Dead On Arrival: Diggin’ Up Business (1990)

Speaking of shovel-swinging action, Dave does some digging of his own on the fascinating career of businessman Tom Pardew, and calls in the ‘co-director’ of this dud comedy, Mark Byers, for help.

Someone making a few quid in their day job before spending it all cobbling together a movie was a thing well before the likes of Neil Breen and the late Andrew Getty subjected us to their own particular style of creativity – and one of the most interesting examples of this self-funded form of deranged auteurship is former construction boss Tom Pardew.

Hailing from Arkansas, Pardew was first hit with a desire to act in the ‘60s, about which he’d regale interviewers with tall tales such as when he was flown out to Los Angeles to audition for Bonanza only to be beaten to the role by Michael Landon (“He couldn’t even ride a horse!”) – or the time he was at a rehearsal at Carnegie Hall, and Jerome Robbins asked him to perform some of his West Side Story (1961) dance movements. By the time the late ’80s came around, fame had eluded Pardew. Thankfully, for him at least, financial clout hadn’t. As Pardew’s directorial debut, DIGGIN’ UP BUSINESS (1990), headed towards cameras, his production partners backed out leaving him to cover the costs of production and distribution himself. And it wasn’t a cheap project either: shot on 35mm, Pardew hired a half-decent cast on good wages [1], so it took the sale of his airplane, his boat and his ranch to raise the $3.5million needed to complete the movie and get it out there.

Was it worth the sacrifice? No.

Diggin’ Up Business is an awkward hybrid of vaudeville and romance that sees Tesia Papadapacropolis (Lynn-Holly Johnson) running her grandfather’s funeral business while he’s away, only to discover that there’s a six-hundred and fifty corpse discrepancy between bodies buried and bodies registered that may well leave the mortuary in hot water. Her love life is adding to the daily struggle as well, with her ever-perky best-bud, Albert (David Michael O’Neill), attempting to woo her away from the clutches of an aging cowboy (Pardew) – all of which is set against the backdrop of the parlour’s patience-testing ‘custom burials’.

The film isn’t just a head-scratcher in terms of lifeless comedy, but also for a handful of other reasons, most notably its split directing credit that acknowledges Pardew for the ‘final version’, and Mark Byers for the ‘original version’. Byers cut his teeth on the set of a Roger Corman movie, tackling the post of First A.D. on Katt Shea’s excellent thriller Stripped to Kill (1987). Pardew’s film, with its solid budget and lofty aspirations had the potential to kick-start his career, irrespective of the money man’s unusual practices. As Byers explains:

“Tom was an odd bird.  One of those guys who had the ‘Hollywood’ bug but lacked the skills to back it up – and I don’t mean that in a derogatory way! What he did have is an idea and cash.  And because he had the money, he wanted all the credits, which explains the strange credit. I certainly don’t remember him being pushy or egotistical – it was just the nature of the deal. And because I had the Hollywood bug as well, I took it. Eagerly!” 

“The actual work on the movie was directed by me, produced by Bob Myers and Rick Eye, and the script was completely rewritten by Tim Minear, before he was THE Tim Minear: the rich and famous network showrunner [2]. For example, where do you think the name Papadapacropolis came from?”

“It was Tom’s dream, and I am so happy we were able to give it to him before the end.  Once on the set he learned his lines and went through the scenes, the rest of us structuring things to support him, while at the same time trying to make a ‘real’ movie that would appeal to an audience. And even though it was a twelve-day shoot on half-a-shoestring budget we made the movie anyway, all on Tom’s dime – which is pretty close to our actual budget.”

“It’s not the worst movie in the world!” Pardew gamely conceded in The Knoxville News Sentinel on 6th November 1992. “But I’m fulfilling a lifelong dream, and that’s what happens to actors when they get this dream. But it’s OK: I’ve still got my hair and the desire to live and be happy.”

Sadly, these comments would soon be rendered bittersweet: just over two months later, on 8th January 1993, Pardew passed away following a sudden heart attack.

For Byers, meanwhile, there’s a pang of regret for the way Diggin’ Up Business turned out, despite his willingness to walk into the project with a shared credit.

“Watching it back unleashed a painful memory,” he sighs. “After we shot the movie, I worked long and hard on the edit, really labouring to bring it all together. Finally, we had a rough-cut screening for distributors, and as I watched this cut, I felt we were making progress and that this just might work. However, the next day, Rick Eye snuck into the editing room, took all the film and negative, and hid away somewhere making his own cut. He did the stupidest things. He totally chopped up the narrative to try for dumb jokes and ruined the movie, and I was powerless to do anything about it.”

“It was never going to be a great picture.  But it could have at least been good.”

[1] According to Pardew, Lynn-Holly Johnson was paid $15,000 for the gig while Billy Barty and Ruth Buzzi made $4,000 a day.
[2] Minear has risen to be a key player in television, with frequent partnerships with Ryan Murphy on shows like American Horror Story and 9-1-1.
[3] Trusting Arkansas Boy Produces Video, Winds Up Marketing and Promoting It Too by Doug Mason, The Knoxville News Sentinel, 6th November 1992

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