With the passing of Mel Stuart last week, another "Hollywood Legend" moved from manic life to memory. His obituaries listed his numerous film credits, awards and the number of documentary films he directed, wrote or produced. This total varied widely from 50, to 150, to 180 as reported in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and The Hollywood Reporter., respectively. Any one of these numbers is remarkable. The fact that he was planning production of a new film in the last weeks before his death bears witness to his stamina, his insatiable curiosity and his character.
In all of the reporting about Mel's accomplishments, a few hinted at his most enduring characteristic but stopped short of illumination. He was impatient to the point of bluster, his temper tantrums were legendary, and the unreasonable demands he placed upon his creative colleagues were relentless. In the most retold of Mel Stuart stories, he was on location in Africa with a small documentary unit when he wandered into quicksand. While he was slowly sinking, so the tale goes, his crew discussed the merits of pulling him out or letting him slide slowly under the mud. With the sand up to his neck they threw him a rope. Whether fact or fiction, it goes to the heart of the Mel Stuart legend.
I worked with Mel on many films over the past 30 years. I have both experienced and been the target of his rapier lunges of impatience and unbridled anger. On a documentary shooting in Death Valley, my primary function was to follow him around and apologize to crew and complete strangers who had been the target of Mel's unbelievably bad behavior.
Mel was also my mentor. At the age of 26, I got my first job in Hollywood on a quasi-documentary TV show in the vein of That's Incredible, a forerunner of realty television. Mel was the show runner. About four minutes into the screening of my very first story, Mel raised his finger saying, "Stop the picture!"
"Who made this piece of sh--!" Meekly and with extreme fear I replied, "Me." Mel went silent. Smoldering. In a flash of rage he yanked the feed reels of sound and picture off the Steenbeck editing machine and hurled them against the wall. He stood up and pulled open the door. Before he left he screamed over his shoulder; "I'm coming back in two hours. If you haven't fixed it, you're fired!"
Regardless of the fact that Mel had offered neither diagnosis nor remedy for the piece, the editor and I worked like dogs. At the appointed hour, Mel returned, with all of us expecting that he would hate it and I would be dismissed. Instead, he let the short story run to the final fade-out and sat in the dark for what seemed like hours. Finally, he pronounced the magic words: "Great! Lock it! Nice job, kid."
Happily, I continued directing for the series and turned in work that Mel at first hated, but eventually liked. Later in the season Mel moved onto another pilot at the same production company. A new show runner was brought in to supervise our series. He had a girlfriend who wanted to direct, and since I was the last hired, I was fired to make room. Devastated, I went to Mel's office and told him what happened. He said not a word except, "Come with me."
I tried to keep up with him as he swaggered-unannounced-- into the office of the production company's owner. In a short, flashy, angry soliloquy, Mel basically said, "The kid stays in the picture. If he goes, I go!" I remained. The new show runner was terminated.
The moral of the story is this: Mel was tough as nails. He took no prisoners and never suffered fools. He was cantankerous to a flaw. His merciless boot camp taught me Hollywood's most important lesson for creative survival. The Town has no shortage of spineless hacks who possess tremendous power and very little in the way of talent. Mel taught me to stand up for my work, never be intimidated, and write, direct and deliver the best show I could.
After 35 years making documentary programs, it's the most important lesson I ever learned.
Thank you, Mel.
David Vassar is an Academy Award nominee, producing documentary films and television. His most recent program, California Forever, will be presented on PBS in September.