The Cinema Cafe

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Close Encounters of the Treasured Kind #6 Joan Rivers



I am honoured to introduce noted author Preston Neal Jones making his first contribution here.



What I Did With JOAN RIVERS On My Summer Vacation


The passing of Joan Rivers inevitably calls to mind the summer of 1966, my first college-age vacation, which I filled by serving (and I do mean serving) as a production assistant, AKA "go-fer," on the Burt Lancaster movie, The Swimmer.  Based on the John Cheever short story, The Swimmer was a Sam Spiegel production, written and directed respectively by Eleanor Perry and her husband Frank, and filmed on location at the swimming pools of Cheever country in Fairfield County, Connecticut.  This was the briar patch where I was born, and when I offered my services (and the use of our family car) to the production team they hired me on the spot. The Production Manager was Joe Manduke, (later a director), and on the morning of my first assignment he sat me down in his office and gave me what is still the best piece of film-making advice I ever received.  "Preston," he said, "This is a serious business.  If we send you out for a cup of coffee, don't come back with a trombone."


Burt Lancaster and Joan Rivers in 'The Swimmer'

Burt Lancaster and Joan Rivers in 'The Swimmer'

Several hundred coffee cups later, filming was well underway, mostly intimate two-character dialogue scenes between Lancaster's middle-aging suburban stud Ned Merrill and the various neighbors he encounters on his allegorical journey homeward via various swimming pools. Came the day, however, for a real mob scene, the pool party of a wealthy married couple and their friends.  One face in the crowd was a character named "Joan," played by Joan Rivers, the young and quickly-becoming-famous comedienne (as they used to  be called in those pre-P.C. days before actresses became actors).  The Perrys had befriended Miss Rivers, (who had been an actress well before  venturing into stand-up), and had written into the script this little vignette -- a fleeting flirtation -- especially for her.  If you've seen the film, perhaps you'll agree with me that Miss Rivers acquitted herself very well in the part, making the most of her brief moment to portray a touching portrait of a cute but wistful party-goer.


When not on camera, you won't be surprised to hear, Miss Rivers reverted to her comic persona, joking and riffing with the crew.  Amid her laugh-getting, self-deprecating autobiographical reminiscences, the one bit I still remember is in retrospect not a little ironic.  She told of sitting in an airplane seat next to the legendary Marlene Dietrich.  "She never said a word to me the whole flight," said Joan, then added in a throwaway, "Probably afraid of breaking the stitches."


How often I've thought of that moment watching Miss Rivers in later years, never more so than during the recent TV obituaries with many a split screen showing, on one side, the young Joan Rivers I remember fondly, and on the other, someone wearing a mask, resembling neither Joan Rivers nor any other human being.  The voice behind the mask, however, remained identical and inimitably hers.  But this is not the moment to dwell on such things as the sadness of a clown who titled her last book, "I Hate everyone... Starting With Me."  In the wake of her sudden exit from the scene, I'd rather remember the attractive young lady on location who acted with distinction on camera, and off camera, in the words of Joni Mitchell, "played real good for free."