William Bast recalls the making of The Betsy


Family Values

     Novelists have always found the rich and famous fair (and sometimes not so fair) game. Honore de Balzac parodied the Baron Rothschild after dining at his table. In the 1920s Edith Wharton chronicled the affairs of the descendents of New York's Dutch settlers whose blood (not to mention fortunes) had thinned by the time Mrs. Wharton impaled them in her pages.

     But it was not until the publication of The Carpetbaggers in 1961 that fictionalizing the rich and famous became an art form itself (of sorts).

     The author was a former accountant named Harold Robbins who had once worked for a Hollywood studio. The book's characters were based on Howard Hughes, the millionaire playboy producer (and inventor and pilot) and Jean Harlow (Rina Marlowe in the book, in case anybody missed the point), the blonde film goddess who led a tempestuous life on and off screen.

     The one-time obscure studio accountant knew a motherlode when he hit one, and over the years Robbins turned out a steady stream of bestsellers on Hollywood and pseudo-Hollywood themes.    

     Literature indeed proved a happy calling. Harold collected a home in the south of France, a custom made Rolls-Royce, and an 85 foot yacht on which he cruised the Mediterranean. Until his death in 1997, however, there were persistent rumors that cocaine and ghostwriters helped assist Robbins's overworked muse.

     In 1971 Robbins published The Betsy, a saga about the Detroit auto industry. The novel spanned several generations of an auto manufacturing dynasty and contained Robbins's standard formula of glamour, sex, wealth, and murder.    

He relished Robbins

     Lorimar purchased the film rights and pulled off a coup by signing Sir Laurence Olivier (1907-1989) to play Loren Hardeman, the family patriarch with an eye for young ladies. The august English actor had previously appeared in films based on the works of a number of notable novelists (Bronte, Austen), not to mention a playwright named Shakespeare.

     Tommy Lee Jones, a young Harvard graduate, played Angelo Perino, the Italian-American car designer and racer set on conquering both the Hardeman empire and Hardeman heiress. Robert Duvall was the wily Hardeman scion, and Joseph Wiseman played a character loosely based on Meyer Lansky. (Gangsters were another Robbins staple.)

     The female cast were worthy Robbins heroines: elegant, voluptuous--sometimes both--and included Lesley-Anne Down as an aristocratic British widow whose mourning period had long ended, Jane Alexander, Katharine Ross, and Kathleen Beller as the eponymous Betsy.

     After rejecting one treatment, the studio turned to William Bast to come up with a workable screenplay. Bast had been writing for television since he was in his twenties and had recently written a well-received television movie on James Dean, the actor who had been Bast's roommate at UCLA in 1950 and later in New York.

     Although The Betsy was a box office success, and Bast was offered other film projects, he returned to his television career as a producer and writer, sometimes in collaboration with Paul Huson.

     This interview was posted on American Legends in 2006; Bill Bast died in 2015 at 84. In addition to his television work, Bill wrote two memoirs of his friendship with James Dean, the first of which, James Dean, was published in 1956. The slender volume was a genuine (rather than manufactured) "underground classic." Issued as an original paperback by Ballantine Books, Bill's memoir of the once struggling actor who was killed in a sports car crash in 1955 on the verge of fame was ignored by the book editors of The New York Times, Time, the (late) Saturday Review--the tastemakers of their era. But the book was treasured by early Dean fans who held onto their copies as Jimmy moved in and out of vogue in the 50s, 60s, and finally the 70s when the last Dean revival began with a spate of biographies that mined Bill's memoir for insight and material.

Here, as originally published, Bill Bast remembered the making of The Betsy.



How did you come to adapt The Betsy for the screen?



I was offered the adaptation after Walter Bernstein had done an earlier draft. Normally, I wouldn't have considered sharing credit, but when I heard Olivier had been signed, I decided this was something I definitely wanted to do.

AL: How did you approach the job?



Robbins had provided a very good story, and luckily had done all the technical research. Aside from re-shaping the plot, which involved adding a number of flashbacks to provide continuity, I accentuated Olivier's fixation on Katharine Ross (who played his daughter-in-law), and filled out the homosexual affair and suicide of Olivier's son who was played by Paul Rudd.


