The Cult of the James Franciscus Facial Tan Club (Part Two)

*contains spoilers

While he was filming Longstreet, Jimmy set up the James Franciscus Celebrity Tennis Classic to raise money for the now politically incorrect titled charitable organisation Foundation for Retarded Children of the Desert. Held in the Palm Desert area, the classic appears to have run a few years and should have helped Jimmy get a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, at least for his television work. There doesn’t appear to be one as none was forthcoming. Whether it was Hollywood politics due to his divorce from his wife who was the daughter of Hollywood royalty remains unknown.

Jimmy appears with Bruce Lee in a few episodes of Longstreet

As a result, there is no place to pay homage to Jimmy as there is also no grave. All we know is he smoked himself to death after his acting career ended in 1985. There appears to be some hidden bitterness… Jimmy certainly deserves a star for his films or his television work, but since it is rare for more than one posthumous star to be awarded each year and as his legacy grows more distant and forgotten, the less likely this is ever going to happen.

Jimmy poses for The Dream Makers (1975)

Among the films he did in this second period of his career was the lacklustre Hell Boats (1970) and before that a film entitled Snow Treasure (1968) also set during World War II. I haven’t seen it.

In the lacklustre Hell Boats (1970)

Jimmy voiced Jonathan Livingston Seagull (1973), which was mentioned in the late 1970s book The 50 Worst Movies of all Time. It was also during the early 70s that he tried his hand at producing tv movies such as Jane Eyre (1970) and The Red Pony (1973) and the theatrical feature Kidnapped (1971) starring Michael Caine. Did Jimmy take on too much during this period? Like Youngblood Hawke? This second period of Jimmy’s career would end with “that” seagull movie.

It is one of four movies that feted film critic Roger Ebert ever walked out on. He described the source material as so banal that even a child could see through it.

A DVD cover for Jonathan Livingston Seagull

Certainly Jonathan Livingston Seagull is a good “nature” film with its endless shots of seagulls flying etc. That it is also a bit of a religious homily and positive thinking message of a movie didn’t go down well with the public at the time. In fact, there was much bad karma involved with the film which had the book’s original author Richard Bach (1936-) sue the director Hall Bartlett (1922-93) for changing his book when his contract stipulated that he couldn’t. On top of that, composer Neil Diamond also sued when the director failed to use all of his score and Diamond also won, having a few extra songs added to the final cut.

Director Hall Bartlett and Jonathan

Jimmy’s Jonathan has flown higher than any other seagull “far above the highest clouds” where “you can see everywhere”. As a result he questions whether seagulls should just live a life of scavenging for fish heads or at the rubbish tip.

“There’s got to be more to life than fighting for some fish heads somewhere,” says Jimmy, as his voice leads us through community rejection to death and heaven too! It’s a plethora of self-philosophising, or positive thinking of the individual and survival alone against the odds. It is belief in the self and a higher purpose.

Neil Diamond’s score is occasionally beautiful as it ebbs and flows like the tide through the scenes of often the lone seagull in flight which are just as majestic. Even if they were just man-made gliders half the time.

The CD of Neil Diamond’s score

The choice of Jimmy as the voice of Jonathan is lost on us today as no-one probably would know who it is. But he was an iconic star voice in his day.

“You are forever outcast,” Jimmy is told by the leader of his flock for his “reckless flying”. And all he wanted to do was fly higher than any other… outcast a world record relay runner why don’t you!? It is usually the flawed artistic souls who are rejected by all.

As Susanne Pleshette says in Jimmy’s earlier Youngblood Hawke: “It’s the right of genius to be nonconformist” as the opening credits of this movie reads: “To the real Jonathon Livingston Seagull who lives within us all.” There is a genius to a degree, in one way or another, in all of us.

Jonathan is saved by others who belong to a higher school of flight… as Jimmy’s voice is sparse within this philosophical fable… he asks himself still during his journey: “Am I an outcast here too?” as he sits in a desert of dried mud.

