1977 promises to be the year of Howard Hughes in Hollywood.
At least four Hughes movies - aimed at capitalizing on the obvious box office appeal of the multimillionaire (scaled down from billionaire by an estate inventory filed in Las Vegas on Tuesday), from his early dashing image to his eccentric decline and death - should be out by Christmas. Still others are being talked about.
In a town where some still have first-hand memories of Hughes and where his legend is still admired by many, the predictable, jealousies are already in evidence.
Actor-producer Warren Beatty is currently preparing a script of Hughes' life for Warner Brothers. "Quick Cheapies," Beatty says, could devalue artistic efforts portraying the Hughes legend. "I think this is a serious subject. No matter what, I'm going to
One target of Beatty's ire is producer Roger Gimbell, whose movie "Howard, the Amazing Mr. Hughes" is currently scheduled for CBS television early this spring. Gimbell simply shrugs off Beatty, who earlier rejected a million dollar offer to play the lead in the CBS film.
Ours is definitely a very serious important effort," Gimbell insisted last month at his Studio City headquarters. "This movie will give you a real understanding of Hughes. It will be sympathetic to him. You have to feel some sympathy for a man who eats canned soup with two billion in his pocket."
Even Tuesday's report that Hughes, usually referred to as a billionaire, was worth only $168 million hasn't dampened Gimbell's enthusiasm.
Gimbell is convinced that the lower-than-expected appraisal is one more example of Hughes' business genius. "It's typical of the whole Hughes story," Gimbell said yesterday. "I think it makes it an even more incredible story. How perfect that even in death he's kept his money away from the government. It's typical of his operation."
"Howard, the Amazing Mr. Hughes" is the product of a year of research based largely on the reminiscences of long-time Hughes aide Noah Dietrich. Portraying Hughes from Houston childhood to the final, bitter days, the movie seeks to give an insight into the life of the eccentric tycoon.
Gimbell's approach to Hughes is steeped in Psychology. Even the heroic acts of Hughes life - from record-shattering plane flights to directing his own movies - are seen as parts in a pattern leading inevitably to his psychological breakdown in Las Vegas. "When you look at Howard Hughes, what do you find?" Gimbell asks rhetorically. "You find a basic paranoid schizophrenic."
Assigned the task of unveiling this long-term psychological dismemberment is actor Tommy Lee Jones.A 30-year-old veteran of the New York stage, Jones plays Hughes from his start in the oild business at 18 to his fading days in Las Vegas. Like Hughes a native of Texas, Jones is the first serious actor to plunge directly into the character of Howard Hughes.
"He's a ghost to me," drawls Jones, a powerfully built former Harvard football player. "I've come to feel very effectionate and sympathetic toward Howard, which I really didn't expect. For the last few months. I've done nothing but try to understand Howard's problems."
However sympathetic Jones' portrayal, there are many who don't look forward to the presentation of "Howard. The Amazing Mr. Hughes or any other Hughes picture.
Among them is Arelo Sederberg, the official spokesman for Summa Corp., Hughes' vast las Vegas-based conglomerate. Sederberg says all the Hughes movies Tired on dangerous legal ground because the rights to the Hughes legend belong to Rosemount Corp., Hughes company controlled by New York lawyer Chester Davis.
"Theoretically, if any one capitalizes on the name of Howard Hughes, Rosemount could go to court to stop it," Sederbeck says. "Any organization that used that name violates an argument between Hughes and Rosemount." So far, however, no legal claims have been filed against anyone doing a Hughes film. Davis New York law firm refused to discuss anything at all.
Yet even the threat of legal action is unnerving some Hollywood producers. Roger Gimbell bitterly complains about "harassment" of his production, which he says grew out of threatening legal notes sent to CBS network executives by Rosemount. Another prospective Hughes film-maker, independent producer Egar Scherick, says he was forced to abandon his plans because Rosemount's threatening noises drove up his insurance bills. "We backed out because the Hughes people caused so much trouble," Scherick says.
But what really seems to upset the men at Summa are the lingering scenes "Howard, The Amazing Mr. Hughes" whcih show the billionaire at the end - emaciated and deserted. Sederbg, normally talkative and open, is clearly discomforted about the public discussion of Hughes' pathetic demise. Gimbell and the other producers, Sederberg charges, "are only getting into innuendo and speculation on the latter years.
Not only Summa spokesmen are disturbed by the image of Hughes as a crazy, living skeleton. Friends who remember a young, vital Howard Hughes cling to their early pictures of the man. They fear the legend could be obscurred by a pathetic last act.
"Howard Hughes was the most brillant businessman I ever dealt with," recalls veteran Hollywood agent Herman Citron. As agent for actress Jane Russell, Citron met Hughes when the tycoon was launching Russell's career with the movies "The Outlaw" and "French Line" in the early '50s. "I can't understand all this stuff about Howard being so crazy," Citron says as he sits in his Sunset Boulevard high rise.
Citron remembers Hughes as the complete financial genius who juggled aerospace, oil and land empires while running Hollywood's RKO studios. "He had an incredible memory," Citron says. "When I went to his office there never was a secretary. He didn't even take notes or have a scratch pad. Howard remembered everything himself, from all his businesses."
Even the most formidable Hollywood egos were impressed by Hughes. Director Howard Hawks, who worked with Hughes or three films in the '30s, considers him among the most brilliant men he ever worked with.
These men remmeber a different Howard Hughes - a bell raising wunderking who captivated almost everyone. Over nearly two decades around the entertainment industry, he was linked with many notable actresses including Katherine Hephburn and Jean Peters.
One of these relationships - with Jean Harlow - has already been committed to film and will be released late this spring. Entitled "Hughes and Harlow: Angels in Hell," the movie is little more than a light, romantic farce. "It's not exactly a major biography," producer Roy Buchanan says. "It's a fun film about two people in love."
Whatever Buchanan's success, it is highly unlikely Howard hughes will be remembered as a dashing, romantic figure. A more serious effort to upgrade his image, however, is coming from a onetime associate, producer Pierre Cossette. At the independent producer's Beverly Hills office, a script is being developed about Hughes' CIA connections and his ill-fated spy ship, the Glomar Explorer.Cossette, who as an agent had dealings with Hughes in the early '50s, intends to show an older, mature but still very sane Howard Hughes.
"I saw nothing of the Howard Hughes they talk about later in Vegas," Cossette insists. "I'm going to show him as I remember him - as the tycoon, the electronics genius. Howard Hughes can be played by Gregory Peck in this thing."