Tuesday, November 26, 2013

A Time to be Thankful: Syd Field and Mickey Knox

As Thanksgiving approaches, I’m both thankful and sad. I’m thankful for the Hollywood personalities I’ve had the good fortune to meet, and sad that many are no longer with us. In November alone, we lost two who made a difference.

I was introduced to Syd Field at a behind-the-scenes staff event that heralded the opening of the Getty Center in Brentwood. Our meeting took me by surprise: somehow I’d never thought of him as a man, but rather as a series of screenwriting books (beginning with 1979’s Screenplay) that today’s Hollywood regards as gospel. When it comes to the arts, I’m resistant to any hard and fast rules, except for the one voiced by screenwriter William Goldman, who famously said, “Nobody knows anything. . . . Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what’s going to work. Every time out it’s a guess and, if you’re lucky, an educated one.”

But surely Syd Field should get credit for educated guesses. His focus on the three-act structure has influenced everyone from Judd Apatow to Alfonso Cuarón. It has also influenced  young development executives who talk in Field speak and will not tolerate any deviation from the Field model when it comes to the placement of plot points. Field himself, remarkably, turned out to be low-key and modest about his place in the screenwriting firmament. One thing I’m sure of: he truly loved movies.

So did Mickey Knox. I first met Mickey in 2005 through my friend Bella Stander. He’d been a chum of her late father, the gravel-voiced character actor Lionel Stander, during the bad old Blacklist days when both were hanging out in Rome. During Bella’s L.A. visits, Mickey would end up eating at my dinner table. He gave me a copy of his 2004 memoir, The Good, the Bad, and La Dolce Vita, a rollicking and sometimes bawdy tale of a life much enjoyed.

I never knowingly saw Mickey on film. What I learned from his book was his importance behind the scenes, especially when working with legendary Europeans as a translator and dialogue coach. He supplied the English-language dialogue for Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, then worked with Leone to cast and shoot Once Upon a Time in the West. He also taught Anna Magnani to handle her English-language lines in The Rose Tattoo, which ultimately won her an Oscar. Beyond this, Mickey – like Zelig – was always where the action was. When Marlon Brando dropped trou in front of Magnani, Mickey was there. On the set of White Heat, James Cagney addressed him in fluent Yiddish. Robert Capa gave him photography tips, and Willy Shoemaker told him what horse to back. He pigged out with Orson Welles, beat John Wayne at chess and Omar Sharif at gin rummy. Shelley Winters and Zsa Zsa made passes; so did Tennessee Williams. Ava Gardner didn’t, but he got to massage her sore feet.

Did Mickey merely have a vivid imagination? His stories, wild as they are, have the ring of truth. And J. Michael Lennon’s new scholarly biography of Norman Mailer confirms that the two were the best of friends. In 1970, Mickey had already left the party when Mailer viciously stabbed his wife Adele. The next day, however, it fell to Mickey to retrieve the knife with which his pal had done the deed.

In his book, Mickey never makes excuses for his own lapses. His brash but good-natured personality comes through loud and clear. When he came to dinner, I wish I’d asked more questions. 


  1. Screenplay by Syd Field was the textbook in my college screenwriting course, of course. While I balk a bit at too much structure in screenplays (not as much as William "Only Screenwriter with His Own Format" Goldman, certainly) but Field's precise placement of the words on the page certainly make any screenplay written in that format SEEM more professional. I like writing in the format - and feel myself starting to itch a bit to do it again sometime in the not-too-distant future.

    I am not familiar with Mickey Knox - but his book sounds fascinating - and anyone who went from White Heat (coincidentally watched again this very evening) to the spaghetti westerns of the 1960's is someone I wish I could have met.

    I'm glad you did - because at least I got to read this post about him.

    RIP Syd Field and Mickey Knox.

  2. I'm happy to have introduced you to Mickey Knox, however belatedly, Mr. C.