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Shooting the Gang That Couldn’t

Just shoot me: A behind-the-scenes look at the filming of a Robert DeNiro movie

Lionel Stander, gang, The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight

Lionel Stander standing in front of his gang in a scene from the film 'The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight' in 1971.

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/Getty

New York — Even at 7:30 in the morning the airline ticket stewardess at the San Francisco Airport was pert and perky. “And where would we like to sit this morning?” she said to a caped and long-haired customer. “In back of the wing somewhere,” was the sleepy reply. “But ma’am, didn’t we know that our ticket was first class? We can’t sit behind the wing if our ticket is first class.” “Far out,” mumbled the customer. “Far out.” Aboard the 747 luxury liner to New York, the sleepy passenger examined her ticket while she drank the champagne-orange juice cocktail that the hostess, Miss Oroni, had served her. The ticket had been paid for by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Inc., and it had cost $374. “Holy shit,” she thought, “$374,” and fell asleep soon after.

At 7:30 the next morning, Moondog, a New York eccentric who is blind and wears a viking costume walked by the Hotel Navaro on Central Park on his way to 54th Street and Seventh Avenue where he hung out. The horns on his helmet glistened in the bright, yellow cloud that hung over the pavement, his staff and his great fur boots were soundless on the sidewalk above the noises of early morning New York.

Upstairs in the Hotel Navaro, Lionel Stander, another eccentric, was waking up. In the bathroom, his brown eye and his half shut grey eye stared at one another as he shaved his 63-year-old face. His 23-year-old “wife,” Stephanie, a Dutch baroness, was still asleep. (“I’m going to marry Stephanie just as soon as my divorce comes through,” he would say later. “The poor girl is madly in love with me and against all my advice she’s going to marry me.”) Lionel Stander, the star of a movie, The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight, being filmed in New York, went to his closet to select his costume for the day. He designed all his clothes himself, and had them made up by Parente Montemario, his tailor in Rome. He passed over his babyblue brocade Edwardian suit in favor of a purple-and-silver-flecked ensemble and selected a large white ascot. He put on a midi-length light tan suede coat, a tan sombrero, stuck a cigar in his mouth, and left for work.

In Forest Hills, at the Breslin household, six children and one Panamanian maid were having breakfast. “Finish your cereal, Christopher,” someone told the four-year-old, Jimmy Breslin’s youngest. “Fuck off,” said Christopher.

Back in New York City, a few blocks from the Hotel Navaro and a few blocks away from Moondog’s corner, a gaggle of reporters who had been flown by MGM first class to New York from all over the country piled into a station wagon that had eight doors for a ride to Brooklyn. The passenger from San Francisco sat sleepy again and looked at the others. The men, maybe six of them, all wore suits and ties and ears and necks visible next to careful, short haircuts. Two ladies were both dressed in basic black and sprayed hairdos, red nail polish on fingers heavy with jewelry.

One was a reporter from Pennsylvania, and one was Shirley, a gossip columnist from Detroit, somebody’s mother who had made gossiping a career. She told the people in the station wagon of her first brush with narcotics: “It was just a few weeks ago. I was at a party and I could see some people were passing around a funny looking cigarette and I realized all of a sudden that it was pot they were smoking, and I said to Earl Wilson’s wife, ‘Look, isn’t that horrible, they’re smoking pot,’ and she didn’t seem to mind, but I thought it was terrible, and you know, the worst thing about it was, the thing I didn’t realize that’s so horrible — it’s so unsanitary the way they pass it from one mouth to another.”

One male passenger looked like a younger version of Hugh Hefner. He explained that his hair was short because he was in the Army reserves. He turned out to be a movie critic from Chicago and a friend of Hugh Hefner’s.

“What’s Hugh into these days besides pubic hair?” asked the long-haired reporter. The question offended the young man and he explained that Hef was donating lots of money to various worthy causes. “Has he still got the same old lady?” she asked, moving to a less controversial topic. “I’m afraid I don’t understand the jargon,” said Chicago. Longhair dozed off again inside her cape.

In South Brooklyn, the air seemed cleaner. A breeze wafted off the river, blowing garbage around on the greasy cobblestone streets. The long station wagon pulled up in front of an armory and the press people piled out, anxious to see what MGM had flown them thousands of miles and spent all that money for them to see.

The inside of the armory had been cleared of whatever it had been full of before, and part of a bicycle-racing track had been erected in the middle of the floor. Scores of men were hard at work hanging lights, building scaffolding, laying more track, and blackening the windows in an effort to make the daytime seem like night. Hundreds of other people sat on either side of the track in bleachers. They had all been rented for the day to sit there by MGM.

