Dancing With Fred Astaire
Updated: Nov 23, 2020
It was June of 1973. Dad was on a desperately needed hiatus after working many long months on The Poseidon Adventure.
"That picture was a hell of a lot of work", he told me. However, I know he enjoyed every minute of it. That was just Dad. He loved his work. It wasn't uncommon to find him working 12-16 hour days in his office or on the set. The Poseidon Adventure premiered in December of 1972 and was an overnight success, grossing over 125 million - a huge sum for the early 70's.
By July of 1973 Dad was already in pre-production of Irwin Allen's next film, The Towering Inferno. Irwin was a good friend to Dad, and loyal to his crew. Dad worked with him on all his disaster films. Irwin spared no expense on his productions.
They had to be spectacular, having an all star cast with the likes of Gene Hackman, Shelly Winters, Ernest Borgnine and others.
Every film Irwin made had to be bigger and better than the one before. The production budget for Inferno was nearly triple that of Poseidon and the cast even more outstanding - Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, Faye Dunaway, Fred Astaire, Robert Wagner, William Holden, Jennifer Jones, etc.
In August of '73 Dad flew me up to spend a week with him in San Francisco where they shot all the exteriors of the skyscraper. They used the Bank of America building at the corner of California and Kearny Streets, a massive 52 story building that served as the facade for the film.
What a great week that was! Dad took me to a few of his favorite restaurants on Fisherman's Wharf and North Beach, a noted Italian area. I enjoyed delicious food, nice ambiance and "interesting" people, who were all very kind to me. Dad told me to be on my best behavior and not ask too many questions (something I was known to do). I later understood why.
You see these families "owned" SF. Dad had to get permission from Mayor Alioto and others to shoot Towering Inferno in the city. Fortunately, they loved my dad. Not only did he get permission, but they awarded him the Key the City and bestowed upon him the award of Honorary Fire Commissioner.
One evening at Alioto's restaurant Dad recounted the family history. The restaurant started in 1925 as a small fish stand where Nunzio Alioto, an immigrant from Sicily, sold food to the local Italian workers. In 1938 it became one of the first and most popular restaurants on Fisherman's Wharf. This family, as others I met at the restaurants on North Beach, were some of the original "goodfellas" in San Francisco.
Back to the set of Inferno. It was a summer afternoon when we broke for an hour lunch. Dad had hired one of the best caterers in the business who could whip up just about anything you desired. I was waiting for my lunch, when I noticed ballroom music playing from the truck. It struck me as odd. I looked at Dad and he had that smirk on his face that told me he was up to something. A moment later, I felt a tap on the shoulder. I turned around and found myself face to face with Fred Astaire. He smiled, put out his hand and said, "May I have this dance?" I was blown away! I choked out the word "Yes" Mr. Astaire twirled me around for several minutes ending with a dip. He bowed, kissed my hand and thanked me for the pleasure. Good God! It was my Ginger Rogers moment...
I quickly turned to find Dad. There he stood about 20 feet away smiling from ear to ear. He did it again! Much like my first meeting with Paul Newman. Dad just loved to surprise me.
The day before I left San Francisco, I had yet another interesting experience. I was sitting on the front steps of the B of A building while the crew was shooting a scene with Paul Newman and Steve McQueen. I looked up and saw Robert Wagner approaching me. He casually took a seat nearby. He was very friendly and what I considered an "unaffected" actor. In other words, not full of himself. We had talked casually before, but not at length. This time we had a slightly longer conversation, nothing I recall as being particularly deep. However, right before he was called back to the set, he said, "Mara, I'd like to take you out to dinner some time. Sound good?" I remember my cheeks feeling warm. He was very handsome..and my gosh, it was ROBERT WAGNER! There was only one problem, he had just re-married Natalie Wood. I took a breath and said, "Thank you for the complement, but I don't think it would be a good idea." I later tormented myself over-thinking the entire episode. What would a dinner out on the town hurt, I wondered. Ultimately, I knew I had done the right thing. Besides, had Dad found out, it would have been a nightmare! He was very protective of his "little girl".
The following day, Dad had a driver take me to the airport and I flew back home to L.A.
Life always seemed so boring away from the studios. My Senior year was about to begin, and life would surely go on.
Until next time...