AL: Did you write any scenes with Olivier specifically in mind?



I didn't get to know Olivier until after the movie, but I had seen him playing an American in a British TV production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and realized his American accent was in serious trouble. So I wrote into the script that Loren Hardeman, the character Olivier played, didn't have an American accent because he had been raised in England. When Dan Petrie, the director, returned from location in Detroit, I asked him how Larry's accent had worked out, and Dan rather sheepishly told me that Larry had prevailed and used his famous "Kansas" accent anyway.


AL: Olivier had been in MGM's version of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice (1940) and Samuel Goldwyn's version of Charlotte Bronte's Wuthering Heights (1939). How did he feel about filming Harold Robbins?



He never brought the subject up, but he seemed to be having a good time, like a kid getting up to mischief. He very much enjoyed being back in Hollywood again. It brought back memories of the good old days. In fact, Paul Huson, who had played the Prince of Wales in Larry's movie, Richard III (1955), and I took him to dinner at Musso & Frank which tickled him a lot.


AL: Harold Robbins was allowed more freedom of expression than the Bronte sisters.



Olivier relished the idea of the Robbins sex scenes. However, he felt that one scene that required him to have sex in a clothes closet with his wife's French maid might prove too arduous for him. He believed it would require "a light Cordelia" (as John Gielgud said of King Lear's youngest daughter), or at least a harness in which to suspend the maid. As the scene was shot, the culminating act was left to the audience's imagination. On the other hand, Larry's ogling Katharine Ross breast feeding the baby and his subsequent tryst with Katharine in bed, were not cut. Later, Harold Robbins told me that he considered The Betsy the "best movie adaptation of any of his works."


AL: Was director Dan Petrie faithful to your script?


I found Dan always faithful to the script. I made mutually agreeable adjustments in consultation with him before shooting began. However, Olivier did give Ivan Moffat, his English-born chum, a helping hand by roping him in to do some diddles on his dialogue on the set. I learned this afterwards. But that was Larry's mischief.


AL: How did the studio react to the film's R rating?



The studio found Dan's cut to be rather tame, so he went back and filmed an additional sex scene between Lesley-Anne Down and Tommy Lee Jones, in a rented hotel room, as I recall. It seemed like they were looking for a R rating, although nobody ever said so, of course. They did want Dan to "heat it up." I don't believe Betsy's nude swim scene was in the book, nor Larry's line "never shit a shitter." Ladylike Jane Alexander's bitter line, "Did you f--k her?" was left in the final cut, surprisingly. So was Tommy Lee Jones's line, "Yeah, I got a tape recorder hidden up my ass." These are only some examples of the rough language everybody wanted, to do what they saw was justice to Harold Robbins's material. To the best of my recollection, there was no effort to avoid a R rating--rather the opposite, it appeared.


AL: What was Dan Petrie like as a director?



Thorough, calm, surprisingly easygoing. He got what he wanted by being a gentleman, not by bullying. On top of everything, he never lost his cool.



Reviewers and critics too often overlook the editing and cinematography work in a film. 



In cutting and editing, Rita Roland did a splendid job. I had only a few suggestions, most of which she'd already considered and done. Rita not only took my idea of seeing the impact of Loren Hardeman, Jr.'s suicide on his young son, but she used stop-action to emphasize it which lent it a terrific impact. I'll never forget Mario Tosi's shot of the kid watching the shooting.


AL: The flashbacks to 1930s Detroit and the auto baron's grand lifestyle stood out in the film.



I though Dorothy Jeakins took us back in time and kept us up to date with remarkable elegance and dexterity in her costuming. John Barry's score was a wonderful surprise. It was both classic and classy. And topping everything was Dan Petrie's extraordinary direction.


AL: During the filming, did you have much interaction with the female leads: Lesley-Anne Down, Katharine Ross, Jane Alexander?



Only cursory meetings and script discussions. They all took the project seriously and were very committed. Surprisingly so, for a Harold Robbins's piece--you'd have thought it was Shakespeare. But good actors always take their roles seriously.





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