Thursday, September 6, 2012

San Francisco in TV & Movies: A Personal Post by Tony Piazza

Today I welcome Tony Piazza, Central Coast mystery writer, film historian, presenter, and a veteran storyteller well-known for his passion about writing and movies.
Piazza is the author of two mystery novels, Anything Short of Murder and The Curse of the Crimson Dragon, (Dog Ear Publishing-available through Amazon). Piazza’s new book, Bullitt Points, (SansTree), provides behind-the-scenes look at the making of the classic Steve McQueen movie “Bullitt” and the involvement of the Piazza family in the production. Piazza worked regularly as an extra and stand-in on multiple Hollywood movies and television shows shot in San Francisco during the 1970′s, including “Towering Inferno,” “High Anxiety,” “Magnum Force,” and “Streets of San Francisco.” His inventory of stories reads like a Who’s Who of Hollywood from that era: Clint Eastwood, Steve McQueen, Darren McGavin, Paul Newman, Karl Malden, Michael Douglas, Raymond Burr, Walter Matthau, Fred Astaire, Robert Vaughn and Leslie Nielsen.  


The San Francisco Bay Area has played host to a number of motion picture and television production companies over the years. Why? A cinematographer once told me that San Francisco with its numerous hills and magnificent views of the bay made it the second most photographed city in the world, with Rome being awarded the first. I would like to add being a former citizen, both born and raised there, that San Francisco, with its Barbary Coast history, dark foreboding alleys, and fog shrouded streets was chosen by production companies because it provided the perfect backdrop for their films dealing in crime, detection, and mystery. A few motion pictures that come to mind--D.O.A, Dark Passage, The Lady from Shanghai, The House on Telegraph Hill, and most notably The Maltese Falcon. Author Dashiell Hammett had his roots in the city, and even though Nick Charles’s first case for The Thin Man takes place in New York, its movie sequel landed the detective, wife Nora, and dog Asta with relatives in the bay area. Television also viewed San Francisco as a prime candidate for their crime series; San Francisco Beat a.k.a. The Lineup and Sam Benedict being two early examples.

I was extremely fortunate as a youth and young adult to share in this history. My father was a San Francisco police officer who was assigned back in 1959 to act as liaison to visiting film companies. He provided security, crowd and traffic control, technical advice-- in essence anything that involved the logistics of assisting with their film production. He worked closely with directors searching out locations and with stunt coordinators orchestrating car chases. This assignment gave my mother and me under-the-rope access to these productions and the unique opportunity to meet stars, directors, and technicians. He did this for seventeen years, and in the process made a name for himself. I eventually became directly involved in the 1970s, working as an extra, stand-in, and bit actor. I signed with the largest of the modeling/casting agents,the Brebner Agency, and was given opportunities to work on such shows as Magnum Force, The Streets of San Francisco, and The Enforcer, and becoming friends with the likes of Clint Eastwood, Karl Malden and Michael Douglas. It was quite a surreal experience for a man in his early twenties. When I sat in theaters, or watched television I saw myself up on the screen opposite these great ones. Even today, when I sit down and pop a DVD of Streets into my player I’m not just watching a show, but reliving memories. It’s like viewing home movies.

My first recollection of being on a film location was in the late fifties. I was taken by my mother to Candlestick Park to visit my dad on the set of Experiment in Terror. The film starred Glenn Ford, Lee Remick, and Ross Martin. Somehow during our visit we ended up being an extra in the audience at the ballpark under the direction of Blake Edwards. What a thrill, but I didn’t really understand that then. As an inquisitive four year old, I was just confused why we were cheering for a ball team that wasn’t there. As time passed, however, I did become more cognizant of events around me, and totally appreciative of the opportunities that my dad’s associations brought me. I got to meet my heartthrob Ann Margaret filming Once a Thief, visit with the very cool Steve McQueen at San Francisco General Hospital on location for Bullitt, joke around with Raymond Burr and the cast of Ironside, and nearly bought the car that Dirty Harry Callahan (Clint Eastwood) drove in the film of that same name. And although I was too young when the Master of Suspense, Alfred Hitchcock filmed Vertigo, I did see him later on the set of his last film, Family Plot. Marching down the center aisle of Grace Cathedral on his way to his director chair, Hitch red faced, and huffing and puffing reminded me of an Archbishop on his way to conduct mass. Later, when I became part of the crew of The Streets of San Francisco (initially as a stand-in for Michael Douglas and then Richard Hatch) I was able to live out my childhood fantasies, by playing cops and robbers right up there on the screen. Not too many young men can say that.

For many years, I’d share these stories to a select few- family, friends, and co-workers, and dusted off my photograph album occasionally for those who might be interested. But, as time went by and gray hairs started sprouting on my head, I started thinking about leaving a legacy. With no children to relate my stories to,  I was afraid that there wouldn’t be anyone left to pass on the unique history that my family was a part of. It was at that moment in my life and in this mindset that I discovered the Turner Classic Movie site, and was introduced to blogging. Presented here was a new venue to tell my stories to interested individuals- and fascinated they were. Quite frankly I was surprised by the response and amazed at the audience which I quickly developed. I had to shake my head, and tell myself that I really had fans, and not just of local friends, but members that stretched around the globe! We’ve all heard the phrase, “be careful what you wish for,” that certainly applied here, for now I was expected by my audience to supply regular postings. To fill in-between the stories of my experiences-- for ones’ memory can be limited at times, I decided to see how my audience would accept my attempts at writing fiction. My first book, Anything Short of Murder, a hardboiled detective thriller set in the Hollywood (land) of the 1930s was the result, and became an instant hit amongst the TCM audience. It was their e-mails and messages that convinced me to publish the story from its serialized form into a complete novel. Now some three books later, and working on a fourth, all this has become history. In addition, as a writer I’ve branched off to form my own author’s site where at last count I share some sixty-one posts of my film and television experiences. This year I also published a memoir in e-book length, Bullitt Points, the story of my meeting Steve McQueen and a personal account on the making of Bullitt. This experience brought me full circle, for all the proceeds from the purchase of the book goes to McQueen’s charity, The Boys Republic, and that allowed me to once again enter the celebrity circle and meet Steve’s son, Chad McQueen.

Reflecting back over the last couple of years I find it amazing how much I’ve accomplished in my writing career. I don’t take credit for it. For what success I’ve had, had more to do with the blessed opportunities given me, and the blood, sweat, and long, tiring devotion that my dad had put into his work. I’m just a storyteller relating his own special tale. My only regret is that my dad isn't here to share in the joy that the telling and sharing of these stories has brought me.

Every writer has his or her story to tell. It’s a journey that doesn’t start with fingers on a keyboard, but with the first breath taken in life. Experiences to me as a writer are as bricks to a mason. I use them to build stories that I hope will leave a lasting impression on my reader’s minds.

For more celebrity posts by Tony Piazza go to:

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