Roger Gimbel (yes, of that Gimbel family that owns Gimbels department store chain) has produced at least 50 TV movies. I sat down with him at his Brentwood office November 9, 2001.
Roger: "I had no relationship to film as a teenager. We went to pictures rarely. There was no television. I didn't know what a film buff was. I joined the Air Force at age 17, in 1942. My father was already over in England in the Air Force. Everybody was trying to get in at that time. My mother said, 'Get your ass in gear. Your father's over there. Get going.'"
Luke: "How would you compare the atmosphere of the country during World War II to today?"
Roger: "It's nowhere near as intense today. WWII was considered a glorious cause and we couldn't wait to get in. If you were able bodied and you didn't go in, you were looked down on. If you were a soldier, you pulled out your draft card. That's not the case now. The military is all volunteer.
"I got married (Teddy) when I was 19. My father disowned me because I ran away and got married to a showgirl. I didn't tell anybody. I just did it. I'm the oldest of seven children. I came back from the war to a wife I hardly knew. I had to take her to Yale where I studied Economics. I thought that would enable me to have a business career. I was married four years. For most of that time, I was overseas.
"I've always been in the communications business. I was in radio in college and wrote my thesis in advertising. After college, I was a reporter in Dayton, Ohio, and then worked in advertising. That was a good move. I learned from advertising what people want."
Gimbel married for a second time (to Nancy) in 1956. The marriage lasted 16 years before his wife died. Since 1976, he's been married to actress-director Jennifer Warren, born 8/12/41.
"I had six children, two died. And I brought up one of my wife's children. So I've looked after seven. My eldest child is 40. They're all artists working around the entertainment industry."
Luke: "How did your parents feel about you devoting yourself to entertainment?"
Roger: "They were delighted that I was working. I was at a much higher level in advertising. I was the advertising manager at RCA Victor. I had a whole agency of people, writers and artists, working for me. Then I moved to NBC (in the late 1950s) and I had to start all over again. Nobody knew anything about television then.
"I made my first movie in 1970 - The Glass House, based on Truman Capote's story.
"General Electric had commissioned this man Tom Moore to come out to California and do big screen concerts. They had tremendous success with these big projection ten by twelve feet screens and they wanted to put them all around the country. I went to work for Tom Moore. I came out to try to get the Rolling Stones to do a concert but it was stopped instantly when all the music managers decided they wouldn't cooperate. 'We want better sound, we want better picture. Live concerts are the way to go.'
"Suddenly, we had all this money and the project was dead. So we decided to make movies for television. I met Truman Capote and took him in to see the head of CBS.
"I grew up in a time when you fought like hell to get a producer credit. In television, it wasn't given easily. You had to become an associate producer and you had to give a good reason why you deserved the credit. It was hard to become a producer in those days because you couldn't get the job without certain qualifications.
Roger Gimbel gives me a booklet entitled "Rules for Producer Credits in Television." I assume it comes from the Producer's Guild. It reads:
An Executive Producer supervises, either on his own authority (entrepreneur executive producer) or subject to the authority of an employer (employee executive producer) one or more producers in the performance of all of his/her/their producer functions on single or multiple productions.
A Producer initiates, co-ordinates, supervises and controls, either on his own authority (entrepreneur producer) or subject to the authority of an employer (employee producer) all aspects of the motion-picture and/or television production process, creative, financial, technological and administrative, throughout all phases from inception to completion, including co-ordination, supervision and control of all other talents and crafts, subject to the provisions of their collective bargaining agreements and personal service contracts.
An Associate Producer performs one or more producer functions delegated to him/her by a producer, under the supervision of such producer.
Rules For Producer Credits In Television
1) Producer credits in television shall be restricted to those who, in fact, perform producer functions, either as an individual, or as an established or contractual team.
2) The performance of producer functions shall be defined as active involvement in:
A. The determination of final shooting script.
3. Producer credits in Long Form, Mini-Series and Episodic Television shall be restricted to the title's "Produced By", "Executive Producer", "Producer", and "Associate Producer". No other producer titles shall be granted.
4. The credit "Produced By" shall be granted only to an individual who, in fact, actively supervises and coordinatesall aspects of the television production process throughout all phases, from inception to completion, including direct active involvement in all producer functions.
5. The credit "Producer" shall be granted only to an individual who, in fact, actively performs a substantial number of producer functions.
6. The credit "Executive Producer" shall be granted only to an individual who, in fact, actively supervises the performance of multiple producer functions by another producer or producers acting under his/her supervision.
7. The credit "Associate Producer" shall be granted only to such individual, if any, who actually performs one or more producer functions delegated to such individual and performed under the supervision of a producer.
8. Performers, writers, directors, agents, managers, attorneys, financiers, production company executives, current or prior copyright owners, and any and all others who do not, in fact, actively perform substantial producer functions, shall not be credited as "Executive Producer", "Producer", or "Associate Producer", or with any other title whatsoever, incorporating the word "producer."