On one side were acting union extras, professional extras like Maria Tamborino, a housewife from Stamford, Connecticut, or Vinny and Jerry, who were stuffing themselves with free hotdogs taken from a rented hotdog vender. On the other side of the track sat non-union extras, people from the street, day workers who usually moved furniture or cleaned houses. Today they were being paid by MGM to sit on bleachers. They played cards, did crossword puzzles, and talked to each other in 48 different languages. One old derelict drank from a bottle in a paper bag.

The press people followed the PR men around like a pack of children touring a Coca-Cola plant, tripping over cables, ladders, tarps, extras, themselves. Finally, they were seated on a separate set of bleachers and an elderly gentleman with a clipboard who was the production manager addressed them. He had a huge pot belly, long white sideburns, wide bell-bottom pants, and a sense of humor. “Welcome to Withering Heights,” he told them. “Heh, heh.”

The reason for this gathering of workers, extras, actors, and press was the filming of a sequence from The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight, a comedy based on the book by Jimmy Breslin. The “gang” was a bunch of small-time South Brooklyn Mafiosi who were attempting to take over Brooklyn from the aging head of the Mafia in that territory, a man named Baccala (which in Italian means fish, and an obscene gesture). The reason the press had been flown in, given first-class treatment, and had even been promised they would be in the movie themselves: Publicity for the movie.

After meeting the director and producer, the press people were led upstairs where they would meet the stars. Everyone sat around a long table and watched Jerry Orbach, who played Kid Sally Palumbo, bite his fingernails and talk about the future of the American theater. Robert de Niro, who played the romantic interest character, sat silent and looked handsome, and romantic. Barely visible above the table was Herve Villechaise, a 3’10” midget who played the part of Beppo the Dwarf. He told everyone in a squeaky French accent how the day before someone hadn’t seen him emerging from an automobile, and his head had been slammed in the car door. It was not long, however, before the only noise heard was the gravelly, husky, rumbling tones of Lionel Stander.

“I am a happy man,” he told the press. “I was a hippie before there was a hippie movement. I smoked pot when it was still legal.” Shirley, the gossipist, raised her eyebrows. “My generation — we got drunk and made love in automobiles,” Stander went on. “I don’t have any friends my age; they all turned out to be smug fatheads. The people of my generation hate their young. They won’t let them grow up and run the country. God help a country that hates its young.” Stander didn’t live in the United States, he said, but in Rome because “that’s where the action is.” His apartment had a reputation for wild parties and high living. He explained that it cost him $1500 a week just to live, and that didn’t include entertaining.

“I believe in what the young people are doing today,” he continued. “They are moralists. The young people are beautiful and I think right now they’re taking the right political direction. You get bugged, you want to drop out, get a commune, and so on. But now kids are realizing you can’t live alone, you can’t really drop out.” Stander rarely lived alone; he had been married five or six times, he had lost count, and always to women no older than 24. “I’ve always been a freak,” he explained. “I’ve always been a real individualist. I believe in people, the Bill of Rights, justice, freedom. I am lefter than left. I lent my name and money to anti-fascist organizations all over the world, and came out for integration before it became fashionable. For this I was blacklisted in 1939. I was the first actor to be blacklisted from the industry.”

In Italy now, Lionelo was a movie idol, star of spaghetti westerns and horror movies, but he came back to the US to do an occasional movie for an industry he believed to be dying. “The stupidity of the men who run the industry, that is the only constant. The industry was ruined by the men who produce it.” He chuckled. “I keep this up and I’ll be blacklisted again. And don’t think it couldn’t happen again. Can you imagine what would happen if Nixon died and Agnew took over?” Herve, the midget, crossed himself, and the press people were led downstairs to have their pictures taken standing around an eight-foot Italian hero sandwich which was to be their lunch.

After lunch, while workers worked at making up the Jewish and Anglo-Saxon stars to look Italian, the press people were led to the press box where they were to be filmed as spectators of the sporting event which was to take place downstairs. The director told the press what to do, where to sit, and not to look at the camera, and finally the cameras started to roll. Everyone did as he was told and the director said he was satisfied after one take.

“Hah,” said Shirley the gossip lady. “They never get anything right in just one take. I’ll bet they don’t use this scene at all. I’ll bet they just did this for publicity.”

Downstairs in the bleachers, the other rented people still waited for their chance to be shot. The union-side people sat and watched the people on the nonunion side. A couple sat close together, furtively kissing and feeling each other up; the old bum had passed out; men and women still jabbered in foreign tongues. The PR men led the press people out of the building, back into the station wagon, back into the city to their hotel where they were to have a rest period before dinner.

