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Henry Bumstead 90th Anniversary Tribute

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By Jack EganA true Hollywood treasure, Henry Bumstead, the highly lauded and much beloved production designer, turns 90 on March 17. While most of his colleagues from the golden age of the studio system have passed from the scene or have long since retired, Bummy, as he’s called by his friends and colleagues, is like the Energizer Bunny: He just keeps going and going and going.What mainly keeps him going these days is Clint Eastwood. “If it wasn’t for Clint, I wouldn’t be working now,” he says. Indeed, Bumstead has just started prep work for the director’s next film project, Flags of Our Fathers, a hard-hitting war movie about the U.S. marines who raised the American flag on Iwo Jima in one of the most memorable scenes of World War II. “It’s one of the toughest scripts I’ve ever seen,” he says.The film continues what has been a personal golden age for Bumstead, capping a 67-year career that began when he first joined Paramount in 1937, straight out of college. From Unforgiven in 1992, to Million Dollar Baby last year, Bummy has been Eastwood’s art director of choice. And he’s been a key member of the Eastwood ensemble, which includes editor Joel Cox, cinematographer Tom Stern and others in the director-actor’s gifted below-the-line crew. They intuit what their director wants before he knows he wants it.“Working for Clint is like the old studio system,” says Bumstead. “He works with the same people all of the time. So even if you go two years and you don’t get a Clint Eastwood picture, when you arrive for a new one, they’re all there—wardrobe, editor, cameraman, everyone. It just makes it wonderful.”That incredible stretch has also elicited some of the most accomplished and eloquent production design work in Bumstead’s entire career. And that’s saying a lot, considering his long and distinguished stints with directors such as Alfred Hitchcock, Robert Mulligan and George Roy Hill. He’s also worked with directors George Marshall, Billy Wilder, Martin Scorsese and Jerry Lewis to name a few, and a plethora of stars from Gregory Peck and Paul Newman, to Kim Novak and Hilary Swank.When Million Dollar Baby, a film about the complex relationship between a female boxer and her trainer, recently swept top Oscar honors—Academy Awards for the film as best picture of 2004, Eastwood for best director, Hilary Swank for best actress and Morgan Freeman for best supporting actor—Eastwood went out of his way to thank Bumstead in his acceptance speech.The director also praised him when Bummy in 1998 received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Art Directors Guild. “You take the BS out of filmmaking,” Eastwood told him and the chuckling audience.Putting the stamp on Henry Bumstead as one of the top production designers in the history of Hollywood are his pair of Oscars for best art direction—for To Kill a Mockingbird and The Sting. He’s been nominated two other times, for Vertigo and Unforgiven.For his more recent work, he and his longtime art director Jack G. Taylor Jr. last year were bestowed the Art Directors Guild award for excellence in production design for a contemporary movie for Mystic River, and Bummy was nominated this year in the same category for Million Dollar Baby.The secret to his remarkably long career as an art director is “staying put,” he says. “Clint likes me because I’ve worked for only a few directors and for a long time.“I also have a crew that’s worked with me for a long time,” he notes. “Besides Jack my art director, there’s Dick Goddard, who’s my set decorator, Mike Muscarella, my construction coordinator, painter Rick Paronelli and Kokayi Ampah, our great location scout.”Bummy likes to stay put in his personal life as well. He has lived in the same house for 52 years. And he’s been married for 21 years to his lovely wife Lena. She turned 89 at the end of February. He has three sons and a daughter from his first marriage which lasted 43 years.So what’s it like turning 90? Age hasn’t dented Bummy’s creative capacities one bit, nor his recollections—he’s an avid storyteller, as his many friends will attest. There’s still the trademark twinkle in his eye, always brighter when ladies are around, and he has a cherubic face that belies his years.But he has suffered some physical slings and arrows. A big bear of a man with the torso of a football player, which he once was, he has a bad back and he has titanium