Richard Fowkes, Billy Wilder and Sunset Blvd, The Musical

August 18, 2012 — 4 Comments
gloria swanson & william holden 1950 - sunset boulevard

Gloria Swanson and William Holden in Sunset Boulevard, 1950

The Call From Andrew Lloyd Weber

Sunset Blvd, one of the grimmest and sardonic  movies about  Hollywood, directed by Billy Wilder, was going to become a musical.

We had gotten a call from across the pond from Andrew Lloyd Weber’s people. Andrew wanted to adapt the classic Sunset Blvd into a musical production. Andrew  already had a few songs written. At Paramount’s pleasure, Andrew would fly in to LA to play them for us.

Billy Wilder’s incredibly dark drama  was considered in most academic circles a classic. The drama focused on  an aging Hollywood movie star, Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) who  lures a young hollywood screenwriter, Joe Gillis (William Holden)  into her decaying Hollywood mansion  to write her comeback movie and to become her lover. The saga does not end well. The ending became the opening scene, and the movie, one long flashback.

The Swimming Pool

Sunset Blvd.  famously opens with a  dead screenwriter lying face down in a swimming pool – the  dead screenwriter narrates the story.

The Swimming Pool in Sunset Blvd

William Holden narrates while dead

The dead guy  narration was daring for it’s time. This  narration conceit was used years later in the oscar-winning,  American Beauty.

While I didn’t know how it could all work, I was excited that such a towering talent like Andrew Lloyd Weber, of Phantom of The Opera and Evita fame,  wanted to tackle Paramount’s gothic tale.

I actually ran down the stairs to tell our head of Business Affairs, Richard Fowkes, the intriguing news.

Richard was a brilliant lawyer with a kind demeanor – a unique mix in Hollywood.  And Richard was a musical aficionado – he knew the difference between Rodgers and Hammerstein and Lerner and Lowe – and everything in between. He had a vast knowledge of theatre and  loved it. He and his wife, Flo, and their kids Sloan and Jillian always seemed to be  flying back and forth to New York to get Richard’s dose of musical theatre.

Richard sat back in his chair and thought for a while. “Yes. I think that could work.”

“Could you personally see this through and keep Frank (Frank Mancuso) informed corporately.”

“Sure, of course.”

For several months, Richard worked tirelessly on the deal. Through his kind, shrewd and strong manner, he structured the deal not as a simple licensing arrangement, but as a partnership between Paramount and Andrew’s Really Useful Company.

When we closed the deal,  Andrew flew to LA.

We found a piano on the studio lot, and in an empty rehearsal hall, Andrew played the songs he had written to a handful of executives, including Richard.

We loved what we heard. Andrew was a true  artist and brought you into his creative thought process.  As I remember, he had wanted Ann Margaret as his muse for this but Glenn Close ended up opening the show on Broadway.

Richard Fowkes

The ever-courteous Richard Fowkes

Richard’s Innate sense of courtesy

When we got back to Richard’s office after the recital, Richard said, “Do you have a number for Billy Wilder?”

I actually did. Billy had worked as a consultant at Weintraub Entertainment where I had worked a few years ago.

“Why?”

“We should call him before the press release goes out.”

“Oh” I said, red-faced.

“Yes, as a courtesy,” Richard said. “Don’t you think it would be the right thing to do?”

“Of course.”

That was Richard Fowkes . He was the most courteous, thoughtful man in a tough deal making business. Richard had a great sense for  the careful and protective treatment of artists.

Richard and I got Billy on the phone.

Suddenly, we were both nervous.  It was the great Billy Wilder, the director of not only Sunset Blvd, but The Apartment and Some Like It Hot.

While Billy  was instrumental in the production of the movie, Sunset Blvd, he did not have approval rights on other productions. Nevertheless, we were anxious as to his reaction.

billy_wilder

The legendary Billy Wilder

The Call To Billy Wilder

“This is such exciting news Billy,” I said, badly selling it.  “Andrew Lloyd Weber is going to adapt your movie into a stage show.”

“A show on stage?” he asked quietly.

“Yes….it’s going to become an American musical.

“You mean with flats and light and  floor boards?”

“Yes, yes.”

“Hmmm.” He responded.

Then nothing from Billy. We waited. Richard knew that an artist needed to process.

Then finally, “Vat about the swimming pool?”

“What do you mean?”

“With the flats and floorboards, is he going to build a swimming pool on stage?”

We said we didn’t know and that we thought it best, if he was open to it, for Andrew and he to speak artist to artist. Billy was agreeable to that.

In fact, Billy and Andrew became friends and Billy quite enjoyed the musical.

But for Richard and I, “Vat about the swimming pool?” became a coda. It was such a great artistic and practical line.

We often used it to one another to make sure we hadn’t  missed anything on deal terms

“Vat about the swimming pool” Richard would say and we would just laugh.

I have never met anyone so kind and courteous in the  field  of business affairs other than Steve Bersch, who for several years trained under him.

A few days ago, Richard Fowkes passed away from a tumor in the brain.  He will be sorely missed by so many who had the privilege of knowing him and working with him.

He was a true prince, above we sometimes dog-like creatures.

But for Flo ,Sloane and Killian, there is some solace. Richard is surely in the place where he no longer has to worry about swimming pools…

__________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Memorial Service for Richard

A memorial service will be held on Tuesday, August 28th at Paramount Pictures (5555 Melrose Avenue, enter at the Main Gate-off Windsor).  Please remember to bring photo ID for security check-in. 
 
Arrivals will start at 6:30PM with the Memorial starting promptly at 7:00PM.  This should run approximately 1 hour.  Allow time for check-in and security. If you are intrested in attending, please contact Richard’s daughter Jillian here  so that she can add you to the guest list.

Thank you!

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4 responses to Richard Fowkes, Billy Wilder and Sunset Blvd, The Musical

  1. I was sitting with Billy in his Beverly Hills office when a call came in from Andrew Lloyd-Webber, needing help on a certain story point. Billy asked me to help him fix the problem. After 20 minutes, when we’d gotten nowhere, Billy looked at me and said, “Fuck it, let’s go to Johnny Rockets.”

  2. Thanks for sharing this warm and touching remebrance of Richard. Many of us at Paramount during his tenure benefited from his smarts, but also from his innate kindness. I am going to miss him a lot.

    • Thanks, Dirk. Richard spoke of you fondly. I am going to try and get out for the Memorial on August 28th; perhaps we will get the chance to meet in person.

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