RUSS MEYER was a dear friend for twenty years.
This interview with Russ was taped n Friday evening, 11-20-1990. This is the last interview he gave before his health started to falter. I’ve posted this raw, unedited footage so people can see the warm, honest artist and man at the top of his game. I have also included the footage I shot in his home, a museum to himself that he built, for the benefit of his friends and fans.
The world knew of him as “The King of the Nudies,” a title he enjoyed all the way to the bank. But he was also a patriotic World War II combat veteran, great photographer, cinematographer and film editor, and a man who cared deeply for his friends.
Following the two attached videos (part one and part two of the interview) I’m also attaching a lengthy memory of Russ that I wrote on a sleepless night in the days after Russ passed away in 2004. I still think of him often. His friendship is always with me.
Memories of Russ Meyer
Russ Meyer passed away on September 18, 2004, at the age of 82. As a friend of Russ, I was honored and privileged to have been among the very few allowed to attend his very private funeral services. It was a great opportunity to meet the many great people who had been a part of his professional film life before I knew him. If you were a friend of Russ’s you were automatically and unconditionally accepted by his other friends.
We all knew the time for Russ was inevitable and would be a blessing. But the relief that his pain was over was no less an emotional experience. There was a tremendous wave of love around Russ. He was the most loyal friend I have ever known. As a tribute to him, that love and loyalty is passed on to the people he knew, several of whom have become some of my dearest friends.
On returning home to Sacramento from that couple of days I found that I could not sleep. So many memories were rushing through my head. So I took my iBook into the living room at one in the morning and for the next two hours sat up writing what follows.
Russ Meyer was a man who’d led a rich life that could have filled up ten or twenty people’s other lives. He was a self-made multi-millionaire, filmmaking genius, notorious “purveyor of prurient interests”, which he described himself as, and an extraordinary caring man who loved animals and could be brought to tears by stories about a boy and his mother.
I sent this out to the new friends I’d made over those few days. To anyone who reads this and knows of the legend of Russ Meyer, I only hope that this will shed a bit of light on Russ’s huge heart.
As a kid I’d always heard of Russ Meyer. It was impossible to live in the 60’s and be aware of cinema and not to have heard of him. Usually salaciously.. But he would have approved of that. There was more money in it.
I first really became aware of “Russ Meyer” with the publicity around Beyond the Valley of the Dolls and then seeing a commercial on TV for Supervixens. Even though I was only fourteen or fifteen at the time, I couldn’t help noticing the color and the editing – seeing men fighting, a close-up of an ax blade going into the hood of a pick-up, and hearing the name “Russ Meyer” repeated over and over in the rapid-fire narration, ending boldly with “Russ Meyer’s Supervixens! Rated X!” Again, I was only a teen-ager, but I was really curious about this movie and wished that I was old enough to see it. I never saw that commercial again, but I never forgot it.
Some years later, I was 23 and visiting a friend in college at Columbia, Missouri, where and a theater had a midnight show of Russ Meyer’s Beneath the Valley of the UltraVixen. I told my friend we had to go see it.
“Why? It’s rated X. Who wants to see that? It’s a dirty movie.”
“I don’t care. But I’ve always heard about Russ Meyer. He his movies all by himself – writing, producing, directing, shooting, editing! I want to see how one guy can pull all that off.”
I dragged my friend to the movie – and paid for his ticket.
I was not prepared for what was projected on the screen. The color and lighting were stunning. The compositions and editing were incredible. And unpredictable. Russ was always several steps ahead of his audience. And there was a hipness to everything. The sound and narration were brilliant and nonsensical.
My friend was disgusted. I was amazed.
A month later I was attending my first film festival – The Telluride Film Festival in Colorado. I’d arrived early in the afternoon and, killing time, had shopped and bought a hat in the style popular in the twenties and thirties that rose up in the back and was flat on the top with the front snapping onto a narrow brim. I wore the cap to the opening night kick-off party honoring the festival’s filmmaker guests, among them Jon Luc Godard, Robert Altman – and Russ Meyer.
I managed to work my way over to Meyer, who was there with friend and actor John Furlong. Russ looked at me and said, “Hey, I like your hat. You look like The Great Gatsby.”
I thanked him and told him how I’d always heard of his name and that I’d just seen my first Russ Meyer film, Beneath the Valley of the UltraVixen, and that I regarded him on the same plain as David Lean. I told him that I wanted to make films the way he did, doing as many of the jobs myself as I could. I assumed that this would be my only ever contact with Russ Meyer.
But throughout the festival I kept bumping into Russ and Furlong – on the sidewalk, in a bar, at the festival picnic where he was on a panel of filmmakers, and at the screening of Mudhoney. He would always make eye contact with me, nod his greetings, and frequently stop, shake my hand with his iron grip and say, “Gatsby, how you doing?” And each time I was amazed that he would remember me.
