It wasn’t until almost three years later, in 1974, that he got his first big break. He had been scuffling, doing the occasional nature film, the occasional TV show—anything that would yield a living in his chosen profession. He hadn’t given up on making the big time however. He was still hitting the studios whenever he wasn’t working, leaving them his ever-expanding resume, some of his best nature film footage, and what he considered to be his “audition film”, the film of the war protest he had done in college over five years ago. No one was biting however, and that fall found him still living in his tiny room on Alvarado. He was searching through Variety for job offers when he was surprised to hear the hall phone ring. When he answered it he was even more surprised to find it was for him, and from a real Hollywood producer yet.
“You Hallenbeck?” said the man abruptly. When Gilbert replied that he was, the man continued. “Saw your work. That protest thing. I’m Oscar DeVille of Stupendous Pictures. We’re doin’ a documentary, one-a these social human-interest type things. We need a sensitive social-conscious type to direct. Interested?”
Oboy, Gilbert thought, Stupendous Pictures. At last! A big Hollywood production company. “You bet!” he managed to stammer.
“Okay. Be at the office on Highland and Sunset tomorrow morning, 10AM. Got that?”
“I’ll be there,” replied Gilbert, hardly able to contain his excitement. There was a click on the other end which he took for a goodbye and hung up the phone.
Early the next morning Gilbert caught the Santa Monica bus into Hollywood, got off at Highland, and walked the long block to Sunset, whistling as he went. He reached the large, new-looking office building on the corner, went inside, and took the elevator up to the eighteenth floor, checking his watch as he ascended. Only quarter to ten. Good. He did not want to be late. When he got off the elevator, he had no trouble finding the right office. There were only four heavy wooden doors off the long expanse of the thickly-carpeted hallway, one of which proclaimed in foot-high letters: “STUPENDOUS PICTURES” and below that in slightly smaller letters: “Oscar DeVille, Producer”.
He tried the door. It was unlocked. He walked in.
He was surprised to find that the room was empty of people, except for an efficient-looking young woman whom he supposed was the receptionist, busily typing on an IBM Selectric behind a modest but adequate-looking desk. She sat in profile to the door, but before Gilbert could take two steps into the room, she swiveled to face him, saying “Good morning, sir. May I help you?”
Gilbert glanced around in puzzlement. The only features of the office seemed to be the posters and stills of Stupendous Productions plastered over all available wall space, the plush carpeting on the floor, a door to a private office (DeVille’s, Gilbert supposed), and twelve empty chairs lining the walls. Twelve empty chairs. Gilbert had envisioned a room packed with people, all auditioning and clamoring for the job as director of the latest Stupendous picture.
But he seemed to be alone with the receptionist who broke into his few seconds of silence by prompting him, “Sir?”
“Uh, I’m Gilbert Hallenbeck,” he managed to stammer. “I’ve got an appointment with—”
“Oh yes, Mr. Hallenbeck,” she broke in smoothly. “Mr. DeVille is expecting you. Go right in.” She pointed to the closed interior door.
Flustered, Gilbert thanked her and advanced toward the door. He checked his watch again. Almost ten minutes early. No crowd, and a big producer like DeVille didn’t even have to be notified of his arrival or decide to keep him waiting for the obligatory fifteen minutes to half an hour. Something was not kosher here, but Gilbert entered DeVille’s office anyway.
When he stepped through the door, he saw immediately that DeVille’s office was much larger and more well-appointed than the outer office. On the wall to his right was a fully-stocked wet bar. Against the opposite wall was a comfortable-looking long leather-covered couch with large similarly plush-looking armchairs at either end. The walls were covered with the same memorabilia, and the floor was covered with the same thick carpeting. In front of the wall opposite the door was a massive mahogany desk, the surface of which was bare save for a large legal pad, a deluxe pen-and-pencil set, and two telephones, one black and one red.
Behind the desk, and just getting up from a huge leather swivel chair to greet him, was a short, stocky, balding man of about fifty with the stub of a fat black cigar clenched in his teeth. The cigar was unlit, but the man didn’t seem to notice. He was wearing a black shirt with a yellow tie, and a gray pinstriped double-breasted suit that would not have looked out of place on Edward G. Robinson or George Raft. He extended a meaty hand toward Gilbert and, his lips curling around the cigar butt, said, “Hiya, kid. You’re Hallenbeck, right?”
