The Night I Slept with a Movie Star
I slept with a movie star once. Actually it went on for a number of months. It was one of the highlights of my life at the time. I still look back on those days with fondness.
When I say “slept with,” I suppose I should more accurately say “slept near,” or perhaps “slept not far from.” The two of us shared a large two-room trailer. Yes, we did have separate rooms with separate entrances, but I didn’t feel separate and I don’t think the star did either. Actually that made me a little nervous at times. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
One of the trailer rooms was far more spacious than the other. Naturally, the star got the bigger room, but I had no problem with that. I’d just been brought out from Vancouver to Alberta to be a screenwriter and was new to the business. The star had been around. The star was bigger than I, and when I say bigger I don’t mean just bigger. I mean larger. And I don’t mean like larger than life. I mean like larger in life.
I’ll never forget my first night. You know those corny signs that couples put on their RVs saying: “If the van’s rocking, don’t come knocking?” Well, we rocked. I mean rocked. I’d never experienced anything like it before. All night long it was rock…rock…rock. That first night I never even got to sleep.
Some of the Hollywood tabloids had gossiped that the star was an “animal” in bed, and often even on the set. I’m here to tell you that star was an animal twenty-four hours a day. Voracious, demanding, never willing to take no for an answer. Soft to the touch but tough underneath. Awesome.
You may have seen the star in a film yourself. If you’ve ever seen the movie Jeremiah Johnson, you definitely did. In fact, you might remember the star more than any of the others in the film. Sure, some guy called Robert Redford was also in it. And his name’s all over the movie. That’s Hollywood.
Sadly, in those backward days when the film was made, Hollywood still had a lot of prejudice toward non-Caucasian actors. And the star I shared a trailer with was about as non-Caucasian as you can get. Even today, the star is not given credit by name as a cast member on the Internet Movie DataBase, which is about as unmentioned as one can be.
However, there is a reference to the star in the Quotes section. Here’s how the script describes a “walk on” by the star. (I put that in quotes because the star didn’t exactly “walk.”) Bear Claw Chris Lapp was an old mountain man; Jeremiah Johnson was played by that Redford guy.
Bear Claw Chris Lapp: Are you sure you can skin grizz?
Jeremiah Johnson: Just as fast as you can catch’ em.
[Bear Claw runs into and through the cabin with a huge grizzly bear close behind and jumps out the back window]
Bear Claw Chris Lapp: [as the fight rages inside the cabin] Skin that one, pilgrim, and I’ll get you another!
Yes, that very same half-ton grizzly bear, whose name was Willie, was the movie star with whom I shared so many very long and memorable nights. Willie had been my favorite actor in the movie Jeremiah Johnson. And here I was working alongside—and rooming with—this ursine star. We were in the wilderness compound of a wildlife film company in the Canadian Rockies. Willie was one of more than one hundred animals at the compound; everything from bears, cougars, and wolves to badgers, skunks and porcupines. But Willie stood out, because he had had the Big Role in a high-grossing Hollywood film.
Was I starstruck by Willie? Well, no. Not exactly. When I found out I was going to be rooming with a grizzly bear, even a famous one, I was a bit reluctant to accept the housing assignment. But everyone — particularly the animal handlers, and they were trained professionals, weren’t they? — assured me that Willie was safe. “He’s an actor, for God’s sake. How could an actor do anything stupid?” What? Had they never been to Hollywood?
The trailer we shared was actually a large horse trailer, with a small room for humans in the front, and a big area in the back for horses. Willie’s cage was where horses would have been. The animal handlers also assured me that there was a latch on Willie’s cage and a bear wasn’t smart enough to figure out how to open the latch with his clumsy bear fingers–er, paws and claws. I wasn’t reassured.
As I mentioned earlier, Willie spent the night pacing, rocking the trailer back and forth. I lay in bed, unable to sleep. I was sure that Willie would break out of his cage, open his trailer door to freedom, come around to my door, open my door, enter my room, and eat me. I knew he was fantasizing this because he didn’t sleep either. I wondered how I could escape when he came into my room. The windows were too small to crawl through. I didn’t have a weapon. And still the trailer rocked. And rocked. What was he thinking? Worse yet, what was he plotting?