Actress Juliet Mills voices a seagull that helps him through.

Jonathan Livingston Seagull (1973) trailer

“You still need to practise smoothness and patience,” she says. Such is how you become Jonathan or Jimmy on the path of enlightenment and coolness.

I have watched the movie a couple of times recently and it is still relevant today as Jonathan goes back to his flock despite the fact “they don’t care about hearing or what they see with their eyes…” Climate change anyone? “There’s got to be someone in that time who cares…” And the only difference from the outcast and the flock is “they have begun to understand what they really are.” Freedom through enlightenment? It is spoken by an outcast who takes on a disciple who he teaches the higher principles of what he has learned.

As the NASA astronaut Clayton Stone in Marooned (1969). Named after his hometown.

“The way to find perfection and love is within us,” he tells his student, Jonathan having been attacked as a “devil” by his flock but survived.

Yeah, I know it all sounds like airy-fairy new age bull found on a rubbish tip crowded by seagulls but it has a certain ring about it. This is Jimmy with university honours at his peak of acting and producing and philosophising. There was hope for humankind when the director released his film, perhaps an infectious feeling of hope again for the United States in particular after Robert F. Kennedy’s 1968 assassination. It is sad the film was greeted with now ingrained cynicism and failed miserably upon its November 1973 release. It was the time of the Watergate hearings where even the President was a loser, so why follow some outcast loser seagull!

Fortunately the film wasn’t burned or lost.

The hard to see Snow Treasure (1968) lobby card

“Don’t let them spread silly rumours about me,” says Jimmy as Jonathan. “Or make me into some sort of God… I’m a seagull” Or an actor…

Thus we kind of learn perhaps about the cool of Jimmy, or how to be as cool as Jimmy, as “the way to find perfection and love is within us… look with your understanding.” Find out what you already know…

This ended the second part of James Franciscus’ career. He had reached a high but his marriage was possibly on the rocks and the failure of this last movie meant there would not be another major cinema starring role forthcoming.

Fred Astaire (left) starred alongside Jimmy in The Amazing Dobermans (1976)

Jimmy did the tv movie The Dream Makers (1975) where he manages to squeeze out a few tears as it tells of a university lecturer who turns down tenure to go into the music recording business with tragic results. Does this reflect Jimmy going into the movie making business?… it certainly harks back to Mr Novak…  and further back to his college days. Jimmy really would have been a good English teacher!

The last period of Jimmy’s career could be called his exploitation period. There were a couple of cinema roles in the cheap The Amazing Dobermans (1976), a comedy of sorts that showed he had little flair for comedy. He kept his cool however!

Starting to age in The Greek Tycoon (1978) with Jacqueline Bisset

Then there was his first turn as President JFK in The Greek Tycoon (1978) as President James Cassidy. The film, which is a veiled tale about Jackie Kennedy becoming Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis had the cheek to put in the end credits: “Any similarity to anyone living or dead is purely coincidental.”

Good Guys Wear Black (1978) had Jimmy play a crooked politician. Trailer.

Jimmy turned up as the bad guy in the Chuck Norris movie Good Guys Wear Black (1978), something which kicked off the last stage of his career. It also gave him some of his coolest roles. The best of these was Killer Fish (1979) where he plays bad guy Paul Diller complete with spectacles and trimmed beard. He sips spirits and plays backgammon as he coolly masterminds a group of jewel thieves in South America. It’s an Italian-French-Brazilian production that also stars producer Lee Majors (1939-), Karen Black (1939-2013 cancer), Marisa Berenson (1947-) and Margaux Hemingway (1954-96 suicide by overdose).

Jimmy is the deliciously evil Paul Diller in Killer Fish (1979). Essential Jimmy viewing!

“My pets have already had lunch,” says an evil Jimmy, having put piranha in the local dam where they hid the stolen jewels to stop any poaching. “There must be tens of thousands of them by now.”

