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Four Preps News Flash from Bruce Belland!
FOUR PREPS NEWSLETTER

September 16, 2018

Hi there!

It’s me again.

I can’t help myself. I just have to get in touch with all of you now and then so I can enjoy your responses to these occasional reminiscences.

Your feedback is always a great morale boost.

Thank you for taking the time to write. 

A few personal updates for y’all.

I’m about to get back to work on the book after taking some time out to visit my favorite Island and participate in a highly $ucce$$ful fund raiser for the dynamic new Catalina Island Museum.

Congrats to the lady at the top, Julie Lee and her superb staff.

As usual, Simone and I were treated like royalty and we returned home from the weekend more in love than ever with that little patch of paradise in the Pacific.

Thanks to all involved.

For those friends in Southern California, be advised that the Four Preps will be presenting our popular Christmas show on December 5th at the beautiful Candlelight Pavilion in Claremont. Their web site provides all the pertinent details and I hope to see some of you there to help us usher in the Holiday season.

As I said, I’ll be resuming work on the book shortly and am still aiming for its publication early next year.

But before I crawl back into my man cave, I want to pay tribute to a wonderful gentleman we just lost and recall for you what a joy it was to share his colorful company.

TITLE: “Bert, Bruce & Burt”

It would be an exaggeration to say I was a personal friend of Burt Reynolds.

However, lucky guy that I am, thanks to another Bert (spelled with an “e”) named Convy, I did get to enjoy extended periods of time with Reynolds on a half dozen occasions—in story conferences that would sometimes last two or three hours with plenty of good-humored banter during the breaks to relieve the tension.

I’ve never spent time with a wittier person… and I’ve been with some pretty funny guys from Burns and Hope to Newhart and Rickles...

Burt Reynolds had a razor sharp sense of humor—a lot of it self-deprecating. 

He once famously quipped that unlike other movie stars, “I actually become one despite the movies I’ve made.”

He proved his verbal dexterity when he subbed for Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show and blew everyone away with his mischievous quips and self-assured repartee.

A ruggedly handsome, easy-going Southern charmer with lightning fast conversational reflexes. 

Quite a package.

You get to know a guy—particularly an Actor—pretty well when you spend tortuous hours together trying to un-knot a plot complication or spice up a story line.

Here’s how I came to meet and got to know Burt Reynolds.

Pay attention now—it gets a little complicated.

In the mid 80’s, TV personality Bert Convy is searching in vain for a movie property he can acquire to make his directorial debut.

He has all the financing in place… but no script.

Through an amazing, almost miraculous chain of circumstances, he becomes aware of a script I’ve written about the Four Preps (mis)adventures at the height of our popularity in 1963, when we try to juggle a red hot show biz career with full time military duty in our Van Nuys Air National Guard unit which JFK has activated during the Berlin crisis. 

Our entire unit, the 146th Air Transport Wing and adjacent squadrons on our base, are made up of guys from the movie industry… actors (Jack Nicholson), stunt men, make-up artists, prop masters, set designers, hot young agents and even a popular TV gossip columnist… so we quickly become disdainfully known within the military establishments as “Hollywood Air Force Base,” which is the working title of my completed screenplay.

So, after 20 years on the shelf, how did my spec script finally end up as a feature film directed by Bert Convy and starring Lloyd Bridges (lots about him in the book!) and Jack Lemmon’s brilliant son Chris?

Enter Fate’s fickle finger.

As my singing career blossoms, I begin to write scripts for a great many of the hot T.V. shows of the era and also start to flesh out the story line for a feature film based on the Preps unique antics at HAFB… wearing tuxedos and headlining in Vegas at night and donning shabby military fatigues to clean latrines at the base each day.

Hot boy band gets called to full time military service.

“Sgt. Bilko” meets “Jersey Boys.”

As writers often do, after a few strike outs on the project I shelve HAFB and move on.

A couple of years later, I now live with my wife and two daughters in the idyllic L.A. suburb of Encino and, like all good, suburban parents, I’m active in our local school’s Parent Teacher Association.

A group of us parents are gabbing during a coffee klatch one night after a PTA meeting when, in response to someone’s asking me which of my scripts  I’m most fond of, I spin the tale of the Preps and Hollywood Air Force Base for the crowd. 

Watching their faces as they listen, I realize the idea definitely still has legs and I head home that night newly determined to turn the mud of 1963 into some cinematic chocolate.

But how?

Enter the old bb LUCK!

An Encino house wife named Joyce Brown and her husband, a successful plastics manufacturer, are at that PTA meeting.

Sometime later, Joyce and her hubby take a vacation to Hawaii.

