phone rang a week ago and the guy on the other end said he was a movie
producer. He was home for Thanksgiving to visit his folks in Evanston
(Illinois), he said, and he thought he'd give me a call. His name was Rick
a week passes without someone calling up who is, or was, or would like to be a
producer. Mostly they want to know where they can raise $400,000 fast, because
they have this great idea for a movie...So I was blunt and said I'd never heard
of any movie producer named Rick Herland from Evanston. And then I unleashed
the crusher: What movies have you produced? "Well," Herland said, I
own the rights to Herman Hesse's 'Steppenwolf,' which is a big novel on the
campuses right now. But I can't talk about that because the deal is still very
much up in the air." Sounds good, I said. Have you, ah, actually produced
an actual movie, though?
a couple," Herland said. "I produced “The Mini Affair”, which starred
Georgie Fame and the Bee Gees, but that was only distributed in England. And
then I've just completed producing an Italian Western, which stars Orson Welles...Orson Welles? I said.
"Right. Orson plays a Mexican revolutionary named
Rick Herland, the movie producer from Evanston, was
sounding more interesting. It turned out he was going to New York the next day,
and so was I, and so we made plans to have lunch. And last Tuesday we did have
lunch, in the Harvard Club, where Herland's relatively long hair and moderately
mod clothes drew a cool stare from two old grads who were playing checkers.
"I think I'll produce 'Steppenwolf' entirely from
the Harvard Club," Herland said.
"I'll have all my meetings here, and we'll hold
interviews here. What do you think?"
But Herland said that was all he could say about
"Steppenwolf." After two years of negotiating, he succeeded in buying
the rights to the Hesse novel from the author's relatives. Hesse said he never
wanted any of his novels made into movies, Herland said: "That would be
like translating them into Esperanto. But I convinced them..." Herland is
currently negotiating with a famous European director (whose name can't be
revealed) and has hired a brilliant 24-year-old Polish mathematician (who
studied mysticism in India) to ponder the book and help prepare an approach for
"But the project has to remain quiet until we sign the
director, which I hope we do," Herland said. "So just say I'm working
By this time, we were through the lobby, had inspected
the towering beams in the reading room, had climbed the stairs to the second
floor, had looked solemnly into the library ("No Ladies Permitted")
and were eating oysters and cheese in the second-floor dining room.
How, I finally asked Herland, did a kid from Evanston
wind up producing an Italian Western starring Orson Welles?
"Well," he said stirring an oyster around in the
hot sauce; "in a way it was because I like Italy so much. I went there the
summer of my junior year, and when I graduated from Harvard in 1958, I wanted
to go back. But there was a money thing. And l figured that, at 22, nobody
would pay me to do what I wanted to do, which was to travel, and learn
languages, and decide what I wanted to do.
"So, I came back to Evanston and, to raise money, I
started this sandwich service at Northwestern. We went around to the dorms at
night, peddling sandwiches. I figured the best way to make money was to go into
business for myself, and I was right. In no time at all we were selling 2,000
sandwiches a week.
"After the first year, my partner, a guy named Jim
Snider, willed his half of the business to me and went off to Washington with
his wife to be a free-lance correspondent. He had an article in Parade last
week. Anyway, business got so good that I was working too hard. The second year
I made all the sandwiches myself. I figure I have personally made 100,000
meagerly stuffed sandwiches in my life. "So, I brought in a couple of
other guys, Harvard drop-outs, and we divided the 30-week school year into two
halves of 15 weeks each. I'd work for 15 weeks and then take the other 37 weeks
off. That was good, because my goal was to minimize work and maximize travel.
I'd hitch to California, or drive someplace in a driveaway car. Then, one
summer in Italy, I discovered this run-down old villa outside Genoa. I rented
it for $40 a month.
"That really set us up, as far as the sandwich
business was concerned. Fifteen weeks on, 37 weeks off. The people who weren't
selling sandwiches were in the villa."
