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Sunday, March 2, 2014

My Father, "All That Jazz," The 1980 Oscars — And Me

My dad died before he was nominated for two Academy Awards. So my mom took me instead.

John Gara

Until this week, I had never seen the televised version of the 52nd Academy Awards, broadcast on Monday, April 14, 1980. I didn't watch it at the time because I was in the audience: My father, who had passed away a year and a half before, was nominated for his work on the movie All That Jazz, and I went to the ceremony, as a 10-year-old, with my mother. As for why it never occurred to me to go watch them until now, I'm not quite sure: For years after my father's death, and for most of my adult life, I had a fairly active aversion to thinking about his career.

Robert Alan Aurthur — Bob to anyone who knew him — was a successful working writer, but if people remember his name now, it's because they're, well, geeks. He was a significant Golden Age of Television writer/producer (Mister Peepers, The Philco Television Playhouse, NBC Sunday Showcase); wrote a few Broadway plays (including, as one theater-expert friend often reminds me, an infamous musical flop, Kwamina); and worked on some Sidney Poitier movies (but none of the ones you've seen: He wrote Edge of the City and For Love of Ivy, and wrote and directed The Lost Man). He wrote a 1966 movie called Grand Prix, starring James Garner and directed by John Frankenheimer, that both film nerds and racing fans love and still fixate on because it was filmed in Super Panavision 70 using 65mm Cinerama cameras. (I don't know what that means; apparently, it was revolutionary.) He sometimes worked as an executive at United Artists and Talent Associates, forces in television in the 1950s and '60s; the pictures of him and his friends from then look very Mad Men.

My father, Robert Alan Aurthur, with Sidney Poitier, on the set of the 1968 movie "For Love of Ivy."

All of that happened before I was born. When I was a kid, growing up with him and my mom, Jane, a former TV producer, in East Hampton, New York, he had a column in Esquire. He worked on a TV movie about the Attica Prison riots that ended up never being made. He wrote a screenplay called Ending about a man who was dying. And then, after beginning to work with his friend Bob Fosse, the director and choreographer who wanted to do a similar project after facing his own near-death from a heart attack, Ending transformed into All That Jazz, an account of Fosse's struggles with work, his family, and his many women, leading up to his having open heart surgery. Fosse had survived, clearly, but the Fosse character would die at the end of the movie. Before that, there would be lots of singing and dancing.

My father was wonderful to me — loving, loyal, hilarious, and outspoken — and being a writer, he was home a ton. He taught me how to drive a motorboat (so he could water-ski, yikes), how to throw a tantrum, how to be on time, how to have a lot of friends and love them, and that it was a good thing to be the only girl on a sports team.

I would go into his attic office sometimes for general, Harriet the Spy–like snooping and end up reading printed-out drafts of different iterations of the All That Jazz script. Being 7 or so, I had absolutely no idea what I was reading — plus, there were dirty parts. I did get excited that there was someone named Kate (the Ann Reinking character). And I remember that of all the confusing things, I was most flummoxed by the angel of death character, Angelique, who was played by Jessica Lange. Critics would later agree.

For years, my father smoked five — that is five — packs of cigarettes a day. He was diagnosed with lung cancer in the late summer of 1978, just when All That Jazz was about to start filming. We'd moved to New York City so he could work on its production, but he was too flattened by illness to do so. He was dead by Thanksgiving, on Nov. 20, 1978. He was 56; I was 9. Obviously, he never saw the finished film.

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