Father & Son: Reuben Leder Talks Paul Leder

Dave continues his look at the career of Paul Leder by learning more about the man himself. And who better to fill in the blanks than the writer/producer/director’s son, Reuben?

Reuben Leder was born in New York in 1950 and grew up immersed in independent filmmaking. By the age of twenty-two he was working as a grip on his father Paul’s most notorious film, I Dismember Mama (1972), and a couple of years later he found himself in Korea on the set of Ape (1976) — a picture he also happened to co-write. Mainstream success was just around the corner — and throughout the ‘80s Reuben’s name was a fixture on primetime TV thanks to him penning multiple episodes of The Incredible Hulk and Magnum, P.I. Spec sales followed (‘The Glory of Love’ was sold to Dreamworks, ‘Life After Death’ to Paramount) and he became an in-demand script doctor with director sister Mimi’s 2009 thriller, Thick as Thieves, among his most high profile assignments.

According to Reuben, his father hailed from Springfield, Massachusetts and was attracted to the arts from an early age.

“He was a child actor on a radio show called The Goldbergs, which ran from 1929 to 1946,” says Reuben, as we settle into our mammoth chat.

A strong social conscience was a fundamental aspect of the elder Leder’s nature, and he enlisted in the army at seventeen. Paul became a combat medic, whereupon he served under General George Patton, and he was and one of the first troops in Buchenwald when it was liberated. For Reuben, it’s clear that this was a momentous moment in his father’s life:

“I think that shaped him a great deal. But first he gradually got back into performing. In 1954, MGM talent-scouted him when he was on stage with Phil Silvers in the musical Top Banana. They brought him out to Los Angeles – after all, he was rather handsome and had a great voice — and they gave him a screen test with the intention of making him a star. And then… Crickets.”

Could Paul’s associations have put the kibosh on a potential career in Hollywood? His best friend was William W. ‘Bill’ Norton, an aspiring playwright whose life shared similar parallels. They were born within nine months of each other, they both served under Patton in World War II, and they both gravitated towards the arts. Shortly after his spell in the army, though, Norton joined the Communist Party which resulted in him testifying before HUAC in 1958.

“I’m not sure, but maybe. Either way, Bill was an important figure in my childhood. Our family would visit the Nortons regularly. We got on with his kids – even though they were slightly older – and we’d have barbecues and hang out. Of all the people my Dad knew and worked with, nobody was closer to him than Bill.”

“We moved out to Los Angeles at the end of the ’50s, and Dad spent a little time trying to make it as a singer while supporting us by doing some real estate. I left home early and took a job at the huge central library downtown, but I moved back in to give him my paycheque because I knew it would help him out a little… One thing that my Dad did was to give me and my sisters, Geraldine and Mimi, an education in every department of filmmaking. When we all went to work for major studios, he would often accuse us of selling out – but there was always a twinkle in his eye when he said it! He was very proud. Back in the day, though, I’d be riding a Vespa motorcycle bringing props back and forth to the set on some rural location!”

Of all the people that passed through the Leder household in this era, the one collaboration that stands out is Paul’s partnership with John Hayes. Like Norton, Hayes’ life had many similarities with Paul’s. Both men were multi-hyphenated filmmakers — adept at editing, writing, producing and directing — and their careers are defined by a wealth of interesting low-budget movies that never moved beyond a cult audience. Naturally, Paul’s union with Hayes is fascinating. A New Yorker of Irish descent, Hayes had just been nominated for an Academy Award for his short film, The Kiss, when he and Paul connected. As author Stephen Thrower told me about the Hayes of this period, “it was all about 1950s theatre, The Actors Studio, Tennessee Williams, and Edward Albee.”

“I think I was eleven when I met John Patrick Hayes,” remembers Reuben. “He made three films with my Dad, but I’d consider theirs to be a working relationship rather than a strong friendship.  There was a play Bill wrote called The Wrecking Yard which was about one of those car spares places. They adapted it into a movie with Rue McClanahan [who Hayes was dating] and called it The Rotten Apple (1963), aka ‘Five Minutes to Love’. My Dad played the lead guy. John directed it, but as an actor my Dad didn’t really respond too well to what he wanted. I know him and Bill weren’t happy with John at times, but it’s important to remember that it was his first feature as a director, and my Dad’s debut as an actor. Bill wasn’t a fully-fledged screenwriter yet either. He didn’t break through until the end of the decade, when Burt Lancaster plucked him from obscurity to write The Scalphunters (1968).”

By the time the ‘70s arrived, Paul had taken full control of his film career and made his directorial debut with an adaptation of Norton’s play, Marigold Man (1970), which Kevin Thomas called “an ingratiating and funny film” [1]. Notoriety came shortly after, when mogul Harry Novak changed the title of ‘Poor Albert & Little Annie’ to the unforgettable I Dismember Mama — although it was a change that frustrated its director.

