I want to make sure as many people as possible read this interview James Cathcart did in the Scene this week with Ted Kotcheff, the veteran director whose furious 1971 psychological drama Wake in Fright is one of the year's most acclaimed reissues. The movie opens Friday at The Belcourt, and I watched enough to know I want to see it in a theater. It's a gut-wrenching study of macho derangement set in an Outback hellhole, where a civilized teacher (Gary Bond) succumbs to the lure of constant drinking, gambling and fuck-or-fight belligerence. Think Greed with the steadily ratcheting unease of Straw Dogs — that's what I've seen of Wake in Fright.
So James, known as one of Nashville's hardcore termite cinephiles, looked up Kotcheff, whose credits extend from 1965's Life at the Top through First Blood and Weekend at Bernie's all the way to episodes of Law & Order: SVU. The interview that resulted offers one great story after another, but one anecdote in particular blew my mind. A story from Kotcheff's early days in live television, it should be taught as an example of quick thinking under unimaginable duress:
In 1958 you were directing a live television broadcast of an Armchair Theatre installment called Underground when tragedy struck. Sadly, no recording of that broadcast exists today, but could you share what happened?
That was certainly a test of my nerves. There was a wonderful actor, Gareth Jones. He was 32 and one week away from getting married. We had a three-act structure with two commercial breaks in it. Towards the end of act two, the makeup girl rushed into the control room to say that Gareth Jones had passed out. "Oh my God," I said, but we had to continue — it was live.
The play was about an H-bomb that struck London and flattened it and killed everybody except those people who were down in the underground, which is why it's called Underground. I had a long shot where the actors are entering near a tunnel, and the lead actor arrives and sees that Jones was not there, whom he was supposed to have a scene with. So he says to the five or six other characters that were with him — and quite loudly, to cue me as well — he says, "I THINK WE SHOULD GO DOWN THIS TUNNEL!" And thankfully I had a camera ready.
The plot was that a fascistic society was being created in this social vacuum. And Gareth Jones was playing this kind of Judas character who betrays them all. He was the villain, in a sense. Anyways, as Act Two comes to a close, the makeup girl rushed back in and she said, "Gareth Jones had a heart attack — he's dead!"
Sorry. You've got to go here to read how the story turns out — and it's just as incredible. Spread the word, both about this piece and about Wake in Fright.