Saturday, May 2, 2009

The Making of Let's Go For Broke

On Wednesday evening, October third (2007) from approximately 10:20 PM until 12:30 AM EDT, I spoke with Ron Walsh, the credited director of LET'S GO FOR BROKE. What follows is an excerpt from a summary of our conversation based on several pages of notes.

First of all, Mr. Walsh was amazed that anyone would even know about Christa Helm or LET’S GO FOR BROKE at this late stage. He inquired as to how I found him. He asked if I had spoken to Stuart Duncan and I explained that we had found him in Princeton but had not yet been able to speak with him. He said that Duncan had “always been in Princeton.”

Walsh stated that Stuart Duncan had been one of the three principal producers of the Broadway stage musical GODSPELL in the early 1970’s and that, at the time, he was already known as Christa’s “promoter” or “godfather” and was always trying to help her further her career as an entertainer. Duncan had set Christa up in the apartment known as “Merlin’s Magical Den” and hired a PR person to make sure she was constantly in the gossip columns and seen on the “right” arms.

Although he had nothing to do with the 1972 musical film version of GODSPELL, Duncan did not think that it was well-made and decided to get into film production himself. This MAY have been only to help Christa as his first effort, GO FOR BROKE, was to be a star-making vehicle for his protégé. Ron Walsh had been Assistant Director on the film version of GODSPELL and was brought on board Duncan’s project as Associate Producer and Production Manager. In what would turn out to be a major mistake, it was decided that the film would be shot in Haiti to save costs.

Under the Baby Doc regime at the time, Haiti was a poor country in political turmoil. All of the equipment had to be imported on Hercules stratocruisers. The film cast and crew set up a headquarters on top of a mountain in a vacation resort owned by a Frenchman. It was known as the Chateau. They had to have a special license from the Secretary of State stating in essence that “this film has the blessings of the government” which had to be shown many times to various people and forces that disputed their right to be there at all.

All of the initial filming was done in the fall of 1973. The original director was an ex-boyfriend of Christa’s, a stuntman who had never before directed. Christa had suggested to Stuart that a stuntman would be good for an action film. The picture had a six week shooting schedule with a definite cut-off date but by the end of that time it was nowhere near finished. Walsh suggested to Duncan that he (Walsh) take over as director and Duncan agreed. Along with his writing partner, Bob Zampino, they rewrote the film moving the action to Miami and camping the whole thing up quite a bit more than it had been originally. They wrote a scene in which Christa’s character escapes Haiti. Then the production took a break over the Christmas holiday and regrouped with a new crew back in Miami in January of 1974.

George Fisher was a stuntman friend of Walsh’s who was stunt coordinator on the film as well as playing one of the villains. He’s now retired in Southern California. Actor Herbert Kerr was the black villain. Former police officer Eddie Egan appears in the film making this probably his second feature film appearance after THE FRENCH CONNECTION. Walsh had met Egan, upon whom Gene Hackman’s character in William Friedkin’s award-winning film was based and knew that he was running a private detective agency in Ft. Lauderdale at the time.When they moved production back to Florida, he called Egan and said he had a part. “You want me to play a cop don’t ya?” was reportedly his response. He did. Walsh and Zampino gave themselves small roles also as a couple of “really scrungy guys.” Frank Raiter as the main villain gave the best performance according to Walsh.

The man who wrote the music was another ex-boyfriend of Christa’s. She sang the closing theme herself. She was flown to London to record it as it was supposedly cheaper to do it there at that time.

Walsh said thatreprts were definitely true about a “Montezuma’s revenge” outbreak. Christa, herself, was largely responsible for running the film over time and over budget. Along with other star-like trappings, she had insisted on bringing down her friend Ilana Harkavi as her make-up artist. The problem was that Ms. Harkavi was not a FILM makeup artist and often had to redo and/or rework Christa’s makeup for the cameras.

Once when more time was needed, Walsh and Christa staged a fake accident in which Christa fell off of a boat in order to allow a few days for her to recover from hurting her back. In reality, Christa had a “really curved spine” and a “really bad back.”

