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Producer Joel Freeman

I spoke by phone October 17 to Hollywood producer Joel Freeman, who's in his sixth decade in the entertainment industry.

With over 100 credits in major productions, Freeman produced such films as Shaft, Love at First Bite, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, The Octagon with Chuck Norris, and Soapdish.

Joel's been married for 33 years to actress Betty Freeman. Joel has two sons (Josh, a graphics designer and Jeff, film editor) from a previous marriage and Betty has a son (a Teamster) and a daughter.

"I started in 1941 at MGM as a messenger," says Joel. "Then I became a script supervisor on a multitude of shorts subjects and worked in the production planning office.

"I was drafted into the Air Force in November 1942 and made training films for two years of the three years. I was in limited service because of my vision. I was discharged in January of 1946."

Luke: "Do you remember any of the training films you made in the Air Force?"

Joel: "We made a whole series of Land and Live... Land and Live in the Desert, in the Jungle, whatever... There was a miniature of Tokyo and surrounding areas that was photographed by our special effects department from the top of the stage, as though it were the viewpoint of the bombardier. We went back to Grand Island, Nebrasks, where we followed the formation of a B29 group which we followed to the West Coast, then the overseas unit took over. That was the [B29] group that eventually dropped the atomic bomb. We made films on the various types of airplanes such as the P38. We made films about physical health and interrogations. And all of us did everything. I worked as a grip, an electrician, a script supervisor, an actor."

Luke: "Did you know Ronald Reagan?"

Joel: "I worked with Ronald Reagan. He was the adjutant at the First Motion Picture unit of the Army - Air Force. In the early '50s, we worked on a film together at MGM called P.O.W.. I also worked with Nancy on [1950's] The Next Voice You Hear. So when there was a reunion of the Army - Air Force unit, we were all there together."

Luke: "Did you have any other relationship with Reagan?"

"In 1990, I started the Producer's Guild's Golden Laurel Awards. And the first person I got to host was Ronald Reagan."

Luke: "What was your impression of Ronald Reagen?"

Joel: "Just a good guy. Bright, funny and pleasant."

Luke: "Have you only worked in feature films?"

Joel: "Most of my work over the years has been in feature films but I also did some movies for TV and some TV series."

Luke: "How's Shaft director Gordon Parks?"

"Gordon doesn't stop. He's a poet, composer, photographer, director, writer. I just got off the phone with Gordon. Someone else is doing another documentary on Gordon Parks and they want to interview me on camera for it.

"Gordon Parks and I met in the 1950s when he was still a Life [magazine] photographer. It was a brief meeting but a pleasant one. In 1967, Gordon was brought to Warner Brothers by Ken Hyman who was then running the studio. And Gordon became the first black director of a studio movie. He wrote, directed and composed the music for 1969's The Learning Tree.

"I was on the lot under contract [as a Warner Brothers producer]. I ran into Gordon walking along the street. I said, 'Gordon, I hear you're on the lot to do a feature film. If there's any way I can help, please don't hesitate to call.' Because I knew the lot and everybody on the lot and I knew where to go to get the answers and get things done.

"He never forgot that. In 1970, I got a phone call from Gordon. 'Would you be interested in producing a film called Shaft which I am going to direct?' I was getting ready to do a picture called Dirty Harry which was about to be postponed and reconceived. So I said yes to Gordon.

"Parks and I began shooting Shaft the day after New Years [1971] in New York City. We were in the theaters June 16th. To get a picture out of post-production that early was unheard of. The director's cut was our cut. We worked together. As opposed to the auteur having final cut. My philosophy is that no one man can do it alone. Motion picture making is a collaborative effort.

"Shaft was a marvelous experience. The picture only cost $1.24 million and it was an all-union shoot in New York City. It's totally different from the interpretation of the new Shaft [released last year starring Samuel Jackson]. The word 'cool' covered Richard Roundtree [star of the original Shaft] in attitude. In the new Shaft, Jackson is a mean sonofabitch. They spent $40 million in the new film. I didn't like it. It deviated too drastically from the original cool Shaft."

Luke: "What made the 1971 Shaft so successful?"

Joel: "The experience that Gordon Parks had when he was a Life photographer with the kind of characters that were interpreted in the film. We shot it in the city and the interiors were done in an abandoned hospital on Roosevelt Island. We captured the grit of the street. It was the first black hero image. And with the music and the theme, it became a winner. One theater in Chicago took in a million dollars at the box office."

Luke: "Did you feel any tension being a white guy in a black movie?"

Joel: "None whatsoever. Let me tell you a funny story about Gordon and me. Our office was on the East Side. We needed to catch a taxi to go to a publicity meeting at Sardi's on the West Side. Gordon said he would take care of getting a cab. He stepped into the street and tried hailing three empty cabs going north and none of them would stop, thinking he wanted to go to Harlem. I said, 'Gordon, I'll take care of this.' And three empty cabs went by me and I called out, 'You anti-Semitic sons of bitches.' The cashier at the MGM commissary saw us together so often that she said, 'Are you two brothers?'"

Luke: "How did you get brought on to the [1979 film] Love At First Bite?"

