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The Man Who Introduced Me To James Ellroy

May 7, 2017

For the following piece we welcome back to the blog James Ellroy aficionado and all-round good guy Jason Carter. Here’s Jason’s bio:

Jason Carter is an unofficial Ellroy scholar with 20-years of Ellrovian tutelage under his belt. A devoted follower of Ellroy since the age of 14,  Jason now has the enviable honor of calling Mr. Ellroy his friend.  Although, don’t think of asking Jason for any personal details about Ellroy, as Jason is ferociously protective of Mr. Ellroy’s privacy. Jason, like Ellroy, lives in Denver, Colorado.

I love a good mystery.  It’s even more entertaining when the person telling it has such an unforgettable voice.

For the 14th installment of James Ellroy’s award-winning Denver film series In A Lonely Place, the Demon Dog selected House of Bamboo, a 1955 noir directed by Samuel Fuller and shot on-location in Japan.  The film stars Ellroy’s occasional Bel-Air Country Club caddy client, Robert Stack, who would later go on to host the television show Unsolved Mysteries, from 1987-2002.

“This movie stars the very man who introduced me to you… Robert Stack,” I remarked to Ellroy shortly before the film began.  “Did you know him?”  Ellroy asked me.  “No,” I replied, “but I did watch Unsolved Mysteries almost every week when I was younger, and that’s how I encountered you for the very first time…  No one expects an episode of television to change their life; but that episode was quite the exception.”

The episode I was referring to, which detailed Ellroy’s efforts to reinvestigate the 1958 murder of his mother, occurred during the eighth season of Unsolved Mysteries, originally airing on March 22, 1996.  I was 14 years old when I first saw it.  As any seasoned Ellroy scholar knows, Ellroy thoroughly documented this fruitless, yet massively insightful quest in his 1996 autobiography My Dark Places, by far one of the most unsparingly honest autobiographies you will ever read, even if you’re not an Ellroy fan.  (You can watch the episode, fatuously re-shot with Dennis Farina standing in for Stack here)  or read the transcript of the episode here .

Towards the end of the book, Ellroy details the filming of this Unsolved Mysteries episode, even describing how the casting director commended the Demon Dog’s act when re-creating the haunting and heart-breaking scene where Ellroy views his mother’s homicide file for the first time:

“They filmed our segment in four days.  They shot Bill and me at the El Monte station.  I re-enacted the moment at the evidence vault.  I opened a plastic bag and pulled out a silk stocking.

It wasn’t the stocking.  Somebody twisted up an old stocking and knotted it.  I didn’t pick up a simulated sash cord.  We omitted the two-ligature detail.

The director praised my performance.  We shot the scene fast.”

There was definitely a magnetic presence there when I watched the Ellroy episode for the first time.  I’ve described it as a spiritual vibration, or a current of energy, an irresistible intrigue drawing me to a place many years into the future.  I had never heard of Ellroy before seeing that episode.  I never expected something as banal as television to introduce me to my favorite writer.   And never in a billion years would I ever anticipate my favorite writer to serendipitously come into my life some twenty years later!

The Unsolved Mysteries episode garnered a dizzying whirlwind of tips from viewers, all of them unsubstantiated, and all documented in My Dark Places.  One astounding feature of Ellroy’s autobiography is that it catalogues—with laser-like precision—the mind-numbing frustration and countless dead ends that distinguish a real homicide investigation.  This is an extraordinary risk that no novelist would ever even dare attempt.

 

Cosmic Crosscurrents

In 2002, I read Hollywood Nocturnes, Ellroy’s 1994 anthology of short stories.  A short nonfiction piece entitled “Out of the Past” begins that book, and concerns his lifelong fascination with famed accordionist Dick Contino.  Just as I was introduced to Ellroy via television, the 10-year-old Ellroy was introduced to Contino in the same way.  A year or so after seeing Contino on TV, Ellroy caught Contino’s 1958 hotrod film Daddy-O.  A year or so after discovering Ellroy on Unsolved Mysteries, I saw the Curtis Hanson, Brian Helgeland-helmed adaptation of L.A. Confidential.  That film sent me on an Ellroy-reading torrent over the next many years.  I read through Ellroy’s catalogue, along with hundreds of Ellroy interviews.

“I should have seen Dick Contino coming a long time ago.  I didn’t.  Fate intervened” Ellroy writes in “Out of the Past”.  I should’ve seen James Ellroy coming a long time ago.  I should’ve snapped to the meaning of that spiritual vibration, and read the future in the coherence of the past.

I didn’t.

Fate intervened.

Ellroy moved to Denver, Colorado, my high-altitude hometown in August, 2015.  I’d met Ellroy once before on the Denver stop of his Blood’s A Rover tour in 2009, but our lives truly collided thanks to Ellroy’s monthly Denver film series, begun in September, 2015.

“Out of the Past” reveals that it took Ellroy three viewings of Contino’s Daddy-O to fully comprehend its plot.  It took me many re-readings to fully grasp the gravity of Ellroy’s novels.

