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Alex Rocco: Not a William Friedkin Fan
If you’ve been a regular reader of this newsletter or even if you’ve just followed my career on the A.V. Club, then you know that one of the greatest regrets of my career is that Alex Rocco decided that he didn’t want to collaborate on his memoir with me. In the end, I don’t believe he collaborated with anyone else, either, but that’s not exactly a consolation, because the truth of the matter is that I wanted to read his stories at least as much as I wanted to be the one to help him record those stories, and if someone else had gotten the gig, well, at least I still would’ve been able to read them! But as I’ve said before and I’ll say forever, I really think the reason he opted out of our collaboration was that he had no idea how some of his stories would play once they were in print, and once he saw them, I believe he began to second-guess his decision to tell some of the stories that he’d believed would’ve helped him sell the book to a publisher.
Why? Because I don’t think he wanted to hurt anyone’s feelings.
With that having been said, however, this story is one that revolves around two people whose feelings he wouldn’t have given a shit about hurting, because they fucked him over…and trust me, even though I saw the best possible side of Alex Rocco throughout our conversations, I would never, ever have wanted to be on that man’s bad side.
I also wouldn’t have wanted to be on William Friedkin’s bad side, which is why I always said I’d wait to run this story until I could get on the phone with Friedkin to confirm its veracity or until after he was dead. And I did try to get him on the phone. I tried a couple of times. I never even got the courtesy of a reply. Maybe my requests never got past his publicist / manager / agent, or maybe they made their way to him and he dismissed them. Either way, I tried…and now I can’t try anymore, so it’s time the tale was told.
Take it away, Rocco…
Jobs I Lost and Jobs I Never Had to Begin With
If you know anything at all about Hollywood, then you probably know that the life of an actor is one that’s necessarily filled with disappointment. There are just too many damned people who want to make a living in this town and not nearly enough parts to go around, so unless you want to walk around like a sad sack 24/7, you need to learn to deal with rejection real quick. But that’s not to say that you don’t sometimes walk away from a project harboring a little bit of lingering resentment about not getting a part that you know you would’ve been perfect for.
It’s happened to me plenty of times in my career, just like it’s happened to everyone in this business. Most recently, I was up for the part of Dragna in Gangster Squad, but Jon Polito ended up getting it, which was a real disappointment. Still, it’s not like I’d signed on the dotted line, only to have them pull the contract away from me and say, “Whoops, sorry, change of plans!”
That has, however, happened to me before. And I’m still pissed off about it.
The Brink’s Job was a 1978 film starring Peter Falk, Peter Boyle, Allen Garfield, Warren Oates, and Gena Rowlands, based on an infamous bank robbery that took place in Boston in 1950. Given my checkered past, it might not surprise you to learn that I had somewhat of a connection to this particular crime, although not a direct one. Howie Winters was one of the bosses of the Winter Hill Gang up in Somerville, Massachusetts, and when Bob Mitchum and I were making The Friends of Eddie Coyle and he wanted to meet all of the local gangsters, we went for drinks with Howie and some other guys. Those guys, as it turned out, knew the actual robbers behind the Brink’s job, including a fella named Jazz Maffie, who I looked a little bit like.
When the movie came up with Dino DeLaurentiis producing, I had a meeting with John Frankenheimer, who was set to direct, and the guy fell in love with me right away. He agreed with me that I was right for the part of Jazz Maffie and hired me, and when I told him that my people back home knew Jazz Maffie personally, he said, “Even better! Have ‘em come to the set!”
Getting a role in a movie about the Brink’s job, one that was actually being filmed in my old stomping grounds? As you can imagine, I was beside myself. Unfortunately, Frankenheimer had a falling-out with DeLaurentiis and left the picture, with Dino handing him a check for a million bucks or something and said, “See you later!” Onboard came William Friedkin to take his place, and I remember thinking, “Ah, shit, I’ve probably lost my place in line now.”
I had a meeting with Friedkin at his apartment in New York. The elevator man said, “Oh, you must be here to meet with Billy the Kid,” and after he let me off on their floor, I remember being surprised when Jeanne Moreau answered the door. It’s not like it should’ve been a shock—they were married at the time, after all—but I’d seen her in so many movies that when I saw her standing in front of me, I think I actually said, “Hey, I know you!”
Amazingly, she still let me in, and Billy and I had our meeting, which went swimmingly well as far as I could tell, although he scared me at first when he said, “I’m not using any of Frankenheimer’s choices.” Thankfully, he added, “But you’re good,” which in turn made me start feeling pretty good.
Only one problem: by that time, I’d already signed on as a regular for a new sitcom for 20th Century Fox called Husbands, Wives & Lovers, produced by Joan Rivers’ husband, Edgar Rosenberg. I told Billy that I was already signed to the series and didn’t know how to handle the situation. He said, “Look, fuck that shit. Just come with me to Boston. Fuck ‘em.” I didn’t know much in those in those days, so that’s what I did: I left the series and went to Boston.
