THE CINDERELLA hit of the commercially resurgent movie summer was "Arthur," Steven Gordon's screwball comedy about the belated maturation of a Poor Little Rich Boy, impersonated with disarming drunken charm by Dudley Moore. Two weeks ago it eased into the top position in Variety's weekly roster of the 50 top-grossing films, dislodging "Raiders of the Lost Ark," the preeminent box-office hit of the summer.
"Arthur" continues to roll along; its status as the year's most popular underdog may influence the outcome of several Academy Awards. At the very least, you expect John Gielgud to win an Oscar for his peerless comic performance as Arthur's sarcastic valet Hobson. The move may also establish itself as the dark-horse favorite, since the odds were against it being made in the first place, let alone being made triumphantly. A Hollywood friend insists that "Rocky" is the definitive parable for the movie business -- an inspirational reminder to all struggling filmmakers to hang in there, believe in the material and give it their best shot.
The man with the inside story is Steve Gordon, who originated "Arthur" and struggled to get it made. A former advertising copywriter and television comedy writer, Gordon made his feature-directing debut on "Arthur." His only previous movie credit had been the screenplay for the 1978 comedy "The One and Only." Contacted at his apartment in New York soon after "Arthur" because Variety's No. 1, Gordon recalled a chronicle of adversity that made success especially savory.
"Frankly, I don't think any one of us knew what we had," he said. "There's no way we could have known. Maybe I thought Dudley was brilliant and John was brilliant, but we didn't know how people would take the characters. By that time I had been preconditioned to hear that the script was no good, that no one would ever sympathize with a rich, childish drunk, no matter how funny or lovable I thought he was.
"Everybody passed on the script. Studios, a lot of actors, a lot of actors' agents, secretaries, producers, messengers. I couldn't get a script read after writing a hit movie. Originally, I had a three-picture deal with Paramount. It started with 'The One and Only,' which I wrote and produced, with Carl Reiner directing. No blockbuster, but a profitable picture. I had written a first draft of 'Arthur' and knew I wanted to direct it. That's no reflection on Carl, who's a great friend and a terrific director. I simply realized that you never can get exactly what you want unless you get in the position of directing the script you've written.
"The guys at Paramount read the first draft and didn't care for it. They became the first of many to object to the character of Arthur. They didn't understand him. They didn't believe that an audience could possibly sympathize with him. A rich, irresponsible drunk? And a girl who goes around shoplifting? What is that? For a year and four months I tried to get the script around and find some positive reinforcement. Instead, the verdict seemed to be unanimous.
"Once, at a party, I met a guy who was close to one of the big stars. 'You're a scribe,' he told me, "the best I've read since Faulkner. If you have anything that might suit us, I want to see it.' You can't believe all that stuff, of course, but you want to anyway.And it just so happens that I'm still looking for a breakthrough with 'Arthur.' I send it over and he comes back indignant: "What are you wasting yourself on this s--- for? Don't waste your gift on stuff about unlikable characters. This is a person I don't like personally. If I sent this to . . .' -- well, let's forget the name of his client -- 'he'd fire me.'
"Well, since 'Arthur' became a hit, I've heard from that guy and his client, who told me he would have loved to play the role. I've heard from all sorts of actors I couldn't contact. Pacino wanted to know why he never got a copy of the script. Nicholson, Jimmy Caan, Chevy Chase -- the same story. I literally begged some agents to sent it. They couldn't get by the fact that the guy drank .
"I wish I could hate them, but vengeance is only great the next day. If your're doing well, there's little animosity left. They're all nice guys. iThey just didn't see "Arthur' my way.At the time, all this rejection made me very depressed. So many people told me it wouldn't work. The business being what it is, so many people were hoping it wouldn't work later on. I might have pulled back. I was on the brink of deciding that people were right about 'Arthur' and that I might ruin my career if I kept insisting on doing it.