At Lionel Slander’s table at Angelo’s where everyone had been delivered for dinner, once again his rumbling voice was the only one to be heard. He drank red wine as fast is it could be poured, smoked long cigars, and ate the Italian food with gusto, shouting appreciation at the waiters and maitre d’ in Italian each time they brought something new to the table. Wiping up the garlic sauce in his plate with a piece of bread, he told those at his table about himself. “I am lefter than left,” he chuckled. “I was a hippie before there was a hippie movement. My generation — hah! We got drunk and made love in automobiles.” Some people at the table were meeting him for the first time. They sat smiling, fascinated, delighted, listening. Others who had seen him that afternoon drank the wine and ate the dinner.

“I believe in what the young people are doing,” he continued. “You get bugged, you want to drop out, get a commune. But now kids are realizing you can’t live alone. Waiter! Vino! Anche, vino! I was the first actor to be black-listed from the industry.” One drunken reporter lamented to the PR man stationed at her table that her tape recorder wasn’t working.

“Don’t worry about a thing,” he assured her. “He always goes on like this. We’ll have someone tape him tomorrow and we’ll send you a dub. You won’t miss a thing.”

“I am a happy man,” Lionel was saying. “I smoked pot when it was still legal.”

Two tables away, Jimmy Breslin leaned heavily over a glass of scotch and water. He looked like an Irish cop out of uniform and uncomfortable about it. Across the table from him sat his wife, Rosemary, a large Italian lady dressed in black with furry red cheeks and a rumbling voice like Lionel Stander’s. But mostly it was her husband’s voice that was heard, raging at some invisible antagonist.

“Dropping out and living in a commune; that’s the worst put-on I ever heard of. Crazy. Who are you to stand aside from society and not contribute? Who the hell do you think you are that you can do a thing like that?”

He scowled and stuck a cigar in his mouth. It was shorter than Lionel’s, and cheaper. “You’re not going to win outside the system, that’s the greatest fable there is. I used to sit and talk with all of them, Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin. They’re nice fellows, but the two of them are full of shit. When they told me it could be done without politics. I laughed. I don’t care how old-fashioned and stupid I sound. I know that they’re just playing with themselves. The revolution is playing with yourself.” He hit the table with his hand.

“Revolutionaries are the most childish ego-tripping bullshit nonsense. There is only one way to win. Go to the nearest regular Democratic organization clubhouse and join. They got the vote, younger people — they got the power. But you’re not going to do shit sitting around the steps at Berkeley. I think the lousiest, most mediocre, venal, grafting, lying politician in the nation is a saint compared to the dirty bastards who sit on steps and say ‘I’m in the Weathermen’ and go on an ego trip. They’re the lousy bastards.”

A reporter from Houston interrupted this rage to ask about Breslin’s family life. “Rosemary and I have six kids,” Breslin answered. “That’s Catholics for you.” And he was off again. “God help parents at home who don’t even understand what the kids are talking about. Kids today must be ten years ahead of what I was at 16. What did I know when I was 16? You thought that you could get a broad in the back of a car, and you knew the batting averages. I didn’t know a fuck about this or that.”

And what did he think about drugs, the reporter from Texas wanted to know. “I come from family 1000 percent alcoholic. I mean, my family … well, there wasn’t one of them that wasn’t ruined by whiskey. I wish to Christ a couple of them would have used a little cocaine or something to slow it up a little bit. Whiskey wrecked my family. Whiskey and drugs aren’t much different. But the older people, they can’t put it together. The older people, they just don’t understand. But frankly,” he said, finishing his scotch and water, “I prefer whiskey to LSD.”

A PR man came and took Breslin from his chair to meet some other press people. “Jimmy,” he said, “got someone I want you to say hello to. ‘Scuse me, folks. Just taking him away for a minute.” Breslin went along with him to promote the movie being made of his book.

After dinner was over, everyone was stuffed full of garlic and mellow with wine. Lionel Stander sat facing the wall at a deserted table. “Where are you going?” he turned around and shouted at the people who were leaving. “It’s only 11:30! It’s early! You people are giving up so early!”

Out on the street, another old eccentric was ranting his complaint. He stood under a streetlamp, wearing a black and white speckled coat and a wool cap, clutching a dufflebag stuffed full of newspapers. He recited his rap to anyone who walked by, and to no one in particular.

“Everybody’s got a dog. Everybody’s got one.” He grew impassioned.

Everybody’s got a dog, Everybody’s got one.

“Kennedy Airport is very big. Kennedy Airport is big.”

He became serious.

“Kennedy Airport is very big. Kennedy Airport is big. “They got bars in there, too, you know. In the airport.

“They got bars in there, too, you know. In Kennedy.”

He began to whisper, a low whisper.

“Watch out for the poison ring. Watch out for the poison ring.

“Somebody’s going to give me a sleeping pill — in the bar.

“Watch out for the poison ring.”

His voice returned to normal. “Kennedy Airport is very big. They got bars in there, too, you know.” 

In This Article: Coverwall

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