Penthouse Retrospective

by Ernest Volkman Originally Published: May, 1980

The Guccione Legacy | 40 Years Ago This Month

Despite the fact that he shot approximately 120 miles of film — enough, incidentally, to make the original version of Ben Hur about 50 times over — he ignored anywhere up to half the sets and props that Danilo had created. Naturally, Danilo was heartbroken, but Franco and I were wild. With a little planning on the director’s part, we could have saved millions.

Didn’t you once suggest that Brass had actually tried to sabotage the film?

Guccione: As strange as it may sound, it’s true. It took us some time to understand that we were up against a very sick guy.

In the beginning, I found him — or at least I thought that I had found him — cooperative. He seemed to understand what we were trying to achieve, and we offered him something that comes to a relatively unknown director once, if at all, in a lifetime: a chance to make a film of colossal proportions and also an opportunity to exercise an almost free hand artistically.

But why, with all the money you had to spend, didn’t you choose someone more reliable, someone with a track record for honesty and professionalism?

Guccione: For several reasons. I had consulted with other directors, including people like John Huston and Lina Wertmuller. Huston was interested in a similar project I once had, but his agent became greedy and difficult to negotiate with. Lina was another problem. She loved the idea of making Caligula, but she wanted to get rid of Gore and change the title to Lina Wertmuller’s Caligula… a bit of a mouthful and one that failed to take into consideration the fact that I had already shelled out damn near a quarter of a million dollars to get Vidal’s version on paper. She also had the rather improbable notion that Jack Nicholson should play Caligula.

In the end, Tinto was my idea. He was cutting Madame Kitty when I met him, and I had seen a couple of reels and felt that he had a certain raw but workable talent. He was insufficiently known to be too demanding, and I honestly felt that the magnitude of our project would keep him in line.

You mean to say that you didn’t check him out-you didn’t talk to other producers who knew him and had worked with him before?

Guccione: That’s right. I hired him blindly, over lunch. He appeared to grasp our rather difficult concept at once. And it was obvious that he didn’t have any emotional hang-ups about sex. Quite the contrary. I later learned, of course, that he had given his last two producers the same kind of problems he gave us. But it was too late. The die, as they say, was cast.

How did he get along with McDowell and the others?

Guccione: Fine. He and McDowell were in each other’s pocket. O’Toole disliked him on sight, and I don’t think Gielgud cared very much one way or the other. Sir John did his thing without a murmur… without intrigue and without problems. He was a complete gentleman throughout, never demanding and never complaining. Just goes to show you that real talent can survive without benefit of an overbearing ego. Helen Mirren was the same. She is an important talent… much bigger than either McDowell or O’Toole. It’s a shame her part as Caesonia wasn’t more demanding.

Did Peter O’Toole give you any problems?

Guccione: I don’t think I ever saw him sober. He doesn’t drink anymore, or at least he wasn’t drinking then, but he was strung out on something. From time to time it took a little longer than usual to get him on the set, and when you’ve got six or seven hundred people standing around, his little habits can become goddamn expensive. At the end of the film he became a real pain in the ass. He wouldn’t re-voice his own part. He held everyone up by constantly breaking appointments or just not showing up at all. Dubbing studios and the professional people that go with them are expensive and difficult to reserve. Finally, after chasing him halfway around the world, we nailed him in Canada, and one of our executives dragged him in front of a mike. It wasn’t easy, and it cost us a lot of unnecessary money. On top of which, he gave interviews to the press, condemning the film he had never even seen rushes of. Nice guy! He took our money — and then tells the world the film is so bad it’ll probably never see the light of day.

And McDowell? How did you get along with him?

Guccione: Malcolm is another story. He’s a fine actor but a shallow person. He and Tinto were inseparable… not because Malcolm particularly liked or respected him but because he was easy for Malcolm to manipulate.

Why do you say shallow?

“Peter O’Toole. Nice guy. He takes your money and then tells the world the film is so bad it’ll probably never see the light of day.”

Guccione: Cheap is a better word… stingy! Stingier than anyone I have ever known. In my not inconsiderable experience with people, Malcolm McDowell holds the all-time record. I don’t think he ever paid for a cup of coffee. At one point he took a bunch of people out to dinner to celebrate an Anglo-Italian football match that England had won. He took them to the most expensive place in town, ordered champagne, and made a big show of being the generous host. In the end he stuck the choreographer with the check, saying that he had forgotten to bring enough cash. Several weeks later the choreographer, a relatively poor and modest man, came to us and asked if we could repay the money Malcolm owed him. He said that Malcolm told him to collect the debt from the production because he had taken the Pets as well and they were part of Penthouse. He did that on more than one occasion, but in blatant and obvious ways that would have mortified anyone else.

Few of us can imagine a life and then build it to a point when the entire world recognizes, if not envies, it. The Bob Guccione Legacy reached that goal.

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