Louisiana Legends; Gene Callahan
Funding for the production of Louisiana Legends is provided in part by the Friends of Louisiana Public Broadcasting and by Union National Life Insurance, a Louisiana company serving Louisiana and the South since 1926. [music]
Hello. My guest, this very distinguished man, is a Baton Rouge native who loves Baton Rouge, who loves Louisiana, and when he hangs up his spurs will come back to Louisiana, and he'll tell you all about it. He's Gene Callahan who is probably the most distinguished production designer in the motion picture industry today. How good is Gene Callahan of Louisiana? Well, he's won two Academy Awards and been nominated for four others. Friends, that's pretty good. That's like being elected governor six times. Gene, welcome to Legends and you sure qualify. You are one. (laughs) Gene, tell me about those early days in Baton Rouge. You went to Catholic High. Yes, and then went on to LSU. Now, question. Did you show some artistic ability as a child, as a kid? I was interested certainly in it. I'm not sure that I showed any ability then as a kid, and later on was interested in art and did take art in school. I
mean, I was in the, in the art department. At what.. was show business? Were you one of those kids who was in love with movies? I was certainly interested then always, but really didn't get into, into theater until one day a girl, Marian Hall, a wonderful singer in the opera department, was in class with me and said that they needed help in the opera department painting scenery. Would I help? And I said, yes, I would. I went over and they handed me a brush and I applied it to the scenery. And that was it from then on out. Something clicked and you said I feel comfortable with this brush? That's right. This is it. You could have become a house painter, you know. I might have, yes. Gene, what exactly, for all of our friends, what does a production designer do? Take us through that because most of us do not... Well, a production designer is in charge of the overall look of the picture. That goes starting with color,
locations, all the background, all of the scenery. And, in some cases, the costumes. I'm involved with the costumes. I don't actually design them or do them. That is I design, as an architect would, the interiors, exteriors, whatever and see that they're built. So if I come to you and say: Gene, I want to do a... I'm a producer and I want to do a motion picture about Malaysia. All right? And I would give you the script. Is that how we would begin? Exactly. And then what would you do with that script? Well, I would analyze it. I would read it many times for various reasons. And, then, if it was Malaysia, I'd have to do some research. Do you do your own research? I do some of it, but I have people at the various research departments of the studios help. They'll assign some people to me. All right, so you do your research on Malaysia for this motion picture that I'm going to make.
Then, what do you begin? Sketching? Is that, is...are you trying to get a feel for what, what, what goes on? Well, you see. First of all, I'm terrible at sketching. I do practically none. I'm terrible at drafting, even. I do it...I write exactly how I feel about each, each character that's in it and how it's going to be, what environment I'm going to place it in. And I describe the environment very, very carefully then present that to the director. We then have a meeting on it. And I get approval of whatever it is that I've suggested. Then, I have an art director who works with me. I would sit down with the art director, do some little preliminary ground plans or the like and the two of us will work it in to a more, into greater detail. Then we alter that time after time until it's finally the way I like it. Present it again to the director, just so that he can see how the action will
be performed within the... Do you build models? Well, if it's a very elaborate set, a very large one, that's going to be shot for weeks at a time, we do. Because that helps the lighting man, who is the camera man and it gives my decorator an opportunity to see it, to visualize it in, you know, spatial relations. And it shows how the scenery will come apart and so forth. So they are, they're valuable. I do them occasionally. Now what kind of budgets are we talking about? In other words, this picture in Malaysia, what might your budgets range from, for your design? We take the budget is very, of course, the most difficult thing for me because they say that I'm very expensive. We used to use the rule of thumb if the picture cost 10 million dollars you took 10 percent of that and a million dollars went for the, for the scenery. Well, that's all changed
now because of costs being enormously accelerated. Ah, I would say, I would say that if a picture cost $15 million, let's say. I will spend in the neighborhood of a $1.5 million on it. What is the biggest budget that you personally have worked with on a motion picture? Well, I would say that "Funny Girl" would be, would be one of the largest. How much were we talking about on that? Now remember that that was done in 1967. Yes. And I spent about a million and a half then. That would be around three and a half, four million now. What does the average production, what would be the average cost of the average production that you've worked on? Oh I'd, from $350,000 for say, a comedy, that requires fewer sets to a period piece. Again, up to a million and a half,
two, three. Gene. So what you graduated from LSU. You had found that you, by God, enjoyed painting in the opera department. So what did you do when you graduated from LSU? Well, I never graduated from LSU. It's an unfortunate thing. I have many hours more than I need, but not the requirement, such as French 52, but that's all right. We always remember those nemesis in our life. With me, it was German. I failed it three times. Most of us anyway. I went to... actually on a visit, visiting some friends in Connecticut. On the way, I stopped off to see another LSU friend, Bill Haugh (?) And he was designing a little stock company in the Catskills. And that day, they had fired the leading man and Bill took over as leading man and I took over as designer and never got to Connecticut and only for a very few, few weeks after that did I come back to Baton Rouge. I
went into New York. Now what kind of experience was it for Gene Callahan out of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to hit New York City and say, "Hey, I'm going to get in show business. I'm going to be a production designer." Well, apart from being terrifying, it was, it was fascinating. I arrived with very few dollars in my pocket. Our little company went bankrupt, by the way, and we sneaked out of town at midnight and then arrived in New York and a friend loaned us an apartment. And I went out the next day and went to B. Altman and Company and because they had a southerner as the personnel manager and he gave me a job. And I started decorating at Altman in the decorating department. My goodness. And stayed there a short while and had applied to the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey as a prop man. In the middle of it all, Altman called me and said, come out, and I did.
