Thursday, March 24, 2011

FROM THE ASHES: THE FRANK BELMONDO STORY, CHAPTER IV


CHAPTER IV

FRANKIE GOES TO HOLLYWOOD

With the opportunity of fame and fortune presenting itself in Hollywood to Francis and his family, a great debate began within the Laster household as to whether or not the move was the correct direction to go.

JEREMIAH LASTER: Normally, I would think of Hollywood as a place of sin and depravity. But I also had my doubts about Francis’ dancing, and before the moment he was injured he had brought a lot of good will to the community through his artistic expression. Maybe Francis would be able to bring his positive spirit and love of Christ to Hollywood and change things around there.

FRANK: I think that my father had a lot of expectations of me, which was nice and all…but I was just a kid. It was never going to be one of those “and a child shall lead them” moments, no matter what his hopes were. I was just going to be happy that I was going to appear on television

JEREMIAH LASTER: After much internal struggle, we called up Samuel Proctor and told him that Francis would be coming to appear on his television show.

The first thing that needed to be done was to get Francis an agent.

JEREMIAH LASTER: We met with several people who represented child actors. In the end, we felt that Mr. Fenita would be the best person to represent our young Francis.

LEONARD “BUCK” FENITA, TALENT AGENT: Basically, I just said that I would donate one percent of my gross commission – up to fifty dollars, max, for each deal – to the father’s church. It was a calculated gamble that worked. I mean, the kid already had a role guaranteed. You just have to follow the money,

FRANK: Buck was a good guy. The man would’ve sold me to the black market if the price was right, but generally he was a cool dude.

The biggest dilemma for the Laster family was with Jeremiah, who knew that he had a flock to tend to in Cedar Creek.

JEREMIAH LASTER: I had realized very quickly that Los Angeles was not the place for me or my wife. But we could not let Francis not go through this journey. It was a painful decision, but we did what we thought was best.

FRANK: Buck became my legal guardian. My parents would come and visit three times a year. Not that I knew about the Belmondos letting me go at that time, but something had told me deep inside that I had been let go before. It was a tough adjustment for me, but I was focused on my future, at the same time.

LEONARD “BUCK” FENITA: I never had to raise a kid before. But the kid had a series guaranteed. I felt confident about Frankie’s long-term prospects, as well. The kid had a quality that was unique to a child star…he wasn’t a Gary Coleman or one of the Brady kids. He was more like a pint-sized Donald Sutherland. The kid had a certain kind of…can I say sex appeal? I don’t want to sound like a pervert or anything…

GWEN LASTER: We had to have some ground rules put together in order to allow Francis to stay in Los Angeles. He had to continue not only his normal education but also his religious studies. His physical therapy for his Achilles’ tendon needed to be taken care of – I still had some hope that his dancing career was over. Maybe I was being na├»ve. Overall, there needed to be a good moral compass in his life.

LEONARD “BUCK” FENITA: I don’t know if I can call myself a “moral compass”, but I got the kid meetings with the chaplain at the studio, and the studio got him the best physical therapist money could buy. The final pieces of the puzzle were to negotiate a fair contract and to get Frankie acting classes.

FRANK: I was going through a lot with the physical therapy. It was so strenuous that I had to sit in wheelchair most of the time outside of my appointments. I was too exhausted to walk around with crutches. When we would have meetings with the studio heads about series possibilities, they thought about putting my character in a wheelchair. They said that I look “natural” in the wheelchair. Somehow that just seemed insulting to me, but Buck said that I should go with it – it could work as a negotiating point for my contract.

LEONARD “BUCK” FENITA: When it comes to negotiation, you need to use every angle to your advantage. It could be argued, let’s just say, that making him sit in a wheelchair all day would cause him to have what I like to call “ass fatigue”. William Conrad, the guy who was on Cannon, that show with the detective in the wheelchair, he had a similar clause in his contract. So I pulled a Cannon, in effect.

FRANK: Say what you want, his negotiating got me a motorized wheelchair. For an eight-year-old kid, that’s almost like getting a dirt bike. With all due respect to actual handicapped kids, of course.

Buck was also able to land a coup by getting Frank into the exclusive Rudolph Simoneaux Actors’ Collective. But on the morning of his first day of class, Frank received a phone call.

FRANK: I’m getting dressed to go to class, and my mom calls me. She tells me that I was adopted and that they had found out who my real father was. They tell me that his name was Stephan Belmondo and that he was a carnival performer. Now, like I said before, I had a feeling that I had felt like there was a feeling of loss before and that confirmed it. Also, look at it, I’m like two pigments lighter than they are and neither of them can dance. But the whole phone call did throw me off of my game that day.

GWEN LASTER: If I had known that it was his first day of class, maybe I would’ve waited. But we felt that Francis had a right to know the whole truth about his birth. We hadn’t contacted his father, yet – we still had to find him. But I felt that Francis needed to know that he existed.

