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The Pilot: Airplane scenes


The Pilot: Robert P Davis
Walter Lassally Film-maker
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Wednesday, 01 November 2023 10:18 PM
I am Robert Davis's nephew. There are some inaccuracies by this gentleman in this interview. Bob...
I am Robert Davis's nephew. There are some inaccuracies by this gentleman in this interview. Bob indeed won an Oscar for Best Short in 1960 for Day of the Painter, which he wrote, produced and directed. Nothing fishy about it all. Upon his passing in 2005, the Oscar was hoarded along with much of his artwork by the estranged family of his ex-wife. And as far as I know, Bob was never an animator and never worked for Disney. He was an oil painter of maritime art, a pilot himself, and wrote I think eleven novels. Thus several of his novels were about aviation. At various times Bob lived in Palm Beach, NYC, Rowayton, CT, and finally in Providence RI. He was a bit disorganized and that part us true. This guy has a very fuzzy memory apparently.

So the next film I made in the States was The Pilot, which, again, came about... It came about in a rather strange way. I remember having this strange rendezvous. Somebody said, will you meet me in such and such a bar in Manhattan, and this bar had sawdust on the floor. It was a strange place. I think it may have been that pub that's been mentioned to me recently, Irish pub. It may have been that. Anyway, there was this guy called Greg Earls who was the son of a very rich coal mine owner in Pennsylvania, a coal baron. He decided to become a movie producer and he had been found... he wasn't the instigator, actually. The instigator was the author of the script who was also the author of the novel on which the script is based, which is called... all of which are called The Pilot. This guy is somebody called Bob Davis, who used to be an animator for Disney for quite some years. Then he had a severe illness and needed to be hospitalised for... hospitalised. He had this severe illness and he needed to be hospitalised for a while, and he taught himself to write. He became an author, as it were, in hospital and he wrote this book, because he was interested in planes and aviation and so on. And the book is based on a true story. In fact, it's about an alcoholic airline pilot who drinks, not only in between flights, but actually during flights, and how he manages all that, and so on. And that was a story which had been discovered by him jointly with Cliff Robertson, who was to play the...

Well, Bob Davis had found Cliff Robertson to play the pilot, and Cliff Robertson is a pilot. He has his own aircraft, a Beechcraft Baron, I believe, which I've been in. And, he also discovered Greg Earls. Greg Earls was to put up the money. Bob Davis was going to direct and Cliff was going to play the main part. And we started and within the first week it became perfectly obvious that Bob Davis couldn't possibly direct that movie. He was terribly slow. He didn't know about the line. He didn't know... there were all sorts of things he didn't know, which you don't necessarily know by... you don't necessarily learn if you're an animator at Disney. So, a crisis arose at the end of the very first week, where we'd been shooting for a week with the lovely Milo O'Shea. I always adore working with him. He's such a wonderful person, and his wife was also in the movie. But at the end of the first week there was a major crisis and it was decided that Bob Davis would be encouraged to bow out gracefully, which he did, not all that gracefully but he was left no choice. In fact, he was given a... what was it called... something you can't refuse. An offer you can't refuse. An offer. He was made an offer he couldn't refuse, to retire gracefully. But before that point I had several meetings with him in his home in Palm Beach, Florida which was very well equipped. And anyway, Palm Beach is a rich man's place. You can't live in Palm Beach if you're not a millionaire. You can live in West Palm Beach, but you can't live in Palm Beach. But both he and Cliff Robertson had houses in Palm Beach, and I was put into a flat in Palm Beach, which was very comfortable.

But there were certain peculiarities about Bob Davis's place. For one thing, he had an Oscar on the shelf, which he said was his, but it was an Oscar without a nameplate on it. And as I happen to know something about Oscars, I realised there was something fishy about the Oscar, but I never asked him to... he said, 'Yes, we won that, it's a joint Oscar, we won it for a... it's a movie for a short film at Disney'. But then why would it end up with him, because you didn't have such a thing as a director in Disney. It was a joint effort. You never... I don't know if there's such a thing as a director quoted on, say, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. I don't think so, other than Disney. Anyway, so that was slightly, slightly strange. There was a lot of palaver and there's a ruling in the... there's a rule in... I think it's the DGA, in the Screen Directors Guild, which forbids an actor to take over a movie that he's acting in, as director. This had to be over this hurdle, which is quite sensible, because otherwise actors would be doing it all the bloody time. So they had to get round, they found a way of getting round this hurdle and Cliff took over the direction, which worked out pretty well. Except for his obsession, and I use that term advisedly, his obsession with cockpit drill.

Born in Germany, cinematographer Walter Lassally (1926-2017) was best known for his Oscar-winning work on 'Zorba the Greek'. He was greatly respected in the film industry for his ability to take the best of his work in one area and apply it to another, from mainstream to international art films to documentary. He was associated with the Free Cinema movement in the 1950s, and the British New Wave in the early 1960s. In 1987 he published his autobiography called 'Itinerant Cameraman'.

Listeners: Peter Bowen

Peter Bowen is a Canadian who came to Europe to study and never got round to heading back home. He did his undergraduate work at Carleton University (in Biology) in Ottawa, and then did graduate work at the University of Western Ontario (in Zoology). After completing his doctorate at Oxford (in the Department of Zoology), followed with a year of postdoc at the University of London, he moved to the University's newly-established Audio-Visual Centre (under the direction of Michael Clarke) where he spent four years in production (of primarily science programs) and began to teach film. In 1974 Bowden became Director of the new Audio-Visual Centre at the University of Warwick, which was then in the process of introducing film studies into the curriculum and where his interest in the academic study of film was promoted and encouraged by scholars such as Victor Perkins, Robin Wood, and Richard Dyer. In 1983, his partner and he moved to Greece, and the following year he began to teach for the University of Maryland (European Division), for which he has taught (and continues to teach) biology and film courses in Crete, Bosnia, and the Middle East.

Tags: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, The Pilot, Greg Earls, Robert P Davis, Cliff Robertson, Milo O'Shea

Duration: 5 minutes, 10 seconds

Date story recorded: June 2004

Date story went live: 24 January 2008