And stayed there for that one season, a full year season, and I became assistant to the designer, which was not much. I did a little drafting and then went on into other stock companies in and around New York. Did you ever become discouraged and consider just chunking it and coming on home? No, not really. I didn't. I didn't know that it wasn't possible to do it. [Laughter] Ignorance is the ultimate bliss. It is indeed. I kept at it. And did star stock, as they call it, meaning it's a company that hires a star will come in one new star each week and we would design. I had my, by the way, that was the last one that I was in was called the Lakes Region Playhouse which was, by the way, only three miles from where they shot "On Golden Pond." It was kind of fun for me.
And they did Clifford Odets' play, "Country Girl." Yes. And tryouts with Clifford Odets there and all so that was my first great touch with the, with theater and later on the next year it opened on Broadway and Grace Kelly made the movie and won the Academy Award for it. I had nothing to do with it after that. Of course. Gene, so then you're working in these playhouses designing and how, how did the movies rear their head. How did you? Actually television. It started with television. It started with television. Tell us about that, because that was kind of the early days of television, wasn't it? It was. Television was still in infancy. I started work on in December of '49 which was sort of the beginning. They had one or two big shows then, which was "Studio One" was the first of the great dramatic shows. And I did things like "Danger" and "Studio One." I did fine in the next year or two
and I was a decorator. You did "Naked City" also, did you not? That was later. It was film. Yeah. That was my first film job. I see. But then I'd done "Omnibus" and, you know, the old Ford Foundation. Now, in those days in television, there was no tape, was there? None at all, I've never done tape. Oh, that's interesting. I've never done tape. It was all film though. In other words, you shot and shot until you got what you wanted. No, it was all live. Live. I never did... How much pressure did that put on, on all - Oh, that's enormous pressure - combined? Because you know that clock comes up to 20 seconds of the hour. And willy nilly you. That's it. You, you do it. Gene, did you work on any of the landmark television productions? Things that today are looked back on, you know. "Omnibus," of course, was - great series - that we had the first hour and a half and I have ever done on television. We did that every week and that was really a tremendous pressure -- was getting that done. And I did the Noel Coward things
which, by the way, are in his new, in the new biography. Well, it's not a biography. It's autobiographical, his diaries. It mentions them and it was kind of interesting the other day reading it, remembering those days. And then from television then came? Then came set decorating in film. How did you break into that? Because we associate film with Hollywood, Los Angeles, and you were in New York. So how did you? You met people by reputation? It was interesting. There was a decorator in film who used our prop room at CBS and I had helped him. He was not decorated before. And so I did. I gave him a hand a few times and when "Naked City" came up, he remembered me. And though I was not a member of the union which is a very difficult thing to become. You have to be a son of somebody. Nobody wanted this particular job. So he said
if I'll fill the job, he must remain on the entire series. And I was out visiting Alistair Cook and his wife. Nobody knew where I was but one person and he was trying desperately to find me. Bumped into this one person and he told him. When he tried to get me, it was a private number. So he told the operator that it was a life-and-death situation and finally reached me. And the next day I came in and the rest is history. The Lord meant for you to succeed in that particular art, Gene. Wasn't that amazing? Then how about your first Academy Award? What was that for? That was for "The Hustler." Which was a great, great motion picture. Jackie Gleason - that's it - Paul Newman and George C. Scott. George C. Scott. Who refused his Academy Award. Yes. Did you attend the ceremony? I couldn't attend that one. I was doing a picture in Philadelphia, "David and Lisa." Yes, it was the first picture that I designed actually, but not in my name. I did it under the producer's name, who was also a designer. So I couldn't go out.