LEONARD “BUCK” FENITA: The day of Frankie’s first acting class, I had my assistant, Ruby, drive him over to class. Big mistake. Ruby was a bit absent-minded…like most agents in the ‘70s; I hired her for her chest. When she got Frankie to the building where Simoneaux’s class was, she had forgotten Simoneaux’s name. So, she just told the security guard at the front desk that Frankie was there for acting class, and the guard, he took one look at him and just assumed that he was in the other class.

JARRETT THIBODEAUX, ACTING TEACHER: I have had the Jarrett Thibodeaux School of Acting for Handicapped Children for over thirty years now. I had come up with the idea for the class while on my tour of duty in Vietnam. The moment my right arm was shot off while taking enemy fire in the jungles outside of Khe Sanh, the first thought, the first thought, that entered my mind was, “I need to teach an acting class.” Back around the time that Frankie came along, before I had gotten credibility within the acting community and could charge my students, I did it as a volunteer class, working out agreements with my students that they would pay me back when they got work. When Frankie came in, then, I didn’t think much of it, since we had kids come in all of the time from the street. But after hearing him speak, I could tell that he had a presence that could lift him right out of his wheelchair. Little did I know at the time that he could do that already, but—

FRANK: Who knew that there would be two Cajun acting teachers in the same building? I was so disoriented from the news of my adoption that morning that I didn’t bother to notice that I was in the wrong class. Buck had told me before I left that the key to Rudolph Simoneaux’s class was to stay in character at all times. So when Jarrett asked me to discuss my handicap, I just went with it.

JARRETT THIBODEAUX: When he spoke about his ailment, there were tears in my eyes. To be a victim of a gangland-style shooting while at his father’s grocery store, and to lose both parents in the shooting, and to lose the use of his legs…truly tragic.

FRANK: I made some stuff up. I thought that was what was expected of me. I had an active imagination, and Buck was watching The Godfather, Part II the night before. It came together quite easily.

JARRETT THIBODEAUX: I had done an all-autistic version of Waiting for Godot the year before to rave reviews, so I had built up some stature in the acting community. But I knew that Frankie was going to be my Olivier. He would be the one that would take handicapped acting to its next level. The day after Frank came in, I ordered business cards. I was that confident.

LEONARD “BUCK” FENITA: It was about three weeks into his studies when Rudolph called and told me that Frankie hadn’t attended a single class. So I go to Frankie and confront him, and he says, “I’ve been to every one of Mr. Thibodeaux’s classes.” I say, “Thibodeaux? Who’s Thibodeaux?” Naturally I fired my assistant the next day.

JARRETT THIBODEAUX: I was doing the blocking for an all-wheelchair version of The Iceman Cometh, with Frankie in the lead, of course, when Mr. Fenita walked in and told me of the mistake, and that Frankie wasn’t really handicapped. I was devastated. Not only was I losing my best actor, the hope that he had given to the others, the belief that he inspired, well, that was all in the shitter.

FRANK: I transferred over to Mr. Simoneaux’s class. It really was a big difference. No offense to Mr. Thibodeaux, but he couldn’t hold Mr. Simoneaux’s jock when it came to teaching the craft of acting. The only problem was that every time that I showed up to class, there would be two kids in wheelchairs waiting for me and they’d pelt me with rocks and garbage. I could have gone through the back entrance of the studio, but I felt that I deserved the punishment. I had let them down, after all. Also, I felt that the embarrassment would only improve my acting. Boy, I was a pretentious little prick back then.

RUDOLPH SIMONEAUX, ACTING TEACHER: I had paid the two kids in the wheelchairs to throw the garbage at him. The rocks were the kids’ idea. I thought that he needed that pain to make him a stronger actor. Although Francis had gone through much turmoil in his life, I thought that he needed to go through a little bit more to make him the best actor that he could be. Shame is a great motivator.

LEONARD “BUCK” FENITA: Samuel Proctor came to us about a month after Frankie had started with Rudolph’s class to tell us that they had the perfect vehicle for Frankie. I went to Rudolph and asked him if Frankie was ready. Rudolph said that Frankie was “a natural” and that he “sparkled with intensity greater than all of the stars in the cosmos.” So I slowly backed out of the room and took Frankie to the studio for a meeting.

FRANK: Samuel Proctor had a pilot that he was putting together for a while, and they had added a character in the show that was just for me. I was flattered.

LEONARD “BUCK” FENITA: There was one thing that they asked from us, though, to get things started. They didn’t think that the name “Francis Laster” was going to be appealing. We needed a new name. The whole three-name thing for child actors hadn’t caught on, yet – the only one who had three names at the time that I could remember was Rodney Allen Rippy, but that didn’t count. So we spent that evening of the meeting bouncing names around.

FRANK: So, I said to Buck, “What about Frankie Belmondo?” It was my birth name, right? Buck and the studio loved it. And so, a legend was born, I guess.

(to see Chapter 5, click here)

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