Sunday, March 12, 2017

Jessica Harper is a great sport

This is a re-post of an article from six years ago.  But it also has a GREAT payoff.   And it's a pretty funny story.  So it's worth sharing again.  Enjoy.

In early 1975 I was writing spec scripts with my partner, David Isaacs, trying desperately to break into the business. At the time we were going nowhere fast. The spec RHODA we had submitted was rejected. Then the producer left and we re-submitted it. And the new producer rejected it. (That new producer is now my next-door neighbor. I just keep re-submitting it.)

Anyway, on the way to lunch I need to stop at the bank. I probably bounced a check. I go to the back of a long line and notice that the person directly in front of me is Jessica Harper. Ms. Harper is a fine actress and at the time was very hot. She had appeared in LOVE AND DEATH for Woody Allen and had starred in the cult feature PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE among other credits.

Oh, did I mention I had a HUGE crush on her?  

So I begin talking to her. She’s very nice. I’m asking about working with Woody Allen, her career, anything to keep the conversation rolling. All the while we slowly inch forward in line. When she is finally at the front I decide to do something I never ever do. If you know me you know this is true.

I ask her out. Right there in the bank.

She very graciously declines. A teller is free, she dashes off, and that was that.

I get back in the car and relate the story to David. He of course, gives me shit for fifteen minutes. “You did WHAT?!” Finally, I say, “Someday we’re going to be big producers casting a pilot and Jessica Harper is going to walk into our office and read for us. And then she’ll be sorry.” We laugh, go back to my apartment, and continue working on a spec that will soon be rejected all over town.  Jessica goes off and stars in another Woody Allen movie and one with Steve Martin. 

Flash forward to 1993. David and I have a pilot for CBS, BIG WAVE DAVE’S and we’re casting. Who walks into our office?


Jessica has no idea why we both seem to be beaming the minute she enters the room. Her audition goes well. She’s a terrific actress. She wasn’t totally right for the part but she still gave a great reading.

I’m on the fence about telling her the story. On the one hand, she might be a great sport and find it amusing. On the other, if we don’t hire her maybe she’ll think it’s because of the bank and we’re the most unprofessional spiteful assholes in Hollywood. So we say nothing. I’m sure if Jessica reads this or someone points her to this post it will be the first she’s heard of it. And I guarantee you she has no recollection of the bank encounter. Ten minutes of her life with some schmuck in a line.

But it’s still one of those delicious career moments. And for the record, I still have a crush on Jessica Harper and would be thrilled to work with her. She’s now a blogger and an author as well as an actress and the least I can do is plug her books, which you can find here.

Okay, that's part one of the story.  Here's part two:  SHE RESPONDED.  
 That is one fabulous story!
I would be lying if I said I remember the bank part (I DO remember the script) but I'm sure you were a perfect gentleman or I would have cut that conversation short!...and you were very gracious about the audition...these qualities make you a rare and compelling person in Hollywood!
Thanks for your kind words, and for sharing my link with the world. Hmmmm....wonder where we'd be today if I HAD gone out with you...? Food for thought...!
All the best Ken!

Thanks, Jessica.  You are a sweetheart. 


Anonymous said...

One of the sublime joys of celluloid--I'm a Luddite--is being able to fall in love and keep falling in love over and over. Jessica Harper in MY FAVORITE YEAR is one of those loves, as is Theresa Wright in THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES, Myrna Loy in the THE THIN MAN, and a few others.

Fortunately, my wife finds my celluloid infatuations an amusing quirk. But then I've never actually run into Jessica Harper in real life.

Ah, but to have the star-studded life of a Hollywood writer!

Thanks for the story.


VP81955 said...

Something to inspire as I await the table read this afternoon of my romantic comedy "Stand Tall!" (1:30 to 4:30, Tea Pop, 5050 Vineland Avenue, North Hollywood). Writers, actors and producers are cordially invited to check it out -- and that includes you, Jessica Harper.

Brian said...

Hollywood must be like heaven, running into pretty gals, getting chances to ask them out.

Laura said...

Interesting story as always Ken...

Friday Question: With so many stories and talks abound regarding casting couch, were there anytime when some actress hinted at you, at going the extra mile to get a part?

You can tell with no names like you always do ;)

Phil said...

Ha Ha... Funny story Ken. Now how about the reverse? Have you anytime turned down anyone not famous, only for them to recount the story later?

Mike Barer said...

I love a story like that! Thank you for posting!

Peter said...

"I decide to do something I never ever do. If you know me you know this is true."

I assume you asked out the woman who eventually became your wife?!

Great story. I hadn't read it before, so thanks for reposting.

On a different note, I went to see The Founder a second time yesterday. Magnificent movie and I'm glad you liked it too. Your review was spot on. Michael Keaton gives a tremendous performance. He and director John Lee Hancock should have been showered with awards.

