Documenting Film Legends
By Nick Thomas
On April 7, Turner Classic Movies will present a biography feast for classic film lovers. The five documentaries to be broadcast – on Jimmy Stewart, Spencer Tracy, Henry Fonda, Katharine Hepburn, and Humphrey Bogart – were all produced and directed by the Emmy Award-winning duo of Joan Kramer and David Heeley.
“We’re co-hosting the evening with TCM’s Robert Osborne and it coincides with the release of our book, ‘In the Company of Legends’ in April,” said Kramer from her apartment in New York City.
Between 1980 and 2005, Kramer and Heeley produced 17 major documentaries for Public Television, ABC News, Turner Entertainment Co., and film studios that featured legends of Hollywood’s Golden Age.
“We strived to make the shows look smooth and flawless, but they were never easy to produce,” explained Kramer. “Each had hurdles to overcome and some were almost never made as a result.”
It began with a pair of 1980 documentaries on Fred Astaire, notorious for torpedoing most attempts to produce tributes about his life.
“As a public figure, we originally thought we could have gone ahead without his approval, but then discovered that Fred had control over the use of many of the clips from his films,” said Kramer.
So Kramer and Heeley gently, but resolutely, prodded Astaire who not only relented but wholly supported the production.
Their next subject had the potential to be even more daunting – four-time Oscar winner Katharine Hepburn.
“She didn’t trust a lot of people and rarely gave interviews. But David called her and by the end of their conversation, she gave him her permission to proceed with the program, although she wouldn’t appear on it.”
The 1987 documentary “James Stewart: It’s a Wonderful Life” also had a rocky start.
“Jimmy agreed to do it, then backed out, but eventually did it,” recalled Kramer. “Johnny Carson also agreed to host the program but we were a little worried because he had a reputation for being cold and aloof.”
Then Carson wanted to back out and called Cary Grant to ask if he would host the program. But Grant was unavailable, so Carson eventually accepted the role. Just weeks later, while touring with his one-man biographical stage show, Grant died suddenly.
“Johnny called and said he was tempted to break the news to me by saying ‘I asked Cary Grant to host your show and he dropped dead!’ I told Johnny that wasn’t funny,” recalled Kramer. “I think Johnny was just using black humor to cover his hurt because he and Cary were such good friends. Johnny turned out to be extremely generous and helpful.”
Kramer and Heeley also produced a documentary on Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, as well as deceased stars such as Judy Garland, Errol Flynn, and John Garfield. In addition to film clips, their interviews with fellow actors and family members enriched each program.
“We were honored that these actors and their families trusted us to produce shows that became so personal for them,” said Kramer.
In their upcoming book due for release on April 16, Kramer and Heeley relive vivid behind-the-scenes memories of their over 25 year partnership in the documentary making business and include many photographs from their personal collections.
“Most of the photos have never been published before,” noted Kramer. “We got to work with the cream of the crop and won’t see the likes of these actors again.”
Photo (top right) – David Heeley and Joan Kramer with TCM’s Robert Osborne on March 7 taping for the April 7 boradcast of their five documentaries.
Nick Thomas teaches at Auburn University at Montgomery, Ala., and has written features, columns, and interviews for over 550 magazines and newspapers. Follow on Twitter @TinseltownTalks.