Interview with Carl Gottlieb

As a fan of the movie “Jaws” I was overjoyed to have the opportunity to interview Carl Gottlieb. Not only had Mr. Gottlieb co-written my favorite film but he had also written a great book that told the story of the making of that film. First released in 1975 “The Jaws Log” is regarded by both film fans and Hollywood insiders as one of the best books ever written that document the making of a major motion picture. The book went through 17 printings and sold over two million copies (I know that I own at least three of them). The book was introduced to a new generation of “Jaws” fans when it was reissued, with updated notes by the author, in 2005. A brief introduction to Mr. Gottlieb will tell you that he had plans to be a playwright and critic. While attending Syracuse University he studied drama, working alongside fellow students Frank Langella and Larry Hankin. Making his way West to San Francisco Mr. Gottlieb soon joined the popular improvisational comedy troupe known as The Committee. Among the group’s more esteemed members: Alan and Jessica Meyerson, Richard Stahl, Howard Hesseman (who performed under the name Don Sturdy), Peter Bonerz, Barbara Bosson, Rob Reiner and David Ogden Stiers. Fans of the film “Billy Jack” will notice several members of “The Committee,” including the Meyersons and Hesseman. In 1968 Mr. Gottlieb became a member of the Writer’s Guild of America and began writing for “The Smother’s Brothers Comedy Hour,” sharing an Emmy award for his work with several other young writers on the cusp of fame including Bob Einstein (now better known as Super Dave Osborne), Steve Martin, Lorenzo Music and Mason Williams, who would later become better known for composing and performing the classic guitar instrumental “Classical Gas.”

Gottlieb also kept himself busy with the acting side of his career, appearing on such television shows as “I Spy,” “Chico & The Man,” “Laverne & Shirley, and “Mork and Mindy”. He also appeared in the Academy Award winning film “M*A*S*H.” But his career really rocketed skyward after he was hired to play local newspaper editor Harry Meadows in “Jaws.” A friend of director Steven Spielberg, Gottlieb was asked to redraft author Peter Benchley’s script, giving the film more well developed characters and, more importantly, humor. Ironically, the more Gottlieb tightened up the script the fewer scenes he found necessary for Meadows to appear in. Not to worry. When “Jaws” was released it was met with almost unanimous acclaim, with Benchley and Gottlieb earning BAFTA, Golden Globe and Writer’s Guild nominations for Best Screenplay. And, as noted above, Mr. Gottlieb shared his experiences on the film in the best selling “Jaws Log.” His next writing gig found him adapting Lina Wurtmuller’s film “The Seduction of Mimi” into a comedy set to star Richard Pryor. That film, “Which Way Is Up?,” was recently named the funniest Black comedy of all time by ILoveBlackMovies.com, a web site devoted to preserving and presenting the history of African American filmmaking, both past and present. Following the release of “Which Way Is Up?,” Gottlieb found himself contacted by the producers of “Jaws 2,” whose production was in dire straits, having just fired the director one week into filming. Gottlieb was brought in to once again enliven the screenplay. He then teamed up with old pal Steve Martin for two projects. The first put Gottlieb behind the camera for the first time as director. The result, “The Absent Minded Waiter,” earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Live Action Short Film. Project number two was Martin’s big screen debut as “The Jerk.” (Note to readers: please do not write me to point out that Martin had actually been on screen the previous year in “Sgt Pepper.” Though he was the best thing about that movie, 10 minutes on screen does not a movie star make. Thank you). Gottlieb not only helped co-write the film but had a memorable moment as Iron Balls McGinty.