“Tell me what this man’s life means, and how it connects to my life,” Ellroy wrote of Contino.  I could say the exact same thing about James Ellroy.  This passage has always haunted me.  Now I know why.

On Monday, April 24, 2017, I was with Ellroy, sitting next to him, no less, when he and I both learned—simultaneously—that Dick Contino had passed away at age 87.   

 

In House of Bamboo, Robert Stack stars as US Army Investigator Eddie Kenner, who is on special assignment to investigate a murderous clique led by ex-soldier Sandy Dawson (Robert Ryan). Kenner curries favor with Dawson and his inner circle, gaining their trust while beginning a relationship with Mariko (Shirley Yamaguchi), the wife of a murdered gang member. When the police are tipped off about a planned robbery, the portentous Dawson suspects there’s a traitor among them.

“What was it like to caddy for Robert Stack?”  I asked Ellroy after the film.  “He wanted to talk about guns,” Ellroy said.  “Just guns.”

Robert Stack certainly knew plenty about guns.  A world-class skeet shooter, (Skeet Shooting is one variation of competitive clay pigeon shooting) at 16 years old, Stack became a member of the All American Skeet Team, eventually going on to set two skeet shooting world records, and, in 1971, was inducted into the National Skeet Shooting Hall of Fame.  According to publishing magnate Robert E. Petersen, Stack’s friend and longtime shooting partner, “Shooting was [Robert’s] first and true passion in life.”

Stack most famously portrayed the iconic crime fighting prohibition agent Eliot Ness in the award-winning ABC television hit drama series, The Untouchables from 1959–1963. The show portrayed the ongoing battle between gangsters and a special squad of federal agents in prohibition-era Chicago, and won Stack a Best Actor Emmy Award in 1960. He would later star in three other drama series, sharing the lead with Tony Franciosa and Gene Barry in The Name of the Game (1968–1971), Most Wanted (1976), and Strike Force (1981).

In The Name of the Game, Stack played a former federal agent turned true-crime journalist, evoking memories of his role as Ness. Similarly, in both Most Wanted and Strike Force, he played a tough, incorruptible police captain commanding an elite squad of special investigators, once again conjuring memories of Ness. Stack would eventually reprise the Ness role in the 1991 television movie The Return of Eliot Ness.

In 1987, Stack began hosting Unsolved Mysteries. He thought highly of the interactive nature of the show, remarking that it created a “symbiotic” relationship between viewer and program, and that the hotline was a great crime-solving tool. Unsolved Mysteries aired from 1987 to 2002, first as specials in 1987 (Stack did not host all the specials, which were previously hosted by Raymond Burr and Karl Malden), then as a regular series on NBC (1988–97), CBS (1997–99) and finally on Lifetime (2001–02). Stack served as the show’s host during its entire original series run.

When Ellroy reunited with Stack in 1996 for the filming of the Jean Ellroy segment, Ellroy, fresh from the publication of American Tabloid, reminded Stack of how they had met years earlier on the golf course.

“Did I talk about guns?”  Stack asked with a bit of a chuckle.

Ellroy was astonished, “Yes you did!”

The Demon Dog’s final encounter with Stack occurred at the University of Southern California’s 1997 Scripter Awards, an annual ceremony honoring the year’s best film adaptation of a book.  The honored film that year was—accordingly— L.A. Confidential.  Ellroy, Curtis Hanson and Brian Helgeland were all formally recognized that evening.  Stack and Ellroy shared a brief conversation, with the Demon Dog once again reminding Stack of how he caddied for the Unsolved Mysteries host many years earlier.

Robert Stack died at 84 in May, 2003.  I was a boozed-out, sugar-shoveling 22-year-old (I hadn’t yet heeded the Demon Dog’s sobriety call) and working at a small daily newspaper in shitsplat south eastern Colorado when I caught the news.

Later, in November of that year, Stack’s extensive gun collection was auctioned off in Anaheim, California at the request of his estate.  Items on the auction block included his Parker BHE Skeet Grade 28 gauge SXS shotgun with a brass inlay inscribed “National Skeet Championship 1936, 20 ga. Runner-Up, Bob Stack, Score 97×100”; a Ruger 20 gauge over/under shotgun presented to Stack by company founder William B. Ruger and the factory inscription “To Robert Stack from William B. Ruger, 1978”; and Stack’s shooting jacket with various team, tournament and police patches.

Though I’m quick to dismiss television today, finding it a fatuously hyper-kinetic massive corporate distraction, I can’t think of the haunting statement “Perhaps YOU may be able to help solve a mystery…” without hearing Robert Stack’s confident and incomparable brogue.  I owe him a staggeringly incalculable debt of gratitude.  He gave me my greatest teacher in this life, James Ellroy, and an attendant lifelong intellectual Ellrovian expedition that grows stronger with every day.

Thank you, Mr. Stack.

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