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[whitespace] The Other Oswald

One of the Santa Cruz Film Festival's special guests remembers his time as part of the JFK conspiracy

By Dan Bessie

I was Lee Harvey Oswald's right hand. Not his left hand, mind you, his right! When an anonymous e-mail notified me that I'd been pegged as a member of the Fair Play for Cuba Committee back in the '60s (a group to which Lee Harvey Oswald belonged), my first impulse was to collapse on the floor in laughing hysterics. Especially since the article also attempted to tie State Sen. Bruce McPherson to some cockamamie plot in which moderate Republicans are out to "Sovietize" America. The deranged writer further bent credibility by linking me with a bevy of wild-eyed "socialists," including Senators John Kerry, John McCain and Joseph Lieberman.

Well, OK, maybe I did attend one or two meetings of Fair Play for Cuba, but good old Anonymous had turned the proverbial molehill into Mt. Everest; fact is, I was never a member. By the mid-to-late '60s and on into the '70s, I was too busy making movies to get involved in much else.

But guess what? When I got up off the floor and sat staring at the lurid description of how the slimy red tentacles of communism have been infiltrating the Republican Party, it hit me right between the eyes: Mr. Anonymous is right! He's nailed me! There is a Lee Harvey Oswald connection!

Flashback to 1973: I'd been involved in making films since 1956, when I apprenticed on Tom & Jerry cartoons at MGM. From there, my road led through animated TV commercials (Jell-o, Schlitz Beer, Culligan water filters--all good American products, rush right out and stock up) to Saturday morning kid shows (Marvel Superheros, Spiderman, Linus the Lionhearted) to my own small film company--and finally, wonder of wonders, a chance to produce a feature.

Executive Action was the title, and it dealt with a plot by wealthy right-wingers to assassinate President John Kennedy. It starred Burt Lancaster, then-chairman of the arts division of the American Civil Liberties Union--another bunch of subversives. Will Geer (Grandpa Walton) was in the picture, too, along with Robert Ryan. I met him the day before filming at the airport, where he got off the plane with Robert Preston (The Music Man); both were delightfully pickled.

For executive producer Eddie Lewis, raising production funds for Executive Action was like trying to catch a greased pig. Hugely controversial, the script by blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo (my dad was blacklisted, too) argues that Oswald was a patsy, and implies that the whole affair was covered up.

Technically, making the film was hell on wheels. The final tab, $750,000, was chicken feed, even in 1973. Everyone including Burt Lancaster worked for union minimum (though he owned a percentage). We sweltered through 105 degree heat near Palmdale, and shot in seedy motels and in a Bel Air mansion (for a $2,500 daily fee) where the owner and his work-at-home staff suddenly appeared each noon to feed at the catering trough. Buildings in Long Beach subbed for the Texas Schoolbook Depository, where Lee Harvey Oswald worked.

Naturally, we needed an actor to double for Oswald. My casting assistant, Debbie, showed up one morning with Jim, a scruffy and bearded friend from high school days.

"Who's this?"

"Lee Harvey Oswald."

"Debbie, please!"

With that, she was off, dragging Jim to a local barber. And back in an hour and a half with ... Lee Harvey Oswald! Well, close enough; you know the movies.

The picture came in on time and way over budget (I had figured we could do it for $425,000). But with major stars aboard, certain amenities were added. Editing took forever, and the film was recut three times. As the line producer, I got blamed for the cost overrun, of course.

No matter. Executive Action rolled out to huge publicity and decent reviews, and was a smash hit for three weeks. Then it faded. But Burt Lancaster and executive producer Eddie Lewis made pots of money. I had a tiny percentage too, and over three years racked up $27,500, including my producer's fee. Not too shabby for a year-and-a-half's work, I thought, and certainly the high point of a dismal earning career in the picture business.

Oh, but the Lee Harvey Oswald connection: well, in one sequence, Oswald's letters to various left-wing groups are shown, close up. In another, he's writing the Soviet embassy to request a visa to enter the USSR. Though his letters are in the public record, getting permission to use them in a commercial film was impossible. What to do?

"You write the letters," says Eddie Lewis.

And so I did. I copied every Oswald letter available. In the scene where Lee sits at his desk penning that letter to the USSR, the writing had to match, and that's where my good right hand came in. Jim, our Oswald double, was in the main shot, but when it was time for a close-up, I replaced Jim and quickly penned a few words in my nearly illegible scrawl. You'd never know it wasn't Lee Harvey Oswald's writing. The magic of the movies.

So Anonymous was spot on after all. He found me out. My right hand is probably blacklisted, now and forever. It will never work in Hollywood again.

Dan Bessie will be part of a screenwriting seminar Sunday, June 1, from 11am to 2pm at 423 Front St., as part of the Santa Cruz Film Festival. He will also lead a screenwriting seminar Monday, June 2, from noon to 3pm at the same location. Call 429.1136 for more information.

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From the May 28-June 4, 2003 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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