Entertainment » Books

Fascinating People :: Nat Segaloff

by Kilian Melloy
Wednesday Sep 21, 2016

I've had the pleasure of interviewing Nat Segaloff before, most recently on the topic of Stirling Silliphant: The Fingers of God," his biography of the prolific TV and feature film writer who produced a number of scripts for classic television series like "The Naked City" and "Route 66," wrote films you've certainly seen (or at least heard of) like "In the Heat of the Night," "The Poseidon Adventure," and "The Towering Inferno" -- to sample only three of his many credits -- and who also basically introduced Bruce Lee to America.

We've also discussed Segaloff's amusing and fascinating (if slightly morbid) book "Final Cuts," which details the films a number of famous directors were working on or had just completed when they died.

Segaloff has penned books about other entertainment luminaries, including John Huston (a book written decades ago but only recently published) and sci-fi heavyweight Harlan Elllison (a biography slated to soon see print). Now, in the memoir "Screen Saver," Segaloff turns his storytelling acumen on himself -- or, rather, his dual career as a film publicist and film critic. It's a breezy account that underscores the strangely schizophrenic nature of the business: The oversized personalities and the underwhelming glories of the day-to-day grind in a machine that specializes in manufacturing illusions. Segaloff's prose also conveys the twinkle in his eye -- something that is very much present in the head shot he supplied to run with this interview.

One book we not discuss (but film buffs ought to check out) is Segaloff's bio of Arthur Penn, director of (among other highlights) "Bonnie and Clyde." Ah, well.

I'd rattle on about Nat, but -- no stranger to the game -- he provided his own remarks to use as preface for a recent interview he graciously granted me. Who am I to further delay Nat's home-brewed introduction?

Dear readers, the fascinating Nat Segaloff.


Before he moved to Los Angeles to produce TV documentaries and write books and plays. Nat Segaloff was a Boston movie publicist for the Sack Theatres chain (now defunct) and various studios. Then he became a critic (WEEI-FM, WBZ's "Evening Magazine," "WSBK's "Movie Loft & Company," The Boston Herald, etc.). When he reported on Hollywood, his insider's knowledge sometimes drew the ire of the people he used to work for. In Screen Saver: Private Stories of Public Hollywood, Nat describes his funny, strange, tense, and sometimes poetic adventures with such people as Paul Newman, Michael Caine, Jane Fonda, Robert Altman, Otto Preminger, and other filmmakers and industry figures he met and worked with.


EDGE: "Screen Saver" is a memoir, but it's not like any memoir I have ever read. It's not chronologically linear; it's not the story of your life, so much as your dual career paths as a publicist and film critic. How (and why) did you arrive at this formula?

Nat Segaloff: I realized the moment I started writing it that nobody would give a hoot who I was, but they might stick around for some name-dropping. I purposely wrote the book from the point of view of an observer even if I was a participant. The episodic structure - can we please call it picaresque? It sounds more impressive - is because I would usually work for somebody for a couple of days, say on a press tour, and then never see them again. Hell, my life is episodic.

EDGE: Being a Boston theater and film critic myself, I was thrilled to see your anecdotes about local characters, not to mention shout-outs to people like my fellow EDGE colleague Kay Bourne. How do you remember all these people and stories? Did you keep a journal? Were the experiences you describe in the book so fun they indelibly impressed you?

Nat Segaloff: It was my privilege to work with people like Kay Bourne for five years when I was a publicist and fifteen more as a colleague, and then to stay friends. With one exception whom I won't name the Boston movie press was exceptionally cordial to one another. You'll have to tell me what it's like today, what with newspapers (The Boston Phoenix) folding and others reducing or cutting their arts coverage, which is an obscene decision. As for the celebrities, I did, in fact, keep notes - remember Mae West's advice, "Keep a good diary and some day it will keep you?" Besides, if you'd survived two days being yelled at by Otto Preminger wouldn't you jot it down?

EDGE: You started your career in 1970 and you saw Hollywood and the movies change dramatically over the course of the years. You identify "Jaws" as a major turning point, when -- you say -- studios stopped making movies that they then courted and coaxed audiences to come and see, and started to make movies based on what they thought people would want. Obviously, that's been bad for movie making, but has it also corrupted the culture in a larger sense? Does "giving the people what they want" have a systematic effect of shrinking out critical faculties, our attention spans, the breadth of our minds?

Nat Segaloff: Giving people what they want is fine for restaurants but not artists. An artist is supposed to inspire people to grow, to think, to feel, and to consider new ideas - not excrete "Transformers 5."

The film companies used to do a pretty good job in the days when the production division made movies that they really hoped would be interesting and different. Then they turned them over to the distribution division to find an audience based on originality. It worked pretty well for 60 years.

Around the time of "Jaws" in 1975, however, the parent companies realized that the distribution end was making all the money and the production end was spending it, so they had the idea to switch the two and have the distribution people tell the production people what to make. The problem was -- and has become - that that kind of manufacturing system (cars, toilet paper, McDonald's, etc.) depends on consistency, not individuality.

Show business is different. It sells experience, not gizmos. You can never sell the same experience over and over again. Hollywood refuses to understand this, but the public does, which is why they're staying away. The dollar grosses may be up, but the number of admissions is down. That's the dirty secret.

EDGE: You describe some interesting friendships, such as that you shared with Dom DeLuise. Having seen fame up close, what did you take away from it? Is it a dangerous or corrosive thing? If you could be as famous as DeLuise, or others you mention in the book, would you want to be?

Nat Segaloff: I had a brush with fame when I was on WBZ-TV's "Evening Magazine" from its 1977 debut to 1979 (why I left will be in my next book). I was also highly visible - make that audible - on WEEI-FM, the CBS Softrock station in Boston. I was occasionally recognized in public but nobody ever knew my name; I was always "that guy on that TV show." I learned an incredibly important lesson from this: television conveys impressions, not facts. When you watch television it goes through your eyes and into the part of your brain that likes opening the refrigerator, closing the refrigerator, then opening it again thirty seconds later to see if anything has changed.

Fame is not normal. Neither are Pringles, but nobody interrupts a Pringle while it's having dinner in a good restaurant to ask for an autograph. It's not normal for a total stranger to pose with you for a selfie and insult you if you politely decline because you're with your family. Dom DeLuise handled it amazingly well; he had that magic about him. He could say anything and get away with it. He'd have a table full of unrelated people over for lunch and the first thing he'd do is ask the newest person in the group, "How did you lose your virginity?" He was always watching his weight but joked about it, saying, "I'm on two diets because you don't get enough to eat on one diet."

Some celebrities handle it well, others don't. I was talking to Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie backstage after a friend's play opening when someone started to take their picture. Pitt barely moved; he simply mouthed "no" and gave them a subtle a facial gesture and that was enough to do the trick. On the other hand, when John Travolta became an overnight sensation he was so heavily guarded by the Robert Stigwood Organisation that they prejudiced the press against him. For a decade. (He's a sweetheart, by the way.) The most disturbing case was Michael Caine, the most charming man I have ever met, who was doing a signing at the Paperback Booksmith on Boylston Street and panicked when he thought one of the autograph people threatened his life.

Maybe fame is like being stoned: Whatever you were beforehand, it only intensifies once you are.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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