The film is pure exploitation, classy though it may be, cashing in on the hit movie Piranha (1978) and it seems to have had an even bigger budget than that film although the models during the destruction of a local industrial site shows that it ain’t that expensive. Instead of Jimmy looking confused or quizzical, its Majors, but Jimmy steals every scene that he is in. It is one film he doesn’t smoke in, although his voice is definitely huskier by this stage.

Killer Fish (1979) trailer

In the cheap Canadian all-star disaster flick City on Fire (1979), Jimmy is actually playing a teevee producer named “Jimbo” who has a running joke about trying to quit smoking, unsuccessfully, which is ironic. The film is famous for having one of the largest film sets at the time in Canada and for its use of nearly 50,000 gallons of fuel to produce the effect of a city on fire. It’s on a par with Irwin Allen’s worst movies and Ava Gardner (1922-90 pneumonia) and Henry Fonda (1905-82 heart disease) are on hand to give it extra gravitas.

JImmy appearing with Linda Evans in the 1970s teevee series Hunter

Just to rub it in, Jimmy appears in one of Irwin Allen’s (1916-91 heart attack) worst, indeed his last cinema release, When Time Ran Out… (1980). The film about an island resort and a troublesome volcano had the added attraction of watching Paul Newman (1925-2008 lung cancer), Jacqueline Bisset (1944-) and William Holden (1918-81 bled to death after drunken fall) go through the disaster clichés… “and James Franciscus as Bob Spangler” was about how Jimmy was being credited in “big” pictures by this time in America which showed he still had a modicum of respect as an actor. He was in his late forties by this time and years of smoking may have started to produce the emphysema that would kill him a decade later but it didn’t show at this stage. He was still looking good and the Bob Spangler role is a flashy one in a bad movie.

A tongue in cheek trailer for When Time Ran Out… (1980) Surely you can’t be serious?! I am serious and don’t call me Shirley!!

Around this period he went back to work with the Italians for The Concorde Affair (1979), an obvious cash-in on the production of the latest Airport chapter The Concorde… Airport ’79 (1979). In Jimmy’s film, he plays Moses Brody “the ballsiest newsman” ever known. Note the last name taken from Sheriff Brody in Jaws. More later.

Jimmy with Mimsy Farmer in the halfway decent The Concorde Affair (1979)

As one of Jimmy’s Italian jobs about a downed Concorde and the industrial conspiracy surrounding it – it’s not bad. Cool as usual, it shows the actor’s fondness for scuba diving as the plane is underwater. There are old pros such as Joseph Cotton (1905-94 pneumonia) and Edmund Purdom (1924-2009 heart failure) directed by exploitation master Ruggero Deodato (1939-). Despite its middling results and a stiflingly long underwater sequence, something which many say, similarly, marred the Bond film Thunderball (1965), it still has a hold on the viewer.

Impressive poster! Jimmy plays the “ballsiest” journalist alive!

“I don’t mean to sound romantic, but it’s almost like a living creature,” says pilot Van Johnson (1916-2008) in an unlikely comment about the Concorde in the cock-pit as the next doomed flight is about to take off.

Mimsy Farmer (1945-), no stranger to Italian movies, plays an air hostess who survives the downing of the Concorde and is the only witness to how the plane was brought down. The climax is a race against time to save Farmer from the bad guys and also prevent another Concorde from crashing. Whether this is better or worse than the original airport movie it ripped off that year depends if you believe the casting of singer and comedian Charo (1951-) as a star amongst that film’s less than stellar remaining cast. It’s not surprising that comedy Airplane aka Flying High (1980) came out the following year in the wake of these movies.

Ageing Jimmy still had what it took. Here with Jaclyn Smith in Nightkill (1980)

Jimmy is killed off quickly again in Nightkill (1980), a mystery of sorts, more of a thriller – it’s cultish and stars Jaclyn Smith among a cast that includes Robert Mitchum and Mike Connors. Jimmy has precious little screen time to make an impression.