Joel: "I got calls from Bob Relyea who headed physical production at Melvin Simon's company and from Bob Kaufman the writer and from the actor George Hamilton. Relyea said that the Simon company was having trouble making a deal withKaufman and Hamilton and if I came on to produce the picture, perhaps we'd be able to close the deal.

"I came on and the first thing I suggested was that all four of us have lunch together. And by the time the lunch was over, the deal was done.

"The picture was initially called Dracula Sucks Again. I said that was a terrible title. And I came up with Love At First Bite.

"We made the picture for $3.3 million and it did $75 million worldwide at the box office. George Hamilton and I tried to get Love At Second Bite off the ground in the early '90s but it didn't happen."

Luke: "What genre do you prefer to work in?"

Joel: "I prefer to work in any genre that will make a good commercial acceptable movie and I don't mean X-rated films. A film with substance. It's a matter of what will sell and what will get financed. I've only made one film in the horror genre (The Kindred). It's not my niche."

Luke: "Why did you shoot 'The New Adventures of Robin Hood' in Lithuania?"

Joel: "Fred Weintraub's company selected it. They had an entire setup in Vilnias, Lithuania and they made the episodes for little money. The country just got its freedom in 1991, and this was 1997. So changes in the Lithuanians attitudes and demeanor were wonderful to observe. We (Joel with actress-wife Betty Freeman) were there for five-and-a-half months. We took a week afterwards to visit with Ken Hyman and his wife outside of London before leaving for home."

Luke: "Producer can be such a nebulous term."

Joel: "I'm going to straighten you out. Among other things, I'm an officer with the Producers Guild of America. And one of the things we're forging ahead with is [prevention of] proliferation of credits. Unless someone deserves the credit, he's not going to get it. There are all kinds of requirements and stipulations before allowing someone to take the credit of producer. We already have an arbitration board for our own awards and so does the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Everybody seems to want a producer credit but eventually they are not going to get it unless they have performed the functions.

"A 'true producer,' which thank goodness I think am, crosses over between the creative and the economic. You are involved in a project from its inception to its completion to its distribution. Everyone works under the producer's aegis. When it's working right, the producer and the director are on the same wavelength of the overall conception. It's up to the director to then interpret the screenplay to film guided by that conception.

Luke: "How do you know a film's commercial?"

Joel: "That's a most difficult question to answer. Given any week of any year, what works in that given week? I don't know. Sometimes you make a picture 18-months before it's released. I try to make something with ingredients that will be accepted by the entire family covering the broad spectrum of the audience's age groups.

"Did anybody know that Titanic was going to burst through the ceiling like it did? I don't think so. A lot of pictures that you think are good just don't do well at the box office. If a studio releases 50 pictures a year, do you think every one is successful? No. But if you had one out of eight that was hugely successful, you have covered your butt in most instances.

"Take [1967's] Camelot for example. It was initially released as a hard-ticket movie (reserved seats). The picture ran over three hours. I told Jack Warner that was a terrible mistake. You should pare it down to two hours and release it normally. Eventually, that's exactly what happened.

"I don't think a movie should be longer than an hour and forty five minutes, though there are always exceptions like Schindler's List."

Luke: "Tell me about 1991's Soapdish."

"I worked as co-producer and production manager on Soapdish. I did something on that picture which had not been done at a major studio in a long time. I had the company work French Hours, ten hour days. No break for lunch. Meals were served all day long. It worked magnificently. I had a 51% approval vote from SAG (Screen Actors Guild) and other unions."

Luke: "Why French Hours?"

Joel: "There were so many women in the film that I knew that if we broke for lunch, it would take so much time to freshen their makeup and hair. So I thought, let's just go all day long, and people can go home at night and be with their families and have a decent meal and get some rest. I do not believe in working the long hours as they do on so many television shows where they work 14 plus hours a day.

Luke: "How come you're still going in your sixth decade while so many people burn out?"

Joel: "I attribute a lot of it to genes. I thank God for good health. I haven't used white sugar is 30 years. And I love what I do.

"I can't tell you how much I enjoy what I do as a producer. I find it difficult to find words to explain my feelings. It's fascinating, rewarding, creative. It's all the good things. You find yourself as a producer, being an uncle, a father, a mother, a psychologist. I don't produce from an office. I am on the set every single minute because that's where the problems arise and need solutions."

Luke: "Where did you grow up?"

Joel: "I was born in Newark, New Jersey and lived in Irvington, New Jersey. My mother died when I was four years old. The Freeman side of the family took me in when I was five years old and I lived with my grandparents until I went to college (Upsala) at age 17. I was a confused fellow. I majored in Economics and minored in Biology because I didn't know what I wanted to do.

"I came into this business because I had an uncle (Dore Schary who ran RKO, MGM), my mother's brother, who was a very important fellow in the business and I admired him. I left college after two years because I felt I wasn't going in any specific direction. And I was enthralled with the motion picture industry.

"Dore was like my second father. He was always conscious of nepotism. And in turn I would never allow anybody to point a finger at me and say I was there because I was Dore's nephew. I was there because I worked my ass off. And I was good at what I did. At one point in the late 1940s, I was one of the two youngest assistant directors in the business."

Luke: "You seem to genuinely like people?"

Joel: "I do, I really do. And I hope they like me too."