It was a potential category-killer the day Bentson wandered up to that farmer’s door and said they needed to talk.
Word spread, but at least it spread the right way, up the chain. And we were there less than a week later, dressing down for the good people of the dingy plains.
The farmer was a farmer, and he hired an old salt with decades of agricultural law under his unfashionable belt. It’d be in character for me to say that the farmer and his hayseed lawyer weren’t ready for the high-end planeload of East Coast legal genius we brought with us.
But it was Bentson that they weren’t ready for.
His emancipation hearing made all the papers. And we paid his legal costs. Not directly. It all had to be done in a certain way. The case ended with the farmer shrugging, and going back to his farm. He never wanted publicity, and probably never wanted to get rich that badly. I hear Bentson sent him a few bucks after the case was all over. Bentson may be a bastard, but he’s no asshole.
He could afford it. After he was emancipated, he hired his own East Coast legal genius and put us through the wringer. In the subsequent negotiations, he played us against the opposition, real hardball tactics. The importance of the moment, and his position as the first of his kind, was not lost on Bentson. Not for a second.
I heard he ruined the hopes and dreams of a lot of people with how those negotiations turned out. Well, they had idealism to burn. Us, we had livelihoods to protect. We paid.
Once the scripts had been approved, we finished the shooting in just two weeks. There was an urgency, a queasy feeling like standing on a basketball. It’s a credit to everyone involved we got them done at all. Bentson was always stopping work to put us through the wringer about all the riders in his contract. He’d only work five hours a day. His food had to be an exact temperature (75 degrees Fahrenheit) and an exact consistency (describing it took three paragraphs in the contract). There was more, but you get the idea.
That day, he was barking at the bucket girls on the set. They were slow with his food and his water and, he said, could use an attitude adjustment.
The model for that shoot looked fragile, like a bird made of lacquer, in a shiny girdle-type leather dress. It was all a little surreal. But the art director said it would play more All-American when they cut it all together. The model gently gripped a big, juicy cheeseburger in her thin hand. The burger was cold, but sprayed and pumped up to looked juicy and delicious. She fed it to Bentson, who took a bite and chewed. He had a way of cocking his jaw while he chewed so that it looked like he was smiling.
That one smile was cocky. Likeability was something we had to throw a lot of money at when it came to Bentson. But the shot would do. He chewed, grinning, then swallowed and said his line. The shot was a closeup.
Hamburgers, roast beef sandwiches, philly cheese steaks, big porterhouses, sausages and hot dogs – he chewed and swallowed in just about all the shots that week. The bucket girls were watching the whole time, ready to run in.
The last photo session had Bentson, in a big, custom-made leather jacket, propped up at a poker table, a rocks glass of milk beside the hand of cards set in front of him. A bosomy blonde in a peasant blouse fed him bites from a bright red porterhouse with a long silver fork. The director of photography, accustomed to only getting a few takes, had arranged every possible angle to get the coverage he’d need for the spot he was filming.
Bentson seemed calmer that day. We’d arranged to have some of his needs met the night before. I won’t say more about it than that, except that the gangster movies make it look a lot easier to find a veterinarian who willing to “play ball” than it actually is.
Like I said, everything finally seemed to be going smoothly. Bentson bantered with the other players at the table, a cowboy, a gangster and I think there was also a dog with an eyepatch.
“You know, I could actually get used to this,” Bentson said, nodding to the bloody steak the blonde fed him. The cowboy and the gangster didn’t know whether or not to laugh at this. None of us did. “As long as we’re here, let’s see what kind of hand they dealt me.”
Bentson scratched at the cards fanned out in front of him with his hoof. After a few tries, he managed to turn over one of the cards. It was an ace of spades.
“Okay, give him another bite,” the director said. The model, leaning her cleavage in toward Bentson’s face, brought a bloody, ragged bite of steak to his lips. Bentson gathered it into his mouth with his long thin tongue, grinned and chewed and grinned some more. “Great. Now say the line.”
“Seriously, don’t worry about it,” Bentson said into the camera, with his flat-voweled Midwestern accent. “I don’t.”
Advice for us all, I still maintain.
The director let Bentson finish chewing and swallow before he yelled cut. The model said something about taking a break. Bentson said he didn’t like how the take felt. He asked why he had to work with amateurs, like the model. She took offense. The director tried to calm things.
But I think Bentson was looking for a fight that day. He could get that way. He called his lawyer in, and shut down shooting for the rest of the week. It cost a lot, but not as much as it could have.
I know I complain. But I won’t lie. We got lucky that Bentson was such a bastard.