and plastic knee implants. That’s made it hard for him to walk long distances and kept him from pursuing his favorite hobby, playing golf.But it hasn’t kept him from one golf course—Clint Eastwood’s recently finished Tehama Golf Club, which looks out over the Monterey Peninsula and is featured on the cover of the current issue of Architectural Digest. The clubhouse is modeled after Eastwood’s own nearby hacienda home, and Bummy and his veteran crew were prevailed upon to do the art decorating for the club. Utilizing his consummate skills for aging sets, he created a series of elegantly cozy interiors that make the clubhouse look like it’s been there for decades.Another health matter has been more worrisome. He was diagnosed with prostate cancer while working on Million Dollar Baby. “Clint got me a driver and wheelchair so I could keep on working, and he personally took me to my doctors and when I went in for chemotherapy,” says Bummy. “He’s just been great.” Luckily, the prognosis looks good. Recent CT scans reveal the treatments have worked and his cancer has gone into remission. He continues to have regular check-ups.While he’s thrown himself into the first stage of Flags of Our Fathers, he concedes he may have to limit his participation a bit when it comes to going on location.A quintessential Californian, Bumstead was born in 1915 in Ontario, then a small town east of Los Angeles, just when the nascent motion picture business was getting a foothold in Hollywood. He would go to the movies—initially the silents—when he was growing up, but “the thought of a career in motion pictures never crossed my mind.” He had a flair for drawing from an early age, and later was a gifted water colorist. The talent would eventually serve him well as an art director, but in his teens, he says, “I wanted to become a cartoonist, drawing a comic strip.”After graduating as valedictorian from his high school where he was also student body president and captain of the football team, Bumstead decided to attend the University of Southern California because it had a good art department and also offered him a four-year sports scholarship.The decision turned out to be the first in a series of fortuitous twists of fate that propelled his career. “I would never have gotten into the movie business if I hadn’t gone to USC,” he says. (He remains a proud alummus, wearing a USC sweatshirt when he’s at home.) His ability to pursue sports ended when he suffered a back injury in his freshman year playing football, and he tore some tendons in his knee while competing in the high hurdles. So he decided to concentrate on architecture, which offered a solid skill at a time when the country was in the throes of the Great Depression.Lightning struck his sophomore year. John Arkwright, the production designer for showman Florenz Ziegfield, was looking for a young drafting whiz and his assistant, Jack Martin Smith, a USC graduate who would himself go on to become a major studio art director, knew Henry and recommended him. He worked two summers at RKO in the painting department, because of his lettering skills.“When I graduated, Arkwright wanted to keep me but Jack Martin Smith said I had a chance to go to Paramount,” he recalls. “‘They don’t hire people very often
, and Hans Dreier is over there,’ he said.”The legendary Dreier, who came from UFA in Germany along with Marlene Dietrich and Ernst Lubitsch in the 1920s, got nominated for 23 art direction Oscars and won three, including one for Sunset Boulevard near the end of a two-decade span as head of production design at Paramount. “By God, he interviewed me and he hired me,” Bummy recalls. “Can you believe it? That was my second big break.”Dreier took Bumstead under his wing, teaching him the tricks and the finesse of the trade. After Dreier’s own son passed away, Bumstead became a kind of surrogate son to him.From 1937 until the beginning of World War II, Bummy ran all the bases at Paramount as an apprentice, sketch artist, model builder and finally assistant art director. He did everything from drawings for Cecil B. DeMille to sets for the Bob Hope-Bing Crosby “Road” pictures. When World War II started, he went into the Navy and was stationed in Washington, D.C.In 1948 Bumstead got his first shot at being a full-fledged art director at Paramount. The movie was Saigon. “I learned a great lesson from Hans while doing Saigon,” he says. “Nobody in those days knew what Saigon looked like. I had done the set for a waterfront café, with shutters and overhead fans, and a lot of smoke.