What probably broke Jimmy’s heart and hopes of a successful career again at the box office among the string of flops he made, was his appearance in Great White aka The Last Jaws aka The Last Shark (1981). It’s a Jaws rip-off, hence the mention of the name Brody, and another of his Italian films. It had the highest budget for advertising in the United States ever by an Italian movie.

I waited and waited for this film to turn up at the peak of my Jimmy-mania at fourteen. However legal action saw it pulled from cinemas.

Director Enzo G. Castellari (1938-) was trying for a blockbuster by ripping off a blockbuster. The Italians had a habit of doing that going back to The Exorcist (1973). Indeed my friend Flynn had the back page of a full page ad for Great White from The Star – that New York beacon of journalism. It promised much including Jimmy as the star. You’ve got to understand this was at the peak of my interest in Jimmy and the height of the Facial Tan Club… but the film never turned up in Australia – it just seemed to vanish! It didn’t even turn up on VHS tape.

Jimmy rips off Peter Benchley in The Last Shark (1981). His last good starring cinema role.

It would be over a decade, long after Jimmy’s death that I would discover that Universal Studios had taken legal action against the producers of Great White for plagiarism or what not. Little did I know that the film had been pulled from American theatres after a promising start at the box office and Jimmy’s career as a leading man was more or less over! I’d finally catch up with the film many years later on the internet.

Great White aka The Last Shark aka The Last Jaws (1981) trailer

Great White has Jimmy as Peter Benton, essentially playing author Peter Benchley as if he was the hero in his very own book – Jaws. While Killer Fish is a better film than Piranha in my opinion, it is difficult to think this rip-off could be better than Jaws. And it isn’t. With its faux John Williams shark attack music, obvious toy rubber sharks amid the stock footage of actual sharks, along with some poor miniature work – it’s actually surprising how enjoyable this film is.

Have you been dealt L’Ultimo Squalo? That was the Italian title. The Great Fish?!

Jimmy still looks fit although a bit of cragginess at 48 years of age might lend itself to a Mad magazine caricature here or there. The plot with a summer boom town wind surfing event being thrown into chaos by a large shark attack goes even further with a politician who will stop at nothing to hold the event even if it means fishing for the shark with a helicopter and a hook with a chunk of meat on it! Yes, the chopper is brought down in an “epic” scene.

Director Enzo G. Castellari

“One thing’s for sure, it wasn’t a floating chainsaw!,” says actor Vic Morrow in the Robert Shaw role from Jaws in an accent which isn’t quite Scottish and isn’t quite Irish either. It’s just thick.

It all leads to Jimmy’s daughter getting her legs bitten off and more people getting bitten in half. Jimmy and Morrow’s final confrontation with the shark along with some sticks of dynamite ends the film with Jimmy leaping into the water with his fingers on the trigger, crying out: “Damn you!”

Great White is a classic in a different sense that Jaws is a classic.

Actor Vic Morrow’s accent in Great White was thick enough to slice

That year Jimmy turned up as President John F. Kennedy again in the tv miniseries Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy (1981) with Jaclyn Smith as Jackie. It’s a film aided by a good performance by Rod Taylor as “Black Jack” Bouvier, her father.

JImmy’s last teevee role as JFK with Jaclyn Smith again. Note the sunglasses tan.

A year later, he turned up in a cameo “…and James Franciscus as Moke Blue” in sexpot Pia Zadora’s sexploitation bonanza Butterfly (1982). My friends Scott and Paul and a couple of other mates went to see it in the city where it screened in a single cinema in solidarity of and admiration of our cult film actor. It was the only Jimmy movie I saw on the big screen and I wasn’t disappointed. It also introduced me to the beautiful and sultry Pia. There’s an article on this site about my ensuing obsession with that actress.

Jimmy played Moke Blue with relish. For the Facial Tan Club it was as if it was for us!

