Back in the 1990s, when I was an English major at UCLA, I had a part-time job at the Paul Kohner (talent) Agency — one of Hollywood’s oldest. Legendary writer-director Billy Wilder had been a client there for decades, and I met him on my very first day on the job.
I encountered him four or five times more, thanks to our Office Manager, Irene Heyman, who sent me his way whenever she found an excuse.
One day in late 1992 or early 1993, Irene asked me to deliver to Mr. Wilder a set of contracts pertaining to an forthcoming “German book.” (I think this was the early negotiation stage for Taschen’s Some Like It Hot.*)
Wilder had a little, unmarked office in Beverly Hills, on the second floor above a shoe store on Brighton Way — I remember it as being a quaint old building — nothing looming or gleaming. Beverly Hills is funny that way; it’s a small town and world glamour capital at the same time. The cop on the beat knows the coffee shop waitresses’ name, and she’s been saving her tips for decades to get a face lift when she retires. (I actually over heard that there once.)
I climbed a dim, narrow staircase and knocked on the door of what turned out to be a small office piled with scripts and books. I imagine Mr. Wilder had had that same office for years. He sat at a large desk behind stacks of papers like a cat cozy on a cushions. I remember him as always wearing light, old-man, sweaters and a cotton sports hat. With always the twinkle of mischief in his eye.
I entered and handed over the contracts trying my best to look perky and smart and worthy of his attention. This must have been the third or so time that I’d been in his presence, but it was the first time we were alone. My mind was racing, trying to come up with a witty way to engage him in some conversation, ask his advice for an aspiring writer, when there was a loud knock on the door which I’d left ajar behind me.
“Ah yes, there you are! Hello! Come in!” Mr. Wilder said, over my head.
I turned to see a tall, thirty-something man with floppy brown hair stooping through the doorway. He was also talking over my head, greeting Wilder somewhat gushingly and ignoring me so completely I felt in peril of being trampled.
“This is my friend, Cameron,” Mr. Wilder said to me. “He is here to interview me.”
“Oh, how nice,” I smiled.
Mr. Wilder was coming from behind the desk, gesturing as if to maneuver the two of us around in the tight space. For the briefest moment I thought he was inviting me to stay and listen.
“She is from my agency,” Wilder explained.
I gave Cameron the once-over, decided he looked like a 70s intellectual-wannabe lost in the 90s, and must be an LA Weekly reporter or something.
“Hello.” Cameron gave me a brief once-over, clearly confused as to why Wilder thought I warranted introduction. Me, with my pixie haircut, floral mini dress and black biker boots. I was in kind of a riot grrl phase. I gave Cameron the once-over, decided he looked like a 70s intellectual-wannabe lost in the 90s, and must be an LA Weekly reporter or something. (Ha!)
It did seem that there was not enough room for him to enter without me exiting, so the two of us pivoted, and I found myself on my way out. After wishing Mr. Wilder a cheerful good-bye, I stomped back down the stairs, thinking that truly talented writers are always interested in other people, no matter how insignificant — Cameron? … Cameron? … Crowe. It finally clicked.
This was about a year after Singles had put Crowe on everyone’s Hot Young Directors list.
It’s not that I would have reacted much differently had I recognized him instantly. I had seen Singles and read interviews of Crowe at the time, but the movie hadn’t moved me. I found it too self-consciously “hip.” Nonetheless, I am as old-fashioned as Wilder, and I regretted I hadn’t shown Crowe the respectful recognition due the writer of Fast Times at Ridgemont High.
But it wasn’t until later that day, after the rest of my deliveries were done and I’d returned to the office, that I really started kicking myself. The receptionist heard my tale and piped up, “Oh yeah! Isn’t he that director that’s married to Nancy Wilson? Of Heart?”
My only excuse for not remembering that most critical factoid is that the presence of Billy Wilder, like some giant magnet, wiped my brain clean.
Nancy Wilson had been the idol of my adolescence. I had learned to play guitar — classical guitar — because of her. I had got a damn perm because of her! Had I recognized Crowe and remembered to whom he was married, wild horses would not have pried me from that little office.
I’m writing this many years later, and my hat is off to Crowe for all of the great films he made since that day in 1993, and above all, for that wonderful book!
*In preparing this post I stumbled across another by biographer Ed Sikov who refers to Wilder as “God.” Apparently publisher Benedikt Taschen took Sikov to meet Wilder, proposing that Sikov write the book on Some Like It Hot. That book, which was finally published in 2001, contains reprints of many of Wilder’s personal behind-the-scenes photos, which I myself saw in 1992. So I must conclude the Taschen book was some 10 years in the making, or else there is an earlier book containing those same photos, which is doubtful. In the end the tome was penned by Dan Auiler. Nonetheless, Sikov’s account of their lunch in 1999 backs up my own memories of the Wilders and is hilarious. Luckily for me, I met Wilder seven years earlier when he was much less fragile and more spry.