I bet you got a giggle out of that sequence where Ray Kroc is speaking to different groups of people to try and encourage them to become McDonald's franchisees and he tells the audience in the synagogue to have some chutzpah and join the McDonald's mishpucha! He delivered that line so brilliantly.

gottacook said...

The first movie I saw featuring Jessica Harper wasn't Love and Death, but Inserts with Richard Dreyfuss, which came out the same year - an interesting movie to be exposed to at age 19.

Breadbaker said...

I'm totally jealous. I had the same crush on her for the same reason, but neither a bank line, an audition nor a blog comment to my credit.

Max Clarke said...

Jessica Harper was in an excellent movie, My Favorite Year, as the love interest of Benjy Stone ("Sanctuary!"). Peter O'Toole was great.

Before that, she did a good job as Natasha in Woody Allen's Love And Death. ("Wheat? Did somebody say 'Wheat'?"

Good story, Ken. Nice of her to respond, too.

D. McEwan said...

You left out another of Jessica Harper's major talents: She's a GREAT singer! Listen to her performance of Paul Williams's beautiful song "Old Souls" in The Phantom of the Paradise. Magnificent. She plays Janet Weiss in Shock Treatment, the Rocky Horror sequel (Where she co-stars with Barry Humphries), and while most of the songs in that unfortunate (But not unfortunate in its cast) movie are highly forgettable, she nonetheless performs them so wonderfully you almost wish she had played Janet in the first movie. Susan Sarandon is good in the first movie, but her singing is not in the same league as Jessica's. That Jessica was only allowed to lip-synch to a period recording in Pennies From Heaven was a major waste.

Barry Traylor said...

Thanks for pointing the way to her blog. She was in two movies that I have watched many times PENNIES FROM HEAVEN and MY FAVORITE YEAR. She is excellent in both.

Betty said...

As D. McEwan said above, all Rocky Horror people know Ms. Harper from "Shock Treatment" where she knocks it out of the park as Janet Weiss. We have the pleasure of seeing it on the big screen at least once or twice a year. (We only get "Phantom of the Paradise" once every three years or so.)

Samantha Schon said...

Great story! That must have been a awesome experience.

By the way, The Brain Candy Podcast sent me here and I've just subscribed to Hollywood and Levine. Looking forward to listening, and reading your blogs.

D. McEwan said...

" Betty said...
As D. McEwan said above, all Rocky Horror people know Ms. Harper from "Shock Treatment" where she knocks it out of the park as Janet Weiss. We have the pleasure of seeing it on the big screen at least once or twice a year."

You find Shock Treatment a "pleasure"? It has a fine cast, and I'll watch Barry Humphries in anything, but I have seldom been as disappointed in a movie as I was by Shock Treatment, and seldom ever watch the copy I have of it. (Which was a present from my brother who knew my love of Barry Humphries but not my antipathy towards that movie. I would not have bothered to buy it myself.)

It is such a misfire, full of songs so lame it's hard to believe they were written by the same man who wrote the great Rocky Horror songs. It wastes a very fine cast and its satire is off target (Unlike Rocky Horror, which hits its targets perfectly) and fuzzy-minded, and for a satire of television to work, it needs to have some relation to how actual TV is made and affects people. Shock Treatment takes place in a never-world of fantasy unrelated to the real world.

Phantom of the Paradise, on the other hand, has none of Shock Treatments faults and is a wonderful movie. I pull out the Blu-Ray and watch it a couple of times a year, and sometimes put it on and just skip from song to song like a visual soundtrack album. And a couple of times I've watched it as half of a home double feature with Rocky Horror (I can not bear to go to actual screenings of Rocky Horror anymore, as I HATE all that audience-"Participation" (audience-intruding) crap!)

But yes, Jessica's Janet does knock it out of the park. Too bad the material is so bad.

Jahn Ghalt said...

Great story, Ken. Yet another reason to get going on the seventies volume of your memoir!

Storm said...

"Shock Treatment" screwed itself from the start, before anyone even got to see or hear how lame it was; they actually handed out prepared call-back SCRIPTS to the audience on opening night. Pre-packaged camp? Mary, PLEASE. You can force a religious cult on people (not you, Doug, so rest ;), but you simply can NOT force a cultfilm on their devotees; we know the deliciously weird when we see it, thank you. It's like they didn't trust us to be smart enough to "get it" or dig on it on our own, when they didn't even seem to have any idea of why RHPS was so special in the first place: freedom! to be your true weird self and have your own kind of fun, not to be told by a bunch of mundane suits that you're getting your freak on incorrectly. Bullshit on THAT.

However, some of the songs really are fantastic; Jessica Harper's solo song "In My Own Way" is simply gorgeous, as is "Lullaby", and "Bitchin' in the Kitchen" and "Little Black Dress" are silly fun. I knew the soundtrack by heart long before I finally saw it, so I was at least able to sing along. And it was actually strangely ahead of its time in that it was about reality TV shows how fake they are and how vapid the viewers are for not realizing it. So, there's that. Oh, and Patricia Quinn as Dr. Nation McKinley is exquisite.