In 1981 Gottlieb co-wrote (with the very funny Rudy DeLuca) and directed the well-received comedy “Caveman,” starring Ringo Starr, Barbara Bach and two newcomers about to hit the big time: Dennis Quaid and Shelly Long. Later in the decade he contributed to the screenplays of “Doctor Detroit” and “Jaws 3-D.” He later made his way into television directing, crafting episodes of shows like “Hooperman.” He has also returned to book writing, most notably releasing two books co-written with musician David Crosby: “Since Then: How I Survived Everything and Lived to Tell About It” and “Long Time Gone.” Mr. Gottlieb has been active in the politics of the Writer’s Guild for over three decades, serving on both the Board of Directors and as the Guild’s Vice President. Still writing at age 72, Mr. Gottlieb graciously took time out to talk to MovieMikes:

Click here to view our ‘Jaws” interview with Joe Alves
Click here to view our ‘Jaws” interview with Keith Gordon

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Mike Smith: You attended Syracuse University and studied acting with Frank Langella and Larry Hankin. Did you make a conscience decision to make writing your main vocation or was that just something that occurred naturally?
Carl Gottlieb: It occurred naturally. Even though I went to school with Frank and Larry, I was a dual major, in drama and journalism. I thought I was going to be a playwright or critic. I acted because it was convenient. I don’t know if you remember school plays 50 years ago but there was always a shortage of guys…so there was always a part for me to play. I drifted into acting. My first love was always writing, and when I was at the City College of New York, I was editor at The Mercury, which was CCNY’s humor magazine, back in the mid-50s. So I was always a writer.

MS: You won an Emmy award for your work on “The Smother’s Brothers Comedy Hour.” Your fellow writers included Steve Martin and Lorenzo Music. The film “My Favorite Year” really gives a great behind the scenes look at television writers, especially comedy writers. With all of the talent in the room, how were the shows written. Was it a group effort or did each writer submit material that the others would later help fine tune?
CG: Very much so a group effort. We had a writer’s common area with individual cubicles opening off it where writers could go off and work on their own or as partners. Lorenzo and I would go off and write Tom and Dick’s monologues and we wound up writing a piece for Bob Newhart when he was a guest on the show. Newhart liked the piece so much he made it part of his act. And later Lorenzo went with another partner (David Davis) and created “The Bob Newhart Show.” (Readers, if the name Lorenzo Music sounds familiar it could be because you know his voice. He has played everyone from Carlton the Doorman on “Rhoda” to the voice of the animated cat Garfield). The atmosphere in the room was always collaborative…a bunch of writers pitching ideas and jokes. That part of comedy writing hasn’t changed since radio.

MS: You appeared in the feature film “M*A*S*H.” Gary Burghoff was the only member of the film cast to reprise his role in the television series. Were you approached to do the series?
CG: No. None of us were. We never understood that. I don’t know what kind of magical power Gary Burghoff’s agent held but he was the only one who was asked to be in the series. I think Roger Bowen (he played Lt. Colonel Henry Blake in the film), who went on to do other series, was a perfect Henry Blake. To me the guy who created the role in the film should clearly have gone on to do the TV series. John Schuck should have been asked. A lot of the people ended up on television anyway, but I never understood that casting.

MS: Ironically, both Roger Bowen and Maclean Stevenson (TV’s Henry Blake) passed away within a day of each other.
CG: Yes. I spoke at Roger’s memorial service because I had known him from “The Committee” days. And I said at the service, “When Maclean Stevenson showed up at the pearly gates God took one look at him and said, ‘no, no, no….the guy from the MOVIE.”

MS: Here is a question I’ve been dying to ask for 30 years. Your most famous scene in “Jaws” was left on the cutting room floor when, during an earlier version of the discovery of Ben Gardner’s boat you accidentally fell out of the boat. I meant to ask you this at JAWSFest but my mind went blank the moment I met you. You note in “The Jaws Log” that the scene of the dead fisherman’s head popping out was added much later in the film process, with director Steven Spielberg hoping to get an extra scare out of the audience. In the film, when questioned about the discovered shark tooth by Murray Hamilton, Richard Dreyfuss explains that he “dropped it.” Can you recall what initially happened to the tooth?
CG: It was the appearance of the head. The original shot was effective but it wasn’t as effective as it could be. Steven had an intuitive grasp of what really worked and decided he needed that underwater angle. If you notice in the film…I don’t watch it frame by frame but I know a lot of people do…he pries the tooth out of the hull of the boat…the head appears…he recoils in horror and at that moment the tooth drops. It was actually written as the scene happened. We needed a reason for him not to have it. When we shot the scene on the Vineyard (Martha’s Vineyard) where he says “I dropped it” we hadn’t shot the scene. The Ben Gardner’s head scene hadn’t been shot yet. The whole point being he didn’t have the tooth with him to argue with the mayor. Chronologically they cut the shark apart, find the tooth and then go to the mayor. In June 1974 he didn’t have the shark tooth to show the mayor and then in 1975, when we shot the replacement scene, it was shot so he didn’t have the tooth in his hand when he popped back to the surface.

