"Do we look too chummy?" asked Ronald Neame, referring to the beamish, bosom-buddy poses he was busy arranging of himself, Martha Scott and Paul Heller around an easy chair in Scott's suite at the Madison Hotel. As soon as a newspaper photographer had arrived to snap pictures of these three pleasant, civilized colleagues, Neame had taken charge. After all, he was the director of the project that had brought them together, the movie version of "First Monday in October." Scott and Heller, the producers, deferred to his expertise, although she, still best remembered as the young actress who made her film debut as Emily in "Our Town" 41 years ago, made a point of posing with her "good side," the left evidently, foremost.
This precaution prompted Neame, an eager raconteur, to recall a curious episode or two of actors obsessed with "good sides." A robust, ruddy septuagenarian, Neame grew up in the British film industry, where his mother was a silent-screen actress and his father a director and cinematographer. Beginning as a messenger boy at age 14, Neame advanced to assistant cameraman and then cinematographer. His association with David Lean as a co-writer and co-producer on "Brief Encounter" and "Great Expectations" eventually led to his debut as a film director with "Take My Life" in 1948. His most notable British features are "The Promoter," "Man With a Million," "Windom's Way," "The Horse's Mouth" and "Tunes of Glory." As an "international" or American-based director, he's also been responsible for "Gambit," "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie," "The Poseidon Adventure," "Meteor" and "Hopscotch."
"It's perfectly true that most people photograph better from one side and quite natural for movie actors to want that side favored," he remarked, "but it can get out of hand. I remember Rexy Harrison moving about very nervously on the set, and a pattern became apparent after a while. He was getting himself aligned with the good side toward the camera. Since the actress he was working with favored the same side, it posed a problem. At that point, you're obliged to stop and say, 'Listen, darlings, you can't be unreasonable. I'll do my very best to see that everyone gets a good break.' "
According to Neame, the production of "First Monday" proved a cinematic love feast. "It was great fun, and I don't care what anyone else thinks," he announced emphatically.
Scott has been associated with the play from a fairly early stage and sought out the team of Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee on behalf of a young playwright soon after their first version of "First Monday," which had tried out in Cleveland with Jean Arthur and the late Melvyn Douglas co-starring.
"It hadn't worked, and they were resigned to a thorough overhaul," she recalls. "By that time the conception of the characters had changed somewhat, and we had the great good fortune of bringing Hank Fonda into the project. We opened here at the end of 1977, during a terrible snowstorm, but the play was a huge success.
"Naturally, it was always our intention to do the film with Hank recreating his role. Paul and I were trying for a year to do the film without getting anywhere. By the time the financing and distribution had been arranged, Hank was no longer available.
"However, he was keenly interested in the casting, and it was he who singled out Walter Matthau when we were discussing suitable successors. 'That's it!' he said. 'He'll be wonderful. The only thing is, he'll insist that he can't do it because it's my role.' And that's exactly what happened. When we first contacted Walter, he said he was very flattered but couldn't consider taking 'Hank's role.' We had the perfect answer: 'Why not call Hank himself and see how he feels about it?' Hank gave Walter his personal blessing, and we had our new leading man."
Heller originally trained as a scenic designer but diverted into producing during the early days of live television in New York. His first credit as a film producer was "David and Lisa," the most famous sleeper of the early '60s. Subsequently he joined Warner Bros. as a production executive, where he had the fortune to supervise a number of hits, notably "Dirty Harry," and the misfortune to supervise some vaguely remembered fiascoes, including the aborted Elliott Gould project "A Glimpse of Tiger," which he was compelled to shut down 10 days after shooting began. After returning to independent production, he was associated with Fred Weintraub on a dozen films, including the Bruce Lee classic "Enter the Dragon."
Heller described "First Monday" as "the best professional experience I ever had. For once, there's nothing I would have wished to do differently. It's not only a matter of working with people you like and respect. I find this kind of material more satisfying than most of the things I've been associated with."