This is part of a continuing series of profiles of prominent members of Hollywood Heritage. Julian “Bud” Lesser is a long-time supporter and currently serves on the Board of Directors of Hollywood Heritage.
The best part of Hollywood, I think, is the Hollywood heritage. I lived here 80 years before moving away, but I keep visiting Barn events, because I’ve been in the trenches making films. There you learn to know a good thing the minute you find it.
Born in San Francisco, 1915, to producer Sol Lesser, I wondered what the fuss was and I hollered. When they laid rules on me later I muted the hollering. Movies were fun for a kid. I could take little rolls of nitrate film from the cutting room floor to school. During recess I could roll each up in a bit of newspaper, twist the ends like a bonbon and light it with a match. The celluloid would burst into flame and when I stomped it out on the schoolyard, it would smoke and stink. This made me popular. I gave film rolls to classmates. I decided I would become a film man.
My dad was a raconteur and I could learn about his exploits at his principal studio, the problems and his solutions. As an independent producer he did the whole job—get a show on the stages, finish it well and sell it; know every craft; know good film from poor, and what to do about mistakes.
However my high school summer job in the “civilian” sphere, and my 1936 Stanford graduation were no help. No studio would hire me. I had entrée to film execs but each said, “Bud your dad should give you a job.” The lesson: Get into the trenches, accept frustration. Good things can happen by accident.
So I worked summers for my dad as a publicity intern, later doing shoots as an assistant. I got a two-year job as sales representative for Eastman Raw Film at 6700 Santa Monica Blvd. Then, three years in dad’s distribution office at the RKO-Pathé Studio. I kept charts of every theater in the U.S. and checked how our Tarzans sold. This was tedium and it all stopped in 1940. Congress voted a draft while war raged in Europe. I was tagged “3A” in a non-essential industry. They would get me soon. I tried to join Army and Navy film units. They turned me down. No experience. Then Pearl Harbor was bombed. We were at war, 1941. Now the tedium paid off.
From the distribution experience I could offer to my L.A. councilman a Civil Defense training film system for the city, schools to handle films for Air Raid Warden meetings. It was approved and I was made chief. Part of my work was with Donald Gledhill, manager of the Academy in the Taft Building. Donald recommended me to the Marine Corps Photographic Section, Quantico, Virginia, as Distribution Officer.
There I supplied all training films to the Corps. At Quantico, and in the Pacific, I was an officer and didn’t need to holler. If hollering is necessary, your Sergeant does it.
Back in Hollywood after the war, the studios gave me the same old denials. So Dad put me in his story department behind Julie Evans and Bill Koenig. Slow going. In 1946, Dad had a heart attack and closed our company a year while he recuperated in Palm Springs.
As a result, Louis Hyman, my old distribution boss, swung to me a deal to make four Gene Stratton Porter stories at low budget. Monogram would sign the completion bond. I would co-produce with production manager Frank Melford, a money saver. I must put up risk money. With it we got the bank loan and I co-produced Michael O’Halloran with Scotty Beckett and Allene Roberts.
O’Halloran was a hit and we got a deal for a big western, Massacre River, with Guy Madison and Rory Calhoun. Now, with two successes I ran head-on into the frustration and torment endemic in Hollywood.
Nobody in Hollywood explains it, because it’s embarrassing. Hollywood is a battleground. Because the number of screens is finite, every producer must take a share of 37,000 (approx.) U.S. screens. So each producer must elbow past every other producer for that playing time. Director Mark Travis told me, “Movies aren’t made, they are forced into production.”
If you produce you do this adroitly. You may need the other guy tomorrow, and he might need talented you. You find a logical reason for stepping in front of him. You find yourself making such decisions every hour, in and out of production. This weird struggle filters down to all movie crafts. From the discipline you learn to make good decisions.
On my first film, this was scary. Director John Rawlins asked for something extra, to rehearse the O’Halloran cast in the standing sets a day before the start. Cast would work free. Before Melford could say no, I approved. They rehearsed all day, the cast had time to relate their characters. O’Halloran turned out flawless, Monogram’s film of the year.
Massacre River turned out gorgeous with Canyon de Chelly locations; but the action was overloaded and clumsy. I showed it to my ailing father, who said, “Cut the marriage, let Madison run away with the girl, the girl dies in the Indian attack.” This meant shooting a new ending for the girl (Carole Matthews) to die, and a recut. I figured it could save the show. That caused an uproar with director Rawlins and editor Dick Cahoon. We thrashed it out in a tense meeting. Rawlins shouted, “It’s not a bad picture!” I hollered back, “I’m not in the business to make not-bad pictures!” So with the changes we made a good one.
I made The Saint Returns with Louis Hayward, who-dunnits with Diana Dors, Herbert Lom, Richard Carlson, Mark Stevens, a documentary feature Jungle Headhunters for RKO; then 198 half-hour TV documentaries, mostly for Ralston Purina on ABC; I did 14 years on the Academy Documentary Committee. But by 1960 I was ready for a change from the fighting that now included my own father.
A Hollywood lawyer, Ronald Buck, opened a new door. Buck, on the side, was coining money in the Hollywood Hills building redwood houses. And he yearned to be a producer. So I made Buck my assistant and he taught me house building. Buck later became producer for Paul Newman and opened Hampton’s Restaurant on Highland. Meanwhile I piled Hollywood lore into 41 houses on Woodrow Wilson Drive and nearby. Like in recutting films, I added skylights, balconies, fruit trees. I used an art director. In a way it was cousin to preservation. This lasted until I had a heart bypass in 1998
I sold out, moved to Palm Desert, joined The Desert Museum. I have a wife, three children, plus three grandkids to play with. I have a nice sister to stay with in Beverly Hills. No more hollering for me. I love what we’re doing at the Barn and I cheer the great work of Hollywood Heritage.