Herland finished the last of his oysters and went to work
on a slab of Roquefort cheese. The way he told his story, it sounded perfectly
natural. What could be simpler than graduating from Harvard (in history) and
opening a sandwich service in Evanston so you could spend 37 weeks a year in an
"But after four years of that," he said
probably reading my mind, "I decided it was time to think about a career.
So, I came to New York City and got this job with a bank from Nassau, in the
Bahamas. I was supposed to look for loans and investments they could make.
After about 8 or 9 months on commission, during which I made almost no money
because I found almost no loans or investments, I found a TV company that
needed $500,000. And that was a turning point, I guess..."The company was
owned by an enfant terrible, Ed Graham, who became famous doing those Harry and
Bert Piel ads for Piel's beer. The ads with the voices by Bob and Ray.
was out in L. A., and his company was making an animated cartoon show for kids,
'Linus the Lionhearted.' I began to follow his progress, and I realized he was
so unorganized he might not be able to make his network air dates. "So, I
told him that, and he said, okay, why don't you come out and run the studio?
So, I did, I drove a car to L. A., got a house in Malibu, and in about 18
months we produced about $3,500,000 worth of animation for TV. Graham bought an
airplane and moved the studio next to an airport, and things went along nicely
until he wrecked the plane and almost wrecked himself.
"So, we dissolved
the studio, and I came back to New York. By this time, I was supposed to know
something about production. Well, I DID know something about production. Some
New York people hired me to run United Screen Arts, a small production and
distribution firm. Small enough that I became president. "I decided to
concentrate on production, and of course Europe was the only inexpensive place
to shoot a film. So I went to London, and we made “The Mini Affair,” with
Georgie Fame and the Bee Gees. It had a couple of hit songs in it, 'Words' and
'Massachusetts,' but it never got U.S. distribution.
"But in the meantime,
I started working on “Viva la Revolution,” which is
the European title for the Orson Welles Western. It was written by Franco
Solinas, who wrote “The Battle of Algiers,” and directed
by Giullo Petroni, who directed “Death Rides A Horse.” And it
also stars Tomas Milian, a Cuban whose mother
lives in Chicago. He's gotten to be a pretty big star in Italian Westerns...
"Death Rides A Horse" was a lousy movie, I said, but
Franco Solinas is a great screenwriter, and very politically oriented. Will
your Western have any political significance?
"Some," he said. "It's indirectly
political. You know: How the little guy gets screwed by the 'big guy. It's
about the betrayal of the Mexican Revolution in 1913." How did you get
"He needed the money. He's running ahead of the bill
collector, the tax man, the alimony payments. We got him cheap, $75,000 for a
little more than three week's work. Mike Nichols paid him $100,000 for only two weeks for “Catch-22.”
"Of course, the danger is that Welles will capture
your film. He's such a great director and actor that he has a tendency to move
in and the next thing you know he's rewriting everything and the director is
threatening to quit.
"But we got along pretty well. I found out he was
from Kenosha, Wis., and I told him that once on a bet I walked from Evanston to
Kenosha in the middle of the winter...Anyway, the movie has been released in
Italy, where it was a big success. So we have our money back, and now we're
negotiating to sell the American rights. It was entirely acted in English,
which should help."
And then "Steppenwolf" is next?
"I can't talk about it though," he said.
"We're handling it very carefully. It's a great novel, and we don't want
to screw it up."
And with "Steppenwolf" you'll become an
"Right. I'm not working for the New York outfit on
this one. I'm on my own."
And what advice, I asked, do you have for kids from
Evanston who don't have any money but want to grow up to become independent
Herland paused for a second, and scraped for the rest of
the Roquefort on his plate. He spread it on a cracker, popped it in his mouth,
washed it down with some coffee, and finally said, not unthoughtfully:
"There is something about peddling sandwiches at 5 below zero to a lot of
college kids that is not unlike being a movie producer."