Not the greatest fucking decision, as it turned out: when I arrived in Boston, having abandoned the TV series, I found out that Friedkin had hired Paul Sorvino for the part instead!
I freaked out. When he walked out of the Ritz in Boston with his entourage, I was there waiting for him, and…I don’t remember exactly what I screamed at him, but it was definitely something to do with worms eating his mother’s #$@!%. I’d never been so double-fucked in my life.
“Oh, Alex, let me explain,” he started to say.
I cut him off. “You can’t explain shit, you shitbag motherfucker! Nothing you can say would explain this!”
It wasn’t like there was anything I could do about it right then, so he left, hopefully at least a little more shook up than he’d been before our encounter. Me, I went and threw up. That’s how upset and angry I was about the situation.
I left Boston and went back to Los Angeles, where I found myself on the receiving end of a lawsuit from 20th Century Fox Television. Since Husbands, Wives & Lovers was about four couples, I didn’t figure my part was really all that integral, but apparently they thought otherwise. By the time the case reached court, I was working on The Stunt Man for Richard Rush, and he was kind enough to provide me with a couple of lawyers, but when Fox arrived in court, their team was—appropriately enough—like something out of a TV show. They must’ve had seven guys on their side!
What happened next is kind of complicated, but the long and the short of it is that, although we effectively won the case, thanks to Richard Rush’s attorney finding a loophole connected to the series being affiliated with AFTRA (the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists), the judge still made me pay Fox a dollar. It was a token gesture, basically: the amount of my payment to Fox would be kept confidential, and they hoped that the fact that I had to pay them anything at all would be enough to keep other actors from thinking that they could walk all over Fox. All things being equal, it could’ve gone a hell of a lot worse.
But that was only the Fox deal taken care of. I was still pissed off about the way things had gone down on The Brink’s Job. I’d gotten the go-ahead for that part, I quit a full-time TV gig to get it…I wanted my fucking money! Well, just after leaving my agent’s office, where I’d just given him an earful about the situation, I was driving along and happened to spot the office for DeLaurentiis Productions.
Now, I don’t know if you’ve figured this out about me yet, but I’m kind of impulsive, which is why I whipped the Caddy into a parking space, burst through the doors of this big office, and say, “Hi! Is Dino in for Alex Rocco?” Of course, they told me he was busy—in fairness, he did turn out to be on the phone—but that didn’t stop me from blowing into his office anyway.
Dino was a very smart guy, though. You know how directors are always making a box with their fingers, like they’re picturing how a shot’s gonna go down? That’s what Dino did as soon as he hung up the phone. I didn’t know what he was doing at first, because I was there for one reason and one reason only, and I’d launched into my spiel about The Brink’s Job and how much I was owed. But in broken English, he said, “Oh, my God, you would be perfect for King of the Gypsies!”
Remember how I told you earlier about how naïve I am? Well, here’s another example of it, because I fell for Dino’s bullshit. He really had me going, telling me about the part he sees me playing in the film and how the character’s going to be a real challenge, because I’ll playing him from ages 38 to 80 during the course of the film. He even put me on a redeye flight to the set of the film! When I got there and went into the makeup trailer, though, the guy said, “What are you doing here?” I told him the role I was going to be playing. He said, “What are you talking about? Sterling Hayden’s playing that role!”
Fucking Dino De Laurentiis. I don’t know why he felt like he had to do all that shit, but I have to give him credit: he was a genius manipulator. I finally gave up trying to get my money back—I’d spent too much time and money chasing Friedkin and Dino by that point—but like I said, I’m still pissed off about coming up with a goose egg after all that.
I did cross paths with Friedkin again, though. He was doing some movie of the week for TV, and I told my agent to mention my name for one of the parts, just to fuck with him. He told my agent, “You know what? I love his work, but I just don’t see Alex doing a southern accent.”
There’s one more post-script to the story, too. You’ve probably already gotten the idea that Friedkin’s a real asshole, but when he was working in Boston, the union guys he was working with were with Local 25, where I knew all the wise guys and where I used to be a teamster. (Hell, I’ve still got my withdrawal card in my wallet, which I took when I left town just in case I didn’t make it in Hollywood.) At one point during production, Friedkin had all these trucks lined up in the north end of town, and he stood in the middle of the road screamed, “I told you fucking asses I wanted the trucks parked the other way!” At that moment, seven keys came out of the ignition and were thrown on the road. You don’t fuck with the Boston mob.
Oh, by the way, at one point during production of The Brink’s Job, it seems to me I heard that somebody stole a print of the film and held it for ransom. But hearing about it is about all I’m willing to admit to knowing about it.