F Murray Abraham

Bernie Owett was the creative director at JWT and I had shot a number of ‘test’ commercials for him.  In those days, many clients would film commercials cheaply, test them in small markets, then re-produce them with what were called ‘A’ list directors. I was skilled in 16mm and could film more inexpensively than conventional directors and would do the opticals myself since I had those skills.  I was able to do good work because I had developed those skills away from the production centers out of desperation. As a reward, Bernie let me film a Listerine commercial ‘for real,’ 35mm, not a test.

Pat Kirk was my casting director in New York and she found a terrific performer, F. Murray Abraham. I didn’t think the agency would like him (too ethnic) but they did and we arranged to film at the Brooklyn docks. Eff was playing a longshoreman.

The shoot day was cold as hell, I think below zero, so we could only shoot two or three takes before retreating to get warm. The script was overlong and I was respectful of the writer (then) and filmed and filmed and filmed but we could never get a good performance that was to time. The commercial was a single take so there was no solution in editing. We had a number of acceptable takes, everyone was cold and wanted to leave, so I said to Eff, or was it Murray, anyway I said to Abraham…

‘Just do it. Do it the way you feel it. Forget about the time.’

He did and gave a terrific performance. Later I wondered why the agency hadn’t realized that the script needed trimming but I never forgot the importance of space in a performance. The agency realized that the longer performance was better one and ‘piggybacked’ the longer version with a shorter version of another commercial that the client did (for another product) so that ‘Eff’s’ commercial could run at the proper length.

I followed Eff’s career seeing him in bits here and there, then suddenly he got an unlikely part in AMADEUS. I thought he was miscast, having seen the play on Broadway with an elegant and erudite Frank Langella, but Eff  got an Academy Award, so what do I know?