, he played such a key role in my adventures in indie filmmaking that it’s hard to imagine ever making another film without him. He co-starred with Patty McCormack in both “Mommy” films (playing two different parts, disappearing into each so completely that few viewers noticed he was in both films…in lead roles!). He was the cop lead in “Real Time: Siege at Lucas Street Market.” He starred in three award-winning short films of mine, and he narrated both “Caveman: V.T. Hamlin and Alley Oop” and “Mike Hammer’s Mickey Spillane.” His last stage appearance, earlier this year, co-starring with his talented son Nick, was in a five-minute play I wrote for a Des Moines competition (we were the judges’ pick the first of two nights). He played Captain Pat Chambers to Stacy Keach’s Mike Hammer in the Audie-winning “The Little Death” and in this year’s “Encore for Murder.” And of course he was the star of the one-man show “Eliot Ness: An Untouchable Life,” which Phil Dingeldein and I preserved as an HD film.

That merely speaks to my collaborations with Mike. In the ‘70s and ‘80s he was in Hollywood, where he starred in three pilots, was a guest star on many major shows (including but not limited to HILL STREET BLUES, WHITE SHADOW, BJ AND THE BEAR, DALLAS, REMINGTON STEELE, KNOTS LANDING, HUNTER and, in a recurring role, THE GREATEST AMERICAN HERO), and appeared in numerous films, notably MY FATHER’S HOUSE with Cliff Robertson, WHERE THE BUFFALO ROAM with Bill Murray and LOST IN AMERICA with Albert Brooks. In high school he landed a role in Norman Lear’s COLD TURKEY with Dick Van Dyke, and in his later years was a staple of indie film in Iowa (a nice role in THE FINAL SEASON, for instance) and was damn near the bedrock of Des Moines theater. He essentially discovered writer/director Frank Darabont when they collaborated on the short Stephen King film WOMAN IN THE ROOM, which went to home video as part of the NIGHTSHIFT collection and sparked Darabont’s filmmaking career. Additionally, Mike was one of the movers and shakers (writing, acting, directing) behind the legendary old-fashioned radio drama show out of Des Moines, REJECTION SLIP THEATER, which ran for ten years on WHO and was covered on NBC’s TODAY SHOW.

Mike left a body of work as a working actor that would be impressive even if he hadn’t mostly operated out of his home state. I met him in the mid-‘70s when he was acting opposite my sister-in-law Kathe Mull at Charlie’s Showplace in Des Moines. I had used Charlie’s as a pattern for a theater in QUARRY’S DEAL, and Mike had read that, got a kick out of it, apparently dug my writing, and we became friends. Shortly after that he was off to California for almost a decade. When he returned, he began nudging me toward indie filmmaking. We developed several potential indie films (check out my story “Firecracker Kill” for one of them), way way way ahead of the curve. Finally “Mommy” turned our dreams into reality. He was my right arm as well as my lead actor on all my productions. He was child actress Rachel Lemieux’s dialogue coach, for example, on “Mommy.” But most of all, as Patty McCormack said: “He is such a wonderful actor.”

This does not touch on the many visits and phone calls where we talked not just shop but our abiding love in pop culture. He was a jazz guy and I rock ‘n’ roll, but we coincided everywhere else. We would talk James Bond and MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. We would talk Tarzan and WILD, WILD WEST. We would talk about obscure TV shows of our youth like T.H.E. CAT and JOHNNY STACCATO. He would tell me about his actor friends, mentor Robert Lansing and roommate Peter Weller. I would rhapsodize about Mickey Spillane and he would share his love for Doc Savage.

He lived the life he wanted to live. He had a substance abuse flirtation in Hollywood but threw it off like a coat gone out of fashion (that may be in part why he moved back to Iowa – we never spoke directly of it). He was a “gentleman drinker” (as he put it) until he was told quit or die – he quit, but he continued smoking and his eating habits would have killed me long, long ago. He was at once selfish child and generous grown-up (perhaps that was why we bonded so), and a caring, sweet friend who (again, perhaps why we bonded) operated off of an engine of enthusiasm.

In his prime, he was a leading man (“Mommy” caught that) who should have been very famous and successful. I often told him he was the kind of leading man I most admire – the really good-looking guy who has a twinkle of humor and a wellspring of intelligence, masculine but not macho. Think James Garner or Paul Gross. With a break or two, he could have been so much more than he was, and yet what he accomplished is almost mind-boggling…and mostly from Iowa.

He called me the night he summoned an ambulance. The liver problem that he’d been told meant he’d die in ten years – eighteen years ago – had finally caught up with him. While he waited for the ambulance, he thanked me for my friendship and support and told me he loved me. I told him I loved him, too. We talked for about forty-five minutes.

Then the ambulance came.

