“As a writer, producer and director of so many commercials and corporate videos, who was the best and worst celebrity you ever worked with?”
That’s what people ask me the most. But to tell you the truth, there was no worst. I honestly got along with everybody who honored me by saying my words.
Oh, there were some touchy situations. There was the Emmy-winning actor who spent the afternoon watching his watch because he had to catch the last flight out. OK, we understood that, his work didn’t suffer, and he made the plane.
And there was the Academy Award recipient who made the film crew re-light the whole set. He said it didn’t flatter him. Two hours later, he gave his approval—and the lighting man admitted that the actor was right all along.
Finally, there was the manager who hovered over his client like a mother hen during a big corporate shoot. He got pissed at me for insisting that she pronounce the name of my client’s company correctly. I felt it was a reasonable request. After a dozen botched takes, he pulled her off the set and into the dressing room. When I followed him in, he took her paycheck and stuffed it into my shirt pocket.
Somehow, I coaxed her back to the stage and we moved on. It cost us thousands of dollars to fix her audio. When he saw the finished video, the manager sent me a letter itemizing why it sucked. I sent him copies of all the national and international awards we won for it. That felt real good.
By and large, I’ve found that the more experienced and successful the performers are, the more professional they are to deal with.
I wrote a commercial for Charlton Heston, plugging a charity tennis event. Most actors have trouble walking and talking at the same time. He had to talk and play tennis. It was shot at Heston’s home. He came out on the court when the crew was ready for him. He had the script memorized, and nailed the whole thing in one take. We shot a second take only for “insurance,” just in case something in the camera got fouled up, which it didn’t. After all, we were with Moses.
But the performer whose work and friendship I cherished most for over twenty-five years was the sensational singer-impressionist, Fred Travalena.
I was well aware of Fred’s impeccable impressions from his many television appearances, dating back to 1972’s ABC Comedy Hour as one of the Kopykats.
When SMZ Advertising was given a third consecutive contract to produce Hiram Walker’s Holiday Sales Video, writing partner Eric Head and I pitched the idea of hiring Fred to perform custom lyrics to popular songs.
He did, and he was brilliant. The nationwide audience of liquor distributor/salespersons loved Fred’s squinty Clint Eastwood, sang along with his Johnny Cash, and laughed aloud when he performed Johnny Mathis, Jim “Gomer Pyle” Nabors and Barry Manilow in a triple split screen.
Fred was passionate about politics, and we zinged Richard Nixon pretty big.
The prosthetic makeup took three hours to apply.
President Reagan was also an easy target. On a break from shooting, the two of us—and a then-popular playmate—proved that politics does, indeed, make strange bedfellows.
And when he came out on set as Frank Sinatra at 4 am on the fourth and final day of shooting, and nailed our version of “My Way” in one take, the hard-boiled crew guys were weeping it up. When the song finished, Fred asked that we keep the tape rolling, and still in full makeup, he sang Happy Birthday “to my pally Jon—that really cool Katz.”
[To watch Fred perform as Ol’ Blue Eyes, read “The Time I Made Sinatra Smile.”]
The 1984 Hiram Walker Holiday video was sensational, a creative award winner for me and a sales winner for the client.
The following year, we had no concern about being lazy when we proposed using Fred again … with the addition of a female singer/impressionist to spice it up. Fred suggested Julie Miller, Atlantic City’s Entertainer of the Year.
Eric and I wrote some terrific new songs and gags for them to perform.
[See Julie as Marilyn Monroe and Carol Channing in the KatzTale, “The Time I Slept With Miss December.”]
For example, Fred as Inspector Clouseau asked Julie if she’d care to go undercover with him.
Cyndi Lauper and Boy George told us that girls and boys just wanna have fun, and could with Hiram Walker promotions.
And between takes, I got to give some input to Fred and “Dolly Parton.”
The theme of the 1985 Holiday Sales Presentation was “We’ve Got Excitement.” Fred had expressed his own excitement for the script when I picked him up in a white limo at the Detroit Metropolitan Airport. We both had loved music and impressions going back to childhood. And there was something else we shared: nostalgic memories of our mutual upbringing in New York City.
“It’s been so long since I’ve been back,” Fred said softly during the ride in from the airport. Then, his eyes lit up. “Y’know what I really miss about New York, that we don’t get in California? White Castle hamburgers. They were 12 cents each. Sometimes I can still smell the onions”
I grinned. “Fred, they have ’em here! There’s one right across the street from your hotel.” That’s all he needed to hear.
“Can we go? Now?”
Well sure, I said. Around 20 minutes later, the limo driver pulled into the parking lot, and I told Fred I’d go in and get whatever he wanted.
“No no, Jon. I’ll go in with you. Just give me a minute; let’s have some fun.”
He pulled a mirror and comb out of his travel bag, and swept his hair across his forehead. Then he widened his eyes and checked the mirror. In less than a minute, he’d transformed himself from the Bronx-born son of an Italian printer into British Beatle Paul McCartney.
Fred or Paul? Paul or Fred?
“OK then, let’s go” he said in a perfect Liverpudlian accent.
All eyes inside the hamburger joint had been focused on the tinted limo window, doubtless wondering who might be coming in. The two of us entered. Fred went right to the counter, up to a blond teenage girl who will never be the same again.
“Hello, luv. D’ya suppose me mate and me might grab some sliders? The lads in the coach are bloody famished.”
The poor kid couldn’t speak, and one can only imagine what she told her own mates after we left. Fred stayed in character, blowing a kiss toward the store as he got back in the limo.
“Fred, you are one talented but strange man,” I said, as we drove off and dove into the white bag of New York memories.
The 1985 Hiram Walker Holiday Sales Presentation topped even its predecessor. We won recognition from the U.S. Industrial Film and Television Festival, a Telly Award, and a Silver Medal from the New York International Film and Television Festival.
I had the tremendous pleasure of working with Fred on several subsequent projects. In a national training video for Electrolux Vacuum Cleaners he did Presidents Nixon and Reagan, Inspector Clouseau, John Houseman and many others.
In this video excerpt, Tricky Dick gives some grief to an Electrolux spokeswoman.
And for a large insurance company’s annual convention, I had Fred interact “live” with the company’s directors as Robert DeNiro, Bill Clinton and Jack Nicholson. Thanks to Fred (and, if I may say, some pretty good writing), it was a fabulous success. Enjoy these wonderful video excerpts.
In 2004, Fred was honored by Club Italia with a Merit Achievement Award for his contributions to society. Fred gave a typically wonderful performance at the event in Lansing, Michigan. I was pleased to be there with my wife Cathy and her parents, Nancy and Giovanni Canu (who was, as a full-blooded Italian, especially thrilled to attend).
On February 3, 2005, Fred Travalena received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Fred passed in 2009. But the memories—and impressions—he left me are timeless.