9. The title "Supervising Producer" is prohibited. Where an individual, in fact, actively performs multiple supervisory producer functions over other producers, such producer shall be credited as "Executive Producer."
10. The title "Coordinating Producer" is prohibited. An individual who, in fact, actively performs supervisory producer functions in coordinating separately produced elements of a television production into a coordinatedwhole shall be credited as an "Executive Producer". Otherwise, any title granted must not incorporate the word "producer".
11. The title "Segment Producer" is prohibited. A producer of a segment of a segmented television program on which he/she has actively performed producer functions shall be credited as "Producer" of the segment, and not as "Segment Producer".
12. The title "Line Producer" shall be prohibited and any individual credited as "Unit Production Manager" or "Assistant Director" on a television program, shall be ineligible to receive an "Executive Producer", or "Producer" or "Associate Producer" title on the same production, or any other title whatsoever, incorporating the word "producer."
Roger: "You have to be to create the project and know all the parts of it or how else could you supervise it?"
Luke: "When was the credits explosion?"
Roger: "In the early '90s. The Producer's Guild has started making basic requirements. Until deregulation in the 1980s, the networks couldn't produce their own shows. But once the networks could own their own shows and distribute them, then they were in control and the producer became unimportant. They could produce themselves and they liked that.
"The 'Executive Producer' credit in television has always meant something. It means nothing in feature films... But the proliferation of credits is a big big problem for everybody. If you come in here with an idea that I like and you say, 'Look, I'd like a producer credit.' You used to be able to say, 'I'm happy to approve you but the network won't approve you [for that credit].' Now a lot of people become producers while having no background whatsoever."
Luke: "I understand the world of television filmmaking as more staid and disciplined than feature film. Fewer drugs and sex and wild budget overruns."
Roger: "It's not as flamboyant because you couldn't get away with it on television. Don't forget that many of the flamboyant people have big studios behind them. No matter what they did, the studio was going to finish the picture. The television networks were always different. They were younger. They started a different way. Now I see better stuff being done in television than I do in the pictures. I've been looking for pictures to see over the weekend and there's a lot of crappy pictures. And a lot of good television drama."
Luke: "Many writers now prefer to work in television."
Roger: "Yes. This is a new thing."
Luke: "Have drugs been a problem on sets?"
Luke: "With people coming to work high."
Roger: "I guess so. I'm not the best judge of that. I have asthma. I can't use drugs easily. I have a problem with joining in.
"There was a tremendous peak of drug use in the 1970s. I worked with the Smothers Brothers and the Glen Campbell musical series. Those were big shows with a lot of stuff going on. It was a time when everybody wore different clothes. It was a flamboyant era and out of that came a lot of eccentric people and eccentric shows."
Luke: "Would you encounter directors who were coked to the gills?"
Roger: "A director in live television, working in the control room, it's hard to do when high. You've got to be on the ball. You can have a drunken producer.
"TV movies are movies. That's the way they started. They were pictures that could be done for very little. They became the place to be. Everybody wanted to be in a television picture. It was a hot field. Several of the picture I did went on to theatrical distribution (The Glass House, Birds of Prey, S.O.S. Titanic).
"The way we approach it when we started was that we were making a picture. We didn't worry where the commercials were or things like that. We put that in afterwards. Now TV pictures are made in seven acts."
Luke: "When did this seven act formula take over?"
Roger: "The networks gradually assumed control and added more commercials. The first pictures were several minutes longer than now.
"When we started, we felt like we were making movies. We showed them in a theater. We never looked at them on a small screen. We tried to make them as much like any other movie as we could. It was only when the small screen came about and you could have video cassettes to take home with you that things changed. The TV movie has become formulaized. In 1972, I got an Emmy for making A War Of Children in Ireland. Nobody wants to go to Ireland today to make a picture about the Irish civil war.
"Ten years ago I made a picture about the nuclear explosion at Chernobyl. We shot it in Russia. Filming it where it happened made a big difference. The atmosphere would direct you as much as anything else. I got better pictures that way. The networks don't make many TV movies anymore.
"I came in when TV movies were peaking. I learned on the job. And a movie was a movie and everybody treated it as such."
Luke: "Did you still encounter actors who didn't want to work on a movie for television?"
Roger: "Of course. We weren't paying as much. A lot of actors would not do television movies. There's a whole stigma about it. It's snobby. 'Oh, that's a television movie.' The difference is that I was making movies while they were just talking about it. And I'm still making them.
"And the people who I think are good today don't think they're making a television movie. They think they're making a movie. They hope it will get released theatrically.
"The moment the networks got control. Say, they found that the highest rated shows were ones about women in jeopardy. So let's do those. The commercial people will be happy if you give them a little lead into their commercial. That corrupted it.
"The producers did it to themselves. Once they admitted people who were not producer material, then the networks felt they had to step in."
Luke: "You had to arrange financing for your movies?"
Roger: "It depends on whether you own the movie. Sometimes the network will finance the whole movie. Today I am not interested in financing television movies at all. Traditionally we'd use deficit financing and make up the gap through foreign sales. Now when you sell a picture, they take the foreign rights."
