My “Godfather”, Frank Sinatra

March 4, 2011

I’ve started to do some interviews for my book and find myself talking about Frank Sinatra a lot. From Bringing Back The Old Hollywood:

Sinatra Lifts The Veil

Right around my eighteenth birthday (June 30,1964), I was summoned to Frank’s house, and finally discovered why Frank had been so incredibly kind to me since i had been a child.

When I arrived, Frank was standing out in front, leaning on a new, silver, convertible, 1964 Corvette Stingray, the ultimate driving dream of any teenager at that time.

Frank flipped me the keys, said “Happy birthday, kid”, and invited me in.

I just stood there staring.

“Uh…are you saying I can drive the car for a while?”

“Drive it for as long as you want. It’s yours.”

“Mine? To keep?”

“Yeah. Now come inside.”

And, with that, I knew that I owned the car. It was also clear that there was to be no more conversation about it with Frank. As I came to learn, when Frank had said or done what he set out to say or do, that was it. Case closed. On to the next.

Following Frank inside, I first met Jilly Rizzo, Frank’s bodyguard, companion, and future restaurateur. Even though I wasn’t totally sure at the time who Damon Runyan was, I remember that Jilly immediately struck me as the quintessential Runyanesque character. He was thickset and seemed more like a human version of Ferdinand the Bull than a real person. His hellos, yeses, and most other responses were accomplished with a unique grunt, one that I would grow to love and anticipate. He also had a wandering eye, so you were never quite sure if he was looking directly at you or not. Depending on how he felt about you that could have been a very good thing. At that time, I had no idea who he was or what he did for Frank. I simply had the instinctive feeling that I should probably always keep on Jilly’s good side, assuming I could figure out what side that was.

We sat down and Frank explained to me that my father, quite simply, had saved his career.

I already knew that Sinatra had been a huge star in the 1930s and 1940s as a singer, a teen idol, and in movies. He told me that he had, however, suffered some health problems and that his film career had “gone into the toilet.” I found out later that he had actually hemorrhaged his vocal chords twice in 1949 and 1950 and that the 1948 movie The Kissing Bandit had been a disaster for him.

In 1951, my Dad, who had been a huge Sinatra fan, had called Frank to his office at Columbia to tell him that the studio had purchased the film rights to From Here To Eternity, a soon-to-be bestselling book. Dad told Sinatra that there was a character in the film named Maggio that would be perfect for Sinatra and promised Sinatra the part.

I later discovered that Columbia had purchased the rights to the book from its author James Jones in March 1951 for eighty-five thousand dollars.

My sister (fllm critic Susan Granger) told me that Jones was our constant house guest during that period of time.

Frank told me that he immediately read the book and was fascinated by the character of Maggio. He called my Dad to say he was “in.”

Frank then said that Dad called Sinatra a few days later to say that Harry Cohn had overruled him. My father profusely apologized to Sinatra and told him that he had resigned from the studio in protest.

“Your Dad was a stand-up guy, Stephen. You need to know that. He really put his ass on the line for me.”

Frank did not tell me the details of what happened next, except to say that Harry Cohn changed his mind and that Frank got the role. Red Skelton and Ray Stark would later fill in the missing details for me.

Sinatra won the 1953 Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for playing Maggio and From Here To Eternity became the most lucrative movie that Columbia had made to date.

“That part changed everything for me, Stephen,” Frank said. “After Maggio, people took me seriously as an actor. Without your Dad, that might have never happened.”

Frank then explained that my father’s sudden death (May 17, 1951) within a couple of months after the incident with Cohn, and long before production had even begun on the film, had prevented Frank from being able to repay my Dad.

That’s where I came in.

Frank told me that he felt that he could only repay my father through his son so he had transferred his gratitude from my father to me. That certainly explained all the great gifts, culminating in that amazing Corvette out in the driveway.

“Stephen, I know you’re a good kid but even good kids from Beverly Hills get into trouble.”

He then stared really hard at me, in an intense way that I had never experienced before. “If you ever, and I mean, ever, get into any kind of real trouble, you have to call me.”

He then leaned back a bit and said “I want you to see me as a kind of godfather. I need to be the one you call if the shit hits the fan.”

I was somewhat taken aback by his insistence, but I was also wildly flattered, honored, and thrilled that Frank Sinatra was going to look out for me. I remember feeling an invulnerable rush of adrenaline and blurted out “Yes, sir, absolutely. I promise.”

I felt utterly invincible, never really believing that I would ever actually call on Sinatra for that kind of assistance.

I had no idea that, only a few years later, I would desperately need Frank’s help.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

normadesmond March 6, 2011 at 6:08 pm

is there a photo of you and the car?

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Stephen Simon March 7, 2011 at 9:38 am

Ah, I certainly wish there was…..

Reply

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