On September 14th & 15th, our ongoing tribute to director J. Lee Thompson takes a turn away from the high-octane action of our first few presentations, towards more interpersonal conflicts. We’ll be presenting two stories of men with grand visions, whose interactions with women bring complexity to realizing their prime goals.
THE GREEK TYCOON, from 1977, was one of the last of a popular trend of roman a clef films speculating on the inner workings of public figures embroiled in notoriety, in this case fictionalizing the life of Aristotle Onassis in the figure of Theo Tomasis (Anthony Quinn), and exploring his relationships with his first wife, his longtime mistress [representing Maria Callas], and the widow [so representing Jacqueline Kennedy] that became his final companion. Some details are fabricated, some persons are condensed, but it’s as close to a warts-and-all telling of these luminaries the lawyers would allow at the time.
Roger Ebert, in his otherwise lackluster review of the film, singled out Quinn with praise, declaring “[The] good moments are all his… he populates its rubble with a masterful performance.” The longstanding preproduction rumor was that Onassis was aware he would be dramatized in a film and was pleased to have Quinn as his surrogate. And for lovely co-stars, there’s not just Jacqueline Bisset as Kennedy, but Marilu Tolo, who’s been taking up Bev estate the last few months in COMMANDOS and RIOT IN A WOMEN’S PRISON, as Callas, and Camilla Sparv, former wife of Robert Evans, who appeared in another J. Lee Thompson film, CABOBLANCO with Charles Bronson.
The list of producers on this film are a most curious collective, encompassing pugnacious music mogul Allen Klein, American Filmed Theatre founder Ely Landau, and blacklisted “Hollywood Nineteen” playwright Howard Koch, credited here as “Peter Howard.” The writing pool is just as colorful: story credit is shared by Greek journalist and writer/director of infamous Video Nasty ISLAND OF DEATH Nico Mastorakis, who in his newspaper career first broke the story of the Onassis/Kennedy wedding; playwright Win Wells, who wrote THE PINK TRIANGLE while also scripting grindhouse fare like REDNECK with Telly Savalas; and “I SPY” founding writer Morton S. Fine, who would later script the aforementioned CABOBLANCO, takes final screenplay credit.
The political intrigue at play in 1984’s THE AMBASSADOR may have no real-life antecedent, but they do predict the kind of dirty tricks that have now become commonplace in our modern climate. Peter Hacker (Robert Mitchum) is an American ambassador to Israel, whose attempts to broker unsanctioned peace talks between non-entrenched Jews and Arabs land him and his security head (Rock Hudson) in bad terms with the country’s defense minister (Donald Pleasance). And when mysterious parties present filmed evidence of Hacker’s wife (Ellen Burstyn) cheating on him with a PLO adherent (Fabio Testi), the pressure mounts for him to abandon his efforts. To salvage his marriage and his legacy, Hacker chooses to find out who’s undermining his work and why.
THE AMBASSADOR was the final feature film credit for Rock Hudson, who accepted the role a week before production began to replace Telly Savalas, despite already being in ill health; he would complete a TV miniseries and a short stint on “DYNASTY” before succumbing to AIDS in 1985. Curiously, but not surprisingly, considering its pedigree as a Cannon production shot in Israel, the supporting cast includes three of the major actors from Boaz Davidson’s LEMON POPSICLE series – Zachi Noy, Yftach Katzur, and Rachel Steiner. Noy in particular may also look familiar to fans of ENTER THE NINJA and Tobe Hooper’s NIGHT TERRORS.
The screenplay for THE AMBASSADOR was sourced from Elmore Leonard’s novel 52 PICK-UP, though only using the plot threads of infidelity and blackmail. Cannon would later make a direct adaptation of Leonard’s book in 1986 with John Frankenheimer directing. The screenplay is credited to TV writer Max Jack, with uncredited help from Ronald M. Cohen, creator of TV series “CALL TO GLORY” and co-screenwriter on Robert Aldrich’s thriller TWILIGHT’S LAST GLEAMING. An earlier Cohen screenplay, the 1968 revisionist western BLUE, was filmed by director Silvio Narizzano, who was the longtime companion to GREEK TYCOON co-writer Win Wells!