Morning came, and I arose. Unslept—but also uneaten. Crew members at the camp’s breakfast table asked how I’d slept. Not wanting to look like a greenhorn, I said fine.
The next night was the same. So was the next. The fourth night wasn’t.
Willie broke out of the slammer.
Very early in the morning, just after dawn, the trailer stopped rocking. That seemed like a good thing. I was too sleepy to consider the possibility that if the trailer was no longer rocking, maybe it wasn’t a good thing. Maybe it meant that Willie was no longer in the cage. Suddenly I heard a clamor outside my door. I cautiously opened the door to see what was going on and someone shouted “Stay inside. Willie’s loose.” I needed no further advice.
At short time later there was a knock on the door. It didn’t sound like the kind of knock a bear paw would make so I opened the door. “All over. We got Willie. He’s back in his cage.”
Well, that was a relief. I also felt some satisfaction that my fears had been vindicated. I had been right. Contrary to what everyone had said, Willie really could get out of his cage. Willie could run around chasing anything and everything in his path. Everything I had feared had happened. Except for the part where he came to my door, opened it, went inside and ate me.
The animal handlers took new measures to ensure that Willie couldn’t get out of his cage. Again. Instead of just a latch, there was now a threaded bolt going through the latch. Affixed tightly around the bolt was a nut. To get out, Willie would need a wrench to turn the nut in order to loosen and remove the nut and then remove the bolt. The handlers pointed out to me that bears have neither opposable thumbs nor wrenches. I was now safer than ever. Ever? I wasn’t safe during the previous ever.
Imagine that you are a bear. You are in a cage. You do not want to be in the cage. Cages are very boring for anyone but are particularly so for wild animals. Their options are limited to sleeping, eating, defecating, masturbating, or walking back and forth while raising and lowering their heads, as you may have seen with countless zoo animals. It is not a very stimulating life.
Therefore, the call of the wild — or at least the world outside the cage — is very strong. And the push of boredom is equally strong. What the animal handlers neglected to consider about Willie was time. Animal handlers are busy people. They have the need to do many things and they do them throughout the day. They are so busy that their available time to focus on any one thing in particular is limited.
As you might guess, the same is not true for a bear in a cage. They have no such constraints. Time is different for a bear in a cage. A bear in a cage has a great deal of time and can use that time to focus. Willie focused. Willie focused on the latch, the bolt, and the nut. In particular, he focused on the nut. Apparently, making up for the lack of an opposable thumb — or fingers of any kind, he was still able to take one of his very powerful paws, and perhaps using one of his claws, go “twang.” In fact, he was able to go twang many times, quite likely even for hours. He had the spare time. Regardless of how many twangs he performed or how long it took, he was able to twang the nut enough times to loosen it. And then keep twanging many more times to cause it to turn. And to continue twanging and turning the nut, in the correct counter-clockwise direction, moving the nut towards the end of the bolt. And then…off the bolt the nut must have come.
The result would have been a cage with a latch and a bolt. But no nut. Having removed the nut, it required minimal bear intelligence — or perhaps just trial-and-error and a little luck — for Willie to also remove the bolt. Twang. No nut, no bolt. That left only the latch, which Willie had easily overcome the first time that he had escaped from the cage. I say first time, because now Willie achieved his second escape.
I, however, was not in my room at the time. I was in the kitchen trailer having coffee. I was safe if Willie tried to enter my room. However, as I was watching Willie happily run around loose in the compound, it occurred to me that the door to the kitchen trailer was perhaps easier to get through than the door to my room. Willie did not seem to be bothered by obstructions. I looked for the back door of the kitchen trailer.
My concern was brief, however, as I saw animal handlers again chasing Willie. And, once again, they caught him and returned him to the cage. The cage with the latch, the bolt, the nut, and now the combination padlock. “Let’s see him get out of that one,” said one of the handlers.
Willie never did.
Sorry, Willie. Despite the Hollywood mythology, individual initiative isn’t always rewarded in show biz.
I continued to write film treatments and movie scripts, and Willie continued to act. Eventually I went back to Vancouver and a life with fewer bears. None, actually. I heard that Willie remained in the movie business for some time afterwards, and later that he had moved on to that great grizzly wilderness in the sky. Be joyful, Willie. You were perhaps the most interesting roommate I ever had. Certainly the furriest.