Frank Pierson‘s King of the Gypsies, which is out today on DVD, is a fairly difficult film to sit through. It’s a stab at trying to give a Godfather-like treatment to gypsy culture, and there’s just no believing it. While it “isn’t the worst film of the year,” said N.Y. Times critic Vincent Canby in his 12.20.78 review, “the gypsies should sue.”
Degraded Polaroid photo of King of the Gypsies star Sterling Hayden and journalist during filming in late ’77 (or was it early ’78?) at Manhattan’s Plaza hotel.
But the film carries a special memory for me, however, as I managed an interview with star Sterling Hayden during filming in Manhattan in late ’77. Hayden, who lived in my home town of Wilton, Connecticut, and whom I knew faintly because of this, was the first “name” guy I ever sat down with for a piece.
A good actor but an even better writer, eloquent and blustery, and a “bothered” malcontent from way back, Hayden — 62 at the time — was a tall, bearded Zeus-like figure, and one of the first bohemian-minded older guys I’d had the pleasure of slightly knowing.
He liked being the ornery old rebel, and was fairly open to hanging with younger fans like myself. I visited his Wilton home two or three times to listen and learn and shoot the shit. (It helped that I knew all of his films, and had strong opinions about his best performances.) I never got high with Hayden, but I knew a couple of Wilton guys who told me they did. Hash, they said.
Hayden had some legendary problems with the bottle. He wasn’t all that different from Roger Wade, the alcoholic writer he portrayed in Robert Altman‘s The Long Goodbye. (Hayden was less bitter.) He would do rehab and fasting from time to time. I remember him saying once that fasting “is the precise opposite of debauch…the hard thing is to hold that middle ground, hold that middle ground.”
My King of the Gypsies interview with Hayden took place in a hotel room at the Plaza hotel, where filming was happening that day. It was sometime in the mid-afternoon, and I remember that he downed a couple of large glasses of Johnnie Walker Red over a two hour period. Hayden wasn’t much of a give-and-taker. He was the Great Man who’d been through it all, knew it all and had a lot to say. It was all about feeding him set-up lines and and letting nature takes its course.
He told me that producer Dino de Laurentiis had given him a copy of Lorenzo Semple, Jr.‘s script of Hurricane, in hopes that Hayden would agree to costar. When De Laurentiis asked what he thought, Hayden said (or so he told me), “I gotta tell ya — I think it’s crap!” Bristling, De Laurentiis replied, “You’re the first person who’s said that!” A day or two later Hayden talked to a De Laurentiis development guy who said, “Naahh…you’re not the first.”
The best moment of our interview happened when Hayden began speaking of his farmer role in Bernardo Bertolucci‘s 1900. He said that Bertolucci had let him write his own dialogue, and was proud of a line he’d written for his death scene. I knew it and said it before he did — “I’ve always loved the wind.” Talk about a bonding moment.