UPDATE

This weekend Barb and I attended the GLIBA event in Dearborn, Michigan – Great Lakes Independent Booksellers Association. I spoke at the Saturday night banquet (as did Christopher Moore and Luis Alberto Urrea, both great guys). I only had fifteen minutes, so I took a risk and just opened it up for questions – with Barb as a shill in the audience to pick up the slack if the audience members were shy. I think it went well. I was there to talk about BYE BYE, BABY and the upcoming TARGET LANCER. Some good if sometimes tense conversations with indie booksellers flowed out of their concerns (and frankly resentment and hostilities) over e-books in general and Amazon in particular, and of course I’m being reprinted by AmazonEncore, so some view me as sleeping with the enemy. But the conversations were constructive, and a step in the right direction.

We also had a lovely luncheon with my pal Brad Schwartz and his great parents. Brad is a senior in college now and working on a very exciting Orson Welles project – the “Ness kid” has come a long way! Speaking of which, just hours after our luncheon, Brad was the first fan I heard from about the death of Mike Cornelison – he and his parents had driven from Ann Arbor to Des Moines to see the play, “Eliot Ness: An Untouchable Life.” Brad is a Ness buff and considers Mike’s Ness the best of all. So do I.

Here’s what the Des Moines Register had to say about Mike.

QUARRY’S EX got some major love on the net this week. This particular review has been picked up all over the place.

And here’s a Playlist double-feature review of both QUARRY’S EX and THE CONSUMMATA.

Here’s another fun CONSUMMATA review.

Both QUARRY’S EX and THE CONSUMMATA are reviewed here, the former a rave, the latter less so but not a pan by any means.

Finally, Tom Piccirilli’s blog has some nice things to say about CHICAGO LIGHTNING.

M.A.C.

Say Hello To Goodbye

Tuesday, May 17th, 2011

Kiss Her Goodbye

I have spotted KISS HER GOODBYE on the shelves of the Davenport Barnes & Noble, so you should be able to find the new Mike Hammer hardcover at your favorite brick-and-mortar. (The trade paperback of THE BIG BANG should be right next to KISS HER.) I don’t know if Borders is carrying the new Hammer (they aren’t getting as many titles in right now, for obvious reasons), but I encourage you to snag this one at Amazon or elsewhere on line, if you don’t have a “real” bookstore handy.

Don’t wait for the trade paperback, because I don’t know if there will be one. This is the last of the Harcourt Spillane/Collins Hammer novels, and the future of the remaining three is in your hands.

Also, the Stacy Keach-read audio book should be out soon. Stacy thinks KISS HER is the best of the three. Our old friend Craig Clarke seems to agree at his Somebody Dies blog.

Great news on about THE LAST LULLABY. I’ll let director Jeffrey Goodman tell you:

“I am very excited to announce that we have signed with Level 33 Entertainment to distribute THE LAST LULLABY in the United States. We are currently aiming for a Fall release of a newly-packaged DVD. At this point, I am not sure what extras it will include, but we are looking into some different things. We also expect this release to place LULLABY in many other places and make it much more readily available.”

Whether there will be a blu-ray seems up in the air. I also don’t know if Jeffrey will include me in the extras on the disc, but I’m hoping there will be some short history-of-Quarry feature, and possibly the original, award-winning short (“A Matter of Principal”) that spawned the film.

Speaking of Quarry, Hard Case Crime has brought out all of their Quarry novels again as part of their re-birth at Titan, the great UK publisher distributed in the USA by Random House.

You might check out this interesting if odd and not entirely accurate mini-article about my DICK TRACY movie tie-in, as part of a list of 100 famous rejections. For the record, it wasn’t Warrren Beatty who went to bat for my novel, rather producer Barry Osborne. And the rewritten version was deemed fine by Disney, they just made me remove the identity of the Blank, making the book the bestselling mystery novel ever published that didn’t reveal who did it. (The 6th printing includes my real ending – all other printings are incomplete.)

ROAD TO PERDITION has made another top ten comic book movies list.

It has also made this top 25 comic-book movies list.

And speaking of movies, you can get my long out-of-print boxed set THE BLACK BOX on sale for under $25 right here. It includes an anniversary edition of MOMMY and MOMMY’S DAY (with lots of special features not previously available), plus REAL TIME: SIEGE AT LUCAS STREET MARKET and the anthology film SHADES OF NOIR (available nowhere else, and including the original, longer cut of my Mickey Spillane documentary, recently shortened/re-edited for the Criterion KISS ME DEADLY release).

M.A.C.

Good Call

Tuesday, October 19th, 2010

Last week a guy died who most of you never heard of. His name was Steve Henke. He was my age – 62 – and he lived most of his life in Iowa City, Iowa, where he worked for many years at the University of Iowa video production center, but also freelanced in various capacities in the film business for probably forty years. Lately he lived out west, but he’s coming home to Iowa soon.

Steve was a grizzled veteran of the movie wars – he struck me as either a benign biker or a dangerous hippie…I was never quite sure which. He was introduced to me by Phil Dingeldein, my collaborator (Director of Photography/Editor) on most of my movie projects. Back in 1994, Phil recommended I hire Steve to be gaffer on MOMMY, my first indie movie. Ultimately the credit Steve took (and earned) was Lighting Design.