Gene, what is a sensation to leave Baton Rouge, work at B. Altman's, work in television, work in summer stock, get into motion pictures? And, finally, for the folks who really know the business to say you did the best. What was the sensation when you learned that you'd received the Academy Award? It's so, so difficult to explain that one. But it was, of course, when it first happened I knew I couldn't. I couldn't think of anything except the fact that, you know, there it was, you know. It was finally going to be sent to me even though I couldn't pick it up. No, it is one of the greatest thrills you can possibly imagine. And then what did you, what did you receive your second Academy Award for? That was for "America, America" with Elia Kazan. And that was the first picture that I had actually designed, ever. I mean of any size. The other one was a very small one, "David and Lisa," mostly locations. And we did it in, as you may know, in
Turkey and in Greece. Want to know one scared individual was this one. You were? Never having designed anything and for the great Elia Kazan, you know. Lord in heaven. It was a picture that he wanted to make all of his life. There I was with all that responsibility. What were you nominated? What pictures have you received nominations for Academy Awards? For "The Cardinal," with Otto Preminger. I mean. That was done in Rome? We did it in Boston - Boston - Rome, Vienna. We were all over the lot on it. And out in Hollywood, too, actually. And then, "The Last Tycoon," again with Kazan. He was my favorite director. Of course. And you received two other nominations. Do you remember? Those were the... I was actually nominated four times. Yes, that's what I said. That was the four nominations. Gene,
what, what's the easiest in your business? Would it be easier for if I want to make a motion picture about England. Would you prefer building England on a set or would you prefer, with your responsibilities, to go to England and shoot. I'd prefer going to England to shoot. You know, I prefer locations oddly enough even though I'm a designer. But, of course, location is design. I have to pick them. It's a matter of selection and selecting the proper thing. Tell me about some of the great actors and actresses, the movie stars. Let's call them what we call them here in Baton Rouge. You've worked with....you worked with Marlon Brando. Yes, I did. One of my early pictures. Fugitive Kind, Tennessee Williams. That was it. What kind of a person was he to work with? Anna Magnani and Marlon Brando. That would be the two most volatile personalities. They were. And they didn't get along very well together, I must tell you. Marlon is a very nice person, very. Not terribly professional in that he may
not get there on time. But a very pleasant person. And of course one of the great actors of all times. Anna was, too, but volatile Italian. What kind of person was Barbra Streisand? I'm putting you on the spot. I know this. You've got to go back and work with these folks. What kind of person was Barbra Streisand? Of course, she wasn't a big star yet in "Funny Girl," was she? That was her first film. What kind of person is she to work with? Well, I enjoyed it thoroughly. Mostly professional at that time. Now she's very professional, but she was a woman who knew exactly what, what, where she wanted to go. Number one, which I love. And knew what was best for her and worked very hard to achieve the conditions that made it best for her. I liked her very, very much. She's one of the most talented people I've ever worked with. Gene, who among the actors and actresses are considered just a sheer
joy because of their professionalism to work with? They will get there on time. They will know their lines. Who bears good reputations in that industry? Well, there are many. I think the ones who don't are in a definite minority. But I just worked with two of them: Walter Matthau and Robin Williams. They're just absolutely marvelous. They worked under terrible conditions. We were 17 below zero and up to your hips in snow and the like without one word of complaint. Let me put you on the spot. Just delightful. Who have been some nightmares to work with and I won't go into detail but who, who kept you awake at night? [Laughs] I'm glad this is in color because Gene is blushing. I don't think he wants to tell us. In television we worked with one that was interesting was Miriam Hopkins. Yes. Miriam
would, if things were not going, you know, quite well, the way she wanted them to she would faint a little. And, you know, you had to just let her sit there for a while until she recovered and then go on. But I've really not worked with many that were truly nightmares. Is the business so costly that there's no time for lack of professionalism? There just isn't. There just isn't. Even in the last picture that we were on expenses per day, just ordinary expenses, are about $95,000. A day? Yes. So if you see that's $9,000 an hour. So a half- hour's $4,500. A coffee break costs $2,000. Costs you a lot. That's right. Gene, what creatively of all the motion pictures that you worked on... what has been your biggest challenge? Which picture do you look back on as? Well, "America, America" truly was it because we were dealing in a, in a period in
1897 and two foreign countries which knew very little about filmmaking and yet all of my labor was local, everyone that I was working with. That was probably the toughest that I've ever gone through though the musicals are enormously complex, such as "Funny Girl" and "Annie" and one just recently also was "Grease 2." Because of the music affects it tremendously and the choreography which requires different kinds of spaces than a normal situation would. Have you ever had the desire because you're so inundated, immersed in it. Have you ever had the desire to produce films? Looks like that would be a logical step for you. Yes, certainly I've thought of it. But, no, I've not been involved except as, as a production designer.
We are involved in producing, you know because it is. But you've never wanted to formally? Is that a tough business? Well, it's, yes it is. It's very tough. And producing is an interesting thing because people really have no concept of what it is. There are many, many forms of producers. There are those who are just hired to oversee and have the title of producer. There're the great ones, such as Sam Spiegel who did "The Last Tycoon" with us. He was one of the great true honest producers who was involved in everything - totally total artistic areas, writing, design, costumes. He was involved in everything. He found the project, developed it, found the money and produced. I mean, there were very few that are in that level. Ray Stark is one. Gene, what do you do in your spare time? What do you do for relaxation? Well, I cook. Louisiana food? Oh, yes.
