It was the Summer of 1964. Or maybe it was 1963? I don't remember exactly. (After 40 years there should be a statute of limitations on requiring the specific remembering of dates.)
We...the cast of characters to follow...were in City of 29 Palms, in the high desert area of California, a medium-long driving distance from Los Angeles. We were staying at a motel. And I think the motel also had a restaurant; although the dinner event may have happened at an adjacent nearby outdoor restaurant. I remember...we ate outside; I do remember that. The air was balmy cool; beautiful outdoor high desert cool. It was the night before we were going to start two days of location shooting on a film.
I remember (as I have throughout my life) Billy Wilder, the host of dinner, who wrote and directed the movie we were shooting. It was called "Kiss Me, Stupid". He had ordered Chasen's Chili from the famous Chasen's restaurant in Los Angeles. He had had it flown to the local airport, and driven from there to the restaurant where we were eating. Obviously Billy liked Chasen's Chili; and obviously he liked entertaining. The dinner was going to be charged to the production company I assumed...no...probably not; Billy had too much class for that...although he did have a percentage of the production. Billy had quite a bit of his own money, didn't need to 'cheat' on the expense account...Billy already had four or five or more Academy Awards by then; money flows to these honors.
We had already eaten; we were all sitting together, perhaps at the same table. Perhaps we were having drinks after dinner. Maybe dinner was over. (I don't know...once again I invoke the over-forty-years-ago amnesty on all such specifics.) Billy was there, Dean Martin, Kim Novak (although she may have left by then. Kim was a very private person), Ray Walston, Felicia Farr (I don't think her husband, Jack Lemmon, was there, although he, too, might have been), and IAL Diamond, Billy's writing collaborator, and co-producing partner, ubiquitous as always, removed...watching...commenting silently, occasionally with a single line of penetrating wit. Izzy (IAL) was Ivy League owl smart, sardonic, peering through glasses at the follies of the world; and himself. He always wore white socks and loafers...and a tweed jacket and open collar shirt; buttoned-downed, as was his personality. Billy once joked that Izzy was going to become a Black Muslim; to be known as IALX.
As brilliantly funny as Billy Wilder was, Dean Martin was funnier. Not Jerry Lewis funny, wild, crazy, antic funny (Dean and Jerry had dissolved their partnership by the time of the dinner in question), but original, inventive and sure-fire, witty funny; the quickest mind I had ever met. He was a laid-back humor/punch-line shark. If he had been a baseball player, he would have had a .896 batting average. He could hit any verbal curve or a set-up fast ball...whatever his conversation partner threw at him. Everyone...Billy included...acknowledged his mastery in the way other artists do: just sit back and let the man-on-the-roll hold court.
That night Dean was harpooning his Business Manager and general 'entourager' (lapse of memory again: was it Greg? Or was it Garrison? Out of New York originally, I think...but spiritually out of Vegas). Greg (we'll assume that was his name) was recounting episodes from his and Dean's life together on the road...hotel by hotel, motel by motel, drink by drink, girl by girl. Greg thought he was as good a ladies man as Dean...so, like any good unknowing, unconscious straight man, Greg was setting himself up, asking to be skewered...and Dean was obliging. Laughter flowed from Greg's straight-man bragging, like blood spilling from a soon-to-be-dead-but-still-sputtering-bull-in-decline).
The conversation got interrupted by some tourists, maybe a dozen, all overweight, polyestered, loud and fawning... who bypassed (if they even recognized) Dean, bypassed Billy, bypassed Kim and Felicia (and Jack, if he was there) and honed in on Ray Walston. Ray had recently completed starring in the series "My Favorite Martian". It had been a very popular show. It was one of the reasons Billy had cast him to replace Peter Sellers, who had had a heart attack, a month into the initial shooting of the film. (Somewhere in some one's archives are a month of shooting Peter and I did playing a wannabe songwriting team living in Climax, Nevada. I want the footage.) The heat attack had happened at home, in the bedroom, and, allegedly--and probably--while he was having energetic sex with his new wife, Britt Eklund, a beutiful blonde he had recently married at the suggestion of his astrologist. The astrologist had told him he would marry the next blond he would meet. Peter bumped into Britt in hotel lobby...and the rest is their history.)
From the hospital after the heart attack, Peter had asked Billy to wait, to delay our filming until after he recuperated, but the insurance company wanted Billy to start over all over again with someone else, quickly. The doctor's said Peter's recuperation would take six months and the insurance company was paying salaries during the suspension of filming. (I personally bought a house with the money I had already made during the suspension.) Billy recast with Ray (a tragic creative mistake as it turned out...Billy had first tried Jack Lemmon, Danny Kaye and Dick Van Dyke, but they were all tied up...he had used Ray once before in "The Apartment", and so...) and started filming, causing, by the way, a permanent disruption between Billy and Peter. They had planned to do "Sherlock Holmes" wit Peter O'Toole right after this film. That film happened, but not with these two stars. Another tragic happening.)
The tourists giggled and fawned and asked for Ray's autograph. Dean, Billy, Jack, Kim and Felicia remained silent, respectful of Ray's moment in the sun. Their eyes twinkled however, with unspoken comment. The tourists left. Ray over-modestly pooh-poohed the tourist signings (this writer's admission: I never particularly liked Ray. Several years later we had an argument in Park City that was a hilarious session of mutual blood-letting. He hated Billy; I always admired and defended Billy. Not that Billy needed support. The vitriol of the evening had spread from there).
The general conversation in the desert went on. Within a minute or so Ray (for what reason I don't remember) left the group; but as soon as he was gone, a stunned silence ensued. The pause lingered and lingered. Everyone was waiting for the quip by Dean. But Dean only generously said: "Well, you gotta admit. Ray has a tremendous following." Another pause. "Yes," Billy finally said. "A tremendous following of dreary people." Dean literally fell out of his chair and onto the floor. Dean 62; Billy 1.
The evening continued. We...(what do I mean, 'we'...I don't think I said two words all night. I was a young kid of twenty-six who had caught Billy's eye in a small part in "Irma La Douce" and he subsequently wrote the co-starring part for me in this next film, "Kiss Me, Stupid", alongside Peter and Dean. Felicia and Kim were cast after us. I still have the initial script, with my name, with Peter's and Dean's name, typed onto the initial cover page. Touch it and you're dead.)
I maintained a dutiful silence that night...at least I think I did. I'm sure if I had said anything I would remember it...because anything I said would have been stupid; and I would certainly would remember the embarrassment!) The chili was great; the idea of flying it into the desert was surreal (especially for me, this kid newly exiled from New Jersey inner city); Billy was generous and brilliant as usual; Izzy was his usual enigma; Dean was the funniest man I have ever met; Kim was beautiful with her milk-skin softness and dazzling eyes; Felicia was sweet, bubbly and kind; Jack (if he was there...even if he wasn't there, I knew his personality; we had worked together before and would again...he would have been, that night,invariably charming, bright, fun, ad professional; and Ray...well...like I said, I never liked Ray. Me? That evening, with the all-embracing desert, sunset, margaritas, chilli and people... was the closest I have ever come to royalty.