Stuart M. Kaminsky

Bullet for a Star


It was the summer of 1940, a hot August day in the San Fernando Valley, and I had doubts that my ’34 Buick would even get to Warner Brothers. The pistons were making threatening noises, and with four bucks in my wallet and nothing in the bank, I tried to ignore the sound. I was, I hoped, on the way to a job.

I totaled my assets and salable qualities as I turned down Barham. I was on my own, had my office rent paid till the end of the month, knew a dozen people I could hit for a few dollars, including an ex-wife who worked for an airline and liked me but long ago gave up loving me-with good reason. My health, except for an occasional sore back, was good, though it wouldn’t be much longer if I had to keep living on nickel tacos and cokes.

My face was in my favor. I badly needed a haircut, but sometimes the slightly wild look was just what a client wanted in a bodyguard. My nose had been broken at least three times, once by a baseball thrown by my brother, once by a wind-shield and once by a fist thrown by my brother, in that order. But at five foot nine, the nose was a valuable asset. It announced that I had known violence.

I had been about to answer an ad in the L.A. Times for a part-time commissioned skip tracer for an auto agency in Fresno when the call had come from Sidney Adelman at Warner Brothers. Sid said he had a job for me if I could get to the studio in a hurry. I didn’t bother to ask what the job was. He knew I didn’t care. I survived a shave with a thrice-used Gillette Blue Blade and put on my only decent suit and unwrinkled tie, being careful to knot it over a small egg stain.

Four years earlier I had been fired as a Warner Brothers security officer. I’d made the mistake of breaking the arm of a Western star who had made the mistake of thinking he was as tough in person as he was on the screen of Grauman’s or Loew’s State. The broken arm had caused a two-week delay on the star’s latest classic. The order to fire me had come directly from Jack Warner.

For the past four years I had barely survived as a private investigator. The jobs had been few: helping a house detective named Flack in a second-rate hotel during conventions, searching for missing wives of shoe salesmen, picking up days here and there as a bodyguard for movie stars at premieres. I had Mickey Rooney twice, and he was hard to keep up with; but MGM didn’t argue about the salary and paid it fast.

I pulled up at the Warner gate behind a black Pontiac. The uniformed guard at the gate, a big-bellied, good- natured giant named Hatch, motioned Walter Brennan through, and I eased forward. As I reached through the window to shake Hatch’s massive, hairy right hand, I wondered why the studio had suddenly forgiven me.

“Toby Peters, for Chrissake. How you doing?”

Hatch was about 60, but his grip was inescapable. There was a car behind me, a limousine with a chauffeur waiting to go through the gate.

“I’m making it, Hatch, and they tell me times are getting better.”

“God willing,” he said, “but that European war don’t look good.”

I nodded.

“Hatch, Adelman sent for me.”

“Right, he called down. You know where the building is. Take Litvak’s space. He’s on location somewhere.”

I thanked Hatch and drove through slowly past two of the block-long, barracks-like Warner buildings and a flock of extras dressed as pirates. Eventually, I slipped down a narrow alley to the office building where Sid Adelman hung his nerves.

Warner is a labyrinth of two-story rectangular buildings, outdoor sets and sound stages. Adelman’s office was on the first floor of one of the office buildings. Sid was called a producer, but he didn’t produce many things that made their way to the screens of theaters. He had started by getting coffee for the Brothers Warner when they were still junk dealers. Now he listened to the woes of studio stars, sympathized with directors’ complaints, delivered ultimatums, arranged parties, kept secrets and made lots of money. He was only fifty, but looked sixty.

The long corridor was busy with hurrying people. Girls with long skirts and porcelain faces trying to look like Wildroot Cream Oil ads, men with cigars who wanted to be recognized as producers, guys with their collars open, whose weary smiles announced that they were writers and had nothing to do with the others in the hall.

Sid’s office was where it had been four years before when I had last been in it. I had done a few odd jobs for him, like carrying drunks from parties, muscling a persistent fired cameraman who claimed the studio owed him a year’s salary, and keeping my mouth shut about a very important female star who had a session with drugs and a friendship with a married senator.

Sid’s outer office was the same as I had remembered it. The walls were covered with autographed, framed photos, all studio publicity shots, of Warner stars. The only thing that had changed in the office was the girl sitting behind the desk reading a Street and Smith love magazine.

“What happened to Louise?” I asked affably.

“Did you wish to see Mr. Adelman?” she answered unaffably, looking up from her reading. Her face was like those in the hall, pretty, ready to crack and young/old. Her hair, over her painted eyebrows, was a lacquered, brittle tower of dark yellow. I wondered how she could sleep without breaking it and decided from the blank look on her face that it was probably her biggest worry.

“My name’s Peters. He called me.”

“Have a seat,” she said, returning to her magazine. “Mr. Adelman is in Viewing Room Three and will be back in half an hour.”

Normally, I would have sat down humbly, but she annoyed me by being stupid, which I wasn’t, and having a job, which I didn’t.

“I’ll join him,” I said, heading for the door.

“He wanted you to wait,” she said in exasperation at having to look up again.

“That’s O.K., Maisie. I know the way.”

“My name’s not Maisie. It’s Esther.” I closed the door.

I walked back down the hall, spotted Jack Norton, the guy who always played a drunk, and made my way back into the California sun. I was starting to sweat. I sweat easily, and with only three shirts I couldn’t afford it.

As I crossed the fifty yards to the screening room, I almost bumped into a kid who made me feel a little better. He was carrying two huge cans of 35mm film and was sweating even more than I was.

Screening Room Three was one of five in a lifeless, one-story rectangle. The screening rooms offered different sizes and levels of plushness. Number Three was the simplest, with thirty seats arranged like a theater. I opened the outer door and stepped past the small projection booth, where I could see an old, hard-of-hearing studio projectionist named Robby leaning back in a chair and doing a crossword puzzle. Whatever he was screening didn’t interest him.

I opened the inner door to the theater and stood still, waiting for my eyes to adjust to the darkness. The first thing I saw was the image on the screen, a black and white, silent film. A tall, skinny, good-looking boy on the screen was standing bare chested in a forest arguing with a girl who came up to his waist.

Only two other people were in the screening room, sitting in the middle row. One was Sid Adelman. The other seemed to be a youngish man with Harold Lloyd glasses. Harold Lloyd leaned close to catch any great words that Sid might drop.

“What’s the kid’s name?” Sid grunted in a put-upon New York accent.

“Bradley,” said the young man.

“No, schmuck, not the kid who made it. The actor. That big kid.” Sid pointed to the screen, his hand breaking the projector beam and crossing over the young actor’s face.

“Uh,” said the young man flipping through some notes and turning them toward the screen to catch enough

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