On the closing day of the festival I ran into Russ and Furlong in a book store where I was buying a festival poster and asked Russ if he would mind signing it for me, which he graciously did. I thanked him and told him how great it was to have met him and if he wouldn’t mind if I could write to him from time to time. Unhesitating, he drew his wallet out of his back pocket, took out a card and gave it to me. I was totally amazed. Russ Meyer gave me his business card!
On my way back home, I stopped off in Columbia and stayed with my friend again and told him that I’d met Russ Meyer and even had his business card! My friend was thoroughly disgusted and could not understand how I, who regarded (even then) Lawrence of Arabia as the greatest ever made, could possibly draw any comparison between that and Beneath the Valley of the UltraVixen. Somehow, that made me elevate Russ to an even higher stature.
A few months later I got up the guts and took out the business card and dialed the number. Like everyone, the first time they called that number, I was totally unprepared that the phone was not picked up by a secretary.
“RM,” came the gravely gusto that made me immediately start to whither.
“Er – Mr. Meyer.”
“Yes. RM here. And who is this?”
“Uh – this is – Mike Carroll. I met you at the Telluride Film Festival.” I was shaking. My stomach was suddenly hollow. I felt like an ant.
“And who the hell is Mike Carroll?”
That confirmed it. I was an ant. Why did I dial this number?
“Uh – I met you at Telluride. You called me Gatsby.”
“Gatsby! I’ve been wondering about you! Are you in town?”
I’ve always cherished knowing Russ. Although I’ve never understood why he liked me. Finally, a few years ago, I got up the guts enough to ask him. And he said, “Well, I could see in you the same passion that I have for films.”
I love Russ’s films. But I think it would be fair to say that nobody loved Russ’s films more than Russ himself. I never saw any other tapes around his house except for his own films. Perhaps because when he watched them he was reliving the moments of making the films with his friends.
I never had the privilege of working on a Russ Meyer film. I was too young. Over the years of our friendship he always talked about bringing me into the fold with his plans for his various films follow-up films – The Jaws of Vixen, Blitzin’, Vixen and Harry, the color re-make of Faster! Pussycat! – which never came to be.
Whenever I’d be talking with people and we’d talk about movies and it would come up that I was friends with Russ Meyer, a man who mad “dirty movies” or “sex films” and all the implications and suggestions that go with that, I would always tell them this story…
In the late 90’s, as my marriage was breaking up, I started making trips down to Los Angeles for different film events. I’d always call Russ ahead of time and, if he was going to be in town as well, he’d always invite me over for dinner. After a time or two, he started inviting me to “bunk in” at his place, which I considered a great honor.
On the first occasion that I stayed with Russ it was on a trip to attend one of the monthly screenwriters parties hosted by Lew Hunter, head of the screenwriting department at UCLA. For the first two days of the trip, I’d go out during the day and then we’d go out for dinner at night. On the afternoon of the last day I mentioned to him that the writers party was that evening and I didn’t know if he’d care to go with me and he quickly responded, “God, I don’t want to have anything to do with any of those people.”
“Well, I really don’t care about going to it anymore either, but I’d love to take you out to dinner if you’d let me.”
“Now that I would I would love to do!”
Russ was a larger-than-life, robust, man’s man. But one thing about him that always impressed me was how tenderly and devotedly he spoke of his mother.
In early summer, 1998, about a month or so after one of these visits with Russ, I got a call from my sister back home in St. Louis with word that our mother, Shirley, had been diagnosed with bone cancer and only had a matter of months left. She was only 63.
A day or two later I was on a plane for home. I brought a legal pad with me and on the flight I wrote a letter to Russ telling him what was happening and that I was thinking about him and his mother and how much she had meant to him and how proud she had to have been to have had him for a son. It was a long letter, six or eight pages, and I told him where I’d be for the next few weeks and slipped the envelope into a mailbox at the airport before I even got to the baggage claim area.
A few days later Russ called to my brother’s house, where we’d moved my mother and where I was staying. He’d been extremely touched by my letter and that I had sent it to him and asked how Shirley was doing. I told him that I was sitting there next to her and he asked if he could talk to her.
“Mom? It’s my friend Russ Meyer. He wants to talk to you.”
My mother was very surprised and took the phone and I left the room for a little while. They talked for about ten minutes and she really seemed warmed by the call. I could hear her talking about me and saying how highly I had spoken to her about Russ and his films. And I could tell that Russ also said some nice things about my father, who had died years earlier, but whom Russ thought well of because my father had volunteered for the Marines at the beginning of World War Two at the age of seventeen, the same as Russ had signed up for the Army, and seen heavy combat in the Pacific.