Gilbert admitted that he was and they shook hands, Gilbert wincing from the older man’s enthusiastic grip. Taking in the full effect of DeVille’s rather fey but expensive-looking sartorial choice made him painfully aware of his own. He was dressed more or less as usual, which for him was a stretched-out T-shirt that had seen better days, torn jeans, and a pair of scuffed, well-worn brown loafers without benefit of socks. His only concessions to this important business meeting were to tie back his normally shoulder-length sandy brown hair with a rubber band into a pony tail that fell to the middle of his back, as clean a shave as he could get with his dull, oft-used Gillette twin blade, a rumpled long-sleeved shirt with a collar to cover his T-shirt, and his least-torn jeans.
But DeVille didn’t seem to notice. “Take a load off,” he grunted, waving expansively toward the armchair closest to his desk.
“Drink?” he inquired in the same tone, waving just as expansively in the other direction toward the bar.
“Uh, it’s a little early, isn’t it?” replied Gilbert, surreptitiously looking at his watch. It was barely ten.
“Suit yourself,” shrugged DeVille, clinking two ice cubes into a glass and pouring himself at least four ounces of scotch. He took a healthy slug, sighed with contentment, and then turned back to Gilbert. “Okay, down to business,” he said, finally taking the cigar butt out of his mouth and tossing it contemptuously under his desk. “I suppose you wanna know what this is all about. I suppose you’re wondering why there ain’t nobody else here.”
“I was hoping you had a job for me,” responded Gilbert. “Hopefully, a directing job.”
DeVille scratched his head for a moment, producing a sound like rough sandpaper. “Well, it is and it ain’t,” he confessed. “But the reason there ain’t nobody else here is you’re my first choice. Don’t get me wrong.” He waved his hand in front of Gilbert’s face. “If this proposition ain’t to your liking, I can get on the phone and this office’ll be flooded with hopefuls within the hour. But let me explain.” He took another gulp of scotch and opened a desk drawer, pulling out another fat black cigar. He cut it, then lit it with a gold Zippo. Putting away the lighter, he contentedly blew a few clouds of smoke in Gilbert’s direction. “Okay, here’s the deal,” he began in a conspiratorial tone. “I suppose you’re wondering why you’re my first choice. Ya got practically no track record, no decent credits in Hollywood.” He held up a hand before Gilbert could answer. “You might not remember, but several months ago you left a copy of that thing you did in college, that, whaddayacallit, protest thing, with my secretary.”
It was true, Gilbert recalled. Desperate for work last summer, he had left copies of what he called his “audition reel” with just about everyone connected with a Hollywood studio.
“What impressed me,” DeVille continued, “wasn’t the directing. Hell, anybody can direct one of those things. Just point the camera, get the sound right, and you got a film. No.” He stood up and seemed to scrutinize Gilbert’s appearance for the first time. “What impressed me was that interview stuff you done. How long ago was that, kid?”
Gilbert thought. “I guess about five-and-a-half years ago.”
DeVille shook his head admiringly. “And you still look like some fresh-faced college kid. How old are you now?”
“I just turned twenty-five,” Gilbert replied. “Uh, if you don’t mind my asking, Mr. DeVille, just what’s this all about? Do you want me to direct a picture for you, or not?”
“Well, you kinda got me there, kid.” He sounded almost contrite. “Okay, okay, I’ll get right to the point,” he continued more brusquely. “This is the Seventies, right? That damn war’s over and that Watergate thing too, but young people are still doin’ that social activism thing. It’s like once it took hold of them, it don’t let go. So I was talkin’ to this young fella see, about your age, does sound for me. Well, he gave me a terrific idea for a picture. Get this.” He turned toward the huge picture window behind his desk and put his hands up in front of his face as if he were framing the scene. “Our picture is gonna be called,” he continued without turning around, “On Hollywood’s Doorstep: The Shame of the Barrio.” He turned around to face Gilbert again. “Well, whaddaya think?”
Gilbert was confused. “Uh, what kind of a picture are you talking about, Mr. DeVille?”
DeVille waved his hands impatiently. “I’m talkin’ about a documentary kid, and a classy one too. See, what we’re gonna do,” he leaned over toward Gilbert again, “we’re gonna take a camera crew out to East LA, film the terrible conditions of the wetbacks there. But it’s got to be believable. See, I need someone to do the interviews, someone that looks real innocent, real sympathetic on camera. All I know is smooth actors and stuck-up journalist types. But then I saw that film you made and I said, ‘He’s my guy.’ See, I want you to do the interviews. You got that innocent look, that naïve but sympathetic attitude, you can bring it off. We’ll make you the white Geraldo Rivera. No, better’n that. So whaddaya say, kid?” He finished the last of his scotch and put his cigar, which had now gone out, down on the desk.
