Bob Clark did not get as many years as he deserved. A drunk-driving illegal alien killed Clark and his son on April 4, 2007. And Clark sometimes had to make do with small budgets. But Bob Clark could tell a story, and when he teamed with Jean Shepherd, the great radio storyteller, he created a classic that will play on as long as December 25 is a federal holiday, "A Christmas Story."
Born Benjamin Clark on August 5, 1939, in New Orleans, Louisiana, he lived in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and also Birmingham, Alabama, as a child.
"I was quite a savage little being. We were very poor, my father died, my mother was a barmaid, so I pretty much ran the streets," he told the Manchester Guardian.
Growing up in the South also meant playing football in high school. He played quarterback and landed a football scholarship at Hillsdale College in Michigan. But theater beckoned, and he later transferred to the University of Miami. He played semi-pro for the Fort Lauderdale Knights. At Miami, he met and teamed up with Alan Ormsby, The two would become Hollywood directors and writers, teaming up for a comedy horror film, "Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things," in 1972. Ormsby played the lead. Shot in 14 days with a budget of $50,000, it became a cult classic.
This was Clark's third film following, "The Emperor's New Clothes," in 1966. Despite its low budget, it starred John Carradine, who had been a stock player for Cecil B. DeMille, as well as John Ford. Carradine played preacher Casy in "Grapes of Wrath," and was the father of four actors. His second film followed in 1967, "She-Man," about a soldier who was forced to become a woman.
His fourth film was another production with Ormsby. "Deathdream" was a horror film which marked his first major film. He shot it in Canada to keep it cheap, and to give investors a tax break.
That led to "Black Christmas," also known as "Silent Night, Deadly Night." Despite a budget of $620,000, he was able to snag actors Olivia Hussey, Keir Dullea, Margot Kidder, and John Saxon. It pulled in $4 million at the box office, and kicked off a wave of slasher movies.
In 1973, Clark added producer to his titles of writer and director, with the film "Moonrunners." It was a serious film based on the true life of moonshiner Jerry Rushing, and became the basis of less serious, "Dukes of Hazzard" TV series, and later film.
Success in the horror genre meant he could escape the horror genre.
"Black Christmas is both a cult film and a successful commercial film, and has been considered by quite a few people as the seminal slasher horror. After I made Black Christmas, John Carpenter asked if I was going to do a sequel, but I said, 'No, I don't intend to I'm not here to make horror films, I'm using horror films to get myself established. If I was going to do one, though, I would do a movie a year later where the killer escapes from an asylum on Halloween, and I would call it Halloween.' As John has pointed out, the movie he was offered already had that title, and he wrote a screenplay. And then several movies ripped Black Christmas off., I was recently looking at Black Christmas, and I was struck by how truly up-to-date the film was — this movie could have been made last year! Even the clothes and hairdos have come back — they're retro!," Clark told Clint Morris in 2005.
In 1979, Clark received high-brow praise for "Murder By Decree," a Sherlock Holmes film starring Christopher Plummer, James Mason, David Hemmings, and Susan Clark. That led to directing, "Tribute, starring Jack Lemmon.
But his independent work changed Hollywood, beginning with his next film, "Porky's," a tribute to growing up in high school in Florida in the 1950s. It was fresh, a coming of age story about sex, corrupt police officers, sex, school, and a teacher nicknamed Lassie, who said yes, yes, yessssss!
Because schools were segregated in the South, the cast was all white.
"Some people said it was racist or anti-Semitic, but in fact, the film has a very strong bias against anti-Semitism. People were railing about how racist the characters are, but this was 1954 we're talking about, and we made it clear that they were contemptuous of the racism around them. I have a line in Porky's for one of the cops played by Art Hindle, where he says, 'OK boys, see you later, gotta go find some niggers.' I had such hysteria from the studio over that. I said 'Guys, look, I cut immediately to Billy and Tommy looking at each other, rolling their eyes. What are they going to do in 1954, jump down and preach to this cop?' 20th Century Fox said, 'But he's a positive character!' I said, 'I know, fellas, that's the point!' It's just telling the plain truth that's the way things were. We finally kept it until the end, but they really wanted it out," Clark said.
Norman Mailer and Arthur Miller were among the fans of "Porky's."
For "Porky's II," he brought in Ormsby, and by "Porky's III," Clark was long gone, doing another film with Shepherd. It took Clark 10 years to get backing for the film. The success of "Porky's" led to funding for "A Christmas Story." Someone showed Jack Nicholson the script, and he wanted to play Ralphie's father. Thankfully, the role went to Darrin McGavin who did not steal the film from Peter Billingsley.
The film had buzz. But it also had competition. Because Barbra Streisand was releasing "Yentl," MGM released "A Christmas Story" before Christmas. The $4 million film drew $18 million at the box office.
However, his next film was a musical starring Sylvester Stallone and Dolly Parton. "Rhinestone" bombed. And none of his other films quite achieved the success of "Porky's" or "A Christmas Story." How could they? The films shared a common theme: Growing up. You didn't have to want a BB gun -- or even have known a Christmas -- to feel what Ralphie felt that Christmas.
On April 4, 2007, while driving on the Pacific Coast Highway in Pacific Palisades, Los Angeles, an SUV driven by a drunken illegal alien, who had been deported twice before, crossed the centerline and struck Clark's Infinity I30, killing Clark and his son, Ariel Hanrath-Clark, 22. In a plea bargain, the killer served six years in prison and was deported.
RIP, Bob Clark.
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