“I think it was Europix International that took over the film,” said Paul Leder in a rare interview with Sleazoid Express’ Bill Landis. “They thought it was a masterpiece – which it wasn’t – and changed the name and did a hideous trailer. I thought it was awful. They struck fifty prints, which was a lot of prints in those days for a low budget film. They then proceeded to go bankrupt.” [2]

“You must remember that ‘Poor Albert & Little Annie’ began life as a very serious play that Bill had written,” states Reuben. “It was not exploitative at all. The movie was to some degree, but it kept on pulling back before it went too far. He revisited those characters twenty years later for Killing Obsession (1994), and I think he was just interested in finding out where that character was two decades on. Zooey Hall wasn’t around anymore, certainly in terms of acting, but I thought [John] Savage was great.”

“My Dad would do one or two movies that weren’t necessarily his calling, but he knew that they’d pay for the ones that were close to his heart. Even so, he would love to find moments — or characters or scenes — where he could stick in a line that would be political, or a theme that would reflect his world view. In terms of watching films, Dad admired Italian neorealism a great deal, especially Vittorio De Sica and Roberto Rossellini, and he’d take Mimi and I to see their films as soon as they hit the local arthouse. He tried to duplicate the social conscience of those movies, and Goin’ To Chicago (1990) is a reflection of that. Cleavon Little and Viveca Lidfors were in it, and it was about the Democratic National Convention in 1968, out of which came the Chicago Seven trial. That movie was accepted into the inaugural Santa Barbara Film Festival, and it won two awards including Best of the Fest.”

Despite having its admirers, Goin’ to Chicago still fell afoul of the same savage criticisms that shadowed Paul Leder for most of his career. Unwarranted, uninstructed, and deeply unenlightened, it’s sideswipes like this from the Miami Herald that underline the current that Leder found himself swimming against:

“Goin’ to Chicago is a nostalgia piece by a director who obviously has profound feelings for the time. Alas, that director is Paul Leder, whose spectacularly bad The Education of Allison Tate is already locally infamous. How the Fort Lauderdale Film Festival wound up with two films by Leder is a sublime imponderable I’m not even sure we want to know the answer.” [3]

“Some of the criticism he got was down to being a symptom of his time,” sighs Reuben, with a noticeable degree of diplomacy. “His formative years were in the  late ‘40s and ‘50s, and occasionally his stylings would struggle to evolve from there. Frame Up (1991), for example, was the very first screenplay I wrote, and it was originally called ‘Goats Landing’. I sold it in 1970 when I was twenty years old. Alex Karras [Blazing Saddles (1974)] optioned it from me. It never worked out, but as my father was always looking to make something, he rewrote it and retitled it Frame Up, but, to me, it kind of felt like the name you’d give to a Macdonald Carey movie from 1957. It was a good movie though!”

“And then there was Molly & Gina (1994) which I wrote under a different title too. It was optioned by a studio and it helped me get some mainstream work. Fifteen years later, and once again Dad’s looking for a feature to make. So he takes it, retitles it, and adapts it into something rather different from what I had written – but that was OK!”

‘The Paul Leder Players’ were also an integral part of Paul’s style. Beginning with Greg Mullavey who played the lead in Marigold Man and went on to feature in just shy of a dozen more Leder pics the filmmaker had a habit of adding to his regular troupe of performers with each successive film. Frank Whiteman, Dick Sargent, Bernie White, Jennifer Rhodes, and Richard Stanley are just a handful, but it’s undeniable that Paul Leder was an actor’s director.  

“Yeah, he always attracted good actors,” agrees Reuben. “Like the crew, they became very much like family. The crew would be the same for almost every picture. He always paid them. Everybody worked on deferment, but the first money that came in, he’d pay the crew. Even if he didn’t make a penny, he’d ensure that everybody got paid. This was not a common practice! I remember walking on a set one time and seeing this female boom operator. She was a refugee from political violence in El Salvador. There was a right-wing government there who had death squads from which she’d fled, acquiring illegal status in the process. My Dad put her up, found an immigration lawyer, and he micro-managed everything to ensure that she became a legal U.S. citizen. He had no stake in her other than compassion, but this is why people stayed with him. A true mentor.”

In 1990, though, everything changed.  

“Dad was diagnosed with terminal small cell lung cancer. He had smoked three packs a day since he was thirteen years old, and he only quit the day before he died when they put oxygen into him. They gave him six months, but somehow he managed six years. The day my Dad died, there was an actor who appeared in a number of his films called J.D. Lewis. I couldn’t deal with the body, but J.D. went in there and took care of him. A loving gesture and an example of the kind of camaraderie that they all had.”