"The situation was aggravated by the fact that I'd also taken a beating on a TV series I cared about. This was 'Good Time Harry' with Ted Bessell. It was going to save NBC before they totally threw it away. For a while it was the talk of the industry. Freddie -- I call him Freddie, you notice -- Silverman finally saw the pilot and said, 'This is wonderful, but it's not commercial.' We filmed seven episodes, but I think only six got on the air -- at 10:30 p.m. on Saturday in the summer. Is that the way to introduce a series?
"It's still the most unresolved, maddening experience I've ever gone through. Ted was like a crazy man. 'What will my future be?' he kept asking. He was playing the sort of lovable rogue I've always liked -- a sportswriter who was a compulsive womanizer, unreliable in lots of ways, but wrote like a dream and funny to be around -- and he knew he'd got to the zenith as far as situation comedy performance was concerned. If that character wouldn't do it for him, what could? I felt the same way. Finally, I'd put together a comedy show about a real guy with real problems, and then I'm told this is not commercial.
"The producer of 'Harry' was Charlie Joffe, who had been Woody Allen's agent and then helped produce his films. He offered to show the 'Arthur' script to the guys at Orion, who used to work with him and Woody when they were running United Artists. They were coming to New York one weekend, and I scraped up five copies of the script to pass around. They saw something in it -- I don't know, maybe Charlie said I've got a kind of Woody Allen thing here -- and said, sure, we'll make it.
"Orion bought the script from Paramount with a great deal of trouble for a great deal of money.Paramount had no intention of doing it but didn't want to let it go either -- that catch -- so it was touch-and-go while we tried to beat the turn-around clause in the script. Orion was like the Marines. They came in and saved me. A short time later I get a call from Mike Meadvoy who says, 'How do you like Dudley Moore? He's read the script and loves it.'
"Obviously, the casting tranformed the movie into something more than I'd envisioned. Never, ever had I imagined Dudley, or any other English person for that matter, in the role of Arthur. It was a very American script. When I thought of leading men, I thought of Chevy Chase or Ryan O'Neal -- it was always this blond WASPy guy. "Dudley was right under everyone's nose and no one thought of him. John occurred to me only after Dudley had said he was the funniest man ever. I had imagined Alec Guinness as Hobson, and at one time I thought it would be absolutely hysterical if Walter Matthau played the role. Then we hired John, which was the smartest thing we ever did. Liza we thought of right away, but most of the casting was a happy mistake.
"From my point of view, it's the actors rather than the camera that's important. I'll never understand how to light a set. For that I need terrific people I can trust totally, and you can find them. Our cinematographer, Fred Schuler, was very patient with me. All I kept saying was, 'I want it to look rich.'
"I'm not built for technical sophistication. The biggest thing about lighting for me is that you have to have someone who can do it fast, especially with comedy. If you have a good idea, it becomes an old piece of business by 2 o'clock. I know I made a lot of mistakes. There are 50 guys in the neighborhood who could have directed it better. But more than a film I wanted that character -- that's what a writer would want to emphasize -- and I think it's very important for guys to do their own work. The fewer interpretations the better. When you have a committee making anything, it doesn't look or taste right. Ever taste a committee cake?
"When a writer puts hiw own work on film, if it's bad it's bad, but if it's good, it's pure. If you can support one idea from one guy and make that work, you're so much better off. I never directed commercials when I was in advertising. I was always a copywriter, but I was the copywriter who stood behind the director and tried to suggest things. You know, wouldn't it be funny if we tried this, or that. I wish I could be that guy all the time, because I've seen how easy it easy for a director to lose sight of the material.
"I ws on the set of 'The One and Only' for three days and got accused of directing. I didn't say a word, but the actors knew and maybe that was the problem. I don't get it, though. I think if I were an actor or directing someone else's script, I sure as hell would like to have the guy or lady around who wrote the thing, so I could ask what he or she meant when things get sticky. I know writers committing suicide because their work is misinterpreted. Watching someone like Dudley, you learn that there can be an infinite number of ways a character can walk through a door and say, 'How are you?' A character could never come to life without the actor's contribution, and I know my characters are richer for it. But there's always a guy who thought of the character in the first place, and that's usually the writer. 'Arthur' is more than I envisioned, but I'm the guy who thought of it first."