And while basking in the sun on the beach at Waikiki, who should Joyce spot strolling along the sand? Bert Convy, who at that time, is a hugely famous television celebrity and a perennial on a slew of her favorite game and talk shows.

Joyce is not the shy type. She approaches Bert and strikes up a conversation during which he mentions he’s about to direct his first feature film, has the financing all lined up BUT can’t find an entertaining script.

Joyce rattles off a brief synopsis of HAFB. Bert sparks to what he’s heard and arranges to have lunch with me as soon as he returns to L.A. 

Bert Convy and I had obliquely crossed paths years earlier and I knew we’d hit it off.

For starters, we had one interesting and unique thing in common.

In his early twenties he’d sung on the huge 50’s hit “Black Denim Trousers” as a member of a group called The Cheers who’d performed for an assembly at Hollywood High in my senior year.

Later, as a game and talk show regular, Convy is perceived by many as little more than a genial lightweight.

Well, I’ve worked with a lot of major talents in the entertainment industry and can say, without equivocation, that Bert Convy was one of the hippest, most instinctive and intuitive guys in the business.

He was a mercurial, black Irish genius… high energy with a heart all over his sleeve.

Performing instincts?

Bert appeared on Broadway in “Fiddler on the Roof” and “Cabaret” and would later replace Raul Julia in “Nine” and deliver a performance that impresses the critics and silences the cynics.

I was prepared to like him and he didn’t disappoint.

Our lunch lasts for almost 3 hours and I never pitched an idea better than that day in the dining room of the elegant Bel Air Hotel to which I used to deliver giant floral arrangements as a high school delivery boy.

I have Bert laughing—or listening with his mouth open—from my first couple of lines about our outrageous hi-jinx while in uniform.

Pretty soon I’m in a zone and Bert is too, and we free associate ideas and end the lunch with a handshake and a deal.

It’s 1985 and after more than two decades, HAFB is finally on track to becoming a reality.

The contracts are signed, the cast is selected (we get lucky and snag legendary film actor Lloyd Bridges to play the lame-brained base Commander) and when completed, the film is re-named “Weekend Warriors” (although in Europe and Asia it is still called “Hollywood Air Force” since the word “Hollywood” in a movie’s title sells tickets around the world) and becomes a staple on HBO.

Now, riding a wave of enthusiasm and success, Bert Convy forms Burt and Bert Productions with his longtime pal Burt Reynolds and begins looking for another film property to follow his successful first feature. 

While he searches, he and Burt create a celebrity game show called “Win, Lose or Draw” which hits the airwaves and further heats up the reputation of this new production entity named after the two friends.

Now all they need is a movie project to keep the hot streak going.

I dig deep and come up with a story line called “Wingin’ It” about an over the hill action film star who ends up with his naïve, hero-worshipping 16 year old nephew in Brazil dodging certain annihilation at the hands of a vicious drug cartel.

Knowing his willingness to laugh at himself, I gamble that playing a well-intentioned but aging and increasingly inept action star is precisely what will appeal to Reynolds.

Convy loves the whole concept and sets up a pitch meeting with Reynolds at which I will try to enthuse a major movie star in my project.

Gulp!

The big day dawns.

Reynolds is leasing a palatial mansion in the Holmby Hills section of L.A.’s west side – about as high end as a neighborhood can get.

I’ve rehearsed my pitch for a couple of days and now find myself approaching the massive front door of an elegant home behind which a gigantically famous movie star is waiting to hear my spiel.

I take a deep breath and ring the bell.

The gigantic door swings open and there he stands, looking every inch like a movie star and beaming as good naturedly as the guy next door.

He extends his hand.

“Hey Bruce. Good to meet ya. I’m Burt! (Duh!) C’mon in!”

I follow him down a long, shadowy hallway, his cowboy boots clicking along the highly polished hardwood floor, to a large screening room with cushy leather chairs and couches and a lavish bar at one end next to the movie screen.

Convy hasn’t arrived yet so it’s just the two of us… bb and box office giant B-B-Burt freakin’ Reynolds. 

He steps behind the bar and opens a giant stainless steel refrigerator.

“Can I get you something to drink?”

Now and then, I’m able to come up with a witticism in high pressure situations.

I shrug and say, “I’ll pass for now, but stand by…depending on how this meeting goes I may want to get shit faced!” 

He chuckles and the ice is broken.

He opens a cold beer, sits down and we’re off on a free form exchange of banter.  

He tells me he loves “26 Miles,” enjoyed “Weekend Warriors” and is looking forward to hearing my new idea. Then he asks me about myself and seems genuinely interested.

As we talk, he’s very much “present.” No detached diva impulses or ego trips.

I like him and immediately find myself comfortably enjoying his company.