“I remember going to operations with him, and he’d be begging me to bring cigarettes to the hospital for him,” Reuben continues. “There were periods when he was given chemotherapy, the stuff that makes people just want to lie down and hide, but to him it seemed to have the opposite effect. I’ll admit, he did movies that he probably shouldn’t have done – specifically The Wacky Adventures of Doctor Boris & Nurse Shirley (1995). It’s credited to ‘Liam Naughton’, but I think Paul Bartel penned the script for that one, and then my Dad rewrote it later. By all accounts they didn’t get on.”

From the loyalty of best friend Bill Norton and those he worked with, to the support of his successful kids, it’s clear that Paul Leder was surrounded by a devoted blended family that were hugely important to him none more so than his wife, Etyl, as Reuben attests.

“My Mom was a vital figure in my Dad’s career. I think I’d define it as being ‘all in’. She was a concentration camp survivor. As a teenager she had a real talent for music and was a great pianist. The war changed that. Her twelve year-old brother was killed and her parents too, so she had a rough time coming out of her shell. I found that she lived her life through her kids, but perhaps more so through my Dad. She would cook for a crew of forty. At home, we had this sprawling house in the hills, and we’d always have people stopping over – to which she never objected to.”

“I worked on a series in Germany during the early ‘90s called Berlin Break with John Hillerman. There was a young German actor there called Joachim Schönfeld, aged about twenty-three, and we became friends. He got accepted into the AFI on a director’s program, and he asked me if I knew anywhere he could stay while he found his feet in America. I phoned my Mom and Dad, and asked if he could stay for a few weeks – and he stayed for six months! When my Dad died in ’96, every Sunday night for the rest of her life, and bear in mind she only died in 2020, Joachim would phone her from Berlin. I think this illustrates both of my parents really well. Everyone was family to them, and it certainly explains the fulfilment that he got from making these pictures.”

There is, however, one nagging question that remains about Paul Leder:

Here’s a man who mastered almost ever facet of filmmaking. He had a lengthy career that weaved between the arthouse and the grindhouse, and his brood are now embedded among the Hollywood elite. Did he ever, then, crave mainstream success?

“No, my father never really had any aspirations for that,” stresses Reuben. “I think he could have done it, perhaps back in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s, but he found a niche and was happy there. If there was one disappointment in his life, then it’s the screenplay he wrote in the ‘70s called ‘A Sentimental Journey’ about his and my Mom’s experiences in World War II. He came so close to getting it made with either Spanish producers or Yugoslavian producers, but it was so complex and ambitious be it recreating a concentration camp or hiring extras to represent the American army. Everybody loved the script, but he just didn’t have the experience of directing something that huge. It was his Holy Grail.”

“When he died in 1996, Mimi, Geraldine and I all agreed that the one thing we must do to honour his legacy is to get this movie made. I got a job in Australia on the Gold Coast at Village Roadshow studios, and I rewrote the thing on my nights off. My Dad was a great director, a good editor in fact, post-war, one of his first jobs was in music theory. He had Tony Bennett as his student! But with writing, his process was that a first draft was perfectly adequate. He’d sit with a yellow pad in a room just off the kitchen, then give it to a typist and boom. He wasn’t a trained writer. They didn’t have books back then on the craft of screenwriting, so he just sat down and did it. On the set, if something wasn’t working, he’d always change it, but rewriting wasn’t in his realm of something to consider. It probably sounds naïve, and it certainly wasn’t ego, but he simply didn’t realise that so much of screenwriting is rewriting.”

“Mimi had just done the inaugural movie for Dreamworks, The Peacemaker (1997) with George Clooney, so she took the opportunity to give the now rewritten script to Steven Spielberg. He optioned it, but ultimately it never came to fruition, and the rights reverted back to us. We took it to a few more people, but everyone wanted to put their own spin on it, and we were all so determined to protect the legacy of our parents and to keep it exactly as it was. Now that I’ve written my first novel, though, I found an element of freedom, so I feel that the obvious next step is to write ‘A Sentimental Journey’ as a book. So if it gets published, it might finally get to be a film after all.”

And then, if it does, the last piece of the Paul Leder jigsaw will be complete.

[1] Movie Reviews, Kevin Thomas, Los Angeles Times, 9th July 1971.
[2] Paul Leder Interviewed by Bill Landis, Sleazoid Express, 1986.
[3] Goin’ To Chicago is a Wasted Trip by Bill Cosford, Miami Herald, 9th November 1990.

Header: Paul Leder (left), John Saxon (right). Image courtesy of Reuben Leder.

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