MS: Thank you. That was worth 35 years of wondering.
CG: : (laughs)

MS: You became responsible for one of Hollywood’s most successful marriages when you cast Ringo Starr and Barbara Bach in your film “Cave Man.” I’ve always found Ringo to be a natural on film. Was he easy to work with?
CG: Very easy, but a little erratic. I knew Richard Lester (director of the Beatles films “A Hard Day’s Night” and “Help”) because I had appeared in his film “Petulia,” which had been shot in San Francisco. He was a fan of “The Committee” and we knew each other through the world of comedy. So when I considered casting Ringo in “Cave Man” I called Richard Lester in London and asked him “what can you tell me about working with Ringo?” And he said, “I always give him his own camera because he’s not that good at repeating things…so make sure you’ve always got him.” And I followed that advice. And Ringo, of course, was inventive and relaxed and funny on camera and we got everything we needed.

MS: You co-wrote and appear in “The Jerk” with Steve Martin. But earlier you directed him in the Oscar nominated short “The Absent Minded Waiter.” Were you two friendly before working on “The Smother’s Brothers” show?
CG: I’ve stayed friends with almost all of the writers on the “Smother’s Brothers” show. The Class of ‘68/’69. It was me and Steve Martin and Rob Reiner and Bob Einstein and Lorenzo Music and Mason Williams. We were all roughly the same age…had the same interests in girls and pop music. We all stayed friends. I was working on a script and I house sat Steve’s house in Aspen. I watched his house and fed his cat while he was on the road. We all just stayed friends since the summer of ‘68. We all met on “The Summer Brothers Smother Show“, which was the Glen Campbell replacement summer show. That’s where we met and we just stayed professional and social friends. And since I was already going to be writing “The Jerk” with Steve the short made sense for me to direct since I might direct the movie.

MS: There is a Kansas City based web site called ILoveBlackMovies.com which does a great job honoring the various genre’s in African American cinema. Recently “Which Way is Up?” was chosen as the funniest Black comedy of all time. Was it hard, for want of a better word, to write for what I’m sure was perceived as a predominantly black audience?
CG: Richard Pryor was just breaking out at that moment. He had done a film called “Greased Lightning” about the first black NASCAR driver, directed by Michael Schultz. And that pairing of Michael and Richard seemed potent as “Greased Lightning” turned out well in the studios’ eyes. So a producer who had bought the rights to Lina Wurtmuller’s film “The Seduction of Mimi” hired a black novelist named Cecil Brown to write the first draft. I had known Richard from the world of comedy, from his stand up. And I had worked on the Flip Wilson television specials that Richard had appeared on as a guest. Between the time “Jaws” was written and “Jaws” was released I did four Flip Wilson specials, two which featured Richard as a guest. I knew him and I was comfortable working with him. I wrote some comedy for him that played very, very well. I had an ear for the vernacular. The producer suggested we work together and I listened to what Richard wanted to do. He and I went to Barbados. I went with my wife and Richard went with Pam Grier, who he was dating at the time. He rented a villa for two weeks and we spent the time there writing…talking about the characters. He thought he could have fun playing several different characters instead of just the lead role. So when we came back and the film went into pre-production Richard said, “I can do Mudbone…I can do the preacher” and Michael Schultz thought that was a great idea. So I re-wrote the script to accommodate those characters. And ultimately, at the first table read, I was introduced as the writer and people kept looking past me for the African-American and I kept saying, “no no, it’s me.” Everybody was kind of taken aback because the cast and crew were predominantly black and Hispanic. I got a lot of street cred for being able to – quote – “write black.” Though it’s not really “writing black.” It’s more to having an ear for dialogue and sympathy for the characters. The color of the writer is almost immaterial.