Convy arrives. We discuss last night’s Dodger’s game for a moment and then I’m cued to do my dog and pony routine.

As I rise to begin, Reynolds waves a hand and stops me. He moves to the phone and pointedly turns off the ringer. 

He sits back down and leans forward in rapt attention. I take a deep breath and launch into my pitch.

Pitching a script idea can be a tense and, to some writers, terribly intimidating process.

I knew one successful but essentially shy TV writer who would actually get nauseous and sometimes heave before a pitch meeting.

(The Writer’s Guild even conducts training sessions on how to deal with “pitch anxiety,” and more than one Hollywood shrink treats writers for the problem.)

Luckily, ham that I am, I enjoy selling the story and even act out a few funny scenes playing several different characters.

The gods smile on me and I soon sense that Reynolds loves the idea.

What a feeling!

When I finish, he plies me with questions about his character… not shallow queries, but thoughtful and insightful ideas totally free of vanity.

He suggests that his aging action star character might have a problematical back that will seize up on him at the damndest times—in the sack with a woman or tussling with an overweight bad guy.

As I had hoped, it’s the lead character’s shortcomings and vulnerability that appeal to him and as we speak for another hour or so, he becomes an enormously effective collaborator.

I am in seventh heaven and when we break up the meeting, he walks me to the door, pats me on the back and whispers, “Listen, I’m dating this really hot lady—she’s a waitress at the House of Pancakes… not sure she can act, but would you have a problem writing a co-starring role for her? I would really appreciate it.”

He lets me sweat for a moment before breaking into a hearty laugh and walking me out to my car.

Pre-production planning starts. Brazilian locations are evaluated and I begin the final polish on “Wingin’ It.”

Convy, Reynolds and I continue our story meetings and Burt’s suggestions are always smart, pointed and FUNNY.

Like every actor who wears a toupee’, Reynolds hates his but comes up with an idea he thinks audiences will find hilarious.

He suggests that in a torrid bedroom scene with a gorgeous Brazilian woman, his hairpiece suddenly loosens and perches slightly askew atop his head.

I can’t believe that this handsome, leading man movie star will allow himself to look that ridiculous, but Burt loves the idea and it finds its way into the screenplay. 

(Can you imagine Sean Connery going for a scene like that?!)

And the fun continues.

Late one evening, after a long story session, the subject of his naked beefcake shot in Cosmopolitan comes up.

Of course the wise cracks fly thick and fast, most of which Reynolds has heard a hundred times.

Finally, I say how much I admire him for doing it and confess that I would never be able to pull off such a stunt. “Aw c’mon Bruce,” Burt teases. “You’re not exactly the shy type.”

“Oh no, that’s not the problem. It’s just that my arm isn’t big enough to provide adequate coverage.”

He snickers, high-fives me and another session with this gregarious, Southern-fried fun lover draws to a close.

A few months later, Bert Convy falls ill while visiting his ailing mother at a West side hospital.

He’s diagnosed with a virulent form of brain cancer and all professional projects are tabled while he fights for his life.

All the guys who love Bert rally around.

Soon, each Sunday a group of his cronies gather at his Brentwood home, play poker, watch football and generally carry on like high schoolers cheering up their increasingly ill buddy.

Bert Convy ultimately loses the battle and dies in 1991 at the age of 58.

Burt Reynolds is devastated.

We all are.

Convy’s memorial service at Forest Lawn Hollywood is an auspicious, testosterone-laden gathering of show biz buddies and the final speaker to eulogize him is Reynolds.

He moves slowly to the podium, wipes a handkerchief across his eyes, clears his throat, looks around at all of us for a long moment, then says wistfully, “I loved Bert Convy.”

(A poignant pause as we all fight the lump in our throats)

Then… 

“But I hated his hair!”

The hall fills with laughter, all of us deeply aware of how much Bert Convy would have loved that line.

After the service, we gather outside, some teary-eyed Hollywood “tough guys” hugging awkwardly and hating to bid each other goodbye.

Reynolds and I chat briefly, exchange a quick hug and as I head back to my car, and I realize I may well have seen him for the last time.

Any Hollywood veteran will tell you that momentum is crucial when trying to bring a film property to 
the screen.

Without Bert Convy’s energy the project stalls, then dies.

Before long, Reynolds re-locates to his beloved Florida, I move on to other projects and “Wingin’ It” never sees the light of day.

I think it would have been a really fun flick, but even though that was not to be, it gave me the opportunity to spend time with a genuinely witty and wise gentleman movie star who simply refused to take himself too seriously.

So long pal.

Thanks for the laughs.

********************

That’s it for now.

Till next time, take good care of yourself and each other.

bb

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