Director Ted Kotcheff explains the background behind his most personal project yet
After a 60-year career that has included one of the industry’s biggest money spinners, First Blood, 86-year-old Ted Kotcheff would be entitled to relax in his Beverly Hills home. (And, after all, he has a great vantage point, it’s just a stone’s throw away from those of superstars Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty.) But, instead, Hollywood’s most famous Bulgarian filmmaker is planning his most ambitious project yet – a movie about the saving of the Bulgarian Jews during World War Two.
First Blood made a cool 150 million dollars BUT Kotcheff jokes that, if he’d stayed on board for the sequels, he’d have several lifetimes’ back porch money. The follow-up (by George Pan Cosmatos) made 350 million dollars. By then, however, Kotcheff had taken an honourable exit. He believed that Vietnam vet Rambo had become a travesty of the original character, transforming as he had from a (very) reluctant warrior into a serial killing machine. But Rambo became one of Hollywood’s most lucrative franchises, so no one was worrying about whether the evolution was psychologically consistent. Surprised?
The original film was not without incident. Kirk Douglas, perhaps – at 101 in 2017(!) – one of the few major players in Hollywood still around who is almost old enough to be Kotcheff’s father, was due to play Rambo’s former commanding officer. Stallone was thrilled to get Douglas on board because the latter’s role in Champion had inspired him to make Rocky. Initially, the veteran star seemed delighted with the script. “But then Douglas started contesting every line of dialogue,” Kotcheff told me. “Even Stallone was getting impatient. We were rewriting scenes to suit Kirk and I realised that he was going to make my life a misery. I said to Kirk: ‘You accepted the script and agreed to play the character and now you’re arguing about every word.’ He had a very unpleasant habit of talking about himself in the third person. In the end I said to him ‘I’d love to have you in the film but you have to go with this script’. He replied: ‘Kirk Douglas is going home’.” Richard Crenna replaced him.
Thirty five years on from that madness and Kotcheff has now finished the screenplay for an as yet untitled biopic about Bulgaria’s King Boris III. The movie will depict his meetings with Hitler and recount his premature death (by poisoning at Hitler’s behest, many believe) as well as the remarkable survival of the country’s 48,000 Jews.* It’s a source of pride to Bulgarians – and perhaps a perfect way for Bulgaria to acquit itself of any current charges of xenophobia – but a story little known elsewhere. Kotcheff says that when he tells his friends about it they are surprised that such a tale has never been filmed.
“I’ve been working on the script for a long time. Half the job is getting the script done. Then it’s a case of finding backing – ‘Please sir, can you please give me 12 million dollars!?’” laughs Kotcheff. (So if you’re reading this, Mr. Spielberg, I’d like to say that it’s a pretty direct line from Schindler’s List to . . . shall we give it the provisional title of Boris’s List?)
Kotcheff dismisses those historians who fail to credit Boris for sparing his country’s Jews – or at least see him as a Machiavellian figure – as “plain wrong; can you imagine anything happening in a country like Bulgaria without Boris’s say so? He was a real king, not a toy one. He’s never gotten his due”. Kotcheff has enjoyed long conversations with Boris’s son (former prime minister) King Simeon and also his daughter, Marie Louise. He plans to use a British actor – he mentions, en passant, Jude law or Michael Fassbender – to play Boris. (If it happens, remember you read it here first, folks!)
Kotcheff looks in great shape for 86. To be honest he’d still be looking good for 76! He tells me that most friends joke that he looks 56. He thinks it’s just an accident of birth. “More Bulgarians live to be 100 than they do in any other country in the world, per capita. The ugliest word in the English language is ‘retirement’. If you retire, you collapse mentally and physically collapse. You have to keep going and working,” he believes, citing another durable contemporary, Clint Eastwood.
