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THOMPSON: Behind the scenes of a movie while growing up in Florida in the 1950s

July 31, 2017 - 12:00 PM

 


OPINION


This week’s column is another excerpt from my book about growing up in Florida during the 1950s and 1960s. Despite the distance in miles and time, perhaps it will sound familiar to some readers who grew up here or elsewhere.

In 1958, Ivan Tors, a Florida movie producer started filming Sea Hunt for television at Silver Springs, just seven miles from my home. Lloyd Bridges - father of actors Beau and Jeff Bridges - who would appear in more than 150 Hollywood movies himself, was cast as Mike Nelson, an ex-Navy scuba diver.

All three networks passed on the series, probably because Bridges had been blacklisted since the McCarthy Un-American Activities Committee hearings in the early 1950s. Hollywood was under attack and like many actors who suffered short-lived careers, Bridges had been accused of being a Communist...even though he was not. 

Ivan Tors finally sold the series directly into syndication - an unusual move - signing more than 100 stations nationwide that first year. Sea Hunt's 155 episodes were seen by millions of Americans over the next four seasons. 

During the final year of filming...the summer of 1961...I was almost 11 and stumbled into what would be my first real job. On a weekday in mid-July, I asked dad if he would drop me off at the Springs in the morning and pick me up in the afternoon. My brother, Clark - two and a half years older - had gone somewhere that week, so I was left to entertain myself. I waited for half an hour for the swimming area to open, paid my quarter and then noticed the film crew on the far side of the Springs. 

I walked past the glass-bottom boats before noticing a man in a baseball cap talking to a small group of people at the water's edge...none of whom I recognized. Lloyd Bridges was no where in sight. The guy with the baseball cap broke the meeting and walked toward me. He said his name - Leon Benson - and said he was the director. He asked my name and whether I wanted a job.

"Can you be here every day this week?" he asked. "I'll pay you $2 an hour...six hours a day...to run for coffee, cokes, sandwiches...whatever the crew wants." I said I could. Filming back then wasn't as big a deal as today...there were no huge crowds...most people didn't even know what was going on. At most a dozen or so people would pause and watch...but move on when they discovered virtually all of the action was under water.

They gave me a badge on a lanyard that said SEA HUNT FILM CREW...I could hardly wait to tell all my friends! When dad picked me up, I told him that a man was paying me $12 a day to run for coffee and cokes...that was nearly twice the minimum hourly wage for adults. Dad said, "We'll see...I want to meet this man tomorrow."  

I felt uneasy and a little embarrassed the next day when dad told me to wait out of earshot as he approached the director. It was an excruciating minute as I saw them talking...and I was certain my job would end as quickly as it started. Suddenly, they shook hands and dad passed by me and said he would pick me up at 4:30 P.M. Mr. Benson paid me every day...$60 cash for the week. The minimum wage for adults was only $1.15 at that time. Mom made me save $55…$5 was plenty to walk around with, she said.

Lloyd Bridges didn't show up until the last two days of filming. The crew filmed a stunt double they called "Big John" doing virtually everything underwater. He was the same size and looked enough like Bridges. Even so, another guy named Calvin, was a member of the crew and doubled for Bridges on dry land for everything but close-ups.

I didn’t talk with Bridges much…I don’t know why but he didn’t seem as friendly as the crew I had come to know in the previous few days. But I was captivated by the process of making a television program…even though I didn’t understand everything they did. I loved running for cokes, sandwiches, whatever...especially at $2 an hour. I tried to stay out of the crew's way, but asked everyone questions when they weren't too busy. After watching for a few days, I remember telling Mr. Benson that I thought "he had the best job."

He laughed, and said something like, "You must be a producer," which didn't make much sense to me but some of the crew laughed. During a break, Mr. Benson mentioned he was the director and producer on I Led Three Lives, the first TV show I ever watched five years earlier. I already liked him, but this sealed the deal. He was tall, thin, tanned and had a ready smile. Later he would go on to direct episodes of Flipper, Bonanza, Mission Impossible, The Virginian, among other TV shows. 

I would meet Mr. Benson again in late summer of 1963 at a barbecue in Ocala thrown by Jack Cowden, one of the writers and producers of Flipper. Lynn Cowden, Jack's daughter, was a classmate and would be my girlfriend the next summer…a long romance when you’re 14. Mr. Benson remembered me and I was glad to see him. He said I did a good job running for the Sea Hunt crew. I felt like I belonged...and my girlfriend, Lynn, was impressed. 

When Lynn went to the premiere party for Flipper in Miami, someone accidentally slammed a car door on her right hand and she lost the tip of her index finger. I wasn't there, but took her flowers and candy when she returned home. She was pretty, had dark hair and eyes...a few inches shorter than me.

We spent much of the summer of 1964 together at the Springs, going to movies and an occasional dance. I spent lavishly on her from my diving money…coins thrown by tourists to me and my friends from the glass bottom boats and so-called jungle cruise boats going down the Silver River.

Lynn moved to Miami before the next summer...her dad working closely with Ivan Tors on both television and movie projects. We wrote for awhile...but Miami was six hours away - too far to sustain puppy love… and we never saw each other again. I read an article recently about her dad...now in his late 80s...and discovered that Lynn died about 25 years ago.

My memories of those carefree summer days are good…and amazingly vivid given the years between now and then. I never found out how or why or exactly when Lynn had died. Maybe sometimes you’re better off living with your memories rather than knowing too much. So, I choose to remember Lynn as that cute 13-year-old girl who I occasionally stole a kiss from at Silver Springs during the summer of 1964.

– Don Thompson, an American awaiting Canadian citizenship, lives in Vernon and in Florida. In a career that spans more than 40 years, Don has been a working journalist, a speechwriter and the CEO of an advertising and public relations firm. A passionate and compassionate man, he loves the written word as much as fine dinners with great wines.  His essays are a blend of news reporting and opinion.


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