Luke: "Which of your projects have had the most meaning for you?"
Roger: "We've got 18 Emmys for the shows we've done so all of those. I'd say particularly The Glass House. And A War of Children. I love Birds of Prey. It was the first helicopter chase picture. One helicopter chased another through the Grand Canyon. Visually it was fabulous. I'd come off a lot of successes. They asked me what I wanted to do next. I had this idea about a guy who robbed a bank and is seen only from above by a television weather guy. I'd watched the prison riots in 1971 where they used helicopters. The picture ended with a dogfight between two helicopters in an airplane hanger.
"I enjoyed the Chernobyl picture which took me to Russia. You had a chance to improvise. I'm a seat of the pants type of person.
"Making a picture from a book is a real luxury. An awful lot of pictures, I've had to come up with the ideas and work with writers to creat a picture.
"The book The Amazing Howard Hughes was written many years before Hughes died. The author Noah Dietrich was extremely helpful. Nobody knew at that time what Howard died from. They didn't know what kind of a person he was. They didn't know if he was crazy and have bottles of urine sitting there or if he was just sullen and staring the wall. He was either nuts or depressed. Thanks to the people I met through the author, from the guards around Hughes, I took the psychological profile to doctors and found out he was a paranoid schizophrenic. Then we knew how to write the movie and how to make the decisions. Nobody else was as sure of that as we were. And it turned out we were right.
"I'm working on a TV movie based on this book about Maria Callas, the opera singer. These subjects fascinate me. You get into them and soon you know everything about that subject there is to know.
"I've signed Glenn Close to play Rachel Carsons, the author of 1963's Silent Spring. The whole idea of somebody who doped it out way ahead of time, what the effect of pesticides and poisons were, and how they spoiled life on this planet, interested me. She felt she had the solution - to not spray DDT. And she changed the world. A few thousand words from Rachel Carson and the world wasn't the same."
Luke: "Is there are a message you want to send?"
Roger: "No, I don't begin with that. I don't believe in messages. I've been accused of that. I start out trying to tell a story. And if at the end of it, it turns out to have something to say, I'm lucky. Usually when you start out making a message picture, the message is clear from the beginning and people get bored. I don't want you to know what the picture is about. If it comes to you after two or three days, that you agree with what's in the picture, that's great.
"I'm not selling Rachel Carson. But how she achieved things in her fight to get that book out, despite the fact she's dying, is a great story.
"I'm also working on the story of Sinnanon - a 1970s drug rehabilitation concept started by a Charles Dieder. He was an alcoholic. He got infuriated when they wouldn't treat dope addicts. So he started a place that took care of them and built an empire that went around the world. It turned into a cult."
Luke: "What's your favorite part of producing?"
Roger: "The thing you like about it is the power. Power is inebriating at times. Going on the set when you know you're in charge and dozens of trucks are lined up is a nice thrill. After that's over, I'd just as soon not be on the set because it is full of intense problems. I like the post-production work because I feel I have the instinct to change a lot of things after they're done. I dislike the drudgery of financing films."
Luke: "What's it like to grow old?"
Roger: "So far it's been great. I know that I'm going to croak before long. I'm having a great time. I sailed a boat around Cape Horn not long ago. I'm starting to feel old."
Luke: "Do you find the synapses firing as fast as ever?"
Roger: "No. That's a problem. That does slow you down. Sometimes I will look at you and forget what I'm saying. It drives you nuts. I was complaining to my wife that I can't walk as fast as I used to. She walks faster than me and it pisses me off. I'm bringing in a guy to teach me to walk faster. My eyes and hearing are going, eventually I won't be able to do any work.
"I still hear from my first wife every once in a while. She sends me pictures of when we were together."
Julia Phillips mentions Roger Gimbel in her 1991 book, You'll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again. "We have a thankless meeting [in 1973 about Taxi Driver] with Roger Gimbel, who thinks he wants to go into movies, but ultimately succeeds where he belongs: television."
Steven Spieldberg owns the 2.8 acres nextdoor to Gimbel and he wants to build a massive horsering for his actress wife Kate Capshaw, something that Gimble and neighboring producer Brian Grazer oppose.
From the Los Angeles Times 1/3/01:
Los Angeles-Director Steven Spielberg, facing a firestorm of publicity and opposition from neighbors, has yanked his zoning application to build a massive indoor horse ring in Brentwood for his wife, actress Kate Capshaw.
Neighbors, including film producer Brian Grazer and TV movie producer Roger Gimbel, have retained veteran land use lawyer John Murdock to fight the proposal. Murdock said Tuesday that he views the retrenchment by Spielberg as a partial victory.
"It's still a special privilege issue," said Gimbel, who lives next door to the Spielberg land. "If I wanted to put an ice skating rink in my backyard, it wouldn't be allowed."
"Even if they reduce the size, it would still be an eyesore," Gimbel said. "I don't want to go out to my driveway and see a five-story building staring down at me."