Strange Encounters 2

2.  Michael Harrison and Mario Lanza

Michael Harrison is an Australian who ,for some years, ran a music programme on a radio station in Adelaide, South Australia. During this period he became obsessed with the tenor Mario Lanza and contacted me, first in the 1990’s, with the idea of making a film of Lanza’s life.

Mario Lanza (1921-1959) is virtually forgotten now, but had tremendous popularity for through his films of the 1950’s  – especially THE GREAT CARUSO (1951), BECAUSE YOU’RE MINE (1950)  and THE TOAST OF NEW ORLEANS (1949). THE STUDENT PRINCE (1954) was a huge success though it featured only Lanza’s voice coming from the mouth of a handsome English actor named Edmund Purdom – whose career faltered after a couple of films. Lanza was unable to play the role himself as, by 1954, he had lost the battle to control his weight. In addition to which his abrasive manner had not endeared him to studio executives or his unbridled libido to his female co-stars.

Lanza undoubtedly had a tenor voice in the same class as Pavarotti or Domingo. His stage experience was limited as he made the transition to films very early in his career; Louis B. Mayer, the head of MGM, heard him singing at the Hollywood Bowl in 1947 and signed him to a contract. His lack of operatic stage experience always counted against him critically, although he had studied on a scholarship from the age of 16 at the Berkshire Music Centre in Tanglewood. The conductor Serge Koussevitzky said to him –“ yours is a voice as is heard once in 100 years”. A viewing of THE GREAT CARUSO endorses this opinion.

I mentioned the idea of a biopic about Mario Lanza to a few people in the film business in California and was surprised at the lack of interest. I’d assumed that Lanza was well remembered. However, even people working at MGM ( who produced my film “Evelyn”) had never heard of him, although his films were made through that studio. The huge success of THE GREAT CARUSO was forgotten. Such is fame.

Harrison, a tall courteous man, radiated sincerity. His passion for Lanza was obvious and his determination to make a film of the life of his idol blazed like a beacon. Despite no background in film production he had somehow managed to have a couple of scripts written by different people. One of these, by an English writer, was quite impressive, though I commented to Harrison that it seemed to me to be a mistake to have Lanza killed by the Mafia in Rome after a performance of “Otello”. Lanza never sang “Otello” in Rome and it was far more likely his heart gave out through indulgence rather than a gangsters bullet. I pointed out there is a difference in a biographical film in presenting guesswork where the true facts are unknown and in inventing sequences known to be erroneous. Admittedly this is a route followed regularly. The bridge on the river Kwai, for example, was not blown up by its British POW builders, or anyone else, although this was the climax of the famous film.

Michael Harrison had given up his radio job in Adelaide by the time I met him . He was in Sydney for a year or so then told me he was moving to Vancouver. The reason for this move was never clear to me though I was told there was a possibility of Canadian finance for the film.

Some years went by. Our contact was sporadic. I gather that at some point some other director was involved but the film still didn’t eventuate. While working on a film in Los Angeles in the late 90’s Michael called me from Vancouver and asked me to fly up in the weekend to meet a producer, a woman, who had access to finance and was enthusiastic about “Lanza”.

Once in Vancouver I met with Michael Harrison plus his charming wife and an adult son. All seemed the epitome of normality. But…the lady producer I had to meet had been called out of town, I was told. When would she be back? Perhaps I could stay an extra day or two in order to meet her.? No, she’d be away for some time. Then I could phone her and discuss the finance for the film.? For some reason, now scrubbed from my memory, this was not possible.  We all went to an opera production one night and the next day I returned to Los Angeles.

Around this time I was told that the actor Billy Zane was interested in playing Mario Lanza. I spoke to him on the phone and he was insistent that he could not only play the role but sing it as well. There would be no need for him to mime to an opera singers voice , he assured me. I pointed out that Lanza had a remarkable tenor voice. Zane interrupted quickly and insisted his voice was quite incredible. He invited me to a studio for a demonstration of his prowess. Knowing that if his voice was really in this class he would be a world famous opera singer I declined the invitation. I’ve still not heard him sing and occasionally wonder if he could really be in the class of Pavarotti, Domingo – and Lanza. Very unlikely. I spoke to Michael Harrison about Zane. His opinion also was that Zane was unlikely to have a superb tenor voice but was vague about whether he’d actually heard Zane sing. As is so often the case with producers I suspected there was something I was not being told but had no idea what it could be.

Quite a few years went by with no word from Vancouver. I assumed Michael and his family had returned to live in Australia. Then, sometime in 2011 my Los Angeles agent contacted me and said that a Michael Harrison had called him, that he had the finance for the film about Mario Lanza, and was willing to pay me a substantial holding fee to prevent me taking another project. Further, there was a request for me to fly to Los Angeles to attend a dinner with the financiers, chief among whom was a lady described as D.W.Griffith’s granddaughter.

(Griffith, who lived from 1875-1948, was a pioneer director made world famous with his epic “Birth of a Nation” in 1914.  Despite the film’s expressed enthusiasm for the activities of the Ku Klux Klan, the director’s mastery of film technique, in that era, was impossible to ignore. Griffith failed to make the transition to sound films in 1930 and was hampered by a sensibility that remained Victorian and sentimental. He died, forgotten and alcoholic, in a Hollywood hotel room).

The dinner turned out to be a fairly lavish affair with around a dozen people. Griffith’s grand-daughter turned out to be a small lady in late middle-age. I was assured she’d produced a number of films, though I could find no reference to these on a film website. Nor could I find information about Griffith’s marriage, children or grandchildren, despite the huge amount of verbiage about his career still in print. I had very little chance at the table to talk to the lady herself as it was apparent to me that Michael Harrison was not in favour of any interrogation, not matter how subtle, on my part.

Apart from Harrison’s wife and son the group consisted of some men introduced as “investors” from Vancouver and three men associated with the Disney company, who, I was told triumphantly, had agreed to distribute the film. The involvement of such a major company was enormously encouraging. My wary spirits lifted. It seemed to be impossible that this elaborate and expensive evening was not soundly based. “Lanza” at last seemed to be within reach.

The following day I reported to my agent and asked him to check with Disney about the distribution arrangement. He called back a few hours later with the news that Disney had never heard of the Lanza film; there was no distribution arrangement. Stunned, I called Michael Harrison who was now back in Vancouver. Unfazed, he assured me that Disney wanted no publicity at this point ; they were keeping the film under wraps. But, I protested, what is the point of keeping their involvement a secret from the Director?

Reassuring me of the finance that would flow from D.W.Griffiths grand-daughter, I was asked to visit a singer named Nathan Pacheco at a studio in the valley. He was considered ideal to both play and sing the Lanza role. Nathan sang a couple of arias. His voice was agreeable enough & I thought he was physically suitable for Lanza, however, as I pointed out to Harrison, this was to be a film about one of the greatest tenor voices of all time. Surely the original idea of using the voice of the Canadian tenor,  Richard Margison, was more sensible. Margison has actually made recordings singing some of Lanza’s hits and certainly has a strikingly similar quality and vocal range.

This was where everything stopped. I’ve never heard from Michael Harrison again. “Lanza” has not been made. I can only assume that Griffith’s grand-daughter didn’t come through with the finance, nor the Disney corporation with the distribution deal.

About the author: Bruce Beresford