Speaking of the lovely Miss Jessica; the past two years or so, I keep watching things ("The Missing", "Mr. Selfridge") that turn out to star an actress named Frances O'Connor, and every time I see her, I think she's Jessica Harper for a moment. Their resemblance is striking!

Cheers, thanks a lot,


D. McEwan said...

Storm, I agree with your first paragraph entirely. You can not intentionally manufacture a cult hit.

Clearly we disagree on the quality of the songs, though not on how well they are performed. And yes, Patricia Quinn is terrific in it, as she is in most everything she's in. It has a fine cast.

Betty said...

@D. McEwan, I *hated* "Shock Treatment" the first 3 times I saw it, and I only kept trying because it was a thing in our Rocky Horror cast. The fact that you don't like Rocky live in a theater (nothing wrong with that - not everything can please everyone) pretty much guarantees you wouldn't like ST, because a large part of its pleasures derive from sharing the experience with an enthusiastic audience.

@Storm, I couldn't agree with you more about Frances O'Connor. Spittin' image.

D. McEwan said...

I LOVED Rocky Horror "live in a theater," by which I mean The Rocky Horror Show. the stage production, actually, genuinely live. I was in the audience at the Roxy in West Hollywood the night the original American production, with Tim Curry and Meatloaf, opened, sitting at a table next to John Lennon's table. (The most star-studded audience I've ever been in. Jack Nicholson, Cher, Leonard Nimoy and others were there and at the party after, which I was also privileged to attend.) I loved the show and Curry's amazing performance. (If you didn't see Tim play Frank N. Furter live, you didn't see him at all. His film performance is a pale shadow of his live performance.) I went back and saw the live show four more times, but then Tim and Meatloaf (Who played both Eddie and Dr. Scott onstage, thus turning "Eddie's Teddy" into a smash rock-out that shames the movie rendition of it) left to go make the movie. His replacement, whom I saw the fifth time, was nothing after Tim, and I stopped going, returning only once more, closing night, when Tim was in the audience also, and I got to meet and talk with him.

On stage it ROCKED! The movie, which I've grown to appreciate, was actually a large disappointment at first viewing after seeing the stage show 7 times. The song tempos dragged, the directing was limp, and some of the changes, like adding all the "Transylvanians" (There was no chorus. The stage show had a cast of nine), the weird cannibalism scene that was not in it onstage, and cutting all of Rocky's dialogue sucked. (Rocky can sing but can't speak? Hello?)

And while having the author play Riff-Raff is understandable, O'Brien's rendition of Riff-Raff's vocals lack the power and the greatness of Bruce Scott's singing at the Roxy. (Listen to the Roxy cast album, for me the DEFINITIVE recording of the score, and I have many recordings of the score, including one with Sir Christopher Lee being the narrator who says "It's just a jump to the left," but I do not have the soundtrack album. Scott's powerhouse vocals and Meatloaf's version of "Eddie's Teddy" deeply shame the movie versions.) Of course, I saw it opening weekend, well before the "Midnight Movie" phenomenon so, as at the live theater, we shut up and listened to the show, instead of intruding on the movie.

When the midnight screenings came along, I went maybe three times, until I just could not take the audience crap any longer. Wanna-bes rudely interrupting a movie with witless shout-outs, singing along like I'd rather hear the tone-deaf virgin guy next to me singing than Tim Curry or Meatloaf, it just annoyed me way too much, and I stopped going. Of course, it's now spilled over, and live productions also have to deal with audiences who think that they are the show. I literally can not stand it.

As for Shock Treatment, I am pre-disposed to like anything that Barry Humphries does, let alone Jessica Harper, and as I intentionally never saw it in a theater, precisely to avoid any wanna-bes ruining that also, that was not a problem. But it was a huge disappointment. Not good material at all, and a very fine cast wasted on a second-rate wanna-be cult film.

Betty said...

D. McEwan, well, DUH, who would enjoy the movie after an experience like you had?! Those of us not so privileged have to make do with what we have. Everyone knows the original stage show was better, and a properly done stage show (as you can SOMETIMES see in England) kicks the movie to the curb. Not the point. The movie, with its shadowcast and audience participation, can be a raucous, joyous experience. Obviously not for everyone. (Thanks for sharing your memories. Deeply, deeply jealous.)

scottmc said...

I just read a newspaper interview with Jessica Harper and remembered this post of yours. The article mentions that she is appearing in the remake of a horror film from 1977 that helped start her career. I'd never heard of 'Suspiria'. I first noticed her in the Woody Allen movie and 'My Favorite Year'. The article mentioned that she was in the original Broadway cast of 'Hair'. She is also beginning a podcast about her family.