MS: I was actually thinking when I re-read that question, I was a movie theatre usher and we played the film forever. It’s one of my favorite films and I can probably quote the movie line for line. And I guess it’s safe to say that comedy really has no color. If it’s funny, it’s funny.
CG: That’s true…that’s true. “Which Way is Up?” is a very socially conscious movie. It’s about farm labor and agribusiness and the exploitation of workers, which came directly out of Lina Wurtmuller’s particular brand of Italian socialism. The original title of Lina’s film was “Mimì metallurgico ferito nell’onore” (“Mimi the Metalworker”) then it was released here as “The Seduction of Mimi.” I was happy to write it because I came from political theater. I was very happy to get as much politics as I could into the movie, especially with a spokesman like Richard, who really spoke across class lines but whose experience was with the underclass…black or white, it didn’t matter. Real blue collar. Still, he was very funny. All I had to do was listen to the cadences of his speech and reproduce it as a screenwriter. The same with the other actors. I knew several of the Hispanic actors from the LA comedy scene…it all worked out fine.

MS: Several years ago I had the chance to interview Daniel and Luis Valdez (actors in “Which Way Is Up?” and talented writers in their own rite. Luis Valdez wrote and directed “La Bamba”) and they spoke very highly about their experience on the film. When I interviewed Joe Alves (production designer on both “Jaws” and “Jaws 2” – director of “Jaws 3-D”) I learned that the original concept of “Jaws 2” was that the town of Amity was pretty much a wasteland and decimated because of the original shark. After the director (John Hancock) and writer (Dorothy Tristan, Hancock’s wife) were fired and you came aboard how much of the story did you have to change to fit the vision the producers and new director wanted?
CG: A pretty large amount. As always, when you come on a picture late and they’re already shooting, you have to accommodate yourself to the sets. They’re not going to build a new lighthouse…a new dead orca…a new power station in the middle of Nantucket Sound. So you have to write to the existing sets but you’re free to move the characters around. I added this whole thing about the kids cruising in sailboats the way they used to cruise in hot rods, which gave us a device to get all of the kids together and put them in jeopardy as a group. It was a pretty substantial rewrite. The original “Jaws 2” script had some great writers, including Howard Sackler, which was probably his reward for being uncredited for the work he did on “Jaws.” But, the director and his wife started tampering with the script. The director was not particularly competent. The first week of principal photography was just so problematic that he was taken off the picture and they junked his wife’s script.

MS: Earlier this year you received the Morgan Cox award from the Writer’s Guild of America in recognition of your vital ideas, continuing efforts and personal sacrifices in ensuring the success of the Guild. How did it feel to be recognized by your peers? Not only those you may have worked with but those whose careers you may have inspired?
CG: It was a wonderful evening and a great honor. Guild service – or any kind of service work where you give your time and energy as a volunteer to a cause – that’s usually its own reward. It’s nice to be honored. It’s nice to have a dinner. That particular evening was special because it was also the night of the annual Writer’s Guild Awards, so there were the winners of Best Screenplay, Best Series, Best Comedy….all of those awards were given out the same night as mine so I was in the company of people whose work I admired and respected and people who I had known for years and who also worked on behalf of the Guild and on behalf of writers. It was touching and very satisfying. Needless to say I would have done the work even with no reward– you never start anything with the notion you’re going to get a trophy 25 years later. You just show up and do the work.

MS: I know you’ve concentrated recently on books, including two with David Crosby. Anything else on the horizon?
CG: I’m finishing what will be called “The Little Blue Book for Directors.” It’s essentially a handbook for young directors, whether they’re a film student or someone making their first YouTube video. It’s basically everything you need to know to direct a movie (laughs) (readers, it should be pointed out that “X-men” director Bryan Singer refers to “The Jaws Log” as being ‘”like a little movie director bible.”) I’ve also just finished a screenplay about the early Tin Pan Alley vaudeville songwriters during the first world war, called “The Stowaways.” And a year or two ago I wrote a screenplay that I thought would be totally original and new, that nobody had ever seen anything about this area…I researched it and was so proud of myself because I was the only one who knew about it…Pirates off Somalia. (laughs) The script still exists but now all the time and pages that I took to explain why there were pirates in Somalia…I don’t have to do that anymore. So I’m rewriting the script to accommodate current realities. It’s called “Privateers.”

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