WORKING WITH A LEGEND by Tony Piazza
I was watching a young Fred Astaire in “Top Hat” on DVD last night and thought back to the summer I worked with him during the “autumn” of his life in 1973. It was during the shoot of Irwin Allen’s “Towering Inferno” at San Francisco’s Hyatt Regency Hotel that I first met and worked with this real Hollywood legend. Of course you would not have thought so to see him. He wasn’t surrounded by a large entourage of staff or masses of fawning autograph seeking fans… just a small, but fit, elderly man, extremely modest in personality and pretty much of a reserved character. While crowds were recognizing Steve McQueen and Paul Newman, Mr. Astaire could pretty much blend into the crowd without attracting too much attention. It was kind of sad, but again, I had a feeling that he preferred it that way. He had more than his share of attention during Hollywood’s golden era and now he seemed extremely satisfied just being a private person, doing his job, and moving on with life.
Jennifer Jones and Fred Astaire (from Towering Inferno)
I watched him at a polite distance, as he waited for his cue to step onto the escalator that would carry him up into the massive hotel lobby which doubled as the atrium of the film’s tower. As he waited, he was just perceptibly tapping his feet, keeping time to the music coming over the hotel’s Muzak system. I can’t recall the tune, but it was a classic that could have easily been introduced in one of his musicals. He seemed content, moving his feet, mentally creating some dance routine that would have been the rave of earlier movie audiences, but alas was replaced by exploding buildings and machine gun fire.
I was working on two films at that time- it was a busy San Francisco when it came to movie productions that year. I spent the morning to late afternoon on “The Streets of San Francisco” television show and then went over to the “Towering Inferno” location from evening to the next morning. I literally worked around the clock. My family was also heavily involved. My Mother was one of the couple that comes up ahead of Mr. Astaire in the escalator scene. If you view it, look for the woman with the blue pant suit and her hair worn up, standing next to a male “extra” that is supposed to be her companion. It is always great to see her young and smiling again each time I view the film- she passed on about ten years ago.
My Mother was from Mr.Astaire’s era, perhaps just a little later, and was very impressed by his approachability and humbleness. This was demonstrated when my father visited the set. My Dad was assigned to “The Streets of San Francisco” as location liaison, but came to visit her on the “Towering Inferno” after he had completed his days’ work. Mr. Astaire was standing close by when my father came up to greet her, and without a thought my mother introduced the two. She said, “Mr. Astaire this is my husband” whereupon he very graciously shook hands and they exchange some polite conversation. I have known some smaller actors (who are legends in their own minds) whereas that could never happen- but Mr.Astaire, always the gentleman, responded politely even though he had not really known them from Adam. That scores some big points, coming from a fan’s perspective!
Mr. Astaire certainly lived up to all he portrayed on the silver screen- as evidenced by this experience, and made him all the more enjoyable while watching him last night glide across the dance floor with Ginger in his arms. That certainly was a class act, performed by a truly classy individual!
Just as an aside: The lovely actress, Jennifer Jones was also in the film. I stood next to her during production. Here was a performer that had put her mark on Hollywood during its bygone era of lavish Selznick productions. “The Song of Bernadette” (1943), “Duel in the Sun” (1946), and “Portrait of Jenny” (1948) are just a sample of the productions this talented actress starred in. She achieved many accomplishments in her life, but her greatest was winning the Academy Award for Best Actress in 1943 ( “The Song of Bernadette”) which cemented her career. She was married to actor Robert Walker, and then later to David O. Selznick. She had one son, Robert Walker Jr., who I also happened to work with on “The Streets of San Francisco”. She too is legendary, and unfortunately also overlooked as Mr. Astaire was during the filming. She wandered bright-eyed, caught up by the excitement of working again in a big 2oth Century Fox film, not noticing that not one eye was cast in her direction as she passed unnoticed through the midst of the crowd. I was watching however, and was still awed by her beauty and apparent charm.
Another aside: A website dedicated to all things “Towering Inferno” captured my mother and myself in a photo from the production. Here are the links where they can be found:
Tony Piazza, as a cop:
Virginia Piazza, on the escalator:
A bit blurry because they captured it from the film, but recognizable.
Tony Piazza (Courtesy of Charlotte Alexander)
Tony Piazza is author of the 1930s Hollywood murder mystery novel, “Anything Short of Murder,” which had its roots on the TCM fan website. His second novel, “The Curse of the Crimson Dragon” was published next in early 2012, and in November of 2013 his second Tom Logan Mystery, “A Murder Amongst Angels was released.” In July of 2015 his latest Logan mystery, “Murder Is Such Sweet Revenge” was made available for purchase, and has since been an instant bestseller. All are available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble websites. He was an actor/extra during the 1970s and worked with such legends as Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, and Karl Malden. His non-fiction e-book “Bullitt Points” is an in depth look at the making of “Bullitt” from a person who was there. Look for it on Amazon and Barnes and Noble websites, or at the link posted below. All profits go to the Boys Republic charity: www.bullittpoints.com.
Tony Piazza is a member of Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and SLO NightWriters.
The novels that started it all. The first and second novel in the Tom Logan mystery series have become audio books- read by actor James Romick, and is available on Audible, Amazon, and I-tunes.
The NEW Tom Logan mystery, “Murder is Such Sweet Revenge” is available in print, e-book, AND NOW audio book on Amazon and Barnes & Noble websites. For audio- Audible, Amazon, and I-tunes.
My earlier bestselling novels, “The Curse of the Crimson Dragon” and “Anything Short of Murder” now joins “A Murder Amongst Angels” and “Murder is Such Sweet Revenge” on Amazon’s Kindle at a new, low price of $2.99. Now you can have hours of adventure, thrills, mystery, and romance for the price of a cup of coffee- and just as stimulating! Look for it on Amazon. Print versions have also been reduced.
Also: The new Tom Logan mystery thriller, A Murder Amongst Angels .
Find them all on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and wherever fine books are sold. Also available for $2.99 on Kindle.