“But Mr. DeVille,” Gilbert protested, “I’m a director. That’s what I want to do. That’s all I’ve ever wanted to do. I’m no actor.”
DeVille came around from behind his desk and put both his hands on Gilbert’s shoulders. “There, there, kid,” he said consolingly. “Don’t worry about that. You’re gonna get full directing credit as well. It just won’t take much work, that’s all. You’ll be directin’ yourself, and anybody can do that, right?”
He went back around behind his desk and seated himself again. “So kid, again I ask you: Have we got a deal?”
Gilbert stood up for the first time and stuck out his hand toward DeVille. “Well, I guess so,” he said.
DeVille stood up, took Gilbert’s hand and shook it energetically. “Great!” he beamed. “You won’t regret this, kid!” He turned and picked up the black phone. “Miss Schoonover,” he said into the mouthpiece, “bring in the Hallenbeck contract.”
Within a few minutes the receptionist who had greeted Gilbert on his arrival walked through the door carrying a large manila envelope, which she handed to DeVille. “Here you are, sir, the Hallenbeck contract. Will there be anything else?”
“No, no, Miss Schoonover, we’re just fine. Ain’t we, Gilbert?” he said with a wink.
“We sure are,” replied Gilbert with more enthusiasm than he’d shown since he walked into the office.
Miss Schoonover turned and smiled a warm smile at Gilbert, then smartly marched out of DeVille’s office, closing the door behind her.
DeVille had put on a pair of horn-rimmed glasses and was reading the contract he had taken from the envelope. “There’s just a couple of things,” he said, putting the contract down on his desk and removing his glasses. “First of all, we gotta do something about that name of yours. Gilbert Hallenbeck,” he snorted. “Sounds like a middle-aged accountant, not Hollywood’s brilliant young director. Hmm.” He furrowed his brows and thought for a moment. “You ever had a nickname, kid?”
Gilbert thought for a moment. “Well, not really. At least, not one I liked. When I was in elementary school, some of the kids used to call me Bertie.” He frowned. “But some of the mean kids turned it into Birdie, and that led to birdcalls and eventually catcalls whenever they saw me coming.”
“Hmm,” said DeVille again. Then his face brightened and he snapped his fingers. “I got it! How about this? On Hollywood’s Doorstep: The Shame of the Barrio, directed by Gil Hall!”
“Hey, that sounds okay, Mr. DeVille. I’m surprised I never thought of it before.”
“Well, that’s all right, kid, I mean Gil. Now, the next thing is your salary. We’re gonna save some money, not havin’ to pay both an actor and a director ’cause you’ll do both, but this is still gonna be a low-budget deal. We’re talkin’ about class here, one-a them, whaddayacallem, ‘prestige’ pictures. We do ’em every now and then when we can afford ’em. We don’t expect to make much box office, but the publicity is great.”
Uh-oh, here it comes, thought Gilbert. No wonder the office had been empty.
DeVille put on his glasses again and read from the contract. “Upon successful completion and release of this film, you, Gil, will get ten thousand dollars. You’ll get whatever expense money you need weekly during the filming. How’s that sound?”
Gilbert couldn’t believe his ears. This was nearly ten times as much money as he’d made on any single project before. “Sounds great, Mr. DeVille, where do I sign?”
“Now, now, don’t get in a hurry, Gil. There’s just one more thing we have to iron out.”
“Oh, what’s that?” Gilbert was apprehensive.
“It’s early November now, and the holidays are comin’ up in a couple weeks. I wanna get started on this film as soon as possible. Once you sign on, everything’s in place. If we work our asses off, we can have the rough cut in the can before Christmas. See, I wanna get post-production and editing outta the way during the Christmas holidays and release this picture early next year to get it maximum exposure.” He gave Gilbert a wink. “Not much competition,” he added. “So that means— Well, I guess what I’m trying to say is, how does Thanksgiving look for you? Any family engagements?”
Gilbert shook his head.
“Wife, kids, girlfriends?”
Gilbert frowned. He didn’t know exactly what a girlfriend was, but he was pretty sure he didn’t have one. “No,” he replied honestly.
“Great!” said DeVille. “Then sign here, Mr. Gil Hall. We’ll celebrate Thanksgiving with turkey sandwiches on the set.”
And with that they both signed the contract, shook hands, said their farewells, and Gilbert left the office with a jaunty stride.
Miss Schoonover, noticing his sunny smile, stopped typing for a moment. “Well, Mr. Hallenbeck, how did it go?”
“It went very well, Miss Schoonover, very well indeed. And call me Gil. Gil Hall.”
And with that he left the office, whistling merrily.