In Butterfly, Jimmy takes his shirt off for the last time, tanned and lean, with a moustache for the first time, he gets a blast from a gun in the stomach for being the bad guy.

“Why you’re sooo good,” says Jimmy, cynically, to Stacy Keach who is about to fire his gun at Moke when he accuses Moke of sleeping with his daughter. Jimmy breaks out in one of the great laughs of his career and then is blown away.

I wouldn’t know it but that was just about all she wrote from Jimmy. I would never see him in another new film.

A 1970s portrait of Jimmy. He would die relatively young.

Jimmy’s final film of note was Secret Weapons aka Sexpionage (1985). His hair was disconcertingly dyed dark. I wouldn’t see it till long after his death. It must have been around this time that the emphysema that eventually killed him was starting to take hold because he retired from the screen and took to the typewriter.

Jimmy as Moke Blue in Butterfly (1981)

There are no photos of Jimmy in his later years that I have seen and that is probably for the best. He probably wouldn’t go to a Hollywood Walk of Fame star dedication anyway he was so sick. His final movie credit would be for the story in the posthumously released 29th Street (1991) a true story about luck and bad luck and a lottery ticket.

At home in denim

He took a second wife around 1980 when he was still at the top of his game.

I was surprised to see he had died in the local metropolitan newspaper with a few paragraphs in 1991. So young and not yet sixty – he was 57.

I still have the pencil case somewhere with The James Franciscus Facial Tan Club scrawled inside. I haven’t seen Scott and Paul since my early twenties.

“If it were only yesterday,” is Jimmy’s final line in his first movie Four Boys and a Gun, echoing the mistakes one makes in life.

That look of confusion always had us in stitches. Although his acting range was limited you couldn’t deny Jimmy was cool!

For me Jimmy will always be “cool”, whether the victim of psychic mutants – “Get out of my head!” – in Beneath the Planet of the Apes, the cowboy who rides into town in The Valley of Gwangi… Paul Diller the bad guy in Killer Fish or the good guy Peter Benton in Great White! Don’t forget journalist Carlo in Cat O’Nine Tails!!

James Franciscus will always be nothing but perfect as Paul Diller in Killer Fish (1979)

There is no grave or no star… but to quote his character in Youngblood Hawke, where his character’s name is Arthur of Art for short… Is being cool an art? Do you have to work on it? Are you born cool? Or do you become cool? Jimmy made much of the art he appeared in seem so much cooler than it really was… but yes, to finally quote Art, who is quoting from a play he has written: “Thus let me live unseen, Unknown and yet unlamented let me die, Steal from the world not a stone where I lie.”

I think Jonathan Livingston Seagull would have been proud. And therein lies the cult.

2 Comments

  1. Adam Zanzie
    Permalink

    “Jonathan Livingston Seagull” is finally coming to Blu-Ray this October, with a commentary track by me. I spoke with several of the surviving cast/crew members. Unfortunately, I was not able to find out anything about James Franciscus’ experiences voicing Jonathan.

    The film’s casting director, Lea Stalmaster, informs me that she didn’t know “Jimmy” well, but that he had a good reputation at the time.

    Director Hall Bartlett cast Franciscus in the part on the basis of an audio audition which Franciscus had recorded, after having been given sides of Jonathan’s dialogue in the script; Lea told Hall Bartlett that he shouldn’t have to worry about casting the actors on the basis of their faces, since their voices were all that mattered.

    As I said, though, I could not find out anything about Franciscus’ experiences working on the film. I even reached out to a member of Franciscus’ family. They thanked me for my interest, but “lovingly declined” to have a conversation about him.

    Finally: The clip you linked to is not actually the film’s trailer. It’s just the scene of Jonathan accidentally flying into his Flock. Paramount falsely labels it a “trailer”, when actually, the real theatrical trailer is still in 35mm film in their vaults, and hasn’t been seen by the public since the 1970’s, because transferring it to digital would be expensive.

    Reply

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