“This gentlemen came up to me, he said he’d worked in Saigon for a year and had never seen a bar like this one. I went to my desk, and was sitting with my head in my hands when Hans Dreier came by and asked what was wrong. I told him, and he said, ‘Get right back to that gentleman, and ask if he’s seen every bar in Saigon.’ So that’s what I did. He told me he’d seen most of them. ‘Well this is one you didn’t see—it was just around the corner.’ That shut him up. I’ve used that trick any number of times.”As an art director during the 1950s at Paramount, he worked on virtually every type of movie. Some of the better films included The Furies, a film noir Western directed by Anthony Mann, and Bridges of Toko-Ri, directed by Mark Robson.There were also some oddballs in the mix, including a cult sci-fi classic. “When I was speaking in Australia a few years ago, this lady came up to me and said, ‘Mr. Bumstead, you did my all-time favorite movie.’ I thought it would be something like Vertigo or The Sting. ‘I absolutely adored I Married a Monster From Outer Space,’ she said. That has since has become a running joke between me and Jack Taylor.”Believe it or not, Bummy also did The Vagabond King, a plush Technicolor musical based on a Rudolph Friml operetta. Directing was Michael Curtiz, the volatile Austro-Hungarian director who had helmed 1940’s landmarks Casablanca and Mildred Pierce, but had slipped a few notches by the time Bummy came to work with him. “I loved Curtiz—he always used to call me his ‘bum’ art director. The trouble was he ruined all my jackets and suits. He’d say, ‘Hey you bum art director, I want to show you a damned good shot,’ and then he’d grab my shoulder so hard, he’d rip the seams.”Tailoring bills aside, The Vagabond King provided Bummy with another serendipitous career opportunity. The cinematographer on the film was Bob Burks, who had worked regularly with Hitchcock on films like Strangers on a Train and Rear Window, among others.“Hitchcock asked Burks if he knew of any young art directors, and he mentioned me,” says Bumstead. “That was another huge break. I went to see Hitch and it wasn’t long before I was working on my first film for him, The Man Who Knew Too Much, and got to go to London and North Africa.” That was followed by Vertigo, which gave Bumstead his first Oscar nomination. In all he made four movies with Hitch.Bummy’s gifts as a water colorist and, more to the point, his ability to conjure up exact settings down to the last detail, which then would get built just as he imagined them can be seen on page 11. The belltower of the Mission is one of the key sets in Vertigo.In 1960 after 23 years at Paramount, Bumstead moved to Universal. A strike had tied up all production in Hollywood except for activity at Universal, which, under a new regime headed by the late Lew Wasserman, had settled with the unions separately. Once more, the stars were aligned for Bumstead. He hooked up with Robert Mulligan for four movies, including To Kill A Mockingbird, the classic about racism in a 1930s Southern town, which got him his first Oscar in 1962.In 1969, Bummy’s work on Tell Them Willie Boy is Here, directed by Abe Polonsky and starring Robert Redford, also turned out to be propitious. The cinematographer on the film was three-time Oscar winner Conrad Hall, ASC. As Henry tells it: “George Roy Hill wanted to hire Connie and screened Willie Boy. When he looked at that picture he said, ‘I want to meet that Henry Bumstead.’ I was up in Oregon, and came down to meet George Roy Hill and we hit it off perfectly.” In 1973 Bummy won his second Oscar for The Sting, with Paul Newman and Robert Redford, and wound up making six films with Hill.The first time Bummy worked with Eastwood was on Joe Kidd in 1972. Eastwood starred and John Sturges directed. That was followed by High Plains Drifter a year later, which was Eastwood’s second directorial effort. Because Bumstead was still working with George Roy Hill and had other commitments, the two didn’t hook up again until 1992 and Unforgiven. The rest, as they say, is history. In the ensuing years, Bummy and Clint have both demonstrated that, like a fine wine, they’ve improved with age.“I just can’t believe the life and career I’ve had and the great people I’ve been able to work with,” marvels a 90-year-young Henry Bumstead. “I hope, wherever I eventually wind up, I’ll still be able to work on movies and be an art director.”

Written by Jack Egan

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