After about ten minutes she called me back into the room and returned the phone to me and Russ sounded very touched to have talked with her, almost glowing, and expressed his best wishes and said he’d be thinking about me and my mother.
After I hung up the phone, my mother said, “Well, what a very nice man.”
The next day a beautiful bouquet of flowers was delivered to the house with the card, “For Shirley Carroll. Best wishes from Russ Meyer and Janice.”
During the entire time of my mother’s illness, those were the only flowers that were ever sent.
I took a picture of Shirley with the flowers and sent it to Russ so he could see the smile that his thoughtfulness has given her.
Some time later I was down at Russ’s for a visit, just to see him. Almost all of our talk was about our mothers. I was touched by how warmly he spoke to me about his conversation with Shirley. He was grateful to have talked with her. It was something I was able to share with him – to hear the voice of my mother and a bit of their shared experiences from having grown up in the same era.
The next morning I asked to used the phone to call back home to my wife and he said to use the phone at his desk. I went to the phone as was dumbstruck. There, taped up directly next to Russ’s business phone was the snap shot of Shirley and her flowers.
Over the next few years, every few months I’d get home from work to find a message on my answering machine –
“This is Russ Meyer sitting here looking at a picture of Mike Carroll’s mother. That’s all. Bye.”
That’s the story I tell to people who didn’t know Russ. And it always, always leaves them speechless. From that moment on they understand that to know Russ – and be known by him – was a very special thing. It was.
A short follow-up story to this…
Anyone who spent any time with Russ knew his passion for good food. After his health began failing and it became increasingly difficult for him to be out in public, I would occasionally send him little care packages with little gourmet snacks of crackers and olives and sweets that had chocolate in them. (He once told me that ice cream Dove bars were the greatest desert in the world!) I’d also include brief little notes and snapshots of my wife, who had met Russ, and her grandson Sam, who was just three or four. Russ was an obsessive photographer, but he also loved receiving personal family snap shots.
At Russ’s viewing at Forest Lawn, his assistant of many years, Janice Cowart told me that Russ loved the packages – but that he wanted to eat them all at once, so she’d have to hide them and just dole out the goodies in stages.
But she also told me that Russ loved the pictures and for years had the snapshot of three year-old Sam taped up on his bulletin board and that when visitors would ask who the little boy was, Russ would say proudly, “Oh, he’s my boy.”
[Like Russ, my father loved every minute of the war. It had been the high-point of his life. Many times Russ told me that he wished he could have met my father and talked about those times with him. Russ was always pleased that I was interested in his war experiences and felt it was important that I was so proud of my own father’s experiences.
A few years before, Russ had kindly read a screenplay I had written about my father’s experiences in the Pacific and on Iwo Jima and why he had rushed off so young and so quickly to be a part of the war. Russ always told me how much he hated most war movies because they didn’t capture the experience.
“If you were there, you can just never get past what it was really like.”
Only two war movies ever came close, Attack with Jack Palance and Patton.
But I sent him my script and one Sunday morning around 8:30 the phone rang and it was Russ. He’d just gotten back from Seattle and he had read my father’s story on the flight back.
“God, it just brought back all my old buddies and the experience of being out there. Even though my experience was in Europe and your father’s was in the Pacific, it has the core element of seeing the war through the eyes of the squad. And not just being in the war and the combat, but the reason why we went. [Having grown up in] The Depression, and all that. You just captured it all.
“I, of course, fought against the Germans, who were different. They’d fight you with tooth and nail, with everything they’d got. But once they ran out of ammunition, then they’d drop their guns and surrender and that was that.
“But we were terrified of the Japs. We’d read in Star And Stripes about the War in the Pacific and everything your father went through and it scared the shit out of us because those guys didn’t know how to give up!
“And I remember – God, I’ll never forget – at the end of the war and we’d beaten Hitler and we’d all figured, you know, we’d won and that was it. We got orders that we were to go to Marseilles to be packed onto troop ships to be shipped off to the Pacific for the invasion of Japan.” And at this point Russ was getting very emotional, the words almost gasping out as he was reliving the despair of that time. “And we were all just thinking, ‘Jesus, we just went through this whole war to defeat Hitler and his Third Reich just to be washed up on some bloody beach in Japan against a bunch of suicidal fanatics! But then the Bomb dropped and they surrendered and we were just so relieved!’”
At that point he got his breath back and he seemed to relive that sense of relief, and he continued, “And all these years I’ve been waiting for that one script that wrapped up all those feelings about the war and what it was like to be there and in it – and this was it. You did it. You Got It.”
It was the greatest praise I’ve ever gotten. The approval from a fighting man about a story about a fighting man.
For years after, every time I’d see him he mention the script about my father and say, “God, that was so great.”]