Oh yeah, I do my Creole and Acadian. I once had the pleasure of attending a party at Gene's New York apartment, and it was so beautiful. The apartment, well it was a combination of a place to live in and a gorgeous movie set. That was my impression. I miss it. Now, you've moved from New York. Yes, I did. And I'm living in California now. I have a condominium there and I have a condominium here. We're going to talk about that in a second because that fascinates me. Here's something that there may be some folks in our audience thinking about. How tough is it for a talented kid, somebody who can sing, dance or maybe a beauty contest winner. How tough is it to hit Hollywood and try to get going in that business? It's tough. I wouldn't discourage anyone from doing it. If they really want it, they must just, just keep at it and do it. But now everything is union, every single activity, I mean, in the studio. And to get into the union is
just next to impossible, but you can still get in. But you still, you must be there and work very hard at being at the right place at the right time. Whatever. Acting is a different thing. I mean you do have, I think you have a greater chance at becoming a performer than as becoming one of us laborers. You say you hear thousands of stories about all these discouraging things happening to people and then you hear of a Gene Callahan who pulled it off and goodness knows how many people you're going to stir on this very day to say, "Well I think I'll take a shot at it." Well let me just tell you all. If I can make it, you can. With your credentials you're a bit modest. Now, Gene's mother Mrs. Cora Callahan, lives here in Baton Rouge. This famous man has done a very interesting thing. He's bought a condominium in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. And does that mean you're going to come back here? Oh, yes. I've only been marking time away.
Do you just love this place? This world, this Louisiana? Oh yes. Oh yes. Tremendous. And I, you know, I keep up here, and I'm here as often as I can. Rarely go anywhere else except when a company wants to send me. And you made it a practice to keep up with other Louisianians, haven't you? Oh yes. You've been very active in that, haven't you? Getting everybody together, I know, in New York? We had the alumni association meetings used to be held in my place. Matter of fact, they held it several times when I was in Europe making pictures. Gene, what will you do when you're back here and you retire? You'll never completely retire. Your expertise will be in demand. You'll occasionally go back and make a picture. That's what I hope to do. And then what will you do with yourself here? Oh, get involved in, in the town and, I hope, civic activities, things that I'd love to do. You're a remarkable story, not just for your success. And I want to emphasize this -- more than perhaps anyone that we've interviewed on this program -- the
strong ties that you have kept with this state. This announced decision to come back here and, and live your days out. I find that fascinating. You're an inspiration and I want to thank you for taking time out and joining us and it's wonderful having you here. And what's your next work? Do you know yet? I think that it's going to be a picture in Fort Worth. With ?????? But I did two pictures here, of course, earlier. It will be called "Baja Oklahoma," a comedy. Gene. A comedy. Thank you so much for joining us today and welcome home and I'll be glad when I can tell you welcome home for good. Thank you. Good.
- Louisiana Legends
- Gene Callahan
- Producing Organization
- Louisiana Public Broadcasting
- Contributing Organization
- Louisiana Public Broadcasting (Baton Rouge, Louisiana)
- AAPB ID
- Episode Description
- This episode of the series "Louisiana Legends" from 1983 features an interview with Gene Callahan conducted by Gus Weill. Callahan, a native of Baton Rouge, won two Academy Awards for his work as a production and set designer. He discusses: becoming interested in set design while working in the opera department at LSU; the production design process from beginning to end; working in playhouses in New York City during his early career; his evolution to television and film work; winning the Academy Awards for his work on "The Hustler" and "America, America"; working with movie stars; and his love of Louisiana.
- Other Description
- "Louisiana Legends is a talk show hosted by Gus Weill. Weill has in-depth conversations with Louisiana cultural icons, who talk about their lives. "
- Asset type
- Talk Show
- Local Communities
- Media type
- Moving Image
Copyright Holder: Louisiana Educational Television Authority
Producing Organization: Louisiana Public Broadcasting
- AAPB Contributor Holdings
Louisiana Public Broadcasting
Identifier: C55 (Louisiana Public Broadcasting Archives)
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- Chicago: “Louisiana Legends; Gene Callahan,” 1983-00-00, Louisiana Public Broadcasting, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed July 3, 2022, http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-17-91fj7spj.
- MLA: “Louisiana Legends; Gene Callahan.” 1983-00-00. Louisiana Public Broadcasting, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. July 3, 2022. <http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-17-91fj7spj>.
- APA: Louisiana Legends; Gene Callahan. Boston, MA: Louisiana Public Broadcasting, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-17-91fj7spj