Steve with Patty
Steve Henke and star Patty McCormack on the set of MOMMY (1994)

On MOMMY, as writer and executive producer, when things turned disastrous and I wound up having to take over the director’s chair two weeks into production, I already knew the two indispensable people were Dingeldein and Henke. I scheduled a meeting with them, and revealed I intended to become director – knowing that without their okay, and their support, I wouldn’t have a chance. They backed me, and supported me, and taught me. Between Phil and Steve, there wasn’t much about film and video production that they didn’t know or hadn’t experienced. What I know – and frankly I know quite a bit – I learned from those two. (Them and my actor pal Mike Cornelison, who had also encouraged me to believe in my ability to direct the picture).

Phil Dingeldein is genial guy – everybody loves Phil. Steve Henke was cantankerous by nature and design – a shop foreman who ruled his blue-collar minions through fear and respect. When MOMMY’S DAY came along, I tapped Henke to be my First Assistant Director as well as Lighting Designer (we wore multiple hats on our low-budget projects). He and I did the bulk of the pre-production work and had broken down every single scene, down to every single set-up, before we stepped on set. My God, but I learned so much from this rough-edged, belligerent, generous, sweet man.

Steve with MAC
Henke and Collins on set of REAL TIME: SIEGE AT LUCAS STREET MARKET (2000)

When Henke – again my First Assistant Director – introduced himself to the crew and cast on the first day of REAL TIME: SIEGE AT LUCAS STREET MARKET, he said, “Ladies and gentlemen, I am your worst nightmare.” Also a director’s dream First A.D. His bad cop presence allowed me to become a much-beloved good cop. Mainly what Steve did was move things along faster. And faster.

On the other hand, one of the best known stories about Henke came from the time he spent seemingly hours trying to light a set to his satisfaction on MOMMY’S DAY – specifically, a bedroom decorated with ironic clown dolls and clown paintings. One clown doll seated in a window had drawn his obsessive attention. “Steve!” Dingeldein cried out. “Let’s go! You’re lighting the clown!” This was followed by much laughter, and Henke’s grumpy capitulation. From that day henceforth on my sets, taking too much time has become known as “lighting the clown.”

Steve Henke was also my producer and editor on the documentary CAVEMAN: V.T. HAMLIN & ALLEY OOP. He helped me get the project taken on by the University of Iowa video center, and it was his last project there before retiring. He is essentially the co-author (along with producer Mark Lambert) of that documentary, which may represent my best piece of filmmaking. Henke went with me to the San Diego Comic Con to shoot famous cartoonists like Will Eisner, Trina Robbins and Stan Sakai, and he loved rubbing shoulders with talent like that, and inhaled the pageantry and excess of that event.

Henke was an original. He gave me an ultimatum once that if I didn’t ban the producer from the set, he would quit – I banned the producer. On that same production, I bailed Henke out of jail when it turned out he was driving on a long-expired license. I like to think we were good friends. Still, he was merciless in his criticism of my work – he once said, “Collins will write something wonderfully nasty then spoil it with a sentimental wind-up, and there’s not a fucking thing you can do about it” – but also extravagant in his praise. When I did my edit of CAVEMAN on my home video recorder, and he told me I was always within a frame – if you know film and video editing, you know a frame is less than an eyeblink – from the perfect edit point. I treasure that remark.

I have few regrets in life. Maybe three regrets. Two are that I never saw the Beatles or Bobby Darin perform live. The other is that I didn’t get to do another film project with Steve. I haven’t captured him here – that’s almost impossible. But I’ll wind up with my favorite story about him, which I’ve shared with many people over the years.

For MOMMY’S DAY, in pre-production, Steve and I designed a shot that would have a camera on a jib sweep down the table in a prison’s visitor’s room and wind up as a close-up of our star, Patty McCormack. We both were pleased with that, but when the day came, we were up against the clock where our child actress Rachel Lemieux was concerned (she could only work a specified number of hours per day, by SAG rules). So I went to my First A.D. and said, “Scrap the jib shot. Too elaborate. We’re running behind.”

He looked at me with his twin evil-eye gaze and put his nose a quarter inch from mine. “Are you telling me we’re scrapping the jib shot?”

“We’re scrapping the jib shot.”

“You’re sure you want to do that? It’s the best shot in the damn picture!”

“I’m sure.”

He threw his baseball cap on the floor. “Speaking as your creative collaborator, I want to register my extreme disappointment in your judgment.” He picked his hat off the floor, snugged it in place, and said, “Speaking as your First A.D. – good call!”

And he rushed off to the light the next set-up.

Rest in peace, old friend. Wish I could bail you out of this one.

M.A.C.

Steve at Premiere
Henke on the red carpet at the world premiere of REAL TIME at the Capitol Theater in Davenport, Iowa