Ted was born in Canada in 1931, the son of a Plovdiv-born father and a mother of Macedonian origin, who had immigrated to Toronto. (He speaks glowingly of Plovdiv and its incredible Roman theatre.) His parents spoke only Bulgarian at home and his mother, in particular, who lived to be 93, never really grasped English. So he grew up happily bilingual. (And here, right on cue, he breaks into flawless Bulgarian.) He has now visited his home country five times – most recently in March 2016 to receive the Bulgarian Lifetime Achievement Award. He always tells interviewers his heart is really in Bulgaria and, to aid authenticity, plans to film his movie about King Boris here.
If Kotcheff does make a Jewish-themed movie it would be no surprise. He is not Jewish but one of his most successful early films was The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, starring Richard Dreyfuss. The film had a strange gestation. “I was sharing a flat with (its author) Mordechai Richler in London in the late Fifties. I literally read the book as the last page was being pulled from the typewriter and thought it the best Canadian novel ever written.” Kotcheff filmed it in the early Seventies with Dreyfuss (just before the actor hit the big time with Jaws) and it broke ground with its risqué allusions to Jews. “It’s guys like him who cause anti-Semitism,” says another Jewish character of Kravitz, referring to the protagonist’s money-making schemes. Kotcheff says that, back then, Hollywood’s Jewish community generally shunned films about Jews, feeling that the subject was too sensitive. Hence, originally, a producer wanted to make the main character Greek. Richler too had his problems. When the book appeared and he returned to his native Jewish quarter of Montreal, he was accused of being an anti-Semitic Jew.
Kotcheff has worked with some of the biggest names in the business – George Segal and Jane Fonda (Fun with Dick and Jane), Gregory Peck (Billy Two Hats) Nick Nolte (North Dallas Forty), Charles Bronson (in one of his last movies, Family of Cops – “he was another actor who liked to go very deep and I loved working with him”) and has had several major hits apart from First Blood. His film Weekend at Bernie’s was a box office bonanza and, he tells me that it’s a movie he still gets feted for.
One of Kotcheff’s favourite stars is Gene Hackman, his lead on Uncommon Valor. “Hackman is one of the finest cinema actors,” he tells me. “When we first discussed the film Hackman said to me: ‘Kotcheff, I only want three directions from you, faster/slower, or louder/softer, or more/less.’ Hackman wasn’t an actor. He didn’t act the part of the colonel. He was the colonel. If I’d asked him to stand on his head and read the part upside down exactly like the character he would have done.”
With his autobiography riding high** – one of the top 10 Amazon bestsellers (also available in Bulgarian) – and a new film on the horizon it’s pretty safe to say that Kotcheff has no plans to retire. All he needs is the backing from up on high, from (dare one say?) a Jewish producer. Harvey Weinstein would now appear to be an unlikely candidate despite producing The King’s Speech, about one of King Boris’s cousins, King George VI. “I know nothing first-hand about Weinstein,” Kotcheff tells me. “Of course, Trump did some of the things that Weinstein supposedly did, and got away with it,” he remarks, caustically, of the current president.
Kotcheff recalls a Hollywood producer who once asked him whether he was “a shooter or an actors’ director” and adds that the same person told him he knew some directors who admit they seldom talk to actors. He can’t understand that kind of mentality, being very much a favourite among the industry’s players.
Among Kotcheff’s other neighbours was Marlon Brando who lived next door to Jack Nicholson who used to refer to Brando as “the guy on the hill”. One day, in 2004, Ted came home to find journalists and camera crews camped out across the street. He immediately suspected that either Brando or Nicholson had died. It was, of course, Brando.
That reminded me of a story. Back in the Fifties they used to tell a story about one of Britain’s oldest working actors, A.E. Matthews. He was once asked the secret of his longevity. He replied that he read The Times. The interviewer looked nonplussed. Matthews explained that he read the obituary columns every day and if he wasn’t in them he would get up and go to work. I suspect the same of Ted Kotcheff – that he’ll keep working until one day he returns home to Beverly Hills to find a camera crew outside his house. A Bulgarian camera crew.
* But thousands, tragically, perished from Bulgaria’s occupied territories.
** Ted Kotcheff’s autobiography is called The Director’s Cut