Christa almost refused to work at her chosen craft and thus was never a good actress. Walsh said she resisted his attempts at feeding her lines to rehearse and was unaware that Duncan reportedly had Chitra attempting to coach her to no avail also.

Somewhere along the way, it was decided to add the word “Let’s” to the title GO FOR BROKE in order to avoid confusion with an earlier film of that name. This explains why many of the gossip column entries refer to the picture by the truncated title.

LET’S GO FOR BROKE was edited in New York in the summer of 1974. Although Stuart Duncan’s relationship with Christa was widely known during shooting, by the end of the filming, after growing close during the Miami section, she was coupled with Walsh. Ron and Christa rented a cottage in Southampton for that summer. They flew up in shuttle planes off the East River. Because of the shift in relationships, Walsh never spoke with or saw Stuart Duncan again.

The film premiered in Cincinnati at the 20TH Century Theater which Duncan bought out for two weeks in a then-popular practice called “four-walling.” Walsh did NOT attend the Cincinnati World Premiere the week of Christmas, 1974 although Christa did put in an appearance that weekend along with several other still unknown cast and/or crewmembers. All we know is that Chitra Neogy was NOT among them as she was not even aware that the film had had a final edit.
Walsh’s take on why it had no further distribution was that it had no stars attached to it. This doesn’t ring true as the seventies were filled with scores of low-budget (or no-budget) features that someone was willing to release in order to try to make a quick buck. He says he had nothing to do with the additional scenes reportedly shot in Hollywood after the premiere that allegedly would get the picture an R rating. He says he’s pretty sure these scenes would have been shot in Hollywood, FLORIDA, not California and that they were directed by a director named Bob Woodburn who was based in Florida. He is not certain if there was ever actually a final edit on the LADY J version as the copy he’s had all these years would be the Cincinnati premiere version.

At some time after the summer of 1974, Walsh moved into Christa’s Manhattan apartment with all of its bells and whistles. He met her daughter several times during that period and remembers the photo session featuring mother and daughter at the apartment. While they lived together for ten months, he adds that from the beginning, “We knew it wasn’t permanent because of our personalities.”

One of Christa’s closest friends was gay clothing designer Lennie Barrin and the two of them decided to start a clothing line with Barrin designing and Christa promoting. Since neither of them knew anything about business, Ron Walsh stepped in as the business manager for the enterprise but it nonetheless fizzled fast.

During their time time together, Christa took singing lessons a couple times a week with the ultimate goal of becoming a singer. She took this goal more seriously than that of becoming an actress.

“She definitely was into the drug scene, “ said Walsh. She had “quite a history before I knew her” but it “never seemed to hold her back.” She once bragged of taking “an incredible number—maybe 40 or 50 acid trips” and “of course one of her favorite things was pot.” “She never mainlined anything” and reportedly “got much more into it when she came out to L A.”

Walsh describes Christa Helm as “a party girl for sure.” “Always living on the edge.” She “gobbled up life.” “Sexy, sensual and very, very determined.”

Eventually, Christa decided that she would have to move to California in order to further her career but she and Walsh stayed in touch, mostly by phone. He heard of her relationship with Michael Sarrazin and actually worked with him on a film entitled SPEED IS OF THE ESSENCE. “Every once in awhile,” he says, “ Christa got very serious about somebody.”

In their last conversation, she told him of a new boyfriend with a fancy car that matched the color of his eyes. She hinted that he was mob connected. Walsh did hear later that they had had “ a falling out.” “Her social life was always on the fringes of mob life,” he recalled but added, “not when we were together.” She was “very, very good at connecting with men with a lot of money.” “Women, particularly, tended to dislike her,” he also said.

“I did hear that she had run out of money toward the end.” He says that the story he heard was that she was on her way to a drug dealer when she was killed. He can’t recall the street name but says it was a side street in Beverly Hills “off Doheny.” It was particularly sad, he added, that she was killed in the manner she was as she had always had a morbid fascination with the Sharon Tate killings.

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